CHICKEN & EGG
Howdy Skies Records HSCD 1005
Superstar Tim O’Brien has had one of the most amazing music careers. A founding member of Hot Rize, his place in bluegrass music is secure, and his individual achievements include such standout releases as the brilliant Odd Man In, his stellar take on Bob Dylan with Red On Blonde, his Celticinfused The Crossing, and his brilliant performance with Robert Redford in Out Of Africa (oh wait, that might have been Meryl Streep). Anyway, it’s hard to think of a performer in the last thirty years who’s been more influential or delivered more great performances than Tim (Ms. Streep notwithstanding).
On his new release, Chicken & Egg, he follows his musical muse hither and yon, ranging from folk, Celtic, bluegrass, and modern acoustic across a style that embraces his entire musical span. Filling the role vacated by his friend, the late John Hartford, Tim provides his own take on contemporary mores and issues on tunes such as “You Ate The Apple,” “Workin’,” and “No Way To Stop The Flow.” Great wit, wisdom, and wordplay dominate.
Taking a serious turn, Tim renders the haunting “Letter In The Mail,” coauthored with John Hadley as a somber take on the passages in life. In a similar vein, “Mother Mary” written with Dixie Chick Martie Maguire focuses on the pain of loss and the difficulty of recovery.
As always, Tim surrounds himself with some of the world’s top musicians. Bryan Sutton, Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan, Darrell Scott, Abigail Washburn, Mike Bub, Sarah Jarosz, Charlie Cushman, just to name a few, fill out a super list of fine players. Great music all around here, as expected. Chicken & Egg displays virtually every facet of Tim O’Brien’s musical persona. Filled with brilliant original tunes, Tim’s languid and lustrous vocal delivery backed by a host of great musicians with topnotch material, this is one of the year’s best releases. And next summer, look for Tim to star in the blockbuster sequel, Raging Bull II (wait, I think that might be Robert DeNiro). Better just buy Chicken & Egg and enjoy it to be safe. (Howdy Skies Records, P.O. Box 120215, Nashville, TN 37212, www.timobrien.net.) DJM
STEVE GULLEY AND TIM STAFFORD
Rural Rhythm RHY1066
Singer/bassist Steve Gulley and singer/guitarist Tim Stafford are veteran bluegrass heavy hitters—between them, their resumes include, among other bands and their own solo albums, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Blue Highway, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Grasstowne. Beyond performing, they’re stellar composers with songs covered by a who’s who of artists.
They easily could have made a duo album constructed as a “best of” selection of original wellknown songs, but nope. What makes Dogwood Winter particularly exciting is that virtually (all but one) all of the tracks are fresh, newlyrecorded material, with not a dog (sorry) among them, all cowritten by the pair.
Though a few tracks might invite a quibble, this is pretty straightahead ’grass, even if one of the best songs is an exception, the plaintive “Nebraska Sky,” sporting a piano and percussion. But the two openers, “Why Ask Why?,” and the ripping “Just Along For The Ride,” establishes these guys as monster bluegrass men. By the time the third cut’s over, a darkhued “Land Of Milk And Honey,” even the most pious bluegrasser might cut them some slack and overlook their indiscretions. And “How Did That Turn Into My Problem?” contains one of the best putdowns bitterly bursting from bluegrass: “You’re still the best mistake I never made.”
The remaining songs contain similar bits of delightful moments embedded in melodies that start to sound familiar by the second hearing. Mandolinist Adam Steffey, banjoist/fiddler Ron Stewart and resonator guitarist/fiddler Justin Moses complete the studio band with power, precision and creative sensitivity. Michael Alvey and Mark Laws are the piano/percussion ringers, while none other than Dale Ann Bradley, among the greatest of bluegrass divas, provides some ultrahigh lonesome harmonies. Simply put, Dogwood Winter is contemporary bluegrass at its best. (Rural Rhythm, Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DR
FRUIT OF THE VINE
Usually promo quotes on album covers must be taken in context. In the case of Ashleigh Caudill’s new recording, they prove true. Ashleigh Caudill, as Claire Lynch writes, does indeed “have an undeniable gift for songwriting.”
While the themes of her 12 originals are the basic themes of poor but happy, hard times, wishing for love, working toward the promised land, murder, death and the joys of being in love, what raises them to a superior level is her creativity at blending contemporary touches with older traditional forms and rhythms. The insistent 3/4 pulse of “Toil & Shame,” for example, has a chorus that calls to mind the old folk tune “Wind And Rain,” but also has a short interlude that makes me think of The Band. “Fruit Of The Vine,” the title song, uses clawhammer banjo and mixes the oldtimey image of wishing to be an apple on a tree with the contemporary wordplay of “vying with the fruit of the vine,” while “Pluckin’ The Hen” is an original happy go lucky fiddle tune with words and is reminiscent of “Down The Road” or “Cumberland Gap.” Perhaps the most impressive example of her use of older forms is the ballad “William White.” Many have written murder ballads in bluegrass of late, but most of them sound forced. “William White” doesn’t suffer that fate. Caudill cloaks her tale in archaic form and language structure, making it sound like she found a lost notebook from Cecil Sharp.
All four of those are highlights, but there are many others, including the religious anthem “Row By Row,” the quickpaced, joie de vivre of “Saturday Afternoon Man” and the lilting and pensive waltz of “Sad Song.” Caudill renders them all in a voice that is smooth and light, at times skipping and playful, at times drifting and soulful. Such vocal skills and good arranging and good backing work go with her fine songwriting skills and result in an exceptional album. (Ashleigh Caudill, 426 Deaverview Rd., Asheville, NC 28806, www.ashleighcaudill.com.) BW
ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING: GOLDEN BOY OF THE BLUE RIDGE
Great White Wax
The American South inherited much of its musical and cultural traditions from the British Isles. So, it’s really not surprising that J.M. Synge’s classic 1907 play The Playboy Of The Western World, set in a small Irish village, has been adapted with great success by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel as the new musical Golden Boy Of The Blue Ridge, set in the backwoods of Virginia.
The shared plot involves a handsome young stranger who wanders in from the night claiming to be a fugitive who has killed his father in self-defense. He captivates the townsfolk (especially the women) and becomes a local celebrity. But the surprise arrival of a second stranger causes an upheaval that tumbles into the dramatic climax.
The original New York off Broadway production was entertaining, witty, and compelling, impressions all reinforced by this original cast recording. The opening number “Way Out Back And Beyond” sets the mood, conveying the hardscrabble poverty and sense of isolation that have long haunted Appalachia. The songs (all with music and lyrics by Mills) are quite good and at times amusing, hair-raising, or poignant. Best of all, each number advances the musical’s plot, which is easy to follow on the CD. The singers and backup musicians are outstanding, energetically rising to the challenging material.
The mountain influenced music is played on guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic bass, with “A Wanted Man” and “Sixes And Sevens” coming closest to being straightahead oldtime bluegrass numbers. However, the songs are structured predominately in Broadway-musical style, with shifting modulations, accidentals, and counterpointing, competing duets. So, I’d recommend this recording to listeners who enoy an adventure outside traditional bounds. If you do, chances are you’ll be rewarded by Golden Boy Of The Blue Ridge. (Tumble Dry Music, 300 W. 43rd St., Ste. 302, New York, N.Y 10036, www.tumbledrymusic.com.) RDS
THE BLUEGRASS REGULATORS
Teenage brother duo Jake and Luke Dewhirst took top prizes at the 2009 Rockygrass guitar and banjo contests, respectively, and now they make up half of the Washington based Bluegrass Regulators, along with Josh Adkins (bass, lead and tenor vocals) and Martin Stevens (fiddle, mandolin, lead and tenor vocals).
This 12track, 39minute effort features a few well written band originals, including easyrolling love songs “Kill Me With Your Smile” and “Look Again” alongside snappy instrumentals “Piggy Goes Splat,” “Red House,” and “Haymaker.”
Traditional tunes “Be Thou My Vision” and “Black As A Crow” get strippeddown arrangements that add variety, which also comes with cover versions of Vince Gill’s “Girl” and Chris Jones’ “Uphill Climb.”
Another solid original is the gospel pewstomper “Well Done,” which closes the album with panache.
Though the vocals on this project are clearly youthful and a bit tentative, the picking is tasteful and impressive throughout, signaling a bright and creative future for this unit and their fans. (The Bluegrass Regulators, 13812 32nd Ave., NW, Gig Harbor, WA 98332, www.myspace.com/regulatorbluegrass.) AKH
SOMEWHERE IN GLORY
This second release from Common Strings, the husband and wife duo of Darron (mandolin and harmony) and Vanessa Nichols (lead vocals and one track on guitar), finds the couple shifting from the mostly secular subjects of their debut to an album of gospel songs. Backing them are Sammy Shelor (banjo), Brandon Rickman (guitar), Jimmy Creed (bass), Mike Hartgrove (fiddle), Dale Anne Bradley (harmony), and Steve Gulley (harmony).
What places this album above other wellsung, wellplayed gospel recordings is the attention given to the song choices. Coproducers Shelor and the Nichols could have followed convention and covered a few standards and used some filler. Instead, they went deeper into the repertoire for seven public domain gems and one Albert Brumley tune that are, if not obscure, certainly underrecorded in bluegrass. Only Brumley’s “Prettiest Flowers” comes close to being a standard.
Opening the recording is “When The Redeemed Are Gathering In,” a hymn long ago recorded by Ernest Stoneman and later by the Brown’s Ferry Four, but rarely since in bluegrass. Here it gets a nice medium bounce and some excellent harmony. A few tracks later is the modaltinged “Preachin’ By The Roadside” given an oldtime feel with clawhammer banjo and no bass. Next is the uptempo “Nothing But The Blood” followed by “Twilight Is Fading.” The latter is Vanessa and her guitar, and the effect is pure Carter Family (although they never covered it). Another tune given an oldtime reading is “The Message Of His Coming.” The 3/4 time “Paul’s Ministry” is a wonderful piece of songwriting once covered by Kitty Wells.
The album ends with Vanessa singing “The Revelation,” backed only by the hypnotic and mournful fiddling of Mike Hartgrove. Mix in three originals that sound like they were written in the ’40s, most particularly the classic country of Wayne King’s “Beyond The Mist Of Blue,” and you have an album guaranteed to lift the spirits. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040 Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BW
DARRELL WEBB BAND
Rural Rhythm RHY1064
As Adam Steffey reminds us in the liner notes he wrote for the Darrell Webb Band’s new album, Webb first turned heads back in the 1990s as a youthful, fresh faced singer/multiinstrumentalist (mandolin and guitar) in the Lonesome River Band.
On Bloodline, Webb and his own topdrawer band (Jeremy Arrowood on tenor vocals and upright bass, Asa Gravley on guitar and harmony vocals, Tyler Kirkpatrick on resonator guitar, and Chris Wade on banjo) come out fullthrottle on a stalwart collection of tunes penned by Jim and Jack Anglin, Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Randall Hylton, Jerry Douglas, and various other country and bluegrass master scribes. Selections range from slowburning, heartwrenching ballads (“Kings Of Orebank”) to fastpaced pickin’ fests (“Poor Ramblin’ Boy” and “Big Black Train.”) The doomladen “Miner’s Hell” and the stern gospel ode “If You Don’t Believe The Bible” are also standouts.
Slow or fast, heartfelt or hellbent, ampedup or dampeddown, Webb and his redhot support team bring delightful assurance and conviction to all these emotional extremes. (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) BA
SUSAN BROWN AND FRIENDS
Within the first four tracks of the debut recording from Abingdon, Va. based Susan Brown And Friends, the band lays out its strengths and all but demands the listener hang around until the last fading note. All four tracks are covers. “Jolene,” the Dolly Parton hit, establishes that the band has leanings toward the contemporary end of the bluegrass spectrum and that principal lead singer Susan Brown has a silky voice, reminiscent at times of Claire Lynch. It’s kind of breathy, but in a compelling way. Norman Blake’s “Last Train From Poor Valley,” sung with great feeling here by guitarist Claiborne Woodall, shows that the band can bring that contemporary sound to a more traditionalsounding tune and succeed in making you hear this version instead of the original. They next cover “Marie Laveau” and reveal a grittier, funkier side of the band, one they should explore more fully on future albums.
From there to the end, band originals alternate with covers that include “Early Morning Rain,” a rhythmic, slightly jazzy “Wichita Lineman,” “How About You,” “Ready For The Times,” and an a cappella lament over the degrading of the environment, “The Wood Thrush’s Song.” All of them are, as with the opening four tracks, worthy of many repeated plays. Among the originals, on the other hand, mandolinist Mike Brown had one wellabove average and one above average tune. “When It Rains” with its exploration of love and aging and change, is a tightlywritten, first-class piece with its good melody, fine lyrics, and nice arrangement. His other original, “Coal Town,” was a solid effort, as well.
Reso-guitarist/harmony singer Joe Dinkins and bassist Dave Reimer round out the band with good playing on what is an enjoyable debut of contemporary bluegrass. (Mike Brown, 16413 Old Timber Rd., Abingdon, VA 24120, myspace.com/susanbrownandfriends.) BW
LOOK TO THE LIGHT
SONGS OF FAITH FROM THE PEN OF RICK LANG
Rural Rhythm Christian
This could well be the recorded event of the year. This gathering of musicians is very impressive. Singers; Russell Moore, Junior Sisk, Jeff Parker, Barry Scott and Dale Ann Bradley are backed by some of the best contemporary pickers including Jesse Brock, Ron Stewart, Michael Cleveland and Wyatt Rice. For anyone who follows the gospel aspects of bluegrass or is just aware of the better songwriters, the material here is top shelf. There are some great performances here as well. Russell Moore’s reading of “How Far Will I Fall” is spot on and Dale Ann Bradley, although relegated to only harmony vocals, shines on each she appears on. If there were a down side to this recording, it would have been nice to hear her sing a lead on at least one number.
Coproduced by Jesse Brock and John Miller, the project is polished to a deep sheen. The 14 cuts glimmer under their careful work. It should be no surprise that Junior Sisk digs deep to come up with his reading of “I’ve Been Redeemed.” Jeff Parker’s reading of “The Good Samaritan” is perhaps the closest to old-time singing and shouting. The brother duet on “His Loving Care,” by Junior Sisk and John Miller is another standout cut.
This is a fine recording of contemporary Christian songs from one of the best songwriters working today. Every performance is worthy of mention. If you like Rick’s songs or are a fan of gospel music, this is a don’t miss recording. (Rural Rhythm Records, Box 660040, Dept D, Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) RCB