CIRCA BLUE

CIRCA-BLUE-CHRISTMASCIRCA BLUE
BELLS OF HOME: A CIRCA BLUE CHRISTMAS

No Label
No Number

Unfortunately, this project was received late last year and we were unable to give it a review until now. Circa Blue is based in Martinsburg, W.Va., and includes Steve Harris (guitar), Matt Hickman (banjo), Malia Furtado (fiddle), Ashley Stewart (bass), and Ryan Mullins (mandolin, percussion), with guest Dawn Kenney (guitar). Kenney also co-wrote four of the selections. Familiar Christmas songs include “Away In A Manger,” “We Three Kings,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Seasonal songs include “Snowflake Or Two,” “In The Bleak Mid-Winter,” “Spirit Of Christmas,” and “Christmas In The Keys.” Kenney’s co-written songs include “Candy Cane Sweetheart,” the title “Bells Of Home,” “Happy Birthday Jesus,” and the aforementioned “Christmas In The Keys.”

Lead vocals are shared between Kenney and Harris with lovely harmonies from the others. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a really nice instrumental treatment featuring Mullins’ mandolin and Furtado’s fiddle. Furtado’s fine fiddle playing is also heard on many of the other selections. The final cut is a wonderful a cappella tribute, “Happy Birthday Jesus.” This is a really nice project from Circa Blue, hopefully to be included in the seasonal celebrations of 2017. (www.circa-blue.com)BF


THE KARL SHIFLETT & BIG COUNTRY SHOW

KARL-SHIFLETTTHE KARL SHIFLETT & BIG COUNTRY SHOW
SHO NUFF COUNTRY

Patuxent Music
CD-279

In the liner notes to his new CD, Karl Shiflett humbly expresses his hope: “If our music makes you move a little, tap your foot or if it touches your heart, then all our efforts have not been in vain.” No worries, Karl, not in vain by a long shot!

This rousing, bighearted collection of country, honky-tonk, Western Swing, big band, and bluegrass oldies, delivered in a rollicking acoustic bluegrass style succeeds on all these aforementioned counts. This is the kind of album that will make you grin, tap your feet, and maybe even get up and dance a shuffle around your living room on the darkest and dreariest of winter nights.

Shiflett grew up in central Texas (Limestone County) and came of age in the Lone Star State’s vibrant musical hotbed, whose influences he soaked up avidly. This rousing 15-song collection is his tribute to those musical heroes of his childhood and the enduring appeal of their music.

Shiflett and his five musical sidekicks in Big Country Show masterfully recapture all the grittiness, swagger, wild Saturday-night celebration, and soulful Sunday morning sadness embodied in this eclectic batch of both well-known and not so well-known tunes originally written and/or popularized by Hank Williams (“My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”), Hank Thompson (“Six Pack To Go”), Bob Wills (“Bring It On Down To My House”), George Jones (“Why Baby, Why”), Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe (“Bluegrass Stomp”), Don Gibson (“Oh Lonesome Me”), Carter Family, Freddie Hart, Bob Dylan, and quite a few others. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.)BA


JOHN LOWELL BAND

thejohnlowellbandJOHN LOWELL BAND
THE SKALKAHO ROAD

No Label
JL0101

The John Lowell Band showcases the Montana-based guitarist, songwriter, and singer on its debut album The Skalkaho Road (listen for pronunciation). He also forms half of Growling Old Men with Ben Winship and fronted Kane’s River. His eponymous group includes former New Vintage banjo player Julie Elkins, John’s bandmate in Kane’s River, mandolinist Tom Murphy, and Thomas Kaerner handling bass and resonator guitar.

The excellence of the playing and the songwriting distinguish this album. The high level of the guest musicians indicates the instrumental abilities of the band. Those guests include Infamous Stringdusters fiddler Jeremy Garrett on “Let ’Er Go,” an enchanting piece he wrote with Lowell, veteran fiddler Jason Thomas on a couple of songs, and noted Toronto banjo player Chris Coole. The band plays with outstanding taste and cohesion, naturally featuring Lowell’s guitar playing, deservedly praised in numerous reviews, as Elkins banjo picking has been.

This is a songwriter’s album that shows off Lowell’s work, which brings (as in the title track) both folk and  western inflections to several classic bluegrass themes. Valerie Smith, Front Range, Cliff Waldron, and Bluegrass, Etc., have used his songs. Here, he composed half the 14 titles. Elkins co-wrote another, while Murphy adds two tunes.

Lowell has a lighter, softer voice than most male bluegrass lead singers. I would’ve liked to have heard more harmonies, especially trios. It was nice to hear Elkins apply her underappreciated vocals to “Gospel Plough.” The John Lowell Band proves themselves a strong ensemble, offering a very enjoyable album. (www.johnlowell.com)AM


SISTER SADIE

SISTER-SADIESISTER SADIE

Pinecastle Records PRC 1200

   Writing about an all-female band can be tricky. If I mention that these women—Dale Ann Bradley on guitar, Tina Adair on mandolin, Gena Britt on banjo, Deanie Richardson on fiddle, and Beth Lawrence on bass—kick butt on their instruments, is that a “gendered” remark? Does it sound like I am surprised—when I’m not? If I mention that few bluegrass bands can showcase such a strong roster of powerful lead singers—Dale Ann, Tina, Gena, and Beth—will readers think, “No biggie. Women are known for their singing.” These are the thoughts that cross my mind as I listen to the debut CD, self-titled, from this band of familiar and beloved faces.

Sister Sadie, a touring band of seasoned professional female players, is breaking new ground. For decades, they have paid their dues individually, working in many different groups, and now they are putting their skills together in a configuration that they clearly enjoy. Merely to list their individual accomplishments would take the entire review, so I will let their album do the talking.

Dedicated to the always-inspiring Lynn Morris, Sister Sadie features eleven vocals and one fiery instrumental, appropriately titled “Ava’s Fury,” on which Gena, Deanie, and Tina absolutely drive their breaks to the wall, playing solo or in unison. Through their song choices, Sister Sadie pays tribute to some of the great women musicians: Lynn Morris (“Don’t Tell Me Stories”), Pearl Butler (“Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” written by Penny Jay Moyer, who was in Jimmy Martin’s band for a while), and Tanya Tucker (“Blood Red And Going Down”). And though most of this album is clearly in the modern bluegrass camp (unusual chord progressions, hot mix), “Look What I’m Trading For A Mansion” and “Mama’s Room” (by the great Harley Allen) clearly show that these women can wring all the pathos possible out of a traditional-sounding “mother” song.

One of the most poignant cuts is “Unholy Water,” which takes a look at the shadow side of “mountain dew.” Told by the Unholy Water itself, the story keeps you engaged from its beginning, First time you see me, I’ll be harmless enough, to its middle, I’ve turned friend against friend, to its end, Quenching the thirst of the damned, I am unholy water. This song captures the essence of this album: Powerful writing, powerful playing, and powerful singing from the five powerful women known as Sister Sadie. (Pinecastle Music, 2514 River Road, Ste. 105, Piedmont, NC 29673, www.pinecastlemusic.com.)MHH


BANJO: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY

BANJO-BOOKBANJO: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY
BY BOB CARLIN

Hal Leonard 9781495011245. Foreword by Tony Trischka, 258 pages, hardcover, color photographs, index, $35. (Hal Leonard, 7777 W. Bluemound Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53213, www.halleonard.com.)

I have long enjoyed Bob Carlin’s clawhammer banjo playing, both as a solo artist and as a member of the John Hartford String Band. Bob is also quite the scholar and researcher, having written a book about banjo player Joel Walker Sweeney along with articles for many magazines including Banjo Newsletter, Bluegrass Unlimited, and the Old-Time Herald. Now, in Banjo: An Illustrated History, Bob has turned his considerable talents to illuminating the history of the banjo—in glorious color—from its earliest days up until the present.

Many of us grew up thinking that the banjo is the only American instrument and that it was invented by Joel Walker Sweeney. More recent research has revealed that the banjo originated in West Africa, its forerunners being lute-like instruments from North Africa. But, as Bob says, there is a “gap in our knowledge” between these instruments and those found in America. Whether the banjo “crossed the ocean on slave ships” or whether its memory was “kept alive in the minds of slaves,” we don’t know.

Passing through the hands of enslaved African-Americans into the hands of white Americans, the banjo thrived during the minstrel era, the parlor era, and the jazz era, only to fall from grace in the 1920s. It was kept on life-support by Southern string bands, rejuvenated by Pete Seeger, and revived big time by Earl Scruggs and bluegrass music. Usually, the story stops there, but Bob’s last chapter focuses on the rising interest of young African-American musicians in the banjo. Most of us know of the remarkable success of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but few of us know that the original members first met at the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005 which celebrated the banjo’s African-American history.

Bob also gives considerable attention to the early manufacturers—Vega, Fairbanks, S.S. Stewart—and to the luthiers of today like Pete Ross, Kevin Enoch, and Jason and Pharis Romero who are passionate about replicating the oldest banjos.

The photographs, of course, are the highlight of the book and they are, indeed, gorgeous. They include many close-ups of those intricate details that banjo players like to wax eloquent about when we’ve run out of tunes. I find it fitting that the last photos in the book are of the Enoch Creature Banjo, built by Kevin Enoch and Pete Ross as a tribute to the movie The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The fretboard pictures a woman in a white bathing suit being chased by The Creature. Somehow that seems symbolic. Of what, I’m not sure. Check it out for yourself in Bob’s beautiful book. Highly recommended. MHH


THE PRICE SISTERS

PRICE-SISTERSTHE PRICE SISTERS

Rebel Records REB
CD-1860

   There is a phrase used in a lot of places, and it fits in bluegrass music as well: “rolling out the big guns.” This could not be more truer than with the debut self-titled album from The Price Sisters. Not too many first efforts get backing from two of the best in the business, Mike Bub on bass and Charlie Cushman on banjo. Then add contributions from Dustin Benson and Ronnie McCoury on guitar and Alan Bartram on harmony vocals. Add to that, the project was recorded by Grammy-winning producer Bil VornDick.

Lest anyone think these sisters are “carried,” think again. Simply put, this CD will put the listener back on his or her ears. It comes right out of the gate with “Silver Tongue And Gold Plated Lies.” A red-hot version of the standard “Get Up John” blows smoke out of the CD player as it showcases Lauren’s fierce mandolin picking. Not to be outdone, fiddler Leanna takes a soulful turn on “It’s Happening Again” and “What Does The Deep Sea Say.”

The only complaint might be that there are just seven cuts on the album. The harmonies are beyond tight, and this has to be one of the best debut releases of 2016. Don’t miss out—it is dynamite. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.)MKB


JOHN McEUEN

JOHN-McEUENJOHN McEUEN
MADE IN BROOKLYN

 Chesky Records JD388

   There have been a handful of albums that have been responsible for bringing new bluegrass fans into the fold, even if the recordings themselves might not have been mainstream bluegrass. Examples include Old & In The Way’s eponymous album, the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” It’s this last album that is revisted by Dirt Band multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, at least in spirit. While titled Made in Brooklyn, it might as well be renamed Closing The Circle.

Recorded live in a Brooklyn church, this CD functions as an exuberant gathering of some of McEuen’s favorite musical collaborators, and becomes a very eclectic homage to his many stylistic influences. The overall vibe is one of looseness and spontaneity, which can lead to moments that are ragged as well as right, but there’s much more of the latter than the former here. The instrumental work is stellar, featuring Jay Ungar on fiddle, David Bromberg on guitar, and Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth on an exceptionally wide array of instruments, from mandolin and resonator guitar to clarinet and saxophone. The always eclectic New York musician/composer David Amram contributes pennywhistle and percussion, and McEuen gets to play anything else with strings while bassist Skip Ward does a great job of holding everything together.

Vocally, Made In Brooklyn is a bit more of a mixed bag. Matt Cartsonis takes on the lion’s share of the leads, while McEuen himself contributes his quirky pipes on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Travelin’ Mood,” as well as a verse of Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” (more on that later). John Carter Cash makes a cameo appearance singing his father’s “I Still Miss Someone” in an understated way that reveals echoes of the patriarch’s craggy phrasing. Coming to the fore is John Cowan, who nails the Gene Clark/Bernie Leadon song “She Darked The Sun,” (previously recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Dillard and Clark, among others) and joins Cartsonis and McEuen protege Martha Redbone on a powerful gospel-style rendition of “I Rose Up,” a musical adaptation of a William Blake poem.

Some of the finest gems on this album are to be found in the song choices. A previously unrecorded Boudleaux Bryant song called “My Favorite Dream” is touchingly sung by Cartsonis in a manner reminiscent of Steve Goodman at his best, while fans of the late Warren Zevon will appreciate covers of two of his songs. “My Dirty Life And Times,” despite a few too many “yee-haws,” is a great choice for a rootsy adaptation and is held together deftly by the banjo of none other than Steve Martin. “Excitable Boy,” which McEuen accurately presents as lineage to the murder ballad tradition, may suffer in comparison to the originals despite, or perhaps because of, the replication of the background vocals. Bromberg is asked to reprise his moving version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles,” here joined by sensitive instrumental support from some of the players. And McEuen himself delivers a very strong solo voice/fiddle/banjo delivery of Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill.”

All these highlights are supplemented by several McEuen original instrumentals interspersed throughout. All told, “Made In Brooklyn” is a fitting testimony to a musical career devoted to exploring the tangled roots of traditional music. (Chesky Records, 1650 Broadway, Ste. 900, New York, NY 10019, www.chesky.com.)HK


NORMAN BLAKE

NORMAN-BLAKENORMAN BLAKE
BRUSHWOOD: SONGS & STORIES

Plectrafone Records
824761-17528-5

Over a long career known for his musical integrity and his respect for tradition, Norman Blake has established a singular legacy as a guitarist, mandolinist, songwriter, singer, and session man. His newest recording has the feel of a final statement, as if he’s spent an extended period of time looking both behind and ahead, and feels that it’s time to say some things that he thinks need to be said.

The 19 tracks here are listed as “all original Blake music,” and with the exception of Nancy Blake’s voice supporting him here and there, it’s Norman’s voice and guitar (and a bit of fiddle) solo throughout. The sole instrumentals are fingerpicking and features a pair of lovely light tunes called “Newsome Gap Rag” and “The Generic Rag” that show his hands have lost none of their dexterity or expressiveness.

His voice on a few numbers has a bit of added cragginess, but for the most part rings clear and strong as he touches on themes near and dear to him. He’s a storyteller at heart, with occasional interspersed spoken word stories like “The Lantern Thru The Fog” and “The Nameless Photograph,” and he’s at his best in deftly profiling figures from history in song. This is how he spins the tale of a jazzman (“Bunk Johnson”), a dancer (“The Countess Lola Montez”), a train-robber (“The Fate Of Oliver Curtis Perry”), as well as a trainwreck story in “The Wreck On The Western & Atlantic.”

His wry humor is especially welcome on “Fiddlin’ Peg Leg Jackson On The Mourner’s Bench,” because many of his new songs have a starkly discouraged and even angry point-of-view. It’s clear that he’s not happy with the direction in which the modern world is turning and doesn’t mince any words about it in songs like “The Target Shooter,” “High Rollers,” “The Truth Will Stand,” “There’s A Storm Somewhere,” and the song that could almost serve as the album’s theme, “How The Weary World Wears Away.”

When the recording ends with a plainspoken song called “Stay Down On The Farm,” it’s pretty clear that this is his own plan for the foreseeable future. We can only hope that Norman Blake will continue to venture out, if only via his songs and recordings, to share a musical vision that has always been and continues to be uniquely his own. (Plectrafone Records, P.O. Box 9187, Colorado Springs, CO 80932, www.plectrafone.com.)HK


THE PIEDMONT MELODY MAKERS

PIEDMONT-MELODY-MAKERSTHE PIEDMONT MELODY MAKERS
WONDERFUL WORLD OUTSIDE

Vigortone Records
VT-2007

The Piedmont Melody Makers (Alice Gerrard, Chris Brashear, Cliff Hale, and Jim Watson) have released a very pleasant 16-cut CD which gently winds through the rural styles prevalent in The South (and elsewhere) in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The general atmosphere here is best described as very relaxed, while at the same time, the songs and tunes are afforded very appropriate, loving treatment by this group.

“Poor Little Orphaned Boy” from the repertoire of the Carter Family, features fine three-part harmony, accompanied only by Brashear on fingerstyle guitar. “Over The Sea” (from the Hillcrest Quarter) is a four-part a cappella number, nicely rendered. Jim Watson performs Charlie Poole’s version of “Just Keep Waiting Till The Good Times Come,” with interwoven harmony from Brasher and Gerrard. There are songs from the Stanley Brothers (“Wonderful World Outside”), Hank Williams (“Six More Miles”), E.C. Ball (“Trials, Troubles, Tribulations”), and Hank Locklin (“I’ll Be There”). Some of the best cuts, however, are originals by Brashear and Gerrard. Gerrard contributes “Kentucky Home” (not “My Old”), and a plaintive “Sweeter Day.” Brashear gives us the country-flavored (with pedal steel by Allyn Love) “One And Only,” and a fine up-tempo “Little Boy Loser,” along with two instrumentals, “Buehler’s March” and the “Piedmont Melody Maker’s Theme.”

This is a well-done release: the excellent vocals, especially the harmonies, the solid understated instrumental work, and the very nice variety of songs and tunes should be attractive to all interested in the earlier sounds of traditional country music. (www.alicegerrard.com)AW


WILDFIRE

WILDFIREWILDFIRE
RENTED ROOM ON BROADWAY

Pinecastle Records
PRC 1201

One of the best “going home” songs of recent vintage opens the new recording from Wildfire. “Home Again” is a gentle medium loper, very smooth and impossible not to like. It calls to mind the work of The Grascals album of a couple releases back. They don’t sound like The Grascals in any overt way. The vocals, particularly the lead of guitarist Robert Hale, are definitely different, as are the playing styles of bassist Curt Chapman, mandolinist Chris Davis, fiddler Greg Luck and banjoist John Lewis.

That feel carries over into the next song, “A Bible And A Bus Ticket Home.” Again, instant rapport. So, too, on “They Don’t Make ’Em Like Daddy Anymore,” and “The Ghost Of Jim Bob Wilson.” In fact, the same can be said of just about all the songs included, be it the classic covers such as the Stanleys’ “Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine” or The Boxtops rock hit “The Letter,” which you would expect to feel a quick affinity to, but also on the stompin’ and bluesy “Dollar” or the relaxed country flow of “Small Enough To Crawl.”

Most of this emanates from the lead vocals. Yes, song selection and arranging and instrumentation are important, but the lead voice draws the attention. Robert Hale’s voice has an angst and flutter at times that makes it instantly recognizable and pulls you in. For that reason, along with the playing and arranging and good songs, this album deserves high praise. (Pinecastle Records, 2514 River Road, Ste. 105, Piedmont, NC 29673, www.pinecastlemusic.com.)BW


BLUEGRASS EXPRESS

BLUEGRASS-EXPRESSBLUEGRASS EXPRESS
ANSWER TO MY PRAYER

Plum River Records
PRP0816

This is a really nice all-gospel project from Bluegrass Express. The band is a family affair founded by father Gary Underwood (guitar), son Greg Underwood (bass), and Greg’s son Jacob Underwood (banjo, guitar). Rounding out the band is Nate Burie (mandolin). Guests include Tim Crouch (fiddle), John R. Bowman (fiddle), and Justin Moses (resonator guitar).

The selections chosen for this project come from a variety of sources, mostly lesser-known tunes outside of the usual gospel favorites. Although, folks should recognize “Little White Church,” “Sweet By And By,” and the Louvin Brothers’ “You’ll Be Rewarded.” Other selections include “He Lives,” “Victory In Jesus,” “Higher Ground,” “Just Any Day Now,” “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” and “What Will You Do With This Man?” The title-cut “Answer To My Prayer” was written by Greg Underwood. The Underwoods share in the lead vocals with Greg and Jacob Underwood adding the harmonies, assisted by Burie. Crouch and Bowman add fiddle and Justin Moses helps out with resonator guitar. The song arrangements are good and instrumentally complement the vocals. This new release from Bluegrass Express will be a hit with their fans and gospel music fans alike. (Plum River Records, 1396 E. Menzemer Rd., Elizabeth, IL 61028, www.bluegrassexpressband.com.)BF


RHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE

RHONDA-VINCENTRHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE
ALL THE RAGE: RHONDA VINCENT AND THE RAGE IN CONCERT, VOLUME ONE

Upper Mgmt. Records
UM010

For any young musician determined to carve out a meaningful and lasting career, it’s hard to imagine a better role model than Rhonda Vincent. With her remarkable artistry, discipline, commitment, generosity, and vast energy, there are few, if any, quite like her. If we even needed further proof of this, we have it with her new CD/DVD live-in-concert release, All The Rage. Recorded at West Tennessee’s Bethel University last year, this 14-song, 60-minute-long tour de force captures Vincent and her long-time band at their full power.

Rhonda and the Rage open the show with an exhilarating, almost giddily exuberant reprise of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues,” a longstanding staple in their live shows. With seeming effortlessness, they segue into a mellow, soulful reprise of “Is The Grass Any Bluer.” This heartfelt tribute to Bill Monroe is an ideal showcase for Vincent’s almost astounding combination of vocal range, precision, and nuance. (It’s one thing to be able to break a champagne glass with your vocal pipes; it’s quite another to bring listeners to tears while doing it.)

Vincent, in recent interviews, has stated that one of her most enduring ambitions has been to put together the very best band as is humanly possible. If she hasn’t done it with The Rage (whose five members include two of her son-in-laws), then she still has come close enough for horseshoes. Not surprisingly, she’s both extremely proud and generous when it comes to sharing the spotlight to her bandmates. She devotes roughly half the tracks on this live collection to showcasing their collective and individual instrumental, vocal, and songwriting talents.(www.rhondavincent.com)BA


THE SOMMERS ROSENTHAL FAMILY BAND

SOMMERS-ROSENTHAL-BANDTHE SOMMERS ROSENTHAL FAMILY BAND
DOWN THE ROAD

American Melody
AM-CD-5128

The Americana genre allows for a freedom not always present in bluegrass or old-time music. Where an “outside” instrument or arrangement or song in bluegrass may draw a jaundiced eye or two, in Americana no one blinks. That freedom is on full display on this new album from the Sommers Rosenthal Family Band. Though the material is drawn largely from the bluegrass songbook, including such standards as the title-tune, “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome,” “East Virginia Blues,” “Gathering Flowers From The Hillside,” and Phil Rosenthal’s own “Muddy Water” and “Brother John,” the settings are Americana. Jazz trumpet and fluegelhorn, played by Dan Rosenthal, appears throughout, as does clawhammer banjo, electric guitar, drums, and Fender Rhodes piano. The sound of the band is a mix of jazz, folk, bluegrass, and much, much more.

The question is, does it work? On a whole, yes. There are a few tunes here that fall a little short of the mark, the vibrolux-driven guitar backing on “He Rocks Me To Sleep,” for one, the medium-tempo airyness of “Midnight Special” for another. One or two more “up” tunes would be welcome. As it stands, only the clawhammer and trumpet instrumental “Down Home” and the trio (banjo, mandolin and fluegelhorn) arrangement of the title-tune have real fire. But, generally, the arrangements and settings are nicely handled. The understatement of the jazzy “I Know…” is very good, as is the longing of Naomi Sommers singing A.P. Carter’s “Gathering Flowers…” and Dylan’s “Your Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” The best may be the “St. James Infirmary” treatment of “Muddy Water.” Extremely slow, almost spoken and underlaid with trumpet, it is arguably as good as the original. That highlights a very good recording. (American Melody, P.O. Box 270, Guilford, CT 06437, www.americanmelody.com.)BW


THE UNSEEN STRANGERS

unseenstrangersalbumTHE UNSEEN STRANGERS
STRANGER PLACES

   Adam Shier (guitar), James McEleney (bass), Matt Elwood (banjo), and Mike Mezzatesta (mandolin) are the Unseen Strangers out of Toronto, Canada. This quartet’s third release of progressive bluegrass still has traditional bluegrass at its backbone. The nine original tracks from the mind of Shier include the most popular single, “Buster,” a straightforward flatpicking guitar instrumental. “Wicked Lover” is a traditional mountain song with an interesting twist on the classic murder ballad. This time around, the man gets axed. (Times were getting colder and everything was hard / She felt the same, myself to blame, now I’m buried in the yard / Grass it grows around me, the flowers she tore out / My one last time to save you, so I’m going to scream and shout.) A three-piece horn section is featured on “Old City Jail,” a tune that was inspired by the haunted Old Charleston Jail in South Carolina. (We’re on the hard run, nothing stops the sounds / Down in the old city jail left with the cold hounds / Gamblers that came ’round before folks like you or I got caught in the rails.)

The CD kicks off with the intriguing seven-part instrumental, “Ice Jam.” Shier explains, “It has many sections that evolve over the course of the tune, change key centers, and do not repeat. The song is not actually very ‘jam’ influenced in a musical sense, but supposed to instrumentally represent an actual ice jam occurring on northern river, fall to winter to spring.” Get to know the Unseen Strangers, the 2013 winners of the DelFest band competition. They have music that engages all the senses and leaves listeners longing for more. (www.unseenstrangers.ca)BC


CLAYBANK

CLAYBANKCLAYBANK
PLAYING HARD TO FORGET

Rural Rhythm
RUR-1137

Often, debut albums come out quietly, but that’s not the case with the new group ClayBank and their release, Playing Hard To Forget. The group launched their CD with a Showcase performance at the 2016 IBMA World Of Bluegrass in Raleigh, and saw the single “Up On ClayBank” rise quickly up the bluegrass charts.

The band is composed of Zack Arnold on mandolin; Jacob Greer on guitar; Tyler Thompson on banjo; and Gary Trivette on bass. All four contribute vocals. Musicianship is evident throughout the album, kicking off with the Becky Buller penned “How I Love You,” followed by “Demise Of Handsome Molly.” Steve Gulley recorded, mixed, and co-produced the album, and the quality is evident throughout. In particular, the banjo work of Thompson is clear on several cuts, in particular “On My Way Back To You” and the sharp instrumental “Foot Of The Phoenix.” Songwriting master Milan Miller and James Ellis collaborated on the title track, and three songs were written by band members.

There is much to like from this new North Carolina group, and as Charles Osgood is fond of saying, listeners should expect to “see them on the radio.” (www.claybankbluegrass.com)MKB