ERIC STRICKLAND

Eric-StricklandERIC STRICKLAND
BLACK AND WHITE AND BLUE

No Label
No Number

This new album from Eric Strickland is an acoustic departure from his previous releases, which were pretty much hard country. Strickland began playing guitar at an early age and started writing songs in his late teens. He cites his influences growing up were Jimmy Martin, Al Batten, Flatt & Scruggs, and Tony Rice. Eric plays guitar and sings lead vocals. Guest musicians include Gary Braddy (vocals), Sarah Hollis (fiddle), Jeff Huffman (guitar), Danny Grant (banjo, guitar), Chris Hill (fiddle), Chris Malpass (vocals), Mike Aldridge (mandolin), Mary Warren (bass), Clyde Mattocks (resonator guitar).

Of the twelve songs here, Strickland wrote nine of them. His songs include the title-track, along with “Give Me One Good Reason,” “I Ain’t Much Of An Outlaw,” “That Ol’ River,” and “Angel Like You.” He also does a nice version of “Widow Maker,” a hit for Jimmy Martin, and he reprises Don Reno’s “Talk Of The Town,” which also features Chris Malpass. This is a very nice project of Strickland’s songs—a good effort from this gentleman from North Carolina. (www.theericstricklandmusic.com)BF


MIKE BENTLEY

MIKE-BENTLEYMIKE BENTLEY
ALL I’VE GOT

Union House Records
UHR-0003

Mike Bentley is from eastern Kentucky, Pike County to be specific, a region that has produced some of the best bluegrass and country musicians of the last century. Bentley has played bluegrass music since he was a teenager, in bands including Ernie Thacker & Route 23, Dismal Pike, and Cumberland Gap Connection for the past decade. Now a new member of Alan Bibey & Grasstowne, he’s finally realized his dream of recording a solo album that highlights his rich bluegrass voice.

All I’ve Got is produced by Bibey and fleshes out Bentley’s vision with a great lineup of established bluegrass musicians including guitarist Wyatt Rice, Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane on fiddle and singing harmony, Ronnie Bowman on harmony vocals, Rob Ickes on resonator guitar, Sideline’s Jason Moore on bass, Greg Luck on bass vocals, and Justin Jenkins and Rod Smith sharing banjo duties.

The highlights include Bentley singing a sweet duet with Charli Robertson of Flatt Lonesome on “Someone Else.” Bentley also revives two songs by the late Harley Allen, the rollicking “My Remains” and the easy-flowing story song “Casualties Along The Way.” A personal favorite of mine is “One Black Rock At A Time,” dedicated to the coal miners in Bentley’s family and the rest of Appalachia. Written by Jeff McClellan and Scott Patrick, the song rings true for Bentley who worked above ground at the mines, as his dad drove a coal truck and his uncles worked the mines underground. At 40 years of age, it’s high time the greater bluegrass world got wind of Bentley’s distinctive voice. (www.cumberlandgapconnection.com)DH


OLD GROWTH QUARTET

Old-Growth-QuartetOLD GROWTH QUARTET
RIGHT SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF TOWN

No Label
No Number

Tasteful is the first word that Old Growth Quartet’s Right Smack In The Middle Of Town brings to mind. This group knows what it can do and what it shouldn’t do. That knowledge can take an ensemble a long way.

For example, they realize that fiddler Paul Elliott and guitarist Dale Adkins are the instrumental stars of the group. They showcase their skills to great effect by being judicious in using their breaks and fills in settings benefitting from the absence of a five-string banjo. Adkins has been a noted player since his time with Kate MacKenzie. Elliott’s long list of performing or recording credits include the Good Ol’ Persons, Alison Brown, Scott Nygaard, and Michelle Shocked. Bassman Joe Wilmhoff and rhythm guitarist Don Share know their role, providing solid support.

While the bandmembers, particularly the Kentucky native Wilmhoff (who also designed the CD package), provide several good songs, the highlight tracks are two covers. They kick off with a wonderfully rhythmic version of “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” In contrast, “Louis Collins” receives a sensitive, moving treatment. This album is a strong first outing by a band with exceptional self-awareness. (www.oldgrowthquartet.com)AM


CZECH BLUEGRASS: NOTES FROM THE HEART OF EUROPE

CZECH-BOOKCZECH BLUEGRASS: NOTES FROM THE HEART OF EUROPE
BY LEE BIDGOOD

Univ. of Ill. Press 9780252083006. Foreword by Tony Trischka, paperback, b&w photos, 192 pp., $24.95. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628, press.uillinois.edu.)

If you’re reading this in America, you certainly know about the great bluegrass that’s sprouted up around the world, especially in Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. But don’t forget the Czech Republic (part of the former Czechoslovakia). Lee Bidgood chronicles and celebrates these Eastern European sounds in this landmark—and long overdue—history.

The term “notes” in the title is fitting. Bidgood is an associate professor of bluegrass, old-time, and country music in the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. So, not surprisingly, his book is often a very scholarly study. But it’s enlivened by his personal notes about the musicians and culture that have embraced America’s Southern sounds. Thanks to his first-person experiences playing fiddle and mandolin in Eastern Europe, the book is filled with happy anecdotes, as well as the insights and opinions of Czech players and luthiers.

So, if you find the opening chapter “Place, Meaning, Community and In-Betweenness” to be a bit on the academic side, dive right into the next, the fascinating “Histories and Backgrounds.” The Czech people have a vibrant, centuries-old folk music tradition, but there were also notable historical and cultural influences that created fertile soil for the transplanting of bluegrass and old-time. For example, like many other Europeans, the Czechs were fascinated by books and movies about cowboys; the Old West often merged with the South in the collective imagination. They also had a venerable tradition of “tramping”—hiking in nature, wandering the roads, and camping carefree along the way—that made them receptive to bluegrass and old-time music’s freeborn, life-in-the-country spirit. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, there had grown a special genre of folk music called “trampská písen” or “tramp songs.”

After World War II, American popular music, including country, got a big boost in Eastern Europe when Armed Forces Radio and Voice of America broadcasts were heard behind the Iron Curtain borders of the Soviet Bloc, including Czechoslovakia. The resourcefulness of fans living in then-Communist countries is inspirational; how they purchased smuggled American records, tapes, and music books (notably banjo instruction manuals by Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs) on the black market, then laboriously copied and circulated these precious resources (even to the point of making primitive copy records using castoff x-ray film sheets as vinyl substitutes). When some fans were discovered by the authorities to be listening to folk or country, they avoided punishment by cleverly pleading that this was music of “the oppressed American working class.”

American musicians eventually visited Czechoslovakia as part of cultural exchanges. Their shows were heavily attended and landmark events, notably Pete Seeger’s 1964 concert in the capital city of Prague and mid-1980s tours by Tony Trischka & Skyline. American bluegrass and old-time fully blossomed after 1989 as the Communism system finally ended. Since then, bands such as Druhá Tráva have found success and even name recognition in the West.

Trischka, who has returned often to the Czech Republic where he’s a banjo superstar, was the perfect choice to write the book’s engaging forward. He shares his moving personal experiences with local musicians and fans and states convincingly, “Of the many countries that have caught the bluegrass bug…the Czech immersion in bluegrass has had the deepest roots and has been the longest lasting.”

Lee Bidgood frequently inserts himself in the book’s narrative, but very successfully and without the usual look-at-me pitfalls of this approach. In the chapter “Making Bluegrass,” he does an outstanding job of segueing from his experiences into chronicling a multitude of leading musicians and luthiers—their stories and outlooks. The tales of how many came to the music in the first place will be familiar to anyone, from Yankees to Japanese, who’s undergone the trial-and-error, labor-of-love process of learning far from the source. Bidgood’s concluding lists of recommended recordings, films, and videos—plus his cited book and article sources—are definitely worth browsing.

Also, let’s never forget that bluegrass and acoustic music in general owe a huge debt to the Czechoslovakian world. It was three brothers—John, Emil, and Rudy Dopyera—who, in the 1920s, perfected the resonator guitar. In selecting a name for their instrument manufacturing company, they made a marvelous play on “Dopyera Brothers” plus a word that means “good” in both the Czech and Slovak languages—Dobro.RDS


BRAD HUDSON

Brad-HudsonBRAD HUDSON
NEXT NEW HEARTBREAK

Pinecastle Records
PRC 1212

Brad Hudson’s Next New Heartbreak is his first solo release, and the results here would indicate that this debut is not any too soon. Hudson sings lead and harmony on all but one vocal cut and plays resonator guitar, and he does an excellent job on both. His lead vocals are the highpoint of this very fine CD, one which features an impressive lineup with Steve Dilling on banjo and harmony vocals, Skip Cherryholmes on guitar and harmony vocals, Jason Moore on upright bass, and Aaron Ramsey on mandolin and guitar.

Hudson’s singing is powerful yet smooth, with the kind of compelling expressive quality one would hear in Russell Moore or the late James King. Whether it’s Daniel Salyer’s barn-burning “Rambler’s Song” featuring guest Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, Loretta Lynn’s soulful “World Of Forgotten People,” or singing to Dolly Parton’s stirring harmony on her fine “Appalachian Memories,” it seems Brad Hudson can do it all. Simply put, this is the best “new” voice I’ve heard in bluegrass for quite some time.

There is a nice selection of material with plenty of variety. (Though one could argue that as good as the vocals and instrumental work are here, almost anything would sound good.) Additional cuts include two from Clyde Mattock, the instrumental “Hugging The Hound” and “I Wonder What You See In Your Dreams.” Jeff and Sheri Easter contribute vocals on “Beulah Land” (although the lead sounds a lot like Hudson). And Hudson does a very nice job on “Smoky Mountain Strong,” co-written with Mark Brinkman in honor of those who fought the fires in Sevier County, Tenn., in 2016. Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” gets an excellent bluegrass treatment, and the title-cut is a great new “broken heart” tune in a genre that can’t seem to ever get enough.

The support for the vocals is uniformly excellent throughout. Harmonies by Dilling and Cherryholmes are topnotch. The instrumental work is first-rate and, in particular, Hudson’s resonator guitar work is very tasteful, reminiscent of Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas. Besides having a voice that will be the envy of everyone within earshot, Hudson appears to have an acute sense of how this music should fit together that would seem to take decades of experience to develop. And though they are not credited, whoever did the mix and master (Skip Cherryholmes engineered) did an exceptional job—the sound is perfectly balanced and clear throughout.

This is an excellent release. Fine songs, great instrumental work and harmonies, and lead vocals that are unsurpassed. Highly recommended. (Pinecastle Records, 2514 River Rd., Ste. 105, Piedmont, SC 29673, www.pinecastlemusic.com.)AW


KRISTY COX

KRISTY-COXKRISTY COX
RICOCHET

Mountain Fever
MFR1801119

We truly may be living in a new Golden Age for bluegrass female vocalists. The reach of the music has extended clean across the world to Australia. Kristy Cox, a relative newcomer to the U.S. music scene, has made quite a splash since she hit the country. Her new album Ricochet showcases what audiences Down Under have known for some time: she’s a remarkable talent.

Her last two projects have been produced by Grammy-winner Jerry Salley. After compiling a few number one hits in her home country, she earned an IBMA showcase in 2015, and this is a great follow up.

The album opens with “South To North Carolina” and “Cry Me A River,” a quick nod to traditional bluegrass and her route—she mentions Flatt & Scruggs and Sydney, Australia in the same stanza—and never slows up. The duet “A Bed This Cold,” with the distinctive vocals of Lonesome River Band’s Brandon Rickman, is another winner on an album full of them. The a cappella “I Still Pray” is a hair-raising finish to a strong album.

One reason for the tight sound is the all-star cast she has backing her clean, sweet voice. Justin Moses on resonator guitar/mandolin, Aaron McDaris on banjo, Mike Bub on bass, Jerry and Maggie Salley on harmony vocals, Jason Roller on guitar and fiddle, and vocal contributions from Rickman, Michael Rogers, Donna Ulisse, and Josh Swift make this project too big to fail. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)MKB