John Boy & Billy

The night this review CD arrived, Terry Baucom’s Dukes of Drive appeared on the TV show Song Of The Mountains. The contrast was striking. While the performance of Baucom, mandolinist/vocalist Joey Lemons, guitarist/vocalist Will Jones, and bassist Joe Hannabach exhibited a strong sense of pulse and drive and cohesion, the choice of songs did not offer much attraction.

How different this recording. There are a couple of tunes that don’t quite make it, but by the time you get to them, a little over half way into the recording, the quality of the other songs will have been obvious. Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis’ title tune opens the ten-song set with an appropriate roar. No gentle easing in here. Baucom’s banjo attacks with force, as we’ve come to expect, and Lemons uses his lead to propel the song forward. There are better openers, but not by much. That’s followed by the Osborne Brothers’ song “Charlie Cotton,” a perky tune that belies the rather harsh tale that the song tells. Baucom and company give it a captivating bounce. “Carolina Any Day,” the first of two Milan Miller songs is next, followed a song later by a contemporary sounding murder ballad, “Mary’s Rock.” Will Jones takes the lead vocals on the latter. For a song with such a tragic story, there are several catchy lines that are almost humorous. Three hours up, but only three seconds down… is one of them. Still, it’s a vivid tale and Jones does a good job with it.

In the next four tunes are a lively gospel number, “What Will They Say About You,” and two tunes that have had some chart action, “The Rock” and “Around The Corner.” Skill is important. Presentation is important. Good songs are a bit more so. This release has all three. (John Boy & Billy, Inc., P.O. Box 876, Burlington, NC 27116 www.terrybaucom.com.)BW



No Label
No Number

West Missouri Ramble appears to be a labor of love by Missourian Bill Graham. This is primarily a singer-songwriter CD, featuring Graham and his guitar with occasional bluegrass or old-time backing on a few cuts. Songs here typically reminisce on family members, friends, and those who have made a lasting impression on Graham. There are also three instrumentals in the mix: “Platte Falls,” “Old Bent Cedar,” and “Prairie Fandango,” the latter being the only cut not composed by Graham. Among the stronger cuts here are “Forestyne’s Waltz” sung by Connie Dover with nice fiddle by Terry Brock and “Hold To Grace” written about Graham’s father’s war experience.

There are significant problems with this release. Graham’s vocals are generally pleasant, but in some cases (“Six Long Rings” and “Osage River Blues”), the words are unintelligible, either buried under the instrumentals or simply indistinct or the vocals seem strained. The instrumental support is very rudimentary on several cuts. The listed order of cuts, after some point, seems to bear no relationship to the order on the CD (an unlisted “ghost track” notwithstanding), making it difficult to speak about some of the tunes with certainty here.

There is some nice music here, for those who favor the singer-songwriter genre. More attention to the mixing and general production might have made this of interest beyond family and friends of the musicians. (Bill Graham, P.O. Box 1153, Platte City, MO 64079.)AW


Blue-&-LonesomeBLUE & LONESOME

No Label
No Number

The lead vocals on this third CD from Northern California’s Blue & Lonesome alternate between the clearer, more polished style of guitarist Mike Wilhoyte and the rowdier, rougher hewn style of mandolinist Ed Neff (medium range) and banjoist Larry Cohea (higher range). There are times when each side is dead-on appropriate to the song at hand and times when they are less so. Wilhoyte is at his best on “Better Times A Coming,” a cataloging of hard luck conditions ending with the song title as a refrain. He’s buoyant and happy-go-lucky, even as the song’s situation is neither. I also found his singing on “Roustabout” (and in harmony with Neff on “Worried Man Blues”) very effective. By contrast, he was a bit awkward and stiff on “Wabash Cannonball.”

Neff’s vocal is strong on “Worried Man Blues,” but even more so on Wilma Lee Cooper’s “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone.” That song calls for a certain vocal tint and Neff has it, mixing a Monroe-like delivery (and a closing falsetto) with a down-and-out weariness. Cohea comes off best on the gospel tune “No Hiding Place.”

Instrumentally, the sound is smooth and even-handed. While Neff has a definite Monroe style, hitting lots of strings both open and closed, the rest of the band plays more relaxed. This gives the recording an interesting mix of flow and old-style grit. Of the instrumentals, Dorsey Harvey’s “Cruising Timber” and fiddler Paul Shelasky’s “All The Way ’Cross Texas” are the standouts. A solid recording overall with a number of high points. (www.edneff.com)BW



Rebel Records

Thirty years of Big Country Bluegrass? No way! I’d be more than sixty years old. Oh…I am, and the veteran band is celebrating the anniversary with a career best album, Let Them Know I’m From  Virginia. Traditional being overused, I’ll call their music hard bluegrass and makes no compromises. They make music for bluegrass fans only, as befits an ensemble named for a Jimmy Martin song. On this album, we enjoy mostly up-tempo songs with lyrics about Detroit, coal mining, preachers, and missing the mountains.

I find it wonderfully refreshing to hear a band with no writers assemble an album of original songs from the pens of such folks as Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Glen Alford, and late former band member James King. Other notable members over the three decades include Lynwood Lunsford, Johnny Williams, Don Rigsby, Jimmy Trivette, Jeff Michael, Ramona Church, and founding banjoman Larry Pennington. The constant core all these years consists of mandolinist Tommy Sells and Teresa Sells playing guitar and singing lead on a pair of songs and tenor to Eddie Gill’s confident lead on the rest. On the album, Tim Laughlin’s detail oriented fiddling and John Treadway’s tasteful banjo playing get special commendation.

Fast and medium fast songs dominate the project. One notable exception is Marvin Morrow’s “One More Time, Let Me Tell You (About Jesus),” a refreshingly original gospel number. Overall, they deliver a well-played, sung, and a most welcome set of a dozen songs. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)AM



Mountain Home

Chris Jones wears many hats. He’s a songwriter, a musician, a DJ, and a writer, but most of all, he’s an artist and band leader. On this new project, Jones is joined by his current band including Gina Clowes (banjo), Mark Stoffel (mandolin), and Jon Weisberger (bass). Guest artists include Brooke Aldridge (vocals), Megan Lynch Chowning (fiddle), Tony Creasman (percussion), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Shawn Lane (vocal), Tim Surrett (resonator guitar), and Darrin Vincent (vocal).

Most of the songs here come from band members with Jones and Weisberger collaborating on four, while Jones offers two. The project kicks off with a bluesy Jones/Weisberger tune “All The Ways I’m Gone,” followed by “I’m A Wanderer” co-written by Weisberger, Thomm Jutz, and Charley Stefl. Quite interesting is Jones’ take on the Bill Browning classic “Dark Hollow.” Jones’ contributions include “Raindrops Fell” and “Living Without.” Other Jones/Weisberger compositions include “Silent Goodbye,” “Range Road 53,” and “Sleeping Through The Storm.” Two instrumentals are offered: Clowes’ “Last Frost” and Stoffel’s “What The Heck?!” There is also a nice version of the Tom T. Hall/John Rodriguez tune “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me)” and the Civil War theme “The Old Bell” from Weisberger/Jutz/Stefl.

Jones’ warm baritone is featured throughout with matching harmonies and clean instrumental arrangements. This is another example of why Jones and his Night Drivers continue to be so successful. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.mountainhomemusiccompany.com.)BF



Mountain Fever

   Mountain Fever promises and delivers “an unprecedented album project” in I Sang The Song. On the one hand, it comprises an all-star tribute to Mac featuring John Prine, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, Sierra Hull, Shawn Camp, Junior Sisk, Ronnie Bowman, and other notables. On the other, this is Wiseman’s autobiography told in ten new songs he co-wrote with producers Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, who spent nine weeks listening to Mac recount his many stories. Finally, the album concludes with the great man singing a duet with Krauss on his second best-known—and here most appropriate—bluegrass hit, “’Tis Sweet To Be Remembered.”

Mac and Curly Seckler have survived to become the grand old men of bluegrass music whose careers have exceeded a remarkable seventy years. Mac, who’ll be 92 in May, seems to have done it all: a 1948 Foggy Mountain Boy and Blue Grass Boy, a notable solo artist who adapted with the times and styles for many years, a recording label executive, songwriter, DJ, and AFM union official. Unfortunately, you learn about only the iceberg’s tip of his amazing life here. I Sang The Song shares a flaw with many literary memoirs; lots about growing up followed by, in essence, “As an adult, I did some cool stuff. The end.” Seven of the ten new titles recount with great poignancy his youth during the Great Depression. The grownup songs take us only into the early 1950s.

What you do get, on the other hand, is a powerful song cycle that explores some critical themes. The lead-off on “The Guitar” explores learning to play and sing. “Simple Math,” the most radio-friendly of the new songs, and “Going Back To Bristol” recount his early years as a DJ and professional musician. “Barefoot Til After The Frost” paints a vivid portrait of childhood during the Great Depression, while “Manganese Mine” makes the exploitation of Appalachian people and natural resources very personal. “Crimora Church Of The Brethren,” the only song that resembles the traditional old-man-looks-back genre, describes religion in the life of a youngster.

I Sang The Song is a strong candidate for Recorded Event Of The Year and essential listening for anyone interested in the history of bluegrass or just great music. (Mountain Fever, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.)AM



Community Music
CMCD #210

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have been at this music game for a good long while. This is their 45th recording together. Think on that. You don’t get to put out 45 records unless you have a following and your audience can count on you to deliver a solid product. With a Fink and Marxer recording, you can count on the performances and song choices to be well-planned and presented. They won’t be flashy. They won’t be overwrought. They will be involved, convincing, engaging, and entertaining.

On it are 12 vocal numbers backed by various duet combinations of five-string banjo and cello banjo, or guitar or mandolin or uke or National steel ukulele. They’ve chosen a mixture of old-time tunes such as “Chilly Winds” and “Goodbye Anne”/“Glory In The Meeting House,” folk-era tunes such as Pete Seeger’s “Oh, Had I A Golden Thread” and Tom Paxton’s “You Are Love,” an earthy blues tune by Ola Belle Reed called “Wings Like An Eagle,” an Alice Gerrard tune called “Get Up And Do Right,” a well-known pop song from Billy Hill called “The Glory Of Love” and a Bob Dylan tune, “Man Gave Names To All The Animals.” Also included is a Fink original, “My Huge Mistake.”

Many of these tunes celebrate their heroes and friends (Seeger, Paxton, Reed, Gerrard) and, while some of the songs stand out a little more, the album as a whole makes a very strong statement. (www.cathymarcy.com)BW



No Label
No Number

On the heels of winning a contest at Telluride in 2016, Fireball Mail from Alabama has released its debut recording. In the band are Brad Bulla (guitar), Caleb Edwards (mandolin), Phil Easterbrook (banjoist), and Joe Brown (bass). They’re joined on two songs by fiddler Aubrey Haynie and by fiddler Jenny Anne Mannan on one. The eleven tracks include two standards (“Good Woman’s Love” and “Angeline The Baker” with vocals) and nine originals of which Bulla wrote four and Edwards two. They also wrote two together, and Easterbrook contributed the instrumental “Dakota Ridge.”

The band has a sound influenced by music of the late ’70s and ’80s. That’s not to say older and newer sounds don’t pop up throughout, but there is a decided nod toward the melodic colorings of that era, perhaps most notable on Edwards’ “When New York Calls Her Name” and on Bulla’s “When She Was Mine.” Both are very good and stand notably beside the opener, “One More Reason,” and the cover and bluesy swing of “Eight Days.” The interplay of the instruments on the latter tune is excellent.

Who sings which lead is not stated. Hazarding a guess, it sounds like Edwards has the higher, thinner lead, and Bulla has a slightly lower pitch. Both fit the songs here quite well. Instrumentally, everyone has some excellent moments; banjoist Easterbrook for certain, but most notably mandolinist Edwards. Check out his ear-catching ideas on “Eight Days” and “Angeline The Baker,” his closing lick on “Good Woman’s Love,” and the middle portion of his solo on “Secret Sorrows.” Those along with the songs and the performances make for a very good debut.(www.fireballmailband.com)BW



Rounder Records


In the world of brother harmonies, the Gibson Brothers have set the Gold Standard. Brother harmonies have always been a mainstay of their performances and recordings, gained from their early listening to artists such as the Everly Brothers, Jim & Jesse, the Lilly Brothers, and Blue Sky Boys. Since their debut in 1994, the Gibson’s have earned multiple IBMA awards and six SPBGMA awards, including IBMA’s Entertainer Of The Year and SPBGMA’s Vocal Group Of The Year.

While the brothers have also been known for their songwriting, this is the first release where both Eric and Leigh contribute all of the songs, either solely, together, or with a co-writer. Joining Eric on banjo and Leigh on guitar are Mike Barber on bass, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, Jesse Brock on mandolin, and Rob Ickes on resonator guitar. Growing up in a rural environment, their songs reflect their childhood, their father’s farm, and their religion. Eric’s songs include “Highway,” “Making Good Time,” and “Fool’s Hill.” Leigh contributes “Homemade Wine,” “I Can’t Breath Deep Yet,” “Friend Of Mine,” the title “In The Ground,” and “Look Who’s Crying.” Together they penned “Remember Who,” “Little Girl,” and the gospel “I Found A Church Today.” Shawn Camp co-wrote “My Quiet Mind” with Leigh, and Kelly Gibson lent a hand in writing “Everywhere I Go.” The song stylings are bluegrass, yes, but elements of rockabilly, gospel, and country are also prevalent in the sound.

With this release, the Gibson Brothers have proven once again why they are one of bluegrass music’s favorite artists and entertainers. (Rounder Records Corp., 100 N. Crescent Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, www.rounder.com.)BF


Great Smoky Mountains Assoc. 200964

   In 2010, I reviewed a wonderful CD of recordings made in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1939 and 1940. This CD is a compilation of contemporary renditions of 23 songs and tunes inspired by the first CD. The first hint of something very special is the list of participants: Carol Elizabeth Jones, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, David Holt, Travis and Trevor Stuart, Alice Gerrard, Corbin Hayslett, Sheila Kay Adams, Bruce Greene, Ed Snodderly, John Lilly, Stephen Wade with Kalia Yeagle, Bryan Sutton, the Brother Boys, Amythyst Kiah with Roy Andrade, Martin Simpson with Dom Flemons, Norman and Nancy Blake with the Rising Fawn String Ensemble, Tony Trischka and Courtney Hartman, Dolly Parton, and Dale Jett and Hello Stranger.

The background to this recording lies in the 4,250 people from 700 families who gave up their homes for the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That history is documented in the generous accompanying liner notes. In 1937, the National Park Service hired Joseph Sargent Hall to study the culture of the people living in the park before their dispersal. Hall was a linguist, and his first project was to study their speech, but on his next trip, he recorded music, and he returned twice in the 1950s to record the White Oak String Band, which featured banjoist Carroll Best.

The CD opens with Carol Elizabeth’s a capella rendering of “On Top of Old Smoky.” Jody and Kate sing and play “Come, All You Young Ladies” and “I Started Out A-Courting.” This CD has the last recordings of fiddler Trevor Stuart before his untimely death. He and twin brother Travis play “Lost Indian” and “Black Mountain Rag.” Bruce Green fiddles “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Bryan Sutton sings and picks “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home.” Norman and Nancy and friends contribute “The Dying Cowboy.” Tony Trischka plays Carroll Best’s version of “Chinquapin Hunting.” Dolly’s number is “Little Rosewood Casket.” Rather than list all the rest of the excellent material on this CD, I will just recommend that you get your own copy. (Great Smoky Mountains Assoc., P.O. Box 130, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, www.smokiesinformation.org.)SAG



Free Dirt Records

On their first duo CD Avalon, guitar masters Chris “Critter” Eldridge and Julian Lage forged a focused partnership that veered far beyond the conventional boundaries associated with two acoustic guitars and one vocalist. Recorded live in acoustic splendor by Kenneth Pattengale (Milk Carton Kids), it rapidly became one of the favorite guitar CDs amongst bluegrass and new acoustic guitar fans.

Back for a much-deserved encore, the musicians here explore even more improvisational styles and diverse harmonic fields. Eldridge, son of Seldom Scene banjo legend Ben Eldridge and a founding member of Punch Brothers, has the most bluegrass background here. A student of flatpicking legend Tony Rice, Critter often sets the more traditional tone here.

Lage, renowned as a jazz guitar prodigy starting at age eight, often carries the music to higher levels of experimental flight. But he’s also proven to be that rarest of beasts, a jazz player who truly gets bluegrass and folk and can integrate his advanced knowledge of music theory and harmony convincingly into a traditional sound. Listen to him play a classic bluegrass guitar line on “Greener Grass,” only to be matched in harmony by Eldridge on his big-bottomed 1937 D-18. “Broadcast” highlights the clear-toned, highly expressive playing both guitarists bring to this sublime project. Lage, generating lush chords and delicate Irish lilts on his 1939 000-18, fills the right channel with just the right touch of traditional guitar. Critter lays down a wonderful foundation with just enough melodic invention to keep the tune moving forward.

Traditional guitar fans will love “Old Grimes,” where both guitarists work to establish a complex, yet supportive, melodic arrangement on a traditional tune that could easily become a modern picking session standard. Special credit goes to producer Gabe Witcher and engineer Lynne Earls for capturing the glorious sound of these two vintage Martin flattops so beautifully. This is a record where reverence to the guitar tone comes first and foremost, much to the delight of listeners who love the resonance and vitality of guitars made during C.F. Martin’s golden era.

Vocally, this CD is a big step forward, as Eldridge’s dry, quavering voice worked beautifully on traditional tunes such as “Church Street Blues.”  Here, he excels on their rendition of Don Stover’s immortal “Things In Life” and ably performs John Hartford’s “Mississippi Valley” and the out-of-leftfield selection of rockstar Eddie Vedder’s “Sleeping By Myself.”

The collaboration of Eldridge and Lage is one of a number of modern duo projects that recapture the glory of similar projects like the classic Blake and Rice CDs or David Grier and Mike Compton’s undying Climbing The Walls. Showing an exciting new direction in bluegrass and new acoustic guitar, this duo will excite any listener who appreciates flatpicked guitar at its finest. (Free Dirt Records, P.O. Box 11451, Takoma Park, MD 20913, www.freedirt.net.)DJM



Mountain Home

This new recording from the Snyder Family Band has it’s moments. Of the talent behind it, there can be no doubt. If you’ve heard the brother/sister duo of Zeb and Samantha Snyder, backed by their father Bud on bass, you’re aware of that talent. This recording shows that they’re only getting better. Zeb is phenomenal on the guitar. His range is tremendous. He uses all of the guitar, the low and the high ends, has facile command of technique and is broad in ideas and melody. Samantha on the fiddle has progressed even further since I last reviewed the band. She gives Zeb a run for his money in both technique and ideas, and both are much more confident singers.

Some of the tunes here are more engrossing than others. Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man” is a great choice for an opener. It has humor and it’s joyful. It swings and is likely the one you’ll play again and again. Toy Caldwell’s (Marshall Tucker Band) “Blue Ridge Mountain Sky” is also a solid tune. The Snyders capture the loping Marshall Tucker feel on that one, including with it that hallmark of Southern rock, the instrumental jam passage.

Of the seven original numbers, a few stand out. Zeb’s two instrumentals are pretty good. His waltz “Clouds Over Texas” is atmospheric and lilting. “Who’s Malloy?,” over a boogie-type rhythm, is technically impressive and fun to hear and contemplate, though a little lacking in substance. Samantha’s best creations are the jazzy and contemporary “The Rain” and her gentle “American Prayer.” This all well-played with about half of it very good material. (Crossroads Distribution, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704 www.mountainhomemusiccompany.com.)BW