Light In The Window II

Richard F. Thompson aka bluegrassmercuryThis column, containing brief reviews of recent CD releases by Richard Thompson, is published in the current (Spring 2009) edition of British Bluegrass News. As it is a lengthy piece, we have broken it into two parts, with the firt installment having run last Sunday.

A series of rambles about CDs by bluegrassmercury, part 2…

A big bundle of CDs has landed on my desk in the recent past. They include those by Danny Paisley, the Infamous Stringdusters, Williams & Clark Expedition, Kenny & Amanda Smith Band, Daughters Of Bluegrass, High Windy, Gold Heart, Cherryholmes, Earl Scruggs, The Mashville Brigade, Crowe Brothers, Ralph Stanley II, Longview, Big Country Bluegrass.

The Daughters Of Bluegrass Bluegrass Bouquet (Blue Circle BCR 017) is an epic collection of some considerable magnitude, comprising 17 cuts and featuring over 50 ‚Äòdaughters.’ The first track, Proud To Be A Daughter of Bluegrass alone there are 20 ladies singing, 4 shouters and 6 pickers.

Those familiar with the Blue Circle label and the Good Home Grown Music group will recognise that this album is the product of Tom T Hall and our own Miss Dixie Hall. She’s a Boldmere, Birmingham girl! The duo penned all songs and most of the recording was done at the Hall’s home studio in Franklyn, Tennessee.

The quality of songs and singers is remarkably and consistently high, with many stand-out tracks (There Ought to Be) More to Love than This [sung by Lisa Ray]; I’m Gonna Love You Now [Frances Mooney]; Nobody Home [Lorraine Jordan]; the a cappella Go Up on the Mountain and Wait [with five-part harmonies]; I Made of a Flower Today and Scenes from an Old Country Graveyard, both with an old-time country feel; another with a gospel edge Take Me With You [Beth Lawrence]; Desmoranda [Valerie Smith]; Carolina State of Mind [Gina Britt]; and Everybody Got a Light [Beth Stevens]. In addition to the opening song, three others feature multiple lead vocalists. Overall, the ladies have produced an excellent album.

The latest album from Ralph Stanley II This One Is II (Lonesome Day Records 013) sees him striking out for a wider market than that which encapsulates the strict bluegrass fan. Stanley has a deeper voice than the late lamented Keith Whitley, but the similarities are very definitely there, just as they are with his uncle, Carter Stanley.

II, as he is known, has gathered together a bunch of top studio buddies; Tim Crouch (fiddle and guitar), Cody Kilby (guitar), Randy Kohrs (resophonic guitar), Harold Nixon (bass), Adam Steffey (mandolin) and Ron Stewart (banjo, utilised sparingly). Jim Lauderdale, Steve Gulley, Darrin Vincent, Marty Raybon and Dale Ann Bradley all provide some harmonic assistance.

Beginning with a Garth Brooks song, Cold Shoulder, II has included a Elton John song (Georgia) and one by Townes van Zandt (the beautifully melodious "Loretta") and another by Lyle Lovett (a driving bluegrass treatment of "L A County"). Also, in the ‚Äòcountry’ pigeon-hole are They Say I’ll Never Go Home, Honky Tonk Way and If This Old Guitar Could Talk. Train Songs is up-tempo offering from the pen of the ubiquitous Tom T Hall. Saving the very best for comment to the last there is the killer Moms Are the Reason Wild Flowers Grow and the equally heart-rendering Carter, the Fred Eaglesmith tribute to Carter Stanley. File under ‚ÄòGreat Music.’

Junior Sisk has had chequered career in bluegrass, writing for the Lonesome River Band in the early 1990s, working with Wyatt Rice & Santa Cruz, Lost & Found and BlueRidge have bracketed an earlier incarnation of the band he now fronts, Ramblers Choice.

Blue Side Of The Blue Ridge (Rebel 1825) fills a void that spans too many years. Sisk, now based in Ferrum, Virginia, has lived most of his life in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it colours his music. Accompanying him here is Sisk’s cousin Tim Massey (bass, vocals), Chris Harris (mandolin, harmony vocals), Billy Hawks (fiddle) and Darrell Wilkerson (banjo), while guest Wyatt Rice brought along his guitar for the sessions.

Sisk is steeped in traditional bluegrass, so much so that How Could I Explain was very nearly on Danny Paisley’s recent album. From the banjo kick-off on the first cut, The Wolf Is At The Door the music drives along at a fair lick. Other highlights are the title track, You Let the Dog off the Chain, Leaving Baker County, Dust On the Bible, I Did The Leaving For You and The Man In The Moon. Massey is the perfect foil for Sisk’s high lonesome, bluesy vocals. Massey sings lead on the two songs that he wrote without diluting the intensity of the rest of the album.

Cherryholmes have continued with the numbering system for their latest album; number III in this instance, with a subtitle Don’t Believe (Skaggs Family 6989020202). I have to admit to be slow getting into Cherryholmes, but that was my loss, although I have caught up with them now.

The family band is growing and developing further with each CD, not surprisingly as four of the members mature as people as well as musicians and, as usual, there is a lot of original material from them. Cia Cherryholmes provided seven of the 11 songs in this collection. The Sailing Man is exceptional with the up-tempo Don’t Believe, I Can Only Love You (So Much), with Cia herself singing lead vocals, and My Love For You Grows, sung by Skip, not far behind. Mum Sandy’s King As A Babe Comes Down is given an otherworldly sound with droning fiddle, whistle and accordion to accompany her vocals. BJ provided a couple of instrumentals; the hot Sumatra and the lovely medley Mansker Spree/O’Coughlin’s Reel, with its twin fiddles, and exercises his vocal chops on Bleeding. Molly, the youngest at 15, wrote and sang the funky Goodbye. The odd one out, so to speak, is Devil In Disguise, penned by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. It is easy to appreciate why this group won the IBMA Entertainer of the Year award in 2005.

Mountain Roads Recordings is a new label – founded in Bristol, Virginia, at the beginning of 2008. Big Country Bluegrass, so called after the Jimmy Martin instrumental, was the first band to sign up with them, having previously been part of the Hay Holler stable.

Mention of Jimmy Martin and Hay Holler will immediately give two good clues as to what listeners to Open For Business (MRR-BC-001) can expect; authentic hard-driving bluegrass. Big Country Bluegrass are Tommy Sells (mandolin), Teresa Sells (guitar and vocals), Jeff Michael (fiddle, lead guitar and vocals), Johnny Williams (rhythm guitar and vocals), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo and vocals) and Alan Mastin (bass).

The first track, High Alleghenies, has Jeff Michael singing lead along with Teresa Sells (high baritone) and Johnny Williams (tenor), thus showcasing the beautiful harmonies and drive of this group. Michael’s unique lead vocals can be heard also on Ghost Of A Love, Weary Traveler, I’ll Never Dream No More My Darling and Old Time Preacher Man, among others. Williams assumes the role of lead vocalist on Nashville Jail and Just Another Broken Heart, while Teresa Sells does likewise on I’ve Lost You and I Guess I’ll Go On Dreaming.

Open For Business is a combination of old standards, traditional favourites and two new songs, one by that prolific song-writing couple Tom T. and Miss Dixie Hall.

One CD that has been getting regular play in this household is Signs (Pinecastle 1169) from Special Consensus.

Signs consists of a dozen very impressive songs in all, including some of the best love songs collected on one album in a long time. Ashby Franks’ title song cleverly alludes to the interpretations of messages from the opposite gender. A timeless issue. Franks also penned My Heart Breaks Again. While Justin Carbone’s collaboration with Becky Buller, the excellent mid-tempo Gone To Carolina and his Lonesome Lesson Learned also demonstrate that Special Consensus has two excellent songwriters in its midst.

Franks sings lead on six songs, his voice being equally well suited to Jake Landers’ Mountain Girl, a song from the Statler Brothers’ repertoire, I’ll Go To My Grave Lovin’ You, and another country-style song Footprints. Carbone sings lead on four, both those noted as penned by him plus Leaving This Old Town, and the traditional sacred song What A Beautiful Day. David Thomas, the third lead vocalist heard here, does a fine job on the funky, swinging Talkin’ About It Just Don’t Get It Done. Cahill helped to pen the topically titled Snowball Breakdown. The CD, which is due for general release on 24 March, is a cert for lots of airplay and perhaps some recognition by those that decide to whom the industry’s awards go.

Gold Heart will be touring the UK shortly and, even though they are predominantly very young , they have already released two CDs. Never Let Go is their latest. On this album the band comprises the three Gold sister, Analise, Jocelyn and Shelby, plus studio guests Alan Bartram (bass), Thomas Wywrot (banjo), Andy Hall (Dobro®), Brandon Godman (second fiddle) and producer Justin Carbone.

Typical of this day and age, most of the songs are written by the band members, with Jocelyn Gold providing the bulk of them; writing seven on her own and collaborating on three others. Back To Virginia, Lonely Rain, the a cappella trio Walk On The Water and Hear Me Cry are outstanding compositions. The latter was a finalist in the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at MerleFest last year.

The depth of maturity in those songs is quite staggering. What is more, it extends to Shelby’s Forever Tennessee and Thank You Darlin’. She wasn’t even a teenager when she penned either song. Not to be outdone, eldest sister Analise contributes the reflective Memories Of My Past and has co-writer credit for Walk On The Water. Most arrangements are up-tempo, but for a change of pace the slower Daylight Breaks and the afore-mentioned Hear Me Cry offer a change from the norm.

All the girls share the vocal responsibilities and solo or in harmony they excel. The performances on Never Let Go are polished with traditional grounding overlaid with youthful vigour and sensibilities.

The Dry Branch Fire Squad’s Echoes Of The Mountains (Rounder 0574) is the first studio recordings in about eight years and it is most welcome. The current line-up comprises Brian Aldridge (guitar, mandolin and vocals), Tom Boyd (banjo, Dobro ¬Æ and vocals), Dan Russell (bass, banjo and vocals) and Ron Thomason (mandolin, guitar, claw hammer banjo, percussion and vocals).

The opening Dixie Cowboy starts up-tempo with Michael Cleveland prominent, before the tempo slows at the end. It is the first of three western songs, the others being Rider On A Orphan Train and Seven Spanish Angels. They reflect delightfully the life style that Colorado resident Thomason enjoys at the moment. His rendition of Echo Mountain achieves his aim of presenting it as a metaphor for all folks who have friends of a different species with a subtle shift of emphasis from the babe to the faithful hound.

Aldridge and Boyd share the vocal responsibilities on Stormy Waters as they reprise the Jimmy Martin duet with Paul Williams in great fashion. Boyd’s other showcase is a solo rendition of Little Joe. Elsewhere there is an a cappella quartet – Power In The Blood; old-time – O Captain! My Captain, a Thomason solo with just clawhammer banjo for accompaniment; soul – Sam Cooke‚Äòs Bring It Home To Me with Thomason’s rustic voice accompanied by a doo-wop style vocal backing; and a touch of dry humour – (You Got To Pray To The Lord) When You See Those Flying Saucers.

How can one objectively review The Hangman (Pinecastle 1167) by Ernie Thacker when, by all accounts, he is extremely fortunate to be alive after a horrendous road accident in April 2006 and a series of critical surgical operations and needs the use of a wheelchair?

Thacker is possibly best known for a brief spell with the Clinch Mountain Boys, although he has had a stop-start career as leader of his own band Route 23 for some years. In addition to Thacker (guitar and vocals) is his brother Matt (bass guitar and tenor vocals), Dick Roach (banjo and baritone vocals) and Brandon Shupping (mandolin) along with guest fiddle player John Rigsby.

Fast tempos dominate for the first three songs, and indeed throughout. The slower Friday Once Again prompts comparison with Keith Whitley’s country offerings. The evocative Keith How Many, written by Melvin Burns and Ernie Thacker, is as powerful a tribute as Fred Eaglesmith’s Carter (mentioned earlier).

There aren’t as many songs from the band members as is normal these days – excellent exceptions are the title song and the Gospel Church Upon The Hill. All the Thacker brothers have a hand in writing these. However, is a good sprinkling of fresh songs with Bill Castle’s The Ballad Of Charlie Dill, Dave Carroll’s Detroit City Chill, and Word Of Mouth from Salvatore Guido and Paul Kelly. Covers include This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me from Dwight Yoakam, I Wish You Knew, Sunday Morning Coming Down and the traditional Rollin’ On These Rubber Wheels. Thacker’s past defines his future.

A variation of this edition of ‘Light In The Window" has been published in British Bluegrass News.

More next time

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.