“The Music of the Stanley Brothers” by Gary B. Reid

Gary B. Reid
The Music of the Stanley Brothers
University of Illinois Press (2015)

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

At Bean Blossom you sit on a gentle upslope from the stage. To your right is the entry road that goes down to the tail of the pond and the back of the stage before going back up to the Hippie Hill section of camping. The regulars all know when Dr. Ralph Stanley arrives or leaves, his long, white tour bus sliding along, all within hidden behind its windows. Soon after he arrives, someone will erect his pop-up shelter where he holds court to sign autographs and say hello to his fans. It wasn’t always like this.

When Carter Stanley was alive it was the Stanley Brothers show. Still today, a half century after Carter Stanley’s death, there are many songs sung on stage and around campfires that bear the Stanley Brothers name. Travel during the twenty years the brothers were active was by car or station wagon. The pace was often hectic, the financial rewards meager. Band members came and went frequently, as is still the case with many bluegrass bands. Bluegrass music, generally speaking, isn’t a lucrative endeavor unless you’re a breakout star, and many professional bluegrass musicians have another job to make ends meet. The Stanley Brothers stayed the course, putting their names into the bluegrass history books.

Remember when the brothers were doing that Rich-R-Tone session (#480700) back in 1948? When Art Wooten joined them? You don’t remember that?

Truth is, there are probably no more than a pickup-load of people who can remember all the band members through the years, let alone anything about the recording sessions or what was recorded when. But Gary B. Reid knows. In 1976 he sent a letter to Neil Rosenberg, a name known to many bluegrassers and author of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography (1974), that started, “For the past several years I have been trying to compile a combination biography/discography on the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys.” Reid was nineteen and it would be another thirty-nine years before that book was published. That is dedication. He did other things along the way, including starting Copper Creek Records.

The book covers the two decades the brothers were a professional act. Both served during World War II. Carter was discharged in February 1946 and joined up with Roy Sykes for a while. Ralph’s discharge was in October 1946 and by November they were making appearances along with mandolinist Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert and fiddler Bobby Sumner. Their last full concert was at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom facility. Carter died December 1, 1966, the victim of alcoholism.

This book is rich with information about their professional lives from one recording session to the next, where they were working and who was in the band. The data on the recording sessions is extensive. A typical entry is:

501103 Columbia session; producers: Art Satherly and Don LawCastle Studio, Tulane Hotel, 206 8th Ave., Nashville, TennesseeNovember 3, 1950

Carter Stanley: g|Ralph Stanley: b|Pee Wee Lamber: m

Lester Woodie: f|Ernie Newton: sb

4311 The Lonesome River (Carter Stanley)C. Stanley-L, R. Stanley-T, PW Lambert-HB 20816 HL-7291,HS-11177,ROU-SS-10,BCD-15564,CK-53798,B0007883-02

Neither the uncertainty surrounding song titles or the “borrowing” of songs are a focus of the book, but both are mentioned many times in these pages and this provides an interesting insight into the music business. Sometimes it’s using the same (or very similar) melody with more than one set of lyrics.

“The first song is ‘A Life of Sorrow.’ Carter and Ralph Stanley wrote it with an assist from George Shuffler. The melody is strikingly similar to a tune the Stanley Brothers had recorded earlier on Columbia, ‘I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow,’ and is a good example of how the Stanleys recycled old tunes to create ‘new’ material.” [p. 32, Columbia #4 (Session 520411)]

and

“… used it as an opportunity to recycle the melody to one of their earlier recordings, ‘Little Glass of Wine.’ Known by a number of titles, ‘Tragic Love’ is most commonly called ‘Silver Dagger.'”

There are other examples of songs known by a variety of titles, as well as songs with disputed ownership, songs sold by their composer then the buyer taking songwriting credits, and the practice of claiming credit before agreeing to record the song.

While information about their travels is provided as part of their story, it also becomes a story of its own. Their nomadic lifestyle wasn’t (and isn’t) unusual in the bluegrass world, nor for most other musicians. You have to wonder how families survived and that’s one place the book will leave you wanting. Other than a few mentions of Ralph Stanleys ex-wife, Peggy, and the tidbit that Carter Stanley wrote “Baby Girl” in honor of his year-old daughter, Doris, you won’t get a peek into their family life. There is no mention of how Carter’s bouts with the bottle affected their music. Given the amount of information contained in the book, it’s easy to believe Reid might have another book in him to let us better know Ralph and Carter Stanley as people.

This is an excellent reference for anyone interested in the Stanley Brothers years (but understand it stops with Carter Stanley’s death). I found it an interesting read with my only caution that you may find yourself getting bogged down trying to follow and remember all the histories of people and changes in the band. Don’t get lost in the detail, just keep the book handy when you need to look up something.

 

“Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” by the HillBenders

The HillBenders
Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry
Compass Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Styles within the relatively young art form of bluegrass music are always evolving and emerging with such a frequency that any description of a band or an album needs at least a couple of taxonomic adjectives. Such distinctions are often more important to the critic intent on preserving the orthodoxy of the Monroe approach than to a listener wanting to learn of good music, but this custom does not seem to have inhibited innovation.

One thing that hasn’t changed much at all, however, is the approach to choosing material. Bluegrass songwriters keep plowing the familiar rows, and songs adapted from other genres—even from other strains of country music—tend to be included sparingly. Setlists and album projects tend to stick to a template that 1) varies fast and slow tunes, 2) features two or three vocal harmony approaches, and 3) includes a sprinkling of cover tunes, gospel songs, and instrumentals.

Bluegrass music was created—and codified—in an era that emphasized short live sets in the context of multi-act live gigs and radio shows, and in which two-sided vinyl singles were the primary consumer product and promotional tool. Long playing albums were often simply collections of singles, and sometimes collections of a particular type of song, such as Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs’ Songs of the Famous Carter Family, and the Stanley Brothers’ Old Time Camp Meeting.

Even considering the period from the mid-1960s through the 1970s—when musicians were venturing far outside the constraints of the three-minute radio rule—you’d be hard-pressed to name any bluegrass albums dedicated to a single theme that drives both the music and lyrics.

The HillBenders’ re-telling of The Who’s Tommy, the first great rock opera, shows that bluegrass music is not only capable of doing this sort of thing, but that it is uniquely suited for it. Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is, in spite of the cheeky title, neither a crude joke (Hayseed Dixie) nor an uninspired cash grab (all those Pickin’ On CDs), but a remarkably well-executed performance of a complicated piece by what amounts to a versatile and skilled chamber group. After all, Alan Lomax did describe bluegrass music as “the first clear-cut orchestral style to appear in the British-American folk tradition in five hundred years.”

The HillBenders use the sublime limitations imposed by the bluegrass instrumental lineup—they employ a Dobro, but not a fiddle—to get a big sound that has no trouble handling material written by one of rock’s best composers and first interpreted by one of its most powerful bands.

Gary Rea (upright bass) and Jimmy Rea (guitar) do some pretty heavy lifting, laying down a strong and full foundation on parts originated by John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, perhaps the most thunderous bass and guitar combo in rock history. And while drummer Keith Moon was the heart of The Who’s sound, Nolan Lawrence (mandolin), Chad Graves (Dobro), and, especially, Mark Cassidy (banjo) fill out the quintet, adding all the rhythmic power and dynamic range one might imagine would be lacking on a Tommy with no drums. Other bluegrass bands who resort to percussion to fill out their sound should listen and take notes.

The HillBenders manage somehow to stick pretty closely to Townshend’s arrangements while executing instrumental interchanges and solo breaks that will satisfy all but the stodgiest of bluegrass purists—”Sparks” holds up as a stand-alone bluegrass instrumental showpiece. And though we encounter acid trips and and a New Age pseudo-cult, Tommy starts in thematic territory quite familiar to bluegrass listeners—a good old-fashioned murder of passion. Seeing his father return from the war to kill his mother’s lover shocks our hero so badly that he retreats into himself, becoming the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” that we’ve all heard about on classic rock radio.

Jimmy Rea and Nolan Lawrence trade off lead vocal duties, and handle them with the skill and range needed to portray a such a strange—and mostly unsavory—cast of characters, including the likes of Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Lawrence, in particular, brings remarkable confidence and power to his takes on iconic Roger Daltrey performances like “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is a grand listening experience crafted by great musicians who expertly weave together Townshend’s myriad musical tropes into a seamless one-hour performance.

I’m looking forward to seeing the HillBenders perform this live, as well as daydreaming of a follow-up with guests artists—along the lines of the 1975 star-studded movie version of Tommy. (How about Del McCoury as the Preacher on “Eyesight to the Blind,” John Cowan as the Pinball Wizard, and Alison Krauss as the Acid Queen?)

Whether something like that could be pulled off or not, let’s hope that the HillBenders also tackle Quadrophenia—The Who’s other, better rock opera—and that they and other bluegrass bands take more chances when selecting and composing material, because this one is a triumph.

“Lessons Learned” by Ronnie Reno

Ronnie Reno
Lessons Learned
Rural Rhythm Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Ronnie Reno is a seasoned professional who makes good bluegrass music—and he makes it his way.

Being the son of a legend doesn’t guarantee success, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Reno is the host of Reno’s Old Time Country Music on RFD-TV and often shows clips of his father, Don Reno, with a young Ronnie playing mandolin in dad’s band. From that start, he’s carved a path through music that includes five years with the Osborne Brothers, nine years with Merle Haggard, then seventeen years with his family (father Don Reno for two years until his passing, the entire time with brothers Dale and Don Wayne Reno). He continues on today with his band, the Reno Tradition, and is seen at many festivals and shows throughout the year.

My father loved country music but never thought much of bluegrass, especially the banjo. When I finally started playing bluegrass with some friends here in southern Indiana, I doubted I could do much singing because my image of bluegrass centered on Bill Monroe. While I love Monroe’s music, I was pleased to learn there are a variety of singing styles in bluegrass. Reno’s style is laid-back, relaxed—with neither the high tenor of Bobby Osborne nor the modern approach of someone like Dan Tyminski. You feel like it’s a warm, summer afternoon on the back porch with you and Reno sitting in cane back chairs and sipping lemonade.

This new CD is billed as a solo effort, though members of Reno Tradition are in the mix, including Mike Scott (banjo) and John Maberry (mandolin). It gets a little confusing after that. Robin Smith plays bass on one track and is shown as Reno Tradition’s bass player on the group’s web page, while Heath Van Winkle appears on an old version of the page and plays bass on the other tracks. Jackie Miller has been Reno’s fiddler for several years and also plays mandolin. He plays mandolin on one track while Steve Day, who has been seen playing fiddle on the TV show lately, is the fiddle player. They are joined by Marty Stuart’s drummer, Harry Stinson.

All but two tracks were composed by Reno. The title number is an easygoing song about the lessons learned through the years of life—a vantage point shared by those of us who have been around a few decades. “Trail of Sorrow” is a fine Don Reno song featuring Van Winkle singing tenor and Sonya Isaacs singing high harmony, while “I Think of You” is a love ballad Reno wrote with his wife on his mind. Turning the other direction is “Bad News at Home,” a story about those times a man messes up and knows what’s in the cards when he gets home. It features a lively tempo and a 6-2-5-1 chord progression for a different pace. “Lower Than Lonesome” is another uptempo song about the downside of love.

An extra treat that sorta, kinda breaks out of the easygoing love or loneliness pattern is Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late” with guest David Frizzell sharing the lead.

Ronnie Reno is to bluegrass what Red Skelton was to comedy: talented, easy-going, and always enjoyable.

“Honky Tonk Land” by James Carothers

James Carothers
Honky Tonk Land
self-released

3½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Have you heard of Junior Brown? James Carothers? You’ll probably answer yes to Brown and “Who?” to Carothers. You need to change that.

Like Brown, Carothers’ take on country music is just off-center enough to make it really interesting.

These new country singers

They all sing about drinkin’

How it makes ’em have fun

But it got me to thinkin’

Something was missing, to me it was puzzling

It only gets better from there in “New Country Singers.” Carothers wrote the songs (except for one track composed by his father, Jim), does the singing and plays guitar. He’s backed by a group of very good session musicians including Eddie Bayers (drums), J. T. Corenflos (guitar), Scotty Sanders (steel guitar) and Gordon Mote, well known for his appearances with Bill Gaither and other gospel groups, on piano, as well as several other musicians.

While this is unapologetic honky-tonk music—loud, driving, often irreverent and sharp-witted—Carothers shows a softer side with “Where Did We Come From,” a song of memories of a kind of childhood that seems to have faded away.

Now the family and farm and pastures gone

But we got our SUVs

And we eat from a chain’s trough

And buy stuff made overseas

Well things ain’t quite what they used to be

I grew up in the country. I can’t argue with that.

He even includes a mystery song. Love, jealousy and…

35 years ago she was a looker and quite the magnolia prize

Had every feller ‘tween Yazoo and Tupelo

Talkin ’bout her big brown eyes

You ain’t ever felt another daughter of the delta

That’ll make you do anything

And it’s been a lot of years since she went and disappeared

Underneath the Mississippi clay

(tag)

There’s a tin roof and some broke down cars

Covered in kudzu vine

Have you ever driven through rural Mississippi? This captures the feel of the countryside, sets the scene. Do I like his lyrics? You bet I do. The only downside is there are only seven tracks.

His drawling voice and his lyrics are not champagne music, but they don’t serve much of that in honky-tonks. If you like the music of Brown, Jennings, Haggard, Cash and a long list of like singers, you need to find a copy of this CD and spend some quality time with a dose of country.

“Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!” by Barnstar!

Barnstar!
Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!
Signature Sounds
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Barnstar!, a Massachusetts-based bluegrass band, has released the first bluegrass album to take its name from a Faces song.

Splendid.

Founder and producer Zachariah Hickman (bass), Mark Erelli (guitarist), Jake Armerding (fiddle), Taylor Armerding (mandolin), and Charlie Rose (banjo) comprise Barnstar!, and while all have careers separate from the group—as troubadours, sidemen, and producers—when they come together, something quite beautiful occurs. On this, their sophomore album, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. They are certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation.

A true musical collective, Barnstar!’s lineup remains consistent; that fact alone makes them unlike most bluegrass bands.
Erelli takes the majority of the lead vocals, but everyone else takes at least one as well. They are most assuredly instrumentally and vocally tight, but they project a looseness that is very appealing—they are laid back, a bit like Chatham County Line, perhaps.  Their repertoire features original material, and they aren’t afraid to beat the grasses looking for songs that may not immediately appear to have bluegrass potential: not many have gone to the Hold Steady (“Sequestered in Memphis”), Cat Stevens (“Trouble”), and Patty Griffin (“Flaming Red”) looking for bluegrass songs.

Jake Armerding (years ago a member of Northern Lights, a Northeast bluegrass mainstay) performs his “Delta Rose” to great effect. Like the best songs of star-crossed love, this roadhouse bluegrass number has longing and confusion in equal measure. His interpretation of “Flaming Red” is equally impressive: sensitive and vaguely dark. Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County” is one of the album’s signature songs, a murder ballad that is as poetic as the most finely written prose.

“Cumberland Blue Line” is Charlie Rose’s songwriting contribution to the album; co-written with Erelli, this is the song that is most likely to be picked up by another bluegrass band—this mountain mining ballad has the mournful bluegrass quality that never goes out of style.

The album is bookended by a pair of showstoppers. “Six Foot Pine Box,” sung by Taylor Armerding and Erelli, is pensive, broody,  and reminds one a little of the Lumineers, while “Stay With Me,” Faces greatest jam, is reinvented as an all-out bluegrass stomper.

Barnstar!does things a little differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a little different, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!

“Voices” by Volume 5

Volume 5
Voices
Mountain Fever Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Our last look at Volume 5 was a year ago with the release of their gospel CD, The Day We Learn To Fly. This time around the CD is secular and it’s another good one.

Guitar and Dobro player Jeff Partin has left the group (going to Mountain Heart), but he was a big part of this CD, playing Dobro, singing harmony, and penning three numbers. “Crazy Night” might leave you wondering at its opaque message, but the minor chords and eerie symbolism of waking up chained to a bed makes for good listening. “Faithfully” is off the beaten path, a story about a preacher who is about to kill the man who took his wife. It’s also just a bit offbeat for bluegrass and reminds me of something Mountain Heart (coincidentally) might do. Chapter three of the Partin contribution has the same general sound as the other two, but you can relate it to other ghostly bluegrass songs like “Brown Mountain Lights.” Patton Wages’ banjo makes a strong statement in these songs and Chris Williamson’s bass is strong in the mix.

They reach into the past for Dave Alvin’s 1994 “King of California” and do a nice country ballad,”Strangest Dreams,” off Hal Ketchum’s 2008 Father Time album. Glen Harrell shares the lead singer duties with Rhonda Vincent on Dolly Parton’s “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man.” While this comes from country music it comes closer to the Jimmy Martin type of traditional bluegrass than several of the songs. Harrell is the fiddler for the group while Harry Clark adds mandolin. “Sam’s Gap” is a good instrumental, written by guitarist Colby Laney and showing off the strength of all the musicians. Laney also composed “Going Across the Mountain,” a story about a man trying to reach his sweetheart. This track features an excellent musical arrangement, something different from the way groups often take their instrumental breaks.

While it’s not going to generate comparisons to Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, or the Stanley Brothers, you’ll like Volume 5 if you’re into this newer, modern sound that’s gone far beyond those foundations.

 

 

“Ghosts in the Field” by Shantell Ogden

Shantell Ogden
Ghosts in the Field
Hip Farm Chic Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Good singer-songwriters have it rough in the country market these days. If you’re too good, then your material won’t get much attention from programmers or from more popular acts looking for material to record. If you dumb down your lyrics and use the same chords melodies, chords, and arrangements that those popular acts are beating to death, then why bother?

On her seven-song Ghosts in the Field, Shantell Ogden offers up a nice range of first-rate songs with a bright sound that will stand out in anyone’s current country or Americana playlist. While “Just a Little” captures the fleeting excitement of falling in love, and “Who Comes First” charts love turning to disillusionment, “Be My Rain” is about the hope of trying to avoid either extreme, written with a maturity that had me thinking of Jackson Browne.

Both the title track and “Blossom in the Dust” richly evoke the real, deep connection with the rural past and small town life that many of us share, putting to shame the big Nashville labels who’ve created the current trend of hicksploitation to convert that nostalgia into cash before the whole mess goes under.

Shantell Ogden is an artist making music the right way.