“Wood, Wire & Words” by Norman Blake

Norman Blake
Wood, Wire & Words
Plectrafone Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Norman Blake has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing at key points when American acoustic country and folk music has connected to mainstream culture—his guitar work has been part of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969), The Johnny Cash Show on ABC (1969-1971), John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain (1971), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972), Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand (2007), and the soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Cold Mountain (2003), Walk the Line (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

But unlike Woody Allen’s protean protagonist, Blake was significant to all of those projects because his nature doesn’t change—he’s the deep root to the past that gets stronger with time, a trait that has made him (probably) more widely heard—but not as well-known—as fellow guitar giants Doc Watson and Tony Rice, whose work prods tradition forward with force and ingenuity.

Blake’s specialty, as the news release accompanying this 12-track, 54-minute album notes, is “turn of the century ragtime guitar picking,” a style of music that formed when music made by the middle class in their parlors and ex-slaves in their fields trysted in brothels and saloons before giving birth to the blues and jazz.

An unaccompanied Blake takes us back to that era as we hear his fingers glide over the steel strings of his 1928 Martin 00-45 guitar* to produce the clear, bell-like tones of “Savannah Rag,” the gently bumping bass line of “Blake’s Rag,” the warm and shady “Chattanooga Rag,” and the stately precision of “Cloverdale Plantation March.”

Though they sound like tunes that could have been adapted from the catalog of Scott Joplin, these four compositions are Blake originals, as are all the other songs on the album—something I wasn’t aware of until looking at the liner notes after listening to the whole disc a few times.

The only internal clue that Wood, Wire & Words contains contemporary material at all is “Grady Forester’s Store and Cotton Gin,” Blake’s tribute to his boyhood home of Sulphur Springs—when gas was 19 cents a gallon and stamps were three cents—which begins:

Now the evening sun is sinking down in Georgia
‘Cross the gravel roads, the red clay and the pines
That old whippoorwill
He’s callin’ from the hill
Of some long-forgotten time

“Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace,” “Black Bart,” “The Keeper of the Government Light on the River,” “The Incident at Condra’s Switch,” and “Farewell Francisco Madero” are all splendid folk songs full of detail and drama, and written by Blake from true-life events. Listening to him tell these tales in his laconic singing style is as enjoyable as it would be to hear Bret Harte or Mark Twain read one of their stories aloud in front of a warm fireplace on a cold night.

The only other contributor here is, happily, Nancy Blake, Norman’s wife and duet partner on the Grammy-nominated albums (for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year) Blind Dog (1988), Just Gimme Somethin’ I’m Used To (1992), While Passing Along This Way (1994), and The Hobo’s Last Ride (1996). The duo harmonize on the co-written “There’s a One Way Road to Glory,” a gospel message calling us toward freedom and away from war that is reminiscent of—and, sadly, as likely to go unheeded—as “Down By the Riverside.”

Blake’s brilliance at effortlessly making new music that sounds and feels as if it could be a hundred years old is what makes Wood, Wire & Words as enduring as anything else from the deep well of American music that Blake has been drawing from all along.

*Blake plays this guitar on all tracks, excepting “The New Dawning Day” and “”Farewell Francisco Madero,” on which he plays a 2004 Martin 000-28B Norman Blake Signature Edition guitar.


“Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell
Rounder Records

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

The Steep Canyon Rangers play good music. “Knob Creek” is as pretty a bluegrass tune as I’ve ever heard. Their album Nobody Knows You won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and 2012’s Rare Bird Alert was nominated for the same award. In 2011 the Rangers and Steve Martin won Entertainers of the year at IBMA. Pretty heady stuff.

I saw the Rangers in Georgia a few years ago. I liked the show. I like Steve Martin. I haven’t heard much of them together because I don’t often listen to radio. My go-to-work car doesn’t have satellite radio and my wife likes the ’60’s channel in her car. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I started the CD and that’s why you’re reading these reviews, trying to decide if a CD is worth your money.

This package includes a DVD (the show was taped live) and the DVD tells a better story than the CD. The DVD has two additional tracks and includes the stage banter, audience shots, and gives you better context than the CD. From the start it’s clear that this is the Steve Martin show. He’s the front man, he tells the jokes and plays or trades lead on the banjo. When you visit SCR’s website it becomes clear this is a collaboration but they are in a supporting role with Martin (50 shows a year) while keeping their identity as they perform separate from him. Other clues about what to expect are subtle: the website listing shows SCR last after Martin and Edie Brickell and SCR’s members aren’t named in the package.

The SCR aren’t just window dressing, though. The first number is “Katie Mae,” a hot one that whets your bluegrass appetite. Despite not being familiar with it I figured it was adapted from Flatt & Scruggs or someone like them, but the only other number with that name I can find is a Grateful Dead piece adapted from the blues and they aren’t even cousins. It turns out it was composed by Brickell. Other than the music on “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (by SCR members) the songs all list Martin or Brickell as composer or co-composer and SCR isn’t involved. “Katie Mae” on the DVD shows Martin playing lead banjo, trading off in spots with Graham Sharp. Martin’s a good banjo player and enjoys carrying the bluegrass message in his TV appearances.

One of Martin’s funny lines is at 11:00 on the DVD: “I know what you’re thinking: There’s Steve Martin, just another Hollywood dilettante hitching a ride on the bluegrass gravy train.” It’s hard to tell from shots of the audience how many of them follow bluegrass—I suspect a substantial number were there for the Steve Martin show—but they liked that line while veteran bluegrassers really understand the punch line. “Jubilation Day” is one of his comedy song routines (a breaking up story from a “whew, it’s over perspective”) and the bass player takes an impressive break on the number. “The Crow” is a good instrumental bluegrass number and is the title track of Martin’s 2009 album that won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 52nd Grammy Awards.

Edie Brickell is associated with the New Bohemians and the Gaddabouts, and is now closely allied with Martin and his bluegrass shows. She comes in at 26:40 (DVD) to sing “Get Along Stray Dog.” This is more old-timey than anything else. The music takes a turn at this point to some sort of fusion between old-time, folk, and Irish jig with her singing somewhere in Dylan’s camp, breathy with a rising and falling inflection. There’s an electric guitar and drums and a keyboard have been added. The audience liked it. Bill Monroe fans probably not so much. It’s unclear if she has a genre in mind. I suspect she’s following her own muse: infused with acoustic music but still very influenced by rock/pop. If you listen to “Love Like We Do” (New Bohemians) you’ll find a lot of similarities with her work on this CD.

“Stand and Deliver” is the SCR (Martin and Brickell are off stage) plus some percussion doing bluegrass on the progressive side. They follow that with “Hunger,” a blues number with an electric guitar. Not bluegrass but I liked the song and the arrangement.

There’s far too much material to cover it all, especially on the DVD. Some other highlights are “Pretty Little One,” close to a bluegrass story song but it also has an old-time sound. The verses tend to have a repetitious melody and go on and on with both murder and comedy woven into the lyrics. Martin sings lead with Brickell joining in now and then. Next “Auden’s Train” kicks off, credited to Martin and Nicky Sanders. That may confuse you because it’s the “Orange Blossom Special” with lyrics borrowed from W H Auden’s Calypso.

Woody Platt (guitar) sings lead on “Daddy Played The Banjo,” a Martin number that makes good bluegrass. “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” isn’t politically correct, but it’s funny. Maybe we worry too much about being politically correct.

Bluegrass fans attend a performance or buy a CD expecting the music to be the show. Some of the best bluegrass bands out there don’t try too hard at showmanship. When you buy this package expect the Steve Martin show with music added. You’ll enjoy the DVD if you’re a Steve Martin fan because he puts on a good show. If you’re considering the CD expecting more “Knob Creek” bluegrass, you’ll be a little disappointed.

“One More Road” by Shannon & Heather Slaughter & County Clare

Shannon & Heather Slaughter & County Clare
One More Road
Elite Circuit Music

4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

There are many covers of “If I Were A Carpenter” but the Slaughters’ version is going into my list of favorite cuts. The couple’s (Shannon and Heather) voices meld well and the instruments, especially the banjo, are restrained, making the song comfortable and easy listening.

County Clare isn’t a bluegrass household name—yet—but they have performed with well known names like the Lonesome River Band and Larry Stephenson. Shannon Slaughter is an accomplished songwriter (nominated for a Dove Award and winner of the Chris Austin songwriting contest at Merlefest) and was co-writer on half the songs on this CD. He sings and plays guitar while Heather Slaughter sings and, on the CD, plays upright bass (she’s switched to mandolin now). They’re joined on the CD by John Boulware (fiddle, vocals), Ron Inscore (now departed from the band, playing mandolin and adding vocals), Casey Murray (banjo). Rob Ickes (resonator guitar) is one of the guest musicians. The arrangements are well done and there’s a variety of music.

If you missed the TV miniseries Hatfields and McCoys then “The Ballad of Johnse Hatfield” may not make a lot of sense to you. It’s one version of those tragic times while the “true” version can be found in a post by one of Devil Anse Hatfield’s descendants. Historical accuracy aside, this is a good example of mountain music with many verses and a limited range of melody, along with Tina Steffey’s (wife of Adam Steffey) clawhammer banjo. A change of pace musically but with another tragic story is “Daddy Killed The Calf,” a story of hard times on the farm in the Oklahoma dust bowl days of the ’30s.

They go back to the Civil War and still more tragedy with “The Lives of the Innocent,” featuring a guitar break by Slaughter. It’s hard to write anything about that war without a theme of tragedy and this is another story of death and loss. “They Never Got the Chance” is another slant on tragedy, a commentary on lives lost because of abortion. But not everything is dark on the CD. “When Scruggs Made Me a Star” is a fast moving number about Earl Scruggs’ influence on bluegrass, another tip of the hat to one of the great masters of the banjo.

The range of topics and styles keep you interested in this CD. They do reach out to other songwriters, including a couple of hits from the country music world. Heather Slaughter sings an excellent country version of “Pass Me By,” recorded in 1973 by Bob Luman and Johnny Rodriguez, most commonly associated with the latter. This cut features Mike Johnson on the steel. (He is the bandleader on RFD-TV’s Country’s Family Reunion.) She also does a resounding version of Rodney Crowell’s “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” made a hit by both Emmylou Harris and Lynn Anderson. For pure Monroe bluegrass it’s hard to beat Bill Castle’s “It’s In My Mind To Wander.”

Good singing, good music, good arrangements and a variety of themes and musical styles—this is a CD that will keep you listening from start to finish.


“Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler” by Various Artists

Various Artists
Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler
Thirty Tigers

4 stars (out of 5)

By Donald Teplyske

As a child through the 1970s, I was raised with the Little House on the Prairie television series. When I discovered the public library  during the summer between grades four and five, among the dozens of books I devoured were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. In the years since, and despite the contextual racism and other challenges presented by the novels, both overt and subtle, they remain favorites; without doubt Little House in the Big Woods remains one of the coziest novels to read on cold winter evenings. Further, for years I have hoped to visit Mansfield, Missouri and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, and this coming spring it just may finally happen.

Therefore, I come to this set predisposed to positivity.

When I reviewed a previous volume (The Arkansas Traveler) in this continuing series several years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how song titles carelessly skimmed over while reading as a youth brought to life memories of the novels. That album, while serving as a historical retrospective, was a dang fine listen. With Pa’s fiddle at its heart, it was not surprising that the old-time music collected therein prominently featured fiddle—lively and light, then mournful and introspective.

Unlike that previous set, which featured masterful vocal performances from the likes of John Cowan, Elizabeth Cook, Andrea Zonn, and Jeff Black, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is an album of instrumentals. As before, Matt Combs ably handles the fiddling. Missed here are the contributions of Butch Baldassari, in who’s memory the album is dedicated. As Pa’s Fiddle Band, the musicians bringing these songs to life include familiar bluegrassers Shad Cobb (banjo), Dennis Crouch (bass), Matt Flinner (mandolin) Bryan Sutton (guitar) as well as Buddy Greene (harmonica) and Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle, and piano).

Sure to be enjoyed by all fans of old-timey sounds, this latest volume sounds a bit more “uptown” than the previous set. The arrangements are more refined with the full-band presenting a less rustic interpretation of the tunes. Perhaps the tunes, including a personal favorite, the spritely picked “The Yellow Heifer,” received interpretations such as those included here in the 19th century, but I wouldn’t bet on it. These, therefore, are not faithful reproductions of the music heard by Laura, Mary, and the clan, but rather relatively modern interpretations of a selection of tunes mentioned throughout the Little House series.

The performances are dynamic and fully enjoyable. The doleful sounding “Golden Years are Passing By,” played by Bryan Sutton, causes one to reflect on passing days while the full-band reprise of the tune intensifies the ache into something even more pensive. The old fiddle tune “Polly Put the Kettle On”, featuring Joe Weed on fiddle, is closer in spirit to what I ‘hear’ when reading the novels. Some tunes bring a religious element, omnipresent within the Little House series, including “My Sabbath Home” and “Jesus Holds My Hand.”

The song notes of Dale Cockrell, which places each tune within both historical and Little House contexts, are superb, concise and interesting.

There are but two elements of the album that give me pause.

There first is simply a matter of preference. If these recordings are built on the legacy of Wilder’s writing, I do wonder why the songs are presented as ‘band’ recordings as Pa usually played unaccompanied. While I very much appreciate the performances contained within Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler, when listening I don’t strongly hear Wilder’s sense of place or voice.

My second hesitation around the project concerns the stated intent of this recording is to “place [Charles Ingalls] among the first rank of old-time fiddlers whose music is foundational to so much in American music.” This goal seems to be revisionist to my wee historical brain. While Ingalls’ playing is woven throughout the Little House novels, it seems to me that that was the limit of his influence.

I am willing to be corrected, but in my admittedly limited reading of fiddle playing in American history, the name Charles Ingalls isn’t prominent. I might suggest, as is hinted in Cockrell’s notes, that Ingalls’ influence didn’t extend past his family and immediate circle, and as such he is simply one of likely thousands of fiddle players whose music informed and entertained his family, but didn’t have historical relevance; the difference being, of course, that their daughters didn’t write about the experiences as widely as did his.

Quibbling aside, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is a very enjoyable, supremely played collection of songs that further illuminate the importance of the Little House series in our understanding of American history and the place music serves within it. And, it is a dang fine listen.


“Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down” by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
Sugar Hill Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV is one of the few havens for good music of any sort on television these days, as the multifariously talented and ever-genial Stuart, along with His Fabulous Superlatives—Kenny Vaughan (guitars), Harry Stinson (drums) and Paul Martin (bass)—create a genuine sense of fun with their love for, and mastery of, country music.

This ten-track disc captures some of that fun, but not all of it. The 32 minutes spent with this aptly named band are like having a couple of drinks in a bar on Broadway where the band happens to be really good, but you won’t be thinking about it the next day.

“Tear the Woodpile Down” has the boys at their best, with a driving rhythm and bumblebee Telecasters buzzing everywhere, and “Sundown in Nashville” perfectly evokes the heartbreak that so many wannabes must feel every night in that town of half-met dreams.

“Hollywood Boogie” is a Tele tour-de-force which should get some Grammy attention for best country instrumental performance.

But the rest of the material is merely good, played and sung expertly, but without that spark and smirk that Marty can bring to the performance.

“Pictures from Life’s Other Side,” with Hank III joining Marty on one of the Hillbilly Shakespeare’s maudlin sermons, falls just a little flat too. For two of country’s hardest rockers not to rip their way through one of Hank’s hard-edged numbers is a missed opportunity.

Perhaps on record where his natural charm isn’t as prominent, Stuart would do well to employ a co-producer that would press him toward some riskier choices that, more than anyone in Nashville I can think of, he’d be capable of conquering.

“Don’t Wait For The Hearse To Take You To Church” by Rodney Dillard & The Dillard Band

Rodney Dillard & The Dillard Band
Don’t Wait For The Hearse To Take You To Church
Rural Rhythm
2.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens 

Rodney Dillard (The Dillards, the Darling Family, Andy Griffith) and his wife, Beverly, have an active ministry that includes music. This CD is an example of the music they use in their ministry with some Mayberry homilies thrown in.

A variety of musicians appear on the CD. Steve Bush and Beverly play banjo. Steve, Rodney and Tim Crouch play guitar with Crouch, primarily a studio musician who has played with some of the biggest names in country music, also playing fiddle and mandolin.

George Giddens (fiddle, mandolin) is a member of Dillard’s band. Also playing fiddle is Bruce Hoffman. Rodney adds resophonic guitar and Bush is also playing mandolin and bass. Rounding out the recording group are Marty Wilhite (bass [down towards the bottom of the web page]), a Branson musician who has played with some very big names in the music business, Pete Generous (percussion) and Jim Glasty (harmony vocals).

The CD is loaded on the heavy side with familar songs featuring traditional arrangements. “Somebody Touched Me,” “Softly and Tenderly” and “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” all have Rodney singing lead. It’s not bad music but, unless you’re just a big Dillard’s fan, there’s not enough unique material here to lure my dollars away. The musicians provide a solid backing to the vocalists but it’s not especially inspired picking. Beverly takes the lead on “[Old] Gospel Ship” and I like her singing but, again, the musical breaks are not all that exciting.

The most entertaining songs are “Hear Them Thunders Roarin” (which appears to be a traditional song but I can’t pinpoint its origin), “River of Jordan”, an old gospel number going back to the Florida Boys, and “Heaven,” a song that’s been around bluegrass for decades. The harmony vocals on “Heaven” aren’t nearly strong enough – they are an integral part of that song, but the instrumental work is very nice. Beverly sings lead on these songs.

The CD ends with four one minute stories about how life in Mayberry is a good example to follow today. I really liked the various series about Mayberry, but these little tidbits don’t much inspire me.

“Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot and Ravelin'” by The Grascals

The Grascals
Dance Til Your Stockings are Hot and Ravelin’
BluGrascal Records
3 stars (out of 5)

The Andy Griffith Show is a standard in American culture that I am sure almost anyone can remember watching at some point in their lives. The Grascals, no doubt honored at the chance to give some new life to some Mayberry standards, have partnered with Mayberry’s Finest Brand Foods to produce this seven-track EP.

This is not a typical Grascals release, but rather a novelty tribute album with close attention paid to the preservation of the integrity of the show’s original music.

Over the years The Grascals have made a name for themselves taking bluegrass standards and mostly traditional bluegrass sounds and adding just enough of their own flair to the equation to create a unique, modern bluegrass sound. However, this EP leaves me scratching my head in that respect. I feel like an opportunity was missed to bring a more modern feel to these great old favorites, following their own formula of past success. Instead the band stuck to the roots of the music chosen for this collection and the results are serviceable, just not all that you would expect from The Grascals.

That said, the musicianship on this album is above average and holds true of what you expect from The Grascals as far as musical execution. The picking on “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” and “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” especially, is great, and the entire EP flows well together and really captures the nostalgic feeling of The Andy Griffith Show.

The biggest area of weakness this EP has is its brevity. With seven tracks and roughly 14 minutes of music, the lowest price I found was $6.97 plus shipping. Not the best value, unless you are specifically looking to fill the collection as a fan of either The Grascals or The Andy Griffith Show, but good music nonetheless.