Donald Teplyske’s favourite ten bluegrass albums of 2011:
Unlike last year, I feel that I did a very good job of ensuring that I heard the vast majority of excellent bluegrass that was released in 2011. I’m still not being serviced by one particular publicist and a couple of the major bluegrass labels, but others keep me ‘in the know’ and I’ve been able to continue purchasing other albums as I’ve become aware of them. Still, there are no doubt outstanding albums I’ve missed, albums that I may have enjoyed and favourably reviewed- Clay Hess, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Grasstowne, and others. But I am more than aware that you can’t hear everything and so what follows is my Ten Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2011 as submitted to the Lonesome Road Review survey. The paragraphs that follow have been largely recycled from my previously written reviews of the albums.
- Dale Ann Bradley- Somewhere South of Crazy (Compass) Critically lauded, praised and recognized by her industry and a fan favourite wherever she appears, Dale Ann Bradley’s third Compass album, and eighth overall, continues her measured but steady ascension to the highest levels of bluegrass performance and reverence. Again working with producer Alison Brown, Somewhere South of Crazy is Bradley’s most obviously contemporary bluegrass recording. Over recent albums, Bradley’s music has become increasingly polished while retaining the traditional spirit that has been her hallmark. It is this duality that makes Bradley’s music so appealing. As a recording artist should, Dale Ann Bradley improves her performance with each album. Fully realized and confident, Bradley exudes bluegrass and has never sounded better than on Somewhere South of Crazy.
- John Reischman & the Jaybirds- Vintage & Unique (Corvus) Over the past decade, John Reischman & the Jaybirds have become increasing popular in western North America. They are a great bluegrass band, always adding new material to their repertoire. Still, when exceptional mandolin players are mentioned, John Reischman’s name is often forgotten. On Vintage and Unique, the quintet takes Bill Monroe’s “The First Whippoorwill” for a spin and refreshes “Shady Grove” and “Last Chance.” Trisha Gagnon and Jim Nunally’s voices- which always sound wonderful together- are especially beautiful throughout this recording. The band delivers new songs alongside their reimagining of classic and long-forgotten tunes. “The Cypress Hills” and “Consider Me Gone” are just waiting to be discovered, while “Cold Mountain (Cam Saan)” examines the Canadian railway experience of Chinese labourers. Every track, each break and harmonic moment are highlights within a flawless album.
- Larry Sparks- Almost Home (Rounder) An album of blue mountain memories: sons returning home, family history, faith, country roads, lonesomeness, country stars, Sunday dinners with nanner puddin’, and Momma’s apron strings. Larry Sparks’ voice continues to be pure and strong and the instrumental accompaniment he receives on this disc- largely from his touring band- is second to none. There remains a naturalness about the way Sparks approaches his music that is incredibly appealing.
- Alison Krauss & Union Station- Paper Airplane (Rounder)A delicate balance of the wistful-yearnsomeness that appeals to a wide-spectrum of the population and the more driving bluegrass sounds that link to the traditional foundation of the band’s history, Paper Airplane is three-quarters of an hour of pure aural pleasure. AKUS further refine the acoustiblue parameters that they have established and explored over the past fifteen years since So Long, So Wrong. The acoustic instrumentation is, as expected, exemplary in its tone and execution and while some of the songs- it could be argued- have a similar calm and sedate sound, there are enough lively moments to maintain momentum. Singularly, the songs are arrestingly enjoyable. Collectively, the cohesive flow of Paper Airplane amounts to one majestic performance.
- James Reams & The Barnstormers- One Foot in the Honky Tonk (Mountain Redbird Music) A wonderful bluegrass album that is just waiting for more of us to discover. As he has consistently done, within this new volume James Reams’ life experiences and those of his ancestors permeate the songs- whether he wrote them or not- not lending them authenticity but ensuring they are authentic. When listening to James Reams, one is on a bridge connecting the present to the past, where the waters below blend the relationships and lamentations of today with those who birthed and shaped them. There are few bluegrass singers who match the lithe and masculine timbre Reams brings to the songs he is called to perform. With One Foot in the Honky Tonk, James Reams further defines his bluegrass, blending the varied elements of the roadhouse with sounds from the hills of Kentucky and her neighbors. One foot in the honky-tonk indeed, but the rest of the Barnstormers’ bodies and their souls are deep in the bluegrass performing songs from the likes of Kevin Welch and Mike Henderson, Chris Gaffney, Fred Eaglesmith, Stonewall Jackson and Harlan Howard- folks who know honky tonks, to be sure- as well as original and traditional tunes.
- Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice- The Heart of a Song (Rebel Records)
- Blue Highway- Sounds of Home (Rounder)
- Laurie Lewis- Skippin’ and Flyin’ (Spruce and Maple Music)
- Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers- Rare Bird Alert (Rounder)
- Rebel Records digital reissue campaign featuring releases from Ralph Stanley, The McPeak Brothers, Bill Grant and Delia Bell, Dave Evans, and others.
Honourable mentions to: Charlie Sizemore Heartache Looking for a Home, Ralph Stanley A Mother’s Prayer, Barnstar! C’mon, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper Fired Up, Sarah Jarosz Follow Me Down, Dehlia Low Ravens & Crows, Paul Williams & the Victory Trio Satisfied and The Del McCoury Band Old Memories.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Not necessarily the ‘best’- I’ll leave that to those whose egos require such- No, these are just 25 albums that kept my roots fire burning during the past 12 months. With all the albums I’ve listened to through 2011, it has been these 25 that I believe I’ve returned to the most often- albums that have moved me, made me think, made me dance, and- in some cases- made me write. They’ve kept me awake, they’ve put me to sleep, and a few disturbed my dreams. You’ll notice that several of the big names are missing from my list- Steve, Lucinda, Emmylou, Hayes- and that isn’t because I hated their recent releases; they didn’t become favourites of mine simply because I wasn’t motivated to return to them- for whatever reasons- after the initial or second listening. More Canadian content this year, perhaps. You can read about most of these albums here at Fervor Coulee- do a quick search.
1. Dave Alvin- Eleven Eleven I’ve likely misplaced this album as many times as I’ve listened to it. It has disappeared in the truck, in the car, at the home office and at work, in the living room, and in the sun room. I think that is a testament to how Eleven Eleven worked its way into me- I find I can listen to it anywhere and it always works. Great songs will do that, I suppose.
2. Dale Ann Bradley- Somewhere South of Crazy Another incredible album from this Kentucky woman; while her music has always been inspiring and wonderful to listen to, since joining Compass Records, Dale has truly hit her stride. Bradley’s favourite duet and harmony partner (and recently announced as bandmate) Steve Gulley appears on all but the final track and their stellar performance of the great country song “Will You Visit Me on Sundays” is well deserving of recognition. Additionally, his guitar playing throughout the album- notably on “Summer Breeze”- is masterful. Also featured as the core band are Brown, Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, and Mike Bub.
3. The Deep Dark Woods- The Place I Left Behind The Deep Dark Woods’ latest album builds on everything they’ve already accomplished while taking their unique bluesy sound to impressive new levels. In 2011 no one talked in terms of alt-country, but that remains an apt descriptor of this Saskatoon band’s guitar-heavy sound. Sinister and mysterious, the title track doesn’t mess around: guest fiddler Kendel Carson weaves a cloak of darkness around Ryan Boldt’s vocals as a “good old rambling boy” pines for the place were isolation didn’t seem so obvious.
4. Mark Davis- Eliminate the Toxins Eliminate the Toxins has a sound that is even more adventurous than his previous releases but retains the intense focus and introspection one has come to expect from a singer-songwriter whose best works can be appreciated on a poetic level while also serving as impetus to dance, albeit dance slowly. Similar to Stan Ridgeway, Davis’s music has a cinematic quality that cries out for visual interpretation. “Go to Ground,” one of Eliminate the Toxins’ more catchy numbers, is easy to imagine as soundtrack to a dark, desolate desert pursuit from which the conflicted protagonist has no hope to escape. “In the Waters” and the title track are cleverly-crafted pop songs bathed in a wash of guitars and harmonies harnessed from years of exposure to The Byrds, Nice Cave, and Calexico.
Working with Calgary’s Lorrie Matheson, Davis benefits from his co-producer’s willingness to consider sonic possibilities. Multi-layered, Eliminate the Toxins is so all-encompassing that listeners will find themselves sinking into its warmth.
5. Various Artists- I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow Conceived in respect and gratitude, I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow is another recording in which the team of Peter Cooper and Eric Brace can take great pride; someday they are bound to fail, but they haven’t so far. The recording feels like it was captured in a loose and enjoyable setting, but the sound is tight. Jim Lauderdale, Elizabeth Cook, Tim Carroll, Gary Bennett, Bobby Bare, Jon Byrd, Buddy Miller, and others contribute. Great performances abound and the packaging is gorgeous with lovely woodcut prints illustrating the digi-pak.
6. Idyl Tea- Song That’s Not Finished Yet Infectious pop melodies with more than enough country overtones, especially in the album’s final third, to qualify as roots- hell, Idyl Tea has more ‘roots’ in their sound than the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons combined. Terrific songs, brilliant performances. My favourite band from 1986 returns. To plagiarize myself, Idyl Tea combines what I eventually grew to love about country and what I embraced about power pop in the early 80s- bright chords, sometimes devastatingly up-front confession through lyric, and a breezy ability to convey sadness that sounded so cheerful. “A Guitar and A Broken Heart,” “Just a Road,” “Penitent Song,” and “Dark Day in Edmonton” are simply wonderful. The accompanying Unthology is just as solid.
7. Cam Penner- Gypsy Summer
8. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings- Kings and Queens
9. John Reischman & the Jaybirds- Vintage and Unique
10. Larry Sparks- Almost Home
11. Diana Jones- High Atmosphere
12. Alison Krauss & Union Station- Paper Airplane
13. James Reams & the Barnstormers- One Foot in the Honky Tonk
14. Joe Vickers- Valley Home
15. Rachel Harrington- Celilo Falls
16. Kim Beggs- Blue Bones
17. Eliza Gilkyson- Roses at the End of Time
18. Ron Sexsmith- Long Player Late Bloomer
19. Ben Sures- Gone to Bolivia
20. John Hiatt- Dirty Jeans and Mudflap Hymns
21. Captain Tractor- Famous Last Words
22. Gillian Welch- The Harrow and the Harvest
23. Kasey Anderson- Heart of a Dog
24. Tom Russell- Mesabi
25. The Rainmakers- 25 On
Just missed- Charles Bradley No Time for Dreaming, Nick Lowe The Old Magic, Fred Eaglesmith 6 Volts, John Wesley Harding The Sound of His Own Voice, Shelby Lynne Revelation Road, Michael Jerome Browne The Road is Dark, Richmond Fontaine The High Country, Kimmie Rhodes Dreams of Flying, Verlon Thompson Works, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Stephen Simmons The Big Show, Richard Buckner Our Blood, Gurf Morlix Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream…
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Apologies for the lack of posts this month. As with most everyone things have been busy and I’ve been concentrating on some fiction writing of late which has pushed reviews and such to the background. I should have a few posts up before the end of the year as I have compiled a few ‘favourites’ lists for the year and want to get those up. Thanks for your patience. Donald
Several weeks ago, in my Red Deer Advocate Roots Music column, I reviewed the latest from Natalie MacMaster. A delightful album, one that I intend to advocate for Polaris Music Prize consideration. The review follows:
Natalie MacMaster Cape Breton Girl eOne Music
How can one not love Natalie MacMaster?
With her soul and music essentially entrenched in the culture and history of Cape Breton, it is inconceivable that Natalie MacMaster be viewed as anything but a Cape Breton Girl.
Her recording output has been impacted in recent years by domestic concerns and extensive touring and collaborations with artists including Thomas Dolby and Yo-Yo Ma; as such, Cape Breton Girl serves as only the third set of new music from MacMaster in the last decade.
Fortunately, while the quantity of her music has not been great, the quality has remained unmistakably stellar.
With fiddle and piano at its core, Cape Breton Girl serves as a welcome return to the fabric of her music. While a dozen different musicians have their talents woven throughout the recording, the focus is firmly on MacMaster’s interpretation of timeless reels, airs, and jigs.
As always, her playing is lively and impassioned. One hardly needs to be a student of fiddling and Cape Breton music to feel an electric connection to these sounds. “Alex MacMaster’s Jig”- written for her father and incorporating “Janet Beaton” and “Miss Ann Campbell”- is a spirited set of fiddle and piano sounds with just a flavouring of guitar. “Stoney Lake Reels” follows a similar theme but has more embellishment with the addition of some solid bass playing.
MacMaster has a knack for finding tunes that complement each other. “F Medley” is comprised of seven old melodies brought together to reveal the intricacies and shades of traditional Cape Breton sounds. The album’s only vocal track is a brief reading of “Our Father” featuring Jeff MacDonald.
Whether performing jigs in G (“Jimmy MacKinnon of Smelt Brook”) or something more emotive based on traditional tunes “(Pretty Marion”, “The Methlick Style”), MacMaster reveals- much as does Alison Krauss- that beyond the buoyant personality and ‘ah, shucks’ demeanor, there beats the heart of a passionate and focused artist who lives to breathe beautiful life into ancient tones.
Jenny Allen Blanket Self-released
With a sense of humour twisted by the realities of being an independent artist, Jenny Allen has long been a critical darling within the Alberta roots music community. This is the woman who frequently quips to the effect- ‘Break a folk singer’s heart, end up in a song.’
Reminding us of Jann Arden, if only for her ability to find gems of hopefulness within misery, Allen is a confessional writer. She gathers experiences and reduces them to their bold, basic essences. In No Turning Back, Allen’s character “can’t turn the heads like she used to” and is forced to face the inevitability of becoming indistinct. Elsewhere, a lover is shown the door, the future passes by while waiting for what could have been, and tears are held back “this time.”
With a gentle, fluid voice and featuring a wonderful sounding band led by producer John Ellis, Blanket is the next step in a distinctive journey that is strengthened with each miserable decision made. www.jennyallen.ca
I’ve been writing about the various bluegrass charts for a little bit now. I find charts interesting, and used to follow things like radio countdown shows and Rolling Stone and Billboard charts. Now, I wonder if I only do this so that I can look down my nose at what is popular. I think that is likely the reason many of us watch award shows as well.
Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass last week, I wrote about how the Bluegrass Today chart was turned upside down, with only three songs being repeated from the week before. I even reflected that perhaps this revealed that the programmers and hosts had widened their listening in search of fresh songs. See that piece here, if you care: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=835
Well, I was quite obviously wrong because this week’s chart goes back in time with almost all the songs that had disappeared from the previous week’s chart suddenly reappearing. See that chart here for the next few days: http://bluegrasstoday.com/chart/
You’ll notice the top song, Audie Blaylock’s “Cry, Cry Darlin’” rebounded from being well-off the Top 20, after being #7 the week before. Sierra Hull’s “Don’t Pick Me Up” went from #10 two weeks ago, to being off the chart, to being #2 this time out. Similar action is seen all down the chart.
What caused this and where did the ‘fresh’ songs all go? No idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised that if simply during and following the US Thanksgiving week fewer reporting stations sent in their playlist numbers and therefore the results of the chart previous to the current one was an anomaly. Perhaps guest hosts took over while regular hosts were on a holiday break and had significantly different tastes.
I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it, but it was remarkable how similar the charts were at the end of November and this week and how different it was last week.
I can’t wait to see what the chart looks like this coming Friday.
I’ve posted several reviews today. The newspaper column only allows so much space, so I’ve placed a few suggestions here on Fervor Coulee. Happy shopping- I know I appreciate gifts of music, especially when someone has gone to the effort of finding the ‘just right’ album to give. You’ll find lots of suggestions on the pages of Fervor Coulee, as well as over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass and the Lonesome Road Review. Best, Donald- and thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.
Various Artists Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute Rounder Records
There has seemingly been no end to the ‘tribute’ offerings to be produced in this the Year of Bill Monroe. While some of the recordings have been highly original- Laurie Lewis’s set Skippin’ & Flyin’ and Niall Toner’s ”William Smith Monroe,” as two examples- others have been less so, although still enjoyable.
Similar to Rebel Records’ companion albums With Body and Soul (secular) and Let the Light Shine Down (gospel), this two-disc Rounder set pulls 27-Monroe songs from the vaults. Performed by a variety of artists- everyone from the Bluegrass Album Band to Claire Lynch, Vern Williams, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band- the overall quality of the selections is high. Five tracks from the Bluegrass Album Band and three tracks from both the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Michael Cleveland may seem like overkill, but that would be nitpicking, especially considering the musicianship present on these cuts. While it times out at just over 80-minutes, one has a hard time cutting any of the tracks which would have allowed it to be a single-disc issue. Still, I bought my copy of $14.99 so I can hardly complain from an economic point of view.
While some folks may have all of these catalogue tracks in their collections, the package is still of interest for significant reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a darn enjoyable listen. The lengthy essay from Bill Nowlin is very readable and contains enough information to serve as a reminder of how much one still doesn’t fully understand about Monroe’s music and life. A lively new take of “Close By” from vocal darlings Dailey & Vincent has proven popular on bluegrass radio.
A fine collection that would be appreciated by almost all bluegrass fans.