“Nothing to Lose” by Dave Adkins

Dave Adkins
Nothing To Lose
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Dave Adkins is a bluegrass and country singer. He has the type of voice that could probably be nothing else. He’s in the Junior Sisk camp. not the high lonesome sound of Monroe or Stephenson. This new CD, while aimed at the bluegrass market, has some strong country numbers in it.

“Silence is Golden,” a sentiment most married couples, especially if they have children, can agree with, is a popular song title. If you love classic rock you’ll remember the big hit Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had, as well as the Tremeloes. Bobby Bare had a different song out with lyrics by Jackson Browne. And then there’s the Lynn Anderson song. Adkins does the “Silence is Golden” written and recorded by Trey Ward and it’s the kind of song that stops me in my tracks to say, “that’s country.”

“Pretty Little Liar” is another good country number. Co-written by Adkins and Edgar Loudermilk, it tells the oft-repeated story of love outside the bounds of marriage. The man places the blame on the woman, telling us how he lost his wife and family, which is, of course, half the story. This one has a strange twist, telling how she hasn’t been seen in years but it’s hard to find her where we left her in the ground. Bluegrassers love their murder songs. (“We” left her in the ground is a subtle twist, since the rest of the song is from the perspective of only the man. We can now debate who his partner in the deed was.) Loudermilk is a good vocalist and plays bass on the CD. He took Ray Deaton’s place in IIIrd Tyme Out before leaving last fall to form a partnership with Adkins.

Studio musicians were used on the CD. Jeff Autry (Lynn Morris Band) plays guitar, Jason Davis from Junior Sisk’s band plays banjo and IIIrd Tyme Out bandmates Wayne Benson and Justen Haynes play mandolin and fiddle. These are some of the best musicians in the business, so you know the CD is going to be some great music. Bluegrass isn’t all about speed, but a hot song does show of the licks of an instrumentalist. “At Least It Wasn’t Life,” one of two prison songs on the CD, moves at a clip that makes rhythm guitarists sweat. “Pike County Jail,” one of several songs composed by Adkins, is a great bluegrass number that includes moonshine, prison, and wanting to get out and start over with a wife and family. This is the story of life for some folks, as is “Moonshine in Moonlight,” with daddy running shine at night because times are poor while mama and the kids tend to the farm and garden in the daytime. Looking back at the end of his days, the singer reckons life was pretty good back then even if times were poor.

Adkins includes an excellent gospel number that’s been recorded in three genre and was sung a lot the past year or so by Marty Raybon. “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand)” should be recognized as one of the great gospel numbers in bluegrass and country. And, speaking of great songs, what country music lover hasn’t heard George Jones sing “Tennessee Whiskey?” Adkins turns in an excellent performance, one I like better than David Allen Coe’s 1981 version.

Adkins makes a good mark on bluegrass with this release and we should see some good things out of his partnership with Edgar Loudermilk.

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“Only Me” by Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent
Only Me
Upper Management Music
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Since Rhonda Vincent claimed the title Queen of Bluegrass no other legitimate claimants have arisen, and with this twelve-track, two-disc hybrid project, she stakes a claim of her own in the country realm.

Vincent’s strong voice has always had the bluesy bite that has distinguished her from other bluegrass ladies—most of whom are at least a tinge too gentle to compare favorably to male standard setters like Monroe, McCoury, and Martin—and her band has usually been just as bold. The current lineup of Hunter Berry (fiddle), Aaron McDaris (banjo), Josh Williams (guitar), Mickey Harris (upright bass), and Brent Burke (reophonic guitar) tear through their half dozen tracks as hard and fast as any group of traditional pickers working today.

With Daryle Singletary joining Vincent do to a thoroughly satisfying take on the George Jones/Melba Montgomery classic “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” and Willie Nelson himself trading verses on “Only Me,” the first disc is twenty minutes of bluegrass we’re not likely to be topped by anyone else all year.

Likewise, the second disc is twenty minutes of classic country songs—inlcuding Dalls Frazier’s “Beneath Still Waters” and Bill Anderson’s “Once a Day” and “Bright Lights & Country Music,” the latter a co-write with Jimmy Gately)—as good or better than you’d hear from Patty Loveless or Lee Ann Womack. That is, if they employed the likes of expert session men like Tim Crouch (fiddle), Kevin Grantt (upright bass), Carl Jackson (acoustic guitar), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), James Mitchell (electric guitar), Lonnie Wilson (drums), Catherine Marx (piano), and Michael Rojas (who spells Marx on “Drivin’ Nails,” a song Vincent recorded bluegrass style more than a decade ago).

Not sure why they split this up onto two CDs, but if you buy it digitally, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Vincent once again proves she is simply the best female country and bluegrass singer among anyone whose career is still in full swing.

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“Hangtown Dancehall
” by Eric Brace & Karl Straub


Eric Brace & Karl Straub

Hangtown Dancehall

Red Beet Records

5 Stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Eric Brace and Karl Straub have created a most ambitious album based upon and extending “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a song from the California Gold Rush era. Written by John A. Stone, the folk song’s many, and varied, verses sketch the turbulent relationship between two east-Missouri lovers, Isaac and Betsy, longing for adventure and riches beyond Pike County.

Recorded by various singers—Johnny Cash told part of their story on Sings the Ballads of the True West nearly fifty years ago, Pete Seeger had done the same a few years prior, and both Suzy Bogguss and BR549 have recorded renditions in the past decade—the story take the couple from Missouri across prairies and deserts, through tribulations and loss, and encounters with Brigham Young, marauders, and cholera, until they reach Hangtown—Placerville—and the epicenter of the California Gold Rush. In the original song, which is based around an old English melody, things don’t work out so well for Besty and Ike, and jealousy ends their relationship soon after their arrival.

Eric Brace—writer, musician, song creator, singer, and Placerville native—sensed that there was more to Bestsy and Ike’s story, and set himself the task of revealing it. After all, they had come some two thousand miles: seems a shame that the story should end with her calling him a lummox as Ike storms away, declaring them divorced. Brace prised a novel’s worth of narrative out of what brought Ike and Betsy to California—turns out, they accidentally kill Betsy’s pa before departing Missouri—and what the star-crossed lovers meet after the dissolution of their relationship: hard work, a gold strike, murder and theft, mistaken identity, self-discovery, and finally reconciliation and acceptance.

Karl Straub, a Washington, DC bandleader and guitarist, collaborated with Brace to extend and solidify the components of the 22-track concept album. He wrote several of the songs, shared writing on a few others, and assumed the pivotal persona of the doomed Walter Brown.

With Brace ably assuming the role of Ike Wilkins, it was up to friends to populate the balance of the cast, and Brace did a fine job of finding just the right voices for these roles. Kelly Willis becomes Betsy Maloney, inhabiting the troubled protagonist, and delivering the type of singing we’ve come to expect over the past twenty-five (!) years.

Meanwhile, Tim O’Brien propels the story as dancehall bandleader Jeremiah Jenkins, providing lively interludes advancing the tale and summarizing events. Darrell Scott drops by to give substance the James Marshall, the man who discovered the nugget that set off the Gold Rush. Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding), Jason Ringenberg, and Andrea Zonn take on smaller, but not lesser, vocal roles. Frequent Brace collaborator Peter Cooper provides select vocal support.

The late-Dobro© legend Mike Auldridge, Buddy Spicher, Pat McInerney, Casey Driessen (whose playing on “Pike County Rose” is stunning), Fats Kaplan, and Brace’s Last Train Home pals Kevin Cordt and Jen Gunderman are among the many who provide instrumental accompaniment, as does O’Brien, whose banjo punctuates “Hanging Tree” most mournfully.

“El Dorado Two-Step” decidedly jumps, as befits a tune about an exuberant boomtown dance. Crossing cultures and borders, on “From Pearl River to Gold Mountain” Zonn absolutely nails the experience of an escaped slave laborer. Scott breezes through “King Midas,” seemingly effortlessly communicating the despair of a man who came toward financial independence only to have it exceed his grasp.

The tension builds over the course of the album, reaching its satisfying crescendo as Betsy and Ike reunite to bring a murderer to justice. Deviating from the song cycle, Brace and Straub elect to have Brace narrate the climactic events in prose, allowing the couple to rediscover and renew their love afresh—and free of blood—in “So Many Miles.” This is the album’s only shortcoming as one wonders at the song that might have told of the scoundrel’s comeuppance.

Like Emmylou Harris’s  The Ballad of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall holds together as a concept album of country-folk balladry. Creating a flawless narrative in song—supplemented by Brace’s narrative connecting and elaborating the events—was most obviously no easy task, and Brace and Straub are to be commended for their faultless execution. As did those of Sally Rose, Hangtown Dancehall’s songs stand together to create a formidable and dramatic listening experience, but individual songs lose none of their intensity when heard in isolation.

Hangtown Dancehall is absolutely brilliant, deep and listenable, creative and grounded. In creating an abstract, speculative historical and musical journey that becomes substantive, Eric Brace and Karl Straub have taken their art to the highest of levels. The accompanying booklet and packaging—featuring woodcuts from Julie Sola—is nothing short of outstanding, and its libretto provides the context necessary to fully appreciate the measures and efforts Brace and Straub have taken to create a project that is destined to far exceed most traditionally-based Americana projects we are likely to experience this year.

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“Memories of Mine” by Charlsey Etheridge

Charlsey Etheridge
Memories of Mine
self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There is some fine singing and playing on this CD, and very good song selection. I’m guessing most people who hear it will be satisfied with that, but some are going to be puzzled at how it all ties together.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is familiar to anyone who has been around bluegrass or country music. This arrangement is entrancing, and Etheridge has a great voice for it. Effects have been used to give it a large, concert hall sound and the background support of Randy Kohrs on the Dobro and Aaron Till on the fiddle and mandolin are as good as I’ve ever heard on this song. A different approach is used on “Land of Beulah.” The backing music is kept at a minimum with guitars, fiddle and mandolin. Etheridge has added herself on a harmony track along with Kohrs. This is an effective, beautiful way of doing this old song.

Etheridge has a top supporting cast on this album. In addition to Kohrs and Till, you’ll hear Cody Kilby on guitar, Buddy Greene playing harmonica, Shad Cobb playing banjo, Jeremy Abshire (fiddle), and Tim Crouch (viola and mandolin). It’s no surprise that the instrumental support is excellent.

In addition to the two songs already mentioned, she includes three other gospel numbers: “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” done slow and with feeling, just her vocals and a piano; “Amazing Grace,” also done slowly with a chord progression that goes beyond the standard three chords and only a rhythm guitar, viola and mandolin behind her; and “The Old Rugged Cross,” with a cello included in the instruments, but done at a faster, workmanlike tempo.

“Tennessee Waltz” is another done with minimal instrumental support and she sings it well, but throws a curve, at least for me. I’ve heard and played this countless times as a verse and a chorus. That’s the way its composers (Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart) did it as well as Patti Page. I somehow missed the Emmylou Harris version but according to another site there was originally a second verse and chorus with a new second verse added by Leonard Cohen – more or less the Emmylou Harris and now Ehteridge version. People have been revising songs forever (usually just forgetting the lyrics) and Etheridge gives a good performance regardless of the lyrics used.

Rounding out the CD, she does the first swing version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that I recall as well as the first blues version of “In The Pines.” Different, but they work if you’re not tied to tradition. Another surprise is “Filipino Baby,” a World War II song that I haven’t heard on a new recording for decades, giving a slower, more feeling version than Cowboy Copas’ hit version.

So, with all this good singing, what’s so puzzling?

Etheridge comes out of nowhere with a CD sent out for reviews. A fair inference is the CD is targeted for commercial success, but she has only covered songs well known to most everyone and recorded (perhaps excepting “Filipino Baby”) dozens, maybe hundreds of times. It’s a strange mix of songs in some unusual styles and the CD leads off with two gospel numbers. It feels like just what she says it is: memories dedicated to her parents and grandparents. She isn’t following the usual road map for a commercial album, but I hope people prove there’s more than one path to success. If you buy it, you’ll enjoy it.

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“Ash Breeze” by Ash Breeze

Ash Breeze
Ash Breeze
Mountain Fever Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Young people with stunning talent are no doubt playing in most genres, but they seem so visible in bluegrass. If you go to a multi-day festival with camping on the grounds, all you need do is stroll around to see and listen to them picking around the campfires. These are not musicians stumbling around the various fingerboards, trying to find their way; these are musicians on fire, picking the strings off their instruments. There are stumbling blocks on the way to national prominence, personal and professional, but some of them will make it.

Ash Breeze seems to be on the way. This is a family band, formerly the Smith Family Band, and they’ve been playing bluegrass since 2010. They are anchored by Allen, their father, who plays bass. (Bass on the CD is provided by producer Aaron Ramsey and Zeb Snyder.) They are not new to music, though, for they received classical training before making the switch to bluegrass. IIIrd Tyme Out’s Wayne Benson (one of their teachers) calls them mature, saying: “… you’ll hear a very musical, lyrical approach that focuses on maintaining the integrity of the songs, rather than showing off (which is a pitfall for so many young musicians).”

They kick off the CD with an instrumental, “Category Five,” one of six numbers composed by Corey Smith (guitar and vocals), some co-composed with his father. This is a fast, interesting number that has some nice complexities in the arrangement. Brothers Eli (mandolin and vocals) and Luke (banjo) join with sister Nellie (fiddle, lead vocals) to round out the band. They take a back seat to no one when it comes to picking.

“Blue Skies and Cloudy Days” is a song with a religious theme. This isn’t what you would typically describe as a gospel number, but it maintains a theme of how God works in our lives. Nellie Smith has a very good voice and the brothers blend well when they sing harmony. Sometimes it’s difficult to clearly hear her lyrics because the vocalists seem to be in the mix with the instrumentalists instead of setting on top of them. That doesn’t make the music less enjoyable, just has me straining for the words.

“Backyard Swing” is true to its title, swinging along at a good pace and showcasing the pickers. This one was composed by brother Eli. “Storm Coming” is a sultry song handled by Nellie Smith quite well and features the Dobro work of Gavin Largent. It’s more up-tempo but reminds me of the mood of Doc Watson doing “Summertime.” “Little Dreamer,” another instrumental, shows the power of creative arrangement. This is something that too many bands overlook. There’s more than one way to use the bass, to use the banjo as a supporting instrument. This number has a lilting feel with just a hint of mystery in its chord progression. “When Fall Comes To New England” paints a picture of that season there in the northeast. It also illustrates my comment about the mix and Nellie Smith’s vocals. The instruments are mixed back and that allows us to appreciate her vocals more.

They go cross-genre and include James Taylor’s “Carolina On My Mind.” They certainly do this great song justice.

You’d have to work at not liking this CD. It may be a step away from some of the early bluegrass music, but it sure sounds like bluegrass to me, with tasteful arrangements, beautiful singing and masterful musicianship. This is a winner.

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“Double or Nothing” by the Rigneys

The Rigneys
Double or Nothing
Dark Shadow Recordings
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

“The Rigney Family Band evokes some comparisons to a better known name, the Cherryholmes …” That was my description in 2011 when I reviewed their third release, Familiar Paths. That hasn’t changed and has evolved in at least one direction. The Cherryholmes were not one hundred percent traditional with their music but, as the kids got older, their music took on an even more contemporary sound. That’s just another way of saying it didn’t sound as much like bluegrass to some of us. My wife, whose love for bluegrass warms a few degrees each year, liked it. I didn’t.

And so it goes with the Rigneys. The title number is a traditional bluegrass number. Mark Rigney (the father) provides some good banjo though it’s not as important in the mix as you’d hear in straight-up bluegrass. Overall, banjo is not a primary instrument in their music. “Last Stop On The Line,” a troubled-love number that sounds like Jim Croce had some influence (though they describe it as “Johnny Cash like”), is another good, rocking number but, again, the banjo takes a back seat to the other instruments. They stay true to form with “Lowdown,” (this and the last number composed by Rick Lang and Ted DeMille). “Bluegrass Band” is another good bluegrass number. Their band includes father Mark (banjo, vocals), mother Melissa (bass) and brothers Andrew (guitar, vocals) and Grant (mandolin, fiddle, vocals). They are all accomplished musicians, and it shows on their instrumental, “Truck Rust and Tobacco Barns.”

Then there’s the “contemporary bluegrass” path they take. I suppose that’s a label you can apply but these numbers sound like acoustic soft rock more than bluegrass to my ears. “Bridges” is a good description of the way our lives sometimes evolve, but it’s a good example of taking that different fork in the music road, as Cherryholmes started doing. This change of direction didn’t hurt their (Cherryholmes) popularity overall, maybe even drew in a much larger following which is good commercially. “Bridges” isn’t bad music but it isn’t bluegrass to me no matter what adjective you put in front of it. “Something Old, Something New” is in that same mode even though it does have the banjo making a faint contribution.

“Bring Him Home” is a good number about life when the father is off to war; it will play well to bluegrass crowds. The most interesting vocal arrangement is in the contemporary phase of the CD. The vocalists trade parts from verse to verse, weaving together a melody as they come in and drop out on “Finally Going Home,” a quasi-sacred number (no mention of God but they did take a turn down a sinner’s highway).

They’ve made a name change since 2011 (Rigney Family Bluegrass morphed to the Rigneys) and they seem committed to a contemporary sound with the sons out in front and the parents playing supporting roles. It certainly isn’t Jimmy Martin’s music, but it is good stuff if you like that style.

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“Coal Miner’s Prayer” by JD Messer & Sanctified

JD Messer & Sanctified
Coal Miner’s Prayer
Kindred Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

I’ve been hearing a lot of CD projects aimed at bluegrass listeners that cause me to waffle around about their bluegrass sound. I like traditional bluegrass but I’m open to including country and other genres as long as they still tick the bluegrass switch in my mind. A lot of people seem to be heading toward a “modern” sound to attract more listeners but leaving some bald spots in the ‘grass.

There’s no searching for a description for JD Messer’s music. It’s bluegrass. Messer has one of those voices made for bluegrass music and his band provides a solid foundation for the singers. Their passion is gospel music and they do it well. Messer wrote all but two of the songs (co-writers on two) and he’s a fine songwriter. “I’ve Been Waiting” features good harmony singing and an interesting banjo arrangement. The banjo player, Brent Amburgey, seems to wander off a time or two but it’s a great way to use the banjo on a song like this. “Peter Stepped Out” retells the story of Peter stepping into the water on the Sea of Galilee. It has a solo fiddle intro that has an old-timey sound before the banjo kicks in. The band again offers some very good harmony vocals.

Bluegrass has plenty of stories of despair and “When Mama Talks To The Man” goes as deep as you can go, but tells us about the power of prayer when mamas pray. The message may be hard for non-believers to embrace but no one can argue about how good the music is. And on the topic of sadness and loss, “Lunch Box Letter” tells the story of a miner who has a letter from his wife every night in his lunchbox. He dies after an explosion, but he leaves a lunchbox letter to his wife before he goes. Traditional music, traditional themes.

“Rain,” an old gospel number, is done a cappella and you get to clearly hear bass player Kayla Amburgey’s harmony vocals. She also sings lead on “Solomon,” a story of the biblical king. A plus if you hear a song you want to learn is the lyrics included inside the package. Other musicians are Kenny Stanley (guitar), Albon Clevenger (fiddle) and Jerry Sturgell (Dobro) with Messer playing mandolin. Sturgell sings lead on “When I Step Out” and he’s okay to listen to but hard to understand.

From “Road Less Traveled,” with it’s eerie story of a life saved by an angel and interesting chord progression, to the driving sounds if “I Don’t Deserve,” Messer and Sanctified make good bluegrass music. This one definitely goes onto my stack of play-them-often.

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