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The Best of Bluegrass, Autumn 2013

Donald Teplyske  |  October 27, 2013

Not that anyone has noticed- the world has kept spinning, stucco bathtubs are still rough, Twitter continues to bat south of the Mendoza Line- but I haven't been writing too much since August. Prioritizing, as some leadership gurus might suggest. My day job is wonderful- I love every minute of it- but I also live it almost every minute. Few are the opportunities lately to 'switch off' that part of my brain and focus on writing about roots music.

I am listening, as much as ever. Whenever I'm in it, the truck's CD player is constantly going except for 'top of the hour' news breaks - right now, Mike Plume's latest album is sitting in that player. Plume is offering his extensive back catalogue for 'pay as you go' download at Bandcamp. As much as I am enjoying the new album, I hold a soft spot for those early album like "Songs From a Northern Town" and "Simplify." Throw some cash his direction; I will be soon.

I rediscovered Martyn Joseph this month upon his release of his impressive album of Springsteen covers "Tires Rushing By in the Rain;" I just have the download from eMusic, so of course don't have access to Dave Marsh's liner notes, but imagine they are of interest. His interpretation of Springsteen's songs- both the expected and the unusual- is very interesting.

I just downloaded the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience's new album "Muddy Roads" on Friday, but have already given it a listen while driving to the city yesterday. Two thumbs up- can't beat Jim Nunally as a vocalist.

I had never consciously heard of Ron Davies prior to downloading the album recently released in tribute to him. "Unsung Hero - A Tribute To The Music Of Ron Davies" is a wonderful introduction to his music. An amazing lineup was assembled by younger sister Gail Davies, including a 'who's who' from my collection: Guy Clark, Robbie Fulks, Matraca Berg, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, Kevin Welch, John Prine, John Anderson, and Mandy Barnett. Actually, Jimmy Hall and Benny Golson are the only featured artists not in my collection. If you're looking for as fine a slice of Americana as released this year, give this one an extended listen.

Alan Jackson's "The Bluegrass Album" was a bit of a surprise. I expected a George Jones-type bluegrass album- that is, not bluegrass at all. Should have trusted him more. This one is more than solid, and I really like the songwriting. The fact that Jackson has allowed the songs to surpass three and four minutes, giving the players time to stretch things out, to establish and maintain a mood, to really get a groove going.

My only reservation is the recitation Jackson does on Blue Moon of Kentucky; I wish he had included his 'thank yous' on a bonus cut rather on the only version of the classic song. The fiddle playing is especially appealing. Not everyone is going to like it, of course.

No doubt, lots of good music has come my way the last few months. More to come, I'm hoping, as I just ordered the final Bill Monroe Bear Family set. Forgot to order the Jeanie West album though- that will have to wait until next time Amazon crosses my brain.

Thought I would take a couple hours or this afternoon to shine my limited light on a set of bluegrass and acoustiblue albums that have impressed me this autumn: while snow fell in abundance last night, the calendar says it is still fall.

Definitely fitting into my definition of acoustiblue is the debut album from Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman. Produced by Laurie Lewis- a singer-songwriter and bluegrasser whose taste is above reproach- "We Made it Home" is a very clean sounding album of music that brings to mind Welch & Rawlings a little- if David Rawlings was Darrell Scott and Gillian Welch was Melody Walker.

Black Grace received recognition from the MerleFest Chris Austin songwriting contest and the song We Made it Home is killer. Their co-write Retinue is lovely, a gentle and expressive interpretation of deep affection and life. Their take of Graceland is the one I've been humming of late (the entire "Graceland" album was ruined for me after reading of Los Lobos' version of events), and a reflective Sweet Sunny South has seldom sounded better- Groopman has a voice that certainly suits their material.

The album is mostly just the duo, although Mike Witcher drops in some Dobro, and Lewis and the formidable Linda Tillery appear on Yellow Haired Gal; Lewis also sings on Black Grace. Beautiful stuff that just pulls you in, whether you are familiar with their music or not. I wasn't.

Terry Baucom has already placed a few songs from "Never Thought of Looking Back" on the charts. I'm Sorry Too features lead vocals from Tim Stafford and is a darn good little bluegrass song of backhanded regrets. What'll I Do, featuring Sam Bush and Buddy Melton, took home Recorded Event of the Year at the IBMA awards show last month. Other standouts on this entirely enjoyable album are Martha White, Lester and Earl, featuring the unmistakable lead voice of Marty Raybon (who is growing on me: call me slow) and John Cowan on No One But My Darlin'.

A banjo album, no matter how well done, is a tough thing to pull off, and I'm glad that Baucom- an extraordinary 5-string player and sideman, one who has led his own band- realizes this. By featuring excellent and personable singers- including Larry Cordle, David Mayfield, Sam Bush, Cowan, Stafford, Melton, and- am I actually typing this?- John freakin' Schneider (on a truly outstanding take of the country standard I've Been Around Enough to Know) Baucom has created a bluegrass album with strong songs, interesting vocals, and no shortage of banjo wizardry. That it isn't all flash and rolls is to his credit.

The core band provides all the backing any front man could ask for:Bush, Wyatt Rice, Jerry Douglas, Aubrey Haynie, and Steve Bryant. At times it feels like the best jam session you've never been invited to, and at other times it is an obviously astutely and skilled bluegrass production: just about perfection when it comes to bluegrass, ain't it?

If I was getting paid for this, I would have to go into more detail in describing the Del McCoury Band's latest masterpiece "The Streets of Baltimore." But, I'm not. Just buy the darned thing, would ya! Just when one could be tempted to think that the bluegrass community had passed by the (reluctantly arguably) greatest bluegrass band to come out of the '90s, they go and release another great recording.

Absolutely outstanding.

If you were reading the roots music, Americana, and mainstream media the last week of August and in early September, you would have thought a) Robbie Fulks had invented a new genre called 'the bluegrass music' and b) Robbie Fulks was a household name.

Fulks- still more famous to most of America for having his son where his face on a t-shirt when appearing on the Amazing Race several years ago- has long had bluegrass flowing through his veins. He was once a member of The Special Consensus, and his songs have been covered by bluegrass bands...although the only one that comes to mind today is Cold Statesville Ground by James Reams & the Barnstormers. (Correct, I never miss a chance to 'drop' James' name.)

Fact is though, "Gone Away Backward" isn't a bluegrass album. Yes, there are bluegrass and bluegrass-inspired songs on the album- good ones, too. Long I Ride, Pacific Slope, The Rose of Summer, and Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener fall into the (non-existent) widely held definition of bluegrass, but When You Get to the Bottom is straight-ahead honky tonk country, and Snake Chapman's Tune is an old-timey mountain banjo tune from, best I can tell because I purchased the download, Will Keys; here, the fiddle carries the weight. Imogene could be a hundred years old, but its presentation isn't bluegrass.

"Gone Away Backward" is another great album from Robbie Fulks, in my mind the most consistently strong of those who came out of the Bloodshot vs The World movement of the 90s. It is a treat to have an acoustic album from him...even if it isn't entirely bluegrass. Another Special C alumnus, Ron Spears sings on a couple songs. Fulks' guitar playing is as appealing as his singing. That is a compliment.

If you are in need of some acerbic humour (dang, there I go revealing myself as a Canadian again), check out Fulks' posts on his website.

Si Kahn recently announced, I read somewhere, that he was giving up touring. His new recording with The Looping Brothers "Aragon Mill:The Bluegrass Sessions" would always be of interest, but more so given that Kahn hasn't- as far as I know- previously recorded a bluegrass set. I have a couple or three Kahn albums in my collection, but was moved to purchase this download because of the inclusion of the song, To Hear Doc Watson Play, a song that- along with Peter Rowan's A Doc Watson Morning- I find near perfect. Which reminds me, I need to order Jack Lawrence's recent Watson-inspired set. I haven't listened to this album all the way through as yet, and I'll fix that tomorrow, but what I have heard has sounded absolutely stunning.

"Hall of Fame Bluegrass" is another great album of bluegrass, recorded by two of the music's finest singers, junior Sisk and Joe Mullins. David Freeman's liner notes do a better job than I can here (or anywhere) of describing the music. Suffice to say, the project was inspired by the music of those inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Fame, and the songs covered are among those associated with those artists: Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Red Allen & the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and other pioneers.

On a stellar recording such as this it is silly picking out favorite songs, but that comes with the job. No Blind Ones There pays tribute to J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Pete Kuykendall, while Greenville Trestle High is included to honor Doc Watson. The Father of Bluegrass is represented by Brand New Shoes, not one of his signature numbers and to me that is significant: bluegrass is about 'all' the songs, not only the most familiar.

With Sisk and Mullins singing and harmonizing together, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a great album. Add to this a backing band that festivals could only hope for- Dudley Connell, Jesse Brock, Marshall Wilborn, Jason Carter, and Rob Ickes (Mullins handles the banjo, while Sisk plays guitar, presumably leaving the majority of the leads to Connell) with 22 individual musician of the year honors among them- okay, Ickes has 14 alone on the resophonic but still, impressive- and you have the kind of bluegrass album that goes on to influence a generation of pickers and singers. Listening to Carter's fiddle break on I'll Never Make You Blue (The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers) is worth the price alone.

And speaking of albums that will influence generations, Noam Pikelny's genre shifting Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe will have to wait until next time.

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