No Label
No Number

Mandolin Duets, Vol. 1 is one of the most important bluegrass mandolin recordings since David Grisman’s landmark Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza two-CD set. Conceived by fourth-generation bluegrass musician Casey Campbell, who literally took his first steps in Bill Monroe’s dressing room backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, the CD captures the essential soul of bluegrass mandolin in its simplest form: two great players in a recording studio with no supporting musicians and no overdubs. The result isn’t a musical curiosity; it’s an historic deep dive into the mandolin styles of 11 bluegrass mandolin greats including Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Buck White, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Mike Compton, and Ronnie McCoury.

Campbell, who tours with Bryan Sutton and has worked with numerous other bluegrass stars, tells me he was inspired to create this project as a way to keep alive the beating heart of bluegrass mandolin, and his conviction and musical integrity shine here. So instead of asking a bluegrass legend like Jesse McReynolds to play a song incorporating his trademark cross-picking style, Campbell let each artist have full artistic control over what they recorded. McReynolds, who still performs and sounds great at age 88, renders up an original called “Ode To Bill Monroe” that recalls the master’s straight-from-the-still, blues-influenced playing. Osborne, who’s out with a new CD at an age when most people can hardly get out of bed, plays “Cherokee Lady,” one of his most popular originals. Other artists go deep into their own catalogs here, like Tim O’Brien’s chilling “The High Road” and Mike Compton’s “Monroebilia.” Strong arrangements let Campbell support his mandolin heroes on rhythm and then launch into his own impressive solos, like his pairing with Ricky Skaggs on “Amanda Jewell.”

Mandolin Duets, Vol 1. is a must-hear CD for anyone who loves bluegrass mandolin. Full disclosure: I did some PR work for Casey to help him launch this project, yet it doesn’t change the fact that this is a terrific and historically important work from one of today’s most talented young bluegrass stars. (



Dixie Dawg Records
No Number

Rex Wiseman is a multi-instrumentalist and current member of the Oak Ridge Boys. He plays fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin, and guitar. However, on this new solo project, he sticks to guitar, bringing in an excellent cadre of musicians, and singers. He is joined by Sammy Shelor (banjo), Jason Moore (bass), Mike Shrimpf (organ), Matt DeSpain (resonator guitar), Jim VanCleve (fiddle), Aaron Ramsey (mandolin), and Scott Coney (guitar). He is backed vocally by guests Netha Larsen, the Oak Ridge Boys, Jimmy Fortune, Rhonda Vincent, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent.

He’s lived in Nashville since 1980 and joined The Oaks in 2006, where his multiple talents have become part of their touring organization. This project is something Wiseman always wanted to do. The song selections cover a wide variety, including gospel, bluegrass, country, poignant ballads, and a recitation. Wiseman even contributes one of his own, “Help Me To Be More Like Him.”

He kicks off the CD with a George Jones classic “I’m Ragged But I’m Right,” followed by Wilber Jones’ “Put My Little Shoes Away.” He’s joined by the Oak Ridge Boys on “Old Camp Meeting Time.” He duets with Rhonda Vincent on “A Love That Never Died” and Dailey & Vincent join him on the Carl Jackson classic “Little Mountain Church.” There is a beautiful tribute to veterans in “Welcome Home Soldier” with Jimmy Fortune and a wonderful recitation of Jim Wilson’s “Farmer And The Lord.” Other selections include “You Gotta Swim,” “The Grandpa That I Know,” “Back To Dixie,” and “Still.” Wiseman has a nice strong voice, and this album brings him to a new place in his musical journey. (



No Label
No Number

Two men with two banjos make some fascinating music. Olitsky plays a minstrel banjo, one of those nylon or gut-strung massive wonders that troll an octave below most banjos. Moskovitz plays three different plectrum banjos. Plectrum banjos have a neck as long as a five-string, but only have four stings. You’ve probably heard them used in entirely different ways than they are here. Here, it’s often capoed up, lending it a sound similar to a tenor banjo.

So you may be thinking two banjos, nothing else? That’s right, and it’s a wonderful trip they take us on. There are three cuts with vocals, all nicely done with unusual verses. The program is rich with 17 cuts ranging from well-known old-time fiddle tunes to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” which works quite nicely in this setting. There is a thoughtful pacing to the music, and the two banjos produce a far more nuanced sound than one might expect. By playing off of each other’s rhythms, they achieve a complexity that belies there are only two instruments involved.

Their are vocals on the old chestnut “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” marked by some sinister verses of an unrepentant sinner. The exuberant “Black Eyed Susie” is about quite a gal to have inspired this version of this song. The ever bluesy “Hop High Lula Gal” is their take on Fred Cockerham’s “Roustabout,” full of blues influences and rich with subtleties.

This project is a wonder of banjo sounds that emphasizes space and subtleties over notes and bombast. If you love banjo music, this little gem is a dandy with a lot to offer. If you love old-time banjo, miss it at your own peril. (



Buncombe Turnpike

Buncombe Turnpike gives us a lot to like in They Passed It Down. Most of all, I appreciate their ambition. They sound like they’re trying on their seventh album to create a distinctive sound while remaining well within the bounds of the bluegrass genre. Taking advantage of a blend of youth and experience, the twenty-year-old band mixes elements of contemporary and classical bluegrass to do so.

The remarkable and too little-known Don Lewis of Ralph Lewis & the Sons of Ralph delivers the most crucial traditional element with his fiddling. The greatest joy of this album comes from fiddle being all over it. Seth Rhinehart, one of the younger members, and guest George Buckner provide banjo playing strongly influenced by classical bluegrass. Band founder Tom Godleski similarly keeps the bass understated, making the others sound good.

The singing, on the other hand, finds Buncombe Turnpike strongly influenced by modern sounds while using the sequencing of solo and trio voices in creative ways. Band members composed fourteen of the fifteen tracks. Godleski wrote ten of them and sang lead on twelve. Mandolin player and tenor singer David Hyatt wrote three, singing lead on a pair. Lewis penned the lone instrumental “High Green.”

Among these many positive attributes, the CD contains too many songs. I would drop the two Christmas songs (“Christmas In The Mountains” is outstanding) from the album and release them as a single each December. I don’t want to hear Christmas songs driving down a country road in 94-degree summer heat. That aside, They Passed It Down is an excellent album by a very good band. (



No Label

Here we go again. Hardly a month or so ago, I reviewed a 15-year-old fiddling phenom. Now comes a 13-year-old fiddling phenom. Carson Peters and Iron Mountain includes the able efforts of Ben Marshall on bass and vocals, Eric Marshall on banjo and vocals, Austin Tate on mandolin and vocals, and Jamie Peters on guitar. This is their first recording.

While Peters’ name is out front, he is still very much a band member. He sings lead on five tunes, displaying a developing voice. At times, as best exemplified on “Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On,” he has moments in which he really hits the rhythm and phrasing quite well. Give him a little time. His fiddling, on the other hand, shows a highly-developed level of skill. His tone is good and his ideas are quite ear-catching, though largely in a traditional manner.

That traditional feel is at the core of the band as a whole, from Peters’ self-penned instrumental “Oak Creek,” which opens the recording straight through covers of Monroe’s “Little Georgia Rose” and “Kentucky Waltz” through standards such as “Old Home Place,” “Crying Holy Unto The Lord,” and “Walkin’ In Jerusalem.” They also feature four originals, the best of which are “Like A Train” and “Oak Creek.”

Who sings what, other than Peters, is not noted. There seems to be several voices, all reasonable. On the instrumental side, the old sounding, straight-up tone of banjoist Eric Marshall stands out as a refreshing change of pace from the usual banjo sounds. A good first recording by a group with lots of potential. (



Voxhall Records

In the first six tracks of the new recording from North Carolina-based Nu-Blu, intense is the watchword. Only track five, the somewhat lilting and light “How Many Rivers” by Gerald Ellenburg and Shawn Lane and sung by guitarist Daniel Routh, breaks that mood and gives the listener a little bit of a breather.

Otherwise, the listener is faced with the intense quality of bassist Carolyn Routh’s lead vocal on the propulsive opener “The Bridges That You’ve Burned.” On that one, written by Carl Jackson, her voice is sharp, almost piercing. She has a point to make and she makes it. Next is the message of “A Lot More Love,” a slow, contemporary country-tinted plea for understanding and tolerance. Carolyn’s lead is more yearning and soft, but the song’s aim is anything but, demanding in its intensity. That’s followed by the double-time feel of “Still Small Voice,” one of those “I will survive” type songs that requires a certain martial spirit to put it across. That Carolyn has. Then there is the sadness of a mother left behind at “640 Battlefield Drive” as her two sons go off to war and don’t return. The violent undercurrent of the ominous “Troublemaker” seems to be about the results of battering women.

The intensity all but disappears on tracks seven through eleven. With the exception of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” which brings with it a certain overly-forced edge, the songs are all tempered. “A Fool And Her Heart,” a Cajun drum-propelled song, is the best of them—fun and free-wheeling. It stands, along with any of the front six, as the best of this recording. (



No Label
No Number

Finishing one of many listenings to a standout track from Opening Doors, the jazzy “Wayfaring Stranger” distinguished by Angel Edgemon’s vocals and Aaron Foster’s supportive guitar playing, I decided to punch the FM button. The WUNC folk show came on, halfway through that very same song. I don’t believe that ever happened to me before. It proved that this album contains a lot of strong songs.

If this CD was rising ETSU senior Bluegrass Pride Band member Aaron “Frosty” Foster’s undergraduate thesis, he would be graduated with highest honors. Of course, he got some high-level help. ETSU “lecturer” Adam Steffey lends his mandolin playing to 12 of the 14 selections. The Gibson Brothers, friends of Foster’s grandparents George and Etta Crawford, provide the harmony vocals on three songs with Leigh Gibson on yet another. ETSU instructors Wyatt Rice and Jeremy Fritts play on two. Another ETSU instructor, Brandon Green, has a lot of fine moments on banjo, straddling the line of classic and contemporary on a dozen pieces.

Besides “Wayfaring Stranger,” there are several highlight tracks. Edgemon’s vocals shine again on a standout version of “There Is A Time,” refreshingly different from The Dillards’ original. “Songbird” features Foster’s finest outing on lead vocals, supported perfectly by the Gibsons. Rice, Fritts, and Foster apply triple guitars to a delightful “Temperance Reel.”

While the performances are uniformly strong, the album exhibits a certain unevenness in selection of material. Several familiar songs from the bluegrass canon are extremely well played, but others are unremarkable versions. “I’m Using My Bible For A Road Map,” for example, is pleasant but nothing new. All told, Opening Doors shows off Foster in a very positive light. (


bucking-mulesTHE BUCKING MULES

Free Dirt Records
Dirt-CD 0082

The Bucking Mules new offering digs deep into the Tennessee roots of fiddler Joseph Decosimo with a few forays into neighboring states. The first and title-cut is a rollicking fine time of a tune with rock-solid rhythm and words from the Georgia Organ Grinders. “John Cooper’s Tune” is more sedate, but equally satisfying. “Georgia Belles” is a flight of fancy from Manco Sneed. Hamper McGee wrote “Jasper Jail” about a place he knew from the inside; Karen Celia Heil sings lead and plays guitar. Blaine Smith was the source of “Irish Washerwoman,” turned into a crooked and lilting reel.

Decosimo picks up the banjo, and banjoist Luke Richardson fiddles on “Railroad.” Their version of “Fire On The Mountain” comes from Oscar Oberturf via Bob Townsend. “Lexington” is a gorgeous setting of “Too Young To Marry” with a fiddle/banjo duet. Luke sings lead on “More Good Women Gone Wrong.” The band learned “Wild Geese At Flight” from the late Trevor Stuart. “Ruffled Drawers” is an alternate title for “New Five Cents.” Luke pulls out his harmonica for the Carter Family song “Girl On The Greenbriar Shore,” on which Karen sings lead. “Altamont” in D is another Oberturf/Townsend gem. Karen again sings lead on Clyde Davenport’s “The Soldier And The Lady.”

“Climbing The Golden Stairs” passed through Alabama fiddler James Bryan on its way to the band. “My Wife Died On Saturday Night” derives from Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters. “Greenback” features three-part harmony backed up by Decosimo’s banjo. Joe Bass Dejarnette holds down the bass in the band. This is all very fine and enjoyable music and deserves to be heard widely. (Free Dirt Records, P.O. Box 11451, Takoma Park, MD 20913,



Spindle Tree Records

Big Sadie is a bluegrass and country-influenced folk/Americana quartet from the Chicago area fronted by vocalist/bassist Elise Bergman and vocalist/guitarist Collin Moore. Also in the group are banjoist Andy Malloy and fiddler Matt Brown. This is their debut for Spindle Tree Records, but also their first to feature a set of all-original material.

Like many of the bands working in the folk/Americana style, Big Sadie writes predominantly songs of a slower tempo. Of the twelve tracks here, nine are in that category. They’re really good at creating tuneful melodies in that tempo range, and Bergman’s lead vocals work best there as well. The opener “Danny” is a fine example. Its languorous feel and Bergman’s understated yet emotional delivery perfectly match the song’s sad and somewhat complicated tale. It’s a fine song, though a bit long. Also of note is the slow country of “Baby It Ain’t You,” in which the protagonist is searching for a replacement love who’ll light her passion. Again, a good melody and good performance from Bergman. “Next Train Home” has a slow, atmospheric and bluesy swing, and the lilting love song “Only You” is also in a slow swing tempo.

The one exception to the rule that their slow songs are their best songs is the closing track “Keep Me Waiting.” Collin Moore is on the lead for what is a very good mid-tempo number with an engaging melody and great energy. Moore’s guitar solo is excellent. As the closer to a solid record, it sends the listener off in upbeat fashion. (