REVIEW ARCHIVE


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To have your CD considered for review, contact: W.J. Hallock  ~OR~  Dan King for specific submission and mailing instructions.

November, 2012

By: W.J. Hallock
Siamese Cousins - 2 Chairs, No Waiting
Released: Sept. 2012
Label: Mountain Roads Recordings

I have been very lucky since Brian McNeal asked me to start reviewing new bluegrass CD releases for Prescription Bluegrass. My intake of new music has increased drastically! And I’ve been at it long enough now that I’m starting to do follow up’s on previous reviews and artists, which only adds to the pleasure.

Such was the case when I received a new disc from Mountain Roads Recordings called “2 Chairs, No Waiting” by SIAMESE COUSINS. Edwin Lacy, on vocals and claw hammer banjo, and Scott Freeman on vocals, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and bass, are the “SIAMESE COUSINS” in question. The name comes from the fact that Edwin and Scott have been playing together for so long, in one musical incarnation or another, that they consider themselves “joined at the frets.” NOW I get it! Works for me!

Karl Cooler, owner of Mountain Roads Recordings, Bristol, TN. seems to delight in turning various members of his label’s roster loose in the studio to come up with something new, different and exciting. It sounds like he’s done it again with this CD. Edwin and Scott appear to be having the times of their lives, and the music shows it. Lots of traditional favorites, seven instrumentals, four originals, plenty of pickin’ and vocals that will make you want to sing along. Mr. Cooler’s previous explorations have included “CLOSE KIN, A Reunion Of Bluegrass And Old Time Music,” which Scott and Edwin both were a part of, and “FREEMAN AND WILLIAMS,” consisting of Jeanette Williams, Scott and Johnny Williams. Both the “COUSINS were also members of SKEETER AND THE SKIDMARKS, another noted MRR act. I was immediately interested and attracted just by the familiarity factor.

Another reason I could hardly wait to hear this release is that MRR does all of it’s recording at Eastwood Studios, Cana, VA. Wesley Easter is without a doubt one of the finest producer/engineer’s East of the Mississippi River! And, as usual, the technical side of this CD is flawless. Every song I’ve heard coming from Wesley’s studio is always first rate and every nuance of the music is captured with perfection. Wesley’s knowledge of the music itself, his tech savvy behind the board, and the fact that he is also a fine banjo player himself, help to make him the “go-to-guy” for acoustic recording.

This CD is chock full of good songs and I had no problem just letting the disc play over and over. Scott and Edwin each wrote two, and as good as they are, I would have loved to have heard even more of their compositions. There are three instrumentals….. Edwin‘s “Julianna Eyes” has him on claw-hammer banjo, Scott on mandolin and bass, and it also features Brandon Davis on guitar. Scott’s “Bowl Saint Croix” has them stretching out with the aid of David Johnson on dobro, guitar and bass. Scott plays very tasty mandolin, Edwin is again on claw-hammer and the dobro fit’s the Caribbean/Calypso/island feel to a tee. If this tune doesn’t make you want to get up and dance, nothing’ will! If you listen really close, you’ll hear drums keeping this song cookin’. Ah, the wonders of technology…. and those drums MAKE this tune come alive. Nice touch! This song is my favorite instrumental on the disc. And ….why am I tasting one of those rum drinks with an umbrella in it?

They do a very interesting thing on several of the songs on the CD, and it’s also done on the other two originals. Edwin is playing claw-hammer banjo, and they also use Steve Lewis or Butch Robbins on three finger bluegrass banjo. The way both instruments intertwine makes for a wonderful “janglely” (I wonder if that’s a REAL word?) sound that seems to super charge the tracks. Edwin’s “Vulture Peak,” has both banjos, Scott on fiddle and bass and Steve also on guitar. Wesley Easter’s overdubbing skills were working over time, and I love the results.

Scott sings his own “I Feel A Heartache Coming On,” and I have to say it’s my OTHER favorite song presented here. This is a good one, and this arrangement couldn’t be better. Scott also plays mandolin, fiddle and bass, Edwin is on claw-hammer and Mr. Lewis is on bluegrass banjo and guitar. There is a liveliness and bounce to the song that is instantly ingratiating. Lyrically strong with an unforgettable melody, you’ll want to sing along to this one, too. The strength of these four songs are worth the price of the entire CD….. they are super! Scott and Edwin have instrumental abilities to spare, but their song-writing is proof of how deep their talents are. These songs are inventive, catchy, musically adventurous and faithful to the genre’s Scott and Edwin revere so much. These “Siamese Cousins” have raised the bar on what the next generation of bluegrass picker’s are going to be expected to emulate and try to out do.

Speaking of the next generation, another of the nice surprises on this release is the introduction of Scott’s daughter, Dori Freeman. She does an absolutely lovely version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel,” and Edwin’s banjo puts just the right amount of “haunting” into the song. Dad plays guitar, fiddle and bass. The old A.P. Carter song “Gold Watch And Chain” couldn’t sound any finer than it does with Scott and Willard Gayheart singing the harmony lines to Dori’s lead vocal. This young lady’s voice has an ethereal quality to it that is only going to get more dynamic and distinct as she matures. She already sings with passion, precision and heart. She has a strong individual tone, vocal technique beyond her years, AND her pitch is dead on! My only question is….. has Dad started writing songs with her? I’ll bet she’s already advanced into that stage, too.

“Lonesome Road Blues” is the CD kickoff song, and the guys really do it justice. Former Bill Monroe Bluegrass Boy, Joseph (Butch) Robins, plays banjo on his own song, “Rural Retreat,” and it makes me want to hear more of his originals, too. Edwin, Steve and Scott shine on this one, and it is an attention getter. As is Don Reno’s “Dixie Breakdown,” which has never sounded better than it does here. And on Marshall Wilburn’s “Little Black Pony,” Skeeter and the Skidmarks have a reunion with bass player Sandy Grover Mason again joining Scott, Edwin and Willard Gayheart for a wonderful rendition of this good old song.

Maybe it’s just me, but, when I come across an original song that I’ve never heard before, and it’s a treat to my ears, I want to hear more. I love hearing song-writers that really have their game on! For a writer to include as many of his own songs as possible on a release is what I enjoy the most. When I find a CD of completely original songs, I’m in heaven! The last three songs included here are all done extremely well, but…. how often has the old instrumental “Forked Deer” been recorded? “Homeward Bound” and “Gentle On My Mind” are both in just about every performing musicians stage repertoire, so why include them? It would have been great to hear three more of Scott’s and Edwin’s songs instead….. If you’re gonna swing, swing for the seats in the nose bleed section!

“2 Chairs, No Waiting” is a fun, enthusiastic and thoroughly enjoyable CD, and it needs to be in your collection. And maybe, just maybe, there will be a Volume Two…… I sure hope so!
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By Dan King
Ry Cooder - Election Special
Label: Nonesuch Records
Released:  August 2012


Woody Guthrie did it. Pete Seeger did it. Joan Baez did it. Musical artists down through time have enlisted their craft to make a political point or foster social change. August 2012 found Ry Cooder carrying on that tradition with the release of his latest short play CD – “Election Special.”

“Election Special” is a poignant view of political issues that were hot leading up to the 2012 presidential election, many of which promise to hang around if the post-election turmoil is any indication. Within this work, Cooder utilizes traditional roots music instrumentation and his rough but sincere vocal styling to weave his way through nine original compositions that absolutely drip with musical genius and political insight. Hailing from a generation that started off wanting to change the world but somehow got lost along the way, Cooder is as radical and focused as any 60’s cause artist on “Election Special.”

The first tune, Mutt Romney Blues, is a clever bluesy ditty sung from the perspective of Mitt Romney’s dog on the roof of his car. Silly issue? Some would think so, others would take great offense. Such is the nature of politics. The second cut is a hypnotizing tone poem about the Koch Brothers selling their souls to the devil for power and wealth. As you may have guessed by now, the album leans decidedly to the left on the political spectrum, but the music and the concept of musical activism land squarely in the middle of raw Americana. Agree or disagree with the points of view contained, the mere fact that Ry Cooder can state his political position publicly through his music shines as a beacon for the uniquely American institution of freedom of speech.

About half of the album sounds as if it could have been recorded back in the 40’s or 50’s with vintage sounding instruments and authentic playing. There is also some very rock/R & B oriented material included but the common thread is the ever-present political message. Cooder is a master of the blues slide guitar which is peppered throughout the recording. He also rarely uses a standard tuning on his guitars which tends to give a little different flavor to his playing than most guitarists. If it reminds you of The Rolling Stones, it’s probably because Cooder taught Keith Richards how to play in the open G tuning way back in the 60’s which shaped much of the guitar work on the Stones recordings . Ry also plays mandolin and bass and his son Joachim Cooder plays drums. The only other credit on the album is for Arnold McCuller who sings harmony on “Take Your Hands Off It,” a plea for politicians to stop treading on the Constitution of the United States. The result is a sparse yet powerful pallet of musical colors to paint the political messages with.

Ry Cooder has come on strong in recent years with several stellar works including his California Trilogy, three concept albums that each contain top shelf material. “Election Special” is not Ry’s first foray into the political world, witness his expose on hardball urban renewal ”Chavez Ravine” and his depression era tome “My Name Is Buddy,” two of the discs from the Trilogy.

He also found himself in trouble with the US Government a few years back when he travelled to Cuba and recorded a group of older Cuban “rock stars,” Cuban artists that had been big names in that country when they were younger. That work, “Buena Vista Social Club,” earned Ry lavish critical acclaim and a charge of trading with the enemy from Uncle Sam. Only a pardon from then President Clinton allowed Mr. Cooder back into the country.

“Election Special” is every bit as good and relevant as those recent gems and maybe more powerful. Ryland Peter Cooder seems to just get better with age. I am awarding this recording 4.75 Banjo Strings out of 5 with the prediction that you’ll love it if you’re a lefty, appreciate it if you like art, and perhaps have some trouble with it if you’re disgruntled with the election results. Either way, there is no denying the influence that music can have on shaping not only political views, but everything else human, right down to the kind of car you drive.

Now that this election cycle is over, let’s hope Americans can get together, find common ground, and sing a few rounds of “God Bless America” in unison.
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By: W.J. Hallock
The Grass Cats / The Mountains My Baby and Me
Record Label: New Time Records
Released: July, 2012


     Sometimes I just can’t help myself….. I’ll make sure the CD’s I want to review are all in a neat, orderly pile, and I try soooo hard to listen to them in the order they arrive at my doorstep. I’m a lucky man, there are lots of CD’s to choose from. Then my schedule gets all messed up, because sometimes, one shows up and I’ve already heard some of the artist’s previous music, and I just get nosey. So much for good intentions…….

      The first track that I listened to off  The Grass Cats newest CD, “The Mountains My Baby And Me,” is called LIFE IN THE MINES. I’m a sucker for coal minin’ songs, so I thought I’d check out just this one tune and then get back on schedule. So much for makin’ schedules….. There are seven original songs by Russell Johnson, lead singer and mandolin player, on this thirteen song disc. LIFE IN THE MINES is co-written with Gary Whitt, and it is one dy-no-mite song! A sad, mournful minor key gem with great lyrics, harmony, twin fiddles, dobro and passion in it’s presentation, I was hooked and had to give in and listen to more.  So much for makin’ this CD wait it’s turn…….

      Mr. Johnson produced this disc, and he recorded the band at The Comfort Zone in Four Oaks, N.C. Additional recording was done by banjo player Rick Lafleur at Casey Cat Studios in Durham, N.C. Both gentlemen should be commended for making the technical side of this project crisp, sharp, even, distortion free and spot on. After getting all the tracks recorded, their next move says volumes about their commitment to releasing a superb sounding product. All their labors were entrusted to Mr. Wesley Easter at Eastwood Studios, Cana, W.V. for mixing and mastering. I’ve been lucky enough to have listened to a lot of Mr. Easter’s work, and he is a master “wizard” at his job. He put the icing on this cake with tender loving care and expertise. On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to put the recording process achievement award at a FIFTEEN! A super effort by all involved!

      The band’s independent ways are what originally piqued my interest…… they had been #1 on two of the industry’s bluegrass music charts with their previous hit record “A Good Way To Get The Blues.” Written and sung by Russell, the song made them a household name in bluegrass circles. And they did it without a major, big-time record label pushing them! Their talent prevailed, and their independence got them noticed. “If you want to do it right, do it yourself “ seems to be their mantra. Good for them.

      My second favorite Russell Johnson original is PRISONER OF YOUR LOVE.  Hot tempo, hot licks, hot harmony, Russell’s hottest vocal treatment and hot song-writing all rolled up into one attention getting song. This song should be their next single…. in my humble opinion. This CD’s title track, THE MOUNTAINS MY BABY AND ME, which Russell co-wrote with Rick Lafleur, and OFF AND GONE are the first two songs, and they reach out and grab the listener right away. There are two gospel songs that show Mr. Johnson’s spiritual song-smithing strengths, also. MEET ME UP IN HEAVEN, which has fiddle player Chris Hill singing the lead vocal, and TURNING POINT, with Russell on lead vocals, are both  heartfelt and powerful. The harmony is standout, and the arrangements are pure, simple and meaningful.  
                                                                                           
     The Grass Cats have been together fifteen years, and from the way they play and sing together, it has obviously been quality time. Their harmonies are wonderful! From several of their video’s, you can hear that those harmonies are super tight in their live shows, also. They aren’t manufactured in the studio, and that makes me want to see them in concert! Vocals this good only come with time, talent and the ability to really listen to one another. 

      Bass player Tim Woodall is the anchor of this band. In their videos, he’s always center stage, and his electric bass is their backbone. His electric sound is also the center of this CD, and helps to make The Grass Cats sound all the more distinct.  I love upright acoustic bass, but it can get lost if not recorded and/or mixed just right. Tim’s sound, technique and drive push the rest of the band like a freight train. I love to FEEL the bass as much as I like to hear it! Tim’s lead vocals, on The Ember’s old song WHAT YOU DO TO ME, and Mark Chesnutt’s country hit YOUR LOVE IS A MIRACLE, show off his vocal dexterity. But… he REALLY shines on the old Reno and Smiley hit UNWANTED LOVE. I’ve always been partial to the way the Johnson Mountain Boys did it, but Tim steps into this version and owns it! 

      Chris Hill is on fiddle and is also the third man in their harmony triad. When he kicks off a song or takes a solo, he has a “take charge” flair to his playing that will come right out of left field and sizzle!  No wasted notes, no dramatic flourishes, just solid, right on the money fiddle chops that pin your ears back.  He nails every lick he plays and every note he sings!

      Rick Lafleur, on banjo, is all over this recording….. in a very good way.  To me, a banjo can be a multi-dimensional source of intrigue and exuberance….. or a constant irritant! The very nature of the instrument makes it impossible to ignore, and finesse is not always used. Finesse IS a big part of Rick’s palette. He adds an entire color wheel of nuances to each song, and he seems to have a knack for just the right notes, at just the right time. He has a way of vamping on the backbeat of a rhythm that adds all sorts of interesting hues to the tempo. His timing on his solos is impeccable, and originality seems to be his goal. AND…. he sings good gospel bass vocals!

      I really can’t say much about guitarist Alan Mullen….. being the “new guy” in the band as of August, 2012, he is still making his way into the fold. He plays a solid kickoff to the old Bob Dylan song BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND, his guitar has a sweet tone and his fingering seems fluid and assured. What I’ve heard, I’ve really liked. His addition to the rhythm section was a solid decision. He must be a super-picker to step into this band….. he’s going to have to be to play with this power house unit! 

      Russell Johnson….. he’s already an award winning, two time #1 song-writer. I could go on and on about where his songs have and will take him, he’s THAT good with his lyrics and melodies! And when he starts singing,  he’s every bit as gifted as Del McCoury and Larry Stephenson. He plays mandolin like he was born with it in his hands, and he has the ears that make him an ace record producer. This guy is the real deal, and I have officially become a great big fan! He’s released a solo record, “Any Time Any Place But Only You,” and in August of 2012 he had three songs on the Bluegrass Today national chart, at the same time! That’s not luck….. that’s talent being recognized.

      Listening to this CD has been an interesting experience….. I can get a little jaded, and when something this good comes along, it catches me off guard. I had to dig a little deeper into the meat of the music to try to understand the rationale for song choices. There are no less that three songs on this release that have #1 hit written all over them. But, this record is not perfect. The band has included a cover version of HUNGRY HEART, and the problem is, no matter how good you do a Bruce Springsteen song, it’s still a Springsteen song. The same can be said for Eric Clapton’s I CAN’T STAND IT. There are some songs that just don’t translate…..And sometimes, as on LOVE WITH A LIFETIME GUARANTEE, a good original song is just that…. good, but NOT great. A cute arrangement isn’t going to fix it.  

      Do I like this CD? You bet I do! Do I like all of it?  No…. Do I think that everyone should get this CD?   YEP!  Get it, and add it to your collection.  
       
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October, 2012
By: W.J. Hallock
The Yankee Rebels – Flight of the Phoenix
Label: Ampersand Records
Released: August, 2012

If you love three part vocal harmony like I do, then you’re going to love the new CD “Flight Of The Phoenix” by The Yankee Rebels. Their harmony is super! If you love a five piece bluegrass band with traditional instrumentation, you’re going to love it, too.

Their “pickin’” is as good as their singing! They’re good, and they should be….. they’ve been playing together since FOREVER! Open up the liner notes and you’ll find pictures of them when they started in the ‘60’s, more pictures from the 70’s and ‘80’s and right on up to today. This band is obviously committed and dedicated, and from the total sound of this recording, they’re only getting better with time. No stagnation due to longevity here!

The band is made up of Art Dekhayser on guitar, lead and harmony vocals, Les Bayer on banjo and harmony vocals, Mark Farrell on fiddle and harmony vocals, Allen Cohen on upright bass and David Bressler on mandolin, lead and harmony vocals.

Dave is also the writer of the five original songs presented here. Dave sings lead on the gospel song “Road To Gloryland,” and Art sings lead on “Blue And Lonesome” and “Never Thought I’d Get Over You.” The other two originals are both instrumentals and they really show off the bands musicianship.

On the CD’s title song, “Flight Of The Phoenix,” they are joined by guest lead guitarist Bob Harris, and it turns into hot lick heaven. The other instrumental, “Methuselah Mountain Breakdown,” has Les’ banjo absolutely cookin’ and fiddle and mandolin harmony lines that are classy, tasteful and tight. The only video I could find on YouTube of the band has them performing this song, and their live version is as good as the original.  (VIDEO INCLUDED BELOW POST)

I find it interesting that Dave wrote this last song on a dare. I guess the object was to come up with a song that used every major chord in it. I think he definitely succeeded! Dave is a very gifted song writer….. he must know that inspiration is always just around the corner and you have to be ready when it presents itself. These five songs are the highlights of this CD to me, and if Dave had written five more just as good, which I think is entirely possible, this entire CD effort could have been even better that it is. Get to it Dave! I dare you to write some more good ones! You’re on a roll here and it won’t be long before it’s time to record another CD!

The other seven songs are a mixture of country and bluegrass classics, and the band makes them their own at every turn. The very first song, “Who Done It,” kicks this CD into high gear right away, and it’s another of the songs that guest guitarist Bob Harris sits in on. Up until this CD, my favorite version of “Shackles And Chains” had been by Mac Wiseman. This version is my NEW favorite. Good stuff! Don Williams would probably like the way the guys do his tune “Lay down Beside Me” because they nail it. They end the CD with the old standard “You Can Have Her.” It took me a while to remember that Waylon Jennings did this one, too. Again, I like The Yankee Rebels version of this one best. I almost forgot “Behind These Prison Walls Of Love.” I sure do like the song selection here!

I had listened to this CD for several days before I even got a chance to look at the liner notes, and my first impression was how the songs all flowed so well from one to the next. Quality time was spent on what came where and when. Nice….. It was also apparent that every song was a good one. I thought I knew which ones were the originals, but it took checking the liner notes to be sure. Dave should be proud that his songs fit so well with the older musical gems.

It should be noted that what appears to be the sixth man in The Yankee Rebels line up, Bob Harris, is also the producer. Mr. Harris recorded the band at Ampersand Records USA, in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He also mixed and mastered the final takes. His efforts and talents were very much an asset to this project. It’s obvious that the working relationship he has with the band members is a special one. For a recording to sound this warm, pleasant and technically cohesive, it takes everyone involved to give 110%.

I have the utmost respect for this band….. for them to have stayed together this long, playing the music they love, is a feat they should be proud of. And the best part is that they have grown into a powerful unit that keeps right on trying, pushing and expanding their horizons. I can hardly wait to hear what their next CD is going to sound like…..

Yep….. this CD needs to be in your collection.


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By: W.J. Hallock

RICKY SKAGGS: Music To My Ears
Skaggs Family Records
Released Sept. 2012

       Ricky Skaggs is one of the most consistently excellent, continually relevant and important artists still passionately making quality music in Nashville today. His ever faithful fan base, his influence on up and coming young musicians, his awards, accolades and number one hits on the charts make his career historic. With his newest release , MUSIC TO MY EARS, it’s obvious that Mr. Skaggs has no plans to just rest on his laurels.

      Produced by Ricky, and recorded at his Skaggs Place Studios, this could be his finest studio work ever. Excellent song choices, top shelf musicianship, a surprise guest that brings HIS A-Game to the project, production that is absolutely dead on and Ricky bringing 150% of his considerable talents to this recording all make it a guaranteed winner.

      There is a richness, a fullness, a texture and quality to this recording that is like none I have ever heard from Ricky before. He plays eight different instruments here, but it feels like he has turned his studio into the newest instrument he has mastered and he now knows all the nuances and “sweet spots” that are inherent to this specific medium. The vocal tracks on this record are absolutely wonderful….. whether three and four part bluegrass harmony or an emotional, spiritual and lush choral affect on the more eclectic songs, the vocals are marvelous. Vocals don’t get any better than this…..  

       Instrumentally, Ricky has a who’s who list of pickers to rely on. From his own band, Kentucky Thunder, he uses Cody Kilby on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle, Justin Moses on banjo and Paul Brewster on vocals. 

      Besides being Ricky’s co-producer, Gordon Kennedy, plays acoustic and electric guitar and adds his voice to those oh-so-nice vocals. Several songs have a “Chieftains” like Irish aura to them where Jeff Taylor plays accordion and whistle. Skip Clevenger also plays whistle, and his bagpipes help to make the song “Soldier’s Son” hauntingly affective. The piano artistry of Ben Cooper is only heard on one song, but he makes it very memorable. In my humble opinion, Ben’s piano could have been utilized more.  THE Barry Bales, of Alison Krauss and Union Station, came in and played all the bass tracks. Sweet! 

      Ricky has always been good at choosing songs that fit him like a glove. All eleven of this CD’s songs will probably end up being “Ricky’s” songs.  Carter Stanley’s “Lovin’ You Too Well,” and Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud,” which Ricky dedicates to Doc Watson, are great examples of Ricky at his best.  

      The only instrumental, “New Jerusalem,” which was written by Mr. Skaggs, is a barn burner!  Gordon Kennedy and Ricky put some light hearted fun into their collaboration “You Can’t Hurt Ham.”  Minnie Pearl would have loved it as much as I do! 

      The title song for this CD, “Music To My Ears,” is a personal favorite. Written by Becky Buller, Lisa Aschmann and Mark Simos, it’s simple spirituality becomes an anthem to the beauty of God’s word.  As the arrangement builds in praise and intensity, it has an almost hypnotic affect as the melody’s “hook” line is played over and over, pushing and driving the song’s message home. And it couldn’t be more fitting for this powerful song to end almost in a whisper. It also couldn’t be more fitting for Ricky Skaggs, known for his faith and love of Scripture, to record this particular song. Almost like a match made in heaven……

      Leave it to Ricky to bring on board super star singer song-writer Barry Gibb. “Soldier’s Son” takes as big a departure from bluegrass as it’s possible to take, but, Ricky pulls it off and makes it fit right in, just like it was made for this project. Written by Barry, with Ashley Gibb and Stephan Gibb, the song is haunting and dramatic, with, again, that “Chieftain’s” eeriness.  The way Ricky and Barry switch off on the lead vocal, and the wall of background vocals erected, make the singing magnificent. 

      Such different singers making such a unique and interesting sound together is producer foresight at it’s best. Another instance of “Picky Ricky” nailing it with his golden touch in the studio. The most interesting thing about this song is that it also could have been taken in a totally acoustic direction and it would have been just as meaningful. 

      Skip Clevenger’s bagpipes MAKE this song, and the electric guitars and affects add a body and rhythm that absolutely propels it. No drummer is listed in the liner notes, but, Ricky’s staff confirmed for me that electronic drums were used on this song. Their affect on “Soldier’s Son” can only be described as dynamic! If my ears don’t deceive me, drums were also used on several other songs.  

      The inclusion of new technology into Ricky’s recording process further convinces me that Ricky may be firmly attached to old time music and vintage acoustic instruments, but he keeps an ear to the ground for gear that will improve and enhance his music. And, as usual, he’s way in front of the curve.

      It took several listenings before the real influence and contributions of Gordon Kennedy finally sunk in. His musicianship, writing and production help are more than evident by the quality of the finished product. Four of the original songs here are his co-writes, and all flavor the end result greatly.
     
      “You Know You Can’t Hurt Ham” is straight ahead bluegrass. “What Are You Waiting For” and “Nothing Beats A Family,” both written with pianist Ben Cooper, have a progressive bluegrass/country element to them that make this a very tender, yet modern, CD. 

      “You Are Something else,” written with Wayne Kirkpatrick and Mellinda Schneider, can only be described as pop bluegrass!  I know that sounds strange, but….. this CD has an individuality all it’s own.  And that individuality is a direct result of song selection and production direction. Every song can be analyzed on it’s own merits and found to be different than the one right before and right after it. And THAT is what I love about this recording the most!  

      This CD is a testament to the fact that there are so many sides, angles, facets and incarnations to RICKY SKAGGS, and everything he records, he makes his own. 

      As another odd observation….. the very first song, “Blue Night,” by David Kirk McGee, feels just like it could have been a song off one of Ricky’s very first releases back in his country days.  The tempo, the drive, the feel….. its all there. All that would be needed is for Ricky to have used a stinging Fender Telecaster, drums and steel guitar and he would probably have another COUNTRY hit on his hands!  Come to think of it, he could have recorded most of this CD with that 80’s instrumental lineup and the country DJ’s would be fighting to see who would be playing it first. Maybe, just maybe….. Ricky could save country music AGAIN, just like Chet Atkins said he did in the early 80’s! 

      Ricky is a bluegrass artist, a country artist, a Christian artist, an innovator, a virtuoso, a perfectionist and a super star.  And you can hear him be all those things, and more, as he blows the doors off every song on this recording!

      Yep……this one MUST be in your collection!


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September, 2012

Byron Berline - Jammin' With Byron
Double Stop Music
Released: August, 2012

Byron Berline loves to play the fiddle. You can tell. There is a contagious energy that comes off his strings when he is bowing that sounds simultaneously athletic and poetic. Witness the impressive display of fiddle gymnastics that starts on the first tune of his new CD, “Jammin’ With Byron” and continues all the way through the 22nd and final track.

Twenty-two tunes would amount to an entire recording career for some musicians, but Byron and his large band of fine picking friends have compiled that many on this one single CD. It is a project that seems destined to become a textbook on old-time fiddle playing for generations to come.

Byron Berline has long been recognized as one of the première fiddlers in the land. Back in the mid-sixties, he caught the attention of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Monroe was so taken by the aforementioned energy that he invited Byron to join his band. But Byron was a young man then with his own agenda and a strong conviction to see it through. The offer from Monroe had to be tabled in order to allow Byron time to finish his formal education.

A few years later with his teaching degree firmly in hand, Byron took Monroe up on the offer and joined the Bluegrass Boys. The collaboration was to be short-lived however, as the United States Army had a completely different gig in mind for the young fiddler. Upon completion of his service to his country, Berline forged a long and storied career in the music business by playing on countless relevant recordings of the day, appearing in concert with major acts, and winning awards both as a solo performer and as a member of the band “California.”

Recorded and mixed at Byron’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie Oklahoma, "Jammin’ With Byron” sounds like what it is; a bunch of friends getting together and recording some tunes for the fun of it. This “jam” is not a free for all. Byron and associates have taken the time to work out arrangements for the songs with twin and harmony lines of melodies, and structures in the traditional ABA style. The result is a nice neat package with lots of fine picking and improvisational wizardry. Ten of the 22 songs contained here are Berline compositions and all the tracks are instrumentals.

The core band on “Jammin’ With Byron” includes Berline on fiddle and mandolin, Greg Burgess on fiddle and guitar, Jim Fish on guitar, and John Hickman on banjo. All in all, seventeen musicians appear on various tunes on the recording, with wife Betty Berline showing up on keyboards on four of them. All the musicians are top flite, leading to a plethora of well-played and energetic bluegrass and Celtic music.

The only down side I can see to this work is that almost all the tunes are mid-tempo songs. With twenty-two tracks from start to finish, a few nice romantic melodies mixed with three or four barn burners would have made the recording a bit easier to digest in a single sitting. Also, some of the tuning is suspect here and there, but mind you, it IS basically a live studio recording. These musicians recorded 15 tunes in one night for this CD! Heck, many bands will run through just one song 15 times to try to get it right, and still have to punch in parts that are out of tune, out of time, or just not played very well. These guys (and gal) are still way ahead of the curve in that regard.

All in all, ”Jammin’ With Byron” is an interesting must-have CD for fiddle aficionados and musicologists alike, as well as a nice teaching tool for aspiring players. It is a fitting contribution from a prolific fiddler who started out to be a teacher in the first place. But you don’t need an ulterior motive like studying the fiddle to enjoy this music. Even a casual listen is sure to perk up your day.

I must say that the cover of this CD is my odds on favorite to win the CD Cover of the Year Award. For the music, I am awarding “Jammin’ With Byron” four and a half banjo strings along with a whole lot of respect for the man, the myth, Byron Berline.

As more than one client must have said to him throughout his career, “Nicely played sir.”
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By: W.J. Hallock
Geoff Union - Cold As Steel
Label: Shining Castle Music
Released: May 2012


Austin, Texas singer/songwriter and guitarist Geoff Union sent me his new solo CD “Cold As Steel,” and my first impression was that instrumentally, this music was some of the best “front porch pickin’” I’d heard in a while. Surrounding himself with some of Austin’s finest musicians, it’s relaxed and comfortable, but still tight and energetic.

Geoff used to be a member of Austin’s hot “Two High String Band,” that at one time included banjo super star Alan Munde. Billy Bright, producer and mandolin player on this project, was also a member of THSB. This recording was done at Billy’s Mando Cave Studio in Wimberley, TX.


Geoff wrote all of the songs here, including “Devil’s Card” and “Water In The Well,” which he co-wrote with Jim Harris. Two are instrumentals, “Half Past Zero” and “Fannie At The Front door.” Besides Billy Bright on mandolin and mandola, Geoff has Ricky Turpin on fiddle, Mark Maniscalco on banjo and Steven Crow and Dom Fisher sharing the bass duties. Christina Union contributed all the harmony vocals for Geoff.


“Half Past Zero” is a jazzy number that Geoff states he modeled after the early David Grisman bluegrass/jazz “Dawg” sound. Geoff plays big fat staccato chords on his rhythm tracks and precise octave licks on his lead lines that sidle right up to Ricky Turpin’s stinging fiddle lines. The song has more of a Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli feel to me. Mandolin and bass solos also get a chance to sparkle on this one. The songs “hook” lines held the arrangement together beautifully, and all the players echoed that hook to keep it memorable. But the song was about a minute too short….. I kept waiting for Geoff to just let go and let his hot licks fly! Geoff’s name is on the CD cover, he wrote the song, and this would have been a perfect vehicle for him to pull out all the stops, throw himself front and center and kick this song right in the behind! It could have gone from being a good song to a tour de force if he had been more aggressive and adventurous.


The other instrumental, “Fannie At The Front Door” DID take off! Geoff and Ricky’s parallel guitar and fiddle lines are super tight, and Mark’s right hand banjo rolls are especially good, too. The entire band was cookin’ on this one, and I think it’s the best song on the CD. Geoff played marvelously on it. The band obviously spent a lot of time working up strong, original and musically articulate arrangements on each and every song.


I admire an artist who has the gumption to record an entire CD of original material. But, Geoff seems content being a member of the band. He doesn’t seem to relish the self promotion needed to take the spotlight with this “solo” CD. Maybe I took the entire emphasis wrong from what Geoff had in mind….. maybe he wanted it to be a band excursion. Either way, I don’t think Geoff was ready for this project.


Geoff’s writing is uneven. Both songs he co-wrote with Jim Harris are good, solid and well presented songs. Both instrumentals are well written also. Three others are just representations of Geoff’s writing style. I would not have included “Lewis Redmond” on this record. More time should have been spent on the lyrics, editing redundancies and custom fitting those lyrics to the timing of the song. If that extra work had been done, the vocal would have been stronger and not so hesitant. The story line itself would have been more understandable. Too many words can stifle the vocal and ruin the flow of the entire song. The song felt a long way from being finished. The best way to check if your lyrics are working, is to read those lyrics aloud without the music. If the writer can make his words conversational and naturally roll off the tongue without having to change up the timing to accommodate the lyrics, then they are going to sing just as easy.


Geoff’s vocals are either hit or miss….. the faster the song, the more engaged and focused he seems to be. The vocals sound neglected, like not enough time was spent recording them. In order for the vocals to be as strong and vital as the instrumentation, the time in the studio has to be spent on each phrase and note. To make the weaker parts of a CD shine, they sometimes just require more effort. Killer instrumental tracks don’t make up for weak vocals. Just like killer vocals can’t carry weak instrumentalists. What you end up with is only 50% of what you set out to accomplish. For all it’s good points, there are equal and opposing weak points that keep this CD from being a complete success.


Nothing pleases me more than when I get to hear new music! I ALWAYS feel I get more OUT of doing these reviews than I put INTO them. Geoff is a very talented guitarist, and his song-writing is only going to get better as he hones his craft. He knows how to tell a story, he just needs to learn the art of simplification with his lyrics. Sometimes less adds to the mystery and the nuances of the story line. NOT telling all the details can be the difference between a song and a HIT song!


The studio should be his experimental home until he figures out just how to turn his voice into a one-of-a-kind, unique instrument all it’s own. Try everything! Softer….. louder…..different keys….. talk/sing the story….. whisper the lyrics….shout the lyrics! Keep trying until you stumble onto YOUR VOICE!


Thank you Geoff for letting me get the chance to hear who you are…..

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Prescription Bluegrass CD Reviews are published as a courtesy to the listener/consumer.  We strive to be fair and balanced but still reviews are opinions and we welcome yours.  All responsible comments, whether agreeing or disagreeing with the reviewer, will also be published.  Send your comments to: Reviews@PrescriptionBluegrass.com


The Roys - "New Day Dawning
Label: Rural Rhythm
Released: August, 2012

Stop for just a minute and think of all the acts in bluegrass and country music that have been made up of family members….. the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers, the Whites, the Isaacs, the Stanley Brothers, the Dillards, the Rice Brothers, the Gibson Brothers and so many more….. Now add all the duet partners you can think of into the mix, and it gets even more interesting! Vince and Patty Loveless, Porter and Dolly, Conway and Loretta, Alison and Brad Paisley, Tammy and George, and who could forget Lonzo and Oscar and Homer and Jethro! Musical pairings like this have been known to be magical, historic, whimsical and awe inspiring. Some CDs, like Larry Sparks’ “40,” have been all duets, or more than one guest star, on a song. When two or more really good singers get together in harmony, the grand total is almost always more than the sum of the parts. The sharing, and the give and take, seem to bring out the best in everyone involved.

Brother and sister duo, Lee and Elaine Roy, The Roys, seem to be right on the verge of placing themselves into the elite company of those named above with their second effort on Rural Rhythm Records, “New Day Dawning.” The first single they have released, “Still Standing,” written by Elaine and Lee, has all the markings of a hit record. It’s definitely one of the two best songs presented here. The other being the tender story of a family having lost their patriarch, “Daddy To Me,” which was written by Lee and Brandon Rickman. A very touching song….. What I find most intriguing is that all the songs on this EP are either written or co-written by Elaine and/or Lee. Not only do they sing great together, but they write as well as they sing. Each song is special in it’s own way. Nice!

Their first CD was produced by the Roys and Andy Leftwich, and they chose Skaggs Family Studio and most of Skaggs’ band, Kentucky Thunder, for that endeavor. Lee and Elaine again chose the same team for this trip to the studio, and a good choice it was. The musicianship is top notch and spot on! Dobro “addict” that I am, it was especially nice to hear Randy Kohrs playing soft, pretty and warm…. but, don’t worry, his hot licks were present, too! With Mark Fain on bass, Cody Kilby on guitar, Justin Moses on banjo, Steve Brewster on percussion, Jeff Taylor on accordion and Luke Skaggs on baritone guitar, all Andy had to do was add his fiddle and mandolin to make a close to perfect studio band for Elaine and Lee to sing to.

Lee and Elaine pretty much split the lead singing duties 50/50, with the other sibling singing the harmony part. They have that familial closeness that you have to be born with, and they are each solid singers, no matter which part they’re singing. But, I wonder if something different should be done with their vocals….. as good as they are, they tend to sound generic. They seem to be following a formula. As an example, you always KNEW it was the Everly Brothers the second they started singing. Phil and Don’s voices were mixed very close to the same volume, and the sound came out BIG, with both individual voices becoming one unique entity. Technology is a wonderful thing these days, sounds can be enhanced and new techniques can be invented in the studio that can still be used on live shows. All it takes is the time, the effort and the experimental desire to change things up. There has to be a way for the Roys to individualize their vocal sound.

With all the PR the Roys have garnered with their first CD, “Lonesome Whistle,” and the resulting exposure from their inclusion in the cast of the PBS aired DVD “Pa’s Fiddle, The Music Of America,” the Roys are building a big head of steam to push their career along. Opportunities are presenting themselves daily for advancement, and life on the road, appearing at concerts and festivals, is becoming their new “norm.” This second EP is more than important…… it’s vital to their long term goals. This is not the time for them to stumble! Don’t hold my feet to the fire, but, I believe it was Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who so wisely said that a musician gets twenty five years to write his first record, and only six months to write the second.

Lee and Elaine are writing lots of songs, GOOD songs, together or with others, all the time. A lack of material when it comes time to record shouldn’t ever be a problem. But, maybe timing is…. On this EP, they have three songs about family loss… “Daddy To Me,” “Grandpa’s Barn” and “Living Scrapbook.” All are slow, and though they are all good songs, listener likeability and attention span comes into play. Is that listener going to stay “hooked” when three out of seven songs are so introspective? They nailed it when they wrote “Still Standing,” and I’ll bet they have more up tempo songs they could have tapped. Some of Elaine’s sassiness would have helped liven things up a bunch!

Lee and Elaine are very lucky in that they have the freedom to produce themselves. But, sometimes the wisest thing to do is to let someone else do the thinking. Andy Leftwich is a very talented guy…. but he’s not Ricky Skaggs…. or Carl Jackson…. or a producer of that caliber. He’s still learning his craft, just like Elaine and Lee. Those big time producers get paid to think three or four jumps ahead. They already know all the studio tricks, they know before the first note is played what needs to happen, and when. They have “ears” trained in knowing which song is going to be a hit, and which ones aren’t. They will be thinking song sequence for the end product before you can tune your guitar for the very first recording session. And if they know of a song, by someone else, that will give YOU a hit record, they’re not afraid to tell you about it. They deal in honesty, because playback speakers don’t lie. They know how to listen for a singer’s weak spots, and fix them. They push the envelope on a singer’s assets. And when a pair of singer’s are at a point where they can’t afford to stumble, a top of the line producer is worth his weight in gold.

This is quality music, sung by talented singers and played by fine musicians. The song-writing tells me that The Roys have a bright future in front of them. Is this record perfect? No….not in my humble opinion. But, I will say… yep, this one needs to be in your collection. It will be a fine base line to compare against their next EP….. which I fully expect to be even better than their first two releases!



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August, 2012
Pa’s Fiddle

The Music of America


Inspired by: the 'Little House On The Prairie' books of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Distributed by: Compass Records

The Little House On The Prairie books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the television series starring Michael Landon, are a multi-generational phenomena that have, and will continue to, affect American culture and history in the decades to come. In my own household, our children were raised on a steady diet of the books and the TV show, and their Grand Mother, a Depression era child, loved the show and books as much as the kids did.

There was a goodness, an innocence and an early American history lesson of right and wrong embedded in every chapter of each book and every episode of the series. The virtues of God, family and self sufficiency were unabashedly praised, loved and enjoyed by all who were fans. I wonder how many readers and viewers, just like me, watched, read and compared the experiences of the Ingalls family to our own family histories? Old photographs of my pioneering ancestors immediately come to mind. Change the names, and it was exactly the same life my great grandparents lived homesteading in the sand hills of Nebraska.

The input of musicologist Dale Cockrell, his knowledge of Joseph “Pa” Ingalls’ musical talents and his expertise in the music of the mid 19th century is the thread that holds this project together. He points out that in her books, Laura noted 127 songs that Pa loved and played. He also notes that Pa’s fiddle playing was probably a daily part of the often dreary, lonely and uncertain life they led. Mr. Cockrell helped to choose the seventeen songs presented here, and these songs are a wonderful cross section of gospel, patriotic and popular tunes from Pa’s era. Some also dealt with the issues of slavery. Just for fun, as you watch and listen, see how many of these songs YOU recognize!

The singers starring in this production all did a marvelous job of interpreting their chosen songs. Bluegrass newcomers, the Roys, country artists Ashton Shepherd, Natalie Grant and Rodney Atkins, and icons Ronnie Milsap and Randy Travis were super. But, the show stoppers were five wonderful African-American singers with the name “Committed”. This octet received standing ovations from the live crowd at Loveless Barn, in Nashville, TN. when they sang “Roll The Old Chariot Along,” and “The Battle Cry Of Freedom.” Their talent, charisma, power and stage presence were superb! Whoever found “Committed”, be it musical director Randy Scruggs, executive producer Dean Butler, Compass Records executive producer Garry West, Mr. Cockrell or some un-named talent coordinator, they should be lauded for their efforts in bringing these gentlemen to the show.

The Pa’s Fiddle Band”, made up of six Nashville A-List musicians, seemed to be having as much fun as the singers. Even the stoic Mr. Scruggs, on acoustic guitar, was smiling and playing his fingers off! Hoot Hester on mandolin, Shad Cobb on banjo, Chad Cromwell on drums and bassist Dennis Crouch all looked completely at ease with “Pa’s” music. But, I enjoyed Matt Combs on fiddle the most…… it was like he was playing FOR Pa Ingalls. As THE instrument of the Ingalls story’s, too flashy would have been wrong for the songs and too simple would have been condescending.
Mr. Combs captured exactly the right feel and texture of what these historic songs dictated. I’m sure that “Pa” would have loved Matt’s fiddling! “Soldier’s Joy,” and “The Arkansas Traveler/Devil’s Dream,” played by these studio masters never sounded better or more historically appropriate.

As good a show as this was, the only thing I missed were back-ground vocals. “The Sweet By And By,” and “Rock Of Ages,“ sung by Randy Travis, would have benefited from more singers. The entire ensemble all packed the stage for the closing number “Ol’ Dan Tucker,” and again, “Committed” made the song even more memorable.

An integral part of this presentation are the bonus features at the end of the DVD. Mr. Cockrell’s “Notes on Pa’s Fiddle Music,” and “Little House On The Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder” are as enjoyable as the music itself. My wife and I watched the DVD, and I watched again with my oldest daughter, and I came away both times with a very warm sense that the Ingalls books, and these songs, are an American treasure……. and will be for many generations to come. Yep….. Get “Pa’s Fiddle” and enjoy it with your whole family.


(Note: Pa's Fiddle is both a CD  and a DVD.  The DVD includes bonus tracks not included on the CD - "There Is A Fountain" by Natalie Grant, Dale Cockrell's notes mentioned above and a trailer on the legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder)
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July  2012
Old Crow Medicine Show - Carry Me Back
Released: July, 2012

My son is an “old soul” when it comes to his musical tastes. The Dead, CCR, Tom Petty, Neil Young….. the sound-track of the 60’s and 70’s suits him just fine. But, he also has an inquisitive and adventurous side that includes all kinds of new music. And when he finds something that he likes, he usually shares it with me, and I end up a fan, too. Such was the case in the Fall of 2009.

We were going to visit him, and there was a concert set for that same week that he insisted we attend. He had seen this group two previous times and wanted us to experience his newest “favorite band of all time!” Always being up for a musical adventure, off we went.


“The Depot,” in Salt Lake City, Utah was a great venue for my introduction to “Old Crow Medicine Show,” and what a show it was! Raw energy, a packed audience of all ages, dancer’s that never stopped….. a great show and great music. And the best part was that I got to share it with my son. I’ve been an Old Crow fan ever since!


Their newest CD, “Carry Me Back,” has to be my favorite, and I also think it’s their best work to date. The song-writing is stronger and more eloquent than ever before, their musicianship has evolved from the garage band innocence on their earlier releases to the precise and exacting unit they are today, and their vocals have become more unique, exciting, emotional and intense. Their harmony here is super tight.


Their timing used to be loose and floppy, and on really fast songs there was that impending sense that at any moment that train might run right off the tracks! That sure isn’t the case on this CD. OCMS still takes FAST to a new level, but, they pull it off with talent and an assured swagger. Listen to the first song, “Carry Me Back To Virginia,” and “Sewanee Mountain Catfight,” and you’re going to wonder how does Ketch Secor, their group ring-master, sing that many words that fast? Just how can he spit those words out at that tempo and still have every word understandable? “Bootlegger’s Boy,” and “Mississippi Saturday Night” are also speed record entrants. Just how far these guys have come musically since their inception in 1998 is especially apparent on these four songs. Producer Ted Hutt should be commended for harnessing and channeling that OCMS “identity” into a controlled and powerful objet d’art. Working out of Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios, this team effort had wonderful results, because everyone brought their A-game.


As fast and raucous as these four tunes are, the band does a complete 180 degree turn on two of the remaining songs, which are tender, soft and emotional. “Ways Of Man,” an inspirational waltz has Ketch and Jim Lauderdale on vocals with accordion and piano in the accompaniment. “Ain’t It Enough” is another waltz with a great message. The boys all focus their efforts with a close, warm performance. Both songs are lyrically very descriptive, and a sweet sense of togetherness seems to come from all the players as they made sure these two came out “just right.” They succeeded in making them my CD favorites. A video of “Ain’t It Enough” in the echo chamber at Sound Emporium Studios is included at the end of this review.


OCMS has a way of taking old subjects and making them relevant today. They do it again here…. “We Don’t Grow Tobacco” and “Half Mile Down,” both have an early Americana relevance. “Steppin’ Out,“ has a straight ahead Dixieland groove, and dobro player Gill Landry wrote and sings the two-step “Genevieve.“ Kevin Hayes and Secor did a bit of word thievery, from Hank Williams no less, and came up with a catchy sing-a-long tune called “Country Gal.” Ten of the twelve songs on this CD were either written or co-written by Ketch Secor. His thumb print is all over this project, and his vision seems to propel OCMS.


The dichotomy of anti-war lyrics set to rousing up-tempo music is very well done on the song “Levi.” Real life soldier Levi Barnard lost his life in Baghdad’s Dora Market, and when Mr. Secor learned that Levi was from Ararat, Virginia, not far from Ketch’s Shenandoah Valley home, and that Levi’s favorite song was the Old Crow anthem “Wagon Wheel,“ he was moved to write one of his best songs yet. With lyrics firmly based in the here and now, and that patented OCMS string band sound spinning it along, “Levi” will probably be one of those songs their fans will be singing for years to come. It’s memorable, heartfelt, angry AND catchy! It’s also a wonderful ode to the life and sacrifice of an American hero. Thank you Mr. Secor…. there aren’t enough songs like this one.


The personnel on “Carry Me Back” consists of Kevin Hayes on guitjo, Morgan Jahnig on upright bass, Gill Landry on dobro and vocals, Willie Watson on guitar and vocals, Cory Younts on mandolin and vocals and Ketch Secor on fiddle, harmonica, guitar, banjo and vocals. Their special guests were Critter Fuqua on accordion and Jim Lauderdale on vocals. I mention this because the current touring band has two different members. Critter, who was an original member, is back in the fold along with Chance McCoy, and Watson and Younts are out. Such is the revolving door of the road musician…..


My son will be home in a few days, and I have a funny feeling my copy of “Carry Me Back” will probably disappear. I’ll HAVE to replace it, because once you’re an Old Crow fan, you’re always an Old Crow fan. And yep…. this one needs to be in your collection, too.

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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.

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Larry Stephenson - What Really Matters
Compass Records
Released: June, 2012

An old Irish friend of mine from Belfast used to tell me: “Remember son, there’s just no substitute for class.” That thought kept popping into my head as I listened to Larry Stephenson’s new CD, “What Really Matters.” There is not one thing about this CD that isn’t first class, the song selection, the musicianship, the harmonies, the production, the packaging, the liner notes and photos. ALL of it! It just doesn’t get any better than this folks…. And the reason is, it’s energy is all focused to surround and support THAT voice. That voice that is the very essence of bluegrass COOL. There is not a note out of tune, or out of time, not an inflection that isn’t necessary and the raw emotion is as thick and palpable as whipped cream. No braggadocio, just an honest down to earth conveyance of feeling.

After several listening's, I did my usual internet search and You Tube excursion, which further cemented some of my audio visions with video evidence. Larry has that same low key, no wasted movement, calm, friendly, assured demeanor live, on stage, that he also has in his voice on this CD. Not a hair out of place, tailored suits that fit just right, a stage presence that is strong, but not ego driven, and a thousand watt smile that he easily presents to the crowd, the camera and his band mates. Larry looks bluegrass cool, too.
But, I have to admit, I’ve been a fan for a long while now. The first Larry Stephenson song that ever reached out and grabbed me by the ears was “Knoxville Boy.” What a great song and what a great performance. Then I discovered “Many Hills Of Time” and “Clinch Mountain Mystery.” I still haven’t decided which of this CD’s songs is my favorite. It could be the Ronnie Reno penned “Big Train,” that here absolutely sizzles! Or the Wayland Holyfield/Dickey Lee tune “The Blues Don’t Care Who’s Got ‘Em.” Or…… let me think about this some more…..

The afore mentioned “energy,” in this band is provided by three of the most gifted pickers in bluegrass music today. Not only does Danny Stewart handle upright bass, he’s also the bands bass singer. Their four part harmony on the old gospel number “On The Jericho Road” shows him off! The lead vocals on it are handled by guitarist Kevin Richardson. Another strong vocal performance. Kevin’s guitar work here is either hot as a pistol or sweet and pretty. Listen to his solos on “Bear Tracks,” the Jimmy Martin/J.D. Crowe instrumental, and you’ll know what I mean. The focus of this song is banjo player de-luxe, Kenny Ingram, who has to be one of the top five banjo men alive today. And as a plus, through the generosity of Sonny Osborne, Kenny plays the ‘66 Vega Custom banjo that Sonny played on all those old Osborne Brothers hits. What a GREAT sound. And Kenny makes it sound wonderful. Nostalgia at it’s best. If I had one wish, I’d wish that Larry would play some more mandolin….. he is the singer, yes, but his playing is an asset he could show off a little more. These four players are a cohesive, solid unit that is the very foundation for those super vocals to build on. Strength in small numbers.

The songs that Larry, the band and co-producer extraordinaire, Ben Surratt, picked for this project are a wide swath of varied sounds and feels. Straight ahead bluegrass plus some Merle and some Woody Guthrie. The title song, “What Really Matters,” by the late Harley Allen and John Wiggins obviously means a lot to Larry…. and he sings his heart out on it. Only one original song by Larry is on this CD. And the strength and power that comes from “God Will,” makes me wonder why Larry isn’t showcasing his own songs more. This is song-writing at it’s best.

Guest musicians are Sam Bush on fiddle and singing lead on “Philadelphia Lawyer,” A-list fiddler Aubrey Haynie, who shines on those twin fiddle parts, steel guitar player Robby Turner (WHAT? A steel guitar?), Dan Electro bassist Jerry Kimbrough and drummer Rob Crawford (What? What?). The final song on “What Really Matters” is an old sounding swing tune, “Before I’m Over You,” that makes the most of these last three men. What a great way to add some spice to this project! And a real departure from the rest of the songs. Is this really a one time event, or are Larry and Compass Records leaving bread crumbs that they know we’ll follow to a full CD of Larry singing COUNTRY? As far ranging as Compass is in their artist roster, and as good a singer as Larry Stephenson is, he could certainly do it, as evidenced here.

And as long as I’m thinking ahead, what about a whole CD of Larry and Del McCoury duets”? As good as they sounded together on Larry’s “20th Anniversary “ CD doing “Have You Come To Say Goodbye,” I’d sure buy it! And wouldn’t THAT be cool? They could call the CD “Two cool dudes!” Yep….. this one needs to be in your collection, too.

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June 2012
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.


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By W.J. Hallock

Bill Evans / In Good Company

Record Label: Native and Fine Records 
Released: May 2012

      One quick first listen to this CD was all I was going to have time for….. three hours later I was still at it!   Time flies when you’re havin’ FUN!  Several things became obvious right away. #1. Bill Evans is one of the finest banjo players I’ve ever heard. #2. Bill Evans is every bit as good a song-writer as he is an instrumentalist. #3. Bill must be incredibly intelligent, because he totally understands that by bringing in the hottest musicians to record with, he not only pushes himself to play better, he brings out the very best in the rest of the team. And with twenty six players, what a team it is!

      Bill and The Infamous Stringdusters do the 1971 gem by the late John Martyn, “Walk To The Water.” Bill joins Joy Kills Sorrow to do Sarah Siskind’s “On And On.” And the great vocals of Tim O’Brien and Laurie Lewis harmonize on the Bill and Tim arrangement of the old traditional song “Follow The Drinking Gourd.” All three of these songs are invigorating, interesting, exciting and a pure delight to hear. And they are the only three songs on In Good Company that have vocals on them! It took me a while to realize why I wasn’t missing vocals on the other nine songs….. Bill’s banjo, coupled with his playing technique’s, has a very unique “voice” all it’s own. Smooth, soft and soothing….. smokey and sensual….. feisty and furious. It’s all there when Bill’s banjo “SINGS!”

      Bill wrote a total of five instrumentals for this CD, and they are as different and varied as the many shades you’ll find on a color wheel. “Big Chief Sonny” is a rollicking, good time almost Dixieland piece. “Dakota,” is a barn burner and sizzles in it’s speed and intricacy. “The Distance Between Two Points,” and its accompanying, just released video, is a free form excursion that builds in tempo and intensity. As the first song, it is a perfect opener. Its sets a tone of mystery that draws the listener in immediately. “Some Other Creek,” is…… WOW! My personal favorite is “They Say You’re Never Lonely in Louisville.” Accompanied only by Corey Evans on drums and Cindy Browne Rosefield on bass, Bill plays a slow, sultry jazz feel that is both intimate and enticing. Oscar Peterson has nothing on Bill’s banjo here…… As the last song of the CD, it’s a very gentle way for Bill to say “thank you and good night.” 

      Bill does four songs by The Beatles, and having grown up on the Fab Four (and having heard at least a thousand not so glorious versions of each one) I wasn’t expecting what Mr. Evans delivered. Those Lennon and McCartney melodies took on a whole new, refreshing and warm feel! I couldn’t help myself, I was singing along with each one and then playing them again as I remembered more forgotten lyrics! It’s a gutsy move to take an established song and even attempt to take it someplace new. Its pure artistry and vision if you can do it and succeed! Congratulations Mr. Evans. 

      At this point it dawned on me that Mr. Evans has two more qualities that are very obvious. Graciousness and an unselfish demeanor. On “Mother Nature’s Son,” he doesn’t even play! He turns the reins over to his team and lets THEM shine. How cool….. And on three other songs, Bill is joined by a second banjo player, and joyously makes room for everyone.
      The title of this CD, “In Good Company,” sums up the gentle vibe that seems to flow so easily out of each song. To name each of the cast members and how each impressed me would take hours. From the famous and well known to the not so well known, its safe to say they wouldn’t be here if Bill Evans wasn’t a fan of their playing and knew they would shine on this project. But, on a personal note, I was totally knocked out by the talents of Mike Marshall on mandolin and David Grier on guitar. 

      The team that Bill put together also included his co-producers, Stephen Mougin, Darol Anger and Tom Size. And, although recorded at five different studios, the team made sure the quality and feel of this CD was first rate and top shelf all the way through, from start to finish. AND… if there was a Grammy Award for best liner notes, this one would win, hands down! All folded up and tucked into a pocket is an 18 inch by 14 inch  double sided poster with pictures on one side and all the info on each song printed out in lettering big enough even I could  see it without my bifocals. Thank You Mr. Evans!

      Yep……. You need to have this CD in YOUR collection, and you may as well go ahead and get two of ‘em, because it won’t take long ‘til you have the first one worn out.



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By W.J. Hallock

Carolina Road - Back To My Roots

Rural Rhythm Records
Released: August, 2011

A bluegrass band with name recognition, a solid fan base and musical credentials has two choices when it comes time to record a new CD. They can seize the opportunity to spread their wings and fly a little higher. They can go a little farther than normal and test the boundaries of their talents and imagination. They can step up their game and take their career to the next level. They can push the competition to try and keep up with THEIR level of excellence. OR…… they can just pull out the “Formula for Recording Bluegrass Music” text book and follow it word for word and step by obligatory step.

On “Back To My Roots,” the latest CD by Carolina Road, it seems they have chosen the latter path. It has some very good moments, but, for the most part, it is uneven, uninspired and ordinary.

In the liner notes, Lorraine states that she and the boys decided to pay homage to their traditional roots this time around. They missed their intended mark….. A lack of talent is NOT the problem here. Each musician has the experience, timing, feel, dexterity and “ears” that are attuned to playing together as a well honed unit. With three lead singers and harmonies that are strong and solid, vocals aren’t a problem either. 

Song selection is the culprit. There are some really good songs here, historical compositions worthy of being remembered and passed on. “Lee Berry Rye” in particular. A few are keepers, but, not all are noteworthy. And two belong on a more contemporary focused project. Those two are stand out songs written and sung by guitarist Tommy Long. “Granny’s Garden” is a medium tempo sweet, smooth two step filled with fond familial memories, and “Cold Carolina Snow” is just plain good in every aspect. They are both favorites, but, they deserve to be somewhere other than on a retro rehash.

There are so many tunes to choose from in bluegrass song books, more diverse and interesting songs than presented here. Not even one waltz can be found….. “Sharecroppers Son” is a great old song, but is there any bluegrass band that hasn’t covered it? The triple fiddles on “I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still” are gorgeous, and played in a dance hall, the floor would be full in a heartbeat. It has been played to death also…… 

Why do so many acts feel they have to take an old song and speed it up to a breakneck tempo just to show off the picker’s hot licks? That’s the case here with “I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome.” Yes, the pickin’ is good, but, the lyrics and melody being sung are devoid of any meaning and feeling when done this fast. How would The Gettysburg Address, normally about two and one half minutes long, sound if recited in under one minute?

Lorraine and her co-producers called on Wesley Easter, of Eastwood Studios, Cana, VA. to record, mix and master this CD. As usual, he did a super job! He has superb finesse and he doesn’t miss a “lick.” His reputation is well deserved and he was a genuine asset to “Back To My Roots.”

Liner notes, to me, are almost as important as the music. It gives me information and data that fill in some of the background holes. It helps to put a face to a name. No where is there a list of who played what, and where. Guest musicians are noted, and there are two pictures of the band, but no names to indicate who is who. I guessed……and deep in the liner notes were some answers, but, I would much rather have had more specific band info than to know who Lorraine’s hair stylist was.

The most enjoyable part of the liner notes are Becky Buller’s comments. Her knowledge and expertise concerning the legends of bluegrass in general, and Carolina Road in particular, and how they intertwine is invaluable. Meaningful, in depth and insightful glimpses of where this music all started make for a very interesting read.

I always try to live with a CD, to catch those little nuances of “WOW!” There are some nice passages here, but, no “WOW!“ It feels repetitious….. and repetition breeds apathy. Carolina Road has a lot going for it, they just need to be focused, completely…… in the future, or the past.



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May 2012
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Scenic Roots - “Grounded”
Scenic Roots Music  LLC
2012
As a reviewer for Prescription Bluegrass, I receive many album submissions from independent artists hoping to get a favorable review published on their work. Many of them contain admirable efforts, but in the final analysis, fall short.

When I first removed Scenic Roots’ CD “Grounded” from its shipping envelope, I could tell it was going to be different. The CD is very attractively packaged. The case opens into a tri-fold display of information and beautifully laid out graphics.  This is a major league presentation.

I put the music on and the first thing that struck me was Amber Rogers’ voice.  She has a real star quality to her voice, somewhat reminiscent of The Dixie Chicks Natalie Maines. It has a pure innocence to it that makes it instantly accessible and likeable.

 In addition to her singing chores in the duo, Amber adds fiddle, banjo, and mandolin.
Amber’s sister Erin is a National Champion Mountain Dulcimer player, the youngest to ever win that competition at 17 way back in 2004. Erin plays some of the sweetest dulcimer you will ever hear at any level.

Together the two sisters make up Scenic Roots.   With the help of session players Levi Austin and Daniel Routh, the two make some of the most heartfelt music I have ever heard. They weave their way through ten tunes, mostly standards like “Molly and Tenbrooks” and “Salt Creek,” add a couple of tunes written by contemporaries of theirs, and throw in a Keith Whitley tune and a Wendy Waldman tune for a nice mix.

This music has soul, tradition, and authenticity, and sounds like something you might hear on someone’s back porch up in the mountains. The instrumental “Jenny’s Chicken” features Amber’s fiddle and it is so Celtic, I swear five leprechauns jumped out of my speakers and painted my entire office green before the track ended! On “Molly and Tenbrooks,”  Amber sings harmony with herself, (a neat studio trick) and it sounds amazing. When Erin begins the intro to “You Plant Your Fields” on her dulcimer, the mood is instantly transformed into a peaceful serene, healing state. Erin Rogers actually beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma a few years back and it’s a sure bet that her music played a big part in that victory.

This is the real deal. These two ladies make beautiful music that is obviously inspired by their faith.   The album is not without technical flaws. For example, some of the fiddle parts are out of tune to varying degrees, but I have heard many technically perfect studio albums that are completely devoid of soul. I’ll take a little bit of human fallibility accompanied by human tenderness and positive energy over a slick robotic performance any day of the week.

In addition to being an extremely enjoyable album with top notch packaging, Scenic Roots has a website that puts the pros to shame. If any of you aspiring acts need help with your websites, I would strongly urge you to check www.scenicroots.com and see what you’re shooting for. You can purchase this CD on the site, and the webmaster is listed on the links page.

This CD is really what music is all about. The Rogers sisters play it and sing it like they don’t need the money. They are driven by a more honest inspiration, their faith, and their love of the music. 

No pretention here or jaded big-timeyness. I highly recommend this CD if you are into authentic music that lifts your soul. I am giving this effort 4 and a half banjo strings and my personal seal of approval.

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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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Finnders and Youngberg  - fy5
Independent 
Released: 2011

      Colorado was home to me for fifteen years, so the first song, “Red Mountain Pass,” on their latest CD, FY5, by Finnders and Youngberg, caught my attention right away. And after listening, it made me really miss the hi-country….. I can’t even begin to remember the number of times I’ve been over Red Mountain, and Wolf Creek, in a snow storm.  The lyrics of the song definitely brought back some memories. I’ve known the fear of a whiteout blizzard and the terror of not knowing just WHERE the road disappeared to! After the first listen I had to play it again….. and after the third time through, I was a Mike Finders singer/songwriter fan, and a new follower of the music of FY5. And I had only listened to one song!

      Before I went on my merry listening way, I went over the liner notes. As I was reading the song titles, another one caught my eye. The second song I listened to is simply called “Nebraska.” Having been born and raised a Cornhusker, I couldn’t resist moving the song to the head of the line. Again, I was very moved by what I was hearing, but, again, it made me homesick. Some of the best years of my life were spent in the Sand Hills of North Central Nebraska. My great Grand Father homesteaded his original ranch there 129 years ago, and the fifth generation of my family still works that ground today. The Nebraska I’ve known can be beautiful, but the weather can be brutal. My parents are buried there, so it will always be home…..The hardships depicted in the song could very well have been part of my ancestors everyday life on the plains.

      Mike wrote this one, too, but this time, bassist, Ms. Erin Youngberg, sang the lead vocal. Her voice brought the lyrics to life as she sang of a prairie wife trying to stay alive without her husband. I doubt the song would have had the same impact if Mike had sung it. It’s a real testament to Mike’s writing ability for him to tell the story from a woman’s point of view. And a songwriter who passes one his compositions off to another singer because he knows and wants what is best for the SONG, is a wise man. An admirable quality.  As a two time winner of the prestigious Chris Austin Merlefest songwriting contest, Mike knows his craft and the songs he has presented here are as interesting as they are different. “Connie,” is another favorite. The whole premise of the story is quirky and unique. And lets not forget “Driftwood.” These are just four of the ten original songs on FY5, but not to worry, the other six are just as good. The more I listen to Mike’s voice, the more facets show themselves. He has power, strange syncopation, odd nuances and a range that I’m not really sure how big it is! On “Driftwood,” he sings higher, then higher…. and then higher again! I’ve never heard any one sing quite like Mike does. And the icing on the vocal cake on this tune is how well he and Ms. Erin harmonize.
                                                            
      There’s not a weak link in the FY5 chain. Everyone sings, their harmonies are spot on and their musicianship is excellent across the board. Besides Mike on guitar and Erin on bass, Erin’s husband, Aaron Youngberg plays  banjo, pedal steel and guitar.  He also owns Swingfingers Recording Studio in Fort Collins, Co. where this CD was recorded. He also was responsible for all the mixing and engineering. He brings years of studio and musical experience and talent to this group. Rich Zimmerman plays mandolin and Ryan Drickey, a former Rockygrass fiddle contest winner, rounds out the band.

To really enjoy the depth, personality and charisma of this group, you need to check out their promo video  They seem to be having the time of their lives, and that stage ZING is probably one of the reasons that FY5 will be one of the official IBMA Showcase Concert acts at the 2012 Convention in Nashville. Dollars to doughnuts, if they go to Tennessee and do “Driftwood” with all the pizzazz and exuberance that is so prevalent on this CD and in their video, they’re going to blow the doors off the IBMA crowd!  Yep…..FY5 needs to be in your CD library.

video

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April 2012

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The Bluegrass Martins
Independent
Released:  2011

With the passing of Earl Scruggs, another of the legends of traditional bluegrass music is gone. But, the legacy of all that Earl did for acoustic music in general, and the banjo in particular, is alive, well and prospering.

One listen to “World Of Our Own,” the new CD by The Bluegrass Martins, of Jefferson City, MO, is a testament to what an influence the old “Masters” have been on today’s younger generation of musicians. This family band is doing it’s very best to keep traditional bluegrass music their main focus.

Tunes recorded here by A.P. and Maybelle Carter, the Delmores and Flatt and Scruggs, show how much the Martins revere their heroes, but they seem to be able to wrap their special sound around just about any song they attempt. Remember the O’Kanes song “Just Lovin’ You,” from top 40 country radio back in the late 80’s? The Martins do a knock out version of it here. And any folk music fan from the 60’s is going to immediately recognize the old Tom Paxton song “Ramblin’ Boy.” It, too, fits right into the Martins sound and repertoire. 

Not one mistake was made when choosing the fourteen songs presented here. A lot of care and concern was put forth to pick the best songs possible that would also fit their musical identity. 

With Dad, Elvin, on upright bass, son Dale on guitar, and daughters Jeana, Janice and Larita on fiddle, banjo and dobro respectively, all the necessary instrumentation for a bluegrass band are represented very well. Except for the mandolin…… NO mandolin? By going to the Martins website, it appears that younger brother Lee is waiting in the wings and will soon(if he hasn’t already!) fill that void. With this CD being recorded at their own Martins Studio, they seem to take self sufficiency AND self containment very seriously! Good for them! 

Instrumentally, its obvious they have spent a lot of hours honing their craft. Each has all the licks and chops it takes to play successfully, and they are also able to apply all their talents to the recording process. They all seem to have that innate sense that “less is more” when it comes time to go into the studio. And the best part seems to be that they can all play together so tightly. Its got to be a “family” thing….. and its an asset that other bands don’t have. Capitalize on it!

Vocally, its another story entirely…… this is where the Martins need to focus their attentions. Sometimes, all it takes for a song to sound stronger is a key change. Dale’s voice doesn’t have a lot of oomph in his lower register when he’s singing lead. Capo up one or two frets and that may be all the fix that’s needed. He could add lots of power easily. On the songs he sings a little higher, he does much better. And it seems that the girls could bring some of their lead vocals down a step and they wouldn’t have to strain quite so hard for the high notes. 

As good as they all are instrumentally, changing some of the keys shouldn’t be a problem. Dale, Janice and Jeana sing good three part harmony, and if they spent time singing without their instruments and really honing their vocals, they could get to the point where they would be singing GREAT harmony. If they all would find the sweet spot or key where their voices sound the best, it would make a big difference. Doing that would also help in the studio…… there are so many ways to improve weak spots with microphones and tech savvy. They have the studio, experiment! 

They also have a secret weapon in Jeana’s husband, Eddie Faris. He mixed this CD….. AND he plays guitar, mandolin and sings with Ricky Skaggs in Kentucky Thunder. He wouldn’t have that job if he wasn’t a first class singer and musician! Use him to bounce ideas and problems off of. 

Often, the only problem that a family band has is deciding just WHO is going to crack the whip! What needs to happen is for all of them to push each other vocally to be better. 

“Big Black Train” and “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” are two more of my favorites. For traditional bluegrass fans, there is a lot to like on this CD. The Martins have all the ingredients to make a long and successful career happen….. they just need to give it 150% vocally and shoot for the moon.
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March 2012
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Elena Yeung  -  Dandelion
Independent
Released: June 2011

I love my “JOB!” And, I know just how Forrest Gump feels concerning a box of chocolates…… I’ll get a new CD in the mail, have not a clue who or what is waiting inside for me, I’ll open it….. and it’ll end up being Christmas morning!!! 

When Elena Yeung’s new CD, “Dandelion,” arrived, it came with a very polite, hand-written request to be reviewed. How nice, in this age of e-mails, texting and twitter to get correspondence personalized in the author’s own hand! A strong, but delicate and legible cursive….. with an attention to detail, etiquette and correctness like I haven’t seen in years. You bet I’ll review it Ms. Yeung! 

I immediately got a sense of 60’s folk music when I listened the first time. Elena’s voice is so reminiscent of those lovely ladies I grew up with. Joan Baez, Buffy Saint-Marie, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Mimi Farina…..

But, hers has a simple sweetness all it’s own. Elena would stand out even among those celebrated voices. And she knows how to use her voice for maximum affect. She may be from British Columbia, Canada, but her control, delivery and style are very much “up town.” Yes, she’s bluegrass… and old timey…. and gospel…. and traditional….. but, eclectic seems to best describe Elena Yeung. 

All the songs, except a banjo and vocal excursion using “Get Along Home Cindy, Cindy,” are originals. And that 60’s innocence and naiveté is present here, also. Listen to “The Flagpole,” and you’ll hear the story of that kid in your class who had to touch his tongue to the flagpole to see if it would, indeed, stick. And she must love trains, because both “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer” and “Train, Black As Night,” couldn't be better written about the subject. Her wordplay is simplistic, but far from simple. In reading the lyrics in her liner notes, she could just as well be in a Greenwich Village coffee house reciting them as poetry as singing them. Case in point, “Promise Of Silver And Gold,” is as haunting and sweet when read as it is in its musical form. The song is one of the CD’s highlights. 

The most interesting, “knock ME out” track, is a gospel one….and a very GOOD one at that. On “Gonna Build Me A Boat,” Elena sings with the a cappella group “The Persuasions.” These gentlemen have been together for fifty years now, and hearing them here is a sweet treat! Absolutely SUPER! Elena traveled to the East coast, got these men into Take 5 Studios in New Jersey, and with their help, recorded a GEM! To hear their harmonies, along with Elena, is worth the price of admission. AND…. it seems so natural for her to work with them. New York City meets Creston, BC! AND… it fits right in on an acoustic music CD. The crowds at “Merlefest” or “Telluride” would go crazy if they got the chance to hear this song done LIVE by Eleana and The Persuasions. No fences… no boundaries……… 

Besides her songs and her voice, her banjo is the other constant in this audio Polaroid. She definitely is a bluegrass girl when she kicks off one of her songs. Dexterity, feel and timing are her forte. She has obviously spent years listening to and learning from the best. And she surrounds herself with really solid friends, pickers and singers that make “HER” sound a reality. No less that eighteen people make up the musician roster here. And on the production side, she has co-producer Ben Winship and tech support from Jason Deatherage. She and Jason also recorded several of her banjo tracks at her home studio, “The Pillow Fort.” Learning to record on your own is like learning a new instrument….. and with all the equipment now available, teaching yourself to use all the available “toys” falls under the category of “Necessary Knowledge.” Elena shows on this CD that she has no lack of courage and fortitude. Her “make it happen” attitude could be her most important talent. All she needs now is for the rest of the world to get a chance to enjoy her music……. Why don’t each and every one of you reading this get a copy of “Dandelion” and you’ll be in on one of Canada’s best kept secrets.





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Freeman and Williams / Freeman and Williams
Label: Mountain Roads Recordings
Released: January 2012

In my humble opinion, some of the finest singers I have ever heard, I heard in church. And I heard them as a little boy sitting on the piano bench next to my Mother as she played all those great old hymns during Sunday morning services. And to my impressionable little ears, she and her three sisters sang the most beautiful four part harmony in the world. To this day, those familial voices are still one of my favorite childhood memories. There is something so uplifting about great singers singing great harmony on a great song.

Jeanette Williams, Scott Freeman and Johnny Williams have just released a new CD as “Freeman and Williams” on Mountain Roads Recordings, Bristol, TN. And the vocal harmonies on it are wonderful! The fifth song in, the old gospel song “I Surrender All,” took me right back to 1952! With Jeanette singing lead, Scott and Johnny singing the harmony parts and one simple guitar, they managed to nail down the finest version of the song I’ve heard. Simple, spare, honest and harmoniously heart felt, it’s the jewel of the entire CD. The ending is a joyous crescendo to a marvelous arrangement by Wesley Easter, engineer at Easter Recording Studio, Cana, Virginia. My Mother and her sisters would have loved this…..

The only other gospel song here, “My Reward,“ is an original, written by the trio, and it is a close second to my FIRST favorite! With original songs of this caliber, these three need to write together all the time. The eleven other songs on this thirteen song CD are all just as good, but the gospel ones just seem to have an extra “shine!” Using songs from Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Camp, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Tim Mensey, Wayland Patton, Allen Reynolds and Scott’s brother, Mitchell Freeman, plus old traditional songs like “John Henry,” there is no lack of good material for them to stretch out on. 

On his own original, “In Half The Time,” Scott puts all his many talents into play. Not only is it a well written, energetic and fun song, but, his playing sizzles! And his lead vocals are right on the money. Scott covers all the mandolin and fiddle parts on this CD, and his playing is perfect for this group sound. Their simple sound is seamless…… a person would be very hard pressed to even begin to tell just where Scott’s overdubs are! His timing and his FEEL are Great! Wesley Easter should also be applauded for his tech savvy in this project. Wesley should be considered the FOURTH member of this group….. And Johnny wears his “Producer” hat pretty well, also. All the time these four friends have spent together in the studio on the “Close Kin” project, and others, make this music that much better. This well oiled machine keeps right on turnin’ out good music! 

Jeanette’s awards and accolades spell out the fact that she is regarded as one of the finest voices in acoustic music. Her latest win is the 2012 SPBGMA Female Traditional Vocalist of the Year. “Illustrious” is the opportune word to describe her vocal career so far….. but, what stands out as just as important, on this CD, is her bass playing! Listen to her swing on “Too Long,” and you’ll hear just how fine an instrumentalist she is, too. One constant strength throughout this musical journey, is that the tempos are impeccable. This CD has a bounce to it that only comes from years and years of playing experience and a great sense of rhythm. Johnny and Scott have that same talent, and all together they are like a fine Swiss watch.

Where does one start with Johnny Williams? HIS list of musical credentials and acknowledgments is just as vast as Jeanette’s! His best asset, to me, is that the minute he starts singing, you KNOW its him. To stick out in a crowd of talented people is a BIG accomplishment. His production abilities, his knowledge, experience, vocal strength and musicianship make him invaluable to any project he is in on. 

Individually, these three have all done their solo projects, but together, they have a very sweet magic that comes across as warm and comfortable. They also project a sense of respect and doing their very best for the love of the music and each others talents. There doesn’t seem to be ANY pretense or ego involved in what they’ve presented here. Good music of this caliber doesn’t come along every day. Get this CD….. put it on…. and enjoy!
   


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Steve Spurgin -  Past Perfect
Blue Night Records
Released: May, 2011


There have been so many wonderful story telling songwriters emerge from the state of Texas over the years, one gets the impression that when a car dealership in the Lone Star State needs a new salesman, they just hand each applicant a pair of boxing gloves and send them out to the service bay to settle who gets the job.

I mean, it’s ASSUMED they can each spin a tale!

Texas story teller Steve Spurgin has gone more than a few rounds in many different musical divisions, including the heavyweight division as a Nashville songwriter for the likes of Gene Watson and Reba McEntire. With more than one bona fide hit record as a writer under his belt, Steve long ago proved he has the punch to be a winner in the music industry.

Past Perfect contains ten Spurgin penned compositions and two covers, including “Song For A Winter’s Night” by his old muse Gordon Lightfoot. The album features full sounding traditional bluegrass instrumentation - dobro, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass, as well as strong playing, great production, and Steve’s rich baritone voice. 

 In fact, Mr. Spurgin’s voice is probably suited more to country than bluegrass but then there’s the rub; this isn’t your typical traditional bluegrass CD. And while it’s not exactly bluegrass, country or folk, it’s safe to say the fans of those genres will enjoy and appreciate Past Perfect, as will anyone who possesses a discerning ear.

Like a skilled boxer, Steve throws lyrical and musical punches at the listener from all angles on this recording, but rather than getting beat up, the listener winds up literally basking in the sonic whitewashing they receive. Past Perfect contains more lyrical substance in one song than most CDs feature in their entirety and Steve Spurgin has a knack for directing the flow of those lyrics like a master wordsmith.

If Mark Twain would have written songs, they very possibly would have sounded something like this.

It must be noted Past Perfect isn’t an album you can digest in one sitting. That is not to say that it is so heady as to be inaccessible, it’s just that it takes your mind on a different little journey with each tune. Pack a bag for your imagination because it’s going to be doing some travelling before this one is over.

All in all, Past Perfect is a great effort. If I were to pick a few nits, I’d say Steve tries to sing a bit too high at times, and by album’s end, the dobro gets a bit redundant, specifically with one lick that keeps re-surfacing. Both are forgivable faux pas in an otherwise artistic piece of work.

Whether or not Steve Spurgin ever applied for any sales jobs in his home state of Texas is unknown, but if he did, it’s a safe bet that no one ever sent him out to the service bay to box his way into the position. Steve Spurgin is just too good of a story teller to have to fight his way to the top of that list.

Four and a half banjo strings out of five.

I would definitely buy a used car from this man.
COMMENTS POSTED ON YOU-TUBE
JD Miller [ Nice interview. We are lucky enough to have Steve Spurgin playing at our house concert venue November 10, 2013. We have been fans for years. My wife summoned the courage to ask him, at Wintergrass, if he would be interested in playing for a few dozen friends and he agreed to come along. I am so looking forward to it. ]
Iris GrossGreat attitude toward music! Heard his song on Accuradio's bluegrass channel & thought, "He sounds like Gordon Lightfoot a little." Now I know why! 


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February 2012


Wayne Taylor and Appaloosa / "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Day"
Record Label: Independent
Released: September, 2011

Experience, knowledge and age share common ground….. and the sum total of all three adds up to “comfort.” And comfort is a gift. And with this gift, you can find comfort in what you do, what you know, and most importantly….. in just who you are. From the sounds of Wayne Taylor’s new release, Wayne has found his “comfort” zone. “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Day” is a perfect title for this release. It’s also one of the best cuts on the CD. Driving on the interstate, about two minutes into the very first song, “She Put The Tears In My Eyes“, I realized I wasn’t fighting traffic any more……. I was cruisin’! Comfort IS a gift….. Thank you Wayne.

He has the experience, starting with eighteen years in the Navy band, “Country Currents.” He also has the credentials…… playing for four Presidents and with the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. He’s been all over the world with his music. He’s recorded half a dozen CD’s. His guitar playing has put him in the company of hot pickers passing their knowledge on to the next generation. He’s been there….. he’s done that…… and he’s written a bunch of songs that prove that he’s only getting better with age. He’s a master of keeping it simple, yet interesting and refreshing. And comfortable!

Wayne produced this project with band mate Emory Lester and George Hodgkiss of Phoenix Recording Studio, Browntown, VA. George also did the mixing and editing. In his liner notes, Wayne stated that they wanted to stay true to the bluegrass genre, and they stuck close to that vision. With Wayne on guitar, Emory on fiddle, mandolin, low violin, piano and guitar, Kene Hyatt on bass and Mark Delaney on banjo, the bluegrass basics were well covered. What I found most intriguing was when they added little steps over that “blue” line that made Wayne’s songs that much more personal, and personable. Emory’s piano playing on “The Pain” gave it a touch of class. Emory Lester is Wayne’s secret weapon, and should be given due credit for his contributions. The producers were paying attention to what the songs were saying to them….. and they heeded each song’s advice. Sweet!

Also sweet, are the guest vocals of Melissa Keech-Armstrong. She duets with Wayne on “The Pain” and “Two Kindred Hearts.” To hear these two sing together is pure joy. Her voice is so different from his that when she comes in with her parts, your ears are immediately on alert. Her song-writing skills were also utilized on “A Time To Fly,” which she co-wrote with Wayne. Of the fourteen songs presented here, Wayne wrote eleven, co-wrote two more and used David Parker’s song “Mash Your Finger” to round out a diverse and enjoyable set of songs. Humor, heartfelt emotion and sincere happiness were the order of the day for this CD.

For an artist to step up and do all original material is self confidence at it’s best. Wayne should be proud of his work here. His talent, his vision, his individuality and his song-writing skills make this a “must have” CD in my book. He has surrounded himself with top musicians and state of the art facilities to show his band in their best light. “Comfort” is a gift, and a fine AND comfortable gift this CD is.
      


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Dale Ann Bradley / “Somewhere South of Crazy”
Record Label: Compass Records
Released: August 30, 2011



It’s been the same story in real estate since the dawn of time: Location, Location, Location.

Drift into the world of recorded music and the prevailing mantra can become: Production, Production, Production.

“Hey kid, how are you gonna package that shiny object?”

Dale Ann Bradley is quite the shiny object. She possesses a wonderfully expressive voice that evokes echoes of some of the grand dames of bluegrass and country music. Alison Krauss and Reba McEntire come to mind. She is also a very talented writer. Both aspects of her ability shine on her new CD “Somewhere South of Crazy,” though it can be a bit tough to see all that goodness through a hazy mix.

More on that later.

The tunes on this recording are a nice combination of Dale Ann’s originals, some old classics, and even an old Seals and Crofts tune that Dale Ann manages to make her own. She explains the inclusion of “Summer Breeze” thusly - “That was a melody that I always thought sounded so mountainy and Celtic.” Well it certainly does when she sings it!

Ms. Bradley writes in the traditional spirit of Kentucky bluegrass and the music throughout is homey, unpretentious, comfortable, and heart-felt.

The players are excellent too, featuring some prominent names like Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Alison Brown on banjo, and Mike Bub on bass. Pam Tillis co-wrote and sang harmony on the title track and Steve Gully lends a sturdy male voice to harmonies as well as a sensitive lead vocal in the duet “Will You Visit Me On Sunday.”

The last tune on the recording, “Old Southern Porches,” is a live recording that shows Dale Ann’s voice in all its expressive glory. It’s just her singing and playing acoustic guitar at an outdoor concert. It’ll knock your socks off and rub your tired feet.

As for the aforementioned production peccadillo…to this reviewer’s ears, the mix sounds a bit too heavily compressed. The natural brightness of the acoustic instruments is somewhat squelched and the voices can seem to arrive to the ear at roughly the same level as the instruments instead of being up top where they belong.

Have no fear in this case it’s not terminal. A little EQ bump fixes most of it and the patient is revived.

“Somewhere South of Crazy” is a great effort from multi-award winner Dale Ann Bradley. Listen to this CD while you work. It is unobtrusive and lights a mellow glow in your heart.

I give this recording 4 and a half banjo strings out of five, and one final mantra: Sincerity, Sincerity, Sincerity

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Missy Werner/Three Kinds of Lonesome
Record Label: Missy Werner Music
Released: 2011
Just about every aspect of this CD is first class. Missy has put together a project that is musically, artistically, visually and tastefully appealing. A lot of effort was put into making this a quality release.

The most important decision Missy made was bringing Jon Weisberger on board as Producer. His expertise, talent and input were invaluable to the result. As a song writer, he co-wrote four of the songs used and made sure the remaining ten songs were just as meaningful and powerful as his own. Using the absolute best songs one can find, regardless of who wrote them, should always be priority number one….. and Missy and Jon did just that on this CD. There’s not a “filler” or “clunker” track to be found here.

Another wise decision was using Missy’s own touring band to record this music. Their innate feel and knowledge of just how Missy sounds her best is their most important contribution. Jeff Roberts on banjo, Tim Strong on guitar (and a mighty FINE sounding guitar it is!) and Artie Werner on upright bass, all give it 150%. They sound great! Aaron Till on fiddle and Mike Witcher on dobro add just enough frosting to the instrumental cake to make the sound super sweet. Ben Surratt should be mentioned also for his work behind the board at The Rec Room in Nashville, TN. The man didn’t miss a “lick” in recording and mixing this release. There were true professionals at work here, and the instruments and recording process results were superb.

Mr. Surratt also did a fine job recording the vocal tracks. The harmonies are all balanced, even and not over shadowed by the instruments. Listening on three different sets of speakers AND headphones, the mix proved to be true and almost perfect! A great job was done by all the support staff.

I spent a week with this music….. and I kept waiting for the sparks to go off. I listened….. and I listened again. In the car…. in my old truck…. at home…. But the sparks didn’t go off…… There is only one thing missing from an other wise good CD. And that one thing is passion. Missy sings about sadness, but she doesn’t sound sad. In “Three Little Words” she sings: “Please don’t leave…..” but I don’t hear the pleading in her voice. On their duet, “Endlessly,” Frank Solivan sings with real heartfelt emotion. But, Missy doesn’t respond to him in kind. Even on the up-tempo songs, she begins to cut loose….. but doesn’t. She never reaches out, grabs the song by the throat and takes it! She goes through the motions, she sings it, but she doesn’t OWN it. She somehow doesn’t invest herself completely….. A little work on intonation and phrasing, and an honest, deep and emotional delivery, captured in the studio AND on stage, may make a big difference to her individuality, and further her career.

By all rights, the song “If I Fall” should be a hit record. And it just might be when all is said and done. Missy has a lot of fans, and their support is crucial to the success of this CD. So is touring and presenting a really good live show to the public. “Endlessly” and “Three Kinds of Lonesome” are also hit material. But, three songs out of fourteen that “come close” won’t make this record a chart topper. On the final song, “Journey To My Savior’s Side,” Missy comes closest to revealing her best work. She needs to find out what well of feeling that she tapped on it, and focus her efforts on finding it on every song. The talent, the backing and the drive are there….. Missy just needs to stand and deliver her SOUL to her music.
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Tony Rice “The Bill Monroe Collection”
Record Label: Rounder
Released Jan.31, 2012
Ask Alison Krauss how she feels about Tony Rice and the answer comes short and sweet."Tony's music is my favorite music ever recorded.”
Tony Rice is equally positive in his take on Bill Monroe – “I see Bill Monroe in the same light as Miles Davis, absolutely the best….as pure as it gets.”

Throw those two glowing assessments into a pot, add accompaniment by some of the best bluegrass pickers to ever circulate air molecules, stir for fifteen years and you’ll be enjoying Tony Rice’s tasty new CD, “The Bill Monroe Collection.” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for some time to come.

This work is nothing short of the master playing the master.

“The Bill Monroe Collection” is just that, a collection. The songs were recorded at various points during the last 15 years, but the mix is surprisingly consistent, and the overall engineering is well done and modern sounding. Tony Rice and friends deliver 14 Monroe classics with tender loving care and a deep passion for the genre. Like a boy trying on his daddy’s hat, you can almost sense the respect and dignity the music offers the man, Bill Monroe.

From the very first tune that comes charging out at the listener like the Tasmanian Devil from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, this is a musical romp of the highest proportion. The tempos and grooves on the entire album are extremely tight and close knit, and the solos by all the players are breathtaking throughout. Tony Rice’s guitar playing evokes the imagery of a flat rock with a jet pack skipping down a mighty river over and over and over again, bobbing and weaving it’s way above the flowing waters, touching down just long enough to gain momentum for its next flight.

As for the tunes themselves, Bill Monroe’s compositions and influence define Bluegrass Music. Contained are many Monroe favorites like “Molly and Tenbrooks,” and “Muleskinner Blues.” The fact that some obvious candidates like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Uncle Pen” are not included here actually mirror Rice’s propensity in his playing to do anything BUT the obvious.

Alison Krauss and Tony Rice have won more awards between them than the bottom 27 finishing countries in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Though Ms. Krause is not on this CD, I believe her above stated wisdom is born out in the tracks of Tony Rice’s latest offering. In fact, I would say the only thing that would make this collection any better is if it shipped with a seat belt and a Bill Monroe Bobble Head Doll.

My rating is five banjo strings out of five, and a thumb pick way up!


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January 2012
By Dan King
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Del McCoury Band - "American Legacies"
Record Label: McCoury Music
Release Date: April 12, 2011

Collaboration. The dictionary defines it as people from different origins working together toward a common goal. Collaboration is what made America great. On “American Legacies,” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band come together in a brilliant collaboration of New Orleans Jazz and Bluegrass to make a CD that is authentic, well executed, interesting, and an absolute joy to listen to.

The album was born of the meeting between the two groups at a benefit for the Hall a few years back. It’s tracks boast arrangements that can make seamless transitions between the styles, then turn around to resemble a good old fashioned battle of the bands. The listener is taken on a journey through a dozen timeless classics that are representative of both worlds, and the music finds common ground in the blues roots both genres share.

When I listen to this album I can’t help but picture a vintage Bluegrass band on a road trip being blown off course by a powerful twister a la “The Wizard of Oz.” They land in New Orleans right outside a liquor establishment where a jazz band is in full swing inside. “We aint in Kentucky no more, Toto!” Fast forward an hour and we find the boys jamming, trading licks, and teaching each other songs.

Only in America.

In my estimation, two things would have made this effort a home run. I would like to have seen a more equal distribution of the spotlight between the jazz and bluegrass music as it is a bit weighted to the Preservation Hall sound. The other sticking point is the Preservation Hall main singer can sound a bit contrived at times, as he does to me on “I’ll Fly Away”. Other than that, this CD is chock full of wonderful good timey music, dripping with Americana, and a worthy addition to any collection.

Collaboration accomplished.

I’m giving it four and a half banjo strings out of a possible five.

Contact Dan King at PrescriptionBluegrass.com

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By W.J.  Hallock
Three Tall Pines - All That's Left
Independent
Released: 2011


    The four gentlemen in this band all should have been born about 100 years ago. Their melodies, lyrics, sound, feel, instrumentation and singing all hearken back to another place in time. The music on this CD is simple, spare, stark and austere….. but, authentic, honest and real. And the most impressive aspect of “All That’s Left” is the fact that all the songs presented here are originals. It’s very easy to take this music at face value, because there is nothing on the musical landscape that one can compare Three Tall Pines to. They are definitely one of a kind!

      Very vivid images come into my head as I listen….. especially to the song “Black Sunday Blues.“ Pictures from the Ken Burns PBS series “The Dustbowl,” scenes from “The Grapes Of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, a snapshot I have of my Grampa Roy with his team of horses, Ted and Tug, building roads for the WPA after he lost his farm during The Great Depression. 

     I can even see my Mother as a little girl witnessing three inches of Oklahoma red dirt covering their Sunday dinner table after a wind storm had blown it eight hundred miles north all the way to the sand hills of Nebraska. 

     These songs are the grist of real life America in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. How did Joe Lurgio and Dan Bourdeau, the writers of these twelve songs, tap this well of early Americana so convincingly? Maybe, just maybe, their talent is that they can write so simply, yet expansively, that each individual listener’s memories and experiences are jostled loose,  enhanced by the music and enjoyed all over again. Songwriters who can make the listener a participant in their compositions are truly gifted. Whether writing together, or separately, this CD tells me that Dan and Joe both DO have the “Gift.”

      Recorded over a three day period at High & Dry Studios, Somerville, MA. in a live, everybody playing and singing at the same time setting, is part of the appeal and character of this CD. The recording process adds a patina of “old timey” fun and exuberance. Very few overdubs were used to complete the project. 

     The band had done their homework and knew just what they were going after in the studio, and with the aid of friends Avi Salloway and Charlie Rose, they slam dunked the work and came away with a first rate CD that sounds as unique and individual as they are. The magic ingredient here was FOCUS! Engineer Dan Cardinal did a wonderful job of putting all the pieces of the puzzle together technically so that the only thing the musicians had to do was create. 

       Mandolin player Joe Lurgio wrote and sings lead on two stand out cuts on the CD, “Lay Me Down” and “Hard Rain.” Guest banjo player Gabe Hirschfield sits in on “Hard Rain” and it sizzles! Joe nails the lead vocal! He also wrote the instrumental track “Rosebud.” He has a very tasty way of playing….. he’ll add little harmony lines to the fiddle or guitar lines that sparkle. Very Spartan, but classy! 

      Upright bassist Gian Pangaro, is one of the most fascinating bass players I’ve heard in years. His timing is impeccable, so that gives his adventurous and eclectic dexterity free rein to try just about anything. And he does! I find myself referring to him as the “Angry Bear.” 

     He will take off on a bass solo and attack it every way possible! I even had to ask an old friend what the term for using a bow was, just to help me describe him. He referred to it as “playing arco,” and Gian can definitely do that…. Listening to him play is like a roller coaster ride. Up, down, easy, hard, fast, slow, it is an emotional experience. He’s also a double threat. His dobro playing, on “Weary Traveler” and “Rosebud” show off his tender and melodic side, as well as his hot licks. To add him to the songs, engineer Dan had to do some of the rare over-dubs on this CD. Adding those tracks was well worth the effort. 

      Conor Smith is the violinist for Three Tall Pines. His classical training adds another musical twist to the band identity. The interplay between the mandolin, fiddle, guitar and any other instrument that may have been used on a specific song is always tight, concise and well-rehearsed. 
     
     The arrangements are thought out and played with precision. But….  there is a BIG difference between a violinist and a fiddle player. Conor’s style fits very well into that “sound” that Three Tall Pines has. In fact, his training is probably just what this band needed to help them hone in on “Their” sound. Any other “fiddle” player might not have added to their musical uniqueness quite this well. He’s the right man for the right job.
      Guitarist Dan Bourdeau sings most of the lead vocals and nicely fills any holes with his rhythm playing. It took a while to figure out just HOW to listen to his singing…….  Maybe its an accent, a regional flavor or just the way he enunciates that adds an unusual inflection to his voice. Maybe he just slurs his words together because that’s the way he sings. 

     Once I got to listening more closely, the more I grew to like and enjoy his vocals. On Dan’s song “Station Line,“ he does it as a duet with Celia Woodsmith, of Della Mae. Their voices work GREAT together! It’s one of the best songs on the CD. 

     One of this band’s assets is that their vocals are different….. just like their songs, arrangements and sound are different. Anything that sets a musician or band apart only makes them more interesting. And “interesting” sells CD’s and builds a fan base! 

     The way that Dan and Joe are going about writing and singing their songs has them right on track to push Three Tall Pines as far as they want to go. Another vocal gem is “Weary Traveler.” It’s the last song and they have a dozen friends in the studio singing along as the “Weary Traveler Chorus.” A very nice way to end the CD. You’ll find yourself singing the song long after it’s over! It’s catchy, “churchy” and endearing. 

      Three Tall Pines is another of the new wave of acoustic groups to come out of the Boston area. It must be fertile ground…… the crop of original music originating from there is really something to hear. And yes…. this CD, “All That’s Left,” needs to be in YOUR record collection.

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By W.J.  Hallock

Della Mae  - I Built This Heart
Released:  September 2011
Independent 

      When Della Mae members “Sunny,” “Captain,” “Juggles” and “Rosy” decided to invite  “Squawk” to join forces with them, did they already know how magical the result was going to be?  Did “Squawk” have any idea how good a home she was going to?  It’s been said that #1,  all good things happen for a reason…..  and #2, that where a person is, is usually right where they’re supposed to be. It must be true, because these five musicians really sound like they all belong together! Go ahead…. go to their web site, order your copy of their new CD, “I Built This Heart,” and ENJOY! Their web site is the only place you can get it. It’ll be some of the best money you’ve spent in a while, and your “ears” will love you for it!
   
    Della Mae put out a promo video for their Kickstarter program on YouTube. It was a very ingenious and entertaining introduction to just who Della Mae is, including their nick-names. When they hit Q Division Studios, Somerville, MA. to start this CD, they made sure they were READY! The CD shows their preparation was precise and exacting. It also shows that they put everything they had on the line, played and sang with high expectations of themselves and each other and enjoyed every second of it. It’s nice to see hard work rewarded with success.

      Now, about those “names…..” in actuality, “Sunny, the happiest woman in showbiz,” is Amanda Jean Kowalski. Her bass playing is the V8 engine driving Della Mae, and her impact is a vital key to their success. Her playing is fresh, invigorating, complex and/or simple depending on the song and the arrangement. On “Aged Pine,” her playing holds the ¾ time signature perfectly in place, then during the instrumental solos she uses her bow to add another dimension that gives a classical fullness to the song. A very nice touch. She makes this band powerful. She makes this CD move!

      “Captain” Kimber Ludiker, a two time National Fiddle Champion, uses her five string violin to cut a wide swath of dynamics through the CD. Her kickoff to the very first song, “Jamie Dear,” sets the pace for what’s to come throughout this twelve song journey. Fast and furious is no problem for her, but, its her slower, more quiet work that will hit you in the heart. Listen to “Aged Pine.“ On three of the songs, she and Brittany Haas, fiddler for the band “Crooked Still,” nail down some twin fiddle lines that are amazingly tight. “My Heart’s Own Love,“ by Hazel Dickens, and “The Most“ sparkle. But their first and second fiddle parts on “Ballad Of A Lonely Woman,“ are mournfully beautiful. It’s plain to hear why Kimber was the 2009 AND 2010 National Champ.  She is that good, and she earned it with her talent.

      “Juggles” Jenni Lyn Gardner, on mandolin, plays her solos and fills as crisp, clean and sharp as a straight razor. And her rhythm playing has a very unique “jangely” quality to it that really is different….. a GOOD different. Maybe it’s her technique, or her instrument, or it could be the expertise of engineer Erick Jaskowiak working his magic in the control room that make her playing so warm. Or…. a combination of all the above. Her vocals, along with Celia and Courtney, give the girls solid three part harmony that is dead on, pitch perfect and in sync. They have made the effort to really listen to each other and get their vocals emotionally right also.
      “Rosy,” guitarist Courtney Hartman, is a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and plays with both practiced calculation and an innate originality perfectly suited for Della Mae. She adds a sparkling dissonance to her lead work on the old Weaver’s tune “Bowling Green,” and then on “Down To You” and “Jamie Dear,” does even more flat-pickin’ that is sure to please die hard bluegrass fans. The tone, balance and sweetness of her guitar itself is very special, and again engineer Erick has taken the time to “tweak” it’s sound beautifully. Sometimes, it’s just Courtney singing harmony with Celia, and she sings every bit as well as she plays. She picks up on Celia’s little vocal nuances instantly and matches them word for word, and breath for breath. They make it look effortless. Another nice touch!

      Celia Woodsmith, aka “Squawk,” is singer, rhythm guitarist and song-writer of ten of the twelve cuts here. And just where these songs came from is a mystery…..  Is Celia an educated literature student with a PHD in sorrow and sadness?  Is she the re-incarnation of some famous poet from the past?  Does she just have a very vivid imagination and a special gift with words? What ever the case, she weaves captivating and articulate story lines set to unforgettable melodies as sweet as the lyrics. Have you ever heard the word “unabashed” used in a bluegrass song? Me either….. Listen close and you’ll hear very interesting word play, like this, all through the CD. She shows a depth of feeling and wisdom in her writing that is fundamentally way beyond her years. In this set of songs, she is putting the music world on notice that she has the potential to be an outstanding and influential song writer for years to come. She might easily become one of her generations premier song-writers. Listen to “Ballad Of A Lonely Woman,” and you’ll hear how well she captures the loneliness and despair of old age. Each original song on this CD is a literary adventure!

      Part of what makes Celia’s songs so ingratiating is how well she sings them. Her acappella treatment on “Ballad Of A Lonely Woman” is as strong, assertive and powerful as any female voice out there. But, I don’t think she has reached her prime or tapped all her possibilities yet. My guess is that she has at least 10% more raw power at the top end of her range, and another 10% of intensely quiet intimacy at the bottom end that she isn’t even using yet. There is a hesitation…..a fearful stiffness is present…..for some reason, she’s holding back. Give her time in the studio to learn just how much power and passion she has, and she will be even better than she is right now. As she is learning to be more adventurous and power Up, she will also realize she has the talent and emotional soul to power DOWN to a level of communicating that will mesmerize her listeners even more.

     Producer Austin Nevins and engineer Jaskowiak have done a really good job on this CD, but they need to concentrate on Celia’s voice to help make her an even better interpreter of her most deeply held inner feelings. Singing with Laurie Lewis on two of the songs here, she has an ideal, excellent and knowledgable confidante she can lean on. On “Aged Pine,” Celia and Laurie sing so well together that they even have their vocal vibratos in time. Canadian singer Emma Beaton, of “Joy Kills Sorrow,” also does a marvelous job of harmonizing with Celia on “Polk County” and “The Most.” On the latter, the vocal ending is terrific. In all honesty, “The Most” is terrific in every way! It’s a favorite. And to reiterate, her vocals with Courtney and Jenni Lyn are dynamite also.

      On four of the CD’s songs, guest banjo player Alison Brown jumps in and kicks the already hot instrumental tracks into over drive. As one of the world’s elite banjo virtuoso’s, and owner of Compass Records out of Nashville, her appearance here is just one more sign that Della Mae is attracting music insider attention. A recent three week tour of Germany also adds international attention to their resume. And with their inclusion on the Telluride list of performers for 2012, they are gaining momentum… FAST! With “I Built This Heart,” Della Mae has kicked the door wide open, and they now have the bluegrass and acoustic music world’s attention…… Good for them! They deserve to be heard, and enjoyed.

     
     


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About the Reviewers:
W.J. Hallock is a musician, entertainer and songwriter with years of recording, stage and writing experience.  Contact him at: Reviews@PrescriptionBluegrass.com
Temperance Bellerin is a veteran broadcaster and musician from "the old school" as he says.  His experience choosing music for radio airplay is invaluable. Contact him through his Facebook page.


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A WORD ABOUT REVIEWS

Just a few days ago, Prescription Bluegrass Blog launched an extension of the services we provide for bluegrass fans in our CD REVIEW Page. While in Nashville for the annual World of Bluegrass convention it came to our attention from several different sources that reviews are a difficult train to ride – both from the artist's viewpoint as well as the reviewer’s.

We want to point out one simple concept that is most often overlooked and that is: REVIEWS by nature are intended as help for the consumer to make decisions on purchases. Others may find all sorts of different uses - but the main reason a review is written and published is for the consumer.

Next we want to observe that REVIEWS are opinion based. All of us have opinions and none of us agree with everyone on everything, so again, by nature, reviews are going to have some amount of controversy because, like opinions, none of us agree with everyone on everything.

When an artist, who has been subject to a review to which they don’t necessarily agree wholeheartedly, is offended by such a review they need to seriously look at the career they’ve chosen and ask themselves if they have what it takes to continue. If an artist wants to see only 100% positive reviews where the reviewer appears to be genuflecting to the artist in a worship mode, that artist needs to hire a publicist who writes the material and then pays to have it published at the artist’s expense. Reviews, to be fair and balanced, need to have some sort of point/counter-point premise. That means the reviewer may find areas of weakness or where slight variations could have produced a better product.

At Prescription Bluegrass we understand that our reviewers have their own likes and dislikes based upon their own experiences and expertise, but they have been chosen exactly for those reasons; and, we don’t tell them who or when to review or what to say. This is why you’ll always see the disclaimer at the bottom of the review page.

Anytime that an artist or fan disagrees with what any of our reviewers have written we will welcome and publish all reasonable comments.
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