THE RASCALS, AND THEN THERE’S THIS…

GRASCALSTHE GRASCALS
AND THEN THERE’S THIS…

Mountain Home
MH16432

The last Grascals release moved them closer to Americana. The drums were more upfront, the songs somewhat harder-edged. The question was, where would their next recording take them? Well, just as “Life Finds A Way,” life sometimes gets in the way. Longtime members Jamie Johnson and Jeremy Abshire left the group. With their departure went the drums, completely, and also the direction the band was heading.

What remains, however, is still The Grascals. As best exemplified by “Sweet Mountain Girl,” “I Like Trains,” and their solid cover of Monroe’s “Highway Of Sorrow,” they lean a little more toward bluegrass than some past recordings. New lead singer/guitarist John Bryan, with his smooth, higher-end lead, gives them that option. And yet, their sound remains largely familiar, full of Dillards/Country Gazette/Osborne colorings, great harmony, Terry Eldredge’s warm leads, and impeccable instrumental contributions from Kristin Benson, Terry Smith, and Danny Roberts.

One need listen no further than the opener “I Know Better.” Bryan sings the lead, but the sound is pure Grascals, upbeat and melodic all the way. The propulsive forward-rolling quality is irresistible. That’s followed by the positive message of “Road Of Life.” Eldredge takes the lead and new addition Adam Haynes adds some exceptionally sweet fiddle, making this a highlight. Then comes Harley Allen’s “True Hearts.” Perhaps not his best, but a good song nonetheless and continuing a long-standing Grascals tradition. The rest of the way we get several soft, country-styled tracks (“Old Friend Of Mine,” “If You Want Me To,” and “A Place To Hang My Hat”) interspersed with the Osborne-style of “Delta Queen,” the slightly bluesy “I Like Trains,” and Bryan’s solid cover of “Highway Of Sorrow.” This seems a much better direction than where their last recording was taking them. (Mountain Home Music Company, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.mountainhomemusiccompany.com.)BW


TONY ROOK, THE ROAD BACK HOME

Tony ROOKTONY ROOK
THE ROAD BACK HOME

No Label
No Number

This pleasant project by the banjo picker, songwriter, and guitarist Tony Rook is a fine example of mainstream bluegrass. The vocals are all handled by Rook, and he does a masterful job on leads and singing all of the harmonies. The songwriting ranges from good to very interesting. There are eight originals and the old classic from Tim Hardin, “Reason To Believe.” He turns in a version of Poco’s “Keep On Tryin’,” which is a bit grittier than their version. Two Louisa Branscomb tunes are, “Darlin’ Now’s Not The Time” and “Wearin’ The Blues.” The best song on this project just might be the original title piece.

The picking on the project is fine throughout, with the likes of Matt Flinner on mandolin and Becky Buller on fiddle. Terry Johnson shows up on bass and banjo, and Tim Carter adds mandolin on the cuts where Flinner is not playing mandolin. Graham Sones adds some nice banjo on several cuts. Thoughtful arrangements serve the songs and allow the players to add nice touches. This is fine bluegrass music rooted in tradition, but with a contemporary feel. It shows off Rook’s considerable skills as a singer, picker, and songwriter. (www.tonyrookmusic.com)RCB


WYATT RICE & DAN MENZONE ALLIANCE, SOMETHING OUT OF THE BLUE

RICE-&-MENZONEWYATT RICE & DAN MENZONE ALLIANCE
SOMETHING OUT OF THE BLUE

Mountain Fever
MFR 160318

This alliance is the basis for some fine picking and singing. Wyatt Rice will be known to all, but those who have been asleep, as brother to the legendary Tony Rice. Dan Menzone is his picking partner and a fine banjo picker. Neither one sings here, so we enjoy Russell Moore, Dale Ann Bradley, Richard Bennett, and John Rigsby on vocals at different times. Fred Carpenter’s fiddle, Rob Ickes’ resonator guitar, and Adam Steffey’s mandolin are featured throughout. Ron Rice plays bass on all but one cut, “Grey Rain,” where Eric Seay stands in.

There are seven instrumentals and they feature top-rate picking. Rice’s guitar could have been featured a bit more, but with all of the talent presented, he does a stellar job on lead and support.

The CD opens with Russell Moore belting out “Lonesome Highway” with Dale Ann and Dan Boner filling out the trio. Rigsby belts out “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome.” He and Bradley also do a fine job on the old Moon Mullican cut “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.” Richard Bennett and Rigsby do a fine reading of “Another Town.” Instrumentally, they tear the house down, but there is a nice quiet respite on “Grey Rain” that features some real nice guitar by Rice. This is a well-done recording that features a lot of talent. (Mountain Fever, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)RCB

 


SWIFT CREEK, MAGNOLIA

SWIFT-CREEKSWIFT CREEK
MAGNOLIA

No label
No number

If you’re looking for a laid-back sound that mixes a lot of influences from bluegrass to blues to a little Americana, North Carolina band Swift Creek might be your ticket. The group, mostly known around the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area, just released their second album, Magnolia. The group broadened its reach last year by performing at the World of Bluegrass.

Swift Creek is made up of Kevin Brown (guitar, vocals), who does the bulk of the songwriting; Casey Elder (mandolin, resonator guitar, vocals); Stephen Fraley (fiddle, banjo, vocals); Dennis Hoyle (bass); and Ann Searcy (vocals).

Easily, the most interesting tune on the album is “Rattle Them Bones,” penned by Brown. It has a bluesy rhythm with a touch of storytelling, an effort unique to any album trying to hold onto its bluegrass underpinnings. The opening cut, “Wake Me Up To Drive,” seems to be targeted as much towards fellow musicians as it is to the listening audience, highlighting long rides in vans to the next gig. “Bluegrass Hurricane” is a tune that was inspired during last year’s WOB, when a hurricane threatened the entire event and pays tribute to the roots of bluegrass. There is a parody song, “Life In The Slow Lane,” and a nice turn on the old instrumental “Sail Away Ladies.”

As stated earlier, the style of the album is not hard-driving bluegrass. The band bills Magnolia as a “pleasing album of acoustic originals…original bluegrass and Americana music.” (www.swiftcreekmusic.com)MKB

 


BILL EMERSON & SWEET DIXIE, THE GOSPEL SIDE OF BILL EMERSON & SWEET DIXIE

BILL-EMERSONBILL EMERSON & SWEET DIXIE
THE GOSPEL SIDE OF BILL EMERSON & SWEET DIXIE

Rural Rhythm
RUR-1132

This all-gospel set from Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie is a compilation of 12 previously-released songs. The earliest, “Beautiful” (the most Gentleman-ly song here, sung by Randy Waller) and “Keep On The Sunny Side” (sung with anthem-like stateliness by Wayne Taylor) are drawn from his 2007 self-titled release for Rebel. Seven, including “Will The Light Be Shining Bright,” “Little Stone Lambs,” and “He Knows My Name,” come from his three recordings for Rural Rhythm. The remaining three are newly-recorded and include a particularly nice cover of “Drifting Too Far From The Shore,” featuring the silky lead vocal of Lauren Mears. “What A Day,” sung by Linda Lay with harmony from Shelby Gold, also comes from that session.

Drawing from many recorded sources means many different musicians. That’s certainly the case here. No less than 19 musicians make contributions, though a core group of Emerson on banjo on all tracks (of course), Wayne Lanham on mandolin on eight, and Teri Chism on bass on nine play the largest roles. Having so many diverse musicians gives the songs a broad mix of styles and settings ranging from the folkier and softer “Thank Him For The Miracle,” sung by Chris Stifel, to the straighter traditional feel of “What A Day.”

Several tracks here deserve special mention. There’s the aforementioned “Drifting Too Far From The Shore,” a song so well-written that it stands out on almost any recording. “What A Day,” “Beautiful,” and “The Rope” are also of note. The true gem is “Little Stone Lambs,” written by Carl Jackson and Tim Stafford and sung by Tom Adams in a style reminiscent of James Taylor. It’s a fine example of a story/imagery song, and the interpolation of “Little Rosewood Casket” is a nice touch. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 750, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121, www.ruralrhythm.com.)BW


BACK ROADS MANDOLIN VOLUME TWO

BACK ROADS MANDOLIN VOLUME TWO
BY BUDDY MERRIAM
.
(Buddy Merriam, P.O. Box 862, Sound Beach, NY 11789, www.buddymerriam.com.)

Buddy Merriam is a mandolin player from New York who has over 500 mandolin compositions to his credit. He’s spent 35 years leading his group Buddy Merriam & Back Roads and for 25 years has been the host of the radio program Blue Grass Time on WUSB in Long Island, N.Y. In this second volume, Merriam offers 32 more original compositions for instructional purposes.

Written in both standard notation and tablature, it’s not for the beginner, but more directed to a player who can read either style of notation. The introductory page is written by mandolinist Lou Martin, who explains that unlike Volume One, this volume contains Merriam’s more traditional bluegrass work and may be a little easier than those found in Volume One. Songs include “Avery Annes Reel,” “Blue Grass Time,” “Friar Tuch,” “Laurie’s Waltz,” “New Exhota,” and “Spirit Of Rose.” Also included are pictures of Buddy with Bill Monroe, Frank Wakefield, and pictures of some of his mandolins. There is also an accompanying CD with the melodies for each selection.BF


DAVE ADKINS

DAVE-ADKINSDAVE ADKINS

Mountain Fever Records
MFR 160226

With his third recording for Mountain Fever, Dave Adkins has brought all the musical threads together and produced his finest work to date. I’ve noted that the one area for Adkins needing work was his bluegrass phrasing. His last recording was almost there. This one is. One need only listen to his cover of Randall Hylton’s uptempo “Wasting Away” to see he has his bluegrass phrasing together now. Better still is the auctioneer vocals of “Sold,” a burner that uses auction imagery revealing a man’s sudden infatuation with a woman. Rich Fagen and Rob Royer wrote it, but Adkins really makes it go, earning it album highlight status.

Those tunes aside, this is really more of a Dave Adkins music recording than a bluegrass one. Calling it “Dave Adkins’ music” does not mean, necessarily, that others can or will follow his style, but rather as soon as you hear it, you know it’s Dave Adkins. His musical style is unique unto itself, a blend of bluegrass (both contemporary and traditional), hard country, Southern rock, robust, rough-and-ready vocals and a heap of confidence and charisma.

The first two tracks, “Change Her Mind” and “Emmaline” best define the Adkins approach. The first is earthy and rhythmically-enticing and should have wide appeal. The second, more ominous and perhaps not destined for as wide acceptance, is arguably the most Adkins through and through. His vocals, deep and twisting, bring out great emotion in what is a sordid, horrific tale of cheating and death. Both are highlights.

Similar vocal intensity and high quality follows throughout on the classic country of “It’s Not Over (Till I Get Over You)” or the softer “Angel Song.” This is his finest work to date. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)BW


GRAHAM SPARKMAN, HAZARD WAS HERE

GRAHAM-SPARKMANGRAHAM SPARKMAN
HAZARD WAS HERE

No Label
No Number

There is a loose, Americana, old-time quality about this recording from Graham Sparkman. It reminds me of one of the earliest CDs I reviewed for BU, one by Fred Lantz, a recording that similarly blended old-time, bluegrass, and folk in a freewheeling ’60s sort of fashion. Comparisons to groups such as the Avett Brothers and Peter Rowan and the Nee Ningy Band also come to mind, though more for the anything-goes feel than for any musical similarity.

Sparkman plays the guitar, some mandolin, the clawhammer banjo parts, does most of the lead singing, and wrote seven of the ten songs. The only familiar song included is “Dark As A Dungeon.” He covers two others. “Dry Land Fish” is a rollicking paean to gathering friends and neighbors for a communal meal. It’s engaging until it hits a somewhat overdone “everybody sing” section featuring young children. Better is “Southern Accent,” a soft meditation on Southern speech. Both of those are characteristic of what you’ll find throughout. There is a sort of gospel-tinged opener called “Awhilda,” followed by “Manga,” about a mythical creature that roams the local mountains, followed by a story song tribute to “Campbell’s Grocery Store.” The two best, however, are the clawhammer-driven instrumental “Flight Of The Limb Chicken,” which has an unusual rhythmic twist and a nice melodic line, and “Hazard In The Autumn.” The latter is by far the standout track; a light, lilting, ’60s-jazz look at the seasons in and around Hazard, Ky. The setting is near perfect and the imagery is well-written.

Guesting with Sparkman and several local musicians on this intriguing recording are Andy Leftwich, Rob Ickes, and Scott Vestal. (grahamsparkman.bandcamp.com)BW


THE KEVIN PRATER BAND, WALKING RAILS & COUNTING TIES

KEVIN-PRATER-BANDTHE KEVIN PRATER BAND
WALKING RAILS & COUNTING TIES

No Label
No Number

With the possible exception of the slightly minor cast of the lost love tune “Joanie” and Kevin Prater’s own tragic romance original “You’re In Love With Another,” the offerings here, sad subject or no, have an upbeat, positive sound that make you feel like everything’s going to be alright. Some of that is the songs themselves. Some is the arrangements. Some is Prater’s voice and delivery.

Take “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues,” for example. If you listen close, you can tell there’s trouble: Some gotta win, some gotta lose…Everybody’s gone away… Those are not exactly joyful lines. But there’s that melody, so tuneful, you’re completely diverted from the sadness. Or consider “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” a minor hit for Joe South. Again, a somewhat down subject, the weariness of a wanderer, but again, a positive melody and an upbeat, uptempo, folk-tinged arrangement. Then there are “Borrowed Time & Rented Land” and “Walking Rails & Counting Ties” and “Willow Creek Dam.”

Throw in several positive message songs such as “Hold On” and “I Pray To The Lord Everyday” and the classic song of personal acceptance “The Way I Am,” along with mandolinist Prater’s soft, at times ethereal, high lead voice, a light, airy band sound provided by guitarist/vocalist Tom Timberlake, banjoist/vocalist Tyler Robertson and bassist/vocalist Danny Stiltner, and you have a solid recording. It’s not perfect. Sometimes, it’s a little uneven and a couple times back-to-back songs have a too similar beat and construction. But this is a good, uplifting recording. (www.thekevinpraterband.com)BW


CIRCA BLUE, ONCE UPON A TIME

CIRCA-BLUECIRCA BLUE
ONCE UPON A TIME

Orange Blossom Records
No Number

Readers of these pages may well be aware, I always gravitate to a swinging, country/jazz type song. There’s a good one here on Circa Blue’s third release—their first on Orange Blossom Records. The song is called “Tripped, Stumbled And Fell,” written by Dawn Kenny and Rick Lang, and features the lead singing of new bassist Ashley Stewart and some close harmony from new fiddler Malia Furtado on the chorus. The beat is solid. The solos are good. The additional staggered vocal echo of the title on the chorus by one of the men in the group is a nice touch. That’s followed by a slightly laid-back cover of the Juice Newton hit, “Queen Of Hearts,” and makes for a solid one-two-punch late in the album.

The band makes a good impression with the quick-paced “Before You Leave Here,” and back-to-back fiddle tunes—“Angeline The Baker” performed with lyrics and “Cold Frosty Morning,” featuring a triple lead of mandolin, clawhammer banjo, and fiddle. The triple lead is very impressive and gives way to some fine soloing that exhibits the tune rather straight at first, but lets each player put a bit of spin on it in the second half. Circa Blue’s attention to such detail is evident throughout the whole recording.

There have been several personnel changes in the group since their 2014 release. Joining holdover guitarist Steve Harris and banjoist Matt Hickman are mandolinist Garrett Wren and the aforementioned Furtado and Stewart. That much turnover makes for an obvious change in the band’s sound, but it’s a change that, as this recording shows, has attracted label recognition and brought positive results. (www.circa-blue.com)BW


THE COMPLETE 5-STRING BANJO METHOD: BEGINNING, INTERMEDIATE, MASTERING

THE COMPLETE 5-STRING BANJO METHOD:
BEGINNING, INTERMEDIATE, MASTERING
BY NED LUBERECKI
Alfred Music 44932, 44935, 44939. (Alfred Music, P.O. Box 10003, Van Nuys, CA 91410-0003, www.alfred.com.)

This three-volume set will take the student from the raw fundamentals to being a knowledgeable player with improvisational skills, if they follow the path set out by the author. The scope of these books not only teaches how to play the banjo in a bluegrass style, it teaches the student how to think like a musician. Interestingly enough, there is even a short section on clawhammer banjo in the back of the first volume.

Starting in the first volume with learning simple melodies and how to play chords to the song, it moves along quickly with adding the rolls. To this, the left-hand techniques of slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs are added. Then moveable chords and playing in different keys. By the end of the first volume, the student is playing some melodic versions of fiddle tunes and learning some basic backup skills.

In the second volume, the student will learn how to improve over typical chord progressions with standard bluegrass banjo licks. This includes licks up and down the neck. The student will learn more about improvisation using moveable chords and double-stops. They will also be introduced to the single-string style of playing.

The third volume takes the student into the heart of making it all work. Theory comes into play, and it’s very well presented here. There’s an extensive look at how chords and scales work. This volume has more analysis than the prior two, focusing the student on how to take everything they’ve learned and turn it into music.

While they are discussed here in detail, it’s interesting that there is no reference to Scruggs-style or Reno-style or Keith-style. Perhaps these pioneers are taken for granted today or those references don’t mean anything to many younger players. There’s much to recommend about these books. They are rich with information, and this information is quickly applied to a musical example. Bluegrass banjo is like musical legos. There are licks for every melodic turn. These books are full of those licks.RCB

 


JOE MULLINS & THE RADIO RAMBLERS, SACRED MEMORIES

MULLINS-AND-THE-RADIO-RAMBLERSJOE MULLINS & THE RADIO RAMBLERS
SACRED MEMORIES

Rebel Records
CD-1863

Once again, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers have returned to the deep, abiding well of bluegrass gospel where, from time to time, they seek—and find—renewed inspiration. Sacred Memories is a worthy sequel to the band’s last gospel outing, Hymns From The Hills, from 2011. And like its predecessor, the new disc is a dynamic testament of faith and renewal.

The album opens with a pair of irrepressibly hopeful and celebratory songs—“When The Sun Of Life Goes Down” (penned by W.A. McKinney) and “All Dressed Up With Somewhere To Go” (Jerry Salley and Diane Wilkinson)—that seek to perform the miracle of turning lemons (in this case, death) into lemonade (the promise of eternal life). Mullins & Co. are joined on several cuts by a short list of illustrious guests, including Rhonda Vincent, The Isaacs (Ben, Sonya, and Rebecca), Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, and Charli Robertson and Kelsi Harrigill of Flatt Lonesome.

Among the many memorable cuts is an epic rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Sacred Memories” on which Skaggs and White join on lead vocals. Equally moving is a slow, soulful, and starkly unique a cappella rendition of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” featuring The Isaacs in all their vocal glory. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)BA


THE ROUNDER BOOK OF BLUEGRASS TRIVIA

ROUNDER-BOOK-OF-TRIVIATHE ROUNDER BOOK OF BLUEGRASS TRIVIA
BY BILL NOWLIN
Rounder Books 1579402518. (Rounder Books, 29 Lancaster St., Cambridge, MA 02140.)

Trivia buffs will enjoy this new book of bluegrass music trivia by Bill Nowlin, co-founder of Rounder Records. Nowlin got the idea for this book after he started writing the “Bits & Pieces” trivia column in Bluegrass Unlimited in 2013. Nowlin’s years with Rounder has given him a unique insight into the bluegrass music world, which this book will show. The 272 questions in this book will give the true lover of bluegrass music a real challenge. Some are easy, some are difficult, and some are common knowledge among bluegrass fans.

Without giving away the answers, a few questions are: How many strings are there in the prototypical five-piece bluegrass band? What was Tater Tate’s given first name? What bluegrass musician owned his own nightclub? What would you give in exchange for your soul? What prompted Lester Flatt to develop his famous G-run?

As you can see, the challenge is there and, of course, the answers are listed in the back of the book. Once someone reads this book, they will become a walking encyclopedia of trivial bluegrass information and they will be able to amaze their friends and astonish their picking pals.BF