Archive for December 2008
An experiment, if you will.
It remains a thrill to see my writing in print; a bit of an ego rush, and a sense of awe that ‘someone’ found my writing to be sufficiently coherent or insightful to publish it. I balance such stroking with knowledge of the value of an excellent editor, and have been blessed with a superior one these past many years as I’ve written for Bluegrass Now.
As you may be aware, the magazine will cease to exist after this month. A move from paper periodical to electronic publishing didn’t look promising, and the Bledsoes have elected to fold the tent rather than continue an uphill struggle. Understandable that. I’ll miss writing for Wayne Bledsoe. He was and is a class act, a bluegrass gentleman if you will, and has treated me very well over the years. Deb and Caroline, too, on the few occassions I wrote features for them. But it was Wayne who held my hand, and guided my writing. I didn’t always learn from his editing, and likely will always write long rather than well, but if you can’t be one, be the other.
I was struck this week when viewing the final review I wrote for BN, one I submitted just a couple weeks prior to receiving word that the magazine was folding. When I read my review of Blue Moon Rising’s One Lonely Shadow, I had that initial jolt of adrenaline. Pretty impressive! Man, that guy can write, I thought to myself. But, reality has a way of catching up to you, and this time was no exception.
As is my habit, I then went to my archive and dug out my submitted review. And while I quite like some elements of it, I have to admit- I’m going to miss having an editor like Wayne Bledsoe reading and tightening my writing. The evidence was and is clear.
Anyhow, here is the experiment. I am posting my original writing and I’ll also post a link to what appeared online in BN. I think it is important to value the editor, but I also think it is good to see what was excised. Some of it, I think, was good, but other parts were wisely chopped. See what you think- either way and despite my writing, it is a very strong album- one of the year’s best bluegrass and Americana releases. Here is how I wrote it originally-
Blue Moon Rising
One Lonely Shadow
Lonesome Day Records
In a world ostensibly bursting with under-heralded bluegrass bands, Blue Moon Rising is not immediately obvious as extraordinary.
Having recorded three previous albums to somewhat limited fan fare, the band is typical of many; those who hear them, love them. Unfortunately, not enough hear them!
The band has endured several supporting personnel changes, again not atypical in the bluegrass world where exhaustive hours and countless miles often lead to insignificant financial compensation and family dissatisfaction.
Blue Moon Rising- comprised of three excellent musicians and singers- is not unusual even when one examines their credentials. There is no shortage of outstanding bluegrass instrumentalists and vocalists plying their trade, and many of those have worked just as doggedly as the members of Blue Moon Rising.
So, why should anyone care about this trio from East Tennessee? Because they are just so darn good!
Blue Moon Rising are smooth a la Blue Highway, and are as accessible as the Gibson Brothers. They’re every bit as traditional as James King, but they’re a touch edgy in the same way Chris Stuart & Backcountry push boundaries. And the songs they record! Those they do not write themselves are masterfully selected, and those they do write are top-notch.
It has been three years since Chris West (guitar and mandolin), Justin Jenkins (banjo), and Keith Garrett (guitar and mandolin) dropped On the Rise, their previous Lonesome Day album. Much has changed in that time, but what has remained consistent is the driving, banjo-propelled orientation of the band, one that embraces more overtly Americana influences this time than their previous releases.
The band possesses the modesty to accept that others write as good as they can, and even better. BMR turn to the songwriting mastery of Van Zandt (“Marie”), Springsteen (“Youngstown”), Fulks (“Where There’s A Road”) and Eaglesmith (“Freight Train”) for four familiar but seldom heard songs to anchor the collection. The trio- augmented by Mike Bub, Tim Crouch, Cody Kilby, and others- do not reinvent these dramatically written songs, but add acousitiblue shadings that sharpen their presentation into something decidedly bluegrass.
The band written material, particularly West’s “The Hanging Tree” and Garrett’s “Angeline”, complement the borrowed tunes. Written with Tayla Brook, “The Hanging Tree” has story elements- history, pain, darkness, and retribution- to make it a classic within the bluegrass canon. West’s “I Grew Up Today” is a country heart-wrecker that should have Alan Jackson and George Strait placing calls.
Not everything is heavy and heady. Balance is achieved with West’s romping “Five More Days of Rain,” a number that should receive airplay and experience chart action. “Stone Cold Loneliness” and “Good Time for Going Home” hold similar commercial appeal, and should appeal to a range of listeners.
Two numbers look to the spiritual side of life, and are well-executed. Both Verlon Thompson’s “”I Will Come Back Again” and the original “Revival” provide challenge and inspiration without didactic bombast.
Having long followed the rise of Blue Moon Rising, I appreciate how simultaneously consistent and exciting the band remains. Much of the credit goes to God-given musical talent, but much can also be attributed to the band member’s intuition and sensibility. One Lonely Shadow should be argued over when Album of the Year nominees are considered.
And this is how it was published in the final issue of Bluegrass Now-
Having recorded three previous albums to somewhat limited fanfare, the band is typical of many: those who hear them love them. Unfortunately, not enough hear them!
Blue Moon Rising is smooth, à la Blue Highway, and as accessible as the Gibson Brothers. They’re every bit as traditional as James King, but they’re a touch edgy in the same way Chris Stuart & Backcountry push boundaries.
It has been three years since Chris West (guitar and mandolin), Justin Jenkins (banjo), and Keith Garrett (guitar and mandolin) recorded On the Rise, their previous Lonesome Day album. Much has changed in that time, but what has remained consistent is the driving, banjo-propelled orientation of the band, one that embraces more overtly Americana influences than their previous releases.
The band-written material, particularly West’s “The Hanging Tree” and Garrett’s “Angeline,” complement the borrowed tunes. Written with Tayla Brook, “The Hanging Tree” has story elements–history, pain, darkness, and retribution–-to make it a classic within the bluegrass canon. West’s “I Grew Up Today” is a country heartwrecker that should have Alan Jackson and George Strait placing calls to the songwriters.
Not everything is heavy and heady. Balance is achieved with West’s romping “Five More Days of Rain,” a number that will likely enjoy airplay and chart action. “Stone Cold Loneliness” and “Good Time for Going Home” hold similar commercial appeal, and should appeal to a range of listeners.
This band has remained simultaneously consistent and exciting. Much of the credit for this can be attributed to their God-given musical talent, but an equal amount can be ascribed to the band members’ intuition and sensibility. One Lonely Shadow should be argued over when Album of the Year nominees are considered.
Tighter certainly, more concise and perhaps less indulgent. Still…it’s hard seeing your words chopped. What’s the number one rule of writing? For me, Don’t fall in love with your words; they ain’t that impressive! (Thanks, Mr. King). The best writing I do is what isn’t written, and I think this adage has been proven once again! So, my thanks to Wayne Bledsoe for all his efforts in helping me improve my writing, and for publishing a top-quality bluegrass magazine for so many years. Enjoy the rest of your retirement. I’ll miss my relationship with you and the magazine. Donald
Waco Express- Live and Kickin’
When alt.country was little more than a glimmer on a list master’s server, there were the Waco Brothers, a group of Chicago-based malcontents who played for a common love of beer and country music. More than a dozen years later, Jon Langford and his mates are still pounding out a blend of country and rock- not country rock- with no apparent concern for what is fashionable in the music business.
I’m not going to pretend to have seen the band one hundred and sixty-two times, and to have memorized every chord of every album. I have been a casual Waco Brothers follower, at best. I’ve heard a couple albums (the early ones) and I’ve enjoyed their tracks on the various Bloodshot compilations.
I know was also put off a bit with all the positive press I read about the band- for awhile there, one couldn’t read an issue of No Depression without someone having salivated all over the latest album, live show, or collaboration from the Waco Brothers and their ilk.
I think I’ve never gravitated toward the band simply because I always had the (mistaken, admitedly) impression Langford and Co. were taking the piss with their version of roots and country music. Plus, I had purchased a couple Mekons albums and was left cold. Jon Langford’s Gold Brick didn’t do much for me either.
Therefore, Waco Express- Live and Kickin’ at Schuba’s Tavern, Chicago sat in a pile in my office for months after being received. And then last week, while preparing a column on Albums I Overlooked in 2008 I was moved to slip it into the machine. And my life changed…
Not really. But I remembered why I liked the compilation cuts, and realized how unfair I had been to JL and the band by not giving them their full due. Sometimes, everyone else isn’t wrong.
This live set contains a selection of the band’s underground anthems, with The Death of Country Music and Plenty Tough Union Made ringing as true today as they did when first heard in the late ’Nineties. Fair criticism may be leveled that two-thirds of the material is from the band’s first two albums, and that more recent discs are given short shrift. But, it’s hard to knock what works, and Waco Express is a fine little concert platter.
One is reminded of the Silos and Jason and the Scorchers, and this could serve as a reminder to Ryan Adams that loose doesn’t necessarily mean sloppy. The live energy captured on this fifty-minute plus show is sweaty, loud, and aggressive, and Langford has seldom sounded in stronger voice.
If you’ve never listened to the Waco Brothers, this is as good a place to start as any. I do know I am looking at downloading a couple albums this weekend. I think I’ve got some exploring to do.
Postcard2 is a list serve that is focused around (mostly) roots music and its various off-shoots. Each year members submit their Top 20 releases of the year. The submissions can be interesting, and can lead to further exporation of artists and albums previously missed. www.postcard2.com for more information. Anyhow, here is what I submitted, with three comments. One, I missed Darrell Scott’s Modern Hymns. Not sure how, but I did. It would have most likely pushed the Hubbard disc out of the top 20. Second, I hadn’t heard either the Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson album nor the Hank Williams unreleased radio show recordings prior to compiling the list. Not sure if Rattlin’ Bones would have made it to the Twenty, but Hank would have made the reissues list. Additionally, Maria Dunn’s album arrived too late to be considered. Again, quite likely it would have made the list; it is an excellent example of the living Canadian folk tradition. Finally, as discussed elsewhere, Carlene Carter’s Stronger is a very fine album, but didn’t make my top 20. Instead, I mention it on the reissues as it was originally issued as a fan club disc a couple years ago. Anyhow…here it is:
Beyond Fred Eaglesmith’s Tinderbox, few of the albums I shortlisted and then finally listed stood-out ‘head and shoulders’ above the rest.
Actually, I had initially believed 2008 was a weak year for the kind of music I like, simply because little separated itself from the pack. Once I started working at it, I discovered there was a lot of music I liked and enjoyed, but the new releases were overshadowed by the volume of catalogue- and in some cases deep catalogue- music I’ve been listening to (Genesis’s Foxtrot, anyone?)
This is a result, I think, of purchasing a lot of music- some I still haven’t got to- from a chain going bankrupt this fall, finding a bunch of $1 CDs I could trade in for three and four times at the local shop for mega-discounted ‘my kind of music’- You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic for $4, Martin Sexton Wonder Bar for 6, and various Midnight Oil’s for $3…
In no particular order, beyond Fred being #1…
Fred Eaglesmith- Tinderbox
The Steeldrivers- The Steeldrivers
The Earl Brothers- Moonshine
Kathy Mattea- Coal
Mark Erelli- Delivered
Melonie Cannon- And the Wheels Turn
Blue Moon Rising- One Lonely Shadow
Chip Taylor- New Songs of Freedom
Crooked Still- Still Crooked
Charlie Haden- Rambling Boy
Lucinda Williams- Little Honey
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper- Leavin’ Town
Jay Clark- I’m Confused
Justin Townes Earle- The Good Life
Brad Paisley- Play
Eliza Gilkyson- Beautiful World
Ray Wylie Hubbard- Snake Farm
Kimmie Rhodes- Walls Fall Down
Kathleen Edwards- Asking for Flowers
Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein- 2:10 Train
Subject to change within twenty minutes
The Wire- …And All the Things Matter
Nick Lowe- Jesus of Cool
VA- Ten Years of European World of Bluegrass
Larry Sparks- Bound to Ride
Ralph Stanley- Old-Time Pickin
Katrina Leskanich- Walking on Sunshine
Carlene Carter- Stronger
Bruce Robison- His Greatest Hits
Jason Ringenberg- Best Tracks and Side Tracks
James King- Gardens in the Sky
And the whole damn Creedence reissue set- How did I ever miss CCR before? What a rhythm section! Much more than the FM singles band I always took them for.
And finally, Ali Thomson’s digital reissue of “Take A Little Rhythm”!
Sometime ago, Mark Erelli posted to his website the opportunity for fans and followers to invest in his next album. It isn’t a unique fundraising venture, but one usually reserved for artists of lower profile. It is telling of the narrowness of economic margins in the new musical world order, however. I neglected to respond to the opportunity, and now that I have the product in my hand I very much regret that I spent the hundred dollars on coffees and gum rather than contribute to Erelli’s project.
Delivered is a powerful, dramatic artistic statement from a singer-songwriter who has for too long flown under-recognized while cover shots, features, and praise have fallen on contemporaries. Not that Erelli is better than anyone else plying their trade out there within the coffeehouse, folk club, and house concert circuit. He’s different from some of them, similar to others, and this isn’t a competition, after all. He’s received his due praise from the media that matters, and yet his name is never raised when I’m discussing favoured artists with like-minded peers.
Delivered is different from the other albums of Erelli’s that I’ve enjoyed- Hope & Other Casualties and Compass & Companion- lack of ampersand notwithstanding. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated those recordings, Delivered is of an entirely different breed. The album has more of a universal theme to it, as it attempts to focus on issues impacting our world, even if they are close to home. It is that ‘great leap forward’ that one hopes for those one respects and holds in esteem.
As a non-American, “Abraham” doesn’t speak to me the same way it may to Erelli and his countrymen, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same. When he sings, “We’ve more in common than divides us, but we need someone to guide us,” I like to think Erelli is singing about more than American politics and leadership. This song, with its refrain of “Rise up, rise up, rise up” calls to all of us to consider not only who we choose to follow, but challenges us to consider why we chose to follow rather than lead.
That Erelli has chosen to close his album with such a powerful number is most appropriate. Elsewhere Erelli provides sketches and portraits of people caught in changing times, feeling powerless to activate any type of action.
The album opens with an incredible song, one that Erelli may have to sing for the rest of his career. “Hope Dies Last” utilizes a backdrop of quiet domesticity to facilitate his description of the pressures faced by not only his country, but those who are tied to its fate. While the images Erelli highlights- suicide bombs, trapped and lost coalminers, New Orleans, and myopic presidents- are tied to current times, the overarching message of holding close those you love will last long after specific headlines are forgotten.
In both “Shadowland” and “Volunteers” Erelli portrays the fates and circumstances of those who serve in the military. Both songs are gripping in their honesty and use of language. “Shadowland” is the loudest song I’ve ever heard from Erelli, reaching levels of distortion and anger that rivals Jerusalem-era Steve Earle. The sense of loss and despair expressed by the song’s protagonist is excruciating- “When you’re dancing with a devil of your own design, you sink down to his level every time.”
“Volunteers” takes a more linear path, but the destination is similar. Caught in a war he never anticipated, the National Guard volunteer who had spent his weekends filling sandbags and cleaning up after storms finds himself in Iraq. Unprepared for what he experiences, and feeling the disappointment of a nation, Erelli’s soldier reflects on his challenges. Considering the judgments of history and God, the volunteer admits, “Over here it’s a victory just to make it through another day.”
Not everything is centered on global wars and politics as Erelli looks at the loss and frustrations of folks caught up in their own turmoil where things don’t always work out as planned. “Five Beer Moon” captures a father living on his own, filling his hours with thoughts about what might have been elsewhere. The darkness of “Baltimore” could only occur after an all-night drive to an elusive love; Erelli doesn’t reveal how the story ends, but one anticipates it isn’t with a country wedding.
The pressures of being the “Man of the Family” seem less harsh surrounded by the despair that populates other songs, but to the guy who feels he can “only tread water” in his own doubts, the impasse is palatable. And for the fellow who claims “I ain’t giving up, I just changed my mind” while standing on railway tracks in “Unraveled,” all the signs in the world are not going to free him from his situation.
Erelli has a way with words that is more than remarkable. Sometimes it is a stark image of “roadside trash crucified on a barbed wire fence” (“Unraveled”) capturing a daily observation in a way one could never have thought. Other times it is in a series of lines that captures the strength of a short story- “Small town Sunday morning and the children all dressed up for church. The bells are a-ringin’ and I’m a-thinkin’ for whatever it’s worth that I might find some comfort if I could just learn how to kneel” (“Not Alone”). In “Baltimore,” the spurned lover laments, “I’ve got a pawn shop ring and a yellow rose bouquet/Honey, that I bought in a cheap truck stop. Hardly seems enough to prove to you I’ve changed/Well, maybe it ain’t, but it’s all I got.” Lonesome, for certain.
Instrumentally, the album has a comfortable sound, familiar to previous Erelli discs, but also fresh. Liam Hurley’s drums provide a conscious heartbeat for Erelli’s songs. There is the usual selection of guitars and basses, and the addition of pump organ, piano, and other keyboards along with horns makes Delivered a full and panoramic listening experience.
Despite the elaborate settings of some of the songs, the focus is always on Erelli and what he is singing. The words are powerful, and while I don’t believe a song can change the world, we need songs like Erelli’s to encourage us to have the strength and conviction to make changes Where We Live. To borrow a quip from Jon Brooks: for me, that is what folk music is all about- advancing civilization four minutes at a time.
Mark Erelli has done that with Delivered.
Americana’s most impressive contemporary troubadour whose name isn’t Steve Earle, over the past decade Darrell Scott has produced a series of albums containing original music executed at such a high level that they have passed by all but the most discriminating listener. A true shame, considering the songs he’s dropped- including “My Father’s House,” “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” “River Take Me,” and 2007 Americana Music Association Song of the Year, “Hank Williams’ Ghost”- match or exceed that of those who have attained more widespread acclaim.
Perhaps best known for pairing with Tim O’Brien and as a sideman for Earle, Guy Clark, and Sam Bush, Darrell Scott has, with little fanfare, established himself as a ‘go-to’ Nashville-based songwriter and producer. However, his greatest work is contained on his own albums, and that continues with Modern Hymns, a new collection of songs written by others drawn from Scott’s formative years.
Those appreciating acoustic sounds from within a wide palate of color will find much of interest on Modern Hymns.
Most of the songs are multi-dimensional productions, replete with strings from the likes of Andrea Zonn, Stuart Duncan, and Orchestra Nashville. A few numbers- including Paul Simon’s “American Tune”- are kept to quintets, and provide down-to-earth respite from more elaborate settings. However, even when multiple vocalists and instruments come together on songs- as on Hoyt Axton’s “The Devil”- the arrangements are still seemingly uncomplicated and spacious sounding.
Roots fans will recognize many of the guests featured throughout the recording. Regular Scott collaborators Dirk Powell and Danny Thompson are prominently featured, and provide the album its instrumental core. Del and Ronnie McCoury contribute to Joni Mitchell’s “Urge For Going,” while David Grier, Jamie Hartford, and John Cowan also stop by for single appearances.
Scott, Mary Gauthier and Alison Krauss combine for a transcendent rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc;” magic, this one is with Krauss giving voice to the angels’ chorus as Scott’s flames arise to engulf Gauthier’s Maid of Orleans.
The beauty of Darrel Scott is that he can’t help but sound like himself, and he fully owns each of these songs. Even a number as familiar as “Jesus Was A Capricorn” becomes a Scott song by way of his hands and most especially voice.
It would have been easy for Scott to dramatically reinvent these songs, either by stripping them bare or throwing the entire tool shed at them. Instead, he has chosen to maintain the dignity of each song and their performers who came before him. And in doing so, Scott has honoured their artistic vision by taking the hard way- making the largely familiar songs his own while fundamentally retaining their essence.
Scott saves the album’s defining moments for the final ones, with a piercing reading of Guy Clark’s “That Old Time Feeling.” This intense song- filled with film-quality images- encapsulates everything that Scott has built his career upon: the influences of the past mixed with a modern, honest ear and precision instrumentation that just feels right.
When I recently submitted my annual Top 20 to the Postcard 2discussion group, I missed Modern Hymns. My faux pas; Modern Hymns is certainly one of the most enjoyable and artistically adventurous albums released in 2008.
A Hundred Miles or More: Live from the Tracking Room
On this DVD, the bluegrass chanteuse performs a number of tracks from her successful compilation of last year. Joining Krauss for these live, in-studio takes are James Taylor (How’s the World Treating You), Brad Paisley (Whiskey Lullaby), John Waite (Lay Down Beside Me) and Tony Rice (Shadows and Sawing on the Strings), reprising their roles in duet with or supporting the now legendary singer. The boys from Union Station are on hand, as are Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan.
Personally, I find the numbers with Taylor and Waite sleepy, but the balance more than makes up for them. The dreadfully impacting Jacob’s Dream is the showstopper.
Watching (and listening to) the members of Union Station play up close is awe inspiring. The sound quality is impressive, the camera work intimate, and the visuals beautifully framed. While the show doesn’t have a lot of jump, the quality of the performances is striking. Created for broadcast, the relaxed set runs under an hour, with interviews fleshing out an experience that transcends bluegrass.
Farewell to Arms
I can’t pretend to having ever been a Dick Damron fan. Despite being at least partially raised on CFCW, Damron’s music never impacted me. But, a little Google searching turned up a few songs I recognized- Tequila Charlie’s and Jesus, It’s Me Again among them.
Dick Damron has just delivered his new release, and it is one that should satisfy both long-time fans and those late to discover Bentley’s Canadian Country Hall of Fame member.
Unlike the mostly vibrant and down-right frisky sounds that populated Damron’s The Big Picture, this time the mood is introspective. The album starts out with a swinging tune called All About Love featuring some sad fiddle, but most of songs don’t surpass a shuffle in tempo. Thematically looking inward, The Vanishing Point finds Damron ruminating on the realization that there are many more days in his past than in his future.
There’s a bit of Hoyt Axton in Dollars, and a little Merle in I Stopped Believing in You. Never do Damron’s apparent influences approach mimicry, and Damron demonstrates that he still possesses the vocal range necessary to effectively communicate a song’s intended emotion.
Several of the tunes have been previously recorded by Damron. One of these, the title track, captures the protagonist looking toward a future that leaves the pleasures and trappings his past behind, and is perhaps the album’s defining song.
While it is nice to hear a very excellent country song that places Charley Pride front and center of a couple’s relationship (You and Me and Charlie Pride), misspelling his name is inexcusable. Also unfortunate is that no musician credits are provided.
Farewell to Arms is a fine country collection.