“Tunes from the North, Songs from the South” by Fiddle & Banjo

Fiddle & Banjo (Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack)
Tunes from the North, Songs from the South
Self-released
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.

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“Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project” by Jayme Stone

Jayme Stone
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
Borealis Records
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.

“When I’m Free” by Hot Rize

Hot Rize
When I’m Free
Ten In Hand Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Hot Rize is a deservedly iconic band, beloved for their take on bluegrass music, their rambling discourses during a show, and for their alternate egos, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. I saw them last year and it was 50 percent talk, 50 percent music. But, a CD is all music and they waited almost twenty-five years to do another studio album. It’s done well, in the top ten on the chart and three songs in the top 20 at one time. (The August 7 chart (Bluegrass Today) shows only “Clary Mae” still there, making a rapid fall from #2 to #19 in two weeks. The Roots Music Report, on the other hand, shows the CD at #6, down from #1 last week.)

“Clary Mae” is a good bluegrass number, rolling along supported by Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick’s renowned banjo playing. Wernick founded the group in the 1970s with Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, and the late Charles Sawtelle. They have a lot of life left for a group that stopped touring in 1990, making only a few appearances until reformong as a band after all these years, Sawtelle’s spot being filled by Bryan Sutton. It does seem that they are back on the road again, making something of a comeback which has complicated things for O’Brien. He was a part of the Earls of Leicester and is having to mostly step away from that group to commit more time to Hot Rize. I suppose there are worse dilemmas.

“Doggone” is on the rockabilly side with good harmony singing, a rocking medium tempo song. “Blue is Fallin'” is a song about some hard times and features a nice guitar break by Sutton. “Western Skies” is all about wanting to get back to western skies and features Wernick’s banjo in the driver’s seat. Like the individual members of the group, whose careers have prospered through the years but not always in the bluegrass genre, these songs are on the fringe around the core bluegrass sound of Monroe, but are greatly enjoyed by bluegrass fans.

They show their gospel side with “I Am The Road,” a song with the drive of a bulldozer—neither hot nor fast, it’s  a relentless force telling a message of faith. It isn’t told in the usual words of God and faith, but the message is there.

I am the road, I am the way

Many walk down and many will stray

Straight and narrow, far and wide

You won’t be lonesome while side by side

The track that’s named like a gospel number, “Glory in The Meeting House,” is actually an instrumental, Irish-sounding jig, light-hearted with an old-time feel. “Sky Rider” is another instrumental, featuring syncopated banjo by Wernick. Sutton is always there supporting the band with his excellent guitar playing—especially on several breaks in “You Were On My Mind This Morning.” He made his first big splash in bluegrass as a member of Kentucky Thunder and went on to become famous as a session player and touring with artists like Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Following Charles Sawtelle’s death in 1999, the band re-grouped in 2002 and invited Sutton into the fold.

“A Cowboy’s Life” is not very grassy except for the banjo, but a great story song and a nice change of pace. Another on-the-bluegrass-fringe cit is “I Never Met a One Like You,” on which one of the group’s career-spanning signature traits— Nick Forster’s clean, understated bass guitar—can be appreciated.

“Run Away Tonight” by Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Run Away Tonight
Mountain Home Music Company

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are earning a reputation as one of the top bands in bluegrass. Their music reflects strong ties to traditional bluegrass and they rely heavily on the band members’ talents as songwriters. Three of the four-man band regularly appear on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Bunction (Jones, Weisberger and Luberecki).

Chris Jones plays guitar and does the lead singing. His distinctive voice is pitched lower than standard for bluegrass music, and is more a balladeer than his peers. It’s an easy voice to listen to and doesn’t take the adjustment needed by fringe bluegrass fans to some of the more traditional voices and stylings (such as Danny Paisley). Jon Weisberger plays bass and sings baritone and also adds to the mix his talent as a composer. Jones and Weisberger wrote “She’s Just About To Say Goodbye,” which features the fiddle of Troy Engle and harmony vocals of Darin and Brooke Aldridge. This is a good, country-style love song with an interesting arrangement.

The pair also wrote “Laurie,” an uptempo bluegrass number with Ned Luberecki providing a banjo break, Jones showing his skill on lead guitar and former Night Driver Casey Driessen playing fiddle. Their third number is “One Night in Paducah,” featuring Buddy Melton singing tenor and Tim Surrett playing Dobro. Bandmember Mark Stoffel provides an interesting mandolin break on this haunting song about love gone wrong in eerie circumstances. Jones had a hand in some of the other cuts, such as “My Portion and My Cup,” co-written with Donna Ulisse and featuring the Aldridges singing harmony. This is the only gospel number on the CD. Jones went solo on composing with “Dust Off the Pain,” another suffering from heartbreak song (bluegrassers do a lot of suffering) and “Tonight I’m Gonna Ride,” a high speed number with Driessen playing fiddle.

Going back a bunch of years they cover a Flatt & Scruggs number, “Thinking About You.” This cut features Del McCoury singing tenor and Bobby Hicks playing fiddle. It’s tough to get more traditional than this and it’s a good song from those early masters of bluegrass. They also have a Tom T Hall number, “Pinto the Wonder Horse Is Dead.” It may not be bluegrass, but it’s a great story song from the master of story songs. It takes me back many years to memories just like these. They stay true to Hall’s 1971 version. Switching gears, they include an old-time/Gaelic number, “The Leaving of Liverpool,” done by groups like the Dubliners. Strictly speaking, this isn’t bluegrass either, but a first cousin, much closer than the country-pop some bluegrass groups are including in their CDs.

Night Driver mandolinist Mark Stoffel composed “Shelby 8,” a very good instrumental with some minor chords and an interesting progression. There’s some excellent picking in this one. Ned Luberecki adds a banjo number, “Bowties Are Cool” which raises the oft-asked question (at least by me), how do they come up with these titles?

This CD solidifies the Night Drivers spot in the pack of leading bluegrass groups. It’s a good buy.

 

“Heartstrings” by the Trinity River Band

The Trinity River Band
Heartstrings
Orange Blossom Records

4½ stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

We last visited the music of the Trinity River Band a few months ago in February. I said then, “This is a family band and yet another family loaded with talent.”

They set the bar high with Better Than Blue and it hasn’t dropped a bit with this new CD. Love songs are a staple in bluegrass and country music and “Fences” is one of the prettiest you’ll ever hear. This a duet featuring Sarah Harris and guest Marty Raybon. It starts with an intro by Joshua Harris playing resophonic guitar (he’s also the banjoist). Brianna Harris adds fiddle and the effect is nothing short of spectacular. Another one that will grab your attention is a rocking but bluesy rendition of “How Blue,” a Reba McEntire hit. Mike Harris (Dad) gives a good flattop intro that sets the pace and feel for the song.

Sarah Harris is featured on mandolin on “Blue Mandolin,” a song dealing with love problems. The song was composed by the late, great Leroy Drumm, well know for co-writing with Pete Gobel as well as Stacy Richardson who, along with Andy Richardson, co-wrote this number. The family ventures into the Irish with the traditional “Where Are You Tonight, I Wonder.” It’s not Flatt & Scruggs but it’s a beautiful song that anyone with some tenderness still left beneath the crust will enjoy.

A recent complaint on the bluegrass listserv was too many of the current crop of songs are poorly written. They have sentences instead of lyrics. I’ve heard some of these, no more interesting than the Gettysburg Address set to music. Not so with the numbers composed by family members here. “You Can’t Walk All Over Me“ was written by Sarah and Mike Harris and Mike composed the title song, a statement of the goals of the family for their music. Joshua Harris shows off his banjo skills on his composition, “Mindbender.” This cut gives you a good chance to hear Lisa Harris’ (Mom) bass playing which is often understated. These people are excellent musicians as well as singers. This is not a CD that leaves you wondering where to pigeonhole it. Let’s see, Americana? Roots? GuessGrass? This is bluegrass music.

Other numbers are “Rusty Old American Dream,” the voice of an old, gas guzzler car (Joshua Harris), asking for one last chance to cruise the country. “Only Here For a Little While” was Billy Dean’s hit from his 1990 debut and the Harris family, with Mike Harris singing lead, nails it. Brink Brinkman contributes a second song in their gospel number, “Give God The Power,” a good message for us all. The lead vocals are split between the sisters

Larry Cordle is represented (as co-writer) by “Going Down Hard.” As much as I like Joshua Harris’ hard–driving banjo, I believe I like his resophonic guitar work even better. On songs of pain like this one, or songs of love, his playing is restrained and thoughtful. Cordle has had a hand in some great songs and this is another one. Mark Johnson guests on clawgrass banjo on an Anne & Pete Sibley number, “Tell Me Darlin.” The original version is lovely but I prefer the richer harmony of the Harris version.

This is fine music. They seem to be in the business for the long haul and they have the talent to make it.

“The Phosphorescent Blues” by the Punch Brothers

The Punch Brothers
The Phosphorescent Blues
Nonesuch Records
4½ stars (out of 5)

By Chris Shouse

Music is fickle. Music is emotional. Good music can come with any label, or no label at all. All three prerequisites for music are covered with the fourth studio album by the Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues, an emotional album that requires a complete listen in order of the tracks, similar to a book. Similar to a good book, each title is like a chapter in a book leading to the climax with protagonists and antagonists.

(In case you didn’t know, phosphorescence is when something glows with light without becoming hot to the touch, like the glow-in-the-dark stars on a teenagers bedroom ceiling.)

I’ve seen the Punch Brothers several times in concerts and festivals throughout the country and have always been a fan since hearing their first album. Mandolin magus Chris Thile and the boys—Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass)— might just be one of the most talented groups of bluegrass musicians ever assembled, but that doesn’t automatically make for a great band. Without a doubt, these guys have a unique musical ability to work together as a cohesive unit to create music that is fascinating, inspirational, and motivating.

Produced by T Bone Burnett, The Phosphorescent Blues begins with the 10-minute plus melody “Familiarity” that includes a variety of effects, chamber harmonies, and classical tinges. This song sets a tone that carries though the rest of this album, almost making it a concept album. “Julep” is a tale of drinking a mint julep on the front porch, a perfect song to show off the way each member of the band plays interdependent roles that when blended together create a cohesive work. “I Blew It Off” is a poppy upbeat song that weaves in and out of dynamics with a drum kit and harmonious melodies that seem to get stuck in your head. “Magnet,” though written by the Punch Brothers, has a Beck-like feel, with reverb-heavy vocals and modern-pop drums. “Boll Weevil” is a traditional song transformed by the signature Punch Brothers spin, and it’s definitely the most bluegrassy track on the album. Though it’s only 2½ minutes long, it allows each instrument to stretch out on the melody. The love song “Little Lights” closes things out with a somber feel.

If you are a fan of the Punch Brothers’ previous forward-leaning, youthful acoustic music, you should like this album. If you haven’t yet had a taste, I recommend just pushing play and opening up to their excellent musicianship.

“Songs of Lost Yesterdays” by Laura Orshaw

Laura Orshaw
Songs of Lost Yesterdays
Self-released
4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

Coming out of Massachusetts and working primarily with members of her New Velvet Band, Laura Orshaw has released a prime little bluegrass album. With material well-representing its Songs of Lost Yesterdays title, the album is comprised of several well-known songs and a pair of self-written tracks.

Laura Orshaw, a Pennsylvania native, is a bluegrass veteran having played with the Lonesome Road Ramblers and others while recording, instructing, and gigging on her own. This new recording, her third, features Orshaw’s spirited and bright lead vocals and lively fiddle playing within a strong bluegrass configuration.

Joining Orshaw are members of the aforementioned New Velvet Band, a group Orshaw regularly leads: Matt Witler (mandolin,) Catherine Bowness (banjo,) Tony Watt (guitar,) and Alex Muri (bass.) There is also effective harmony vocals contributed by album producer Michael Reese (including on the album’s appealing lead track “Going to the West”) and her father Mark Orshaw.

While the album is focused on a theme present since bluegrass music’s earliest days—changing times—Orshaw’s approach to the music is compatible with today’s audience. Balancing up-tempo but not necessarily upbeat fare with softer, more restrained numbers, Orshaw has well-sequenced the album.

Orshaw’s original, “Guitar Man,” gives the album its name and gently reveals the ramifications of falling for the wrong picker; it is an aching performance that should find an audience. The second original, “New Deal Train,” revisits the spirit of Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947” within a broadened contemporary context.

One of the many highlights is the title track from a favoured Charlie Moore album, The Cotton Farmer. As does the finest bluegrass, this rendition snaps along with its tale of the old home place’s memories and neglect.

Orshaw also ably delves into the songbooks of Bill Bryson (“Love Me or Leave Me Alone”), Norman Blake (“Uncle”), and Peter Rowan (“Wild Geese Cry Again,”) providing excellent performances of familiar songs.

The seldom covered Hazel Dickens masterpiece “Cold Miner’s Grave” is the album’s strongest performance. The instrumentation is absolutely gorgeous with mandolin notes leading the way, especially early in the song, and when Orshaw sings lines like “Is this how we remember all the sacrifices he made,” no little bit of Dickens’ passion and strength is communicated.

With Songs of Lost Yesterdays Laura Orshaw demonstrates that exceptional bluegrass music can be and is produced by mindful talents with a do-it-yourself outlook, no matter their regional origin, budget, or prominence within the mainstream bluegrass hierarchy.