TIM STAFFORD, JUST TO HEAR THE WHISTLE BLOW

TIM-STAFFORDTIM STAFFORD
JUST TO HEAR THE WHISTLE BLOW

Hedge Drive Records
HDR01

   Tim Stafford had a hand in writing all but “Red Wing” among these 14 tracks. All five of the original instrumentals he wrote solo, each stylistically different and several worthy of extra mention, including “Father Nelson,” a minor-key fiddle tune that is probably the most traditional and most propulsive tune here. The opener, “Whiskey Island,” a little slower and more flowing, leans also to tradition. By contrast, “Poodle On The Dashboard” uses a blues form, over which its off-kilter melody bops along rhythmically with joyful solos all around from Adam Steffey, Stuart Duncan, Ron Stewart, and Barry Bales.

Stafford also wrote the vocal number, “Dimes.” Gently portraying a father’s obsession with finding dimes, a practice that his son eventually carries on as a way of remembrance, this piece is instantly likeable. So, too, are three of the co-written pieces, such as the title track written with Steve Gulley, in which an old man ponders the ordinary and safe life he’s led in his hometown. His nemesis is the train he never jumped, and though his acknowledgement of having chosen correctly gives him some relief, he can’t let it go, leaving us to wrestle with our own missed chances. More tongue-in-cheek and quirky is “Hideaway Hotel,” a song centered on a Tom Waits-like landscape and told from the perspective of a rundown hotel. The clever lyrics and sinuous, rock-tinged setting exert a strong, entertaining pull. Both pale, however, beside the track “Worry’s Like A Rocking Chair,” written with Barry Bales. Sung by Marty Raybon, the short phrases and beat of the chorus get in your ear and stay there, driving home the song’s positive message—good melody, good thought, and hard to shake, as is much of this album. (Tim Stafford, P.O. Box 7411, Kingsport, TN 37664, www.timstaffordguitar.com.)BW


AL JONES & THE SPRUCE MOUNTAIN BOYS, HARD CORE BLUEGRASS

AL-JONESAL JONES & THE SPRUCE MOUNTAIN BOYS
HARD CORE BLUEGRASS

Patuxent Music
CD-249

The name Al Jones brings to mind several albums he cut with partner Frank Necessary in the 1980s. Jones was a major influence on the traditional bluegrass scene in the Washington, D.C., area starting in the 1960s, having performed with Earl Taylor’s Stony Mountain Boys. Now at 81, Jones can still hit the high notes he’s best known for.

His music is steeped in traditional bluegrass, and he lays it out with tunes from Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Hylo Brown, and Taylor. His Spruce Mountain Boys for this project are familiar folks at the Patuxent Music studios; including Tom Mindte (mandolin), Russ Hooper (resonator guitar), Patrick McAvinue (fiddle), Tom Neal (banjo), and Jerry Steinberg (bass). The project kicks off with a Taylor chestnut “Calling Your Name” and continues with such favorites as “Homesick,” “Love And Wealth,” “Iron Curtain,” and “This World Is Not My Home.” Jones also contributed three originals, “Nancy,” “I Can Never Shed Another Tear My Darling,” and “My Friend Frank” (a tribute to his late partner).

Like the CD title says, this is hard-core bluegrass and the studio band, themselves veterans of the DC/Baltimore bluegrass scene, provide the traditional backing and sound that Jones loves so well. He quips, “I ain’t playin’ no modern music.” It’s a statement that lets the listener know what they are in for, and what Al Jones still has the power and soul to do. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BF


KATHY BARWICK, BRAEBURN

Kathy-BarwickKATHY BARWICK
BRAEBURN

FGM Records
FGM-237

   On this, her second solo CD, Kathy Barwick enhances her growing reputation as a sensitive and imaginative interpreter of American and Celtic fiddle tunes. Playing guitar, resonator guitar, banjo, mandolin, Weissenborn guitar, and even bass, the former All Girl Boy from central California has assembled another stellar collection of a dozen tracks.

As an instrumentalist, Barwick makes it clear throughout that her priorities are tone and taste. Using uncluttered arrangements and inventive and subtly surprising harmonic shifts, she’s able to make old tunes sound fresh and new tunes sound familiar. “Little Rabbit,” here done as a mandolin duet with Stan Miller, weaves and darts unpredictably like its namesake, while her sensitive use of the deep rich tonal qualities of the Weissenborn gives a haunting and timeless quality to her medley of “Down By The Sally Garden”/“Down In The Willow Garden.”

She also mines her experience at playing with Celtic and contradance bands to present some great tunes that might be undeservedly unfamiliar to bluegrass audiences, such as “Calliope House” and “Caribou,” while adding some sweet original compositions of her own, such as “The Cantara Loop” and the title track. It’s also an asset to the album that she ventures a bit more to the forefront as a vocalist than on her debut release. She takes the lead role on “Sweet Sunny South” and “Southern Railroad,” more than ably supported by the harmonies of, respectively, Suzanne Thomas and Samantha Olson. Additionally, befitting someone who is such a gifted accompanist, she takes on a complementary role as she turns over the lead singing and featured space to sometime bandmate Pete Siegfried on his original song, “Childhood Memories.”

Braeburn is the kind of recording that is so understated that, in a world of all-star rosters and in-your-face production, it runs the risk of being overlooked. But Kathy Barwick is clearly a musician who deserves to be heard, and, given a listen, I think you’ll find the music on this CD growing on you more and more. (FGM Records, P.O. Box 2160, Pulaski, VA 24301, www.fgmrecords.com.)HK


THE DOWNHILL BLUEGRASS BAND, WONDERLAND

down-hill-bluegrass-bandTHE DOWNHILL BLUEGRASS BAND
WONDERLAND

Limestone House Music
LHM024

   Often it seems the voice of a singer can influence the type of song he/she writes. And so it is with the Downhill Bluegrass Band. On their fifth release, the songwriting is divided almost fifty/fifty between mandolinist Jonas Kjellgren (six) and guitarist Mikael Grund (five), and largely the leads match with the song style. There are always exceptions to every rule, but for most of this recording, it’s safe to say that Grund writes and sings the brighter tunes, such as the quick-paced “No Matter How Hard I Try” and the slower but airy “Wouldn’t It Hurt.” Both may deal with subjects of anguish and loss, but there is a lack of false tension in them. In other words, Grund lets the words produce the tension. He does the same with several of his other tunes, the best of which is the fingerpicked, folk sound of “Little Bird.” All of those are in keeping with his smooth and even, midrange vocals. The one exception is “Beneath The Clay,” which is more edgy.

The opposite of Grund is Kjellgren. His voice is darker, more blues-oriented, and filled more with tension. That darkness, blues, and tension characterizes most of his original songs. “Wonderland” is an excellent piece of songwriting, filled with allusions you don’t often hear in bluegrass. It has a real grit to it, wringing out emotion at every turn. It is echoed by “The Game Is Over,” a similarly taut piece of fine writing. “Listen Up” has a persuasive bounce, and “Lay Down Beside Me” is lullaby soft.

Together with the instrumental work from banjoist Kenneth Kjellgren, resonator guitarist Nicke Widen, fiddler Erik Risberg, and bassist Kajsa Kjellgren Westin, they’ve created an album worthy of hearing again and again. (Downhill Bluegrass Band, Hagabäck, 774 99 By Kyrkby, Sweden, www.downhillbluegrassband.com.)BW


EBBY JEWELL & THE BLUEGRASS KINSMEN, RENEWAL

EBBY-JEWELLEBBY JEWELL & THE BLUEGRASS KINSMEN
RENEWAL

TBK Recordings
TBK-2014-001

This if the fifth album from this Virginia band. Upon Shelby Jewell’s retirement from the band, his brother Ebby and Ebby’s wife, Teresa, took over. They wrote all of the material on this release, with picking help from Darrell Webb on guitar and mandolin, Greg Luck on fiddle, and Robin Smith on bass. Additionally, the Jewells get vocal help from Ervin Compton, Ryan Lester, Ricky Kennedy, and Tom Short. The liner notes do not specify who is playing what instrument on each track, but their website reads: “Ebby Jewell, who is the band leader, sings harmony and plays banjo, primarily, but is very accomplished on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle as well. The full-time band members, in addition to Ebby, include his wife Teresa who sings lead and tenor, Ervin Compton who plays guitar and sings lead and harmony, Ricky Kennedy who plays bass and sings baritone, Ryan Lester who plays mandolin and sings lead and harmony, and Dean Jackson who plays lead guitar and sings lead occasionally.”

The program is varied, but falls decidedly in the traditional bluegrass camp. The picking is solid throughout and the singing is spot-on and ranges from straight bluegrass to gospel. This is an enjoyable recording of solid material that ranges from songs about the alienation of the mountain man in the city on “Memories Of The Country” and the title track to “Sybil By The Sea” which takes on an Irish touch. Finally, we have an Irish song that is not about potatoes or immigration. The grittiest number is “Traveling To The Promised Land” which reaches back to old mountain modalities for its strength. A vocal duet with only a mandolin as accompaniment, it is imbued with the determination of faith. “Lovin’ Mountain Man” sounds like an old Monroe number with its fast paced multi-fiddle intro and down-home theme. This is a good recording with lots of well-done original material and interesting stories. (TBK Recordings, 190 Horseshoe Farm Rd., Pembroke, VA 24136, www.bluegrasskinsmen.com.)RCB


LYNDA DAWSON AND PATTIE HOPKINS, TRADITIONAL DUETS

LYNDA-&-PATTIELYNDA DAWSON AND PATTIE HOPKINS
TRADITIONAL DUETS

No Label
No Number

   Their bluegrass band, Kickin’ Grass, was supposed to showcase at IBMA in 2012, but the rest of the band couldn’t make it. So Lynda Dawson and Pattie Hopkins decided to perform there as a duo. That led to a tour and now this CD. Dawson plays guitar; Hopkins plays fiddle; and, of course, both sing. They open with Hopkins singing lead on “Long Time Gone” and “A Distant Land To Roam.” Dawson sings lead on the old-time song, “Train On The Island.” On “Sittin’ Alone In The Moonlight,” Hopkins sings lead in the first half, and Dawson sings lead in the second.

Dawson has the higher voice and sings soaring harmonies to Hopkins’ lead. Hopkins has a warm and deeper voice, and the two vocals blend very well. On “Your Lone Journey,” Hopkins’ fiddle is tuned to Dead Man’s Tuning, DDAD, which adds a lovely and still deeper drone sound. She uses that traditional tuning for “Bonaparte’s Retreat” as well, in which part way through she goes into the famous W.M. Stepp version. The other instrumental is “Cheyenne,” which is ably played. One of the highlights of this recording is their rendition of “Blues In My Mind,” in which the harmonies and the fiddle blend into a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. “Dark As The Night, Blue As The Day” also stands out. They close with an a cappella gospel song, “Beautiful Hills Of Galilee.” This is a recording which will leave you wanting to hear more, and there’s no higher praise than that. (www.lyndaandpattie.com)SAG


VARIOUS ARTISTS

patuxent-banjoprojectVARIOUS ARTISTS
THE PATUXENT BANJO PROJECT: THE BEST OF WASHINGTON, DC/BALTIMORE, MD/NORTHERN VIRGINIA/SOUTHERN PENNSYLVANIA

Patuxent Music
CD-250

   Where to begin? Perhaps it’s best to start with an overview of what’s here. That would be forty tunes (half are originals; the rest are traditional or covers), one each from forty-two banjo players (two tracks are twin banjo pieces), and thirty-plus guest musicians. As the subtitle says, the banjo players are drawn from an area including D.C., Northern Virginia, Baltimore, and Southern Pennsylvania. Among them are quite a few well-known pickers such as Bill Emerson, Tom Adams, Eddie Adcock, Mike Munford, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, and Mark Schatz. The rest are fine regional musicians, turning in quality performances that stand not far off, if at all, from the best tracks here. The line between Scott Walker’s precise and toneful original “Lori Ann” or Victor Furtado’s propulsive clawhammer on “The Ghost On Hippie Hill” and one of the better-known players and their tunes is one of small degree.

Bluegrass, from traditional forward,  ranges from Dick Smith’s cover of “Dear Old Dixie” and Fred Geiger’s almost stately reading of “Blue Grass Stomp” to Munford’s exuberant take on Berline and Bush’s “Hot Burrito Breakdown” and on to contemporary styles such as Marc Bolen’s raggy and jaunty “Bolen’s Bounce,” Gina Clowe’s slow waltz “Phoebe’s Lullaby,” and Adcock’s rock-tinged “Cedar City Blues.” Nine others fall in the clawhammer/old-time style, and Ira Gitlin’s solo original “Allegretto con Melanzane,” one of the more interesting and far-reaching tunes here, has roots in nineteenth century classical/parlor tradition. Six of the tunes feature vocals.

No doubt you could, in this age of video and instruction, find similar levels of talent around the country, but it’s impressive to hear so many quality banjo players gathered from one region. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BW


GOAT GLANDS TO RANCH HANDS:

BOOK-GOAT-GLANDSGOAT GLANDS TO RANCH HANDS:
THE KFDI STORY
—BY ORIN FRIESEN WITH BUD NORMA
Rowfant Press 978-1-929731-24-4. Paperback, 225 pp., $19.95. (www.watermarkbooks.com)

   Many readers of this magazine will know Orin Friesen from his years in bluegrass and with the IBMA, as a DJ, and a tireless and humble supporter of bluegrass and country music. I can happily say that this book on the history of KFDI, an influential and long-running Kansas radio station, is worth the read. Bluegrass is just one aspect of the story, but it’s a reminder that bluegrass has never been separate from the greater world of commercial radio.

Just how important KFDI was, though, I didn’t realize until reading this book. Any radio station that can claim Charlie Parker and Jim & Jesse in its history, as well as the colorful “Dr.” John R. Brinkley (that’s where the “goat glands” comes in), is a station worth reading about.

Friesen is first of all a historian and he’s done his homework. The book contains listings of interviewees, station workers, and a timeline that covers the development of radio and the many permutations KFDI went through. But it’s the way Friesen has built his story that is the most satisfying, adding just enough personal recollections to make this an intimate history, but always putting the spotlight on the important personalities in the KFDI story, especially Mike Oatman, without whom the KFDI story would not have happened. Well-written and highly recommended for anyone interested in the early days of radio and country music.CVS


MEGAN McKAMEY, HERE’S YOUR GOODBYE

MEGAN-MCKAMEYMEGAN McKAMEY
HERE’S YOUR GOODBYE

No Label
No Number

   This young East Tennessee native first picked up the banjo at age nine. She has developed into quite a good player and is currently part of the Tyler Williams Band based in Johnson City, Tenn. She has also become a very good songwriter, as this all-original debut proves. Produced by Steve Gulley, the project includes some top musicians, such as Tim Stafford, Jason Burleson, and Ron Stewart. Gulley also plays bass, with McKamey on banjo, Burleson on mandolin, Stafford on guitar, and Stewart on fiddle. Also included is Dale Ann Bradley helping out on harmony vocals.

McKamey wrote or co-wrote all of the selections which includes the title cut “Here’s Your Goodbye,” as well as “Love’s Circle,” “I’ll Be Fine,” “Don’t Go Steppin’,” “Tennessee Moon,” “Rosa Lee,” and “Better Off Alone.” She will also soon be fronting her own band in support of this project. McKamey has a pleasing voice that fits quite well with her songs, and the instrumental arrangements provide a strong support. She has a love and feel for the traditions of bluegrass and is still able to come up with her own sound and delivery. (Megan McKamey, 367 Wexford Ln., Blountville, TN 37617, www.meganmckamey.com.)BF


DETOUR, GOING NOWHERE FAST

DETOURDETOUR
GOING NOWHERE FAST

Mountain Fever Records
MFR140329

   Right out of the chute, Detour lets you know they are no-nonsense new bluegrass with drive, taste, great harmonies, and the sweet singing of Missy Armstrong puts the icing on a great cake. The songs are uplifting and draw upon tradition without restating worn-out themes. On “Juliet,” they sing about the Johnson Boys, giving a nod to an old mountain tune. “Soldier’s Sorrow” puts a minor spin on the old fiddle tune “Soldier’s Joy” to tell the true cost of war. Sadly, it is not just the dead who pay that cost. They cover the old Johnny Nash hit song “I Can See Clearly Now,” taking out the reggae beat and adding their twist. They cover the old Bailes Brothers gospel favorite “Traveling The Highway Home” and end up with “America The Beautiful.” “Ain’t Gonna Wait” is a proactive approach to living the good life. There are ten originals on this project. An album  comprised of just the originals would result in a very strong project. Of the thirteen tracks here, the band wrote all but the three obvious ones mentioned above.

This band is hotter than a dog day afternoon. They all get to strut their stuff on “Three, Two, One,” which is two and a half minutes of really hot picking by Jeff Rose on mandolin, Scott Zylstra on lead guitar, Peter Knupfer on fiddle, Lloyd Douglas on banjo, and Jeremy Darrow on bass. Additionally, Rose and Zylstra also add very nice harmonies to Armstrong’s leads. This is a band to keep your eyes and ears on. They are going places. Great songs, great singing, and above-average picking raise them above the crowd. All in all, they are a winning combination of talents worth your investigation. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)RCB


LEARNING TO FIDDLE, BLUEGRASS STYLE

LEARNING TO FIDDLE, BLUEGRASS STYLE
BY NEIL ROSSI—KdV Music kdvb-0001. Two CDs included, 225 pp., spiral-bound, $32.95. (KdV Music, 143 Huntley Rd., Westford, VT 05494, www.kdvmusic.com.)

This thorough volume is a wonderful resource for the serious student of bluegrass fiddle. Not a long listing of hot licks or a series of tunes, it is a thoughtful approach to the art of bluegrass fiddling. While aimed at the beginner to intermediate player who can read music, this book presents concepts that the more advanced fiddler may want to spend more time with.

Two CDs are included that contain a sound file for every sample presented. In the introduction, the author defines the audience for this book as the student who can hold the bow and play two octave scales in the keys of C, G, D, and A. Having a command of a few tunes would be a plus. Closed position scales are of importance here. This book teaches patterns and a lexicon of riffs and fills. Rossi also says, “I do expect you to practice these exercises religiously until they become second nature.” This authoritative voice guides the reader through the copious exercises contained in this fine volume. There are sidebars containing anecdotes about learning music, words of encouragement, and the author’s own experiences in learning the fiddler’s ways.

The books starts with an overview of the “basics,” those nuts and bolts that make up music and provide the building blocks for learning and playing music. This includes advice on practicing and bowing, among many other things. The next section concentrates on bowing, followed by a section on building riffs and fills. The section on constructing breaks is as much about how to listen to music as it is about how to play it. Many concepts are covered that make fiddling work, like slides, double stops, passing tones. And then in a section called “Leaving Home: Getting Out Of First Position,” Rossi delves into moving out of first position and learning to move up and down the neck with position shifts. This is all done with a conversational style that makes learning fun and easier than just a long series of licks. Rossi goes on to teach how to put the blues in bluegrass, harmony playing, and how to improvise. There is an appendix with lots of great information on the fiddlers to pay attention to and exercises with scales, intervals, and riffs.

Rossi was a member of David Bromberg’s band back in the ’70s and also won Fiddlers Grove in 1970 as the fiddler with the Spark Gap Wonder Boys. He is one of the leading bluegrass fiddlers in New England where his work is held in high regard—not only his fiddling, but also his teaching. This is the best book on bluegrass fiddle written so far in this century. Miss it at your own peril. (KdV Music, 143 Huntley Rd., Westford, VT 05494, www.kdvmusic.com.)RCB


MICHAEL CLEVELAND AND FLAMEKEEPER, ON DOWN THE LINE

MICHAEL-CLEVELANDMICHAEL CLEVELAND AND FLAMEKEEPER
ON DOWN THE LINE

Compass Records
746342

This may be the best time ever in Michael Cleveland’s career. Known as one of the bluegrass world’s best fiddlers since he was very young, Cleveland and Flamekeeper have four IBMA Instrumental Group Of The Year nods and he has individually won nine IBMA Fiddler Of The Year awards. What’s cool about recent years, however, is that Cleveland is backed by a steady and solid version of Flamekeeper that is sounding better than ever.

On Down The Line is Cleveland’s new album and it finds him as strong as ever on the fiddle. The members of Flamekeeper include Glenn Gibson on banjo, Nathan Livers on mandolin, Tyler Griffith on bass, and Josh Richards on guitar. The album comes out of the gate with a fired-up straight-ahead bluegrass version of Julian Lennon’s “Too Late For Goodbyes.” While that’s fun, they also mix up the tempos on this album nicely, utilizing everybody’s talent in the band. Next up is the rollicking “Fiddlin’ Joe,” followed by the old-school country feel of “Just Call Me Crazy.” “Come Along Jody” is an instrumental that features Cleveland and Livers trading mandolin and fiddle riffs, followed by the barn-burning Richards-penned original, “Johnny Thompson.” There is even a little bit of Western Swing in the mix with “Me And My Fiddle.”

The rest of the album is filled with excellent traditional bluegrass with the highlights being “That Ole’ Train,” “The Sunny Side Of Town,” “She Ain’t Sayin’,” and Cleveland doing a solo version of “Jack O Diamonds.” And, to put a definitive exclamation mark on the proceedings, Cleveland and crew rip into a fireworks-laden “Orange Blossom Special” at the end. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)DH