Archive for the ‘Larry Sparks’ Tag

Curly Seckler, a bluegrass legend, remembered   Leave a comment

Curly-Seckler 1I don’t know when I first fully noticed Curly Seckler, but it may have been early in 2005 when he quipped, “Come here, you money-making thing!” to kick-off his penultimate album, Down In Caroline.

I had, of course, heard Curly Seckler prior to that. As a keen listener of bluegrass for more than a dozen years (at the time), it would have been impossible to have not heard his voice and mandolin playing.

Mr. Seckler was a long-time member of the Foggy Mountain Boys and The Nashville Grass, and I had frequently heard his mandolin and guitar playing and tenor vocals, including on the first Lester Flatt record I ‘owned’*, Lester Flatt Live! Bluegrass Festival, Lester(reissued and expanded years later by Bear Family as Live at Vanderbilt) which I acquired mostly because of the participation of a very young Marty Stuart. In hindsight, his recording of “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul” (from a CMH release, and collected on Once Upon A Time) with Stuart is definitive, but to 2005 I hadn’t even given it the attention it deserved. And while his distinctive voice graced three numbers on another of my early bluegrass purchases, I overlooked Mr. Seckler amongst the more prominent (to me) bluegrassers contained on David Grisman’s Home Is Where The Heart Is collection.Home is where

(*I say ‘owned’ because I ‘borrowed’ the album from a future in-law and never seemed to remember to return it!)

So, I had seen his name listed in credits, but hadn’t really paid attention. I think I knew he had played and recorded with Charlie Monroe, and had learned his “A Purple Heart” had been recorded with the McReynolds. When Down in Caroline came my way for review, I was given plenty of reason to concentrate on his voice, his playing, and to research his history and place in bluegrass music.

Within days, Mr. Seckler went from a vaguely familiar name on paper as a sideman to a personal favourite.

Curly Caroline

When Mr. Seckler passed at the end of 2017, two days past his 98th birthday, appropriate testaments were written in his honour in The Tennessean, at Bluegrass Today, and elsewhere. Others much more able have recounted his life and legacy; I simply share my personal reflections and perspective on the IBMA Hall of Fame member

I can’t locate my contemporaneous review of Down In Caroline in my archives, but listening to it again these past weeks I know I am even more impressed by it now than I was a dozen years ago.

Released on Copper Creek, the album was produced when Mr. Seckler was 85 years old. I don’t know what I will be doing when I am 85—should I be fortunate enough to reach that milestone—but I know I won’t be singing as good as he was: few have. It is an outstanding album, full of choice moments—as when he and Dudley Connell come together at around the 30 second mark of “Valley Of Peace”, and when Josh McMurray’s banjo kicks off “He Took Your Place,” soon followed by Seckler and Larry Sparks bringing chills on the chorus—and historical moments, too. Through studio freshening, a 1971 tape of Mr. Seckler singing tenor with Bill Monroe on “Sitting On Top of The World” closes the set as a hidden chestnut, and Connell also leads the group through an impromptu take of “Dig A Hole in the Meadow.”

Rather than serving as a monument to a fading talent, Down In Caroline revealed Mr. Seckler as a vibrant bluegrass force in his ninth decade. The excellent liner notes from co-producer (and biographer) Penny Parsons share that Seckler continued writing up to the sessions, finishing “Letter to the Captain” just prior to recording it in 2004. Enough material was recorded to prompt a second volume, entitled Bluegrass, Don’t You Know, the following year. (More on that in a bit.)

When Seckler takes the lead vocal position, it is obvious that we are hearing a master: one listen to “Worries on My Mind” and “China Grove, My Home” serve as evidence. Couple all of this with a playful take of “Hold the Woodpile Down” lead by Doc Watson (culled from a previous session for a Larry Perkins album), and you have as memorable bluegrass album recorded by an octogenarian as I have encountered: across forty minutes, it never drags, sags, or fades.

Curly That Old Book

Around the same time, a collection on County Records assembled  material from an outstanding 1971 recording with the Shenandoah Cut-Ups titled Curly Seckler Sings Again.  On That Old Book of Mine, these eleven tracks were supplemented by five tunes recorded with Willis Spears in 1989, taken from the album Tribute to Lester Flatt.  The music, ranging from standards like ”Salty Dog Blues” and “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky” to less familiar fare such as Bill Monroe’s “Remember the Cross” and his own “What’s The Matter Now”, was of another era and yet timeless.

While Mr. Seckler was an appealing and certainly capable lead vocalist, he was best known as a superior tenor singer, something very much in evidence here.  For good reason, Stuart called him the greatest tenor singer of all time. On the 1971 numbers, Billy Edwards (banjo) takes the lead on many, with Seckler’s rich tenor soaring over the top.   Tater Tate (fiddle), Hershel Sizemore (mandolin)) and John Palmer (bass) provide the instrumental accompaniment alongside Seckler’s guitar.

By 1989, Seckler was singing only tenor, with Spears’ powerful voice in the lead position.  Seckler played mandolin on these tunes with Spears handling guitar, and Seckler’s vocal contributions were again flawless.  Rounding out these sessions were Ron Stewart (fiddle), Perkins (banjo), and Phillip Staff (bass).

All instrumentation on this volume was well-recorded and of the quality most often associated with classic, traditional bluegrass music of the era.  No one got too flashy, with the focus on the melding of voices with smooth harmony.  This was especially evident on “Give Me The Roses While I Live” and “No Mother In This World.”

Curly Bluegrass Dont

A final album, Bluegrass, Don’t You Know and also on Copper Creek, followed in 2006 and was just as powerful as the preceding Down In Caroline. This set—again a mix of classic songs made fresh, and fresh material certifiably classic—was highlighted by one of Larry Cordle’s finest vocal turns, taking the lead on the title track, a new Seckler composition. Lyrically adroit and instrumentally noteworthy, the song encapsulates sixty years of bluegrass evolution charged by an electrifying tenor performance from Mr. Seckler. “Honey, don’t you know,” he sings as a vocal refrain as instrumentalists, including some of bluegrass music’s finest—Perkins, Rob Ickes (Dobro), Brent Truitt (mandolin), Laura Weber Cash (fiddle), Chris Sharp (guitar), and Kent Blanton (bass)—drop in allusions to Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker and others who made the music what it always should be. “They say it ain’t country, but it’s bluegrass don’t you know,” indeed!

Mr. Seckler’s signature song “A Purple Heart” appears. Also included is “That Old Book of Mine” which dates from his time with Flatt & Scruggs, as do “Bouquet in Heaven,” “What’s the Matter With You Darlin’,” “Why Did You Wander,” “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go,” and “Why Can’t We Be Darlings Anymore,” all faithfully executed with exceptional performances from those who were selected to support Mr. Seckler on these sessions. Noteworthy is “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go” performed by the trio of Larry Sparks, Larry Perkins, and Mr. Seckler, with Sparks taking the lead position instrumentally (a stunning example of his signature guitar style) and vocally.

The autobiographical “The Way It Was” features twin fiddles from Sharp and Tater Tate, and like every song on this collection, its melody lingers long after it is heard. Appropriately for an album that showcases Mr. Seckler’s talents as a lead vocalist, the album closes with another new number, the vocally challenging “The Old Man Has Retired.” Perhaps not the smoothest performance amongst those captured in the 2004 sessions, the honesty of a well-lived life is on display as Mr. Seckler sings the song exactly as he wanted.

In the fall of 2005, I had the pleasure and honour of hearing the (by then) 86-year old’s still powerful tenor in Nashville at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass. I don’t recall what he sang, or with whom, but I do remember that I got to shake the man’s hand, and he signed my copies of Down in Caroline and That Old Book of Mine. I cherish my brief encounter with Mr. Seckler, and these mentioned recordings are testament to the man’s talent and legacy.

Since then I’ve sought out recordings featuring Mr. Seckler; of course, here in central Alberta, one doesn’t come across them often. There are the dozens of recordings he made with Flatt & Scruggs, and I am fully entertained when I slip my Best of Flatt & Scruggs TV Show DVDs into my player. Somewhere on the internet, I found a homey recording he made with banjoist Cranford Nix including memorable takes of “Do You Wonder Why” and “Shady Grove.”

LESTER_FLATT_FLATT+GOSPEL-461535

A couple summers ago, while vacationing on Vancouver Island, I came across a copy of Flatt Gospel, an album by Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass on the Canaan label, hidden away in a roadside cafe/record shop, and while the asking price was undoubtedly too dear by half, I haven’t regretted the purchase. Hearing Mr. Seckler on “I’m Going That Way,” “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go,” “Awaiting the Boatman,” and other gospel songs is truly priceless.

His recordings as the leader of The Nashville Grass are not groundbreaking, but are fine examples of his traditional bluegrass style; I can listen to he and Kenny Ingram, Stuart, Paul Warren and the rest any time. Three years ago, his final recorded sessions were included on Sparks’ ideally titled Lonesome and Then Some album, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” and “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.” I feel Mr. Seckler’s voice added just the right dimension to the choruses of these songs, and again connecting bluegrass’ past to its present.

When I hear a bluegrass album featuring Curly Seckler—whether as part of Flatt & Scruggs, with Flatt in the Nashville Grass, or later as the leader of that band, or on one of these solo recordings or in a guest appearance—I lean in close because I know what I am going to experience is perfect bluegrass.

With Mr. Seckler’s death, another link to the ‘first generation’ of bluegrass is severed. Fortunately, there are many recordings featuring Mr. Secker available, if not readily, and decades of vinyl to uncover while perusing dusty bins on Saturday afternoons. I’ll continue to seek out his recordings, and to listen to his voice and his mandolin and guitar playing—I hope—until I’m 98.

{Thank you to Penny Parsons for her timely sharing of the notes to Bluegrass, Don’t You Know and her obituary for Mr. Seckler: much appreciated.}

 

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Balsam Range- It’s Christmas Time review   Leave a comment

Balsam Range It’s Christmas Time Mountain Home Music Company

ITS-CHRISTMAS-TIME-CD

Considering I’ve yet to experience the group in concert, I would still place Balsam Range on my list of contemporary ‘top ten’ bluegrass bands. I’ve written about them several times (Here, here,  here, here, and again here) and I am certain they have never disappointed me across their six albums.

It’s Christmas Time, the group’s new seasonal EP, is a very different project for the North Carolina group. If one went by the F-I-L SoBA (Father-in-Law Scale of Bluegrass Acceptability), there is no doubt the release falls short.

Bluegrass instrumentation is for the most part down-played, while the Nashville Recording Orchestra—a violin section, violas, cellos, and double bass—is prominently featured. The result is an acoustic melding of ‘down-home’ and ‘uptown’ that isn’t going to appeal to most staid members of the bluegrass community; the lively saxophone break amid the free-spirited “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” will absolutely be an adornment too extreme for many.

“I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time,” which I associate with Ralph Stanley and Ernie Thacker, is provided the most ‘straight-forward’ bluegrass interpretation, with Darren Nicholson taking the lead place with just his Balsam Range partners participating. Certainly it is my favourite number on the seven-track release, but that doesn’t mean the more embellished productions fail. Rather, they are quite extraordinary: they just aren’t dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass, and—as such—leave this listener unfulfilled.

The group’s intent with It’s Christmas Time was most obviously to push themselves beyond the boundaries of the five-person bluegrass ensemble. The bluegrass vocal arrangements of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel” are impressive, and the string section accompaniment is appreciated given the group’s motivation. Also appealing is Balsam Range’s interpretation of Doc Watson’s “Christmas Lullaby”. BR chooses to broaden Watson’s concise arrangement, not only with sweetening from the NRO, but providing ample space for the group member’s accompanying instrumental fills and breaks. The result is somewhat cinematic.

Most assuredly, It’s Christmas Time will fit-in aurally beside the ‘background’ Christmas music we will hear over the next week or so. Unfortunately, I’m equally certain bluegrass should never be ‘background music.’ Nope, for me the energy, vibrancy, and masterful vocal creations that comprise bluegrass should always be placed to the fore.

And while the skill and execution of Balsam Range and their collaborators on It’s Christmas Time is never in doubt, I don’t see this collection replacing Larry Sparks’ Christmas in the Hills, and my Hay Holler, Rounder, Pinecastle, and Sugar Hill seasonal compilations.

Impressive and appreciated, certainly. Beloved? Sorry, no.

 

Larry Sparks- Lonesome & Blue: More Favorites review   Leave a comment

We don’t get too many releases from what was once the premier bluegrass music label these days. I don’t know the reasons, but I do wish it twernt true: maybe it isn’t, just my perception.

I was pleased to receive a review download of Rebel Records’ new Larry Sparks compilation, Lonesome & Blue: More Favorites. The review is posted over at Lonesome Road Review; I hope you will consider giving it a read.

Sparks B and L

Reviews posted: Flatt Lonesome and Larry Sparks   Leave a comment

untitledCountry Standard Time asked me to review two recent releases for them.

Flatt Lonesome’s second album, Too– a terrific improvement over their first and in my opinion uneven album- is one that seems to finding some traction in the bluegrass world. The review is posted HERE.

A couple weeks ago I wrote quite extensively about Larry Sparks’ new release, a fifty year anniversary untitledcelebration entitled Lonesome And Then Some. I’ve condensed that review for CST here.

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Larry Sparks- Lonesome and Then Some: A Classic 50th Celebration review   1 comment

untitledLarry 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.

More so than on the previous offering, Sparks and his band form the instrumental core of Lonesome and Then Some. This time out, the guests are less centres of attention, allowing the focus to remain more obviously on Sparks. There appears to have been less emphasis this time on getting a bunch of names to work with Sparks than there was on simply constructing a stunning bluegrass album.

The Lonesome Ramblers appear throughout Lonesome and Then Some. Tyler Mullins handles the banjo duties and Larry D. Sparks takes care of the bass. Jackie Kincaid’s tenor is recognizable on most songs. Long-time Sparks’ compatriot David Harvey is the featured mandolin player, with Ron Stewart fiddling. This consistency provides the album with favorable cohesiveness.

As Sparks has done in the past, “In Those Days” looks back on a time when things were seemingly better. While the song, written by Connie Leigh, takes a characteristically rose-colored view of the past, there is no arguing with the power of Sparks’ interpretation. Similar fire is heard within “We Prayed,” a Sandy Shortridge song in which tension builds in the face of a storm and “Journey to the Light,” a song of the coalmining life from the same writer.

Impressive is the album’s feature track, “Bitterweeds.” Stewart lays the foundation for this expansive narrative (from Barbara Wilkinson), one that should become a Sparks standard; “I guess she always knew” that her love would never return, but she only left the “dusty window” when she was carried from the home. Modulating his vocal approach to utilize precise lyrical imagery, Sparks creates a compelling and mournful character study.

Curly Seckler sings tenor to Sparks’ lead on a pair of songs, both of which I believe they have sung a few times, if not together. “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” has the added bonus of Bobby Osborne on mandolin, while “We’re Going To Sing, Sing, Sing” features Jesse McReynolds on mando. Seckler’s voice adds just the right depth to the choruses of these songs.

Osborne appears on a second song, also singing this time on “Letter to My Darling.” This classic sound- Sparks singing lead and baritone on the chorus, Osborne with a clear tenor, a tight five-instrument arrangement featuring a real nice break from the mandolin master- makes this track an immediate favourite.

Lonesome and Then Some is a decidedly masculine affair. Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall bring some softness to “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures.” Both appeared on 40, and hearing them together here is nothing short of special.

Appropriately, Ralph Stanley lend his distinctive and continually dynamic voice to “Loving You Too Well,” a great Carter Stanley song. In bluegrass tradition, the dramatic pairing of two vocal legends doesn’t overshadow the crisp precision of the instrumentalists. Kincaid’s mandolin break is brief but notable, and Stewart steps up for a brief cameo, as does Mullins. While so expected to make it appear pedestrian, the performance of this arrangement is truly excellent in its execution.

Capping another in a line of terrific Larry Sparks albums- Almost Home, I Don’t Regret a Mile, The Last Suit You WearLonesome and Then Some concludes with an archival recording from 1995. Joining the Blue Grass Boys at Bean Blossom, Sparks duets with Bill Monroe on “In the Pines.” The energetic spontaneity and obvious fan appeal of this performance overshadows any lack of precision that may exist.

Larry Sparks has long been one of the stars of bluegrass. He has earned his status as a legend of the music. Lonesome and Then Some: A Classic 50th Celebration may mark Sparks’ golden anniversary since joining the Clinch Mountain Boys, but it is just as unequivocally evidence that he isn’t going to be relinquishing his rightful place as a denizen of bluegrass’ artistic leadership anytime soon.

Lonesome Road Review’s Top 10 Bluegrass Albums of 2011   Leave a comment

A bit late but understandable being how busy editor Aaron Keith Harris is, today brings the release of the Lonesome Road Review’s top 10 bluegrass albums of the past year. I’m pleased to see that Aaron and my LRR colleague Larry Stephens agreed with me in several places, quite likely more than I expected, and I’ve written positively about each of the albums here or elsewhere with perhaps the exception of the #1 album, another that I really enjoyed and purchased both digitally and on vinyl. My only complaint about the Old Memories album is the rather spartan packaging- no gatefold, no liner notes, and the vinyl itself is not as hefty as other recently produced album offerings; still, a terrific album of music.

Each of my top 5 albums made the list and I hope that these placements help some of you make some purchasing decisions. None of the artists who made the list, with the exception of AKUS, is living the high life; most are folks with extensive experience in the bluegrass world, having spent years on the road and are well deserving of any recognition they receive. Of course, I’m absolutely thrilled to see three particular names on the Lonesome Road Review list: Dale Ann Bradley, John Reischman & the Jaybirds, and James Reams & the Barnstormers. See my Top 10 here http://tinyurl.com/873u42u and visit the LRR to see the complete 2011 Top 10: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2012/01/21/the-lonesome-road-reviews-list-of-top-10-bluegrass-cds-of-2011/

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

 

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

Donald Teplyske’s  favourite ten bluegrass albums of 2011:

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

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

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

As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald