Reviews for the Independent 2004 – 2005

Art Menius

Reviews for the Independent 2004 – 2005

  1. Polecat Creek with Riley Bauguss
  2. Rick Brockner & Friends
  3. Alice Gerrard
  4. Various Artists, Creole Bred: A Tribute to Creole & Zydeco
  5. Sam Bush
  6. Ralph Lewis & the Sons of Ralph
  7. Mindy Smith

Polecat Creek with Riley Bauguss, Leaving Eden (Yodel-Ay-Hee CD 055)

February 2005

[This was the last piece I published in the Independent, actually about three months after I had left the Triangle. This completed an association of close to 22 years with the paper.]

Most old-time string bands keep their repertoire routed in the classics, learned either from recordings from the 1920s thru 1940s or old master musicians. Polecat Creek, however, offers no less than fifteen original songs on Leaving Eden. Greensboro’s Polecat Creek presents an exceptional balance of traditional country sounds with new songs penned by musical partners Kari Sickenberger and Laurelyn Dossett. The latter’s “Come By Here,” the ninth title on Leaving Eden, won at MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest in 2004.

That’s probably not even the best song on an album full of memorable songs. Sickenberger’s “The Past Ain’t Over Yet” reflects all of the hallmarks of the best honk-tonky of more than half-century ago. Yet it switches gender with the female voice into direct opposition to Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”

Mama raised me right boys
The shame is mine alone.
She’d pray and hold me tight boys, I’ll tell you.
I’d sneak out at night, boys
To the drinking I was prone
Until that fateful night boys, I’ll tell you.

Now I can’t look ahead and I can’t forget
My future’s all behind me and
The past ain’t over yet

Dossett’s title cut personalizes the migratory patterns of working class southerners. “And the mockingbird can’t sing/like the crying of a dove./And I can’t tell my daughters/all the things I’m scared of./But I am not afraid of that bright glory up above/Dying’s just another way to leave/the ones you love.”

All told Kari wrote nine of the songs, with Laurelyn responsible for the other six. Just as important as the writing, the pair sing far more than effectively, delivering a full range of emotional communication. Not only are these their songs, they sing them as if telling their own life stories. That sets them apart from the old school, using the old-time form as a platform for two outstanding singer-songwriter.

The duo receives equally accomplished musical support. Regular collaborator Riley Bauguss, one of the most respected southern string band players of his generation, plays outrageous banjo throughout, along with some fiddle and guitar. Producer and frequent Tim O’Brien collaborator Dirk Powell of Balfa Toujours adds bass, accordion, mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. Former Good Ole Person Kevin Wimmer fiddles on four cuts.

Rather than recycle themes from nearly a century ago, Polecat Creek creates an original roots sound that draws from string band, brother duet, Cajun, bluegrass, and traditional country. Yet they do that without ever losing their spiritual connection to those who have gone before. That makes Leaving Eden one of the most delightful releases of 2004 in any form of country music.

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Rick Brockner & Friends, Daughter of the Acoustic Revolution (Appalachian Recording Company BM0428)

October 2004

Daughter of the Acoustic Revolution by Rick Brockner & Friends largely falls victim to the success of its first track. Powered by the vocals and fiddling of young Cora Beth Bridges, “Nonchalance” immediately grabs the listener’s attention, floating effortlessly into one’s head. Distinguished by a rollicking rhythm, Cora Beth seduces the listener with her infectiously happy singing and playing. Few songs anywhere match their titles as well. Listeners, however, will search in vain through the remaining ten cuts for anything nearly as strong.

For one thing, Bridges’ singing and especially her fiddling seem repressed thereafter. The sheer delight heard on “Nonchalance” does not repeat. Much of her playing comes to resemble more the drones John Cale played on viola with the Velvet Underground than the exuberance she initially displays. For another, no other selection displays the rhythmic interest of “Nonchalance.” Most deleteriously, Brockner decides to alternate his own lead vocals with those of Bridges and Cherie Lassiter. This serves to disrupt the flow of the album as it lunges song by song from one excellent female vocalist to the other to Brockner. The issue proves more than just the women being better lead singers. Although he composed or co-wrote all eleven titles, and a good songwriter he is, Brockner the vocalist seems unable to project the emotion of what he is singing. As Hazel Dickens puts it, he “sings through the song” rather than singing the song.

Brockner is a veteran of the Triangle scene, performing with the Howling Brothers during the 1990s and recording a wonderful album with Jan Johannson called Fiddling with a Dulcimer. Despite an abundance of talent, thought, and work, Daughter of the Acoustic Revolution becomes one of those CDs with one great song.

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Alice Gerrard, Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss (Copper Creek CCCD-0225)

October 2004

A Durham resident for fifteen years, Alice Gerrard came late to recording solo projects. Her first such release, Pieces of My Heart, appeared almost thirty years after the first Hazel and Alice album with Hazel Dickens. In between she recorded with The Strange Creek Singers and the Harmony Sisters, among others ensembles, and since with Tom, Brad & Alice. On the new Calling Me Home, Gerrard, founder of the Old-Time Herald quarterly, once again mixes her compositions with riches from her knowledge of southern roots music. Whether new or old, these sad ones that fit her style.

Gerrard’s music blends old-time string band, bluegrass, and traditional country sounds, generally in medium to slow tempos that fit the subject matter. The titles of originals like “Another Cheater (Just Lost the Game Again)” and covers like “Girl of Constant Sorrow” and the Louvins’ “When I Stop Dreaming” suggest the space she explores. In so doing, Gerrard, a pioneer for women in bluegrass and old-time music, firmly establishes her place within the glorious country music tradition of sad love ballads, a living link between today’s music and its roots.

Gerrard samples local and west coast musicians for support, including former Carrboro resident Brad Leftwich, Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, Eric & Suzy Thompson, Carl Jones, Leroy Savage, and former Red Clay Ramblers Mike Craver and Jim Watson. This fine backing crew gives Gerrard the freedom to explore the emotional depths of each song. That may prove too real for those who prefer Britanny Spears. For those in tune with genuine music made by actual folks, Calling Me Home: Songs of Love and Loss will delight from start to finish.

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Various Artists, Creole Bred: A Tribute to Creole & Zydeco (Vanguard 79741)

May 2004

Guitarist, singer, author, and record producer Ann Savoy, wife of archtraditional accordionist Marc Savoy and member of the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band, set about to create an all-star celebration of African-American Louisiana French Music. These French-speaking blacks brought into the world two main streams of music during the 20th century: the more traditional and rural Creole and the urban blues influenced and infectiously danceable Zydeco.

For Creole Bred, Savoy assembles a curious cast of pop and rock stars of the 1980s, including Cindy Lauper and Talking Heads side group the Tom Tom Club, and roots music notables like Sweet Honey in the Rock and Michelle Shocked. Of these David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and bluesman Taj Mahal come to closest to grasping the nuances of the Louisiana French music to such a degree that they do not distract the listener one bit. The same cannot be said of Ms. Lauper, who although she sings in French with a great supporting crew on two energetic cuts, never quite gets her grating voice quite in sync with the bayou sound.

Wisely, Savoy brings in current practitioners of Zydeco to support the outsiders musically, thus providing authentic and powerful music. The backing musicians include the wonderful drummer and accordion player Geno Delafose and Cajun fiddle superstar Michael Doucet of Beausoliel. Equally important, she also provides the Zydeco veterans with their own chances to shine. Nathan Williams & the Zydeco Cha-Chas take a moment to deliver a perfect example of early Zydeco, still not far from its Creole roots, in “Zydeco Two-Step,” then join with Keith Frank, Rosie Ledet, and Sean Ardoin to demonstrate how the blues and R&B came to influence the music in “I’m Coming Home.” The latter points the way to the briefly successful pop spin-off called Swamp Pop.

Creole Bred proves a bit inconsistent, but nonetheless a worthy introduction to some of America’s irresistible roots music.

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Sam Bush, King of My World (Sugar Hill )

March 2004

Not a few observers consider new grass the personal music of Sam Bush just a much a bluegrass came from Bill Monroe. That may overstate the case a bit. Sam joined the Bluegrass Alliance after they recorded the seminal New Grass Music album. Nonetheless, he defined the sound with New Grass Revival just as much Iggy Pop & the Stooges wrote the book of rules for heavy metal. Bush, in fact, first established the new grass sound that presaged jam bands with long jams and acid rock influences. Then, with Béla Fleck, John Cowan, and Pat Flynn, he restructured it as a concise, song oriented, pop rock approach that gained the Revival some country radio airplay.

Bush’s April 13 Sugar Hill release, King of My World, marks fifth CD as a solo artist. Over the years after the Revival called it quits in 1989, he has not only lead his own band, but become an icon at both Telluride and MerleFest, spent five years with Emmy Lou Harris and the Nash Ramblers, and recorded with Edgar Meyer, Fleck, Steve Earle, Keb Mo’, and many others. King of My World reflects some of Bush’s musical influences and the clear evolution within his work of the 1980s New Grass Revival style.

The infectious “They’re Going to Miss Me When I’m Gone,” one of two songs by Jeff Black on the CD, displays the new grass mainline, built around Sam’s powerful, distinctive mandolin chop, supported by drums, on a rapid-fire, hook-filled romp. “King of the World” shows Bush reapplying the defiant acoustic heroism of the Commonwealth era Revival to a song that would fit on that 1980 album. Sam’s instrumental “The Mahavishnu Mountain Boys,” revisits the exploratory jamming of the original NGR thirty years ago.

Sam’s “Bananas,” on the other hand, would hardly seem out of place on a David Grisman project. A Django-inflected exploration breaks out into a searing Brad Davis bluegrass guitar break, returns to jazz, then soars in pulsating mandomania before coming back to hot clubland. He follows the title track with the reggae-inflected Afro-pop of Johnny Clegg’s “Spirit is the Journey,” then Bush demonstrates his facility for Monrovian bluegrass licks and rhythms on “Majestic” by Ed Snodderly. “Bless His Heart,” co-written by Bush with veteran Jon Pennell, finds a place in classic Little Feat territory both in the southernism of its lyrics and its grinding, greasy rhythms.

Bush maintains an optimism equally at home in the 1970s.

I’m going to make this world a better place
I’m going to keep that smile upon my face
I’m going to teach myself how to understand
I’m going to make myself a better man

He sings on the second cut, “A Better Man.” Optimistic enough to close the album with “The Wizard of Oz,” again composed with Pennell, a bouncy genre piece about Cardinals Gold Glove shortstop Ozzie Smith.

In short, Sam Bush touches most of his stylistic bases on King of My World and appears quite worthy of his crown. He works here with a small ensemble, rather than an all-star aggregation, with most cuts featuring a quartet of Sam on mandolin or fiddle, Jon Randall Stewart or Davis on guitar, Chris Brown drumming, and Nickel Creek veteran Byron House on bass. Together they have created a collection both diverse in style, yet focused, coherent, and easily digested.

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Ralph Lewis & the Sons of Ralph, Mountain Boys (Root Records RR014)

March 2004

The Sons of Ralph are the real deal featuring two generations of musicians and styles in one band. Ralph Lewis played guitar and sang lead for bluegrass music patriarch Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys during much of the 1970s. He focuses on mandolin in his own Asheville-based band. Sons Marty and Don grew up playing the music, sitting in with Monroe’s band as his “youngest Blue Grass Boys.” Marty writes most of their songs and plays guitar and Dobro. Don, who fiddles brilliantly and also handles bass and banjo on Sons of Ralph recordings, has recorded with folks as varied as Warren Haynes, Doc Watson, and Ronnie Millsap. For several years the family ensemble, aka the Sons of Ralph Featuring Ralph, has pursued its own idiosyncratic blend of new grass, contemporary and traditional bluegrass, and mountain music.

This winter Ralph and his sons delivered Mountain Boys, their fifth CD this century. Although lacking the Jimi Hendrix cover found on their Tune To This, the record contains considerable diversity for a bluegrass album. Influenced by Don Humphries, Marty distinguishes himself as a songwriter with solo credits on seven of the 14 titles and co-writer on four others. His father sings lead on the slowest, most mountain sounding numbers, and Don on the more conventionally classic bluegrass pieces, while Marty takes on the more contemporary songs. Ralph wrote two tunes, while the Delmore Brothers’ “Southern Moon” provides the only cover on Mountain Boys.

The Sons of Ralph demonstrate their strength with the ability to handle these different approaches with equal aplomb. “Drifting With The Flow,” for example, is grinding country rock that the Band could have recorded thirty years ago. “Ramblin’ Kind,” just two cuts later, is sad, slow tempo, meat and potatoes bluegrass that sounds fifty years old. Then “Jonie Lee” finds Don singing lead on a Cajun-inflected acoustic rocker followed by the fiddle-driven “Madison County,” a close as they come to mainstream contemporary bluegrass. Ralph’s instrumental “Rosman” displays Don’s gorgeous fiddling in the style quintessential Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker. No one captures better the sound of family friend Baker, having learned it at a young age direct from the source. Before you know it, Ralph is singing Marty’s ancient seeming novelty blues “Bad Investment” featuring a twin guitar break by the sons. The album closes with “Pain of Love” a driving, radio friendly hard bluegrass stomp. Frankly, Mountain Boys could use a few more uptempo pieces like this rather than the preponderance of slow to medium tempo numbers.

The Sons of Ralph’s music takes a while, like an excellent wine, to sink in, but once you get it, you are hooked. Recorded at the Rubber Room in Chapel Hill with Jerry Brown at the controls, Mountain Boys sounds better with each repeating listening.

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Mindy Smith, One Moment More (Vanguard 79736-2)

January 2004

Since I had been listening to it for a month, I already knew Mindy Smith’s Vanguard debut One Moment More would work perfectly on a bitterly cold, snow covered Saturday morning. Sun and clouds battled for supremacy, the fire crackled, the cats complained, and Mindy painted her emotional scenery vividly. After years five years developing her craft in Nashville and hearing people like Alison Krauss record her songs, Smith demonstrated her singing chops with a convincing, rocking “Jolene” on Just Because I’m A Woman the Dolly Parton tribute album that appeared last September. In fact, she earned a slot on Leno long before this album’s January 27 release.

Co-produced with longtime Parton collaborator Steve Buckingham, One Moment More gives a much more comprehensive idea of what Mindy Smith’s music is about, especially eleven examples of her writing. Although her lyrics and clear spiritual overlay demonstrate an influence from traditional music, Smith’s more adventuresome arrangements and willingness to play with her phrasing give her a sound much more in tune with VH1 than CMT. Despite the Dolly association, only occasionally does Mindy Smith move in a country direction. Even the aching “Angel Doves,” the most country title, sounds like something Patsy Cline would have sung, not Kitty Wells. Consider, however, that Smith spent her first 19 years on Long Island before relocating in 1994 to Knoxville, where she fell under the differing influences of Krauss, the Cure, Shawn Colvin, the Cox Family, and swampadelic duo Blue Mother Tupelo. Note also that she flatly told No Depression that “I’m not going to change my songs to make them fit the radio.”

Thus Smith spurned major label offers to sign with veteran indie Vanguard, which gave the world Joan Baez some forty years ago. With Buckingham’s help, she has delivered an astonishing full-length debut with memorable, mostly folk-pop and folk-rock melodies and lyrics both uplifting and troubling. Smith can explore growing up poor and on the outside in “Raggedy Ann” (“I’m just a little girl/I’m Raggedy Ann/Making believe I’m happy/Hey Raggedy Ann/Falling apart at the seams.”) then turn right around with the defiantly optimistic folk pop of “Fighting For It All,” where the singer goes after everything she has done heretofore without (“You can try to keep me under/But you’ll never take my will to fight”). Throughout her lyrics seem disarmingly natural, the next line following so logically from its predecessor that no other words would seem to work as well.

“It’s Amazing” lives up to its title, a lustrous bit of old school pop that immediately grabs the listener with abundant hooks, an engaging rhythm, and quickly memorable lyrics. “Can’t you see/It’s amazing what you do to me/Took my heart and/Made me feel things I never felt before/It’s changing me/To switch direction so suddenly/Shook me up and threw me around/Helped me learn/To breathe it all in.” Paradoxically, Smith rocks the hardest  — slowly burning to a climax like Lucinda Williams – on the most overtly religious songs: the lead off “Come to Jesus” and the brooding, almost threatening country rocker “Hard to Know.” She closes the album with the quiet title song of yearning and loss, likely referring to her mother’s death in 1994.

At times quiet and at others raucous, the diversity of One Moment More introduces us to a remarkable new artist. Mindy Smith, at the onset of her recording career, already demonstrates powerful skills as a vocalist, composer, arranger, and producer.

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