Mountain Fever Record

Instrumental tunes don’t often appear on bluegrass gospel recordings. When they do, it’s generally an instrumental version of a known gospel standard. “How Great Thou Art” comes to mind. Here, however, the instrumental title tune is a composition from Mountain Faith’s mandolinist Corey Piatt. And it fits. The joyful upbeat tune flowing, rippling, and intricately arranged is well in keeping with the overall aim of the recording. It may not be a gospel song, just as “Been There Done That” and “Emily (It’s Love)” are not strict “gospel” songs, but it does, as those other songs do, underscore that a positive message, a joyful noise can be offered in many ways.

This is Mountain Faith’s second recording. The music here starts and finishes with a polished, airy sound built around the smooth and somewhat wistful lead vocals of Summer McMahan. There are times, such as on the “Wayfaring Stranger”-like song “Condemnation” and the slightly funky, slightly modal “Run To Him,” when she and the band give it a bit of sharp emotion. You can add “Absent From The Body,” an uptempo more traditional bluegrass vocal sung by guitarist Luke Dotson, to that list, as well. Mostly, though, the softer side dominates.

That works quite well with the triumphant recovery of “Been There Done That” and the highly contemporary feel of “Emily (It’s Love),” which offers a bit of extra studio production, an ever-evolving arrangement, and pop rhythms. Both are good catchy songs that lift the spirit. So is the rapid energy and momentum of “Let My Life Make A Difference” and, in many ways, vocally and instrumentally the album as a whole. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380,



Keel Fish Music
No Number

Experienced is one of Larry Keel’s best albums in a while. Not that the previous efforts weren’t good, it’s just this recording finds Keel back to his scruffy and experimental best. At the heart of Experienced are seven new original songs written by Keel and bandmate Will Lee. On bass and vocals is the ever-present Jenny Keel joined by a nice array of special guests.

Right out of the gate comes the barnburner instrumental “Ripchord.” Written by Lee, the trio is joined by the legendary Sam Bush on mandolin, who is always up to the challenge of a crooked and cool new gambol. Keel follows up with “Lil Miss,” using his trademark growl to tell a story about a woman that has him quite perturbed. On “Fill ’Em Up Again,” the Hall of Famer Del McCoury adds vocals, Jason Carter plays fiddle, and Steep Canyon Rangers’ Mike Guggino brings his mandolin licks to this good old-fashioned drinking and pickin’ song.

Experienced then takes a wonderful esoteric turn with the Keel-penned songs “Miles And Miles” and “The Warrior.” The former finds Keller Williams showing up for a flowing and atmospheric frolic replete with Keel’s sweet guitar work and the faraway, drifting side of his lead vocals. Peter Rowan is known for the Native American/Buddhist/Tibetan chants and vocalizations that he has sung on various songs over the years. On “The Warriors,” Rowan adds a new chapter to that mystical tradition, only this time with a Mongolian Tuvan throat-singing twist to this exceptional otherworldly romp. The album ends with the most beautiful song in the collection, “Another Summer Day,” written by Lee with Anders Beck’s wonderful resonator guitar work flowing throughout. (



Plum River

Underwood is a 19-year-old banjo picker who plays with the band Bluegrass Express. He’s helped here by some big name friends on this ten-track effort. He wrote four of the cuts, and they show his approach to bluegrass banjo. He’s about the melody and drive, but does not bowl the listener over with excessive speed. Timing is the thing. He is joined by Mike Scott on “Bully Of The Town” for a tasteful banjo romp. He handles a medium tempo pop evergreen, “When You’re Smiling,” with taste and restraint. Steve Thomas’ fiddling throughout the project borders on the sublime.

Underwood plays the mandolin and guitar with great flair as well. He is his own man with both instruments and stays clear of the cliches that riddle so many players’ work these days. The list of guest players is long here and includes Ron Stewart and Tim Crouch, fiddle, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Matt Wallace and Greg Underwood on bass, Justin Moses on resonator guitar, and Emily Hall on guitar. If your tastes run to solidly played, straight-ahead bluegrass, you should find lots to like on this project. (


Annie-Staninec-cdANNIE STANINEC

No Label

Ms. Staninec is a double-threat here as she sings and plays some mighty fine fiddle on a program of music ranging from bluegrass to Cajun with a Celtic number thrown in for good measure.  Her singing is strong and honest, her fiddling is masterful.

Surrounded by an all-star cast of West Coast roots musicians, she sings and plays her way through a baker’s dozen of fine old songs and tunes, treating each one with respect and bringing the powerful essence of each piece to the fore.  Her reworking of an old Sacred Harp number results in a driving opening cut, “Long Time Travelin’.”  She dives into Jim & Jesse’s “Just Wondering Why” singing harmony here to Peter Rowan’s fine lead. The likes of John Reischman help out on mandolin, and the opening track is blessed with Chris Coole’s fine banjo playing. Staninec takes “Steely Rag” through a sleazy romp, exploring the essence of the tune to our good fortune.

There are two fine Cajun numbers here played with the kind of authority that conjures up the taste of great gumbo and hot, sticky air.  Accompanied by Michael Connolly’s uilleann pipes, Staninec digs deep vocally, singing the ballad “Shallow Brown” with great command. The list of guest artists is long. Besides the aforementioned  and also includes Caleb Klauder, Paul Shelasky, Kathy Kallick, Andrew Carriere, and Patrick Sauber, to name but a few. This is a masterful album by a young artist that will attract more attention as she continues to grow on her path.  If you love fine fiddling and great music, don’t miss this fine project. (



Mountain Home

The 25-year career of the Lonesome River Band is a study in durability and adaptation in the face of repeated line-up changes. The one constant has been the steady guiding hand of founding member and master banjoist Sammy Shelor, the only original member still on board. Since 1991, as numerous members have come and gone—Dan Tyminski, Don Rigsby, Ronnie Bowman, and Tim Austin among them—Shelor has kept the band vital and innovative by bringing out the best in each new personnel configuration.

LRB’s—and Shelor’s—resilience shines through again on Bridging The Tradition, the band’s 17th album since its 1991 breakout with Carrying The Tradition. The emotional range on the new album is, as always, impressive, and the song choices and performances are predictably impeccable. On the soulful side of the equation, there’s “Rocking Of The Cradle” (penned by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson), a profoundly stirring anthem of affirmation. There’s also the sardonic “Boats Up The River,” a traditional lament tinged with raw fatalism and despair. “Showing My Age” (co-written by LRB guitarist/vocalist Brandon Rickman and Jerry Salley) and “Mirrors Never Lie” (penned by Rickman and Larry Cordle) are a pair of starkly introspective reveries.

On the lighter and livelier side, there’s a stirring bootlegger’s saga called “Thunder & Lightning” (Adam Wright), a rollicking reprise of the Carter Stanley chestnut “Rock Bottom” and a wryly humorous commentary called “Real People” (also from the able pen of Adam Wright). (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704



Desert Night Music
DN 848

   It’s well known that mandolin and guitar duets played a lively role in homegrown entertainment and later shaped the sound of bluegrass and early country music (as witness the Monroe Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and others). In recent years, David Grisman has celebrated this wonderful sound in albums with Tony Rice, Martin Taylor, and others. Now, Tim May (guitar and vocals) and Steve Smith (mandolin, octave mandolin, and vocals) are also honoring this tradition—and even advancing it.

   They bring impressive backgrounds to their marvelous self-titled outing. Based in Nashville, May had been half of the folk duo Carpenter & May and toured with John Cowan, Patty Loveless, and Eddie Rabbitt. He also played solo guitar on Charlie Daniels’ 2005 Grammy-nominated album I’ll Fly Away. Smith lives in Las Cruces, N.M. He’s done session work for more than thirty albums, including projects headed by Tim O’Brien, Jim Hurst, and Alan Munde.  They met on the staff of Camp Bluegrass in Levelland, TX.

   At seven tracks, it’s short, but it’s very, very sweet. There’s pleasing variety, kicking off with “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome” and progressing through impressive originals by Smith and May. Even the decidedly non-bluegrass/old-time material (notably the Irving Berlin pop classic “Blue Skies” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be”) has a traditional feeling that seems almost effortlessly natural.

   The vocals are very enjoyable, and I can’t say enough good things about the tone, taste, and touch of the instrumental work. It’s captured by an outstanding production that captures their quite inventive picking. It reminds me of Double Time, Bela Fleck’s fascinating 1984 album of duos with guest pickers: The additional meaning to that album’s title was that Fleck ran the recording tape at double speed to pick up more sound information, giving fullness to the banjo and each second instrument that didn’t need bass or other support. I don’t know the technical aspects of May and Smith’s project, but it’s just as successful. So kudos to Steve Smith, who also did the main engineering and mixing that helped realize such rich audio and such a rewarding CD. (



Bygabbled Records
No Number

It’s a joy to discover a regional band that has the potential to breakout nationally. I’d say that’s true of the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Hamilton County Ramblers. Their self-titled debut album is pretty much a total package. Confident, engaging lead vocals and resonate harmony singing combine with picking that’s solid, inventive, and soaring. Everyone plays at pretty much the same level—superb. The tone, note selection, feeling, it’s all here.

John Boulware (fiddle and baritone vocals) comes from a long line of fiddlers stretching to a great great grandfather. He’s soloed with the Murfreesboro Philharmonic Symphony and been a winner at the Tennessee State Fiddle Championships. Roy Curry (guitar) has also won contests at Winfield/Walnut Valley and MerleFest. James Kee (mandolin and lead vocals) had a banjo picking grandfather and sang in town and church choirs as a young man. Josh Hixson (bass and tenor vocals) learned guitar, mandolin, and banjo before specializing in the bass, playing with nationally-known groups such as the Crowe Brothers. Jim Pankey (banjo) mastered clawhammer as well as three-finger picking and is a Tennessee state banjo champion.

The group’s debut also stands out for its material. The opening track, “Cora’s Gone,” best known from the classic Flatt & Scruggs version, puts the Hamilton Ramblers firmly in bluegrass territory. On the contemporary side, “Copperline,” which has received numerous folk and country covers, gets a fresh and warm treatment here. And it’s amazing to hear “Old Chattanooga” done as a fiddle-banjo showcase, then hear the band shift seamlessly into Western Swing with “I Hear Ya Talkin’” (Scott Coney joins on archtop guitar). There’s lots more driving, classic bluegrass (notably a rousing rendition of “She Left Me Standing On The Mountain,” popularized by Jim & Jesse) until the CD ends with a wistful yet powerful a cappella quartet arrangement of “Hard Times (Come Again No More).”

The crisp, bright co-production by the Hamilton County Ramblers and Brent Truitt (of SteelDrivers fame who engineered and mixed) deserves mention. And so does the clever cover art, designed by Boulware and Pankey to look like a belovedly-used old LP. And who knows? You might even play this CD enough to put some real handling wear on its package. (Hamilton County Ramblers, P.O. Box 15725, Chattanooga, TN 37415,



Univ. Press of Miss. 9781496804075. (University of Mississippi Press, 3825 Ridgewood Rd., Jackson, MS 39211,

This huge book is full of tunes, songs, and, inspite of the title, even banjo tablature. The transcriptions run the gambit from rather rudimentary to highly detailed, including bowing. All of the tunes and songs were collected as part of a WPA project in the summer of 1936 by 130 field workers. In 1939, Herbert Halpert and Abbott Ferriss went back following leads left by these workers and recorded 144 fiddle tunes. Prior to the release of this book, 43 of the best fiddle tunes were released on an LP, Great Yam Potatoes. For the first time, we get a deeper look into the breadth and depth of the folk music of Mississippi in the 1930s.

The inclusion of notes on the informants of the transcriptions brings the people who made the music come to life, if only in tiny snatches. They often lived in dire poverty as rural America was hit very hard during the Great Depression, and the collecting of this music was part of a great investment in America being made at that time. Naming conventions are out, as many tunes were actually known elsewhere with completely different titles. This highlights the provincial view of the informants.

The authors have done a compelling job of bringing together and presenting this material that it might be utilized not only by musicians looking for traditional music from the region, but also by historians trying to fill in gaps in the life and times of this state. The writing style is lucid and flows very nicely, bringing the events into sharp focus. There are several appendices detailing maps of the recording process and one that includes information about Alivs Massengale, a fiddler whose music was collected in the 1970s. This is a scholarly work worthy of the attention of all who are interested in learning more about the roots of string band music.RCB



No Label
No Number

Tim and Savannah Finch form the basis of the Eastman String Band, whose additional members include Stefan Custodi (bass) and Jon Glik (fiddle). Additional artists on this project include John Miller (guitar), Fred Travers (resonator guitar), Katie Chambers (cello), Nate Grower (fiddle), Lincoln Meyers (guitar), and Dion Clay (drums). Tim sings lead and harmony vocals and plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, and pedal steel. Savannah sings lead and harmony vocals and plays guitar. Tim is also a representative of Eastman Strings, hence the name of the band.

Most of the songs on this project were written by Savannah and/or co-written with Tim. By calling themselves a string band, the group is able to expand their music into a more Americana feeling while keeping with a primarily bluegrass instrumentation. The mix of drums and steel on some tunes is very tastefully done, as is the inclusion of cello. “Opening My Eyes” sets the project’s tone followed by “Only Bird Not Singing” with its slow start that kicks into high gear. Other tunes include “Happy Heart You Send,” “My Tombstone (Weathered Fields),” “Back In Your Good Graces,” “Are You Mad,” “Eventide Bloom,” and the title-cut “’Neath A Midnight Sky” (a fiddle poem). The instrumental “Run Ashore” features Meyers on guitar, and “If We Could Live A Thousand Years” is a lovely tune that has Savannah’s vocal backed by Tim’s simple guitar. Overall with this collection of talented sidemen, the Finch’s have created a great sounding project which very nicely blends their lead and harmony vocals with near flawless instrumental backing. (



Native & Fine Records

“Thank goodness there are only three parts,” says Fletcher Bright as he kicks off the old-time fiddle tune “Elzic’s Farewell.” I mentally responded, “How could anyone tell, Fletcher, since all fiddle tunes sound alike?” (Badda bing!) Actually, the 16 tunes on Songs That Are Mostly Older Than Us definitely do not sound alike. Fletcher and Bill Evans have chosen well, mixing the obscure “American Rifle Team Hornpipe” with the popular “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and the hopelessly crooked “Hannah In The Spring House” with Arthur Smith’s oh-so-straight “Sugar Tree Stomp.” They also wisely include originals such as Bill’s funky “Berkeley Shanghai” and Sam Bush’s “Norman And Nancy.”

Fletcher’s fiddle is front and center, as it should be, since this CD was recorded live at his Tennessee mountain home. Fletcher has a way with a bow, and his energy and love for fiddling are palpable on every tune. He can play it rowdy or he can play it sweet, as he does on the haunting “Heart Of The Heartland.” Bill, an equal partner, takes his own well-crafted solos, provides banjo backup, and often plays in unison with Fletcher. Bill and his Granada have never sounded better, as he pulls a clear, buttery tone that explodes with richness. His expertise is evident as he enhances these complex melodies with solid, well-chosen Scruggs licks and difficult single-string work.

Then to add icing to an already rich cake, we have the considerable talents of Norman and Nancy Blake. Norman’s guitar playing is as sturdy as ever and is a complete pleasure to listen to. Nancy’s cello adds so much warmth and depth that one wonders why Bill Monroe did not make it a primary bluegrass instrument. In fact, the “sleeper cut” for me was a driving arrangement of “Cluck Old Hen,” which starts out with only FB’s fiddle and Nancy’s growling cello. Then Bill makes a powerful entrance, pounding out hammer-ons like John Henry with a steam drill. Who would have thought anyone could have breathed such life into this old chestnut? In short, Songs That Are Mostly Older Than Us is a delightful CD full of surprises. (Native & Fine Records, 6071 Monterey Ave., Richmond, CA 94805,



No Label

Such evocative titles and lyrics and some good music to match. Start with “Mr. Edwin Butson Has The Reins,” a song based on an 1890s mail-run between two towns in Australia from which the song’s author and singer Pete Denahy hails. It’s hard not to be drawn by such a title and hard not to like the rollicking tune and vivid lyrics. Move then to the rabbit-infestation problems of “The Bottle’s Gonna Get You In The End” and on to the old-time sounds of “Singin’ Shoes.” In fact, follow this right on down the line from the moody, pensive lyrics and presentation of “Oh, My Lord” to the hard-luck lyrics and swing country of “Smoke Gets In His Eyes” to “Cluck Old Henry,” a recast traditional fiddle tune with new lyrics. All of those hit their mark—played well, sung well and arranged well.

After that, the offerings trail off a bit, but not by much. They’re a little more run of the mill, although the departure song “Paper Ribbon” and the fiddle tune “Cluck Old Hen” in its traditional form have their moments.

Denahy is a veteran of the Australian music scene and has several recordings behind him. He wrote or co-wrote all but the fiddle tune here and plays a clean tuneful mandolin throughout. His singing largely has a bright, happy-go-lucky quality about it, as if he’s giving you a wink and a nod through the speakers. The exceptions are the more thoughtful tunes such as “Oh, My Lord” on which he is appropriately subdued. For this recording, Denahy gathered a fine set of local musicians, including banjoist George Jackson, fiddler Kat Mear, resonator guitarist Pete Fidler, guitarist Dan Watkins, and bassist John Edgar. The results are quite freewheeling and well-paired to the music. A good album all told. (


frank-solivanFRANK SOLIVAN

Fiddlemon Music
7 4664 2

Frank Solivan takes a bit of a U-turn with his latest recording and the results are more grounded, more down-to-earth, and dare it be said, more traditional. Those of you expecting the expansive jazz and rock jamming that characterized much of his previous recordings should not, however, despair. His opener “Pretty Woman,” featuring the harmony singing and a “mercy” or two from Del McCoury, should ease your mind. The tempo picks up during Mike Munford’s trademark banjo solo and carries through Solivan’s solo, evolving into the “Day Tripper” riff before trailing off to a conclusion. Or so it seems. The “trail off” is really the beginning of a slightly extended jam that eventually circles back to the “Pretty Woman” riff. That’s followed by an island-sounding Solivan original song about family and vacations called “Mask, Snorkel and Fins.” As with “Pretty Woman,” it is riff-driven and features a modest jam. A bit later is an even stronger island-sounding tune, “You Don’t Write.” That, too, has some extended soloing.

Mostly though, this is an album about celebrating roots. To that end, Solivan brings in family members and influential friends and focuses on songs he associates with both. “Mexico,” a duet with his cousin Megan McCormick, and “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” a full band treatment with high harmony from John Cowan, are more pop-related. The rest are largely associated with country and bluegrass. There is another fine duet with McCormick on the old-time and sentimental “Put Me In Your Pocket,” followed by a straight-ahead cover of “I Still Miss Someone” and a couple tracks later by Frank’s mother singing a bluesy and emotional “Wayfaring Stranger.” Two mandolin duets, “Dark Hollow” with Sam Bush and “When The Leaves Turn Brown” with Ronnie McCoury, round out the highlights.

Where does this album lead Solivan? Who knows? Just enjoy. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S, Nashville, TN 37212,



Spring Fed Records

Taken from cassette recordings made by John Hartford in the home of Howdy Forrester in 1986. These are informal recordings and the relaxed nature reveals two friends playing tunes, Howdy on the fiddle and John playing his banjo in his three-finger-style that is bluegrass and old-time all at once.

Many of the tunes came from Howdy’s great uncle Bob Cates, who was an early influence on the young fiddler. That this is not the first time these two sat down like this and played is evident in John’s knowledge of Howdy’s repertory and his prodding for different tunes. There is also a relaxed repartee here in the stories related between the tunes that isn’t necessarily fit for broadcast, but displays the level of comfort these two musicians shared.

Along with the fine liner notes, written by Jim Wood (also a Tennessee fiddler who did a recording with John), there are transcriptions of the tunes played here. They are not exactly what Howdy plays, but offer the main gist along with some of his many variations. These aren’t what one would term high-fidelity recordings due to having been made on a cassette recorder. What the recording lacks in that area, it more than makes up for in the absolute brilliance of the performances. Tunes include “Going Across The Sea,” “Dugler With A Shoefly,” “Sugar In The Gourd,” and “Ladies In The Ballroom,” to name a few.

For longtime fans of either of these great artists and fans of the fine old tunes that are part of the bedrock of our music, this is a fine recording well worth hearing and enjoying. (Spring Fed Records, Center for Popular Music, MTSU Box 41, Murfreesboro, TN 37132,



Mountain Fever Records

You have to admire the longevity and the dedication of Nothin’ Fancy. I first reviewed the band some time in the late 1990s, upon the release of Earn Your Ticket. They were just getting started, more or less, good but not great. All these years later, four of the five guys on that CD are still with the band, and their sound should put them very close to the top-tier bands. This is their 12th album.

At their core is still mandolinist Michael Andes. He wrote 9 of the 12 songs here and, with a smooth resonant midrange voice that is sounding better than ever, sings most of the leads. His knack for writing instantly engaging songs in a diverse array of styles is fully on display. He opens with the relaxed and upbeat resignation of “Love, War And Games,” with its “Gentle On My Mind” kind of flow, then shifts gears dramatically to “Blue Tears,” a period-sounding honky-tonk number that’s not far off from any of the classic songs in that genre. He shifts again to a solid four-part gospel tune “Sing Hallelujah,” then in short order to a mining tragedy song, a humorous and swingin’ tune about a “Wanna-Be Farmer,” and then an ode to craftsmen everywhere, “Silas Brown.” His “Broken Too Soon,” a 3/4-time tale of making and failing to keep vows is one of the best tracks here, along with the two openers. Their cover of “Last Train From Poor Valley,” given a touch of Irish lilt, is also up there.

Through all these shifts and moods, the supportive roles—soloing and harmony vocals of fiddler Chris Sexton, banjoist Mitchell Davis, bassist Tony Shorter, and newcomer guitarist Caleb Cox—are everything you could want and make this a very good recording. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380,



Mountain Fever Records

At the time of this recording, Grasstowne was essentially mandolinist Alan Bibey, banjoist Justin Jenkins, and bassist Kameron Keller, all holdovers from 2011’s Kickin’ Up Dust . The guitar and fiddle slots were open.

As such, guest musicians and former members were brought in to fill the vacancies. Fiddler Adam Haynes, an alumnus of Kickin’ Up Dust, turns up on “This Old Guitar And Me,” one of two singles from the project getting some deserved recognition. Ronnie Bowman joins on that track as a guest lead vocalist. The other single is the bluesy and powerful 3/4-time “Cold Dark Ground” sung by another former member, Blake Johnson, and backed by guest Ron Stewart on fiddle and guitar. Stewart appears on all but two tracks and is, as usual, stellar. Shannon Slaughter, who had a stint with the group in recent years, is also on most of the tracks as a harmony singer.

Despite not having a complete Grasstowne lineup for any one track, the music here is high level throughout and largely consistent with the band’s sound. Having three-fourths of a lineup and having Stewart is key. The other key is good material. “Cry Baby Cry” is a grinding medium-tempo number written by Elmer Burchette, a master of that style of song. Bibey gives it his most attacking lead vocal to date and throws in a mandolin solo to match. “You Can Feel It In Your Soul” is a spirited Flatt & Scruggs gospel number not covered too often, followed by Wes Golding’s “I’m Country” given a blend of contemporary touches and ’70s bluegrass. Also of note are the swing beat and melodic pattern of “You Let Me Down” and the half-time vocals over torrid accompaniment on the Kim Fox, Bibey, and Bowman original “Can’t Stop The Rain.” (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd. NW, Willis, VA 24380,