My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ralph Stanley

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale and Ralph Stanley – ‘I Feel Like Singing Today’

After success as a mainstream songwriter, Jim Lauderdale turned his sights on bluegrass with 2002’s I FEEL LIKE SINGING TODAY, the first of two collaborations with Dr. Ralph Stanley on the Dualtone label.

I noticed that Wikipedia has this album listed as being released on the Rebel label in 1999, so perhaps Dualtone bought the masters for this album for re-release in 2002. Whatever the case, I’m glad to own the album.

Since the 1979 album with Roland White would not be released for many years, this is Jim’s official first bluegrass album. Since Dr. Ralph is as venerated as any performer in the folk/acoustic/bluegrass field of music, I guess you’d have to say Jim started at the top with his collaborations. Jim and Ralph were familiar with each other prior to recording this project as the two had traded guest appearances on each other’s albums (Lauderdale’s WHISPER and Stanley’s CLINCH MOUNTAIN COUNTRY ).

Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote 9 of the 15 tunes on this album and the originals blend in nicely with the bluegrass canon.

“Who Thought That the Railroad Wouldn’t Last,” the title track and “Joy, Joy, Joy” (co-written with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead are up-tempo tunes that allow the Clinch Mountain Boys to show their wares. Two other Lauderdale originals “Another Sinner’s Prayer” and “Like Him,” feature Ralph Stanley , who excels in gospel performances, whether with accompaniment or a cappella.

Since bluegrass audiences always want some of the genre’s traditional fare, there are six classics covered, including “You’ll Find Her Name Written There (Harol Hensley), Maple On The Hill” (Gussie Davis) “What About You” (Jack Anglin, Jim Anglin, Johnnie Wright), “This Home Is Not My Home” (traditional), “Harbor of Love” (Carter Stanley), and ”Who Will Sing For Me” (Carter Stanley).

If you like bluegrass, you’ll love this album. If bluegrass isn’t your thing, you’ll likely still like it, because of the well-crafted songs and the fine vocal pairing. While Lauderdale takes most of the lead vocals, Jim knew even then that there are certain songs that just scream for Ralph Stanley to sing, particularly, and like any dutiful apprentice, Jim lets the master sing the leads on those songs

It is difficult for me to pick out a favorite song but I do have great fondness for the two Carter Stanley compositions. Here’s a sample of the lyrics of “Who Will Sing For Me”

If I sing for my friends
When death’s cold hand I see
When I reach my journey’s end
Who will sing one song for me?
I wonder (I wonder) who
Will sing (will sing) for me
When I’m called to cross that silent sea
Who will sing for me?

Jim is a competent musician, but on this album he and Ralph sing, leaving the instrument chores to Ralph’s Clinch Mountain Boys: James Cooke – acoustic bass & baritone vocals; James Alan Shelton – lead guitar; Ralph Stanley II – guitar & baritone vocals; Steve Sparkman – banjo & James Price – fiddle, mandolin & vocals

This is a solid A. Better yet, another such collaboration would follow.

Advertisements

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘Whisper’

Produced by Jim with Blake Chancey in 1998 for BNA Records (making it his third album and his third record label), Whisper is one of his most traditional country records. Not coincidentally it is one of my favorites, but not only for the musical style. The song quality on this album is exceptionally high.

Jim collaborated with songwriting legend Harlan Howard on two songs. The opening honky tinker ‘Goodbye Song’ is an excellent song about denying a relationship has come to its end. ‘We’re Gone’ is also great, with Jim brooding over his lost love and their empty former home after a too-early marriage comes to an end:

She lives on the right side of the tracks
I’m on the wrong
There’s nothin’ but the TV going on

One-time George Jones duet partner Melba Montgomery, another fine songwriter, helped Jim with my favorite song, ‘What Do You Say To That’, a charming love song notable for its truly gorgeous melody. It was to be one of George Strait’s Lauderdale-penned hits a couple of years later but Lauderdale’s original is lovely too. Strait and Wade Hayes both later covered the John Scott Sherrill co-write ‘She Used To Say That To Me’, another super song with an ironic edge to the lyric.

Jim teamed up with Frank Dycus to write several songs. Twin fiddles introduce the fine ‘In Harm’s Way’, with its hindsight recollection of a romance which was always headed for disaster, just like the Titanic. Jim’s vocal’s have a high lonesome quality on the right song, and it works to perfection on this track. ‘Without You Here It’s Not The Same’ is another strong song regretting failure to see trouble before it hit the relationship. I also liked ‘Take Me Down A Path (My Heart Won’t Know)’. I didn’t like ‘Sometimes’ as much aurally, as its melody is more repetitive, but it is another well written song.

The rhythmic ‘Hole In My Head’, written with Buddy Miller, is repetitive, unmelodic and my least favourite track.

Jim wrote the remaining songs solo. The slow title track is a love song loaded with gorgeous steel guitar which would benefit from a cover by someone with a sweeter voice. ‘It’s Hard To Keep A Secret Anymore’ is an excellent song with Jim’s protagonist guessing his wife is cheating. ‘You’re Tempting Me’ is a pretty good song about initial attraction.

The album closes with the bluegrass gospel of ‘I’ll Lead You Home’, featuring Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – before Stanley’s career was revived by O Brother, Where Art Thou. This is a lovely recording.

Overall this is a very strong album worth checking out.

Grade: A

September Spotlight Artist: Jim Lauderdale

Our September Spotlight features one of the true Renaissance persons of roots music, Jim Lauderdale. Born in 1957, Lauderdale has a thorough-going knowledge of country, bluegrass, roots-rock, folk and jazz and incorporates elements of all of these into his songwriting and performances. He has performed in theatre, as a member of various bands, and as a solo performer. He has an affable personality and a decent, but not necessarily terrific, singing voice that could, under different circumstances, led him to become a major recording star in the fields of bluegrass or traditional country music. As it is, Jim has had difficulty in receiving airplay for his own recordings and never made much of an impact on radio with his only charted single, “Stay Out of My Arms” reaching #86 on Billboard’s country chart in 1988. If heard at all on the radio, it is most likely to be on bluegrass programs (usually on NPR) or on Bluegrass Junction on Sirius-XM as his duet recordings with Ralph Stanley are quite popular with the bluegrass crowd.

As a songwriter, he has been far more successful with his songs being recorded by many artists across a variety of genres including George Strait, Gary Allan, Elvis Costello, George Jones, Buddy Miller, Blake Shelton, the Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill, and Patty Loveless. I don’t know how many of his songs George Strait recorded, but it is a bunch.

Although not a household name with modern county radio audiences, Jim Lauderdale has been quite busy, co-hosting Music City Roots, the annual Americana Music Awards Show (since 2002) and appearing on various other television shows. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead), Dr. Ralph Stanley, Nick Lowe and Roland White.

Between television and touring, he stays quite busy. We have selected an interesting array of albums to review, so please join us in saluting our September Spotlight Artist – Jim Lauderdale.

Classic Rewind: Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Blues – ‘So Blue’

Classic Rewind: Ralph Stanley – ‘Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine’

Classic Rewind: Ralph Stanley – ‘Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine’

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++

Spotlight Artist: Buddy Miller

buddy millerAnyone whose resume’ includes a spell leading Emmylou Harris’s backing band is going to be a great musician (just think of alumni like Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs), and this month’s spotlight artist is no exception. Born in Ohio in 1952, where his father was serving in the Air Force, Steven “Buddy” Miller was raised in New Jersey, where he started out playing stand-up bass in his high school bluegrass band. He is now best known for his brilliant guitar playing – and, of course, for his songwriting and production, as well as being an artist in his own right.

He met future wife and musical partner Julie Griffin (born in 1956) in Austin, Texas, in 1975 when he joined Rick Stein & the Alleycats, a band of which she was a member (she was a dissenting voice). They subsequently moved together to New York and formed the Buddy Miller Band. Julie’s personal journey led her to leave the band (in which she was replaced by singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin), and she returned to Texas. Buddy followed her, and he and Julie married in 1981, and lived for periods in Texas, Seattle and California before eventually settling in Nashville in 1993.

streetlightJulie was now set on a career in Christian music. The band Streetlight, which featured Buddy, Julie and one other man, released a six-track Christian contemporary EP in 1983 for the Sparrow label. Julie, a distinctive vocalist and excellent songwriter, began making solo records in 1990, still as a Christian artist. Her solo career slowed after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, with no new solo recordings since 1999, but she has continued to work with Buddy, and they have recorded several duet albums.

Buddy and Julie found congenial musical company in Nashville, and their songs have been covered by many country, Americana and other artists. Buddy found work playing on sessions, and discovered a gift for producing. He has built a recording studio in his Nashville home, and has been acclaimed for his production work on records by Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, soul singer Solomon Burke, and Ralph Stanley. He served as music director for the second and third seasons of the TV drama Nashville.

In c.1995 Buddy became the guitar player for Spyboy, the trio Emmylou formed to support her tour promoting her Wrecking Ball album, and he stayed with her for eight years. He has also toured in the bands of Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In 2008-9 he took front stage alongside Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin on the Three Girls And Their Buddy tour, interrupted by a heart attack from his fortunately made a full recovery.

Alongside his sidesman and studio duties, Buddy began recording his own music in 1995 with Your Love And Other Lies. He has interspersed solo records with duet projects with wife Julie, and one with old friend Jim Lauderdale. Buddy’s latest project, Cayamo Sessions At Sea, was released last Friday, with a host of guest stars, and we are delighted to be spending February focussing on his music here.

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Friends – ‘Man Of Constant Sorrrow’

man of constant sorrowJust after the release of the very similarly titled tribute I reviewed recently comes another project, this one featuring the man himself, produced by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. Mostly the guests sing lead with Dr Ralph harmonising, but some are true duets too.

There is some overlap in personnel (of those associated personally and professionally with Dr Ralph) but almost none with songs. The smooth-voiced Nathan Stanley duets with his grandfather on ‘Rank Stranger’ to great effect. Ricky Skaggs shows up again here with Carter Stanley’s ‘Sweethearts In Heaven’ and combines plaintive emotion with a solid driving rhythm.

The big country names all do a fine job. Josh Turner delivers a solid lead vocal on the joyful ‘We Shall Rise’. Dierks Bentley is excellent and sounds very authentic on the high lonesome ‘I Only Exist’. Lee Ann Womack is exquisite leading on ‘White Dove’.

The producers join Ralph on a three part harmony on ‘I Am The Man, Thomas’ with Stanley on lead vocal. Americana favourites Gillian Welch and David Rawlings join Dr Ralph on the traditional ‘Pig In A Pen’, which is very enjoyable.

I’m not much of a fan of Robert Plant, but his voice combines surprisingly well with Ralph’s on the ethereal ‘Two Coats’, and the effect is very haunting. Rock singer Elvis Costello has never had much of a voice, and while his duet with Ralph on ‘Red Wicked Wine’ isn’t at all bad, it is more or less saved by Stanley’s emotional heft, and the fact that Costello mostly doesn’t get to sing solo.

Fellow bluegrass veteran Del McCoury joins Ralph on the Jesse Winchester tune ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’. Modern jug band Old Crow Medicine Show join Ralph on ‘Short Life Of Trouble’.

‘Hills Of Home’ is a mostly-spoken eulogy to Ralph’s late brother, the troubled Carter Stanley, which is genuinely moving.

This release is currently a Cracker Barrel exclusive but hopefully it will get a wider relase at some point.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Constant Sorrow: Tribute To Ralph Stanley’

constant sorrowAn interesting selection of mainly country artists pay tribute to the legendary Ralph Stanley, in a project helmed by his grandson Nathan.

Stanley’s son Ralph II opens with the Celtic-sounding ‘Katy Daly’, II’s naturally melancholy tones counterpointing the upbeat tune about a 19th century moonshiner to enjoyable effect. Nathan takes on ‘A Robin Built A Nest On Daddy’s Garden’, which is also very good. Stanley’s old bandmate Ricky Skaggs sings the traditional ‘Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet’.

Jeff Bates sounds like a real bluegrass singer on ‘I Think I’ll Just Go Away’, a lovely old Stanley Brothers lost love tune. Lovely – I’d like to hear a full bluegrass album from Jeff. Rhonda Vincent is beautiful on ‘The Darkest Hour’, another highlight. My favourite track, though, is Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard duetting on an authentic and compelling murder ballad, ‘Pretty Polly’.

Insofar as Ralph Stanley has a signature song, I’d say it would be ‘O Death’, which he sang on the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. The great Gene Watson offers a powerfully intense reading here. Marty Raybon gets the now-iconic ‘I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow’, and does a nice job, partnered by Sonya Isaacs.

Southern gospel duo (and real life husband and wife) Jeff & Sheri Easter perform ‘Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures’, and The Lewis Tradition (a spinoff from/second generation successor to Sheri’s mother’s family band the Lewis Family) offer a pleasant traditional four part harmony on ‘Dad’s Ole Rocky Field’.

Harmonica whiz Charlie McCoy gives a70s outlaw country-meets-bluegrass twist to ‘Little Maggie’, which works surprisingly well.

‘Room At The Top Of The Stairs’ is a haunting Randall Hylton song about a lonely woman who refuses to believe the protagonist can offer the love she longs for. I remember it fondly from Kieran Kane’s 1993 solo album Find My Way Home. I hadn’t been aware of Ralph Stanley’s version, and Jimmy Fortune’s take made a nice surprise.

This is a lovely tribute album: some great singers on excellent songs, with a tasteful bluegrass production backing them. I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Nathan Stanley – ‘Every Mile’

every mileRalph Stanley’s 21 year old grandson is the third generation of his family to have a music career. His grandfather is of course a legend, while father Ralph II is affine singer in his own right. Nathan has an attractive although not very distinctive voice, and his song choices and arrangements here are very tasteful, mostly in the hinterland of country and bluegrass. This album is a religious one, so it is appropriate that it comes to our attention in Easter week. the general mood is a warm, positive one well suited to Stanley’s vocal style.

Nathan Stanley’s voice is smoother sounding than his father or grandfather, and it works particularly well on ballads. He also has a great ear for a melody, as evidenced by the songs chosen here. There are a number of beautiful ballads included. The metaphorical ‘Piece Of Clay’ about the way God remakes people is perhaps my favourite. Almost as lovely are ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ and ‘Where Will You Go’. ‘I Know Jesus Will See Me Through’ features pretty harmonies from Sonya and Becky Isaacs. The title track is a gently melodic expression of gratitude to God with lovely harmonies from Southern Gospel singer Wes Hampton, who makes another appearance on ‘Lord You’re The Best Thing’, another pretty tune.

‘Let Me In Your Heart’ picks up the pace. The harmonica led ‘Would You Be Ready’ (a duet with gospel singer Adam Crabb) is quite cheerful sounding despite its pointed lyrical criticism of those who do not live what they preach. The pensive ‘Heart That Will Never Break Again’ remembers a dying father with faith he is going to “a better place”.

There are a number of special guests familiar to country fans. 80s star T Graham Brown joins Nathan for an unexpectedly bluesy and very enjoyable version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Baptism Of Jesse Taylor’. Jeff Bates adds a gritty harmony/duet to the traditional ‘Green Pastures’, which is one of my favourite tracks. Vince Gill provides a sweet counterpoint on ‘Hand In Hand With Jesus’ backed by a string arrangement. Grandpa Ralph shows up on ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’; Ralph is sounding very old, but there is a palpable warmth and familial affection in their duet which really works. I might even prefer it to the recent cut by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers just for that eomotional connection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album, but have been impressed by Nathan Stanley. I look forward to hearing more from him.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II – ‘Side By Side’

side by sideIt’s hard to know how much longer the legendary Ralph Stanley can keep on making music.  He is supported here by son Ralph II on a project intended to recall the best of the music Ralph made with late brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers.  Father and son take turns singing lead and harmony. Ralph’s ageing voice still has great presence and character, while his son’s has its own arresting quality.

A solo accappella performance by Ralph senior on ‘Don’t Weep For Me’ makes a virtue of his ageing voice and shows his sense of phrasing is unaffected.  He sounds good on the traditional ‘I’ve Still Got 99’, and is effective on the intensely lonesome wail of ‘Carolina Mountain Home’, in which the protagonist longs for his sweetheart.  Another traditional tune, ‘Wild Bill Jones’ represents the timeless sound of the music of the Appalachians.

The prettily melodic ‘Walking With You In My Dreams’ was written by Bill Monroe’s brother Charlie.  Ralph sings this one simply, with no harmonies behind him.

Ralph II delivers a measured lead on the pensive ‘Dirty Black Coal’, a song written by his father about miners’ mixed emotions about the dangerous and unpleasant work which nonetheless provides a living for their families.  John Rigsby’s fiddle underlines the mood set by II’s mournful vocal.  A version of  his father’s ‘A Little At A Time’ is good but less memorable than other tracks.

He is ideally suited to the plaintive ‘Don’t Step Over An Old Love’, familiar to country fans from Ricky Skaggs’ version.  This is perhaps my favourite track, followed by the melancholy gospel ‘Nobody Answered Me’.

Ralph II sings solo on the rapid paced banjo-driven Carter Family classic ‘Darling Little Joe’, and is supported by his father’s high harmony on the traditional ‘Six Months Ain’t Long’ and the newly written but very traditional sounding ‘White And Pink Flowers’.  II also takes the lead on a solid bluegrass version of Ernest Tubb’s ‘Are You Waiting Just for Me’.

One instrumental, ‘battle Ax’, is thrown in.

This is a rare link to the deep past of country and bluegrass, beautifully performed with the benefits of modern recording technology to keep the sound clear and pure.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Country Heritage: Gail Davies

Gail DaviesDuring the late winter & early spring of 1979, listeners of country radio were treated to the unusual strains of “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”. Amidst the clutter of the last vestiges of the Outlaw Movement, the dying gasps of the Nashville Sound and the nascent Urban Cowboy movement, this lilting and beautiful melody was unlike anything else being played. Released on the independent Lifesong label, the song suffered from spotty distribution (which turned into no distribution at all when Lifesong’s distribution deal fell apart) yet made it to #11 on Billboard’s Country Chart. For Gail Davies, this song turned out to be her career breakthrough, leading to a record deal with Warner Brothers.

Gail Davies (originally Patricia Gail Dickerson) was born into a musical family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1948. Her father, Tex Dickerson, was a country singer who occasionally appeared on the Louisiana Hayride. When Davies was five, her parents divorced and her mother took her and her two brothers to the Seattle area. At some point, her mother remarried and she and her brothers were adopted by their stepfather, Darby Davies, and took his surname. One of her brothers was Ron Davies, a renown songwriter and performer, who wrote songs that were recorded by such luminaries as David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Dave Edmunds, Jerry Jeff Walker and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Davies moved to Los Angeles where she was briefly married to a jazz musician. After her divorce, she found work as a session singer at A&M studios. While at A&M she was befriended by songwriter Joni Mitchell and A&M recording engineer Henry Lewy who introduced her to the production end of the business, where she was able to sit in on a number of noteworthy recording sessions, including a John Lennon session that was being produced by Phil Spector.

Things moved rapidly for Davies, and by 1974 she was touring with the legendary Roger Miller and made her national television debut as his duet partner in 1974 singing on the Merv Griffin Show. During this period, she began writing songs and signed with EMI Publishing in 1975. Her first major success as a songwriter came when Ava Barber, a regular cast member of television’s Lawrence Welk Show, had a hit single with “Bucket to the South,” which reached #14 in 1978 on the Billboard Country Chart. This led to a contract with CBS/Lifesong Records in 1978 and the release of her first album simply entitled Gail Davies. Read more of this post

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Solo: Songs My Dad Loved’

After a series of vibrant and critically acclaimed bluegrass albums on his own Skaggs Family Records, In 2009 Ricky Skaggs decided to go back to the very earliest roots of his musical career – the old songs he heard at home. A very personal labor of love sees Ricky playing every instrument (mostly guitar, mandolin, and banjo with the odd bass and even piano) and singing all the harmony vocals. It reveals what a consummate musician he is, yet there is never a hint of showing off, even on the three tasteful instrumentals.

Ricky Skaggs and his fans ultimately owe a major debt to Hobert Skaggs, who gave the five year old Ricky his first mandolin, and taught him his first chords. Here he repays the favour by recording a very personal tribute. Sharing it with the rest of us offers a nostalgic reminder of the past, while bringing to life songs which are mostly at their heart timeless.

Reproaching a cold-hearted lover, the gently rhythmic ‘Foggy River’ is a Fred Rose copyright redolent of 1940s/50s country music. A subdued version of the Ralph Stanley classic ‘Little Maggie’ with characteristic banjo accompaniment reminds us of Ricky’s teenage stint in Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, encouraged by his father.

Roy Acuff’s ‘Branded Wherever I Go’ is an ex-convict’s lament pre-dating the better known Haggard songs on the same theme. With its closely multitracked harmonies, this is a favourite for me. I also love the melodic and plaintive ‘What Is A Home Without Love’. The spiritual ‘The City That Lies Foursquare’ which is partly acappella is another great sounding track, and sounds a little more menacing although the subject is eternal life in heaven.

‘Sinners You Better Get Ready’ sounds quite cheery despite the dire warning of the lyric against forthcoming death and judgment. ‘This World Is Not My Home’ is similarly upbeat about the thought of death and what comes after. ‘Green Pastures In The Sky’ is quieter and more subdued in its steadfast declaration of faith in times of trial.

The most left-field inclusion, ‘I Had But 50 Cents’ is rather fun and redolent of the 1930s or earlier (the lyrics actually date back to the 1880s) with its story of a man with not much cash and the woman he takes out to eat, only to find she has a really big appetite. The restaurateur is not impressed when it comes time to pay. A very catchy tune and the novelty lyrics make this quite a change from the generally serious mood.

I can see why Ricky’s dad loved these songs. I love them too. While it’s not for everyone , this album is a charming evocation of evenings in a rural home in the first half of the 20th century with family members playing their favourite tunes to while away the dark nights.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder – ‘Bluegrass Rules!’

When his mainstream career wound down, Ricky Skaggs decided to pick up his mandolin and returned to his roots in bluegrass.  He didn’t do it half heartedly – this is an uncompromisingly hard bluegrass set with high lonesome vocals, tight harmonies and nimble picking.  Produced by Skaggs himself, the album featured and credited his road band Kentucky Thunder, and was released on Rounder Records.

Opens with a spoken statement by the late gospel bass-vocalist J. D. Sumner, “country rocks but bluegrass rules” then the band swings straight into an uncompromising Bill Monroe-composed  instrumental, ‘Get Up John’. There are a couple of other instrumentals, another from Monroe bookending the project, and one composed by Ricky midway through the set.  They break up the vocal tracks but do feel a bit samey.

Virtually all the songs deal with tragedy and lost love.  In his teenage years, Ricky was a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (along with Keith Whitley), and that experience seems to be the overwhelming inspiration of this album.  The Stanley Brothers are a major source of material, with two songs written by each of Carter and Ralph.  Carter’s ‘Think Of What You’ve Done’ offers a measured reproach to the woman who has broken his heart by leaving him for another man.  It is excellent, as is the rhythmic ‘Ridin’ That Midnight Train’ with another broken heart lyric about leaving town with the blues in similar circumstances.  Ralph’s ‘Little Maggie’ with its high mountain lead vocals has a very pure heritage feel, while the perky ‘If I Lose’ is the record’s sole happy song, with love making gambling losses unimportant.

Although they did not write it (the credit goes to Southern hymn writer Albert Brumley), the somber spiritual classic ‘Rank Stranger’ is probably also best known as part of the Stanley Brothers’ repertoire.  Ricky’s version is a real highlight of this record, with gospel trio vocals from the band.

The quieter but intensely mournful ‘Another Night’ is another fine song dealing with the pain of lost love, as is the Earl Scruggs number ‘Somehow Tonight’.

‘I Hope You’ve Learned’ is a reproach from a man in prison to his cheating wife, wondering if she will wait for him when he is finally released.  A fine song in the high lonesome style, one is, however, left wondering what exactly he did, propelled by his jealousy (wifebeating?), and the fact that he is still blaming her for it is rather troubling.  This is one case where I don’t think I’d be waiting.

In a stern warning to ‘The Drunken Driver’, Ricky relates the story of a terrible accident:

These two dear kids walked side by side
Out on the state highway
Their loving mother, she had died
And their father had run away

They were talking of their loving parents
How sad their hearts did feel
When around the curve came a speeding car
With a drunk man at the wheel

The driver saw these two dear kids
And hooted a drunkard sound
“Get out of the road, you little fools”
And the car had brought them down

The driver staggered from his car
To see what he had done
His heart sank within him
When he saw his dying son

Yes, the drunken driver has managed to run over his own abandoned children.  The little boy then rubs it in for his penitent father, gasping out as he lies dying,

“Take us to our mother, Dad
She sleeps beneath the ground
It was you and her we were talking about
When the car had knocked us down
And please, dear Dad, don’t drink no more
While driving on your way
But meet us with our mother, Dad
In Heaven some sweet day”

The story is so melodramatic it might be hard for some contemporary listeners to take seriously, but Ricky’s dead straight reading gives it some impact, and it fits into a long standing tradition of songs of this kind which are a valuable part of bluegrass (and more general country music) heritage; it was recorded by country star Ferlin Husky in the ‘50s but has the feel of something 20 years older still.

This is a hard record to assign a grade to, as there is nothing to criticise, with excellent musicianship but it is not an easy listen for those with little exposure to bluegrass, and there is not much variety. I did enjoy it a lot, but it isn’t one of my favourite Skaggs albums, as I tend to prefer those where he mixes country and bluegrass.  Those with less of a taste for bluegrass without any country elements may want to pass.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown’

Following the monster success of Highways and Heartaches (platinum sales, 3 #1s and a #2), Ricky Skaggs issued Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown on Epic Records in 1983. It was his second consecutive number one album and featured 3 number one hits and sold a respectable 500,000 copies.

The mid-tempo title track, made famous by the Stanley Brothers, was written by Ray Pennington and Roy E Marcum and became Skaggs’ seventh number one overall. The twangy ballad is stellar warning from a man to the woman sleeping around behind his back:

How can I stand up to my friends and look ’em in the eye

Admit the question that I know would be nothing but lies

You spend all your past time, making me a clown

But if you’re gonna cheat on me, don’t cheat in our hometown

Much like Sawyer Brown’s “All These Years,” “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown” offers a unique perspective on the classic cheating scenario, one in which the man is made into the fool. The role reversal is excellent and Skaggs brings that sense of victimization to his venerable vocal.

A spirited and comical cover of Mel Tillis’ “Honey (Won’t You Open That Door)” was released in the winter of 1984. Driven by a jaunty drum and organic guitar riffs, “Honey” is one of my favorites of Skaggs’ recordings thanks in part to the songs’ ability not to take itself too seriously while dealing with substantive subject matter.

It seems like another dimension now, but there was a time when a track like Bill Monroe’s marvelous “Uncle Pen” could not only gain the attention of country radio but top the charts as well. Another favorite of mine, “Uncle Pen” is brilliant in how it blends an obvious bluegrass sensibility with mainstream country. The fiddle heavy hoedown is spectacular and I love how it blends so easily with the acoustic guitars.

Dolly Parton joins Skaggs with a haunting harmony vocal on Carter and Ralph Stanley’s “Vision Of Mother.” The somewhat disturbing mandolin ballad finds a man seeing a vision of his dead mother preying for him. The song succeeds because of the vivid imagery, although the vocals are a bit too sharp for my tastes.

“I’m Head Over Heels In Love” is a fabulous steel led thumper, in the same vein as Exile’s hits like “Woke Up In Love.” I love the uniquely slick style of the track; it fits Skaggs like a glove. I also enjoy the traditional “A Wound Time Can’t Erase,” another example of modern mid-80s country that a carries a nice dose of twang. Skaggs’ vocal may be a bit too dragged out on some of the notes, leading his voice to sound a bit nasally, but it doesn’t take away from the overall tune.

The other more traditional numbers are also quite strong. “She’s More To Be Pitied” is a fabulous fiddle-led number by Ruby Rakes, while “Keep A Memory” is a wonderful traditional bluegrass tune penned by Carter Stanley. I also love Fred Stryker’s “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” the best such song among the album tracks. The album closes with “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” an excellent traditional gospel number that’s made all the sweeter thanks to the myriad of harmony vocals.

Overall, Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown is another excellent collection of bluegrass and country tunes and was dedicated to the Stanley Brothers upon its release. While the song selection may not have been as strong as his previous release, it remains timeless thanks to expert musicianship, and remains an essential listen today.

(NOTE: Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown was reissued in 2009 and included a DVD respective. That version can be found easily online.)

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs ft Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless – ‘She’s More To Be Pitied’

Spotlight Artist: Ricky Skaggs

Randy Travis is usually credited with kicking off the New Traditionalist movement of the mid-1980s, but that movement’s origins actually preceded Travis’ 1986 breakthrough by a good five years when both George Strait and Ricky Skaggs made their major label debuts. Skaggs, in particular, was an unlikely success story, having paid his dues on the bluegrass scene for a decade before joining Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and then eventually striking out on his own. A native of Cordell, Kentucky, and a former child prodigy, he took country music by surprise when his blend of bluegrass and traditional country took him to the top of the charts at the peak of the Urban Cowboy era.

Skaggs was born on July 18, 1954. He was playing the mandolin at the age of five, and made his Grand Ole Opry debut at age seven. During that time, he also performed with the legendary Flatt and Scruggs. In 1971 he teamed up with another up-and-coming Kentuckian named Keith Whitley and joined Ralph Stanley’s band. He later went on to become the bandleader of Boone Creek before turning his attention to mainstream country. He joined Emmlyou Harris on the road, and writing the arrangements for her 1980 bluegrass-flavored masterpiece Roses In The Snow. He had released his first solo album That’s It in 1975 and in 1979, Sweet Temptation, which he produced himself, was released by Sugar Hill Records.

By 1981 Ricky was ready for the big leagues. Epic Records signed him to a record deal and granted him permission to produce his records himself — a most unusual concession for a still unproven 27-year-old newcomer. Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine was released later that year and produced four hit singles, including his first #1 hits, “Crying My Heart Out Over You” and “I Don’t Care.” In 1982 he became the youngest artist up to that time to be inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry and in 1985 he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year.

Skaggs scored ten #1 hits between 1981 and 1987. After that, his chart success began to taper off, though he continued to enjoy some success for a few more years. In 1989 Dolly Parton asked him to produce her back-to-basics album White Limozeen. Later that year he scored his final #1 “Lovin’ Only Me” from his Kentucky Thunder album. 1989’s “Let It Be Me” was his final Top 10 hit. In 1995 he signed with Atlantic Records and released two more albums which enjoyed only moderate success.

During the first decade of the new millennium, Skaggs founded his own record label and returned to his bluegrass roots, releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums and winning nine Grammy Awards in the process. His latest effort, Music To My Ears, was released on September 25th. We hope you enjoy our look back at the career highlights of one of the most talented musicians in the history of bluegrass and country music, throughout the month of October.