Reviews for Bluegrass Unlimited 2011
By Art Menius
My first contribution to Bluegrass Unlimited appeared back in September 1983. These reviews are among my most recent.
Volume Five – Down In A Cell
Although Down In A Cell is the first album by a band that debuted three years ago, each member of Volume Five has held tenure with national touring bands prior to their collective start. Mississippian Glen Harrell, who had fiddled with Marty Raybon and Full Circle for five years, began pulling the group together late in 2007. Adam Duke (guitar) from Cullman, Ala., performed all over with David Davis & the Warrior River Boys, while Georgia bass player Chris Williamson spent two years with Randy Kohrs. Alabama school teacher and mandolinist Jesse Daniel played briefly with Kohrs and Anita Fisher. Patton Wages, who spent four years with Raybon and Full Circle replaced Casey Colwell (and Shane Blackwell) on banjo shortly after the recording of Down In A Cell.
Down In A Cell includes 11 tracks with four originals written by members of Volume Five (“Down In A Cell” by Adam Duke, “Busy City”, “These Lies”, and “Ride Ruby Ride” by Jesse Daniel) along with songs penned by popular writers such as Whitey Shafer (“Baptism Of Jesse Taylor”) and Dottie Rambo (“Sailing On”). The CD also features a great bluegrass re-make of “Home”, originally a hit for country music star Joe Diffie. Possibly the most interesting aspect of Down In A Cell is the lead vocals shared between Glen Harrell and Adam Duke, both soulful singers, but each with a distinctive style all their own.
Volume Five has all the tools and competencies of a modern professional bluegrass band in 2011. They have two good lead singers, some original songs and good taste in covers, and fine picking. What remains to be seen is whether Volume Five can be heard and stand out on their own in a bluegrass world evermore crowded with talented, contemporary bands. The answer will lie in whether the bandmembers can employ the skills they amply exhibit on Down In A Cell in creating a distinctive sound immediately recognizable as Volume Five. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd; Willis, VA 24380, www.mountainfever.com.) AM
Ravens and Crows
Rebel Records REB-CD-1842
Dehlia Low, favorites of the Asheville area roots music scene since their formation in 2007, are anything but a traditional bluegrass band. They don’t even include the banjo. Yet Dehlia Low combines mountain-inflected vocals and bluegrass harmonies with more modern picking style into music that successfully crosses genre boundaries without losing touch with their bluegrass roots. Their original lyrics, while generally dealing with modern, lost love themes, reflects the style of traditional folksong. Especially on the first three tracks, the quintet produces an original sound that fits with traditional bluegrass.
The lead off track, “State of Jefferson,” one of five strong songs by fiddler Anya Hinkle, comes across unmistakably as bluegrass even without the five-string. Aaron Balance’s resophonic guitar fills the musical void quite well and keeps the band at just one instrumentalist playing rolls. Her lyrics, however, deal with running away to California at age 17. As much as the title track, “Going Down,” also composed by Hinkle, demonstrates the band’s bluegrass vocal chops as well as her ability to write new lyrics that sound ancient:
That man I found
Don’t you know that man I found
Gives me sugar and honey by the pound
Took me downtown
bought me a white wedding gown
That man I found
Gives me sugar and honey by the pound
Hinkle from Blacksburg, VA and guitarist Stacy Claude, originally from Atlanta, GA assembled Dehlia Low with musicians from around the southeast: bassman Greg Stiglets from Mississippi, Ballance from Winston-Salem, and West Virginia mandolinist Bryan Clendenin. All but Balance sing.
Stiglets provides four songs, confidently kicking off “Thunder” with lyrics audacious for the roots music world even in 2011:
Listen up here boys it’s gonna be hell to find a savior
When I’ve used up all the favors
That I had with my lord
Voices comin here will take me under
I know prayin used to help but Lord, God I’m starting to wonder
Stiglets’ denser lyrics carry Dehlia Low more in an Americana direction than do Hinkle’s songs, without ever losing the band’s distinctive sound nor its traditional feel. After kicking off the band with an uptempo bluegrass track, the five finish the compact disc with a serious reading of the “Cannonball Blues,” the Carter Family’s adaptation of “White House Blues.”
Ravens & Crows proves a breakthrough in the first outing on Rebel Records, fulfilling the promise suggested on their self-titled debut EP, a live album, and especially last year’s full length studio project, Tellico. Unlike most young ensembles with this abundance of talent and versatility, Dehlia Low maintains a consistent band sound from one style to the next. All dozen tracks sound like the same powerful band. That is a significant accomplishment, showcased beautifully on Ravens & Crows, produced by the Infamous Stringdusters’ Travis Book.
Rebel Records (PO Box 7405; Charlottesville, VA 22906; www.rebelrecords.com) AM
I Have Got A Thing About Doors
Blue Circle Records
I Have Got A Thing About Doors proves that in 2011 a band can still record a pretty traditional bluegrass album using all new songs. On the enjoyable album, Cedar Hill even manages the honor of the debut recording the last song Jimmy Martin wrote, “A Little Bit More.” This is the Frank Ray’s Cedar Hill, the 44 years old Ozark-based band, not Duck Adkins’ 35 years old Cedar Hill from Atlanta. Even though the later has quite a reputation for humor, Frank’s bunch is no slouch, adding a silly voice over from Tom T. and Dixie Hall to the end of their title track and concluding the project with the how-not-to instructions of “Just Wanna Write a Bluegrass Song.”
That is one of three titles from Cedar Hill’s resonator guitar player Ferrell Stowe. Ray, who plays mandolin and sings, composed or co-wrote four of the songs, including “Broke Hearts Are Real,” a fine neo-traditional piece, with bass player Earon Adams. In addition to Martin and the Halls, Cedar Hill provides a sincere rendition of Mark Brinkman’s “With Love from Normandy,” the least traditional cut on I Have a Thing About Doors. Ray’s associates Dave Haverstick and Charlene Sumney delivered the remaining three new songs.
Cedar Hill is traditional in the significant sense that they model from the first generation and are little influenced by the bass-heavy, trio and quartet vocal style so popular for the last 30 years. At their quite enjoyable best the band puts old ideas in new vessels to excellent effect. Haverstick’s “Already Gone” receives one of the most interesting arrangements with Stanley Brothers influenced vocals over Monrovian music featuring the fiddling of guest Tim Crouch.
The Halls’ radio-friendly title track, in fact, achieves a real Cedar Hill sound that doesn’t resemble anyone else. The band does that again on Ray’s “Whose Gonna Pray.” They could use more of this for sometimes they sound more like Cedar Hill sounding like a traditional star more than sounding like themselves. For example, “Nails and Thorns” could be slipped right on to a Dave Evans’ release. That aside, I Have a Thing About Doors proves a solid compact disc of original, traditional bluegrass.
Blue Circle Records (P.O. Box 681286; Franklin, TN 37068-1286; www.bluecirclerecords.com) AM
Thomas Porter TVPIV0001
Released to showcase the songwriting skills of Thomas Porter, this eponymous solo album is comprised of eleven songs and two tunes written and arranged by Porter. Even if Thomas Porter is a glorified songwriter demo, it proves a thoroughly enjoyable recording project. Good songs, carefully arranged, and performed by some of the best in the business today generally works well, as it does on Thomas Porter.
The CD features noted musicians including, but not limited to, Ron Block, Adam Steffey, Sierra Hull, Clay Hess, Cody Kilby, Charlie Cushman, Jens Koch, and Eric Uglum. Recorded at no less than nine different studios, the baker’s dozen tracks offer nine different ensembles with only Porter appearing on all thirteen. Austin Ward handles the bass and Christian Ward the fiddle on all ten cuts that feature a full band.
Porter had already achieved composing success in 2010 when Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s gospel album entitled Light On My Feet, Ready To Fly which included his young-fellow-called-to-preach song, “Teddy Bear Revival,” which also appears on Thomas Porter. Porter indeed demonstrates the ability to write new sacred material that sounds not just traditional but based in an old-time religion just as much as the call-response form of the chorus, as in “Touch My Scar.” The song is performed as trio with Uglum and Jeff Farias.
Have faith–believe–reach out—–and see
Put your hands here upon my wounded side
Oh and blessed be all those who have not seen
Oh Thomas reach out and touch my scar
Although Porter often turns to lost love and the wild side of life, he connects Saturday to Sunday morning in the lyrics of songs such as the lead-off “Cold, Drunk, and Lonesome:”
Preacher said on Sunday, you reap just what you sow,
Well I don’t know just what I did, to make these thorns to grow
But I asked the Lord to give me peace, that somethin’ I can’t find
I’m cold, drunk, and lonesome, with you on my mind
Although he can deliver a fine contemporary bluegrass composition such as “Don’t Know What I Have Done,” Porter mostly uses his ability to write new songs that sound old but lack any hint of camp. Most of the time on Thomas Porter, this works brilliantly, as in the above pieces or “Thousand Acre Farm,” which takes a couple through their entire life together in just 16 lines. Occasionally, however, Porter’s roots show through too clearly. For example, “I May Not Be Your First Love,” with absolutely killer Reno-style picking from Cushman, works powerfully as a song on an album, but from the songwriting perspective too much Don Reno shows through
Bands should check out Thomas Porter for the songs, but I’d guess that most readers would enjoy the album simply for enjoyable listening.
Thomas Porter (5154 N. 13th Place; Phoenix, AZ 85014, www.thomasporter.com) AM
The Expedition Show
The Expedition Show
Mountain Fever Records
Not only are the members of The Expedition Show veterans individually, the ensemble is nearing its tenth birthday under one name or another. On The Expedition Show, First release since 2008’s Brand New Set of Blues, the quartet demonstrates the solid professionalism, considerable skills, and smart arrangements. The Expedition Show often exploits a certain tension between classic and contemporary bluegrass to wonderful effect. Similarly, they prove 100% as comfortable with the progressive drive of Northern Light’s “Northern Rail” as the traditional gospel of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”
During the early years of this century, the quartet released four CDs in as many years, 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 tenures on banjo with Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe, Blake Williams, “The Sparta Flash,” has also played bass for Mike Snider, Patty Loveless, and others. Guitarist and singer Wayne Southards made his mark with Memphis’ Tennessee Gentlemen before settling in Music City in 1990. Kimberly Williams plays bass and handles much of lead vocals with confidence. Alex Hibbits handles mandolin as well as tenor, bass, and baritone vocals plus recording and mixing the album. The ETSU graduate, who joined in the fall of 2009, is also a veteran of Alicia Nugent, the Midnight Ramblers, and several others. Tim Crouch, a fine Kenny Baker-inspired fiddler from Arkansas who has appeared on most of the Expedition Show’s albums, again guests on this one, as has with everyone from Dolly Parton to Cedar Hill. Crouch’s style perfectly fits the band’s exploration of the classic and the contemporary.
Blake contributes five songs and tunes written solo. Wayne wrote “My Love for You is True” and co-wrote the opening cut, “Backroads and Little Towns” with Blake. Otherwise, the Expedition Show picks from such varied sources as the Louvin Brothers, Northern Lights, the Carter Family, and Jason Wilbur from John Prine’s band. The Expedition Show is built to thrive on this kind of diversity because the band happy to sound like itself rather than following trends. Wayne and Kimberly give the two excellent and quite different lead singers that empower the Expedition Show’s facility for both old grass and modern grass. That facet is even reflected in the cover photo and in the lyrics of the first track.
The Expdition Show closes with one Blake’s comedy compilations. This features some killer material, but the sound quality is below that of the music tracks to an annoying level. That diminishes the close of a quite good album with strong singing, playing, and songs.
Mountain Fever Records (1177 Alum Ridge Rd; Willis, VA 24380; www.mountainfever.com) AM
River Boy: Acoustic, Bluegrassy Music
River Boy Music
“River Boy is a band, an album, and a song,” according to its website. Although from South Carolina, River Boy frequently offers a relaxed style that reminds one of the best Yankee traditional grass of the 1970s. The headwaters of River Boy are Shayne Floyd, who had been singing and playing on guitar the original songs he composed for years when he hooked up with a pair of professionals in 2008. Walter Biffle (guitar, banjo, bass, and tenor singing) and Bob Sachs (mandolin and baritone harmonies) began working with Floyd on shaping ten of his songs and his slightly Celtoid tune “River Boy,” plus Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages,” well known in bluegrass from the New South’s rendition, into River Boy: Acoustic, Bluegrassy Music.
What the subtitle is trying to say is that River Boy consists of mostly straightforward bluegrass songs and a couple pieces, such as “Cameron Grove” or the cowboy-themed that could be called original music performed on bluegrass instruments. Even those would fit in the set lists of most contemporary bluegrass bands without raising a ruckus.
Floyd exhibits the ability to compose bluegrass songs in a variety of tempos and settings on a number of different themes. “Caroline” reminds one of some of the most popular bluegrass titles of the 1970s, while “Walkin’” would easily fit with many of today’s bluegrass acts. “Christ the Savior” could be covered bands from any era of bluegrass history. “Harlan, KY” enjoys some of the sweetest picking on River Boy, but lyrically lacks authenticity. It doesn’t sound like a song someone from Harlan would write; there is not word one about coal. Otherwise, River Boy works as both an enjoyable listening experience and a nice set of generally cover-worthy songs.
River Boy Music (www.riverboymusic.com) AM
Tussey Mountain Moonshiners
I’m Going Home
Tussey Mountain Moonshiners
From smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania, the Tussey Mountain Moonshiners leap off the first track with a hard charging version of “Hello City Limits” that would make Country Gazette proud. Winners of the 2010 DelFest band competition, the Tussey Mountain Moonshiners exude rich talent, enthusiasm, energy, and a wide knowledge of string music with seven nice original pieces (four by Stimely and a pair from Homan) as bonus.
All five members sing lead or harmony, except for guitarist Paul Brigman, giving the Moonshiners a wealth of vocal ensemble combinations. Ten of the thirteen tracks comprising I’m Going Home are vocal numbers. The Tussey Mountain Moonshiners manage seven different trios and quartets with four lead singers: banjoist Gwen Stimely, guitarist/fiddler Stephen Buckalew, bassman Bryan Homan, and Karin Hastings on mandolin, guitar, and fiddle.
Every single cut on I’m Going Home proves enjoyable. The issue is that the CD comes across as more a collection of good songs and tunes than a coherent album. Self-produced, its sequencing seems like that of fine stage set rather than a recording project. With admirably equal skill, authenticity, and enthusiasm, the Tussey Mountain Moonshiners, named for where Buckalew grew up, move from bluegrass to old-time to folk/Americana. You’d never know the bluegrass band on “I’ll Just Around” is the string band playing “Rock Andy.”
On I’m Going Home the Tussey Mountain Moonshiners demonstrate an abundance of ability and knowledge. This abundance of riches, however, has not yet gelled into a Moonshiner sound that carries over from one style to another and one song to the next. By shaping the diversity into a focused method to approach a variety of material with the help of an outside producer, the Tussey Mountain Moonshiners can unleash the potential heard here.
Tussey Mountain Moonshiners (1212 Pine Circle; Bellefonte, PA 16823; tusseymountainmoonshiners.com) AM