Published over at Lonesome Road Review is my musings on Bryan Sutton’s latest, The More I Learn. It I really good- not just noodlin’ which some my expect. I’ve been listening to a bunch of Doc Watson of late, and while I am not going to compare Sutton to Watson-although one might, if only because Watson-upon his passing-is the only guitarist to have been named IBMA Guitar Player of the Year in the last five other than Sutton (heck, only Watson and Josh Williams have beat out Sutton since 2003.) It is a very enjoyable album that stands beyond a ‘picking’ album.
Sam Bush, it can be argued, is the most significant mandolin player of the last fifty years. From his groundbreaking work with the New Grass Revival and his expansive slate of collaborations in bluegrass, country, folk, and beyond, to his extensive catalogue of innovative solo album excellence and acceptance as the crown prince of Telluride, Bowling Green, Kentucky’s favoured son has long been the bellwether of all things acoustic and ‘grassy.
Storyman comes almost seven years after the exceptional Circles Around Me, an album that signified a high-point in Bush’s considerable solo output. As strong as that album was (it made my Top Ten for 2009 and, in hindsight and perusing that list while listening again this morning, it would now be certain of a Top 5 berth) Storyman is an even more complete encapsulation of Bush’s approach to acoustic, bluegrass shaded Americana.
[FYI- the following paragraph was sketched before I read the one-sheet. Just want that out there!]
When listening to Bush’s music over the course of twenty-plus years, no word has come to mind more frequently than ‘joy,’ and that continues throughout this amazing album. Opening with a double-shot of affirmation (“Play By Your Own Rules” and the island-flavoured “Everything is Possible,”) Storyman is an album that challenges the listener to stare down mortality and embrace the pure positive vibes that surround us. Co-written with Jon Randall Stewart, “I Just Wanna Feel Something” closes the album and while ostensibly about the community of jamming, the song’s message goes well beyond the circle.
A pair of instrumentals is featured. “Greenbrier” is a fully-charged demonstration of the dexterity of the Sam Bush Band including Todd Parks (bass,) Stephen Mougin (guitar,) Scott Vestal (banjo,) and Chris Brown (drums.) With an extended mid-song jam that takes the tempo down for a few, the communication between band members is on display. Equally atmospheric but less energetic is “Not What You Think,” a band composition that plays like a newgrass concerto.
Not everything is completely upbeat and joyous, but Bush shades everything from the optimist’s perspective. Even the album’s most heavy song, a co-write with Guy Clark entitled “Carcinoma Blues,” flips the darkness with the sharpness of the barb: “Cancer, you ain’t rulin’ me.” Bravely, Bush decided that this song needed to be included on Storyman, recognizing that some may feel its inclusion is ‘too soon.’ “Lefty’s Song” dates back to the late 70s and was recently rediscovered by Bush on a cassette; telling the tale of a small town scribe and the delayed gratification that came with a life of obligation, Lefty is able to spend his final years with his long-ago “lost velvet girl.”
Given the album title, it is no surprise Bush emphasizes the story aspect of song to a greater degree than apparent on Circles Around Me, an album that features the magnificent “Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle” and a selection of older material that relay familiar tales. A personal journey of courtship (“Transcendental Meditation Blues,”) a familial tribute (“Bowling Green,”) and a tasteful diatribe against modern (the last thirty years) approaches to country music (“Handmics Killed Country Music”) are among the songs that bind the album into a cohesive document of story and experience.
I’ve never not enjoyed a Sam Bush album. Glamor & Grits and Howling at the Moon bring delight after many years, and I return to Laps in Seven at least annually. Storyman adds a rich chapter to the Sam Bush story. A great start to the musical summer of 2016.
My review of the debut album from the rather high-profile The Lonesome Trio is posted at Country Standard Time. I quite like what they do although some may think the songs sound a little too similar to each other. Rather, I think they have a real nice bluegrass groove going. Another excellent recording out of Asheville! For the first time ever, I’m writing a post just when the artist-in this case 1/3 of the Trio, Ed Helms-pops up on my television screen. Momentarily jarring.
The music isn’t.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I’I haven’t posted here at Fervor Coulee for a month, which is bad. I have been writing, which may also be bad depending on your opinion.
Thought I would catch up by posting some of the links I’ve neglected.
Lee Ann Womack is a singer I didn’t have any familiarity with prior to reviewing her album The Way I’m Livin’ over at the Lonesome Road Review. I’m not
terribly at all interested in modern commercial country outside a few of the outliers- Kasey Musgraves, Brandy Clark to name the only ones I can come up with…. I gave up on Music Row about the time they game up on Joy Lynn White, so I am not in that loop at all. How out of touch am I? I don’t believe I had knowingly heard a Lee Ann Womack song before I bought The Way I’m Livin’, not even “I Hope You Dance” which I’ve learned is her signature tune.
I’m not sure what caused me to actually purchased this Sugar Hill album, but I did without having heard anything from it except a brief video clip. I had read a couple reviews, so I guess they must have made me intrigued. Perhaps I had a precognition that Aaron would ask me to write about it. I have multiple albums from Tommy Womack and Bobby Womack, but nothing from Lee Ann Womack.
I had to do my homework then, doing a crash course Womack 101, even purchased a couple of her albums while streaming others. I didn’t hear a lot I cared for, but there was no denying the quality of her voice.
I’ve received some positive feedback on my review of this very fine album.
Fiddle Tune X is another album recently reviewed for Lonesome Road Review, and like The Way I’m Livin’ was my introduction to an artist, in this case the acoustic duo of Billy Strings (which I insist on typing Strange each time I come to it) and Don Julin. I still don’t know too much about them outside they are Michigan-based and have released a pretty interesting album of live tracks. Not everything works- too much whooping and hollering from audience members on a few tracks- but it is an album I have returned to since reviewing. Rooted in bluegrass, this unassuming album is one I was glad to discover.
Chris Jones and the Night Drivers have filled the gap until their next studio venture with a live album entitled Live at the Old Feed Store, and my review of it showed up over at Country Standard Time. Chris and his team had a challenge getting this album to me, but it finally arrived- whomever received the misdirected copies of the album is in for a treat. It is a very well-constructed and excellently performed album of live bluegrass. My review for CST had to fit under the 350 word threshold, but my original edited draft contained 600 plus, all too good to waste. (In case you don’t know me well, that is irony and self-deprecation: there has never been a word I’ve written that couldn’t be edited.) I am choosing to post the entire review here, just in case you want more:
Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Live at the Old Feed Store (2014)
Live albums are dangerous.
Fraught with challenges, releasing a live album is a risk many bluegrass bands avoid.
Off the top, by the time the disc hits the festival table, the band lineup has likely changed; okay, so that isn’t a hazard limited to live bluegrass albums.
Coalescing the three or four sets of material (okay, I’m an optimist) a band has at their disposal into a single 50-minute disc is going to leave someone wanting. Make it a double, and folks will want to buy it for the cost of a single album. Have too many recent songs on it, and folks may skip the purchase. Appeal to the hardcore band fan and fill it up with obscure pieces—a 15 minute banjo solo of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” perhaps, and you lose the casual fan.
So, what is a band to do between studio recordings?
If you are Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, you return to a familiar, comfortable haunt—in this case, The Old Feed Store in Cobden, Il, and just let the (digital) tape roll. Make sure you include the crowd favorites that haven’t found their way to a recording—mandolinist Mark Stoffel’s rendition of “Edelweiss,” paired with “Forked Deer” and banjoist Ned Luberecki’s ‘perfect bluegrass song’ “Cabin of Death”— and some songs recorded long ago—”I’m Ready if You’re Willin'” from 1999’s Follow Your Heart, as well as that album’s title track, and have your spouse (Sally Jones) sing it with you— and you are off to a fine start.
Mix in a song that many missed the first time around, the sentimental Civil War piece “Battle of the Bands,” a George Jones song (via Special Consensus) “I Cried Myself Awake,” and keep the bass player happy by ensuring he gets another cut (not that Jon Weisberger really needs one, as he is one of bluegrass’ most recorded songwriters) with “Lonely Town,” and chances are the folks coming to the shows will want to pick up the live set.
Despite releasing many excellent albums with favourable reviews and considerable chart successes and the band members’ relatively high-profile gigs within the industry (Jones and Luberecki are both mainstays on Sirius XM’s bluegrass junction, although their airtime was cut considerably about a year back, and Weisberger is the chairman of the IBMA’s Board of Directors), Chris Jones & the Night Drivers have not ‘broken through’ into that top tier of bands.
With a stable lineup, there is no obvious reason why there hasn’t been room made for them at the top. As front man, Jones has one of the most identifiable and smooth vocal deliveries within the genre. His guitar playing is a delight to hear. There is no questioning the musical aptitude of his band mates either, as all are top players. Give a listen to Stoffel’s break on “Then I Close My Eyes,” a Jones composition from their previous release Lonely Comes Easy, or Weisberger’s and Luberecki’s contributions to the instrumental “Emergency Pulloff,” and you have evidence of their instrumental mastery.
The songs selections are top shelf as well. Kicking off with the venerable “Bound to Ride,” mixing in some sweet gospel on “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” showing their lighter side on “Cabin of Death,” and picking a winner from Tom T. and Dixie Hall in “One Door Away,” and the quality is apparent.
What is holding back Chris Jones & the Night Drivers? Absolutely nothing, outside your purchase of this excellently recorded live album. I’m not sure who would be disappointed in the music this lively, talented lineup has chosen to present on their first concert recording.
There you are then, three recent reviews you may have missed. There are more coming, as always. The Show Ponies and Annie Lou should appear at the Lonesome Road Review in short order, and with the holidays approaching I am likely to find an afternoon or three to catch-up on some outstanding (as in, I should have done them already) projects.
My review of Dirk Powell’s Sugar Hill album Walking Through Clay has been posted by Aaron over at the Lonesome Road Review. The album came out in early February, and made its way to me this month. Seldom does an album so consume my attention as this one has. In my opinion, and that’s all I’ve got, well deserving of a five-star review.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson “Wreck & Ruin” Sugar Hill Records
“Wreck & Ruin” is the second collection of songs from the Australian husband and wife team of Shane Nicholson and Kasey Chambers.
Chambers needs little introduction to Americana listeners. Over the past dozen years, the youthful sounding songstress, still only in her mid-thirties, has released a series of albums ranging in quality from exceptional (the debut The Captain and last year’s Little Bird) to middlin’ (Wayard Angel). Her voice is unmistakable, a vulnerable twang somewhere between Rachel Sweet and Elizabeth Cook. Like Cook, she isn’t in a hurry to get through any song- each note, each inflection purposefully placed to positive effect.
Nicholson is less known to North American types although he has had a long career in his home country. His “Bad Machines” was named the Austalasian Performing Rights Association Song of the Year in 2011, and he has been repeatedly nominated for various awards in his homeland.
The duo swap leads and harmony throughout this interest-maintaining set of thirteen tracks. While the production values are high- there are no refrigerators heard humming in the background, nor dog barks punctuating a ballad- the album feels relaxed, as if it were recorded in a cozy front room, by friends sharing a bottle of wine.
Some songs contain lyrics that just have to be stolen from lost mountain songbooks, or at least from Gillian Welch`s satchel. “Have Mercy on Me,” which appears late in the set, opens with the evocative phrase, “When the angels come from the heavens above, pick me up on a white-winged dove; I could trade it all if you asked me to, take the green, take the red, the white and the blue.” I’m not necessarily aware of what it all means, but it sure sounds pretty.
“Flat Nail Joe” reminds this listener both of an old Roger Miller song and Steve Earle`s “Telephone Road” a tri-sided compliment if there ever was one. There are a couple spots that feel like filler- the still-enjoyable studio frivolity of “Sick as a Dog,” for one, on which Chambers does her best June Carter- but these are certainly balanced by moments of brilliant clarity, such as “Troubled Mind,” the album`s closing track. The title track is another highlight.
One of the elements that strengthens the album is its brevity; the album cuts through at 34 minutes and most songs clock-in at under three, giving things a mid-sixties, Harlan Howard approach that is much appreciated. Another is the generous amount of banjo and fiddle throughout.
The album isn’t all that different from Rattlin’ Bones, the 2008 album that marked the first extended collaboration by Chambers and Nicholson. That album’s songs may have been a touch stronger, if one can be so bold to assess such things. I’m not confident that there is a song within Wreck & Ruin as powerful as either “Once in A While” or “Sweetest Waste of Time” although “The Quiet Life” comes close. However, Wreck & Ruin is a warmer album, something you may find yourself coming back to re-explore throughout the depths of this winter.
Finally, don’t mistake this album for a Kasey Chambers project simply featuring her husband. As on Rattlin’ Bones, Nicholson is as important to this album as his more familiar spouse. His voice isn’t as distinctive as Chambers’, but few are and it doesn’t need to be; in fact, to use the most over-utilized comparison in roots music, if Nicholson is to Chambers what Parsons was to Harris- vocally that is- well, that isn’t such a bad thing.
As always, thanks to the labels that continue to service me, and thanks to you for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
My review of Kathy Mattea’s latest is up at Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=4854. Very enjoyable; I see a Grammy nom in her future.