As time takes the lauded masters of bluegrass banjo, another generation is allowed to come to the fore. I don’t mean the youngsters who have studied and practiced for a dozen or twenty years and are confidently taking the 5-string to amazing new places.
Danny Barnes has been a personal favourite since somewhere in the late 90s when a friend introduced me to the Bad Livers. He is a terribly interesting banjo slinger, and has written some incredible songs (such as “Falling Down the Stairs,” “Get It While You Can,” and “Charlie,”) recorded timeless albums including Delusions of Benjer and Things I Done Wrong, while also covering folks as diverse as T. Rex, Beck, The Faces, and now-on Stove Up- Don Stover. It is an absolutely beautiful album of (mostly) straight-ahead bluegrass.
Earnest country records are few and far between. Ignoring the trappings of modern country recording, Ontario’s Richard Laviolette has created a natural-sounding album, balancing the beauty and fidelity of old-time country and folk music (think Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson recordings with the refinement of original songs and expanded instrumentation) with the gravity of personal exploration and experience. “The house that I grew up in, has long been forgotten,” he sings in the lead track “Grey Rain,” over a sprightly shuffle rhythm. “But these memories are calling me home.”
Featuring songs that bring to mind the Americana songbook and its most revered vocalists, Taking the Long Way Home bridges the chasm between the familiar and the obscure. Seldom does a song cause this writer to pull-over off the highway, but “Two Guitars”, a stark paean to songs and their performance did just that the other day. “Someone To Tell My Story When I’m Gone” brings to mind the artfulness of a Guy Clark composition sung by John Prine, while “The Rock and the Moss” is an obvious (at least, to these tired ears) nod to Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman.
The album’s strongest song is the title track, with a vibrant Willie Dunn—groove propelling this road song above its neighbours. Elsewhere, as on “Red-Winged Blackbird,” an easy-going Dave Edmunds beat disguises the intensity of an ode to a developing relationship; Julia Narveson’s fiddle and Aaron Goldstein’s pedal steel are key to this terrific song.
Less impressive is the admittedly great title “My Grandma’s More Punk (Than Most Punks I Know;)” unfortunately, the song goes on for almost five-minutes without making its case. The melody itself is very appealing, but a more robust premise and refrain would have improved it greatly; it is almost as if Laviolette had the title in one pile of unfinished ideas, and the song in a second and attempted to bring them together.
With additional songs revealing the family connections made through music (“Yesterday’s Gospel,” “Old Country Music”) and a coda for the ages (“You’ve Really Got Me On the Run”) Richard Lviolette and producer Andy Magoffin have crafted an album that is rich and deep. Like the floor and shoes gracing the cover, these songs have age to them— and they have a lot more to give; we’ll be listening to them twenty years from now.
It takes but a few measures of “Living Too Fast” for the listener to understand from where Alabama-DC-Nashville songwriter, musician, and singer Scott Ramminger is coming.
First there is the deep, propulsive drum beat established by Doug Belote. Then, in a wave of keys, horns, and guitar straight out of New Orleans comes the vibrancy of that city’s musical heritage courtesy of recognizable names including Dave Torkanowsky, Rick Trolsen, Greg Hicks, George Porter, Jr., and Shane Theriot.
Once the groove is established, coming in through the middle is Ramminger- swampy-voiced and hardcore, listing the ways his woman is working to improve his situation. The lyrics are archetypal blues, but the sound is essential Crescent City, that irresistible mix of blues, R&B, and funky rock ‘n roll, sweetened by a taste of jazz and roadhouse.
What follows is an hour of self-crafted, well-earned hard luck and self-immolation over a steady Louisiana backdrop. The title track, which features Francine Reed (heard on Lyle Lovett and His Large Band,) goes to church via the tavern to ensure we understand that we pass this way only once, so we might as well follow our hearts. In that spirit, the album’s most appealing track may well be “Someone New to Disappoint;” if you know you’re gonna lose, you may as well find someone you don’t mind losing with seems to be the essential testimony of this saxophone (by Ramminger) showcase. Featuring Bekka Bramlett, this one should attract airplay from discerning stations.
Janiva Magness joins Ramminger on the blazing, classic-sounding “It’s Hard to Be Me.” The instrumental break about a minute and a half in is pure magic. The fella is selling hard—what’s harder to tell is if she is buying.
The McCrary Sisters add essential soul to four numbers. “Get Back Up” provides extended inspiration in a very different manner than “Walk A Little Straighter.” Ramminger is all about encouraging ones better self to come to the fore, and he does it as only a bluesman can—by not giving a damn if his heart or nose get broke. “I Need a New One” is the album’s longest track, and perhaps the most jazz-based. Tornkanowsky lays out the foundation, enhanced by the killer rhythm section and the encouragement of the McCrary Sisters.
The album closes with additional testimony from Ramminger in the form of “Stubborn Man:” based on what came before I’m guessing is his self-composed elegy.
“You may not believe me,
but it is all going to work out fine
If I beat my head against the wall
just a few more times.”
Surrounding himself with the very best musicians and vocalists he could find was Ramminger’s finest decision. Coming to the studio with a series of songs—some whimsical, some proud, all honest and real (give “Winter Is Always Worse” a listen)—was also crucial to making Do What Your Heart Says To the complete success that it is.
Will Kimbrough is just too talented and inspiring. I know it is irrational jealousy as I have no musical talent, and I am sure I am better at a couple things that Kimbrough is—not much market for ability to recite random facts from the backs of 70s O-Pee-Chee hockey cards, though.
Equal parts Buddy Miller, Larry Jon Wilson, and Darrell Scott, Kimbrough churns out albums of excellence and depth like few I can think of in the broad Americana world. He is a guitarist of significance, coaxing notes and moods that are, depending on the context, soulful country or rapid-fire rock. It seems like he always has a new recording out whether with one of his bands—Daddy and Willie Sugarcapps— or as a solo artist. He has produced dozens (including Fervor Coulee favourites Doug Seegers, Kate Campbell, and Todd Snider) and collaborated with more (Amy Black, Tom Russell, Rodney Crowell, Greg Trooper, Billy Joe Shaver, and Gretchen Peters) always bringing impressive qualities to projects. His songs have been recorded by Jack Ingram, Jimmy Buffett, Little Feet, and the Hard Working Americans.
It seems that every time I turn around I am dropping dollars on a Kimbrough-associated recording, and that gets expensive. I know I’m not the only one who appreciates Kimbrough as I’ve purchased Kimbrough recordings that are no longer on my shelves: to my consternation, they’ve been lent out and not returned.
No, I don’t like Will Kimbrough. I kinda love him.
I’m starting to feel the same way about Brigitte DeMeyer. Unfortunately, I had never heard of her prior to finding out she was releasing Mockingbird Soul with Kimbrough, the album shortly to be under discussion. I`ve dropped dollars on three of her albums since receiving this album for review, and I still have a number to explore—like Kimbrough, she is costing me money. Additionally, DeMeyer can sing. Man, can she sing.
Having appeared on each others’ albums and performed together, the pair have released their debut recording, one that is certainly going to be considered on many year-end, ‘best of’ lists when the time comes.
Largely taking the lead on alternating songs, they have produced an ideally balanced duet recording, with DeMeyer’s Side One Melissa Etheridge passionate huskiness pairing with Kimbrough’s restrained, telling honesty.
Tracks three through five (“The Juke,” “Running Round,” and the title track) are about as spirited, swampy, and Southern-country soul as the album gets, while in other places the songs more closely resembles what country music once was and could be again given a shot of 3614 Jackson Highway swagger. Not as full-blown but every bit as funky as Bobbie Gentry’s best work, each track has more soul than 98% of what any of us have heard on modern country radio this decade. The arrangements are straight-forward rather than minimalistic, allowing the duet vocals prominence.
Mid-set, family relations courses through numbers including “Rainy Day” (inspired by a child’s struggle,) “Little Easy,” (an atmospheric expression of a wanderer, perhaps), “I Can Hear Your Voice” (vivid memories of a father approaching the end) and even “Honey Bee,” with a no-nonsense mama of a different stripe. It is this intimacy of subject matter that allows Kimbrough and DeMeyer to positively shine throughout the 43-minute set: their musical, artistic bonding complete.
“Broken Fences” allows Kimbrough more latitude vocally and instrumentally, and is among the finest of his recorded performances I’ve encountered. The Incredible String Band’s venerable “October Song” is the set’s sole cover, and this ode to time’s passing is a suitable and compelling closing to a remarkable album. Ah, those doors behind our mind, indeed.
Long before my tenth or twentieth listening of Mockingbird Soul was completed, I was reinvigorated, having found another album to get me through this horrid January of upset and turmoil. Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer. Remember them, and buy their album—you won’t be disappointed.
In preparation of writing the review, I went back to the shelves and was surprised to find that I had only three of their previous albums, the debut Fork in the Road and its follow-up The Infamous Stringdusters as well as both the download of Silver Sky and the deluxe edition which came with the live album We’ll Do It Live.
I must have misplaced their third album somewhere, because when I purchased the download earlier this month, it sounded immediately familiar. I share this because I think sometimes folks feel that writers, even we of the freelance variety, get all their music free. I certainly don’t. [I was serviced with Laws of Gravity; that is why I wrote about it.]
In order to write this review, I purchased downloads of Things That Fly, Let It Go, Undercover, and Ladies & Gentlemen. I did that to ensure that my perspective on Laws of Gravity was fully informed. I will never, ever make back that $3o from my review of Laws of Gravity (once upon a time…O, how I sometimes long for 2005!), but in order to write about a band I need to understand their music.
Apparently, I stopped intently listening to The Infamous Stringdusters some time ago, and I am now- having listened to their albums for the past three weeks- regretful of that: won’t happen again. I am listening to their set from last year’s DelFest as I type these words, and I am reminded of how impressed I was the first time I heard them live- maybe on WDVX- and how incredible their concert in Red Deer was almost a decade ago. They are a great band- not necessarily ‘bluegrass’ as I understand it, but a damned fine group of musicians and singers. Check out my review over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, and feel free to let me know what you think.
Back in the halcyon days of alt.country (damn it, I am old), No Depression was one of the few publications one could turn toward to be informed on the kind of music ‘we’ liked. Discount the occasional foray into areas that had little to do with country, no matter how alt. (The Shins, anyone? Black Keys?) and ongoing fascination with all things Jayhawks, No Depression allowed a continent of left-of-center music to find its way to my attention.
To the best of my remembering, the first issue I purchased was the one with Robbie Fulks on the cover. It was a thing of beauty, from the striking orange/yellow/green cover to the features of Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jesse Dayton, live reviews of Jimmie Dale Gilmore/Ana Egge and George Jones, and reviews of recent bluegrass and country releases: I felt I had finally found ‘my people.’
I didn’t love everything about the magazine, naturally. I found several of their reviews fawning and some of their writers calculatingly obscure (or obtuse, depending.) But, much more often than not over the next 60+ issues, they kept me coming back to discover and re-examine music I may have otherwise missed, overlooked, or disregarded.
Why have I written the above three paragraphs to open a review of Corey Isenor’s sixth album, A Painted Portrait (of The Classic Ruse)? Much as I might have a almost two decades ago, when I first listened to the album it brought back that rare, sparkling novelty of hearing an artist for the first time whom I felt l had been listening to forever. Part of the attraction, without a doubt, is that Isenor sounds not a little bit similar to Paul Burch, one of the many artists I ‘discovered’ via No Depression. It goes deeper.
For me, alt-country was less about wannabe rock ‘n’ rollers injecting Haggard and Williams into their raucous mix, and more about finding a way to expand the finest qualities of country music—story, melody, hooks, familiarity, history, and wordplay, rhymes, and puns—to something that was more than hair, sparkly suits, and Hee Haw cornpone. That’s what attracted me to the likes of Hubbard, Eaglesmith, Harris, Russell, Lynne, Fulks, and the Bottle Rockets from the first time I heard each, whether that was early 80s Emmylou or years later when I heard the most desperate words of ignorance I could imagine: “If kerosene works, why not gasoline?”
Isenor brings all that and more to this collection. There are times, as in “From Towers to Windmills,” that I am reminded of New Order (“Love Vigilantes.”) At other points Isenor’s approach reminds me of Matthew Lovegrove’s Woodland Telegraph, sparse, minimalist and achingly poignant (“Queen of Calgary” and “Diamonds on the Moon.”)
“The Navy Blues” is catchy and complex, with Andrew Sneddon’s pedal steel providing additional melancholy. Rebecca Zolkower and Desiree Gordon’s vocals lend depth to several songs, as do Liam Frier’s guitar contributions.
I hadn’t previously encountered Isenor prior to hearing A Painted Portrait (of The Classic Ruse.) Listening to his songs on Bandcamp, I know I have much exploring to do. “The Ballad of Emily” is already a favourite. Isenor is from Nova Scotia and in addition to being an incredible roots music talent as a songwriter, singer, instrumentalist, and producer, he is an accomplished artist, photographer, and graphic designer. I hate him.
A Painted Portrait (of The Classic Ruse) has become one of my favourite country/folk what-have-you albums of 2016. Had I read a review of it in No Depression, I might have been intrigued. Having heard it, I am significantly enthralled.
Thank you for sticking with me at Fervor Coulee for these many years: hopefully you are finding roots music opinions of values as you traverse the crowded modern music landscape. Join me at @FervorCoulee for additional unremarkable insights.
It takes a lot of energy to review an album that severely disappoints. This one was exhausting.
As I state in the review, In Full Color was a great album, one of the finest of 2001. Worries on My Mind was almost as good. But damn it, Sho Nuff Country just doesn’t measure up. It is predictable and uninteresting. Unnecessary and unoriginal. Uninspired, even.
I more than gave the album a chance. Listened to it a half-dozen times before I finalized my opinion on it because it is frankly risky for a freelancer to lean heavy on a weak album. Safer to ignore it than risky incurring the wrath of a label or publicist.
Sho Nuff Country just doesn’t work. Want to know why? Read my review over at Country Standard Time. And please know, label/publicist aside, I don’t craft a negative review lightly. Obviously the group thought they were recording something special. Their label believed in what they put together. I know they invested heavily in the project. But there was no way I could find to put some gloss on this one.
Your opinion may be different. Feel free to write your own review.