My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jimmy Martin

Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Revelations from Music Vendor/ Record World

Hit_Country_RecordsAs the ‘last man standing’ Billboard‘s country charts have taken on an almost mythical importance, yet for most of the 1940s and 1950s, Billboard did a relatively poor job in recording the history of country singles in that their various country charts only went 10-15 places deep.

Music Vendor (later Record World) started tracking country music in 1954 and immediately started tracking 55 chart places for country records, a depth of country charts Billboard wouldn’t approach until 1964 when Billboard went to 50 places. For purposes of simplicity, I will always refer to Music Vendor/ Record World as ‘Record World‘.

Joel Whitburn’s new volume Hit Country Records 1954-1982: Music Vendor/Record World performs a valuable service in restoring to the known discography of country music a staggering 1700 songs and 200 artists that Billboard failed to chronicle.

I always thought that the Wilburn Brothers had a relatively thin representation on the Billboard charts with 31 chart entries from 1954-1972, with many songs that I knew to have been at least mid-level hits not being tracked by Billboard. Turns out that the Wilburn Brothers were the poorest served of all country artists by Billboard with a staggering 30 songs not tracked by Billboard. Other artists with huge holes in their Billboard chart discographies include Hank Snow (26 songs), Eddy Arnold (23 songs), Kitty Wells (21 songs), Hank Thompson (21 songs), Johnnie & Jack (20 songs) and Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Ferlin Husky and George Jones (each with 19 songs).

Among Bluegrass artists, Flatt & Scruggs pick up an extra 15 chart entries, Mac Wiseman (13), Jimmy Martin (6), Bill Monroe (4), and the Osborne Brothers (4).

There were also apparently differences in how artists were classified. Country audiences always loved Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, George Hamilton IV and Conway Twitty, a fact Billboard somehow failed to acknowledge. After missing “Jambalaya”, Billboard tracked “One Step At A Time”, and then missed the next eleven consecutive Brenda Lee songs including such monsters as “Dynamite”, “Sweet Nothings”, “Fool #1” and “Break It To Me Gently”.

The track record on Elvis was worse as Billboard failed to track “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Blue Suede Shoes”, along with 15 more songs.

Record World tracked six George Hamilton IV singles before Billboard got around to recognizing “Before This Day Ends” as a country single. Ditto for Conway Twitty who Billboard picked up as country with “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart”, after ten singles had already been tracked by Record World.

While most of the songs that Music Vendor/Record World picked up were second tier hits, there were some surprising Billboard misses uncovered such as the George Jones favorites “Tall Tall Trees”, “Eskimo Pie” and “Nothing Can Stop Me (Loving You)”. A very famous song from 1955 was Bobby Lord’s 1955 hit “Hawkeye”; Billboard missed the song entirely on any of its charts, whereas Record World had it charting for twelve weeks, reaching #16.

I mentioned that approximately 200 artists show up in this book that Billboard never tracked on its country charts. These include Carl Dobkins Jr (three songs including “My Heart Is An Open Book” which Record World has as a #2 country hit, and Billboard had reach #3 pop), Pete Drake (three instrumental singles), and Buddy Holly (four singles including “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby”).

I’ve only had this fascinating book for two days and I will probably report further as time permits, but it would be remiss of me not to further examine the song that initially got me interested in charts. Yes – I do mean “Groovy Grubworm” by Harlow Wilcox and The Oakies. Cashbox had the record reach #1 on its country chart (#24 pop) for two weeks whereas Billboard had the record stall out at #42 on the country chart while reaching #30 on the pop charts. This was the biggest chart disparity ever between singles that reached #1 on either the Billboard or Cashbox country chart but not the other chart.

The record was hugely successful, selling a million copies between the US and Canadian markets (it was a top ten hit on several Canadian regional pop charts), so I was curious to see how Record World treated “Groovy Grubworm” on its country charts, recalling that Record World had the song chart higher on its pop chart (#23) than did either Cashbox or Billboard.

Drum roll please :

Record World had the song reach #3 for one week on its country chart during its thirteen week chart run.

Reissues wish list part 2: MCA and Decca

webb pierceFor most of the Classic Country era, the big four of country record labels were Decca /MCA, RCA, Columbia and Capitol. Of these labels, MCA/Decca has done the poorest job of keeping their artists’ catalogues alive in the form of reissues.

When speaking of the big four labels we will need to define terms.
MCA/Decca refers to recordings released on MCA, Decca, Brunswick and for some periods, Vocalion.

During the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Decca (later MCA) can be argued as having the strongest roster of artists. Such titans as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn frequently dominated the charts with many strong second tier acts such as The Wilburn Brothers, Jimmie Davis, Roy Drusky, Jimmie C. Newman, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Bill Phillips, Crystal Gayle, Jeanie Seely, Jan Howard and Red Sovine passing through the ranks at various times. Crystal Gayle, of course, became a major star in the late 1970s and 1980s

In the early digital days MCA had virtually nothing of their classic artists available aside from some Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe and Conway Twitty discs. Then in 1991 they started their County Music Hall of Fame Series, showcasing artists elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, because of industry politics, their biggest stars, Webb Pierce and Conway Twitty, had not yet been elected.

Each of the discs contained fifteen or sixteen tracks or about 38 minutes of music. Many of the CDs featured artists who had not been on Decca for many years, and many featured artists who just passed through on their way to bigger and better things or had been bigger stars in the past. Among the CDS in the series were The Carter Family (on Decca 1937-1938), Jimmie Davis, Red Foley, Grandpa Jones (with Decca in the late 1950s – several remakes of King label hits), Loretta Lynn, Uncle Dave Macon (a real old-timer), Tex Ritter (1930s recordings), Roy Rogers, Sons of The Pioneers (with Decca during the 1930s and again in 1954), Hank Thompson (ABC/Dot recordings of the late 1960s and 1970s – MCA purchased the ABC & Dot labels – Hank never actually recorded for MCA/Decca). Floyd Tillman (1939-1944), Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe and Bob Wills (Bob’s best years were on Columbia and MGM). The Bob Wills recordings were 1955-1967 recordings on the Decca & Kapp labels – the Kapp recordings usually featured Nashville session players with no real feel for swing and are the least essential recordings Wills ever made.

Each of the CDs mentioned above are undeniably worthy, but are either inadequate or not representative of the artists’ peaks.

Some MCA/Decca artists have been covered by Bear Family, most notably Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Bill Anderson, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers. One could wish for more on some of these artists, but what is available generally is enough; however, it is expensive. Good two-disc sets would be desirable.

During the 1960s, Decca had their artists re-record their hits in order to take advantage of modern stereo technology, since for artists who peaked before 1957, such as Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce and Red Foley, their biggest hits were recorded in monaural sound. An additional consideration for Ernest Tubb was that his then-current band was larger and better with musicians such as Billy Byrd and Buddy Emmons (to name just two) being members of the band. In the case of Ernest Tubb, the re-recordings were superior to the original string band recordings.

In the case of most other artists, I think the originals were better BUT for many years the original recordings were not available and listeners of my generation grew up hearing the stereo remakes whether on records or on the radio. Since the digital era began the stereo remakes have been unavailable except on Bear Family sets. It would be nice if the stereo remakes were available, and it would be nice if MCA/Decca artists were available on decent domestic collections.

Webb Pierce – several domestic releases of Webb Pierce’s hits are available but they generally contain about a dozen songs, all from the 1950s. There is a Bear Family set that covers up to 1958 – it’s great but it misses all of Webb’s lesser later hits. Webb was the #1 country artist of the 1950s according to Billboard, and while he slipped thereafter, he was still the sixth ranked artist of the 1960s with many hits, including a couple of Record World #1s. None of this has been released on CD. What is needed is a good three CD set gathering up Webb’s 1960s (and early 1970s) chart hits plus key album tracks and the stereo remakes of the fifties hits.

For as widely popular as she was. you would expect much of Barbara Mandrell‘s output to be available. Barbara moved from Epic to ABC/Dot and when ABC/Dot was absorbed by MCA, her music was issued on that label. Barbara had 30+ hits for ABC/Dot/MCA with many #1 and top five recordings. Currently, not much is available and she warrants a boxed set.

Jack Greene and Cal Smith both had fairly late starts to their solo careers. While there exist a few hit collections for each artist (on foreign labels), neither is very complete, leaving off key songs. For Cal Smith, since Kapp and MCA are both owned by the same company, a two disc set collecting Cal’s Kapp & MCA/Decca singles should suffice (possibly a single disc with about thirty tracks would be okay).

For Jack Greene, more is needed since Jack had over thirty chart singles for Decca and issued at least fourteen albums plus a hits collection while on MCA/Decca. Jack was a superior vocalist and his albums contain recordings of others’ hits that often were better than the original hits. While not a hit for Jack, his version of “The Last Letter” is the definitive recording of the song.

The Osborne Brothers were bluegrass innovators, developing an almost unique (Jim & Jesse were doing something similar) bluegrass and country hybrid with bluegrass instruments augmented by electric guitar, steel guitar and sometimes other amplified instruments. After leaving MCA/Decca for CMH and other labels, the Osborne Brothers went back to a more traditional bluegrass approach. Almost none of that classic hybrid material is available except for a gospel CD and an excellent but short (ten songs) collection titled Country Bluegrass which seems randomly put together. No bluegrass group ever has huge numbers of hit records on the country charts, but the Osborne Brothers did chart quite a few and they should be available domestically. I would think a single disc set of thirty tracks would be acceptable, although more would be better, of course.

Johnny Wright is better know as part of the duo Johnny & Jack (with Jack Anglin), but after Anglin’s death in 1963, Wright embarked on a successful solo career which saw the release of at least six albums on MCA/Decca plus twelve chart singles including the #1 “Hello Vietnam” , the first chart topper for a Tom T. Hall song. Johnny’s wife was Kitty Wells, and while he never reached her level of success as a solo artist, apparently it never bothered Wright as he and Kitty were married from 1937 until his death in 2011 at the age of 97. A good single disc collection would suffice here.

The bulk of Little Jimmy Dickens’ career occurred for another label, but his time on MCA/Decca saw the release of two albums of new material plus an album featuring remakes of his earlier hits. The Decca albums featured a staple of Jimmy’s live shows “I Love Lucy Brown” and an amusing novelty “How To Catch An African Skeeter Alive”. I think most of this would fit on a single CD.

Wilma Burgess was an excellent singer who came along about four decades too soon. While Wilma did not flaunt being lesbian, neither did she particularly hide it. Consequently, she never got much of a commercial push from her label. Many have recorded “Misty Blue” but none did it as well as Wilma Burgess. She recorded at least five albums for MCA/Decca plus some duets with Bud Logan, former band leader for Jim Reeves. A decent two disc set of this outstanding singer should be easy to compile.

I would like to see a collection on Loretta Lynn’s siblings, Peggy Sue and Jay Lee Webb. Since Loretta’s other well known sibling started on MCA/Decca as well, it should be possible to do a good two CD set of Loretta’s kinfolks. Jay Lee Webb’s “She’s Looking Better By The Minute” is an all-time honky-tonk classic.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

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.

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’

magnificent music machineAfter a string of successful albums and singles between 1971 and 1976 in which seven of his nine albums reached the Billboard Country Top Ten, and twelve of his singles reached the Billboard Top Ten Country Singles chart (six reached number one on Billboard), Tom T Hall decided that it was time to give proper airing to his bluegrass roots. The end result, The Magnificent Music Machine would prove to be both an artistic success and a chart success, with the album reaching number eleven and the only single released, “Fox On The Run” reaching number nine.

For this project, Tom called on a number of his bluegrass friends plus some other leading lights of the genre: Kenny Baker, Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher on fiddle; Gene Bush on slide dobro; Bobby Thompson and J.D. Crowe on banjo; Donna Stoneman (of the legendary Stoneman Family) and Jodi Drumright on mandolin; and Trish Williams, J.T. Gray, Art Malin, and Jimmy Martin (!) on harmony vocals To try to give the album some commercial appear, Nashville session stalwarts Buddy Harmon (drums), Henry Strezelecki and Bob Moore (bass) were added to the mix.

Up to this point in his career, Hall’s albums had been almost exclusively his own compositions. While Tom T would write five of the eleven songs on this album, six of the songs came from outside sources.

The album opens up with “Fox On The Run”, a song which was added to the bluegrass repertoire by the Bill Emerson of the Country Gentlemen, but which started life as a rock song for British group Manfred Mann. The song was written by Tony Hazzard, an English songwriter who wrote hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes and Lulu. The song reached #5 on the UK pop charts in late 1968 (at least one of the UK charts had it reaching #1). Tom T’s version was a hard driving affair and after the wide radio exposure and sales of the album, the song would be forevermore bluegrass

S

he walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left him to die like a fox on the run

John Prine’s “Paradise” (sometimes titled “Muhlenburg County”) follows, a nostalgic yet bitter mid-tempo song that decries the damage that the coal industry has done to the environment

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
Down by the green river where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

“Mama’s Got The Catfish Blues” is a Tom T Hall composition, written, he says, in the spirit of something Carter Stanley would have written. I’m not sure I’m hearing Carter Stanley in this particular song, but it’s a good song, one that also might have made a good single

There’s a turtle on the stump and the toadfrog jump
And I guess, I could gig me a few
In settlin’ fog I caught a big water dog
Mama’s got the catfish blues

I don’t like to see her unhappy
She treats me like a water tree
I hate to see mama with the catfish blues
And the catfish are layin’ in the river asleep

“Bluegrass Break-up” is a Charlie Williams composition, about the sadness of a bluegrass band that is disbanding:

Well, we’re finally breakin’ up our bluegrass band
And the thought of it is more than I can stand
But if parting is our one chance to survive
You’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our music tore the world apart
When we used to pick and sing it from the heart
But then dissension came into our lives
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our world was harmony and fun
Wildwood Flower and ten-one mighty run
We can’t patch it up, we made too many tries
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

“I Don’t Want My Golden Slippers” is a religious song with the sound and feel of a church choir and a mostly acoustic guitar accompaniment. Although Tom T wrote this song, it truly sounds as if it could have been written a century before.

“Molly and Tenbrooks” is derived from an old folk tale about a horserace and was made famous and fashioned into a viable song by the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Mr. Bill Monroe. On this recording Bill Monroe guests playing the mandolin to Tom’s vocals. Interestingly, Tom T reports that Monroe had to refresh himself on the mandolin part in order to play the song – he normally played guitar or just sang when performing this song!

“The Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter County Today” is another Tom T Hall composition, this one an up-tempo romp about a rabbit hunt.

“I’ll Never Do Better Than You” also comes from T’s pen. One of the slower songs on the album, it expresses a depth of feeling that sometimes gets overlooked among the pyrotechnics of the genre

Tom’s late brother Hillman Hall, was an accomplished songwriter, although not in Tom T’s class, of course. “The Magnificent Music Machine” is Hillman’s contribution to this album, a terrific song that I would have released as a single. For that matter, it would have made a great Jimmy Martin single.

He’s got nothing but talent and time on his hands
He loves his music, hangs out with his band
He’s got big-hit ambitions and number one dreams
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

He hit town with nothing but his old guitar
With visions of grandeur and being a star
He writes them and sings them like you’ve never seen
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

“Rank Stranger”, of course is a classic Stanley Brothers song, perhaps my favorite song from the entire Stanley canon, from which there are many classics. This song still gives me chills and Tom sings it well.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with another Tom T Hall composition “Bluegrass Festival In The Sky”.

In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be Monroe Flatt Scruggs and the Stanleys
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the whole McGranner’s Family
Molly and the Stonemans and Martin and Crow
Dillard and Thompson and Smiley and Reno.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be old Tige and Baker and Clements and Warren
Richmond and Harold Carl Story and Dorrin
Acker McMagaha Wiseman and Gray
The Osbornes Bill Clifton Sprung and Uncle Dave.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky…

It would be many years before Tom T Hall would return to his bluegrass roots when recording a solo album, but return he would. It just didn’t happen as soon as I would have liked.

Country Heritage: Kenny Price (1931-1987)

kenny priceFans of the long running television show Hee Haw may remember Kenny Price. He played various roles in Hee Haw’s skits, including the over-protective father of a pretty teenage daughter (whose suitor, Billy Bob, did not meet his approval), a backwater sheriff and a country bumpkin lounging on the lawn in front of the general store. He also appeared in two of the regular musical spots, the “Gloom, Despair and Agony” snippets and the glorious Hee Haw Gospel Quartet segment wherein Kenny, Grandpa Jones, Buck Owens and Roy Clark would lend their talents to old-time gospel favorites. Many viewers considered the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet to be their favorite portion of the show. He also appeared as Kenny Honey, the father on the spin-off Hee Haw Honeys and hosted a travel show on TNN called Wish You Were Here with his wife Donna.

Unfortunately, few today remember Kenny Price as a country music recording star for Boone and RCA records. A solid journeyman performer, known as ‘The Round Mound of Sound’, he charted 34 singles during his 15 year chart run, but never had a number one record or a sustained run of top ten records.

Standing six-feet tall and weighing well over 300 pounds, Kenneth James Price is remembered by fellow performers and fans alike as one of the nicest individuals to ever sing a country song. Born near Florence in Boone County, Kentucky, he was raised on a ranch and learned to play the guitar when he was only five. Initially at least, Price aspired to be a farmer but eventually he changed the focus of his endeavors. He got his start in 1945 playing on WZIP-Cincinnati and over the next few years, played a few dates in the Kentucky-Ohio border area. Uncle Sam called in 1952 and Price spent the next two years in the military. While stationed in Korea, he auditioned for a USO show. By the time he was discharged in 1954 Price had decided on music as a career and studied briefly at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. From there he appeared on Midwestern Hayride at WLW-Cincinnati and by 1957 was appearing on Hometown, a Cincinnati television show hosted by Buddy Ross. Meanwhile, in 1955, he issued two singles on the “X” label (an RCA subsidiary) called “Cold Hearted Love” and “Worryin’”. Neither single charted.

Nearly nine years passed before Price again landed a recording contract, this time with Boone Records, out of Boone, NC. After four non-charting singles he finally hit it big with his third single, “Walking on the New Grass”, which cracked the Top 10 in 1966–as did his next single “Happy Tracks”. While none of his following Boone singles charted in the top ten nationally (“Southern Bound” came close), they did well enough in regional markets to land him a recording contract with RCA. Moreover, RCA thought highly enough of him that they purchased the masters for his two albums on Boone and reissued them as his first two RCA albums.

The first RCA hit was achieved in 1969 when “Northeast Arkansas Mississippi County Bootlegger” reached #17. This was followed by two more top ten hits in “Biloxi” (#10 in 1970) and “The Sheriff of Boone County” which reached #8 at the end of 1970 and appeared briefly on the pop charts (the song was inspired by a series of amusing Dodge automobile commercials). After that, Top 10 success eluded Price, although he did have a few more minor hits. His tenure with RCA ended in late 1975, but he kept busy when Hee Haw beckoned in 1976. He remained a member of the cast until his death in 1987.

I never had the pleasure of seeing Kenny perform live, but I’ve met several musicians who worked with him and all of them had fond memories of him. Read more of this post

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Comin’ Home To Stay’

By 1988 the influx of new, traditionally rooted talent which had come with the rise of the New Traditionalists in the late 80s had squeezed room on radio playlists for more established artists, and for the first time since he burst into the mainstream, a Ricky Skaggs album did not score any top 10 hits.

Lead single ‘I’m Tired’ was a remake of an old Webb Pierce hit penned by Mel Tillis and Ray Price. It hit #3 for Pierce in 1957, but Ricky’s excellent cover disappointingly only made it to #18. It deserved to do better, as did the next single. Another classic cover, a steel-led version of Stonewall Jackson’s ‘Angel On My Mind) That’s Why I’m Walking’ failed to scrape into the top 30. That was a real shame, because it is an excellent, somber interpretation of an excellent song, which is my favorite track on this album.

Top 20 hit ‘Thanks Again’ is a warm-hearted message to loving parents written by Jim Rushing, with a stripped down backing with Ricky’s own acoustic guitar the sole instrument. Perhaps surprisingly, a peak of #17 made this appealing but not obviously commercial number the album’s biggest chart success.

Paul Overstreet’s ‘Old Kind Of Love’, the final single, celebrated a perceived revival of old fashioned family values and squeaked into the top 30. It is quite charming with an attractive melody, but feels rather naive lyrically.

The overall mood of this record is one celebrating family and married life. ‘Lord She Sure Is Good At Lovin’ Me’ was written by the period’s superstar, Randy Travis, with Paul Overstreet, and is rather good at portraying domestic bliss, with added conviction lent by using wife Sharon White’s honeyed voice on harmony.

As with his previous album, Ricky included a romantic duet with Sharon. The pretty tune and heartfelt delivery of ‘Home Is Wherever You Are’ is, a sweet ballad written by Wayland Patton, make this one another winner. Her family band The Whites also sing on a traditionally styled gospel quartet. Catchy but lyrically uncompromising, ‘If You Don’t Believe The Bible’ was written by Carl Jackson and Glenn Sutton, and has only acoustic guitars backing the singers.

There is a bit less bluegrass influence than usual, but the album takes its title from the sole (electric) bluegrass number, Jimmy Martin’s bouncily playful ‘Hold Whatcha Got’. A cover of western swing classic ‘San Antonio Rose’ is competent and entertaining but unambitious and ultimately forgettable.

‘Woman, You Won’t Break Mine’ is an offbeat love song giving an ultimatum to a tough female rodeo rider who defied her mother’s dreams of pretty dresses and is trying to slow down her romance:

You went and broke your mama’s heart
But woman, you won’t break mine

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this solidly enjoyable album, which I prefer to its immediate predecessor, but there isn’t anything really standing out either, and the satisfied mood feels a little too comfortable to have an emotional impact. Combined with the lack of big hits, it is no real surprise that it did not sell quite as well as Ricky’s previous work. It is still worth getting if you can find a cheap copy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Good Thing Going’

While 2006’s All American Bluegrass Girl wasn’t quite up to par with her previous work, Rhonda Vincent recovered nicely with her next project. Released in January 2008, Good Thing Going is a more eclectic set of songs than we’d heard to date from Rhonda, with elements of traditional folk, Western swing and contemporary country offered up alongside the standard bluegrass. The project was co-produced by Rhonda along with her brother Darrin. Her road band The Rage is also featured on the album, which reached #1 on the Top Bluegrass Albums chart and produced two non-charting singles.

The opening track “I’m Leavin'” is one of five tracks on the album written by Rhonda and is reminiscent of some of the lesser known songs in Dolly Parton’s catalog, such as “If You Need Me” and “I’m Gone”. It was released as a single but did not chart despite the excellent vocal performance by Rhonda and fiddle-playing by Stuart Duncan. The next track, the Western swing flavored “The World’s Biggest Fool”, is a far cry from bluegrass but Rhonda pulls it off with gusto. The wedding ballad “I Give All My Love To You” is exquisitely performed and produced but it is one of the least “grassy” songs here, despite the duet vocal from fellow bluegrass star Russell Moore of the band IIIrd Tyme Out. No complaints here, but hardcore bluegrass fans may have been expecting something different. Those traditionalists should be pleased, however, with the title track, which features more traditional instrumentation and high-lonesome vocals.

The most traditional bluegrass song in the collection is a spirited cover version of Jimmy Martin’s fast paced “Hit Parade of Love”, which is possibly my favorite song on the album, though “Scorn of a Lover” is also in contention for best track. The latter features a bluegrass arrangement but the lyrics owe more to traditional country and it sounds like something that Patty Loveless would have nailed on one of her nineties albums. Dottie Rambo’s “Just One of a Kind” is also a nicely done number that should please bluegrass traditionalists.

Rhonda’s albums usually contain at least one religious song. “I Will See You Again” fills that slot this time around. It’s definitely not bluegrass, but it’s a very touching story about an elderly woman who is about to bury her husband but who has faith that she will see him again soon.

Given its close relationship to bluegrass and country, it’s perhaps logical that Rhonda would choose to include some music of Celtic origin on her albums. Ironically, however, the traditional Irish air “The Water Is Wide” is stripped of most of its Celtic elements, and thus, the tune is this album’s biggest stretch. Featuring a guest vocal from Keith Urban, the song is very pretty but is also somewhat bland. I’ve always liked this song and was looking forward to hearing Rhonda’s take on it, but disappointingly, it comes across as an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, a la Alison Krauss. I highly doubt that was the intent, but the track is one of Rhonda’s rare missteps. The album closes with the self-penned “Bluegrass Saturday Night”, which describes the hectic lifestyle of a road musician.

Though not quite as strong as Back Home Again and the excellent The Storm Still Rages, Good Thing Going is nonetheless an enjoyable collection and that is worthy of inclusion in any country or bluegrass fan’s collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Back Home Again’

Although Rhonda Vincent’s pursuit of a mainstream career resulted in only two albums, it took her away from the bluegrass scene for nearly a decade. With the major label phase of her career now over, Rhonda returned to the indies and began a decade-long association with the roots-based Rounder Records. The aptly named Back Home Again, released in January 2000 was her first project for the label. It was an exciting time in bluegrass, as the genre was enjoying somewhat of a commercial resurgence. Dolly Parton had released the first album of her bluegrass trilogy a few months earlier, and the following year the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack would be named Album of the Year by the CMA.

Back Home Again was produced by Rhonda with Ronnie Light. In addition to singing lead vocals, Rhonda also played guitar and mandolin on several tracks and was also joined by her brother Darrin who sang harmony. Many of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Glen Duncan on fiddle, also participated in the project.

Rhonda and Darrin’s vocals soar on the opening, banjo-led track “Lonesome Wind Blues”, a cover of a Bill Monroe classic. Equally good are their take on Jimmy Martin’s “Pretending I Don’t Care”, and “Out of Hand”, a cover of a Louvin Brothers song on which Rhonda and Darrin are joined by their father Johnny Vincent. “Passing of the Train” is an updated version of a song that Rhonda had included on her first mainstream album, Written In The Stars.

Like most of Rhonda’s albums, not everything on Back Home Again is strictly bluegrass; three contemporary country songs are given bluegrass arrangements, with stunning results. “When I Close My Eyes”, my favorite track on the album, is far superior to Kenny Chesney’s 1996 original and Rhonda’s take on “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” is equal to Patty Loveless’ 1993 recording. And after hearing Rhonda sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, it’s somewhat surprising that Dolly herself never did a bluegrass version of the song. I’d never thought of it as a bluegrass tune, but it works extremely well with an acoustic arrangement and soaring harmonies on the song’s chorus.

The album’s only misstep is “Little Angels”, a song sung from the point of view of a child sexual abuse survivor. The tune is pretty and it is well sung and played, but it all sounds a little too pleasant for a song about such a weighty and uncomfortable topic, and as such, it doesn’t quite work.

While it’s regrettable that Rhonda didn’t enjoy the commercial success she deserved in mainstream country, after listening to Back Home Again, one can’t help but think that perhaps things worked out for the best, as bluegrass is where she truly belongs. Some mainstream country fans are resistant to bluegrass, but there is much to like in this collection, so it’s well worth keeping an open mind and giving it a try.

Grade: A

Album Review – Marty Stuart – ‘Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best’

Released in June 1996, Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best marks the final album of the hit-making portion of Stuart’s career. His sixth release for MCA Records, and produced as usual by Tony Brown, the album had four singles and peaked at #27 on the charts.

The lead single and title track reunited Stuart with Travis Tritt for their first duet in four years. Released in April of 1996, “Honky Tonkin’s What I Do Best” wouldn’t be nearly as successful as their previous collaborations, missing the top twenty completely, and peaking at #23. It didn’t help that the song rocked harder than their previous work and Stuart’s growly vocal may’ve been a slight turn-off for radio programmers. To make matters worse, the mix of loud guitars and screaming steel hasn’t aged well. But the lyric, about a misunderstood boy who’s born to honky tonk, is still relevant today.

Second single “Thanks To You” wouldn’t faire much better on the charts, peaking at #50 that same year. But Stuart and Gary Nicholson wrote an outstanding lyric that holds up extremely well today. A love song, it’s a thank you note to the woman who saved the man’s life:

I searched for love my whole life through

Then it came like a blinding flash from the blue

Thanks to you

Empty nights and long lost days

Roving eyes and rambling ways are through

Thanks to you

“You Can’t Stop Love,” a guitar-heavy mid-tempo number co-written by Stuart and Kostas, peaked at #26 in 1997. Not as commercial as the previous two singles, it amazes me this garnered more airplay than “Thanks To You,” a much better single choice for the late 90s. But it’s still a good song, although the moody and somewhat dark arrangement is a better fit for Gary Allan than for Stuart.

A final single, “Sweet Love” came in the spring of 1997 but failed to chart. Written by rock and roll singer Del Shannon, “Sweet Love” was far too out of step with the times upon its release. Stuart, meanwhile, seems overproduced a bit and the loud guitar-heavy accompaniment drowns out his vocal.

As “Sweet Love” aptly illustrates, at his core Stuart is an individualist. By not bucking to trends or trying to sound like his contemporaries, his albums come off unique to the man creating them. That downside is that uniqueness doesn’t have a home on country radio. But commercial aspirations aside, it makes for a very interesting listening experience.

The most unique of all the songs on the album is “The Mississippi Mudcat and Sister Sheryl Crow,” which features Bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin along with his country music coon dog and beagle hounds. The track opens with Martin giving a recitation as though he and Stuart are relaxing on a porch in the country. The barking dogs give way to bluesy number heavy on guitar and originality but low on appeal. This is an acquired taste kind of song, and out of place on a commercial country record.

Read more of this post

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: Marty Raybon – ‘Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)’

Barely weeks after his last album release, the enjoyable religious record Hand To The Plow, ex-Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon has come up with a mainly secular bluegrass-based effort which is even better than the latter.  He produced it himself and has done a fine job.  A variety of pickers were used, with an average of four players of any given instrument across the album (but no detailed breakdown by track)but the end result is very cohesive, sparklingly performed bluegrass with Marty’s distinctive, warm voice taking center stage.  Marty sounds great again, and the songs are all pretty good, with an overarching theme of the past.

A nice cover of the Rodney Crowell-penned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s nostalgic hit ‘Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream)’, with particularly pleasing fiddle, is a highlight, and Marty is entirely convincing singing of a childhood in poverty but a happy one.

The religious focus is not completely abandoned.  Marty actually co-wrote the joyfully urgent gospel of ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’, which Lee Ann Womack recorded on her debut album in the 90s, and here he gives his own reading, which is very good (although I would still just give the edge to the earlier recording).  An absolutely beautifully sung close-harmony ballad, ‘Beulah Land’ is another religious number, and there is an enjoyable cover of the bright mid-tempo ‘Prayer Bells Of Heaven’, written by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and Buck White (member of the Whites and father in law of Ricky Skaggs).

Bluegrass heritage gets several nods with interesting revivals of generally lesser-known songs.  Bill Monroe’s ‘Rocky Road Blues’ rhythmically melds blues and bluegrass, while ‘White House Blues’, another Monroe song, taken at a frenetic pace, takes on a political theme – but neither a contemporary one nor a controversial one.  It wasn’t even contemporary when Monroe recorded it in 1954, as it deals with the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and his replacement in the White House by Theodore Roosevelt.  Lyrically, it seems an odd choice to revive, but musically it sounds very good.  ‘Down The Road’ is a Flatt & Scruggs song which is bouncily enjoyable, and Jimmy Martin’s vivacious up-tempo ‘Home Run Man’ rather engagingly uses baseball as the metaphor for a man courting his love interest.

Marty also pays heed to his personal musical heritage by redoing a couple of Shenandoah hits.  The melodic ‘Ghost in This House’ is lovely, and ‘Next To You, Next To Me’ is also well done, but both are probably inessential if you have the original recordings.

If there is an emphasis on ‘yesterday’, the ‘today’ of the album’s sub-title is represented by a couple of new songs.  The plaintive mid-tempo ‘Big Pain’ is an excellent new song written by Marty with Billy Droze and John Fountain.  It bemoans a lost love, causing a pain which hurts so much more than physical injuries.  ‘Dirt Road Heartache’, a mid-tempo heartbreak bluegrass song written by Melissa Peirce and Jerry Salley, is also new and very good.

I am slightly puzzled as to why these two albums have been released quite so close together (and both on Rural Rhythm imprints), yet not quite simultaneously, as there must be a risk that one or the other will get overlooked.  But the music on this second album is flawless, and the song selection makes its potential market wider than its companion.  It really is well worth hearing if you like Marty’s singing, or bluegrass in general.

Grade: A

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.

Classic Rewind: Jimmy Martin – ‘Tennessee’

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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1989 Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two’

200px-circle_ii_album_coverAlongside our reviews of albums produced by the ‘Class of ’89’, we’ve been taking the opportunity to look in depth at some of the other great albums released that year. Perhaps the most ambitious of those was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, which harks back to the early days of country music and shows how that heritage was still influential.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in the California folk-rock movement of the 1960s. They revealed their country leanings in 1972 when they produced a legendary triple LP entitled Will The Circle Be Unbroken in collaboration with some of the seminal figures of bluegrass and old-time country music, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, bluegrass great Earl Scruggs and many others — mostly artists who were past their commercial peaks. If the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never again ventured into country music, this album alone would have sealed their place in the music’s history.

In the 1980s, however, after a period using the name the Dirt Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rebranded themselves and forged a very successful career in contemporary country music. In 1988, they decided the time had come to produce a follow-up to their classic. Many of the original collaborators had died, and this time the guests included some contemporary acts and some artists from outside country music altogether, or who were from related genres. The album liner notes say, “This time they drew the circle bigger”, and talk about “the many hyphenated hybrid styles writers have used to describe all sorts of American music that comes from the heart. Big enough to embrace gospel, blues, honky tonk, Cajun and traditional folksong”. In other words, the term might not have been invented yet — but in many ways this was perhaps one of the the first self-consciously Americana albums. The result was a little more commercial-sounding than the original, but it strikes a fine balance between showcasing musical history and showing that that heritage was a living thing. Read more of this post