Archive for the ‘Blue Highway’ Tag

Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival, 2017   Leave a comment

It isn’t often you get to reinvent yourself after 31 years, but that is what Blueberry Bluegrass needed and was able to achieve during their 2017 event, August 4-6. BBG

Held in Stony Plain, Alberta, the Society celebrated their 32nd edition by pulling out all the stops to even hold the event. The current organizing committee didn’t take the reins of the fest until late February, and with no advance work having been done for the 2017 event, many feared for the future of the festival. But thanks to the efforts of area bluegrass stalwarts, many associated with but separate from the Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society, it happened. And thank goodness it did.

Blueberry has long been one of Canada’s premier bluegrass events, having been referred to (accurately or not) as the largest and oldest bluegrass festival in the country, going through periods of growth (and stints of fallow) over the course of its three decades. It has battled August snow storms, near tornado-like winds and rain, sound system failures, no-shows, and performance disappointments while also embracing warm, azure Alberta skies, life-altering shows from legends, facilitating friendships and an intermittently strong provincial bluegrass scene.

Prior to this year’s event, Blueberry had gone through the management of essentially three different teams of leadership, each featuring individual strengths, foci, perspective, and vision during their years of control. Respect for all who previously headed the fest. While no event can satisfy each and every bluegrass fan—and I stayed away out of dissatisfaction for much of the decade from 2004-2014—Blueberry has done a pretty good job of meeting the needs of most. Quibbles aside, the Alberta bluegrass community has been well-served by Blueberry, and many of the most important names and bands have played the fest, Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, and J. D. Crowe on through to today’s hottest bands including The Earls of Leicester, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and the Del McCoury Band. Local heroes have developed at Blueberry, among them Jerusalem Ridge and Down To The Wood.

Without getting into gossip and ‘inside baseball’ territory—the details of which I am not privy—or criticizing prior practices, Blueberry Bluegrass dived into their next era this year, and the effect was immediately apparent.

While getting into the festival site was a bit of a mess on Saturday morning (the only day I was able to attend this year—I don’t believe I have the stamina to take in a three-day fest), the twenty minutes spent in line awaiting admittance was the only negative I experienced all day. Well, the weather wasn’t great but that is well-beyond anyone’s control.  So many positive adjustments were apparent, some of them very significant.

Most notable, the use of the available facilities was taken to positive advantage. Blueberry has long been fortunate to have a gravelled stage site, access to flushables, and a covered pavilion for venders and additional conveniences. A new building had been built on the site, and the new board grabbed it to allow a second stage, this one indoor. As we all know, any fest is at the mercy of the weather, and by taking advantage of the new building, the organizers  advanced the festival to its next level.

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The Bix Mix Boys- well, most of them. Sorry, Jim.

Not only does the second stage provide an indoor respite for those looking for such (and additional washrooms) it also allowed the festival programmers the advantage of broadening their artistic vision. Providing listeners choice (something admittedly not all welcomed when competing stage times caused undesirable conflicts) the festival allows guests their preference: inside/outside, Band A/Band B, wet/dry. According to one of the performers, the ballroom is not particularly ‘sound-friendly,’ but no one would have discerned that. Why? The festival invested in excellent equipment and sound talent, going as far as bringing in Miles Wilkinson to head up the interior sound team. Amazing. As well, the second floor of the new hall allowed for a private green room for the performers, a separate area for volunteer meals and such, and an intimate workshop space. No complaints heard. A third stage was available for the workshops and jams as well as additional performances.

The organizing committee went extra lengths to provide opportunities for attendees to participate in a variety of activities, some related to bluegrass, some not. While the music is what matters to me, I am glad that the committee recognizes that ‘value added’ elements will help grow the festival. Among the many activities organized for younger guests were a petting zoo, an arcade, and colouring contest, as well as bluegrass-related films, instrumental and singing workshops throughout the days, and facilitated jamming tents. Additionally, the venders market was vastly expanded and improved, and this was only possible by re-establishing relationships with area venders and artisans. The concourse area was filled with tables featuring commercial products, handcrafted items, and instruments, providing additional energy and vitality.

Building relationships is part of all good festival experiences, and the Blueberry board recognizes this. To secure talent, they were able to draw on the personal relationships built with professional musicians through years of involvement within the bluegrass community. The time they committed to working with the local government, communities, and service groups was apparent. Also obvious was the liaising that had been done between Blueberry and other area music presenters, the folk clubs and other western roots music fests, many of which had information tables. Gary Glewinski provided ukulele workshops.

None of this would matter if the quality of the stage presentations was lacking. Despite challenges, this year’s Blueberry line-up was more than satisfying. Of the seven full sets I witnessed, not a single one disappointed and the diversity was appreciated. Each performer seemed to match and exceed those that came before: who was my favourite? Who played last?

Blue Highway, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and David Peterson & 1946 (two sets) displayed different shades of ‘grass, and showed that this music has room for the traditional and original, for the progressive and that which emulates a previous time. (However, I still don’t need yodelling in my bluegrass.) While I didn’t catch their sets, reports were that the Spinney Brothers and Feller and Hill were also well received, while Fervor Coulee faves In With the Old, Russell DeCarle, and Nomad Jones performed on days when I wasn’t present.

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Old Man Luedecke…and his mic stand

Old Man Luedecke provided a bridge to the folk world, while Foghorn Stringband brought in the country/old-time element. Both received extended ovations. Local and area bluegrass talent was also given additional prominence this year, something that had been less respected in recent years. The Bix Mix Boys, whose energetic set I did catch, and Kayla and Matt Hotte were appreciated by their audiences.

While some criticized the lack of BIG NAMES (whomever that is supposed to be- you don’t get bigger than Blue Highway) this year’s festival has to be considered an artistic and entertainment success. Notable was the inclusion of eastern Canadian acts this year—The Spinney Brothers, The Foggy Hogtown Boys, and Old Man Luedecke—when it was previously asserted that it “wasn’t worth the money” to bring talent west. A Canadian festival must support developing and established Canadian bluegrass.

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David Peterson & 1946

I was familiar with all the performers I witnessed on Saturday, but there were still surprises. David Peterson brought Mike Bub along, the bassist making his Blueberry debut twenty years after missing due to illness his scheduled appearance with the Del McCoury Band. Also with Peterson was his tenor foil Mickey Boles, a terrific mandolinist and vocalist, and the team of Corrina Rose Logston (fiddle) and Jeremy Stephens (banjo). What a band, and as a bonus Corrina and Jeremy gifted me a pair of albums, including their highly impressive High Fidelity band release. I had forgotten how powerful a singer Peterson is, and as he was singing “In The Mountaintops to Roams,” he just kept twisting emotion from the song. I’ve already filled a couple holes in my DP&1946 collection purchasing two downloads this week.

Adding to the enjoyment and in another essential progression, a rotating cast of personable MCs worked the stages, keeping the focus where it belongs—on the festival and the talent.

Of all the developments apparent at the 2017 edition of Blueberry, none seemed to be better received than the ‘late night’ old-time country dances. Featuring ever-popular local legends Calvin Vollrath & Alfie Myhres Friday and The Caleb Klauder Country Band on Saturday, reportedly the audience filled the hall and dance floor for high-spirited, communal celebration. These dances were a risk for the Blueberry folks, and it appears to have paid off in full.

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3/4 of Foghorn Stringband

The festival would be nothing without its volunteers, and while I understand some long-serving volunteers were not brought into the fold this past year, those who were working the festival were unfailingly polite and helpful. Hopefully those who were overlooked this time out, perhaps due to the lack of transition support received by the new organizers, will be encouraged back into the event.

During the course of the weekend—and as a result of meticulous planning and effort—Blueberry Bluegrass was completely revitalized!

The Board of Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival must grow their event, attracting additional paying guests and sponsorship. Keeping the focus on bluegrass will be a must, but incorporating the folk, old-time, traditional (but high-quality) country, Americana, and broader acoustic roots worlds will be an important part of the festival’s long-term health and vitality. Similarly, continuing to network with the local communities and governments will be vital, as will ensuring the festival offers its attendees more than just the music—opportunities for families to experience the music together being paramount.

My relationship with Stony Plain, Alberta goes back well before I discovered bluegrass or attended my first Blueberry in 1997. Stony Plain was where I had my first milkshake (at the long gone Gulf station restaurant out on the highway), attended my first pancake breakfast, and saw my first parade. Stony Plain was where Dr. Patterson was, where I went for speech therapy, and where once—as a four-or five-year old—I got onto the floor of the high school gym during a basketball game. It was the town of significance nearest our farm, and I thought I would always live near. Turns out, I haven’t—but for a weekend (or part of one) each year, I return. A dozen times I have driven into town for the festival, and I immediately feel at home. This past Blueberry Bluegrass was that much more significant for its improvements, and I have seldom felt so welcomed.

Way to go, Blueberry organizers: here’s to the next 32 years! See you August 3-5, 2018.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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Bluegrass Albums of 2016   Leave a comment

Here is my list of Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2016. Of course, your kilometreage will vary: I once received a perplexing, cranky email from the father of a fairly prominent bluegrasser whose album I didn’t include on such a list several years ago. For those such inclined, I repeat—these are my favourite bluegrass albums of the year. Not the best, ’cause that is silly. And all I can base it on is those albums I’ve heard, and maybe I somehow missed your son’s album…talk to his publicist.

  1. untitledLaurie Lewis & the Right Hands- The Hazel & Alice Sessions (Spruce and Maple) 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. For me, undoubtedly the bluegrass album of the year. Nominated for a Grammy this time out, I could listen to this one every day. Also, if taken together with the rest of the roots and Americana world, my favourite album of the year.

2. 307217534cdbb2ec36864489b286660fSister Sadie- Sister Sadie (Pinecastle) It remains rare for an all-female outfit featuring well-established personalities to come together to perform and record. Sister Sadie is one hell of a band! Presenting Dale Ann Bradley, Tina Adair and Gena Britt with Deanie Richardson and Beth Lawrence, Sister Sadie not only has individual name recognition, but an appealing, unified bluegrass approach. Dedicating the album to bluegrass innovator Lynn Morris, Sister Sadie has paid homage to the power of their gender’s role in bluegrass and country music.

3. the-earls-of-leicester-rattle-and-roar-album-coverThe Earls of Leicester- Rattle & Roar (Rounder Records) Like the Bluegrass Album Band did three decades ago, The  Earls of Leicester are more than a bluegrass supergroup. They deftly remind the bluegrass community of what this music is about: no ‘nod’ to the roots of the music, this is a full-blown tribute to the sturdy trunk that has supported the many branches of bluegrass for 70 years. While one may not ‘hear’ that the album was largely cut live with the musicians playing simultaneously within the same room, you can certainly ‘feel’ the intimacy of the experience. Everything is precise and note-perfect of course, but listening to “Why Did You Wonder?” one can envision Jerry Douglas nodding to Paul Warren to take a fiddle break after a chorus, Shawn Camp encouraging Charlie Cushman to step-up to deliver a memorable fill, and Jeff White grinning to Barry Bales as the song is brought home. With great regard for the tradition and even greater understanding of the precision required to make this music appear effortless—and the ability to pull it off—Rattle & Roar is another outstanding bluegrass recording from The Earls of Leicester.

4. TheMoreILearnBryanSuttonBryan Sutton- The More I Learn (Sugar Hill Records) Hands down, Bryan Sutton is the preeminent contemporary bluegrass guitar player. With clarity, precision, and enthusiasm born of ingenuity and good-taste, he is the ‘go-to’ player within both the bluegrass and Nashville-country studio recording worlds. All the while, Sutton has maintained a recording presence. While early recordings focused primarily (although not exclusively) on impressive interpretations of familiar instrumentals and fiddle tunes, Sutton has pushed himself on latter albums to develop his songwriting while also presenting himself as a singer. This progression continues with The More I Learn, with seven originals and co-writes and nine songs featuring Sutton in the lead position. A very satisfying recording that will appeal to those who have come to appreciate Sutton’s tasteful approach to bluegrass and acoustic music.

5. balsam-rangeBalsam Range- Mountain Voodoo (Mountain Home) Balsam Range is a band that encapsulates all that modern bluegrass represents. So consistently impressive that we no longer expect their albums to be ‘better than their last,’ in less than a decade Balsam Range has hit the plateau of excellence few groups achieve. Like The Del McCoury Band, Blue Highway, and Alison Krauss & Union Station before them, a new release from Balsam Range is measured against their individual legacy. Mountain Voodoo lacks nothing.

6. unnamedJames Reams & the Barnstormers- Rhyme & Season (Mountain Redbird) I’ve never hidden the fact that James Reams is one of my favourite people in bluegrass. He gets to the heart of the music each and every time, whether interpreting an under-heard classic of the genre, reinventing a country song, or performing one of his many excellent original numbers. Now based in Arizona, the longtime Brooklyn bluegrass mainstay returned this spring with a wonderful new album, Rhyme & Season. Rhyme & Season is most deliberately a concept album, a rarity in bluegrass circles. It includes songs from Mike Stinson (“Angel of the Evening,” Marty Stuart (“Rough Around the Edges,”) and Lawrence Shoberg (“Born to Roll”) and from the catalogs of Porter Wagoner (“$100 Funeral”) and Charley Pride (“Special,”) songs that capture the experiences of life’s outliers, the lost and often invisible.

7. rightbesideyou_280Jeff White- Right Beside You (Jeff White Bluegrass Records) Right Beside You is simply a terrific bluegrass album, one provided shades of influence from the Americana tree. As a result of the familiarity of the material, Right Beside You sounds classic. Because of the quality of performance, it is.

8. blue_highway_original_traditional_cover_rgbBlue Highway- Original Traditional (Rounder Records) Their eleventh album and first since Rob Ickes departed, continues Blue Highway’s recent blueprint: original music written or co-written by band members along with a single traditional song. The album’s title alludes to the group’s tendency to bridge the generations of bluegrass through recognition and reverence for the traditions of the music while ensuring a contemporary, original perspective is always present. With three formidable lead vocalists and key songwriters—Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, and Wayne Taylor— along with Jason Burleson’s alternately aggressive and pensive, propulsive and sympathetic banjo presence (his tune “Alexander’s Run” is a highlight of the recording) and an instrumental lineup as strong as has ever been staged, Blue Highway is one of the top bands in the business. And this is an excellent bluegrass album.

9. paisleyDanny Paisley & Southern Grass- Weary River (Patuxent Music) Weary River was released in late 2015, too late to be considered for most year-end lists including my own, but the album received its due in 2016. For those who continue to appreciate bluegrass unadorned by passing fancy, this album has much to offer.

10. 1455228838118Del McCoury Band- Del and Woody (McCoury Music) As produced previous sets from Billy Bragg & Wilco, Jay Farrar, et al, and The Klezmatics, lyrics stored within the Woody Guthrie Archives were turned over to McCoury to be repurposed. This rootsy set, fully bluegrass in sound and intent, is the result and the first thing one may notice is how much it sounds like a typical Del McCoury Band album: if unaware of its genesis, one wouldn’t be surprised by anything included here. The musicianship is naturally first-class. McCoury has crafted these 12 songs within the well-established family oeuvre, balancing up tempo, but still substantial numbers and reflective, even maudlin songs. Del and Woody should satisfy those searching for fresh takes on Guthrie lyrics as well as the legion that devours music of The Del McCoury Band.

11. Sam Bush- Storyman (Sugar Hill Records) Sam Bush, it can be argued, is the most significant mandolin player of the last fifty years. Bowling Green, Kentucky’s favoured son has long been the bellwether of all things acoustic and ‘grassy. Storyman comes almost seven years after the exceptional Circles Around Me, an album that signified a high-point in Bush’s considerable solo output. As strong as that album was (it made my Top Ten for 2009 and, in hindsight, it would now be certain of a Top 5 berth) Storyman is an even more complete encapsulation of Bush’s approach to acoustic, bluegrass shaded Americana.

12. Special Consensus- Long I Ride (Compass Records) For more than forty years, Greg Cahill has been making bluegrass music as leader of the Special Consensus. Never in that time, as far as I’m aware, has he experienced the type of success as seen in the past few years since signing on with Compass Records and Alison Brown, who also produces this record. They are a stellar bluegrass group, one of the finest in the business. Long I Ride is further evidence of this true life fact.

13. The Grascals- …and then there’s this (Mountain Home) One of bluegrass music’s strongest and most engaging performing groups, The Grascals have consistently freshened traditional sounds with modern, progressive elements. From start to finish, in this case Bill Monroe’s plaintive “Highway of Sorrow,” this album maintains the best parts of The Grascals’ country-tempered style of bluegrass, with lots of banjo from Kristin Scott Benson: The Grascals are back at the top of their game with …and then there’s this.

14. Town Mountain- Southern Crescent (LoHi Records) Southern Crescent isn’t so much a departure from previous albums, especially 2012’s excellent Leave the Bottle, as it is an intense continuation of their southern influences and hard-scrabble bluegrass sound. As raucous as this approach is, there is a place within the (sometimes) staid and constrained bluegrass community for exactly this type of music. It isn’t trying to be country, it sure isn’t leaning toward easy listening, NPR pap—it is bluegrass, just not the type favoured by Bill Monroe. For that matter, it isn’t of the flavour projected by Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Lonesome River Band, or most of today’s mainstream headliners.

15. The Boxcars- Familiar With the Ground (Mountain Home) Continuing their own tradition of excellence, with the self-produced Familiar With the Ground, The Boxcars ably demonstrate that there is nothing better than a five-piece bluegrass band.

16. Kristin Scott Benson- Stringworks (Mountain Home) A beautifully balanced bluegrass album, one that alternates between instrumentals and songs. A very well-constructed and superbly executed bluegrass release, one that reveals the continued growth of one of bluegrass music’s most respected banjoists and personalities.

17. Audie Blaylock & Redline- The Road That Winds (Patuxent Music) Like his previous releases, The Road That Winds is a bluegrass album firmly down the dotted, middle line—it holds a steady course without drifting toward the edges, meeting anything in its way head on. Blaylock comes from the Jimmy Martin school, and his music will always be rooted in that tradition. However, over the course of their evolution, the younger members of the group—and obviously, Blaylock, too—have kept their sights on progressing with their music, ensuring they remain relevant as artists and entertainers. It’s straight-ahead bluegrass, but forward looking in execution.

18. Corrina Rose Logston- Bluegrass Fiddler (Patuxent Music) The title of the album is an acute summation. This is a bluegrass fiddle album, and a darned fine one. While I will sometimes drift-off (to use a polite term for ‘fall asleep’) listening to a fiddle-dominated recording, Bluegrass Fiddler kept me intrigued from start to finish. No doubt part of the reason was that Logston’s assembled band keeps things interesting, not just supporting her fiddling showcase, but sounding like a true band who has worked up a strong set of numbers.

19. Josh Williams- Modern Day Man (Rounder Records) A stunning bluegrass vocalist and guitarist, Williams’ contributions to Rhonda Vincent’s concert appearances are significant, never failing to impress. With the release of Modern Day Man, Williams delivers evidence that second chances must be earned through honesty, acceptance and no little bit of hard work.

20. Jeff Scroggins & Colorado- Ramblin Feels Good (Self-released) With flashes of greatness, Ramblin Feels Good is an above-average bluegrass release from a group that has quietly established a reputation as one of the more satisfying bands working the bluegrass circuit.

 

Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2016   1 comment

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Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass (and eventually I will cross-post here) I have meticulously and expertly (!) compiled my list of my favourite bluegrass album of the year 2016. Please realize, these are my favourite bluegrass albums meaning, a) your list may be different, b) I don’t pretend to know what is best, and c) your definition of bluegrass may be different from mine. After much nasal grazing, these are the twenty I came up with, the albums I most enjoyed, most frequently listened to, and most highly regarded.

By a fairly large measure, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands’ The Hazel and Alice Sessions topped my list. The complete article is posted HERE.

Enjoy.

Blue Highway- Original Traditional review   1 comment

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Blue Highway Original Traditional Rounder Records

For more than twenty years, listeners have been privileged every couple years to encounter a new album from Blue Highway.

Original Traditional, their eleventh and first since Dobroist Rob Ickes departed, continues their most recent blueprint: original music written or co-written by band members along with a single traditional song. The album’s title alludes to the group’s tendency to bridge the generations of bluegrass through recognition and reverence for the traditions of the music while ensuring a contemporary, original perspective is always present.

With three formidable lead vocalists and key songwriters—Tim Stafford (guitar,) Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar,) and Wayne Taylor (bass)— along with Jason Burleson’s alternately aggressive and pensive, propulsive and sympathetic banjo presence (his tune “Alexander’s Run” is a highlight of the recording) and an instrumental lineup as strong as has ever been staged, Blue Highway is one of the top bands in the business.

Joining the group for this recording is the youthful Gaven Largent, briefly of Michael Cleveland’s Flamekeeper and a player who doesn’t ease his way into the Blue Highway sound, confidently laying out his runs on mid-set numbers including the love-gone-wrong piece “What You Wanted” and the vengeful murder ballad “The Story of My Life.”

“Don’t Weep For Me”—essentially “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” meets “Echo Mountain” minus the dog—is a strong lead song. The rest of the 38 minute album reveals the accustomed cast of bluegrass fellows who drink too much (“Water From the Stone,”) hold onto childhood trauma too long (“The Story of My Life,”) and lose a good woman’s love because of it all (“If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me.”)

Still, Blue Highway isn’t a band favouring one-dimensional songs, and none of those songs mentioned exist without shades of gray. In Shawn Lane and Gerald Ellenburg’s album closing number, Blue Highway revisit the good ole days at “The Top of the Ridge” while writing what sounds like either an elegy or (in darker eyes) a note of suicide. “She Ain’t Worth It,” in hands other than Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley, might have been just another song of fateful revenge; their protagonist thinks a little longer about his predicament—rather than grabbing his .44, he sits and “bathe(s) in the afterglow.”

“She Ain’t Worth It” swings more than a little, and features Largent to nice effect. Similarly, “Last Time I’ll Ever Leave This Town” provides the instrumentalists room to showcase their offerings. “Water From the Stone” has a pleasing and inspirational gospel quartet arrangement, while the a cappella treatment of “Hallelujah” is just showing off and seems a fine message to the IBMA: Why exactly aren’t we named Vocal Group of the Year annually?

I am sure I am not the only amateur fact-checker who has gone on extended forays to learn the true life blues behind particular folk and bluegrass numbers. Many (many) years ago, one of the first I did this with was “Tom Dooley,” the standard popularized by Grayson & Whitter, The Kingston Trio, Doc Watson, and hundreds of others. I remember scouring the local libraries for ‘facts’ related to the story of Tom Dula and Laura Foster.

On the Legacy recording made with David Holt, Watson suggested his grandmother knew something about the tale, and that intrigued me even more, as did reading Sharyn McCrumb’s excellent The Ballad of Tom Dooley. My interest was therefore piqued to read the song title “Wilkes County Clay” (the locale of those post-Civil War events) and even more thrilled as the song began with, “In North Carolina, in the County of Wilkes, there’s a tale of deception, murder, and guilt. I’ll spare no compassion, the truth I will tell, Let God alone judge me, this side of hell.” From those words, one knew where Tim Stafford and songwriting partner Bobby Starnes were going.

“Wilkes County Clay” is a mournful song, with Lane’s fiddle colouring the song much as one imagines the instrument did Dula’s final moments. While the narrator’s identify isn’t clear, the song is an agreeable telling of the tale, taking the Grayson-path that other accounts discount. The lyrical choices made (“She hid like a panther in the black of the night, And killed Laura Foster with a bone handle knife”) raises this above typical bluegrass fare.

Original Traditional is another outstanding bluegrass album from Blue Highway. They make it seem easy: forced listening to the number of less-than-adequate bluegrass albums available proves that it isn’t. Blue Highway is a great band, one that has been contributing fresh insight into the bluegrass spectrum for more than two decades. That they continue to rise to the level they do, never taking the easy way, never delivering less than stellar material, is testament to the importance they place on their legacy.

Excellent cover, presumably by Bobby Starnes, too!

Thank you for taking the time to seek out Fervor Coulee. I appreciate that there are lots of places to get roots information and opinion; I’m glad I’m one of them. Donald

 

Blue Highway- The Game review   Leave a comment

I’ve posted my review of Blue Highway’s new album The Game over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, part of the Country Standard Time family of blogs.

imagesGive it a read if you are interested. It is a very well-executed album of interesting and mindful bluegrass.

Thanks to everyone who visits Fervor Coulee and Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, and who follow me on Twitter. Special thanks to Regina at Rounder for getting me caught up last month with a wonderful package of Rounder albums. I appreciate it very much.

 

Best, Donald

Fervor Coulee’s Ten Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2011   Leave a comment

Donald Teplyske’s  favourite ten bluegrass albums of 2011:

Unlike last year, I feel that I did a very good job of ensuring that I heard the vast majority of excellent bluegrass that was released in 2011. I’m still not being serviced by one particular publicist and a couple of the major bluegrass labels, but others keep me ‘in the know’ and I’ve been able to continue purchasing other albums as I’ve become aware of them. Still, there are no doubt outstanding albums I’ve missed, albums that I may have enjoyed and favourably reviewed- Clay Hess, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Grasstowne, and others. But I am more than aware that you can’t hear everything and so what follows is my Ten Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2011 as submitted to the Lonesome Road Review survey. The paragraphs that follow have been largely recycled from my previously written reviews of the albums.

  1. Dale Ann Bradley- Somewhere South of Crazy (Compass) Critically lauded, praised and recognized by her industry and a fan favourite wherever she appears, Dale Ann Bradley’s third Compass album, and eighth overall, continues her measured but steady ascension to the highest levels of bluegrass performance and reverence. Again working with producer Alison Brown, Somewhere South of Crazy is Bradley’s most obviously contemporary bluegrass recording. Over recent albums, Bradley’s music has become increasingly polished while retaining the traditional spirit that has been her hallmark. It is this duality that makes Bradley’s music so appealing. As a recording artist should, Dale Ann Bradley improves her performance with each album. Fully realized and confident, Bradley exudes bluegrass and has never sounded better than on Somewhere South of Crazy.
  2. John Reischman & the Jaybirds- Vintage & Unique (Corvus) Over the past decade, John Reischman & the Jaybirds have become increasing popular in western North America. They are a great bluegrass band, always adding new material to their repertoire. Still, when exceptional mandolin players are mentioned, John Reischman’s name is often forgotten. On Vintage and Unique, the quintet takes Bill Monroe’s “The First Whippoorwill” for a spin and refreshes “Shady Grove” and “Last Chance.”  Trisha Gagnon and Jim Nunally’s voices- which always sound wonderful together- are especially beautiful throughout this recording. The band delivers new songs alongside their reimagining of classic and long-forgotten tunes. “The Cypress Hills” and “Consider Me Gone” are just waiting to be discovered, while “Cold Mountain (Cam Saan)” examines the Canadian railway experience of Chinese labourers. Every track, each break and harmonic moment are highlights within a flawless album.
  3. Larry Sparks- Almost Home (Rounder) An album of blue mountain memories: sons returning home, family history, faith, country roads, lonesomeness, country stars, Sunday dinners with nanner puddin’, and Momma’s apron strings. Larry Sparks’ voice continues to be pure and strong and the instrumental accompaniment he receives on this disc- largely from his touring band- is second to none. There remains a naturalness about the way Sparks approaches his music that is incredibly appealing.
  4. Alison Krauss & Union Station- Paper Airplane (Rounder)A delicate balance of the wistful-yearnsomeness that appeals to a wide-spectrum of the population and the more driving bluegrass sounds that link to the traditional foundation of the band’s history, Paper Airplane is three-quarters of an hour of pure aural pleasure. AKUS further refine the acoustiblue parameters that they have established and explored over the past fifteen years since So Long, So Wrong. The acoustic instrumentation is, as expected, exemplary in its tone and execution and while some of the songs- it could be argued- have a similar calm and sedate sound, there are enough lively moments to maintain momentum. Singularly, the songs are arrestingly enjoyable. Collectively, the cohesive flow of Paper Airplane amounts to one majestic performance.
  5. James Reams & The Barnstormers- One Foot in the Honky Tonk (Mountain Redbird Music) A wonderful bluegrass album that is just waiting for more of us to discover. As he has consistently done, within this new volume James Reams’ life experiences and those of his ancestors permeate the songs- whether he wrote them or not- not lending them authenticity but ensuring they are authentic. When listening to James Reams, one is on a bridge connecting the present to the past, where the waters below blend the relationships and lamentations of today with those who birthed and shaped them. There are few bluegrass singers who match the lithe and masculine timbre Reams brings to the songs he is called to perform. With One Foot in the Honky Tonk, James Reams further defines his bluegrass, blending the varied elements of the roadhouse with sounds from the hills of Kentucky and her neighbors. One foot in the honky-tonk indeed, but the rest of the Barnstormers’ bodies and their souls are deep in the bluegrass performing songs from the likes of Kevin Welch and Mike Henderson, Chris Gaffney, Fred Eaglesmith, Stonewall Jackson and Harlan Howard- folks who know honky tonks, to be sure- as well as original and traditional tunes.
  6. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice- The Heart of a Song (Rebel Records)
  7. Blue Highway- Sounds of Home (Rounder)
  8. Laurie Lewis- Skippin’ and Flyin’ (Spruce and Maple Music)
  9. Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers- Rare Bird Alert (Rounder)
  10. Rebel Records digital reissue campaign featuring releases from Ralph Stanley, The McPeak Brothers, Bill Grant and Delia Bell, Dave Evans, and others.

Honourable mentions to: Charlie Sizemore Heartache Looking for a Home, Ralph Stanley A Mother’s Prayer, Barnstar! C’mon, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper Fired Up, Sarah Jarosz Follow Me Down, Dehlia Low Ravens & Crows, Paul Williams & the Victory Trio Satisfied and The Del McCoury Band Old Memories.

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Blue Highway- Sounds of Home   Leave a comment

Blue Highway- Sounds of Home Rounder Records

Have you ever heard a less than impressive album from bluegrass superstars Blue Highway? Me neither.

During the course of their 17 years as a heavy-hitting bluegrass outfit, the quintet- Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson, Shawn Lane, and 12-time IBMA Dobro player of the year Rob Ickes- has maintained an almost perfectly stable line-up while delivering consistently impressive recordings.

Featuring a trifecta of accomplished lead vocalists- Stafford, Taylor, and Lane- possessing distinctive but complementary sounds is one of several elements that distinguish Blue Highway from many contemporaries. Their performances mesh into the richest, most vibrantly coloured bluegrass presentation. Listening to Blue Highway- both live and on recordings- evokes the same type of quiet contemplation one experiences in places like Florence’s Uffizi Gallery; no matter which direction you turn, you know you are experiencing something timeless and meaningful.

Not for the first time in their career, Blue Highway has elected with Sounds of Home to trust themselves in selecting only band-written material; each song is at minimum a co-write with folks like Barry Bales, Steve Gulley, and Jon Weisberger. And although the band members do not write with each other here, there is nothing apparent that suggests disunity. As Weisberger intimates in his liner notes, Blue Highway is truly a band of equals.

When I was listening to the album one of the many thoughts that went through my mind was that Sounds of Home quite simply sounded like Blue Highway always sounds: note-perfect, harmony rich, classy and driving bluegrass. One isn’t surprised by such a thought; rather I’m comforted by the knowledge that one can continue to take some things for granted. “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” is a prototypical bluegrass-radio song while “Heather and Billy” is a nice tribute to foster and adoptive parents. The title track is just a spectacular lonesome song written and sung by Lane.

As one might anticipate, the band doesn’t play things entirely safe, branching off from the bluegrass trunk in various places. “My Heart Was Made to Love You” has strange quality to it that brings to mind a lonesome Texas Playboys meets “Say You, Say Me” amalgam that sounds much better than it reads; Ickes pulls out the lap steel for this one. While there is plenty o’ banjo, so prominently is the Dobro featured on Burleson’s “Roaring Creek” that I mistook it for an Ickes composition. Lane’s fiddling adds another dimension to the song, providing additional evidence of the group’s flexibility and intuition.

For me, the highlight of the album is “Only Seventeen” (yet another) excellent song about working (and dying) “down in the place of endless light.” Taylor balances predictable subject matter with tension honed from acute word choices: from initial listen, you anticipate the youthful miner’s death but the description of the cave-in uses artful language (“Timbers they cracked as the top came in, you heard the cries and the prayers of some mighty men, Said ‘God have mercy on our poor souls, must we all perish for this seam of coal.’”) that is immensely impressive. The band backs off momentarily for the final verse before coming together to deliver a devastating coda.

Another wonderful album from one of the world’s top- and still freshest- bluegrass bands.

 Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald