My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Josh Graves

Album Review: The Earls of Leicester — ‘Live at the CMA Theater’

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to see almost all of my radio heroes in live performance with three notable exceptions. One of those, Ernest Tubb, I simply was unable to see. Another, Sammi Smith, I had purchased the tickets to see her perform but the show was canceled and she died before the show was scheduled to take place.

The third exception involved Flatt & Scruggs. My father had been transferred to the UK in January 1969 and Flatt & Scruggs were slated to be the headliners at the First International Festival of Country Music to be held at the Empire Pool (Wembly Stadium) on April 5, 1969. Dad purchased the tickets for us to go; however, by the time the festival took place, Flatt & Scruggs had split up and we had to content ourselves with a six-hour show that included Bill Anderson & The Po Boys, Phil Brady & The Ranchers, Wes Buchanan, Larry Cunningham & The Mighty Avons, George Hamilton IV, The Hillsiders, Jan Howard, Loretta Lynn & her stage show, Merrill Moore, Orange Blossom Sound, John Wesley Ryles, Conway Twitty & The Lonely Blue Boys and Charlie Walker.

While I never did get to see Flatt & Scruggs, in November 2017, I got to see the Earls of Leicester perform at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch / Bluegrass Festival in Palatka Florida. For ninety mesmerizing minutes Jerry Douglas (dobro) and his crew of Charlie Cushman (banjo & guitar), Shawn Camp (lead vocals & guitar), Johnny Warren (fiddle), Barry Bales (bass) and Jeff White (mandolin) transported the listener and breathed life into the truly classic repertoire of Flatt & Scruggs.

The Earls of Leicester perform only the music of Flatt & Scruggs circa 1954-1965, but they are far from being either a cover band or tribute band as they have updated the Flatt & Scruggs sound (mostly due to improved recording technology) while breathing new life into the music and remaining true to the spirit of the original recordings. Most importantly, they are having fun and their infectious joy at performing the music permeates every rack. None of the members of this ensemble can be said to be imitating members of Flatt & Scruggs Foggy Mountain Boys, but they are absorbed into the music.

Live At The CM Theater was recorded in February 2018, only I few months after I saw them in Palatka and features essentially the same program I saw a few months earlier. The recording opens with “Salty Dog Blues”, the very track that Flatt & Scruggs used to open their famous Carnegie Hall concert. From that point forward the band goes through a solid program of Flatt & Scruggs favorites. While each member of the band takes the role of one of the Foggy Mountain Boys at no point are any of them referred to on stage any name but their own.

Basically Shaw Camp takes Lester Flatt’s spot in the band, Charlie Cushman, a marvelous music musician who spent years in Mike Snider’s comic group takes Earl Scruggs role. Jerry Douglas handles the Josh Graves role, Jeff Whites takes Curley Seckler’s role, Barry Bales steps in for Cousin Jake Tulloch and Johnny Warren takes his father Paul Warren’s place in the pantheon.

This is a wonderful album that I have listened to continuously for about two weeks now. I am not sure when I will take it out of my player – perhaps never.

Grade: A+

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Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

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+

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Country Music’

Marty’s departure from MCA was not his final attempt at mainstream stardom.  He soon signed to Columbia, and in 2003 released his sole album for the label, the boldly titled Country Music.  Despite the title it was not as unabashedly traditional as Marty’s most recent work, combining some nods to tradition with more adventurous musical fare, and was his final record made for a mainstream audience.  It saw the debut of his new backing band, the Fabulous Superlatives.  Their musicianship is excellent, but the eclectic nature of the record feels it feel unfocussed.

The playful fantasies of the part-narrated ‘If There Ain’t There Oughta Be’, written by Bobby Pinson and Trey Bruce, were the first offering to radio, but just failed to crack the top 40.  It was a brave attempt at trying something a bit different, but the lack of tune and not particularly memorable lyrics fall flat.

The much more likeable ‘Too Much Month At the End Of The Money’ was a minor hit in 1989 for the shortlived  group Billy Hill (who comprised the successful songwriters Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill and Dennis Robbins), but Marty’s version flopped even though it sounds like a return to his “hillbilly rock” big hits.

The last single, although a truly stellar song, did not chart at all.  This outstanding track, the thoughtful ‘Farmer’s Blues’ setting out the financial difficulties faced by farmers was written by Marty with wife Connie Smith.  Marty’s sensitive vocal is perfectly judged, and Merle Haggard’s duet vocal balances it beautifully as they swap verses and harmonise on the chorus.

Another highlight is Marty’s first recording of ‘Sundown In Nashville’ with its insider’s view of the dark side of the city, where “they sweep broken dreams off the street”, a great song he has chosen to revive on his excellent latest album.   The song dates from the 1960s, but its insight into the “dark side of fame” is timeless.

An introspective cover of the classic ‘Satisfied Mind’ verges on the depressing, and it took me a few listens to really appreciate, but the decision to interpret the song from the point of view of the unsatisfied seeker of peace is actually very effective.  ‘Walls Of A Prison’ is a Cash cover, with Marty trying out his best bass growl against a simple acoustic arrangement, and this is another fine track with effectively unhurried phrasing.

The part-narrated Tip Your Hat acknowledges the legends and great songs of the genre, but is musically closer to blues than country with minimal melody and shouty vocals on the chorus, although Earl Scruggs and Josh Graves on banjo and dobro lend it some musical interest.

‘Here I Am’ is a gloomily soulful ballad offering love, with Marty wrote with Rivers Rutherford.  On a broadly similar theme, ‘If You Wanted Me Around’, written with Paul Kennerley, is a better song, with the protagonist willing to offer anything if only she cared.  ‘Fool For Love’, written by Marty with Tom Douglas, has a jazzy feel with call and response backing vocals  not unreminiscent of some of the Mavericks’ ballads, but it’s the kind of thing that really needs a more intrinsically compelling vocalist to pull off successfully.

The rocking novelty ‘By George’ is rather weird lyrically.  A superior version of the energetic ‘Wishful Thinkin’’ was previously recorded by Joy Lynn White, who invested it with a wild abandon and intensity making Marty’s version sound pedestrian and emotionless in comparison.

This was an attempt to get back on terms with country radio after the commercial failure of The Pilgrim.  It was not a success, and Marty left Columbia to undertakes some even less commercial projects in the next few years –  the gospel Souls’ Chapel, another concept album, the Native American tribute Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota, and a live bluegrass album recorded at the Ryman.  It is a bit of a mixed bag musically, but there are some tracks worth hearing, especially ‘Farmer’s Blues’.

Grade: B