By Larry Stephens
Tellico is described as “firmly planted in … [the] roots music scene, Tellico is well-schooled in bluegrass but with an unbridled, organic Appalachiana sound” If you’re wondering what that means, think old-time, Old Crow Medicine Show, and roots all mixed together.
Lead singer, guitarist, and fiddler Anya Hinkle composed about half the tracks. Listening to her sing I’m reminded of Janis Joplin. Open a browser and in one tab load “Backstep Blues” from their website and in another tab load Joplin singing Me and Bobby McGee.” “Backstep Blues” has a nice beat, ringing an OCMS bell somewhere in my head, anchored by Jed Willis’ clawhammer banjo. You have to work at understanding the lyrics. Never mind that, just enjoy the flow of the song. Hinkle has dallied in multiple genre and spent time with other Tellico members in Dehlia Low, a band variously described as bluegrass, country and/or old-time.
Bass player Stig Stiglets composed the other half of the songs (except “White Line — River of Pride,” a Neil Young song that was released under two titles) and sings lead on several tracks. “Calamity” is a song about disaster inspired by various calamities around the world. It’s a good song, though Stiglets as a singer will be an acquired taste for some. Aaron Ballance on dobro is outstanding.
“Lean Into It” is a swinging song of betrayed love but you may find the title, repeated often, a bit puzzling in its meaning. The rest of the message is clear and the harmonica is a good fit. I like the tune and flow of “Mexico 1995,” but I have trouble understanding Hinkle’s lyrics. There’s some good picking and interplay of instruments in this cut. I have the same trouble with “Forsaken Winds;” love the tune, and I think I like the lyrics when I can figure them out. “Morning Haze” is another likable song with some good instrumental work.
It’s a bit quirky but enjoyable, like inviting Bob Dylan into your CD player for a while. If that sounds like fun, you’re going to like this CD.
I Can’t Imagine
3.5 stars (out of 5)
Down to Believing
Entertainment One Music
3 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
The Sisters Moorer have never been shy about peeling back layers to expose their truth. The resulting music has often been incredibly enlightening and enjoyable, but almost as frequently overwrought and indulgent.
On their most recent releases, we get a balance of these elements.
Almost universally favorably reviewed and produced by guitarist Kenny Greenberg, who served in the same role for her first two albums, Down to Believing provided Allison Moorer with her most significant chart impact since 2000. Despite its relatively modest stay on the charts, Down to Believing appears to have been designed with modern radio influences in mind. Moorer has always produced music with more than a bit of sheen, and any bite that may have previously been present has been wholly removed from the bulk of Down to Believing. Despite its gloss and seeming (and misguided) Sheryl Crow aspirations, this recording has much to offer.
Songs like “Tear Me Apart,” “If I Were Stronger,” and the title track are powerful, stylised songs that make up for their lack of grit and personality with an abundance of production that may well should have—but ultimately didn’t—find its way onto country radio. (Also, could “I Lost My Crystal Ball” be the last pop-rock/country song that includes the ‘wrecking ball’ metaphor? Please?)
While these songs may express emotions, genuine impressions, and poetic reflections from a failed marriage and the challenges of motherhood, they’re just not particularly remarkable.
On what those of us of a certain age would call Side Two, the album’s strongest songs, “Blood” (written with her sister in mind), “Back of My Mind,” “I’m Doing Fine,” and “Wish I” connect with this listener because of intrinsic power, not calculated bluster. “Mama Let the Wolf In” is angry and unforgiving. The acoustic closer “Gonna Get It Wrong” reveals that Moorer is at her best when minimally accompanied, honestly exposed and singing in her true voice and nature.
On first impression a cover of Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” appears unnecessary, but when she sings the words “when it’s over, so they say, it’ll rain a sunny day,” Moorer is closing the cover on a turbulent decade, and one hopes that Moorer will find her stride across the entirety of the next album.
Shelby Lynne scares me a little. I’m never entirely sure of what I’m going to hear when Lynne releases an album, and while that unpredictability could be exciting, for me it is more often unsettling.
While I’ve appreciated her since the first time I heard “If I Could Bottle This Up,” a single with George Jones that predated her Billy Sherrill-produced debut, Lynne’s recordings have been inconsistent. Tough All Over, Temptation, I Am Shelby Lynne, and Just A Little Lovin’, as diverse a group of recordings from a single artist might be, remain favorites. Other albums, Soft Talk, Love, Shelby, and Tears, Lies, and Alibis, are uneven and, in places, unbearable.
I Can’t Imagine is largely successful; but like Moorer’s Down to Believing, it is uneven.
The first thing that I noticed when listening to the album is the strength of Lynne’s voice: that hasn’t changed. Alternately soulful, swampy, and blue and breezy, front porch-loose, even when the lyrical material is marginally questionable (as on “Back Door, Front Porch”), those trademark tones makes one notice her performance.
Further listening reveals that any connection to country music—be it classic, modern, alt- or otherwise—must be an accidental influence of who Lynne has always been. Overall, I Can’t Imagine is less Anywhere, Country than it is an expression of genre-free, Carole King/James Taylor impressionistic performance: labels have seldom (ever?) mattered to Lynne, and she continues that free-wheeling search for the perfect sound throughout this expansive recording.
Actually, rather than King and Taylor, given the album’s musical breadth and flamboyance, a more accurate point of reference might be Brian Wilson’s ambitious That Lucky Old Sun.
Two songs stuck out upon initial listening, “Love Is Strong” and “Be In the Now.” Both reminded me of Ron Sexsmith, whose excellent and under-appreciated Carousel One has been playing in the car this week. I wasn’t surprised then to review the liner notes to find that these were co-written by Sexsmith, one of North America’s most impressive pop songwriters (in the magical and positive, ’70s singer-songwriter tunesmith sense of the “pop” word).
The standout performance is perhaps “Down Here,” one of five songs credited to Lynne alone. Over a bed of restrained instrumental elegance—guitars, bass, Wurlitzer, percussion, and just a sliver of pedal steel—Lynne testifies (along with a choir of friends) of her “dark, Dixie closet,” “Oh, lightning strike away the pain, thunder clap away the shame; truth is a masquerade: down here.” The song builds in intensity over its five-minute run, revealing a fragmented reality that is honest, affecting, and no little bit joyful.
Any negative impression the album leaves with this listener is similar to that which impacted the earliest parts of the Moorer release: how much of the album sticks when it is over? After a week of listening to I Can’t Imagine, the melodies and words of a few songs had a lasting impact. The remaining tracks, including “Paper Van Gogh,” “I Can’t Imagine,” and “Following You,” faded.
Allison Moorer’s Down to Believing and Shelby Lynne’s I Can’t Imagine each contain a selection of outstanding, memorable songs and performances weakened by too many filler tracks. Of the two, on balance Lynne’s is the more impressive as a result of the soulful depth her voice and music continue to possess.
‘Tween Earth and Sky
Dark Shadow Recording
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
2015 has proven to be a breakout year for Becky Buller.
After a few years out of the spotlight—changing life circumstances will do that to an artist—Buller emerged leading her own outfit alongside her most unified recording project to date. When the annual International Bluegrass Music Association nominations were announced, Buller’s name was mentioned seven times. Alongside a nod for Bluegrass Broadcaster of the Year, Buller found herself up for Songwriter, Fiddle Player, Female Vocalist, and Emerging Artist of the Year. Capping these recognitions were two nominations for her historical performance of “Southern Flavor,” included here, as both Song and Recorded Event of the Year.
Pretty heady stuff for an artist taking her first steps out of the ‘sideman’ shadows as a bandleader.
‘Tween Earth and Sky was released late in 2014, so we’re more than a little tardy with this review. But given the accolades possibly coming Buller’s direction, and that it’s still getting lots of spins on bluegrass radio, it’s better late than never.
Buller has long been a fiddler of considerable repute within the bluegrass community, any she’s widely known from her years with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, from her brief tenure with Darin & Brooke Aldridge, and as a mainstay within the Daughters of Bluegrass amalgam. As a songwriter, she has contributed to more than a dozen projects. ‘Tween Earth and Sky is her third album when one includes the Here’s a Little Song collection recorded with Smith.
Without question, ‘Tween Earth and Sky is a very strong set. It is well-recorded and modern sounding, but there are certainly no shortage of ancient tones to be heard; “American Corner” contains more than a slice of old-world influence. Providing linkage to the essentials of bluegrass is the album’s feature track, a reworking of what might have been Bill Monroe’s last great tune, “Southern Flavor.” With lyrics added (with Monroe’s encouragement) by DeWayne Mize and Guy Stevenson, and brought to life with an all-Blue Grass Boys lineup including Roland White, Blake Williams, Buddy Spicher, and Peter Rowan, this one is a winner both on paper and in performance.
The original “Nothin’ To You” also had chart success, as did the less-pleasing “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers.” With a soaring lead vocal, “Nothin’ To You” may become a modern bluegrass classic; the terrific band, made up of folks named Bales, Block, Brock, Ickes, and a pair of Smiths (Kenny and Amanda), makes this one gallop with no little bit of a Union Station flavor. “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers” is a harmless song that is really quite enjoyable, until one realizes the composition lacks true dramatic tension: everything is told, nothing is shown. A minor quibble, perhaps.
Stronger—much stronger—are the Civil War love song “Amos & Sarah” and the sinister “Didn’t Die.” Both draw the listener in, and “Didn’t Die” especially gets one to contemplating; Darrell Scott adds some vocal darkness to this Buller song.
‘Tween Earth and Sky is that rare recording that benefits from having a wide range of musical friends and compatriots bringing their talents together to create an album that is quite disparate in its elements. Its appeal is at least in part due to how few of the songs sound as if that were cut within a singular vision. And, because of this unique quality—a dozen songs recorded with (mostly) different folks in different combinations—the listener is given so much to explore.
The necessary consistency comes from Buller’s voice and fiddle. She sings like a dream, with more than a little similarity to Dale Ann Bradley—there is power within her very pleasing vocals. The intensity that she brings to inspirational numbers such as “I Prayed For You” and “I Serve A God (Who Can Raise The Dead)” is truly impressive.
One may be remiss to overlook the contributions of some of these musicians. Tim O’Brien’s mandolin trills about a pair of songs, including the wistful “For A Lifetime,” which he sings with Buller. Producer Stephen Mougin appears on several tracks, singing and adding a bit of guitar. In addition to those previously mentioned—most of whom appear more than once—Sam Bush, the Aldridges, Mike Bub, Bryan Sutton, and Dale Ann Bradley are also featured.
Becky Buller has certainly made a statement with ‘Tween Earth and Sky. She’s long been ready to assume a more prominent place within the bluegrass industry, and this recording seals the deal.
Fiddle & Banjo (Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack)
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
This has been a great summer for roots music.
Whether the folk and alt-folk (whatever the frick that is) sounds of Norma MacDonald and Nick Ferrio, troubling, dark, and challenging sounds from the likes of Rodney DeCroo, Brock Zeman, and Gordie Tentrees, or breezy, fresh bluegrass from Dale Ann Bradley, the Slocan Ramblers, and Shotgun Holler, there has been no shortage of new roots music for the adventurous listener.
Sometimes great things have been missed on first (and fifth) listen, such as the swirling, swampy, harp-based blues of Grant Dermody, the sweet and elemental music of the Honey Dewdrops, and the Appalachian honky-tonk of the Honeycutters.
Eventually, like most elements of quality, what you need to hear eventually makes itself known.
More than anything else though, this summer has been marked by the number of exceptional old-time sounding albums coming my way. There has been a traditional, mountain-based banjo release from Kaia Kater, a mid-western song cycle celebrating and anthologizing the plains from Jami Lynn, and a ‘grassopolitain set from the Lonesome Trio: old-time has been well represented these past several weeks.
Just to be clear, I had never heard of Kaia Kater or Jami Lynn a month ago, but now I can’t imagine them not being part of my musical soundtrack. Another amazing album released this summer comes from the equally (to me) unfamiliar Canadian duo, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack. And yet again I am left wondering, How did I go this long without hearing for these folks?
Recording as Fiddle & Banjo, this duo is remarkable. Karrnnel Sawitsky plays the fiddle, and having been raised on the vibrant music found within the celebratory environs of Saskatchewan (barn dances, weddings, community hall performances, and the like), plays in a range of styles depending on the needs of the tune or song. Daniel Koulack is a clawhammer banjo performer from Winnipeg who coaxes evocative phrases from his 5-string.
With an album title of Tunes from the North, Songs from the South providing the framework, the expectations from the resulting album are fairly clear. Fiddle & Banjo doesn’t disappoint with tunes that capture the Métis, Quebecois, and mid-eastern Canadian fiddling traditions of our country while embracing southern influences throughout including on a few original compositions.
The sounds can be pensive and calming (“Waltz of Life,” a Sawitsky tune), soothing (“Lullabye,” from Koulack”), and lively and festive (“The Old French Set,” a trio of traditional pieces including the “Red River Jig”). From the playing of Saskatchewan Métis fiddling legend John Arcand comes “The Woodchuck Set” featuring “Indian At the Woodchuck,” “Old Reel of 8,” and “The Arkansas Traveller.” I’m not sure old-time, traditional sounds get better than the four-minute festival of fiddling and frailing on the latter track.
Pushing Tunes from the North, Songs from the South over the top are five songs featuring the voice of Joey Landreth of the Juno-winning the Bros. Landreth. “Red Rocking Chair” is lonesome and mournful, buoyed by the lively instrumentation, with “How Does a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “Killin’ Floor” suitably dark and bluesy. The highlight for me may be the spritely rendition of “Little Birdie,” although “Groundhog” comes a close second.
Kaia Kater, the Slocan Ramblers, and now Fiddle & Banjo have moved Canadian old-time music making to the fore this summer. Hopefully we’re ready for this explosion of artful, contemporary talents.
By Larry Stephens
I love country music—the music of Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce—I could make a long list. Today there’s a new name for that list, the Malpass Brothers. If you like my kind of country, you’ll love their music.
Christopher and Taylor Malpass are only in their twenties, but they spent several years opening for Merle Haggard, who, of course, is near the top of my list. This CD is produced by bluegrass great Doyle Lawson, but don’t let the bluegrass tag fool you. He knows his way around a country song. Besides brother Taylor playing electric guitar and mandolin and brother Chris playing flattop, they are backed by excellent musicians. Tim Surrett plays acoustic bass while Tony Creasman is on drums and percussion. David Johnson, another top studio musician plays steel guitar, fiddle, and acoustic guitar. Rounding out the group is Jeff Collins, a well–known piano and keyboard player.
Where to start? A song that’s always tugged at my heartstrings is “I Met a Friend of Yours Today.” George Strait did it in 1994 but, for me, the iconic version is Mel Street’s from 1976, all the more because he committed suicide only two years later. Now cue up the Malpass Brothers’ version. They nail it. I love the background voices, provided by Collins, Surrett, Chris Allman, Mylon Hayes and Valerie Midkiff. This is a primer in harmony singing. Another of my top ten favorites (which stretches out several times that long) is Faron Young. Young sang it, Willie Nelson wrote it and sang it, and the brothers do a great rendition of “Hello Walls.” How much do I like it? It’s midnight as I write this and I can’t stop listening.
“A Death In The Family” is a beautful ballad of lost love in classic Bill Anderson style. How true are they to Hank Williams’ “I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Living?” Listen for yourself. You do have your copy of the CD already, don’t you? They are dead–on. They also cover another Williams’ great, “Baby We’re Really In Love.” There are some new songs, too. The brothers composed “I Found Someone To Love” and “Learn To Love Me Too,” both songs of pining love. The latter reflects their relationship with Haggard and you’ll be checking the credits to be sure it’s not a Haggard song. Pete Goble, one of the great writers of bluegrass songs, also turns out some very good classic country. “Here In Alberta I’ll Stay” is the story of a cowboy from Texas who ran out of luck on the rodeo circuit in Billings then found love north of the border. It features lovely melodies from down towards the Rio Grande in Mexican minors, a staple of the late Marty Robbins. And, speaking of Robbins, his “Begging To You” is done is the same slow ballad style as the original.
The Louvin Brothers are loved in both bluegrass and country music. Listen to “Satan And The Saint” and you’ll understand why. You can hear both genre in this song and the brothers played the Louvin Brothers’ guitar and mandolin on the track. They cover a 1959 Wilburn Brothers classic, “Which One Is To Blame” and are just a tad more restrained than Jerry Lee Lewis on a Cowboy Jack Clement number, “It’ll Be Me,” originally issued in 1957 on 78 r.p.m. vinyl.
I read their upcoming dates list three times trying to find a date within reasonable driving distance and I may give myself a birthday present and drive to Madisonville, Kentucky on February 29. I’ll need another copy of the CD by then, anyway, because I’ll have this one worn out.
Dailey & Vincent
Alive! In Concert
Pillar Stone Records
This is the seventh album from the self-proclaimed “rockstars of bluegrass,” and the first live one. A companion to the DVD of their public television special and offered exclusively at Cracker Barrel, the CD version is meant to convey a sense of the group’s exuberant stage show that one doesn’t get from their studio recordings. But with the spectacle missing from the audio-only version, the sound (which includes orchestra, and choir on four of the 15 cuts) doesn’t show this great band at its best.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
5 stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Canadian banjo player Jayme Stone continues his run of intriguingly diverse projects with this 19-track disc celebrating the centenary of seminal folk song collector Alan Lomax.
Stone has done a fine job picking tunes from Lomax’s stockpile, but an even better job picking talent to present those tunes in several different styles, including:
- Brittany Haas and Bruce Molsky with two entrancing fiddle duets, “Julie and Joe” and “Old Christmas.”
- Stone and Haas with “Hog Went Through the Fence, Yoke and All,” which, in spite of it’s rustic title is an inventive and nuanced fiddle & banjo conversation.
- “Before This Time Another Year,” “Sheep, Sheep Don’tcha Know the Road,” and “Prayer Wheel,” all gospel septets in the Sea Island style, with Tim O’Brien’s inimitable voice the most recognizable element.
- O’Brien on two duets: with Moira Smiley on the quaint romantic folk of “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y” and with Margaret Glaspy on the sad cowboy song “Goodbye Old Paint.”
- Eli West setting Lead Belly’s a profane farm work holler “Whoa, Back, Buck” in a sumptuous guitar and fiddle (Haas) arrangement.
There’s also a prison song, a calypso murder ballad, and a nearly six hundred-year-old English ballad that was captured by a ballad hunter from a Virginia sawmill cook and is here sung by a septet with no accompaniment save body percussion set to a 9/8 folk rhythm originating somewhere in the Balkans. (To fully enjoy this album, I strongly recommend buying the CD, attractively packaged with detailed liner notes of these recordings, and the ones they’re referring to.)
Among all these great musicians and singers, Stone’s best choice is clearly Margaret Glaspy, whose voice recalls Abigail Washburn and Frazey Ford, among others. The tracks on which she sings lead—including “Lazy John,” “I Want to Hear Somebody Pray,” “Maids When You’re Young,” and “Lambs on the Green Hills”—are impeccably arranged and played by Stone and company, but Glaspy turns them into the best acoustic tracks I’ve heard from anyone this year. Her singing is strong and magical while conveying the illusion of brokenness—not unlike some work from Neil Young, or Bjork; she turns well used standards like “What is the Soul of a Man?” and “Shenandoah” (both of which happen to be particular favorites of mine) into the stuff of transcendent meditations on the permanence of great music. We should all look forward to hearing more from this truly great singer.
Don’t Forget Me Little Darling
5 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
You simply cant count the country and bluegrass musicians who list the Carter Family as an influence in their music. Just as Bill Monroe became known as the father of bluegrass, despite a number of notable stars who contributed to that birth, the Carter Family have a place in history as the parents of country music. They were not the only people making music like that back then but they have stood the test of time as one of the foremost groups at the birth of this music we love.
A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and her cousin and his sister–in–law, Maybelle, captured the imagination of the common folk at a time when life was hard for them. The Carter Family first recorded in Bristol, Tennessee in what we now view as primitive conditions. They were interested in making a few dollars, never dreaming what they would start that day. “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” is the left bookend of the Carter Family’s recording history and this CD. This song has been recorded countless times in bluegrass, country and western (cowboy) settings. The Carter Family versions of all these numbers have a different feel than this recording, in part because of the instrumentation—usually only a guitar, partly because of advances in recording technology and partly because of technique. The Carters’ singing was straightforward, unadorned, even a bit strident. Some, perhaps many of the fans of bluegrass and classic country today wouldn’t listen long to a Carter Family recording.
The CD cover credits A.P. Carter as the composer of all but one of these songs. Take that with a grain of salt. While his name may appear on official credits, many of the Carter Family songs are adaptations of songs that pre–date them by decades if not centuries. “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow” was the subject of a 1970 conversation with Maybelle Carter as reported on grassclippings. “That was a song we had sang all our lives. [Read the center section on the website.] The original version of the song was written by Bradley Kincaid.” Another conversation relates, “Other sources suggest the song’s older, a late–19th–century ‘heart song’ that Kincaid adopted; apparently a sheet music version dates to a year when he was 14 years old, making his authorship unlikely.” None of this affects the contribution of the Carter Family nor the beauty of this new CD, but it’s always good to have a hint of the actual history of the songs.
My wife, a fringe fan of bluegrass (as I’ve reported before) was listening to this CD as we drove and she described it as “soothing.” I know she would never say the same about the original version. Have no doubt, though, Antique Persuasion honors the Carter Family music, just giving it a 2015 interpretation. The last song recorded by the Carters, and the only one here not “written” by A. P. Carter (it was composed—or adapted—by Maybelle Carter), was “ You’re Gonna Be Sorry Cause You Let Me Down.” (CF version) Brandon Rickman sings lead and plays guitar and mandolin. He’s a good one to be singing these traditional songs because he has a voice that speaks bluegrass to me. Not that there isn’t room for other types of singers, such as the high, lonesome sound of Monroe or the balladeer’s voice of David Parmley. But I especially enjoy singers like Rickman. It’s in the tone and inflection, his phrasing. Like bluegrass, you know it when you hear it. You can hear Rickman’s voice often because he’s the lead singer for the Lonesome River Band.
He’s joined by Jenee Fleenor. She’s made other appearances in bluegrass but her primary job is backing Blake Shelton (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, guitar). Brennan Leigh, a great singer from Austin, Texas, rounds out the group, offering vocals and guitar. Mark Fain makes a guest appearance on upright bass. Warning! There’s no banjo present but, to be fair, the Carter Family didn’t use one, either.
Rickman also sings lead on “Lover’s Lane” (familiar from Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cutups) and “Lover’s Return” ( familiar from Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstatdt & Dolly Parton).
“Dark and Stormy Weather” is a departure from the straightforward nature of most of the songs. Sung in minors, it’s dark and moody. Sung by Fleenor, there are no background vocals and only Fleenor’s fiddle and guitar and Fain’s arco bass. It’s moodier than Helen Carter’s version which is also a takeoff of the original. She also sings lead on “When Silver Threads Are Gold,” a lighter–hearted song about love. “Lonesome For You” is done as western swing and is a familiar number to any fan. The original version had this same feel but in a more primitive fashion. Fleenor trades leads with Rickman and you’ll hear great harmony singing, on this and all other songs except “Dark and Stormy Weather” and Fleenor’s other lead number, “I’m Thinking Of My Blue Eyes.” Again it’s just Fleenor and Fain with an arrangement that gets away from the Carter Family (and usual) styling, but is beautifully done, giving a fresh take on this familiar song.
Leigh sings lead on “Broken Hearted Lover” (not to be confused with the Delmore Brothers/IIIrd Tyme Out song of the same name). You’ll note Fleenor’s fiddle providing support on this song, smooth, melodic, and relaxing (to use my wife’s description). She also sings lead on “Don’t Forget Me Little Darling,” “Hello Stranger” (recorded by Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens/Alice Gerrard) and the only gospel number, “On the Sea of Galilee.”
This is an excellent window into the Carter Family’ great body of work. Great singing by the three members of Antique Persuasion, excellent instrumental work, great arrangements. If you like bluegrass, don’t miss this one.
Trout Steak Revival
Brighter Every Day
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
I don’t love every album that crosses my desk, and I tend to write only about those that move me in some positive manner. This year I have received a dozen or more albums from youthful, neo-bluegrass outfits (most of whom sport much too much facial hair…not sure why that bothers me so much…) and only a few have inspired my written efforts.
Trout Steak Revival is one of those exceptions. Darn it all, they are some kind of good.
Theirs is a story told across the continent. Five friends come together and form an acoustic band to perform their interpretation of modern bluegrass, more Sam Bush and Della Mae than Stanleys and Mullinses. Each member is a singer, all write songs. They woodshed. They win the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band competition, as have Greensky Bluegrass, Spring Creek, the Hillbenders, and Front Country in recent years. They meet Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, who produces their third album.
And they sell 100,000 copies of that release.
All but the last has unfolded for Trout Steak Revival, but danged if I can figure why they haven’t already sold a truck load of albums, opened for the Grateful Dead at their final shows, or made the cover of American Songwriter.
Because this is excellent music. Trout Steak Revival are Steve Foltz (mandolin and guitar), Casey Houlihan (bass), Will Koster (dobro and guitar), Travis McNamara (banjo), and Bevin Foley (fiddle.) All sing and the band appears to function as a cohesive collective that has its sights on a common vision. Based in the Colorado mountains, the group presents the free-spirited manner many associate with bluegrass emanating from the Centennial State.
What you’ll find is bright, enlivening bluegrass played with communal closeness bred of familiarity, companionship, and respect. Trout Steak Revival’s songs are mood-inducing in the way of the finest of the new breed, and yet are rooted to the foundational aspects of bluegrass—harmony, rhythm, and drive—but not of the obvious, in-your-face type—along with quality musicianship, captivating lyrics (how about, “stealing midnight shadows, I’m swimming in my sleep,” from the album closer “Colorado River?”) and sufficient tempo and key variety to maintain the most scrutinizing listener’s interest. If they remind me of anyone it is Acoustic Syndicate, minus the drums, especially when McNamara is singing the leads.
Original songs of fragility and nature (“Wind on the Mountain” and “Colorado River”) are balanced by yearnings for home and stability (“Union Pacific” and “Days of Gray”) and energetic flights of fancy (“Brighter Every Day”). And pie (“Pie”).
“Oklahoma,” sung by Foltz, is another highlight, with vocals that soar within the confines of the melody; no one is showing off within these songs—every note counts and supports, each phrasing adds to the keenness of the song.
“Go On,” featuring Foley’s strong, bouncy voice, is the only song that moves from bluegrass into swing territory, and is a fine change-of-pace. The album’s sole instrumental, “Sierra Nevada,” reminds us of tunes found on old Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe recordings, ones that seem like they should have words, but whose bow strokes and mandolin notes communicate as much as rhyming verse might ever.
Have I mentioned that Brighter Every Day is an excellent modern bluegrass recording?