Prescription Bluegrass’ Dan King Picks the Best!

Image634903850823487538We don’t really want to say that Dan knows how to pick ‘em.  We’ll leave that for someone else but the facts are here for everyone to see.  Prescription Bluegrass CD Reviewer Dan King chose what he thought was the best CDs to review and he managed to get three out of the five Grammy nominations this year.  We’ve pulled those reviews from the archive and included them at the end of this post in case you missed them or wish to re-read them.   Thanks Dan, Way To Go!
Category 46: Best Bluegrass Album


To see all of the Grammy Nominees for this year, click HERE.
July  2012

By Dan King

Special Consensus - Scratch Gravel Road

Compass Records

March 2012

Chicago is a town known far and wide for its own special brand of blues. Many icons of the genre were spawned in the windy city including Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf. Chicago is also the home of the baseball Cubs who have not won a World Series since 1908. The 1975 season saw the Cubs go 75-87 and finish fifth in their division, 17.5 games behind the pennant winning Pittsburgh Pirates.

Also back in 1975, in the midst of all those blue notes and post game excuses, Greg Cahill started a bluegrass band and called it Special Consensus. From its unlikely beginning, Mr. Cahill’s band has arrived at an equally unlikely destination. Thirty-seven years after coming to life, Special Consensus is still making bluegrass albums!

As of this writing, the Cubs were in last place.

‘Scratch Gravel Road” marks the sixteenth release for the band, and although the ensemble possesses an unusually long pedigree, its current members boast some comparatively short tenures. Bassist David Thomas has logged six years in the group, mandolin player Rick Faris only three, and guitarist Dustin Benson just joined up last year.

The three newbies are all fine singers giving this version of Special C enough vocal firepower to paint a variety of sonic scenes. “Scratch Gravel Road” may at times sound more like a project than a veteran band recording its umpteenth album, but while the configuration is probably too new to have fully developed its own identity, its heritage and steady leadership serve to keep it pointed in a solid purposeful direction.

Let’s just say that after 37 years of building bluegrass puzzles, Greg Cahill knows how to move the pieces around and make them fit.

The first tune on the album is an absolute scorcher called “Old New Straitsville Moonshine Run.” It features a blazing mandolin solo by Rick and a high lonesome vocal from David. The next cut is “Monroe,” a clever Cajun-esque tribute to the undisputed father of bluegrass. Then we come to one of my personal favorites on the recording, the old Paul Hampton/Hal David song “Sea of Heartbreak.” The shrink-wrap hasn’t even settled in the trash can yet and we have already been treated to three different and distinct lead vocalists and three different styles of song. So much variety yet each cut lands squarely in the middle of bluegrass territory.

There’s that purposeful direction I spoke of.

Before this album is over we also get to hear a four-part harmony a cappella performance and two instrumental pieces. Twelve songs in all including two originals provide a nice mix that shows what this latest edition of Special Consensus is capable of.

Some quality guest appearances round out the particulars of the album. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle spices up a pair of tunes and Alison Brown adds her banjo to the Cahill penned

instrumental “Jacklene.” Additionally, two Special Consensus alums, Josh Williams and Chris Jones, return for vocal assists on “Monroe.”

All in all, “Scratch Gravel Road” is a great listen. It is positive, clean, well recorded, and well executed bluegrass music. The band impresses both vocally and instrumentally. On my rating scale of one to five banjo strings, I award this effort four and a quarter strings.

Greg Cahill deserves a lifetime achievement award for keeping Special Consensus working and recording for the better part of the past four decades, however plaques and pennants are not necessary. The band has already presented him with a fitting prize in “Scratch Gravel Road.”

As for the Cubs, well I guess there’s always next year.



June 2012

By Dan King

The Grascals “Life Finds A Way”

Label: Mountain Home Records

Released: March 2012

On a recent field trip to Zia Records, I discovered two albums in the Bluegrass/Americana section that would fit the criteria for review on Prescription Bluegrass. One was Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas” and the other was The Grascals “Life Finds A Way.” I also found a CD by a fellow named Charles Manson in the section, but I’m still not sure if that was some store employees idea of a bad joke, or if perhaps there is a hot new mandolin player on the scene with a very unfortunate name. At any rate, I opted for the Grascal’s latest offering and headed for the checkout.

When I got home I put “Life Finds A Way” on the old Victrola and was immediately struck by the easy relaxed feel of the first tune. So much of bluegrass music is teeth gritting, pedal-to-the-metal white water frenzy, but these notes just floated into my studio like a group of new friends that I’d known my whole life. Comfortable. Confident. Welcome.

This album is very commercial. The arrangements are what might be called get in and get out arrangements. The tunes are timed like top 40 hits, very concise and to the point, catchy, and with a soft, satisfying landing at the end. Perhaps that is why this recording gets more enjoyable with each listen. The music is so pleasing you can’t wait to hear it again, yet so smartly presented that you’re not aurally worn out after a run-through or two. Or five. Or ten.

The factor that leads to the comfortable feel of this album is the impeccable timing that the musicians possess, especially banjo player Kristin Scott Benson. A lot of the grooves seem to center on the ones set by her banjo comping, and the other players follow in lock step with solid, equally spaced note values. The result is a very cohesive unit without a lot of the push/pull that can ensue when all the players in a group try to race each other to the end of the songs.

Lest you get the impression that all this talk of comfort means that this is an album of ballads, it is not. “Life Finds A Way” has its share of barn burners. "Eleven Eleven” for example absolutely SMOKES! “Lay That Hammer Down” is slick as a whistle, hot as a pistol. But even the light speed stuff on this CD comes at you with an effortless feel. Two Harley Allen tunes are standouts for their writing and 5 co-writes from the band along with a couple standards round out the bulk of the project. There is also a James Taylor song included, ”Sweet Baby James.”

There’s really not a clam in the bunch.

The Grascals are very accessible on this album, with catchy pop styled arrangements, good songs, great vocal harmonies, and some of the most confident playing in the business.

If the record lacks anything, it might be the absence of the avante garde. But so much popular music these days is so heavy on the “different” and light on the talent that it’s refreshing to hear an album whose art is in the art itself, and not in the shock value.

This is the Grascals’ first project on Mountain Home Records and based on the results, I’d say it’s a wonderful marriage. This recording seems destined for commercial success. Coupled with its top notch execution, this reviewer would not be surprised to hear the Grascal’s name being bandied about when the award shows begin creeping up a little later in the season.

The Grascals “Life Finds A Way” earns a four and one half banjo strings rating and a big old bottle of Bluegrass Pop.

I just know it’s going to go down easy.


May 2012

By Dan King

Steep Canyon Rangers - Nobody Knows You

Rounder Records

Released: April, 2012

Most folks these days have at least a casual awareness of the Steep Canyon Rangers from their affiliation with actor/comedian Steve Martin. The banjo picking wild and crazy guy has been recording and touring with the group for the past few years, and their numerous tour dates and television appearances have introduced them to quite a large audience. 

The band’s latest recording, “Nobody Knows You,” finds them getting back to their own devices sans the comic relief and yeoman banjo picking of Martin.

One wonders if a little humor might have helped the effort.

SCR consists of Woody Platt on guitar, Mike Guggino on mandolin, Charles Humphrey III on bass, Graham Sharp on banjo and guitar, and Nicky Sanders on the fiddle.

Platt is the main lead singer. His voice is a baritone somewhat reminiscent of the timbre of country singer Alan Jackson. The boys sing very well together and they sport some very solid harmonies on this CD.

Stellar playing is also featured throughout the album, especially from Nicky Sanders’ fiddle. Sanders is quick, precise, and innovative. Many of his solos start as single note blasts that evolve into double stop brilliance. Guggino and Sharp add top notch mandolin and banjo respectively. 

The music contained on this CD is not exactly traditional bluegrass music, but more of a mix between bluegrass and folk. To critique this album as if it were a true bluegrass album would be unfair, however, even allowing for newness and progression, certain tenets apply to all music. Unfortunately, I find this project coming up short in some areas.

“Nobody Knows You” contains 13 songs, 12 of which are original compositions, including three co-writes between bassist Charles Humphreys and two non-band members.

Songwriting is an art in and of itself. Great players and singers are not always great writers and many young bands will write song after song after song before they come up with one that doesn’t SOUND like an original. It took a few listens to nail it down, but the songwriting is the key element that makes this effort fall short of the promise the band has shown in its young history.

For example, many of the tunes on this album seem to repeat themselves. It’s as if they start with a two minute song, play it twice and call it a four minute song. Mind you, most all popular music follows patterns, but when the same lyrics go by your ears two or three times in the same sequence, with the same musical accompaniment, one begins to wonder the reasoning. 

Also the majority of the music included on this album is minor key oriented. When used, minor keys have a tendency to create sad or dreary musical motifs. Gershwin’s song “Summertime” and The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are both in minor keys.

While nothing is inherently wrong with sad music, when it is driven by an overall lack of inspiration as it apparently is here, the result can leave the listener uneasy, like you would feel if a bad actor tried to convey melancholy. When the notes themselves invite an emotional injection and little or none is given, the music remains one dimensional. 

The playing and singing on “Nobody Knows You” is technically good, but the compositions and arrangements are lacking and the overall mood of the recording is that of just another day at the office.

The Steep Canyon Rangers possess the talent to make some incredible music, and there are flashes of brilliance here, but the magic is just not contained throughout. I am awarding “Nobody Knows You” 3 of 5 Banjo Strings, and let’s all hope for a speedy recovery for this band and many years of great music ahead.


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