GOING TO THE DANCE
Patuxent Music CD200
Chris Warner is a force of nature on the banjo. A graduate of the Jimmy Martin school of higher bluegrass learning, Warner is all about timing. With that comes a heavy dose of control. Things never get out of hand, which doesn’t mean they don’t get exciting. From Tom Adams’ fine lead vocals to Warner’s powerhouse banjo picking, we are treated to lots of excitement.
There are two fiddlers on this project. Michael Cleveland and Patrick McAvinue. Both tend toward the inflammatory side, but are held in check here to sizzle without going over the top. Their tone and licks are amazing and tasteful throughout. Warner wrote ten of the fourteen pieces here. There are two traditional pieces (both fiddle tunes) and a Jimmy Martin/Paul Williams classic, “Leavin’ Town.” While leading the proceedings with his banjo, Warner plays more of a supporting role vocally by adding baritone to the trios. It is only on “Banjo Blues” that Chris sings lead. This cut reaches back to the mountains and to banjo players like Roscoe Holcomb. The title cut shows what makes Warner’s playing so good. He twins the mandolin and when they break into “Cotton Eyed-Joe” at the end of the song, the banjo and fiddle burn down the barn.
The vocals here are top notch. Tom Adams and Darren Beachley get in a couple of great duets. The trios are classic bluegrass. “Taxes, Troubles, and Heartaches” is a Carroll Swam original. Mark Seitz’s tenor and mandolin stand out with Swam’s warm lead vocal and Warner’s great baritone. The instrumentals are consistently interesting and well played.
There are gems throughout the project, such as Dick Laird’s break on “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” There is a touch of old-time (Warner uses an old-time banjo tuning to good effect on “Bonaparte’s Retreat”), a pinch of country, and a whole lot of great bluegrass on this CD. The performances here will stand the test of time. This is an essential addition to the collection of any fan of traditional bluegrass and bluegrass banjo. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) RCB
DRIFTING AND DREAMING
Missy Werner, a veteran lead vocalist from the Cincinnati area, makes a push for national recognition with this her debut solo album. There are 12 songs, most of them using post’80s bluegrass stylings. All were selected by Werner and producer Dwight McCall and are either from current writers or are covers. Of the covers, only “Plant Some Flowers” by Jimmie Davis and the pop/country hit “Snowbird” would qualify as well known tunes.
Thematically, the tunes run the range of human experience, yearning for a love, losing a love, saying good riddance to a love gone wrong, remembering the departed, “Living In Troubled Times,” and self-improvement. Werner covers Dolly Parton’s portrait of the joy of living, “Early Morning Breeze.” Parton is a master of country melody and poetic description, and Werner turns in a nice rendition. It is one of the two or three best tracks here; “Snowbird” and “Plant Some Flowers” are the other two. A track or two later is “Gypsy Joe And Me” (another Parton song), this one a tale of sadness and loss. “The Rope” uses sailing and “drifting from the shore” as metaphors for life and concludes that we all need to reach out for help sometimes.
Backing all these tunes is an allstar cast that includes, Tim Stafford, Ron Stewart, Randy Kohrs, Alan Bibey, and Harold Nixon. Werner’s voice and performance are of the same high quality. She has a clear, pure tone and a good understanding of placing her words against the rhythm. Nothing sounds strained. Nothing is forced. Twelve songs and twelve good performances, and that equals a debut that should garner recognition. (Missy Werner, 4958 Cedar Brook Ct., Liberty Twp., OH 45011, www.missywerner.com.) BW
THE BLUEGRASS ALBUM
Nathan Day is a singer/songwriter from Connecticut. With the title The Bluegrass Album, he is signaling his fans that this recording represents a change from his usual style. Making that change brings with it some ups and downs. On the downside, his singer/songwriter background has resulted in his guitar mixed too far forward and several times is at odds with good bluegrass band rhythm. This is most apparent on his otherwise fine “Sweet Honeydew.”
On the upside, he is bold at bringing in freshsounding twists of melody and coloring. Fortunately, the positives outweigh the negatives, making for a good recording overall.
There are eleven songs and two bonus tracks. Of the thirteen, two are traditional bluegrass standards. “Pig In The Pen” opens the recording and is a bright, likable effort. “Bury Me Beneath The Willow” shows that, vocally, Day has a familiarity with the Skaggs and Rice version, though he takes it a bit faster. Both are good covers.
Day wrote the rest of the material. His lyrics are straightforward: lovers leaving on the midnight train; a man struggling to drink memory away; the influence of a hometown…that sort of thing. But, melodically and structurally, the songs offer interesting variation on bluegrass form. Among the best are “Firecracker” and “Beautiful Day.” The midtempo love song, “One More Song,” and the guitar and vocal bonus track, “Road Song,” are also well done.
Ably backing Day are bassist Bart Holcomb, resonator guitarist Roger Williams, fiddler Mike Barnett, mandolinist Bob Dick, banjoist Dave Dick, and vocalists Amy Gallatin and HannaH. (Nathan Day, P.O. Box 93, New Hartford, CT 06057, www.nathandaymusic.com.) BW
BORN INTO BLUEGRASS
THE SONGS OF CULLEN GALYEAN
Mountain Roads Recordings
There’s a region of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the North Carolina/Virginia border that has produced some of the finest banjo players in bluegrass. From Mount Airy, N.C., to Galax, Va., and the communities nearby, there emerged in the late 1940s and ’50s such exponents of threefinger banjo as Larry Richardson, L.W. Lambert, and Ted Lundy. Cullen Galyean of Lowgap, N.C., was also among this distinguished group of musicians.
Cullen, a multiinstrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, played and/or recorded with an impressive array of bands over the years, many of them from his section of the Blue Ridge. There were the Mountain Ramblers, Virginia Mountain Boys, Border Mountain Boys, Foot Hill Boys, and a brief stint on mandolin with Ralph Stanley, just to name a few.
This CD presents 15 of Cullen’s compositions; three instrumentals and twelve songs. My favorite is “Days Of Grey And Black,” which I first heard performed by Randall Collins and Curtis Blackwell circa 1970. There are two wellconceived gospel numbers, “Traded The Bottle For A Bible” and “Carry It Back To The Cross,” but really there’s not a throwaway number here. One instrumental, “Midnight Ramble,” is the original recording with which Cullen won the banjo competition at the 1965 bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Va. A dazzling display of technical skill, it’s easy to see why he won.
The group of musicians assembled here is impressive. The list includes Rick Allred, Terry Baucom, Wesley and Derek Easter, Mickey Galyean (Cullen’s son), Jimmy Haley, Billy Hawks, Junior Sisk, and Johnny Williams—16 outstanding pickers in all, with Cullen Galyean himself providing baritone vocals and playing banjo on two numbers. “Bluegrass Time” is the last song Cullen recorded playing banjo. (Because of health issues, he hasn’t played in about five years.) This is a wonderful collection of traditional bluegrass. Recommended without reservation. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) WVS
For the last couple of years, readers of this magazine may have seen advertisements for the Baker Brothers and their music. Hailing from Indiana, Jessie and Taylor Baker are teenagers who took up bluegrass at a young age and have progressed ever since. In recent years, Jessie has gone on to play with many top bands in the business including fellow Hoosiers, the Wildwood Valley Boys, Karl Shifflet, Wildfire, Melvin Goins, Marty Raybon, and more. He is now a member of the powerhouse band Flamekeeper that backs the awardwinning Michael Cleveland. This new allinstrumental album, Yessir!, represents a coming-out party in the bluegrass tradition for Jessie Baker, as this is his first solo project.
Early on, Baker was inspired by Earl Scruggs and Don Reno and the album starts off with the Reno/Strouppenned “Follow The Leader.” It’s one of many standards found here, along with “San Antonio Rose,” “Jesus Savior Pilot Me,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” and another Reno tune called “Banjo Riff.”
Baker keeps the tempos fairly subdued, which only reminds the listener that some of these familiar tunes have been dredged up one too many times over the years. Fortunately, however, there are some real barnburners including “Boston Boy,” “Banjo Fling,” “Johnson Mountain Chimes,” and the new Baker original and title cut, “Yessir.”
Jessie is a very good player who more than holds his own. Another saving grace that keeps this album from sounding like just another collection of oftmined standards is the exceptional fiddling of Michael Cleveland who plays on all but one cut. Other musicians on the project include Marshall Wilborn, Dudley Connell, David McLaughlin, Audie Blaylock, Nate Leath, Patrick McAvinue and Barry Reid. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) DH
NONE OF THE ABOVE
TURN THE PAGE
After Five Records
For the second time in just a few years, a bluegrass band has covered Journey’s ’80s rock classic “Don’t Stop Believing.” None Of The Above’s version is less frantic and less imitative of the original than that recorded by Pine Mountain Railroad, but is arranged more intricately and is equally worthy. Either way proves the song adapts well to bluegrass. The same can be said of NOTA’s cover of America’s “Sister Golden Hair.” Both are album highlights. Both also reflect a slight change of direction for the band, as nothing listed on their first four recordings seems remotely like these two songs.
There have also been some bandmember changes since the group’s last recording. The two newcomers who join guitarist Tim Sands, bassist Tim Harrison, and mandolinist David Crawford are vocalist Allison Trogdon and banjoist Jon Cornatzer. Trogdon, a polished vocalist with outside bluegrass influences, sings lead on two songs (including “Don’t Stop…”) and contributes harmonies throughout. Cornatzer takes the lead on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon Of Darkness” and swings between tradition and contemporary on the banjo. He contributes two instrumentals, the moody “Road To Bei Hei” (which is a bit short) and the lilting “Tamara” (which would work better if it were two minutes shorter).
Tim Sands still handles most of the lead singing. His expressive voice brings great texture to Julie Miller’s “Midnight & Lonesome,” Tim O’Brien’s “Turn The Page Again,” and Jeff White’s swinging country “Blue Trail Of Sorrow.” He is at his best on “Sister Golden Hair” and in a lively duet with Trogdon on Gillian Welch’s “Wichita,” an oldtime number. The latter revolves around a nifty instrumental riff and is arguably the best track on the recording.
There’s much to like about this CD. There’s variety with wellconsidered and wellexecuted arrangements. The playing is good and the harmonies tight. Keep an ear out for it. (None Of The Above, 1809 Brims Grove Rd., Pinnacle, NC 27043, www.noneoftheabove.net.) BW
EVERY NIGHT BEFORE BREAKFAST
Blue Banjo Records
Eric Ellis is an excellent banjo player, highly regarded by his fellow musicians. The cast of supporting players reflects this admiration. Bobby Hicks and David Johnson play fiddles. Dave Haney, who played guitar with the late Joe Val, is on guitar and vocals. Billy Gee plays bass and Nick Chandler plays mandolin.
Ellis is a Scruggs-influenced picker. Scruggs licks populate his backup and lead work. He’s a tasteful player with lots of good ideas. He opens up the project with a spot-on version of “Randy Lynn Rag” and then jumps into Don Reno’s “Better Luck Next Time.” The dozen songs and tunes display Ellis’ banjo playing in a variety of tempos and settings. He handles all with the ease and grace of the seasoned player.
Nick Chandler’s mandolin playing is the other standout on this project. Ellis has played in Chandler’s band and the interplay between the two is apparent. Chandler’s breaks stand out for their tone and timing. The fiddles suffer from a murky mix with too much reverb that detracts from the overall effectiveness of their playing. The overuse of echo detracts from the power of some of the playing in general.
The range of material is refreshing. Everything from Steve Earle to the Louvin Brothers to Tom McKinney’s “Uptown” and an interesting Ellis original, “Cedar Creek,” that demonstrates his prowess along with that of Chandler. The fiddle break is a gem, as well. If you’re a fan of solid traditional banjo playing, don’t miss this project. (Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, www.appstate.edu.) RCB
THE HENHOUSE PROWLERS
A DARK RUMOR
Vivid songwriting backed with good bluegrass chops of all styles is at the core of the latest recording from the Chicago based Henhouse Prowlers. From the group’s principal songwriters, guitarist Ben Benedict and resonator guitarist James Weigel, come eight truly inspired tracks. Other band members are Ben Wright on banjo, Ryan Hinshaw on fiddle, Jon Goldfine on bass, and featuring Don Stiernberg on mandolin. Benedict’s best effort is the slow country tune “Silver Lining.” Almost parloresque in its wistfulness and resignation, the song revolves around the line Every silver lining has its cloud and that she is his. That’s country song wordtwisting at its best. Weigel contributes five standout originals. “Uncle Bubba” involves running from a hurricane in Texas, being part of a poor black family driving in the early 1960s south, when an interlude shifts from fast/medium to slow and details the inheritance received from the death of Uncle Bubba. Rich in description, it’s hard not to be drawn in. Two tracks later is Weigel’s pondering of “Trouble.” We all have it, we all search for a way out of it, trouble remains—all in classic three quarter time bluegrass bounce. His best song, one of the two best on the recording, is “Drifter.” In it, the subject relates his wish to settle down and to make amends for his wandering life. As he struggles, the song gets angrier and more declarative. In three minutes and fifty-five seconds, we go from loose guitar rhythm and weary vocals to full blown anthem with touches of Levon Helm.
Add to these four other Benedict and Weigel originals, a cover of the Stonemans’ “Turn Me Loose,” and a rhythmically interesting instrumental from fiddler Hinshaw. “Turn Me Loose,” with its tale of hard luck and its refrain, Hey, you. Who, me? Yeah, you, is the other of the two best tracks and kicks off a really good album in high style. (Henhouse Prowlers, 3963 W. Belmont Ave., Unit 117, Chicago IL 60618, www.henhouseprowlers.com.) BW
ON THE EDGE
CIRCLES AROUND ME
Sugar Hill Records SUGCD4055
Much has already been written about mandolinist/fiddler/singer Sam Bush returning to his roots with Circles Around Me. Well, yes, but that’s the way it’s always been with Sam Bush albums. The acknowledged “King of Newgrass” music and founder/leader of New Grass Revival from 1971 through 1989 has more than a halfdozen solo albums under his belt, and the first one opened with “Big Mon,” the instrumental Bill Monroe selfportrait. Every album since has featured—not just dabbled in—bluegrass and prenewgrass music, and not out of any sense of obligation. It is where he comes from, and he absolutely loves it. And, Sam Bush is great at it all.
What is different this time is the conscious (and slightly melancholic and wistful) glance back, though more in theme than musical style. From the opening title track, Bush is contemplating mortality and his own place in the world. And it is a bit jarring, coming from one of music’s seemingly eternally youthful firebrands.
At the same time, it is invigorating by the end, because what he created in his early days, exemplified by two nowclassic New Grass Revival closing cuts, still sounds so fresh. “Souvenir Bottles”—here tightened up, but with its builtin nostalgia intact—sounded slightly quaint in the ’70s as delivered by the new hippies on the block. Now, it comes full circle, with Bush representing the sage as well as the youngster who listens in awe, like a man looking in the mirror in disbelief at the wizened visage glaring back. The hushed transition between Scott Vestal’s banjo solo and Bush’s mandolin exploration is among the disc’s highlights.
The CD is packed with reflective moments, even if they’re not always explicit, with Tex Logan (“Diamond Joe”) and the early Country Gentlemen (the crackling waltz “You Left Me Alone”) circling around him, while Bush spins his own ellipses of instrumental newgrass gold on “Blue Mountain.”
Nobody is better than Bush at the bluesy instrumental side of Monroe, and adding to the bittersweet ancient tones he conjures on “The Old North Woods” are bassist Edgar Meyer with Meyer’s son, George, and wife, Connie, on violins. Family is further touched upon with the brief “Apple Blossom” fiddle/banjo duet, posthumously featuring original NGR banjoist Courtney Johnson, the track’s dedicatee along with Sam’s recently deceased dad. Bush also tosses his hat into the ring of murder balladeers with an effective cocomposition written with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson, “The Ballad Of Stringbean And Estelle,” a “true song” (as Monroe would have said) about the 1973 murders of the Grand Ole Opry star and his wife.
Vestal, bassist Byron House, drummer (yes, this is newgrass music) Chris Brown, and guitarist Stephen Mougin are Bush’s house band, and besides those already mentioned, exquisite guest turns are provided by Del McCoury and Jerry Douglas. Bush has never made a better record as he stands firmly in the center of these massive circles, creating new ones for his fellow future giants. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120897, Nashville, TN 37212, sugarhillrecords.com.) DR
While bluegrass generally evokes thoughts of banjos and fiddles, there’ll always be a special connection with the mandolin. The challenging eightstringed beastie in the hands of Bill Monroe and the countless others who’ve followed his path will always convey some of its grassy heritage, no matter how far it strays stylistically.
Straying far brings us to 2010, the debut CD from the group MandoMorphosis. They’re based in the Pacific Northwest where mandolins are as ubiquitous as espresso bars. Therefore, the band consists of seven mandolinists, some of whom stray to guitar, fiddle, and resonator guitar over the course of the album. The only familiar name to me was Orville Johnson, known primarily for his bluesy resonator guitar work and crusty vocals on duo projects with the likes of Laura Love and Mark Graham. The other octostringers (I don’t expect this term to catch on) are Matt Sircely, Michael Connolly, David Tiller, Scott Schaffer, Pete Frostic, and Adam Larrabee.
The 17 tracks are mostly originals with the exception of a Chopin nocturne and a choro piece by Jacob do Bambolin. These are beautifully played and arranged, as is “Matt’s Idea” (a blues tinged new grass piece) and “Ed” (a gentle chamber jazz trio). So is the recording’s one vocal, Orville Johnson’s “Nero’s Fiddle,” a powerfully mournful and politically charged number.
If the album falls short in any category, it’s that at over an hour’s worth of music, there’s a shortage of distinctive melodies among the lion’s share of the originals. “Crime Dog” seems based more on a chord progression rather than a melodic theme, and many of the other cuts are hung on only the slightest of unifying riffs. The playing is unfailingly fine, but no individual mandolinist’s “voice” emerges to identify himself.
The result is a wide ranging recording that gives the impression of some unfulfilled potential. They show that a mandolin septet focusing on influences far from bluegrass can make a go of it. But, I’m guessing that even the most dedicated mandophile may ultimately want more melody and less noodling. (MandoMorphosis, 1525 Taylor Ave. N., #602, Seattle, WA 98109, www.mandomorphosis.com.) HK
Springfield is a French quartet taking a brave and challenging path to music success. Their album Cross Over features mostly original songs, sung in English, with a strong bluegrass core that leans slightly to the folky end of the tradition spectrum. How’d they do? By the evidence here, exceptionally well.
They’ve created an interesting and appealing set of new songs, mostly composed by lead singer/bass guitarist Pierre Jean Lorre, with some contributions from and collaborations with mandolinist Louis Lorre and guitarist Phillippe Checa. The lion’s share of the tunes have historical inspirations, some European and some with intriguing American roots, such as “Josiah” (about escaped slave/abolitionist Josiah Henson), “Seattle” (drawn from the words of Chief Seattle to President Grover Cleveland in 1854), and “Oregon Trail.”
The songs are consistently wellsung and carefully arranged, with nice use of banjoist JeanMichael Gardin and guest Manu Bertrand on resonator guitar. Even the low whistle on “Mary Reed” doesn’t seem out of place. The two covers included here give more evidence of the group’s arranging skills. The standard “Sitting On Top Of The World” is presented in a soft gentle manner that brings a whole new life to the song, while Dan Fogelberg’s “Wandering Shepherd” kicks off with an a cappella quartet and builds into a strong gospel number. The CD’s sole instrumental track, “Spring Fills,” also indicates how well these players fare on a straight ahead bluegrass number.
There’s not much holding this ensemble back from international success. Lorre’s accent is strong to these American ears, but he still enunciates with clarity and expressiveness. If there’s any area in which they could strive to improve, it might be in their lyrics. While the stories they tell are evocative, the choice of words sometimes shows the challenges of writing well in a second language; something that most writers this side of Joseph Conrad have struggled with. But, that doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of this recording, a strong bid to grab the attention of international bluegrass fans. (Springfield, 6 Rue des Pommiers, 91200, AthisMons, France, www.springfieldbluegrassband.fr.) HK
MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW: MY LIFE AND TIMES
BY DR. RALPH STANLEY WITH EDDIE DEAN
Gotham Books 978159240425
In Ralph Stanley’s wildest dreams, one wonders if he ever envisioned writing a memoir. And, if it hadn’t been for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it is likely that this book, Man Of Constant Sorrow, would have never been born. Music journalist Eddie Dean also deserves much credit for taking what was surely an oral history and turning it into a riveting narrative.
Ralph takes us from his childhood on Smith Ridge in southwest Virginia, through his partnership with Carter as the Stanley Brothers, and on through his solo career with the Clinch Mountain Boys which saw the loss of two more great lead singers, Roy Lee Centers and Keith Whitley. As is fitting, the old Kentucky fox hunter, Curly Ray Cline, gets his own chapter, as does Bill Monroe.
The story is told in Ralph’s own words, which makes for an entertaining read. As he says, “I know correct and proper English just fine, but I don’t use it because that’s not the way I was raised.” He is surprisingly candid about many of the major events in his life including Carter’s battle with alcohol which led to his untimely death in 1966 at the age of 41. Ralph admits he was “scared to go it alone” because Carter “was the one everybody loved.” His competitiveness with his older brother is still evident in remarks such as, “I helped my mother more than Carter did.”
A memoir, of course, allows you to shape your own story and Ralph sets the tone early on when he declares, “I’m just an old hillbilly and proud of it, too.” Man Of Constant Sorrow upholds that myth (Ralph practically gloats about Carter beating bass player Chick Stripling to a pulp), while at the same time undercutting it with every recounting of Ralph’s myriad accomplishments far from the hills of home.
Although the book is by no means a tellall, Ralph takes six pages to “call out” John Duffey, labeling him “mean as a striped snake”; hardly fair since John is gone and can’t respond. Ralph’s declaration that “I don’t play bluegrass” also seems a bit ungrateful since the bluegrass community has been his primary working venue all these years. On an irksome note, the text has numerous typos (such as “Little Magpie” for “Little Maggie”) and entire phrases are carelessly repeated in several places.
In the end, however, Man Of Constant Sorrow reveals not someone who is “plain as an old shoe,” but rather a wonderfully complex individual who has lived a complicated and often painful life and who is savvy enough to realize the wisdom of telling that story himself. A fascinating read. Highly recommended (Gotham Books, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014, www.penguin.com.) MHH
THE CROW-STEVE MARTIN
NEW SONGS FOR THE FIVE STRING BANJO
TRANSCRIBED BY TONY TRISCHKA.
$19.95, 40 pp.
Hot on the heels of Steve Martin’s recent banjo CD The Crow comes this nicely done book of tabs transcribed by Tony Trischka, with notes and helpful hints on the tunes by Martin (who wrote all but one) and an introduction by Trischka. Included are three clawhammer selections along with the three-finger-style tunes, and various tunings, including open D, D tuning, G modal, and C modal. The tablature is standard notation with large print and very easy to read. Complete words to all songs are included as well. (Note that if you are hoping for the tab to the breaks by Tony and Béla on the signature cut “The Crow,” they are not included because, according to Martin, “They would probably demand something like money.”)
This book should be of interest to any banjo player intrigued with Martin’s original compositions on The Crow and his quite individualistic and refreshing approach to the five-string. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.) AW