NOTHIN’ FANCY

NOTHIN-FANCYNOTHIN’ FANCY
IT’S A GOOD FEELING

Mountain Fever
MFR1 70922

Twenty-three years and eleven albums into their career, the five members of this Shenandoah Valley, Virginia band have hit an impressive stride and have clearly earned themselves a berth in contemporary bluegrass music’s front ranks. I have to confess that until listening to It’s A Good Feeling, I was unfamiliar with Nothin’ Fancy’s sound. Only now do I realize what I’ve been missing. The fabulous songwriting, picking, and singing on these eleven tracks simply blows me away.

At least two of the founding members of Nothin’ Fancy, singer/mandolin player Mike Andes and banjo player Mitchell Davis, cite Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene as primary influences. I mention this, because these influences serve them in excellent form on standout tracks such as “Lonely Dancer” (co-written by John Hartley and Phil Baggaley) and the soulful “Guitar, Suitcase, And A Bible” (written by Andes). These two songs are merely the icing on the cake. Other delights include a knocked-out revival of Jim & Jesse’s “Hard Hearted” and an imaginative reworking of the Charley Pride honky-tonk hit of yore, “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” written by Ben Peters.

Yet another highlight is a somber prison ballad called “Steel Bars.” It’s one of four songs on the album (including the title tune) penned by Andes, who emerges here as both a masterful writer and singer. (Mountain Fever, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)BA


FELLER & HILL

FELLER&HILLFELLER & HILL
BROTHERS AND HEROES

Rural Rhythm
RUR-1139

What is not to like about this third release from Feller & Hill? In addition to some of the best harmony singing out there, there’s the rich and resonant lead vocals of Chris Hill, best exemplified on “Atlanta Is Burning,” the moderately-loping “Love Is A Stranger,” and the country stomp of “Be A Good Girl.” Juxtaposed against that is the smoother, slightly higher leads of Tom Feller, who’s at his best on the jaunty “Back In My Baby’s Arms” and on the angst-driven “Lord Help Me Decide.” Also on display is Feller’s multi-instrumentalism, a set of skills that has few boundaries. The good humor of his guitar work on “Jerry’s Breakdown” (a tribute to Jerry Reed) is only part of it. He also tears off some fine mandolin solos, a touch of pedal steel, and some fine bass work.

This album is packed with songs that give Feller & Hill cause to showcase their harmony singing. “Childish Love” from the Louvins, Bob Montgomery’s “Back In My Baby’s Arms,” and a solid cover of “Wake Up Little Susie” should be enough to earn high praise. But then they place those beside the sly, honky-tonk “Be A Good Girl,” the up-tempo trucking song “Hammer Down,” and the Civil War trilogy of Aubrey Holt’s “Atlanta Is Burning,” Judith Feller’s tale of a girl’s humanity tending a wounded prisoner, and Tom Holt’s ode to a missing son, “The Bugler.” The album closes with a second Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tune, “Tennessee Hound Dog,” this one featuring Bobby Osborne and his band.

Guest appearances by Mike Cleveland, Steve Thomas, Glenn Duncan, Glen Gibson, Larry Stephenson, Junior Sisk, Lizzy Long, and Jonathan Rigsby make this, if not the best of the Feller & Hill albums, easily the equal of the first two. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 750, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121, www.ruralrhythm.com.)BW


BULL HARMAN AND BULL’S EYE

BULL-HARMONBULL HARMAN AND BULL’S EYE
DRAW FOUR

Bull’s Eye Records
BER-1210

Of the instrumental musicianship in Bull Harman and Bull’s Eye, there can be little doubt. Bull, as anyone familiar with his work can attest, is an upper-tier bluegrass guitarist. His solos are imaginative. His lines are fluid. And he brings great energy to his efforts. Listen to him on the opening instrumental “Draw Four,” and you hear all of that. And you’ll hear it on all the uptempo tunes that make up all but a few tracks of this album, among them “Hot Burrito Breakdown,” “If You’re Ever In Oklahoma,” the snappy swing cover of Lester Flatt’s “Is It Too Late Now,” and “Blue Night.”

The other pickers in the group, banjoist Alex Riffle, mandolinist Hal Cottrell, and bassist Wyatt Harman are not far off, if at all. Riffle shines best on “Hot Burrito Breakdown,” but the difference between that performance and any of his other contributions is slight. The same is true of Cottrell. I was most impressed by his playing on his Spanish-influenced original instrumental “Rushin’ Grass.”

Vocally, the band is not quite on that level. Their harmonies are pretty good—a rather smooth performance all around. Lead-wise they can put the song across competently, but lack distinction. Wyatt, who handles the majority of the leads has an incisive, somewhat sharp tone that brings urgency, particularly on “Is It Too Late Now,” “Jailhouse Blues,” and the slightly up-tempo “False Hearted Love.” Cottrell, who sings on a couple, including his own “Twisted Vines” and Sonny Throckmorton’s “Friday Night Blues,” is at his best with an almost pleading “Blue Night.” Tammy Harman turns in a driving “If You’re Ever In Oklahoma,” her only lead. A solid album that holds much attention with its instrumental work. (Bull’s Eye Records, P.O. Box 2024, Florissant, MO 63032, www.bullharman.com.)BW


BOBBY OSBORNE

bobby-osborne-originalBOBBY OSBORNE
ORIGINAL

Compass Records 746872

   Let’s put the term “musical legend” aside here folks. It certainly applies to Bobby Osborne, who along with Jesse McReynolds and other true originals took the foundations of bluegrass mandolin, handed down by the great Big Mon, and introduced their own unique and invaluable contributions to that sound. And that doesn’t even include the enormous impact he and brother Sonny had in helping keep bluegrass alive during the 1950s until the folk boom introduced bluegrass to thousands of eager college students.

No, for now, we’ll stay in the now. And right now, Bobby Osborne is one of the most compelling vocalists in bluegrass, as his new solo CD, the aptly titled Original, demonstrates again and again. Filled with stunning picking, brilliantly original material selections, and the big voice of Osborne whose keening tenor voice is instantly not just heard, but felt.

“Make The World Go Away,” a song famously rendered by Elvis, Eddy Arnold, and Ray Price, gets the full Nashville Sound treatment here, with a brilliant string arrangement supporting Osborne’s perfectly plaintive voice and mandolin. Speaking of Elvis, Bobby gets the full Presley going on “Don’t Be Cruel.” And the Grammy Award-nominated “Got To Get A Message To You” shows how a cagy veteran can take material from an utterly foreign style such as (gulp) the Bee Gees and make it his own, along with help from Nashville superpickers Alison Brown, Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Jim Hurst, Todd Phillips, Claire Lynch, Del McCoury, Missy Raines, Josh Williams, and more across this brilliant, star-spangled CD.

The now of this album is Bobby’s timeless voice, still strong and high and clear. It’s straight-from-the-still bluegrass, distilled into a contemporary package that will please modern bluegrass fans as much as the old guard who loved “Ruby” and “Rocky Top” when they were new. Even better, Bobby has joined forces with mandolinists Scott Napier and Lauren Price to host a bluegrass mandolin camp deep in Kentucky for those wanting to learn firsthand from one of the fresh and most original voices ever to play bluegrass. Keep on being original Bobby. No one does it better. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave., Nashville, TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)DJM


TIM STAFFORD

TIM-STAFFORDTIM STAFFORD
ACOUSTIC GUITAR

Hedge Drive Records
HDR02

Tim Stafford, again and again, displays why he is one of the most talented people in bluegrass. A co-founder of Blue Highway, he’s contributed countless great songs, wonderful vocals, and stunning guitar work to that landmark band. He’s co-authored the definitive Tony Rice biography. And his solo CDs such as Just To Hear The Whistle Blow reveal another side of his talents as a more mainstream acoustic writer, singer, and guitar player.

It’s that skill the former IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year brings to bear on his aptly titled new solo CD, Acoustic Guitar. Blessed with an exquisite ear, superlative-creating touch and technique, and a nuanced sense of taste, no one in bluegrass has ever made the guitar sound better than Tim Stafford.

The material here ranges from dream-infused soft original melodies such as the elegiac “Janet’s Waltz” for his lovely wife and the opening cuts “Safe Water And Distant Island” to mainstream fiddle tunes and the standards “Wildwood Flower” and “Temperance Reel.” A murderer’s row of Nashville greats guest star on some cuts, although the liner notes don’t spell out who plays on which track.

In keeping with his espoused passion for the instrument, Stafford does nicely notate the grand array of modern and vintage guitars used here, including his legendary 1934 Martin D-18, a 1943 “Banner” Gibson J-45 (complete with FON batch number), his superb Mario Proulx cedar and cocobolo dreadnought, and more, to the delight of guitar geeks everywhere.

Tim’s guitar technique on these elegant instruments runs the full range, from intricate and delicate flatpicking to lush chordal work on “Angel Terrace” and solid Travis-style fingerpicking on the energetic “Hillbilly Neighbor.” “Girl I Left Behind Me” should appeal most to bluegrass guitar fans here, especially with the legendary tone-meister Adam Steffey blending in his trademark clean-as-a-whisper mandolin leads, along with the rollicking tunes “Backseat Blues” and “Tideline.” And the patriotic “I Am America” draws upon the tragedies that have engulfed us, both large and small, to create a statement of hope and purpose.

Taken as a whole, Acoustic Guitar gives Tim Stafford the perfect platform to show fans of many forms of guitar music how he hears his unique voice on the instrument. A modern classic of great tone, tunes, and technique, this album is not to be missed. (www.timstaffordguitar.com)DJM


DALE ANN BRADLEY

Dale-Ann-BradleyDALE ANN BRADLEY

Pinecastle Records
PRC 1209

Once again, Ms. Bradley asserts her powerful pipes on a wide range of songs with a host of guest singers. Unlike years gone by when a popular or country song would sneak its way into a bluegrass project, here we are treated to a few bluegrass numbers among the modern country sounding pieces. Vince Gill’s voice takes you back to the mountains on the Stanley Brothers’ classic “I’ll Just Go Away,” and then there’s the dreamy “Going Back To Kentucky” that is definitely not the Bill Monroe classic, but instead a sweet, dreamy bit of nostalgia. “If You Were Mine To Lose” is classic country via Conway Twitty. The Stanleys’ “Our Last Goodbye” gets the sweet treatment with Tina Adair on harmonies, sounding similar to the sweet harmonies that Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton waxed in the past.

The musicians on this project reads like a who’s who of modern acoustic musicians and would take countless words to tell you who they all are with all the due superlatives. Let’s just say that this is some major production, featuring first and foremost the wonderful vocals of Dale Ann and a range of songs that may be a little too modern for the old moldy figs, but should please those who love the contemporary status of bluegrass. There are no killed animals or hard-scrabble songs, nor wrecked trains or cabins. There is some mighty-fine gospel on “One More River To Cross” and “Stand By Me,” with its righteous quartet.

Bluegrass keeps pushing the boundaries that define it. This project does it tastefully with an easy grace. It is no longer the rural music we once knew and loved, but then she also sings about that here. (www.pinecastlemusic.com)RCB


MOTHER’S BOYS

Mothers-BoysMOTHER’S BOYS
HOME AMONG THE HILLS

Hen Cackle Records
HC510-CD

Mother’s Boys is four veterans of roots music from California: Peter Feldmann, Rick Cunha, Dave Dawson, and David Jackson. The subtitle of their new CD is: A Musical Tribute To The Carter Family. They are joined by guests Moira Smiley, Fred Sokolow, Aubrey Richmond, Susie Glaze, and Laurie Lewis.

There are 15 Carter Family songs on the recording, which begins with A.P. Carter’s “You’ve Been A Friend To Me” that features three-part harmony with guitar, autoharp, bass, and mandolin. Cunha sings lead, as he also does on “My Clinch Mountain Home” that features Lewis on fiddle, harmony, and yodel. Dawson, the autoharp player, sings lead on “Carter’s Blues,” with Richmond singing a high harmony. Jackson plays accordion in addition to bass. Feldmann is lead vocals on “My Home Among the Hills,” on which Cunha adds slide guitar. Smiley sings harmony on “Little Moses.” Glaze sings lead on “Single Girl, Married Girl,” with Smiley on harmony. Richmond fiddles on “I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes” and “My Dixie Darling.” Fred Sokolow plays banjo on “Stern Old Bachelor.” Glaze and Smiley also add their harmony voices to the final cut, “Keep On The Sunny Side.” Also included are “Foggy Mountain Top,” “Jimmy Brown, The Newsboy,” which starts with a bass solo, “Coal Miner’s Blues,” “Oh, Take Me Back,” and “Sweet Heaven In My View.”

These are all fairly traditional arrangements of songs which live on in the bluegrass, old-time, and broader folk communities and make for good listening. (Hen Cackle Records, P.O. Box 814, Los Olivos, CA 93441, www.hencacklerecords.com.)SAG


BILL & MAGGIE ANDERSON

Bill-&-Maggie-AndersonBILL & MAGGIE ANDERSON
GRANDMA’S BREAD

Vintage Acoustic Music
VAM 011

This year saw the fiftieth anniversary that Bill and Maggie Anderson have been married and playing together as a duo. Bill plays guitar and bass while Maggie is quite skilled on resonator guitar. Their years of playing have been highlighted by appearances on PBS and many festivals and events in the Southeast, including Western North Carolina, Southwestern Virginia, and more. This latest project contains five songs from songwriter friend Mark Brinkman and others from Buck Owens, Hazel Dickens, the Louvin Brothers, Gillian Welch, Gram Parsons, Gordon Lightfoot, and Josh Graves. They are joined on the project by Jody King on banjo who also produced and engineered the sessions.

Brinkman’s songs include the title-cut, as well as “Mama Loved The Redbirds,” “It Don’t Take Much,” “Younger Side Of Old,” and “From The Third Day On.” Lightfoot’s “You Are What I Am” was from their meeting through folk music. Other selections include Owens’ “Just As Long As You Love Me,” Dickens’ “My Heart’s Own Love,” Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” and Welch’s “Red Clay Halo” which the Andersons reprise on this release. They perform in an easy-listening style accompanied by King’s tasteful banjo. Maggie’s resonator guitar style is featured in her version of Josh Graves’ “Evelina.” While time may have worn some of the edges off, Bill and Maggie Anderson still can make the listener sit back and simply enjoy pleasant songs presented in a delightful manner. (Vintage Acoustic, 2715 Millstone Rd., Woodlawn, VA 24381, www.vintageacoustic.cc.)BF


THE KEVIN PRATER BAND

Kevin-Prater-BandTHE KEVIN PRATER BAND
ALL I EVER WANTED

Patuxent Music
CD-306

Prater and band are old-school. They play and sing and make music they can reproduce on stage or in a field or wherever they are. Five pieces—banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and guitar—get the job done. While there is no real knockout vocalist, they all handle their jobs with skill and ease. Prater’s mandolin finds new ways to say what needs to be said. Adam Burrow’s fiddle slides around and jumps to the forefront making it felt as much as heard. Jake Burrows plays solid traditional banjo, giving power and great backup to the performances. Danny Stiltner is solid on the bass, while Tom Timberlake’s guitar is spot-on. All of the band members sing at one time or another.

While some bands look ahead for their music, Prater and company reach back for a compelling version of “Lord Daniel,” a variant of the old ballad “Matty Groves,” and Prater’s reading to this is absolutely great. Heck they even reach back for “House Of The Rising Sun.” Prater effectively uses a mandola to open “House Of Gold” on which they emulate the fine trio singing of the Seldom Scene in the Duffey years. It is one of the numbers where he pays homage to Duffey. His original song, “All I Ever Wanted,” is part of this tribute as well.

The whole project is full of good songs and fine picking. This band should be getting more attention with this release. They are not slick or modern or too fancy, but what they lack in sheen they make up for in soul. (www.pxrec.com)RCB