Five Bluegrass Reviews in One

Pinecastle and Bonfire Recent Releases

Kim Robins Leave the Porch Light On
Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road I Can Go To Them
Daryl Mosley Small Town Dreamer
Deeper Shade of Blue Twenty

All Pinecastle Music

Andrew Crawford The Lonesome Season (Bonfire Recordings)

Being the 37th most influential bluegrass music writer in Canada, and the 429th in all of North America has advantages.

Not many folks call looking for you is one. Fewer ask for favours. Almost no one knowing your name is another, and is likely the reason for the first two. Not being bothered with swag and gifts is a third or fourth advantage, depending on our math skills; still, I would hate to be beholden to someone for the sake of a XXL t-shirt. Or beer cozy. Invites to concerts and festivals seldom arrive, meaning I have more time for my cats.

Another advantage of being a rather unheralded bluegrass music writer is that occasionally, very occasionally, a package about ‘that thick’ will arrive filled with the latest releases from a bluegrass label. And then the 36th most influential bluegrass writer in Canada (Zach down in Toronto, since I started writing, has decided it isn’t bluegrass he writes about, but blues and grass- he has branched out into horticultural features: freelance jobs are sparse) has something to write about on a Saturday morning when it is too icy to venture to the end of the drive.

Kim Robins and her band 40 Years Late have been working to make a name for themselves for several years. Living near the southwest Indiana community of Worthington, Robins balances her bluegrass dreams with life as a public health nurse, and not surprisingly the pandemic interrupted her musical pursuits.

Despite half her band leaving just prior to the recording of Leave the Porch Light On, and a string of personal tragedies and upheaval, Robins and musical pals including producer, guitarist, and banjoist Clay Hess, 40 Years Late’s mandolinist Duane Estep and guitarist and vocalist Kyle Estep, Brennan Hess (bass) and Tim Crouch (fiddle) put together a fairly satisfying bluegrass album. Crouch’s fiddling is always impressive, and it is notable herein.

Robins possesses a confident and vibrant voice, and she is well showcased within this setting. Songs including “Johnny Clay,” “Seven Devils Ridge,” and “Bourbon and Beer” (I really like this one) allow her to reveal various colours of her voice and instrumental approaches to this music we revere. The Daniel Salyer song “Johnny Clay” is especially interesting. The emotion-laden “Hurricane” and the title track are focus tracks, and one hears why: to good effect, Robins tends to rare back and sings her heart out on these numbers. “I’m Not to Blame” and a few other songs drift from the bluegrass path into more (what used to be) mainstream country territory without losing the plot. Good music for listening, and isn’t that the point?

Kyles Estep is featured as lead vocalist on four songs, including the impressive “I’ll Always Be a Gambler” (again from Daniel Salyer) and Brink Brinkman’s “Can’t Be Anything But Love.”

Leave the Porch Light On is a fine album of mainstream bluegrass, a good selection of songs ably performed and featuring a voice from whom we haven’t heard too frequently. A nice change, this.

It has been a while since I’ve heard from Lorraine Jordan & her Carolina Road band; back fifteen or so years ago I could count on her albums getting to me for review, but that stopped a move or two ago. Daughters of Bluegrass was an amazing, long-term project, and she has recorded some essential music. Thankfully Pinecastle usually takes care of me, and their True Grass Again album a favourite of 2018. Jordan’s mandolin chop is one of my favourites, and I remain disappointed we never brought her to Red Deer and Alberta during the Great Bluegrass Boom & Bust following O, Brother.

Since I last heard the group, it appears that Allen Dyer (guitar) and Kevin Lamm (bass) have joined up, but Ben Greene (banjo), Matt Hooper (fiddle), and the legend Randy Graham (guitar) remain standing alongside the clear-voiced Jordan (mandolin.) This is an impressive outfit with everyone except Hooper singing various parts. The album was co-produced by Graham and Jordan.

This time out Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road have endeavored to present a ‘concept album,’ and a success it is. A bluegrass gospel album dedicated to the mothers of the band members, and Man, do they nail it! Great stuff, here.

Three- and four-part harmony can be heard on a thorough collection of songs including “Brush Arbors,” “Going Up,” the electrifying “I Cannot Bring Them Back (But I Can Go To Them),” and “Traveling the Highway Home.” The musicianship of “Travel, Travel On” is impressive, as it is across the dozen numbers, but the mandolin on this cut is especially pleasing. Not sure which of the men sings lead on “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer” and “Further Along” (note to labels: please include singing credits!), but they sound mighty swell. I’m always ready for a burning version of “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” and we get that here, without doubt.

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road know bluegrass and bluegrass gospel, and have released a very strong album in I Can Go To Them. Nice.

Daryl Mosley’s “Transistor Radio” came to me via WDVX I believe, and the song was an immediate hit on these tired old ears. Full of nostalgia, with a sweet little instrumental flair of ‘something’- maybe mando- at the conclusion of verses-the song is a great one. The rest of Small Town Dreamer is now as well-received.

Largely written by Mosley with a pair of co-writes, including “Transistor Radio” with Rick Lang, these songs contain personal connection—real or imagined—to the songwriter and singer. That ability to make the universal personal (or the personal universal) is the magic of the songwriter, and Mosley demonstrates that he possesses this talent across the twelve songs.

“Hillbilly Dust” captures all the touchstones—family, farm, God, and blessings received—for a classic bluegrass song. I didn’t tear up, but it was close. A song in a similar vein, “The Last of His Kind,” follows and I suppose the plan for the album is set: ‘true’ songs that capture the memories of the past—that’s bluegrass at its core—but here there is none of the pompous and ignorant views sometimes expressed within these types of songs.

“Mama’s Bible” (a very moving song) and “The Way I Was Raised” continue this exploration of the way things once were, and Mosley’s rich voice and gentle but passionate approach to his songs makes for enjoyable listening. “I Can’t Go Home Again” did cause the tears to well, as was the intent I imagine.

One imagines that one of the album’s most deeply personal songs is the adroitly executed “The Waverly Train Disaster,” telling the tale of a L&N derailing and explosion that killed sixteen and destroyed much of Mosley’s home community of Waverly, Tennessee. Mosley weaves the facts of the event into an engaging narrative that unfolds in under four minutes, the tension building early, the aftermath clearly expressed: “The city and her people still wear the scars today.” Co-producer Danny Roberts’ mandolin chop marks time, creating a rigid atmosphere for the song.

An album from The Farm Hands in 2018 didn’t prepare me for the quality of this Daryl Mosley album. Small Time Dreamer just snuck onto my Bluegrass Favourites of 2021.

The second Deeper Shade of Blues’ Twenty finished playing, I hit the start button again. While very smooth, I love this type of bluegrass music, that which is firmly rooted in the past and traditions, but which isn’t afraid to branch out with originality. Case in point: “Making Plans.”

One of the Osborne Brothers’ signature songs, “Making Plans” has been performed and recorded by any number of performers, from Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Alberta faves Down to the Wood, the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band, to every local group who has done a little woodshedding. But I’ve never heard it executed quite as Deeper Shade of Blue does here: they’ve slowed it down even more, and vocal execution is sublime with the sparse instrumentation filling spaces as expertly as I have experienced.

While a significant highlight of Twenty, celebrating Deeper Shade of Blue’s twenty years as a band, “Making Plans” is far from the only song and performance worthy of mention. The bluesy “Whether or Not,” co-written by the band’s Dobroist Frank Poindexter and Mark Brinkman (him again!), is a pretty spectacular song and performance; the lead is from Scott Burgess, and his lonesome voice is ideal for this number.

With the retirement of long-time banjo player Jim Fraley, Deeper Shade of Blue has added Steve Wilson (Wilson Banjo Co.) to contribute 5-string, and he has been an excellent choice. His playing throughout these dozen songs is pristine. Deeper Shade of Blue’s core remains Poindexter, Troy Pope (guitar), Burgess (bass), and Jason Fraley (mandolin). Everyone sings but Wilson, and again- no notes are included.

Several of the included songs are originals including Pope’s “Radio Tears,” a mid-tempo song that touches a chord, and “Blue Was Just a Color,” a Pope song co-written with Brinkman. Wilson’s “Power In A Moment” sounds like it should be an instrumental, but is actually one of the album’s most lyrically commanding songs. Jason Fraley’s “I’m On My Way” is a circle song of the type bluegrass audiences never seem to tire.

Two Larry Rice songs (“Four Wheel Drive” and “If You Only Knew”) as is Wyatt Rice’s “Jared’s Rag.” Larry Gatlin’s popular “Broken Lady” leads off the album. All of these covers are well-presented and completely enjoyable.

Deeper Shade of Blue is an impressive bluegrass band; I have fond memories of Steam from a few years back. Twenty is every bit as good, and reveals that the band would be a good fit for most radio programs and festivals.

Pinecastle’s Bonfire imprint is used for acts that don’t quite fit the bluegrass mainstream, but I have to say that Andrew Crawford’s The Lonesome Season is a mighty strong bluegrass release. The songs may be a bit ‘more’ than most bluegrass songs, but not uncomfortably so. He sings of familiar topics, and although he may use more words and alternate structures, it is a very strong set of music.

Self-produced and self-written (with co-writes) The Lonesome Season has been played repeatedly since received this week.  The lead track, mostly because I’ve been watching it almost daily this month, pulls up visions of The Waltons-—creeks and trees, nature, hills, and the chill of night—that are completely incongruent to the mood of the song, which is a little dark. The narrative is ambiguous, and we’re not sure who has gone missing or died or under what circumstance. Still, the memory of a loved one lingers and motivates. A good, curious song.

Guests on select songs include familiar names including Shawn Lane, Aaron Ramsey, Glen Harrell, Jason Moore, and Josh Shilling. A pair of songs—a new take on the John Henry legend entitled “How Many Miles of Track” and “My Share of Heartache”—display an interesting congruence, one about working all day for little, the other promising “never gonna swing an eight-pound hammer”—take us deeper into an album of quality and depth. “My Share of Heartache” is a songwriter’s song of songwriting—’I’ve never done the things captured in bluegrass songs, but I know Hurt.’

I wasn’t familiar with Crawford prior to listening to The Lonesome Season. A vague recollection of his name on a Dale Ann Bradley album was confirmed; he played guitar on her cover of a Journey song. His bio is impressive, and he has been around our music for years. He has a good voice, and on songs like “The House That Daddy Built,” “Always Another Mountain,” and “Big Montana,” Crawford shows that not only can he write and sing bluegrass, he can deliver it with that elusive ‘authenticity’ that not everyone can contribute.

The opening lyrics of “The Will” pull us in, and the reveal is a fine if anticipated pay-off. The vocals on “Pace’s Bluff” do not sound consistent to the rest of the album, and I’m guessing the singer is Daniel Salyer. It is another good song and performance, but again…labels: NOTES.

Two impressive instrumentals round out the eight vocal numbers, and in my books that makes a well-rounded bluegrass collection.

Anyone still reading?

Five fine and better bluegrass albums from Pinecastle and Bonfire, all highly recommended depending on tastes and predisposition.

For me the Andrew Crawford is likely the album I am most likely to return over the next decade, but the Daryl Mosley and Deeper Shade of Blue albums are highly recommended. You can’t beat Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road when it comes to bluegrass gospel and instrumental execution.

The Kim Robins album isn’t exactly my wheelhouse, I didn’t turn it off, I’ve enjoyed it the three or four times its played, and while not on my list of essentials, neither is it to be stuffed in the ‘never play again’ box. And yes, such a box exists within my Bluegrass Bunker. (“Leave the Porch Light On” is playing as I do a final proof of this rather wordy compilation of reviews, and it is ringing nicely. Good song from Robins and Dawn Kenney.)

2000+ words about bluegrass. Not bad for a wintery, Saturday morning in December.

One thought on “Five Bluegrass Reviews in One

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