Review: Pete Wernick - Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos 2

MAKE UP YOUR OWN BANJO SOLOS (2): WHAT TO PLAY WHEN IT’S YOUR TURN TO ‘TAKE IT!’ KEYS OF D, C, F, AND G (UP THE NECK)
TAUGHT BY PETE WERNICK
Homespun DVDWERS022.

One DVD, 1 hr 55 mins, $29.95. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespuntapes.com.)

This second DVD in Pete Wernick’s Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos series on Homespun concentrates on playing in the keys of C, D, E, F, and G—the last primarily up the neck. Songs include “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (D), “As I Went Down To The Valley To Pray” (D), “Angeline The Baker” (D), “Colleen Malone” (D or E), “Country Blues” (D), “New River Train” (C), “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” (C Tuning), “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (F), and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (G, up the neck).

Pete is one of the most influential banjo players and teachers of the past twenty years. His teaching style is personable and accessible and this is essentially a twohour private lesson with Pete on playing in the C and D positions and up the neck in G. What I appreciate most about Pete’s teaching is that he starts with the basic chord structure and melody of a song and emphasizes singing along with the melody. He then teaches soloing out of C and D chord positions and how to reach notes in the melody at various points along the neck.

There is a tremendous amount of information here—enough licks to satisfy people looking for those, and, more importantly, great direction on soloing by finding the melody and placing notes around it in virtually any key. The DVD also contains two computer files: a .PDF tab book of all the solos on the DVD and a Word document written by Pete on using and making your own playalong practice recordings. Both of these items add tremendous value to the video.

The two volumes in this series are well worth having as part of your library of banjo instruction material and a great place for a beginner to start on his or her jamming journey. Highly recommended for beginning to intermediate banjo players. CVS

Review: Don Rigsby & Midnight Call - The Voice Of God

Don Rigsby & Midnight Call - The Voice of GodDON RIGSBY & MIDNIGHT CALL
THE VOICE OF GOD

Rebel Records CD1831

Presenting a program of mature, thoughtful gospel music, Don Rigsby touches a variety of the styles within that genre. The first two tracks are quartets, the second is a cappella, each comparing favorably with anything ever recorded. A Tom T. Hall entry comes next, “Then Y’Ain’t,” which calls out the pious for their shortcomings. The writing on this project is very good. Larry Cordle wrote the title song, and Skip Ewing wrote the interesting “Gospel According To Luke,” a story that has been told before, but rarely better in song. “I Am An Orphan Child” is like the song associated with Gillian Welch, but different, with writer credits to both Welch and Rigsby.

This project has the feel of a more contemporary Christian recording. Rigsby is not afraid to step away from the bluegrass mold. “Mary Magdalene” has a folky edge to the arrangement, lending power to Rigsby’s duet with Beth Castle, telling a wellknown story from a new angle. His reading of Phil Wiggins’ “Forgiveness” is pure gospel blues; Rory Block’s fine slide guitar and vocals take it down a sacred alley. The stark solo vocal “The Lord Will Provide” shows the immense power of Rigsby’s vocals.

Paul Craft’s ironic “Charged With Being A Christian,” with its Travis-style guitar from Dale Vanderpool, is another standout in a field of strong material. The great vocals and the arrangements that set up each song do not necessarily follow the strict bluegrass format. One of the greatest accomplishments a musician can attain is to produce an album that is a complete statement. Rigsby has done that with this project.

The backup musicians include the late Gerald Evans in what might be among his final work. His fiddling is not to be missed. Rigsby plays a wide range of instruments on this project himself. The bedrock of the band, Dale Vanderpool, Robert Maynard, and Clyde Marshall on banjo, bass, and guitar, respectively, all shine throughout the project.This album goes well beyond the obvious and explores the diversity that is modern gospel music. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA, 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RCB

Review: John Hartford String Band - Memories Of John

John Hartford String Band - Memories Of JohnJOHN HARTFORD STRINGBAND
MEMORIES OF JOHN
Red Clay Records 745392

Although John Hartford toured primarily as a solo song and dance man for much of his career, his later years featured the extraordinary support of the John Hartford Stringband. A decade after the great man’s passing, Chris Sharp reassembled bandmates Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Mark Schatz, and Matt Combs to pay tribute to a unique American music treasure who looked straight down the barrel of pop music and TV success and decided that he preferred Flatt & Scruggs and Ed Haley. That he loved both equally allowed him to navigate seamlessly between oldtime and bluegrass.

Memories Of John captures that fluid recognition that it is all string band music, whether the bluegrass of “Love Grown Cold” or the Ohio Valley fiddle music of the kickoff track, “Three Forks Of Sandy.” The material delights of this album come from three basic areas. The first consists of two demos that John recorded more than forty years ago. Mark and Eileen Schatz worked “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” into a finished track, while the closing “Fade Out” appears just as Hartford left it.

The second and perhaps most intriguing set consists of previously unreleased Hartford compositions, most intended for a Hartford Stringband project that he did not live to record. All three were well worth the wait, especially the delightful “Madison Tennessee” and live favorite “Homer The Roamer.”

The remaining ten selections include a Schatz’ tribute poem “For John,” two Ed Haley tunes, the classic “Lorena” sung by Tim O’Brien, and renditions of six Hartford originals. Most of the latter feature John’s friends joining the Stringband. O’Brien sings and Alison Brown plays John’s banjo on a version of “M.I.S.I.P.” that stays close to the original. Alan O’Bryant brings his unmistakable voice to “Delta Queen Waltz,” the same song he sang at John’s funeral. Béla Fleck delivers a captivating personal interpretation of John’s banjo style on “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” And if that’s not enough, the album and several tracks start with John’s instructions to the band, all from previous rehearsal tapes.

The John Hartford String Band has succeeded in creating in just one package an excellent new John Hartford album, a wonderful tribute to John and his music, and a real world demonstration that bluegrass and oldtime don’t have to be an either/or proposition. (Red Clay Records, 916 19th Ave South; Nashville, TN 37212, www.redclayrecords.com.) AM

Review: Nora Jane Struthers

Nora Jane Struthers

NORA JANE STRUTHERS
Blue Pig Music BPM 1111

Remember the name Nora Jane Struthers, because you’ll probably be hearing it in the near future in conjunction with bluegrass awards for best emerging artist and top female vocalist. Her selftitled debut CD is, simply put, a marvel that combines brilliant songcraft, a sultry yet honey-hued voice, and an inspired sense of personal musical style.

Blessed with a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between Sarah Jarosz and Laurie Lewis, Struthers immediately enters the front ranks of female bluegrass vocalists with this release. She can sing a mournful murder ballad in the first person on “Willie,” belt out a bluegrass wailer on “Greenbrier County,” warble a dazzling western tune on “Cowgirl Yodel #3,” and murmur a gentle lullaby on the traditional “Say Darlin’ Say”—all with equal ease and aplomb.

Backed by Nashville stars Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien, Brent Truitt, Stuart Duncan, Shawn Lane, and Scott Vestal, she easily avoids the trap of sounding like an overproduced commercial project. Buoyed by her confidence in singing her own songs, she soars and enthralls instead of sounding like the studio band is overpowering her. Writing with a clear-eyed traditional sensibility typically seen only in writers of the caliber of Gillian Welch and Tim O’Brien, her songs sound immediately like pre-modern classics that ache for other artists to pick them up and include in their own repertoire. What was that name again? Nora Jane Struthers. Once you hear this CD, there’s no way you’ll forget it. Highly recommended. (Blue Pig Music, P.O. Box 68159, Nashville, TN 37206, www.norajanestruthers.com.) DJM

Review: Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie - Southern

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie - SouthernBILL EMERSON AND SWEET DIXIE
SOUTHERN
Rural Rhythm
RHY1053

Bill Emerson established his bluegrass cred a long time ago, going back to his days with the Country Gentlemen and a memorable stint with Jimmy Martin. On his new album Southern, backed by his band Sweet Dixie, Emerson is in fine form once again with a solid collection of traditional bluegrass.
What I like about Southern, first and foremost, is the song selection. There are tunes written by Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Pete Goble, Carl Jackson, Tim Stafford, Hazel Dickens, and Chris Hillman, just to name a few. Stepping up with most of the lead vocals is the familiar voice of Tom Adams, who also plays the majority of guitar. Bassist Teri Chism sings lead on three cuts including “I Can’t Find Your Love Anymore” and “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain.” The rest of the band includes Emerson on banjo and Wayne Lanham on mandolin. Sharing the fiddle duties are guests Rickie Simpkins and Frank Solivan with John Miller adding rhythm and lead guitar on two cuts.
The highlights for me on this album are songs about the rural roots of the music, something that contemporary bluegrass is moving away from in these modern times. The best examples include an old school country music take on Vince Gill’s “Life In The Old Farm Town,” Cartwright’s song about the rural life left behind called “Old Coal Town,” and a good old West Virginia song written by Pete Goble titled “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo.” The album ends with two originals—a wonderful instrumental written by Janet Davis called “Grandma’s Tattoos” that features Davis in a duet on banjo with Emerson and the Tom Adams-penned gospel number, “The Lord Will Light The Way.” (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DH

Review: Dirty River - Graveyard Train

Dirty River - Graveyard Train

DIRTY RIVER
GRAVEYARD TRAIN
No Label
No Number

Local and regional bluegrass bands often feel tension between the desire to attract an audience by playing familiar cover songs and the creative impulse to come up with a fresh and identifiable sound. Lean too far toward the former and the band winds up undistinguished, lacking any real identity, while straying too far the other direction can lead the band away from the general bluegrass audience. Dirty River, based in the Washington, D.C., area, has done a fine job of balancing those conflicting pressures on Graveyard Train.

The band reflects the progressive tradition of bluegrass music in the Washington area forged by the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Cliff Waldron, and many others. Graveyard Train features a nicely balanced mix of original tunes, along with the familiar bluegrass classics “Deep Elem Blues” and “Cherokee Shuffle” and some tunes imported from outside the genre, but adapted well to bluegrass. The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” is a bit of a novelty, but Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” makes a dandy, harddriving bluegrass tune.

Five of the fourteen songs are original material from bandmembers Billy Park and Evan Sands, and resonator guitar player Michael Barton also contributes a couple of nice instrumentals. The material is topnotch and well-suited to the band’s style. While the band doesn’t feature the strongest of vocals (lead singers on individual tracks are not identified), the skillful performances reflect a lot of intelligent consideration to arrangements and delivery.

Dirty River is a band that bears watching in the future and Graveyard Train is a strong debut recording well worth making an effort to track down. (Dirty River, 531 Brent Rd., Rockville, MD 20850, www.dirtyriverdc.com.) AWIII

Review: The Earl Brothers

The Earl Brothers

THE EARL BROTHERS
Big Hen Music
0004#

One thing the Earl Brothers had going for them on their previous (2006) release was their dedication to the stark musical sound and stark world view offered by the traditional bands of the ’40s and ’50s, and that dedication hasn’t changed with this album. The Stanley Brothers, circa their time on WCYB in Bristol, come instantly to mind when this disc plays. Several of the tracks here sound as if they could have come from those long ago sessions—almost.

Banjoist Robert Earl Davis, who wrote and sings lead on 11 of the 12 songs, has a different vocal sound than Carter or Ralph. There’s more of Dwight Yoakam in his sound and delivery. “Walk In The Light,” a gospel number in 3/4 time, comes the closest to the Stanley sound of that time. Tremelo mandolin from Larry Hughes starts and the song lopes easily into lyrics written in that older, declaritive, firstperson style. “Troubles” and “Going Back Home” (also both in 3/4 time), “Cold And Lonesome,” and the modal “Thinking Of You” are also fine, wellcrafted songs that match well with songs of that period.

What has changed most about the band since that first recording is the confidence in which it is presented. The band has tightened its chops, and Davis has honed his singing and songwriting. The solos of fiddler Tom Lucas and banjoist Davis remain basic and have an ensemble quality about them. When the band now offers their music, they’re no longer searching for technique and feeling. They’ve found it. (Earl Brothers, 72 Belcher St., San Francisco, CA 94114, www.earlbrothers.com.) BW

Review: The High 48s - Up North

The High 48s - Up North

THE HIGH 48S
UP NORTH
No Label
No Number

Judging from the contents of their third release, the High 48s won the 2008 Rocky Grass band competition with a combination of confident picking and lots of original songs, especially for a somewhat traditional sounding band. Their energy and atavistic attire brings to mind the Johnson Mountain Boys of thirty years ago. Three decades of removal from bluegrass music’s early days, however, means the High 48s have a more progressive neotrad sound than the JMB. The 75 percent original material also distinguishes the Minnesota quintet.

Fiddler Eric Christopher provides two tunes and banjo player Anthony Ihrig composed “Darrington” in tribute to the bluegrass hometown of the northwest. The tune features guests Mike Compton and Randy Kohrs whose bubbly breaks resolve the tension between Ihrig’s modern take and Christopher’s traditional response. Compton also plays on Christopher’s “Little Odessa.” Bassman Rich Casey and Johnson’s brother, Chad, on mandolin complete the band.

All three covers receive excellent treatment. They include a slower tempo version of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” and “Paul and Silas” from the Stanleys, along with “Dirty Old Town” from “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” composer Ewan McColl. Guitarist Derek Johnson offers five solid compositions. “Easy To Get Lost,” “The Cliffs Of Red Wing,” and especially the fine uptempo bluegrass song “Shoes,” are quite good, if not extraordinarily original. The other pair are limited from a bit too much DNA still remaining from songs that most likely influenced them. You can still hear melodic traces of “Two Highways” in the family tree of the title track and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” in “Sad Lonesome Eyes.”

Christopher, who also fiddles with the James King Band, proves clearly the instrumental star of a tight and expressive band. Ihrig provides a worthy counterpart above a reliable rhythm section. It is always refreshing to hear a bluegrass band whose vocals aren’t exclusively trios and quartets. The High 48s may go too far the other way. Derek Johnson is a good lead singer, but they take too little advantage of the sibling duet. “Paul & Silas” is a happy exception and a model for building a distinctive vocal sound on the duet. The High 48s have areas for improvement, but certainly should be playing much more outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (The High 48s, 701 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102, www.thehigh48s.com.) AM

Review: Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Bluegrass II: Riding Song

Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Bluegrass II

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY
BUCKAROO BLUE GRASS II: RIDING SONG
Rural Rhythm
RHY 1056

Buckaroo Blue Grass II: Riding Song is the followon to Michael Martin Murphey’s 2009 release that featured acoustic versions of some of his most familiar hits. Like the earlier effort, this album recreates bluegrassinfluenced arrangements of familiar originals. Murphey, who wrote all but one of the twelve cuts, has assembled a stellar collection of bluegrass musicians to join him here, and the result is a rich, satisfying sound, bluegrass in essence, but with a decidedly country feel.

Harddriving cuts such as “Blue Sky Riding Song” and “Running Blood,” powered by Charlie Cushman on banjo and Andy Leftwich on fiddle, ought to satisfy any bluegrass fan, but there is also some coloring outside of the lines on the swingy “Rollin’ Nowhere” and the decidedly newgrassy “Renegade.” Perhaps the strongest cut—at least in strict bluegrass terms—is “Running Gun,” powered by some killer lead guitar by Audie Blaylock but, oddly enough, also the only tune here that Murphey didn’t write. All in all, the songs translate well to a more acoustic sound—better than we might have expected from familiarity with the original versions. That’s not surprising considering the high level of talent contributed by Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Andy Hall, Pat Flynn, Troy Engle, and Ronnie McCoury.

Worthy of special attention is the version of Murphey’s megahit “Wildfire” performed as a duet with the fabulous Carrie Hassler. The laidback pace feels much like the original, but with Hassler’s powerful voice complementing Murphey’s softer delivery, there’s an emotional edge that makes it the highlight of a strong recording. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AWIII

Review: Paul Williams & The Victory Trio - Just A Little Closer Home

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio - Just A Little Closer Home

PAUL WILLIAMS & THE VICTORY TRIO
JUST A LITTLE CLOSER HOME
Rebel Records
REBCD1835

Mandolinist/singer Paul Williams didn’t compose “Living The Right Life Now,” the opening song on his great new CD Just A Little Closer Home, but it could be almost biographical.

Williams was a key member of Jimmy Martin’s landmark Sunny Mountain Boys band in the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with a talented young banjo player named J.D. Crowe). But, by 1963, he had wearied of secular music. Then, in 1995, he reemerged as a superlative performer of bluegrass gospel. His album Old Ways And New Paths was nominated in 2000 for a Grammy award in the category of Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel. His latest release is a beautifully realized collection that should attract a wide audience.

Williams’ voice remains astonishingly pure, like that of a church choir boy. His backing group, the Victory Trio, has expanded and its members are all fine: Don Moneyhun (low tenor and lead vocals; guitar), Adam Winstead (baritone vocals; rhythm guitar), Jerry Keys (bass vocals; banjo), and Susie Keys (acoustic bass), plus guest artist Kevin Jackson (fiddle). Williams himself deserves praise for a clean mandolin style that is as engaging and enjoyable as his singing.

Williams wrote the Jimmy Martin gospel classics “I Like To Hear Them Preach It” and “Prayer Bells Of Heaven.” Although he didn’t write any of the songs on Just A Little Closer Home, he still has a golden ear for material. Among the many standout tracks on this album include Moneyhun’s “I’ve Been Set Free,” Key’s “There’s Still Time,” and the inspirational “Someone Made The Sandals Jesus Wore” by Tom T. and Dixie Hall.

Paul Williams could lay claim to being one of the greatest bluegrass gospel performers of all time. Being a modest man, he probably wouldn’t say that. But, I will, because it’s true. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RDS

Review: Snyder Family Band - Comin' On Strong

Snyder Family Band - Comin' On Strong

SNYDER FAMILY BAND
COMIN’ ON STRONG
Mountain Roads
MMR 1009

The Snyder Family Band is Bud Snyder (father) on bass, 10yearold Samantha on fiddle, and 14 yea rold Zeb on guitar. Zeb plays banjo on Samantha’s original song, “The Great Civil War.” Samantha also wrote the gospel tune “What Will You Say.” Bud’s wife, Laine, sings harmony vocals on some cuts. Samantha’s fiddling and Zeb’s guitar playing both have a progressive feel with lots of swing. Both demonstrate complete command of their instruments and play fluidly. Samantha sings lead very well for someone so young, but the harmonies are stronger than her solos. “Heaven’s Bright Shore” and Tim May’s “King Of Babylon” both have lovely harmony singing.

The CD opens with the traditional Texas fiddle tune, “Cattle In The Cane,” followed by Charlie Bowman’s “East Tennessee Blues.” Samantha’s fiddle and Zeb’s guitar are also featured on “Faded Love,” “Red Haired Boy,” “Star Of The County Down,” and “Bill Cheatham.” Zeb really shines on “Steel Guitar Rag.”

Samantha and Zeb already display lots of talent. Based on this very promising second recording, the bluegrass community can look forward to lots of great entertainment from these young virtuosos. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) SAG

Review: The Special Consensus - 35

The Special Consensus - 35

THE SPECIAL CONSENSUS
35
Compass Records
745412

Can it really be 35 years since Special Consensus emerged as one of the best new progressive bands on the bluegrass scene? Time flies as fast as Special Consensus charter member and banjo picker Greg Cahill’s three finger rolls. Now, the band’s music and history are celebrated by the album 35.

The Chicago based Special Consensus has always merged elements of mainstream bluegrass with the blues, swing, and country to present a refreshing sound. Cahill, a bright and inventive picker, as well as a versatile vocalist, has remained its touchstone.

This new CD is enjoyable and well-conceived. Half the tracks are new recordings with the band’s current lineup: Cahill, Ryan Thomas (guitar and vocals), Rick Faris (mandolin and vocals), and David Thomas (bass and vocals). Cahill does well keeping up with these youngsters, as evidenced on his instrumental “Danny’s Dance.” Faris, Roberts, and Thomas also contribute great original songs on the CD’s first half.

The other tracks are taken from now outofprint Special Consensus albums from 1983 to 1998. It’s worthwhile to find how many superb musicians have been part of this outfit. (One outstanding example is the Chicago musician Don Stiernberg who contributed a sturdy mandolin break in 1991 to the song “Fourteen Carat Mind” and then went on to become one of the most enjoyable acoustic jazz mandolinists ever.)

The music here is consistently fine, both vocally and instrumentally. The creative emphasis on original material is noteworthy. It’s been a very fine 35 years. If you’ve never picked up a Special Consensus album, their new collection 35 is definitely the place to start. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212 www.compassrecords.com.) RDS

Review: Becky Schlegel - Dandelion

Becky Schlegel - Dandelion
BECKY SCHLEGEL
DANDELION
Lilly Ray Music
LRR 901

Years ago, Becky Schlegel was featured at a songwriter’s showcase, and hearing her songs in a spare duo setting left a lasting impression. After a few albums in a bluegrass context, her latest release Dandelion is a departure into a differently textured Americana sound with only light and subtle bluegrass influences. And, you know? It suits her voice and her songs perfectly.

While banjos take a prominent role in more uptempo songs such as “Colorado Line” and “Don’t Leave It Up To Me,” her plaintive voice is complemented by the gentler settings of “The Way You Are” and “If I Were A Poet,” while Randy Kohrs’ tasty resonator guitar work is nicely interwoven with pedal steel and light percussion. Touches of electric instrumentation enhance the moods of “Nowhere Bound” and the title track without sacrificing either song’s intimacy.

The bluegrass world is understandably protective about having its homegrown talent move beyond its stylistic boundaries, and this CD may represent more of an experiment than a career transition. But it’s hard to deny that Becky Schlegel’s songs and voice are wellserved by the arrangements and instrumentation here. Talent like hers deserves to be heard, and Dandelion could take this Minnesota-native to national recognition. (Lilly Ray Records, P.O. Box 41004, Nashville, TN 37204, www.lillyraymusic.com.) HK

Review: Cherryholmes IV - Common Threads

Cherry Holmes IV - Common Threads

CHERRYHOLMES IV
COMMON THREADS
Skaggs Family Records
69890220212

On their latest release, the Cherryholmes completely leave behind their origins as a uniquely talented bluegrass family-band act and step into new musical forms that may best be called alt.grass. Recalling some of the sophisticated sonic forms and modern lyric and melodic approaches pioneered by modern bluegrass bands like Infamous Stringdusters and Cadillac Sky, the Cherryholmes under the eye of producer Ben Issacs have crafted a decidedly daring and bold statement here.

The band explores some highly personal territory on the topics of love, betrayal, and deception through the dark moody songs penned by Cia Cherryholmes, who shows here that she’s becoming a leader in modern country songcraft. Her sultry “Just You” could easily break out as a major country hit. As always, the band relies heavily on contemporary gospel forms for some of its most rousing material, including the hard-driving “Standing” and the deep, groovepowered “Changed In A Moment.” And, it wouldn’t be a Cherryholmes project without highpowered instrumental work from Skip on guitar, Cia on banjo, and the soaring twin fiddles of Molly and B.J., especially on the closing track “Tattoo Of A Smudge.”

It’s certainly been a long road for this band, from cutesy and “How’d those kids do that?” to the mature statement presented here. Whether longtime fans will come along for the ride is yet to be seen, but it’s certain from Common Threads that the Cherryholmes won’t be resting on their much deserved laurels anytime soon. (Skaggs Family Records, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.) DJM

Review: The Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays

The Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays

THE FAREWELL DRIFTERS
YELLOW TAG MONDAYS
Heart Squeeze Records
HS2K101

It’s been a difficult process writing this review of the Farewell Drifters’ “national debut” album, because I can’t stop playing the first three tracks. “Love We Left Behind” starts the disc with a gentle twin guitar attack from lead vocalist Zach Bevill and lead guitarist Clayton Britt followed up by gorgeous, soaring harmonies along with tasty fiddle from Christian Sedelmyer and tasteful backing banjo from guest Trevor Brandt.

“Everyone Is Talking” is more reliant on Brandt’s swinging rhythm while showcasing Bevill’s confident, engaging vocals and more great harmonies. (Mandolinist Joshua Britt and bassist Dean Marold are also credited with vocal backup, but there’s not a trackbytrack breakdown of who sings what.) The third track is a stunning arrangement of the Beatles’ “For No One” that sounds like a collaboration between Simon & Garfunkel and the early Seldom Scene.

That should be enough to grab you, especially since the rest of this inventive 14track, 44minute effort follows in the same vein, with the band’s 13 original compositions reflecting additional influences like Brian Wilson, the Byrds, John Hartford, and Nickel Creek. There’s even some great bluegrass here in the tracks “Virginia Bell,” “Somewhere Down The Road,” and the instrumental “I’ve Got Your Heart In My Hand, And I’m Gonna Squeeze.” (Farewell Drifters, 1145 Fernbank Dr., Madison, TN 37115, www.thefarewelldrifters.com.) AKH

Review: John Cowan - The Massenburg Sessions

John Cowan - The Massenburg Sessions

JOHN COWAN
THE MASSENBURG SESSIONS
E1 Music
E1ECD2304

This thirteentrack, fiftyminute CD takes it’s name from producer and engineer George Massenburg (Randy Newman, Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt) with whom Cowan resolved to cut this album “live, front to back, with no overdubs and no headphones.” Cowan further spices up the pot by inviting Mike Bub, Del, Rob, and Ronnie McCoury, Maura O’Connell, Darrell Scott, John Randall Stewart, and Reese Wynans to join members of his regular band from the past few years, namely Jeff Autry (guitar, vocals), Luke Bulla (fiddle), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Tony Wray (banjo), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Shad Cobb (fiddle).

As one might expect, the star ends up being Cowan’s untamed voice that soars high on material as diverse as the traditional bluegrass of “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” (with the McCourys), the progressive grass of “My Time In The Desert,” the folk balladry of “Lakes Of Ponchartrain” (with O’Connell), and the a cappella gospel workout “Jesus Gave Me Water.”

Massenburg’s presence, along with that of Cowan’s regular band, pays off, as each of these tracks of varying styles does indeed sound crisp, fresh, and urgent. (E1 Music, 22 Harbor Park Dr., Port Washington, NY 11050, www.e1entertainment.com.) AKH

Review: Various Artists - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival

Various Artist - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Music Festival

VARIOUS ARTISTS
JUBILEE: BEST OF RENFRO VALLEY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
KET Ed. TV
No Number

Jubilee, produced by Kentucky Educational Television (KET), is one of the country’s finest music series, and since 1996 has presented a range of artists from J.D. Crowe to Roger McGuinn. This DVD (surprisingly hard to find online) is a special episode filmed at the 2008 Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival. Featured artists are Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley, the Grascals, Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition, and a few regional acts: Burchett, Morgan & 5ivespeed, the All American Bluegrass Band, Fast Lane, and the Cumberland Gap Connection.

This production is all about the music and is professionally shot with multiple cameras. The crew has extensive experience and knows when to cut to a solo or when to frame a trio. That’s a welcome change from the usual television fare where the crew doesn’t have a clue about the dynamics of a bluegrass band. What you won’t get here is any sense of the festival itself. It’s all focused on the main stage. For most bluegrass fans, that won’t matter. The show is edited by removing all betweensong talk, so all you get are the performances. Some viewers may prefer getting the full set, including stage banter, rather than just the songs, but you might appreciate not hearing the sometimes lame stage talk between songs.

All the main acts are in good form with Rhonda serving her usual high energy show (good to see Kenny Ingram on banjo). The show is a time capsule from 2008 and would be a valuable addition to any bluegrass video collection, but not essential. (KET Duplication Services, 600 Cooper Dr., Lexington, KY 40502, e-mail: shop@ket.org.) CVS

HIGHLIGHTS


Don Rigsby & Midnight Call - The Voice of GodDON RIGSBY & MIDNIGHT CALL
THE VOICE OF GOD

Rebel Records CD1831

Presenting a program of mature, thoughtful gospel music, Don Rigsby touches a variety of the styles within that genre. The first two tracks are quartets, the second is a cappella, each comparing favorably with anything ever recorded. A Tom T. Hall entry comes next, “Then Y’Ain’t,” which calls out the pious for their shortcomings. The writing on this project is very good. Larry Cordle wrote the title song, and Skip Ewing wrote the interesting “Gospel According To Luke,” a story that has been told before, but rarely better in song. “I Am An Orphan Child” is like the song associated with Gillian Welch, but different, with writer credits to both Welch and Rigsby.

This project has the feel of a more contemporary Christian recording. Rigsby is not afraid to step away from the bluegrass mold. “Mary Magdalene” has a folky edge to the arrangement, lending power to Rigsby’s duet with Beth Castle, telling a wellknown story from a new angle. His reading of Phil Wiggins’ “Forgiveness” is pure gospel blues; Rory Block’s fine slide guitar and vocals take it down a sacred alley. The stark solo vocal “The Lord Will Provide” shows the immense power of Rigsby’s vocals.

Paul Craft’s ironic “Charged With Being A Christian,” with its Travis-style guitar from Dale Vanderpool, is another standout in a field of strong material. The great vocals and the arrangements that set up each song do not necessarily follow the strict bluegrass format. One of the greatest accomplishments a musician can attain is to produce an album that is a complete statement. Rigsby has done that with this project.

The backup musicians include the late Gerald Evans in what might be among his final work. His fiddling is not to be missed. Rigsby plays a wide range of instruments on this project himself. The bedrock of the band, Dale Vanderpool, Robert Maynard, and Clyde Marshall on banjo, bass, and guitar, respectively, all shine throughout the project.This album goes well beyond the obvious and explores the diversity that is modern gospel music. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA, 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RCB


John Hartford String Band - Memories Of JohnJOHN HARTFORD STRINGBAND
MEMORIES OF JOHN
Red Clay Records 745392

Although John Hartford toured primarily as a solo song and dance man for much of his career, his later years featured the extraordinary support of the John Hartford Stringband. A decade after the great man’s passing, Chris Sharp reassembled bandmates Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Mark Schatz, and Matt Combs to pay tribute to a unique American music treasure who looked straight down the barrel of pop music and TV success and decided that he preferred Flatt & Scruggs and Ed Haley. That he loved both equally allowed him to navigate seamlessly between oldtime and bluegrass.

Memories Of John captures that fluid recognition that it is all string band music, whether the bluegrass of “Love Grown Cold” or the Ohio Valley fiddle music of the kickoff track, “Three Forks Of Sandy.” The material delights of this album come from three basic areas. The first consists of two demos that John recorded more than forty years ago. Mark and Eileen Schatz worked “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” into a finished track, while the closing “Fade Out” appears just as Hartford left it.

The second and perhaps most intriguing set consists of previously unreleased Hartford compositions, most intended for a Hartford Stringband project that he did not live to record. All three were well worth the wait, especially the delightful “Madison Tennessee” and live favorite “Homer The Roamer.”

The remaining ten selections include a Schatz’ tribute poem “For John,” two Ed Haley tunes, the classic “Lorena” sung by Tim O’Brien, and renditions of six Hartford originals. Most of the latter feature John’s friends joining the Stringband. O’Brien sings and Alison Brown plays John’s banjo on a version of “M.I.S.I.P.” that stays close to the original. Alan O’Bryant brings his unmistakable voice to “Delta Queen Waltz,” the same song he sang at John’s funeral. Béla Fleck delivers a captivating personal interpretation of John’s banjo style on “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” And if that’s not enough, the album and several tracks start with John’s instructions to the band, all from previous rehearsal tapes.

The John Hartford String Band has succeeded in creating in just one package an excellent new John Hartford album, a wonderful tribute to John and his music, and a real world demonstration that bluegrass and oldtime don’t have to be an either/or proposition. (Red Clay Records, 916 19th Ave South; Nashville, TN 37212, www.redclayrecords.com.) AM


Nora Jane Struthers

NORA JANE STRUTHERS
Blue Pig Music BPM 1111

Remember the name Nora Jane Struthers, because you’ll probably be hearing it in the near future in conjunction with bluegrass awards for best emerging artist and top female vocalist. Her selftitled debut CD is, simply put, a marvel that combines brilliant songcraft, a sultry yet honey-hued voice, and an inspired sense of personal musical style.

Blessed with a voice that sounds a bit like a cross between Sarah Jarosz and Laurie Lewis, Struthers immediately enters the front ranks of female bluegrass vocalists with this release. She can sing a mournful murder ballad in the first person on “Willie,” belt out a bluegrass wailer on “Greenbrier County,” warble a dazzling western tune on “Cowgirl Yodel #3,” and murmur a gentle lullaby on the traditional “Say Darlin’ Say”—all with equal ease and aplomb.

Backed by Nashville stars Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien, Brent Truitt, Stuart Duncan, Shawn Lane, and Scott Vestal, she easily avoids the trap of sounding like an overproduced commercial project. Buoyed by her confidence in singing her own songs, she soars and enthralls instead of sounding like the studio band is overpowering her. Writing with a clear-eyed traditional sensibility typically seen only in writers of the caliber of Gillian Welch and Tim O’Brien, her songs sound immediately like pre-modern classics that ache for other artists to pick them up and include in their own repertoire. What was that name again? Nora Jane Struthers. Once you hear this CD, there’s no way you’ll forget it. Highly recommended. (Blue Pig Music, P.O. Box 68159, Nashville, TN 37206, www.norajanestruthers.com.) DJM

Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie - SouthernBILL EMERSON AND SWEET DIXIE
SOUTHERN
Rural Rhythm
RHY1053

Bill Emerson established his bluegrass cred a long time ago, going back to his days with the Country Gentlemen and a memorable stint with Jimmy Martin. On his new album Southern, backed by his band Sweet Dixie, Emerson is in fine form once again with a solid collection of traditional bluegrass.
What I like about Southern, first and foremost, is the song selection. There are tunes written by Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Pete Goble, Carl Jackson, Tim Stafford, Hazel Dickens, and Chris Hillman, just to name a few. Stepping up with most of the lead vocals is the familiar voice of Tom Adams, who also plays the majority of guitar. Bassist Teri Chism sings lead on three cuts including “I Can’t Find Your Love Anymore” and “Sometimes The Pleasure’s Worth The Pain.” The rest of the band includes Emerson on banjo and Wayne Lanham on mandolin. Sharing the fiddle duties are guests Rickie Simpkins and Frank Solivan with John Miller adding rhythm and lead guitar on two cuts.
The highlights for me on this album are songs about the rural roots of the music, something that contemporary bluegrass is moving away from in these modern times. The best examples include an old school country music take on Vince Gill’s “Life In The Old Farm Town,” Cartwright’s song about the rural life left behind called “Old Coal Town,” and a good old West Virginia song written by Pete Goble titled “Grandpa Emory’s Banjo.” The album ends with two originals—a wonderful instrumental written by Janet Davis called “Grandma’s Tattoos” that features Davis in a duet on banjo with Emerson and the Tom Adams-penned gospel number, “The Lord Will Light The Way.” (Rural Rhythm, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) DH

Dirty River - Graveyard Train

DIRTY RIVER
GRAVEYARD TRAIN
No Label
No Number

Local and regional bluegrass bands often feel tension between the desire to attract an audience by playing familiar cover songs and the creative impulse to come up with a fresh and identifiable sound. Lean too far toward the former and the band winds up undistinguished, lacking any real identity, while straying too far the other direction can lead the band away from the general bluegrass audience. Dirty River, based in the Washington, D.C., area, has done a fine job of balancing those conflicting pressures on Graveyard Train.

The band reflects the progressive tradition of bluegrass music in the Washington area forged by the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, Cliff Waldron, and many others. Graveyard Train features a nicely balanced mix of original tunes, along with the familiar bluegrass classics “Deep Elem Blues” and “Cherokee Shuffle” and some tunes imported from outside the genre, but adapted well to bluegrass. The Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman” is a bit of a novelty, but Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” makes a dandy, harddriving bluegrass tune.

Five of the fourteen songs are original material from bandmembers Billy Park and Evan Sands, and resonator guitar player Michael Barton also contributes a couple of nice instrumentals. The material is topnotch and well-suited to the band’s style. While the band doesn’t feature the strongest of vocals (lead singers on individual tracks are not identified), the skillful performances reflect a lot of intelligent consideration to arrangements and delivery.

Dirty River is a band that bears watching in the future and Graveyard Train is a strong debut recording well worth making an effort to track down. (Dirty River, 531 Brent Rd., Rockville, MD 20850, www.dirtyriverdc.com.) AWIII

The Earl Brothers

THE EARL BROTHERS
Big Hen Music
0004#

One thing the Earl Brothers had going for them on their previous (2006) release was their dedication to the stark musical sound and stark world view offered by the traditional bands of the ’40s and ’50s, and that dedication hasn’t changed with this album. The Stanley Brothers, circa their time on WCYB in Bristol, come instantly to mind when this disc plays. Several of the tracks here sound as if they could have come from those long ago sessions—almost.

Banjoist Robert Earl Davis, who wrote and sings lead on 11 of the 12 songs, has a different vocal sound than Carter or Ralph. There’s more of Dwight Yoakam in his sound and delivery. “Walk In The Light,” a gospel number in 3/4 time, comes the closest to the Stanley sound of that time. Tremelo mandolin from Larry Hughes starts and the song lopes easily into lyrics written in that older, declaritive, firstperson style. “Troubles” and “Going Back Home” (also both in 3/4 time), “Cold And Lonesome,” and the modal “Thinking Of You” are also fine, wellcrafted songs that match well with songs of that period.

What has changed most about the band since that first recording is the confidence in which it is presented. The band has tightened its chops, and Davis has honed his singing and songwriting. The solos of fiddler Tom Lucas and banjoist Davis remain basic and have an ensemble quality about them. When the band now offers their music, they’re no longer searching for technique and feeling. They’ve found it. (Earl Brothers, 72 Belcher St., San Francisco, CA 94114, www.earlbrothers.com.) BW

The High 48s - Up North

THE HIGH 48S
UP NORTH
No Label
No Number

Judging from the contents of their third release, the High 48s won the 2008 Rocky Grass band competition with a combination of confident picking and lots of original songs, especially for a somewhat traditional sounding band. Their energy and atavistic attire brings to mind the Johnson Mountain Boys of thirty years ago. Three decades of removal from bluegrass music’s early days, however, means the High 48s have a more progressive neotrad sound than the JMB. The 75 percent original material also distinguishes the Minnesota quintet.

Fiddler Eric Christopher provides two tunes and banjo player Anthony Ihrig composed “Darrington” in tribute to the bluegrass hometown of the northwest. The tune features guests Mike Compton and Randy Kohrs whose bubbly breaks resolve the tension between Ihrig’s modern take and Christopher’s traditional response. Compton also plays on Christopher’s “Little Odessa.” Bassman Rich Casey and Johnson’s brother, Chad, on mandolin complete the band.

All three covers receive excellent treatment. They include a slower tempo version of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” and “Paul and Silas” from the Stanleys, along with “Dirty Old Town” from “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” composer Ewan McColl. Guitarist Derek Johnson offers five solid compositions. “Easy To Get Lost,” “The Cliffs Of Red Wing,” and especially the fine uptempo bluegrass song “Shoes,” are quite good, if not extraordinarily original. The other pair are limited from a bit too much DNA still remaining from songs that most likely influenced them. You can still hear melodic traces of “Two Highways” in the family tree of the title track and Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” in “Sad Lonesome Eyes.”

Christopher, who also fiddles with the James King Band, proves clearly the instrumental star of a tight and expressive band. Ihrig provides a worthy counterpart above a reliable rhythm section. It is always refreshing to hear a bluegrass band whose vocals aren’t exclusively trios and quartets. The High 48s may go too far the other way. Derek Johnson is a good lead singer, but they take too little advantage of the sibling duet. “Paul & Silas” is a happy exception and a model for building a distinctive vocal sound on the duet. The High 48s have areas for improvement, but certainly should be playing much more outside of Minnesota and Wisconsin. (The High 48s, 701 Randolph Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102, www.thehigh48s.com.) AM

Michael Martin Murphey - Buckaroo Bluegrass II

MICHAEL MARTIN MURPHEY
BUCKAROO BLUE GRASS II: RIDING SONG
Rural Rhythm
RHY 1056

Buckaroo Blue Grass II: Riding Song is the followon to Michael Martin Murphey’s 2009 release that featured acoustic versions of some of his most familiar hits. Like the earlier effort, this album recreates bluegrassinfluenced arrangements of familiar originals. Murphey, who wrote all but one of the twelve cuts, has assembled a stellar collection of bluegrass musicians to join him here, and the result is a rich, satisfying sound, bluegrass in essence, but with a decidedly country feel.

Harddriving cuts such as “Blue Sky Riding Song” and “Running Blood,” powered by Charlie Cushman on banjo and Andy Leftwich on fiddle, ought to satisfy any bluegrass fan, but there is also some coloring outside of the lines on the swingy “Rollin’ Nowhere” and the decidedly newgrassy “Renegade.” Perhaps the strongest cut—at least in strict bluegrass terms—is “Running Gun,” powered by some killer lead guitar by Audie Blaylock but, oddly enough, also the only tune here that Murphey didn’t write. All in all, the songs translate well to a more acoustic sound—better than we might have expected from familiarity with the original versions. That’s not surprising considering the high level of talent contributed by Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Andy Hall, Pat Flynn, Troy Engle, and Ronnie McCoury.

Worthy of special attention is the version of Murphey’s megahit “Wildfire” performed as a duet with the fabulous Carrie Hassler. The laidback pace feels much like the original, but with Hassler’s powerful voice complementing Murphey’s softer delivery, there’s an emotional edge that makes it the highlight of a strong recording. (Rural Rhythm Records, P.O. Box 660040, Dept. D., Arcadia, CA 91066, www.ruralrhythm.com.) AWIII

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio - Just A Little Closer Home

PAUL WILLIAMS & THE VICTORY TRIO
JUST A LITTLE CLOSER HOME
Rebel Records
REBCD1835

Mandolinist/singer Paul Williams didn’t compose “Living The Right Life Now,” the opening song on his great new CD Just A Little Closer Home, but it could be almost biographical.

Williams was a key member of Jimmy Martin’s landmark Sunny Mountain Boys band in the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with a talented young banjo player named J.D. Crowe). But, by 1963, he had wearied of secular music. Then, in 1995, he reemerged as a superlative performer of bluegrass gospel. His album Old Ways And New Paths was nominated in 2000 for a Grammy award in the category of Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel. His latest release is a beautifully realized collection that should attract a wide audience.

Williams’ voice remains astonishingly pure, like that of a church choir boy. His backing group, the Victory Trio, has expanded and its members are all fine: Don Moneyhun (low tenor and lead vocals; guitar), Adam Winstead (baritone vocals; rhythm guitar), Jerry Keys (bass vocals; banjo), and Susie Keys (acoustic bass), plus guest artist Kevin Jackson (fiddle). Williams himself deserves praise for a clean mandolin style that is as engaging and enjoyable as his singing.

Williams wrote the Jimmy Martin gospel classics “I Like To Hear Them Preach It” and “Prayer Bells Of Heaven.” Although he didn’t write any of the songs on Just A Little Closer Home, he still has a golden ear for material. Among the many standout tracks on this album include Moneyhun’s “I’ve Been Set Free,” Key’s “There’s Still Time,” and the inspirational “Someone Made The Sandals Jesus Wore” by Tom T. and Dixie Hall.

Paul Williams could lay claim to being one of the greatest bluegrass gospel performers of all time. Being a modest man, he probably wouldn’t say that. But, I will, because it’s true. (Rebel Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906, www.rebelrecords.com.) RDS

Snyder Family Band - Comin' On Strong

SNYDER FAMILY BAND
COMIN’ ON STRONG
Mountain Roads
MMR 1009

The Snyder Family Band is Bud Snyder (father) on bass, 10yearold Samantha on fiddle, and 14 yea rold Zeb on guitar. Zeb plays banjo on Samantha’s original song, “The Great Civil War.” Samantha also wrote the gospel tune “What Will You Say.” Bud’s wife, Laine, sings harmony vocals on some cuts. Samantha’s fiddling and Zeb’s guitar playing both have a progressive feel with lots of swing. Both demonstrate complete command of their instruments and play fluidly. Samantha sings lead very well for someone so young, but the harmonies are stronger than her solos. “Heaven’s Bright Shore” and Tim May’s “King Of Babylon” both have lovely harmony singing.

The CD opens with the traditional Texas fiddle tune, “Cattle In The Cane,” followed by Charlie Bowman’s “East Tennessee Blues.” Samantha’s fiddle and Zeb’s guitar are also featured on “Faded Love,” “Red Haired Boy,” “Star Of The County Down,” and “Bill Cheatham.” Zeb really shines on “Steel Guitar Rag.”

Samantha and Zeb already display lots of talent. Based on this very promising second recording, the bluegrass community can look forward to lots of great entertainment from these young virtuosos. (Mountain Roads Recordings, 3192 Highway 421, Bristol, TN 37620, www.mountainroadsrecordings.com.) SAG

The Special Consensus - 35

SPECIAL CONSENSUS
35
Compass Records
745412

Can it really be 35 years since Special Consensus emerged as one of the best new progressive bands on the bluegrass scene? Time flies as fast as Special Consensus charter member and banjo picker Greg Cahill’s three finger rolls. Now, the band’s music and history are celebrated by the album 35.

The Chicago based Special Consensus has always merged elements of mainstream bluegrass with the blues, swing, and country to present a refreshing sound. Cahill, a bright and inventive picker, as well as a versatile vocalist, has remained its touchstone.

This new CD is enjoyable and well-conceived. Half the tracks are new recordings with the band’s current lineup: Cahill, Ryan Thomas (guitar and vocals), Rick Faris (mandolin and vocals), and David Thomas (bass and vocals). Cahill does well keeping up with these youngsters, as evidenced on his instrumental “Danny’s Dance.” Faris, Roberts, and Thomas also contribute great original songs on the CD’s first half.

The other tracks are taken from now outofprint Special Consensus albums from 1983 to 1998. It’s worthwhile to find how many superb musicians have been part of this outfit. (One outstanding example is the Chicago musician Don Stiernberg who contributed a sturdy mandolin break in 1991 to the song “Fourteen Carat Mind” and then went on to become one of the most enjoyable acoustic jazz mandolinists ever.)

The music here is consistently fine, both vocally and instrumentally. The creative emphasis on original material is noteworthy. It’s been a very fine 35 years. If you’ve never picked up a Special Consensus album, their new collection 35 is definitely the place to start. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212 www.compassrecords.com.) RDS

ON THE EDGE

Becky Schlegel - Dandelion

BECKY SCHLEGEL
DANDELION
Lilly Ray Music
LRR 901

Years ago, Becky Schlegel was featured at a songwriter’s showcase, and hearing her songs in a spare duo setting left a lasting impression. After a few albums in a bluegrass context, her latest release Dandelion is a departure into a differently textured Americana sound with only light and subtle bluegrass influences. And, you know? It suits her voice and her songs perfectly.

While banjos take a prominent role in more uptempo songs such as “Colorado Line” and “Don’t Leave It Up To Me,” her plaintive voice is complemented by the gentler settings of “The Way You Are” and “If I Were A Poet,” while Randy Kohrs’ tasty resonator guitar work is nicely interwoven with pedal steel and light percussion. Touches of electric instrumentation enhance the moods of “Nowhere Bound” and the title track without sacrificing either song’s intimacy.

The bluegrass world is understandably protective about having its homegrown talent move beyond its stylistic boundaries, and this CD may represent more of an experiment than a career transition. But it’s hard to deny that Becky Schlegel’s songs and voice are wellserved by the arrangements and instrumentation here. Talent like hers deserves to be heard, and Dandelion could take this Minnesota-native to national recognition. (Lilly Ray Records, P.O. Box 41004, Nashville, TN 37204, www.lillyraymusic.com.) HK

Cherry Holmes IV - Common Threads

CHERRYHOLMES IV
COMMON THREADS
Skaggs Family Records
69890220212

On their latest release, the Cherryholmes completely leave behind their origins as a uniquely talented bluegrass family-band act and step into new musical forms that may best be called alt.grass. Recalling some of the sophisticated sonic forms and modern lyric and melodic approaches pioneered by modern bluegrass bands like Infamous Stringdusters and Cadillac Sky, the Cherryholmes under the eye of producer Ben Issacs have crafted a decidedly daring and bold statement here.

The band explores some highly personal territory on the topics of love, betrayal, and deception through the dark moody songs penned by Cia Cherryholmes, who shows here that she’s becoming a leader in modern country songcraft. Her sultry “Just You” could easily break out as a major country hit. As always, the band relies heavily on contemporary gospel forms for some of its most rousing material, including the hard-driving “Standing” and the deep, groovepowered “Changed In A Moment.” And, it wouldn’t be a Cherryholmes project without highpowered instrumental work from Skip on guitar, Cia on banjo, and the soaring twin fiddles of Molly and B.J., especially on the closing track “Tattoo Of A Smudge.”

It’s certainly been a long road for this band, from cutesy and “How’d those kids do that?” to the mature statement presented here. Whether longtime fans will come along for the ride is yet to be seen, but it’s certain from Common Threads that the Cherryholmes won’t be resting on their much deserved laurels anytime soon. (Skaggs Family Records, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077, www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com.) DJM

The Farewell Drifters - Yellow Tag Mondays

THE FAREWELL DRIFTERS
YELLOW TAG MONDAYS
Heart Squeeze Records
HS2K101

It’s been a difficult process writing this review of the Farewell Drifters’ “national debut” album, because I can’t stop playing the first three tracks. “Love We Left Behind” starts the disc with a gentle twin guitar attack from lead vocalist Zach Bevill and lead guitarist Clayton Britt followed up by gorgeous, soaring harmonies along with tasty fiddle from Christian Sedelmyer and tasteful backing banjo from guest Trevor Brandt.

“Everyone Is Talking” is more reliant on Brandt’s swinging rhythm while showcasing Bevill’s confident, engaging vocals and more great harmonies. (Mandolinist Joshua Britt and bassist Dean Marold are also credited with vocal backup, but there’s not a trackbytrack breakdown of who sings what.) The third track is a stunning arrangement of the Beatles’ “For No One” that sounds like a collaboration between Simon & Garfunkel and the early Seldom Scene.

That should be enough to grab you, especially since the rest of this inventive 14track, 44minute effort follows in the same vein, with the band’s 13 original compositions reflecting additional influences like Brian Wilson, the Byrds, John Hartford, and Nickel Creek. There’s even some great bluegrass here in the tracks “Virginia Bell,” “Somewhere Down The Road,” and the instrumental “I’ve Got Your Heart In My Hand, And I’m Gonna Squeeze.” (Farewell Drifters, 1145 Fernbank Dr., Madison, TN 37115, www.thefarewelldrifters.com.) AKH

John Cowan - The Massenburg Sessions

JOHN COWAN
THE MASSENBURG SESSIONS
E1 Music
E1ECD2304

This thirteentrack, fiftyminute CD takes it’s name from producer and engineer George Massenburg (Randy Newman, Little Feat, Linda Ronstadt) with whom Cowan resolved to cut this album “live, front to back, with no overdubs and no headphones.” Cowan further spices up the pot by inviting Mike Bub, Del, Rob, and Ronnie McCoury, Maura O’Connell, Darrell Scott, John Randall Stewart, and Reese Wynans to join members of his regular band from the past few years, namely Jeff Autry (guitar, vocals), Luke Bulla (fiddle), Wayne Benson (mandolin), Tony Wray (banjo), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Shad Cobb (fiddle).

As one might expect, the star ends up being Cowan’s untamed voice that soars high on material as diverse as the traditional bluegrass of “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’” (with the McCourys), the progressive grass of “My Time In The Desert,” the folk balladry of “Lakes Of Ponchartrain” (with O’Connell), and the a cappella gospel workout “Jesus Gave Me Water.”

Massenburg’s presence, along with that of Cowan’s regular band, pays off, as each of these tracks of varying styles does indeed sound crisp, fresh, and urgent. (E1 Music, 22 Harbor Park Dr., Port Washington, NY 11050, www.e1entertainment.com.) AKH

DVD

Various Artist - Jubilee: Best Of Renfro Valley Music Festival

VARIOUS ARTISTS
JUBILEE: BEST OF RENFRO VALLEY BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
KET Ed. TV
No Number

Jubilee, produced by Kentucky Educational Television (KET), is one of the country’s finest music series, and since 1996 has presented a range of artists from J.D. Crowe to Roger McGuinn. This DVD (surprisingly hard to find online) is a special episode filmed at the 2008 Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival. Featured artists are Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley, the Grascals, Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition, and a few regional acts: Burchett, Morgan & 5ivespeed, the All American Bluegrass Band, Fast Lane, and the Cumberland Gap Connection.

This production is all about the music and is professionally shot with multiple cameras. The crew has extensive experience and knows when to cut to a solo or when to frame a trio. That’s a welcome change from the usual television fare where the crew doesn’t have a clue about the dynamics of a bluegrass band. What you won’t get here is any sense of the festival itself. It’s all focused on the main stage. For most bluegrass fans, that won’t matter. The show is edited by removing all betweensong talk, so all you get are the performances. Some viewers may prefer getting the full set, including stage banter, rather than just the songs, but you might appreciate not hearing the sometimes lame stage talk between songs.

All the main acts are in good form with Rhonda serving her usual high energy show (good to see Kenny Ingram on banjo). The show is a time capsule from 2008 and would be a valuable addition to any bluegrass video collection, but not essential. (KET Duplication Services, 600 Cooper Dr., Lexington, KY 40502, e-mail: shop@ket.org.) CVS

MAKE UP YOUR OWN BANJO SOLOS (2): WHAT TO PLAY WHEN IT’S YOUR TURN TO ‘TAKE IT!’ KEYS OF D, C, F, AND G (UP THE NECK)
TAUGHT BY PETE WERNICK
Homespun DVDWERS022.

One DVD, 1 hr 55 mins, $29.95. (Homespun Tapes, P.O. Box 340, Woodstock, NY 12498, www.homespuntapes.com.)

This second DVD in Pete Wernick’s Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos series on Homespun concentrates on playing in the keys of C, D, E, F, and G—the last primarily up the neck. Songs include “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” (D), “As I Went Down To The Valley To Pray” (D), “Angeline The Baker” (D), “Colleen Malone” (D or E), “Country Blues” (D), “New River Train” (C), “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” (C Tuning), “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (F), and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (G, up the neck).

Pete is one of the most influential banjo players and teachers of the past twenty years. His teaching style is personable and accessible and this is essentially a twohour private lesson with Pete on playing in the C and D positions and up the neck in G. What I appreciate most about Pete’s teaching is that he starts with the basic chord structure and melody of a song and emphasizes singing along with the melody. He then teaches soloing out of C and D chord positions and how to reach notes in the melody at various points along the neck.

There is a tremendous amount of information here—enough licks to satisfy people looking for those, and, more importantly, great direction on soloing by finding the melody and placing notes around it in virtually any key. The DVD also contains two computer files: a .PDF tab book of all the solos on the DVD and a Word document written by Pete on using and making your own playalong practice recordings. Both of these items add tremendous value to the video.

The two volumes in this series are well worth having as part of your library of banjo instruction material and a great place for a beginner to start on his or her jamming journey. Highly recommended for beginning to intermediate banjo players. CVS