Archive for January 2009
Robin & Linda Williams
The venerable folk and acoustiblue duo return with their, by my count, 20th album; it is another that will undoubtedly become cherished by their legion of followers.
Little new ground is broken here, and little does that matter. As they have for thirty-some years, the Williams’ sing of love, family, their environment, and whatever else strikes a fancy. “Tied Down, Home Free” takes an irreverent look at long-term commitment, while “I’m Invisible Man” almost moves me to tears. It’s lonesome.
“Maybelle’s Guitar and Monroe’s Mandolin” (“standing there together like they were next of kin”) perfectly captures my exact feelings- but so much more eloquently- upon seeing the legendary instruments amongst the gaudy suits, faded pictures, and modern-day memorabilia in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The long-married couple always sounds fresh and lively, no small part due to the inspiration received from their accompanists. Regular readers will know the names- Tim O’Brien, Tim Crouch, Jerry Douglas- but what is more important is the sound they collectively capture. It is like listening to the perfect living room jam, so natural and unfettered is the music.
Linda and Robin have done it again, releasing another seemingly perfect album of contemporary folk music.
I’ve never really ‘got’ what others saw and heard in Toronto’s Paul Reddick. Not his fault, not mine either. Sometimes, things just don’t click. But now, I believe I’m coming around.
On Sugar Bird, and with the assistance of producer and album mainstay Colin Linden, the blues troupe leader strips things back a bit and finds a sound that is refreshing and fully developed. This is closer, to my ears, to the music one expects from Michael Jerome Brown- a bit of traditional folk and country are mixed in with Reddick’s blues- only more elaborately presented.
Reddick is not young by any stretch, but his vocal presence has now matured to the point where I think he could carry an album with minimal accompaniment. The always interesting Linden does the heavy lifting throughout the album, playing his usual complement of guitars- and in at least one spot- some banjo.
Utilizing four distinct musician configurations, the album contains as many apparent atmospheres; there is a bit of big band, an intimate trio, and some spooky country blues. It is wonderful to hear Garth Hudson on a few tracks, and John Whynot’s piano on John Lennon in New Orleans is beautiful.
With something for everyone, Sugar Bird is that rare album that successfully cuts across multiple genres.
Poison On Your Mind
Upon listening to this second album from Brooklyn, NY-based Copper Kettle these past weeks, three thoughts kept returning.
The first is Del McCoury; lead vocalist Fred Skellenger has either worked hard to sound more than a little like our Del, or is one of the most fortunate fellows around. Now, his voice doesn’t have the richness or depth of Del’s voice, and neither has it the seasoning that Del has acquired while traveling the miles, but they do share similar qualities including common phrasing preferences. And that is a good thing.
The second thought that came into my head was that Copper Kettle seems to favorably compare to James Reams & the Barnstormers in their approach to bluegrass. They possess a natural, earthy bluegrass sound, one that captures the listener’s attention and makes one scoot just a little closer to the speakers. Again, that is a good thing.
Now, Copper Kettle isn’t primed to be placed on a pedestal anywhere close to Del and the boys, and I suspect they aren’t yet ready to teach ol’ James any new tricks. But they have started to craft a foundation that is prepared to take on some substance. And that is a very good thing.
When it comes down to it, Copper Kettle appears to be Fred Skellenger and whomever he happens to be making music with. Since their very pleasant debut of a year ago, the entire band has been reworked leaving only Fred and his mandolin consistent. As strong as a calling card Coal Rabbit was, Poison on your Mind is most definitely a great leap forward.
Joining Skellenger on this album are David Stephens (banjo), Mike Gerbec (guitar), Jason Hogue (bass), and Melody Berger (fiddle). It appears Stephens and Berger provide the harmonies to Skellenger’s lead, but individual credits are not provided.
Skellenger wrote the eleven songs comprising this very pleasing album, and his lead voice seems perfect for his songs of woe-begotten circumstances. The title track has some sass to it, and unexpectedly recalls “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” “Wicked Heart” and “You’re His to Keep” explore similar themes in artful ways.
“Mourning Grave” is disturbing as only the finest songs can be; filled with regret, but not remorse, a murderous man rejoins his loved one in a common grave.
In the finest of bluegrass traditions, the album’s happiest sounding song begins with what appears to be a loving request: “Lay your head down.” Skellenger doesn’t go the easy way, instead revealing a telling of a man’s life and legacy; finally, he’s laying his head down in a “long pine box going deep in the ground.” Turns out, “Long Pine Box” is a beautiful song.
Stephens proves himself to be very capable on the five, and his breaks are executed in a dynamic fashion while his support work is unobtrusive. Gerbec doesn’t take too many noticeable lead breaks, but his rhythm playing works within the band context. Hogue’s contributions are apparent, and he has captured a nice bass sound on this recording.
According to the band’s website, Copper Kettle is relocating to Asheville, NC. Such a move is a bold one, and one wishes the band success as they settle closer to the bluegrass heartland. Poison on Your Mind demonstrates that the band has the substance to make a go of it as bluegrass professionals. Now comes the hard part.
The Hager’s Mountain Boys
A Better Way
Based in Roxboro, NC, The Hager’s Mountain Boys are a fun-loving and relatively heralded quartet producing bluegrass music in a manner that brings to mind the sounds perfected by groups such as the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Rock County, and J.D. Crowe’s New South over the past few decades. That is, the band has no difficulty laying down forceful bluegrass drive on a tune while next comfortably slipping into a very clearly articulated, harmony-laden song; all the while, bluegrass and country traditions and influences are balanced.
The Hager’s Mountain Boys are Ricky Stroud (mandolin), Blake Johnson (upright bass), Cliff Smith (banjo), and Cliff Waddell (guitar). A Better Way is their second album.
Johnson confidently and capably handles the majority of the lead vocals. His phrasing is undoubtedly effective, and he is able to deliver both up-tempo (“A Better Way”) and reflective (“A Granny’s Love”) material. Most impressive may be Johnson’s performance of the often recorded “He Died A Rounder at 21” on which he displays his lower register mastery.
The elder statesman of the group, Stroud’s mandolin playing is both riveting and supportive. In places, as on “New Memories,” one may not immediately notice Stroud’s instrumental contribution; however, it is always there as part of the impressive ensemble. Elsewhere, as on the aforementioned “He Died A Rounder at 21,” Stroud uses his 1986 Jennings Chestnut to ideally complement Waddell’s picking, taking and maintaining the lead midway through the song. It is a nicely executed arrangement.
Collectively, The Hager’s Mountain Boys present strong lead singing, tight harmonies, and well-executed instrumentation. Mixed among the familiar songs, including “Tennessee Blues” and “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” are several refreshing covers including Kevin Welch’s “Till I’m Too Old to Die Young,” Merle Haggard’s “Red Bandana,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Home From the Forest.”
Fully half of the album is strong, original material including Johnson’s insightful lament “The Bottle” and Stroud’s “New Memories,” a tune that may have relevance to many.
Generously timed, A Better Way is an engaging recording. As our world becomes electronically smaller, the definition of a regional bluegrass band is becoming less precise. Sounds produced in a relatively unheralded Chapel Hill studio are available at the touch of a few keyboard buttons.
For a band such as the Hager’s Mountain Boys, this is a boon. While they continue to play area churches, schools, and festivals, their recorded music reveals that they are capable of holding their own with bands of greater repute. Give A Better Way a listen, and see if you don’t agree.
Kenny & Amanda Smith Band
Live and Learn
Seemingly bluegrass music’s happiest couple, Kenny and Amanda Smith return with another in a line of impressive bluegrass albums.
“Live and Learn” has a companionable vibe about it, very comfortable and confident. Kenny Smith is one of bluegrass’s finest flatpickers, and he demonstrates his abilities throughout, including on an otherwise staid rendering of “I’d Jump the Mississippi.” The traditional “Cruel Willie” fares better and Kenny admirably stretches himself vocally on “Icicle Canyon.”
Amanda Smith’s pleasing voice carries the album, and fans of the group should find themselves fully satisfied with their fourth Rebel disc.
In my column this week I review two very strong albums. Darrell Scott’s Modern Hymns receives a more concise review in the paper than what I previously shared here. You already likely know that it is a charmer of a disc. Megan Munroe may be less familiar, and her new country album is quite impressive; one doesn’t often find such full-realized music from ‘unknowns’. Originally published in The Red Deer Advocate January 16, 2009
Americana’s most impressive contemporary troubadour whose name isn’t Steve Earle, Darrell Scott produces albums containing original music executed at such a high level that they pass largely unnoticed. A true shame, considering the songs he’s dropped- including 2007 Americana Music Association Song of the Year, Hank Williams’ Ghost- match or exceed that of those who have attained more widespread acclaim.
This time out Scott has assembled acoustic sounds from a wide palate selecting a dozen songs drawn from his younger, transistor radio days. Many of the songs are multi-dimensional productions, replete with strings. However, even when multiple vocalists and instruments come together on songs, the arrangements are still seemingly uncomplicated and spacious sounding. A few numbers are kept to quintets, and provide down-to-earth respite from more elaborate settings.
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 rise 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 these songs. Each becomes a Scott song by way of his hands and most especially voice.
Songs from Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and others are included, with the influences of the past mixed with Scott’s modern, honest ear and precision instrumentation that just feels right.
One More Broken String
Diamond Music Group
With a voice that demands listeners snap to attention, Washington-native Megan Munroe blends blues, country, and bluegrass sounds into an Americana blend that champions artistic integrity without sacrificing commercial appeal.
Of the dozen originals contained on her first Nashville-based album, none are generic or obvious; she possesses vocal personality, demonstrating not only how to convey the genuine emotion of a song, but an ability to connect with her listening audience. Belle Meade, Moonshine, and Angel on Fire are standouts.
Megan Munroe: you’ve likely never heard of her; I certainly hadn’t, but think KT Tunstall as a country singer. Now, look her up on MySpace and listen. I think you may be impressed.
The Daughters of Bluegrass
Blue Circle Records www.bluecirclerecords.com
With two-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Bradley leading the charge, the latest collection of estrogen-powered bluegrass emanating from a most talented cohort is welcomed.
Having garnered an IBMA award for Recording Event of the Year in 2006 for their sophomore effort Back to the Well, bluegrass’s favorite daughters have reassembled, and have also stretched out to include even more of their, umm, brethren.
More than forty bluegrass daughters are featured on this project, and considering this number the recording is surprisingly focused and consistent. Despite taking the lead on one track, the appealing “Nobody’s Home,” Lorraine Jordan’s role is markedly diminished this time out, and one misses her personable mandolin chop.
A few songs feature shared lead vocals. The album’s signature tune “Proud to be a Daughter of Bluegrass” has Dale Ann Bradley namedropping Bill Monroe, while Lisa Martin gives props to her dad Jimmy, and Jeanie Stanley does the same for Carter Stanley. The song also pays tribute to the past by having Gloria Belle sing a pair of lines.
“Leaving Here for Nashville” has the girls leaving town in hopes of finding the big-time. Melissa Lawrence, Jeanette Williams, and Tina Adair take turns singing the lead on the a cappela “Go Up On the Mountain and Wait,” while Heather Berry and Janet McGarry harmonize with the trio; drop-dead gorgeous, this one sounds.
Bradley takes the lead all the way through only one song, the excellent “I Don’t Think I’m Going Back to Harlan.” No one could be better suited to sing the song’s opening lyrics, “Daddy, you know I hate to disappoint you, after all you’ve done for me.” Given Bradley’s close relationship with her own father, one can hear the true emotions in her voice.
Another standout track features the clear voice of Cedar Hill’s Lisa Ray. “(There Ought to Be) More to Love than This” is a tremendous country song, and Ray’s singing perfectly captures the protagonist’s disappointment and longing. Valerie Smith (“Desmoranda”), Gina Britt (“Carolina State of Mind”), and album co-producer Frances Mooney (“I’m Gonna Love You Now”) also take lead on memorable songs.
I’m sure this writer isn’t the only listener who was previously unfamiliar with many of the ladies on this album. Rebecca Frazier lays down a fine guitar break on “Leaving Here for Nashville,” and it was only through the power of the googlenet that I discovered she is the former Rebecca Hoggan of Colorado’s Hit & Run Bluegrass Band. Frazier is featured on a number of tracks, including the Lisa Ray song and Beth Steven’s “Everybody Got a Light.”
However, less is known of other instrumentalists who make contributions including Jenee Fleenor, Jenny Lyn Gardner, and Lizzy Long; the search engines will get a workout on this one.
Mindy Rakestraw was a most welcome discovery on Back to the Well, and the Georgian is back for another spin. “Your Memory Followed Me Home” isn’t as immediately appealing as “Hicker Nut Ridge,” but Rakestraw demonstrates skillful use of vocal nuance, supported by the harmonies of Jeanette Williams and Michelle Nixon. Lisa Manning’s fiddle contributions here and elsewhere are also appreciated.
If a criticism must be leveled at this 2008 edition of The Daughters of Bluegrass, it would be that by limiting the songs to those from Tom T. and Dixie Hall, the vocalists and musicians have been denied the opportunity to place their songs at the fore, a welcome feature of the previous albums.
Each listener will find their own favorite moments in this hour-long set; let’s hope the Daughters of Bluegrass continue to find time to gather and celebrate their contributions to our music.
Little Feat and Friends
Join the Band
A rare project of logistics that doesn’t lose anything in its execution, this welcome return from one of roots rock’s longest serving crews is completely engaging. It isn’t surprising that legendary jam band Little Feat has a host of premier artists who also call themselves fans, and are willing to join in for a run through the band’s well-known songs.
Listeners will find themselves wailin’ “Juanita, my sweet Juanita, what are you up to?” along with Dave Matthews while grooving to the luxurious guitar track laid down by Sonny Landreth on “Fat Man in the Bathtub.” Landreth also joins the proceedings for “Dixie Chicken,” as Vince Gill duets with Paul Barrere for another classic Little Feat tune. Emmylou Harris gets a little funky on “Sailin’ Shoes,” Chris Robinson tears into “Oh Atlanta,” and Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, and others also make appearances.
Part tribute, part celebration- Little Feat hits 40 years in 2009- Join the Band is both a stellar introduction to the group and a fine encapsulation of their legacy.
Edmonton’s Maria Dunn has long been one of Alberta’s most impressive singer-songwriters, and on her fourth album she has again set the bar for lyrical intelligence and musical acuity.
The Peddler has more in common with 2001’s For a Song than her more recent historically-drenched We Were Good People, and Dunn has again populated her music with characters real and imagined. Joined by long-time collaborators Shannon Johnson and The McDades, as well as guitarist Simon Marion, Dunn’s sweet and gentle manner tempers the darkness that shades many of her songs. Her voice and phrasing, as well as her blending of Scots-Irish folk sounds, are immediately and appreciatively identifiable.
Dunn has found inspiration in modern events: a sister’s experiences (You Can’t Take That Away), cross-country economic migration (Signal Hill), and most notably the public spinning of war (The Peddler). The experience of war is elemental to a few of the songs, with Tell Her I Was Brave being most devastating.
True to her folk roots, Dunn has also borrowed from those who came before: she mines the murderous Child Ballad tradition for The Elder Sister, creates a Scheherazade-like fiddler who takes ship a la The Handsome Cabin Boy in Sailor Song, and honours lives well-lived in Chavala, Eva and William McIlory’s.
Each Maria Dunn album has been a gift, and The Peddler is no exception.
Old Crow Medicine Show
This Old Crow album confused me; there are three or four really sharp tunes on the album, but the largest portion of the disc left me cold. It was a bit disappointing, but there is still something to recommend the album.
In which the successful neo-traditionalist string band, continuing to instill a bit of rollicking bluegrass into their repertoire, find themselves mixing in drums that are as obvious as they are distracting; such an ill-advised move is superfluous, as their original sound- so identifiable and energetic- is weakened by a notion that appears calculated.
But, at least such an attempt- although flawed- displays change. When one listened to their first Nettwerk album more than four years ago, or even to the digital reissue of their debut album Eutaw this year, one heard a young group that was plainly chomping to bring old sounds to modern ears. Now, it all seems a little strained, with songs about moonshining, drug running and methamphetamine incongruent to the societal negativity they impart in the real world.
Yes, similar themes were explored on previous albums, but with this latest collection, the band seems to have jumped the shark having gone to the same inspiration too frequently. One wonders, Where’s the growth?
Some evidence of continued promise is provided mid-set. Motel in Memphis hints that the group may be able to do more than riff-on about illegalities. The album’s strongest cut, the tune is as surprising amidst the generic mediocrity as it is melodically rich.
The following cut, Evening Sun, combines lyrical songwriting reminiscent of Paul Burch with restrained instrumentation; the music supports rather than overwhelms the pictures being crafted. Crazy Eyes has a nifty, early 70’s country-rock groove, and the double entendre-laced Mary’s Kitchen contains lyrical sharpness.
Regrettably, the majority of the songs are less satisfying that what Mary has on offer. The predictable subject matter can only be blamed on the band, but the lackluster production- and Jim Keltner’s presence- firmly sits at the feet of producer Don Was.
The album has a handful of engaging songs but is unimpressive taken as a whole; unfortunate, and perhaps my expectations were unreasonable. Conceivably I’ve allowed pedestrian lyrics and off-putting drumming to colour my impression of the album.
Tennessee Pusher sounds contrived and forced, something a fan of string-band music cannot abide; it has its moments, but its very unevenness should caution listeners.