Just a couple of days to Christmas, and my series of Roots Songs of Christmas is coming to a close. There are so many songs and performances I wish I could have included, and- rather than having a non-roots song of Christmas today- I will provide links to some of these down below.
I had considered going all Bah, Humbug today, but I couldn’t find a link to Tim O’Brien’s song of the same name. “Santa Bloody Claus” was an option, but while I love both of these songs, I don’t want to go down that path this year. I’d rather keep things focused on more traditional meanings of Christmas.
And things don’t get much more traditional than the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, my Roots Song of Christmas is an entire album, bluegrass songwriter and artist Donna Ulisse’s All the Way to Bethlehem. Much like Kimmie Rhodes’ Miracle on Christmas Day, Ulisse has chosen to go all the way and write an entire album focused around Christmas; this set is focused on her interpretation of the events leading up to and following the birth of Christ.
The album obviously has a Christian rather than secular approach to Christmas. From the immaculate conception (“You Will Be Delivered”,) to Joseph’s confusion (“He’s Not Mine,”) to an interpretation of the events at the inn (“You Cannot Stay Here,”) to the star leading the three kings (“I’m Gonna Shine“) Ulisse’s (along with her collaborators) interpretation of Scripture and the Christmas story is both interesting and listenable. I believe “Let the World Wait for a Little While” will become a seasonal favourite.
Considering the number of songs that already exist about the first Christmas, all the traditional songs that we grew up on, it is pretty remarkable that Ulisse has been able to create new and inspirational music that forges new ground: a listen to “He Is Here” provides ample evidence of this.
The music is varied, some touches of bluegrass, a bit of contemporary Christian-pop sounds, and some country, and it definitely isn’t for everyone. But, one admires the energy and focus- not to mention talent and vision- that went into All the Way to Bethlehem.
Honourable mention today goes to The Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass
A Christmas bluegrass set I’ve almost plum wore out
Boys with “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’;” this clip is from the old Nashville Network Ralph Emery show.
As for the other songs that I couldn’t fit in before tomorrow’s all-time best Roots Song of Christmas, and really it will be the only song on the list that I consider to be in any sort of order, there are links to more; happy exploring.
Jack Johnson “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” in which Johnson has rewritten the popular song into the tale of self-determination it should have been all along.
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s excellent “Bells are Ringing” from her Come Darkness, Come Light album of a few years back.
Eric Bogle “Santa Bloody Claus”
Chuck Brodsky “Toast to the Woman in the Holler”
The Be Good Tanyas “Rudy”
Mary Gauthier “Christmas in Paradise”
Eric Brace and Peter Cooper “Silent Night”
The Indigo Girls “I Feel the christmas Spirit”
Chris Rea “Driving Home for Christmas”
Chris deBurgh “A Spaceman Came Traveling”
As well as a couple I couldn’t find links to, Jane Hawley “Christmas in Montreal” which is on her Letters to Myself album and Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum’s entire Winter’s Grace album.
Thanks for checking in at Fervor Coulee. Tomorrow, what I consider the all-time best Roots Christmas Song.
I rewrote my review of Laurie Lewis’s latest at the request of the Lonesome Road Review; without doubt, an incredible album.
Skippin’ and Flyin’
Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways few others have attempted. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, several Monroe ‘tributes’ have been released. Skippin’ and Flyin’ is easily the most impressive and understated.
Nowhere on the cover of Skippin’ and Flyin’ is Mr. Monroe mentioned or illustrated. Rather, Laurie Lewis appears in full-blown Blue Grass Boy regalia, dressed with the same precision of style and substance that has been her hallmark for the past several decades as one of bluegrass and acoustiblue music’s beautiful flowers.
Skippin’ and Flyin’ is not simply a collection of Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, the disc goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe’s music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences.
Laurie Lewis is no newcomer, having played almost every bluegrass festival there is and having recorded several excellent albums over the years. However, she has never narrowed her field of vision 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.
Throughout this recent album, Lewis doesn’t mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been affected by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the root of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted.
Skippin’ and Flyin’ takes its name from “Old Ten Broeck,” which opens this magnificent 55-minute album: “Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and gone away, Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and flyin’.”
Lewis has taken this precursor to “Molly and Tenbrooks” to its roots in the music of the Carver Boys and Cousin Emmy while working in elements from Mike Seeger and Monroe. (Thank goodness for artists, like Lewis, who believe in the value of song notes!)
She takes a different approach with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It is almost as if Lewis is saying, “This is Monroe, and we’ll honour him by performing it as he did.” Lewis takes liberty with the chorus, switching up the ‘left me blue’ and ‘proved untrue’ lines, but otherwise maintains the spirit of the early, pre-Elvis Monroe recordings of the song, including an extended, mournful fiddle feature and beautiful mandolin from Rozum.
The final ‘Monroe’ song included here is also the lonesomest. As recorded here by Lewis and her touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) “A Lonesome Road,” recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues,” a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.
A contemporary gem is Mark Erelli’s lyrically rich song of devastation, “Hartfordtown 1944.” Monroe never heard the song, but one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.
Songs from Del McCoury, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, as are fresh interpretations of “What’s Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me)” and “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Going back even further, “Fair Beauty Bright” has hauntingly ideal mandola offerings from Rozum.
Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded “better” ones than this. But none have been more important or have affected me more. By exploring Bill Monroe—his music, his tradition, his influences—in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.
Various Artists Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute Rounder Records
There has seemingly been no end to the ‘tribute’ offerings to be produced in this the Year of Bill Monroe. While some of the recordings have been highly original- Laurie Lewis’s set Skippin’ & Flyin’ and Niall Toner’s ”William Smith Monroe,” as two examples- others have been less so, although still enjoyable.
Similar to Rebel Records’ companion albums With Body and Soul (secular) and Let the Light Shine Down (gospel), this two-disc Rounder set pulls 27-Monroe songs from the vaults. Performed by a variety of artists- everyone from the Bluegrass Album Band to Claire Lynch, Vern Williams, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band- the overall quality of the selections is high. Five tracks from the Bluegrass Album Band and three tracks from both the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Michael Cleveland may seem like overkill, but that would be nitpicking, especially considering the musicianship present on these cuts. While it times out at just over 80-minutes, one has a hard time cutting any of the tracks which would have allowed it to be a single-disc issue. Still, I bought my copy of $14.99 so I can hardly complain from an economic point of view.
While some folks may have all of these catalogue tracks in their collections, the package is still of interest for significant reasons, not the least of which is that it provides a darn enjoyable listen. The lengthy essay from Bill Nowlin is very readable and contains enough information to serve as a reminder of how much one still doesn’t fully understand about Monroe’s music and life. A lively new take of “Close By” from vocal darlings Dailey & Vincent has proven popular on bluegrass radio.
A fine collection that would be appreciated by almost all bluegrass fans.
Laurie Lewis Skippin’ and Flyin’ Spruce and Maple Music
I’ve been told that I have a tendency to occasionally write more than people want to read, given these days of shorter attention spans and such. So here is the capsule review: West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays the ultimate tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways that he may not have imagined. 5 stars; 9.5/10; 93.7/100; Essential listening.
2011 has been deemed by the greater bluegrass community as ‘the year of Bill Monroe.’ In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Father of Bluegrass has been feted far and wide: tribute bands have performed and tribute albums and songs have been recorded and released, some very good and some simply bordering on exploitive. Even Garrison Keeler and his Prairie Home Companion friends are getting in on the act, taking the show on the road to Kentucky in November for an evening of Bill Monroe music and stories featuring several Blue Grass Boys.
The most impressive Bill Monroe tribute to arrive this autumn may also be the most understated. Nowhere on the cover of Skippin’ and Flyin’ is Mr. Monroe mentioned or illustrated. Rather, Laurie Lewis appears in full-blown Blue Grass Boy regalia, dressed with the same precision of style and substance that has been her hallmark for the past several decades as one of bluegrass and acoustiblue music’s beautiful flowers.
Also unlike most of the previously released projects- and again, some of them have been quality albums assembled for the ‘right’ reasons- Skippin’ and Flyin’ is not simply a collection of 10 or 15 Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, Skippin’ and Flyin’ goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe’s music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences. This is an album that embraces elements of those Mr. Monroe himself recorded.
While Mr. Monroe didn’t follow any rules other than his own, it wasn’t unusual for him to record songs from folk, country, and mountain traditions. One of his substantial talents was for making those songs seem entirely new in his hands. At the same time, he would sometimes go back to his own catalogue and breathe fresh life into songs he recorded many years previously. Mr. Monroe also had a talent for identifying and recording songs from contemporary writers. From all I’ve learned, he had affection for the blues and brought disparate rhythms into his music, making it all work through his intense vision of what was right for his music. Of course, he also wrote songs- great songs, ‘true songs,’ songs that will last.
The above also clearly describes Laurie Lewis’ beautiful project, Skippin’ and Flyin’. As she writes in her detailed, insightful, and very personal liner notes, “Bill Monroe was not a follower of styles but steadfastly played his singular music through the good times and the tough, inspiring me with his example to be free to explore my own musical path. Almost all of the songs here are performed with a ‘traditional’ bluegrass band: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. All of the harmony singing stems directly from the school of Bill Monroe.”
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.
She 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 two years back I saw her filling in 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 that was 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.
Skippin’ and Flyin’ takes its name from “Old Ten Broeck,” which opens this magnificent 55-minute album: “Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and gone away, Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and flyin’.”
Lewis has taken this instantly recognizable precursor to “Molly and Tenbrooks,” a song frequently performed by Bill Monroe, back to its roots in the music of The Carver Boys and Cousin Emmy while working in elements from Mike Seeger and Monroe. Thank goodness for artists, like Lewis, who believe in the value of song notes!
As she does throughout the album, Lewis doesn’t simply mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been impacted by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the roots of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted in 2011.
She takes a very different tack with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It is almost as if Lewis is saying, ‘This is Monroe, and we’ll honour him by performing it as he did.” Lewis takes liberty with the chorus, switching up the ‘left me blue’ and ‘proved untrue’ lines, but otherwise maintains the spirit of the early, pre-Elvis Monroe recordings of the song, including an extended, mournful fiddle feature.
The final ‘Monroe’ song included on Skippin’ and Flyin’ is also the lonesome-est. As recorded here by Lewis and her usual touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) “A Lonesome Road,” recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy and works nicely in tempo with the album’s mid-set flavour. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues,” a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.
Songs from Del McCoury (“Dreams”) and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, I imagine because- as Lewis writes in the notes- “If Bill Monroe hadn’t come along, there probably wouldn’t have been Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, or any of the modern bluegrass bands you hear today.” (And, before shorts get twisted too tightly, she continues: “But there would have been and would be someone playing some sort of tradition-based string band music. And it would hold appeal for many people today, just as it has for generations.”) So we have fresh interpretations of “What’s Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me),” as fine a justification for cheatin’ and hurtin’ as has been written, and “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Going back even further, “Carter’s Blues” (from the American tradition) and “Fair Beauty Bright” (from the British)- two ribbons well-mined by Monroe- are included. Tom Rozum’s mandola offerings on the latter tune are haunting and ideal.
On the contemporary front, Lewis offers stellar gems. Mark Erelli’s lyrically rich song of devastation “Hartfordtown 1944” is given a full-blown bluegrass setting (and check out his version on 2006’s exceptional Hope & Other Casualties, the album that convinced me that Erelli is every bit as ‘good’ as the singer-songwriters you have heard). While Monroe never heard the song, one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.
I’ve often stated that everything I know and appreciate about religion has been learned through bluegrass songs, and Lewis continues my education with “The Pharaoh’s Daughter.”
Expanding on the story of Moses, Lewis tells of what became of his rescuer. In an entirely different manner, Lewis shares her admiration for lost giants of Appalachia; “American Chestnuts” is Lewis’s take on an ecological “Rise Again,” a promise that that which is lost can return.
I believe that leaves only two tracks unmentioned, Wilma Lee Cooper’s “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” and “Going Away” which comes from Utah Phillips. With Cooper’s passing last month, “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” serves then as a tribute to one of the leading ladies of country and bluegrass music and it is entirely appropriate that today’s first lady of bluegrass, Dale Ann Bradley, joins in on harmony.
Similarly, and yet entirely differently, Lewis acknowledges Phillips by performing his “Going Away” in a style that would have been out-of-place on a Monroe album but which is entirely sensible within the context of Skippin’ and Flyin’.
Fifteen hundred-plus words to analyze an album of 14-songs? There is something to be said for brevity, but in the case of Skippin’ and Flyin’ fewer words wouldn’t do, at least for me. Better writers than I will be able to distil the essence of this artistic creation, but for me it took all these words to capture what I believe is a beautiful and landmark album.
Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded ‘better’ ones than this. But none have been more important or have impacted me more. By exploring Bill Monroe- his music, his tradition, his influences- in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.
The bluegrass album of 2011? Perhaps not, but on my list with Dale Ann’s Somewhere South of Crazy, Blue Highway’s Sounds of Home, Junior Sisk’s The Heart of a Song, and Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Paper Airplane.
Skippin’ and Flyin’ is released October 18, 2011. Lewis appears at several events and festivals through to December, including a CD release show at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA November 26.
Sporting a classic looking cover, With Body and Soul is one of two new compilation albums offered up this month by Rebel Records in celebration of the Bill Monroe Centennial this coming Tuesday, September 13. I’ve posted five additional album selections at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, albums I feel would make good listening this weekend as we come a bit closer to September 13. Click on the link http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=811 to get to Country Standard Time and FCB. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald