Balsam Range - Last Train To Kitty Hawk
LAST TRAIN TO KITTY HAWK
Western North Carolina ensemble Balsam Range announced their debut with authority on 2007’s acclaimed “Marching Home.” That album originated as a solo effort for fiddler and versatile singer Buddy Melton. Their sophomore outing, “Last Train To Kitty Hawk,” presents a true ensemble. The band spreads the vocal work to terrific effect. They (including Melton on vocals, guitarist Caleb B. Smith, and bass and resonator guitar player Tim Surrett) move effortlessly from driving bluegrass (“Julie’s Train”) to contemporary ballads (Somewhere In Between”) to 21st century bluegrass (“Last Train To Kitty Hawk”).
Melton and Smith trade the lead singing between verse and chorus on four of the first six songs, creating a hallmark of the still emerging Balsam Range sound. Smith figures prominently as lead vocalist, along with former member of the Kingsmen, Surrett, who sings lead on Ralph Stanley’s “I’m Lonesome Without You” and “Don’t Take Me Tonight As I Am” by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Southern gospel superstar Karen Peck Gooch provides the harmony on “The Holy Hills (A Tribute To Dottie Rambo).” Mandolinist Darren Nicholson also takes lead vocals on “Spring Will Bring The Flowers” by Timothy W. Smith. Marc Pruett, ranked among the most respected bluegrass banjo players for almost forty years, completes the fivesome.
Charlie Monroe’s “Down In Caroline,” is presented in a rousing version featuring Buddy, Tim, and Darren. The same trio sound equally powerful, but totally different in style on “Somewhere In Between” written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton. Melton has cowriter credit on “Julie’s Train” and Smith has solo credits for “Jack Diamond” and the instrumental closer, “Jaxon Point.” The collection also contains a halfdozen outstanding outside compositions. Milan Miller, who wrote two songs on their last album, comes through again with the immediately memorable modern murder song, “Caney Fork River,” placed right behind the infectious title track, written by James Ellis and Steve Dukes.
Indeed, the album easily passes the singalong test. You’ll find yourself singing along spontaneously to songs you haven’t even heard before. “Last Train To Kitty Hawk” demonstrates significant growth over a successful debut, expanding their use of vocal power while increasing the amount of contemporary material. (Mountain Home, P.O. Box 829, Arden, NC 28704, www.crossroadsmusic.com. AM
Dailey & Vincent - Brothers From Different Mothers
DAILEY & VINCENT
BROTHERS FROM DIFFERENT MOTHERS
The note from the Editor that came with this CD read, “It may be a bit ‘On The Edge.’” Bluegrass is a dynamic music form that retains an important element that came from Mr. Monroe: discipline. This is a project with lots of session men and more high tech gimmickry than could have been imagined in the days of recording live. It’s still bluegrass, but Dailey & Vincent-style—that is, bluegrass as played today with lots of modern touches. There is no big surprise that the gospel numbers all sound great. There are lots of other good songs like “Your Love Is Like A Flower.” Not the old Flatt & Scruggs classic, but an update of that theme.
The duet is at the core of the fine vocals that predominate on this project. The duet on Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come And Gone” is a highlight for its simplicity and great vocals over just two guitars. There are a couple of nods to the Statler Brothers, one of Dailey’s longstanding influences, one with a touch of “Roadhog” Moran, the Statler’s comic alterego from the mid-1970s. Their reading of “Years Ago” is very close to the original by the Statler Brothers. They veer toward a movie soundtrack with the string-laden “On The Other Side.” This cut could crossover to mainstream country.
It is that last cut and when you start over, the banjos, fiddles, and urgency return toward what we all would recognize as bluegrass. There is a grand variety of music here and the boys have got another hit album here. It will be interesting to see where it takes them. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) RCB
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Lonely Street
DOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER
There seems to be a steady melding of bluegrass and country that, more often than not, strips the best qualities of both genres and leaves little for the listener other than the impression that where the artist is probably isn’t where he or she wants to be. But, with his latest release, Doyle Lawson is right where he wants to be.
As is to be expected, there is some fine traditional bluegrass on the album. New songs “Yesterday’s Songs,” “Johnny And Sally,” and “When The Last Of Our Days Shall Come” are firmly planted in the tradition befitting bluegrass’s elder statesmen. The first intersection of country and bluegrass on the album is the traditional bluegrass treatment of songs by classic country artists: “Lonely Street” (Carl Belew), “Big Wind” (Porter Wagoner), and “Call Me Up And I’ll Come Callin’ On You” (Marty Robbins). Lawson is able to infuse these songs with the tight trio harmony with help from bassist Carl White and guitarist Darren Beachley to bring the songs fully into the bluegrass genre.
The second and perhaps most impressive intersection are the songs that are new, but sound like the classic country music that is not as often heard today. “Ain’t A Woman Somebody When She’s Gone,” “Oh Heart, Look What You’ve Done,” and “My Real World Of Make Believe” are fantastic melodies that allow the vocalists room to stretch out. “Down Around Bear Cove” is the sole instrumental and provides a showcase for this shortlived version of Quicksilver that includes the aforementioned White and Beachley joined by Joey Cox on banjo, Brandon Goodman on fiddle, and Josh Swift on resonator guitar. Instrumentally, Swift is the standout on the album.
Here, Lawson has been able to craft an album that should please both bluegrass purists and fans of classic country. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) CEB
Dry Branch Fire Squad - Echoes Of The Mountains
DRY BRANCH FIRE SQUAD
ECHOES OF THE MOUNTAINS
Dry Branch Fire Squad, celebrating over thirty years in bluegrass, has released an outstanding collection of songs rendered in their inimitable style. Founder and leader Ron Thomason has assembled a tight-knit and versatile group—Brian Aldridge on guitar and mandolin, Tom Boyd on banjo and resonator guitar, and Dan Russell on bass. Fiddle king Michael Cleveland also guests on several songs.
The Squad is known for their wide repertoire and blending of traditional bluegrass and old-time sounds, and this album continues on that signature path. Songs include all of the favorite bluegrass themes such as mother, love, death, and the gospel, while mixing in a good dose of soul, dogs, cowboys, and unidentified flying objects.
Death features prominently in the songs “Dixie Cowboy,” “Rider On An Orphan Train,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “Little Joe,” and “O Captain! My Captain!” Thomason’s clawhammer banjo adds a bit of suspense to these classic songs while the band provides an atmosphere that heightens the effect. A fine example is their wonderful turn on the tearjerker “Echo Mountain.”
As one would expect from the group, gospel songs play a powerful role in the second half of the album. The beautiful hymn “Power In The Blood” is given the a cappella treatment as the quartet unleashes their vocal prowess. Jimmy Martin’s and Paul Williams’ “Stormy Waters” and Larry Sparks’ and Neal Brackett’s “Thank You, Lord” provide the listener with worshipful moments to savor. And, what would a DBFS album be without a little humor, provide here by the cautionary tale of “(You Got To Pray To The Lord) When You See Those Flying Saucers.” Although the band has been through more than its share of personnel changes over its long history, this particular group has assembled a fine collection worthy of the legacy of the Dry Branch Fire Squad. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) CEB
Frank Wakefield - Ownself Blues
Frank Wakefield has been one of the most notable presences on bluegrass mandolin for about fifty years now. His distinctive tone and a musical ear that draws on equal parts Bill Monroe and outerspace are a treasure, and it’s been great to see new recordings pop up from him more frequently these past few years.
“Ownself Blues” is an all instrumental outing, taking him through 11 originals (including revisiting his contemporary standard “New Camptown Races”) plus a pair of tunes by some oldtime musicians named Beethoven and Bach. He’s joined by a killer band, with Michael Cleveland and Nate Leath on fiddles, banjoist Mike Munford, Jordan Tice and Audie Blaylock on guitars, and bassist Darrell Muller. A group like that would carry anyone to new heights, and Wakefield uses them skillfully. Twin fiddles on a slower version of Bach’s classic Bouree and the delicate interplay of mandolin and guitar on the Beethoven track are just a few of the magical moments that stand out on this CD.
The influence of Monroe is pervasive on this album, most notably on the title track and “This Is For Bill,” as well as on “The Runaway Train” and “Sabbatical.” Wakefield still continues his ability to write twisted tunes and numbers such as “Flying Strings” and “The Old Cat Sneezed” can be seen as almost missing links between traditional bluegrass and newgrass. “Double Stoppin’ The Blues” is the kind of piece that takes the essence of Bill Monroe and integrates it into Wakefield’s own mandolin “voice.” The set ends with “Mandolin Special #2,” a composition with classical overtones that’s still distinguished by Wakefield’s pinched grassy tone.
In a sense, Wakefield is kind of missing link himself, someone as comfortable digging into roots as he is leaning out on the end of branches and still covering new territory. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) HK
Mark Delaney - Sidecar
Even with his extensive list of experiences, having played with regional favorites Patuxent Partners, Badly Bent, and the Good Deale Bluegrass Band, as well as with Randy Waller & The Country Gentlemen, the name Mark Delaney may not ring any bells for some listeners, but this banjo picker makes his sonic mark on the listeners’ memory with his new album.
Drawing inspiration from the Kentuckyborn grandfather that taught him the banjo and from his father, a jazz critic, Delaney builds on the Scruggs style with fantastic single string work as well as innovative melodies. Although he builds on the foundation the outcome is still deeply rooted in tradition. Along for the ride in this “Sidecar” are a group of likewise tradition-minded musicians: Barry Reid on bass, Audie Blaylock on guitar, Jesse Brock on mandolin, and Michael Cleveland on fiddle.
Song choices run the gamut from classic bluegrass (“Baby Blue Eyes,” “Fireball Express,” and “Black Diamond”) to classic country (“Six Days On The Road,” “Who Done It?”). Being as this is a banjo picker’s album, there are some great instrumentals, five of which were written by Delaney. It is within the range of songs that Delaney shines. While many players would want to make it known that it is their solo album, Delaney takes the opposite tact and lays back to the point of being unnoticeable on many of the tracks that feature vocals.
One of the fun things about a musicians’ solo album is the addition of guest vocalists. In this case, Delaney brings along some of his picking buddies and bandmates to showcase some fine regional talent that might not be familiar to people outside of the area. Singers Charles Thompson, Bryan Deere, Rusty Vint, John Miller, Tom Mindte, Dede Wyland, and Clarke Howard bring variety to the album. (Patuxent Music, P.O. Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848, www.pxrec.com.) CEB
MARK JOHNSON TEACHES CLAWGRASS BANJO
Tab included, 105 min., $29.95.
(Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.)
Mark Johnson’s hybrid style of banjo has seen him play with, among others, Tony Rice and Emory Lester in settings that have at least as much to do with bluegrass as oldtime music. His blend of frailing and dropthumb techniques with Scruggs bluegrass rolls has produced a truly unique way to approach banjo playing.
This instructional DVD by Johnson begins with a quick review of the basics of frailing and dropthumb patterns, using “Old Joe Clark” to illustrate the different styles. (I suspect that a basic knowledge of these styles would result in much more rapid progress through the lessons here, though not so much so with Scruggs-style.) Johnson then introduces his “forward” and “backward” rolls, which seem to be the key to transitioning toward his style of play (not quite the forward and backward rolls from Scruggs-style, by the way).
Johnson then works through six varied tunes including “Cherokee Shuffle,” “Cold And Frosty Morning,” “Angeline The Baker,” “Heartbroken,” “John Wilkes Booth,” and “Mosby’s Rangers.” The tunes are demonstrated by Johnson on the banjo, then broken down, and finally performed with Emory Lester backing on guitar. The presentation is excellent—split screens show both hands very clearly, and the sound and photography are topnotch. Happy Traum facilitates the discussion, and tablature is included.
If you are currently in either the bluegrass or the oldtime music camp and have secret longings for the other, or if you just want to try something new and pretty exciting on the banjo, this should be an excellent resource. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespun.com.) AW
BLUEGRASS AND BEYOND
Mike Marshall's Big Trio
MIKE MARSHALL’S BIG TRIO
Adventure Music America
Mike Marshall’s Big Trio eludes description. The threesome cooked up a melting pot of acoustic sounds, filled with a dash or two of bluegrass, a few pinches of classical, some traditional flavoring, and a few unknown ingredients. Perhaps the liner notes characterize the sound best: “Big Trio leaves no musical stone unturned, with a sound that clearly and cleanly integrates the history and international breadth of acoustic string music into an exciting and cohesive whole.”
With more than three decades of recording and performing to his name, Marshall (mandolin, mandocello, and guitar) enlisted a youthful jolt of energy from Alex Hargreaves (violin), and Paul Kowert (bass) for this all instrumental CD. Experience meets a new generation of masterful string musicians for a ninecut disc of instrumental innovation, powerful chops, and graceful finesse. This acoustic album commands listeners attention. (Adventure Music America, 60 E. 56th St., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10019, www.adventuremusic.com.) BC
Jeremy Garrett - I Am A Stranger
I AM A STRANGER
Sugar Hill Records
Infamous Stringdusters’ Jeremy Garrett debuts with his first solo project. The singer/songwriter/fiddler paints a broad picture of his musical landscape with one foot planted in the traditional and another moving forward with energetic bluegrass.
Garrett puts his unique spin on legendary duo Flatt & Scruggs’ “What’s Good For You” with Americana vocalist Abigail Washburn. He also calls on musicians Paul Franklin (pedal steel) and Jeff Taylor (piano) to recreate the Hank Thompson hit “Today.” Then, Garrett does a 180 to give a reverential nod to his rock favorites, U2, on “North And South Of The River.” The CD’s title cut is a joint songwriting effort for Garrett and his dad, Glen, when they both had the idea of trying to explain the meaning of life. The string wizard rolls up his sleeves for “Y2K,” a rowdy instrumental he masterminded, and flexes his musical dexterity on “The Fields Of My Mind,” where he sings and fiddles at the same time with no overdubbing. Of course, Garrett turns to his musical cohorts in the bluegrass sextet for their instrumental skills including “End Of The Line” and shares the studio with Julie Elkins on banjo and Shawn Lane on mandolin among others.
Garrett recalls working on the album as a “superintense passion,” and that certainly shows with the final product. This one will go in the hot rotation in my CD collection as I anxiously wait for another Garrett production. (Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 120997, Nashville, TN 37212, sugarhillrecords.com.) BC
Norman & Nancy Blake
NORMAN & NANCY BLAKE, BOYS OF THE LOUGH, AND JAMES & RACHEL BRYAN
RISING FAWN GATHERING
Western Jubilee Recording Co.
Good things come to those who wait. That’s true for these musicians, many of whom desired to do this project for more than 25 years after first meeting. With perseverance and four empty calendar dates, they gathered together at the Blakes’ home in Rising Fawn, Ga., and recorded in a makeshift studio in a large loft, taking breaks for socializing and joketelling. The final result is fifty minutes of beautiful music, merging from two different cultures.
Predominantly an instrumental CD, this 12song disc also features Norman Blake lending vocals to “The Sweet Sunny South,” “The Bonny Bunch Of Roses,” and “While The Band Is Playing Dixie.” Cathal McConnell from Boys Of The Lough takes over singing duties on “Derry So Fair.” Oldtime country is more center stage on some cuts like “The Sweet Sunny South” and “While The Band Is Playing Dixie,” which Sara and Maybelle Carter recorded in the mid1960s. Other songs such as “O’Connell’s Trip To Parliament”/“The Twin Katies” are distinctly Irish or Scottish.
Liner notes trace the history of the songs, some of which date back to the mid-1800s. “Rising Fawn Gathering” is an excellent cultural collaboration. Certainly, they could have recorded this album a few decades ago, but may not have had the musical maturity and depth that resonates throughout this friendly get-together. (Western Jubilee Recording Co., P.O. Box 9187, Colorado Springs, CO 80932, www.westernjubilee.com.) BC
ON THE EDGE
Alicia Nugent - Hillbilly Goddess
The 11 songs included here find Alecia Nugent in partnership with the cream of the Nashville/bluegrass songwriters, among them Carl Jackson (who also produces), Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, and Tim Stafford. It also finds her lovely voice wellsupported by Andy Falco, Andy Leftwich, Adam Steffey, Rob Ickes, and Thomas Wywrot. Together they have created a pleasant recording that’s as much country as it is contemporary bluegrass, one in which the banjo appears on just four tracks while the piano appears on five, and drums on all but one.
The forms and tempos are also mostly of a country bent. Seven are slow. Of these, the two best are the dreamy meditation on the price of seeking stardom (“Just Another Alice”) and the more traditional shuffling country of “The Writing’s On The Wall.” The latter is a duet with Bradley Walker that recalls those classic breakup songs from George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Two of the faster songs, drums or not, may (if they haven’t already) find their way up the bluegrass charts. “Wreckin’ The Train” is a crackling number set over pizzicato train rhythm, casting Nugent as a woman to whom good things happen, but ruins them by letting her rambling nature get the best of her. “Hillbilly Goddess” presents a portrait of a woman more at home with tractor pulls and doublewides, more comfortable in Paris, Tenn., rather than Paris, France, and who considers sushi fishing bait. Backed by the crisp drive of J.D. Crowe’s banjo, it should prove a crowd favorite.
Beyond her singing, what sets Nugent apart is her ability to make the songs believable. Perhaps some of that comes from hard experience, perhaps some from the ability to sympathize and synthesize, and perhaps some from sheer talent. Regardless of its source, it makes for some compelling listening. (Rounder Records One Rounder Way, Burlington MA 01803, www.rounder.com.) BW