RUSS CARSON, AVENUE OF THE GIANTS

RUSS-CARSONRUSS CARSON
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS

Patuxent Music
CD-256

One thing is for sure, Russ Carson and his guests—bassist Jason Moore, guitarist Kenny Smith, and his former Redline bandmates Audie Blaylock, Jesse Brock, and Patrick McAvinue—really have that chugging, popping, uptempo groove down cold. They let you know it by using it, essentially, on the first four tunes of Carson’s debut recording, most notably on their cover of Tony Trischka’s “New York Chimes” and the old-time fiddle and clawhammer banjo (with band support) tune “Charlie’s Neat.” Both of those really go.

Carson, now with Ricky Skaggs, has a highly-propulsive, forward-leaning approach, or as Tom Adams says “right at the edge of the music where they reach out and insist that you become part of the music…” Of the other two in the opening four, “Things In Life,” the Don Stover tune sung here by Eddie Rose, stands out as a winner, though the lead voice was mixed a bit low.

Carson and his guests return to that groove several more times in the course of the album, including on “Pat Made Me Do It” and “Avenue Of The Giants,” both Carson instrumental originals, and on “Montana Cowboy,” which has some slightly strained lead vocals from Blaylock, but which also has a lot of entertaining grit to it. The two medium tempo songs, both sung by Darrell Webb are solid enough. Everyone gets in some good licks, and the beat is strong. They are, however, not overly distinctive songs. Better is the cover of the slow country “Letters Have No Arms.” The slight Spanish touch gives it an attractive flavor and contrast. Better still is the fretless and tubby banjo duet with McAvinue’s fiddle on “New River Train,” transformed here into nearly a new tune, with only hints of the melody here and there. Along with “New York Chimes” and “Charlie’s Neat,” it highlights a fine debut showcase of Carson’s banjo skills. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BW


NICK DISEBASTIAN, WINDOW VIEW

Nick-DiSebastianNICK DISEBASTIAN
WINDOW VIEW

FGM Records
No Number

   According to Nick DiSebastian’s online biography, he has a varied musical background that has carried him from Big Band Swing to bluegrass to Berklee and has landed him in Asheville, N.C., where he holds down the bass chair in the up-and-coming group Town Mountain. Given his wide-ranging history, it’s no surprise that his inaugural solo CD, Window View, sounds like the musical portfolio of a player who is not content to place his eggs solely in one musical basket.

The primary component that emerges here is displayed in the half-dozen original instrumentals he has included here, featuring his clean and elegant flatpicking guitar supported by a core band of fiddler Christian Sedelmyer, banjoist Kyle Tuttle, Mark Lavengood on resonator guitar, and bassist Ashleigh Caudill. His tunes are texturally rich and he gives lots of space to his co-players, making this recording much more appealing by being not just a guitarist’s album.  Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to hear them take on Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Northern White Clouds” in order to get a fresh infusion of melody and rhythm from an older source while still adding a contemporary funky edge.

DiSebastian also gets to display some decent singing skills, showing a much more traditional influence by covering Flatt & Scruggs’ “If I Should Wander Back Tonight” and the neo-traditional “My Side Of The Mountain,” which is from the repertoire of Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys.  He also sounds at ease on his original song “Stop Loving You,” a relaxed mid-tempo ballad.

Remember that Big Band background?  It may be partially responsible for one of the CD’s highlights, a sweet version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” nicely sung by Rachael Davis.  It’s a refreshing touch that serves as an effective balance to the new acoustic instrumentals that dominate the recording. It’s clear that DiSebastian is another accomplished guitarist and composer, and his debut CD reflects eclectic tastes and interests that should serve him well on his still developing musical adventures. (www.nickdisebastian.com)HK


JOHNNY JACKSON & JAMES STILTNER, TRIBUTE TO BILL NAPIER

RR-jackson-and-stiltnerJOHNNY JACKSON & JAMES STILTNER
TRIBUTE TO BILL NAPIER

No Label
No Number

It’s good to see somebody saluting Bill Napier. This writer saw him several times in the late 1950s when he was playing mandolin with the Stanley Brothers. He also supplied typical country comedy as “Pap,” a garrulous old man who wore a goofy hat and seemed to know everything. Born in Wise, Va., and raised in Grundy, Va., Napier was an accomplished musician; he composed the well-known mandolin instrumental “Daybreak In Dixie,” recording it with the Stanleys for the Mercury label in November 1957. He also played some of the earliest lead guitar found on their recordings, and was the first to experiment with the crosspicking style which the legendary George Shuffler would later refine and popularize. Napier eventually teamed with Charlie Moore, where he played banjo, as well as flatpicked and crosspicked guitar.

Jackson and Stiltner obviously share a great admiration for the music of Bill Napier, and here they revisit some of the tunes and songs that Bill wrote or co-wrote with Charlie Moore. Nine of the ten titles were originally recorded by Moore and Napier; the other, “Roaring Creek,” Bill would later record on a solo album. The singers are James Stiltner’s grandparents, Johnny Jackson and wife Edith. Their sound is pure old-time country, rough-hewn, evoking singing styles from a bygone era. The titles are evenly divided between five instrumentals and five vocals; one gospel number and four truck-driver songs.

The first-class instrumentals are the work of James Stiltner, who has played in the past with Sammy Adkins and Lonesome Will Mullins. Besides his performances here with the Johnny Jackson Band, he also plays with Misty Stevens and Mark Stonecipher. Stiltner displays equal abilities on banjo, mandolin, and acoustic guitar (the latter in both flatpicked and crosspicked stylings). Stiltner’s wife Cindi provides the bass playing. I wish they had given us a couple or so more numbers, but that’s my only complaint to an otherwise engaging set. (James Stiltner, P.O. Box 719, Hurley, VA 24620.)WVS


ROB ICKES AND TREY HENSLEY, BEFORE THE SUN GOES DOWN

ICKES-&-HENSLEYROB ICKES AND TREY HENSLEY
BEFORE THE SUN GOES DOWN

Compass Records
7 4639 2

Rob Ickes is the sideman par excellence, well-known for his vibrant resonator guitar work and, here, offers a glimpse at his considerable lap steel skills. Trey Hensley is a guitarist and vocalist with a world of talent. As is often the case, the sideman, name or not, becomes the supporter and mentor, and the lead singer becomes the focus. Most likely, that was the aim of this very good project.

There can be little doubt that the 12 songs chosen were done so with Hensley in mind. Hensley has a wonderfully pliable, country baritone lead, and it should be no surprise that country music sources and settings (including drums and occasional electric guitar and lap steel) dominate. Three of the tracks are lesser-known Merle Haggard tunes, among them “I’d Rather Be Gone,” and “When My Last Song Is Sung,” which reflect Haggard at his emotional best as a writer. They stand beside Billy Joe Shaver’s paean to country-boy self-justification, “Georgia On A Fast Train,” and beside the get-straight admonition of “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang.” Hensley and Ickes also duet on Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Pride And Joy,” showcasing their fluid blues chops. That’s echoed by an electric guitar/lap steel cover of Buddy Emmons’ instrumental “Raisin’ The Dickens,” which nicely sets up another Western Swing tune, the classic Wills/Duncan tearjerker “Misery.”  Bluegrass is represented with “Before The Sun Goes Down” and “Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” though you’d hardly know them as bluegrass from these interpretations. The title tune, shuffle country at its best, is a highlight.

As good as Hensley (and this recording) is, he must make an adjustment. Ickes long ago found his “voice.” Hensley needs to do so as well. Channeling Haggard (on no less than five tracks) and using Vaughn and Shaver inflections on their own songs, will only take you so far. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)BW


NIGHTFLYER, RAIL RIVER & ROAD

NIGHTFLYERNIGHTFLYER
RAIL RIVER & ROAD

Kang Records
No Number

Nightflyer is a fairly new bluegrass band based out of southwestern Ohio, an area that has produced a lot of music over the last sixty years or so. The group features Richard Propps on guitar and lead vocals, Rick Hayes on mandolin and vocals, the other Ronnie Stewart on banjo and vocals, Tony Kakaris on bass and vocals, and Tim Jackson on resonator guitar and vocals. Many will remember Hayes for his four years or so with the Gibson Brothers.

Rail River & Road is the band’s second album and it’s full of straight-ahead traditional bluegrass and bluegrass gospel. The project includes cuts written by Hazel Dickens (“Old River”), Joe Richardson (“White Lightning Blues” and “Train Whistle Blowing”), Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis (“Life Is A Train,” “Seven Devils Ridge,” and “The Road To Glory”), Larry Shell, Jerry Salley, and Larry Cordle (“You Don’t Have To Go Home…”), Rick Lang (“Gospel News”), and more. Propps contributes the only original song with “The Man I’ve Come To Know.”

Nightflyer can best be described as a mid-level band, solid in their approach. There are not a lot of fireworks when it comes to solos, at least on this recording, with the exception being Jackson’s resonator guitar work. Vocally, however, the members of Nightflyer do harmonize wonderfully. Propps, Hayes, Kakaris, and Stewart share the lead vocal duties, with Propps singing most of the cuts. While having that many lead vocalists can be a plus, here I think it may be a distraction at times. Personally, I prefer the sound of Stewart’s lead vocals. Only time will tell as to whether this group will rise above their regional following. (www.nightflyerband.com)DH


VOLUME FIVE, VOICES

VOLUME-FIVEVOLUME FIVE
VOICES

Mountain Fever Records
MFR150120

Four times, I’ve had the welcome opportunity to review a CD from Volume Five. Setting aside their 2014 gospel recording, simply because gospel recordings tend to have a different feel and approach, their second and third releases were distinguished by alternate use of light, tradition-based bluegrass set against contemporary offerings that made use of a heavier, more modal sound to underscore the tension of the song. There were usually four or five band originals, and there were two to four standards.

With this recording, their fifth, the standards have been eliminated, replaced by lesser-recorded material and newly-written songs. Among them is the album’s opener and one of its highlight tracks, “King Of California.” Written by Dave Alvin formerly of The Blasters, it’s a fine example of capturing the feel of an older style of writing, that of using a bright melody with a dark subject. It has classic potential in it, and Volume Five brings that out readily.

There are five originals, two of them from guitarist Colby Laney, including the original “Sam’s Gap” which centers around passages of repeated notes that propel the tune and attractively counter the more complex contrasting lines. The other three come from resonator guitarist Jeff Partin. Four of those five fall in that contemporary modal style. Their one negative is that they have a similar melodic feel, though the misdirection of the intro and segues of “Going Across The Mountain” is distinctive. Balancing that are the lighter, tradition-based tunes such as the Rhonda Vincent-led gospel tune “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man” and Randall Hylton’s medium and Quicksilver-like “Dream Softly.” They work well with a couple of lighter, contemporary tunes, “Strangest Dreams” and the folkish “Colder And Colder.” By eliminating the warhorses, Volume Five has tweaked its approach just enough to focus our attention more on the band. The result is one of their best albums to date. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)BW


RED-WINERED WINE
PICKIN’ FRIENDS

No Label, RW008

Thirty years ago or so, I met a banjo player in Louisville while wandering the perimeter of the audience area of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Bluegrass Festival. Nothing odd about that, save that this five-string picker, Silvio Ferretti of Red Wine, was from Genova, Italy. Like a fine vintage, Red Wine has aged very well. Bluegrass bands from outside the USA and Canada have produced strong records for the nearly 45 years since Bluegrass 45. In Pickin’ Friends, however, Red Wine delivers a truly great album, one that deserves serious consideration for Album Of The Year. This provides a great example of what a band can achieve when it sticks together for the long, long run—since 1978 in Red Wine’s case.

Pickin’ Friends exemplifies every aspect of top-notch bluegrass: tremendous drive with crisp, incisive breaks, edge without abandoning roots, first-rate new material from both members and an assortment of today’s best bluegrass composers, and perfect lead and harmony vocals in a variety of settings. Most importantly, Pickin’ Friends proves fun to listen to, again and again. Marking Red Wine’s twentieth anniversary of touring in the USA, it hogs the CD player.

Perhaps the most outstanding single feature of Pickin’ Friends is its consistency. The album lacks filler; packed instead with one strong track after another. Still, I have to mention a few. “Beaver Valley” is an exquisite instrumental led by the banjo that midway converts from an experimental slow-burn piece into a fast traditional workout, featuring subtle references to a number of its predecessors. The ballads “Time Of No Reply” and “Time To Learn” stretch outside the normally narrow emotional range of bluegrass songs. The kickoff and sort of title-track “Tell All My Pickin’ Friends Goodbye” reconstructs Jimmy Martin’s sound for today, right down to the Martin-style snare drums. The drums move out to the front and center on “Where The Sidewalk Ends,” which resembles The Dillards’ memorable country rock experiments of the early 1970s. “Saved” is a gospel song that rocks and boogies with outstanding playing and clever lyrics. I could babble on and on. I’d rather go back to listening to Red Wine’s Pickin’ Friends. I’d suggest you do the same. (www.redwinemusic.net)AM


FRANK WAKEFIELD AND RED ALLEN, THE WDON RECORDINGS, 1963

WAKEFIELD-ALLENFRANK WAKEFIELD AND RED ALLEN
THE WDON RECORDINGS, 1963

Patuxent Music
CD-258

In 1960, mandolinist Frank Wakefield moved from Kentucky to Maryland. A few months later, vocalist/guitarist Red Allen did the same, and the two resumed their musical association. Their group was eventually filled out by, as is heard on this recording, banjoist Pete Kuykendall and bassist Tom Morgan. Work in local venues and a regular radio show on Maryland station WDON followed.

The 22 tracks on this excellent CD are not as the title sort of implies “live” performances taken from that WDON show, but are in fact recordings made in Kuykendall’s home studio in 1963 and aired as their weekly show. Moreover, all the introductions and between-song patter have been cut, leaving us with what sounds more like a small studio recording of the period—one slightly over-driven, slightly muffled, and yet shouts classic from start to finish.

Most of the songs here are not found on other Allen or Wakefield or Allen/Wakefield recordings. Four of them, “Deep Elem Blues,” “Somebody Loves You Darling,” “Old Joe Clark,” and “I Guess I’ll Go On Dreaming,” did later appear on Allen/Wakefield’s Folkways F-2408 recorded a year or so later with the same band, but the rest seem to be one-offs. According to an interview with surviving bandmembers, the songs recorded were selected on the spot from memory and from Bill Clifton’s songbook. They include such classic standards as “Give Me The Flowers While I’m Living,” “I’m Blue And Lonesome,” and “Little Rosewood Casket,” along with songs then outside the bluegrass canon, such as “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” Bob Wills’ “I Wonder If You Feel The Way I Do,” and Vern Gosdin’s “Don’t Laugh.” Highlighted by Allen’s powerful and emotional singing, Wakefield’s vibrant and emerging personal approach to the mandolin, and by Kuykendall’s tuneful banjo solos, few recordings can capture the beauty and spirit of that era any better than this one. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BW


RHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE, ONLY ME

RHONDA VINCENTRHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE
ONLY ME

Upper Management
UM007

Is there really that much difference between traditional country and bluegrass? After all, the two genres were combined once upon a time. Regardless of where your opinion lies, Rhonda Vincent provides a serving of both sides on her latest two-disc set.

For years, the sound of her voice has been debatable among listeners. Some said she was too country for bluegrass, while a country music label tried to get her to wring the bluegrass out of her voice. The truth hit her one night after opening a show for George Jones. “We came off stage with a bluegrass band after our show, and we sold out of every CD in 15 minutes,” Vincent said. “It was like this mob scene.” Deciding that answer was with the listener’s perception, Vincent realized she could be only herself.

On this album, she attempts to give an equal helping of bluegrass with six songs, including two with Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson (“Only Me”) and Daryl Singletary (“We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds”) to highlight the ease of cross-pollination between the two music styles. Her second disc is focused on traditional country. She appeases fans with her most requested tune, “Beneath Still Waters,” that she performed on the Country’s Family Reunion television show, her self-penned tune, “Teardrops Over You,” Grand Ole Opry star Bill Anderson’s “Once A Day,” “Bright Lights & Country Music,” and George Jones’ “When The Grass Grows Over Me.” She also laid down her vocals for the familiar “Drivin’ Nails.” According to Vincent, “I purposely wanted to do that because I recorded it in bluegrass. I wanted to record it in country to show the similarity that my voice is the same.” Michael Rojas adds piano on “Drivin’ Nails,” while Catherine Marx tickles the ivories on the other songs. Kudos to Tim Crouch (fiddles), Kevin Grantt (upright bass), Carl Jackson (acoustic guitar), James Mitchell (electric guitar), and Lonnie Wilson (drums). Mike Johnson breathes exciting life into traditional country with his steel guitar.

You can’t please all the people all the time, but certainly Vincent has made an incredible effort to whet the tastes of her fans from both sides of the fence. As her idol Dolly Parton wrote, “When Rhonda Vincent opens her mouth, it’s great…whether she’s singing country or bluegrass.” (Upper Mgmt. Music, 1036 Tulip Grove Rd., Hermitage, TN 37076, www.uppermanagementmusic.com.)BC