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.
Archive for the ‘2009 Releases’ Tag
Gold…In A Way is an opportunity for me to occasionally re-examine a bluegrass album that I believe deserves a second listen. This time out I look at David Parmley & Continental Divide’s 2009 album Three Silver Dollars. Featuring a title cut from Tom T. Hall and outstanding playing from Parmley, Dale Perry, Ron Spears, Ron Stewart, and Kyle Perkins, this was without doubt one of the finest albums of 2009. It stands up five years later. This link will get you over to Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, where the piece is published.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald @FervorCoulee
I’ve been listening to Chris Jones & the Night Drivers quite frequently the past two weeks.
Chris Jones is a bluegrass and Americana artist who should be better known than he is, in my opinion. For a number of reasons, he doesn’t maintain the profile of more acclaimed bluegrass performers. However, having recorded numerous albums and appeared as a member of a number of significant bluegrass bands- The Special Consensus, The Weary Hearts, The Lynn Morris Band- Jones has established himself as an upper echelon songwriter and vocalist. Of course, he is also well known from his daily hosting duties on SiriusXM.
While always worthy of a listen, the reason I have been delving into Jones’s catalog recently is because the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society- an Alberta club I’ve been a member of since its inception more than a decade ago- is presenting Jones & the Night Drivers January 29. By habit, I tend to listen to artists we’re presenting just before I book them and then again just before they appear. Therefore, as the year turned, I found myself again pulling all of the Chris Jones albums off the bluegrass shelf.
From Blinded by the Rose, (which, for some reason, I haven’t been able to lay hands on this month…where is it?) Jones’s debut release featuring the Union Station line-up of the day through to his non-bluegrass album of a couple years back (Too Far Down the Road), Jones hasn’t taken a wrong step. The albums are solid, interesting, and enjoyable collections of superior bluegrass songwriting and performance. Whether revisiting a folk standard such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” or a county standard like “My Baby’s Just Like Money,” Jones is able to interpret the words and music of others with rare intensity. Similarly, he brings a formidable vision to more recent songs from the likes of John Pennell and most notably, Tom T. and Dixie Hall: his rendition of “The Man on the Side of the Road” was one of the most played bluegrass songs of 2001.
But what has always identified Jones more than his interpretations of others is the power of his own compositions. One only needs to hear a song like “Just a Town” (co-written with his wife Sally) once to understand that they are listening to someone who is a master of words and melody. When he sings, “But somehow it brings me down, now it’s just a town,” anyone who has ever returned to a place of significance only to find the allure- the connection- missing can relate to that which Jones writes about. And when he sings of the café on the corner being “full of strangers, nobody knows my name,” a piece of one’s own heart aches for the remembrance of the time a place, a people, moved on without him.
His version of “Fork in the Road”- a song on which he shared IBMA song of the year honors with John Pennell when The Infamous Stringdusters released it in 2007- is as stunning a bluegrass performance as is contained on the compilation disc A Few Words.
His most recent album, Cloud of Dust, came out more than a year ago and is the first to feature the current Night Drivers line-up. The album includes a re-recording of a song that Jones previously recorded- “The Last Nail”- as well as the bonus inclusion of a couple songs from Just A Drifter – but the vast majority of the music is new. The material is uniformly of an unusually high standard, and Jones is in great voice throughout. Recently I’ve noticed the phrase “low lonesome sound” associated with Jones, and I understand this usage. He has a gentle, deep voice that one doesn’t necessarily associate with great bluegrass vocalists. But there is no mistaking the intensity and focus with which Jones relates his tales of misery and woe. It is a very strong album, one of the most enjoyable I’ve heard in the past several weeks.
Further endearing him, Jones provides the album liner notes on his website for those of us who purchase his music via download.
One of the reasons I was so eager to book Jones for the WBMS this winter was that Jones spends his winters in Northern Alberta, near his wife’s family and her work at a regional college. With such a talent spending so much time in the province, it is near criminal that we haven’t previously featured Jones in our concert season.
As I repeatedly listen to Cloud of Dust this month, I have found something as appealing about the album as Jones’ voice, songwriting, and approach to bluegrass and that is the bass-playing of long-time Night Driver Jon Weisberger.
Weisberger is well-known as a features writer for publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, No Depression, and Nashville Scene. He has also become a presence in the bluegrass songwriting world with cuts having appeared on albums from Blue Highway, Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson, The Chapmans and others, and serves on the IBMA’s Board of Directors. Weisberger has a pair of co-writes on Cloud of Dust: “Cold Lonesome Night” and “ Silent Goodbye.”
As I listen to the album, I find myself unconsciously playing air-bass along with Weisberger. Now, those who are most familiar with my lack of rhythm and musical intellect realize I don’t hardly know a I from a V when it comes to bass playing, and I only have a nagging suspicion that there is a IV floating around those other notes. My air-bass playing is only slightly more advanced than the air-guitar I previously played listening to Born to Run or Who’s Next. What is different is the musical maturity I bring to my bluegrass listening today, a clarity developed by years of focused concentration. And what I hear holding down the bottom end on Cloud of Dust is terribly impressive.
Playing bass is frequently viewed as the easiest way into bluegrass jamming: master a couple notes and have a decent sense of time, and one is on their way. Of course, in bluegrass nothing- harmony singing, rhythm guitar, the mandolin chop- is as simple as it seems on first impression and bluegrass bass is no exception. While not as immediately noticeable as other bluegrass elements, bluegrass bass isn’t exactly easy to do right. And throughout Cloud of Dust, Weisberger demonstrates his art in admirable fashion.
My music vocabulary isn’t developed enough to identify exactly what it is Weisberger does on Cloud of Dust to make his playing stand out so markedly to me. Part of what is apparent to me is that the album is presented to allow all musicians their space within the arrangements. No one appears to be stepping into another’s aural space. While Ned Luberecki’s banjo in may shine for a lead break on the title cut, one feels the throbbing rhythm of Weisberger’s contributions maintaining the balance of the tune.
Elsewhere, on the reflective “What You Do,” Weisberger’s playing adds atmosphere to Jones’s matter-of-fact lyrics. A very different mood is captured within “Cold Lonesome Night,” and again the fingers start strumming an imaginary upright bass, so starkly do the notes Weisberger lays down appear within the well-constructed instrumentation. And don’t get me started on “One Door Man,” the mid-album cut on which I first noticed my fingers moving in rhythm to Weisberger’s playing.
I always find it interesting to realize what ‘grabs’ me about an album. Sometimes the packaging is what draws me in, an appreciation for the care that was put into making a purchase worthwhile. Once in a while, it will be a tone of an instrument or a vocal inflection that I’ll notice. More often it is the use of words that draws me in. I’m pretty certain that I’ve never consciously been pulled into a bluegrass album because of the sound a bass player has achieved, although I am aware of particular songs that have impacted me as a result of the bass.
I’m fairly certain Chris Jones didn’t design Cloud of Dust around Weisberger’s bass-playing. Similarly, I doubt the Night Drivers felt they had captured anything more special on this recording than other times they had recorded- either together or apart- tracks for an album. But for some reason, while listening to Cloud of Dust this past week, my fingers wouldn’t stay still- moving in and out, up and down- a four-stringed fingerboard only I could feel.
And I have an additional reason to look forward to an evening of bluegrass in Red Deer on January 29.
Chris Jones & the Night Drivers appear in Blythe, CA January 14-15 and Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary, AB January 28-30.
As always, buy some music! And if you’re up to it, share your thoughts about Cloud of Dust.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Originally published at The Lonesome Road Review, reviews of Robert Plant, Sweet Sunny South, and Honey Don’t albums.
Band of Joy
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Not being as familiar with Robert Plant’s influences as others may have been, I was stunned with fear in early 2007 to hear whispers of his coming project with Alison Krauss. Upon hearing Raising Sand I was forced to take back all youthful, uninformed, and disparaging words spoken about Plant and his caterwauling with Led Zeppelin; still not a huge appreciator of the lead balloon, as I delved deeper into his recorded legacy, I found much to appreciate and respect in Plant’s singing.
Even with a band centered about the twin forces that are Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, one may not have anticipated that Robert Plant’s second foray into the roots-country-Americana field would be as entirely successful as Band of Joy most obviously is.
As on his previous, award-winning collaboration with Krauss, Plant surrounds himself with the finest talent and songs that money, influence, and friendship can solicit. This time out Bekka Bramlett and Patty Griffin serve as Plant’s female foils, although their contributions are less consistently present than Krauss’ were.
Vibrant and full, the instrumentation on this album swirls into dirges that are almost trance-inducing. Reworking songs from key writers — Hidalgo & Perez, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt — as well some less familiar and those whose names are lost within traditions, Plant and album co-producer Miller have created a bold, sonically challenging and sturdy interpretation of modern roots music.
“Silver Rider,” one of two Low songs included, most directly ghosts the sound of Raising Sand. Layered harmony is gently filtered through a swirl of sounds owing as much to north Africa as Memphis and Nashville. “You Can’t Buy My Love” perhaps comes closest to exploring the sounds most frequently associated with Plant pre-Raising Sand; the Barbara Lynn track is stretched out a little while being given a rock ‘n’ roll cover that should stand as one of the album’s crowning achievements.
“Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, familiar to all who embrace traditional folk music, have never likely sounded quite like they do here. Plant gives “Cindy” an erotic overtone absent on previously heard recordings.
While a thoroughly engaging album in its own right, albums like Band of Joy can lead one in new directions. Much as listening to an early Emmylou Harris album did, this one sends listeners on a search to learn more about the writers and artists covered, like Barbara Lewis, Low, and Milton Mapes, a fairly obscure outfit whose “The Only Sound that Matters” allows Plant to revisit the thrill of discovering the music that will maintain a significant presence for the rest of one’s life.
What a joyful thing it is to hear afresh songs long familiar.
By Donald Teplyske
I love this vocation.
Every few weeks I receive in the mail an album from someone I’ve never heard of before, would never have encountered without having been given the opportunity to write about roots music. More often than not, those unfamiliar sounds become favorites, at least for a little while.
Based in the Rocky Mountain community of Paonia, Colorado, Sweet Sunny South and Honey Don’t are bands that share a common core: the production of acoustic Americana within an honest, organic context.
The husband-and-wife team of Billy Bowers (guitar, vocals, mandolin, banjo) and Shelley Gray (bass and vocals) appear to be the foundation of both outfits with Powers providing much of the original material, which the discs have in abundance.
Sweet Sunny South is a string band with an old-time focus embracing bluegrass, jugband, country, and Cajun fiddling overtones. The playing is focused and tight. Cory Obert’s fiddle is the strand that weaves together many of the tunes, not the least of which is the instrumental title track. The quartet isn’t worried about conventions as they invite guests to introduce coronet, trombone, and even sitar to select tracks.
The strongest cuts are “Mississippi,” a love song to the great muddy river and the Opry lovefest, “Ghost of Gram” which name-checks a flurry with the “pick of the litter of back-up singers, Me and Emmylou Harris, Julie Miller, Gillian, Loretta, Kasey Chambers, too” and includes “Bill Monroe playing mandolin for me!” Heck, Elvis, Willie, The Beatles, and Uncle Dave Macon drop by for this songwriter’s dream.
The entire project leaves one with a loose, positive vibe that lasts long after the listening is done, and is reminiscent of recording from both The Wilders and Chatham County Line. Nicely done.
Honey Don’t rolls a little harder than Sweet Sunny South; if Sweet Sunny South is afternoon, Honey Don’t is late evening. More country-blues influence is obvious amongst the thirteen tracks comprising Honey Don’t, but the music is every bit as delicately crafted.
The songs contributed to this collection are even stronger than those comprising Carried off by a Twister. “Sixty Years” looks back on a relationship destined to last three score “and a million more;” Ryan Drickey’s fiddle and Powers’ mandolin provide the coloring to this delicately constructed number. One could easily hear Tim O’Brien or Gillian Welch taking a run at “Ellia Jewel,” while “Who Took the Jukebox” is a lighthearted lament of what happens when the music disappears after BMI calls and ASCAP goons are sent around.
The tradition is explored with invigorating takes of “Pallet on Your Floor” and “The Cuckoo,” the first of which continues to reveal the gentle strength of Powers’ voice. Gray’s “The Cuckoo” shows that she has the chops to take the lead more frequently.
Like Carried off by a Twister, Honey Don’t is a marvelous wee album just waiting for discovery. Tastefully presented, the band embraces the music they love and deliver a charming, lively, and original interpretation of their influences.
Hope all is well with you- go listen to something good. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Things have been quite on the Fervor Coulee front lately, and for that I apologize. I’ve been busy with real life commitments, meaning FC has gone on the back-burner. This week in my Red Deer Advocate Roots Music column I review the latest from The Honey Dewdrops and The Grascals. (Originally published in the Red Deer Advocate, April 16, 2010)
The Honey Dewdrops If The Sun Will Shine www.thehoneydewdrops.com
The Honey Dewdrops are the Virginia-based husband and wife team of Kagey Parrish and Laura Wortman, and they make some of the sweetest slo-fi sounds this side of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
Comprised entirely of original material, If The Sun Will Shine is so open and delicate an acoustic folk listening experience that it flies by in a flash. Wortman takes the leads and plays guitar with Parrish harmonizing and contributing both guitar and mandolin.
The songs are poetic, deceptively simple but substantial; the duo’s approach to instrumentation and arrangement are similarly straight-forward. Wortman’s captivating voice delivers lyrics that are devastating in their gorgeousness:
Shadows in here, crowd the floor
Echo calls, can’t hear no more
Gets so loud, when I’m all alone
My ears’ll bleed that whisper tone
-from “How We Used to Be”
Why does this album appeal so dramatically? Perhaps it is the comforting honesty flowing within the writing and performance.
Sometimes, an album grabs you and you don’t exactly knowwhy; you’re just glad it does.
Give The Honey Dewdrops a listen and see if you don’t fall under their spell.
The Grascals The Famous Lefty Flynn’s Rounder
Having been awarded several industry awards during their ongoing run as a premier bluegrass outfit, with The Famous Lefty Flynn’s The Grascals prove that there are few bands that can match them for studio mastery.
Not atypical in the bluegrass world, the Nashville-based group has experienced personnel changes; with the addition of Kristin Scott Benson on 5-string banjo and Jeremy Abshire on fiddle, the sextet remains formidable. The talents of the newcomers are especially apparent on less rambunctious numbers including “Out Comes the Sun” and an impressive rendering of Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues.”
The band has always had a way with story songs and they demonstrate this again with the title track which includes a bank robber, a jailbreak, death, and a fortune cached in a well. Also impressive are “Satan and Grandma” and “Up This Hill and Down”, a song from the Osborne Brothers. The novel inclusion of “Last Train to Clarksville” may have proven disruptive but instead is enlivened by a dynamic vocal approach.
Blending high-calibre bluegrass music with country hit-making possibilities has been something The Grascals have previously explored, and here they are joined by Hank Williams, Jr. for a convincing treatment of “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome”, a song written by Hank Sr. and Bill Monroe backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
On their fourth album, The Grascals exhibit that they remain a bluegrass powerhouse, utilizing three-lead vocalists dexterously while maintaining a vibrant and multi-dimensional instrumental approach.
My review of Madison Violet’s album No Fool For Trying has been posted at the Country Standard Time site, http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=4401
It has been out for some time in Canada, but I was only just sent the album for review. It wasn’t released in the USA until November.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.
I just noticed that Chris Scruggs has a recent album, Anthem. I listened to the tracks on his MySpace site and am quite intrigued- as much Ray Davies as Gail Davies, if I can (try to) be so clever. I liked his work with BR549 and on his mother’s Bluegrass Inn live disc.
Ever since I became aware of Chris, I’ve had a soft spot for him. I’ve been a bit disturbed at Earl’s refusal (in print and in person) to acknowledge Chris, but I suspect that matter will remain- for whatever reason- in the family. When I briefly interviewed Mr. Scruggs a few years back, I pointedly asked of his grandchildren’s interest in music, following up on a comment he had made. He stated that none were, none had expressed an interest; I didn’t belabour the point, having no desire to beat up on an older man and having respect for his contributions to bluegrass, but I still thought it was sad that a man would discount a grandchild.
http://www.myspace.com/chrisscruggs to give it a listen. Available on iTunes and eMusic.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald