Picks & Pans
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That said, my unique, open door policy requires, in fairness to all, that product be evaluated and reviews posted in the order in which submissions have been received.
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*Makes A Good Coaster
Dan Blakeslee & The Calabash Club
Not since Dick Curless left Fort Fairfield, Maine for Nashville and beyond has the Pine Tree State produced a native son with the same potential for success in country music (albeit, unlike The Rice Paddy Ranger, country with a more folk/Americana bent): until now.
The Alley Walker is not singer/songwriter Dan Blakeslee's first album. Indeed, Dan, the Boston Music Awards' 2014 "Folk Artist of the Year" and The New England Music Awards' 2015 "Male Performer of the Year," an SXSW favorite, has been a familiar face among his growing worldwide fan base for years.
Versatility is Blakeslee's stock-in-trade. His musical influences are many, though his songwriting style (Dan wrote each of the dozen songs found here) is uniquely his own. Dan is an album artist, though not a concept album artist, who does not conform in the interest of being radio-friendly. The title song alone clocks in at a radio-unfriendly 5:58, while Johnny and June (Blakeslee's ethereal tribute to guess who?) is a 5 minute, 36 seconds labor of love.
Before Breakfast features The Grascals’ newest member, John Bryson. Bryson's guitar and banjo-picking blend seamlessly with what Grascals fans have come to expect from the “two Terrys” (Eldredge and Smith, with whom Bryson shares lead vocals) as well as the Grascals’ other featured musicians, Adam Haynes, Danny Roberts, Kristen Scott Benson and Tony Creasmon.
The songs, including the album’s first single, (i.e., Sleepin’ With The Reaper), are variously dark reflective and humorous. In short, there’s a crowd-pleasing performance for every bluegrass fan’s mood.
No real lyrical standouts nor particularly lyrically-creative fare (though deliberate creepiness counts, I suppose)- just a musical explanation of why the three-time Grammy nominees continue to please their fans with their consistent vocal harmony and top-tier musicianship.
Hank, Pattie & The Current
Hank is banjoist Hank Smith and Pattie is fiddler/violinist Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw. That makes Benjamin Parker (guitarist), Robert Thornhill (mandolin) and E. Scott Warren (string bass, electric bass guitar) The Current (a fact probably not lost on Tony Rice,who is namechecked on What Whiskey Can Do.)
Hank, Pattie and Benjamin trade
lead vocals on Hold Your
Head Up High, the quintet’s third studio album.
Of the twelve songs found here, all are either written or
co-written by Hank,
Pattie, Benjamin and/or Robert.
Three of the songs (Earl in Vienna, The Delta Natural and Colorado) are instrumentals.
Pattie’s cigarette-soaked-sounding jazz vocals drive what is essentially a bluegrass album- with a twist or two; twist two being the string quartet (Elizabeth Ivy Wilson- first violin, vocals; Autumn Rose Brand- second violin, vocals; Sara Cruz- viola, vocals; and Kaitlin Grady- cello, vocals) featured on three of these tracks.
Best Bets: The spirited title song and Father of Mine (not to be confused with Everclear’s song of the same name). Written by Benjamin Parker, with Parker on lead vocals, Father... blends the wisdom gleaned from father time with the perspective gained as a son examines his father’s legacy and later, as a parent, himself, the legacy he is leaving for his own son.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s musical snapshots of characters who could be real people that think, feel and believe much like the group’s fan base, come to the fore with this latest collection of story songs.
DLQ isn’t afraid to lyrically-reference that which, to these ears, and perhaps those of what would otherwise be his expanded fan base, are, I would charitably call, oversimplified political and faith-based sentiments in the name of preaching to what they and the songs’ writers evidently assume is the choir.
Several of these story-songs, while lyrically-original, break no ground thematically. But, again, recurrent award-winners Lawson and the group always deliver what their fans expect and the guys certainly have that formula down pat.
Not that Bluegrass Hall-of-Famer Lawson and his award-winning musicians lack creativity. Keeping with its penchant for covering hit songs in other genres, that seemingly would defy a convincing bluegrass interpretation, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver breathe new life into an oft-covered Chuck Willis’ 1958 classic, making Fred Jay’s and Art Harris' What Am I Living For all their own.
Derailed is a pithy summation of what the Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis co-write by that title is all about, scoring points for its ear candy railroaded relationship similes.Life to My Days is an aptly-chosen single that, should it get the attention it deserves, will likely lend itself to sermons, awards, advertising campaigns and whatever commercial “exploitation” its respective publishers (the song was written by Jerry Salley, Lee Black and Devon McGlamery) have the energy to pursue.
Pure Country: Pure Heart
As soon as I heard Jeffrey Halford and the Healers' music for the first time (that would be listening to Lo-Fi Dreams), I became a fan. (I've not heard Halford's earlier albums, so I am perhaps late to Jeff's fan club.) Jeff epitomizes what I like in a singer/songwriter/storyteller: A good voice demonstrably able to communicate, through a unique personality/persona, a sparkle through sound waves mixed with well-written songs that resonate with refreshingly, original themes.
Prepared to give Lo-Fi Dreams a five-star rating, after hearing the first three songs (Two Jacksons, Elvis Shot the Television and Door #3), I could only appreciate the intended meaning of Good Trouble after reading the CD's liner indicating the song's dedication to the hero who lived it, former Freedom Rider and (now Congressman) John Lewis.
While there's not a bad song on this CD (again, Halford wrote every one of the 10 songs found here, so Last Kiss is far from a cover of the Wayne Cochran copyright- and original recording- let alone the 1964 J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers classic gold cover), with Last Kiss, the songs that stand out, above the quality of what can be generally heard on country radio, begin to fizzle.
Jeff presents new, even humorous takes, on old subjects. Country radio is missing out if it does not pick up on Halford's radio-friendly, factual account of Presley unfiltered; one that even Robert Goulet fans- yes, there are a few of us old enough to remember- can grudgingly appreciate.
Halford's best is truly heard in high fidelity and if Jeff's "dreams" ("lo-fi," or otherwise) are big enough, his next album will reach Jeff's potential of consistently writing and recording creative, often fun, songs; every one of which will have the potential to be a hit single.
Amilia K. Spicer
Wow and Flutter
Rick Monroe's new six-song EP may be Rick's best work to date. It showcases one of country-music's purist voices and thoughtful lyricists.
Gypsy Soul, as in the title song, is an example of Rick singing and writing about what he knows. The Florida-born entertainer became familiar with being uprooted, having lived in four other states and in England, to boot during a childhood and adolescence that undoubtedly inspired an optimistic spin on the freedom of taking life as it comes and effortlessly moving on, when the spirit leads the way.
This Side of You, Rick's current single (which Monroe wrote with assistance from Jason Duke and Ryan Griffin) strikes a theme of delighted amazement and awe at the allure of the protagonist's brown-eyed girl.
Monroe and J.D. Shuff collaborated on the album's closer, Rage On, Rick's gritty, blues-infused altar call to action, complete with the sound of a Hammond organ.
Jimmy Fortune Sings The Classics
Jimmy Fortune joined The Statler Brothers having big shoes (i.e., Lew DeWitt’s) to fill. But not only was the transition nearly seamless, the young tenor brought “added value” to his fellow, then-future, Country Music Hall of Famers as a hit songwriter.
In the wake of country-music’s once most-awarded quartet’s retirement, while continuing to write songs, Jimmy has reinvented himself as a solo artist; one with a Christian-music, as well as a country-music, following. Hence, Fortune’s current collaboration, with Ben Speer as producer (Speer passed away, at age 86, exactly two weeks before the album's release), also features The Isaacs on Jimmy’s cover of one of “the classics”: The Eagles’ Take It To The Limit.
Not to be outdone, Ricky Skaggs harmonizes with Jimmy on Fortune’s take on The Everly Brothers’ classic, Wake Up Little Susie.
And that’s Voices of Lee joining Jimmy on Bridge Over Troubled Water (the Simon & Garfunkle classic those apparently not old enough to remember it list here as "Bridge Over Troubled Waters").
From Annie’s Song to Danny’s Song, Jimmy takes on a total of 14 hits by other artists, fearlessly giving each an original take, be the smash associated with another solo artist (Take Me Home Country Roads, Make The World Go Away, Crazy Arms, Wildfire, Southern Nights), duo (Unchained Melody), or group (If).
Speaking (writing?) of groups, the inclusion of Flowers on the Wall is a fitting salute to Lew Dewitt, Phil Balsley, Harold Reid and Don Reid, as well as an acknowledgment of Fortune’s own contribution to the Statlers, as Jimmy performed that particular classic countless times over the years with the guys who gave him his biggest break.
Jimmy’s performances of these classics occasionally tinker with the original lyrics and, where it would be foolhardy to try to improve on perfection, there might be an unfamiliar tweak, mostly bluegrass and country, of the instrumentation.
Throughout, Fortune’s heartfelt and occasionally piecing vocals nail these songs in a way that will please Jimmy’s fans- and make him some new ones.
Mike Huckabee calls Nu-Blu “one of the hottest bluegrass groups in the country.”
Vagabonds, Nu-Blu’s sixth studio album, validates the former Arkansas Governor, presidential candidate and country-music musician-hobbyist’s high praise of the Siler City, North Carolina quartet.
The album’s title is inspired by one of the 11 songs found here, Gypsies on Parade, which gives listeners a new take on an old, but universal theme, as experienced by those living life on the road.
Vagabonds’ first single, Still Small Voice,” (written by Tony Lopacinski,
and Jimmy Fortune), previously
recorded by Belle, features Fortune
and Ben Isaacs accompanying Nu-Blu’s
lead singer Carolyn Routh
is is a
self-explanatory nod to the wisdom of intuition and hindsight.
Troublemaker fits in nicely with these message and/or story songs, adding elements of humor amid visuals that will keep listeners on their toes; those of Momma "making supper" and Daddy "trying to hump her."
As I wrote in my review of the quartet's last album, "Nu-Blu pulls off what would seem to be a tall order." The reference was to a "curious" choice of a cover song. This time around, in addition to the aforementioned single, Nu-Blu tackles bluegrass versions of Surround Me With Love, Good-Hearted Woman and Knockin' on Heaven's Door. I haven't consulted Charly McClain nor Bob Dylan, and while no one can ask Waylon Jennings nor Willie Nelson, I suspect each of the original artists would be on board.
Where I'm Coming From
Shane Owens, an Alabamian “barroom stylist” and I have a lot in common: Shane’s professional struggles (and successes) mirror my own. And we are both what Owens calls “straight arrows,” meaning “I’ve never smoked, I don’t chew, I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink. I’ve never been in any kind of trouble. I’ve never even had a speeding ticket.”
As Walter Brennan used to say, “No brag, just fact.” More to the point of, to borrow a phrase, where Owens is coming from, an increasingly-lowered societal bar inclines Shane to introduce himself enumerating, and self-identifying by, what he doesn’t do.
“Some people don’t get that.”
That’s fine. Typecast actors struggle for the right to play against type all of the time. By contrast, the authenticity of Shane Owens’ critically-acclaimed music, shaped by Shane’s cultural pride and personal integrity, lifts all such barriers as it speaks for itself.
In short: Your stereotypes, your problem.
Where the 45-year-old Shane and I part company is I come from Yankee suburbia and don’t necessarily share the political and religious beliefs referenced in Owens’ songwriting. Again, a different frame of reference doesn’t means that I can’t and/or don’t appreciate, only that I don’t claim to be, what Owens unabashedly is- and that’s stone country.
Shane’s album’s title song is a self-explanatory, autobiographical introduction, setting the tone for what has shaped the singer/songwriter and all that Owens holds dear.
None of this is new to those who have heard Shane’s single, Country Never Goes Out of Style (the video version of which features Randy Travis).
The feeling is reinforced by Owens’ cover of John Anderson’s 1981 Top Ten hit, Chicken Truck (sure to be a treat for both singers’ fans, as it features Anderson’s guest vocal).
Alcohol of Fame is a song that almost writes itself, exhibiting just the sort of lyrical wordplay that Shane’s fan base craves. Likewise, Owens sings songs of reverence for the military, mama, her Creator and (a la Conway Twitty) women (presumably of a certain age and attractiveness) in general.
That fan base will appreciate Owens’ nod to 4-H clubs and the FFA; rural references Shane incorporates as he manages to cover and salute most traditional country bases.
As a change of pace, Owens employs his wry humor that shines through in the form of a topical, cautionary, musical warning to an industry often in need of such a reminder: Nashville You Ain’t Hollywood.
Shane Owens is just what those who complain that country music is no longer country are praying for- and I am happy to help spread the word.
Unplugged From Daryl's House Club
(CD and DVD)Rating *****
Triple-threat singers/songwriters/musicians Sister Hazel (Ken Block, Drew Copeland, Ryan Newell, Jett Beres and Mark Trojanowski) have been around, its personnel largely intact, for years. And, while Unplugged… isn’t the quintet’s first “live” recording, these two-discs (DVD and CD) capture the pride of Gainesville, Florida’s debut performance at Daryl Hall’s Daryl’s House Club in Pawling, New York.
with Prettiest Girl at the Dance (a
song co-written by Copeland and Billy
Montana; also familiar to Mike Ryan fans), Sister
Hazel commands the stage and its listeners’ attention.
The band feeds off the crowd’s enthusiasm, particularly with Happy, the group’s most upbeat of performances.
Take It With Me may well be the most “country” of songs here, but the Daryl’s crowd enjoyed them all- and I did, too!
Faster and Farther
When I reviewed Darin and Brooke Aldridge's last CD I noted that its songs “showcase the duo’s well-orchestrated ability to blend tight, unique harmonies, top bluegrass musicianship and interesting lyrics.”
That critique applies equally to Faster and Farther. The Aldridges' latest effort is noteworthy for some other reasons as well.
Brooke is the lead vocalist on eight of the album’s 12 tracks, including Highway of Heartache and Mountains in Mississippi, songs that include a vocal assist from Vince Gill.
Pat Flynn and John Cowan are among the musicians featured on Faster and Farther, and they, along with Carl Jackson, Jim Rushing, Donny Lowery, Lisa Shaffer, Dennis Duff, and James Darrel Scott, have also contributed songs to the project.
Darin’s arrangement of Sacred Lamb will be of interest to fans drawn to the Aldridges' performances of the Christian music-themed songs on this venture, Kingdom Come and Fit for A King, and Heaven Just Got Sweeter for You among them. The latter, co-written by Jerry Salley and Dianne Wilkinson, is a song offering comfort to the bereaved that could easily be a favorite choice for those tasked with planning musical celebrations of life.
Carl Jackson's Eugene and Diane is also lyrically-arresting (in much the same way John Prine commanded listeners’ attention with Donald and Lydia), but ultimately it is Brooke’s rendition of Ian Tyson’s Someday Soon that tugs at nostalgic heartstrings and suggests that, in an era largely defined by disposable music, it’s nice to be able to revert to the classics.
Southern Halo nails a paean to a less hurried time when travelers shuttling cross-country, be it burning the rubber of tour bus tires or depleting a supply of frequent-flyer miles, relaxed along the home front.
Thus, the wistfulness for the luxury of those simpler times when a boom box provided the musical accompaniment to dancing by the river while waiting for presumably drenched jeans to dry on the river rocks. Mix this with the anticipation of some time off from a hectic pace, rocking flip flops and the opportunity to reunite with a significant other with whom to return to life's simple pleasures, and listeners will readily understand why the Country Music Association is so sold on Southern Halo; so sold, in fact, on the Cleveland, Mississippi teen siblings trio (known by name as Natalia, Christina and Hannah Morris), Southern Halo will be featured during the sold-out 2016 CMA Fanfest (12:30- 12:55 p.m., Saturday, June 11, 2016, on the CMA Music City Stage in the Bridgestone Arena Tower.)
those parenting little ones and all the rest of
us who once were children ourselves will find the aptly-named
singer/songwriter/musician and executive producer Candice Night's
(mostly) lullabies, old and new, a welcome addition to their
Blackmore's Night's distaff half's clear, soothing vocals immediately relax anyone seeking refuge from stress be Candice delighting listeners with original compositions (such as Lullaby in the Night and Sleep Little Baby, the inspiration for bonus videos rounding out this otherwise baker's dozen collection) or classics Night has adapted (including Rock A Bye Baby, Return To Pooh Garden and John Denver's Annie's Song).
It's a pleasure to listen to an easily-appreciated blend of art and commerce, so beautifully crafted and rendered, in the age of "stylists", by a singer who can actually sing so well and distinctly that enjoying the music doesn't require a lyric sheet; a musical respite from the concerns of any given day that, if needed, is a cure for insomnia to boot!
Dariustx V. and the Angels of Goliad
Singer/songwriter Darius Holbert's
(Dariustx)'s fifth album, the longest release (17 tracks)
short a box
set, is now complete after many years in the work-in-progress
Dariustx juggled his "other lives" as a session musician,
score and TV composer and producers.
The varied material and influences (touches of country, blues and gospel) pay homage to the classically-trained, multi-instrumentalist Holbert's Texas and Louisiana musical roots.
The eclectic collection is highlighted by its story- opening track and first video release, In the Shadow of the Death-Bird's Wing "shot in the gritty hills of Malibu, California," as well as the imagery of Godmother's Erline's Kitchen. You don't have to be a Roy Rogers and/or Buck Owens fan to like Goodbye, Buckaroo; the finale leaving listeners wanting more of the story songs, nostalgic wistfulness, and creative renderings bolstered by the performances of guest vocalists Nicole Britton and Caroline Wilson.
Pages of Paul
Pages of Paul, a sextet featuring the songs of guitarist Paul Curcuruto and the signature vocals of the group's lone female band member, Karen Nogle, is enlarging its fan base with the four-song EP followup to the group's first recording.
Bass player Bill Engel, pedal steel guitarist/dobro player Mark Tomeo, banjoist/percussionist Rich Grace and drummer Jake Kline round out the musicians responsible for a creative blend of individual talents who are one hit away from receiving the attention they deserve.
Leading off with It's Alright, a radio-friendly statement of confidence in the face of challenge, Ghost is an equally-arresting. though decidedly different, attention-grabber, replacing confidence with perplexity. Missing Home is a coming-of-age song of roots and (no pun intended) growth.
The title song, inspired by a trip to the village of Amanda, Ohio, just south of Columbus, could be about any number of once-vibrant small towns dotting the American landscape. As it is, Pages of Paul's performance invokes images formed by the listener's imagination (images undoubtedly reinforced by the video supporting the release) that leave no doubt as to why a Pennsylvania-based country-rock band can now single-handedly claim credit for putting a forgotten, sleepy-eyed, small Ohio border town back on the map!
& Carolina Grass
If you’re new to bluegrass music, country music or if you’d love to hear old country songs revived (largely) by the original artists bluegrass-style, courtesy of participating artists Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Grass (Josh Goforth, Ben Greene, Tommy Long and Jason Moore), this is the purchase for you!
A year in the making, the resulting 13-song project leads off with two of The Kentucky Headhunters (Doug Phelps and Richard Young) joining Lorraine and Josh Gordon in an interesting update of the 1997 release, Runnin’ Water.
John Conlee took Common Man to the top of the charts in 1983. More than three decades later, Conlee breathes new life into the song, this time joined on lead vocals by dobro player Brad Hudson, with harmonies by- guess who? (Sensing a pattern?)
Crystal Gayle is on hand with the singer's rerecording of her 1978 hit Ready for the Times, this time joined by Lorraine on lead vocals. While Jordan continues to sing background with Goforth, they have added a third backup singer to Crystal's performance: banjoist Ben Greene. (The recording was engineered by Gayle's son, Chris Gatzimos.)
Greenwood increased a
growing fan base with his 1985 recording
years later Lee shares lead vocals on the remake
with Troy Pope, as Lorraine and Josh
The Browns disbanded in 1967, the same year Jim Ed Brown gained traction with his cover of the Roy Hamilton hit, You Can Have Her. On this rendition, Jim Ed shares lead vocals with guitarist Tommy Long backed Lorainne and Josh.
The late Conway Twitty left some big shoes to fill with his 1978 recording of Boogie Grass Band. Any cover of the song would require a real boogie grass band to do it justice, but all things are possible with the teaming of Jordan, Raybon, Brown, Greenwood, Raven, Conlee, Phelps, Young, Lynn Anderson and T.G. Sheppard on lead vocals, backed by Ronnie Reno, Kelly Lang, Lorraine, Josh and Tommy.
It was an equally large task to reprise Randy Travis' 1986 hit recording of Diggin' Up Bones, requiring, in Randy's absence, to do justice. With Tommy on lead vocals and Josh and Lorraine singing background the task was doable.
Sheppard has been singing Do You Want To Go To Heaven for the last 35 years as a solo artist- until now. Sharing lead vocals with Long, T.G. also receives assistance from Tommy on background vocals (joined by-you guessed it- Lorraine and Josh).
The late Keith Whitley's 1988 tear-jerker, Don't Close Your Eyes, previously recorded by Whitley's namesake son, receives a different treatment here as Jesse Keith Whitley shares lead vocals with Cifers. while Gorforth and Jordan's harmonies are enhanced with the addition of Jeannette Williams' background vocal.
Jordan joins Anderson in a duet of Lynn's 1971 mega hit, Rose Garden, harmony vocals courtesy of Josh and Brad.
Jim Ed Brown
In Style Again
Rating *** 1/2
Just shy of his 81st birthday, Jim Ed Brown returns to the recording studio, following a noticeable absence of three decades, with 12 solo performances. These include the title track, produced by veteran trade journalist, author, academician, songwriter and now Plowboy Records exec Don Cusic and the album's opener, When the Sun Says Hello to The Mountain (Produced by Bobby Bare, the song features The Browns' sound as Jim Ed musically reunites with sister Bonnie who, in Maxine's absence, bolsters her own vocal with a recreation of the unavailable Brown sister's part).
A true polymath, Cusic’s songs resonate with Brown, as they figure prominently on this project, the theme of which is that older people in general, and older artists in particular, remain vital and engaged as they possess an unbeatable combination of maturity, wisdom and experience that is wasted when dismissed by a culture that increasingly worships youth. Bill Anderson also got a cut on the album marking Jim Ed’s debut on Plowboy Records, an independent label resulting from the partnership of Cusic, R. Shannon Pollard (Eddy Arnold’s grandson) and music industry veteran Cheetah Chrome.
Vince Gill’s fans will be happy to discover that Gill appears on Jim Ed’s recording of Tried and True. Not to be outdone, The Whites lend their vocals to Brown’s cover of You Again (Remember the Forester Sisters’ hit recording?).
And what would a 21st century Jim Ed Brown album release, one that contains reminders of the Browns’ sound, be without the presence of the distaff partner in Jim Ed’s “third career”? Those who miss the hit streak of Jim Ed Brown’s duets with Helen Cornelius will be richly entertained as Jim Ed and Helen reunite with their cover of the Carl & Pearl Butler classic, Don’t Let Me Cross Over (although this inspired choice to reunite Jim Ed and Helen musically is overshadowed by the distracting choice of this particular song- the word chutzpah comes to mind- with respect to the real-life events that expedited the inevitable professional breakup of Brown and Cornelius).
The (other) “elephant in the room” with regard to this project is Jim Ed’s well-publicized treatment for the lung cancer “wrapped around my esophagus and my breathing tubes.”
Fortunately, Brown’s vocal chords were not impacted. His sound is still warm, smooth, clear and distinct. No lyric sheet required.
That said, Jim Ed's otherwise impeccable vocals suggest a bit of diminished lung capacity, heightening an awareness of what listeners have come to expect from veteran artists who inevitably have had to make some accommodation to the passage of time as they discover it takes increased effort to hit the higher and lower notes they once did so effortlessly.
What remains is Jim Ed Brown's essence; a comfortable and comforting musical presence that still has so much to offer, not only with this collection but with ones that should follow.