FGM Records

Swing music in the style of Django Reinhardt has influenced every bluegrass flatpicking guitarist from Doc Watson and Clarence White to Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton, David Grier, and modern wizards Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge. Minor swing and many more Jazz era tunes today can be heard around campfire jam sessions at bluegrass festivals all over the world. To honor that tradition and lend their own take on this fascinating style, two of today’s most respected and accomplished flatpickers have come out of the studio with a brilliant pairing of guitar instrumentals, plus a few sweet vocals that perfectly demonstrate the appeal of this timeless style of music.

Robert Bowlin, the last fiddle player hired by Bill Monroe as a Blue Grass Boy, is an unmatched master of guitar. Here, his unrivaled technique and taste gives him the melodic freedom to play a range of swing tunes, from Django’s classic pieces “Nuages,” “Djangology,” and “Daphne” to the swing standards “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Rose Room.” That he does this on a Martin dreadnought with steel strings instead of a gypsy Jazz guitar with lighter strings is an amazing testament to his technical prowess.

Another string wizard of the highest order is Tim May, who’s played with David Harvey’s adventurous string ensemble Radiola. May has a long history teaching at major guitar camps. Together Bowlin and May take 11 jazz and swing standards and show how much that era of music has ultimately influenced today’s bluegrass. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is a great example, as the two guitarists trade off playing delicate, melodic riffs, backed by Glenn Meyers on stand-up bass. And the gorgeous voice of Wil Maring adds the perfect sound to take the listener back to the jazz clubs of the 1930s.

One highlight here is the swinging trade-off on “Honeysuckle Rose,” where the two guitarists seem to feed off each other as they trade musical licks and build solos to emotional highs. “Take The A-Horn,” the classic Billy Strayhorn composition made famous by Duke Ellington, is the perfect closer for this great album of guitar-focused swing. This is a remarkably open and accessible CD for a set of (mostly) guitar-only instrumentals. And for fans of this style, May and Bowlin have done a superb job capturing the sound, tone and rhythmic feel that made the Swing Era music so infectious and enduring. (www.flatpick.com)DJM



LoHi Records 001

   More than any other form of music, bluegrass is shaped and bred on place. Imagine Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Bryan Sutton without North Carolina; Monroe and Bush without Kentucky; the Kentucky Colonels without Southern California; Hot Rize without Colorado. You can’t. Asheville, N.C., has bred its own share of legendary bluegrassers, particularly the superstar Steep Canyon Rangers and flatpicker extraordinaire Sutton. But that’s not all this hotbed of brilliant bluegrass has produced.

Town Mountain holds its own against all comers when it comes to producing a powerhouse bluegrass drive grown from deep roots. Much like Monroe’s original Blue Grass Boys show, the CD opens with a lickety-split fiddle number, “St. Augustine,” then the band shifts gears and rolls into an up-tempo, bouncy “Ain’t Gonna Worry” written and sung by the band’s mandolinist, Phil Barker.

Reflecting the multi-cultural scene around Asheville, the band downshifts into a Cajun-influenced “Comin’ Back To You” that sounds like Saturday night on the bayou done bluegrass style.  And the title-tune powers up like a steam engine rolling from Asheville to Knoxville through the morning fog. And on it goes. “Wild Bird” recalls a lonesome mountain modal ballad of loss and regret. “Leroy’s Reel” is a catchy original by fiddler Bobby Britt with just enough melodic twists and turns to sound fresh and utterly original. “Arkansas Gambler” is another Town Mountain original that sounds straight from the still, honest and authentic to the roots of bluegrass. And “Whiskey With Tears” is one of those up-tempo, walking blues kind of tunes that The Rangers do so effectively, but here it’s clear this is Town Mountain’s sound on display.

Town Mountain is a modern-day bluegrass band with deep, deep roots based in the Blue Ridge Mountains they call home. Their name may imply a dichotomy between rural and urban, but their music runs as true-blue as a stream rolling down a steep mountainside. Highly recommended. (www.townmountain.net)DJM



Rounder Records

Sierra Hull enters a brave new world with her first recording project in five years. She was frustrated with the variety of opinions pulling her in different directions, and her inner voice was longing for a different sound. Accepting the advice of her banjo wizard producer Bela Fleck, Hull decided to try recording her songs with nothing but her mandolin and voice. “Even when I was fronting a band, I’d always been an ensemble player,” Hull says. “To do something by myself made me rethink everything.”

As she discovered a new voice, the former child prodigy decided to add back in other musical flavors. Bass whiz Ethan Jodziewicz provides resonance and rhythmic complexity. Fleck’s banjo crowns the “Queen Of Hearts”/“Royal Tea,” while Alison Krauss, Abigail Washburn, and Rhiannon Giddens add enchanting harmonies on “Black River.” Hull co-wrote 11 of the 12 tracks and penned “Stranded,” “Wings Of The Dawn,” “Birthday,” “Lullaby,” “I’ll Be Fine,” and “Black River” by herself. “This album feels like the story of my early twenties, of that searching,” she says. “Now, it feels like everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”

This latest recording gives listeners a more in-depth look at Hull’s songwriting maturity, as well as showcasing her incredible angelic pipes. As always, her seemingly effortless skills on mandolin reach a higher degree of refined elegance. After much soul-searching, Hull rediscovered herself musically on this CD, and fans will surely like what she found. (Rounder Records, 1209 Pine St., Ste. 100, Nashville, TN 37203, www.rounder.com.)BC



No Label
No Number

Carolina Blue, perhaps the only bluegrass band to share a name with a hip-hop group, offers a very good album, Goin’ Home Today, marking their tenth year together. Falling on the traditional end of the contemporary bluegrass spectrum, the band demonstrates the talent, skills, and commitment to succeed. The quality of the CD packaging, the recording, and the video for its standout track “The Ballad Of Flem Galloway” prove a serious investment in their career and their music.

Carolina Blue comes from southwestern North Carolina, like Balsam Range, the Crowe Brothers, Clyde Moody, Raymond Fairchild, and Don Reno. The band has all the necessary parts. The excellent original songs and tunes from guitarist and lead singer Bobby Powell, along with Tim Jones on mandolin and lead vocals, banjoman Seth Rhinehart, and fiddler Emma Best populate 12 of the 14 cuts. The lead and harmony singing is quite good, with the multiple lead voices that seem requisite these days. Similarly, they play well individually, and more important, as an ensemble.

I’m shocked that, in all this time, Goin’ Home Today is their first studio album. The band formed in recording a 2007 CD credited to Bobby and Tim. Since then, only a 2015 live release has appeared, so this is a welcome event. With so much going for them, Carolina Blue is a band to watch. They still need, however, to craft fully that special, recognizable sound and style  that make them easily recognizable, one that allows them to stand out in a crowded field of very good bands with similar aspirations. (Carolina Blue Band, P.O. Box 913, Brevard, NC 28712, www.carolinablueband.com.)AM



Rounder Records

At the time of Josh Williams’ last recording, he’d hit bottom in his personal life. His struggles are known and bear no need for cataloging here. Suffice it to say, six years on the road of recovery and six years of hard work have resulted in this, his second recording.

Williams takes this opportunity to release a rather autobiographical, introspective CD full of songs about getting into problems, getting out of problems, and seeking and finding redemption. There are songs here about loss and heartbreak, as on “Queen Of The County Fair,” one of the best tracks here, during which a boy meets a girl at the fair, has a nice evening, but loses her to someone else. “The Great Divide” is another in that vein, though it takes the heartache up a notch with its look at divorce. “Modern Day Man,” though not about heartache, is in a sense about loss, as in our loss of self in a hectic world. All those and “Always Have, Always Will,” about losing control, can be seen as songs about falling in to problems.

More positive are those that look at getting out of the problems we create, including the obstacle-busting “Let It Go,” Tom T. Hall’s admonition to keep moving on “Another Town,” and the spiritual power of “God’s Plan.” “Sweet Little Boy” and “Prodigal Son” complete the redemption, each with the story of the power of parental love.

The music here is in much the same style as his last record. That one was a strong blend of country and bluegrass, with whip-crack drumming and arrangements as likely to feature pedal steel as it is the banjo. His previous recording was more fun and full of catchy and recognizable tunes. This one is far more emotional and may prove the more enduring in the long run. (Rounder Records, 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, www.rounder.com.)BW



Mountain Home

Even with John Bowman’s departure in 2014, The Boxcars keep impressively rolling on. Their latest recording is every bit as rewarding for the listener and as deeply rooted in the band’s signature sound as any of their previous releases. Light when called for, dark when necessary. Always bottom-end propulsive and percussive thanks to Harold Nixon’s excellent bass contributions.

Bowen’s replacement, Gary Hultman, is equal to the task, his resonator guitar giving the band some extra pop rhythmically and a new sound dimension overall. Keith Garrett jumps up here and there with a high lead, most effectively on “When The Bluegrass Is Covered With Snow.” And, of course, Ron Stewart contributes an excellent fiddle solo when needed.

The song selection is engaging. Garrett’s cover of Townes Van Zandt’s coal-mining elegy is powerful. “Hogan’s Goat” is a good mandolin instrumental that features some of Garrett’s best guitar work and some expert fiddling from Stewart in lieu of his banjo. Writer Chris West’s bright, traditional song, “I’m Dreaming Of You,” is also well-covered by the band.

Better still are the two Adam Steffey leads: “Raised On Pain” (also written by West) details a man so downtrodden, he no longer notices, and “Cold Hard Truth” admonishes that life goes up and down, so get used to it. Equal to them are Garrett’s slow, wistful meditation on losing a high-flying life and again becoming “Familiar With The Ground,” along with his bluesy tragedy song about loss, “Let The Water Wash Over Me.” Those four give this highly listenable recording that much more of a reason to recommend it. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829 Arden, NC 28704, www.mountainhomemusic.com.)BW



Tiki Parlour RecordingsBRAGGER
No Number

   David Bragger, his band Sausage Grinder, and the online Old-Time Tiki Parlour have become fixtures in the old-time and traditional music scene in Southern California. Now, David has released a solo project of his own, a CD with 21 diverse and excellent selections played on fiddle, banjo, and pump organ. He’s accompanied by Christopher Berry of Sausage Grinder on guitar and banjo, Susan Platz on second fiddle, and Tim Riley on Scottish bagpipes.

The CD opens with “Uncle Tom And The Wolves,” a fiddle and banjo duet from fiddler Will Adam. “Going To The Free State” was the late Mel Durham’s name for Narmour and Smith’s tune, “Avalon Quickstep,” played here on two fiddles. David also learned “Over The Mountain” and “Jingle At The Window, Tidy-O” from Mel, who grew up in Southern Illinois, but ended up in Southern California, where he was a mentor to both Bragger and me. “Big Fancy,” “Big Hoedown,” and “Washington’s March” (played with two fiddles and bagpipes in the pie-like fiddle tuning of DDAD) all come from Edden Hammons. Throw in tunes from Jim Bowles, Delbert Hughes, Gribble, Lusk, and York, Tommy Jarrell, Dennis McGee, Henry Reed, Sammy Walker, Marcus Martin, Bruce Greene, and Dave Bing, and you have a lot of great music performed impeccably well. “Peter Francisco” is another great old tune from the Knauff collection.

The centerpiece of this recording is Bragger’s powerful fiddling with effective doses of funk and blues (for example, in “Altamont”) which might be inspired by Dan Gellert, one of the great musicians recorded by Tiki Parlour Recordings. Some of the arrangements are unexpected, such as the pump organ on “Boating Up Sandy,” but they all work to bring out the music. Expect lots of joyful listening with plenty of tasteful nuances if you take this reviewer’s advice and get this recording. (www.oldtimetikiparlour.com)SAG




Melton & Miller Music

When an 11-year-old who has made no secret of the fact that bluegrass music is his thing says, “That ‘Adeline’ song is awesome, maybe the best bluegrass song I’ve heard,” that’s a pretty strong endorsement. “Adeline” is the first cut on Secrets, Dreams & Pretty Things, the latest album out from Balsam Range lead vocalist Buddy Melton and his longtime friend, songwriter and musician Milan Miller. Children aren’t the only ones who have taken notice; the week the album dropped, “Adeline” went straight to number one on several bluegrass charts.

Melton’s distinct vocals thread the album as expected, giving bluegrass fans even more of a spoiling of the quality and authenticity that is to be expected from BR and its members. Make no mistake, however, Milan brings a serious pedigree to the project. In addition to writing back-to-back IBMA Song Of The Year finalists “Pretty Little Girl From Galax” (2012) and “Papertown” (2013), he’s written/co-written numerous hits such as “Caney Fork River,” “What I’ll Do,” and “Burning Georgia Down.”

As for this album, these two talents make a reviewer sweat to focus on a handful of highlights from the dozen cuts. “Adeline,” which features Adam Steffey on mandolin, Sammy Shelor on banjo and Carl Jackson as tenor vocalist, obviously makes the list. Gospel gets a nod on the hard-driving “Joseph,” which features Steffey and Shelor again, as well as Aubrey Haynie on fiddle. A gem not to be overlooked is “When A Woman Leaves,” a pure, soulful song that should yield another top ten slot. “White Oak Mountain” is a sentimental choice written by Melton’s grandfather, but not discovered until after his passing. Steffey, Shelor, Jackson, and Rob Ickes don’t hurt the quality, either. Other contributors include Terry Baucom, John Cowan, Ron Stewart, and the guys from Balsam Range.

In short, buyers of this album will not be disappointed. Just hit play and you’ll find yourself losing track of how many times it plays through. (www.meltonandmillermusic.com)MKB



Compass Records

Like the acrobatic artwork of the band’s CD cover, the Infamous Stringdusters continue to teeter on the highwire between various genres with grace and smoothness. On this sixth studio project, the innovative musicians took a different direction. Instead of the familiar sound of Travis Book, Jeremy Garrett, and Andy Hall, this disc displays the contributions from a dozen of the top female voices in bluegrass, Americana, and alternate string music.

They introduce Ladies & Gentlemen with the opening slow rock feel on “Listen,” featuring the vocals of Joan Osborne followed on subsequent tracks by Lee Ann Womack, Sarah Jarosz, Joss Stone, Sara Watkins, Celia Woodsmith, Nicki Bluhm, Claire Lynch, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Aoife O’Donovan, Abigail Washburn, and Jennifer Hartswick. For the first time, the Stringdusters brought aboard Grammy-winning producer Chris Goldsmith for the quintet’s sixth studio CD. Goldsmith found some different musical colors when he convinced the band to plug the acoustic instruments into guitar amplifiers. The band—Andy Falco (guitar), Travis Book (bass), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), and Andy Hall (resonator guitar)—laid down its always creative and exploratory instrumentation on the 12 original tunes with help from Isan Fitchuk on drums and Jennifer Hartswick, who also jazzed up a couple of compositions with her trumpet. If you love the way the Stringdusters stretch the genres of bluegrass, then this CD is a must for your collection. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.thestringdusters.com.)BC