My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Scott Vestal

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+

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Album Review: The Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band – ‘Roots Of My Raising’

roots of my raising gregoryFiddler-singer Clinton Gregory grew up in rural Virginia, and played bluegrass locally as a child prodigy. Now, after last year’s delightful reminder of his talent as a straight country singer, he has returned to that first love and formed a bluegrass band, naturally taking fiddle (and acoustic guitar) duties and lead vocals himself. This album showcases this new direction with a mixture of bluegrass and country classics, all delivered in traditional bluegrass style with the less traditional but attractive addition of a harmonica on a number of tracks. The band plays brilliantly throughout, but it is the vocals which stand out. There is a good range of tempos, and producers Jamie Creasy and Scott Vestal do a fine job. The album was actually released a few months ago, but has only just come my way.

The mainly up-tempo bluegrass songs are well played with solid harmonies and excellent instrumental work, but it is not unfair to note that Clinton brings little that is really new to songs like ‘Sittin’ On Top Of The World’ which have been done so many times before, perhaps because the fast pace does not allow for as much emotional input as the country songs included, which are mostly ballads. They are nonetheless enjoyable tracks, thanks to solid musicianship and Clinton’s thoughtful vocals, brisk on ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’, sincere on ‘Little Cabin Home On The Hill’, and high lonesome on the slower ‘Dark Hollow’. A nicely sung take on Flatt & Scruggs’ plaintive ‘Somehow Tonight’ was my favorite of the bluegrass chestnuts. There is also a sparkling instrumental on traditional fiddle tune ‘Katy Hill’.

Giving country songs a bluegrass makeover is much more successful, and I really loved all these tracks, notwithstanding the songs’ familiarity. Three of them are Merle Haggard songs. I loved Clinton’s understated and faintly melancholy version of the title track, which he manages to make sound like his own experiences – quite an achievement for such a personal song. It works perfectly in a bluegrass setting (with added harmonica). ‘Looking For A Place To Fall Apart’ has an acoustic country rather than bluegrass feel, but is quite lovely, with Clinton’s lonesome fiddle supporting his dejected vocal. I wasn’t familiar with the third Haggard song, ‘Living With The Shades Pulled Down’, which has a rather odd lyric about a man in love with a prostitute, but it made for a solid banjo-led up-tempo bluegrass number.

An intimate, deeply sad version of ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’ is very fine, and I also loved Clinton’s beautifully measured vocal on ‘New Patches’. He closes with an original religious song, the somber and heartfelt ‘Crucifixion’.

This may not get as much attention as Alan Jackson’s bluegrass album, but it is an excellent record with great appeal for country and bluegrass fans.

Grade: A

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

A lot of artists have been going bluegrass lately, but most of them are singers past their commercial peaks with no realistic hopes of mainstream radio play, however good the music is. Dierks Bentley is rare in diverging from the demands of radio to take an artistically rewarding detour down the backroads of bluegrass, while still a major contender, and challenging country radio to play something a little different from its usual fare. The fascinating meld of bluegrass, country and other music on his Up On The Ridge album has just been rewarded with Dierks’ first CMA nominations for Album of the Year and Male Vocalist. (He won the Horizon award back in 2005, but had been ignored ever since.)

Despite the forceful beat and familiar lyrics which made the album’s title track and lead single, ‘Up On The Ridge’ appear to be its best bet on radio, it peaked disappointingly outside the top 20. He is following it up with perhaps the album’s best track, the entirely more subdued and graceful ‘Draw Me A Map’. Dierks wrote the song with his producer Jon Randall (aka Jon Randall Stewart), and they created an extremely fine record together. All too often these days country singles have well-written lyrics but poor production, or a great melody but bland lyrics; it’s a delight to hear a song where everything works together.

The acoustic production is restrained enough to let the beautifully constructed lyrics breathe. Like its predecessor, it is not pure bluegrass, with drums and cello in the mix as well as more familiar bluegrass instrumentation, including Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin, Scott Vestal’s banjo and Randy Kohrs’ dobro, all beautifully played but never overshadowing the song.

This is a very serious sounding record, with a melancholy sense of longing and a Celtic touch to the melody, especially the fiddle line in the instrumental section at the end of the song. The protagonist has lost his way in his relationship and is floundering and he’s wondering how to find safe harbor again. We don’t know exactly what went wrong or how he is at fault; the detail of the past isn’t important compared to the sense of desolation felt in the present, and the hope that the future may bring a way back home. He dares not even ask for forgiveness for this mysterious wrong, because he isn’t sure she cares enough to give it:

If I took for granted that I held your heart
I’d beg forgiveness, but I don’t know where to start

While it is addressed to, and in the presence of, the lover he is trying to regain, is she even listening? The sadness imbuing Dierks’ vocal makes the response to his plea unknown, unknowable, but somehow there doesn’t seem to be much hope here. The pensive mood is perfectly realized. Dierks’ voice is at its best on this single, with an interesting grainy quality underpinning the heartfelt emotion of his delivery, with tasteful harmonies from Alison Krauss delicately ornamenting the track.

Let’s hope that Dierks’ CMA nominations are translated into radio play for this beautiful song. It’s certainly one of my favorite singles of the year.

Grade: A

Listen to it here.