Light In The Window

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 will break it into two parts, and run the rest next Sunday.

A series of rambles about CDs by bluegrassmercury…

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 Infamous Stringdusters
– Travis Book (bass, vocals), Jesse Cobb (mandolin), Andy Falco (guitar), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle, vocals), Andy Hall (dobro, vocals) and Chris Pandolphi (banjo) – are a bunch of young honchos who have just released their second album. This self-titled collection (Sugar Hill 4043) is growing on me. Book’s soulful vocals shine on Won‚Äòt Be Coming Back, the melodic Bound For Tennessee and the bluesy Get It While You Can. Garrett is a fine vocalist as well, as demonstrated on Three Days In July (historians, think Gettysburg, 1863), I Wonder and You Can‚Äòt Handle The Truth. There’s three enjoyable instrumentals in Glass Elevator by Pandolphi, Golden Ticket by Cobb and Black Rock by Hall, keeping interest going until the end. Overall the sextet produces a warm, full sound with fiddle and Dobro ¬Æ prominent, rather than just having one or other, as a lot of groups do.

There aren’t any surprises on Danny Paisley’s The Room Over Mine (Rounder 0589); he continues where he and his father left off. The 13-tack collection epitomizes the hard-driving Galax area mountain-style of bluegrass, with fiddle kick-offs and driving banjo ringing loud and clear. There‚Äòs a couple of outstanding new ‚Äòold’ songs in Chris Stuart’s opener, Don’t Throw Mamma’s Flowers Away and Drowning Sailor, both of which suit Paisley to a ‚ÄòT’. Most of the rest are bluegrass versions of songs from the classic country catalogue, with a couple from his dad’s repertoire, now re-done. In the former category are The Convict And The Rose, written by Betty Chapin and Robert A. King and recorded by Marty Robbins and Charlie Moore among others, I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name, done in a honk-tonk style with walking bass and I’m Coming Back But I Don’t Know When, a song Danny first heard done by Charlie Monroe.

In the second group are At the End of a Long Lonely Day, now done in different way and with different lyrics and A Memory of You, previously recorded by Jim and Jesse. Donnie Eldreth Jr does a great job having learned how to follow Danny’s lead singing and does likewise when he is singing lead as on Another Bridge to Burn, a song from Ray Price’s repertoire. Those Paisleys and the Lundy brothers know how to do it and they do it exceptionally well.

High Windy is a North Carolina-based quintet that has been together for a few years. A Greater Storm (on the Mountain Home label, # 11292) is their first album. I have been listening to this CD for a while now and get a lot of enjoyment each time that I play it, which is often.

How would I describe High Windy? They’re not traditional, they’re not contemporary, they are both at the same time. If I were to mention that the banjo player, Patrick McDougal, wrote the hit song Wheels for Dan Tyminski, then perhaps you will understand what I am saying. McDougal wrote five of the songs featured on this album, including Stuck in the Rain, the gospel song The Richest Man to God, Dance Around the Daisies, which has an old-time and Celtic edge, and Four Winds, all of which McDougal sings with great authority and soul, with a slight mountain edge.

Shane Lail (guitar) sings lead on five songs also, three of which, Love of a Lifetime, Good Ole Days and Coming Home, are written by him. He has a slightly lighter voice, but that doesn’t detract from his soulfulness. Last but by no means least in terms of song writing ability is mandolin player, Ty Gilpin’s Iron Horse, an ode to the fact that the industrial age didn’t always bring a good life. Anchoring everything is Mark Davis on bass and harmony vocals. While Tim Gardner plays some excellent fiddle lines and clawhammer banjo on Dance Around the Daisies, as well as providing harmony vocals on three songs. High Windy has been getting a considerable amount of air play and is a band that should go very far. Very highly recommended.

Brand New Set Of Blues is the fifth career CD for Williams & Clark Expedition, a quartet from Sparta, Tennessee. The Williams referred to is, in the first instance, Blake Williams, well known as the banjo player for Bill Monroe for many years. Additionally, there is Kimberly Williams, the bass player and Blake’s wife, who shares the lead vocal duties with guitarist Wayne Southard. Bobby Clark, (mandolin, vocals), from Oklahoma originally, but living in Nashville for the past 25 years, working with Vassar Clements, Larry McNeely, Peter Rowan, the Bluegrass Cardinals and Mike Snider, completes the line-up. They are ably assisted by Tim Crouch (fiddle), Buck White (piano) and harmony singers Claire Lynch and Jonathan East.

The members of the band provide almost all of the 13 numbers here, many from Blake Williams or from Williams in collaboration with Southards. Williams composed the banjo showcase Highlands Ramble and Clark the mandolin piece Jalapeno Quickstep. The album begins with the mid-tempo title song, followed by the bouncy Destiny’s Highway then the more sedate In My Heart. Other highlights are the singing of Southards on (Love is Coming to) A Heart Near You, the up-tempo gospel song Travelin’ Heaven’s Road which Southards leads with Ms Williams harmonising, similarly another gospel number Marching, on which the roles are reversed, the jazzy fiddle, the piano solo and the split guitar/mandolin break on the swinging Goodbye Heartache (Hello You) and the waltz-like Heaven On Earth, with Ms Lynch singing the harmony part.

Anybody who has seen this band live will know that Blake Williams is a bit of a comedian; they will be pleased to know that there is a bonus track of some jokes, obviously recorded at a festival or concert. Clark, Southards and Williams are all virtuoso pickers and that element of their talents that is given as great a profile as the vocals from Ms Williams and Southards.

The Mashville Brigade is a "young but seasoned" assembly of pickers who periodically moonlight away from their regular bands by playing at the world-famous Station Inn. Rural Rhythm Records has released an album, Bluegrass Smash Hits Volume 1 (Rural Rhythm 325), of recordings ‚Äòlive’ at the Station Inn. I say "live" in this instance to indicate that all tracks were done without any overdubs or editing, rather than in front of an audience.

Anyway, the Brigade consists of Randy Barnes (acoustic bass), Ashby Frank (mandolin, vocals), Aaron McDaris (banjo, vocals), Jim Van Cleve (fiddle) and Darrell Webb (guitar, vocals), who play their way through a set of 16 songs and tunes of long-standing popularity. Individual credits aren’t given on a track-by-track basis, but Webb and Frank share the lead vocal duties with McDaris providing the harmonies. Although there isn’t any doubt that the material chosen is, in the present-day parlance, a ‘hit’, the group digs a little deeper to avoid the blindingly obvious like Rocky Top. Without rejecting their grounding, the Brigade play their arrangements of My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains, White House Blues, Bury me beneath the Willow, I’ll Remember you Love in my Prayers, Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone, Little Maggie, Going Across The Sea and Salt Creek with a modern attitude. I bet they’re fun to watch.

Live And Learn (Rebel 1828) is the latest CD from the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band. It features 13 tracks with Amanda Smith taking the lead on all but three, those featuring husband Kenny. The duo share the harmony work along with guest Alan Bartram. Zachary McLamb (bass) and Aaron Williams (mandolin) round out the band. The quartet is further supplemented by Ron Stewart (fiddle and banjo).

Ms Smith’s demonstrates the vocal capacity to deal with slower numbers such as Ramblers Blues, Just One More Time, Words You Use and Man Looks On The Outside as well as the up-tempo ones like the rockabilly I’d Jump The Mississippi, You’re Gonna See Me Shine and Heartbreak Express. The first group appeal more so than the latter. The stand-out track is the well-arranged traditional song Cruel Willie with excellent close harmony and top-notch fiddle playing. The tracks on which Kenny Smith sings lead are well programmed into the mix, Changing kicking off the album with Randall Collins and Icicle Canyon placed at strategic intervals. Bluegrass very much in the modern groove.

Longview is an ad-hoc band, a combination of pickers from other bands doing a bit of moonlighting. Their latest CD, Deep In the Mountains (Rounder 0578), is the fourth using the Longview name. However, the personnel here is slightly different from previously, Dudley Connell, Joe Mullins and Glen Duncan having been replaced by Lou Reid, JD Crowe and Ron Stewart. James King, Don Rigsby and Marshall Wilborn remain from the original aggregation.

Just like the Bluegrass Album Band, Longview re-energises the old songs; neglected gems from classic bands or lesser-known regional acts. I say old songs, Room at the Top of the Stairs, Baptism of Jessie Taylor and Weathered Grey Stone are relatively recent, of course. It’s great to see bands mining the Dudley Connell song book. King, Rigsby and Reid share the bulk of the vocal duties, singing either lead or harmony, with Stewart, Crowe and Wilborn covering the baritone part. Crowe sings a low tenor on At the First Fall of Snow. Other classic songs with matching performances are Don’t Leave Me Alone, Eating Out Of Your Hand, Old Log Cabin, I Love You Yet, Georgia Bound and I’ll Love Nobody But You. Heart-warming stuff!

To be continued…

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.