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2012's Overlooked Bluegrass Albums

Donald Teplyske  |  January 5, 2013

2012 was a challenging year for me. I changed jobs paths, moved house and home, and started over in a new area of the province. All of these alterations to my (our) life have been positive, and things are going very well. But, these caused some significant disruption to music reflection and writing; other aspects of life, while always important, became more obviously significant in 2012 as my priorities had to adjust. One doesn't voluntarily leave an employer after more than two decades without some shifting in daily routines. As well, I gave up my "Roots Music" newspaper column this year as we left Red Deer, and that was hard to do.

Writing about music took a backseat to other challenges this past year. Most likely, I listened to as much music this year as in any other, and quite possibly, I listened to a broader spectrum of music. More of that music was in a digital format, with which I have a love-hate relationship: love the immediacy of digital downloads, loathe the corresponding increasingly small selection of CDs at even the best of stores.

I also received fewer albums for review via the mail. As the record business continues to modify itself, fewer labels are servicing me with releases for review. I always give writing priority to the albums that are sent to me and projects I purchase usually don't get reviewed. That is starting to change a little but will be reflected in today's article; on the whole I feel an obligation to at least try to write about albums I receive in non-descript little yellow padded envelopes.

Still, I wrote more this year than I have in some others. I produced eight reviews for Country Standard Time, almost twenty pieces here at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, and another fifteen reviews for the Lonesome Road Review. I also posted to my blog Fervor Coulee 140 times in 2012, with many reviews scattered in among the various other ramblings. Perhaps self-justification, but I would rather emphasize quality over quanitity.

Through all of that, I truly felt I couldn't justify creating year-end favourite lists this year. Understandably, while moving house too many album and downloads went missing for significant periods of time and some of the downloads are lost forever. I felt any attempt at list-making this year would be fraught with omissions and wouldn't accurately reflect my true opinions.

What I've decided to do instead is to feature a small selection of albums I wish I had wrote about this year, albums I should have found the time to feature in 2012. Today I am going to feature six bluegrass and acoustiblue albums that I enjoyed as much as any others encountered this year, but simply ran out of time (and energy) to write about when they were released.

I'm not certain when Scott Holstein's "Cold Coal Town" was released (I think it was an early 2011 issue), but I do know I listened to it in the truck almost continually for a couple weeks late last winter after receiving early in 2012. I have since encountered it as the bonus disc within an inessential but more-comprehensive-than-most bluegrass sampler, "Rough Guide to Bluegrass." Since it made its way to me this year, and I feel that it is freakin' masterful, I am going to feature it in this year-end wrap up.

Scott Holstein knows bluegrass. I've been thinking a lot about authenticity lately, its importance and its folly. For a bluegrass artist to be truly authentic, he (because he would have to be a he, wouldn't he?) would have to be a double-timing, murdering, bootlegging boozer, rounder and Christian with severe mama issues. However, when I listen to Scott Holstein sing, authentic is-rightly or wrongly- the word what keeps coming to mind- he sings like he has experienced every emotion and event tied to his songs.

These sounds wrap the listener in the spell of mountain music that could have been recorded in the early 70s by Ralph and Roy Lee. The album begins with a few notes of reso from Randy Kohrs, launching into a bass-driven rhythm of the torment caused by a wicked woman and continues for another ten songs, singing of the mysteries of love and land.

Coal-mining and its impact on the people of the Appalachian region is examined in several places. The impact of the Stanley sound on Holstein and bluegrass is captured within Clinch Mountain Hills. Haunting just begins to describe Black Water, a song that explores- in a very different manner than James Reams and Tina Aridas did within Buffalo Creek Flood- the 1972 disaster that occurred when a slurry dam gave way.

Holstein hired on great pickers including Clay Hess, Scott Vestal, Aaron Ramsey, and Tim Crouch, as well as a bass player I hadn't previously been aware of, Jay Weaver. Don Rigsby sings on a pair of tracks.

Well worth placing at the top of your 'saved for later' or 'wish list.'

As are these next five discs.

Another overlooked album I must highly recommend is The Kathy Kallick Band's "Time." The follow-up recording to the excellent "Between the Hollow and the High-Rise," "Time" continues Kallick's tradition of releasing only the finest quality of music. This time out she mixes some excellent new songs (such as the title track, Bird, and the old-timey Fare Thee Well) with songs from the past including Vern and Ray's Thinkin' of Home, the Delmore's I'm Lonesome Without You, and Dark Hollow.

The Kallick Band has for years been so solid as a live act, and that mastery is fully captured on this album. Dan Booth has since moved on to Frank Solivan's Dirty Kitchen, but the line-up contained within "Time" has given their all to the project. Booth takes the lead on I'm Lonesome Without You while Tom Bekeny's mando does the same on his instrumental Old Red Mandolin.

Kallick's voice is a beautiful thing, and that is in evidence throughout. Give a listen to either Lulu and Jack or as part of the quartet on Bill Monroe's Lord Protect My Soul for confirmation.

"Time" is an album that has 'flown under the bluegrass radar' thus far, but is well-worth exploring as it will keep listeners entertained for its full fifty minutes. And I must state, it is so nice to see a bluegrass band put some effort into the packaging of their album; lovely. Kudos to Lisa Berman and the KKB for that.

I only purchased Danny Paisley's "Road Into Town" this month, but it has been played a lot in the past two weeks. As a download, I don't know who played what on every track, or who wrote which. And since I'm not really reviewing the album here, that isn't important. What is, is that I feel that this album is even better than his terrific Rounder album, "The Room Over Mine." Paisley's voice has an edge to it, softer than some but very appealing along with a forthright approach to delivering bluegrass.

For the past decade, Paisley and the Southern Grass has been one of the most talked about groups in bluegrass but with limited recording output. "Road Into Town" offers up a multitude of reasons to listen to this long-running group. Please Stop Falling is plum pitiful, a monumental vocal performance. Mark Delaney's banjo and the fiddle of Doug Meek drive Cherokee Shuffle, and I suspect Michael Cleveland is mixed in there, but can't be certain. The sentimental I Overlooked an Orchid is right in Paisley's wheelhouse, as is I Saw Your Face in the Moon.

I'm not aware of too much notice being given to Bo Isaac and the Rounders' high-quality release, "Dollar." Isaac's previous album "I'm Not Living Life" was a star-wrapped slice of bluegrass heaven with folks with surnames like Stafford, Van Cleve, Moore, Stewart, and Steffey- along with Gulley and Bradley- laying down a solid foundation for the songs of a young singer from Floyd County, Kentucky. This time out Isaac has an entirely different band backing him, and he has chosen this time to rely on the songwriting of Elmer Burchett, Jr, whose songs have previously been recorded by Lou Reid, Grasstowne, II, Continental Divide, and others. And these songs are solid.

Dollar grabs from its sparse banjo and fiddle introduction and its first words ("Dollar, O dollar, where did you go? Come back here, don't let me down, don't leave me here alone.") The good-time Flat Footin', Tennessee sounds as tranquil and lazy as the summer day it describes, while Miner's Cry is equal parts grim and uplifting. Co-written with a range of folks including Shawn Camp, Zach Rambo, Bill Woods, and Mike Johnson, this is a firm a set of unfamiliar songs as one could hope to encounter.

Throw in a takes of Nobody's Business and John Henry to provide perspective, and you have a great bluegrass accounting. As good a singer as Isaac is, there are a couple tracks where someone else takes the lead- perhaps Burchett- that are just as- and even more- appealing.

Old Man Luedecke has been the old-time, folk darling of the Canadian music scene for several years, but for some reason I've resisted. Until now. Produced by Tim O'Brien, "Tender Is The Night" is, in my opinion, a huge step forward for the banjo minimalist.

I'm not sure what is different this time out, but the songs grabbed my interest from first listen, something that didn't occur with the previous albums I heard from the Nova Scotia musician. Part of the attraction, I know, is the participation of O'Brien; the album can't help but sound more than a little like an O'Brien project. O'Brien had guested on a previous Luedecke release, so it has to be more than just his presence that is attractive to my ears. The songs seem stronger, in my opinion- more focused, perhaps- and his phrasing is more consistent, again in my opinion, and complementary to the instrumentation.

Luedecke's is not a bluegrass album, minimally acoustiblue. Folk, yes. Americana/Canadiana, yes. Could appeal to bluegrass types? Perhaps.

Four tracks stand out from the rest, but all thirteen are appealing. The lead song, Kingdom Come sets the stage for the set of tradition-based, contemporary songs. Song for Ian Tyson isn't so much a tribute to the prairie troubadour (although it is), but is more a song Tyson should consider recording. Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms is a dramatic skiffle re-working of the classic tune, a nod of the tam to a northern love and Flatt & Scruggs. Finally, the album's standout song is Can't Count Tears, a mournful reflection of hope in the absence of such.

My regard for Ireland's Niall Toner is well-established. While he isn't prolific, since encountering him a bit more than a decade ago, I have come to appreciate his approach to bluegrass and songwriting a bit more with each of his albums. His fourth is "Onwards and Upwards," his first for Pinecastle.

When a song kicks off with an execution ("Nothing concentrates the mind like a hanging, they say") of an innocent man- similar in theme to Long Black Veil and maybe even The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia- I know I'm in the right place. But Judge and Jury is just the first of the treasures to be unearthed in this collection produced by Keith Sewell.

William Smith Monroe is the album's centerpiece, as finely executed tribute to the father of bluegrass as has been written. That it didn't receive the airplay and attention I felt it deserved when released more than a year ago is one of the (many) things I will never understand. I thought it was perfect. Still do. The Pride of Shelby is less wordy in tribute to Earl Scruggs.

"Onwards and Upwards" is wide-reaching in its approach to bluegrass; no two songs follow the same path. Lock and Key is sweetly sentimental as Toner sings with Wendy Buckner over Sewell's instrumental bed, while Burren Backstep has those ancient tones that are so often referenced. Way of a Wanderer contains a heavy dose of country within its 'grass and Bling is a bit frivolous but still enjoyable with a loping rhythm. Remember Me is an intense portrait of the failings of age, with Rob Ickes' reso sounds sounding eerily like a musical saw.

Like the previously mention Kallick album, great effort was put into "Onwards and Upwards" booklet, especially into Toner's song notes.

There you have them, six bluegrass and acousiblue albums I wish I had found the time to write about this year. There are certainly others, such as the Foghorn Stringband's "Outshine the Sun," Chatham County Line's live album, and the latest from Audie Blaylock and The Coal Porters, as well as Robert Hale's "Pure & Simple." Maybe I'll get to one or two of those still.

Thanks for reading Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. Donald

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