Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews 2008

Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews

By Art Menius

Published During 2008

  1. Blue Highway
  2. Midnight Ramblers
  3. Heather Berry & Tony
  4. Grascals
  5. Shadow Ridge
  6. Kristin Scott Benson
  7. Bluegrass Brothers

Blue Highway
Through the Window of a Train
Rounder 11661-0594-2

After fourteen years and eight albums together, Blue Highway possesses an enviable maturity and remarkable stability. Thus the band both needed, and recognized the need for, a change of pace with their latest project. Rather than recording in Nashville, Blue Highway headed into southwestern Virginia to use Alan Maggard’s studio in Big Stone Gap and assumed, for the first time, the producer’s role for themselves. In this way, Blue Highway has achieved a deceptively understated masterpiece in Through the Window of a Train.

Blue Highway is a veteran, cerebral bluegrass band featuring deep, and here very intimate, music and thoughtful lyrics. A band is lucky to have one first rate lead vocalist, yet Blue Highway enjoys three in bassist Wayne Taylor, guitarist Tim Stafford, and Shane Lane, who plays fiddle and mandolin. With acclaimed Dobro player Rob Ickes and banjoman Jason Burleson, Blue Highway offers an equally powerful instrumental lineup. The on-the-fly arrangements on Through the Window of a Train lend an uplifting freshness and spontaneity to the recording.

The triumph of Through the Window of a Train derives not so much the exquisite playing and lovely singing as it does the breakthrough songwriting. The members of Blue Highway at least co-wrote each of the dozen tracks comprising Through the Window of a Train. Stafford contributed the most with five credits, the reliable Taylor provides a pair of songs, Lane wrote four pieces, and Burleson composed an engaging instrumental called “The North Cove.”

Never before has a bluegrass album composed entirely by band members achieved this high a level of song craft from start to finish. Lane, Stafford, and Taylor have moved beyond writing great songs, as we have come to expect from them, and into the world of genuine art. As songwriters, the three now demonstrate a mastery of imaginative creativity. Rather than just writing intriguing songs that tell stories, the stories now seem to be fully their own no matter how far they move beyond the composers’ lives.

Often on Through the Window of a Train, they approach the stories from unique perspectives as well. “Two Soldiers,” by Stafford and Wood Newton, addresses war from the view of the soldiers who deliver the worst news to families. “A Week from Today,” which Tim wrote with Bobby Starnes, takes us inside the mind of a fifty-year convict terrified at being dumped into the world beyond bars. One can listen to Lane’s immediately memorable and singable “V-Bottom Boat” before realizing it is a metaphorical gospel song. His elegant “Where Did the Morning Go?” captures the regrets that compound as middle age turns to old. Taylor’s “Homeless Man” treats the plight of many American military veterans without ever becoming maudlin.

The title song frames the entire album’s content. Blue Highway shows us what they see through the windows of a train in perhaps the best of bluegrass album of the young century.

(Rounder Records; One Rounder Way; Burlington, MA 01803; www.rounder.com,) AM

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The Midnight Ramblers
Let it Shine
Lonesome 12008

Southwestern Virginia quartet The Midnight Ramblers have already gained note as a first rate young show band with a distinctive retro look. Although its four members range in age from 17 to 19, Let it Shine marks the Midnight Ramblers’ third CD. Let it Shine demonstrates how rapidly an ensemble that age can mature, especially when using strong material and nurtured by producer like Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford and a supportive boutique label.

Inside Let It Shine’s gorgeous packaging (Lonesome produced the acclaimed Music of Coal set in 2007), the band members immediately prove that they have been focused on playing and practicing. They possess a youthful devotion to rhythm married to a respect for the music, especially its vocal traditions.

Distinguished by Abram Mullins’ sharp-edged banjo playing, The Midnight Ramblers display their crisp, energetic sound from the opening notes of “Somewhere Down the Road.” Written by Stafford and Robert G. Starnes, it shows that these young professionals grasp that you need and can find new material. They follow “Somewhere Down the Road” with a second excellent piece by a contemporary songwriter, Christopher West’s “Hanging Tree.” Later the Midnight Ramblers render Darrell Webb’s “Miner’s Song.” Boggs offers the fine title song about moonshine making in Wise County, Virginia, while Mullins provides a love song “Tell me Why” and a killer instrumental named “Metro Style.” The remainder of the album mixes in recent covers of songs from Larry Sparks and Dolly Parton with classics such as “I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages.” Only when the dozen-track collection reaches the concluding “Reuben” and “Sitting on Top of the World” does The Midnight Ramblers’ drive and focus seem to wane, along with the listener’s interest.

Austin Boggs proves a confident lead singer, expressive of the emotion in the lyrics rather than singing through them. Although Mullins and bass player Cherise Bates are competent lead singers, the Midnight Ramblers wisely assign the convincing and accomplished Boggs to eight of the ten lead vocals. The Midnight Ramblers are a crackerjack young band that will be a force if they stick together and keeping working this hard and this intentionally.

(Lonesome Records; PO Box 568; Big Stone Gap, VA 24219; www.lpoy.org) AM

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Heather Berry & Tony
Before Bluegrass
Blue Circle Records BCR-015

Too few folks still remember Lula Belle and Scotty Wiseman (Old Mountain Dew,” “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You”) and their vital role converting brother duet music into couples duet music. Heather Berry and Tony Mabe explore their place in that tradition on Before Bluegrass. Even better, in Heather and Tony Tom T. and Dixie Hall found a vehicle for their interest in writing original songs for that old-time sound.

Thus Before Bluegrass offers a wonderful blend of a 1930s sound with totally original material, of new songs by an older couple and younger musicians in love with the music from the era when the songwriters were born. The Halls provide nine titles, and Heather and Tony the remaining three. Heather handles most of the lead vocals, while playing clawhammer banjo, Autoharp, and guitar. Tony, who primarily picks lead guitar but also banjo and Autoharp, takes the lead vocal on “When the Sun Comes Out Again” and “Sally in Poor Valley.” He and Heather alternate the lead only on the kickoff “Hazel Creek.” Also the only track combining Heather’s rollicking 5-string and Tony’s lead guitar picking, it resembles both Lula Belle & Scotty and Robin & Linda Williams. Substitute the Autoharp for the banjo and you get a sound more like E.C. and Orna Ball. “Hound Dog Blues,” on the other hand, finds Heather channeling Jimmie Rodgers across time and gender. Berry and Mabe come up with an excellent period piece, “Public Enemy Number One,” about John Dillenger from the perspective of his true love.

Berry and Mabe convey an infectious joy in making music together. Despite their youth, they keep both their picking and singing understated like those they endeavor to emulate. The Halls have given them a diverse set of songs appropriate to their retro style. The result is Before Bluegrass, a charming and consistently pleasant journey through the past distinguished by its new material.

(Blue Circle Records; PO Box 681286 c/o Tom & Dixie Hall; Franklin, TN 37068) AM

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The Grascals
Keep On Walkin’
Rounder 11661-0608-2

The Grascals create bluegrass for today powered by their stunning ability to sound fresh while respecting bluegrass traditions and fully committing emotionally to each song. Either quality can form the basis for a career. The Grascals third album, Keep on Walkin’, showcases their potent combination.

For example, “Choices” demonstrates making a song one’s own. It sounds not just autobiographical, but confessional in the Grascals’ version. Yet “Choices” is a George Jones song. Jamie is just as compelling on “Farther Along,” as on two songs he co-wrote, the autobiographical sounding “Indiana” and the title number. The Grascals swing with the material, approaching both the classic “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and the new “Happy Go Lucky” with equal commitment to the upbeat insouciance the songs demand.

While the Grascals have reached the top of their profession in just four years, they prove the antithesis of the overnight success story. Each member possess impressive experience in bluegrass. Sounding fresh demands that a band evolve its sound, no matter how long the artists have been around. New banjoman Aaron McDaris simultaneously helps the Grascals move both more toward the influences of traditional bluegrass and the Buck Owens – Merle Haggard sound explicitly explored in “The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line” and Haggard’s own, “Today I Started Loving You Again.” The Grascals most clearly unleash the Osborne-style vocals that characterized their first two albums on the latter. Veteran Aubrey Holt from the Boys From Indiana should get some well deserved recognition as a songwriter for the three titles he contributed to Keep On Walkin’: “Feeling Blue,” “Sad Wind Sighs,” and the rocking “Happy Go Lucky.”

Despite their fresh approach and mix of new and recycled songs,  the Grascals stay true to the bluegrass materials’ nostalgic roots. These guys simply move the time about which they are nostalgic up to the 1970s and 1980s. That helps  make the Grascals the perfect baby boomer bluegrass band. A new ensemble, with familiar faces, creating music by and for people approaching middle age who grew up listening to rock and country plus bluegrass and might long for a rural life they gave up.

(Rounder Records; One Rounder Way; Burlington, MA 01803) AM

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Shadow Ridge
Is This For Here or to Go?
No Label

Is This For Here or To Go? marks the fourth release by Shadow Ridge, a rock solid band from east Tennessee. After a couple of songs, it is obvious why they finished near the top at the 2008 SPBGMA contest. Their picking and singing is impeccable. Most impressively, Is This For Here or To Go? offers almost perfect sequencing and mixing of tempos and styles. They move effortlessly from Stanley Brothers’ material to songs from honky-tonker Moon Mullican and country rock’s Flying Burrito Brothers. The transition from “Long Black Veil” to “How Long Have I Been Waiting,” for example, is as good as what the very best producers do. Maggard Sound provides its usual excellent recording quality. Even the design of the CD booklet shows thoughtful cleverness.

Contest success, however, also includes a downside that Is This for Here or To Go? demonstrates as well. Although the album includes two fine songs by Monroe Fields, a top notch songwriter by any standards, they lack a definitive sound. Nothing says, especially to radio listeners, “Hey, that’s Shadow Ridge.” That factor has distinguished the most successful bluegrass bands ever since Flatt & Scruggs, which was basically a group of former Blue Grass Boys, moved away from the Monroe sound as quickly as possible. Original songs are not as important as a genuinely original sound. To use the restaurant metaphor of the album design, Shadow Ridge is an excellent meat and three lunch counter, but it is not where you take your best girl for a memorable dinner.

(Shadow Ridge; PO Box 384 c/o C.F. Bailey; Tazewell, TN 37879) AM

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Kristin Scott Benson
Second Season
Pinecastle PRC 6514

Banjo player of the Year at the most recent IBMA Awards is overdue recognition for Kristin Scott Benson, who seemed underappreciated despite an already substantial career on the five-string with Larry Stephenson and Larry Cordle. The excellent new Second Season should continue to build the stature of the veteran banjo ace. The Scott Vestal produced set places Benson in a delightful variety of settings and styles – playing lead and backup on diverse instrumental and vocal numbers. That makes Second Season an engaging, complete recording featuring new material, thoughtful arrangements, and excellent singing, not just the hot picking so often associated with instrumental star projects.

Kristin composed three of the tunes herself and arranged a couple more, contrasting her ideas with classics from Bill Emerson and Earl Scruggs. Otherwise, she picks from sources as wide spread as the variety of material and banjo styles on Second Season. “Bugle Call Rag” allows Benson to show off her distinctive skills at straight bluegrass while her own “Trying Times” leads her studio group into explorations along the border of jazz and bluegrass. She shines on Emerson’s previously unrecorded “No Steering, No Brakes.”

On the album Benson fronts a top notch ensemble of under fifty musicians and singers including a core band of Cody Kilby or David Grier on guitar, husband Wayne Benson playing mandolin, Jimmy Van Cleve or Shad Cobb fiddling, and Andy Todd or Micky Harris handling the bass. The vocal numbers include as many fine lead singers as songwriters: Harris and Sally Jones on a delightful take on the O’Kane’s “Imagine That,” Josh Williams on a pensive, acoustic country reading of “No Southern Comfort” from Jon Randall, Cordle on Kevin Welch’s “Something ‘Bout You,” and Stephenson on “The Gospel Way,” written by Daniel Boner, Benson’ student when she taught at ETSU.

Well chosen material with strong arrangements, killer picking, and excellent singing combine to make Second Season the of understated gem of late 2008.

(Pinecastle Records; PO Box 384; Tazewell, TN 37879) AM

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The Bluegrass Brothers
As Time Goes By
Bluegrass Brothers

In 2009 the talented Bluegrass Brothers, from Salem, Virginia, will celebrate twenty years as an ensemble with a sweet schedule including Rhonda Vincent’s cruise, the CBA Father’s Day Festival, and a week in Branson. The Bluegrass Brothers live up to their name being comprised of brothers Robert (52) and Victor Dowdy (47) and Victor’s sons Steve (29) and Donald (21), along with 23-years-old mandolinist Brandon Farley. Guitarist and frequent lead singer Steve is perhaps the best known from his time with Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. Steve and Robert on banjo are both musicians of the top order.

As Time Goes By is their fourth album I know of with the three predecessors all getting favorable reviews in these pages. On the third cut the Bluegrass Brothers serve up an outstanding tribute song called “Stanley Tradition” written by Mike Dillard. Woven from Stanley titles, the song immediately sticks in the listener’s mind, which is exactly what you need to get heard on the radio. Preceding it comes the title track which Steve wrote with Kacy Dowdy, while Farley provides a neat instrumental called “Fire on the Mandolin.” Outside of those, the CD consists of covers and classics, but that threesome demonstrates that the Bluegrass Brothers can more than succeed with original material.

The liner notes relate that they allowed fan requests to shape their selections on this project. That, unfortunately, makes As Time Goes By less interesting an album than it could have been with more original songs like the above. The problem is not simply that the Bluegrass Brothers are doing cover songs, but that  they tend to cover the arrangements as well. “She’s Walking Through My Memories [sic]” sounds like Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, while “Next Sunday Darling is My Birthday” channels the Stanley Brothers convincingly. It takes exceptional chops to sound like other bands, and the Bluegrass Brothers have those skills vocally and instrumentally. This talent, however, works much better on stage than on a recording. The Bluegrass Brother can do original very well; they just need to do a lot more of it.

(Bluegrass Brothers; 3560 Casey Road; Salem, VA 24153) AM

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