Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews 2012

Dehlia Low

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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Bob Amos
Borrowed Time
Bristlecone 1007

Twenty years ago I reviewed in these pages the debut album from Colorado-based band Front Range, like this one on the Bristlecone label. The quartet, which featured the lead vocals and songwriting of Bob Amos, then released five albums with Sugar Hill and remained active through 2003, when a live release completed their recording career. Amos’ Borrowed Time marks his first bluegrass recording since then. The hiatus seems to have sparked an even deeper love for bluegrass. All but two of the cuts can fairly be described as straight ahead ‘grass.

Amos composed nine songs and two instrumentals. Yet the one cover may prove the most original of all. He closes the CD by rearranging “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by seminal Delta bluesman Robert Johnson into driving bluegrass. The delightful results are a far more radical transformation than most adaptations of rock or pop songs, making a blues classic sound as if it came from old-time.

Amos banjo picking is the first revelation of Borrowed Time. Besides all the guitar, most of the lead singing (Sarah Amos sings lead on The Road Home, and mandolin on three cuts, Bob handles all of the five-string with far more than competence. The listener doesn’t truly notice until he kicks off the first instrumental, “Crazy Legs.” After checking the liner notes to make sure the picker is Bob, one pays close attention to the banjo playing the rest of the way.

The other revelation comes in the form of Vermont fiddler Freeman Corey. Corey learned old-time fiddling from his father and then explored Celtic and French Canadian styles before coming under the sway of Stuart Duncan and Byron Berline. The great Jesse Brock picks most of mandolin, while the project reunites Amos with the noted Front Range bassist Bob Dick.

With several harmony vocalists, Amos and this fine crew have a ball with Bobs typical strong songs. His evocative lyrics can sound quite contemporary, such as on the bluegrass grinder “Borrowed Time,” or classic, for example on “Jenny and Jimmy” or “Walking Back to Bristol.” Others, see “Roots of the Tree,” bring back memories of Front Range at its best. All told, Borrowed Time, proves a thoroughly delightful release packed with new material that should appeal to almost all corners of the bluegrass community.

Bristlecone Records (P.O. Box 232; Saint Johnsbury, VT 05819; http://www.bobamos.com) AM

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Reunion Hill Band
Reunion Hill Band

Before I got to track number three, “Fox on the Run,” the Reunion Hill Band already had me thinking about the Country Gentlemen, as well as Jonathan Edwards work with the Seldom Scene and Northern Lights. New Hampshire’s Reunion Hill Band similarly mixes hard edged bluegrass picking with folk vocals. The name Reunion Hill, in fact, comes from a song by popular folk singer-songwriter, Richard Shindell. As the last track on the album, “Reunion Hill,” receives lovely, low key, and effective treatment more at home on AAA radio than bluegrass.

Guitarist Rich Schleckser, one of three lead vocalists, is perhaps best known as a frequent co-writer with New Hampshire’s most accomplished bluegrass composer, Rick Lang. Their songs here explore New England themes from a bluegrass perspective. He is a 20 year veteran of the regional bluegrass scene, playing in Iron Skillet as did mandolinist Rick Horton, who also shares the lead singing. While still just a kid, banjoman Kevin O’Connor learned from the extraordinary Don Stover, who had him picking with JD Crowe and Joe Val. Like Horton, he played in the American Flyer band. Bass player and lead singer Dave Ward became a member of Reunion Hill Band in 2010.

O’Connor’s five-string delights all the way through and highlights one of Reunion Hill Band’s two strong points, instrumental ability. From the initial notes the lead track, Horton’s “Tangled in my Heart,” you sense that these guys can pick, and they do not disappoint. The other thing Reunion Hill Band’s members do quite well is write songs.

The band enjoys three skillful songwriters providing two titles each in Ward, Horton, and Schleckser with Lang. These are not instrumentals made up in the studio, but fully realized compositions with substantial lyrics worth hearing. Ward’s “Mary Baker” addresses the modern problem of Alzheimer’s with verses that fit bluegrass tradition, for example.

Where the Reunion Hill Band lets us down is in choice of covers. These are not inspired choices and suggest an internal conflict embodied in this eponymous CD. The listener becomes confused about whether this is a serious artistic effort (seven songs) or the five familiar songs that get the best reaction at the Farmers’ Market gigs. I doubt one CD can cover both bases well. The album includes six very good to first rate original songs, one gorgeous folk cover, and five songs that have both been overdone in (and sometimes outside of) bluegrass and come from rock or pop music of the 1960s and 1970s. That same sixties vibe carries over into Reunion Hill Band’s vocals which sound more influenced by Tom Rush, CSN, and Phil Rosenthal than the Stanley Brothers, Lilly Brothers, or Doodle Thrower.

Reunion Hill Band (c/o David Ward; 79 Forestview Dr; Spofford, NH 03462; http://www.reunionhillband.com) AM

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Bluetown
Summers Gone
Atlantis Studios AS CDA 0003

Leading off with solid, but unremarkable versions of “My Rose of Old Kentucky”  and “On the Sea of Life” does little for a band other than prove they are pretty good but not Bill Monroe or Doyle Lawson. Many listeners may tune out by then, already confused as to whether the self-produced CD Summers Gone by Bluetown is supposed to be a commercial release or a demo to send to promoters. The booklet looks like the former, yet the blank CD and generic jewel case suggest a demo.

Those who leave early will miss out for the best moments on Summers Gone only appear when original material forces them to find their own path uninfluenced by original versions. Fiddler Barkley Davis, who sings lead on most of the cuts and tenor on the four when rhythm guitarist Tim Collier takes the lead, composed three of the songs, and his father Marvin two. The latter’s “Black Dust Fever” rewards those who make it to the third cut with a hard, east Kentucky sounding song. Barkley’s driving title track offers an unusual arrangement and some nice banjo picking from 19 year old Cody Looper. The other originals produce confident arrangements and performances, as do a couple of interesting covers. The closing recitation, “The Minnow Song,” about the bunch fishing on Norris Lake, is credited the band. Curiously, it doesn’t appear on the exterior track listing. The remaining titles are more than familiar, as are the arrangements that Bluetown uses. A few too many selections played at full out breakneck speed, such as the overdriven “Old Chain Gang.”

Vocals are a strength for Bluetown. Tim’s mandolinist brother Rick handles the baritone to complete their trio that blends and works together quite well. Davis proves more than enjoyable as lead singer with a voice that could become recognizable.

In any case, Summers Gone comes across as a project without specific artistic purpose or direction made by a quintet from central Indiana with a good deal of ability. The members of Bluetown have the chops both instrumentally and vocally and suggest genuine joy in playing music together. They are energetic and committed. Bluetown needs to build around original material and their own strengths rather than covering songs associated with famous acts.

Atlantis Studios (Avon, IN 46123; http://www.bluetownBluegrassband.com) AM

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Rigney Family Bluegrass
Familiar Paths
Rigney Family Bluegrass RFB-2011-3

 

Even the gods struggle with stereotypes, I reckon. Mention “family bluegrass band,” and after a few moments of missing the Lewis Family pass, too often my mind summons up images of twee, cloying, smiling, unimaginative, unchallenging bluegrass, heavy on standards or pop-grass. Sure, after Cherryholmes I should know better than to assume such, but I was not expecting Rigney Family Bluegrass to come across on Familiar Paths as creative, serious, and, dare I say it, interesting.

For a start, Familiar Paths, their third CD released in September, contains 12 original songs. That is a breakthrough for a band that recorded a lot of standards on the first two albums. Only the three instrumentals composed by primary lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Rigney, come from the band. They selected the other nine from familiar and emerging bluegrass songwriters, including Jerry Salley, Rick Lang, Dennis Duff, and Lisa Shaffer.

Using this wealth of material, the Rigney Family tries to cover all the bases from the progressive instrumental above to Lang’s “Wind in the Valley,” a fine neo-traditional outing. “My Father in Me” by Dick Gaskin brings them into mainstream bluegrass territory musically with lyrics that touch on classical bluegrass themes. Contemporary bluegrass gospel is well represented by Duff and Shaffer’s “The Greater God’s Love Will Shine.”

The band seems comfortable with and committed to all this differing material. The weakness to Familiar Paths is that Rigney Family Bluegrass pushes in too many directions for just one CD. Versatility is a powerful tool that has to be employed with some moderation to have full effect. The band is making a major leap forward from standard bearer to recording artists debuting strong material.

Everything does not have to be accomplished on just one album. A little more focus will permit Rigney Family Bluegrass to channel their many strengths to greatest effect in creating a signature approach that applies across styles. When they achieve that, the ensemble can take the next step forward in establishing its career.

The Rigneys, from Normandy, Tennessee, do have one of those family band stories. Mark, banjo and vocals, sold his Gibson to buy Melissa, bass (sometime stereotypes are true), an engagement ring. He didn’t play for 17 years until she gave him a replacement five-string for Christmas. Andrew, 18, and Grant, 15, on mandolin and fiddle have been playing for eight years. On Familiar Paths, Andrew mostly plays guitar, the instrument with which he has placed highly in prestigious contests. 2011 appears to have been their fourth season of performing seriously.

The album certainly makes it clear that the siblings spend a lot of time playing music together, anticipating where the other is going and why. Check out the delightful, jazz-inflected instrumental “Hop, Skip, and a Jump,” which features only the pair. It provides the highlight to a quite enjoyable project from the Rigney Family and a national debut for a couple of promising young bluegrass artists.

Rigney Family Bluegrass (398 Hickory Ridge Road; Normandy, TN 37360; http://www.RigneyFamilyBluegrass.com) AM

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