Kunst en Denkwerk 9789090289182.
Hardcover, 138 pp., 30 Euros.

Something magical happens when people of enormous talent combine to produce a labor of love. In this case, the writer Loes van Schaijk and photographer Marieke Oderkerken have given us the very heart of bluegrass music in the Netherlands in the form of interviews and photos of nearly a hundred Dutch musicians, songwriters, singers, luthiers, promoters, fans, and artists who share a common love of bluegrass and acoustic music.

It is perhaps the most professionally made book I’ve ever reviewed. The photos are gorgeous. Using black-and-white photography, much in the style of Richard Avedon, Marieke has an ability to capture the truth—sometimes humorous, sometimes dramatic—of her subjects. And Loes (both authors are women) brings out the voices of these subjects, allowing them to speak for themselves, but also adding background and context, as well as a very informative introduction. She understands what we all have in common, but gets there through what makes us unique.

You may be asking, what does a book about bluegrass in the Netherlands have to do with me? I would answer: everything, because this is a book not just about Dutch people, but about all of us who live within the geography of music. And if that’s too esoteric, I have another reason for you to buy this book: inspiration. This is a model for what might be possible in regional histories of bluegrass everywhere. When it comes down to it, all music is local, and this book revels in and reveals that truth.

The Netherlands has a long and intimate association with bluegrass, dating back to the 1950s. The fan and artist base there are as knowledgeable and talented as anywhere in the U.S. Some features in this book: a 1962 letter from Bill Clifton encouraging the first fan club, and a nice preface by Sandy Rothman. Also good to catch up with what Kevin Lynch, who now lives there, has been doing! Surely one of the surprises of 2015, High Lonesome Below Sea Level is at once local and international, universal, and personal. Highly recommended. CVS


West-Virginia's-Traditional-Country-MusicWEST VIRGINIA’S TRADITIONAL COUNTRY MUSIC

Arcadia Publishing 9781467123112.
Softcover, b&w photos, 128 pp., $21.99.

The publisher of this book is probably better known for producing books for the history of locations such as towns. It’s a picture book format with brief notes about the subject, in this case musicians from West Virginia. There is a wide ranging net cast here, including the very first performers from that state to record, David Miller and Harry Tweedy, on up to the latest like Brad Paisley. In between is a who’s who of old-time, country, bluegrass, and gospel performers from all over the state. The restrictive format precludes including all of the great performers from West Virginia.

This is not a scholarly book, but it does present a good thumbnail history of country music in West Virginia. Starting in the early days, it progresses through the radio years, detours a little to present real folk musicians and bluegrass players, then goes on to present the modern performers from the Mountaineer State. The casual reader may be surprised to learn that Grandpa Jones got his start there. Such influential musicians as Frank Hutchison and Blind Alfred Reed are represented as well. Reece “Sam” Jarvis recorded a tune in 1929 that’s considered a classic today, “Poca River Blues.” Most folks are more familiar with the later recordings of it by Clark Kessinger, also featured here.

The bulk of the radio stars and later WWVA and Nashville stars are represented with promotional pictures, the more folk and bluegrass performers are caught in candid photos that reveal something more of their true selves. There are two pictures of a very young Connie Smith, in which she’s playing guitar. The real folk performers are well represented: Wilson Douglas, the Morris Brothers, David and John, Kim Johnson, Andy Boarman, Dwight Diller, Frank George, and John Johnson. Oddly enough, Bobby Taylor is not featured, even though he’s a mover and shaker in the old-time music world. Senator Robert Byrd is, as are several bluegrass legends: the Lilly Brothers, the Goins Brothers (also as the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers), and Buddy Griffin, who also wrote the foreword to this book. This is a good introduction to the musicians of West Virginia aimed at the casual reader who would like to know a little more about the music from this fine state. RCB



Compass Records

The debut recording from Mr. Sun, billed as “American string band music from an intergenerational tribe” features the formidably fantastic Darol Anger (fiddle), Joe Walsh (mandolin and vocals), Grant Gordy (guitar), and Ethan Jodziewicz (bass). The careful reader of liner notes may stay up pondering questions like the following one Anger asks: “What does it mean to inhabit American string music, rather than re-invent it? Can we say we are innovating when we each simply play from a powerfully personal point of view?”  Or the following observation: “I’m coming around to the idea that there are no musical genres as such, only human beings who emanate musical presences of varying power, in unique combinations.”

As he suggests, perhaps the best advice is to forget about categorizing something as joyful and fun and powerful as music, and rather simply crank up the volume and dance. “The Likes Of You” sung by Joe Walsh is a reminder of what an incredibly clever songwriter Randall Hylton was. It’s one of only two vocals on the album, but you don’t realize it because the instruments sing, sparkle, skip, sob, and scream like voices throughout the entire album. “The Fiddler’s Boot,” one of the aforementioned skipping variety of tune, was written by Anger and inspired by a memorable conversation he had with Della Mae’s Kimber Ludiker about funny fiddle tune titles. “A Little Heart’s Ease,” written by Walsh, is a dream-like, unpretentious beauty of a melody written as a tribute to Newfoundland and its people.

“Hunter’s Permit,” written by Walsh and Scott Law, explores sparkling jazz territory, building to a frenzied climax. “A Stranger Comes To Town,” co-written by Walsh and Gordy, kicks off with a guitar melody that could have come from Norman Blake’s hands. Gordy describes “Ben’s House,” written on a winter morning at fellow musician Ben Krakhauer’s house in Cambridge, as “an attempt to harmonize a bass line—perpetually descending in minor thirds—in a way which sounds musical.” The band swings the soup out of “If I Were A Bell” from Guys And Dolls and the jazz standard “After You’ve Gone.”

“The People Need Light” has an African-American spiritual vibe that puts the listener on shouting ground. “Key Signator” is an Anger instrumental that the rest of the bandmembers learned off his album years before having the pleasure of performing and recording it with him. Highly recommended. If you’re uneasy listening to a mostly all-instrumental album, feel free to make up your own words and dance steps. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)NC



Mountain Fever Records
MFR 150707

The last time I reviewed The Churchmen was for the release of their 2008 recording I’ll Be Long Gone. Between then and now, there have been some shifts. The earlier recording had strong elements of tradition, but the songs sounded more contemporary. They also had a higher pitch vocally to them (particularly when David Guthrie sang lead) and featured longer instrumental passages. As good as that one was, and it was good, this one strikes me as more direct and instantly likeable and engaging.

The band’s liner notes indicate that they feel such changes have been given to them to help spread the message farther and wider. There’s definitely a more traditional sound to this one. Drawing from that pool of forms and melody ideas lends a familiarity to much of the material, for example “A Crown Of Thorns,” “What A Wonderful Time,” and “Do You Know That You’ve Been Born Again?” Similarly, you’ll feel a sense of recognition when you hear the bluesy quality of “The King On His Throne” and the lilt of the slow, 3/4-time “The Words I Can’t Say” and “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” All of those and several others are drawn from writers such as Mary Beth Cordle, Billy C. Jones, and Becky Buller, as well as from the group’s banjoist/vocalist Carroll Arnn, but they pull you in like old favorites. You can call them melodic clichés if you like, but they are really more like touchstones that give the material and the recording a welcoming quality. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)BW



Ampersand Records 0315

   The Northeast has been home to some fairly impressive bluegrass brother groups through the years, notably the Lilly Brothers with Don Stover and, of course, the Gibson Brothers with their impressive string of superb albums and awards that just keep coming. Now, from Long Island, the Feinberg Brothers (Rourke and Patrick) have released their self-titled debut CD, and while comparisons to the aforementioned groups would be unfair, they have certainly done an excellent job on their first release.

For a young band (Rourke was 18 and Patrick was 17 at the time of this recording), this group shows great taste and a strong sense of what makes great bluegrass music. Joined by their father, Ronnie, on guitar, Terry McGill on banjo, and Peter Elegant on bass, Rourke (fiddle) and Patrick (mandolin) handle the lead and tenor vocals with occasional baritone by Ronnie. The highlight throughout this release is the fine harmony singing by the Feinbergs. The band wastes no time showing what they can do here. By the end of the second cut, it’s clear they can go fast, crisp, and tight (as on the opening “I Do” from Peter Elegant), and they can do slow and very, very soulful (Ronnie Feinberg’s fine “Bury Me On A Mountain”). Not only are the vocals tight and sweet, but the entire group is as solid as can be, with sparkling banjo work by McGill and excellent rhythm from Ronnie and Elegant, and equally good work by Rourke and Patrick. An illustrative example of the ability of this group is Jim & Jesse’s “Drifting And Dreaming,” a challenging number on which they succeed on all fronts, with vocals that would do Jim & Jesse proud, and fine cross-picking by Patrick and fiddle fills by Rourke. Among the other highlights are Jimmy Martin’s “Hi-Dee Diddle,” “The Cotton Farmer,” Ronnie Feinberg’s “Bergold’s Farm,” “Kentucky Is Only A Dream,” and “Arkansas.”

In addition to fine vocal and instrumental abilities and the good taste to choose material that allows them to shine, the arrangements are top-notch. The result is traditional bluegrass with the soul of yesteryear and the technical ability that would be hard to equal. Highly recommended. (Cabinwood Music, 104 Lawrence Ave., Hasbrouck Heights, NJ 07604, www.feinbergbrothers.com.)AW



No Label
No Number

   What I like about the music and musical attitude of western North Carolina is that there’s much less of a distinction between bluegrass and old-time music there than in other parts of the country. In some areas, bluegrass is bluegrass and old-time is old-time and there’s not much shared except for the older fiddle tunes. But in western North Carolina, and in parts of eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia for that matter, the two genres often blend nearly as one on many occasions. I have had conversations about this with guitar great Bryan Sutton, who grew up near Asheville and gladly combines the two genres whenever possible.

Spencer Branch is a band based in Ashe County, hence the album’s title Ashe County Outlaws. Ashe County is located next to Watauga County, which was the home of Doc Watson who also regularly blended bluegrass and old-time together.  The group includes the brother and sister team of multi-instrumentalist and singer Martha Spencer and fiddler Kilby Spencer, along with another multi-instrumentalist and singer, Kelley Breiding. Martha and Kilby grew up in a family group known as the Whitetop Mountain Band.

The trio brings to life classic tunes such as “Grey Eagle,” “Tennessee Wagoner,” and “Stagger Lee” in fun and fired-up fashion. Among the original tunes written for this album, the wonderful title-cut brings to life some tall tales that include references to real places in Ashe County. The guests on this excellent recording include Chris Henry on mandolin, Jeff Michael on mandolin, guitar, bass, and fiddle, Kyle Dean Smith on resonator guitar and bass, Alex Leach on banjo, and Debbie Bramer on bass. (www.spencerbranchband.com)DH



Mountain Fever Records

Jamie Harper, originally from Mocksville, N.C., is known for his energetic fiddle work with his current bandleader Junior Sisk, along with previous stints with Marty Raybon, Carrie Hassler, and Blue Moon Rising. Rather than an all-instrumental album of fiddle tunes, Harper chose a band approach. He shares lead vocal duties with Sisk and Raybon, plus Eli Johnson and Dustin Pyrtle (both of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver), and songwriter Daniel Salyer. Harper plays fiddle throughout the project and mandolin on three of twelve cuts. The ensemble also features Jason Davis (banjo) and Kameron Keller (bass), both in Sisk’s band; Keith McKinnon (guitar) of IIIrd Tyme Out; and Kevin McKinnon (mandolin) and Josh Swift (reso-guitar), both members of Quicksilver.

While the bluegrass genre is stretching to include a variety of creative instrumental influences and vocal stylings these days, the driving, soulful music made by this tight-knit circle of friends is pure, unadulterated ’grass from the core of the unbroken circle. Harper’s drag on the bow, rich double-stops, and danceable melodies reflect influences from legendary fiddlers like Benny Martin and Kenny Baker. He leads off with “Booth Shot Lincoln,” a public domain song not done to death. It has an “Angeline The Baker” vibe that swings along like an old oak porch swing.

Dustin Pyrtle sings lead on “To Fly” penned by Josh Miller. The Lonesome River Band has heavily influenced many musicians Jamie’s age, and this modern song with a traditional feel is a good example. Listen for the odd little reprise at the end, when you think it’s over, but it’s not. “A Piece At A Time,” a 3/4 Jimmy Martin-tempo song written by Darryl Mosley, is sung well by Eli Johnson. The narrator’s farm is being sold off a piece at a time, and his heart is breaking in the same manner.

Harper showcases a high range, hard-hitting vocal style on “Enough On My Mind” written by Ronnie Bowman and Timmy Massey. He later scalds off Bill Monroe’s “Goodbye Old Pal,” complete with an athletic yodel at the end of each verse and a satisfyingly abrupt instrumental ending.

“Old Joe Clark” and “Cotton Eyed Joe” are uptempo romps that will make your dancing shoes itch. On the latter, Josh Swift rips through a jaw-dropping break, and the fiddle stomps through the familiar tune.

Junior Sisk sings lead on the Larry Sparks song “Goodbye Little Darlin’,” and the backup work from Jamie on fiddle and Jason Davis on banjo is superb. Sisk also renders a gospel number from Bill Monroe and Howard Watts, “Remember The Cross.”

Daniel Salyer sings lead on his own “Till I Was Gone,” reminiscent of Craig Market/Ronnie Bowman style of songwriting. Dustin Pyrtle leads on the familiar “Her Memory’s Bound To Ride,” penned by T. Michael Coleman and Lou Reid, and Marty Raybon power sings through the New Grass Revival classic “This Heart Of Mine.” Hardcore bluegrass fans interested in new talent may want to check out this album, as well as the participating musicians in their respective bands. Their futures are so bright, they all need to wear shades. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)NC



Mountain Fever Records

The young women of Gold Heart, Jocey (Jocelyn), Tori, and Shelby Gold, are sounding better than ever on their new release, which celebrates their tenth year as a band. Mountain Heart’s Josh Shilling, reso-guitar master Rob Ickes, and album producer Ron Stewart guest, but the shining star of this project is the blues-tinged vocal trio and gifted songwriting of the Gold sisters. All three ladies are singing and writing in their own unique voices, and their instrumental work on mandolin, fiddle, and lead guitar is pristine. Dad, Trent Gold, also sounds great on the bass.

“Ain’t That Crazy” is a whimsical song about imagination written by Jocey. “OK Corral” is a historical ballad of Shelby’s about the famous gunfight in Tombstone, Ariz. Her lead vocals are reminiscent of a young Sarah McLachlan on the title-cut, a modern bluegrass tribute to mindfulness; the joy and gratefulness inspired by living in the moment.  Out of all of the places I’ll go, here’s one I’ll never forget… she sings, underpinned by Ickes on Weissenborn guitar, strings, and mandolin arpeggios. It’s quite beautiful.

Jocey contributes the train song “Steam Engine” with a love story riding between the rails. Shelby’s song “Raleigh” deals with heartbreak inspired by geographical distance. Jocey wrote the next five songs: the hard-hitting, lonesome “Truth Is,” the a cappella gospel “I’ve Got A Burden,” “Late December” in which snow falls on the ground and the singer’s heart as she sits by her love’s grave, “Back With Me,” and “Summertime,” about idyllic family life in the country. The first song contains the memorable line: I’ve done all I can to fall in love with you / But the truth is, you ain’t meant for me to love. (So, there!)

The album wraps up with two more songs from Shelby. “You Make Me Smile” is a 3/4 time, acoustic anthem in which a couple in love for many years belts out: You make me smile / You make me sing / You make me mean every word that I say / You make me, me. The barn-burning “Master Of The Sea” ends the set with enough old-time gospel and maritime imagery to make Doyle Lawson smile. Highly recommended for fans who love sibling harmony and for those who like to check out interesting new songwriters in the bluegrass world. Here’s to the next ten years ladies! (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)NC



Swingfingers Records
SF 003

Harder and harder it becomes to pin down a genre in which some bands belong. FY5 is one such band. The opening track, “She Wants To Eat The Moon,” starts with lightly strummed guitar and pensive Joni Mitchell/Judy Collins qualities. That gives way to a building rhythm, increasing speed, and a dreamy melody that is often insistent, but reverts to fluid, softer lines around the title phrase. “Desert Bluebell” starts as uptempo bluegrass with banjo lead, but adds a contemporary melody; part folk, part pop. Halfway through comes an instrumental interlude that pulses along over an off-kilter rhythm before returning to the opening form. Then there’s the honky-tonk, ragtime “Back Door” about a guy pleading with his girl to bring their relationship out in the open. Those three are guitarist/vocalist Mike Finnders’ compositions. The rest of his seven originals, including the banjo-driven atmospherics of “St. Vrain” and the rockabilly “Mama’s Cookin’,” draw on many different influences and take the listener in many directions. So does Erin Youngberg’s swingy ode to the joys of freedom on “The Day Is Wide Open.”

Fortunately, we have the catchall term “Americana.” It’s not a specific designation, but it does give you a heads up that you’re liable to hear a number of styles and blends. I don’t think FY5 would dispute that label. Fortunately, we also have the catchall term “good music,” and this recording falls in that category as well. It’s certainly true of “Back Door,” “The Day Is Wide Open,” the swing country of “After Tonight,” the slow country of “Watch Out For The Blues,” “St. Vrain,” and “Mama’s Cookin’.” Hard to pin down, maybe, but well-played, well-sung, nicely-arranged, and entertaining. (www.finndersandyoungberg.com)BW



Revelation Sound

Many of us have stacks of albums that contain one or two sacred songs along with a dozen secular pieces. That has been almost standard operating procedure in bluegrass for many years. Ontario’s Rescue Junction turns that convention inside out on their third album. The engaging release adds a trio of secular songs to their predominately bluegrass gospel fare, a bit like Carl Story would do back when bluegrass came out on 45s.

Formed in 2009, the band has experienced success in Ontario, winning Most Promising at the 2013 Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards and Best Gospel Group the following year. The sacred songs here easily pass the bluegrass gospel test. That means listeners can enjoy the song as a piece of music, not just because of the message. Kaitlyn Gerber possesses a lovely, clear, and strong voice. Most significantly, she doesn’t try to sound like she comes from central Appalachia. She uses her natural voice to excellent effect. She has also developed well as a songwriter, composing five of the songs here, including the secular titles. The CD and its booklet demonstrate that she’s a pretty good graphic designer, too. In addition to Kaitlyn’s contributions, the band chose well from songwriters Ron Block (twice) and Chris Stuart, along with the traditional “Green Pastures” and “Just As The Sun Went Down.” The band proves instrumentally solid, with Roger Martin’s driving banjo having some fine moments. Kyle Gerber’s mandolin provides excellent kick-offs to most of the songs.

The challenge for Rescue Junction remains how to stand out in a crowded field of accomplished contemporary bluegrass bands. Two notable tracks on Echoes suggest the path. “He Goes To Church On Sunday,” written by Karen Suzanne Rochelle and Edward Monroe Hill, scores by telling a touching, true-to-life, yet unusual story of a newly faithful attendee with shaky faith. “Hold On,” written by Kaitlyn, offers distinctive harmonies influenced by popular music, complemented by ear-catching mandolin leitmotifs from her brother Kyle. An album of songs as interesting as those would be hard to resist. (www.rescuejunctionband.com)AM



No Label
No Number

As with the Red Clay Ramblers and Austin Lounge Lizards before them, it’s sometimes hard to know how seriously the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band wants their music taken. What are we to make of the outfits, the instrumentation, the song selection, and the recording process? The old-time “I’m My Own Grandpa” is obviously lighthearted, as is Shawn Camp’s tale of being knocked in the head by his wife for being lazy in “Fryin’ Pan.” The tributary title-song to the late Lester Armistead, with Buck Owens overtones, also qualifies. But how about the distant, old-style recording quality of “Mansion On The Hill,” the echo of “Bridge Washed Out,” or the big choral backing of “You Don’t Have To Be Present To Win?” Is it tongue-in-cheek or is it paying homage to what once was?

Take it as you may. My own response leans to the homage side, with the hardcore country shuffle of “Count Me Out,” Mike Webb’s lovely ode to the “Wood And Strings” of his guitar, and the gritty, electric guitar-driven cover of “Lonesome, Onry, and Mean” laying to rest any doubts of the group’s sincerity. What is never in question with this recording is the good fun and entertainment value intended. The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band wants you to have a good time. They want you to hear that ’50s-style of overdone choral backing and grin and remember when that was state-of-the-art. They want you to hear the washboard splashes and chuckle. They want you to get in the groove of “One Ole Shirt” or the instrumentals “Grey Eagle” and “Trombone Rag” or indeed any of these songs and just enjoy. That’s what the bands they admire aimed for in their day, and it’s what makes this recording successful all around. (Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, P.O. Box 1464, Goodlettsville, TN 37070, www.tennesseemafiajugband.com.)BW