Archive for the ‘Rounder Records’ Tag
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
O’Connor Band with Mark O’Connor Coming Home Rounder Records
One of the new acts gaining extended coverage this summer has been Mark O’Connor’ foray into leading a family band. O’Connor has long been one of the most recognizable fiddle voices in country and roots music, releasing a string of albums under his own name while guesting on countless recordings. In the O’Connor Band he is joined by his son Forrest (mandolin) and their partners Maggie (vocals and fiddle, and who has a little Alison Krauss in her voice) and Kate Lee (vocals and fiddle.) With three fiddle/violin players in the band, one isn’t surprised at the prominence the instrument has in this neo-bluegrass/Americana band’s repertoire. My advance copy of the album came with no credit notes, but the album appears to be a mix of original (“Coming Home,” a Forrest O’Connor composition is a highlight) and familiar material. Of the later, a stirring rendition of “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” is a highlight, as is a welcome interpretation of “Jerusalem Ridge,” considered by some to be Bill Monroe’s finest composition. The album is enjoyable if a little staid for my tastes- more MOR than the fiery sounds that fuel my soul. No doubt, expertly played and acutely produced, it features a few too many numbers a bit too smooth for me to grasp onto. Key cuts: already mentioned as well as “Blacktop Boy” and “Always Do.”
My review of The Lonely Heartstring Band’s recent release. Published at Lonesome Road Review. This group of very talented musicians won an IBMA Momentum Award last year. I enjoyed this album more during my fifth and sixth listens through than I did the first several. Truly, it isn’t ‘my’ bluegrass, and isn’t even my kind of Americana. Still, I can see what others appreciate in it, and while I am likely not going to listen to it again any time soon, it has much going for it. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.
The Earls of Leicester Rattle & Roar Rounder Records
Before most North Americans had heard of Premier League champions Leicester City, bluegrass fans well knew how to pronounce the name of the East Midlands municipality. That’s a result of Jerry Douglas’ brilliant, timely idea: celebrate the ongoing influence of Earl Scruggs (that’s the Earl) and Lester Flatt (there’s the Leicester) by gathering some of his finest musician friends to not only recreate but reinvigorate the songs of the (in the opinion of many) preeminent bluegrass band, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Like the Bluegrass Album Band did three decades ago, The Earls of Leicester are more than a bluegrass supergroup. They deftly remind the bluegrass community of what this music is about: no ‘nod’ to the roots of the music (to use the popular vernacular,) this is a full-blown tribute to the sturdy trunk that has supported the many branches of bluegrass for 70 years.
Their self-titled album of 2014 was a stunner. That much-heralded recording not only won the Grammy as Bluegrass Album of the Year, but the group received six awards at the most recent IBMA festivities including Instrumental Group of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year for country and bluegrass veteran Shawn Camp. With extensive touring, The Earls of Leicester are most definitely at the fore of contemporary bluegrass performers. So, where to from there?
The lineup of the group has been tweaked, with Tim O’Brien departing and the highly respected Jeff White now filling Curly Seckler’s spot within the group: this noted musician, songwriter, and past member of Union Station more than admirably and seamlessly took over when O’Brien was unavailable to tour with The Earls of Leicester, and throughout this recording contributes additional spark within the vocal trios.
The balance of The Earls of Leicester remains consistent from last time. Jerry Douglas is the bandleader and his Dobro© is prominent within the arrangements, many of which are ‘note-perfect’ to the Flatt & Scruggs’ originals. As example, “Buck Creek Gal,” compared with a television appearance featuring Scruggs and Paul Warren, is near duplicated at the tail-end of Rattle & Roar. Still, this isn’t mimicry: The Earls of Leicester have taken the time to deconstruct the songs, challenging themselves to reassemble the arrangements with mindful awareness that a judicious balance between the original, timeless approach and modern innovation is essential.
Shawn Camp takes the lead vocals, and sounds even more confident in assuming the role of Lester Flatt. Johnny Warren is the fiddler, Charlie Cushman is on the 5, and Barry Bales handles the bass.
While the group largely limited themselves to material from the mid-50s to mid-60s last time out, on Rattle & Roar The Earls of Leicester have broadened their selection of songs. Hitting early 1950s sessions, they pick off “Why Did You Wander?,” “Pray For the Boys,” and “Flint Hill Special” this time out. Most everyone knows “The Train That Carried My Girl from Town,” “The Girl I Love Don’t Pay Me No Mind,” and “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” but no one should object to the vibrant renditions contained herein.
The group continues to choose numbers that are familiar without being overly-recorded and performed. “Branded Wherever I Go,” “All I Want is You,” and “A Faded Red Ribbon” present different facets of the band’s personality. On the sacred side, a mid-set interlude of “Mother Prays Loud in Her Sleep” and “I’m Working on a Road (To Glory Land)” is particularly effective, along with the acute, harmony-drenched “You Can Feel It In Your Soul.” “Steel Guitar Blues,” often associated with Roy Acuff, is a number that Flatt & Scruggs performed but didn’t record. Utilizing Paul Warren’s performance diary has afforded The Earls of Leicester with an insight into the history of The Foggy Mountain Boys that others can only envy.
While one may not ‘hear’ that the album was largely cut live with the musicians playing simultaneously within the same room, you can certainly ‘feel’ the intimacy of the experience. Everything is precise and note-perfect of course, but listening to “Why Did You Wonder?” one can envision Douglas nodding to Warren to take a fiddle break after a chorus, Camp encouraging Cushman to step-up to deliver a memorable fill, and White grinning to Bales as the song is brought home.
With hundreds of songs still waiting to be recorded (drop the harmonica, and I think The Earls of Leicester would destroy “Last Train to Clarksville”) one hopes they continue to perform this music that they most obviously relish and respect. With great regard for the tradition and even greater understanding of the precision required to make this music appear effortless—and the ability to pull it off— Rattle & Roar is another outstanding bluegrass recording from The Earls of Leicester.
Two weeks to Blueberry: you’ll want to be there to catch The Earls of Leicester!
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- Donald
Someone has been a busy bluegrass reviewer in recent days/weeks.
My review of The Del McCoury Band album Del & Woody is up at Country Standard Time. http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=6027
My review of the vinyl reissue of The New South, the album better known as Rounder 0044, is up at Lonesome Road Review. http://lonesomeroadreview.com/0044-2/
As well, my review of Dave Adkins second album, Dave Adkins, was posted over at Country Standard Time earlier this week. http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=6026
Rounder Records has released Josh Williams’ latest: Rhonda Vincent’s guitar player, produced by J. D. Crowe, has seldom sounded better. Last summer, seeing and hearing him live with The Rage, I was reminded how strong of a guitar player he is. My review: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=6031
I’m busy on several other projects, too. Also over at Lonesome Road Review, you’ll find my review of Jane Kramer’s surprisingly strong (only because I hadn’t previously heard the Asheville singer) album. http://lonesomeroadreview.com/carnival-hopes-jane-kramer/