Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews 2006

Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews

By Art Menius

Published during 2006

  1. Barbara Lamb
  2. Ernest Stoneman, Kilby Snow, and Kenneth & Neriah Benfield
  3. Big Country Bluegrass
  4. Williams & Clark Expedition
  5. Jim Lauderdale

Barbara Lamb
Bootsy Met A Bank Robber
Lots of Coffee Records LOC50004

Bootsy Met A Bank Robber marks the fifth solo release by veteran fiddler, composer, and vocalist Barbara Lamb. Guests Tim and Mollie O’Brien, Kathy Chiavola, John Cowan, and April Verch join Barbara and her all-star core studio band of Butch Baldassari, Mike Bub, Scott Vestal, and Jeff Autry. With that backing, Lamb delivers a large helping of bluegrass, mixed with some old-time and contemporary folk. With that focus, Bootsy Met A Bank Robber proves a successful and delightfully distinctive album.

“My Rose of Old Kentucky” and “Road to Silverton,” a kicking instrumental which she co-wrote with Laura Love, gives the pickers their best opportunities to showcase their well known talents. These cuts should please any bluegrass lover and deserve broad airplay.

Lamb had at least a hand in writing eight of thirteen selections. The exceptions include two from Richard Thompson, one apiece from the Band (Cowan singing lead on “Whispering Pines”) and Bill Monroe, and the traditional medley “Whiskey Before Breakfast/Arkansas Traveler” rendered as much Celtic as old-time with Verch and her rhythm partner Marc Bru. Five of the originals are instrumentals.

Lamb’s three original songs with vocals, however, give Bootsy Met A Bank Robber its distinctive character. Two consist of straight ahead bluegrass with most unconventional topics. The title cut describes a true story of a woman skilled in denial who allows a bank robber to move in with her. “Bitter Pill,” co-written and sung with Chiavola, confronts women who constantly complain about their men by standby them anyway. Most daringly, “Belly of the Beast,” a musical homage to the Horseflies written and sung with Cowan, addresses childhood sexual abuse and extracts a more confident lead vocal from Lamb than on the bluegrass selections.

Now rooted in Nashville, Lamb first gained notice as co-founder of Washington’s bluegrass influenced western swing revivalists Ranch Romance. Their fusion sound presaged the Americana movement. Since 1994 Lamb has written, recorded on her own, done live dates with seemingly everyone, and been a member of both the John Cowan Band and Asleep at the Wheel. Bootsy Met A Bank Robber reminds us to think about Barbara Lamb as an excellent band leader and composer, not just a first rate fiddler and vocalist.

(Lots of Coffee Records; PO Box 90031; Nashville, TN 27209) AM

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Ernest Stoneman, Kilby Snow, and Kenneth & Neriah Benfield
Masters of Old-Time Country Autoharp
Smithsonian-Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40115

For those who consider bluegrass a niche music, think about the autoharp or chorded zither. One of the instrument fads of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like the mandolin, banjo, and ukulele, the autoharp’s devotees today exist on the periphery of the folk, gospel, and old-time music communities. For most bluegrass lovers the autoharp is a memory from elementary school music class otherwise at best associated with Mother Maybelle Carter, Mike Seeger, Bryan Bowers, and Patsy & Ernest “Pop” Stoneman. The latter joins Kilby Snow and Kenneth & Neriah Benfield on Masters of Old-Time Country Autoharp, a greatly expanded reissue of 1961’s Mountain Music Played on the Autoharp. Seeger, who also produced the 24 cut original from his field recordings, substitutes different versions for four of the tunes and adds fourteen previously unreleased tracks.

As Seeger’s liner notes point out, Virginia’s Stoneman and North Carolinian Neriah Benfield came from just the second generation of mountain autoharpists. As they grew up, the autoharp, with its emphasis on the new idea of chords, replaced the lap dulcimer as a novelty rhythm instrument supporting the banjo and fiddle.

The broad repertoire and rapid melody notes of today’s Bowers-inspired autoharpists contrast with the rhythm emphasis of these early masters. Stoneman not only sired one of music’s great families; he made the first autoharp recordings in 1924. He combined a “pinching motion” with thumb and index finger with a “backlick” by the first finger. The Benfields, father and son, borrowed picking techniques from both banjo frailing and flatpicking. Thirteen years younger than Stoneman and Neriah Benfield, Snow marked the start of the third generation of mountain players and traded autoharp licks with Mother Maybelle during the 1920s. Emphasizing his first finger, Snow introduced “drag notes” in imitation of hammering on and slides on the banjo and guitar. He benefits from the most previously unreleased cuts with seven.

Bluegrass aficionados will appreciate Snow’s versions of Bill Monroe’s “Close By” and “Muleskinner Blues,” as well as “Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow” from Flatt & Scruggs. Stoneman’s selections reflect the repertoire of the 1920s: “May I Sleep in Your Barn, Mister,” “Sweet Sunny South,” “All I Got’s Gone.” The Benfields’ cuts often borrow from country recordings of the entire 78 era from the Carter Family (“Weeping Willow Tree”) to Pee Wee King (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”).

(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; 750 9th St NW; Washington, DC 20560-0953; www.folkways.si.edu) AM

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Big Country Bluegrass
On Fire
Hay Holler Records HH-CD-1378

By the time you read this, Big Country Bluegrass will have celebrated its twentieth anniversary as a band in January. Mandolin picker Tommy and rhythm guitarist Teresa Sells have belonged for the entire run with bassman Alan Mastin with them for all but the first two years. Fiddler Billy Hawks, veteran professional Ramona Church Michael on banjo, and the phenomenal guitarist, fiddler, singer, and songwriter Jeff Michael complete Big Country Bluegrass. Since signing with Hay Holler in 1997 they have kept up an album per year pace with On Fire marking their ninth release for the label. They call their music Galax or Mt. Airy style bluegrass, citing the inspiration Ted Lundy, Larry Richardson, Roy McMillan, and Joe Green, among others. All band members live in communities along the western end of the Virginia/North Carolina border.

That locality is the key to their sound in several ways, not the least being simply that they come from a single place. The members of Big Country Bluegrass grew up where the new sound of bluegrass spread like wildfire during the second half of the 1940s. These folks are the third (in the case of the original band members) and fourth generations from the true vine. Their music, thus, naturally leans toward traditional bluegrass without their having to make any conscious effort to sound traditional.

That lends their music both an ease and an authenticity that bands trying to play traditional bluegrass usually can’t match. Big Country Bluegrass sounds just as real doing Ron Sweet’s “Hicker Nut Ridge” in an arrangement that would fit Rhonda Vincent as they do with “Bringing in the Georgia Mail” in a way Ralph Stanley would be totally comfortable playing. Jeff sings lead on ten songs with an unmistakably mountain voice that, somewhat like Del McCoury’s, retains its edge and soul without sounding anachronistic. The band uses solo lead, duets, trios, and quartets, creating a pleasing vocal variety.

When first I heard Big Country Bluegrass circa 1990, they played decent meat and potatoes traditional bluegrass, but now they have grown into something pretty special. Some of the credit belongs to Jeff, whom Carlton Haney once claimed would be the one to carry the spirit of Bill Monroe’s music into this century, and Ramona, who is a fine, veteran professional. Ramona composed the title instrumental, while her husband wrote the four original songs. His lyrics, including those for the killer lead off cut “Cold Rain,” fir right in with those of the older songs they cover. They honor their regional tradition with E.C. Ball’s “Mother’s Prayers Were Not in Vain.” The other songs derive from such dependable sources as both Bill and Charlie Monroe, the Louvins, George Jones, and Aubrey Holt.

On Fire proves a most excellent example of 21st Century mountain music, bluegrass style. If the music had retreated into the southern Appalachians rather than spreading around the world, it’s mainstream sound today may have been very close to that of Big Country Bluegrass.

(Hay Holler Records; PO Box 868; Blacksburg, VA 24063) AM

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Williams & Clark Expedition
Williams & Clark Expedition
WCE Nashville -004

Although the Williams & Clark Expedition has only existed as a band for four years, this quartet of veterans has already released four CDs, hosted the first three years of the Franklin, Kentucky Music Festival, toured Japan, and developed a schedule with 100 dates per year. Best known to bluegrass folks for his long tenure on banjo with Bill Monroe during the 1980s, Blake Williams, “The Sparta Flash,” has also played bass for Mike Snider, Patty Loveless, and others. Like Williams, mandolinist Bobby Clark spent many years with Snider. Before Clark arrived in Nashville in 1983, he had played with Vince Gill in Oklahoma’s Bluegrass ReVue. Guitarist and singer Wayne Southards made his mark with Memphis’ Tennessee Gentlemen, earning SPBGMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year in 1987, before settling in Music City in 1990. The last of the four to reach Nashville in 1992, Kimberly Williams plays bass and shares the lead vocals.

Given Blake’s background, Bobby’s mando virtuosity, and the Monrovian fiddle kick off to the first track, Gretchen Peters’ “High Lonesome,” it is easy to err in thinking that this eponymous CD will be a trip through Monroe country. As soon as Rhonda Vincent joins them on the second cut, Blake’s own “Right All Along,” however, one discovers that Williams & Clark Expedition is delivering most excellent contemporary bluegrass. Marty Rabon joins them for a version of “Life’s Railway to Heaven, while Tim Crouch contributes the fiddle throughout the CD.

What makes this project work is that Williams & Clark Expedition wants to sound like Williams & Clark Expedition and no one else. Just compare their rendition of Paul Craft’s “Midnight Flyer” to either the Osborne Brother’s original or the Eagle’s hit version. Plus Blake Williams comes into his own as a writer, composing or co-writing seven of the thirteen music tracks. The fourteenth cut proves kind of odd since it is a compilation of Blake’s between song comedy. This is genuinely funny material of the set ‘em up and knock ‘em down variety, but when you’re listening to an album as many times as I did Williams & Clark Expedition, the comedy track gets kind of old. Nonetheless, this is a strong album with excellent singing, playing, and new songs that most bluegrass folk would enjoy.

(WCE Nashville; 300 Hooton Road; Sparta, TN 38583) AM

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Jim Lauderdale
Bluegrass
Yep Rock Records YEP 2137

After performing frequently in 2006 with his Bluegrass Band, Jim Lauderdale offers Bluegrass, a full CD of Jim singing his songs as bluegrass band leader. He wrote or co-wrote all 13 titles, played rhythm guitar, sang lead, and co-produced Bluegrass with Bil Vorndick and Randy Kohrs, who also played resophonic guitar and sang harmonies. Bluegrass offers literate, intelligent songs by a son of the rural South, killer musicianship, and refreshingly distinctive music. The extraordinary Bryan Sutton handles all the lead guitar, Josh Williams much of the mandolin and Luke Bulla almost all the fiddling with Dennis Crouch sharing the bass work.

Named Artist of the Year at the 2002 Americana Music Association awards, Jim Lauderdale must be the quintessential Americana artist, equally at home writing and singing bluegrass, country, and jam band songs. Although the western North Carolinian released several country albums on RCA, folks such as the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless, and George Straight recorded the hit versions of Jim’s compositions. Both Lauderdale’s projects with Ralph Stanley earned Grammy nominations with the second, Lost in the Lonesome Pines, surging into the top five of the Americana charts on the strength of the track “She’s Looking At Me.” Jim paired the release of Bluegrass with the ironically titled CD Country Super Hits Vol. 1.

Although everything about this album proves excellent and often quite original, Jim’s voice more naturally suits classic country in the mold of George Jones, whom he has portrayed on stage. Nonetheless, he grew up with bluegrass and understands its nuances, singing with much less ornamentation than on his atavistic brand of country. He plays with the genre in the arrangements, crafting a bluegrass sound clearly his own with fiddle and guitar holding a more prominent position than the five-string and solo lead vocals more common than duets, trios, and quartets.

Lauderdale kicks off Bluegrass with some of its most driving and straightforward bluegrass material such as the twin fiddles on the anthem-like “Mighty Lonesome,” but as the album progresses through its thirteen tracks he experiments with sound. “Who’s Leaving Who” delivers a delightful exercise in rhythmic singing with Jim trying to stay just ahead of the beat like a banjo player. “There Goes Bessie Brown,” also composed with Leslie Satcher, offers varied tempos and driving fiddle riffs supporting a story of small town life. “Love in the Ruins” – with a homage to Albert Camus in its second line “After the Fall” – proves more acoustic honky-tonk than bluegrass. “Where They Turn Around” closes the album with a return to electrifying bluegrass, bluegrass with a Lauderdale twist.

(Yep Rock Records; PO Box 4821; Chapel Hill, NC 27515) AM

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