Archive for December 2011

JANIE FRICKE, “Country Side of Bluegrass,” New Music Deals. 13 tracks.

December 27, 2011

The surest way to tell if a musical genre is becoming more popular is to watch artists from other genres beginning to move in.

In the past decade, Rickey Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent returned from country music for instant stardom in bluegrass.

Marty Raybon, Joe Diffie, Merle Haggard and Tommy Shaw, guitarist for the rock band Styx, among others have all made bluegrass albums in recent years.

Now, Janie Fricke, the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year in 1982 and 1983, is trying her hand at bluegrass.

In her Nashville heyday, Fricke racked up 18 No. 1 country singles.

Now, she’s remaking a dozen of those country hits with a bluegrass beat.

With the exception of drums on some of the songs — and even a bluegrass stalwart like Doyle Lawson is using drums these days — bluegrass fans will fine little to quarrel with.

These are definitely bluegrass version of songs like “You Don’t Know Love,” “She’s Single Again,” “Down To My Last Broken Heart” and “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy.”

There’s even a bonus track of “Ring of Fire.”

Fricke turned 64 in December, but her voice is still as beautiful as it was 30 years ago.

If you liked Fricke’s country songs, there’s no reason you won’t like the bluegrass versions.

And if you’re discovering her for the first time, you’re in for a treat.

Can’t find it in stores?


It’s scheduled for release on Jan. 24.

Ten Best Albums of 2011

December 12, 2011

2011 is almost ready for the history books.

Here are my selections for the Ten Best Bluegrass Albums of the year.

10. NEWFOUND ROAD, “Live At The Down Home,” Rounder. 13 tracks.

When NewFound Road left southwestern Ohio on the bluegrass trail a decade ago, it was primarily a bluegrass gospel group.

But it wasn’t long until the quartet was covering a full range of bluegrass material, from sacred to secular, traditional to contemporary.

“Live At The Down Home” was recorded live last December at The Down Home, a Johnson City, Tenn., restaurant/club. Most of the material comes from earlier albums.

The band does a good job of taking songs from other genres and turning them into strong bluegrass songs. And it’s not bad when it comes to original material either.

9. BLUE HIGHWAY, “Sounds of Home,” Rounder. 12 tracks

Sometimes when you read the lists of people named rookie of the year in any field, you find yourself wondering, “Whatever happened to them?”

But when the International Bluegrass Music Association named Blue Highway as its emerging artist of the year in 1995, it knew what it was doing.

The band has consistently released outstanding albums year after year and been one of the best bands on any festival card.

And “Sounds of Home,” the band’s 10th album, is its first with all original material in a decade.

Great stuff.

8. DALE ANN BRADLEY, “Somewhere South of Crazy,” Compass Records. 12 tracks.

There’s a reason the International Bluegrass Music Association selected Dale Ann Bradley as its female vocalist of the year three times — 2007-2009.

She’s simply one of the best singers in country or bluegrass today. And her music today shows a depth and maturity that most country singers these days can only dream about.  

The most powerful track on the album is Sarah Pirkle’s “Come Home Good Boy,” about a mother watching her teenage son go off to war.

7. CUMBERLAND RIVER, “The Life We Live,” Rural Rhythm. 13 tracks.

All 13 songs on the album were written by the band’s members — James Dean, Joey Jones, Dustin Middleton, Andy Buckner and Jamie Stewart.  

They’re good, full-bodied songs from a band that projects a redneck-rock attitude with a solid traditional bluegrass foundation.

The fact that two of the musicians are also miners lends an air of authenticity to the songs.

6. GRASSTOWNE, “Kickin’ Up Dust,” Rural Rhythm. 12 tracks.

Grasstowne became an instant supergroup when it burst on the bluegrass scene in 2007 with “The Road Headin’ Home,” a strong debut album that sent a single — “Dixie Flyer” — to the top of Bluegrass Unlimited’s charts for three consecutive months.

It’s led by Steve Gulley and Alan Bibey, two strong lead singers and songwriters.

Between them they contributed five songs to “Kickin’ Up Dust.”

Highlights include “Blue Rocking Chair,” an uptempo song about an old chair that’s seen a lot of family history; “I Don’t Worry About You Anymore,” a song about a cheating lover; “Our Father,” a great a capella gospel song; and the title cut, which is the album’s first single.

5. DOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER, “Drive Time,” Mountain Home. Seven tracks.

The buzz on the new Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver album, “Drive Time,” came from two directions.

It’s short. Only seven tracks.

And Lawson, whose roots are deep in traditional bluegrass, added drums to the album.

But drums, while still a novelty in traditional bluegrass, aren’t really a distraction here — except possibly for the most traditional of fans.

And “Drive Time” is a strong album.

4. CHARLIE SIZEMORE, “Heartache Looking for a Home,” Rounder. 14 tracks.

There is a growing subgenre in bluegrass and country music today that blends traditional country music with traditional bluegrass in a sound that fans of both can enjoy.

And nobody does it better than Charlie Sizemore.

Sizemore is 50 now, his voice honed to perfection with decades of singing behind him.

Highlights include “Red Wicked Wine,” with Ralph Stanley; “No Lawyers in Heaven,” a comic look at lawyers; “Feelin’ Like El Paso,” about a woman coming home from Hollywood to the cowboy she loves; and “Ashley Judd,” a comic song that finds a man in love with a woman he knows he can’t have.

3. WILDFIRE, “Crash Course in the Blues,” Lonesome Day Records. 12 tracks. 

Wildfire was formed in 2000. when four former members of J.D. Crowe’s New South began working as the house bluegrass band at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s east Tennessee theme park.

After two years there, they hit the bluegrass circuit, playing festivals and concert halls across the country.

 “Crash Course in the Blues” is a strong album with good songs, good harmony and good picking.

The title track tells the story of a West Virginia boy who thought Los Angeles looked like heaven until a California angel broke his heart; “21 Years” is about a man who goes to prison for a crime his girlfriend committed, only to find that she’s quickly forgotten him; and “Lies That You Told,” a song about a woman who broke her wedding vows with her husband’s best friend — and now she’s dead

2. LARRY SPARKS, “Almost Home,” Rounder. 12 tracks.

In 1963, the year he turned 16, Larry Sparks hit the road with the Stanley Brothers, playing lead guitar.

As Carter Stanley’s health deteriorated, Sparks’ role in the band increased. And when Carter died in December 1966, Ralph Stanley hired Sparks as lead singer for his new band, Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys.

Tough shoes to fill, but Sparks filled them well. Today, he’s one of the best singers in traditional bluegrass.

“Almost Home” is a collection of songs with themes that Sparks’ fans have come to expect — a lot of lonesome and a lot of rambling.

And it’s packed with nostalgia for home and simpler times.

And drum…I mean, banjo… roll, please. 

1. JUNIOR SISK & RAMBLERS CHOICE, “The Heart of a Song,” Rebel. 13 tracks.

If they ever do a bluegrass version of George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” one of the answers is Harry Sisk Jr. — Junior Sisk to his friends and fans.

Bluegrass musicians don’t come more hard-core traditional than Sisk.

The first song on the new album by Sisk and his band, Ramblers Choice, “A Far Cry From Lester & Earl,” laments the fact that bluegrass music today doesn’t sound the way it used to.

If you feel that way, just hang on. There’s a dozen more songs coming and you won’t have ask if they’re bluegrass. Well, a couple are more traditional country than bluegrass, but who’s counting.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, “Live At Bean Blossom,” Rural Rhythm. 12 tracks.

December 5, 2011

A lot of musical tributes have been paid to Bill Monroe during the centennial of his birth on Sept. 13, 1911.

Rural Rhythm decided to honor “the father of bluegrass music” with a live recording from Bean Blossom, Ind., the music park and campgrounds Monroe bought in 1951.

He created his own bluegrass festival there in 1967 and continued to perform there annually until his death in 1996.

Twelve bands are featured on the tribute album, either performing songs written by Monroe or songs closely associated with him.

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out perform a rousing version of “Uncle Pen,” Monroe’s musical tribute to his uncle and mentor, James Pendleton Vandiver.

Lou Reid & Carolina take on “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” Monroe’s song about his separation from and longing for his longtime companion Bessie Lee Mauldin.

Brand New Strings performs Monroe’s dramatic instrumental, “Southern Flavor,” the title cut of the album that won him the first bluegrass Grammy.

Grasstowne does an a capella version of the gospel classic, “Were You There.”

Audie Blaylock & Redline take on the blazing “Six Feet Under The Ground.”

Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press do Monroe’s classic, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Blue Moon Rising does an excellent cover of Monroe’s “Body & Soul.”

Also featured are the Lonesome River Band’s version of “Footprints in the Snow”; the Bartley Brothers’ “Big Mon”; Carolina Road’s “This World Is Not My Home”; Ronnie Reno & The Reno Tradition’s “Bluegrass Breakdown”; and Wasson and McCall’s “Molly and Tennbrooks.”

A strong Monroe tribute album.

Can’t find it in stores? Try