No Label
No Number

The Atlanta-based Dappled Grays are Leah Calvert (fiddle), Casey Cook (guitar), Michael Smith (mandolin), Greg Earnest (banjo), and Keith Morris (bass). This is the third project in their 16-year history as a group. Eight of the eleven selections are band originals. The others are from sources including Pete Wernick, Kristian Matsson, Irving Berlin, Tom Waits, and Artie Traum. Calvert contributed “Stand In,” “Home’s Not Far (Cider Theme),” and “Wild Things” with Smith, while Smith’s songs are “Guest House,” “Stayin’ Blues,” and “My Sundial,” in collaboration with bandmate Calvert. Cook’s selection is “Wimbledon.” The title-cut “Last Night, Tomorrow” is co-written by Cook, Calvert, and Smith. The band also selected Wernick’s “Gone But Not Forgotten,” Matsson’s “Where Do My Bluebird Fly?” and “The Trilogy (A Medley)” which consists of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” Tom Waits’ “Clap Hands,” and Artie Traum’s “Fish Scale.” The band exhibits excellent musicianship and arrangements, and the harmonies are tight. Look for the Dappled Grays to expand their audience base and regional exposure. (The Dappled Grays, 2125 Wood Trail NW, Atlanta, GA 30318,



No Label
No Number

One of the most valuable fallback tools a reviewer has in describing a new band is comparison. This allows one to write things like “This mandolinist plays like a young Bill Monroe or maybe an old Chris Thile,” or “This singer has a tone that’s a cross between Alison Krauss and Charo.” But what do you do when a group has such an original sound that it’s truly difficult to find a valid point of comparison? In the case of The Railsplitters, you praise them to the skies, because this young quintet from Colorado has developed a sound that manages to be both startlingly original and very exciting to listen to.

The Faster It Goes is their second recording and, on a dozen tracks, they manage to take their mostly original material, using the classic instrumentation of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and bass and give each successive song a new and distinctive quality. Banjoist Dusty Rider is the group’s principal songwriter, with mandolinist Peter Sharpe responsible for composing the two instrumental tracks, “Goosetown” and the gentle waltz “The Estuary.” But with guitarist Lauren Stovall’s lovely and idiosyncratic lead vocals out front and a deep jazzy influence in the way the band’s harmonies are layered, each song retains a unique texture that makes visiting and revisiting the CD a fun adventure.

Instrumentally, all of the bandmembers harness their considerable skills to the collective goal of making the textures of the arrangements consistently interesting. Special credit should be given to banjoist Rider, whose banjo tone and melodic inventiveness enables him to make each of his breaks delightful. Bassist Leslie Ziegler also contributes great grooves and tone, allowing the bass’s role in the band to be clearly significant even beyond some tasty solos. I should point out, if it isn’t already apparent, that this is by no means a traditional bluegrass album, even though the instrumentation is strictly acoustic. The Railsplitters bring in stylistic influences including jazz and ’50s rock (“Tell Me”), and the only tracks that would fit easily into a mainstream bluegrass playlist would be the opening track, “Tilt-A-Whirl,” and the bonus track, an imaginative rendition of “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes.” There’s also a nice, albeit modernized, rendition of “Salt Salt Sea,” a version of the traditional ballad “The House Carpenter.” In a way, it’s a shame that this latter track is sung by one of the male singers, sadly unidentified. (Here’s hoping that bands start to recognize that if they want their recordings to reach beyond their live audience, that more precise credits would be helpful, but I digress.)

The overriding impression that The Railsplitters’ sophomore CD leaves is one of tremendous originality, using their considerable talents as writers, players, singers, and arrangers to carve out a niche of their own in the tangled and crowded world of contemporary acoustic music. Those looking for a very cool musical adventure should definitely give this band and recording a listen. (



No Label
No Number

This DVD catches a set by the Bing Brothers playing on March 14, 2015 for the Celtic Appalachia Celebration presented by the Irish Arts Center in New York City. Mick Maloney introduces the band. Mike Bing is on mandolin and Tim Bing is on banjo along with their fiddling cohort, Jake Krack. Rounding out the band are Bob Lieving playing guitar and Tim Corbett on bass.

The Bing Brothers are long-time stalwarts on the West Virginia old-time music scene. When their fiddling brother Dave left, they searched for fiddlers over the years and have had some of the best the region had to offer. It is not easy to find someone who has the drive to keep up with these fellows. Krack is one of the hottest fiddlers in the state having won Galax at least 5 times and dominated at many contests throughout the South. His fiddling here runs the gambit from supportive to tearing the roof off of the tunes.

Tim and Mike handle the vocals with Bob Lieging adding his tenor to the duets and trios. They do a fine job on “My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains,” “Handsome Molly,” and the old Carter Family standby “Rambling Boy.” Krack’s fiddling features a lot of the “double-back” bowing favored by some fiddlers in the region. His best performance by far is on the medley of “Grumbling Old Man, Growling Old Woman”/“Elzic’s Farewell”/“Gravel Walk” where he crosses many divides French Canadian, West Virginian and Irish roots. They do a great job on “Last Chance,” a banjo tune usually played in the key of F, but moved up to G where they put a jazzy spin on the old piece. Their approach is unusual as they feature instrumental breaks like a bluegrass band, but Tim Bing’s banjo style is not your prosaic old-time playing. It’s a highly melodic, hard-driving clawhammer style. The band uses dynamics well to get their music across.

Each song is proceeded with some of Mike Bing’s “Aw shucks, we’re just backwoods hillbillies” emcee work. Believe it if you like. The Brothers Bing have been around forty-plus years and they continue to enjoy playing and bringing real honest-to-goodness music from their home state to the world. (Mike Bing, 4407 Frost Rd., Marlinton, WV 24954.)RCB



Shifflett Family Entertainment

From the opener, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso City,” to the bluesy stomp of the closer, “Lovesick Blues,” singer/guitarist George Shifflett III offers up an enjoyable album of bluegrass and bluegrass-style covers of country tunes. Among the 13 tracks are such standards as “In The Garden,” “Last Train From Poor Valley,” “Highway Of Sorrow,” and “I’ll Be There (Ain’t No Chains).” Among those and a couple of other covers are a reminiscence of the trauma of visiting a family member in prison and later the hospital (“Dad’s Song”), an inspirational tune about taking stock of your life (“What Will They Say About Me?”), and an ode to the joys of home life (“When I’m At Home”). Shifflett wrote all three of those along with “Soldier’s Dream,” which honors two of his family members who fought in The Revolution and the Civil War. With the possible exception of “What Will They Say About Me?,” none of the four originals quite rise to the level of the standards here, but they are all good to very good songs.

The songs are all in the medium and slow tempo range, and Shifflett has a fine, very clear, direct, mid-range lead. Both of those points are important to the success of this recording. Usually an album needs a couple of barnburners to add contrast. But here Shifflett has focused his attention predominantly on story songs, a point he addresses in his liner notes. Tom T. and Dixie’s “Poverty Row,” for example, work best when you can hear and follow the story. Slower and medium tempos and clear delivery make that possible and, along with great song choices, make for an impressive and thoughtful recording. (Shifflett Family Entertainment, 2215 Ipswich Dr., Thompson’s Station, TN 37179,



New Haven Records

   Since the debut of the Chuck Wagon Gang’s Bear Family box set, along with the CD by the current group (see “Highlight Reviews” of both in the June 2015 issue of BU), I’ve been trying to recall when I first became aware of the CWG. They began recording when I was very small, so it was probably on Don Owens’ Radio Rodeo on WGAY in Silver Spring, Md., ca. 1948 that I first heard them at the age of about 14. Don was responsible for molding my taste in country music with his groundbreaking format. His preferences often became mine, including the music of the Chuck Wagon Gang.

To a lot of today’s generation, the name Chuck Wagon Gang may be familiar, but not much beyond that is actually known. This remarkable documentary, the brainchild of longtime CWG fan Marty Stuart (who was introduced to the band’s current members by WSM’s Eddie Stubbs) traces the 80-year history of the Texas Carter family (no relation to the Virginia Carter Family) from its beginnings during the Great Depression. Marty considers them “America’s musical royalty.” For the Carters, it was a grim hand-to-mouth existence in west Texas for a family of nine children, moving from place to place, laboring in the cotton fields and harvesting crops. About the only recreation was singing, which the family would do of an evening after supper; their first audiences were neighboring field hands. They would sing the old songs—country, cowboy, and gospel. Both parents had attended singing schools and would coach the children on church songs, teaching proper harmonies.

The sudden illness of one of the girls, Effie (who contracted pneumonia in 1935), compelled David Carter to try something to raise money for her medicine. He took two children, Ernest and Lola, to the local radio station, KFYO in Lubbock, Texas, and auditioned. The trio landed a 15-minute show and an advance of $12.50, their weekly salary. This paid for the medicine and during Effie’s convalescence, the group continued as a trio. When Effie recovered, she joined them and they became the Carter Quartet.

In 1936, they moved to WBAP in Ft. Worth, where they fortuitously inherited a program sponsored by a flour mill. The previous group, a Western string band, had been called the Chuck Wagon Gang, and the Carters inherited the name as well. As they had at KFYO, they quickly developed a strong following. Also at WBAP, another significant change took place; they assumed names, which their announcer Cy Leland felt were more pleasing. David became known as Dad, Ernest became Jim, Effie became Anna, and Lola became Rose. In November 1936, the CWG began recording for the American Recording Company and an assortment of labels that eventually evolved into Columbia Records. They would record for Columbia for the next 39 years, outselling (with forty million records) most of the other artists on the label. The initial 1936 session produced 22 titles, including parlor, cowboy, and early hillbilly titles, but it was their nine gospel songs that were the most enduring. “A Beautiful Life,” “Church In The Wildwood,” and “I’d Rather Have Jesus” were reissued over and over and still hold up wonderfully today. The next several sessions produced secular material, none of which is well-remembered.

By their 1940 session, they had emerged as a gospel group. The titles from this and the 1941 sessions saw such classics as “After The Sunrise,” “Lord Lead Me On,” “I’ve Found A Hiding Place,” “I’ll Be No Stranger There,” and “On The Jericho Road” committed to shellac. These and subsequent recordings heavily influenced many of the early bluegrass artists. Bill Monroe recorded titles from their repertoire, as did Jim & Jesse, Carl Story, and many others. Two artists I had the privilege to work with, Charlie and Dan Bailey, freely acknowledged a CWG influence with many of the gospel songs they performed. It was through Charlie Bailey’s recollections of hearing the CWG which finally made me realize just how important the quartet was, not only to bluegrass, but also to country music in general. In fact, no other gospel group had closer ties to country music of the 1930s through the 1960s than the Chuck Wagon Gang. Although “I’ll Fly Away” had been recorded by a few smaller groups before, the song’s composer Albert E. Brumley always acknowledged that the Chuck Wagon Gang were the ones who really put the song on the map with their 1948 Columbia recording. Longtime fans of bluegrass and country music will certainly recall the frequent airplay the CWG received on country radio stations.

Their fans were many, including such country luminaries as Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Connie Smith, and Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys. They are all present on the DVD, along with their recollections of hearing the CWG on the radio. Journalist Dan Rather, growing up in rural Texas back when times were tough, was a big fan who recalls their 15-minute broadcasts. According to Dan, “Radio was the magic carpet which took you places, and what the Chuck Wagon Gang did was take you to a higher and better and happier place.” Eddie Stubbs points out they were “America’s foremost country gospel singers” (with the emphasis on country.) They were never consciously part of the Southern gospel scene, eschewing pianos while preferring simple guitar accompaniment.

There are glimpses of the original CWG throughout the documentary, and portions of their best-remembered recorded triumphs are heard, emphasizing how much the current group (Shaye Smith, Julie Hudson, Stan Hill, and Jeremy Stephens) resembles the former. The DVD brings everything up to date with eight songs from their 2014 Meeting In Heaven release, which features songs Marty Stuart (who I consider to be a 21st century Albert E. Brumley) composed especially for the Chuck Wagon Gang and which incidentally they recorded the old way—live around one vintage ribbon mic without the use of headphones or overdubbing capabilities.

There is still a family connection to the original Chuck Wagon Gang, as alto singer Shaye Smith is the granddaughter of Anna and the great-granddaughter of Dad Carter. The original group certainly made their mark, and the current configuration of members is continuing that legacy not only by singing the old songs, but also by introducing new selections of tremendous substance that sound as if they could have been by the original group themselves. This is a gorgeous piece of American history and receives my heartiest recommendation. (New Haven Records, Dist. by Provident Music Group, 741 Cool Springs Blvd., Franklin, TN 37067,



Rounder Records

The Grammy Award-winning Steep Canyon Rangers can best be described as musical mavericks. Unbound by convention, they are inventive musicians. That they have teamed with comedian and banjo player Steve Martin live and in previous recorded efforts simply adds to their intrigue. Their ninth CD (sans Martin) is a testament to their ingenuity.

Despite playing instruments traditionally associated with bluegrass, their sound doesn’t neatly fit into categories. If nothing else, they have penned 12 great tracks, many of which draw on familiar themes that might be enjoyed by most readers of this magazine. It’s at times bluegrass, country, and Americana, with touches of folk, blues, and Southern Rock, with songs about working hard to pay the rent (“Diamonds In The Dust”), strung-out musicians (“Wasted”), or love lost (“Simple Is Me”).

When they play bluegrass, they incorporate the speed and instruments you’d expect, but the results are uniquely Steeps. Listen to the fast-paced “Blow Me Away,” with its dynamic banjo backbeat, soaring Nicky Sanders’ fiddle, tight choral harmonies, and ravishing mandolin flourishes from Mike Guggino. Add to that the fast-paced tune “Looking Glass,” which will have most listeners completely transfixed by the band’s instrumental prowess. Its tightly woven melody pushes every envelope in a manner reminiscent of New Grass Revival. There’s a mournful waltz in “Blue Velvet Rain” or banjoist Graham Sharp’s penetrating baritone/bass singing in “Down That Road Again,” which tugs at the harmony heartstrings. The latter, punctuated by producer Jerry Douglas’ tasteful lap steel and resonator guitar, is a story of reaching out for friendship, and had me singing along during and after the song was over.

“Break,” a familiar theme about heartbreak and breaking up, is a conversation between a man and a woman, a fast-paced duet between guitarist Woody Platt and vocalist Shannon Whitworth as the couple in the song work through the realization that their relationship has dissolved. In these tough economic times, “When The Well Runs Dry” (written by bassist Charles Humphrey III and Jonathan Byrd) will hit home. It’s mid-tempo country-bluegrass sung by Platt about the oil rush in the Plains: Ranch hands learn to roughneck and the men line up to work / There’s another boom, but there ain’t no room so they sleep out in their trucks.

It’s that musical connection with the lives of so many, whatever the style of music, that’s the secret sauce that keeps listeners coming back. And you’ll want to with this latest CD. (Rounder Records, 1209 Pine St., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203,



Crow Hill Music

Jackson has been a longtime member of the old-time music scene. Starting out playing guitar with Brad Leftwich and Linda Higginbotham, he was a member of Big Medicine. On this, his second solo effort, he’s joined from time to time by his current bandmates from the Bow Benders. They are Carl Jones, Erynn Marshall, and Bobb Head.

Some of the most outstanding music here are the fiddle guitar duets with Carl Jones on guitar. The interplay between Jackson and Jones on “Echoes Of The Ozarks” and “Grand Spy” is textbook perfect. There are two great original fiddle tunes, “Broke Down Barn” and “Old No. 2,” with Jackson and Bobb Head on gut-string banjo. Erynn Marshall joins him on three tunes for some sweet harmonies. Two exceptional cuts are the ballads with old-time banjo accompaniment—“Wild Bill Jones” and “Scotland Man.” The duet with his wife Rochelle on “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still” is eerie, conjuring misty mountains, haints, and all that is supernatural in those high places.

Jackson wrote nine of the tunes here. They are compelling and complex like the man who made them. This recording is rich and varied and well worth your time if you like old-time fiddle tunes and those achingly haunting ballads of days gone by. Don’t miss this fine effort. (



Rebel Records

Guitarist and lead vocalist Mark Kuykendall (sideman for Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and others) debuts in partnership with fiddle legend Bobby Hicks and also with the fine assistance of bassist/vocalist Nick Dauphinais, mandolinist/vocalist Nick Chandler, and banjoist/vocalist Seth Rhinehart (collectively Asheville Bluegrass). Together they offer 13 songs, all of them solidly traditional. Included are the standards “You Go To Your Church,” “A Beautiful Life,” a jaunty “Love And Wealth,” along with Charlie Monroe’s “End Of Memory Lane,” Benny Williams’ “Never Again,” and Jake Landers’ “Will You Wait For Me.” Also included are five Kuykendall originals of ’50s vintage, the best being “Sweetheart Of The Mountains” and “Jesus Rescued My Soul.”

Kuykendall has a soft, higher-end mid-range lead vocal reminiscent of Mac Wiseman in both timbre and the way their vocals seem on the edge of breaking at key moments. Kuykendall is a little less breathy, but similarly very smooth and emotion-laden. That translates well to the material at hand, which is largely dominated by longing and sentimentalism.

For his part, Bobby Hicks remains Bobby Hicks, smooth as ever and wonderfully tuneful. While there are no instrumental tunes included, his intro, two solos, and dead-on train effects on the Hank Williams’ song “On The Evening Train” give him an extended spotlight and remind us to revel in the mastery and good musical judgement he presents on each of his solos.

Straight traditional bluegrass albums are not as common as they once were. Times and styles move on. For those who love the older forms, encountering an album done this well is a distinct pleasure. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906,



No Label
No Number

Daniel Koulack is a clawhammer banjo player from Winnipeg, and Karrnnel Sawitsky is a fiddler from Saskatoon. Although they open with Pete Seeger’s “Goofing Off Theme,” they play mostly traditional tunes, but in very modern styles.

Joey Landreth sings and plays resonator guitar on “Little Birdie”/“Half Shaved,” “Groundhog,” “Red Rocking Chair,” Skip James’ “Killin’ Floor,” and Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Does A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live.” Amy Matsylo sings harmony on two of those. There are some original numbers: Koulack’s “Lullaby,” Sawitsky’s “Waltz Of Life,” “Rubin” by both of them with Sandy Chochinov, and “Spinning Wheel” by Koulack. The complete tune list is a bit hard to read since it’s presented in three concentric circles, but there are a few medleys here, such as “The Woodchuck Set” that includes Ed Haley’s “Indian Ate The Woodchuck,” “Old Reel Of 8,” and “The Arkansas Traveler.” “The Old French Set” includes “Old French,” “Red River Jig (Whiskey Before Breakfast),” and “French Red River Jig” on which Christian Dugas’ dancing feet can be heard. “Red Rocking Chair” is actually a medley of that tune followed by “Chinquipin Pie.”

Landreth’s singing is reminiscent of John Cowan’s voice in Newgrass Revival, but perhaps not as rock-influenced. Koulack and Sawitsky both feature crisp and clear playing, but it’s in their own Northern styles whether they are playing originals, Canadian tunes, or southeastern American old-time. That clash of style and material will delight some listeners and may grate on others. (


rr-ola-belle-reed-bookOLA BELLE REED AND THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN MUSIC ON THE MASON-DIXON LINE—BY HENRY GLASSIE, CLIFFORD R. MURPHY, AND DOUGLAS DOWLING PEACH—Dust-to-Digital DTS-40. Hardcover, 256 pp., two CDs included, $31.50. (Dust-To-Digital, PO Box 54743, Atlanta, GA 30308,

Ola Belle Reed was a presence to be reckoned with. Her voice was commanding, her playing sufficient and her songs legendary. Two of her songs show up in the repertory of countless bands—“High On A Mountain” and “I’ve Endured.” She wrote many more powerful songs in a style that drew heavily from traditional mountain music. Her delivery was direct, deliberate, and heartfelt. She was a major part of the music scene along the Mason-Dixon line for many years. Home to many Appalachian folk looking for a better life, her music was their music.

This book is less scholarly and more of a personal look by the authors. It’s made up of three sections: one about Ola Belle, the second about the music scene in the region, and the third is a listing with extensive notes on the performances on the two CDs included. Henry Glassie recounts his meeting and recording of Ola Belle for the first time. He describes her upbringing and lets her words from the many hours of recorded interviews tell the story of her life.

Clifford R. Murphy describes the music scene in southeast Pennsylvania, northeastern Maryland, and Delaware. It was the new home for folks from the South, and they brought their music with them. Bands like the New River Ranch Gang, the North Carolina Ramblers, Ted Lundy, Bob Paisley & the Southern Grass, and the Debunk-Weaver Family were all part of the scene which also included Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals. The region was a hotbed of bluegrass and old-time music.

The section of the book by Douglas Dowling Peach provides the liner notes for the two CDs. The first CD is of Ola Belle’s music. We get to hear Ola Belle solo and with her brother Alex Campbell and Johnny Miller, their long-time fiddler. They cover some of the old mountain standards such as “My Home’s Across The Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Bringing In The Georgia Mail.” She teams up with Burl Kilby for more songs, many of which are old sacred numbers that she adapted to her style. We also hear some early versions of “I’ve Endured” as she works out the (as of yet) unfinished lyrics and arrangement. She does a fine version of “Undone In Sorrow” and some songs she would later record with her husband Bud Reed and son David.

The second CD has some great moments where we’re treated to the trio of Danny Paisley with son Ryan and long-time fiddle cohort, T.J. Lundy. They recap some of the finer tunes and songs these families have recorded over the years. There are cuts by members of the Debusk-Weaver Family and Hugh Campbell, along with banjo tunes from David Reed and Burl Kilby.

The book and recordings are solid, especially the first CD. The book provides insight into Ola Belle’s life and the music scene that helped shape her music. Ola Belle Reed was a rock, a powerful woman in a music that did not have many power women at the time. There’s a discography, a bibliography, and the liner notes include all of the lyrics. Attention has been paid to every detail. While this book is a good effort, those who knew her will be left wanting. There was more to her than is portrayed here. She was a force to be reckoned with, and her place in our music today is undeniable.RCB



No Label
No Number

Brighter Every Day is the second album from Trout Steak Revival, a quintet from Colorado. Produced by Chris Pandolfi (Infamous Stringdusters), the recording is a clean and polished collection of ten songs and one instrumental (all originals). They seem to be striving for a sound that fits comfortably within the traditional bluegrass instrumentation and style, content to let their body of songs carve out their own niche.

It’s an admirable approach, and the thematic inspiration they derive from the external and internal landscapes through which they travel are legitimate grist for the creative mill. However, after a reasonably strong start to the album on “Union Pacific” and “Get A Fire Going,” the songs begin to take on a certain sameness without a real sparkling gem to catch one’s ear. Cuts like the novelty song “Pie” and the closing track “Colorado River” have energy, and Pandolfi and the band have done some nice arranging work to maximize the individual and collective strengths of the band.

Vocally, the band has a very nice blend. All five members sing, although unfortunately, the CD follows a modern trend to not identify who sings lead on which track. It’s evident that fiddler Bevin Foley takes on a refreshing front role on singing the bluesy “Go On,” and her boosted harmony vocal on “Colorado River” also brings a new aural spice to the overall sound of the band. Instrumentally, banjoist Travis McNamara has the strongest bluegrass chops, not flashy but rock-solid and interesting, so there’s no suffering by comparison when Pandolfi sits in on the instrumental “Sierra Nevada.” Steve Foltz’s mandolin and Foley’s fiddling are an interesting contrast, as the former plays in a more restrained way that plays to his strengths, whereas Foley’s fiddling is edgier and comes off more like a car taking a mountain curve on two wheels.

So kudos to Trout Steak Revival for taking the original material path. Their singing is fine, and they don’t seem to be trying to be dazzlers instrumentally, so here’s hoping that this recording lets them expand their following, and buys them some time to continue developing as songwriters. (