My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Don Rigsby

Return to bluegrass: Tom T Hall today

tom t hall todayAfter 1985’s Song In A Seashell, Tom T Hall would take the next decade off from recording, with only 1989’s Country Songs For Kids (essentially a reissue of the 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow with some new songs added) making an appearance.

In 1996 album, Mercury would release Songs from Sopchoppy. Although released by Mercury, it was actually an independent album featuring some of Tom’s Florida friends (and none of Mercury’s session musicians), recorded at a barn in Sopchoppy, Florida. Frankly, I did not like this album as the production sounds like a cross between 1980s pop-country and so-called smooth jazz, with electric keyboard and Kenny G-style saxophone competing the debacle. The songs are good, if often downbeat, but the backing does not suit Hall’s voice. Alan Jackson rescued “Little Bitty” from this album and turned it into a number one single.

Finally, in 1997, Mercury released the final (thus far) major label album of new Tom T Hall material with Home Grown. While albums such as Magnificent Music Machine and other scattered album tracks had hinted at a turn to bluegrass, this album made it clear that TTH had returned to his roots. All of the songs were written by Hall, sometimes with an assist from his wife Dixie and are in acoustic settings.

The first track on the album, “Bill Monroe For Breakfast”, basically says it all:

When I was just a little boy we lived down on a farm
Seven miles from nowhere and a hundred miles from harm
We made our livin’ from the dirt if anything would grow
And we got our country music from a big old radio
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
Then we’d head out to the fields a hoein’ corn and mowin’ hay
Aw, mama loved his singin’, daddy loved to hear him play
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
We had a big old battery that ran the radio
Sometimes we run it down a listenin’ to the Opry Show
But we all had our instruments and most of us could play
So we had Bill Monroe for breakfast anyway

I’ve heard many bluegrass bands cover this song, as well as other songs from this album.

Since 1997, Tom T Hall has continued to write songs, usually in conjuction with his wife Dixie, and always in the bluegrass genre. He makes the occasional live appearance at a bluegrass performance, and his songs are eagerly snapped up by bluegrass performers. In 2002 Charlie Sizemore issued The Story Is … Songs of Tom T Hall, a collection of TTH’s country songs cast as bluegrass. In 2007 Blue Circle Records released Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T, a bluegrass album featuring some of Tom’ friends such as Josh Williams, Sonya Isaacs and Don Rigsby with guest appearences by Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Tom T Hall considers himself retired (although a peek at the Bluegrass Unlimited charts suggests no such thing) and at 78 years of age (as of May 25, 2014) he’s surely earned the right to retire, as no singer-songwriter today, other than perhaps Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, has produced as large a catalog of interesting and memorable songs.

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Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: Scott Holstein – ‘Cold Coal Town’

The last musical recommendation I got from the late lamented 9513 was Scott Holstein, who Brody Vercher pointed out a few weeks ago. His independent CD Cold Coal Town has been produced by Scott himself alongside dobro player extraordinaire Randy Kohrs. Impressively, the entire album was recorded in one night (in Kohrs’ studio in Nashville), and great credit goes to the very accomplished band. Bluegrass backings and a soulful fusion of bluegrass-country-blues in Scott’s passionately smoky voice set this record apart. The songs, all written by Scott, are mainly rooted in his West Virginia coalmining family background, and the quality is exceptionally high.

‘The Spell’ opens the set with the protagonist railing against the woman he loves despite her “wicked ways”. It seems quite appropriate for it to lead into ‘Walls Of Stone’, the blues-infused lament of a prisoner sentenced to 99 years in gaol after killing his unfaithful wife. The sprightly instrumental ‘Leavin Charleston’ showcases the band’s tight, sparkling musicianship. Their more lyrical playing comes to the fore in another instrumental cut, the stately ’The Holstein Waltz’, which is lovely. Scott does not play an instrument on the album, but composed the tunes.

‘Boone County Blues’ is one of those cheerful sounding expressions of deep sadness which are common in bluegrass, again with really great picking. It is, perhaps, the least exceptional song here, but is still very good. The charming ‘Clinch Mountain Hills’ is a tribute to the Stanley brothers, written by Carter Stanley’s graveside and channelling his voice. Don Rigsby provides the high tenor harmony counterpoint to Scott’s gravelly baritone.

I don’t remember ever seeing a country song with a Latin title before. ‘Montani Semper Liberi’ is the official motto of Scott’s home state of West Virginia (meaning “mountaineers [are] always free”), and the song tells a dramatic story, with a young man choosing not to take sides in the Civil War, just as the state was formed in June 1863, declaring:

Mama stitched my uniform
But no colors do I choose
They’ll never take this mountain
The gray nor the blue

Cause mountaineers are always free
And almost heaven’s good enough for me
Upon this land I’ll state my creed
Mountaineers are always free

The grim reality of life in the coal towns fuels much of Scott’s best work. The title track has the protagonist leaving his childhood home for a better future, and reminiscing about the hardworking miner father who “left one day and came back dead”, having advised his son not to follow him into the mines. In ‘Roll, Coal, Roll’, meanwhile, the protagonist is a weary trucker moving coal down from the mountain mines.

The acappella Black Water quietly and compellingly tells the true story of a fatal flood caused by a coal company’s unsafe practices in the 70s, when several communities were destroyed and over 100 people were killed at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia by coal slurry after a dam broke. Perhaps the highlight of a very fine record, this sounds like a traditional folk song, and has Don Rigsby and Randy Kohrs on harmony:

Coal company said “God is to blame”
They built the dam “but He brought the rain”
Truth was known throughout the land
Never do trust a company man

Black water, black water
So black and so deep
And under black water forever I’ll sleep
Death angels are calling out to me
Black water is rolling down Buffalo Creek

Death was the scene even high in the tree
Fathers and children and mothers to be
Nowhere to run as black water comes down
And so is the lie of a coal mining town

A similar flood seen from the first person, this time caused by a coal company’s reckless clearance of tree cover on the mountain, sees locals seeking refuge, but there ‘Ain’t No Higher Ground’ to run to.

This is a fantastic record, and definitely my favourite of the year so far. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t make my end of year top 10.

Grade: A+

You can currently purchase the CD from Scott’s website, although I understand wider distribution is being sought.