MICKEY GALYEAN & CULLEN’S BRIDGE

mickey-galyeanMICKEY GALYEAN & CULLEN’S BRIDGE
MY DADDY’S GRASS

Rebel Records REB-CD-1856

   The son of the regional bluegrass legend (and beyond for those informed) Cullen Galyean, Mickey is carrying on in his father’s footsteps. The sound is the sound in that Round Peak/Galax bluegrass style where the banjo and the fiddle have defined the music for decades. Here, Rick Pardue plays that open-throated full-out roll that marks the true way the banjo is played in that corner of the world. Galyean plays guitar and Brad Hiatt is on bass. It is Billy Hawks who plays the fiddle, the counterweight to the driving banjo, that fills out the instrumental voices of this style, and there is no need to clutter this mountain bluegrass with excess. The vocals carry the day, with the banjo and fiddle offering the counterpoint. This is the Galax Sound.

James King makes one of his last recordings here, singing on “We’ll Be Sweethearts In Heaven,” and the old Stanley Brothers number stays sung. It should not be a surprise that they tap songs such as Dave Evans’ “One Loaf Of Bread,” James King’s “It’s A Cold, Cold World,” and Cullen Galyean’s “Home With The Blues.” The nice surprise are the five originals with Rick Pardue’s name on them. One of his songs, the title cut, is a tribute to the music they grew up on, and he’s also responsible for the witty “I’d Have A Dime.” Throughout, the vocals are powerful and straight to the heart. These boys plow all the way to the fence line.

If you like the powerful, true sound of real bluegrass that’s not ashamed of its rural roots and still has a bit of mud on its shoes, look no further. You will not find a better new recording. These guys burn it hot and sing it with honesty. Miss this and you will miss some of the best ’grass being played, period. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)RCB


NOTHIN’ FANCY

nothin-fancyNOTHIN’ FANCY
WHERE I CAME FROM

Mountain Fever Records
MFR161007

Nothin’ Fancy’s second release on Mountain Fever varies a little from what they gave us on their first. Bands that have been around this long (22 years) don’t often leap up in ability from year to year. Nothin’ Fancy is already at a high level of performance. They remain so here.

Where this recording differs is in song selection. This latest has six Andes originals, two from guitarist Caleb Cox, and four covers, of which only one, a relatively unchanged version of “Bringing Mary Home,” complete with Duffey-esque vocal inflections, is a standard.

Story songs make up a half or more. Three of them are minor ballads. “Andersonville,” written by roots rocker Dave Alvin, is the strongest, full of forceful imagery told from the perspective of a soldier taken to that infamous prison camp. The slight rock feel works well and the band handles it well. Almost as good is Damon Black’s ominous “Simon Crutchfield’s Grave,” though lyric-wise it is more conventional. Caleb Cox counters that with a solid song, “Bus Fare,” that even as it looks at a man down on his luck, has a positive air about it. That’s followed by Andes’ lighthearted “Daddy Made Moonshine” with its old-time rhyme and melodic form.

Standing above all those, however, are two other Andes originals. One is the title opener, an engaging, upbeat song cast in a solidly traditional setting. The other is “Friends And Lovers,” equally up and engaging and made all the more so by the structural and melodic references to ’70s pop country. Throw in Andes’ fine, guitar-supported gospel quartet, “Lord Hear My Plea,” and you have an album with much to recommend. (www.nothinfancybluegrass.com)BW


NORTHERN CONNECTION

northern-connectionNORTHERN CONNECTION

Patuxent Music
CD-291

This recording makes little or no attempt at breaking new ground. If anything, guitarist/vocalist Frankie Short, Jr., mandolinist/vocalist Mark Seitz, fiddler Steve Streett, banjoist Bobby Lundy and bassist/vocalist Brian Eldreth are holding the ground of a style (the Baltimore sound) they grew up amidst, one they believe still has relevance and entertainment value, which it does when performed this well.

The 15 songs selected for this recording are almost all standards. Unless you’re absolutely new to the music, you should recognize at least 13 when you hear them, if not by title. “Nobody But You,” “Handsome Molly,” “Mr. Engineer,” “My Little Girl In Tennessee,” and “Nobody’s Child.” I could list them all, but you get the picture. The two exceptions are Del McCoury’s rapid-fire laundry list description of a “Loggin’ Man,” followed two tracks later by Merle Haggard’s more lyrical “The Longer You Wait,” both good songs.

Each tune gets the same no-frills treatment. Arrangements are direct. Melody is key, both in the singing, handled predominantly by Short, and in the instrumental soloing. This is music presented largely as it was in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. You can drop into the middle of one of Lundy’s or Seitz’s or Streett’s solos and know almost instantly you’re hearing “She’s No Angel” or “Pain In My Heart.” Moreover, the sound of the recording has a strong sense of past, a feel of one microphone and of period technology and studios; think of Red Smiley or Earl Taylor or Sid Campbell.

Some who read this will no doubt think these guys are re-creators or a band stuck in the past. That might be true if the results were not what they are here. Northern Connection throw themselves into this music. It’s vibrant. It makes a personal statement. It sounds great. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BW


STEADY DRIVE

steady-driveSTEADY DRIVE
UNTUCKED

No Label
No Number

Formed some time in late 2014 or early 2015, Steady Drive is from eastern North Carolina. Joe Pessolano is on mandolin and lead and harmony singing. Kevin Lamm plays bass, sings lead, and harmony. Wayne Melvin is on the guitar and lead and harmony vocals. Lee Flood is the banjoist. The style here is straight bluegrass as bands would have played it in the ’60s and ’70s and as bands still play it when they have a strong sense of and love for tradition. That doesn’t mean you won’t hear a couple modern licks from Pessolano or Flood, and that doesn’t mean all the songs sound like vintage Flatt & Scruggs. It does, however, set a parameter that bends only slightly here and there.

Most of the material chosen for this debut should be familiar to bluegrass fans. Absolute standards such as “Somehow Tonight,” “Unfaithful One,” “Dark Hollow,” “Little Whitewashed Chimney,” “Ocean Of Diamonds,” “Big Spike Hammer,” and “You Can Have Her,” dominate. Only slightly lesser-known tunes, among them “You Can Keep Your Nine Pound Hammer,” “Girl From West Virginia,” and perhaps the least-known, Doyle Lawson’s instrumental, “Runaround,” fill out the twelve-track offering.

There is nice energy to what they do, even on the slower tunes. The harmonies are pretty solid, and Pessolano and Flood turn in some very nice soloing, both very clean and with drive. Who sings which lead is not stated. Each has their moments. Each also has a need of a few tweaks on phrasing and holding the note.

As debut recordings go, this is pretty good. Their notes indicate future recordings will have originals. That will be welcome, as would a little deeper mining of the bluegrass songbook. For now though, enjoy. (facebook.com/steadydrivebluegrass)BW


JEAN RITCHIE’S KENTUCKY MOTHER GOOSE

Jean-Ritchies-Kentucky-Mother-GooseJEAN RITCHIE’S KENTUCKY MOTHER GOOSE: SONGS AND STORIES FROM MY CHILDHOOD
BY JEAN RITCHIE WITH SUSAN BRUMFIELD
Hal Leonard 9781495007880. Hardback, 103 pages, b&w and colored pictures and photos, CD included, $19.99.

Jean Ritchie—singer, songwriter and dulcimer player—is perhaps best known in the bluegrass world for her songs “Blue Diamond Mines,” “Black Waters,” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” But throughout her long life (1922-2015), Jean had a passionate interest in “folk” songs, including these songs from her Kentucky childhood. I remember “circle game” songs like these—“Ring Around The Rosy,” “The Farmer In The Dell,” “London Bridge Is Falling Down”—from my own Georgia childhood. However, almost all of the songs here were unfamiliar to me with the exception of “Go In And Out The Window.” Even Jean’s version of “London’s Bridge” had a different melody and different words.

Each song is presented in standard musical notation and includes a short description of how that particular game is played. The book is chock-full of wonderful photos of Jean and the Ritchie family. It also comes with a CD that features dozens of Jean’s recordings, both old and new. The hardback book is of the highest quality, with slick glossy paper, beautifully printed. Kentucky Mother Goose would make a lovely gift. So lovely that I bought one for my own daughter! (Hal Leonard Books, 7777 West Bluemound Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53213, www.halleonard.com.)MHH


THE LONELY HEARTSTRING BAND

lonely-heartstring-bandTHE LONELY HEARTSTRING BAND
DEEP WATERS

Rounder Records
11661-39695-02

This is the debut release from the 2015 IBMA winners of the Momentum Award. Four of the five members of the band—Charles Clements (bass & vocals), his twin brother George Clements (guitar & lead vocals), Gabe Hirshfeld (banjo), Patrick M’Gonigle (fiddle, vocals), and Matt Witler (mandolin)—met while students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Starting as a pick-up band, LHB merges its sound from the members’ individual influences in traditional bluegrass, American folk music, classic country, and western classical tradition. “I think we’re committed to drawing on our musical roots to create something new, something that’s moving forward,” explains Hirshfeld.

Modern bluegrass is featured on Deep Waters’ title-track and “The Road’s Salvation.” The Boston-based quintet puts its unique spin on Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” Bob Dylan’s “Rambling, Gambling Willie,” and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer.” LHB also created a couple of playful instrumentals, “Big Bruce” and “Songbird.” Banjo wizard Tony Trischka provides plenty of praise in the CD liner notes and a cut-by-cut critique of each of the 12 songs. He says, “It took forever to assimilate this whole masterpiece, because I had to keep doubling back to listen and re-listen to particular passages that wouldn’t let me just aurally walk on by.” Like Tony, I’m drawn to keep the CD in the player to catch the different layers of musical depths displayed on this first effort. Topnotch instrumentation and a beautiful vocal blend are the cursory reasons to begin forming an allegiance to this band. Their music is addicting, and just like viewing the Grand Canyon, you can’t begin to find the words to describe the wonder witnessed. (Rounder Records, 1 Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.)BC


MICHAEL CLEVELAND

michael-clevelandMICHAEL CLEVELAND
FIDDLER’S DREAM

Compass Records 4674

   Since bursting onto the scene as one of IBMA’s Kids On Bluegrass, Michael Cleveland has become perhaps the most honored bluegrass fiddler of his generation. Blessed with astonishing gifts in overall musicianship and in his utter command of every style and nuance known to the fiddle world, Cleveland and his band, the Flamekeepers, have left audiences enthralled and fellow musicians in awe everywhere they’ve played.

Now, Michael comes along with a solo CD intended to showcase more than just his bluegrass fiddling. Produced by the legendary Jeff White and packed with A-list superstars including Sam Bush, Barry Bales, Vince Gill, Andy Statman, Jerry Douglas, and more, Fiddler’s Dream showcases Cleveland’s immense talents as a fiddler, mandolinist, and composer.

Packed with excellent originals like “Sunday Drive” and “Blues For Bill,” Cleveland’s CD also includes brilliant renditions of classic tunes like “Tall Timber,” which he rips up here in a duet with Jason Carter. Drifting off-course into straight country, Michael tosses in a honky-tonk tearjerker, “Where Is Your Heart Tonight,” sung by Carter and featuring the mewling steel guitar of the legendary Paul Franklin.

There’s something for all fans of bluegrass to love here. Sam Bush sings a lovely rendition of John Hartford’s “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” where Cleveland channels the musical ghost of Vassar Clements so perfectly, it’ll send chills down your spine. Jeff White and Vince Gill team up for a blistering version of “Unwanted Love.” And one of the reasons Cleveland says he wanted to do this project was to give himself the chance to lay down the fiddle and play mandolin, which he does here on multiple tracks.

Living in his home state of Indiana, I’ve had the chance to hang out and pick with Michael Cleveland from time to time, and the guy is simply made of music. Where others work through stringing together a few coherent licks, Cleveland takes solo after solo that sound carefully practiced even though they’re improvised on the spot. We all love his traditional fiddle work, channeling the ghosts of Benny Martin, Tex Logan, and other bluegrass greats. But here, the man shows a dazzling array of musical skills that never fails to entertain and delight. This may be Michael Cleveland’s Fiddler’s Dream, but it will be a musical wake-up call for fans who’ve only heard his work with the Flamekeepers. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)DJM


THE WOOKS

WOOKSTHE WOOKS
LITTLE CIRCLES

Gnar Vector Records
No Number

Given that the folk music community has played host to bands called The Vulcans and Klingon Klezmer, I suppose it was inevitable that a new franchise begged for equal time, in the form of this debut recording by a Kentucky quintet calling themselves The Wooks.  They even bookend their CD with playful self-referential novelty pieces “Calling All You Wookies” and “Wookie Foot Shuffle.” But, in between, they reveal themselves to be a promising new group, comfortably straddling the borderland between traditional bluegrass and jamgrass.

Their strengths are many, not the least of which is a sensitive ear for arrangement that keeps each track fresh and interesting, and some consistently crisp and solid instrumental work from bandmembers Arthur Hancock on banjo, fiddler Jesse Wells, and mandolinist Galen Green. Along with guitarist C.J. Cain, who wrote the lion’s share of the band’s original songs, and bassist Roddy Puckett, they manage to give the band a consistently coherent sound despite having more than one lead singer.

They also load the program with original material, which is the most effective way for any new band to create their own identity. Their material is solid, but probably not quite up to the caliber of the covers they include here, a nice repackaging of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and a very effective rendition of an older gospel song that’s become associated with the late Jerry Garcia, “My Brothers And Sisters.” The title track, “Little Circles,” is probably the most memorable of the band’s own pieces. So, what we’re left with is a new band that makes a strong opening statement with its playing and arranging and choice of material.  There’s enough talent here to give hope for even better things to come from The Wooks in the future. (www.wookoutamerica.com)HK


JOSH GRIGSBY AND COUNTY LINE

JOSH-GRISBYJOSH GRIGSBY AND COUNTY LINE
RUBY LANE MEMORIES

No Label
No Number

This pleasant release by the Virginia group Josh Grigsby and County Line is highlighted by the fine lead singing of Grigsby and the excellent harmonies from the rest of the band. On their second release as a band, the group shines on cuts such as “Till Each Tear Becomes A Rose” and Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” on which Grigsby’s vocals are truly reminiscent of Gill’s high-lonesome sound. “I Hung My Head And I Cried,” “Our Old Home,” Crystal Grigsby’s “Ruby Lane Memories,” and Josh Grigsby’s gospel composition “It Happened To Me” are all very strong efforts and are indicative of the nice variety on this release. At the same time, the inclusion of a few warhorses like “Fox On The Run” and “White Freightline” seems a little out of place, given the strength of most of the rest material here.

The instrumental work is fairly solid, although there are a few spots where the rhythm/timing is a little shaky. Chris Westcott contributes lead guitar, Frankie Ballowe mandolin, Judge Parker banjo, Robert Kidd on bass, and Grigsby on rhythm guitar. All do a good job of supporting the vocals on these 12 songs. It’s the vocals, however, both lead and harmony, that really shine for this band. The harmonies by Crystal Grigsby, Westcott, Ballowe, and Parker are both powerful and polished, and combined with Josh’s great lead vocals produce a winning combination for this group. (www.myjgcl.net)AW


KENNY & AMANDA SMITH

kenny-and-amanda-smithKENNY & AMANDA SMITH
UNBOUND

Farm Boy Records
No Number

Since their first project in 2001, Kenny and Amanda Smith have become one of bluegrass music’s most endearing and solid duos. Amanda (vocals) and Kenny (guitar, vocals) are joined on this project by Jacob Burleson (mandolin), Kyle Perkins (bass), Justin Jenkins (banjo), and Wayne Winkle (harmony vocals). This is the third release on their own Farm Boy label and the production quality is superb. The song selection and arrangements focus mostly on Amanda’s beautiful and soulful vocals, with Kenny and the others providing some wonderful harmony. Kenny does sing lead on “Preaching My Own Funeral” and “Tea Party.”

Selections include “You Know That I Would,” “I Don’t Want To Fall,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wherefore And Why,” “Reaching Out” from Elli Rowe, and Tim Stafford’s “There Was A Time.” Highlights are the beautiful take on Ronnie Bowman’s “Nightbird” and the title-cut “Unbound” from Dennis Duff about gaining freedom. “Something Missing” is about being in London, seeing the sites, meeting The Queen, but being alone. The project is enhanced by a nice interplay between Burleson’s mandolin and Jenkins’ banjo, while Kenny’s guitar rhythm holds it steady with Perkins’ bass, while letting Kenny jump out with the lead runs he’s so known for. This is a great project for this very talented couple, both having received IBMA nominations in 2016 for female vocalist and guitar player respectfully. A very enjoyable endeavor. (www.kenny-amandasmith.com)BF


JOE K. WALSH

Joe walshJOE K. WALSH
BORDERLAND

No Label
No Number

Despite establishing himself as a formidable presence in the world of bluegrass and traditional mandolin with stints working for the Gibson Brothers, Darol Anger’s Mr. Sun, and duos with the likes of Courtney Hartman and Grant Gordy, Joe Walsh still probably gets more attention from being confused with the Joe Walsh who plays lead guitar in the Eagles and broke the Top 40 with his hit “Rocky Mountain Way.”

He can’t do anything about the similarities in names, but with Borderland, the bluegrass Joe Walsh has dropped a CD that clearly establishes his own musical identity, not only as a great mandolinist, but also as a strong vocalist, songwriter, and bandleader.

Over 11 tunes here, Walsh shows a distinct talent for crafting catchy, engaging originals. “Innisfree,” with its pulsating bass line and achingly poignant vocals, uses the poetry of W.B. Yeats to reflect Walsh’s love for Ireland. Dry as autumn leaves, his voice treads a deliberate balance between lovely and lonesome, always breaking on the side of musicality.

It’s the same with his winsome original “Pine Tree Waltz,” which sounds like a tune from the turn of the last century instead of a modern creation. Joined on the record by an ensemble of gifted players including Hartman, Bruce Molsky, and Brittany Haas, Walsh delivers a concrete and cohesive musical statement here that creates a unique sound and style that is his alone.

Part of the new generation of acoustic artists that is more concerned with creating positive, creative new music in their own image, Walsh has crafted a simple gem of a CD filled with great singing, powerful musicianship, and uniquely personal original tunes that more than stand the test of repeated listening. Buy it, and in the not-to-distant future perhaps, there will be an aging, long-haired rock star telling people, “Sorry, no, I’m not the Joe Walsh who plays mandolin.” (www.joekwalsh.com)DJM


TYLER GRANT

TYLER-GRANTTYLER GRANT
EARTH & WOOD

Grant Central Records
GCR 1602

The world of flatpicking guitar is a mighty competitive one these days, with each picker hotter, faster, and flashier than the one before. It can be hard to stand out musically, but Tyler Grant has used his versatility to make a strong impression on his latest release Earth & Wood.

His credentials as an accompanist for the likes of April Verch, Adrienne Young, and Abigail Washburn, his forays into jamgrass with Drew Emmitt, and the incendiary guitar chops honed by numerous contest championships all blend here to create 14 varied and interesting tracks. What lifts the recording even higher are his original songs, some written solo, some collaborations with Benny Galloway, who has written lots of material for Yonder Mountain String Band.

The album’s opening track, “Last Day On The Job,” is an effective variation on the theme that Carl Jones used in “Last Time On The Road,” recorded by the Nashville Bluegrass Band years back. Grant’s point of view is an evocative account of someone leaving his day job behind for the last time. It’s joined by an array of tales of the road (“One Town One Tune” and the lilting waltz “West Texas Wind”), and “Sweet Talking Angel” is a gently loping love song. Yet Grant is also adept at adapting and arranging a good and unexpected cover, as shown in a very nice version of “Believe (Nobody Knows)” by the rock group My Morning Jacket.

The songs are well-supported by a cast comprised of mandolinist Jordan Ramsey, Dusty Rider on banjo, Sally Van Meter contributing resonator guitar, fiddler Patrick Hoeper, and Adrian Engfer on bass. The arrangements are tasty and the musicianship is crisp without overwhelming the songs. Interspersed among the full band tracks are a healthy selection of solo guitar pieces, on which the hot licks fly over standards such as “Huckleberry Hornpipe,” “Cattle In The Cane,” “Dill Pickle Rag,” and an especially restrained yet tasty version of “Shove That Pig’s Foot A Little Further Into The Fire” that could bring this tune into the flatpickers’ canon. Grant has also included a couple of fine original instrumentals of his own—“Pick It” and “Tyler Trail.” Earth & Wood is much much more than just another flatpicking album. Instead it’s an eclectic and varied collection of songs and tunes showing that Tyler Grant is a musical force to be reckoned with. (www.tylergrant.com)HK


BANJO DAN

BANJO-DAN---SLEEPING-SENTINELBANJO DAN
THE SLEEPING SENTINEL: BANJO DAN’S SONGS OF VERMONT, VOLUME IV

No Label
VSB 110

A pioneer of the second wave of New England bluegrass musicians, Banjo Dan Lindner has led his Mid-Nite Plowboys since 1972. He started the Banjo Dan’s Songs Of Vermont series back in 1987 and has released one volume per decade since. The Sleeping Sentinel mixes some hard-driving bluegrass featuring his five-string picking with folk tunes and songs. Most of the compositions are original, but he includes a few Civil War-era tunes.

Bob Amos, once the lead vocalist of the acclaimed Front Range, is all over The Sleeping Sentinel, co-producing, singing lead and harmony, playing guitar, engineering, mixing, and mastering. Amos achieved an excellent, clear sound from the album from start to finish. The formidable studio band includes fellow Front Ranger Bob Dick (bass), famed fiddler Pete Sutherland joining Phil Bloch on that instrument, and Mid-Nite Plowboy mandolinist and vocalist Willy Lindner. Together, they deliver excellent playing and singing that makes the album delightful listening.

The thoroughly enjoyable highpoint of the album is the title “Sleeping Sentinel Suite” song cycle. It offers a captivating musical and lyrical telling of the story (popularized by Carl Sandburg) of Vermonter William Scott. Scott was scheduled to be hanged for sleeping on duty, but became a hero and eventual casualty after Lincoln pardoned him.

The problematic portion of The Sleeping Sentinel is that Banjo Dan filled the rest of the album with a random collection of Vermont songs. Had they only been Civil War pieces like “Wright And Sandborn,” this would not be an issue. They range as far, however, as a song about the St. Alban’s High School class of 1960. (www.banjodan.com.)AM


AUDIE BLAYLOCK AND REDLINE, THE ROAD THAT WINDS

blaylockAUDIE BLAYLOCK AND REDLINE
THE ROAD THAT WINDS

Patuxent Music
CD-289

Even after all the years of bluegrass bands covering rock tunes, it still comes as something of a surprise to find Audie Blaylock and Redline opening their recording with the Elton John/Bernie Taupin classic, “Daniel.” Less of a surprise is how well they cover it. Setting the lyrics over a double-time backing gives it a rolling, wanderlust sound in contrast to the angst of the original, not damaging the song one bit and in some ways, with all apologies to Elton and Bernie, improving it.

That sets the stage for the rest of what is a pleasing, ten-song release of four covers and six originals, highlighted by the slow, country cover of Carl Jackson’s “Safe Water,” with its ear-catching melody/chord shift that graces the beginning of the second half of each line. The chorus is also a winner. “Where The Wild River Rolls,” highly emotional and equally country, though bluesier, deserves a similar recognition, as does the enervating uplift of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry’s rollicking folk blues “Ride And Roll.” Think of the latter as sort of in the vein of “Rocky Road Blues.”

Of the originals, listen for “Life Without A Spare” and for “The Ties That Bind.” Both are very good. Blaylock and bassist Reed Jones co-wrote the former, using the lack of a spare as a metaphor for living a life on the rambling edge, one without a safety net. The arrangement has a matching rambling gait taken in medium tempo. “The Ties That Bind” is a Jones original, slow and heartfelt.

With this recording, banjoist Evan Ward rejoins the band that also includes the creative fiddling and mandolin work of Patrick McAvinue. Together, the quartet create a highly unified sound, one that is at times almost Dixieland in its interplay and trading of fills and solo fragments, and one that proves rewarding for the listener. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BW


VALERIE SMITH & LIBERTY PIKE

valerie-smithVALERIE SMITH & LIBERTY PIKE
SMALL TOWN HEROE

Bell Buckle Records
BBR – 400

Two years ago, Valerie Smith teamed up with a group of musicians from the Maryland/DC area to form her new version of Liberty Pike, which now consists of Joe Zauner (banjo, guitar), Lisa Kay Howard (mandolin), Tom Gray (bass), and Wally Hughes (fiddle, guitar, resonator guitar). Not only did this change give her a more soulful and energetic sound, but it also gave her the openness to create her music with a direction focused toward everyday folks and everyday events.

On this project, Smith chose compositions from a variety of songwriters including David Morris, Everett Brown, Sara Majors, and Mitch Mathews. Songs include Mathews’ “Something About A Train,” Morris’ “So Long Lindytown,” Sarah Majors’ “Bluegrass Dollars,” Brown’s “Bottle Of Tears.” Smith herself contributed “Winter’s Dream” and “Farmer’s Prayer,” both written with husband Craig. And multi-award winning bassist Tom Gray offered “Bessie’s Tune.” Smith’s voice has grown a little huskier and she still has that sassy but sweet and bouncy delivery in her shows. This is probably the best band she has had, as they work together as a tight unit, blending harmonies and arrangements to fit Smith’s effervescent style. This is a great new direction for Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. (Bell Buckle Records, P.O. Box 142, Bell Buckle, TN 37020, www.valeriesmith.net.)BF


BLUE CANYON BOYS

blue-canyon-boysBLUE CANYON BOYS

No Label
No Number

The Blue Canyon Boys have become one of the premier bands to rise out of the Rocky Mountains West. They have toured the U.S., the Far East, and have gathered a fairly large following wherever they perform. The band is Drew Garrett (bass), Jason Hicks (guitar), Gary Dark (mandolin), and Chris Elliott (banjo). On this project, they included guest Ernie Martinez (pedal steel). This is a really nice project that includes seven originals from band members. Hicks penned “One Lonely Thought Of You,” “Riding On That Northbound Train,” “Just An Old Dirt Road,” and “Old George’s Repent.” Dark’s compositions include “Wake Up, The Party’s Over,” “This Heart Of Mine,” and “Shinjuku Station,” and Elliot wrote “The Road To Westcliffe.” Other selections include Monroe’s “Get Down On Your Knees And Pray,” Betty Sue Perry’s “Roll Muddy River,” and Buck Owen’s “There Goes My Love” with Martinez’s pedal steel adding the country flavor. Highlights include the honky-tonk “Wake Up The Party’s Over,” the spirited version of “Born To Be With You,” and a really interesting take on Pink Floyd’s “Time.” The group is very good both vocally and instrumentally and seems to have a good career ahead of them. (Blue Canyon Boys, P.O. Box 1732, Lyons, CO 80540, www.bluecanyonboys.com.)BF


LARRY STEPHENSON BAND

larry-stephensonLARRY STEPHENSON BAND
WEEP LITTLE WILLOW

Whysper Dream Music
CD-7427

From the jaunty opening banjo riffs of the up-tempo love lament “Yesterday’s Gone” (penned by C. Stuart and W. Kidd) right on through to the restless refrains of the closing cut—a haunting rendition of Alton Delmore’s “Midnight Train”—the Larry Stephenson Band’s new 12-track collection bristles with authority and gusto.

As co-producers, Stephenson and his long-time collaborator Ben Surratt have managed to bottle the emotional immediacy of a live performance and uncork it in the studio. You hear this austere power with particular clarity on the cleverly written, subversively humorous and superbly performed Bill Anderson oldie “Nail My Shoes To The Floor.”

Similar delights abound. For starters, there’s the heartrending “Weep Little Willow, Weep” (co-written by Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley), the sardonic and soulful Mac Wiseman-penned prison lament “Free Me From This Old Chain Gang,” and the painfully nuanced Randall Hylton plaint, “It Almost Feels Like Love.”

Stephenson and his band really pull out the stops on their reprise of Bill Monroe’s timelessly beautiful “Kentucky Waltz,” showcasing their accomplished musicianship and highlighting the authority and persuasiveness of Stephenson’s rich tenor voice. (Whysper Dream Music, 1937 Upper Station Camp Creek Rd., Cottontown, TN 37048, www.whysperdream.com.)BA


JEREMY GARRETT

jeremy-garrettJEREMY GARRETT
THE RV SESSIONS 2: INSTRUMENTALS

 No Label
VSB 110

   Many years have passed since an instrumental bluegrass album captivated me as much as The RV Sessions 2: Instrumentals by Infamous Stringdusters fiddler Jeremy Garrett. Maybe Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe or Bela Fleck’s Deviation. Garrett stays within the bluegrass genre while innovating brilliantly with influences from all over the musical map.

Since the Garretts live in a 40-foot RV, when he calls his third and fourth solo albums The RV Sessions, he’s in essence saying the living room sessions. The 2015 RV Sessions 1 featured songs, while the new one consists entirely of his original instrumentals. Garrett fiddles, of course, but is also joined by Jeremy Garrett on mandolin and Jeremy Garrett playing guitar.

Bill Monroe would likely be pleased with the music the trio of Jeremy Garretts produces, for the music of this album proves consistently powerful with a palpable sense of immediacy. You could tap your foot right through the floor; so don’t try that at home. The guitar lays down emphatic, pulsating rhythms, alternately driving and supporting the fiddle, while throwing in some clever runs here and there. On the mostly uptempo tracks, Garrett seems to wring every bit of expressiveness from his fiddle, while remaining connected to the melody. The mandolin doesn’t get to enjoy as much playing as the fiddle and guitar, but it comes in at just the right times with a percussive, often staccato-rich push. From the comfort of his RV, where it appears everything except the mastering took place, Garrett explores the latest recording technology to produce a rich, clear sound while augmenting the expressiveness of his playing.

Long before showcasing his songs on RV Sessions 1, Garrett proved his merit as a songwriter. Here he demonstrates that he is a significant composer. This ain’t no parlor music or cerebral new acoustic exploration. The tunes and playing are original, intense, driving, and melodic. The music is too vital, too propulsive, and too irresistible ever to be used for background music. Experience it for yourself. (www.garrettgrass.com)AM


JENNY WHITELEY

jenny-whiteleyJENNY WHITELEY
THE ORIGINAL JENNY WHITELEY

Black Hen Music
No Number

Jenny Whiteley is an award-winning Canadian singer and songwriter. This collection contains three of her original songs, plus another eight which are a mix of three traditional and five by other writers performed primarily in old-time styles. She opens with Chris Coole’s “100 Dollars” which features Sam Allison’s clawhammer banjo, as does “In The Pines.” Allison, who produced, plays too many instruments to list here and also helps on vocals, along with Chris and Ken Whiteley and the Wolfe Island Singers. Teillard Finch also plays a long list of instruments and sings. Whiteley plays guitar.

The first original is the rollicking “Banjo Girl,” which has clawhammer banjo and fiddle. Mike Herron’s “Log Cabin Home In The Sky” is accompanied by banjo and harmonica. “Malade” is another Whiteley original (in French) in a style influenced by jug band music. “Groundhog” is an old-time classic. The Memphis Jug Band’s “Stealin’, Stealin’” by Will Shade is one of the highlights of this recording. The last original, “Higher Learning,” has an early jazz feel. Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” is embedded in “Old Mother Flanagan.” Uncle Dave Macon’s “Morning Blues” is performed in a jug band style. “Things Are Coming My Way” is a traditional spiritual. Whiteley has a strong and pleasing voice, and the accompaniment is both imaginative and effective. If you like old-time string band and jug band music, you might want to give this recording a listen. (Black Hen Music, 8483 Isabel Pl., Vancouver, BC, Canada V6P 6R8, www.blackhenmusic.com.)SAG


VARIOUS ARTISTS

crooked-roadVARIOUS ARTISTS
MOUNTAINS OF MUSIC HOMECOMING 2015:
THE LIVE CONCERT RECORDINGS

The Crooked Road
TCR002

Perhaps the two hardest recordings to review are live ones (since concerts are about entertaining a live audience rather than making an album) and multiple artist compilations lacking a single artistic vision. Mountains of Music Homecoming 2015: The Live Concert Recordings combines both aspects with a breadth encompassing bluegrass, old-time, Celtic, and both black and white gospel.

Bluegrass aficionados will notice contributions from the Seldom Scene (“Fair And Tender Ladies”), Blue Highway (“Lonesome Pine”), The Boxcars (“Big Spike Hammer”), Ralph Stanley II (“Bluefield”), and the Lonesome River Band (“Somebody’s Missing You”). Additionally, the collection offers youth in the form of outstanding teen fiddler Kitty Amaral (“Lonesome Polly Ann”) and experience from veteran Billy Baker (“Pike County Breakdown”), who fiddled with Bill Monroe and Del McCoury during the 1960s.

The recording features exceptional recording quality for a live release, a testimony to technical advances. It also offers strong, well-chosen tracks. The sequencing is as good as anyone could render with this much variety. The 18 tracks come from the eponymous multi-venue festival happening over nine days each June. The moveable musical feast showcases the nine major venue music trail in Southwest Virginia that includes the Ralph Stanley Museum, Carter Family Fold, Blue Ridge Music Center, and Floyd General Store.

The bluegrass selections are plentiful and good enough to warrant buying the CD. If you like a variety of roots music, Mountains of Music Homecoming 2015: The Live Concert Recordings is a must have. (www.thecrookedroad.org)AM


CURTIS WRIGHT

CURTIS-WRIGHTCURTIS WRIGHT

Voxhall Records
VHR-12004

Within the world of bluegrass there are the true believers who only want the true vine and the truth dealt up in the proper way. Sometimes pretenders who are good country singers make an album and try to pawn it off as bluegrass. But any real fan knows the difference. Here, we have a fine country album, far better than any of the pablum that passes for modern country music, from a singer who is much better than one is apt to hear on contemporary country radio. But what it ain’t is bluegrass. Sure there is some banjo, but that does not make it bluegrass.

A whiskey warm voice with a smooth, world-weary delivery make this a highly listenable recording. Even the presence of five Shawn Camp songs does not make it bluegrass. It does, however, make it some mighty fine listening. We have the likes of Mark Fain on bass, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and mandolin, and Rob Ickes on resonator guitar. Seth Taylor plays guitar, banjo, and mandolin as well. Wright plays rhythm guitar.

The two main ingredients that make this project work so well are Wright’s vocals and the wealth of great songs that make it up. “Old Man From The Mountain,” a Merle Haggard gem, shows up as does Lowell George’s “Dixie Chicken” to wrap it up. All of the songs are above average and the arrangements show them off well. There is thankfully, a lack of the heavy-handed production values that diminish so much that comes out of Nashville today. If you like good acoustic country music, this is a gem that stands well with other bluegrass recordings by those in the industry they call “country.” (www.officialcurtiswright.com)RCB


STUART WYRICK

stuart-wyrickSTUART WYRICK
EAST TENNESSEE SUNRISE

Rural Rhythm
RUR-1134

This first solo release by Wyrick showcases many of his musical friends including but not limited to Alan Bibey, Kenny Smith, Phil Leadbetter, and co-producer Steve Gulley. There are ten vocalists present on seven of the tunes. The balance are instrumentals and cuts that show off Wyrick’s splendid banjo picking.

The music is peppy right out of the gate with “Hitchhiking To California” and the title tune. Things keep rolling along with great breaks from the A-list of singers and pickers who populate this project. Some of the standout cuts include Dale Ann Bradley singing the Dolly Parton suggest, “When Someone Wants To Leave.” There is a nice version of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You,” and Carl Story’s “The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow” features Vic Grave’s plaintive vocal and Smith’s fine guitar picking.

Throughout the project, the picking is all first-rate and the arrangements are inventive and fun to hear. Kenny Smith turns in some fine guitar breaks as expected. Bibey’s mandolin is always spot-on. Wyrick’s banjo playing is inventive without getting too flashy and never dull. If you are already a fan of Wyrick’s banjo picking, you’ll find a lot to like here. If his is a new name to you, then take time to discover this fine picker. This project has plenty of hot picking and great singing and should satisfy the fan of traditional bluegrass. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 750, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121, www.ruralrhythm.com.)RCB


JORDAN TICE

jordan-ticeJORDAN TICE
HORSE COUNTY

Patuxent Music
CD-286

Jordan Tice has built quite an extensive recorded legacy given his relative youth. Thus far his reputation has been as a flatpicking guitarist, either via solo records or as part of small bands. He currently performs in a trio with fiddler Brittany Haas and bassist Paul Kowert.

His latest release, Horse County, is a significant evolutionary change-of-pace, as the lion’s share of the album’s 11 tracks feature him in the role of a singer and songwriter. It’s a daring step, given the consistently high quality of his instrumental work. Original melodies such as “A Cool Dog,” on which Haas and Kowert accompany him to create an elegant new acoustic sound, or the title track, a peppier number on which he’s joined by Mike Witcher on resonator guitar, mandolinist Dominick Leslie, and Shad Cobb on fiddle, definitely play to his strengths as a composer, arranger, and picker. Noam Pikelny also contributes his fine banjo work to the proceedings.

So how does the new singer/songwriter role suit Tice? As a vocalist he does a solid job, with his understated delivery supported by some occasional harmonies from Haas, Kowert, and guest Chris Eldridge. His lyrics are clever and a bit unconventional, and his melodies reflect his advanced musical imagination. Ironically, one disconcerting tendency he has is to squeeze an excess of words into his lyrics, preventing his melodies from breathing as much as they might otherwise—a form of musical busy-ness to which he’s certainly not prone to as a guitarist. On the CD’s sole collaboration, “Live On The River ’Til I Die,” which he co-wrote with Maya deVitry of The Stray Birds, there is significantly more space which gives the song’s chorus an extra charge of power and emotion.

Tice deserves credit for stretching his boundaries, including a nice finger-picking solo performance on “Horse County Rag.” There’s no reason to think that the combination of more songwriting experience and his innate musicality won’t bring him up to a level of his compositional heroes. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)HK