Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands The Hazel and Alice Sessions Spruce and Maple Music
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Hazel Dickens. Odd that, because one can’t really listen to Hazel Dickens without knowing you’ve heard Hazel. Her voice is one that isn’t confused with anyone else’s; there is power in her words and melodies—they communicate to the listener the experiences, convictions, and insights of a powerfully strong woman, one who excelled within an industry dominated by men.
Dickens left her home in West Virginia while still a teen, moving to work in the factories and stores of Baltimore. She used her early experiences to inform the realism readily apparent in her songs, be it the emotional turmoil of leaving home (“Mama’s Hands,”) the longing of home from away (“West Virginia, My Home,”) and a sense of place that few writers could capture (“Hills of Home.”) Within “West Virginia, My Home” Hazel captures in ten syllables, seven straight-forward words what others have struggled to communicate in entire essays: “I can sure remember where I come from.”
She was long involved in expressing the struggles and lives of miners in any number of ways, not the least of which are her songs including “Black Lung,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down,” to name but three. She came to tell these songs in the most natural of ways, having had brothers and family working in the deep, dark mines of West Virginia.
Importantly, Dickens was part of the migration of mountain music to the eastern seaboard, one of thousands who moved from rural communities in search of work and bringing with them the music of their home counties. She championed the music, keeping it at the fore of not only her own life but communicating a relevancy with which the urban community could connect.
That she has written some of the finest bluegrass songs is without challenge. These songs have advanced the cause of women and the working poor in immeasurable ways, bringing strength and dignity to places and circumstances where such was often in short supply. Dickens never shied away from subject matter that some would avoid, be they the protagonists of “It’s Hard to Tell the Singer From the Song” and “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” the conditions of the mines (“Mannington Mine Disaster,”) or detailing the impact of miner organization in “The Yablonski Murder.”
So powerful is the Hazel Dickens catalogue that none of these essential songs found their way onto this collection from Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. And, while they are noticeably absent, they are not missed.
Hazel Dickens left a legacy in song.
Alice Gerrard is one of the living legends of bluegrass music; combined with her decades of recording and performing old-time and folk music, Gerrard has a stout resume that is as varied and dynamic as any you can mention. When Gerrard has completed a song, it has truly been sung. I am so glad that she remains a formidable and important element within folk music. While Gerrard has an extensive resume as a recording artist within several different configurations, as a guardian of old-time music, as founder and past editor-in-chief of The Old-Time Herald, and as a touring musician, she has recorded as a ‘solo’ artist only intermittently.
1994’s beautiful Pieces of My Heart and 2004’s equally resonant Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss appeared on the Copper Creek label. As on those recordings, Gerrard’s voice on her contemporary releases (Bittersweet, Follow Me Home) is pure and powerful: Gerrard’s voice is multi-dimensional, and as Lee Smith wrote two decades ago, she can sing anything: “holler, shout, belt it out, swing a little, croon a little, and then flat-out break your heart.
My appreciation for Alice Gerrard is as firm as my admiration of Hazel Dickens. Together, they were incredible.
Well-documented elsewhere, Hazel and Alice met and began singing at Washington, DC/Baltimore house parties, moving onto coffeehouse performances within a burgeoning bluegrass environment. Their collaborative recording output—four albums as a duo as well as a fifth as the Strange Creek Singers with Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwarz—was limited, but highly significant and exceedingly impressive.
One of their greatest admirers is Laurie Lewis. Like many of us, upon first hearing Dickens and Gerrard, Lewis realized that the hard side of bluegrass need not be the domain of men. Laurie Lewis is no newcomer to bluegrass music, having played almost every festival there is and having recorded excellent albums over the years, The Golden West and Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals being just two. However, she has never narrowed her field and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum The Oak and the Laurel and the under-heralded Guest House. Her wide-ranging tribute to Bill Monroe (Skippin’ and Flyin’) was one of 2011’s finest bluegrass albums, and possibly the strongest Monroe tribute released since the bluegrass master’s death.
Lewis has always been versatile, performing as a duo with Rozum or leading a full-fledged bluegrass band with equal effectiveness and charisma. As a musician, she is frequently called on to provide session fiddle and vocal performances and to augment an established group. In a one week period years back I saw her with Kathy Kallick- a frequent singing partner- in a Red Deer bluegrass setting and the next weekend filling in with Dave Alvin’s hard-hitting Guilty Women at Hardly Strictly.
She has at least one signature song, “Who Will Watch the Home Place?” Kate Long’s exceptional song awarded the IBMA’s Song of the Year award in 1994. She has also been awarded the same organization’s Female Vocalist of the Year award twice and has been nominated frequently.
Like Hazel & Alice, Laurie Lewis is bonafide.
I’m told that Laurie Lewis has, with others, led the charge to have Hazel and Alice inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that induction hasn’t yet happened. One wonders, why?
I’ve been told there is a faction who believes Alison Krauss must be the first female artist/bandleader elected to the Hall. Fair perhaps, but dang short-sighted. Hazel and Alice definitely deserve a place among the heroes of the music, and one could make a convincing argument that Lewis herself also deserves consideration for inclusion in bluegrass music’s most hallowed hall.
These powerful bluegrass forces come together on Laurie Lewis & the Right Hand’s The Hazel and Alice Sessions, surely one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of this year.
No disappointment here.
With songs drawn from 1965’s Who’s That Knocking through to Gerrard’s 2002 masterpiece Calling Me Home, a full half of the songs are from the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass anthology (a collection of their 1965 and 1973 recordings,) with a spattering culled from two ‘70s Rounder albums and an additional Dickens’ release.
The album kicks off with the energy of “Cowboy Jim,” a song Dickens wrote for the first album based around a scattered lyric partially remembered by her father. The album continues on, exploring the many shades of love, devotion, loss, faith, and heartbreak one would expect from a classic bluegrass set. “James Alley Blues,” one of the few songs here not written by either Dickens or Gerrard, contains a couple brilliant lines of insight including, “Could have a much better time if men weren’t so hard to please;” joined by vocal guest Aoife O’Donovan, Lewis retains the acapella arrangement to most excellent effect.
Tom Rozum is not only one of bluegrass’ most secure mandolinists, but he is a fine vocalist. He is featured taking a couple leads, doing justice to “Who’s That Knocking?” This decision confirms the gender-neutrality of the finest music, songs that reveal themselves no matter who is taking the lead and conveying the story. He also fair nails “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling,” a tipping of the collective hat to Mr. Monroe.
Hazel Dickens is quoted once saying, “My relationship was always with the words and the story.” The songs Lewis has chosen give truth to the statement. Perhaps Dickens’ greatest achievement, is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the “Working Girl Blues?” Lewis’ rendition is stellar, mournful yet spirited with Lewis’ fiddle conveying equal parts pride and misery. That Gerrard offers up the harmony here makes the experience that much more fulfilling; not surprisingly, it is this song that best captures the spirit of the original recordings. The further treat here is a previously unheard third verse that Dickens once recited to Lewis.
Chad Manning contribute fiddle to a few tunes including “You’ll Get No More of Me,” one of those songs that Dickens might have been referencing in the previous quote; the liner notes don’t make it apparent, but this one must be sung by Patrick Sauber, the Right Hands’ banjo man. “Pretty Bird,” previously released on a Linda Ronstadt compilation a couple years back, comes from sessions for a Rounder Dickens’ tribute album that never emerged.
The Right Hands are Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar) as well as Sauber (banjo and lead guitar on a single track) and Andrew Conklin (bass.) Fiddler Natiana Hargreaves is on five tracks, with Dobro from Mike Witcher on three, including “Working Girl Blues” and Gerrard’s “Mama’s Gonna Stay.”
The album’s vocal showpiece is “Let That Liar Alone,” a song featured on the 1975 Rounder album Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. With Rozum driving the bus, this four-part vocal gospel song will leave listeners mesmerized; Harley Eblem drops in some bass vocals that are impressive. Avoid the devil, folks.
Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. The Hazel and Alice Sessions is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. It’s early of course, but doubtless a strong contender for bluegrass album of the year.
Shuyler Jansen The Long Shadow Big White Cloud Records
The west coast collective Big White Cloud Records is off to a fine start. First came Ryan Boldt’s bold and experimental Broadside Ballads, a collection of (mostly) old tales given contemporary interpretation maintaining fairly traditional construct. Next up was cousins Kacy & Clayton’s Strange Country, an album that didn’t appeal to me as much as it did to others, racking up extensive airplay across the country.
Now arrives veteran alt-musician, songwriter, and singer Shuyler Jansen’s The Long Shadow, the ever-evolving ex-Edmontonian’s fourth full album. First encountered as an essential component of Old Reliable—Alberta’s great roots hope of the early 2000s—Jansen has never stayed a single course while creating music that has always challenged expectations.
Today’s Remains, Jansen’s 2004 offering, continues to be my favourite album, one that I continue to find engaging upon my too infrequent returns. But, both Hobotron and especially Voice From the Lake had much to contribute to my ongoing redefinition of roots music. The Long Shadow brings many thoughts and impressions to mind: I hear a bit of Talking Heads, even some Magazine, in its dense composition. Maybe it drifts closer to the melodic, Wilco-end of modern rock. But, memorable.
Working again with producer David Carswell, Jansen has created a forty-minute opus of sweeping, dramatic pieces. It is admittedly difficult for me to capture a thread of story within these elaborate compositions, but that ultimately did not dissuade me from leaving the listening favourably impacted.
“Idle City,” opening with raw guitar strums, gives the impression that Jansen and Carswell are planning on dialing things back a bit, but that notion doesn’t last too long. The sounds build, often intensifying into a crescendo of drums, guitars, and keys that threatens to unspool within the din. Ultimately, every song comes back to a core of voices—Jansen’s alternately bold and vulnerable, his cohorts’ harmonies finding natural homes within a complex and swirling tapestry of instrumentation.
“Silver Heart” appears to be a love song, but I’m not sure if it is directed inward or outward, while the album’s most charming song is saved for last: “Mercury” incorporates elements of spoken audio—whether found, sampled, or unique to this recording I don’t know, but it sounds like it is drawn from a Fred McMurray film—that works, a stark, abrupt juxtaposition of beauty and harshness within an emotionally exposed confessional.
“We Should Just Fall Apart” is dramatic in its search for comfort, “Old Machine” is hook-laden, a deep-cut, classic song unearthed for a bonus-track laden Humble Pie or Bad Company set. Meanwhile “Treasure Trove” is an aggressive jam that could serve as inspiration for a show-ending climax of destruction.
The Long Shadow isn’t a conventional roots-based, singer-songwriter confessional. It is at times loud and even disjointed, but it is ultimately focused on the communication of emotion. While I might prefer more traditional interpretations of roots rock, Jansen has always forged his own path toward an horizon of his own creation. It is in appreciating this innovative steadfastness that his appeal is most likely found. Doesn’t hurt that when The Long Shadow ends, one is repeatedly drawn to revisit the disc.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Since I can’t find it online, here is my review of Jansen’s Today’s Remains, originally published in the Red Deer Advocate.
Shuyler Jansen Today’s Remains Black Hen
Edmonton’s Old Reliable is a band with a wealth of talent and vision, more than can possibly be contained within their sporadic group recordings. Earlier this year, Mark Davis released a tremendous double-shot of alt.Canadiana on the dual albums Don’t You Think We Should Be Closer? and Mistakes I Meant to Make. This fall sees cohort Shuyler Jansen producing Today’s Remains.
If you are not a fan of Jansen’s unadulterated country vocals and modern arrangements, Today’s Remains will not change your opinion. For those of us who long ago came under the spell of Jansen’s country-folk vision, Today’s Remains is a welcome repast from the bleak offerings currently being marketed.
From the opener, “Pegasus”-a tune reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley”– through to the final notes of “Chief,” this new disc is a far cry from Jansen’s previous solo effort, the spacey, folk-electronica of Hobotron. “Windswept” has a bit of an Iron & Wine vibe, while the whole album benefits from a sense of adventure reminiscent of Scott Miller- anything is possible musically, and stylistic labels only represent vague directions.
Now based in Saskatoon, Jansen- like Howe Gelb, Richard Buckner, and Miller- doesn’t fit into a neat cube labeled ‘sensitive singer-songwriter;’ his lyrical themes are often dark and moody, but also occasionally capture an unexpected lightness. Lush but not over-produced, the atmosphere of the disc is rich, but not dense. The majority of the instrumentation comes from album producer Steve Dawson, who has never met a guitar he couldn’t squeeze into a song.
Consolation and desolation are equally represented in the ten tracks. In fact, it sounds very much like the country album Old Reliable never made. Today’s Remains is darn near perfect.
David G. Smith
You need to check yourself sometimes.
Maybe you are starting to slack off at work. Perhaps you are starting to imbibe just a little too frequently. You may notice you aren’t really engaged in your relationship, allowing the mundane to become routine.
You recognize the issue, and because you realize its importance, you make a change to get yourself back on track.
David G. Smith, challenged by mentors Darrell Scott and Mary Gauthier, realized he was losing himself some years ago. Chasing the Nashville brass ring—co-writes, pitches, holds—Smith found himself writing material that no longer spoke to him. He needed to get back to ‘the truth.’
He did. Finding his voice and his songwriting soul, Smith has crafted a series of independently released albums, including live projects capturing his songs in their natural environment. Reflective and demanding, Smith has received kudos from folks who know good music, the likes of Peter Cooper, Robert K. Oermann, and Gauthier.
“One House” stretches peace, love, and understanding to contemporary circumstance. The uncertainty bred by 9/11 is juxtaposed by the selfless sacrifices of those who responded when “Angels Flew.” “Other Side of Free” is the type of song we used to discover on Nanci Griffith albums. Which doesn’t mean everything has to be heavy: Smith’s “You’re the Reason God Made Tequila” is both playful in execution and honest in tone.
First Love is Smith’s third studio album. It contains ten artfully arranged original numbers of the type that brings to mind the likes of Kieran Kane, Stephen Fearing, and David Francey. There is an aching reality populating the title track, a thread of hope woven through experience: “first love…after the last one died.” Life goes on, renewed. Larry Jon Wilson might have enjoyed “Nightlife in the Stix,” a song that (perhaps inadvertently) captures his swampy, southern soul approach to true life blues, “with some sweet lowdown on the stand up bass” from Doug Kahan.
Smith explores the unknown certainties of life (“Questions,”) juxtaposing the wonderings of a child with those of a grandfather. “Carrie” possesses the simplicity and purity of mid-70s folk rock, while “Ocean Soul” appeals to the freedom-lover that (hopefully) exists in each of us, if only when on vacation. Keb’ Mo slips reso into “I Can’t Tell,” a relaxed, bluesy jam with shades of Delaney and Bonnie.
The album’s lead track should garner notice. “Fear” is a soneofabitch sonofagun that Smith faces down: if only all of us could! Featuring pals Buddy Mondlock (guitars and vocals) and Gauthier (vocals) as well as Kenny Malone (percussion,) Bryn Davies (bass,) and Steve Conn (keys,) this song is possibly Smith’s calling card: it was featured in a different, and more profane, arrangement on Non-Fiction; deceptively straight-forward, the song has depth beyond its inspired performance.
First Love. Damn.
To be released February 5, 2016.
Hey, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee; I appreciate it.
Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass
Done right, bluegrass sounds simple.
We know it isn’t, of course; anyone who has watched a talented group working up a new song is aware of the incredible complexities that go into making a pure and natural bluegrass song.
Some people are convinced that bluegrass needs to be altered and intensified with additional, progressive elements in order for the music to continue to advance within a broader marketplace, and perhaps they are correct. Still, few things sound as wonderful, as clean, and—yes—simple as a bluegrass band at the top of its game, creating music that is entrenched in a tradition that stretches back seventy years and more.
A bluegrass band that has no pretense about it, one that knows that every song needs to be individual within a sound palate that is as deep as it is wide: is there anything better?
Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass are one sterling example of such a band.
Weary River was released in late 2015, too late to be considered for most year-end lists, but one hopes the album will received its due in this new year. For those who continue to appreciate bluegrass unadorned by passing-fancy, Weary River has much to offer.
It contains several songs from the repertoire of The Southern Grass, a Paisley-Lundy family entity since the 70s, including the spirited lead cuts “Darling Nellie Across the Sea” and “Uncle Ned,” as well as the sentimental “Mother Knows Best.” Three instrumental tunes are sprinkled throughout: “Grey Eagle,” featuring T.J. Lundy sawing a storm, a new one entitled “Fall Branch” from creative banjoist Mark Delaney, and one of Bill Monroe’s signature tunes, “Come Hither to Go Yonder,” featuring each instrumentalist, but none so obviously as the youthful Ryan Paisley on mandolin. Doug Meek plays the majority of the fiddle parts throughout the album, while Russ Hooper adds Dobro in a few places.
As great bluegrass does, Weary River takes listeners on a journey to the pits of despair. The title cut is a new Chris Stuart number: one may recall that Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass performed Stuart’s (with Ivan Rosenberg) 2009 IBMA Song of the Year “Don’t Throw Mama’s Flowers Away” on a previous album. “Weary River” is not only an exceptionally well-written song, but Paisley’s soulful lead vocal performance is equal parts aching (for what is missing) and devastated (by that which has been lost): there is not one iota of joy or light within its four and a third minutes. The fact that “Weary River” could serve as soundtrack to my yet-to-be completed novel of matrimonial strife, idealistic duplicity, and childhood neglect is simply a bonus.
Alongside “Weary River,” “The Letter Edged in Black” almost sounds uplifting, while Ringo Starr’s “Don’t Pass Me By” is positively hopeful: not sure how Del McCoury missed out on ‘grassifying this White Album track. The vocal and bass contributions of Eric Troutman are an outstanding addition to The Southern Grass for this recording, while Paisley remains one of those wonderful, under-heralded bluegrass rhythm guitarists.
Like Road into Town and The Room Over Mine, Weary River is a truly impressive modern, straight-ahead bluegrass recording.
Time for the annual ‘best of’ list which I never title ‘best of.’ I always go with Favourites because that is all I can go by: which albums have I listened to the most this past year, which ones have I most appreciated, and which ones do I feel are of an exceptional quality?
In previous years, I’ve written at length, but this year I am restrained by time (hmmm…Christmas Eve/Christmas Morning) and energy (I am bleeding exhausted!) Instead of separating things into genres, reissues, compilations, and other categories, I am just going to present Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Roots Albums of the Year. I am limiting myself to 15 titles this time out—I started out with a comprehensive list of about 80 titles under consideration, but willowed that down to 12 fair quickly, and from there it seemed like 15 was the right number for this year.
What did I notice over the course of 2015? One, I am really tired of folks—and you know who you are—who do good work, who promote the music, and who seem to care about bluegrass and yet use that term to describe just about any and all mostly acoustic, Appalachian-reminiscent music not mainstream country. It can’t all be bluegrass, folks. It just isn’t. Sam Gleaves? Not bluegrass, although there are a couple bluegrass songs there: nice album, though. Dom Flemons? Not even close. Dave Rawlings Machine? Are you even listening? Here’s the measure: if it is on the front page of The Bluegrass Situation…it’s not bluegrass.
I also noticed that there were fewer exceptional bluegrass albums released this year—plenty of mighty fine ones, but not that many that will go down as classics.
I noticed that I am listening to more 60s and 70s R&B/soul music than ever before, and that does take away time from roots writing. But rabba bing bang, I am loving those sounds, from R.B. Greaves to Gladys Knight & the Pips: pure dynamite.
I’ve also noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find the music I like in even the finest music stores. A real drag, that.
I’m also including the source of the music, in the spirit of full disclosure: some folks do worry about the ethics around receiving music for review without cost. I’m not one of them.
Here we go, with Fervor Coulee’s (Donald Teplyske) Favourite Roots Albums of the Year, 2015.
- John Wort Hannam- Love Lives On (Rebel Tone Records) Still Alberta’s finest contemporary, male troubadour, John Wort Hannam continues to meet the rising expectations that come from a decade of exceptional folk-based releases. Love Lives On has not yet displaced Two Bit Suit and Queen’s Hotel at the top of my Hannam list, but both those albums were also year-end favourites, and I enjoy the textures of his rhymes and the subtleties of his insights more with each listen. Singing of universal pleasures (“Over the Moon,” “Love Lives On,” “Gonna See My Love”) as adeptly as he does of specific moments in time (“Labrador”) and place (“Good Nite Nova Scotia,”) Wort Hannam has become a master of storytelling and songwriting. This sixth album is highlighted by the devastating “Man of God,” the song that will follow the songwriter to the end of his time. A beautifully conceived and recorded album, Love Lives On is a masterpiece. (Purchased at Blackbyrd Myoozik.)
- Dale Ann Bradley- Pocket Full of Keys (Pinecastle Records) While she hasn’t garnered the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year award for the past three years, there is no arguing the consistency and strength Dale Ann Bradley brings to both her live performances and recordings. This self-produced album is one that I have listened to regularly since its release this summer. As the finest country and bluegrass often does, Pocket Full of Keys’ songs reveal the hardships of others as a panacea to our challenges, either providing a path for enlightenment or a realization that one’s own issues are not completely overwhelming: it could always be worse. Dale Ann Bradley doesn’t churn out albums. Analyse her vast catalog and one doesn’t find many tracks that appear to have been recorded simply out of favor or as filler. She is a bluegrass vocalist and true artist of substance and vision, and mentions in the album’s notes that she has always wanted to do an album herself, her own way. She has done it! Pocket Full of Keys is another in a string of significant recordings from bluegrass music’s finest voice. (Acquired via publicist)
- The SteelDrivers- The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder) The SteelDrivers remain a dynamic, driving bluegrass band, a five-piece with a sound and an approach completely their own. The Muscle Shoals Recordings is their fourth album and the group just keeps getting better. The SteelDrivers are a song band, meaning that their strength doesn’t come from fiery instrumental prowess or sweeping vocal harmonies—although they more than hold their own in both those areas—but from the strength of their material. When they choose a song, they have done so for a reason, and it comes through in the performance. Murder songs, drinking songs, love songs, Civil War songs—The SteelDrivers can do them all, and they do so like no other bluegrass band working the circuit. Excellent. (Acquired via publicist)
- Barnstar!- Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! (Signature Sounds) This Massachusetts-collective does things differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a bit outside, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! Comprised of songwriters all of whom have music careers outside the band, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. Barnstar! is certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation. They have great songs, the best here perhaps “Cumberland Blue Line,” “Six Foot Pine Box,” and most definitely The Faces “Stay With Me.” Oh, and don’t forget Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County.” And “Delta Rose.” Dang, it is a terrific bluegrass album; not for everyone, mind. If you are looking for Pretty Bluegrass, it isn’t here. (Acquired via publicist)
- Buffy Sainte-Marie- Power in the Blood (High Romance Music) The winner of this year’s Polaris Music Prize, Power in the Blood is the type of album that either hits you from first listen or completely misses. Without judgement, whichever happens is likely a reflection of the listener. This is a powerful album that speaks across generations and cultures, one that can be appreciated both as a creative production to be experienced as a complete album and individually song-by-song. “It’s My Way,” “Power in the Blood,” and “We Are Circling” start the album off with substance and energy, and things just keep developing. She even pulls in some UB40. A wonderful recording. (Purchased at Wal-Mart; hey, I couldn’t find it in an independent shop.)
- 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 one of the finest bluegrass albums released this decade.
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. 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. 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. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs. Every song is worthy of attention, not something I write lightly or often. 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. (Acquired via publicist)
- Amy Black- The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Reuben) Amy Black has become someone to be counted on to provide balanced and lively collections of contemporary Americana, featuring a blend of influences: folk, country, blues, troubadours of all variety, and—way deep down—hints of southern-flavoured soul. Years ago, I wrote that Black reminded me of Kate Campbell and that she had a singing voice “as natural and welcome as lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day, with an amiable tartness lingering within its sweetness.”
The Muscle Shoals Sessions has that absolutely infectious deep soul groove permeating every song. Spooner Oldham brings emotional and historical depth to the proceedings, laying out funky Wurlitzer and organ. Will Kimbrough is back. Vocal certainty is provided by the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina. Notable horn players are also present, with Charlie Rose taking the lead and playing trombone, while Steve Herrman (trumpet) and Jim Hoke (saxophone) are featured.
Recorded in the legendary FAME studios, Black compositions like “Get To Me” and “Woman On Fire” sizzle with energy, while “You Gotta Move” and “Bring It On Home” are more passionate and controlled. Classics abound with “You Left Your Water Running” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” closing the disc with wisdom found only in the finest of songs.
When she laments, “I know I hurt you deep down inside, I know you’re angry I understand why,” one could be forgiven for believing Black to be interpreting a long forgotten Otis Redding gem. She isn’t, of course—the song is a new one, and is as strong as anything else on the album. Black’s performance here proves all the evidence necessary, should one require it, that she is legitimately a country soul singer of the most significant variety. She smolders without seduction—there is nothing here but genuine, aching need—while the band explores rhythms of the finest order. Black pays tribute to Don Covey and Etta James with a blistering rendition of “Watch Dog,” while her interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” further elevates the album by exploring the more spiritual side of soul music.
Amy Black ‘gets it’ and hopefully we do, too. The Muscle Shoals Sessions deserves to be heard by all who appreciate the funkier, soulful side of roots music. Amy Black just keeps getting better.
- Pharis & Jason Romero- A Wanderer I’ll Stay (Lula Records) One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Without drifting toward mimicry, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements.
I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Jason Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything recently heard. Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her assertion.
This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted. This is a stunning acoustic folk recording. (Acquired via publicist)
- Kathy Kallick Band- Foxhounds (KathyKallick.com) As is Tim O’Brien, Kathy Kallick is always a bit of an adventurer and you can never be sure what her next recorded outing might bring. When she has the band with her, you are assured high-quality, literate and respectful bluegrass music: they never take their audience for granted, never rest on their laurels. Such is the case with Foxhounds, an album that starts off with a new song in tribute to Bill Monroe and continues with an exciting exploration of the range and depth of the bluegrass tradition. There are old songs including “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” a lively rendition of the first Richard Thompson song I ever encountered (“Tear Stained Letter,”) and a bright and spirited take on a Monroe instrumental, “Kentucky Mandolin.” But the album’s greatest strengths lay within Kallick’s new songs including “So Danged Lonesome,” “Longest Day of the Year,” and “Snowflakes.” Especially enjoyable is the fiery “I’m Not Your Honey Baby Now,” a song to which I will continue to return. The band is top-notch throughout, and all members are featured in a variety of ways including vocally. (Acquired via publicist)
- Corb Lund- Things That Can’t Be Undone (New West Records) Corb Lund’s tenth album of (mostly) rural rooted, countryside music, Things That Can’t Be Undone shows Alberta’s favourite son writing even more concisely than previously while tackling subject matter both heady and impacting (“S Lazy H,” “Weight of the Gun,” and “Sadr City,”) heartfelt (“Goodbye Colorado” and “Sunbeam,”) and slightly frivolous (“Talk Too Much” and “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues.”) While Lund has for years provided engaging music that was obviously influenced by folks like Tom Russell and Ian Tyson, he has increasingly infused his songs with his own individuality. This album continues that journey. (Legal download)
- Ron Block- Hogan’s House of Music (RonBlock.com) One of the most thoughtful minds in bluegrass, and a danged fine banjo and guitar player, Rob Block is best known as one-fifth of Alison Krauss & Union Station. He has recorded a series of well-received albums, in my opinion the first of which (Faraway Land) is a modern classic. Here he goes back to his roots and influences, recording an instrumental bluegrass album filled with classic (but not too overly familiar) songs. Having purchased digitally, I don’t know who is playing what or where, but I suppose I don’t really need to: it is completely wonderful. (Purchased via iTunes)
- Willie Thrasher- Spirit Child (Light in the Attic) Three of Willie Thrasher’s songs were featured on the groundbreaking triple album set of last year, Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, a release that would have topped my chart last year had I heard it then. Spirit Child is a reissue of Thrasher’s 1981 album, and it spent a solid week in my car once I bought it. I may not understand everything on this album, but I think I get it. Folk, rock, and country influences abut to create a remarkable listening journey. (Purchased via eMusic)
- Jayme Stone- Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (Borealis Records) With a multitude of collaborators, Jayme Stone cuts a wide swath through the legacy of Alan Lomax: it is much like putting a collection of Smithsonian Folkways albums on random, and one becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the intensity of the wide-ranging performances. There is mountain music here, island and African sounds, English and Scottish folk songs, and blues, ‘grass, and chants all performed to the highest levels of performance that retain the ‘authentic’ (whatever that means) and natural state of the songs. (Purchased via iTunes)
- Jerry Lawson- Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet) As I’ve headed further into the rabbit warren that is vintage R&B and soul, I have found few modern practitioners of the art that appeal to me: even the best seem to try just a little too hard. Not Jerry Lawson. It sounds like the music just flows from him, and when he launches into a song a deep as “Wine” or as sad as “Never Been to Memphis,” you know you are experiencing the real thing. (Purchased via eMusic)
- The Cox Family- Gone as the Cotton (Rounder) Forgive us for thinking we might never again hear new music from The Cox Family. It has been almost twenty years since Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, and excepting an appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, not much has been heard from Alison Krauss’s favourite Louisianans. Given the quality of the music contained on Gone Like the Cotton, an album started in 1998 and completed within the last year, it is surprising that Krauss and Rounder Records didn’t consider buying the project from Asylum and the Warner’s group at some point in the ensuing years. Eventually, and thankfully, the impedance to unveiling the album was removed, the recorded files were located and freshened with new vocals from the current lineup of the Cox Family siblings Evelyn, Sidney, and Suzanne complementing father Willard’s vocal takes from the late 90s.
The newest song and title track, written by Sidney and Suzanne, is a nearly-unadorned family biography. With only the minimalist of guitar accompaniment, the siblings sing of their grandparents, their parents, and their community with devotion and love. It is a stunning and appropriate closing to a heartfelt recording, one that captures in four minutes a lifetime of experience. The result is a type of country music that is seldom encountered in contemporary times. Beautifully executed with confidence that comes through on every song, Gone Like the Cotton is a masterful recording. (Acquired via publicist)
By limiting myself to 15 titles, I’ve not been able to include folks like Ryan Boldt, The Honey DewDrops, Big Country Bluegrass, Tim O’Brien (for his SOS Series), Rex Hobart, Anna and Elizabeth, Samantha Martin, Dar Williams, Donnie Fritts, Pop Staples, Gordie Tentrees, The Hillbenders, Norma MacDonald, and a whole lot of other very fine artists. A great deal of excellent roots music was released in 2015. Thanks for checking in at Fervor Coulee; hopefully we’ll see you in 2016. Donald
I try to link through everything I write for Lonesome Road Review, Country Standard Time, and Fervor Coulee Bluegrass here at Fervor Coulee, but inevitably some items get missed. While watching the new Bear Family DVD of BR5-49’s live 1996 German show, I thought I would try to catch some of the missed links.
I’m a big fan of Dale Ann Bradley, a great admirer of not only her bluegrass talent but of the person. I wrote a review of her latest, now Grammy-nominated, album Pocket Full of Keys.
My review of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s uninspired second album is over at CST. I try to be positive, but it doesn’t always work out- gotta call it like I hear it. Ditto one from the Vickie Vaughn band. A tribute to the Carter Family by Antique Persuasion, featuring a trio of respected roots types, was also missed.
Low Lily is a band I don’t know too much about, but my review of their debut EP is up at Lonesome Road Review. Mr. Sun is a quasi-grass string band led by Darol Anger. The Traditional Grass were an outstanding trad bluegrass band, and Rebel recently released a compilation. I also reviewed Allison Moorer’s and Shelby Lynne’s latest releases late last summer.
Some of my links to LRR pieces have gone dead; I’ll try to fix that over the Christmas break.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. donald
Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass I have shared my one-sentence reflections on the four bluegrass (and one Americana) albums that were nominated for this year’s Bluegrass Grammy. You can read my thoughts by following this fine little link. With Dale Ann Bradley nominated, I think you know who I am pulling for!
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald