Peter Rowan CARTER STANLEY’S EYES

peter rowan

Peter Rowan
CARTER STANLEY’S EYES
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
http://www.peter-rowan.com/

 

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The Dead South – ILLUSION & DOUBT

DEAD SOUTH C

The Dead South
ILLUSION & DOUBT
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
http://thedeadsouth.com/

 

Steve Martin – THE LONG AWAITED ALBUM

steve martin x

Steve Martin
THE LONG AWAITED ALBUM
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
http://www.stevemartin.com/

Old Salt Union – 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

https://www.oldsaltunion.com/

Hannah Johnson – SHAKEN

hannah j

Hannah Johnson
SHAKEN
Self-Release

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!

http://hjbrokenhearts.com/
Released July 10th 2017

Sierra Hull – WEIGHTED MIND

sierra hul bl

Sierra Hull
WEIGHTED MIND
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.

http://www.sierrahull.com/home

Released Jan 20 2016

David Childers – RUN SKELETON RUN

childers 1

David Childers
RUN SKELETON RUN
Ramseur Records

Remarkable Collection of Folk Tinged Americana Tales and Stories .

Within days of each other two ‘musicians in America got in touch to say that their friend David Childers had a new album coming out and they both thought I (the website) could like it and be interested in reviewing it. Intrigued that they would go out of their way to contact me; I still did nothing about it; but a week later an envelope from a trusted PR Company arrived with a handwritten letter saying much the same thing; and enclosed RUN SKELETON RUN.
I’ve now listened to it several times; first in snatches but when heard from start to finish ‘I get it.’
At face value David Childers is a Folk Singer with a warm voice in the style of someone like Burl Ives or Tom Paxton; but so are a million others. So what makes him so different three people have gone out of their way to promote him to me?
The album opens with the sound of an old radio broadcast that leads into the title track RUN SKELETON RUN; a punchy Country Rocker with a fiery fiddle and tsch-tsch drum back-beat that takes you on a fast car chase between bank robber ‘Skeleton’ and the poh-lise.
I didn’t have to hear another song to see why my friends rate Childers so highly. The story is exceptional and had me gripping the edge of my seat hoping ‘he would make it.’
Collar and Bell is a wonderful alliance between what I know as Bluegrass and what I was brought up to think of as traditional Folk music. While both genres can be as boring as wood; Childers has a twinkle in his eye and a smile in his voice on this lovely toe-tapper.
Belmont Ford is a fascinating song; based on a poem by Mary Struble Deery about a train disaster during the Great Flood of 1916 in Chicago. The way Childers holds your attention from start to finish shows not just what a great songwriter he is; but the way he interprates his own words, taking a sad tale from regional history and making it accessible. Not many can do that.
Although I’d not heard of him before this is David Childers’ sixth album in 20 years and you can tell that from the quality of his writing on the well crafted Promise to the Wind and mid paced rocker Hermit; both entirely different in style but fit together perfectly well.
The easy option for title of RMHQ ‘Favourite song’ would be Goodbye to Growing Old; another beautiful Folk-Bluegrass hybrid on a subject very close to my heart; but I’m going for Radio Moscow. An odd subject for a Folk Song you may think; but much like my own teenage self David Childers sounds like he spent a lot of time listening to crackly radio stations in his bedroom dreaming about a world far beyond those four walls in a claustrophobic small town or village.
Discovering the likes of David Childers and sharing their talents is the reason I first started writing reviews many years ago, and keeps me going today.
Trust me, if you like a good old fashioned Folk Singer whether that’s Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt or Billy Bragg I think you will love David Childers just as much.

http://www.davidchilders.com/#home

Released May 5th 2017

The O’s – HONEYCOMB

os-polaroid

The O’s
HONEYCOMB
Punch Five Records

 

Hard Rockin’ Countrycana from Dallas’ Finest Bluegrass Duo.

In 2013 I claimed that I ‘had been suffering from banjo fatigue’ when I reviewed The O’s previous album Thunderdog, and ‘they restored my faith in that much maligned instrument.’
The same is true today; as the banjo (and pedal-steel) seem to be de-facto instruments on far too many Folk or Rock albums in a bid to make them appeal to Country and Americana fans alike; but in the case of John Pedigo it becomes a lead instrument in the vein of any Rock guitarist you can think of and alongside cohort Taylor Young on fiery acoustic guitar, absolutely necessary to The O’s unique blend of Country and Roots music.
Their fourth album opens with a right old barnstormer – Fourteen Days; encapsulating absolutely everything I love about Rootsy music in all it’s glory….coupled with the chorus of ‘All we got is three chords and the truth/Oooh oh oh/We got it all figured out.’
An acoustic guitar, banjo and harmonica never sounded so loud or passionate and, surprise-surprise things actually manage to get even better and fervid!
If you have ever seen the O’s play live you will know they give 100% on stage, kicking up a bigger ruckus than most Rock bands I’ve seen; and now thanks to producer Chris Smith they have managed to capture some of that electricity onto disc.
Shooting Star is full of wound up tension and Brand New Start sounds like the type of song that could actually make Bluegrass cool again; if it actually is Bluegrass.
For two musicians they sure put a lot into 3 minutes on Retribution with not a note or breath out of place or spare, all coming together alongside some really spiky lyrics that would be worthy of Townes Van Zandt’s early days.
The O’s can also do ballads when the mood takes them; although not mainstream radio style ballads, as even a cursory listen to Reaper or the beautifully intense Woken Up will testify.
I’m not sure if North American readers have heard of Justin Currie from Scots band Del Amitri, but they are/were a big deal around these parts a few years ago and he joins the dynamic duo on vocal duties for the glorious Woken Up.
Favourite song is a tight battle between the luscious Running on Fumes, which is as good a song as I’ve heard from the O’s; but the actual title of Halfway Sideways caught my attention when I first looked at the album sleeve and the song itself is a fist pumping, toe-tapping and hip-shaking doozy.
Howling harmonica, punchy acoustic guitar, punk banjo and Everly Brothers style harmonies all combine to create a minor Americana masterpiece….in my humble opinion.

http://wearetheos.com/

Released October 28th 2016

Martha Fields – Southern White Lies

martha fields galloway

Martha Fields
Southern White Lies
Self-Release

Our Favourite Franco-Texan Goes Back To Her Roots With Style And Passion.

Thankfully Martha Fields has been in regular contact with the Rocking Magpie since the release of her previous album Long Way From Home; under a completely different guise Texas Martha and the House of Twang; or else I would never have guessed this was by the same artist.
While that album was a veritable Twangfest; straight from the Jukebox in the coolest Honky Tonk in Countryville; Martha or Marty to her friends; has de-Twanged her sound and dug deep into her Texas Roots; and not through rose coloured glasses…that’s for sure.
A delightful acoustic guitar and fiddle open the first track Soul on the Move before Martha’s world weary and lived in voice oozes out of the speaker like maple syrup laced with moonshine.
The song itself is very deep works on many levels; be you a musician, a teenager on a gap year or someone just getting older and missing their youth.
Songs like this are the reason I always choose the opening track to begin my reviews; it pretty much tells you what to expect; but in this instance Marty has set the benchmark very high for herself….can she keep up the quality?
Of course she can!
Next out of the blocks is Dead End and it’s as dark as Southern Gothic writing gets; and at times had me gripping the arm rest on my seat; all you need to know that the chorus goes along the lines of “I should hate you but I don’t/I should hate you but I won’t!”
I won’t do a ‘song by song’ appraisal fore all that’s tempting; but I will give you the absolute highlights; Hard Times is one of the few up-tempo songs here and one of the finest, with Marty singing about a battered wife; and with a title like that it’s not a fun sing-song even if it is to a danceable tune. It’s just occurred to me that it’s a song that Loretta Lynn would be proud of.
The thread of Lonesome Road Blues goes back to that opening track; but this time Marty virtually spits out the lyrics with a red hot banjo picking away in the background alongside a tub thumping rhythm section in the shadows.
On many other albums this would be my favourite track; but it barely makes the Top 5 here!
Not for the first time the title of ‘Favourite Song’ is a tie; but this time between THREE SONGS!
The saddest song on a very sad album is What Good Can Drinking Do? While most of us like a drink; this is a tale of a woman whose weekend begins on Thursday and doesn’t stop until there’s no money or drink left. Martha’s descriptive way with words is quite remarkable at times; and you too will be able to picture this ‘good time girl having a good time.’ #SadFace
Yet again you can listen to Do As You Are Told on many levels; as this story of a feisty woman trying to live an independent life; but struggles her whole life.
“Do as you are told girl/Thinking’s men’s business/Do as you are told/If you want to live a long life/Don’t be so bold;’ is timeless and all too lamentably still running true today in 2016.
The joint winner is the title track Southern White Lies and; well it’s stunning look at her Texas homeland through the eyes of someone who no longer lives there and can see through the cracks. It’s a song so powerful in it’s observations many people will actually hate it; but they will either be tourists or the people born with a ‘silver spoon;’ but I’m pretty sure that the people at the bottom or even middle of the pile will recognise many things here; and will thank Marty for opening the wound.
For what it’s worth I think the song will resonate with people all over the USA in the run up to the Election; and also people in a similar position around the globe.
I listen to a lot of music; too much at times and it’s becoming increasingly rare for me to keep coming back to an album, to listen to for pleasure….if that’s what I can call it; but that’s one of the reasons I missed the original release date; I was too busy listening to the music.

http://texasmartha.com/home

Release August 19th 2016

EXCLUSIVE Friday Video – Old Dollar Bill sing Mr Kohl.

 

Old Dollar Bill
Mr. Kohl

Here we go; let’s get this sunny weekend off to a rollicking start with some edgy and ‘contemporary’ (????) Bluegrass from Old Dollar Bill.
Not your normal screechy fiddle and vocals from 1937; Old Dollar Bill straddle several genres in my humble opinion; and even their subject matter – Tattooist Extraordinaire Jeff Kohl is very 21st Century, indeed.

Released May 20th 2016