A variation of this piece has been published in British Bluegrass News. A fourth installment will be along in a week or so.
Light In The Window – A series of rambles about CDs by bluegrassmercury
Earl Scruggs has often trod the boards at the Ryman Auditorium. Firstly as a member of the Blue Grass Boys, later with his partner Lester Flatt and then with sons, Randy and Gary, leading the Earl Scruggs Review. More recently, on 21 June 2007 to be precise, Scruggs gathered together his two sons and a group of friends to play once more for a Ryman audience. The show was recorded and 18 tracks have been released as Earl Scruggs with Family & Friends The Ultimate Collection: Live At The Ryman on the Rounder label (0618).
The set comprised a selection of songs and tunes from most phases of Scruggs’ career as an ace banjo player. Kicking off with a boisterous rendition of Salty Dog Blues, Scruggs follows with the high-lonesome Borrowed Love, recently penned by Earl, Randy and Dwight Yoakam; two Scruggs originals, Earl’s Breakdown and Foggy Mountain Breakdown; the infectious Soldier’s Joy, Doin’ My Time and The Ballad Of Jed Clampett along with another from the popular folk catalog, Dylan’s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere; the Carter Family’s You Are My Flower, dedicated to the then recently departed Louise Scruggs, and showcasing Scruggs‚Äò lead guitar picking; and concludes with Lonesome Ruben.
Earl is ably supported by Randy (acoustic guitar and lead vocals) and Gary (bass and lead vocals). In the friends category is Rob Ickes (Dobro ¬Æ), John Jorgenson (mandolin, electric guitar, clarinet and vocals), Jon Randall (acoustic guitar and lead vocals), Hoot Hester (fiddle and vocals) and John Gardner (drums). The result is generally more Earl Scruggs Review than early Flatt & Scruggs, but it is an enjoyable fast-paced show. Great stuff from an 83 year old!
One of the hottest bands on the circuit at the moment is Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper. Their latest CD Leavin’ Town (Rounder 0596) starts in a blaze of driving banjo that signals a menu of full-on hard-core bluegrass. Serving the dishes are Cleveland himself (fiddle, lead and rhythm guitar), Jesse Brock (mandolin and rhythm guitar), Todd Rakestraw (guitar), Marshall Wilborn (bass) and John Mark Batchelor (banjo), with co-producer (with Cleveland) is Jeff White (guitar) guesting.
Cleveland himself has won the IBMA best fiddle player title six times out of the last eight years and the band has won the instrumental award for the last two years. So, there can’t be any doubts about that aspect of this band’s work. A listen to the full-band romp Northern White Clouds but more particularly to the blistering fiddle-mandolin duet performance of another Monroe tune Jerusalem Ridge. It is a stunning exploration of the melodic and harmonic possibilities. Vocally, I can’t think of such a well-matched or a tighter trio than Rakestraw, Brock and Cleveland. The opening song, Sold Down The River sets the standard and there isn’t a weak track to follow.
Other highlights include In My Mind To Ramble, I’m Feeling For You (with Marshall Wilborn singing lead), Troubles Round My Door, Leavin’ Town, Todd Rakestraw’s I’m Riding This Train, When You Were Mine and Farewell For A Little While. The tempo is slowed down briefly only for My Blue Eyed Darling and Dottie Rambo‚Äòs Come Spring; both also add to the luster of the album. As Tom Adams says at the conclusion of his notes, “Real bluegrass. Real country. Real music.”
David Grier Live At The Linda (Dreadnought Recordings 0701) was recorded in September 2006 at WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio in Albany, New York (released in 2007), but I have only recently acquired a copy. Grier is the son of Lamar Grier, banjo player with the Blue Grass Boys, and he got a lot of help on his way from about six years of age to his well-established position in the upper echelons of the guitar kingdom.
This set includes a rendition of a tune Red Haired Boy that he learned when he was young and other traditional pieces like The Old Spinning Wheel, Redwing and Bonaparte’s Retreat. Alongside is a Monroe medley, two pop songs Yesterday and Killing Me Softly and several compositions by Grier himself, such as Have You Ever Been To England, High Atop Princess Cove, As It Rolls To The Sea, Road To Hope and The End Of Good Day.
All are captured superbly, such that one would be forgiven for thinking that the set was recorded in a standard studio environment. The audience is singularly attentive and receptive to Grieg’s phenomenal picking in a performance that lasts just over an hour. I recommend Live At The Linda to all lovers of exceptional instrumental music and particularly to the guitar players among us.
The Crowe Brothers have seemingly been silent for a few years – too many, to my way of thinking. The brothers, Josh and Wayne, return with their debut release for Rural Rhythm Records. The album, Brothers-N-Harmony (RHY1041), showcases a dozen outstanding songs with some of the best sibling harmony singing that you can hear today. The Crowe brothers remind one that it has been a much neglected art form in recent years.
There are so many gems here that it is difficult to know which has the greatest luster. Savor Are You Teasing Me, Don Reno’s Better Luck Next Time, the Wilburn Brothers’ Which One Is To Blame and Go Away With Me, the Blue Sky Boys’ Why Not Confess, the joyous Gospel numbers I Know I’m Saved and Take Me By The Hand (Josh Crowe) both with their intricate harmonies, Holdin’ On When You’ve Let Go (written by Eric Gibson with a bit of polishing from Dixie Hall), Dan Seals’ God Must Be A Cowboy, Million For A Broken Heart (another Josh Crowe song) and Cody Shuler’s Cindy Mae. Josh (rhythm and lead guitar) and Wayne Crowe (upright bass) are supported by some excellent fiddle work from Steve Thomas, Steve Sutton and Don Wayne Reno (both banjo), some superb mandolin playing by Darren Nicholson, Randy Kohrs (Dobro ¬Æ and lap steel), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin on Country Boy Rock & Roll) and some honky-tonk piano from the one and only Buck White.
This album is definitely for those who enjoy brother singing in harmony, and if you don’t mind a bit of a country edge here and there so much the better.
The 2006 Sago mine disaster had a profound effect on Kathy Mattea, so much so that she recorded a full album of songs about the coal mining industry. Mattea has long been an act that has sympathies with stripped-down country music, including songs such as Walk The Way Wind Blues and Untold Stories, penned by Tim O’Brien, in her repertoire.
Mattea reacted to that incident by recording Coal (Captain Potato Records), a 11-song tribute to those hard-working fellow natives of her home state of West Virginia. Some of Mattea’s relatives are among those miners, so there is a personal aspect to her work and it comes through in her rendition of songs such as Merle Travis’ Dark As A Dungeon, Jean Ritchie’s The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More, Hazel Dickens’ Black Lung (sung a cappella), Coal Tattoo, Green Rolling Hills (with Tim and Mollie O‚ÄòBrien providing harmony vocals), You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, Blue Diamond Mines (with Marty Stuart and Patty Loveless – background vocals) and Red-winged Blackbird.
The backing musician includes names that are no strangers to bluegrass aficionados, beginning with producer Marty Stuart, Bryon House (bass) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin and banjo); all are household names in the bluegrass world. Lesser known are Bill Cooley, who has been with Mattea for 20 years, handling the guitar duties, while John Catchings (cello), Randy Leago (keyboards and accordion) and guest steel player Fred Newell round out the album’s sound.