“Great Big World” by Tony Trischka

Tony Trischka
Great Big World
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

If you’re not sure of Tony Trischka’s banjo cred, take it from Bela Fleck:

Tony was the right guy at the right time to take advantage of all the new lessons that were being taught right and left by Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Miles Davis and so many more…and apply them to banjo music. This enabled him to propel the fine art of banjo playing three giant steps forward.

That’s from Fleck’s liner notes to Great Big World, aptly titled when one considers that the diverse and beautiful sounds Trischka makes on this 13-track disc are possible only in the musical world that he did so much to create.

A core unit of guitarist/vocalist Michael Daves, mando picker Mike Compton, fiddler Mike Barnett, and bassist Skip Ward join Trischka for trad-grass arrangements of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” and—with Chris Eldridge on guitar and lead vocals—”Say Goodbye.” Daves and Aoife O’Donovan trade vocals on the latter part of “Belated Wedding Hoedown/Angelina Baker,” with the Trischka-penned instrumental first half setting up Stephen Foster’s familiar melody perfectly.

Trischka’s instrumental compositions have always been both intricate and tuneful, and that’s what he delivers with “The Danny Thomas,” “Promontory Point” (with Steve Martin on banjo), the solo front parlor picking of “Swag Bag Rag,” and the seven-minute “Single String Medley,” which features a unique tune for each of the banjo’s five strings.

“Great Big World/Purple Trees of Colorado” is another seven-minute frolic, with Noam Pikelny picking second banjo and longtime Trischka pal Andy Statman pitching in with both mandolin and clarinet.

Trischka is also a gifted lyricist whose melodies work just as well sung as played, and it doesn’t hurt to have voices like harpist Maeve Gilchrist (who also adds her harp to “Ocracoke Lullaby,” which indeed does sound like a gentle night on the coast of its eponymous island), the ethereal Abigail Washburn (“Lost,” arranged with violin, viola, cello, flute and clarinet), and Catherine Russell, who’s backed by Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on pedal steel and latter-day Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbidge for the ecumenical gospel rave-up “Joy.”

All that’s enough to make this one of the finest records released this year—and to serve as proof that Trischka can do well whatever he sets his hand to—but the coup de maître is “Wild Bill Hickok,” a miniature Western with laconic vocals from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and narration by John Goodman.

About these ads

“Somewhere Far Away” by Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys

Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys
Somewhere Far Away
Five Of Diamonds Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

The early 2000s were an exciting time in bluegrass music’s still-brief history.

In some ways a changing of the guard was underway, as the next generation of players and singers were emerging while first and second generation legends were feeling—in various ways—the hands of time.

In other places, the music was stretching as jazz, pop, mainstream, classical, and other influences were not only colouring the contemporary bluegrass sound, but in some cases were being wholeheartedly incorporated into the music.

While all this was occurring, there were—as there has always been—others who were taking the music back to its roots, defining bluegrass by building upon its very stable foundation.

Bands as diverse as the Infamous Stringdusters and the Grasshoppers hit the ground running. Pine Mountain Railroad and Nickel Creek could be heard alongside the Wilders and the Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show.

Youngsters straight out of college—and others still in high school—formed bands who performed largely original songs while ably demonstrating their mastery of the deep catalogue established by the Monroes, Osbornes, Stanleys, McReynoldses, and the west coast pioneers like Vern & Ray, bands like the Steep Canyon Rangers, King Wilkie, Barefoot Bluegrass, and more.

Super groups like Rock County, the Grascals, BlueRidge, and Wildfire reinvigorated sidemen and veterans of the business. We were riding the O Brother bubble. Stringbands were everywhere, jam bands started to be welcomed into our world, and thanks to the increasing capabilities of the Internet, regional bands could connect with the wider bluegrass audience as never before.

Some of the groups are still going today, while more flamed out after a couple albums, and others faded away almost as quickly as they appeared: why didn’t the Circuit Riders ever achieve the level of prominence their debut album promised?

Of all the bluegrass bands that made a splash after the turn of the century, few held the potential of Open Road. Before their self-titled, Sally Van Meter-produced debut appeared, their name was beginning to be passed around by those who had caught a performance of the Colorado-based group. When that independent album—the one with BLUEGRASS prominently above the band’s name, and with the bold pronouncement/disclaimer “featuring 5-string banjo”—hit the player, converts were instantly made.

Their music had drive and fire. They were fronted by two young guys who seemed to have been born to play the bluegrass music, mandolinist Caleb Roberts and guitar picker and lead singer Bradford Lee Folk. Not only did they look the part—from their publicity photos, both could have been in the Clinch Mountain Boys around the time Skaggs and Whitley left—they recreated the classic sound of bluegrass wonderfully, as the cliché goes ‘making old songs sound new, making new songs sound old.’

Open Road toured relentlessly, signed on with Rounder Records and released two additional albums to great acclaim, Cold Wind and …in the life. They acknowledged their influences, some like Del Williams, Buzz Matheson & Mac Martin, and Vern & Ray, under-heralded within much of the broader bluegrass world. Their concert appearances were exciting and fresh, their albums ideal.

Around the time their third Rounder album appeared, the band broke up. The band had experienced personnel changes over time—fiddlers seemed to come and go with each new release—but shortly after Lucky Drive was released in 2005, Open Road was “flaming out from the pressures and temptations of being thrown into the touring musician life too young,” according to Folk’s current one-sheet.

I seem to recall hearing that Roberts was going to attempt to keep working the bluegrass road, but the last I heard he was in Colorado working for a living, but still picking. Folk sought stability, bought a Colorado honkytonk, booking bands in and working the other side of the music business table. From what I understand, he eventually relocated to Nashville, started gigging, and this past spring released his first recording in almost ten years, Somewhere Far Away.

The first thing one may notice when listening to the brief, eight-song collection is that things seem to be a bit mellower, less frenetic. There is no shortage of energy on this set of modern-Americana infused bluegrass. It is just that Folk isn’t in any great hurry to get to wherever it is he is taking us. The approach is perhaps a bit more mature, with a greater emphasis placed on mood and atmosphere.

The album’s lead track, like all but two of the songs a Folk original, is likely the one most reminiscent of the familiar Open Road approach. “Foolish Game of Love” features Matt Flinner’s mando at the fore, providing that audible connection to the music Folk previously made with Roberts. Folk pushes the music, his voice dipping into a purposeful near-mumble at some points, while at other moments in the song he is clear in his articulation. This expressive, mournful drawl works in counterpoint to the artful and lonesome clarity of his tenor, loading the song with restrained emotion.

Folk remains a great singer, but now is even more expressive in his communication than he was when he was younger. The fire has been tempered, but it continues to burn.

In some ways, and not only in its brevity, Somewhere Far Away recalls Jimmy Martin’s ‘good and country’ bluegrass albums. This recording is every bit as spirited as Martin’s finest recordings, but like them there is also a bit of an edge to the songs, a touch of bitterness and regret. “Trains Don’t Lie” is rich in atmosphere while conveying a narrative that is complete and compelling. “Denver” is a song that (I think) contrasts the longing for an open road with the comfort and familiarity of home.

Undoubtedly a bluegrass recording, Folk incorporates a very strong band to solidify his sound. Robert Trapp, the only member of Folk’s current Bluegrass Playboys appearing on the album, is a very strong 5-string player; his break and fills on “Never Looking Back”—a John Stewart-meets-Sam Bush epic in miniature—are impressive without detracting from the musicians working with him. With Flinner, Matt Combs (I’m guessing fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass, I’m hoping it is safe to suggest—the album doesn’t contain specific credits) round out the core group.

As an aside, “Never Looking Back,” by Jim Kelly, previously appeared (with a very different arrangement) on David Davis & the Warrior River Boys outstanding 2009 album, Two Dimes & A Nickel; Folk learned the song while he was playing with Davis—I’m guessing around the time that album was released—something I didn’t know he had done.

While there are only eight songs on the album, there is no shortage of memorable songs. A standout is the closing track, “Soil and Clay;” written by Folk, this earthy ballad is as dark as it is honest, much like a Fred Eaglesmith song. The album’s other non-original comes from Folk’s friend Nick Woods; “The Wood Swan” is another good one, and really showcases the various musicians’ abilities.

Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys may not receive the unbridled heralding that greeted Open Road. Somewhere Far Away is a bluegrass album, without doubt. But it is a different sort of bluegrass than that produced by Open Road. There are more shades to this music, more exploration of the gravel bits on the road’s shoulder rather than heading straight down the white lines in the middle of the highway.

“Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings” (DVD)

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with Special Guests the Centerville Alternative Strings (DVD)
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Joe Mullins started this five-piece traditional bluegrass outfit several years ago, partly to promote his Classic Country Radio stations, with whose terrestrial broadcast signal I am privileged to reside.

They were rightly recognized as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012, and their stage show, which they’ve taken far and wide, is a big part of why. Mullins is one of the finest bluegrass five-stringers aline today, and the Ramblers’ four studio albums have been first-rate, but this 16-song DVD that clocks in at more than 70 minutes will show you why they were honored by the IBMA and are in demand by bluegrass promoters and festival-goers.

Mullins is just as friendly and engaging on stage as he is as a radio deejay—he learned a lot from his father, the late, legendary broadcaster and fiddler Moon Mullins, and his son Daniel is just as good on the air—and this trait sets him apart from other great pickers who often neglect to hone their skills as stage presenters.

This show, recorded at Centerville (Ohio) High School, features a nice sampling of songs from the Ramblers’ four releases, including personal favorites “Worth It All” (a bouncy gospel number), “Lily” (borrowed from the Boys from Indiana), and “Katy Daley” (a poem turned into a classic bluegrass song by Moon Mullins).

Duane Sparks ably fills the guitarist/vocalist slot vacated by Adam McIntosh, and longtime Ramblers Mike Terry (mandolin, lead, and trio harmony vocals) Evan McGregor (fiddle and some quartet harmony) are as good here as they are in the studio.

The Centerville Alternative Strings, orchestra students from the host high school, join in with conductor Doug Eyink to close the show in grand style with the David Harvey instrumental “Cruisin’ Timber” and the Bill Anderson-penned “Some Kind of War.” Eyink’s arrangements are uncomplicated but powerful, and played with heart and artistry—just like the music played Mullins’ fine band.

“The Road That Brings You Home” by Jim and Lynna Woolsey

Jim and Lynna Woolsey
The Road That Brings You Home
Broken Record Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Woolseys represent an unknown but significant number of people who have a load of musical talent but ply their skills in relative obscurity. His publicity piece says he’s shared the stage with acts like Andy Williams and Marty Robbins. Robbins, one of the great country singers, died in 1982. This doesn’t sound like a career on the rise and that would be a shame. This CD has two primary themes: being on the road and the heartbreak of Nashville.

I gave my heart and they [Nashville] gave me no warning

‘Cause they ripped it out and threw it at my feet

Now it’s been ten years ago, maybe longer

But who’s counting when no one cares but me?

They say that good, hard work will make you stronger

Well, I’m about as strong as I wanna be

“Back To Tennessee”

He carries on the theme of a tough life in the city, wishing he was home (“If I only knew then what I know now, I’d be back home behind a plow”) with a haunting melody in “Letter From the City.” One of the virtues of home was being able to spend time on the river, remembered in “River Road.”

Nashville has proven a tough row to hoe, but he embraces an early life on the move. His daddy had “the world’s worst case of wanderlust” (“Wheel In His Hand”) and “was a rolling stone” (“Gypsies In a Wagon”). Despite a life on the move, he describes a close-knit and caring family. Both are moderate speed story songs that look back to Woolsey’s early life. His father’s love for the road wasn’t limited to trucks. “The Ride” tells about his father’s Whizzer motorbike.

The writing is consistently good, never trite. The music isn’t Jimmy Martin bluegrass or modern country but comes closer to the countrygrass genre than any other; it would play well at a bluegrass festival. The melodies vary and the arrangements are inventive. Woolsey plays guitar with guests Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar, producer and engineer), Clay Hess (mandolin), Tim Crouch (fiddle), Mark Fain (bass) and Mike Sumner (banjo). With that lineup and Woolsey’s deft touch with a pen you’re bound to have good music.

“Rude Jenne” is a country number about a good man who gets into trouble and meets John Dillinger. This was his great-grandfather and these are stories told when Woolsey was a small boy. Woolsey grew up in southern Indiana in the general area that now holds Lake Patoka. This area is also home to bluegrass great Ron Stewart. He started playing with the Patoka Valley Boys when he was fifteen and he and Lynna married after she started performing with the same band. (Go to folkstreams.net for an excellent video about this group.)

Changing pace, “She’s Gonna Fly” showcases Lynna Woolsey’s vocals, a story about her own brush with breast cancer. She also contributes a swinging country number, “I’m The Best You’ll Ever Do,” a warning to her man that he needs to be good to her because he’ll never find better. The title song describes how life may take us many places, but there’s only one road that brings you home. And he adds a good, driving gospel number with “Will You Be Ready.”

This is good writing and good music. If you’re far from their southern Indiana home you may never get to see them in person, but you owe it to yourself to hear this CD.

“Through It All” by the Harper Family

The Harper Family
Through It All
Pisgah Ridge Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Harper Family brings songs of belief to bluegrass with excellent harmony singing and good musicianship.

A family band playing in the Midwest (their touring schedule shows Iowa and Missouri), the group includes Hannah Harper, 14 years old and their fiddle player; Dillon (mandolin and vocals) and wife Makeena Harper (vocals); Dalton Harper (guitar and vocals); mother Katrina (upright bass and vocals), and father Gaylon Harper (banjo and guitar).

“Through It All,” an Andraé Crouch song dating back four decades, features Hannah Harper singing lead. She has a beautiful voice, mature beyond her years. The family, with Tim Surrett playing resonator guitar, provides good musical support. For some excellent banjo work there’s a David Staton number, “In His Will There Is A Way.” Gaylon Harper drives the song with his banjo while Dillon Harper sings lead.

There are five major elements that make a CD fair, good, or excellent: the singers, the pickers, the arrangements, song selection and the technical side. The technical side includes recording, mixing and mastering. The Harper family are very good musicians and very good singers. The arrangements have diversity and show some thought was put into them. The technical side is good. What about the song selection?

The family has at least two good composers. Dalton Harper wrote “Child of the King” and mother Katrina Harper penned (and sings lead on) “Don’t You Want To Meet Him.” The latter is based on the biblical story (Mark 2:3-5) of the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends so he could be healed by Jesus. This is an excellent song.

“A Portion Of His Love” is a fast-paced number from Sonya and Ben Isaacs featuring an interesting vocal arrangement on the choruses. “In A Moment Just Like This” from Chris White Music (Chris White, Ray Scarbrough) is a song about the basics of Christian faith: when times are bad, the news isn’t good, where do you turn? Do you turn to God or turn your back on Him? “Spirit Wind” is a different take on this Casting Crowns number based on Ezekiel 37:1-14. I like the mandolin kickoff but the Harper version is brighter than the Crowns version, not quite as haunting. But if you like haunting (and I do), “The Judgement” has a touch of that. Surrett is playing resonator guitar and David Johnson is a one-man string section, playing violin, viola and cello on this number from the Kingsmen.

You have many choices of good groups and good CDs in the bluegrass gospel field. Sometimes the regional bands are overlooked because they lack name recognition. Don’t make that mistake with the Harper Family. If you like good Christian music that isn’t apologetic in its beliefs, you need to hear this CD.

“Too” by Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome
Too
Mountain Home Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

It’s long been rumored that some big–name country stars can’t sing on key, so they use auto–tuners in the studio and on the road. Bluegrass producers might use it in the studio (although I doubt it’s widespread) but I asked Tom Feller, who provides sound to venues like Bean Blossom (and is half of Feller & Hill) about having it in his equipment. He’s not aware of any bluegrass group using them on their live shows.

I’ve heard Flatt Lonesome’s live show. What you get on their CDs is what you’d hear jamming with them around the campfire. Their pitch is excellent and their harmony is as good as you’ll hear anywhere. This is their second CD and they continue to make excellent bluegrass music. “Slowly Getting You Out of the Way” is a hard–driving Randall Hylton song that features some good breaks. “I’m Ready Now” is another pure bluegrass number on the gospel side. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill sings the lead with siblings Buddy and Charli Robertson adding their signature harmony vocals.

The musicianship of the group is excellent, too. Buddy Robertson plays guitar; sister Charli Robertson plays fiddle while sister Kelsi Harrigill adds mandolin. Her husband, Paul Harrigill, plays banjo and guitar and the band is rounded out with Dominic Illingworth on bass and Michael Stockton on resophonic guitar.

“Dangerous Dan” is a Tim Stafford/Barry Ricks number with a twist. It’s the story of a hard times moonshiner who ends up as a God-fearing preacher. It seems there’s hope for all of us. Another good Hylton song is “So Far,” yet another story of broken love.

Then there’s the countrygrass. It’s been part of bluegrass almost forever: how many Louvin Brothers songs have appeared on bluegrass recordings? Crowds I have seen at live shows seem to like it; they certainly applaud it. Some people don’t. A banjo–playing friend called me this morning complaining about a bluegrass–marketed CD that sounded too much like country. If you don’t object to countrygrass, there’s some very good numbers on this CD.

“Letters Have No Arms” is a 1949 Ernest Tubb song that’s a great love song. (Bluegrassers may recognize a couple of other Tubb recordings: Wabash Cannonball and “one of his old favorites,” Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin.) “I Thought You Were Someone I Knew” is a waltz beat love song with an unusual fiddle interlude (some people might mistake the intro as flutes). “It’s Probably Just Her Memory Again” makes good bluegrass to my ears, but I can also imagine standing on the stage in a club singing it to a country crowd. Most times the country/bluegrass division is just the delivery and the instruments. “I Can’t Be Bothered” is very country, which is hardly surprising since it was recorded by Miranda Lambert. Of the two, I like Flatt Lonesome’s harmony better.

I expect the “too much country” argument will continue longer than it takes the pines to grow tall. If you aren’t concerned by it and like really good music, you need to run out and get this CD.

“The Game” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
The Game
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

It’s hard to write a review of an album you know is going to be good. Blue Highway started with a five-man lineup 20 years and 10 albums ago, and it’s still the same five guys making great music (Tom Adams replaced Jason Burleson on banjo for the group 1999’s self-titled fourth album.)

All the elements of this versatile and durable combo are in place for the 12 tracks and 40 minutes of The Game: Burleson’s firm right hand, three singer-songwriters—Shawn Lane (mandolin and fiddle), Tim Stafford (guitar), and Wayne Taylor (bass)—who could easily front their own bands, and the second greatest Dobro player to ever put steel on steel in Rob Ickes.

“The Game,” “Where Jasmine Grows,” and, especially, “Talk is Cheap” are the kind of groove-heavy tracks that Blue Highway does better than anyone else.

“Just to Have a Job,” “All the Things You Do,” and “Remind Me of You” are the kind of irrepressible, perfectly crafted and sung tunes that outclass just about every other bluegrass songwriter.

Burleson’s celtic hop “Dogtown” and Ickes’ breezy “Funny Farm” are inventive instrumentals that aren’t merely excuses for showing off.

All of that is—please forgive me—just a little bit of a letdown. The Game is a great album, but it’s great in essentially the same way that their last two or three albums have been. I suppose that’s a little bit like complaining that Sandy Koufax just pitched another no-hitter, but I can’t help but think that tinkering with the mix a little—perhaps by collaborating with a producer (instead of self-producing) or by adding another musician (as the Del McCoury Band did with Jerry Douglas on The Cold Hard Facts)—would be a catalyst for something even more creative.

The traditional “Hicks’s Farewell” is the one track on The Game that a band member didn’t have a share in writing, and it’s the most striking—master musicians calling down the ancient tones that resonate deeper than even the best of modern craftsmanship.