Bluegrass Unlimited Reviews Published During 2009

By Art Menius

  1. Ernie Thacker
  2. Audie Blaylock
  3. Balsam Range
  4. Joe Mullins & Radio Rangers
  5. Constant Change
  6. Monroe Crossing

 

Ernie Thacker
The Hangman
Pinecastle PRC 1167

The Hangman from Ernie Thacker offers fresh sounding, sharply performed and soulfully sung, contemporary and traditional bluegrass with a mix of new and familiar songs. Although his band – banjoman Dick Roach, mandolinist Brandon Shopping, and Mathew Thacker on bass – hardly consists of household names, they deliver one all-star performance after another. On The Hangman that quartet, occasionally augmented by the fiddle of John Rigsby, comfortably powers a variety of material that keeps the album so interesting that it kept me entertained from Mayking to Midway.

Dwight Yoakum’s “This Drinking Will Kill Me” receives a triumphant translation to driving grass. Classics like “Rolling on Rubber Wheels” and “I Wish You Knew” demonstrate their mastery of the roots. Contemporary ballads such as “Keith How Many,” which Ernie co-wrote, and “Detroit City Chill” permit Thacker to demonstrate the sheer conviction of his singing on songs of losing a hero and leaving home. The performances compare favorably to Whitley’s vocals with Crowe.

Only one song doesn’t work for me. Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” gets just as strong a performance as the other eleven. For me, however, it is a rare song that once so powerfully performed by Johnny Cash it stays sung, obviating any other version, whether bluegrass or hip-hop.

Ernie Thacker could have justifiably called the CD “Triumph of the Will,” for his is a story of faith, perseverance, and overcoming big odds. You can help be notice the poignancy of the running from the law storylines in the title track and “The Ballad of Charlie Dill.” But most of all you have to be proud of a member of our community who in real life who overcame the kind of adversity movies get made about because most of us fortunately can only imagine.

(Pinecastle Records; PO Box 753; Columbus, NC 28722) AM

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Audie Blaylock and Redline
Audie Blaylock and Redline
Rural Rhythm RHR 1042

Audie Blaylock has ranked among the most respected sidemen in bluegrass for more than twenty years working with seemingly everyone from Jimmy Martin to Rhonda Vincent, Lynn Morris to Michael Cleveland. It should come as no surprise then that Audie Blaylock and Redline delivers fairly traditional bluegrass with seriously propulsive rhythms. Due to a feature of the cover art, a lot of folks will call this eponymous album “Hard Driving Bluegrass,” and that, too, is a fair description except for not saying anything about the superior vocals.

Lots of folks will like Audie Blaylock and Redline, the band and the recording. They offer a fully committed, exciting brand of roots bluegrass. Just check out the old school fiddle kick-off leading into Audie’s cash-on-the-barrelhead singing on “Roll On Blues” by Connie Gately of Connie and Babe. That is Audie Blaylock and Redline – grounded in the tradition yet completely up to date and fresh. It thrills just to read the songwriter credits on dusted off Blaylock and crew: Bob Osborne, Lester Flatt, Frank Wakefield, Bill Tidwell, Cullen Galyean.

Audie apparently learned something along the way about teaching a personal style of bluegrass to a band. Although just their second album as a group, Audie Blaylock and Redline offer not just the powerful chops of youth, but a confident maturity of purpose and cohesion as an ensemble. Fiddler Patrick McAvinue, Jason Johnson on mandolin, bassist Matt Wallace, and banjoist Evan Ward deliver the goods on material as diverse as the blistering update of the Bailes Brothers’ “Send Me Your Address from Heaven” and the glacial gospel classic “Goodbye” from Martin and Paul Williams. All but McAvinue contribute to the singing as well.

The only true negative about Audie Blaylock and Redline, which was produced by Audie with Scott Vestal engineering, is that it leaves you wanting more in more than one way. Altogether the dozen songs aggregate but 33 minutes. That means, moreover, that the twelve strong songs fire out in a bit narrow range from 2:10 (the gorgeous acapella “Who Will Sing for Me”) to 3:40 (“My Blue Eyed Darling”) tracks. Nine clock in at less than three minutes. That and the absence of any instrumental pieces somewhat undercuts the positive effects of carefully sequencing medium, fast, and slow material, sacred and secular songs

(Rural Rhythm Records; Box 660040-D; Arcadia, CA 91066-0040) AM

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Balsam Range
Last Train to Kitty Hawk
Mountain Home Music Company MH12062

Western North Carolina ensemble Balsam Range announced their debut with authority on 2007’s acclaimed Marching Home. While the first album originated as a solo effort for fiddler and versatile singer Buddy Melton, their sophomore outing, Last Train to Kitty Hawk , presents a true ensemble. The band spreads the vocal work to terrific effect. Now Balsam Range takes full advantage of their ability (largely due to the vocal chops of Melton, guitarist Caleb B. Smith, and bass and resonator guitar player Tim Surrett) to move effortlessly from driving bluegrass (“Julie’s Train”) to contemporary ballads like “Somewhere In Between” to the 21st century bluegrass of “Last Train to Kitty Hawk.”

Melton and Smith trade the lead singing between verse and chorus on four of the first six songs on Last Train to Kitty Hawk, creating a hallmark of the still emerging Balsam Range sound. Smith figures more prominently as lead vocalist than on Marching Home. So does former member of the Kingsmen Surrett, who sings lead on Ralph Stanley’s “I’m Lonesome Without You” and “Don’t Take Me Tonight As I Am” by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, and baritone otherwise. Southern gospel superstar Karen Peck Gooch provides the harmony when Tim sings lead a third time while on “The Holy Hills (A Tribute to Dottie Rambo).” Mandolinist Darren Nicholson, who resume includes Alicia Nugent, also takes a turn as the lead voice on “Spring Will Bring the Flowers” by Timothy W. Smith. Marc Pruett, a confessed state employee ranked among the most respected bluegrass banjo players for almost forty years, completes the fivesome.

Unlike the six Bill Monroe classics on the first album, Last Train to Kitty Hawk offers only one Monroe, Charlie’s “Down in Caroline,” presented in a rousing version featuring the trio of Buddy, Tim, and Darren. It is instructive how the same three sound equally powerful, but totally different in style on “Somewhere In Between.” Although the new album contains no material from Pruett, Melton has the co-writer credit on “Julie’s Train” and Smith the solo credits for “Jack Diamond” and the instrumental closer, “Jaxon Point.” Last Train to Kitty Hawk contains a half-dozen outstanding outside compositions. Besides the pieces mentioned above, Milan Miller, whose “Calloway County Flood” and “Burning Georgia Down” appeared on their last outing, comes through again with the immediately memorable modern murder song, “Caney Fork River.” It has to be a strong song since it is placed right behind the infectious title track, written by James Ellis and Steve Dukes. “Somewhere In Between” also revisits a composer from the first project, the Steeldrivers’ Chris Stapleton.

Indeed, Last Train to Kitty Hawk easily passes the sing-along test. In other words, you find yourself singing along spontaneously to songs you haven’t even heard before. The album demonstrates significant growth over a highly successful debut, expanding the implementation of their vocal power while increasing the amount of contemporary material.

(Mountain Home Records; PO Box 829; Arden, NC 28704; www.crossroadsmusic.com,) AM

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Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Rambler’s Call
no label

Although he has been concentrating on keeping real radio alive the last few years, most bluegrass fans still recognize banjoman Joe Mullins from his years in the acclaimed Traditional Grass with his late father, Paul “Moon” Mullins. Joe’s current group has dedicated Rambler’s Call to Moon’s memory. With their hardcore bluegrass featuring less well known classic bluegrass and country and excellent new material in the same spirit, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers would make Moon proud. Rambler’s Call will make those who treasure the combination of fresh material and down-to-earth bluegrass very happy.

Like the Traditional Grass, the Radio Ramblers are a big ensemble with six members. Adam McIntosh plays guitar, Mike Terry mandolin, and Evan McGregor fiddle with all three joining Joe in the singing. Tim Kidd on bass and drums and Dobroist Matt DeSpain round out the band. These guys exhibit the right blend of energy, drive, and soulful passion to make this unabashedly Midwestern style of bluegrass click.

Wynn Stewart’s “Another Day, Another Dollar” gets Rambler’s Call off to a rousing, yet atavistic start and things just get better from there. The Radio Ramblers pull from sources as diverse as Don Reno, whose “Charlotte Breakdown” is both great to hear and to showcase their chops to the Primitive Quartet’s “No Longer An Orphan” to Tony Senn and Tommy Stough whose “Boston Jail” is one of the album’s most pleasant surprises. The title track comes from Boys from Indiana alumnus Aubrey Holt, whose contributions as a top-notch songwriter remain underappreciated. Joe’s former bandmate Gerald Evans checks in with two most appropriately retro compositions, “The Old Rocking Chair” and “Don’t You Want to Go Home.”

And so it goes on Rambler’s Call – songs you haven’t grown tired of performed in a style of which you’ll never get tired. In the middle of the last century, immigrants from the South, especially eastern Kentucky, migrated to Ohio and made the Dayton and Cincinnati areas a musically distinctive hotbed for bluegrass. Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers deserve their place in a powerful tradition of music made by people with names like Osborne, Allen, Wakefield, and Harvey.

(www.radioramblers.com,) AM

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Constant Change
Hills of Home
Papa Leo Records PL-09-0001

Constant Change is fourth generation bluegrass from the fertile central North Carolina scene. The members play bluegrass like the grew up with it, because they did. Self-described “new traditionalists,” Constant Change roots are sufficiently powerful that IBMA Hall of Honor member Curley Sechler selected them to back him up on a May 2009 public television performance. Energetic and engaging, Hills of Home is the fourth album in seven years from Constant Change.

The members come from the same area – about an hour from Raleigh in each ordinal direction, which certainly does not resemble the mountains on the CD cover. Constant Change solidified in the fall of 2005 when mandolinist and baritone Daniel Aldridge, now 24, rejoined older brother Brian (now 28, on banjo, lead and tenor vocals, and some lead guitar). The band also includes thirty-somethings Dan Wells (guitar and vocals), a veteran of the James King Band and Carolina Road, and founder Clifton Preddy, a fiddler and vocalist since age three, who has played with more than a dozen bands. Forty four year old stand up bass player and singer Gary Baird joined in 2006 after stints with New Classic Grass and Lynwood Lunsford.

The influence of second generation North Carolina bluegrass artists proves obvious in both Constant Change’s musical style and songwriting credits. A.L. Wood, with whom the Aldridge Brothers’ father, Mike, played for many years, composed both the title song and the opener, “Roses and Carnations.” A.L.’s neighbor Dewey Farmer wrote “Carolina Sunshine,” while “Bitter Sweet [sic] Memories of Home” comes from long time Bass Mountain Boys fiddler  – again a Mike Aldridge connection – Johnny Ridge. Wells adds a couple of originals to a pleasingly diverse mix of generally surprising choices. Only “Walk the Way the Wind Blows,” “Roving Gambler,” and “Beneath Still Waters” are familiar to average listeners.

On Hills of Home Constant Change approaches this wonderful set of material with sharp musicianship, solid arrangements, and strong harmonies. They move easily from ballads and gospel songs to edgy drive. There is not a single weak track among the fourteen. Unfortunately, Brian and Dan are very good lead vocalists when widespread notice today demands utterly exceptional, immediately recognizable lead singers.

The five musicians also share demanding day jobs – Preddy consults internationally while the other four have various government jobs – that limits their performances to two or three times a month, their range to Virginia through Georgia, and their capacity to rehearse and record. Despite their obvious talent and top notch ability for selecting material, this puts something of a glass ceiling on how far Constant Change can go nationally. I think the members understand and have made their peace with this. Constant Change seems ready to join their heroes in the ranks of outstanding regional bluegrass bands from the Tar Heel State.

(3041 Preddy Road; Franklinton, NC 27525; www.papaleorecords.com) AM

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Monroe Crossing
Heartache and Stone
Monroe Crossing MC-0809

Playing full-time since October 2004 and managing eight gigs a month even in the heart of winter, Monroe Crossing has long since established themselves as the upper Midwest’s foremost post-Stoney Lonesome bluegrass outfit. Monroe Crossing formed in September of 2000 out of three different mid-1990s groups: The Pretty Good Bluegrass Band, Big Skyota, and the Deadly Nightshade Family Singers. Since then, Art Blackburn (guitar), Lisa Fuglie (fiddle and vocals), Matt Thompson (mandolin), and Mark Anderson (bass) have remained constant members of Monroe Crossing, joined by a half dozen banjo players along the way.

With banjo player Benji Flaming back in the fold since the beginning of 2007, the five members of Monroe Crossing commenced their yearlong tenth anniversary in September 2009 with the release of Heartache and Stone. Monroe Crossing’s tenth album, it demonstrates the ensemble’s strengths. These start with Monroe Crossing’s instrumental excellence, offering tasteful, succinct breaks and fresh arrangements. The veteran Blackburn had developed a sweet guitar style more than twenty years ago. In Monroe Crossing, those of similar taste surround him. Their vocals generally feature a solo lead by Fuglie or Blackburn, with harmonies, if at all, only on the chorus. Monroe Crossing thus provides a refreshing alternative to formulaic bass heavy, three-part harmony on everything arrangements.

Monroe Crossing applies their method to diverse original and cover material. Fuglie provides five songs, while Blackburn adds a pair, including the title cut, of wistful reflections. Becky Buller’s “Raven Tresses” serves as the new song from a hot contemporary bluegrass composer. “Mason Harris” comes from Benji’s banjo teacher, Kevin Barnes of Stoney Lonesome. They deliver a very straightforward reading of “4+20” from Stephen Stills during CSNY’s heyday. Monroe Crossing’s other rock cover is more of a reach. Inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame at the same time as Prince, it should be no surprise Monroe Crossing covers his “Purple Rain.” They certainly put the ‘grass to the Prince, including a neat banjo break, but can’t quite overcome that, unlike “Raspberry Beret,” “Purple Rain” is not a story song.

On their upbeat numbers with Lisa singing lead (her “Ned Kelly,” for example), Monroe Crossing can be most favorably compared to the best West Coast bluegrass bands of the 1980s. Perhaps the most accurate comparison would not be to Laurie Lewis or Good Ole Persons, but to the late singer-songwriter Kate Wolf who often used the best Bay Area bluegrass musicians on her most upbeat songs. The band, however, also displays a certain tendency to move predictably from upbeat outlaw songs to introspective ballads.

Some hardcore traditionalists will no doubt assert that Monroe Crossing has a folk sound. Undoubtedly true on certain, slower material, this also gives the band a distinctive sound. Stable, experienced lineups produce effective ensembles. Monroe Crossing is no exception, offering excellent singing and playing on fresh material well arranged.

(17625 Argus St. NW; Ramsey, MN 55303; www.monroecrossing.com) AM

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