Mountain Home

Doyle Lawson’s credentials and credibility in the bluegrass world go back half a century and more than 40 albums. It would take way, way more space than I have here to chronicle his innumerable milestones and accomplishments. On this generous 20-track collection, Lawson once again finds renewal in the deep fountain of his gospel roots, which run all the way back to his early childhood in Hancock County, Tenn., where his dad Leonard sang gospel in a local a cappella quartet.

Half these songs are rendered in exquisite a cappella style, while the other ten are served up with stalwart bluegrass instrumental backings. All 20 selections, whether old or new or with or without instrumentation, deliver stark, unflinching testimonials to faith’s redemptive power. Some songs, such as the traditional “Rejoicing All The Way” (done a cappella) and “Another Day” (one of several cuts written by Steve Watts) are straight-ahead celebrations of Divine promise. More complex story-songs, like “Best Friends” (penned by Tammy Jones Robinette) and “You Were Right” (Randy Swift) take more circuitous thematic routes to make similar declarations. All throughout, the vocals are stirring, impeccable, and delivered with a deep personal conviction that’s bound to stir souls. As Lawson himself humbly tells us in his liner notes: “I sincerely hope these songs will touch your hearts in a joyful way.” (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704,



Hadley Music Group

Ilya Toshinskiy is a banjo player from Russia and a founding member of the band Bering Strait. Learning to play banjo in Russia for a young lad was a difficult endeavor requiring a serious commitment and perseverance. He was training as a classical guitarist, but when he heard a fellow student playing banjo, he was hooked. He used photos of banjo tabs and made picks from tin cans and melted plastic rulers and kept at it. At his final exam recital at Moscow’s Russian music academy, he featured “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and a Bela Fleck composition.

He soon went on to co-found Bering Strait and the group of teenagers moved to Nashville in the 1990s. The band received a Grammy nomination in 2003 featuring Toshinskiy. He started getting session work after the band broke up in 2006 and has won some awards as a top session musician, including twice awarded Academy of Country Music’s Player of the Year. Artists he has recorded with include Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, The Doobie Brothers, and Rascal Flatts.

He has now produced his first project of original all-instrumental compositions which gives him the opportunity to stretch out. He’s joined in the studio by a talented cadre of musicians including Bryan Sutton (guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle and mandolin), Jerry Douglas (resonator guitar), Byron House (bass), Luke Bulla (fiddle)., Sam Bush (mandolin), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle and mandolin), and Jake Stargel (guitar). Selections include title “Red Grass,” along with “Close To Home,” “Train Station,” “Melissa’s Song,” “Birch Leaf” (with just banjo and bass), and “Swan Song” (a banjo solo). This is a really nice project from a solid musician. (


rebekah-longREBEKAH LONG

LUK Records
LUK 1001

Rebekah Long is one of the folks that the old saw applies to that goes something like this: “After nearly decades in the music business, she has become an overnight success.” She has just released her first solo album, Here I Am, but has known her way around the bluegrass scene for a long time. A glance at the album cover may bring on the idea that she has a familiar face, and that’s because many may have heard of her well-known twin sister, Lizzy Long. Rebekah spent time touring with Little Roy Lewis & Lizzy, as well as pulling time on bass with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. She made her behind the scenes “bones” with the legendary Dixie Hall, working as recording engineer, graphic designer, and contributing musically and vocally to the lauded Daughters Of Bluegrass box set.

On Here I Am, Long showcases her sound, but she doesn’t step out alone. Banjo player Scott Vestal, mandolinist Jesse Brock, guitarist Dustin Benson, and fiddler/reso-guitarist Justin Moses contribute to a high-quality sound, with Donna Ulisse and Rick Stanley as producers. There are plenty of honors stacked up for that crew.

Information from the record label highlights “I  Know This Town,” which is a fine tune, but shouldn’t over shadow the title track or “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” written with Tom T. Hall. Dixie Hall gets a nod in tribute with “Miss Dixie Deen,” and there are covers of “Fightin’ Side Of Me” as well as “Somebody’s Knocking,” not typically seen given a bluegrass twist. Overall, it’s certainly a strong debut with crisp, clean vocals. (



Rounder Records 1166100001

   It’s ironic that the man who stole the spotlight from Buck Graves as the most influential resonator guitar player produces recordings today that pay tribute to Graves and the band that brought him the most fame. He does this while forgoing his own style, emulating the nuances of his hero’s style. Then, the son of a fiddler recreates his father’s fine work and the whole band goes back to pay homage to perhaps the most influential bluegrass band of a half-century ago. Their television presence overshadowed even the father of bluegrass back then. It was a brand without rival.

This supergroup captures their sound so closely that, at times, it will send chills up the spine of a knowing listener. It almost makes one feel they are back in a bygone day, to hear these sounds wrought so faithfully. They have cherry-picked the best material for this hefty program of Foggy Mountain favorites. Shawn Camp catches the essence of one of the greatest bluegrass singers of all time. The material here is embedded in the soul of every older bluegrass fan. It comprises the Holy Grail of the music. The harmonies are stacked just so, the playing is what it should be where it should be and when it should be. Notes are held and cut off as they once were. It’s as if the revered band was brought back and placed in a modern studio with all of the technology available to really make them shine once again. Charlie Cushman can play Earl as all of the others can play their respective parts.

If you love Earl and Lester and the Foggy Mountain Boys, they live on here. The tension, the release, the drive, that soul, all live here in tribute. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803,


David-Holt-&-Josh-GoforthDAVID HOLT & JOSH GOFORTH

High Windy

Partially filling the void left by the passing of Doc Watson, this duo explores the riches of old-time and country music to uncover all too rare gems. That’s a tall order, but these gentlemen are up to the task. Singing with a smile, playing myriad of instruments, this duo mines the mountains of western North Carolina for 14 gems that reflect an America that still exists when these fellows play. A wide range of material from sources as diverse as Etta Baker and Leslie Riddle to Cas Wallin, Merle Travis and Mose Rager, Bascom Lamar Lunsford to Obray Ramsey and Doc Watson himself.

Backed by a solid rhythm section of Tim Surrett, acoustic bass, Tony Creasman, percussion, and Chris Rosser, piano, they match Watson’s down-home sophistication for delivery and arrangement. Enough, but not too much, mark the arrangements whether it be “Whoop ’Em Up, Cindy” or “Darkness On The Delta.” Goforth’s tenor shines in contrast to Holt’s baritone. Goforth catches a similar feel to Doc’s “I Don’t Love Nobody” as Doc recorded it a half-century ago as “Nothin’ To It.”

Known for their banjo picking and fiddling, here these gentlemen demonstrate their talents on a wide range of instruments. They sing their tails off as they present this program of songs that will sound at once familiar, but different for their uniqueness. If you love that good old-time music presented with a sense of the contemporary and a healthy dose of respect for from whence it came, this is a highly enjoyable effort that grows better with repeated listening. You could say it’s good medicine for these times. (High Windy Audio, P.O. Box 553, Fairview, NC 28730,




Compass Records
74662 2

Mountain Heart returns with its first music recording in five years that the band calls the “most emotional performance of the best batch of songs of our careers.” The latest line-up includes Molly Cherryholmes (fiddle and vocals), guitar prodigy Seth Taylor, multi-instrumentalists Jeff Partin (bass, reso-guitar, and vocals) and Aaron Ramsey (mandolin and bass), and the group’s main vocalist, Josh Shilling (guitar, keyboard). Shilling is also the chief songwriter and penned six of the tunes for the band’s ten-cut CD.

Ramsey sings lead on the Bob Dylan cover “Maggie’s Farm,” and he composed the instrumental “The Bad Grounds.” The band turned to a demo tape of songs Ronnie Bowman wrote for two cuts, “She’ll Come Back To Me” penned with Dan Tyminski and “Can’t Get Over You” written with Chris Stapleton. Mountain Heart also laid down tracks to the road-tested songs “Hurting,” “No One To Listen,” and “Have You Heard About The Old Hometown,” a pure bluegrass song with a contemporary style that fans loved during live performances. The title track “Blue Skies” has an embracing groove and harmonies with a positive message that Shilling says has become the new Mountain Heart mission statement. (I’m just looking for a good time / Set my spirit free / Ain’t got nothing but blue skies up in front of me.)

Unlike many CDs produced, this group of in-demand session players recorded the tunes live and let any slight errors, missed tunings, or extraneous sounds slide by. By meeting that challenge of vulnerability, Mountain Heart captured more emotions and dynamics in their music. It feels like you’re sitting on a front porch listening to them jam. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212,



Rounder Records 1166100003

   I would never have predicted the one-time fiddle wunderkind Mark O’Connor would be leading a family bluegrass band. The O’Connor Band, however, has produced a truly striking album of singular beauty entitled Coming Home. Despite an almost no banjo album, Coming Home is irrefutably bluegrass in rhythm, arrangements, and vocal approach. It even includes a high energy cover of “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man.”

Besides Mark, the O’Connor Band consists of his wife, Maggie, a classically trained violinist, his adult son Forrest on mandolin and vocals, and Forrest’s fiancee Kate Lee, also on violin. A child prodigy like Mark, she has already achieved some note in country music as a musician, singer, and  songwriter. Guitar champion Joe Smart and bassist Geoff Saunders, who also plays banjo on one cut, complete the sextet. All six musicians participate in the background vocals.

The playing, of course, is exceptional, marked not just by virtuosity, but by teamwork, too. The three fiddlers work so closely together that they sound as one; the additional violins add depth and rich tone. The senior O’Connor provides the original, album-closing tune “Fiddler Going Home,” and arrangements of two classics, the ancient “Fisher’s Hornpipe” and the Monroe-Baker “Jerusalem Ridge.” The soaring triple-fiddle take on the latter alone is worth owning the CD.

With Kate and Forrest sharing the lead singing, Coming Home, unlike Mark’s many instrumental focused releases, offers nine songs among the dozen tracks. Forrest, whose resemblance to Dad proves remarkable, and Kate each sing lead with a high level of confidence and ability. The younger couple also divide the songwriting between them. He composed four songs, including the title piece, while she co-wrote two with the estimable Pat Alger and one with Jon Weisberger. Both display a powerful facility for writing in the bluegrass idiom. She: Remember all the songs we used to sing / Don’t you want to hear them again? He: Listen young boys, and you young girls / I’m an old man not long for this world.

Kate possesses a sublime voice, except for cutting loose on “Ruby,” she often sounds a bit too close to Alison Krauss. Indeed, a number of arrangements somewhat resemble AKUS. Those quibbles aside, Coming Home delivers strong performances with deeply connected playing on an outstanding collection of songs and tunes. (Rounder Records, 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210,


erryn-marshallERYNN MARSHALL

Dittyville Records 007

   Fiddler Erynn Marshall, born in British Columbia, nurtured in Toronto, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and now living in Galax, Va., has contributed original old-time tunes before. Her “Springfield” is played in jams in many places. Her new CD features 13 original tunes. Some of them were commissioned, and all are written for particular people and places. The first track, “Tricks Of The Trade,” for example, is dedicated to the late Joe Wilson, who hired Erynn to work at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Her backup musicians include husband Carl Jones, Bob Carlin, Adam Hurt, Beth Hartness, Joe Dejarnette, Phill Woddail, Kyle-Dean Smith, Snake Smith, and Eddie Bond.

Erynn’s fiddling is characterized by expressive tone with rock-solid rhythm in her bowing. Fries, Va., fiddler Eddie Bond joins her on the first track as well as on “Old Barn,” which evokes a creaky old building in British Columbia filled with lots of memories and skittering creatures. Bob Carlin plays banjo on five tunes, including the lively “Redtail,” written for two other B.C. friends. In the medley of “Gibsons/Buck Fever,” named for a town where Erynn once lived in B.C. and a store there, Carlin’s clawhammer is joined by Kyle-Dean Smith’s fingerpicking in the second tune. Adam Hurt’s banjo is heard on four cuts, starting with the contemplative “Rory’s Road.” Phill Woddail adds harmonica to the raggy “Decatur Stomp” and to “Laughing Girl.” “Bass Cove Waltz” is a lovely change of pace between faster numbers. The title cut, “Greasy Creek,” is a three-part modal tune featuring Carlin’s cello banjo. “Snake Ate A Hoecake,” written for Snake Smith, who is on guitar, gets a somber sound from minor chords. “Windfall” is a gentle tune about an apple. The last track, “Jacqueline’s Dream,” is a slow amble in F and is hidden.

These are all great listening tunes, and I expect to hear (and play) some of them in future jams. Anyone who enjoys powerful old-time fiddling will want and need this recording. (Erynn Marshall, 99 Faith Dr., Galax, VA 24333,



Infrared Records
No Number

One of the greatest joys in reviewing CDs is the discovery of new music, especially when it’s the quality of Rodger King and Casey Penn. The Arkansas duo won a state-wide performing/songwriting competition hosted by Infrared Studio and, as a result, released Kingpenn. The 10-cut disc is all originals with the exception of “You Asked Me To” penned by Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver. Penn’s cut-to-the-soul vocals are featured in several of the songs, including the beautifully written “One Step Away” and “No More Tears.”

If I were to imagine the voice of the Marlboro man, it would be Rodger King. His traditional country sound breathes gritty life into songs like “On The Other Side” and the humorous “55 In A 25.” (I knew I was doing wrong / But my mind was in another place ’til the lights come on /  Things were rollin’ smooth and I was on a natural high / ’Til the night I got busted for 55 in a 25.) Ingredients in this recipe of music include country, bluegrass, and a dash of gospel, making for a very tasty first effort from these singers/songwriters.

My favorite song is the opening cut, “Oceans (I Have Cried),” which won an honorable mention in the 2016 Hazel Dickens Bluegrass Songwriting Competition. (They say you never miss your water until your well runs dry / But I could wash away the desert with the oceans I have cried / In bitter silence, cold as stone / I sit alone and mark off years / And while this hurt will never leave me / I’ve cried until there’s no more tears.) Don’t expect a follow-up from them as a duo, but look for solo projects in their future. (




True North Records

The debut recording from the Vancouver-based High Bar Gang drew from gospel. As their liner notes state, this new recording takes you “down a dark road” focusing on “heartache and the mournfulness of regret.” There are 13 tracks, all of them covers. “Don’t This Road Look Rough And Rocky,” “Cold, Rain And Snow,” “She’s More To Be Pitied,” “Twenty-Twenty Vision,” “Rock Salt And Nails,” and “I Still Miss Someone” are standards. Roy Acuff’s “Branded Wherever I Go” and Bill Monroe’s “One I Love Is Gone” are familiar, but more obscure. “Jailer, Jailer” by Peter Rowan, “How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart,” an adaptation of Hank Williams by Norah Jones, and “Long Lonesome Highway Blues” from Steve Earle are of more recent vintage.

Regardless of source or recognition, they are indeed all songs with a sorrowful outlook, but many are top-notch songs done well with nice arrangements. While you might not look to the themes of these songs for a psychological lift, there is no doubt that the songs themselves, along with the performances of the High Bar Gang, have an absorbing, involving power about them. Funny how that works. Gloom can be entertainment.

You might think that with seven band members, the sound of the band would be thick. That’s not the case. Having extra members just gives them the opportunity to mix and match. They can have a mesmerizing all-female trio as they do on “Don’t This Road…” and several others. They can switch off between five varied and distinctive lead singers or five who play guitar or three who play mandolin or two who can handle the bass. It’s all about options and creating good music, which they do on what is, in spite of the “dark” themes, a very good recording. (



No Label
No Number

The premise of this recording is to put together Maine melodic banjoist Ron Cody with fiddlers from a variety of genres (Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Mike Barnett, Darol Anger, Alex Hargreaves, Brittany Haas, Matt Glaser, Bruce Molsky, Tashina and Tristan Clarridge, and Jonathan Cooper) playing fiddles made by luthier Jonathan Cooper. The backup on the 12 cuts includes mandolinists Roland White, Matt Witler, Jesse Brock, Dominick Leslie, and Joe Walsh, guitarists Matthew Arcara, Lincoln Meyers, Grant Gordy, and Frank Varela, and Wendy Cody on bass. The genre, based on the style of fiddling rather than the origin of the tunes, is mostly what I would call contemporary acoustic. The two exceptions, both old-time, are Brittany Haas’ fiddle duet with Jonathan Cooper on “Bonaparte Crossing The Rhine” and Bruce Molsky’s medley of “The Cowboy’s Life Is A Very Dreary Life,” the only vocal, and “Snake Chapman’s Tune.” Ron Cody brought two of his original tunes, “Stompin’ Time” and “Backstreet,” to the project. The other tunes derive from old-time, contest fiddling, and other sources.

These are all great musicians, and all the playing is impeccably good. So, if you enjoy collaborations with lots of improvisation and modern sounds in your music, you may want to give this recording a listen. (



Rural Rhythm

Steve Gulley’s calling card, his ace in the hole, his bread and butter is the slow song, the angst-ridden country weeper, the gentle love song. His past recordings and this one, as well, make that plain. That should not lead you to conclude that his non-slow material, past and present, doesn’t rate highly. It surely does. It would be hard to imagine a listener who wouldn’t get a boost from the up tempo drive of the title tune here, or who wouldn’t find enjoyment in the medium, bluesy grinders, such as “Short Life Full Of Trouble,” “Good Road,” and “Common Man’s Train Of Thought.”

In short, they’re all good to very good songs. The slow songs go them one better, and that’s the result of Gulley’s vocals. The man can really sell a slow song. While he can hit hard a soaring, emotional line on a fast song, as he does so well on “Good Road,” it’s when the tempo slows that the full range of his singing becomes apparent. Low notes. High notes. Big rounded tones. Words twisted and turned, all their intended meaning wrung out. Gulley gets it all in on the slow songs. And he knows it. That’s why there are four of them among the 12 tracks. There’s the modern-tinged emotion of “Not Now.” There’s the gospel “Closer To The Shore.” Most of all, there are the two absolute highlights, “A Man Of Your Word” sung with Gulley’s wife Debbie, and the 3/4-time “Living,” both of them in the classic country-style Gulley does to perfection. Songs and singing don’t come much better than either of those two.

Backing Gulley is the same group from New Pinnacle’s debut: bassist Bryan Turner, banjoist Matt Gruby, and mandolinist Gary Robinson. The continuity makes for some excellent support. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 750, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121,



Mountain Home

Kristin Scott Benson of The Grascals has been recognized among the top five-string artists for some time. The delightful Stringworks will only enhance that reputation. Unlike many albums by noted pickers, Stringworks distinguishes itself by including a balanced half-dozen each tunes and songs. The latter, in addition, feature a different outstanding lead vocalist on each one: Chris Jones, Claire Lynch, Shawn Lane, Terry Eldredge, Mickey Harris, and Grant Williams.

Lynch’s exquisite fragility finds new depths of feeling in singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler’s “When Fall Comes To New England.” As a friend of the late Whitey (Grant) and (Arval) Hogan, “Foggy Mountain Top” offers special meaning to me, but not nearly so much as to Kristin. The song samples intros and outros from a 1940s live show on Charlotte’s WBT by Whitey and Hogan, whose 66 years performing together has to be a record for country duos. Even better, she lifts the mandolin playing by Hogan, her grandfather who died in 2003, from that recording and uses it throughout the track.

The album launches out of the gate with an explosion of technique, drive, and speed (the latter two are different) called “Great Waterton,” one of four tunes that Benson wrote. The other two instrumentals are “Farewell Blues,” her homage to Earl Scruggs (who also inspired her composition “Fisher”), and an original provided by Bill Emerson, “Locust Grove.” The lineup of players prove as impressive as the singers, with husband Wayne Benson on mandolin, Cody Kilby playing guitar, Tim Surrett on bass, and Jim VanCleve and Adam Haynes sharing the fiddling. Spirited, original, and deep, Stringworks will assuredly rank among the best side projects by a member of a major bluegrass group for 2016. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704,



Old Homestead OHS-90226

   They don’t make bluegrass like this much anymore. Great vocals, fine picking rooted deep in the genre, and fiddling worthy of a Western Swing band make this an exemplary album. Wendy Miller played mandolin with Larry Sparks along with Mike Lilly, before he played with J.D. Crowe. The music here is first-rate bluegrass ranging from originals to great old country and bluegrass standards.

The opening cut “Excuse Me” features Lilly’s fine banjo playing complete with quotes from one of his heroes, Don Reno, and sweet fiddling from Evan MacGregor. While Lilly is only on four cuts here, McGregor is all over the project with his fine fiddling. Miller and Lilly close the CD with a number from that old LP, Ramblin’ Bluegrass, they did with Sparks, “Too Much Mountain Dew.” The balance of the banjo work is by Albon Clevenger who proves he has considerable chops, and he shows them off nicely on the old swing gem “Charmaine.” The whole band has fun with that one. Chris Miller, a strong vocalist with a driving guitar, teams with Rick Bartley on bass to form the bedrock of the band sound. Bartley also added three very solid original songs to the project, “When Death Comes Knocking,” “Railroad Man,” and “Country Way Of Living.”

The whole band has fun with “Freight Train Boogie.” They bring back the kind of bluegrass that’s missing today by never stopping what they have always done, presenting a strong program of great material with grace and skill. They may not be front page news to most fans of bluegrass, but this recording should work to change that. Miss hearing this fine recording and you will be missing one of the best recordings to come out in quite a while. (Old Homestead Records, P.O. Box 100, Brighton, MI 48116.)RCB




Mountain Fever

What catches and holds the listener when hearing the Gospel Plowboys for the first time, myself included, is the manner in which they offer their vocals. Smooth. Seamless. Stirring. Clear. Lead or harmony, they never arrange it to cause themselves to strain, and they rarely include soaring, showy flourishes, opting instead for a controlled sound that flows warm and gentle, yet conveys all the emotion and joy and message each song demands.

From the opening track, the Gospel Plowboys (bassist/vocalist Andrew Brown, mandolinist/vocalist David Murph, banjoist John Goodson, and guitarist/vocalists David Brown, Kris Miller and Michael Jenkins) showcase that vocal style with one of those staggered, overlapping harmony songs, “Dearest Friend.” Lots of bands like to include these type songs because they’re fun and give the listener an almost immediate lift. This one certainly does, and the extra touch of holding the line-ending words longer creates a pedal effect and excitement. That is one of several upbeat tunes found here—the sing-song “Saved By The Blood,” the well-known “Daniel Prayed,” and a lively “Everybody Will Be Happy” are the others, and all are highlights.

“Because He Lives,” a standard by The Gaithers, and Russell Easter’s “Forever On My Knees” are more in the medium tempo range, but are no less effective or deserving of praise. Among the standout slow tracks is “Welcome Home,” a beautiful tune that has tension in the verses that melts away in the chorus and makes you feel like you’re home. Equally good is the Bill Castle song “The Dream.” The album then ends on a glorious a cappella tune, “It Is Well With My Soul,” one that further underscores the wonderful vocals of the Gospel Plowboys and makes this such a pleasure to hear. (Mountain Fever, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380,