The Earls of Leicester Rattle & Roar Rounder Records
Before most North Americans had heard of Premier League champions Leicester City, bluegrass fans well knew how to pronounce the name of the East Midlands municipality. That’s a result of Jerry Douglas’ brilliant, timely idea: celebrate the ongoing influence of Earl Scruggs (that’s the Earl) and Lester Flatt (there’s the Leicester) by gathering some of his finest musician friends to not only recreate but reinvigorate the songs of the (in the opinion of many) preeminent bluegrass band, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Like the Bluegrass Album Band did three decades ago, The Earls of Leicester are more than a bluegrass supergroup. They deftly remind the bluegrass community of what this music is about: no ‘nod’ to the roots of the music (to use the popular vernacular,) this is a full-blown tribute to the sturdy trunk that has supported the many branches of bluegrass for 70 years.
Their self-titled album of 2014 was a stunner. That much-heralded recording not only won the Grammy as Bluegrass Album of the Year, but the group received six awards at the most recent IBMA festivities including Instrumental Group of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year for country and bluegrass veteran Shawn Camp. With extensive touring, The Earls of Leicester are most definitely at the fore of contemporary bluegrass performers. So, where to from there?
The lineup of the group has been tweaked, with Tim O’Brien departing and the highly respected Jeff White now filling Curly Seckler’s spot within the group: this noted musician, songwriter, and past member of Union Station more than admirably and seamlessly took over when O’Brien was unavailable to tour with The Earls of Leicester, and throughout this recording contributes additional spark within the vocal trios.
The balance of The Earls of Leicester remains consistent from last time. Jerry Douglas is the bandleader and his Dobro© is prominent within the arrangements, many of which are ‘note-perfect’ to the Flatt & Scruggs’ originals. As example, “Buck Creek Gal,” compared with a television appearance featuring Scruggs and Paul Warren, is near duplicated at the tail-end of Rattle & Roar. Still, this isn’t mimicry: The Earls of Leicester have taken the time to deconstruct the songs, challenging themselves to reassemble the arrangements with mindful awareness that a judicious balance between the original, timeless approach and modern innovation is essential.
Shawn Camp takes the lead vocals, and sounds even more confident in assuming the role of Lester Flatt. Johnny Warren is the fiddler, Charlie Cushman is on the 5, and Barry Bales handles the bass.
While the group largely limited themselves to material from the mid-50s to mid-60s last time out, on Rattle & Roar The Earls of Leicester have broadened their selection of songs. Hitting early 1950s sessions, they pick off “Why Did You Wander?,” “Pray For the Boys,” and “Flint Hill Special” this time out. Most everyone knows “The Train That Carried My Girl from Town,” “The Girl I Love Don’t Pay Me No Mind,” and “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” but no one should object to the vibrant renditions contained herein.
The group continues to choose numbers that are familiar without being overly-recorded and performed. “Branded Wherever I Go,” “All I Want is You,” and “A Faded Red Ribbon” present different facets of the band’s personality. On the sacred side, a mid-set interlude of “Mother Prays Loud in Her Sleep” and “I’m Working on a Road (To Glory Land)” is particularly effective, along with the acute, harmony-drenched “You Can Feel It In Your Soul.” “Steel Guitar Blues,” often associated with Roy Acuff, is a number that Flatt & Scruggs performed but didn’t record. Utilizing Paul Warren’s performance diary has afforded The Earls of Leicester with an insight into the history of The Foggy Mountain Boys that others can only envy.
While one may not ‘hear’ that the album was largely cut live with the musicians playing simultaneously within the same room, you can certainly ‘feel’ the intimacy of the experience. Everything is precise and note-perfect of course, but listening to “Why Did You Wonder?” one can envision Douglas nodding to Warren to take a fiddle break after a chorus, Camp encouraging Cushman to step-up to deliver a memorable fill, and White grinning to Bales as the song is brought home.
With hundreds of songs still waiting to be recorded (drop the harmonica, and I think The Earls of Leicester would destroy “Last Train to Clarksville”) one hopes they continue to perform this music that they most obviously relish and respect. With great regard for the tradition and even greater understanding of the precision required to make this music appear effortless—and the ability to pull it off— Rattle & Roar is another outstanding bluegrass recording from The Earls of Leicester.
Two weeks to Blueberry: you’ll want to be there to catch The Earls of Leicester!
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- Donald
The Diver’s Curse
Jeff Black. Bill Callahan. Steve Coffey. Great Lake Swimmers. Brock Zeman. Eliza Gilkyson.
If those names mean anything to you, and you like what those names mean to you, you are advised to search out BD Harrington, an Irish-Canadian who splits his time between London and Toronto.
“This ain’t no town, it’s a thumbnail sketch of hell.” “Boxers Hit Harder”
I don’t recommend this album as driving music. Like much of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s music of the past ten years, The Diver’s Curse is so all-encompassing that one may find oneself concentrating a bit too intently on the coming lyrical gifts, and forgetting about the oncoming traffic.
“Your fears are waves and your fears are stone, in grief you will come to praise.” “Resusci-Anne”
A penetrating collection of songs, Harrington’s approach to roots music is a blend of poetic influence—lyrical and musical—that is appealing and lasting. I’m not going to attempt to interpret lines such as “The dress you’ve got on is pigeon blood/torn up the sides and splattered with mud/you’re spitting out your sermonettes/you’re saying things, girl, that I know you’ll regret” (“Black Waves”) because they are a (far) bit beyond me, but the encompassing atmosphere is so pleasant (in a disturbed manner) that I have found myself spending many hours with The Diver’s Curse over the past two months.
“You’re a case study in light, dreaming in your bed tonight, you ride your shadow ‘cross the sea.” “Nightingale Lane”
I’m just not sure what to write about the album, and that failing is perhaps a testament to my limitations as a writer. But damn, “dancing about architecture” has never made more sense.
“In the early morning eye of the beholder.” “Early Morning Eye”
Harrington (guitars, piano, organ, as well as vocals) is joined by (unfamiliar to me) Kel McKeown (drums,) Adam Richens (lead guitar,) and Tom Goldsmith (bass) as well as several others including (ah, a musician with whom I am familiar) Don Kerr (mandolin, cello, accordion.) They create a tapestry of music equal parts VU and Cowboy Junkies. It is beautiful, of course, embracing and certainly challenging.
“An air-tight dream of permanence in a place so serene, hushed and immense.” “One Match Left”
Harrington borrows from poets Kenneth Patchen and Charley Causley for inspiration, but creates songs that are entirely his own: I’ve never heard anything quite like “Contamana,” and I’ve been around a bit. “Sleepy John” is a recrimination of responsibility; “Apple Cart” challenges our ownership of the past. “Little Birds” is a suiting farewell. Water is recurring, its image providing metaphor and allusion throughout. Andrew Sweeny’s “In Your Arms” is a welcome meditation.
“There’s a memory that I keep but do not trust, here beside me under long-settled dust.” “Contamana”
Here’s what I’ve decided: some albums should just be listened to, track-by-track. BD Harrington’s The Diver’s Curse is one of them.
Sam Bush, it can be argued, is the most significant mandolin player of the last fifty years. From his groundbreaking work with the New Grass Revival and his expansive slate of collaborations in bluegrass, country, folk, and beyond, to his extensive catalogue of innovative solo album excellence and acceptance as the crown prince of Telluride, Bowling Green, Kentucky’s favoured son has long been the bellwether of all things acoustic and ‘grassy.
Storyman comes almost seven years after the exceptional Circles Around Me, an album that signified a high-point in Bush’s considerable solo output. As strong as that album was (it made my Top Ten for 2009 and, in hindsight and perusing that list while listening again this morning, it would now be certain of a Top 5 berth) Storyman is an even more complete encapsulation of Bush’s approach to acoustic, bluegrass shaded Americana.
[FYI- the following paragraph was sketched before I read the one-sheet. Just want that out there!]
When listening to Bush’s music over the course of twenty-plus years, no word has come to mind more frequently than ‘joy,’ and that continues throughout this amazing album. Opening with a double-shot of affirmation (“Play By Your Own Rules” and the island-flavoured “Everything is Possible,”) Storyman is an album that challenges the listener to stare down mortality and embrace the pure positive vibes that surround us. Co-written with Jon Randall Stewart, “I Just Wanna Feel Something” closes the album and while ostensibly about the community of jamming, the song’s message goes well beyond the circle.
A pair of instrumentals is featured. “Greenbrier” is a fully-charged demonstration of the dexterity of the Sam Bush Band including Todd Parks (bass,) Stephen Mougin (guitar,) Scott Vestal (banjo,) and Chris Brown (drums.) With an extended mid-song jam that takes the tempo down for a few, the communication between band members is on display. Equally atmospheric but less energetic is “Not What You Think,” a band composition that plays like a newgrass concerto.
Not everything is completely upbeat and joyous, but Bush shades everything from the optimist’s perspective. Even the album’s most heavy song, a co-write with Guy Clark entitled “Carcinoma Blues,” flips the darkness with the sharpness of the barb: “Cancer, you ain’t rulin’ me.” Bravely, Bush decided that this song needed to be included on Storyman, recognizing that some may feel its inclusion is ‘too soon.’ “Lefty’s Song” dates back to the late 70s and was recently rediscovered by Bush on a cassette; telling the tale of a small town scribe and the delayed gratification that came with a life of obligation, Lefty is able to spend his final years with his long-ago “lost velvet girl.”
Given the album title, it is no surprise Bush emphasizes the story aspect of song to a greater degree than apparent on Circles Around Me, an album that features the magnificent “Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle” and a selection of older material that relay familiar tales. A personal journey of courtship (“Transcendental Meditation Blues,”) a familial tribute (“Bowling Green,”) and a tasteful diatribe against modern (the last thirty years) approaches to country music (“Handmics Killed Country Music”) are among the songs that bind the album into a cohesive document of story and experience.
I’ve never not enjoyed a Sam Bush album. Glamor & Grits and Howling at the Moon bring delight after many years, and I return to Laps in Seven at least annually. Storyman adds a rich chapter to the Sam Bush story. A great start to the musical summer of 2016.
I love folk music. Raw, honest, impassioned: railing against the system and injustices, documenting the trials, trails and travails of the voiceless, the downtrodden—the raising of voices in harmony, joy, and celebration, marking the events tying us to each other. There is nothing like folk music.
Vincent Cross’ new album Old Songs for Modern Folk ticks all my boxes. Ancient melodies revitalized to contemporary circumstances mixing with original thoughts, comments, and approaches, all folded together into an unadorned mix of guitar and voice with banjo on a couple numbers. Beautiful.
Never heard of Vincent Cross? Me neither. We need to fix that.
Based in NYC, Cross comes to us via Australia from Ireland. No indie-rock wannabe disguising himself as a folk-singer, Cross seems to come by his folk affliction naturally. Imagine him in a corner of your living room, singing “Alone,” his original that borrows a wee bit from “Dark Hollow”/”East Virginia Blues,” you and yours imbibing in whatever bitter brew available—and you make that connection: you haven’t lived the words, but you are familiar with the conviction—your life and an empty dram have way too much in common.
That’s the power of folk music, even if it only hits you for a moment or three it impacts you, and you take a different path.
Old Songs for Modern Folk is full of those moments. “Michael Brown,” based on “Louis Collins” is a tale we know too well, one that will likely continue to play out in our cities this summer: different name, same situation. Without being obvious, “Garments of Shame” exposes the Bangladesh garment factory collapse as a product of the western world’s desire for cheap clothing. “Zora’s Blues” and “Going Down that Road” complement each other although they are very different songs: tempered by loss and perhaps missed opportunity, strength emerges.
Each listener will find their own way into this very appealing album. Maybe it will be “Ode to an Old Guitar,” one where the “deep cracks beneath the surface veneer are the wounds of the sorrows that you hear.” Perhaps, “As the Crow Flies” a set of songwriting clichés combined to create something quite endearing. Or, “The Ballad of Roosevelt Avenue” which could be a lost TVZ lyric found scribbled on the back of a takeout menu.
I love this album. You might, too. Vincent Cross, Old Songs for Modern Folk. Take a chance for a change, like you used to when browsing the record store.
Lost Cause Records
A concept album, Scofflaw is Clint Morgan’s second recording. Morgan is a piano player, singer, songwriter, and lawyer from Washington. With a rough-hewn voice—think Billy Joe Shaver with a bit of honey—giving his songs the patina of authenticity, Morgan explores the dark side of folks who could have/should have done better for themselves.
Across 75-minutes, Morgan delves into the lives and situations of outlaws, criminals, and desperadoes revealing aspects of their lives that dime store books and movies may not have emphasized. One doesn’t come away with sympathy for the likes of Clyde Barrow (“Eastham Farm”), Doc Halliday (“The Face in the Mirror”), or Billy the Kid (“I Got a Gun”) and that certainly isn’t Morgan’s intention. Rather, within these bluesy, rollicking ‘folk’ songs one may find shades of family members, acquaintances, or even themselves: that point where a pivotal decision turns a life from the straight and narrow to the lure of less conventional and frequently violent.
Morgan comes by his storytelling-via-song bonafides genuinely. With familial roots in Appalachia, and a great-great aunt who was also A.P. Carter’s great-grandmother, story and song run through his veins. Morgan draws on American history—the Wild West, the Great Depression, and Prohibition—and its fascination with those who scoff the law (“D. B. Cooper Blues”) and conventions (“Wild One,” “Wanted Man”) to create a comprehensive overview of villains who—through the twists of time and the spin of history—became larger than life heroes and legends. He examines their influences and uses their own words to reveal the tension between good and evil, and the hope that redemption holds. “Waco” may be the finest individual song (“Lord, don’t let me go back to Waco, My soul burns every time I do”) with the pressure increasing as the protagonist threatens to come apart with each passing note.
Morgan doesn’t talk about himself a lot (his website bio is a list of a couple hundred folks from Pinetop Perkins through to the Carter Family, Guy Clark, OCMS, BR-549, Alberta Hunter, and Oscar Peterson) so one doesn’t know how he came to connect with guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bassist Dave Roe, or multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke. Suffice it then to say that with this combination of talent, and the addition of vocalists Diunna Greenleaf (“Send Me To the ‘Lectric Chair”) and the timeless Maria Muldaur (“Soft and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling” and “I Done Made It Up In My Mind”), a pretty danged fabulous recording was assured.
Every bad man eventually runs out of road (“Running from the law in a piece of junk, with a sackful of cash and a body in the trunk,”) and the final third of the album—perhaps the most appealing—tackles the aftermath of these lives of selfish criminality. Some find redemption, some the wrong (right?) end of a gun—does it matter, when the crime has been done? Morgan appears to believe it does, and he devotes his closing songs to the seeking of salvation. Beautiful stuff, even if you may not believe—as he appears to—that sins can be washed away.
Scofflaw is a weighty tome, a creation melding the complexities of beauty and ugliness that few recording projects attempt let alone accomplish. It will be displayed in pride of place alongside The Man from God Knows Where, My Favorite Picture of You, Legacy, The Way I Should and other classic, contemporary folk recordings on my shelf. But, not yet—I want to listen again.
Thanks for dropping in at Fervor Coulee. Hopefully, you are finding music that appeals to you. Donald
Ginger St. James
One For the Money
Busted Flat Records
Labeled rockabilly—and maybe that is from where she comes—but to my ears Hamilton’s Ginger St. James transcends that relatively straightforward and limiting genre. [Perhaps rockabilly is similar to bluegrass in that to the uninitiated it all sounds the same and too easy.]
One For the Money is a concise (twenty-five minutes, nine songs) little package of roots music choc-a-block with country, blues, surf, soul, rock ‘n’roll, and yes, rockabilly, influences. Either St. James has been very unlucky in her pursuit of romance, or she has an eye for detail: either way, her songs are well-crafted, multi-dimensional portraits of love and its vagaries.
There is no doubt she can sing. If she gets a little Quatro-ragged (not a bad thing in my books) on “Hair of the Blackdog,” such is balanced by the vocal complexity revealed on “Honeymoon Stage.” Patsy Cline (and the entire generation of ‘girl singers’ who followed her) influence is apparent on “You Were Mine” and most obviously (and playfully) on the magnificent “Best of Me and You.”
St. James is supported by a group of musician unfamiliar to me, but SnowHeel Slim is given great latitude to stretch out his flair with the guitar, including on the instrumental “Slim’s Jig” and the set closing “Merry Go Round,” a beautiful song that features a great vocal performance from St. James.
Given my druthers, I could listen to the album’s first two tracks, “Pour Me” and “Train Whistle” on repeat for a couple hours. Heck, I’ve already listened to the album on repeat numerous times—a few more plays ain’t likely to hurt me.
One For the Money has been out for just over a month, and if you haven’t encountered it yet, head over to http://www.gingerstjames.com/ and give a listen.
Weight of the World
I am sure it is no coincidence that the debut album from Western Centuries vaguely resembles the self-titled release from a late 60s band of considerable Americana-roots influence.
Fronted by a trio of songwriters, each singing their own songs with distinctiveness, Western Centuries is a modern country band that encourages cerebral shifts as readily as it does two-stepping shuffles. Drawing inspiration from generations of country honky tonk singers and their bands, Western Centuries are as much a dance band as they are a concert feature.
Cahalen Morrison, familiar from his recent music with Eli West, reveals himself here to be a country singer of considerable heft. After spending substantial time trying to recall the singer Morrison reminds me of, I realized I was chasing Morrison himself: having listened to “Weight of the World” and “Philosophers and Fools” almost daily for a couple weeks, they had become so engrained that it feels as if I’ve been listening to them for years. At the same time, if one can imagine Doug Bennett fronting a country band, you may be close to hearing Morrison in your head.
Ethan Lawton provides an agreeable counter-point to Morrison. With less twang, Lawton voice doesn’t possess the edginess of his compatriot, and his neo-traditional songs reveal soulful colour. “Off the Shelf,” with washes of Rusty Blake’s pedal steel, is an achingly honest portrayal of devotion and need. Singing with barstool acuity in “Double or Nothing,” Lawton delivers the album’s finest line: “If youth is wasted on the young, we waste that wisdom on the aged.”
Jim Miller has a touch of Levon Helm in his voice, and songs like “The Long Game” and “Rock Salt” provide the album with its spiritual backbone. Singing a bit like John Wort Hannam, “Knocking ‘Em Down” features Miller “cryin’ as I sing your song,” searching for that which he may never have possessed.
A collective, each of the principals provide electric and acoustic guitar throughout the 45 minute recording, with Morrison and Lawton also doing duty behind the drum kit. Fiddle is provided by Rosie Newton and Dan Lowinger is the bassist.
Coming out of Seattle, Western Centuries is something many of us are continually pursuing—a genuine country band that doesn’t take the easy way reinterpreting familiar songs, but rather pushes their talents toward creating modern classics. Weight of the World is pert darn special, and receives Fervor Coulee’s highest recommendation.