No Label
No Number

The latest recording from mandolinist Johnny Staats and guitarist Robert Shafer is one characterized by all of the usual superlatives expressing expert musicianship, but perhaps more than that by the aural surprises the duo offer here. If you scan the track list, you might not think so. The majority of the songs included are standards. For every “La Gitana” and “Gypsy Waltz,” both of which are brilliantly performed and somewhat outside the mainstream, there are a handful of standards such as “Leather Britches,” “Big Mon,” “Jerusalem Ridge,” “Grey Eagle,” and “Texas Gallop.” Staats also sings a couple of standards, “Banks Of The Ohio” and “By The Side Of The Road.” Again, both nicely done.

Where the surprises come are in the many flourishes and twists that the pair bring to these old songs. The challenge is that these flourishes cannot be just flourishes. In other words, the entire solo cannot just be a series of hot licks or musical digressions having only a vague tie to the tune at hand. Staats and Shafer both succeed here, not by wowing you with their technical skill (though that certainly does happen), but by placing their sudden bursts of triplets and floating passages, odd scale ideas, and slides and rhythmic alterations in contrast to the melody at hand. The tune is never completely lost. It may disappear for short spells, but it always returns. Their version of “Jerusalem Ridge” is a good example of this. The ideas and variations flow out, but you never forget what song you’re hearing. Backing the pair is bassist Davey Vaughn, along with percussionist Rachel Reynolds on one track. (



Rounder Records

“It’s finally here! Millions of fans have clamored for the latest release from global banjo sensation Noam Pikelny, and he’s finally obliged them with the release of Noam Pikelny Plays Noam Pikelny. Oh wait, what? Oops, let’s start again.”

Well, you’ll forgive me if you’ve seen the hilarious promo video that Pikelny, star banjo player with Punch Brothers, has issued to announce his first “true” solo CD, Universal Favorite. The tongue-in-cheek title plays off his skewed sense of humor, satirizing his newfound fame as a recipient of the Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo and his work with the acclaimed stringband. What’s not ironic or skewed is the quality of Noam’s music here. Perhaps the most technically gifted banjo player alive, Pikelny also possesses an innate sense of melody and musicianship that leverages his unparalleled technical skills to create music on solo banjo (and even electric guitar) that transcends mere technique. Noam’s playing here is the very essence of lyrical, often hypnotically beautiful, fretboard work. Complex, arpeggiated lines swell and fall under his masterful right-hand touch.

Unlike previous records under his own name, Universal Favorite features just Noam, his husky baritone voice, and his unique skills on a variety of stringed instruments including five-string banjo, tenor guitar, Telecaster, and acoustic guitar. It’s a daunting challenge few musicians have had the nerve (or talent) to undertake. But here, as in his previous records under his own name and with Punch Brothers, Pikelny soars. His solo banjo playing here is utterly majestic.

The tunes here range from melodically traditional-sounding tunes, such as “Sugar Maple,” “Redbud,” and “Hen Of The Woods,” to more progressive melodies such as “Bye.” And to keep things from sounding too monotonous, Pikelny spices up his presentation by fingerpicking a resonator instrument and even a Fender Telecaster, always showing the melodic side of his skills.

After his success of recreating the classic Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe record, Noam has zigged when other artists might have stuck to a proven formula and a ready audience. Instead, we get this, a deep glimpse into his musical soul. And while it might not be universally favored by all bluegrass fans, anyone open to new sounds and brilliant playing should find this CD one of their newest favorites. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803,



Tresbear Music

Presenting an album of all original instrumental tunes tests the capabilities of a performer, arguably, more than any other type of recording. Faced with such a prospect, most performers choose to include one or a couple of known tunes, if for no other reason than to give the listener a couple of footholds.

With his second release, mandolinist and tune-writer Tony Huber is going all in, writing all 13 tunes here, betting on his own creativity. For the most part, he succeeds. Backed in different configurations by Gretchen Priest-May on fiddle, Stan Lawrence on guitar and mandolin, David Boisvert on woodwinds and pennywhistle, Stuart Bonnington on banjo, and Bob Nobles on bass and guitar, the tunes he’s written have a light, lyrical appeal. While you don’t necessarily find yourself whistling them hours later, they are pleasant to hear and he draws on several musical styles. Several, including “River Waltz,” “Piney River,” and “Galway Coast” are Irish in sound and presentation, colored by Boisvert’s pennywhistle for added effect. Old-time and bluegrass are represented by the stately tunes “Just In Time,” “Beaux’s Grin,” and “Random Thoughts,” while a touch of Cajun creeps into “Natalie’s Stuff.”

A step above those is “Hungarian Caravan,” a gypsy-style tune with a slight Klezmer feel from Boisvert’s clarinet. Better still is “Marching With A Smile.” The title says it all. Big old parade drums (bass and snare) give this a lively kick and you can’t help but smile. That would be the album’s highlight were it not for the medieval sounding “Village Fete.” Paired down to mandolin, fiddle, and horns, it’s hard not to be drawn in by its mysterious sound.

Where this album falls a bit short is that the tempos are too similar. A couple of faster songs may have helped. (Tresbear Music, 573 Southerland Rd., Dickson, TN 37055



Pinecastle Records

Bassist, singer/songwriter Ray Cardwell is making his return to bluegrass. He started in that field some many years ago, playing first with his father, then with his siblings (including long-time IBMA staffer, Nancy). Then it was into the world of rock and reggae. Now, like many other wanderers, Joe Diffie among them, he’s back in the fold.

Easing his re-entry are friends and associates, almost all of them stars in the bluegrass world. There are Pat Flynn and John Cowan from NGR, mandolinists Danny Roberts and Jesse McReynolds, fiddler Andy Leftwich, banjoist Scott Vestal, resonator guitarist Rob Ickes, and vocalists Claire Lynch and Ronnie Bowman.

Cardwell wrote nine of the twelve songs, and covers Mitch Jayne’s “Whole World ’Round,” which he gives a sharper, grittier read than The Dillards. The majority, particularly those tunes with Cowan and Flynn, are decidedly newgrass. Some returnees try to play up the bluegrass end. Cardwell chooses to let his recent musical background stand as who he is, albeit placing it in a bluegrass context. That starts with his voice. While the opener, the gospel “His Will,” has arguably the strongest bluegrass feel, it’s not long before the rock/newgrass side takes over. Songs such as the slow, anthem “Open Your Eyes” or the energetic cover of Kyle Wood’s “Cry” or Cardwell’s own cautionary song of love, “Stop, Look And Listen,” are heavy on rock influences, having the brassy, bluesy, polished quality similar to Cowan’s and recalling such ’70s groups as Styx and Kansas. He also includes a bluegrass/reggae crossover titled “Sing It To The World.” All of those are standout tracks. Also standouts, and perhaps the most counter to the overall sound of what is an entertaining recording, are two four-part gospel songs, “Sailin’ For Glory” and “New Jerusalem.” (



Rootsy Music

Part of the truth in the notion that bluegrass travels well is evidenced by the release of Happy Landing by The Original Five, a group of musicians from Sweden. This is the follow up to the band’s 2015 release Across the Deep Blue Sea. Formed in 2010, their debut album and acclaim followed with their 2014 debut Greetings From Möllevången. The band has played across Europe and the U.S. and were invited to the Bluegrass Ramble at the 2015 IBMA World Of Bluegrass in Raleigh, N.C.

This latest release is a clean, eclectic, album with eight original songs and three nice covers: Flatt & Scruggs’ “Fireball,” Merle Haggard’s “Old Man From The Mountain,” and Jim McCall’s “A Rambler And A Rover.” Among the best cuts are “Tomorrow’s Just Another Night Away” and the title “Happy Landing.”

The Original Five features Daniel Olsson on resonator guitar, Johan Malmberg on banjo/vocals, Jonas Svahn on guitar/vocals, Dan Englund on bass/vocals, and Ola Persson on mandolin. The picking and vocals are sharp and clean.(


Knoxville-SessionsVARIOUS ARTISTS

Bear Family
BCD 16097




Bear Family
BCD 17300

As the CD format sinks slowly into the west, Bear Family still maintains a high standard for comprehensive and well-documented country and bluegrass book/CD sets. Two current offerings combine thorough historical research with state-of-the-art sound preservation from period recordings. Both focus on music from Knoxville, Tenn., from the 1920s through the postwar era when local country music flourished on stations WNOX and WROL. After the war, bluegrass flourished there with artists such as Carl Story, Carl Butler, the Sauceman, Brewster, Webster, and Bailey Brothers groups, the Carlisles, Molly O’Day, and Jimmy Murphy. Earl Scruggs began his career in Knoxville with Lost John Miller’s band in 1945, returning to WROL with Lester Flatt & the Foggy Mountain Boys four years later.

Less remembered are records from two Knoxville recording trips by a team from the 1920s Brunswick label to capture regional talent for its Vocalion brand in 1929 and 1930. The visits were stimulated by local broadcasts and healthy hillbilly record sales at the Sterchi Brothers store on downtown Gay Street. Performers included the Tennessee Ramblers, Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, Southern Moonlight Entertainers, and Smoky Mountain Ramblers, names recalled today primarily by historians and record collectors. Unfortunately, their records went on sale just as the Stock Market took a dive in October 1929 and are now among the rarest of the era. Following considerable research, annotators Ted Olson and Tony Russell offer a wealth of personal and background detail about nearly everyone on the records, along with photos, documents, and brief biographies. The sound restoration is good, although several worn discs contain some of the set’s best performances.

Roy Acuff’s early career path and poor health paralleled Jimmie Rodgers. Each found himself playing music more by default than design. Tuberculosis took the Blue Yodeler from railroading to entertaining in 1925, and his blues-flavored blend of old and new songs made him a regional star until his death in 1933. Acuff’s dream of playing professional baseball was derailed when he failed to recover completely from severe sunstroke in 1929. After teaching himself to play fiddle during an extended convalescence, he joined a medicine show in 1932 with Clarence “Tom” Ashley, learning some good songs and developing his music and performance skills. Back in Knoxville that fall, Roy performed over WROL with his brother Spot and an energetic bass playing neighbor named Frank “Red” Jones. By then, slapped basses had replaced tubas in dance band rhythm sections, and Jones became the first to record with one in a southeastern string band. Basses emphasized the beat for jukebox dancers in bars and honky-tonks, and they became the norm in country string bands and Western Swing after the mid-1930s.

Roy Acuff’s Crazy Tennesseans band in 1936-’38 blended hymns, folk songs, frolics, and pop tunes into an eclectic mix that showed off various band members along with Roy himself. Their first hits included “New Greenback Dollar,” “Freight Train Blues,” “Great Speckled Bird” (no. 1 and 2), “Steel Guitar Chimes” and, of course, “Wabash Cannonball.” The last was sung by Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher on the record, but his accent was enough like Roy’s that no one detected the difference. The band consisted of Roy’s fiddle, Clell Summey’s resonator guitar, Jess Easterday’s guitar, Red Jones on string bass, and (in 1936 only) Hatcher’s mouth harp. Jones sang countrified versions of 1920s pop hits “Old Fashioned Love,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” in a cheerful upbeat style in contrast with Roy’s mournful mountain tenor. The band’s resonator guitar, fiddle, string bass, and vocal harmony was carving out a new, aggressive hot style, planting seeds for an evolving string band sound that would be called “bluegrass” in years to come.

Roy signed on in the fall of 1938, and soon Summey and Jones were replaced by Beecher Kirby (Bashful Brother Oswald) on resonator guitar and Lonnie (Pap) Wilson on bass. The Crazy Tennesseans became the Smoky Mountain Boys, and records, film, and The Opry soon made stars of them all. Roy’s impact rivaled Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Eddy Arnold, and Bill Monroe, and he became as popular in the Southeast as Bob Wills was in the Southwest. More than anyone else, Roy Acuff represented country music from 1937 through the 1940s and created more than a few memorable performances along the way.

Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys (with another bass player) joined The Opry in 1939, adding another hot stringband with a high lead voice to the roster, and it wasn’t long before he and Roy had a serious falling out. After hearing Bill sing “Mule Skinner Blues,” Roy covered it on record in April 1940, months before Bill had an opportunity to cut it himself. Despite Roy’s apology, Bill wanted to beat him up and their musicians had to physically separate them. Later on though, the two became friends and their song lists rarely overlapped again. One reason was the introduction of song publishing to Nashville.

In the album notes, Gayle Dean Wardlow describes how Roy’s relationship with his label deteriorated over 1937-’38, when producer W.R. Calaway copyrighted “Great Speckle Bird” and other songs from the early sessions in his own name, so promised royalties failed to materialize. When an opportunity arose to gain control over his songs and become a publisher himself, Roy was more than ready. He had married Mildred Douglas in 1936 and, when he persuaded composer Fred Rose to form a publishing house, Mildred took the opportunity to develop her business skills as a semi-silent partner. Acuff-Rose opened in 1942 and new songs quickly started earning money for country composers including, of course, Rose himself. Wartime hits generated unprecedented revenues and encouraged other talented writers such as Arthur Q. Smith, Jim Anglin, Jenny Lou Carson, Walter Bailes, and Hank Williams to place original songs with Acuff-Rose and other publishers. A growing catalog let Roy choose what he wanted to record, including songs prepared and arranged for him by Rose himself along with songs he purchased outright.

In the record notes, Colin Escott describes the situation as a mixed blessing: “Some of Rose’s songs—“Prodigal Son,” “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” and “We Live In Two Different Worlds”—ideally suited Acuff. Others were closer to the pop confections with which Rose had made his name and didn’t play to Acuff’s ‘full-throated, unabashed’ mountain singing.” True enough, but Rose also contributed “Low And Lonely,” “Be Honest With Me,” “Fireball Mail,” “Waltz Of The Wind,” and “Pins And Needles” to an impressive list of Acuff hits.

Meanwhile, younger artists such as Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers were combining new styles of solo and harmony singing with an updated unplugged sound that drew energy from Earl Scruggs’ fire-breathing five-string banjo techniques. Roy countered by ditching the accordion, hiring the great Joe Zinkan on bass, reclaiming Oswald’s resonator guitar, and relinquishing the fiddling to great stylists such as Tommy Magness, Benny Martin, or Howdy Forrester. This collection ends with Roy’s last Columbia records from 1951, where Martin is heard to advantage, playing fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin at various times, and Zinkan plays superb rhythm guitar. Among several good songs is a menacing Cold War admonition, “Advice To Joe [Stalin],” sung by a trio with Martin and Zinkan on two guitars. Resonator guitar pioneer Speedy Krise wrote “A Plastic Heart,” accurately predicting heart transplant surgery more than 15 years later. A goofy Louvin Brothers song, “Bald Knob, Arkansas” (recently revived by Leroy Troy), features Martin on both mandolin and banjo. By year’s end, his 15-year association with Columbia Records concluded, just as Howdy Forrester took Benny Martin’s place with the Smoky Mountain Boys, and Benny joined Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs.

This comprehensive collection includes all Acuff titles from 1936 through 1951, with surviving outtakes, extensive notes by Gayle Dean Wardlow and Colin Escott, and DVD selections from the movie Grand Ole Opry (1940), with Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, and the Weaver Brothers and Elviry. If you’re curious about the roots of bluegrass, listening to Roy Acuff’s music will enlighten you and pleasantly surprise you, too.(


connell-&-skyeTIM CONNELL & ERIC SKYE

Half-Diminished Records
No Number

It’s hard to get a handle on exactly what’s at hand upon popping June Apple from Tim Connell and Eric Skye into the CD player. The first thing you notice is an extremely high-quality production that showcases some of the cleanest and richest guitar and mandolin playing around. A flip to the back cover reveals a series of songs familiar to lovers of bluegrass and traditional music, such as “Temperance Reel,” “Angeline The Baker,” “Cherokee Shuffle,” “I Am A Pilgrim,” and “Billy In The Lowground.” But, you almost assuredly have never heard the take of these two gentlemen on these classics.

Connell is known internationally for his mandolin playing, and is part of the supergroup, the Ger Mandolin Orchestra. He also tours with his own swing band (Stumptown Swing) and plays with the Americana group Old Yellers. Skye is known as a jazz guitarist who also picks Americana and blues for a unique, rich sound. His album A Different Kind Of Blue was named a Top Ten acoustic guitar album of 2012, and he has an acclaimed 2015 release, Artifact, with Mark Goldenberg.

So what the listener gets with June Apple is a collection of well-worn favorites done in such a way that the traditional melody lingers on the backside of the ear, while a fresh and driving take is delivered. “I Am A Pilgrim” and “Angeline The Baker” are worth the price of the entire CD—which leaves a sweet bonus, including two originals, “The Locktender’s Reel” and “Black Butte Waltz.” This album would be perfect not just for listening to on a long ride in the country, but also over the office sound system or through headphones. It won’t disappoint. (



Wendell Records

According to the notes in the accompanying booklet, this latest project from Danny Barnes is a tribute to the late Don Stover, a banjo player who was a heavy influence on Barnes. While having never met Stover, Barnes attributes Stover’s 1972 Rounder LP Things In Life as the catalyst that caused him to focus on playing banjo. He even styled his Bad Livers band after the Stover style. Some of the songs from that LP are reprised here, albeit with the Barnes stamp on them.

Songs like “Black Diamond,” “Rockwood Deer Chase,” “Ole Liza Jane,” and “Paddy On The Turnpike.” Other covers of standard instrumentals include “John Hardy,” “Bill Cheatum,” “Farewell Blues,” “Flint Hill Special,” and “Foggy Mountain Special.” Barnes also contributes a slowed-down version of “Steel Guitar Rag,” and his own tune “Isotope 709.” Vocally, Barnes offers a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl,” and two of his own, “Charlie” and “Get It While You Can,” the latter featuring Barnes on 12-string guitar.

Helping out on the CD are Jason Carter (fiddle), Mike Bub (bass), Chris Henry (mandolin, National Tenor guitar), and Nick Forster (guitar, mandolin), who also produced the project. Perhaps some will find Barnes’ banjo style inspiring as much as Don Stover’s was to him. (



No Label
No Number

   In the list of flatpicking guitarists who came of age in the post-Tony Rice/Russ Barenberg/David Grier era, Grant Gordy and Ross Martin emerge as two standout musicians. They’ve absorbed bluegrass playing at its deepest roots while also being open to expanding their technique and vocabulary to include the language of modern jazz, swing, and other styles.

Gordy rose to acclaim as the guitarist with the David Grisman Sextet, while Martin has thrilled audiences and listeners with his intricate, highly-melodic playing with the Matt Flinner Trio. Gordy and Martin first met when they lived in Colorado and have maintained a friendship and musical partnership ever since.

On their debut recording, these two guitarists brilliantly engage each other, intertwining their instruments to create layers of intricate harmony and counterpoint melodies. Unlike some similar duo projects, this isn’t a glorified jam session where the musicians trade solos. The music here is deep and rich and complex, unveiling new nuances and subtleties over repeated listening. All-instrumental recordings in bluegrass and acoustic music can end up relatively flat and one-dimensional at times, but there’s no danger of that here. We’ve got two brilliant musicians devoted to playing down their own egos and playing up their shared melodies. One highlight is their brilliant medley of “Snowflake Reel” and “Bright Size Life,” a jazz standard written by guitarist Pat Metheny. How the duo relate to the common chord progressions and create a complex interaction between two lead lines played in harmony is a testimony to the level of musicianship these guitarists bring to this project.

Year Of The Dog is a worthy addition to the recent influx of twin-guitar albums. Filled with daring, harmonically inventive solos and richly conceived twin-guitar parts, this project showcases two of today’s finest flatpickers at the height of their creative powers. Highly recommended. (


High-Fidelity-Album-Cover-SSHIGH FIDELITY

No Label
No Number

   Once in a great while a new band and new recording comes along that captures my attention. This CD instantly propelled me to the 1950s and the music of my idols. It caught me by surprise, but shouldn’t have. I already knew Jeremy Stephens to be a longtime student of an era that was years before he was born. His heroes include the Blue Sky Boys, the Stanley Brothers, and Don Reno, among others. He recently spent six years as guitarist and bass singer with the legendary Chuck Wagon Gang. I was disappointed when I heard he was leaving—that is, until I heard High Fidelity.

It’s not accurate to call them a “new” band. They’ve been around since 2014, and won the SPBGMA band contest that year (easy to understand why). When I talked to Jeremy during his tenure with the Chuck Wagon Gang (see my review of their DVD, Feb. 2016), he never mentioned High Fidelity, so this was a revelation.

The whole band shares the same commitment to the traditional sounds of bluegrass. Jeremy’s band partner and wife, fiddler Corinna Logston Stephens, is a student of the first generation of bluegrass fiddlers—e.g., Benny Martin, Tater Tate, Mack Magaha—and does it ever show! And on top of that, she’s a great singer, too. It turns out she’s been on the bluegrass scene for quite a while. She’s all over YouTube videos, once you know where to look. Corinna and Jeremy show up in various groups—Chris Henry, Rob Montgomery, Eddie Gill—musicians who all have one thing in common; uncompromising hardcore bluegrass.

Banjo man Kurt Stephenson plays straight-ahead Scruggs, but sneaks in a melodic riff occasionally, just so you know he can. But for me, his mastery of Ralph Stanley’s syncopated roll from the 1950s on “Cry From The Cross” and “I’m Lost, I’ll Never Find The Way” won me over completely. Ralph’s banjo style went through a number of phases, and what he was playing in the ’50s was it for me. And Kurt has captured that totally; I’ve never heard anyone else do that.

The choice of material is without reproach. They weave songs by Carter Stanley, Charlie Monroe, Karl & Harty, Rebe & Rabe, and others from obscure sources into a brilliant patchwork. Each song is a new and totally unique experience. Unlike many of the younger groups of today who seem to be experimenting to see how far they can distance their sound from original bluegrass and still get airplay on bluegrass radio, High Fidelity has chosen a different path. Steeped in the sound of the early masters, they (like the Johnson Mountain Boys of the 1980s) are in the forefront of what seems to be a growing movement with some younger musicians to return to the music’s roots. Hi-Fi Bluegrass is my pick as the album of the year. (High Fidelity, P.O. Box 261, Whites Creek, TN 37189,



Mountain Fever

This new project from Breaking Grass (their fourth), features the excellent songwriting of guitarist Cody Farrar. Other members in the band include Tyler White (fiddle), Zach Wooten (mandolin), Britt Sheffield (bass), and Jody Elmore (banjo). Based in Mississippi, they have gone from a local venture to becoming a nationally-known touring band, gaining lots of radio airplay, and steadily increasing their fan base. All songs on this project were written by Farrar and arranged by the band. His songs seem to have a bit of a dark theme to them—disappearances (“Nobody Knows”), murder (“The One She Adored”), cheating (“House Of Cards”)—along with “Warning Signs” and “Annie.” There is also the country-tinged “Waking Up With You,” the sassy “Short Shorts,” and the hopeful “Stay.” The band expertly backs the songs with solid instrumentals and close harmony. The arrangements span from solid bluegrass to Jazz to country, along with influences from rock and blues. This project shows Breaking Grass has a solid base with lots more growth ahead. (