Archive for the ‘Favourite CDs of the Year’ Tag

Favourite Roots Albums of 2017, so far   Leave a comment

School ended two weeks ago, and I have been able to take the last week to relax, read, and listen—a great start to this summer. It appears that almost every online outlet has released their ‘best of 2017 (so far) list,’ so I figure I might as well get in on the action. If nothing else, hopefully someone reading will find an album they haven’t previously heard, and will be inspired to purchase it.

Americana, bluegrass, and their associated roots music are what I love, and I’ve been fortunate this year to listen to some amazing albums. Here is a list of my favourite fifteen roots albums of 2017 (so far)—and I found it difficult to narrow it down: I have no idea what I will do if this pace continues through the end of the year.

Whose albums didn’t make the list? Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson, Angeleena Presley, Jim Lauderdale, Fred Eaglesmith, Chuck Prophet, Amy Black, Slaid Cleaves, Jesse Waldman, Ray Davies, Jeffrey Halford…

Links are to my review or, where I haven’t reviewed, to the artist site.

  1. Mac WisemanMac Wiseman & Various Artists- I Sang the Song (Life of the Voice With A Heart) Yes, it is that good. My review.
  2. ronsexsmith_3Ron Sexsmith- The Last Rider Continuing a streak of excellence, Sexsmith’s 16th (!) album may just be his finest. Excellent songs, catchy melodies, accessible production…I’ve seldom been so proud to have shown support for a musician. A very strong album, just the latest in a series of memorable, standout recordings. The songs alternate between playful and introspective, catchy and maudlin. Layered, but not flamboyant. I am really glad that I bought the album, and even more glad that I took the time to make the trek to see Ron and the band in Edmonton. Surprised and disappointed that this one didn’t receive deserving Polaris Music Prize attention. “Radio” is my favourite song of the year.
  3. OtisOtis Gibbs- Mount Renraw I have been listening to Gibbs for a close to a decade, but never have I attended to this degree; a singer who was always on the periphery for me has eased himself onto my ever-narrowing list of favourites. My review.
  4. made_to_moveChris Jones & the Night Drivers- Made to Move Another excellent album from Chris Stuart & the Night Rangers. My review.
  5. CrowellRodney CrowellClose Ties With the passing of Guy Clark, Crowell heads to the front of the line of Texas songwriters. A masterful creation.
  6. demeyer_and_will_kimbrough-mokingbirdBrigitte DeMeyer and Will Kimbrough- Mockingbird Soul 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. Spirited, swampy, and Southern-country soul at times, in other places the songs more closely resemble what country music once was and could be again given a shot of 3614 Jackson Highway swagger. The arrangements are straight-forward rather than minimalistic, allowing the duet vocals prominence. The rest of my review.
  7. billBill Scorzari- Through These Waves Bill Scorzari lives where the Blues meets Texas Sam Baker. My review.
  8. gibson_2The Gibson Brothers- In the Ground Bringing their release total to thirteen, I believe, Eric and Leigh Gibson are at the top of the bluegrass world, a pinnacle at which they’ve resided for a decade. In The Ground may be their finest yet. An album of self-written songs, it isn’t like anything they’ve before accomplished. Still bluegrass, of course, but taking things to yet another level. My review.
  9. AMANDA-ANNE-PLATT-HONEYCUTTERS-ON-WALLAmanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters- Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters Platt is a strong songwriter and an impressive and memorable vocalist. She has that important capability to write in a variety of voices, making each genuine and authentic to the experiences conveyed. My review.
  10. richardRichard Laviolette- Taking the Long Way Home Earnest country records are few and far between. Ignoring the trappings of modern country recording, 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. My review.
  11. NellNell Robinson & Jim Nunally BandBaby, Let’s Take the Long Way Home One of my favourite guitarists and singers has teamed, over the course of four albums, with an impressive and natural vocalist, writing killer songs well-founded in the traditions of Americana.
  12. BIBB_MigrationBlues_livretEric Bibb- Migration Blues My review.
  13. brock zemanBrock Zeman- The Carnival Is Back in Town My review.
  14. lk-a-calm-sun-cover-webLesley Kernochan- A Calm Sun A bold, mature recording, free of gimmick and insincerity. My review.
  15. JebJeb Loy NicholsCountry Hustle Soulful country, as he has been doing for a very long time. Maybe my favourite album cover so far in 2017 (tho’ The Monkees Forever is giving it a run.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              There you have them, my favourite roots albums of 2017, January to June.

 

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 Roots Albums of 2016   1 comment

At the end of each year, writers and broadcasters get to indulge themselves and—one hopes—their readers and listeners with their judgements on the year past.

I’ve spent substantial time reviewing the roots/Americana/whatever you want to call them, if they are on the No Depression list I might have considered them, and even if they aren’t I still may have albums I heard during the past year, and have come up with my definitive (at least for today) list of Favourite Roots Albums of 2016. Of course, your kilometreage will vary: I once received a 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 favorite roots 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.

I’ve already posted my Favourite Bluegrass Albums of 2016, and while bluegrass is an essential part of roots music, I’ve chosen not to intermingle the ‘grass into this list. Reason? This way I get to praise more albums. If you care about such stuff, my favourite bluegrass album of the year, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands’ The Hazel and Alice Sessions would also top this list if I were to include bluegrass amongst the roots. Likely the top six bluegrass albums would have made my top 20 roots albums, and I likely would have found space for Sam Bush, too…

The number rankings, once past four or five, don’t mean much more than a way for me to stay organized: feel free to move your favourite up a spot or three. Full reviews are linked as artist/title.

My Favourite Roots Albums of 2016 are…

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1.Mark Erelli- For a Song Likely the album I listened to second most all year. Erelli has been at the top of his game over the past number of years, both with his bluegrass band Barnstar!, as an interpreter of others’ music (his Bill Morrissey album of a couple years back, Milltowns,) as a pissed off (alternately, disappointed) topical folkie of the Woody Guthrie vein (“By Degrees,”) and on his latest full length release, For A Song. For a Song is a quiet album, yearnsome and blue in turn, reflective, observant, and above all honest; the album wove its way into my soul, making me appreciate what I understand and consider that which I don’t. I just wish he would show up in Alberta some time.

2.Maria Dunn- Gathering One of Alberta’s foremost folk musicians returns with her sixth collection of lyrically-rich gems. An artist who places her convictions and heart on display in complementary proportions, Dunn has found balance between sharing the inspirational and compelling within songs that are insightful, artfully constructed, and just plain enjoyable. There will always be more than a bit of the Celtic lands in Dunn’s music, and throughout Gathering African, Asian, and Canadian First Nations influences can also be heard. Like the finest troubadours, Dunn communicates: she is the vessel through which others exist. She reveals the innermost, personal, and captivatingly universal perspectives and insights of devoted parents, the down-trodden challenged by circumstance, those connected to the land by more than choice, and the youthful who rise above.

Certainly one of the finest recordings to be released this year. Those who compare Maria Dunn to Woody Guthrie, Hazel Dickens, Jean Ritchie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie aren’t taking the easy way out: with the release of Gathering she demonstrates that she is an international folk artist of significance.

3.Jenny Whiteley- The Original Jenny Whiteley On this recording, Whiteley satisfies a desire to more fully explore the music that provided the foundation for her development—old-time folk sounds that have existed and thrived for generations. A recognition of her rich and diverse Americana/Canadiana upbringing within the venerable Whiteley clan, this fifth recording is a rootsy masterpiece. In a lesser artist’s hands such a multi-dimensional homage might sound disjointed; The Original Jenny Whiteley is united in its eccentric melding of the rich traditional and roots tapestry—folk, jugband, bluegrass, early jazz and ragtime, Francophone, Dylan, and the blues.

4.The Honeycutters- On The Ropes Fronted by Amanda Anne Platt, the Honeycutters offer up country sounds that have a bit of rock ‘n’ roll push, a combination that enhances rather than detracts from their honky-tonk foundation. Their instrumental interplay is excellent, and Platt has an incredible voice, as powerful as needed and as tender as desired. There exists an intimacy within these songs, all but one written by Platt, and that intensity allows the songs (and their performance) to make personal connections with listeners.

The Dixie Chicks seem a reasonable comparison. Playfully rambunctious and justly pointed, a song like “Let’s Get Drunk” resonates: “…and if the ship is really sinking what’s the use in waiting til it’s sunk? Baby, we’re already drinking, so we might as well get drunk.” Where was she 35 years ago?!

5.Western Centuries- Weight of the World I am sure it is no coincidence that the debut album from Western Centuries vaguely resembles the self-titled release from a late 60s band of considerable Americana-roots influence. Fronted by a trio of songwriters, each singing their own songs with distinctiveness, Western Centuries is a modern country band that encourages cerebral shifts as readily as it does two-stepping shuffles. Drawing inspiration from generations of country honky tonk singers and their bands, Western Centuries is something many of us are continually pursuing—a genuine country band that doesn’t take the easy way reinterpreting familiar songs, but rather pushes their talents toward creating modern classics. Weight of the World is pert darn special.

6.Robbie Fulks- Upland Stories Stone classic this one is. Nominated for a Grammy for “Alabama at Night”—wait a second, Robbie Fulks is nominated for a Grammy! Let that percolate for a minute. Maybe 2016 wasn’t an entirely awful year! There are a dozen memorable songs on Upland Stories, none indistinguishable from those surrounding it. Maybe not Fulks’ most exciting or dynamic album (tough to beat those early albums,) but maybe his best.

7.William Bell- This Is Where I Live I have to admit, when I saw a tweet from Rosanne Cash about a new William Bell album, my first thought was “Is that like the Pop Staples album of last year?” Because I truly thought William Bell was dead. Idiot, me. I first heard William Bell after Billy Idol covered “To Be A Lover,” playing the crap out of that pink Soul of a Bell album in the mid-to late-80s. I’ve now played This Is Where I Live as many times. A beautiful sounding, complete album. Another Grammy nominee. Tied with #8 for Comeback of the Year.

8.The Monkees- Good Times! Hands down, my most played album of the year. No Depression has it on their year-end list, so that makes it roots enough for me. “She Makes Me Laugh,” “You Bring the Summer,” and “Love to Love” are just great songs. Pure pop for old people.

9.Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms- Innocent Road Featuring the Caleb Klauder Country Band, Innocent Road is comprised of a half-dozen Kluader songs, a few obscure covers, and a healthy dollop of familiar country classics from the likes of Buck Owens and George Jones. The kicker is a track from Paul Burch’s stunning Fool For Love album, “C’est le Moment (If You’re Gonna Love Me,)” artfully sung by Willms.

As much as I enjoy Prine and DeMent and Robison and Willis, I think I might just prefer what this duo accomplishes. There is no artifice within these recordings, no hint of sly aside.

10.Northern Cree- It’s A Cree Thing North America’s original roots music perhaps? Northern Cree are a drum group from Alberta, and It’s A Cree Thing has also been nominated for a Grammy, the seventh time this group from Saddle Lake has been recognized in this manner. It’s A Cree Thing is a powerful collection of round dance songs full of energy, personality, and history. “Oh, That Smile” should be a hit single! Gorgeous.

11.Darrell Scott- Couchville Sessions With consistency his strong suit, and similar in most ways to his breakthrough album Family Tree, Couchville Sessions is a welcoming listening experience highlighted by Scott’s warmly distinctive voice and diverse presentation choices. Recorded around the same time Scott was starting to ‘break’ 15 years ago—working with Tim O’Brien and Guy Clark then—this is a set of well-aged performances captured in Scott’s living room, the gestation of which are disguised within the sultry “Come Into This Room.” It provides continuing evidence that Scott is one of Americana’s most vibrant visionaries.

12.Matt Patershuk- I Was So Fond of You Back in January or so of this year, I was listening to the radio and a four-song set was played-some combination of Corb Lund, Guy Clark, John Fulbright, and Patershuk, and I recall realizing that I couldn’t tell which of those guys was from La Glace, Alberta and making his living in construction. Put his songs on WDVX, and Patershuk would sound as comfortable alongside Darrell Scott, Fred Eaglesmith, and Chris Stapleton. Heck, add Sturgill Simpson, Hayes Carll, and the rest to the list. Patershuk is the real deal, folks. If you are missing the country, the kind of country music recorded in the days when there was more grease and a little less gloss, check out I Was So Fond of You.

13.Eric Brace & Peter Cooper- C & O Canal I suspect that I would enjoy passing time about a round table with a cool beverage in my hand in the company of either Eric Brace or Peter Cooper. Two of my favourite musicians, songwriters, and wordsmiths, Cooper and Brace have released a strong slate of albums over the past decade. C & O Canal, their latest, pays homage to the folk and bluegrass music the two encountered in Washington, DC in the 70s and 80s.

14.Rory Block- Keepin’ Outta Trouble A tribute to Bukka White, this set is so strong that it deserves a place in my Top 20 rather than as part of my tributes/collections list that is still being assembled. Block goes beyond White’s music, creating original music inspired by his life and his approach to the blues. With attention to detail, but an even greater sense of purpose, Block enlivens these performances with a balance of passion and precision that breathes life into oft-encountered numbers. Her voice is magic, and her approach to blues guitar is clean, restrained, and just damn fine beautiful.

15.Dori Freeman- Dori Freeman Freeman isn’t interested in presenting herself as some social archeology project, the mountain singer untouched by modern sway. She is a contemporary vocalist, one touched by the influences of her rural mountain upbringing as well as less-rustic contributions. She is a folk singer, a country singer, and a pop singer, all rolled into one appealing vocal package. Having written these ten songs, Freeman most obviously has her own viewpoint and voice, one that has been honed by producer Teddy Thompson; the focus of the arrangements, musicians, and production choices remain on Freeman and her songs.

16.Red Tail Ring- Far Away Blues How did this relatively unheralded set have such a significant impact on me that it took about two months to (barely) uncover the words to attempt a review? It is danged freakin’ good. This Michigan duo of Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp is incredible. They have the rare ability to inhabit songs, removing the barrier of time, place, and reality between their performance of ancient tunes “Yarrow” and “Come All Ye Fair & Tender Ladies,” their own timely compositions, the recorded medium, and the audience. You are transported into the recording, watching the pair lean into their songs as they maintain eye contact to communicate chords and progressions.

17.Chicago Farmer- Midwest Side Stories Cody Diekhoff—okay, Chicago Farmer—doesn’t set out to do anything fancy on Midwest Side Stories. He has insight into the experiences and internal dialogues of contemporary working class folks, and has the artistic ability to convert these into songs of substance and interest. “Skateboard Song” touches on a whole lot of stuff—youthful disenchantment, small-mindedness, finger-pointing, and police harassment, just to start—over a hard-beaten melody that would do both Weezer and Dan Bern proud. Chicago Farmer’s mid-western insights do not limit these songs: they appeal whether you are rural or urban, upstate or down, blue- or white- collar, Canadian or American. “Rocco N’ Susie” are our neighbours, the ones we don’t really know, but are more like us than we care to admit—a couple pay cheques away from foreclosure, a few months from desolation, several bad decisions from remand. The gradual journey from independence to dependence is identified in “Farms & Factories,” suspicion thrives in “Revolving Door,” and the night shift margins are explored on “9 pm to 5.”

18.Margo Price- Midwest Farmer’s Daughter I had several albums circling around these final spots, and I went with the ones I did because of their genuineness, their apparent authenticity. There is little to suggest Price considered market configurations or sales ramifications when compiling the songs for this release. Like Hazel Dickens did and Brandy Clark does, Price sings and writes of true life situations, and like Dickens (but not so much Clark) she doesn’t add a lot of spit and polish to the music. When I hear “Four Years of Chances,” “Hurtin’ On the Bottle,” “Desperate and Depressed,” and “This Town Gets Around,” I imagine I’m experiencing something similar to what folks felt listening to Loretta Lynn for the first time more than fifty years ago; still, I don’t think Loretta ever sang of blow jobs.

19.Corey Isenor- A Painted Portrait (Of the Classic Ruse) This is country music. Just not country music. 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. Alt-country continues with Corey Isenor.

20. Grant-Lee Phillips- The Narrows Sometimes you locate an album never realizing you were looking for it. The Narrows is one of those albums. I have a couple Grant-Lee Phillips albums, ones I listened to a few times upon purchase and then filed away in the drawers. I was looking around the internet one night a few months back and clicked on a video link for “Tennessee Rain.” Before the song was finished playing, I had gone into iTunes and hit Buy. Raucous in places (“Rolling Pin”) and atmospheric elsewhere, the deluxe edition of the album provides additional takes that extend the pleasure of the listen. While the Drive By Truckers delivered a more timely and angry disc, GLP produced the more enduring one.

I’m out of words, but also enjoyed these discs:

Brandy Clark- Big Day in a Small Town; Mary Chapin Carpenter- The Things That We Are Made Of; Parker Millsap- The Very Last Day; Lori McKenna- The Bird & the Rifle; Paul Gauthen- My Gospel; Loretta Lynn- Full Circle; Mandolin Orange- Blindfaller; Blackie & the Rodeo Kings- Kings & Kings; Chely Wright- I Am the Rain; Steve Forbert- Flying at Night; and Drive-By Truckers- American Band;

As an aside or addition, my favourite Roots Compilations/Tributes/Reissues of the year are, in no particular order:

VA- 40 Years of Stony Plain

J D Crowe & the New South- S/T vinyl 

Gillian Welch- Boots No. 1- The Official Revival Bootleg

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band- Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years

VA- Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music

VA- God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson

VA- Just Love: A Tribute to Audrey Auld Mezera

VA- The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris

VA- Fast Folk: A Tribute to Jack Hardy

Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia- Keystone Companions: The Complete 1973 Fantasy Recordings vinyl box

(Not included in the above list are excellent tribute [or tribute-ish] albums from Del McCoury Band, Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands, The Earls of Leicester, Rory Block, Jenny Whiteley [tribute to her family’s musical roots,] and Eric Brace/Peter Cooper, all of which made my top Bluegrass or Roots album lists.)

Finally, some 2015 albums didn’t get as much attention from me last year as they did in 2016, for a variety of reasons. But, man- did I play the heck out of them this year: Linda McRae- Shadow Trails; Chris Stapleton- Traveller; Josh Ritter- Sermon on the Rocks; Sam Baker- Say Grace; and Steve Forbert- Compromised.

BUY SOME MUSIC, DAMMIT! Roots musicians deserve our support.

Best for the New Year, Donald

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Favourite Roots Albums of the Year, 2015.   2 comments

JWH-final-printtext-FULL-RED-BG-rev1lowresTime for the annual ‘best of’ list which I never title ‘best of.’ I always go with Favourites because that is all I can go by: which albums have I listened to the most this past year, which ones have I most appreciated, and which ones do I feel are of an exceptional quality?

In previous years, I’ve written at length, but this year I am restrained by time (hmmm…Christmas Eve/Christmas Morning) and energy (I am bleeding exhausted!) Instead of separating things into genres, reissues, compilations, and other categories, I am just going to present Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Roots Albums of the Year. I am limiting myself to 15 titles this time out—I started out with a comprehensive list of about 80 titles under consideration, but willowed that down to 12 fair quickly, and from there it seemed like 15 was the right number for this year.

What did I notice over the course of 2015? One, I am really tired of folks—and you know who you are—who do good work, who promote the music, and who seem to care about bluegrass and yet use that term to describe just about any and all mostly acoustic, Appalachian-reminiscent music not mainstream country. It can’t all be bluegrass, folks. It just isn’t. Sam Gleaves? Not bluegrass, although there are a couple bluegrass songs there: nice album, though. Dom Flemons? Not even close. Dave Rawlings Machine? Are you even listening? Here’s the measure: if it is on the front page of The Bluegrass Situation…it’s not bluegrass.

I also noticed that there were fewer exceptional bluegrass albums released this year—plenty of mighty fine ones, but not that many that will go down as classics.

I noticed that I am listening to more 60s and 70s R&B/soul music than ever before, and that does take away time from roots writing. But rabba bing bang, I am loving those sounds, from R.B. Greaves to Gladys Knight & the Pips: pure dynamite.

I’ve also noticed that it is increasingly difficult to find the music I like in even the finest music stores. A real drag, that.

I’m also including the source of the music, in the spirit of full disclosure: some folks do worry about the ethics around receiving music for review without cost. I’m not one of them.

Here we go, with Fervor Coulee’s (Donald Teplyske) Favourite Roots Albums of the Year, 2015.

  1. John Wort Hannam- Love Lives On (Rebel Tone Records) Still Alberta’s finest contemporary, male troubadour, John Wort Hannam continues to meet the rising expectations that come from a decade of exceptional folk-based releases. Love Lives On has not yet displaced Two Bit Suit and Queen’s Hotel at the top of my Hannam list, but both those albums were also year-end favourites, and I enjoy the textures of his rhymes and the subtleties of his insights more with each listen. Singing of universal pleasures (“Over the Moon,” “Love Lives On,” “Gonna See My Love”) as adeptly as he does of specific moments in time (“Labrador”) and place (“Good Nite Nova Scotia,”) Wort Hannam has become a master of storytelling and songwriting. This sixth album is highlighted by the devastating “Man of God,” the song that will follow the songwriter to the end of his time. A beautifully conceived and recorded album, Love Lives On is a masterpiece. (Purchased at Blackbyrd Myoozik.)
  2. Dale Ann Bradley- Pocket Full of Keys (Pinecastle Records) While she hasn’t garnered the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year award for the past three years, there is no arguing the consistency and strength Dale Ann Bradley brings to both her live performances and recordings. This self-produced album is one that I have listened to regularly since its release this summer. As the finest country and bluegrass often does, Pocket Full of Keys’ songs reveal the hardships of others as a panacea to our challenges, either providing a path for enlightenment or a realization that one’s own issues are not completely overwhelming: it could always be worse. Dale Ann Bradley doesn’t churn out albums. Analyse her vast catalog and one doesn’t find many tracks that appear to have been recorded simply out of favor or as filler. She is a bluegrass vocalist and true artist of substance and vision, and mentions in the album’s notes that she has always wanted to do an album herself, her own way. She has done it! Pocket Full of Keys is another in a string of significant recordings from bluegrass music’s finest voice. (Acquired via publicist)

 

  1. The SteelDrivers- The Muscle Shoals Recordings (Rounder) The SteelDrivers remain a dynamic, driving bluegrass band, a five-piece with a sound and an approach completely their own. The Muscle Shoals Recordings is their fourth album and the group just keeps getting better. The SteelDrivers are a song band, meaning that their strength doesn’t come from fiery instrumental prowess or sweeping vocal harmonies—although they more than hold their own in both those areas—but from the strength of their material. When they choose a song, they have done so for a reason, and it comes through in the performance. Murder songs, drinking songs, love songs, Civil War songs—The SteelDrivers can do them all, and they do so like no other bluegrass band working the circuit. Excellent. (Acquired via publicist)

 

  1. Barnstar!- Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! (Signature Sounds) This Massachusetts-collective does things differently, and as a result their music isn’t what you are likely to find populating the ‘most played’ bluegrass charts. But, if one is open to something a bit outside, perhaps a little less precise and polished, from a group every bit as talented and instrumentally adept as the ‘name’ bands within the genre, Barnstar! may have something of interest waiting for you within Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! Comprised of songwriters all of whom have music careers outside the band, Barnstar! continues to define their unusual approach to bluegrass music. They ‘get’ the music and are in no way trading in irony, but their bluegrass has an entirely different feel than , say, the Gibson Brothers or Joe Mullins’ Radio Ramblers—their harmonies are irregular when compared to those premier bands that add just a touch of the modern to their otherwise orthodox approach. Barnstar! is certainly ‘in the pocket,’ but their favored cadence is atypical of mainstream bluegrass and thus doesn’t feel constrained by expectation. They have great songs, the best here perhaps “Cumberland Blue Line,” “Six Foot Pine Box,” and most definitely The Faces “Stay With Me.” Oh, and don’t forget Mark Erelli’s “Barnstable County.” And “Delta Rose.” Dang, it is a terrific bluegrass album; not for everyone, mind. If you are looking for Pretty Bluegrass, it isn’t here. (Acquired via publicist)

 

  1. Buffy Sainte-Marie- Power in the Blood (High Romance Music) The winner of this year’s Polaris Music Prize, Power in the Blood is the type of album that either hits you from first listen or completely misses. Without judgement, whichever happens is likely a reflection of the listener. This is a powerful album that speaks across generations and cultures, one that can be appreciated both as a creative production to be experienced as a complete album and individually song-by-song. “It’s My Way,” “Power in the Blood,” and “We Are Circling” start the album off with substance and energy, and things just keep developing. She even pulls in some UB40. A wonderful recording. (Purchased at Wal-Mart; hey, I couldn’t find it in an independent shop.)

 

  1. Chris Jones & the Night Drivers- Run Away Tonight (Mountain Home) With an immediately identifiable sound and a burgeoning catalog of stellar albums, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are possibly bluegrass music’s most underrated band. With Run Away Tonight, that has to change. Front-loaded with six original songs—seldom seen in an industry still tied to the tried, tested, and true—Run Away Tonight is one of the finest bluegrass albums released this decade.

 

Reminding listeners of no one as much as the legendary Country Gentlemen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers perform bluegrass music with heart and drive. The heart comes from the depth of intensity revealed in every phrase and note sung by Jones, the New York native who has as rounded a bluegrass resume as one might imagine—expert guitarist, sideman, bandleader, songwriter, producer, broadcaster, gently acerbic humorist, playful photographer. The drive begins with Jones’ strong rhythm and lead work, nicely featured in the mix here, and continues through Jon Weisberger’s propulsive bass rhythm playing off Ned Luberecki’s classic 5-string approach and Mark Stoffel’s exquisite mandolin touch. Kudos to Jones and his co-producer Tim Surrett (Balsam Range) and Scott Barnett for this excellent sounding bluegrass experience—listening to this recording on a solid system is a sonic treat.

 

With an emphasis on the deceptively upbeat aspect of bluegrass, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers kick things off with the court and spark of “Laurie,” from which the album takes its title. Similarly, “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride” feels lively and freewheeling, but is appears as much about failed aspirations and last chances as it is the fulfilment of a dream. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs. Every song is worthy of attention, not something I write lightly or often. I have long advocated that Chris Jones’ name needs to be inserted into the conversations around Male Vocalist of the Year. Perhaps next time up, the professional members of the IBMA will agree with me. The Night Drivers are as good a band as there is. (Acquired via publicist)

 

  1. Amy Black- The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Reuben) Amy Black has become someone to be counted on to provide balanced and lively collections of contemporary Americana, featuring a blend of influences: folk, country, blues, troubadours of all variety, and—way deep down—hints of southern-flavoured soul. Years ago, I wrote that Black reminded me of Kate Campbell and that she had a singing voice “as natural and welcome as lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day, with an amiable tartness lingering within its sweetness.”

 

The Muscle Shoals Sessions has that absolutely infectious deep soul groove permeating every song. Spooner Oldham brings emotional and historical depth to the proceedings, laying out funky Wurlitzer and organ. Will Kimbrough is back. Vocal certainty is provided by the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina. Notable horn players are also present, with Charlie Rose taking the lead and playing trombone, while Steve Herrman (trumpet) and Jim Hoke (saxophone) are featured.

 

Recorded in the legendary FAME studios, Black compositions like “Get To Me” and “Woman On Fire” sizzle with energy, while “You Gotta Move” and “Bring It On Home” are more passionate and controlled. Classics abound with “You Left Your Water Running” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” closing the disc with wisdom found only in the finest of songs.

 

When she laments, “I know I hurt you deep down inside,  I know you’re angry I understand why,” one could be forgiven for believing Black to be interpreting a long forgotten Otis Redding gem. She isn’t, of course—the song is a new one, and is as strong as anything else on the album. Black’s performance here proves all the evidence necessary, should one require it, that she is legitimately a country soul singer of the most significant variety. She smolders without seduction—there is nothing here but genuine, aching need—while the band explores rhythms of the finest order. Black pays tribute to Don Covey and Etta James with a blistering rendition of “Watch Dog,” while her interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” further elevates the album by exploring the more spiritual side of soul music.

 

Amy Black ‘gets it’ and hopefully we do, too. The Muscle Shoals Sessions  deserves to be heard by all who appreciate the funkier, soulful side of roots music. Amy Black just keeps getting better.

 

  1. Pharis & Jason Romero- A Wanderer I’ll Stay (Lula Records) One of the most respected old-time duos currently recording, Pharis and Jason Romero create acoustic music in a vein not dissimilar to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Without drifting toward mimicry, this couple from Horsefly, British Columbia likewise captures within their finely crafted songs the richness that exists within seemingly uncomplicated songs and arrangements.

 

I can attest that everything I hear within this album is flat-out faultless. Within “Backstep Indi,” Jason Romero coaxes the gourd banjo to travel from southern traditions to East Indian experimentation, while the instrumental backing for “The Dying Soldier” is as beautifully mournful as anything recently heard. Pharis Romero is an expressive, generous vocalist and impressive songwriter. She has a strong voice that more than holds its own within the aural environment created by the duo and their co-producer David Travers-Smith. Like Welch, she asks universal questions (“Why do girls go steady, when their hearts are not inclined”) and makes stark declarations (“Your father he’s a merchant and a thief”) that immediately establishes perspective while sketching stories and characters that engage listeners’ imaginations. When she sings, “There’s no time, honey there’s no time,” you accept her assertion.

 

This time featuring Josh Rabie (fiddle), John Hurd (bass), Marc Jenkins (pedal steel), and Brent Morton (drums) on select tracks, A Wanderer I’ll Stay has a full sound although not significantly different from their previous Long Gone Out West Blues; the same intimacy is present and certainly their attention to detail has not wavered. As with that release, the packaging is beautifully executed with all practical considerations accounted. This is a stunning acoustic folk recording. (Acquired via publicist)

 

  1. Kathy Kallick Band- Foxhounds (KathyKallick.com) As is Tim O’Brien, Kathy Kallick is always a bit of an adventurer and you can never be sure what her next recorded outing might bring. When she has the band with her, you are assured high-quality, literate and respectful bluegrass music: they never take their audience for granted, never rest on their laurels. Such is the case with Foxhounds, an album that starts off with a new song in tribute to Bill Monroe and continues with an exciting exploration of the range and depth of the bluegrass tradition. There are old songs including  “Banjo Pickin’ Girl,” a lively rendition of the first Richard Thompson song I ever encountered (“Tear Stained Letter,”) and a bright and spirited take on a Monroe instrumental, “Kentucky Mandolin.” But the album’s greatest strengths lay within Kallick’s new songs including “So Danged Lonesome,” “Longest Day of the Year,” and “Snowflakes.” Especially enjoyable is the fiery “I’m Not Your Honey Baby Now,” a song to which I will continue to return. The band is top-notch throughout, and all members are featured in a variety of ways including vocally. (Acquired via publicist)

 

  1. Corb Lund- Things That Can’t Be Undone (New West Records) Corb Lund’s tenth album of (mostly) rural rooted, countryside music, Things That Can’t Be Undone shows Alberta’s favourite son writing even more concisely than previously while tackling subject matter both heady and impacting (“S Lazy H,” “Weight of the Gun,” and “Sadr City,”) heartfelt (“Goodbye Colorado” and “Sunbeam,”) and slightly frivolous (“Talk Too Much” and “Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues.”) While Lund has for years provided engaging music that was obviously influenced by folks like Tom Russell and Ian Tyson, he has increasingly infused his songs with his own individuality. This album continues that journey. (Legal download)

 

  1. Ron Block- Hogan’s House of Music (RonBlock.com) One of the most thoughtful minds in bluegrass, and a danged fine banjo and guitar player, Rob Block is best known as one-fifth of Alison Krauss & Union Station. He has recorded a series of well-received albums, in my opinion the first of which (Faraway Land) is a modern classic. Here he goes back to his roots and influences, recording an instrumental bluegrass album filled with classic (but not too overly familiar) songs. Having purchased digitally, I don’t know who is playing what or where, but I suppose I don’t really need to: it is completely wonderful. (Purchased via iTunes)

 

  1. Willie Thrasher- Spirit Child (Light in the Attic) Three of Willie Thrasher’s songs were featured on the groundbreaking triple album set of last year, Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985, a release that would have topped my chart last year had I heard it then. Spirit Child is a reissue of Thrasher’s 1981 album, and it spent a solid week in my car once I bought it. I may not understand everything on this album, but I think I get it. Folk, rock, and country influences abut to create a remarkable listening journey. (Purchased via eMusic)

 

  1. Jayme Stone- Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (Borealis Records) With a multitude of collaborators, Jayme Stone cuts a wide swath through the legacy of Alan Lomax: it is much like putting a collection of Smithsonian Folkways albums on random, and one becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the intensity of the wide-ranging performances. There is mountain music here, island and African sounds, English and Scottish folk songs, and blues, ‘grass, and chants all performed to the highest levels of performance that retain the ‘authentic’ (whatever that means) and natural state of the songs. (Purchased via iTunes)

 

  1. Jerry Lawson- Just a Mortal Man (Red Beet) As I’ve headed further into the rabbit warren that is vintage R&B and soul, I have found few modern practitioners of the art that appeal to me: even the best seem to try just a little too hard. Not Jerry Lawson. It sounds like the music just flows from him, and when he launches into a song a deep as “Wine” or as sad as “Never Been to Memphis,” you know you are experiencing the real thing. (Purchased via eMusic)

 

  1. The Cox Family- Gone as the Cotton (Rounder) Forgive us for thinking we might never again hear new music from The Cox Family. It has been almost twenty years since Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, and excepting an appearance in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, not much has been heard from Alison Krauss’s favourite Louisianans. Given the quality of the music contained on Gone Like the Cotton, an album started in 1998 and completed within the last year, it is surprising that Krauss and Rounder Records didn’t consider buying the project from Asylum and the Warner’s group at some point in the ensuing years. Eventually, and thankfully, the impedance to unveiling the album was removed, the recorded files were located and freshened with new vocals from the current lineup of the Cox Family siblings Evelyn, Sidney, and Suzanne complementing father Willard’s vocal takes from the late 90s.

 

The newest song and title track, written by Sidney and Suzanne, is a nearly-unadorned family biography. With only the minimalist of guitar accompaniment, the siblings sing of their grandparents, their parents, and their community with devotion and love. It is a stunning and appropriate closing to a heartfelt recording, one that captures in four minutes a lifetime of experience. The result is a type of country music that is seldom encountered in contemporary times. Beautifully executed with confidence that comes through on every song, Gone Like the Cotton is a masterful recording. (Acquired via publicist)

By limiting myself to 15 titles, I’ve not been able to include folks like Ryan Boldt, The Honey DewDrops, Big Country Bluegrass, Tim O’Brien (for his SOS Series), Rex Hobart, Anna and Elizabeth, Samantha Martin, Dar Williams, Donnie Fritts, Pop Staples, Gordie Tentrees, The Hillbenders, Norma MacDonald, and a whole lot of other very fine artists. A great deal of excellent roots music was released in 2015. Thanks for checking in at Fervor Coulee; hopefully we’ll see you in 2016. Donald

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bluegrass Albums of the Year, 2014   Leave a comment

Last week I posted the list of my favourite roots albums of 2014, while also including a few other lists including favourite reissues and such.

Today I am pleased to present my favourite bluegrass albums of the past year. A great many strong bluegrass albums were released in 2014, but I found that I spent more time listening to non-bluegrass roots music over the past months. One example, of the 30 most played songs on the 2014 Bluegrass Today chart, I haven’t knowingly heard a full third, and couldn’t hum another third. I just wasn’t listening to bluegrass- in a broad manner- as much as I may have in previous years.

Part of the reason for that can be attributed to the writing assignments I was given, but that isn’t the whole story. In retrospect, I think I overloaded on bluegrass and reached a bit of a saturation point sometime in 2012. As such I didn’t listen to bluegrass perhaps as often this year, giving albums only two or three pleasure listens after purchase, and then setting them aside; of course, albums I wrote about would receive much more attention- anywhere from five to a dozen plays-  and then be put on the shelf. Another factor is that there appears to be more commonality in sound between bands than I’ve previously noticed; fewer songs and bands are hitting me upside the head.

As the year closes, I find that I am more excited about bluegrass again, and have returned to several of these recordings. There is nothing that compares to a great bluegrass band at the top of their game, performing fresh music that is exciting and memorable.

I really enjoyed the following albums and I’m certain any fan of bluegrass, acoustiblue, and acoustic roots music should find much to follow-up on with the artists and albums I am sharing today. Of course, not every one of these albums will meet each reader’s definition of bluegrass.

  1. Nick Hornbuckle 12X2(=/-1) (Corvus Bay) Nick Hornbuckle’s debut solo recording was a collection of mostly traditional old-time fiddle tunes given new arrangements for banjo in a variety of (mostly) duo settings. As a long-time proponent of the special music created by John Reischman & the Jaybirds, with whom Hornbuckle has played for some 15+ years, it should be no surprise to anyone that I can’t get enough of this recording. Not truly a bluegrass recording, it certainly fits into my catch-all acoustiblue category- certainly bluegrass friendly with an emphasis on approaching old-time tunes in a new way.

The album features twelve tunes interpreted by Hornbuckle and a small group of colleagues- John Reischman is in for three pieces. The other musicians- Miriam Sonstenese (fiddle), Emma Beaton (cello), Shanti Bremer (banjo), and Marisha Devoin (bass)- weren’t previously known to me, but their contributions, along with Hornbuckle’s vision, create an album that is truly unlike anything I’ve encountered anytime recently. My full review is available here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=1014

  1. Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick Sing the Songs of Vern and Ray (Spruce and Maple Music) Possibly no two individuals have more confidently and consistently beat the drum for Vern & Ray than Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Themselves leading denizens of the California bluegrass scene, Lewis and Kallick frequently pay tribute to Vern & Ray and their ongoing influence in concert. They come together here for their second album of duets (following 1991’s Together which was dedicated to Vern & Ray) by releasing a wonderfully touching and musically significant tribute to the duo that so impacted them. My full review is here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/3125/
  2. Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II- Side By Side (Rebel Records) Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.

Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), Side By Side is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy. My full review is available here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/side-by-side-by-ralph-stanley-ralph-stanley-ii/

  1. Larry Sparks- Lonesome and Then Some: A Classic 50th Celebration(Rebel Records) Over fifty years as a bluegrass professional, Larry Sparks has honed a full-bodied, soulful approach to singing bluegrass. He has a wonderful right hand, maintaining unbreakable rhythm while contributing leads that lend a bluesy country resonance to his songs. With calm assurance that has been mistaken for standoffishness, Sparks is a gentlemanly ambassador for bluegrass.

As was the case a decade ago with 40, on this new set Sparks has teamed with some of the most talented musicians and singers in bluegrass to celebrate his 50th year in the music. As special as that collection was- and it was justifiably awarded the IBMA’s Album of the Year in 2005- this set is even more satisfying. My full review can be found here: https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/larry-sparks-lonesome-and-then-some-a-classic-50th-celebration-review/

  1. The Bluegrass Brothers- Generations (Mountain Fever) I first encountered this group a decade or so back with an album on Hay Holler and followed up with their next couple releases. After those first three albums, I lost track of the group, but Generations is the strongest of the four albums I own. A traditional sounding group, the Dowdy clan knows how to keep their bluegrass sound straight and pure. Nothing fancy, just good songs, bright picking, and rough-hewn vocals that are ideal for their approach to bluegrass. http://www.thebluegrassbrothers.com/
  2. Balsam Range- Five (Mountain Home) There exists a palatable line separating premier, contemporary bluegrass bands – the Blue Highways, Union Stations and the McCourys – and other truly great bands, and that line takes years to approach. But once traversed, the affect is aurally apparent: the playing is just a notch crisper, the harmonies a stitch cleaner, the interpretation a sliver more innovative. With their previous album Papertown, Balsam Range edged a significant step toward to that destination; with Five, they have arrived. The International Bluegrass Music Association apparently agreed with me as the group walked away with multiple honours this fall including Vocal Group of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year (for Buddy Melton), and the highly coveted Entertainer of the Year award. Review here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=5477
  3. Phil Leadbetter- The Next Move (Pinecastle) With a bluegrass heart at the core of the album, Phil Leadbetter and his many collaborators have created a wonderful disc that should find favour with those who are open to strong country influences. The reigning IBMA Dobro Player of the year has done very well here, and has enlisted strong singers including John Cowan, Steve Gulley, Dale Ann Bradley, Con Hunley, and especially Shawn Camp to give voice to the songs. Full review here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=1013
  4. Annie Lou- Tried and True (www.AnnieLou.ca) A little old-time, a bit of bluegrass, some folk, and a whole lot of energy- a darned good album, I do believe. Full review here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/12/28/tried-and-true-by-annie-lou/
  5. Doc Watson & David Grisman- Live in Watsonville (Acoustic Disc) Can’t argue with Doc and Dawg.
  6. The Special Consensus & Friends- Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (Compass) Special Consensus, riding a career high since joining forces with Compass Records, are approaching their 40th year under the guidance of Greg Cahill, a banjo master. On Country Boy, they are joined by bluegrass and Americana luminaries including Dale Ann Bradley, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan, and producer Alison Brown. What holds it back from a 5 star label? Two too few songs, that’s it. They picked up a couple IBMA Awards this past October for their efforts. Full review here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/03/27/country-boy-a-bluegrass-tribute-to-john-denver-by-special-consensus-friends/
  7. Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper- On Down the Line (Compass Records) The Detroit Red Wings of the bluegrass league: not always the champion, but always in the mix. Full review here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=5476
  8. The Earls of Leicester- The Earls of Leicester (Rounder) The Jerry Douglas-led supergroup released probably the most popular and well-received bluegrass album of the year. Not a misstep anywhere in sight. Full review at: https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/the-earls-of-leicester-review/
  9. Crowe, Lawson, and Williams- Standing Tall and Tough (Mountain Home) Three bluegrass legends, together again. Full review at https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/crowe-lawson-williams-standing-tall-and-tough-review/
  10. Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys- Somewhere Far Away (Five of Diamonds) My original review is here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/12/28/tried-and-true-by-annie-lou/ It goes on a bit about Open Road, Folk’s previous group.
  11. The Osborne Brothers- Nashville (Pinecastle) A light companion to the previous three volumes in this Pinecastle series tracing the musical roots of Sonny and Bobby, but the performances are top-drawer. Great bluegrass infused country songs.

Honourable Mentions- John Reischman & the Jaybirds and The Show Ponies who each released very impressive mini-album e.p.s. The Jaybirds project On A Winter’s Night was a set of Christmas-themed traditional and folk songs on which the Jaybirds- in a variety of configurations- again proved no one else approaches acoustic music quite like them. The Show Ponies have an energetic sound and have perfectly captured their music in their five-song taster, Run For Your Life.

And with that, 2014 comes to a close. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Best, Donald

 

Posted 2014 December 31 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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Fervor Coulee’s Favourite Roots Albums of 2014   Leave a comment

I spent a lot of time this past year listening to music- in the truck, on the road, off the iMajig and the computer, in the Fervor Coulee bunker- and found so much to appreciate. I still buy a ton of music each year, both in store and less often from online retailers, and increasingly of the digital variety. I’m not streaming music- doesn’t seem fair to anyone from songwriter to artist- and don’t think I will any time soon. I continue to be fortunate in servicing from select publicists, artists, and labels and am appreciative of every release sent my direction, whether the physical CD (preferred) or digitally (increasingly). I can’t write about them all, but make a fair effort.

When reviewing the year, I found myself concentrating not only on the music I praised in writing, but on the many, many albums I purchased since January. I tend to avoid writing about the stuff I drop dollars on only because so much other music comes my way via assignments and such. But, when glancing back over the past twelve months I find that the music I purchased often floats above the favourites I’ve reviewed. Still, much that came my way unexpectedly has found itself on these rather expansive lists of my favourite roots music of 2014.

Favourite Reissues, Historical, and Archival Releases:

  1. Doc Watson & David Grisman- Live in Watsonville (Acoustic Disc) A great little set; not for the first time, so glad Grisman records everything!
  2. The Osborne Brothers- Nashville (Pinecastle) Very light in comparison to the previous three volumes in this Pinecastle series tracing the musical roots of Sonny and Bobby, but the performances are top-drawer. Great bluegrass infused country songs.
  3. Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys- Radio Shows (Rural Rhythm) A reissue of a 1978 set featuring 1962 radio transcriptions of the McReynolds brothers and their classic band. Love this stuff- 15 minutes daily, hawking your very best tunes and personal appearances. A wonderful set of music from the first generation.
  4. Jeannie C. Riley- Harper Valley PTA: The Plantation Recordings 1968-1970 (Charly) A two-disc set capturing five albums of her classic recordings. This is a late 2013 issue, but I only found it this year and have played it to pieces. Riley was much more than a one-hit wonder (she actually charted at least six Top Ten country hits with another eight hitting the Top 40) and this collection provides the evidence of her talents.
  5. Lucinda Williams- Lucinda Williams (Thirty Tigers) Not only does this classic album look and sound great on red vinyl, it comes with a download of a wonderful vintage concert. Worth the dollars spent, certainly.
  6. Linda McRae- Fifty Shades of Red (Borealis) A generous serving from McRae’s four solo recordings going back almost twenty years. Great stuff; bought before I realized it wasn’t a new album and I already had all the songs. Didn’t bother me a bit!
  7. Corb Lund- Counterfeit Blues (New West) In which our local son finds hisself and the Hurtin’ Albertans in Memphis and decide to revisit their early material sans overdubs and gimmickry. The results are quite splendid.
  8. Richard Thompson- Acoustic Classics (Beeswing) Just what it says.
  9. Steve Forbert- LIve in Lexington (iTunes) I’ve bought so many live Forbert sets over the past decade, I can’t keep them straight; I’ve bought more than one twice, and really couldn’t tell you the difference between them. I do know this: I enjoy each and every one of them, including this set recorded and released last year, but purchased by me in January. So it counts for 2014.
  10. Johnny Cash- Out Among the Stars (Sony Legacy) The lost album.

Mister, I Want My $15 Back:

  1. Neil Young- A Letter Home (Reprise) Neil and Jack White take the piss recording- slapped together, uninteresting, and sloppy renditions of songs we’ve all heard done better- with two tin cans and a nail.
  2. Dead Man’s Town: A Tribute to Springsteen’s Born in the USA (Lightning Rod) I quite like several of the performers who participated in this set, but the music itself is bland and misguided; there isn’t a single song here that I need to hear again.
  3. Lydia Loveless-Somewhere Else (Bloodshot) I love that she knows who Kirsty MacColl is, but dang: this recording had me wishing I was somewhere else. Tuneless, flat, seemingly disinterested: I am definitely missing what everyone else is raving about.
  4. Sturgill Simpson- Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Hightop Mountain) After the incredible break through that was his first album High Top Mountain, I truly didn’t expect this album to measure up. I just didn’t think the drop off would be this significant. I realize almost everyone else disagrees.

Covers and Tributes:

  1. Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick- Sing the Songs of Vern and Ray (Spruce & Maple) I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/09/06/3125/
  2. Mark Erelli- Milltowns (Self-released) Heartful tribute to Bill Morrissey, a troubled soul whom Erelli considered a mentor. He found the soul of each of these songs, many of which are not among Morrissey’s best known. Mary Gauthier likes it, too.
  3. Dave and Phil Alvin- Common Ground: Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy (Yep Roc) The scrapin’ Alvins put aside all their differences to create an Americana blues masterpiece. Not only is it great to hear them together again, it is wonderful to experience them pouring their soul into this unified project.
  4. Suzy Bogguss- Lucky (Loyal Duchess) Almost forgot about this one, although I’ve got no excuse for doing so. Having Bogguss sing these Merle Haggard songs is an absolute dream, and hearing her sing some of them in concert this summer made it an even greater treat. Beautiful voice.
  5. The Special Consensus & Friends- Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (Compass) I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/country-boy-a-bluegrass-tribute-to-john-denver-by-special-consensus-friends/
  6. Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie (Compass) I wrote about it heredear jean http://lonesomeroadreview.com/dear-jean-artists-celebrate-jean-ritchie-by-various-artists/
  7. The Kruger Brothers- Doc: Remembering Doc Watson (Double Time) Having seriously listened to bluegrass for more than twenty years, I’ve somehow missed listening to the Kruger Brothers. I had got it into my head that they were noodlin’ fools of no interest to me. My mistake. This recording, one that touches on all aspects of Doc Watson’s storied career- blues, folk, bluegrass, old-time- is darned fine, and its final track, “Shady Grove,” features Doc.

Disappointments:

  1. No new music from The Earl Brothers
  2. I still haven’t got to Arizona to meet up with James Reams
  3. The ongoing debacle within the leadership of the IBMA
  4. Two trips to Kansas City, and still haven’t seen a live Royals game: and this year of all years!

My 25 Favourite Roots Albums of 2014:

As always, beyond the top three or four album placements are tenuous at best. In general, the albums listed four through ten could be rearranged on another day, as could those from eleven onward. Today, this is what I’m feeling.

  1. Eliza Gilkyson- The Nocturne Diaries (Red House) I wrote about it here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/the-nocturne-diaries-by-eliza-gilkyson/
  2. Craig Moreau- The Daredevil Kid (www.CraigMoreau.com) I wrote about it here: https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/craig-moreau-the-daredevil-kid-review/
  3. Carlene Carter- Carter Girl (Rounder) I wrote about it here https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/carlene-carter-carter-girl-review/ and here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/05/13/carter-girl-by-carlene-carter/
  4. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings- South (File Under: Music) Beyond not being able to remember if the album was called South or North, this is certainly one of my finer purchases of this year. It received a Polaris vote last time around, and will be further championed. The boys in BARK know what they are doing and manage to maintain energy and vibrancy within their well-oiled formula. Growly and simultaneously melodic, I’ve played this one a couple dozen times and will continue to do so. “I’m goin’ north….”
  5. Nick Hornbuckle- 12X2 (+/- 1) (Corvus) I wrote about it here https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/nick-hornbuckle-12×2-1-review/ and here http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=1014
  6. Dirk Powell- Walking Through Clay (Sugar Hill) Sometimes I’ll come upon a review I’ve written and I’ll think to myself, “What were you doing?” Not so this one- I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/walking-through-clay-by-dirk-powell/
  7. Eric Brace & Karl Straub- Hangtown Dancehall (Red Beet) I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/hangtown-dancehall%e2%80%a8-by-eric-brace-karl-straub%e2%80%a8/
  8. Kathy Kallick- Cut to the Chase (Live Oak) I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/cut-to-the-chase-by-kathy-kallick/
  9. Rodney Crowell- Tarpaper Sky (New West) Nothin’ to add. If you don’t get it, you won’t. Among the most consistent Americana performers I can think of- Nashville did us a favour when they decided Diamonds & Dust was all they cared about.
  10. Mary Gauthier- Trouble & Love (Six Shooter) I recall clearly my pal Billy lending me Gauthier’s first couple albums, heck must be almost 15 years ago now. Before Filth & Fire was widely available, Mary handed me a copy and asked me to give it a listen- seldom have I been so doubly gob-smacked, first that she thought I was worthy of being given her album to consider for review and second at the power of the songs- that’s the one with “Camelot Motel,” “Christmas in Paradise,” and “Sugar Cane.” I’ve been listening to Trouble & Love quite a bit recently and while Gauthier no longer enjoys the element of surprise (because we danged well better know the quality to expect from her) she still manages to elevate herself in our esteem with each release. Joined here by folks including Darrell Scott, Beth Nielson Chapman, Ashley Cleveland, Duane Eddy, and Viktor Krauss, Gauthier has again raised her bar.
  11. Kyle Casey- North Star (Americelta) Drawing on strong connections to Americana, Scots Gaelic, and folks traditions, Kyle Casey’s album is an absolute delight to experience. A recent discovery, her album sat in a pile awaiting unearthing this month, and I must admit I am completely floored. I was mentally writing a review for the album and had ‘penciled in’ a comparison to Nanci Griffith long before we arrived to the final track, a beautiful rendition of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” made popular by Griffith. An interpretation of “Down to the River to Pray,” in Gaelic no less, is breathtaking, as are several of Casey’s own compositions including “Nora O’Kane” and the title track. An absolute gem, Americelta indeed.
  12. Lizzy Hoyt- New Lady of the Prairies (Blue Crown) Alberta’s fiddling rose stretches out on this recording, striking an ideal tension between atmosphere and instrumental elocution. Guided by co-producer John Reischman, Hoyt’s album balances Celtic, western, and Americana sounds. The title track is stunning, but is by no means the album’s only standout. Beautiful stuff, this.
  13. Jesse Winchester- A Reasonable Amount of Trouble (Appleseed) The title describes the efforts I made to find this wonderful album; a full day’s journey involving a highway, two freeways, a mall, and an extremely busy south side avenue, not to mention sufficient idjits and gorbs to send me running back to the country double time. Winchester, in these final recordings, sounds so comfortable and relaxed. The self-penned numbers are subtly sly, and the covers- especially a take of “Rhythm of the Rain”- are breathtaking. We should all be so lucky to bow out in such a manner.
  14. Otis Gibbs- Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth (Wanamaker) Every time I buy an Otis Gibbs album and then get it home to give it a listen, I ask myself “Why don’t you listen to him more often?” I have no idea.
  15. Shari Ulrich- Everywhere I Go (Borealis/Esther) I wrote about it here https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/roots-song-of-the-week-shari-ulrich-rain-rain-rain/
  16. Alice Gerrard- Follow The Music (Tompkins Square) If you are not familiar with Gerrard, she has been a mainstay in the old-time music world for more than forty years, and prior to that was without a doubt ‘a pioneering woman of bluegrass’ through her long association with the dearly missed Hazel Dickens. Not one to rest on her laurels, Gerrard has teamed with the principals of Hiss Golden Messenger to produce an album every bit as compelling as last year’s Bittersweet. I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/follow-the-music-by-alice-gerrard/
  17. Doug Seegers- Going Down to the River (Rounder) Definitely the roots ‘feel good’ story of the year. I wrote about it here https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/doug-seegers-going-down-to-the-river-review/
  18. Mike Farris- Shine For All the People (Compass) I wrote about it here https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/mike-farris-shine-for-all-the-people-review/
  19. John Hiatt- Terms of My Surrender (New West) I can find something to appreciate on every John Hiatt album. On this one, that includes absolutely everything.
  20. Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey- Going Back Home (Chess) Beyond a few previously unknown artists, this album was my surprise of the year. I read something about it in either Uncut or Mojo, but didn’t pay it mind; when I saw it in the store for a reasonable price, I picked it up. I know Johnson simply as a name, going back to the Stiff-era while Daltrey is, well, Roger Daltrey and one of my all-time faves. The album is comprised of (mostly) Johnson songs in the spirit of the ‘Maximum R & B’ that Daltrey came of age upon. Lively and bluesy- quite fine, thank you.
  21. Billy Joe Shaver- Long In The Tooth (Lightning Rod) Since my father-in-law introduced me to his music more than two decades ago, I’ve become convinced that Shaver can do no wrong…even when he does. Not here, though.
  22. Jonathan Byrd- You Can’t Outrun the Radio (self-released) I have bought a number of Byrd’s albums, but this is the first one that really and truly grabbed me and held on start to finish. The closing track “Close Enough To Touch” is so good, it should be a song everyone can hum.
  23. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison- Our Year (Premium) I like to think I can hear their passion for each other and these songs, not to mention the light-hearted fun they seem to be having when singing and playing together.
  24. Jeff Black- Folklore (Lotos Nile) I wrote about it here https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/jeff-black-folklore-review/ and here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/04/21/folklore-by-jeff-black/
  25. Laurie Lewis- One Evening in May (Spruce and Maple) I wrote about it here http://lonesomeroadreview.com/one-evening-in-may-by-laurie-lewis/

Honourable Mention- Bob Walkenhorst, Jeff Porter, and Norm Dahlor pounding through two hours of live music at The Record Bar in Kansas City 2014 April 16- a wonderful set of Walkenhorst songs and requests; light on covers, heavy on energy and grit. “Buck O’Neill” to kick off the baseball season.  Thanks to Jay for recording this and all the shows: https://archive.org/details/bobwalkenhorst2014-04-16.flac

That’s it- my version of my favourite albums of the last year. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- I hope you’ll come back again. Donald

 

Posted 2014 December 23 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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