No Label
No Number

   Old South is a veteran bluegrass quintet hailing from Adelaide in southern Australia. They have experience, enthusiasm, a nice repertoire of original songs written in the traditional style, and a resonator guitarist named Leonard Cohen (who really should look into teaming up with the Seldom Scene’s Lou Reid and mandolinist Joe Walsh to put together a band that will confuse the heck out of everyone.)

They also have two qualities that might make it harder for them to make as big a splash in the worldwide bluegrass scene as so many others have. First of all, their harmonies are a bit bottom-heavy, with occasional four-parts with bass on non-gospel numbers and a generally glaring absence of that high-lonesome sound that a good tenor and a tight harmonic blend can give a band, although bassist Dave Taylor does his best to supply that tenor part when he can. Secondly, while Old South is a generally solid group of instrumentalists, some of the recorded breaks are sometimes just a bit sloppy, at least enough to be noticed. So although most of the breaks from mandolinist Andrew Hook, banjoist Geoff Bridgland, and Cohen are solid and interesting, the overall effect is that of a band project that could have used just a few more takes and a bit more stringent production.

Which is unfortunate, because there are a lot of appealing elements to this band. Rhythm guitarist Phill Parker has contributed eight of his original songs, including “Have I Done Enough For You,” a very nice piece that evokes the Carter Family’s simplicity and earnestness. They also perform a very admirable harmonized rendition of Dirk Powell’s wonderful rewrite of the ballad “Waterbound.” Bridgland’s banjo introduction and the chorus harmonies on “Long Hard Time” show how solid and driving Old South can be when captured at their very best. And how can you not like a band whose banjoist’s resumé includes playing with the Wombat Holler String Band.

The Hanging Tree is a CD that teases the listener with a taste of what is probably a fun live band with a largely distinctive repertoire. I hope—failing an unexpected but welcome opportunity to journey Down Under to see them in person—that their next recording has just enough extra polish to show them at their best. (www.australianbluegrass.com/shop)HK



Pisgah Ridge
PR 15462

   John Bowman’s last solo gospel recording was one given entirely to the songs of Joe Isaacs. This time, Bowman casts his song net a bit wider, mixing together a couple of traditional tunes—“God’s Not Dead” and “Summer’s Gone (My God Made It All)”—with songs both old or contemporary. None are what you would call standards. Many have a contemporary edge, such as “Above All,” “Have Your Way,” “Miracle Today,” and “In My Father’s Eyes.” Several have an older feel, including Russell Easter’s modal-style “I’m On The Last Mile,” and the gentle James A. Crutchfield song, “Zion’s Hill.”

Having cast his net wider, Bowman chose to focus our attention on the power of the message by limiting the backing to just his solo guitar and solo voice. Short of performing a cappella—which he does solo on the aforementioned Russell Easter song—nothing focuses the mind on the words better than limited, simple accompaniment. The guitar also provides a welcome coloring and mental pause. Such bare-bones approach requires a high level of skill (vocally and instrumentally) and that, as anyone familiar with his work knows, Bowman has. He is both a high, pure singer and a talented instrumentalist. He varies the backing by ranging from finger-picked arpeggio to Travis-style playing on “God’s Not Dead” to ornate Mother Maybelle-style to gentle strumming and Tony Rice flatpicking/backing. There are no real barnburners, most of the tunes are slow and medium tempo, but “God’s Not Dead” and the Rice-style accompaniment of Tammy Griffin’s “Zion’s Shore” have a bit of uptempo zest.

Each will find certain styles and tunes here that speak strongest to them. For me, that was the older sounding pieces—“God’s Not Dead,” “Zion’s Hill,” “I’m On The Last Mile,” and “Summer’s Gone.” It is those, along with “Zion’s Shore,” that highlight this gospel recording. (Crossroads Music, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com.)BW



Travianna Records

   After Jack is a trio of young ladies from the Virginia/North Carolina/Tennessee area and this is a mostly original project showing their strong influences of old-time, bluegrass, and Americana music. The trio is Mary Allison (guitar and percussion), Emily Blankenship (bass), and Rachel Blankenship (banjo, mandolin, and percussion). Also appearing is Ruth Trochim (drums and djembe), Cathrine Conner (mandolin), Aaron Ramsey (mandolin, bass, and guitar), and Josh Shilling (keyboards). Aaron Ramsey also produced.

Their well-crafted original material features songs written by Mary Allison and Emily Blankenship and include “Use My Hands For Love,” the title-cut “Echo,” “Too Far Gone,” “Can’t Sing A Sad Song,” “I’m Almost Home,” and “For Jerryanne.” Other selections include David Mantz’s “Henry Lee,” Squire Parsons’ “Beulah Land,” and the traditional “Lil’ Liza Jane.” Shilling’s Hammond B3 and other keyboards are prevalent on many of the selections and are tastefully blended, as is the percussion. The three ladies share lead vocals and their harmonies are pleasant. Instrumentally, the arrangements allow each member the room to shine as each are good players as well as singers. While there is little bluegrass here, listeners should find this project an overall pleasing experience. (www.afterjackband.com)BF



Mountain Fever Records
MFR 140624

   New to Mountain Fever Records and making their recording debut as a well is Rachel Burge and Blue Dawning. Burge is on mandolin. Lance Gainer plays guitar, Michele Birkby-Vance the fiddle, Radford Vance the banjo, and Rick Westerman the bass. Everyone shares in the singing, Burge taking most of the leads. Several tracks feature male vocals, though who sings what is not known. It’s probable that Radford Vance is singing his own composition, “Barefootin’,” but that’s a calculated guess.

For their song selection, Burge has drawn about half from the band and half from the writing talents of Paula Breedlove, Brad Davis, Mark Brinkman, Bill Carlisle, Tammy Rogers-King and Ronnie Bowman. There are five band originals—two from Burge, two from Radford Vance, and one from Michele Birkby-Vance. Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Kentucky Mandolin” is the one standard.

When this recording is at its best, it stands up well with much of what is on the market today. Their version of “April Snow” is impeccable, nicely lilting, full of warmth, and good medium flow. Much slower, though equally impressive, is “I’ve Kissed You My Last Time,” a Bill Carlisle tune. That one is laden emotion. On the uptempo end, a standout is “Kentucky Mandolin,” which, along with her excellent solo on her original, “My Cold Heart,” shows what a fine mandolinist Burge is. “Home Place In The Mountains,” a solid traditional number from Birkby-Vance is right there with it and has a good feel. “I’ve Seen Enough Of What’s Behind Me” is solid as well. “Sisters Of The Mountain” certainly has grit and force in both the singing and playing and story, but is slightly diminished by a brittle sound and solos that sound “punched in.”

On the whole, this recording is slightly above average with moments of brilliance and high promise. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)BW



No Label
No Number

   Trains, trains, and more trains dominate the entire sixth recording from the High 48s, and why not? Trains have a strong hold on our music and our collective memory, even as they have less physical presence for us today. Interestingly, of the ten songs here, only a couple—the modern ballad “Baltimore And Ohio” and Greg Brown’s raucous “Grand Junction”—are affectionate odes to railroading itself. You could throw banjoist Anthony Ihrig’s original “Great Northern Railroad” in there, but it’s really more a tune about the hard life working the line, characterized by the idea that he hopes his kids don’t have to work like this.

For the rest, the railroad is more a symbol. In “The Leavin’ Train,” it’s a symbol for escape or a better day. In “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” it symbolizes Rodgers himself. Elsewhere, it’s a symbol for leaving a loved one behind (“Smoke Along The Track” and “That Train Has Left The Station”) or for a longed-for past (“With A Memory Like Mine”).

Regardless of the meaning, the quality of the music here is very good—both the compositions and the execution. To each song, the High 48s bring an evenhanded approach, even on  those that have a rowdy nature, such as “Grand Junction” and the Jimmy Martin-style arrangement of “Smoke Along The Track.” Solos, particularly those of Marty Marrone’s guitar and those featuring the rounded tone of Ihrig’s banjo, are clear and creative, and the vocals are as well. The song choices are nicely varied and well-suited to Marrone’s voice, which leads all but four tracks. He’s at his best on “The Leavin’ Train.” Other highlights on this enjoyable recording include the traditional 3/4 blues of “Two Trains Runnin’,” “Smoke Along The Track,” and most especially, “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home,” a minor classic performed here in high fashion. (www.thehigh48s.com)BW



Rebel Records REB-CD-1846

It doesn’t seem all that long ago when Larry Sparks’ fortieth anniversary album was released, which finally garnered the lonesome legend the IBMA Album Of The Year, Recorded Event Of The Year, and Male Vocalist Of The Year awards. Since then, impressively, he has continued to record some wonderful traditional bluegrass music with albums such as The Last Suit You Wear and the excellent Almost Home.

Now, it is time to celebrate Sparks’ fiftieth year in the music business with his latest album Lonesome And Then Some. The recording is filled with the expected solid bluegrass music with help from guests such as long-time admirer Alison Krauss, former bossman Ralph Stanley, and IBMA Hall Of Famers Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, and Curly Seckler. Produced by Sparks and Steve Chandler, the album also features Judy Marshall, Ron Stewart, Tim Graves, Jackie Kincaid, David Harvey, Tyler Mullins, and Larry D. Sparks.

Krauss and Marshall join Sparks on a moving version of “Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures,” and Stanley adds his old-school harmony vocals to “Loving You Too Well.” Seckler shows up on two cuts—adding harmony to “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” and again with McReynolds on “I’m Gonna Sing Sing Sing.” There’s a new song on here that is classic Sparks, a true-life blues number along the lines of “John Deere Tractor,” sung as only he can do it. That cut is the uptempo yet moving “Bitterweeds,” about an old spinster woman who lives at the edge of town who missed the love of her life—or did she? The album ends with a live recording made with Bill Monroe in 1995.(Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)DH



Mountain Roads Recordings

   This recording is a follow-up to the first Close Kin CD that featured bluegrass and old-time musicians playing together. This project, also produced by Johnny Williams, does that. However, the 11 musicians who play and sing on these dozen songs and tunes are all between the ages of 12 and 17, and are all from Virginia or North Carolina. These young people are talented, and they get to display that here.

They open with a rousing version of the old-time tune “Fortune,” with Jared Boyd singing lead and playing old-time fiddle. Daniel Greeson takes a break on bluegrass fiddle. Madison Shepherd adds old-time banjo, with Austin Greer on bluegrass banjo and Cathrine Connor on mandolin. Then Lindsey Nale, who handles most of the lead vocals plus some harmony on this recording, sings “Old Stone Wall.” She also sings “Blackest Crow,” “Don’t You Wish It Was True,” “I Remember,” and “Pluckin’ The Hen.” Jared Boyd sings lead on “Things I Used To Do” and “M.I.S.I.P.” He and Lindsey do “One Morning In May” as a duo. The other instrumentals include “Sandy River Belle,” “Hell Broke Loose In Georgia,” and “Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase.” Other musicians not already mentioned include Kitty Amaral on old-time fiddle, David Chrisley on bass, Jonah Horton on mandolin and guitar, and Clay Russell on bluegrass banjo.

This is still a hybrid music with more solo breaks than would normally be heard in old-time, but it’s very enjoyable to listen to, and these young musicians will likely be heard from again. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Hwy. 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.)SAG


bourbon-barrel-congressBOURBON BARREL CONGRESS

No Label
No Number

   There’s always been a general consensus that an album, especially a debut album, should give a balanced representation of what kind of music a band plays. On this self-titled CD, Bourbon Barrel Congress, a quintet from central Virginia, is either remarkably diverse or else hasn’t quite made up its collective mind as to what it wants to be when it grows up.

For my money, the most impressive part is when the group settles in behind the songwriting and voice of guitarist Ethan Hawkins. (At least I assume that it’s his voice on these tracks, since the album singing credits aren’t broken down by track.) On “Flattered Am I,” “Mr. Wayne,” and “Oh The Rain,” his wispy tenor, with quirky touches of phrasing and expression that seem to be influenced by the Punch Brothers, leads the BBC through off-kilter imagery and some very lovely melodic touches.

Fiddler Rene DeVito steps out as composer of the CD’s three instrumentals, “Set Tasers To Horses,” “451,” and “Rockingham,” the latter co-written with Hawkins (and the former with a little touch of “Cherokee Shuffle”/“Lost Indian.”) All are solid and straightforward fiddle tunes giving Hawkins, DeVito, and banjoist John Spangler a chance to stretch in ways that are melodic and nicely “in the pocket.” Michael Emerson adds his harmonica to the tunes and songs, ending up more as a textural element than as a strong tuneful feature.

The album’s opening track, “Boatin’ Up Sandy,” is a nice treatment of a traditional number and feels like the strongest sample of the band playing as a bluegrass ensemble with an old-time edge. The collective energy, and perhaps originality, of the Bourbon Barrel Congress seems to take a step backward on Hawkins’ “Wife Of A Politician’s Son,” which draws on some murder ballad conventions, a cover of the Felice Brothers’ “Whiskey In My Whiskey,” and an unremarkable version of Hot Rize’s “Nellie Kane.”

The most encouraging indicator of this debut album is that the best parts of it are the most original. While the BBC may never be an easy band to categorize, this CD gives a lot of hope that if they cultivate the unique nature of their collective voice and continue to gel as a unit, they’ll continue to make interesting and distinctive recordings. (Bourbon Barrel Congress, 263 Fillmore St., Staunton, VA 24401, www.bourbonbarrelcongress.com.)HK



Broken Record Records

   This is a wonderful project of original material from Jim and Lynna Woolsey. Written in a modern bluegrass style with a traditional edge, these songs could be welcome additions to anyone’s repertoire. With Jim on guitar and Lynna sharing the vocals, this album includes Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar), Mike Sumner (banjo), Mark Fain (bass), Clay Hess (mandolin), and Tim Crouch (fiddle). Songs of adversity, songs of faith, songs of love and songs of life all fill this project.

Titles include a tale of wanderlust in “Wheel In His Hand,” the sadness in a relationship in “I’m The Best You’ll Ever Do,” the recovery from an illness with “She’s Gonna Fly,” fond memories of youth in “River Road,” the gospel of “Will You Be Ready,” and just plain getting old in “Road That Brings You Home.” Also included are “Gypsies In A Wagon,” “Letter From The City,” “Runaway Train,” “Rude Jenne,” and “Back To Tennessee.” The arrangements and harmonies augment the lead vocals, and the instrumental backing lets the lyrics ring through. This collection of family stories and true emotions mixed with the grit of life are sure to become a favorite of many. (Broken Record Records, 678 W. River Rd., Petersburg, IN 47567, www.jimandlynnawoolseycom.)BF



Lonesome Day Records
LDR 041

   Scanning down the list of ten songs on Richard Bennett’s new CD, the temptation is to jump ahead to the six (of seven total) covers that close the recording to see how Bennett and guests Steffey, Stewart, Schatz, Rice, and Lane interpret them. Honoring Bennett’s programming, we’ll resist and examine first the more obscure and original tunes that make up three of the first four tracks.

Bennett opens the recording with his title-cut original, which uses an uptempo, minorish setting to underscore the semi-mysterious tale advising us to know first where we’re going. That’s followed by the Ronnie King/Danny Barnes written folk-Celtic “Bonnie” and then by “Stronger Every Day,” the most older bluegrass-sounding track, though one with ’70s overtones. To be honest, none of the three rise to the level of the better-known covers. They’re solid songs, “Stronger…” being the best, but it’s hard to imagine any of them becoming standards.

They do, however, fit well with the gentle, relaxed feel that Bennett and his guests bring to the album as a whole and to such covers as Sting’s “Fields Of Gold,” Kate Wolf’s “Across The Great Divide,” and the traditional ballad, “Georgie.” Tony Rice joins Bennett for a tightly-woven guitar duet on “The Last Thing On My Mind,” then similarly helps Bennett close the album with “Wayfaring Stranger.” In between are the polar-opposite arrangements of “Yesterday” and “Fire On The Mountain.” Bennett approaches the Beatles’ classic as a solo, arpeggio-laden piece, one colored with jazz chords and that plays hide and seek with the melody. This approach is later used in the opening to “Wayfaring Stranger.” The Marshall Tucker Band classic, by contrast, gets a full band treatment and lots of room to stretch out instrumentally. With its spirited drive and fine soloing, it is the standout cut of this entertaining recording, with “Across The Great Divide” and “Fields Of Gold” close behind. (Lonesome Day Records, 143 Deaton Rd., Booneville, KY 41314, www.lonesomeday.com.)BW



Shanachie 622DVD

   Albert C. Gannaway, Jr., (1920-2008) was years ahead of his time. A noted film and television producer and songwriter, he had written songs for Nat King Cole, Bob Hope, Frankie Lane, and collaborated with Johnny Mercer on others. He produced several full-length feature motion pictures during the 1950s and ’60s, but is perhaps best known for his connection to the world of country music. During the mid-1950s he produced the long-running weekly television series Stars Of The Grand Ole Opry. Unlike other country music television of the period, Gannaway was forward-thinking and captured his shows on 35mm color film in an era before color TV was available to the public.

For whatever reason, Gannaway was not allowed to film the segments on the Opry stage. Instead, he made arrangements to use the facilities at Vanderbilt University. The format was similar to the Opry shows; each week a different high profile star—such luminaries as Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, and Faron Young—would host the show and introduce the acts. For the most part, the performances consisted of mainstream country personalities of the time, but scattered among them were some wonderful traditional artists.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Gannaway marketed the shows in a series of VHS tapes from a firm in Florida. The only problem was that customers had to buy the whole set in order to get desired performances. This writer finally caved in and purchased the entire package, which came with a hefty price tag. I had to fast-forward through some commonplace (at least for me) segments searching for ones of interest; but not anymore thanks to the folks at Shanachie.

The highlight for most BU readers will be six numbers by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys; they were at the top of their form. Jackie Phelps was guitarist on all but one of the tunes, switching to impressive two-finger banjo for “Roanoke.” On that piece, the guitarist was a youthful looking Carlos Brock with twin-fiddles by Bobby Hicks and Charlie Cline. The first song is a powerful reading of “Close By,” featuring the triple fiddles of Bobby Hicks, Gordon Terry, and Red Taylor, and on banjo Charlie Cline. There’s also a fine trio version of “A Voice From On High” with vocals by Monroe, Phelps, and Cline. Hicks and Cline play both fiddle or banjo on various numbers, while Opry staff musician Ernie Newton is seen playing upright bass on all six. By themselves, these classic performances are well worth the price of the set.

A duo who will be of interest to many are the Louvin Brothers, with two awesome performances (“I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” and “Love Thy Neighbor”). Those who never saw Charlie and Ira perform will be amazed by their energy and charisma. There are delightful performances by Grandpa Jones with Ramona, Stringbean, Lonzo & Oscar, Benny Martin, Sam & Kirk McGee, the Crook Brothers, and the Fruit Jar Drinkers.

Finally, there are several clips of Hank Williams. These are rare black & white videos from early kinescopes, one of which is a charming performance with Anita Carter. Conversely, I’m disappointed that there are no performances by Johnnie & Jack (seen only in the grand finale) or Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family. Also, I’d have preferred that they had retained a few more introductions of the bands. Minor complaints aside, this is one of the most delightful video releases ever. To this writer, it’s an indispensable addition to anyone’s library and receives my heartiest recommendation. (Shanachie Entertainment Corp., 37 E. Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860, www.shanachie.com.)WVS



No Label
No Number

   Rachel Eddy’s musical journey is an interesting one and international in scope. She is a very talented musician from West Virginia who grew up in a musical family. Eddy’s dad expertly played the “don’t touch my fiddle” trick when she was a kid, hoping his daughter would do the opposite due to her mischievous curiosity, and it worked.

Many years later, Eddy was jamming at her home state’s Appalachian String Band Festival when she met Kristian Herner, a second generation banjo player from Denmark who now lives in Sweden. The two fell in love, got married  a couple of years later at the festival where they first locked eyes, and then Eddy moved to Sweden to be with her husband. But, Eddy and Herner return to the U.S. for a few months every year to jam, see family, and get their American string-band music juices renewed. A multi-instrumentalist, Eddy plays fiddle and clawhammer banjo on this recording, and her singing voice is earthy, unique, and sweet. Husband Kristian joins her on banjo, and Eddy is also backed up by a host of excellent roots music artists found in her adopted home of Sweden.

Highlights include rollicking versions of “Deep Ellum Blues,” “Don’t Drink Nothin’ But The Corn,” “Walk Along John To Kansas,” and “Give The Fiddler A Dram.” There’s also a three-part version of “Cumberland Gap” that is atmospheric and sweet, as well as a beautiful take on Si Kahn’s “Wild Rose Of The Mountain.” As Eddy says in the liner notes: “Although I’d never trade this journey I’ve had in Stockholm for anything, I often long for the mountains and simple beautiful life that exists there.” (www.racheleddymusic.com)DH