Reviewing regional bluegrass bands can be a tricky business.
Folks who play bluegrass out of a pure love for the music should be encouraged, have to be encouraged, to continue to develop their skills as musicians and vocalists. A dropped note here, a missed verse there—let’s not be overly critical. We’re all in it for the enjoyment of playing a-music too few ‘get.’
What happens when the ‘regional’ band begins the semi-professional journey, releasing albums, booking festivals, and increasing their profile? Should they still be given a pass for making errors pros shouldn’t make? Do we hold them to the same standard as the ‘big-name’ bands playing bluegrass for a living? Are they allowed to record covers of overly familiar songs, or should we expect them to run down their own songs? What if their harmonies don’t have the precision of the folks from southern counties, or the instrumentation is a bit rudimentary in its execution?
What happens when that regional band hails from the Yukon Territory, far from the bluegrass hotbed? Does that buy them some latitude? (Get it? Some latitude. As in, north of 60°. Hilarious.)
Through the years, I’ve likely argued both sides of the argument. On one hand, if you want to run with the big dogs, get ready to be bit. On the other, have a blast, nurture your skills and repertoire, and keep doing what you’re doing to promote the music in your locale.
Be too critical of a regional or local band and their recording project, and you make enemies of folks who should be (used to be!) your friends and acquaintances. Go too easy on them, or go overboard in your praise, and you lose what little credibility you have developed over the years.
Even when they say, “We just want your opinion, don’t hold back,” really, they don’t mean it. And besides, “What the hell do you know,” some will yell back—”You don’t play, you…you…listener, you.”
So…the album Northbound by Canyon Mountain. And I can stop worrying about bluegrass philosophy and critical ethics, and just enjoy the sounds.
This is a wonderful little bluegrass album out of northern Canada. Not to be confused with the latest from The Steeldrivers or the Del McCoury Band (whose songs the band covers on this twelve-track release) or any of their southern brethren, Northbound captures a group of regional bluegrass veterans presenting their own interpretation of the music. They aren’t trying to sound like anyone they aren’t, and that is a compliment; I don’t need folks to pretend they are something they’ll never be, and I sure don’t need a mountain drawl. Just play the music.
Canyon Mountain does.
Four of the band members have played bluegrass for years. The band names—Klondike Fuel and Disturbin’ the Peace—aren’t likely to resonate with folks too far outside their home turf, but I’m told that those bands have kept the bluegrass flame burning for many years.
Jeff Faulkner (guitar and vocals), Mike Stockwell (banjo), Stephen Maltby (mandolin), and John Faulkner (bass) are the guys who have established a common reputation for excellence. Amelia Rose (fiddle) was the final addition, and sparked the creation of the new band.
At a generous 50-minutes, no one can accuse the group of taking the easy way out. Similarly, their song selection is a bit adventurous—only one ‘obvious’ jam standard in the bunch. Additionally, John Faulkner (a retired judge, it says here) contributes three self-penned numbers to the mix.
Stylistically, Canyon Mountain bridges the fine chasm between traditional, Stanley, Reno, and Osborne bluegrass with more contemporary influences from the 80s and after. The result is a pleasing blend of everything that is good about bluegrass—nicely showcased breaks and solos, rock solid rhythm, fair to middlin’ harmony arrangements, and distinctive lead vocal parts.
Good songs—both vintage and modern—from the bluegrass canon (The Infamous Stringdusters’ “No More to Leave You Behind,” Lonesome River Band’s “Down the Line,” and a pair from the first couple from The Steeldrivers including a credible take on “Good Corn Liquor”) set the stage, but some older songs including Michael Martin Murphey’s familiar “Carolina in the Pines” spread the colours about the palate. “Mill Towns,” written by David Francey and brought to ‘grass by the Del McCoury Band ups the CanCon while introducing a song some may have missed the first time around.
The band does a real strong version of Town Mountain’s signature song, “Leave the Bottle.” By covering a song that is far from a mainstream, familiar piece, and making it their own, Canyon Mountain show that they have chops to share. Going in a different direction, the group takes “Little Maggie” for a stroll; unnecessary, perhaps, but the band performs the song with some energy and takes no little opportunity to display instrumental awareness throughout.
As impressive as Canyon Mountain is on songs most of us have heard before, they really step up their game with three original pieces. “November Snow” is a good ole murder song, complete with a “cold moon rising” and “a chill in my bones.” Great stuff. “Billy” take a different turn; rather than killing, he just drinks—“it’s not that hard to tell, if Billy’s bound for Glory, or Billy’s gone to hell.” The words come in a rush, but I don’t have to sing it.
A heartfelt song for Peter Milner, a band friend and influential area picker, is coupled with the always welcome “Rueben’s Train,” and brings the album to a close:
“In my mind we’re sitting on the back porch,
Pickin’ that familiar old refrain;
Memories flood in,
the way things were back then,
And I hear Peter play the banjo once again.”
I would suggest their friend would be pleased by how Canyon Mountain has chosen to honour him.
With distinct album art, clean and pleasing production values, and a true bluegrass sound, Northbound is a heck of a debut album from a group most haven’t heard about. I am darned pleased they chose to send me their album for review, and I am proud that this album—along with the latest from The Slocan Ramblers—comes from my country. With bands such as these, we are representing bluegrass the true north way.
By the way, I’ve played Northbound about twice as many times as I have the latest from some of the charting, “national” bluegrass bands. It isn’t “better” than their albums, but it feels and sounds a whole lot more true. In bluegrass, and for me, that still means something.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I spent the evening over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, commenting on the IBMA awards as they unfolded in Raleigh, NC. It was a great show, highlighted by some super performances, a pair of moving and inspired inductions into the Hall of Fame, and Barry Bales. Visit Fervor Coulee Bluegrass here.
I was only a little bit mitchy.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I know I haven’t been posting very often. Call it a writing depression caused by listening to music that doesn’t inspire. So much of the roots music I’m hearing is quite, well, blah. But, the 60s and 70s soul has been outstanding. Gladys Knight and the Pips!
Chris Jones & the Night Drivers Run Away Tonight (Mountain Home)
With an immediately identifiable sound and a burgeoning catalog of stellar albums, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are possibly bluegrass music’s most underrated band.
With Run Away Tonight, that has to change.
Front-loaded with six original songs—seldom seen in an industry still tied to the tried, tested, and true—Run Away Tonight is the bluegrass album of this summer.
Reminding listeners of no one as much as the legendary Country Gentlemen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers perform bluegrass music with heart and drive. The heart comes from the depth of intensity revealed in every phrase and note sung by Jones, the New York native who has as rounded a bluegrass resume as one might imagine—expert guitarist, sideman, bandleader, songwriter, producer, broadcaster, gently acerbic humorist, playful photographer, rodeo clown, and curler…only one of those is fictional, I think.
The drive begins with Jones’ strong rhythm and lead work, nicely featured in the mix here, and continues through Jon Weisberger’s propulsive bass rhythm playing off Ned Luberecki’s classic 5-string approach and Mark Stoffel’s exquisite mandolin touch. Kudos to Jones and his co-producer Tim Surrett (Balsam Range) and Scott Barnett for this excellent sounding bluegrass experience—listening to this recording on a solid system is a sonic treat.
With an emphasis on the deceptively upbeat aspect of bluegrass, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers kick things off with the court and spark of “Laurie,” from which the album takes its title. With the outcome unspoken—one imagines—in old-time tradition, the guy is left hanging. Similarly, “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride” feels lively and freewheeling, but is appears as much about failed aspirations and last chances as it is the fulfilment of a dream; Jones first recorded this train song in 2000. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs.
Jones knows his way around the saddest of country songs, and “Dust Off the Pain” should go down with his best compositions. One can’t help but be aware of the miseries of life coursing through the veins of the hard-luck protagonist as he makes one more attempt at love “waiting just around the bend,” and Luberecki’s banjo playing on this one is especially riveting. A different phase of heartbreak is explored within “She’s Just About to Say Goodbye,” one of a pair of songs featuring label-mates Brooke and Darin Aldridge.
On the wonderfully structured “One Night in Paducah,” Jones’ foreboding approach conveys the protagonist’s downfall long before he wakes with “neither love nor money.” Luberecki’s “Bowties are Cool” is a deftly structured instrumental, while Stoffel’s “Shelby 8” is just cool: love how the guitar and mandolin notes leap off the strings on this one.
Jones has never hidden his appreciation for country songs encountered in his youth and Tom T. Hall, and the two come together on a nice cover of “Pinto the Wonder Horse Is Dead,” a nostalgic song that has always appealed for its universality. Those born in the last forty years may not quite ‘get it,’ but the rest of us certainly do.
One would be remiss overlooking the beauty of the Night Drivers’ rendition of “Thinking About You;” featuring fine fiddle from Bobby Hicks and Del McCoury’s always welcome tenor; this sad ‘un is a definite keeper and should receive an abundance of deserved airplay.
Closing with the hope and faith of the Jones-Donna Ulisse co-write “My Portion and My Cup,” Run Away Tonight is a ideally constructed bluegrass album, reverent to the foundations and traditions of the music but continually moving toward its bright and invigorating future.
I have long advocated that Chris Jones’ name needs to be inserted into the conversations around Male Vocalist of the Year. Perhaps next time up, the professional members of the IBMA will agree with me. The Night Drivers are as good a band as there is, in my opinion.
I’ve written about Chris Jones & the Night Drivers previously: here, here, and here. Oh, and here, too.
I’ve updated my 2009 review of Sam Bush’s Circles Around Me as the latest installment of my (infrequent) Gold…in a way series of archival reviews. It is posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.
Fiddle & Banjo
Tunes from the North-Songs From the South
This has been a great summer for roots music.
Whether the folk and alt-folk (whatever the frick that is) sounds of Norma MacDonald and Nick Ferrio, troubling, dark, and challenging sounds from the likes of Rodney DeCroo, Brock Zeman, and Gordie Tentrees, or breezy, fresh bluegrass from Dale Ann Bradley, the Slocan Ramblers, and Shotgun Holler, there has been no shortage of new roots music for the adventurous listener. Sometimes great things have been missed on first (and fifth) listen, such as the swirling, swampy, harp-based blues of Grant Dermody, the sweet and elemental music of The Honey Dewdrops, and the Appalachian honky tonk of the Honeycutters. Eventually, like most elements of quality, what you need to hear eventually makes itself known.
More than anything else though, this summer has been marked by the number of exceptional old-time sounding albums coming my way. Whether a traditional, mountain-based banjo release from Kaia Kater, a mid-western song cycle celebrating and anthologizing the plains from Jami Lynn, or a ‘grassopolitain set from the Lonesome Trio, old-time has been well represented these past several weeks.
Just to be clear, I had never heard of Kaia Kater or Jami Lynn a month ago, but now I can’t imagine them not being part of my musical soundtrack. Another amazing album released this summer comes from the equally (to me) unfamiliar Canadian duo, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack. And yet again I am left wondering, How did I go this long without hearing for these folks?
Recording as Fiddle & Banjo, this duo is remarkable. Karrnnel Sawitsky plays the fiddle, and having been raised on the vibrant music found within the celebratory environs of Saskatchewan (barn dances, weddings, community hall performances, and the like), plays in a range of styles depending on the needs of the tune or song. Daniel Koulack is a clawhammer banjo performer from Winnipeg, and coaxes evocative phrases from his 5-string.
With an album title of Tunes from the North-Songs From the South providing the framework, the expectations from the resulting album are fairly clear. Fiddle & Banjo doesn’t disappoint with tunes that capture the Métis, Quebecois, and mid-eastern Canadian fiddling traditions of our country while embracing southern influences throughout including on a few original compositions.
The sounds can be pensive and calming (“Waltz of Life,” a Sawitsky tune), soothing (“Lullabye,” from Koulack”), and lively and festive (“The Old French Set,” a trio of traditional pieces including the “Red River Jig.”) From the playing of Saskatchewan Métis fiddling legend John Arcand comes “The Woodchuck Set” featuring “Indian At the Woodchuck,” “Old Reel of 8,” and “The Arkansas Traveller”: I’m not sure old-time, traditional sounds get better than this four-minute festival of fiddling and frailing.
Pushing Tunes from the North-Songs From the South over the top are five songs featuring the voice of Joey Landreth of the Juno-winning The Bros. Landreth. “Red Rocking Chair” is lonesome and mournful, buoyed by the lively instrumentation, with “How Does a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “Killin’ Floor” suitably dark and bluesy. The highlight for me may be the spritely rendition of “Little Birdie,” although “Groundhog” comes a close second.
Kaia Kater, The Slocan Ramblers, and now Fiddle & Banjo have moved Canadian old-time music making to the fore this summer. Hopefully we’re ready for this explosion of artful, contemporary talents.
Sincere thanks for tracking down Fervor Coulee. Donald