Archive for the ‘Mountain Home Records’ Tag
Kristin Scott Benson recently released a very fine bluegrass album, and I was asked to write about it for Country Standard Time. I have.
But, prior to being asked to do that, I had written a blog entry over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass which looked at the three KSB albums as well as instrumental bluegrass albums in general. It rambles a bit, but there may be two of three salient ideas included.
Thanks to the folks at Mountain Home and all other labels and independent artists and publicists who show faith in my by getting fresh roots music into my ears.
It has been a busy summer- I’ve written quite a few reviews, and done more listening than I likely should have, but I’ve done even more reading: as a result, projects around the home didn’t get accomplished. Neither did writing. (I had planned on working on my short stories/novella this summer. Hmmm…didn’t happen.)
With all the music coming my way, I haven’t found the time/energy to sit down and write about enough of it. Lazy, perhaps- I do normally try to write about 75% of what gets sent to me. (Thanks, PR folks.) I fell short this summer, so today I make the attempt to write that wrong. I’ve also been working at refining my writing, trying to write tighter; working without constraints (or an editor) I’m sometimes not as focused on ‘how’ I am writing. This weekend I decided to concentrate on the quality of my writing, taking time to be more concise in my expression.
Here we go: several reviews of roots music released over these summer months. Hopefully, something leads you to further investigation.
NewTown Harlan Road Mountain Home Music Company
Three years ago, NewTown released their first label album having previously knocked out an independent project. That Pisgah release was notable for a decent cover of “Dublin Blues,” not an easy song to ‘grassify, and the songs of bandmember C.J. Cain, particularly the pairing of “Thin Red Line” and “The Widow’s Ghost.” It was a fine album in of itself one showing plenty of promise for the future.
As tends to happen in bluegrass and for a variety of reasons I’m sure, the only returnees from Time Machine are the fronting one-two singing punch of spouses Kati Penn (fiddle) and Jr. Williams (banjo.) New this time are guitarist Hayes Griffon, bass player Travis Anderson, and mandolinist Mitchell Cannon with Barry Bales producing. The chief songwriter on Harlan Road is Tyler Childers (a singer-songwriter from Kentucky you really should listen to if you haven’t) with four credits while Cain also contributes a pair.
A strength of the group is the diversity having two capable lead vocalists, and NewTown takes full advantage of this, allowing Penn and Williams to balance off each other throughout the recording. A contemporary-sounding bluegrass band, NewTown doesn’t wander too far from the core of the music—rural events, hard-living, simple pleasures. The instrumental “The Feast of the Gryphon” is expansive enough for the members to work together while showcasing themselves, including the songwriter Griffon. (Did you catch that? Nicely done, Hayes.) Key cuts: “Can’t Let Go,” “Harlan Road,” “The Crows and the Jakes,” and “Drifter Blues.”
The Boxcars Familiar With the Ground (Mountain Home)
Done correctly, bluegrass is the most beautiful music imaginable. While some long-running bands—Lonesome River Band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, among others—find the need to tinker with the essential sound, others instinctively know what makes bluegrass bluegrass.
[Insert tired argument that the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Alison Krauss, and others have brought drums into ‘grass. They did. They shouldn’t have. Want proof? Listen to the LRB’s latest, Bridging the Tradition: on what could have been a powerful recording, “Rose in Paradise,” “Showing My Age,” “Waiting on My Heart to Break,” “Real People,” and other fine songs are absolutely gutted by the inclusion of distracting, annoying percussion effects…and piano, for gawds sake!]
Fortunately, The Boxcars get bluegrass like few others. One of the music’s most consistent outfits, The Boxcars haven’t missed a beat welcoming the newest member of the band, youthful reso player John Hultman, into the fold. While bluegrass bands should always feature a fiddle player on their recordings, when the outfit is as strong as The Boxcars one makes exception.
With their fourth album released this week on Mountain Home and the title track already near the top of the weekly Bluegrass Today airplay chart, The Boxcars appear poised to remain in contention for IBMA awards when the 2016 nominees are announced. A little laid back, The Boxcars’ approach bridges the generations of bluegrass and its foundational traditions with a spirit of continual innovation and reinvention that isn’t permitted to lose sight of the roots.
With the exception of the departed John Bowman, The Boxcars founding core remains intact: Adam Steffey, eleven time (out of the past fourteen years) IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year; Ron Stewart, a two-time IBMA instrumentalist of the year—once each on banjo and fiddle; Keith Garrett, guitar; and Harold Nixon, bass. The addition of Dobro to the band’s sound isn’t jarring in any way, perhaps refreshing the group before staleness became apparent.
Coming in at a concise 30 minutes, Familiar With the Ground passes in a hurry. With the curious decision to open things with one of Townes Van Zandt’s least linear compositions “Lungs”—singer Keith Garrett’s previous group Blue Moon Rising cut the more obvious “Marie” several years back—The Boxcars demonstrate they are unlikely to settle into the comfort of the expected anytime soon: a song without chorus, “Lungs” works as a bluegrass number thanks to Stewart’s banjo rolls and Garrett’s heartfelt delivery.
While I could listen to Garrett’s smooth voice all day long, I have always been attracted to Steffey’s rough-hewn baritone. His songs—“Cold Hard Truth,” “Marshallville”—a tale of cold vengeance—and especially “Raised on Pain,” a Chris West song originating within Blue Moon Rising—are what truly sets The Boxcars apart from the pack. These songs ooze authenticity of emotion, capturing human experience at its most vulnerable.
While the band has elected not to have Stewart do double duty on fiddle and banjo, the veteran contributes the excellent original “Branchville Line,” a train-themed song of unjust imprisonment. Garrett’s finest vocal performance may be on “When the Bluegrass is Covered in Snow,” a traditional sounding number from—I believe—more than 50 years ago: Google the song title and J.D. Crowe for the original by Tip Sharp.
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. No percussion required.
Flatt Lonesome Runaway Train Mountain Home Music Company
The current darlings of the bluegrass world, Flatt Lonesome—the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artists of 2014—return with their third album in just over as many years. Flatt Lonesome create a type of bluegrass that isn’t that which I favour. Their bluegrass is very polished and fine-tuned; from my perspective, too much so. When I listen to their music, I feel all the passion of a Rhonda Vincent festival show—staged, rehearsed, and a little frightening in its lack of spontaneity.
Flatt Lonesome is incredibly popular, and seem to be attracting the same rabid and loyal fan adoration that Vincent did a decade ago. They are a fresh-faced, youthful presence within the industry. I don’t feel it, but I’m pretty sure I’m not their target. The group continues to improve, and this album is far stronger than their uneven debut of 2013 and continues the advancement made on last year’s Too, an album that made the Top Five in the IBMA’s Album of the Year category.
Kelsi Robertson Harrigill is the distinctive voice of the group with a strong, vibrant timbre to her voice, one that reveals depth even when the material is overwrought, as on “Letting Go.” On solid and meaningful songs—Gram Parsons’ honky tonk classic “Still Feeling Blue” and the well-crafted original “Casting All Your Care On Him”—the listener can become mesmerized. When harmonizing, often on songs sung by sister Charli and either with her or brother Buddy, she demonstrates that she is a sensitive, aware partner.
Charli Robertson is also well-showcased throughout the dozen tracks on the album. She is given the closing lead on Kasey Chambers’ title track, and this is possibly her strongest performance. Singing her father’s “New Lease on Life,” Charli nails the song’s dueling spirits of independence and need; the resophonic sound of Michael Stockton further heightens this piece. On Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re the One” she is less successful, but one suspects this is due to the banality of the vocal arrangement and instrumental accompaniment: lyrics that were desperate when sung by Yoakam some twenty-five years ago are delivered without believable intent here.
The group is comprised of most obviously talented, well-schooled bluegrass instrumentalists, and long-time producer Andrea Roberts, working with Jeff Collins and Danny Roberts, frames the group favourably. The instrumental “Road to Nottingham” is confidently elusive, revealing a spirit of independence and frivolity. “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart” and The Bluegrass Cardinal’s “Don’t Come Running,” both sung by Buddy, are similarly playful while the album’s lead track, “You’ll Pay,” is an example of what the band does best.
Flatt Lonesome is a stellar bluegrass band, and if I was booking a festival they would be on my list to book. While I personally am unlikely to listen to the group in my leisure time, this is a matter of personal taste and says nothing of the worthiness of the group. Their harmonies spot on, the recorded mix of Runaway Train is appealing and lively.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
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 the bluegrass album of this summer.
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, rodeo clown, and curler…only one of those is fictional, I think.
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. With the outcome unspoken—one imagines—in old-time tradition, the guy is left hanging. 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; Jones first recorded this train song in 2000. Casey Driessen, a Jones colleague from long ago, contributes vigorous fiddle to these two songs.
Jones knows his way around the saddest of country songs, and “Dust Off the Pain” should go down with his best compositions. One can’t help but be aware of the miseries of life coursing through the veins of the hard-luck protagonist as he makes one more attempt at love “waiting just around the bend,” and Luberecki’s banjo playing on this one is especially riveting. A different phase of heartbreak is explored within “She’s Just About to Say Goodbye,” one of a pair of songs featuring label-mates Brooke and Darin Aldridge.
On the wonderfully structured “One Night in Paducah,” Jones’ foreboding approach conveys the protagonist’s downfall long before he wakes with “neither love nor money.” Luberecki’s “Bowties are Cool” is a deftly structured instrumental, while Stoffel’s “Shelby 8” is just cool: love how the guitar and mandolin notes leap off the strings on this one.
Jones has never hidden his appreciation for country songs encountered in his youth and Tom T. Hall, and the two come together on a nice cover of “Pinto the Wonder Horse Is Dead,” a nostalgic song that has always appealed for its universality. Those born in the last forty years may not quite ‘get it,’ but the rest of us certainly do.
One would be remiss overlooking the beauty of the Night Drivers’ rendition of “Thinking About You;” featuring fine fiddle from Bobby Hicks and Del McCoury’s always welcome tenor; this sad ‘un is a definite keeper and should receive an abundance of deserved airplay.
Closing with the hope and faith of the Jones-Donna Ulisse co-write “My Portion and My Cup,” Run Away Tonight is a ideally constructed bluegrass album, reverent to the foundations and traditions of the music but continually moving toward its bright and invigorating future.
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, in my opinion.
I’ve written about Chris Jones & the Night Drivers previously: here, here, and here. Oh, and here, too.
Snyder Family Band Wherever I Wander Mountain Home
Reviewed by Donald Teplyske
Bluegrass and its associated branches and brambles certainly have an affinity toward family groups.
Beyond the requisite brother acts, there is a long tradition of embracing outfits comprised of the most closely knit. From the Stonemans, Lewises and Marshalls, through to the Vincent, Isaacs, and Cherryholmes clans, on to the Bankesters, Robertsons, and 347 regional Missouri bands alone, there has never been a shortage of families performing on stage together.
The Snyder Family Band has been recording together as a trio since 2010 while the entire family frequently appears together—augmented by mom and little brother—on stage; Wherever I Wander is their fourth recording. With father Bud handling the bass, much like Messrs. Thile and Cherryholmes back in the day, the stars of this show are siblings Samantha and Zeb Snyder.
Both offer up isolated bits of mandolin, but their primary instruments are fiddle (Samantha) and guitar (Zeb.) Samantha proves herself a versatile player throughout the album; “New River Rapids” showcases her range as the fiddling elements combine long, mournful bow strokes and jumpy, frantic strikes. Zeb’s mandolin is given a great workout on this same number. There is no doubting their instrumental capabilities.
Elements of bluegrass, folk, and rock come together in the Snyder Family Band’s southern, new age- Americana mix. This mostly acoustic album is evenly split between instrumental and vocal tracks with Samantha taking the majority of the leads. She possesses a pleasing, unpretentious voice, one that affords promise; one recalls thinking similarly about Sara Watkins a long time ago.
Zeb seems to favour the blues a bit and the associated trappings are found throughout the album, and he even pulls out his electric guitar in a couple places. Most successful is his closing acoustic take of Dickie Betts’ “Highway Call.” He is a confident player and isn’t shy to take a song on a journey of his choosing.
Most of the instrumentals are of the flighty, expansive type favored a generation before by the Watkins siblings and Chris Thile in Nickel Creek: lots of notes, plenty of interesting progressions and quite listenable in the moment but ultimately not terribly persuasive or memorable.
Encountered singularly, each song on this album is quite enjoyable. Taken as an album in its entirety, things tend to blur together a bit, and even get a little sleepy. Therefore, Wherever I Wander is a great set for those so inclined to include on digital shuffle devices.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
My review of the recent DLQ album In Session has been posted at Lonesome Road Review. Released on Mountain Home, it is a return to the quality of music I once expected from DLQ; after a handful of disappointing releases, this one can be highly recommended. Questionable album cover.
As always, I thank you for searching out Fervor Coulee. Donald