Sturgill Simpson
Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions
High Top Mountain Records (via Thirty Tigers)

Simpson’s Back Catalogue Revisited and Re-Imagined in (almost) Traditional Style

Described in some quarters as a “surprise” Bluegrass album, the only surprise actually comes from the unexpected timing of the release; and Simpson’s timely decision to revisit a great deal of prior material, and less from the fact that Simpson is putting out as a Bluegrass album.
Simpson’s first band Sunday Valley exhibited many features of the genre (Check out their 2011 take on “Sometimes Wine” on YouTube which involves frenetic electric flatpicking and Bluegrass structures and chords almost turned into Cowpunk – ) – only to reappear here in a more traditional form.
Assembling an absolutely top-notch cast of players (Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, Mike Bub and Stuart Duncan to name but four) the quality of playing is absolutely stellar as might be expected.
What is there to gain from doing this then?
Well, apart from the musicians having a great time, this release places the songs to the fore – and to my ears, is all the better for the back to basics approach as I sometimes struggle with some of Simpson’s more far-out experimental moments.
That’s not to say that this is a firmly Traditional approach – Sierra Hull’s soaring reverby backing vocals on “Breakers Roar” and the out of tune/in tune slidey fiddle intro to “Just Let Go” are two of many little moments where Bluegrass forms are adapted and played with, but fully in support of the song – and there’s actual percussion on the album too – on a Bluegrass album!
“Life of Sin” from “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” comes across as a timeless Classic Bluegrass tune and “Turtles All The Way Down” now has the feel of JD Crowe and the New South with Waylon Jennings fronting them.
“Railroad of Sin” with its Bob Wills cattle calls turns into a frantic stomper and Scott Vestal’s banjo drives along “Sitting Here Without You” and many uptempo others.
Of the slower, mid-tempo numbers “Time After All” originally on “High Top Mountain” now allows space for more delicate leads and breaks and philosophical lyricism
“’s only time after all…
whereas “Voices” comes across as a dark old-timey narrative ballad (with the longest gradual fade you’ll hear in ages) – as on a lot of these reimagined songs, Sturgill’s lyricism now has more room to come to the fore.
By utilising more formal-traditional musical structures, the listener’s emphasis (well this listener anyway) is the voice and its message rather than the shock of the metamodern (sic)…Country Music.
Big credit to producer David Ferguson too, for constructing a dynamic and varied soundscape throughout with instruments appearing in and out against a solid rhythmic mix.
If you’re a Sturgill Simpson fan, then I can’t see how you can’t but love this take on his back catalogue – and there’ll be many who’ll prefer some of these versions to the originals (me!).
If you’re a Traditional Bluegrass fan and Sturgill Simpson wasn’t on your radar (unlikely I know) then this release might seem like the Next Big Thing in Bluegrass; in a fairly conservative musical form in many ways, this takes enough risks while maintaining sufficient respect allied to Simpson’s trademarked strong songwriting.
A win-win for Mr Simpson on all counts.

Review by Nick Barber

Released October 16th 2020

Vinyl released December 11th 2020

Chatham County Line SHARING THE COVERS

Chatham County Line
Sharing the Covers
Yep Roc Records

Ripping Up The Bluegrass Rule Book.

An album of all covers by any artist can go one of three ways: 
1. Why bother?
2. Some good, some bad.
3. Yes, yes, yes!
Chatham County Line, from the mountains of North Carolina, U.S.A., are decidedly in the multiple affirmative. From the amusing album cover on the front — which was most likely an interesting photo shoot — to the songs inside, both familiar and rare.
I appreciate that they decided to forego the easy to pull off and predictable novelty cover of an established modern pop song, (such as a bluegrass rave-up version of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” or “I” by Kendrick Lamar done up as a dirt floor country stomper.)
Instead the guys choose to take chances with tougher material such as the Ventures “Walk, Don’t Run” and a beautiful take on John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels,” as well as a solid re-imagining of the Rolling Stones old standby “Last Time” which ups the bluegrass element without losing any of the rock ‘n’ roll.
Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels” is bound to be a crowd favorite, but my favorite, beyond a doubt, has to be “I Think I’m in Love” written by Beck and originally on his The Information album from 2006.
Understated isn’t usually a bluegrass staple, but this song is just that, wonderfully understated and perfectly dynamic in its simplicity, and Chatham County Line expertly pulls it off. The boys are expert pickers but know when to smartly hold back. And did I say the harmonies throughout are deliciously pure?
We also get wonderful renditions of Wilco, the Delmore Brothers, and James Hunter songs here as the Chatham County boys know full well how to make someone else’s tune their own. They’re on tour right now to support this album, see them live if you get the chance, they’re fun, full of energy, and highly entertaining onstage.

Roy Peak

Released 08th March 2019


Mandolin Orange
Tides of a Teardrop
Yep Roc Records

Intimate and Lucid Lo-Fi Meets Bluegrass in a Country Juke Joint.

Mandolin Orange aka Andrew Marlin & Emily Frantz have been around for ten years now and have previously released 5 albums, with each gaining praise, sales and momentum which have launched the couple/duo into the lower echelons of the Big League, yet I don’t believe I’ve heard a single note, let alone a song prior to receiving this album a month ago.
How odd is that? Or is it?
Perhaps it was because they hail from the Folksier end of the spectrum, which I normally don’t go out of my way to find music…… but the fault it appears was solely mine……. I’ve now fully fallen in love with this album and two of their previous releases too.
With their small, but perfectly formed touring band in tow, the couple holed up in the studio for a lot longer than on previous records; which has allowed Marlin’s intimate and darkly winsome songs to evolve and grow into something very special indeed.
The wordplay and story-line in opening track Golden Embers is both understated and spectacular in equal measures; and when you add Emily’s breathtaking violin playing to Andrew’s softly expressive vocals; you can’t do anything other than sit back and let it all waft over you like a Summer breeze.
Not that it’s blatantly obvious; as each individual song stands alone and is here on its own merits; but after reading the Press Release and then playing the album there is a silvery theme linking each track; as Marlin delves into his past writes about the years following his Mother’s death at an early age.
This knowledge helps explain the unsettling, yet beautiful melancholia that fills Mother Deer and the George and Tammy influenced duet Lonely All The Time.
As I said earlier, each song has its own merits and showcases Marlin’s clever and very mature writing skills; with Suspended in Heaven and the heartbreaker When She’s Feeling Blue, somehow bridging the gap between Bluegrass and Lo-Fi with sumptuous ease.
Perhaps because the songs are so personal to him, Andrew Marlin takes the lead on most songs; but when Emily steps forward on Into The Sun and Like You Used To she sent a tingle down my spine in a way that reminded me of the first time I heard Nanci Griffith.
I’ve picked my Favourite Song here partly because it is a wonderful song and tune; but because the title made my smile when I first saw it on the CD Sleeve. My British friends will know immediatly why it would catch my attention; but the ‘joke’ may pass by the people in North America; as The Wolves is the nickname of a famous football (Soccer?) team in the UK! Mercifully this tightly wrapped and intense song of despair and fear is a million miles away from anything so frivolous.
I will tell you how good it is…….. prior to writing this review, I turned the lights off and pressed play on the Hi-Fi just so I could get into the right frame of mind to hear it in all its primal glory.
I’d barely heard of Mandolin Orange a month ago…… but after immersing myself in TIDES OF A TEARDROP I’m an unadulterated fan now.

Released 1st February 2019

Whiskey Shivers SOME PART of SOMETHING


Whiskey Shivers
Some Part of Something
Devil Duck Records

High-Octane Texas Thrashgrass

Bluegrass has always been fueled on high-octane mandolin fills and fast-fast-faster solos and singalong rave-ups ever since Bill Monroe formed the Blue Grass Boys so many moons ago. So it was inevitable that we would eventually get a melding of bluegrass and punk pop with a heady dose of barroom sensibilities thrown in for good measure. And straight from Austin, Texas we have the punk rock, countrified rave-ups of Whiskey Shivers, which toss a full blown bass and drum rhythm section into the mix along with some tasteful Celtic-inspired fiddle. Add some well-written songs like Cluck Ole’ Hen, No Pity In The Rose City and Liquor, Beer, Wine & Ice, a handful of seasoned musicians and you get a fun, rocking band.
Most of the songs are saloon singalongs and twenty-first century pop with a bluegrass bent, but WS are fine lyricists also. Check out the line “I ain’t looking for trouble, she knows who I am” on the song “Southern Sisyphus,” which also harbors a dandy chorus complete with interweaving banjo and fiddle.
Originally I was ready to dismiss the song “Fuck You” from the title alone, but it actually comes across as one of the better songs on the album. Very well sung, tongue firmly in cheek, yet somehow truly sincere. CeeLo Green tried to do this exact thing nearly a decade ago—and admittedly had a huge hit with it—yet WS one-ups him with deliciously playful background vocals, and then once again with their earnestness. And do I hear a tasty bit of revenge in these words? Way to go guys, you’ve upped the ante yet again!
The two covers on Some Part of Something, namely the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” and Daniel Johnston’s epic “True Love (Will Get You in the End),” aren’t throwaways in the least. WS knows well how a good hook will always get a barroom singing along and toasting the band, and treat the material as they would one of their originals.
WS is geared up for a UK tour this summer, be on the lookout for their version of Texas thrashgrass, and prepare to buckle up for the ride!

Courtesy the American Magpie Mr Roy Peak
Released July 20th 2018



peter rowan

Peter Rowan
Rebel Records

A Loving and Delightful Bluegrass History Lesson From a Master-Craftsman.

This is another of those albums that sit around RMHQ waiting to be reviewed but, while obviously worthy there’s always something that puts me off; in this case the words ‘Appalachian’ and ‘banjo’.
But, with something of a heavy heart I put it into the kitchen CD player yesterday as I prepared a meal; and……do you know what?
I rather liked it.
While Peter Rowan has been making music for the best part of my life; and possibly even longer I’ve not previously heard anything by him as I’m no lover of Appalachian or Old-Timey music; of which he is a purveyor of legendary proportions.
The key to me playing the whole album; and liking it, was opening track Drumbeats on the Watchtower which finds Rowan in fine fettle, alongside a myriad of other Master Musicians of the Folk variety on a stunning American Folk song that many will know from Ralph Stanley’s version, re-titled Wild Geese Cry Again. It not only had my toes tapping, but my heart racing too!
Then when the gloriously multi-harmonious A Tiny Broken Heart followed it, I knew I was going to have to give the whole album a serious listen; and I’m really glad I have.
While listening I’ve had to refer back to the accompanying notes as the songs here are generally a homage to Rowan’s early days as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and then his relationship with Ralph and Carter Stanley; and the tunes he played at that time in the early 1960’s.
Obviously every song included is here on merit; but for me a few certainly stand out and just may be my entry into this genre of music.
The gentle lilt of Carter Stanley’s Too Late To Cry, especially the intricate mandolin solo is a delight all of its own and the fast and furious Ridin’ On That Midnight Train is the sort of song I’d expect half a dozen of my favourite Country acts to throw in as an encore number; but I guess they wouldn’t include the subtlety that Rowan does in his singing.
As you’d expect with Appalachian/Bluegrass music there are several nods to the church here too, with A Crown He Wore and more especially Will You Miss making my mind drift back to my own Wesleyan upbringing; and the latter, darkly beautiful Carter Family song now being added to songs I want played at my funeral.
The second of Rowan’s new songs here is the title track The Light in Carter Stanley’s Eyes and it’s fair to say this autobiographical story is the cornerstone to not just this wonderful record, but Rowan’s own life too and will be a distinct showstopper when he plays it on stage.
For the accolade of ‘Favourite Song’ I’m going for a tie; between the delightful and jaunty Let Me Love You One More Time and Rowan’s upbeat adaptation of Leadbelly’s Alabama Bound; which don’t sound nothing like the version I have by the great man himself.
Will I play this album again? I don’t know; but a few songs have already gone onto two playlists for Sunny Days and that’s something I wouldn’t have guessed would happen 48 hours ago; and of course I’ve added Will You Miss Me? to my funeral list; which Peter Rowan should take as a compliment.

Released April 20th 2018


The Dead South – ILLUSION & DOUBT


The Dead South
Dead Duck Records

Cool Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk for People Who Hate Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk Music!

When I first received this album I accidentally read the accompanying Press Release before hearing the contents…….’A signature blend of Bluegrass and Classic Folk’ it read. Yikes……all I needed was something like ‘Prog Rock overtones’ too and it might have gone straight in the bin unheard!
So, with caution and plenty of scepticism I pressed ‘play’….oh dear…..that is a banjo if I’m not mistaken…..yes it is; but within 30 seconds a grizzled voice, a mandolin and a cello joins it and the mood is immediately cranked up to 11 as Boots gets the party started with gusto.
Oh dear; I can’t believe how easily I fell under the spell of these crazy Canadians The Deep South’s spell……but who won’t with dancetastic songs like Smootchin in the Ditch, One Armed Man and Deadman’s Chew too?
There are surprises around every corner; and good ones too. I expected The Good Lord to be some kind of God Fearing Gospel song……but, Hell No! These kids know how to coral ‘lovin, cheatin, drinkin and cussin’ songs in a way that left me smiling like a Cheshire Cat.
On a similar theme it took me a couple of plays to unravel Time For Crawlin’ but when I did it really tickled me and has a chorus that just begs to be sang along to……very loud.
If you’ve not heard of the Dead South before; think if ever Quentin Tarantino made a film about the Beverley Hillbillies he needn’t look any further than Hard Day, Miss Mary and the cinematic Massacre of El Kuroke for his soundtrack.
Then of course I am obliged to choose a Favourite Song’ and I can’t look further than the epic closing track Gunslinger’s Glory with it’s Waltz-like ending which epitomises everything good about ILLUSION & DOUBT. It’s a bit Bluegrass, a bit Old Timey Country, a bit quirky and the musicianship, harmonies and singing all combine perfectly on a sublime tale of the New Old West and coming in at just over 8 minutes but sounding like 3.
I’ve seen and heard plenty of groups like The Dead South over the years; but the majority come across as too ‘reverential’ and ‘earnest’ in their quest to sound like the originators but the Dead South sound like they not only appreciate the work of their forefathers and ‘genuinely know their stuff’ but they predominantly want to have fun, and share that fun with listeners all over the world.
Well, dear reader I’ve played it a few times now and, while it does contain plenty of Bluegrass and Classic Folk; there is oh so much more in the grooves here that is actually enjoyable and their professional Punky/Sloppy approach makes it Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk for people like me who hate Bluegrass and Classic North American Folk Music!

Released March 23rd 2018



steve martin x

Steve Martin
Rounder/Decca Records

Fascinating Contemporary Bluegrass Album From Legendary Actor.

Over the years a few albums from famous actors have passed over my various desks; with all purporting not to be ‘vanity projects’ and all have eventually disappeared into obscurity.
So, it was with a heavy heart that I agreed to receive a copy of this new Bluegrass album by Oscar, Grammy and Emmy Award winning actor Steve Martin who will be singing and playing that much maligned musical instrument; the banjo.
Hmmmmm……but I do like a challenge.
All preconceptions were blown out of the office window with opening song Santa Fe; a 90mph toe-tapping Old-Timey slice of Southern Americana Pie, that had me accidentally singing along with the chorus.
There’s certainly no doubting Martin’s love for and dexterity on the banjo; which especially comes to light on All Night Long and So Familiar; but in fairness and much to my surprise, he makes the five stringed instrument sound lovely on quite a few other tracks too.
The surprises don’t just stop there as Steve Martin is not a half bad singer-songwriter too. The windswept Canadian Girl has something of a Celtic feel to it and Girl From River Run is an absolute delight, and perfect for a sunny afternoon on the back porch.
I’m as far from an expert here as you can get; so I just have to go with how the music has captured my attention, and my attention certainly has been, especially the quaint Nights in the Lab, which has a bit of Sea Shanty feel to it.
As you would expect there are plenty of instrumentals here for everyone involved to show off their talents, especially Martin himself; there’s the rip-roaring Office Supplies and Angeline the Barista but he also shows a more intricate and sensitive side with Always Will.
Yet again selecting a favourite track proved difficult; but All Night Long, being the most traditional of Old Timey Country songs here; just edges it over a couple of others.
Probably because Steve Martin himself alongside the Steep Canyon Rangers are such consummate professionals that listening to this album several times has never been a chore; and actually been quite fun.

Released October 6th 2017

Old Salt Union – OLD SALT UNION

old salt union

Old Salt Union
Compass Records

It’s Bluegrass Jim; But Not As We Know It.

Any band that features a horticulturist, a hip-hop producer and a relative of Son Volts Jay Farrar has to be worth a listen, hasn’t it?. The audience for a show at one of the Bluegrass nights at The Ryman theatre in Nashville in June certainly thought so, as they packed the street and area outside the front of the venue for a good hour before going inside to see Old Salt Union, who feature some classically trained musicians but it was the special arrangements of their original tunes and sheer energy that kept the audience on the pavement on that sultry summer night in June.

This album features some of the tunes that have been building audiences across festivals and shows like Bluegrass underground, Freshgrass and Yonder Mountains Harvest Festival. To describe them as Bluegrass misses the point. They aren’t Newgrass, Psycograss, Old Timey or even Folk. There are elements of each of those styles in their playing from the out and out bluegrassy Where I Stand (with memorable harmonies under the melody) to the surprise cover of “You Can Call Me Al”, the Paul Simon tune.

They won’t be the first string band to deliver a creditable cover of Paul Simon; but this one is pretty special indeed. Greensky Bluegrass have featured Gumboots, among many covers in and out of their sets for a good while now,

Old Salt Union’s version is no bad thing. The band have a traditional set up of fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, guitar and banjo. if you want to see their real bluegrass heritage checkout their version of ‘Whiskey Before Breakfast’ on You Tube.

They deliver a masterful ballad in “Bought and Sold” and it’s this restraint that shows off the real talent in the band.

The albums one instrumental, “Flat Baroque”, features some fine twin mandolin too,  and to quote Alison Brown “While they may look like a bluegrass band, their musical sensibilities run much deeper and broader, borrowing as much from indie rock and jazz fusion as from Bill Monroe” And, lets be fair, Alison Brown knows a thing or two.

Courtesy Special Reviewer Tony Pearce.

Released August 4th 2017

Hannah Johnson – SHAKEN

hannah j

Hannah Johnson

Country AND Western That Will Break Your Heart (And Mend It Too!)

This is a weird thing to say, but I always felt sorry for the Toy Hearts (sisters Sophia and Hannah Johnson plus Dad Stewart) as they were exceptionally talented, looked good and were bloody hard working; but were treading the circuit and releasing albums in the years just before British Country Music became cool (and profitable).
So it was a lovely surprise when I saw a link to Hannah Johnson’s IndiGoGo page last week financing her maiden solo album; then before I had the chance to pledge some dosh, or ask a mutual friend for a contact number, Stewart sent me an e-mail offering a review copy – RESULT!
It arrived the following morning and hasn’t been out of the car stereo for the last three days.
The opening track Nowhere Train is an absolute delight; with Hannah channelling her inner Reba and Tammy on a delicious slice of Classic Country with enough Telecaster Twang to set my heart on fire.
With not hearing the Toy Hearts for a couple of years I’d forgot what a lovely and distinctive voice young Ms. Johnson has; soft, velvety and with just the slightest ‘rasp’ around the edges; and alongside Stewart’s classy pedal-steel and Chris Shirley’s subtle bass playing gives a truly authentic sound to Morning Cocktail* and the swoonsome West Texas Lullaby.
Hannah co-wrote 3 songs here; but it’s her ability to choose a song to suit her voice that is most impressive. She could easily have gone for a bunch of Classics; but no….there are a couple of brave choices here that work a damn site better than they should. I already own three versions of Trouble in Mind; and there are scores of others but Hannah takes it, turns it inside out and makes it a sultry Western Swing song; perfect for a late night in a Downtown Honky Tonk; and it’s a similar story with Willie Nelson’s Three Days on which she really does get to show her vocal range in all it’s glory.
I had a rye smile when I first heard Hannah purr her way through this sultry version of Not In Birmingham; not just because it’s marvellous; but of course because Ms Johnson comes from Birmingham…..ENGLAND; which I doubt Roger Miller had in mind when he wrote it.
For once Mrs Magpie agree on a ‘favourite song’ and I’m thrilled to say that the clever and bittersweet your Girlfriend Hates Me is a co-write between Hannah and Sarah Sharp; and is as good a Country song that I’ve heard in years; and is absolutely perfect for National Radio and TV; in the UK and US of A!
The Toy Hearts were probably best associated with Bluegrass and possibly Western Swing; but were never ‘one trick ponies’ and Hannah moves through the different genres with the same ease and cool herself; with every song being different enough from the previous one to keep the whole album interesting but nothing ever jars; which is quite some feat for Hannah Stewart and Chris Barns who all co-produced this 36 minutes minutes of Country Heaven.
The funniest part of me keep talking about SHAKEN being an ‘Authentic Country’ album is that expression is out of fashion these days and Hannah Johnson (& The Broken Hearts) recorded the album at the Ameripolitan Studios in Austin TX and has firmly aligned herself (and band) to Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Movement which is rekindling this type of quality music around the globe; and more power to all of them.

PS i I’m pleased to see that sister Sophia, while not in ‘the band’ plays acoustic guitar throughout.
PS ii My car stereo doesn’t have enough room to show the full title of *Morning Cocktail; missing ‘tail’…..which made me blush the first time I looked!
Released July 10th 2017


sierra hul bl

Sierra Hull
Rounder Records

Taking Bluegrass Into A  Semi-Classical Sphere.

Sierra Hull is one of those names that gets whispered alongside a ‘knowing look’ in certain circles these days; which is no surprise when you see who appears alongside the young singer-songwriter on her second album.
First and foremost Sierra Hull is recognised as an amazing mandolin player; and boy is that evident on the intro to Stranded which opens this disc; not a song as I understand as Sierra only occasionally whispers “Dear 22, I’m stranded here” a couple of times over her divine mandolin and possibly a bowed Double bass to create a hypnotic piece of music.
The instrumentation and heritage alludes to this being a Bluegrass album; but the construction of songs like Fallen Man and Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea far exceed the limitations of that particular genre; as do others too.
There is a slight hint of the young Nanci Griffith on a couple of songs; most noticeably the ethereal Birthday which has an almost Southern Gothic feel to it and the harmonies with Abigail Washburn will send a shiver down your spine the first time you hear it.
Bela Fleck’s production must be applauded too, as he somehow manages to give very limited instrumentation (a mandolin and dbl. bass) a very ‘big’ sound; which is why I draw a comparison with chamber music, but never ever does it ever compromise Sierra Hull’s amazing voice.
Much like the banjo I can find the mandolin a tiresome instrument at times; normally when played at 100 mph to show how ‘brilliant or dexterous’ the player is; but in Sierra Hull’s hands it becomes a thing of rare beauty; never more so than on the darkly Celtic sounding Wings Of The Dawn.
When I first heard the wonderful title track Weighted Mind the name Alison Krauss instantly sprung to mind; then I read the notes on the album sleeve and there was Alison’s name on harmonies! All I can say is, while Ms Krauss adds some substance to the song; it would be just as good without her inclusion, which is a phrase I never ever expected to write.
It’s fair to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised beyond belief by this album; which should make choosing a favourite song difficult; but it isn’t; as the finale Black River is quite the epic; showcasing Sierra’s clever, intricate and almost poetic style of songwriting with her clever, intricate and poetic mandolin playing, with the added bonus of a choir made up from Abigail Washburn, Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddons and Bela Fleck on harmony vocals; and when Sierra Hull’s beautifully crystal clear voice filtered from the speakers on a warm Summers evening I was instantly transported into some kind of musical Heaven.
As I implied at the start, you have to be a very special talent indeed to attract Abigail Washburn, Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddons and Bela Fleck, who also produced the album to aid and abet you so early in your career and Sierra Hull most certainly is a very special talent indeed.

Released Jan 20 2016