Archive for the ‘Rounder Records’ Tag

Chris Hillman- Bidin’ My Time review   Leave a comment

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Chris Hillman Bidin’ My Time Rounder Records

Chris Hillman.

With those two words, Americana is defined.

The fact that he was once in a band called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers should have told me he was going to be my Americana touchstone, but I didn’t discover that group’s sole recording until years after I fell under his spell. Trace a line through the most significant groups, albums, songs, and moments of Americana and roots music of the last 50 years, and as likely as not one encounters Hillman.

The Hillmen. The Byrds. Turn! Turn! Turn! Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Flying Burrito Brothers. Gilded Palace of Sin. “Sin City.” “Wheels.” Manassas. Souther-Hillman-Furay. McGuinn-Clark-Hillman. Hillman-Pedersen. The Desert Rose Band, maybe the best country band of the 1990s. “One Step Forward.” Rice, Rice, Hillman, Pedersen.

The Byrds were no more before I had heard of them. Ditto The Flying Burrito Brothers. How some feel about Roger McGuinn and more frequently Gram Parsons, that is the esteem in which I hold Chris Hillman.

Two stories: I once stalked Hillman for most of a Wintergrass festival, following him around from stage to workshop to lunch. I stopped myself before it got too creepy. I thought. I once set out to see Hillman and Pedersen at an Edmonton casino show, only to discover 125 kilometres into the drive that I had forgotten my wallet at work. By the time I had retraced 250 km, and added on another 75 to finish it off, it was too late to make the show. I was crushed, and ended up sitting in a hotel parking lot listening to the final 15-minutes of At Edwards Barn at journeys end.

Bidin’ My Time, Hillman’s first album in the dozen years since The Other Side, is a significant return if for no other reason that it features so many of the folks—McGuinn, David Crosby, John Jorgenson, Pedersen, Jay Dee Maness—with whom he in no small way created what we now call Americana. That the album was produced by Tom Petty, and features Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench is icing. It is perfection across 33-minutes.

[I delayed publishing this review as I was waiting for the official release, with full credits, to make its way to me. It hasn’t, so I am unsure of who played exactly where as I am relying on an advance copy lacking notes. In the meantime, of course, Las Vegas was rocked and Petty passed.]

The album’s first track, familiar from Mr. Tambourine Man, is “The Bells of Rhymney,” which quickly swells to an explosion of harmony (courtesy of Crosby and Pedersen) that is unforgettable. Additional numbers from The Byrds are revisited, including the bluegrass-flavoured “The New John Robertson” (“The Old John Robertson,” The Notorious Byrd Brothers) and Gene Clark’s “She Don’t Care About Time.” The classic pop sounding “Here She Comes Again” is a four-decade old McGuinn-Hillman composition that sounds immediately familiar.

“Restless,” “Different Rivers,” “Given All I Can See,” and the title track are all Hillman-Steve Hill co-writes testifying to Hillman’s enduring mastery of song and performance. At 72 years, Hillman remains full-voiced, fully in control as he presides over these songs. The arrangements are full and even lush, ideally suited to complement each other as an album. Closing with “Wildflowers,” Hillman sings familiar words with a gravity magnified by this week’s events:

You belong among the wild flowers,
You belong somewhere close to me,
Far away from your trouble and worry-
You belong somewhere you feel free,
You belong somewhere you feel free.

Bidin’ My Time. The song hints at what Hillman is looking toward, but this album—the seventh released under his name since 1976—allows hope that gig is a-ways in the future.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

 

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Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers- The Long-Awaited Album review   Leave a comment

SMSCRI apologize to all readers, groups, and promo folks/labels who have been expecting more from me the past few weeks. Work is busy, and I don’t have time to write although I try- I have (in my head) written much of a John Reischman & the Jaybirds review, know I need to get to the Chris Hillman album (how tired am I? It just took me a good ten seconds to come up with Chris Hillman’s name- an original icon of roots and Americana [before those labels were imagined] and a Fervor Coulee favourite, I can’t think of his name!) Anyway, I did- for better or worse- write a review of the new Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers album for Country Standard Time. Find it at http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=6477 if you are so moved. There is much (80%?) to appreciate with just a handful of minutes falling short. As always, your opinion may very well vary from mine- here’s the deal: I won’t tell you what to think when you’re wrong, you don’t tell me what to think when I am right.

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.”

The Gibson Brothers- In the Ground review   1 comment

gibson_2 The Gibson Brothers have been a Fervor Coulee favourite since their Sugar Hill debut Bona Fide was released in 2003. It was a very strong album, ticking off all the requirements of a bluegrass album of the day: a railroad song, a Tom T. Hall classic, a road song, a song about bluegrass, another about a favoured instrument, an instrumental standard, a metaphor-laden gospel piece…Despite this seemingly contrived set of requirements, it warranted notice, and still does.

Fourteen years and eight albums later (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 has been published by Lonesome Road Review; I hope you will consider giving it a read.

Various Artists- The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris review   Leave a comment

emmylouIf every artist I admired as much as I do Emmylou Harris were on a stage, there would only be a handful present. For me, she is one of those that the Americana conversation should start and end with. Regal and responsive, she is a vocalist with few peers and as an interpreter of song she may be the finest I’ve heard.

My 5 star review of the live recording The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris was published over at the Lonesome Road Review. It is a recording I feel all should hear and see. Atypically, the CD and DVD have slightly different contents, allowing one to hear more of the evening without having to have the package expand to two audio discs. The presentation successfully crosses musical generations unlike most similar tributes.

Reviews recently posted elsewhere   Leave a comment

I was asked to contribute some reviews to Lonesome Road Review recently. I am likely writing a little less for LLR and Country Standard Time than I had in the past, but I do find time to get a couple or three done monthly. These days, there is little to no money in freelance writing on the level I do it-back in the early to mid-aughts I had a steady little stream of revenue coming from various publications, but that has pretty much dried up. Fortunately for me, I have a true career to pay the bills, and I am able to leave paying jobs to those who actually are writing for a living…and who are usually a bit better at it than I am.

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Anyhow, two new reviews have been posted. The Special Consensus is one of my favourite bluegrass bands going back almost twenty years, and their most recent Compass Records release Long I Ride is another really strong recording. Last year Darrell Scott released 10: Songs of Ben Bullington, a masterful recording that I’ve been listening to monthly if not weekly since it came out. We don’t usually review albums so long after release, but Aaron sent it to me and therefore I did; I hope I did the album justice. I also failed to link in my review of Scott’s latest, Couchville Sessions. Sigh. Here it is. Or, if I did, the search tool isn’t finding it.

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In cleaning up Fervor Coulee at year end, I can’t find my review of Josh Williams’ Modern Day Man cross-posted. Country Standard Time had me write about it on release, so if you missed it, there it is.

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And finally, I hope- my review of Dori Freeman’s debut was posted at Lonesome Road Review, but I neglected to link it here. I’m not very good at this, am I?

Anyhow, all these albums are worth your consideration, no matter when you locate the reviews. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Blue Highway- Original Traditional review   1 comment

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Blue Highway Original Traditional Rounder Records

For more than twenty years, listeners have been privileged every couple years to encounter a new album from Blue Highway.

Original Traditional, their eleventh and first since Dobroist Rob Ickes departed, continues their most 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 (guitar,) Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar,) and Wayne Taylor (bass)— 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.

Joining the group for this recording is the youthful Gaven Largent, briefly of Michael Cleveland’s Flamekeeper and a player who doesn’t ease his way into the Blue Highway sound, confidently laying out his runs on mid-set numbers including the love-gone-wrong piece “What You Wanted” and the vengeful murder ballad “The Story of My Life.”

“Don’t Weep For Me”—essentially “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” meets “Echo Mountain” minus the dog—is a strong lead song. The rest of the 38 minute album reveals the accustomed cast of bluegrass fellows who drink too much (“Water From the Stone,”) hold onto childhood trauma too long (“The Story of My Life,”) and lose a good woman’s love because of it all (“If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me.”)

Still, Blue Highway isn’t a band favouring one-dimensional songs, and none of those songs mentioned exist without shades of gray. In Shawn Lane and Gerald Ellenburg’s album closing number, Blue Highway revisit the good ole days at “The Top of the Ridge” while writing what sounds like either an elegy or (in darker eyes) a note of suicide. “She Ain’t Worth It,” in hands other than Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley, might have been just another song of fateful revenge; their protagonist thinks a little longer about his predicament—rather than grabbing his .44, he sits and “bathe(s) in the afterglow.”

“She Ain’t Worth It” swings more than a little, and features Largent to nice effect. Similarly, “Last Time I’ll Ever Leave This Town” provides the instrumentalists room to showcase their offerings. “Water From the Stone” has a pleasing and inspirational gospel quartet arrangement, while the a cappella treatment of “Hallelujah” is just showing off and seems a fine message to the IBMA: Why exactly aren’t we named Vocal Group of the Year annually?

I am sure I am not the only amateur fact-checker who has gone on extended forays to learn the true life blues behind particular folk and bluegrass numbers. Many (many) years ago, one of the first I did this with was “Tom Dooley,” the standard popularized by Grayson & Whitter, The Kingston Trio, Doc Watson, and hundreds of others. I remember scouring the local libraries for ‘facts’ related to the story of Tom Dula and Laura Foster.

On the Legacy recording made with David Holt, Watson suggested his grandmother knew something about the tale, and that intrigued me even more, as did reading Sharyn McCrumb’s excellent The Ballad of Tom Dooley. My interest was therefore piqued to read the song title “Wilkes County Clay” (the locale of those post-Civil War events) and even more thrilled as the song began with, “In North Carolina, in the County of Wilkes, there’s a tale of deception, murder, and guilt. I’ll spare no compassion, the truth I will tell, Let God alone judge me, this side of hell.” From those words, one knew where Tim Stafford and songwriting partner Bobby Starnes were going.

“Wilkes County Clay” is a mournful song, with Lane’s fiddle colouring the song much as one imagines the instrument did Dula’s final moments. While the narrator’s identify isn’t clear, the song is an agreeable telling of the tale, taking the Grayson-path that other accounts discount. The lyrical choices made (“She hid like a panther in the black of the night, And killed Laura Foster with a bone handle knife”) raises this above typical bluegrass fare.

Original Traditional is another outstanding bluegrass album from Blue Highway. They make it seem easy: forced listening to the number of less-than-adequate bluegrass albums available proves that it isn’t. Blue Highway is a great band, one that has been contributing fresh insight into the bluegrass spectrum for more than two decades. That they continue to rise to the level they do, never taking the easy way, never delivering less than stellar material, is testament to the importance they place on their legacy.

Excellent cover, presumably by Bobby Starnes, too!

Thank you for taking the time to seek out Fervor Coulee. I appreciate that there are lots of places to get roots information and opinion; I’m glad I’m one of them. Donald