Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews
By Art Menius
Published During 2007
- Grass Cats
- Dwight McCall
- Wells Family
- Larry Keith
- Brian Blaylock
- Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time
- Balsam Range
- Stacy York
Home to Carolina
New Time Records NT 1009
Driving the blue highways through southwestern Virginia, I enjoyed repeated plays of the Grass Cats’ sixth CD, Home to Carolina, and pondered the question each song poses – how does a band that tours so little get as much radio airplay as the top festival bands around. By and large, if you want to see the Grass Cats, you go to North Carolina. Judging by Home to Carolina, as well as their five previous albums, it is well worth the trip. Yet everyone knows that you’re supposed travel around the country, play a different festival every weekend, meet local djs, and win fans so that your music gets on the radio.
Yet the Grass Cats live in the bluegrass airplay charts while sleeping in their own beds. Home to Carolina demonstrates the many reasons why. Some are obvious. Jerry Brown’s excellent engineering assures that each song sounds good enough for radio. The album proves consistent throughout with no filler. The Grass Cats include two first rate songwriters and singers in mandolinist Russell Johnson and guitar man Steven Martin. Russ’ three include both the lead off cut “Long Way Back” and the title song. Each exemplifies Johnson’s ability to write new songs that sound classic, another part of the puzzle. Martin composed four titles, all of which display that same wonderful quality. So the Grass Cats have a constant supply of fresh material, just what radio wants. Plus, their voices prove compatible with just the right blend of similarities and differences.
The Grass Cats make all six covers, no matter what the source, sound like bluegrass. On first hearing banjo player Tim Woodall, who also sings lead on two cuts, kick off “Let My Love Open the Door,” I immediately knew the song by the Who’s Pete Townsend. Their version is bluegrass in both picking (Tim rolls through the entire 3:43 with energy and authority) and harmonies without betraying the original rock version. They do the same thing with material from Tim McGraw, Robert Cray, and others; the songs sound like the Grass Cats and like the first version all at once. Woodall, by the way, has co-hosted a bluegrass show on a 50KW commercial radio station for almost twenty years, so he knows what works on the radio.
In their arrangements, the Grass Cats include subtle references to the standard songs they don’t record and little touches – Russ’ bluesy Monrovian mandolin and vocal twists on his “Pill or Potion,” for example – that make their new songs sound familiar. Plus, they have no aversion to hooks, the same methods that make mainstream hits. Listen especially to the way each instrumental break relates closely to the melody and how effortlessly the melodies find a place in your memory. Most importantly, the Grass Cats avoid the pigeon holes of traditional or contemporary. The Grass Cats are both and neither, and that proves a winning combination.
(4262 Old School Rd; Four Oaks, NC 27524; www.grasscats.com) AM
Never Say Never Again
Rural Rhythm RHY-1031
Dwight McCall shines as mandolin player and vocalist for J.D. Crowe & the New South. Never Say Never Again (the title comes from the second cut by Wayne Winkle and Craig Market) marks Dwight’s sophomore solo recording following closely on the heels of his second CD with J.D. Showing significant growth since his fine 2003 debut, McCall’s record provides further evidence to the excellence of Crowe’s teaching ability. Never Say Never Again features sharp arrangements, excellent performances, and an outstanding variety of styles, songs, and tempos. McCall’s killer trio harmonies with himself, however, provide the defining characteristic as one of best sideman recordings of this or any other year.
Dwight produced Never Say Never Again, composed three fine songs, sings lead on all of them, baritone on most of them and tenor on quite a few, and plays mandolin on a pair of cuts. McCall even records on banjo for the first time on “Little Bessie,” one of three traditional bluegrass titles on the excellently balanced CD. The star of his three compositions, “Goodbye My Friends,” mourns the loss of his brother. He also pens a good bluegrass love song, “Don’t Break My Heart Again,” and a gospel number, “He Never Turned Away.” The prodigiously talented Ron Stewart proves nearly as busy engineering, mixing, and mastering, as well as playing fiddle or banjo or both on every cut. Fellow New South member Harold Nixon holds down the bass duties throughout. Alan Bibey supplies most of the mandolin, Brian Stephens the guitar picking, and Randy Kohrs the Dobro.
The title song fits the New South mold with Dwight singing all three parts in a trio that immediately sinks into a happy place in the listener’s memory. Although back in ninth position, “Time of our Lives” might be an even better driving bluegrass vocal showcase with Missy Werner adding the tenor above McCall’s lead and baritone. Jon Weisberger (who also contributes the liner notes) wrote a stellar sacred song, “Pathway of My Savior” that features Steve Gulley’s tenor, as does a memorable “Blue Eyed Boston Boy.”
With the help of his friends, Dwight McCall has created an exemplary album in Never Say Never Again. He has demonstrated mastery in every aspect of making a major level release.
(Rural Rhythm Records; Box 660040; Arcadia, CA 91066-0040; www.ruralrhythm.com) AM
The Wells Family
Living Wells [no catalog number]
Forty years ago in bluegrass music most of the female artists stood in the back playing upright bass. Now all female bands are hardly rare and young distaff ensembles like Georgia’s the Lovell Sisters and the Wells Family from North Carolina put their one male member in the back, playing upright bass. On Someday Soon the Wells Family demonstrates the world class vocal talents, solid picking, and emerging songwriting abilities that could carry a band far, especially given their reputation for showmanship.
The Wells Family preceded Someday Soon with three CDs and a DVD. The previous album gave the first good evidence of the Wells girls maturing lead and harmony work. With their ages ranging from 17 to 23, this one shows their singing blossoming into a force.
Mandolinist Jade sings lead on six of eleven vocal tracks with Sara singing a pair, including a rollicking version of “Down the Road.” Father Gary the bassman, mother and guitarist Debi, and fiddler Eden sing lead on each of the three remaining songs. Debi serves as the family songwriter with three titles. “Moment in Time” is a radio friendly, modern acoustic song with awesome singing. It deserves airplay despite venturing too close to AKUS territory. “Ancilla and Me” is Debi’s deeply felt tribute to her mother who passed in 2006. “Let it go like the Rain” proves the most ambitious and successful of the trio – a driving, rocking, thoroughly modern song with nice guitar and fiddle breaks and a convincing lead by Jade.
Despite the many strengths of Someday Soon, the Wells Family has a ways to go to use their talents to the fullest. With their potential, an outside producer would be a good idea for their next idea. Their arrangements prove quite professional, but not particularly original. The closing cover of Hoobastank’s “The Reason,” while very pleasant listening like every track, differentiates itself from the original only by being acoustic with a female singer. “Wait a Minute,” “Cry, Cry Darling,” and “I’ve Forgotten You” all stay close to the originals except for changing to gender appropriate keys. That’s fine for a local band, but the Wells Family has higher ambitions and abilities. Including their picking skills, which are kept too much in the background. Yet when given a chance they sound pretty good, including on the one instrumental cut, banjo picker Sara’s “Stiletto.”
How much the Well Family grows into their own and distances themselves from comparisons to other artists will determine how far they can go. They clearly aim for a unique sound combining female dominated family harmony with a spirited, contemporary approach. Sometime they achieve it, both sometime they can sink into singing too much like their role models. They need to develop that into a recognizable style of their own – the kind where radio listeners know them immediately. Similarly, they need more songs of their own for the same reason.
(Living Wells; 2678 Jack Rd; Clayton, NC 27520; www.wellsfamilyband.com) AM
The best vision I can give you of Larry Keith’s Travelin’ Angel starts with a group of friends gathered around the front porch as afternoon fades. Underneath the conversation, someone starts quietly picking a guitar. Over time, conversation slows until you realize everyone is silently listening to the guitar while watching night settle on the mountain.
From Hendersonville, North Carolina, Keith hardly depends on flash. Although he grew up enjoying bluegrass gospel and here covers such standards as “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” he cannot be described as a bluegrass picker or even bluegrass influenced. On the eight covers and three originals (the title song, “Movement of Faith,” and “Prayer in the Cove”), Larry keeps his playing straightforward and easy to follow, with a distinctive rhythm. Most interestingly, he makes his simple arrangements fresh with original chord choices. Keith adds occasional bass along with some percussion by producer and engineer Terry Wetton.
Despite his pleasant and original playing, Keith could have made the album more successful with just a fee changes. “Travelin’ Angel,” also the lead off cut, provides the only even mid-tempo number, for example. The remaining ten tunes all hang in slow gear.
(No address provided) AM
Worried Man Blues
At age 32, Brian Blaylock has established himself as a veteran sideman and multi-instrumentalist. Currently guitar and Dobro player for the Dismembered Tennesseans, he has also handled fiddle for Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen, mandolin with Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition, guitar for Larry Stephenson, and banjo for Tim Graves & Cherokee. On his solo CD Worried Man Blues, one easily hears versatility and skill that keeps him working. In all, Brian sing lead on five songs, baritone on seven, low tenor on a pair, and plays banjo on nine cuts, mandolin on eleven, and guitar on all twelve!
That experience has lent Blaylock the confidence – some might say audacity – to kick off Worried Man Blues with interpretations of two of the most popular bluegrass songs of the 1980s. Blaylock provides credibly original renditions of each, including his own delightfully disbelieving dead pan delivery of the “or just forgotten” line in Pete Goble’s “Blue Virginia Blue,” successful for both Bill Harrell and Larry Sparks. Another young veteran, Darrell Webb, takes both lead and tenor vocals on Mike Garris’ “Loneliness & Desperation,” a hit for Del McCoury.
Bobby Osborne sings lead on “What a Friends we Have in Jesus” and high lead over Brian’s baritone and low tenor on Paul Williams’ “One Kiss Away From Loneliness.” On “One Kiss” Blaylock plays all the instruments except for the bass and drums. He delivers quite convincing Sonny Osborne-style banjo picking. Brian demonstrates that he can handle material from outside bluegrass as a vocalist on a convincing cover of Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Co-producer Randy Barnes, who plays the bass on all but one number, sings lead on the classics “Love me Darlin’ Just Tonight” and “Love Come Home,” while Danny Barnes’ high lead on “Is it True” from Jim & Jesse. Co-producer Ben Surratt engineers. Jason Carter fiddles with characteristic vigor on “Loneliness and Desperation” and “Nobody’s Love is Like Mine” from the Stanleys.
The best sideman recordings allow underappreciated artists to showcase their own abilities. The solid, enjoyable bluegrass of Worried Man Blues shows that Brian Blaylock is an exceptionally talented working musician who has every right to take his turn in the spotlight.
(1811 Gold Point Circle South; Hixon, TN 37343) AM
Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time
Took Down and Put Up
Lonesome Day LDR-011
The arrival of a new Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard time album proves a dependably welcome event. Like the late Don Smith, the subject of his “The Hero of the Creek,” the penultimate cut on Took Down and Put Up, “there’s one man you count on the be the same as when I left.” Larry Cordle records resemble a visit from a thoughtful and eloquent friend. This time he has a dozen more stories to tell so personally and well. Almost all the greats of the first generation were powerful singer-songwriters. Cordle, an east Kentucky native whose hit credits include “Highway 40 Blues” and “Murder on Music Row,” was in the vanguard of restoration of that tradition.
On the outstanding Took Down and Put Up, Larry delivers nine songs he wrote or co-wrote. The last three – “’67 Chevy Malibu,” “The Hero of the Creek,” and “A Visit with an Uncle” – form a story cycle about growing up and thinking back on that time and place as an adult. The coal miner reflection “Hole in the Ground” and the moving “Song for Keith,” written with Randy Scruggs for a tribute album in the 1990s, fits that theme as well. The later benefits from Cordle’s spoken introduction about first meeting Whitley as boys. He immediately lifts the mood with the rowdy courtship duet with Travis Tritt (who had the original cut), “Rough Around the Edges” (“I didn’t come out of no GQ magazine/I don’t use a lot of big words/But I’m big on love if you know what I mean”). “I’m A Lie,” co-written with Galen Griffin, gives the lie an actual persona and biography. Cordle sprinkles his writing genius throughout with lines like “But the bluegrass land was too flat for his feet,” “David Brinkley weighed not heavy on his mind,” and “I wish I had the money to buy you a fancy stone/But God won’t need a marker when he comes to take you home.”
The CD also includes contributions from two of his favorite songwriters, Chris Stuart and Jim Rushing, plus a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover. Lonesome Standard Time,. Dobroist Kim Gardner and lead guitar player Booie Beach composed its one instrumental, “Plum Sideways.” The veteran ensemble remains a first rate and perfectly in sync. Kristin Scott Benson on banjo, bassman Mike Anglin, and Chris Davis on mandolin comprise the rest of rock solid unit. Fiddler Jenee Fleenor and Wayne Benson on mandolin guest, as does Randy Kohrs singing on two cuts. Together they have the versatility cover the variety of material on Took Down and Put Up while demonstrating their facility for rock solid, sparkling bluegrass. Great material, convincingly sincere lead singing by Cordle, and sharp performances make for a winning combination.
(143 Deaton Rd; Booneville, KY 41314) AM
Cherryholmes II: Black and White
Skaggs Family 6989020182
Following up on success provides a fundamental challenge to recording artists, especially when a band hits a homer on their debut at bat. Cherryholmes II: Black and White proves anything but a sophomore slump for the band that seemingly came out of nowhere to win IBMA Entertainers of the Year in 2005. In fact, the constantly touring family sextet demonstrates on Black and White exactly what popularity in today’s bluegrass world demands.
The economics of bluegrass today permit larger units, much as the Lewis Family and Ralph Stanley have long offered. Ensembles like Cherryholmes and the Grascals explore the vocal and instrumental options offered by more than four. This makes a variety of strong lead singers essential for 21st Century success.
Produced by Ben Isaacs, Cherryholmes second Skaggs Family release features two male (Skip and B.J.) and two female (Sandy and Cia) lead singers. Moreover, the eleven songs (the CD also includes three instrumentals) display no less than nine different line-ups of singers with only Cia backing B.J.’s lead being repeated. The most interesting vocal approach happens on Cia’s “Don’t Give Your Heart to a Knoxville Girl,” where her harmonies serve as a Greek chorus warning B.J. the lead singer.
Today’s bluegrass also demands distinctive, original material. Cherryholmes again delivers a wealth of new material including kicking bluegrass songs, modern ballads, a classic, and three crisp instrumentals. With two-thirds of the members composing, Cherryholmes members composed seven songs and two tunes for Black and White.
Banjo player Cia wrote and sings lead (she does each four times) on the project’s most progressive cut, “I Don’t Know.” Like most of Cherryholmes’ uptempo numbers, “I Don’t Know” leaps forward with sharp, driving picking with a bass you can hear in the mix. This song finds that music propelling a pop-inflected trio on the chorus that questions the sincerity of a lover’s declarations.
Black and White then immediately changes gears with Cia’s lovely slow reading of Sonya Isaacs’ title ballad relating a prisoner’s tale. Sonya and Ricky Skaggs provide thereon the album’s only non-family vocals. Cherryhomes quickly ups the tempo again with B.J.’s blazing fiddle tune, “The Nine Yards,” which leads into Cia’s mid-tempo song of lost love, “Turned Me Down.”
And so it goes throughout Black and White as Cherryholmes mixes vocal arrangements, tempos, and subjects. Indeed, the one negative comment repeating listenings educe is that the compact disc seems too planned, too carefully thought out, too intentional. That said, Black and Whites serves up fourteen outstanding performances of the brand of bluegrass that has carried Cherryholmes to the top.
(Skaggs Family Records; PO Box 2478; Hendersonville, TN 37077; www.skaggsfamilyrecords.com,) AM
Mountain Home Records MH11422
Marching Home introduces an ensemble of exceptional talent from Haywood County in southwestern North Carolina. Balsam Range formed largely as a result of recording primary lead singer and fiddler Buddy Melton’s solo album. Its guests like Tony Rice and Adam Steffey suggest Melton’s status despite a young career with Rock Springs Reunion and Nashville’s Jubal Foster band. A tenor, he proves able on Marching Home easily to move from the slow torch songs to the traditional demands of “Goodbye Old Pal.” He has the vocal chops in a variety of settings to become a force.
Balsam Range offers two other younger members. Mandolinist Darren Nicholson spent three years with Alicia Nugent, in addition to touring with the Crowe Brothers and Audie Blaylock. Songwriter, alternate lead singer, and guitarist Caleb Smith played with the bluegrass gospel outfit Harvest. A baritone, Smith offers his own stand out vocal performances on the modern country ballad “Could’ve Fooled Me” and the more traditional, up tempo “I’m Just as Wrong,” written with Jim Rushing by producer Jerry Salley, who also sings harmony on a couple of numbers.
Bass and resonator guitar player Tim Surrett’s long tenure with superstars the Kingsmen places him among the most respected musicians in southern gospel — his status such that the Singing News considered this mostly secular bluegrass CD news worthy. Marc Pruett has ranked among the foremost bluegrass banjo players for a third of a century. Despite his aversion to the road life, he has toured with Jimmy Martin, the Whites, James Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, and others. For more than a decade he owned a record label and a music store in Asheville, while fronting an eponymous five-nights-a-week club band composed of former Sunny Mountain, Blue Grass, and Clinch Mountain Boys.
Marching Home demonstrates the self-assurance this level of competency and experience provide. It also offers a wise balance of old (even if all six classics are from Bill Monroe) and new material, a pleasing deviation from popular practice. Pruett composed the title cut, a bluegrass-to-jazz-and-back instrumental, and the first track, “The Train’s Ready” – a driving, banjo-powered showpiece reminiscent of Boone Creek. The second cut, “Blue Mountain,” changes gears to a slow ballad of the “Erase the Miles” type featuring Melton’s singing. Then “Calloway County Flood” by Waynesville, NC’s Milan Miller receives a bluesy, rhythmically intriguing treatment that would make John Cowan feel right at home. Then Surrett takes over the lead singing from Melton on the fourth cut, a respectfully solid “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling,” with Doyle Lawson lending his familiar mandolin and tenor.
Balsam Range’s confidence also permits their all-star guests to fit in rather than distract from the proceedings. Rice provides tasty guitar behind Melton’s lead and tenor vocals on Miller’s “Burning Georgia Down.” Joe Diffie sings lead on Monroe’s “Come Back to me in My Dreams,” while Jim VanCleve fiddles on “Goodbye Old Pal.” Marching Home shows that Balsam Ridge can go toe-to-toe with any bluegrass band recording today.
(Mountain Home Records; PO Box 829; Arden, NC 28704; www.crossroadsmusic.com,) AM
Kentucky in the Rain
Blue Circle Records BCR-009
People like Stacy York deserve the chance to make auteur recordings. Without the veteran support musicians like her, the stars could not star. She began performing gospel professionally at age seven, more recently appearing on the Cumberland Highlanders cable show and singing on Jeannie Stanley’s Baby Girl album. York is best known, however, for her association with Joe Isaacs. She has belonged to hardcore band Joe Isaacs & Mountain Bluegrass for six years, earning co-billing on certain festival dates as well as her third album with them, Joe Isaacs and Stacy York: Mountain Bluegrass, Featuring Butch Robins. Joe and Stacy demonstrate the effectiveness of their harmony work on the classic mountain bluegrass of the Stanley’s “Trust Each Other.”
York thus enjoys some top level support on Kentucky in the Rain. Joe, Ben, and Sonya Isaacs, Rebecca Isaacs Bowman, and Isaacs’ fiddler Jesse Stockman join Mountain Bluegrass guitar player Curnie Lee Wilson to form the core studio pickers and singers. Wilson and the Isaacs provide most of the harmonies. Joe sings backup on eight cuts and lead on Onie Wheeler’s “Go Home,” a powerhouse of traditional bluegrass with York and Wilson joining Ben and Sonya on the harmonies. Since it is on their label, Tom T. and Dixie Hall provide the title cut and two other songs, with his guitar playing featuring on the former. David Marshall sings on it as well. Marshall returns to play the 5-string on the Halls’ jazzy honky-tonk number “I Don’t See What I Once Saw in You.”
It is also no surprise that York as a solo lead singer sounds most effective on the simple, traditional country songs such as the title cut and “Where the Roses Never Fade” and hard driving bluegrass like “I Know What it Means to be Lonesome.” She also rises to the complex challenges of “I Don’t See What I Once Saw in You,” but seems to be pushing the edge of her vocal limits. With the support of the Isaacs she sounds wonderful (“No Matter How hard I Cry”), but who wouldn’t. Her pleasant voice and perfect timing demonstrate both why she is an excellent singing partner, but lacking that certain special element that allows one to become a solo star.
Kentucky in the Rain contains many excellent moments, especially when York sings rock-ribbed bluegrass originally done by men with all-guy vocal support as on “What Kind of Man” and “I’ll Just Go Away.” There are more gifted female lead vocalists these days, but on Kentucky in the Rain Stacy York delivers a winning level of sincerity and east Kentucky soul.
(Blue Circle Records; PO Box 681286; Franklin, TN 37068-1286; www.bluecirclerecords.com,) AM