Steve-gulleySTEVE GULLEY

Rural Rhythm

Bluegrass veteran Steve Gulley’s first gospel outing is one fine album indeed. This powerful and soulful 14-cut collection features evocative renditions of classics such as “House Of Gold,” “God’s Not Dead,” and “Stormy Waters,” along with a trio of heartfelt Gulley originals: “Scars In His Hands,” “The Man I Ought To Be,” and “What Would You Have Me Do?”

Gulley, a long-time member of Doyle Lawson’s Quicksilver and a founding member of Mountain Heart and Grasstowne, brings all his experience, savvy, and accomplished musicianship to bear on Family, Friends & Fellowship. Along with singing lead and harmonies, playing guitar and bass, and writing several songs, he also produced the album.

While we’re at it, we might as well add the title “crowd manager” to Gulley’s illustrious list of credentials. There are so many musical guests on here that it takes nearly an entire page in the liner notes to list them. Collaborators include Gulley’s mom, dad, and wife, along with Doyle Lawson, Adam Steffey, Alan Bibey, and other distinguished guests too numerous to mention. But far from being top-heavy with contributors, these songs are impeccably performed and thrillingly soulful. All in all, they’re enough to bring tears to the eyes of believers and non-believers alike. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 750, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121,



Mountain Home

   Flatt Lonesome’s rise in the bluegrass world has been a steady one. Guided by the knowledgeable hand of music veteran Andrea Roberts, who has been the group’s manager and booking agent, this troupe of talented musicians have stepped up to represent the younger generation when it comes to traditional bluegrass. Flatt Lonesome knocked on the door with an IBMA Emerging Artist Of The Year Award in 2014 and their showcases at IBMA’s World Of Bluegrass in Raleigh were impressive.

Roberts co-produced this new album with Tim Surrett. At the heart of Flatt Lonesome are three siblings including bandleader, mandolinist, and vocalist Kelsi Robertson Harrigill, guitarist and vocalist Buddy Robertson, and sister Charli Robertson on fiddle and lead vocals. Rounding out the group is Kelsi’s husband and banjo picker Paul Harrigill, bassist Dominic Illingworth, and Michael Stockton on resonator guitar. Paul Harrigill is the 2014 MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest winner. On Too, he brings to the table three original songs—the rollicking banjo-driven “I’m Ready Now,” the reflective love song “Make It Through The Day,” and he co-writes the waltz groove of “I Thought You Were Someone I Knew” with wife Kelsi and Jerry Salley. Other songwriters featured on the recording include Randall Hylton, Tim Stafford, Barry Ricks, John Howard, Ernest Tubb, Arbie Gibson, J.D. Souther, family patriarch Dolten Robertson and more.

The highlights include the upbeat cautionary tale “Dangerous Dan,” the Western Swing harmonies of “Never Let Me Go,” the country shuffle of “I Can’t Be Bothered,” and the traditional bluegrass romp “Slowly Getting Out Of Your Way.” (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704,



No Label
No Number

   Ah, the live concert recording—a temptation to all bands. It is, after all, at the root of what musicians do. They play live for audiences. The studio album is the polished, controlled effort used to build audiences. Why then don’t more bands make live recordings? Because they rarely work. What an audience can accept of human fallibility and uneven sound levels when they’re there watching and experiencing, often does not translate well to aural-only recordings.

After three studio albums, Town Mountain, the interesting roots band from North Carolina, has gone the live route, offering ten songs from their concert at the Isis Theatre in Asheville. Seven originals and a nice cover of Hank Williams, Jr.’s “5 Shots Of Whiskey” are from their studio recordings. Two covers, “The Race Is On” and “Orange Blossom Special” are fresh, so to speak. Sad to say, this album is one of the ones that doesn’t work, mostly soundwise. The crowd obviously thinks it does work. They’re enthusiastic.

Again, seeing and hearing is believing. The music on the CD is way out of balance. There is entirely too much bass. I turned the bass down and the treble up, and I still couldn’t shake it. It was better, but not enough, and made all the instruments thin. Which is a shame, because hidden behind the poor sound is a band with drive. They’re aggressive. They play like they mean it, and they’ve got some good material. “Up The Ladder,” a rockabilly number from guitarist Robert Greer (one of the few tunes that came across well) is a rousing number. Mandolinist Phil Barker’s “Lawdog” has some good moments and a ton of grit, even through the tangled sound. “5 Shots Of Whiskey” was also pretty good—even through the tangled sound. The poor sound, however, wins in the end. (



Cat Town Records

   For his second solo CD, his first since 2003, Shawn Lane calls upon family members and several close musical friends for backing. With him here are his brother Chad on harmony vocals, plus Gracie, Grayson (mandolin and one vocal), and Garrett (mandolin) Lane, along with Barry Bales, Jimmy Stewart (resonator guitar), Marcus Smith (bass), Patton Wages (banjo), Josh Miller (banjo), and, of course, Rob Ickes.

The inclusion of his family is fitting. No less than the first four of his ten originals have an underlying theme of family and continuity. “Mountain Songs Of Yesterday” looks back at the hard times his relatives had and the way they relieved those hard times by gathering to play music. Having Chad and Grayson on the track underscores that this practice continues for the Lanes. “Charlestown,” strong on guitar and banjo that create a Stanley sound, finds the narrator looking at his family’s long involvement with that town, ending on the idea that he’s still there, too, in “Charlestown.” Track three, “Top Of The Mountain,” remembers excursions, hunting and fishing with his father, and concludes with a verse in which he calls for his son to go on a similar journey. “A Mother’s Prayer,” an old-style mandolin and guitar tune (very archaic) ties together the continuity of a mother’s spiritual practice, of death and of life beyond.

Though the remaining songs shift to other topical themes—a couple of moving-on songs, a moonshiner song, a Civil War recollection, and a very brief fiddle and mandolin instrumental—the concept of continuity is reflected in Lane’s strong sense of tradition and of when to let that tradition speak for itself and when and how to bring that sound into a modern context. Lane is one of the best songwriters at both the traditional end and the modern end. This CD more than proves that. (



Rebel Records

   Junior Sisk’s musical intentions are clear: “I want to continue to keep traditional bluegrass music alive. That is my goal.” Trouble Follows Me is his latest album that follows a string of successful recordings that have garnered him a few overdue IBMA Awards in recent years. His last album was a superb collaboration with Joe Mullins called Hall Of Fame Bluegrass, a project that featured an array of the top session pickers in the business.

On Trouble Follows Me, however, Sisk is back to recording with his own band, Ramblers Choice. The group includes Jason “Sweet Tater” Tomlin on bass and vocals, Billy Hawks on fiddle and guitar, Johnathan Dillon on mandolin and vocals, and Jason Davis on banjo. The album comes out of the gate with three fired-up cuts in a row. The album starts off with the Bill Castle-penned “Honky-Tonked To Death” with the opening line: I guess her love began to die, when I found swinging doors. That’s followed by “Don’t Think About It Too Long” and “I’d Rather Be Lonesome,” the latter written by Milan Miller, a rising star in the bluegrass songwriting world.

The band slows it down on several impressive cuts such as “A Cold, Empty Bottle,” “Walk Slow,” and “Frost On The Bluegrass.” Sisk, who still lives in Carter and Ralph country in western Virginia, kicks the tempo back up on the Stanley Brothers’ “Our Darling’s Gone.” Ramblers Choice does throw a fun curveball into the mix with the old Monkees tune “What Am I Doing Hanging ’Round,” written by Michael Martin Murphey. Another highlight is a wonderful a cappella harmony vocal arrangement of “Jesus Walked Upon The Water.” (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906,



Rounder Records

   I have always enjoyed the music of Tony Trischka, as he represents the bubbling up of banjo music from more urban climes. Trischka is steeped in Scruggs-style banjo playing and can rip some traditional bluegrass with the best of them. Yet, he’s always followed his own musical muse, and his open mind has served him well.

Trischka’s latest album is the appropriately titled Great Big World, and it will delight those with an expanded ear. Backing him on this project is Mike Compton on mandolin, Michael Daves on guitar, Mike Barnett on fiddle, and Skip Ward on bass. What sets this album apart is the many special guests brought in by Trischka to help put his expansive musical vision together. He brings forth many original tunes here, such as the melodic “The Danny Thomas,” the seven-minute “Great Big World”/“Purple Trees Of Colorado,” and the string-quartet feel of “Lost” featuring Abigail Washburn on vocals. “Wild Bill Hickock” finds Trischka playing with old friends and collaborators Russ Barenberg and Andy Statman. The epic number was written because Trischka felt that “Wild Bill was under-represented in the Western lore song canon,” and it features wonderful cameos by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, actor John Goodman, Kristin Andreissen, and Stephanie Coleman.

Steve Martin pairs his clawhammer skills with Trischka on “Promontory Point,” and Tony tweaks the standard “Angeline The Baker” with Aoife O’Donovan. In classic Trischka tradition, he blends five songs together, each written for the individual strings on his banjo, in a piece called “Single String Medley.” He also plays an unusual arrangement of “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” based on a live tape of Bill Monroe and Clyde Moody from 1940. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803,



Rural Rhythm

   This is a great new contemporary gospel group from East Tennessee that really rises to the occasion on this new project produced by Steve Gulley. The band is Steve Partin (mandolin), Gary Kidwell (guitar), Alan Powers (banjo), Cleve May (resonator guitar), and Daniel Oxendine (bass). All the members sing and have a really good mix of vocals and harmonies.

The project consists of some new material from May, Partin, and Kidwell, as well as other lesser-known songs of faith. Selections include “Let’s Praise Him,” “Going Home,” the title-cut, “Talk With Your Heart,” “Mercy And Grace,” “Glory Bound,” and “Lord Do A Work In Me.” Also are a couple of familiars “I Know The Man” and “I Dreamed I Drove The Nails,” made popular by the Bluegrass Cardinals. Both vocally and instrumentally, the members of Crosspoint show a level of musicianship and maturity that proves these guys have been playing for awhile. The arrangements are clean and the harmonies blend easily. Their music should be welcome on any stage, and their new songs can only add to the gospel repertoire. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 750, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121,



High Country Records

The Infamous Stringdusters once again step forward with a new CD of crisp forward-thinking bluegrass music with Let It Go. I still wouldn’t call the Stringdusters a newgrass band, but they’re definitely a sharp-edged contemporary bluegrass group with an open mind who have sought to come up with their own sound over the years.

The geographical focus of the Stringdusters has shifted from their former Charlottesville, Va., base, as resonator guitar master Andy Hall and five-string picker Chris Pandolfi moved to Colorado, and that Rocky Mountain groove has influenced the band’s sound. In 2013, for example, the band went on an American Rivers Tour where they played music in some exotic places while floating on some of this country’s more remote and beautiful rivers.

What is always cool about the Stringdusters is the talent that each member brings to the table. Andy Falco, who now lives in Long Island, N.Y., is a versatile guitarist. Travis Book, who holds down the Virginia front, is a fluid bass player. And Nashville resident and fiddler Jeremy Garrett is one of the best in the business. Pandolfi’s banjo playing is not only influenced by Scruggs and the first generation, but also by the Trischkas and Flecks of the world. And how Hall has not won an IBMA Dobro Player Of The Year award yet is beyond me.

On Let It Go, the Stringdusters basically wrote all of the music as a cohesive unit. There are four songs with a co-writer on here, including the majestic “I’ll Get Away” co-written by Adam Chaffins. Mountain Heart’s Josh Shilling added some notes to the country-esque “Colorado,” and Jon Weisberger co-wrote the dynamic “When The Rivers Run Cold” and the fun title-cut. (



Blue Crown Productions

Lizzy Hoyt is an award-winning Canadian artist from the Alberta area. She has an angelic vocal which suits the Celtic, folk, and bluegrass selections on this project. She’s accompanied by John Reischman (mandolin and also co-produced), Joe Phillips (bass), Becky Moonen (harmony), Nathan McCavana (bodhran), Craig Bignell (percussion), Andy Hillhouse (guitar), Keith Rempel (bass), Jeremiah McDade (whistle), Ivan Rosenberg (resonator guitar), and Christine Hanson (cello).

Many of the songs were written by Hoyt and include the title-cut “New Lady On The Prairie,” “The Pantheon,” “Next To Me,” “Relentless,” and “Jubilee Reel.” Other selections include “Wars Of Germany,” “The Blacksmith,” and the classic “Danny Boy.” One highlight is her version of the French-Canadian folk song “V’la L’bon Vent/Go Good Wind.” Others are “The Pantheon,” the haunting “Quiet Space And My Heart,” and the a cappella “White Feather.” Hoyt is a very good fiddler and can play softly and plaintively or more aggressively in the Canadian step-dance tradition. And as before, her vocals are sweet and angelic, but she can wrench a mournful delivery with equal ease. This is a very good project to showcase this talented new lady of the prairie. (Blue Crown Prod., P.O. Box 8146, Calgary, AB T3A-5C4 Canada,



Cohesion Arts
No Number

   It’s not often that historical research is recommended before listening to a bluegrass album. Here is one such case. So factually driven are the stories in Thomm Jutz and The 1861 Project’s Civil War trilogy, the listener can’t help but benefit from learning more of the events from which the songs were created. Where the first two volumes each dealt with larger panoramas, the first exploring the impact of the war on the average man and the second the Irish experience in the conflict, this final volume focuses on the ways in which lives were touched and changed by a single battle in Franklin, Tenn., in December of 1864. Knowing something of that battle and of the characters involved (the Lotz Family, Patrick Cleburne, and Tod Carter, among them, have their lives and battlefield experiences examined) makes for a better listening experience.

As with the earlier volumes, there are a variety of styles of music among the 15 songs presented, and Jutz has called again upon a large pool of songwriters (Charley Stefl, Peter Cronin, Peter Cooper, and Jon Weisberger among 14), singers (Kim Richey, Chris Jones, Amanda Smith, and Bobby Bare among 13) and instrumentalists (Ron Block, Sierra Hull, Mark Fain, and Justin Moses among 23) to make it go. This volume, in contrast to Volume Two, has only a small touch of Celtic (the chorus to “Great Fallen Hero”), and is largely a mix of country, country-rock, Americana, old-time, and a couple tracks of contemporary and traditional bluegrass (“Drawing In The Dirt” and “The Last Night Of The War”). Drums are on several, and the tempos are predominantly slow and medium.

Jutz has done a fine job of avoiding melodrama. He has also avoided any sort of martial glorification, focusing more on the melancholy and the tragic, and has left us with a brilliant and fitting conclusion to his trilogy, one full of heart-wrenching stories that will shake you whether you research it or not—but do a little research. (Thomm Jutz, P.O. Box 120964, Nashville TN 37212,



Mountain Fever Records

When I reviewed the second Breaking Grass CD a couple of years ago, I was overwhelmed by a song called “Strings.” Though it didn’t generate the national response it deserved, it is still one of the best songs of the last ten years. Nothing here packs that kind of punch. The closest is the melancholy, Americana and pop-colored piece, “Fly (Amber’s Song).” For it, guitarist Cody Farrar has penned a set of verses deep in emotion and vivid imagery, verses that give way to a wonderful chorus full of long, held notes and shifting harmonies. The longer you listen, the more it impresses. It’s an exceptional song.

“Strings” aside, however, this third album is just as strong and is very much equal with the high-quality musicianship and variety of their previous recording. Farrar remains the principle tunesmith, writing 11 of the 12 tracks and co-authoring the 12th with the band. He’s at his best, as is the band, when drawing on outside influences (rock, pop, and country, etc.) creating songs with ear-catching melodies, rhythms, and forms. His straighter bluegrass tunes, such as the gospel “Where Peace Cannot Be Found” and “High On The Mountain,” are solid enough, but his fast opener, “Raining In Virginia,” with its arrangement complexities and its intriguing verse melody or the funkiness of “Whatever You Need” go them two steps better. The joyful honky-tonk of “Beating The Blues” and the intricate instrumental twinning of the jazzy figures that makes “Digging Up Georgia” instantly compelling are not far off if at all. Combining those four together with the exceptional beauty of “Fly” puts this recording on a par with their previous work. In short, a very good recording. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380,



Ante Flow Records

   Westwend is the duo of Wendy Crowe and Jonathan Maness. They have teamed up to produce a really nice selection of original tunes mixed in with some familiar ones. Joining them on this project is a cadre of excellent musicians including Bryn Davies (bass) Matt Leadbetter (resonator guitar), Richard Cifersky (banjo), Cody Bauer (fiddle), Mark Fain (bass), Jaret Carter (resonator guitar), Alan Johnson (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (mandolin), Rob Ickes (resonator guitar), Sam Bush (mandolin), Andy Hall (resonator guitar), Steve Lewis (banjo), Jason Goforth (harmonica), and David Browning (keyboards).

Their original tunes include “Dance Partner For Life,” “Bad Breaks,” “Ghost Train,” and the title “Linger For A While.” The cover songs include Melba Montgomery’s “Look Who’s Talking Now,” “Fourteen Karat Mind,” a jazzy version of Cheryl Wheeler’s “Summerfly,” “Freeborn Man,” and Keith Sewell’s “Wind In The Willows.”  Both Crowe and Maness are excellent vocalists and their harmony blends are almost like those of siblings. With a mix of bluegrass, Americana, and country, Westwend’s debut project is wonderful introduction to the music by Crowe and Maness, and the musicians effortlessly complement the arrangements while keeping the vocals in the forefront. This project is certainly a worthwhile listen. (Ante Flow Records, P.O. Box 58, Heiskell, TN 37754,



Mountain Home

   Doyle Lawson has put together many versions of his band Quicksilver over the last three decades. There have been times when just the right group of musicians have been in the fold, yet there have been other periods when up-and-coming stars leave to form their own bands, leaving Lawson to rebuild. The current formation of Quicksilver has been together for quite a few years now, and they are on a roll.

There are six members of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver currently, including Lawson on mandolin, Josh Swift on resonator guitar and recording engineer, Jason Barie on fiddle, Joe Dean on banjo and guitar, Dustin Pyrtle on guitar, and Eli Johnston on bass. What’s cool about this outfit is that at the end of all of the musician profiles there is the word “vocals.” One of Lawson’s hallmarks over the years has been his ability to put together a strong vocal group that can sing wall-of-sound harmonies, and everyone in this band does their part.

Lawson is always looking for gospel numbers that are not the old standards, widening the catalog whenever possible, and that’s the case here. For instance, there are five songs on this album written by Steve Watts, including the old call-and-response gospel feel of “Lead Me To The Fountain,” the a cappella harmonies of “He’s In Control,” and the straight-ahead bluegrass of “Will You Go?” co-written by Lawson. There is one traditional cut on here, the lively “Get On Board.” The rest of the album is filled with solid, slower heartfelt tunes, but there is also some upbeat fare with “It’s Done” and “Climbing Upward.” (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704,