Recording Reviews for the Independent 2003

Recording Reviews for the Independent 2003

By Art Menius

  1. Cora Beth Bridges & Rick Brockner, Along Time (Appalachian Recording Company BM0301)
  2. Thad Cockrell, Warmth & Beauty (Yep Roc YEP 2048)
  3. Tommy Edwards, Good Company (Salisbury Street Recordings SSR1945)
  4. Larry Sparks, The Coldest Part of Winter (Rebel REB-CD-1786)
  5. Various Artists, Just Because I’m A Woman (Sugar Hill CD 3980)
  6. Various Artists, Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage ‘78s, 1926-1937 (Old Hat CD-1004)
  7. Tony Williamson, Sessions At McBane Mill (BonFire BONF-8003)

Cora Beth Bridges & Rick Brockner, Along Time (Appalachian Recording Company BM0301) For HomeBrew March 4, 2003

More than two years ago veteran Triangle musicians Jan Johansson and Rick Brockner released a strikingly original CD, Fiddlin’ With A Dulcimer. Along Time by Brockner and Cora Beth Bridges provides the second installment in the “Fiddlin’ With a Dulcimer” series. Bridges is a precocious fiddler and vocalist well grounded in classical violin before approaching roots music as a student of Johansson. Even more than with the first record, Along Time defies categorization as bluegrass, old-time, folk, or even chamber music.

While the original Fiddlin’ With A Dulcimer explored the possibilities of themes drawn from traditional tunes as often as it delved into quite original expressions, Along Time leans toward the latter, focusing on stunningly original music inspired by Appalachian and Celtic roots. Brockner composed four of the 13 songs himself, collaborated with young Bridges on eight, and Johansson joined the pair in putting together “Alexandria Arrived,” where he twin fiddles with Cora Beth. Brockner and Bridges share the vocals with just a tad too much reverb on her voice. The two harmonize effectively on “Heaven’s Calling.”

Bridges fiddles far beyond her years, providing a deep and rich sonic texture to the entire project. Even more so than on the first project, the pair demonstrate a stately precision of musicianship. Although Rick and Cora Beth generate old-time dance inflected songs such as “Beech Mountain” and “Paddy and the Washer Woman,” sometimes their playing on this set of exquisite listening music defies traditional concepts of rhythm and melody. Rather the youthful violist and middle-aged dulcimer player often create rich sonic landscapes suggestive of traditional music but much more expressive of their own ideas.

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Thad Cockrell, Warmth & Beauty (Yep Roc YEP 2048) November

At least one wag has defined Americana music as “country music that doesn’t suck,” and that fits Wake Forest’s Thad Cockrell rather well. In fact, Thad Cockrell, as he demonstrates on Warmth & Beauty, makes original country music that is pretty damn good. Unlike the country music on the radio, Cockrell remembers how to use pedal steel guitars and fiddles and write lyrics that are more substantial than plays on popular catch phrases. Like many of his Americana brethren, Cockrell is a throwback to the days when folks like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Haggard, and Waylon Jennings used country music based in the honky-tonk style as a medium for singer-songwriters. “Why Go?,” for example, delivers classic 1950s country music just like when the Opry stayed at the Ryman and the stars consumed mass quantities at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, while “Some Tears” finds a place somewhere near Jackson Browne at his peak (“Some tears you want to keep/Others you don’t want at all./Some tears you want to keep/Others they’re bound to fall.”).

In fact, Cockrell distinguishes Warmth & Beauty with the variety of sounds he finds within honky-tonk and the Bakersfield shuffle genre. “Breaking of a Day” could fit right in on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night or On the Beach. Mel Street would have been proud to have written and sung “My Favorite Memory.” The title cut reminds one of Ricky Skaggs twenty years ago singing a great Guy Clark song. A hidden cut, which appears as track 21, apparently called “Misery Feeling Again” finds Thad channeling Buck Owens at his best.

With “What’s The Use” he uses to the Bakersfield beat to sound just like Thad Cockrell. His tenor voice delivers that happy song delightfully, yet it can power the rocking, Long Ryders-like opening song, “I’d Rather Have You.” Just as naturally he can make his voice nearly as weepy as Webb Pierce on “Why Go?”. On both the bass and guitar driven country rocker “Taking the View” and the wistful, low key tear-jerker “Are You Missing Me,” the apparent closing track, he again finds a place where Thad sounds like no one but himself. “I Was So Lonesome” and “She Ain’t No You” also possess that Cockrell feel. As he continues to grow as an artist he will find that totally original sweet spot more and more frequently.

Cockrell uses straightforward lyrics featuring very simple phrases employed to very great effect as with the chorus of the down-but-not-out “Breaking of a Day:” “I’m holding on/I’m holding on/Won’t you hold on too?/Just a little longer.” In the epistolary “She Ain’t No You” the singer addresses a former lover with all the fine attributes of his current girlfriend, “but the truth of the matter/she ain’t no you.” “Loneliness is a friend./Spots by every now and then./But mostly it’s just you and me/My favorite memory” he sings on “My Favorite Memory.” “I was but a passing cloud/and you deserved a shining sun” confesses the voice of “I Was So Lonesome.”

Cockrell, reportedly on the cusp of moving to Nashville, composed or co-wrote all eleven songs. Chris Stamey, 25 years ago a member of Chapel Hill’s most likely to succeed new wave band the dbs, produced, arranged the strings, and added some instrumental touches. Stamey does an excellent job of allowing Cockrell’s sound to flourish with a good live feel to it and no distractions. Despite an abundance of slow to medium tempo pieces, Warmth & Beauty flows well and consistently engages the listener. Thad’s core band in the studio such included area veterans as John Teer and Jen Gunderman with Carbines Greg Reading and Zeke Hoskins with additional vocal or instrumental support from such notables as Tift Merritt, Caitlin Cary, Bob Carlin, and Mitch Easter.

Warmth & Beauty proves a thoroughly engaging, enjoyable, and thoughtful album worth repeated listening. Thad Cockrell demonstrates that he has become a formidable singer and writer capable of striking originality while remaining closely in touch with his roots.

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Tommy Edwards, Good Company (Salisbury Street Recordings SSR1945) April

The classic bluegrass twin fiddles of Fiddlin’ Al McCanless and Keith Thomas immediately attract the ears to the opening track, “Ashes of Love,” from Tommy Edwards’ Good Company. Roughly thirty years after first recording with the Bluegrass Experience, the Pittsboro guitarist, singer, and songwriter has released his first solo project. He hardly goes it alone, enlisting all his current Bluegrass Experience band mates – Thomas, Snuffy Smith on bass, banjoist Stan Brown, formerly one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, and erstwhile Bass Mountain Boys mandolinist Mike Aldridge.

Given that, the question becomes how does Good Company become a Tommy Edwards album rather than another Bluegrass Experience project. For one thing, the entire band appears only on two tracks, and non-member Alice Zincone sings lead on one of those, “Tear Drops Fell Like Rain.” In addition, Tommy gives himself the chance to sing lead on every vocal number save for “Tear Drops” and “Louise.” The latter piece features Experience and New Deal String Band alumnus Leroy Savage. Although the Experience has waxed a number of Edwards’ compositions, Good Company provides his first opportunity to put his songs front and center with ten of the fourteen cuts his own. Finally, he recruits a large share of the Triangle’s most respected acoustic musicians to make guest appearances. These include the phenomenal Hillsborough bass player Robbie Link, who plays on a eleven songs, master mandolinists Tony Williamson and Jerry Stuart, and Russell Johnson of the GrassCats.

All this creates enough diversity for excitement and sufficient consistency, primarily via Edwards and Link, to produce a coherent album. While most of Good Company consists of bluegrass, Edwards also serves up swing (“Tear Drops”), old-time (his own “Oh Willie Dear” featuring harmonies by Jim Watson), a good original brother duet style song (“I’ll Be There When the First Teardrops Fall”), and a first rate murder ballad also from his own pen, “Across the Red Dirt Road.” Edwards’ confident bluegrass songwriting immediately reveals a youngster who spent a good part of the 1950s absorbing classic bluegrass music. Hardly anyone writes songs like “The Christmas Letter” anymore. Most of the time, this leads to excellent originals despite an occasional lapse into cliché. A gospel trio song inspired by Flatt & Scruggs, “Are You Ready to Meet Jesus,” proves the best of Edwards’ bluegrass originals, a dead on homage to the bluegrass of the 1950s. The double quick and driving “How Many Times” tops his secular bluegrass compositions. Good Company proves a solid solo debut for Edwards and a fine showcase for the area’s talent.

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Larry Sparks, The Coldest Part of Winter (Rebel REB-CD-1786) January

In his late-50s, Larry Sparks has reached the highest level of bluegrass artistry. The Coldest Part of Winter delivers all the trademarks developed during Sparks’ thirty odd-year career as a band leader – soulful, passionate but never over sung vocals, his precise, understated guitar work, a driving sound from his band members, and well-chosen songs. Thus he ranks among the handful of performs who have created their own distinctive sound within the framework of traditional bluegrass.

Having cut his teeth at a young age with the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley, Sparks comes the final generation of old school band leaders who expect their bands members to first and foremost to make him sound good. Today’s bluegrass bands mostly follow the partnership model popularized by the Seldom Scene. The old model permits a visionary artist like Sparks to shine and evolve his music, while the new one helps ensure longevity of a specific line-up.

Sparks never “sings through” a song, but heads straight for the heart of the material, letting it shine through his performance. He keeps digging for songs with The Coldest Part of Winter offering eleven new pieces out of the dozen tracks and finding new writers, in this case waxing five titles by Marshal Warwick and three by David Norris. Yet Sparks – and this is the only negative to the album – remains true to the formula he has developed over the years. “Winter in Miami” finds the protagonist stood up and lonely in southern city, much like his classic “Blue Virginia Blue.” He provides a Civil War song, Norris’ “He Walked All the Way Home,” a sacred number, his own “Lord, Show Me the Way,” and a number of his favored nostalgic cuts such as “Let’s Turn Back the Clock” and “This Old Road.” With the fantastic Michael Cleveland guesting on fiddle, however, one can’t challenge the excellence of the songs and their performance. Sparks takes charge with his lonesome, but not high, baritone voice and sizzling, although most judiciously employed, guitar breaks. Any selection demonstrated why Alison Krauss called Larry Sparks “the most soulful white man on earth.”

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Various Artists, Just Because I’m A Woman (Sugar Hill CD 3980) October

It’s a wonder producer Steve Buckingham hadn’t done this sometime ago since Dolly Parton has composed a good number of important songs among the 3000 some she has written and has served as a role model for a generation of female singers and songwriters. Besides focusing on her tremendous songwriting, Just Because I’m A Woman demonstrates Dolly’s impact across several genre. Buckingham recruited Parton admirers ranging from country superstars to up and coming singer-songwriters to mainstream pop artists. Similarly, the songs covered stretch over more than 30 years including early classics, pop and country smash hits, and selections from her recent “blue mountain” CDs, also on Sugar Hill. The CD appears on the 35th anniversary of her RCA solo debut of the same name, recently reissued by BMG Heritage. Dolly’s R&B influenced re-recording of the title track appears as a bonus track on the various artists disc.

Alison Krauss’ dreamily bluesy take on “9 to 5” easily distinguishes it from the pop-inflected original despite the similarities of their voices. Later she and Union Station collaborate by transatlantic email with Shania Twain on a compelling, emotionally rich rendition of “Coat of Many Colors” (“I could not make them see/You’re only poor if you choose to be”). So perfect is Shania’s delivery one wonders what the country megastar could do if she concentrated on country music. “Coat” demonstrates as well as any composition, Parton’s ability to find deeper meanings in simply told stories of day to day life.

Melissa Ethridge’s growling, tortured version of “I Will Always Love You” grinds away slowly resembling neither Dolly’s nor Whitney Houston’s hits. Sinéad O’Connor, who cites Dolly as a childhood inspiration who “demonstrated for women the world over how much can be achieved by the power of the female voice,” chose 2002’s “Dagger Through the Heart” for the “anger of the lyric.” She sings the song very much in that spirit which defines her own style. Bass phenom Me’Shell N’Degéocello, herself an original songwriter with a hip-hop influence, slows down the tempo and completely turns around Dolly’s most pop oriented hit, “Two Doors Down,” finding new, dark emotional depth in the song.

Both Norah Jones’ breathy version of “The Grass is Blue” and Joan Osborne’s straightforward reading of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” prove pleasant, but add little to Dolly’s recordings of them. Shelby Lynne, on the other hand, absolutely torches and twangs “The Seeker,” slowly building power throughout the piece. Newcomer Mindy Smith demonstrates her chops on a convincing, rocking “Jolene,” the song that first brought Dolly attention outside the country music world. The only previously released cut, Emmylou Harris’ 1976 “To Daddy” – another subtle tale of one woman’s liberation, remains definitive.

Just Because I’m A Woman becomes, in a way, Parton’s songs without Dolly’s persona. Taking a look from this perspective proves that she stands among the foremost lyricists of the past 35 years, absolutely worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Costello, Springsteen, or Kostas. It also points out what a living feminist icon can be found beneath the dumb blonde persona.

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Various Artists, Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage ‘78s, 1926-1937 (Old Hat CD-1004) August

American roots music provides a convenient portal into what Greil Marcus called the “weird old America,” a halfway mythical place of busking musicians, sideshow attractions featuring Seminole Indians wrestling alligators, locally owned hamburger joints, and endless miles of two lane highways. Maryland eccentric Joe Bussard began collecting records from the 1920s and 1930s at age 11 in 1947 and hasn’t lost his faith in all the years since. A self-described “crazy old poppy-eyed hoot owl,” Bussard has never failed to find an especial joy in these records and never ceased in his efforts to share his love. He has been a radio DJ 1950, operated Fonotone Records, the last label loyal to 78 rpm records, created a custom cassette service, and amassed the largest private collection of commercial 78s extant – 50,000 blues, old-time country, early jazz, gospel, and bluegrass titles. Finally, Raleigh’s Old Hat Records has compiled 24 of his favorite sides on one CD, Down in the Basement.

Down in the Basement includes a few artists whose names remain familiar such as Uncle Dave Macon, Big Bill Broonzy, heard twenty years before the bluesman became an icon of the folk music movement, Rev. Gary Davis, who spent years working the tobacco sales in Durham, and Gene Autry, who was not a singing cowboy but a Jimmie Rodgers clone when he waxed “Atlanta Bound” in 1931. Other pieces on the CD define obscure such as the only known copy of “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” by Long Cleve Reed and Little Harvey Hull or Soileau and Robin’s “Easy Rider Blues” that melded Cajun and blues long before the birth of zydeco. Plus we hear some pure weirdness like “The (New) Call of the Freaks” by Luis Russell & His Orchestra with its “Get out your can, here comes the garbage man” chorus. Like Harry Smith’s anthologies of the 1950s, the Bussard collection entertainingly samples an otherwise lost world, albeit with the audio compromises forced by mastering from old records. Down in the Basement includes a 74 page, full color booklet replete with information about Joe, the cuts heard here, and a bunch of classic record collecting stories.

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For May Homebrew

Tony Williamson, Sessions At McBane Mill (BonFire BONF-8003)

Siler City virtuoso Tony Williamson ranks among the foremost mandolinists in bluegrass, jazz, and classical styles. On Sessions At McBane Mill he interprets twelve instrumental pieces, employing those approaches and more with a brilliant ensemble of outrageously inventive Rex McGee on fiddle and banjo, monster bass player Robbie Link from Hillsborough, and bluegrass veteran Jeff Autry on guitar. With these master artists, Williamson has created the deepest instrumental work of his many excellent recordings that range from old-time brother duet to Christmas music.

Recorded for the acoustics in an old mill near the Haw River, Sessions finds its center with acoustic jazz, but a brand much more rooted in southern music than that of Béla Fleck or Alison Brown. What makes this music, and its makers, remarkable, however, is that each of the dozen pieces on the album uses all of these approaches seamlessly rather than one bluegrass song followed by a Dawg track and then a classical piece. They reinvent material ranging from traditional fiddle tunes like “June Apple” to pop compositions such as “Spanish Eyes.” So connected are these players that they laid most of the tracks on just one or two takes, yet the results sound flawlessly and deeply worked out. Thus they deliver the epitome of spontaneous group composition. Despite their awe-inspiring musical chops, the foursome possesses way too much taste and experience to favor flash over substance. They soar when appropriate, as on “Mr. PC,” slow down when needed, for example “Blue Heels,” and always explore, seeking the soul of each theme. Sessions At McBane Mill proves a must for any devotee of Grisman, Django, Grappelli, Monroe, or Williamson.

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