Archive for the ‘Gold In A Way’ Tag

Gold…In A Way- Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys- Live at Mechanics Hall   Leave a comment

More than 15 years ago, I started a feature in the local bluegrass association’s newsletter that I called “Gold…In A Way.” Each issue I would examine a bluegrass ‘back catalogue’ title that I appreciated. In this way, I looked at albums that either I missed writing about ‘the first time around’ or albums that pre-dated the time I began writing about roots music. These were albums that I thought were important, albums I cared about for some reason. Of course, the only way these albums would ever be ‘gold’ is in their musical value, not in copies sold. This time out, I look at a vintage release from the Father of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.

Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys- Live at Mechanics Hall (Acoustic Disc) Released 2004

I’ve written it before, and I hope to write it again: Thank goodness a teenaged David Grisman could think of nothing more exciting than to haul his recording machine up and down the east coast of the United States recording bluegrass ham sessions and concerts.

Captured live in November 1963, the Blue Grass Boys in this Worcester, MA set are Del McCoury (IBMA Hall of Fame class of 2011), coming near the end of his brief tenure as Monroe’s lead vocalist and guitar player, Bill Keith (IBMA Hall of Fame 2015), the innovative 5-stringer who gave up his first name for Brad when the authoritative Monroe decried there was to be one ‘Bill’ in the band, and the ever reliable Joe Stuart on fiddle. Bessie Lee Maudlin holds down the bottom.

For those of us who cannot get enough live Monroe (IBMA Hall of Fame 1991), this 40-plus minute set was a welcome addition to our collections when it was released by Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. Monroe shines on near every number with “Devil’s Dream” being especially fiery on this evening, and “Rawhide” sounding flawless despite Monroe’s assertion otherwise. McCoury takes a few leads, and while his voice had not yet fully acquired its unique qualities, greatness peaks through. What is in evidence, on “Footprints in the Snow” for instance, is McCoury’s ability to carry a song.

The mix doesn’t do justice to Keith’s playing, but Stuart is clearly heard throughout. The vocals are largely duos, with a couple trios and a quartet (“I Saw the Light.”) A pair of numbers featuring Monroe’s daughter Melissa are situated mid-set, and serve only to illustrate the foibles of nepotism; while not unlistenable, one doubts they will ever be considered essential except as part of the historical record.

The heart of the show includes some of Monroe’s most enduring numbers-“Mule Skinner Blues,” “Footprints,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Rawhide,” and “John Henry.” While not surpassing the more familiar studio renditions, these takes are all excellent live performances.

Bea Lilly (IBMA Hall of Fame 2002). of the Lilly Brothers who were features in this ‘package’ show, comes to the stage to sing a duet of “What Would You Give in Exchange” with Monroe. Lilly accepts and meets the challenge of singing Charlie Monroe’s parts. With “Uncle Pen” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” the historic (largely because it was recorded) show comes to a close much too soon.

For a recording of some age, the audio quality is simply terrific, and even casual listeners should be able to appreciate the performance. The 24-page booklet is loaded with information, as well as numerous photographs of the 1963 edition of the band.

The liner notes by IBMA Hall of Fame 2014 member Neil Rosenberg are typically insightful and clearly communicated, reading as comfortable reflection of a special time in bluegrass history. The folk boom was just beginning, but much of the scene had not yet discovered bluegrass music; Monroe was, as Rosenberg writes, “on the threshold of recognition that would transform him into an icon of American music.”

This release is heartily recommended. I’ve been listening to it at least annually since its release and never tire of its sparkling liveliness.

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Gold…In A Way- James King “Thirty Years of Farming”   Leave a comment

 

Jame KingOne of my favourite parts of writing about bluegrass music is occasionally looking back at the great music I’ve had the pleasure of encountering, and giving it another listen with the ears of time. Gold In A Way is how I do it, and I’ve posted another one at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. It is about James King’s great album Thirty Years of Farming; give it a read if you are so inclined. A Google search will locate a slate of live performance videos of James singing the song.

Every once in awhile, I get to thinking about what life would be like if bluegrass was mainstream. And then I wake up.

Still, there are decades of great bluegrass behind us, and more wonderful albums being released every month. With fewer and fewer stores stocking bluegrass (and music in general), some of us may have a hard time finding the music we love. With less selection comes fewer chances to come across and album and decide, “Yup-that’s what I didn’t know I was looking for today.”

Gold…In A Way is my little way to occasionally remind ourselves of album we should be listening to. Today’s edition looks back to 2002 and Rounder Records’ release of James King’s “Thirty Years of Farming,” perhaps King’s finest album start to finish. As we approach the first anniversary of “The Bluegrass Storyteller’s” death at age 57, it seems a fine time to look back at this terrific album.

“Thirty Years of Farming” was James’ fourth Rounder release, and when the album arrived I was immediately struck by the quality of the recording. As well, I found it to be a treat to have the singer backed by his touring band- no guests, no distractions- just hardcore, cry with your head on the steering wheel, road hewn, bluegrass!

With “Thirty Years of Farming,” the Carroll County, Virginia native had again produced a nourishing blend of stellar bluegrass lead singing instrumentally backed, in turns, with sensitivity, passion, and drive. I found upon release and again listening today, that it was obvious why “Thirty Years of Farming” was chosen to kick off the album. The song would become a King signature, perhaps his most universally popular number and one that even adorned King’s souvenir t-shirts in his final years.

King takes Fred Eaglesmith’s tale of familial farming regret in a subtly different direction than the songwriter. Where Eaglesmith appeared never far from making the bankers pay for their heartless business acumen, King is resigned to the fate of the family farm, if no less emotionally invested- as if he saw the foreclosure coming from the very day the mortgage was signed.

The James King Band of the day- Kevin Prater (mandolin), Joe Clark (bass), Adam Poindexter (banjo), Owen Saunders (fiddle), and King (guitar)- were as talented a quintet as to be found in bluegrass. “Heartbreak Express” was given an aggressive Kentucky Thunder-type arrangement. The album closer, “Play Us A Waltz,” was right in all the maudlin ways an old folks home lament should be. “Toil, Tears, and Trouble” featured tremendous mando breaks for those who like their bluegrass sounds fast and sharp. A couple songs closely associated with George Jones, “Flame In My Heart” and “Color of the Blues,” were given soft, countrygrass arrangements.

Vocally, James King was never given to flash, and some might suggest he wasn’t even especially distinctive in range or pitch; he never swooped down too low, and didn’t soar terribly high. What King did do, perhaps better than anyone else, was become part of the song. He sold it. Anyone who experienced him live recalls how he would choke up on particular songs, overcome with the associated emotions.

With fifteen years of hindsight, and listening to his phrasing within “Roy Lee” (an amazing tribute to Roy Lee Centers written by Billy Smith and Mel Besher) or “Toil, Tears, and Trouble,” one senses the restrain and control King possessed to sing without resorting to affectation. King sang like a dog chases trucks- with natural intensity. And this quality is apparent throughout “Thirty Years of Farming.” A song I overlooked initially was “Days of Grey and Black,” a Cullen Galyean song with which I wasn’t familiar at the time. As many bluegrass albums have done, this one eventually sent me on a search for historical recordings.

Reviewing the album for “Bluegrass Now” in 2003, I expressed two complaints with “Thirty Years of Farming,” both relating to song selection. “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” appeared then to be just another song of a man carrying on about the woman who done him wrong (“some of them ain’t ever satisfied”) while refusing to accept any responsibility for the situation. That opinion hasn’t changed. What has adjusted in my wee brain is the importance such a song has in the oeuvre. That down-on-life sufferer’s perspective is just as valid as the next guy’s, and who am I to judge if he wants to remain shattered by his own decisions. I may not appreciate this type of song as much as some may, but no one can argue with the strength of King’s performance of the song.

Sung by mandolinist Kevin Prater, Carl Smith’s “I Overlooked An Orchid” is a number better left to a previous generation- lyrically awkward and stale in theme: I stand by that judgment.

Despite that misstep, “Thirty Years of Farming,” produced by Ken Irwin with assistance from Ray Deaton, completed the James King Grand Slam initiated by “Bed By The Window,” “Lonesome and Then Some,” and “These Old Pictures.” King would go on to release another two albums, “The Bluegrass Storyteller” and the Grammy-nominated “Three Chords and the Truth.” Recording for Rounder, King never released a bad album. “Thirty Years of Farming” remains a personal favorite, and may have been his recording pinnacle.

Originally published elsewhere:

If you know bluegrass, you know James King.

The Bluegrass Storyteller, James King, has died.

In a week that has already seen the death of the dean of country music songwriters, Guy Clark, and the mostly unnoted death of Johnny Seay, King’s passing extends the shadow lingering over the Americana music world.

According to the release from his label, Rounder Records, King was 57 years old. He had been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and was surrounded by family and friends when he passed away May 19.

From the release:

King died peacefully, surrounded by family and close friends, including his longtime girlfriend, Becky Rhodes; his brothers Andy and Jason, and sister-in-law Leticia; his aunts Debbie Moxley and Nadine Isley; and friends Junior and Susan Sisk, Dudley and Sally Connell, Harry and Louise Rhodes, and Charlie Snelling.

Born in Martinsville, Virginia on September 9, 1958, and raised in Carroll County, King grew up immersed in bluegrass. Both his father and his uncle were professional bluegrass musicians, and during his formative years, King was surrounded by music.

Following a stint in the Marine Corps, King decided to follow family tradition, and launched his musical career. He was signed to Rounder Records in 1992, where he released a series of critically acclaimed and award-winning albums, including his last recording for the label, 2013’s Grammy-nominated “Three Chords & the Truth.”

Among his many achievements, King was a 12-time Bluegrass Music Award Winner, and in 1997, the International Bluegrass Music Association voted the James King Band the “Emerging Artist of the Year.”

In 2014, King was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. Alison Krauss sent along the following remarks, which were read at the ceremony: “Nine years ago, my father and I heard a man singing in a jam session between two campers in Maryland when it was pitch black outside. Our jaws hung open, and then we had to search the festival site to retrieve the top of my head. The voice we heard was magnificent. It was so powerful, emotive, haunting, and one of a kind. It was you, singing ‘Cry, Cry, Darlin.” We had the opportunity to speak with you, and found your spirit and generosity shared the same qualities. I’m so happy you are receiving this award. How proud the state of Virginia must be to be able to claim you as their own, and to give this award to someone whose voice has taken so many of us back to another time when life had such a beautiful, simple dream attached to it. Congratulations James King. FANTASTIC!!!”

Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin signed King in 1992, and produced a number of his recordings for the label. Irwin reflects, “James had an uncanny ability to wring the emotion out of every song he sang, and he was one of the most intuitive singers in all of bluegrass. He sang from and to the heart, and had the rare gift of being able to make audiences feel, no matter what it was he was singing about. He was a born storyteller, and loved to tell stories before, during, and after songs.” He continues, “His love of singing and entertaining came through in everything he did, and those qualities made him one of the most popular and beloved artists on the bluegrass circuit. James’ big voice was only matched by his outsize personality. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”

King was predeceased by his daughter Shelby Ann, who died in 2012. Funeral arrangements will be announced shortly.

I crossed paths with James King several times, reviewed his recordings more frequently, and appreciated his talent through recordings most often. My impressions are limited.

James King may have been the worst businessman bluegrass has ever known, and that is saying something. If you don’t know the stories, you likely don’t need to.

But, damn-the man could sing.

The first James King song I heard might have been “Leavin'” a track off his 1993 album “These Old Pictures.” But, it could have just as easily been “Letters Have No Arms” or “A Few Old Memories.” He loved the sentimental songs, and could find depths of emotion in songs that others never reached. Over the years, I heard him sing live on four or five different occasions, and never left disappointed-even when he was not at peak performance.

During the summer of 2014, I was pleased to hear King sing in concert one last time. By any measure, it was not a classic performance. Noticeably gaunt and obviously not in peak physical condition, his set wasn’t as strong as any bluegrass professional would expect to deliver. The man was ill, noticeably failing, and-if the picking lot gossip was to be believed-not expected to see out the month.

The performance was a bit rambling, but King still commanded the stage.

Grasstowne’s Kameron Keller stepped in on banjo, while James’s regular bassist John Marquess and mandolin player- whose name I missed beyond Ron- greatly assisted in helping King get through the set.

James did quite a bit of talking on stage, emotion entering his voice several times when talking about his band members and his appreciation for the audience. Performing seated, King appeared to gain energy as his set unfolded. Apparently working without a set list, the band members did their best to perform the songs King called out.

“Iron Curtain” was more ragged than right, and an impromptu “Bill Cheatham” almost didn’t make it onto the rails, let alone fall off of them, but by the time he launched into “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” King’s voice had warmed up, and things just kept getting better. Promising “something old and good,” he launched into “Darling Say Won’t You Be Mine” before slipping into the always impactful “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.”

King paid tribute to both James Alan Shelton and George Shuffler by picking out “The Wildwood Flower” and “Home Sweet Home.”

More Stanley music followed with “Our Last Goodbye” and his set closing “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest.” “Thirty Years of Farming” was shouted from the audience (I can’t imagine by whom!), and King performed this bluegrass chart-topping Fred Eaglesmith song as his encore.

Few were seated as King left the stage, with the audience showing genuine affection for The Bluegrass Storyteller. Having seen six or seven James King sets over the years, this was certainly not the strongest I had seen, but I was certainly glad I got to hear him again.

I wasn’t close with James King, and he never remembered me from one meeting to the next. I did assist him unload his vehicle once in Nashville, booked him into a set of shows through the province once, and shook his hand several times. During a dinner once, we shared tales-he sharing more than I was able to-and he expressed some bitterness. Still, I always found him to willingly accept responsibility for his faults.

Trying to get James to tape a radio promo for my radio show of the day was challenge. No matter how many times he tried, he couldn’t get his mouth around “Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society,” the sponsor of the program, nor my surname. After eight or ten takes, we simplified things to “Donald.” Nailed it. By the time we finished, James, the band, and I were all killing ourselves laughing.

James King loved a freebee. I remember supplying him and the band with a set of Waskasoo Bluegrass “Pork & Fiddle” t-shirts while visiting Red Deer, although I’m not sure they were large enough for them! On that occasion, and others, I purchased merchandise from King I never needed, just because I knew he needed the cash flow. I know I’m not the only one who did.

All of those memories fade compared to the obvious joy I saw on his face watching him on the Grammy Award red carpet a few years back. With his spouse (I believe) by his side, he was beaming. On the top of the world. Accepted.

That’s the way I choose to recall James King.

I’ve been listening to “The Dark,” “Old Friends,” and “My Favorite Picture of You” this week. Now I will be dusting off “Lonesome and Then Some,” “Three Chords and the Truth,” and “Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys Introducing James King.”

Gold…In A Way- The SteelDrivers, featuring Chris Stapleton   Leave a comment

imagesOver at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I’ve posted an update to my 2008 review of The SteelDrivers’ debut album. Gold…In A Way is a semi-regular thing I do where I look back on a favoured bluegrass release. I was prompted to do this one by Chris Stapleton’s absolutely unexpected crowning as the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year, as well as Best New Artist and Album of the Year. “Traveller” is, no doubt, a great album, and Stapleton is a fabulous singer and songwriter, but no one-not even his pal Nelson at WDVX could have anticipated that he would win three awards last week.

I’m also linking in my review to The SteelDrivers’ latest album, The Muscle Shoals Sessions, published awhile ago at Country Standard Time; I can’t find a link to it here- must have missed that. As well, I reviewed Hammer Down there a couple years back.

Yup, I do love me some SteelDrivers.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Gold…In A Way: Sam Bush- Circles Around Me   Leave a comment

I’ve updated my 2009 review of Sam Bush’s Circles Around Me as the latest installment of my (infrequent) Gold…in a way series of archival reviews. It is posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.

Posted 2015 July 31 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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Gold…In A Way- The Circuit Riders- Let the Ride Begin   Leave a comment

Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I’ve posted a new edition of Gold…In A Way, my once-in-a-long-while, but-still-semi-regular feature that takes a look back at an album I enjoyed at some point in the past twenty years.

CircuitToday, while doing some research on early-80s bluegrass bands, I came across The Circuit Riders’ album Let the Ride Begin, released in late 2006. The album is available digitally and at online retailers- this is the band formed by former members of The Country Gentlemen, and has nothing to do with the group of the same name that recorded in the ’90s or since.

I most likely hadn’t listened to the album since it was released, but had positive memories of it. Listening to the disc today, I appreciate the recording all the more.

My piece can be located HERE.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Gold…In A Way- David Parmley & Continental Divide: Three Silver Dollars   Leave a comment

untitledGold…In A Way is an opportunity for me to occasionally re-examine a bluegrass album that I believe deserves a second listen. This time out I look at David Parmley & Continental Divide’s 2009 album Three Silver Dollars. Featuring a title cut from Tom T. Hall and outstanding playing from Parmley, Dale Perry, Ron Spears, Ron Stewart, and Kyle Perkins, this was without doubt one of the finest albums of 2009. It stands up five years later. This link will get you over to Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, where the piece is published.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald @FervorCoulee

Gold…In A Way- Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band   Leave a comment

I’ve revised my piece from seven years ago about “The Mountain,” the album recorded by Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band and released in 1999. It is posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass at http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=927. Hopefully you find it worth the read.