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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+

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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+

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

Ten best reissues of 2012

2012 wasn’t a great year for reissues, but there were ten that struck me as exceptional enough to make a ten best list. Here is a list of my favorites (note: some of the foreign CDs may carry a 2011 date but did not hit the American market until 2012). My list is a mixed bag of single volume releases, affordable multi-disc sets and two rather expensive boxed sets

janiefricke Janie Fricke – The Country Side of Bluesgrass

An excellent set of Janie Fricke’s 1970s and 1980s hits recast as bluegrass. This album was advertised as the follow-up to her 2004 Bluegrass Sessions album, but it is actually a reissue of that album minus the bonus DVD – same songs, same “bonus track”, same musicians and producer. Only the packaging differs, so if you have the earlier CD you don’t need this one. If you don’t have the earlier version then you do need this one as Janie is one of the few female singers whose vocal chops have gotten better as she aged.

loudermilkSitting in the Balcony – The Songs of John D. Loudermilk

Although John D. Loudermilk wrote a large number of hit records for other performers, his hit songs (“Abilene”, “Waterloo”, “Talk Back Trembling Lips”, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” , “Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian”, “Tobacco Road” , “A Rose And A Baby Ruth”, etc) were not at all typical of the material with which he filed his albums. A first cousin of Ira & Charlie Louvin (they were actually the Loudermilk Brothers before the name change), John D. Loudermilk had a decidedly offbeat outlook on life as evidenced by the songs in this two CD set. Loudermilk didn’t have a great singing voice and his offbeat songs resulted in no top twenty hits for him as a performer, but his songs are treasures.

Disc One (John D. Loudermilk: The Records) contains 32 recordings John made from 1957-1961. Disc Two (John D. Loudermilk: The Songs of John D. Loudermilk) contains 32 recordings made by other artists from 1956-1961, not necessarily big hits (although several are sprinkled in) but interesting songs by a wide array of artists, both famous and obscure (the famous names include Eddie Cochran, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Kitty Wells and Connie Francis). If you’ve never heard John D. Loudermilk, this is the place to start – it won’t be your stopping point

bradleykincaid Bradley Kincaid – A Man and His Guitar
Released by the British label JSP, this four CD set sells for under $30.00 and gives you 103 songs by one the individuals most responsible for preserving the musical heritage of rural America, through his song collecting and issuance of songbooks. Beyond being a preservationist, Kincaid was an excellent songwriter, singer and radio performer, as well as being Grandpa Jones’ mentor. This collection covers the period 1927-1950. An essential set for anyone interested in the history of country music

bootleg4 Johnny Cash – The Soul of Truth: Bootleg Vol. 4

You can never have too much Johnny Cash in your collection, and this 2 CD set includes the released albums A Believer Sings the Truth and Johnny Cash – Gospel Singer, plus unreleased material and outtakes. Various members of Cash’s extended family appear plus Jan Howard and Jessi Colter.

shebwooley Sheb Wooley –
White Lightnin’ (Shake This Shack Tonight)

Sheb Wooley had several careers – movie star, television actor (Rawhide), singer and comedian. Actually Sheb had two singing careers – a ‘straight’ country as Sheb Wooley and a comic alter-ego, the besotted Ben Colder.

This set covers the post WW2 recordings, recorded under the name Sheb Wooley. Sheb had a considerable sense of humor even when recording under his own name and there are quite a few humorous and offbeat songs in this thirty song collection released by Bear Family. Recorded on the west coast of the USA, many of these recordings feature steel guitar wizard Speedy West and the lightning fingers of guitarist Jimmie Bryant. Sheb’s biggest hit was “Purple People Eater”, which is not on this CD but there are many songs to make you smile including such classics as “That’s My Pa”, “You’re The Cat’s Meow” and “Rover, Scoot Over”, plus a number of boogies and a song titled “Hill Billy Mambo”.

martyrobbinsEl Paso: The Marty Robbins Story (1952-1960)

Marty Robbins was the “renaissance man” of country music. He could sing anything and everything. I always suspected that if rock and roll had not come along and momentarily wiped out the pop standards/classic pop market, Marty might have been competing against Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Julius Larosa and Tony Bennett, rather than competing as a county artist.

Whatever the case, Robbins was a truly great singer and this two CD set from the Czech label Jasmine proves it. This sixty (60) song collections gives us pop standards, rock and roll (“Maybelline”, “Long Tall Sally”, “That’s All Right, Mama”), ‘Mr. Teardrop’ ballads (“I Couldn’t Keep From Crying” , “Mr. Teardrop”, Teen Hits (“A White Sport Coat [And A Pink Carnation]”, “The Story of My Life”) , Country Standards (“Singing The Blues”, and lots of the great western ballads for which he was most famous”

If you don’t have any Marty Robbins this is a good place to start – sixty songs, under twenty bucks. Marty’s songs have been around and available in various configurations so this isn’t an essential album, merely an excellent one.

johnhartford

John Hartford – Aereo Plane/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Collection

John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) is best remembered for writing “Gentle On My Mind” but he was much more than a songwriter who happened to write a hit for Glen Campbell. Hartford was an extremely talented musician who could play any instruments, although banjo and fiddle were his main tools, a fine singer with a wry sense of humor and a scholar of the lore and history of the Mississippi River. While he sometimes is group settings, John was comfortable performing as a one-man band playing either banjo or guitar along with harmonica while clogging out the rhythm on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.

Warner Brothers released these albums in 1971 and 1972, following his four-year run on RCA. Aereo-Plain has been described as hippie bluegrass, and its failure to sell well caused Warner Brothers to not bother with promoting the follow-up album Morning Bugle. Too bad as Aereo-Plain is chock full of quirky but interesting songs, with musicianship of the highest order with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Vassar Clements on fiddle as part of the ensemble. I’ve always regard this album as the first “newgrass” album, and while others may disagree, it certainly is among the first. I don’t recall any singles being released from this album but I heard “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” and “Teardown The Grand Ole Opry” on the radio a few times.

While Aereo-Plain reached the Billboard album charts at #193, the follow-up Morning Bugle didn’t chart at all. Too bad as it is an imaginative album featuring Hartford with Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, joined by legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland. The album features nine original compositions plus a couple of old folk songs. I particulary liked “Nobody Eats at Linebaugh’s Anymore” and “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, but the entire album is excellent. Following Warner Brothers’ failure to promote this album, Hartford asked to be released from his contract. He never again recorded for a major label, instead producing a series of fine albums for the likes of Flying Fish, Rounder and Small Dog A-Barkin’.

This reissue unearths eight previously unreleased tracks, making it a ‘must-have’ for any true John Hartford fan and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his music.

bobbybare Bobby Bare – As Is/Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Lose

Bobby Bare was never flashy or gimmicky in his approach to music even though he recorded many novelties from the pen of Shel Silverstein. For Bare songs had stories to tell and that’s how he approached them. Whether the song was something from Shel, Tom T Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob McDill or whomever, Bobby made sure that the song’s story was told. While this approach didn’t always get Bare the big hits, it always gained him the respect of the listener.

This reissue couples two of Bare’s early 1980s Columbia releases plus a few bonus tracks. The great John Morthland in his classic book The Best of Country Music, had this to say about As Is: “… It is the ideal Bobby Bare formula really: give him a batch of good songs and turn him loose. No concepts here, nothing cutesy, just ten slices-of-life produced to perfection by Rodney Crowell”.

My two favorite tracks on As Is were a pair of old warhorses, Ray Price’s 1968 “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) “ and the Ian Tyson classic “Summer Wages”.

While I Ain’t Got Nothing To Lose isn’t quite as stong an album, it gives Bare’s wry sense of humor several display platforms. The (almost) title track echos thoughts that many of us have felt at some point in our life (the first line is the actual song title:

If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose
There ain’t no pressure when you’re singin’ these low down blues
Smokin’ that git down bummin’ them red men chews
If you ain’t got nothin’ you ain’t got nothin’ to lose

Hugh Moffat’s “Praise The Lord and Send Me The Money” is a clever jab at televangelistas . I’ll give you a middle verse and let you guess the rest:

I woke up late for work the next morning
I could not believe what I’d done
Wrote a hot check to Jesus for ten thousand dollars
And my bank account only held thirty-one

I consider virtually everything Bobby Bare recorded to be worthwhile so I jumped on this one the minute I knew of its existence. I already had As Is on vinyl but somehow the companion album slipped by me.

This brings us up to two rather expensive box sets that will set the purchaser back by several bills.

conniesmithThe obsessive German label Bear Family finally got around to releasing their second box set on Connie Smith. Just For What I Am picks up where the prior set left off and completes the RCA years. While many prefer Miss Smith’s earliest recordings, I am most fond of her work from the period 1968-1972, when her material was more adventurous, especially on the album tracks. During this period Smith had shifted from Bill Anderson being her preferred songwriter to focusing on the songs of Dallas Frazier, including one full album of nothing but Dallas Frazier-penned songs. The ‘Nashville Sound’ blend of strings and steel never sounded as good as it did on these tracks. There is a fair amount of religious music on the set, but for the less religiously inclined there is more than enough good solid country music on the set to be worth the effort in programming your CD player to skip the religious tracks. At her peak Connie Smith was the strongest vocalist the genre has ever generated – even today at age 71, she can blow away most female vocalists. Highlights are songs such as “Where Is My Castle”, “Louisiana Man”, “Ribbon of Darkness”, but when I listen to these discs, I just put ‘em on and let ‘em spin.

cashUp to this point, I actually own all of the albums and sets listed above. Not being made of money, I haven’t purchased Sony/Legacy’s massive 63 CD set The Complete Johnny Cash Columbia Album Collection, although the temptation is there. What is stopping me from making the purchase (other than my wife) is that already own 99% of what the set contains in one format or another.

What the set contains is an unbelievable array of material, it’s difficult to think of any singer whose work has been so varied. There are gospel albums, Christmas albums, a children’s album, soundtrack albums from a couple of movies, two Highwayman albums, a collaboration with former Sun label mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, a concert from a Swedish prison and other live albums and duet albums – a total of 59 albums as originally released on the Columbia label (no bonus tracks). There set also includes another four CDs of miscellaneous materials – singles and B-sides not originally on albums, Johnny’s guest vocals on other artist’s albums plus various oddities. Some of Cash’s later Columbia albums were not quite as strong as the earlier albums, but even the weaker albums contained some quite interesting material. This set usually sells for around $265 or $4 per disc.