Archive for September 2012

THE HILLBENDERS, “Can You Hear Me?” Compass Records. 12 tracks.

September 24, 2012

Critics use words like “raw,” “intense” and “high-energy” to describe The HillBenders, a Springfield, Mo.-based band that draws frequent comparisons to the early days of New Grass Revival.

The 4-year-old group describes its sound as “acoustic fusion.”

In the band’s press material, Chad Graves, the Dobro player, says, “Bluegrass is where we found our voice as performers, so we feel like we owe a lot to it. We have one foot in bluegrass all the time while the other is reaching out and exploring our interests in rock and roll, jazz, funk and Americana.”

Then, add to all that, Nolan Lawrence’s bluesy vocals.

That pretty much describes the band’s sound.

Their high-energy act won them first place in the Telluride Blugrass Band Competition in 2009 and the National Single Microphone Championship in 2010.

The trick was capturing that energy from the band’s live shows on a CD.

“Can You Hear Me?”, the band’s first album on the Compass label, does it well.

Eight of the songs are originals.

The other four include a grassed-up version of the Romantics‘ “Talking in Your Sleep” and Hal Ketchum’s “Past the Point of Rescue,” which went to No. 2 on the country charts in 1991. “Past the Point” features what the label calls “a samba-grass breakdown.”

“Gettysburg” is a somewhat dreamy Dobro-led instrumental. But everything else on the album is high-energy.

The themes, though, are as old as time.

“Broken Promises” tells the tale of a man who spent 25 years in prison taking the fall for others.

“Game Over” tells a woman she’d better find another lonely man because he’s had as much as he can stand.

“Train Whistle” is about traveling.

So is “Concrete Ribbon.”

And “Town Away” is about a man who thinks of settling down, but it’s always just a town away.

Good album by an up-and-coming band.

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NU-BLU, “Nail By Nail,” Pinecastle Records. 7 tracks.

September 17, 2012

Nu-Blu is a band that delivers good bluegrass. And the band’s backstory would make a great movie about overcoming adversity.

Carolyn and Daniel Routh formed the North Carolina-based band in 2003.

That fall, she suffered two strokes, lost her ability to speak as well as the use of her right side — and almost lost her life.

But Carolyn Routh battled back to become a fine lead singer and bass player.

In 2009, Nu-Blu signed with Pinecastle Records, one of the genre’s most respected labels.

But a few months later, before the band’s new album, “Nights,” could be released, Pinecastle closed its doors.

The Rouths decided to self-release the album and its first single, “Spin on the Red Brick Floor.”

It scored well on several charts and Nu-Blu was named 2010 Country Band of the Year by the Carolina Music Awards.

Then, in September 2010, the Pinecastle label was purchased and reopened. And Nu-Blu was signed to a new contract.

And the band continues to make its presence known on the bluegrass circuit.

Nu-Blu’s first bluegrass gospel CD hits stores on Oct. 30 (it can be pre-ordered now) and the seven tracks should make waves in that market as well.

Carolyn Routh sings lead on five tracks.

Daniel Routh sings lead on “Man From Galilee,” a hard-driving song about Jesus, and Levi Austin sings lead on “Where Did You Get That Water,” a bouncy tune that says Christians should live their testimony every day.

Carolyn also wrote one song — “The Hammer,” a ballad about the hammer that drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet.

The first single is “Martha and Mary,” a song about two sisters who each approached Jesus in a different way.

Another good album by a good band.

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ROBERT HALE, “Pure & Simple,” Pinecastle. 12 tracks.

September 10, 2012

Robert Hale’s bluegrass roots run deep. He was 9 years old when he began playing mandolin in his father, Clayton Hale’s bluegrass band.

Since then, he’s been lead singer for J.D. Crowe & the New South, worked with Eddie & Martha Adcock, been a member of both Livewire and Wildfire and done session work on two Dolly Parton albums.

Now, Hale has moved into a solo venture with “Pure & Simple.”

Bluegrass fans, however, will note that the album is neither pure nor simple.

It’s a mix of bluegrass and country with Hale playing electric guitar on some cuts and Chris Brown playing percussion.

And Hale grasses up or countryfies a couple of songs from other genres — Lynyrd Skynard’s “Pure & Simple” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.”

The label is marketing three tracks from the album to three separate markets — the title cut to Americana and country stations, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Did She Mention My Name” to bluegrass stations and Larry Cordle and Jim Rushing’s “Savior, Save Me From Myself” to bluegrass gospel programmers.

Hale wrote four tracks — “Gone Just The Same,” a ballad about a love that’s gone; “It Hasn’t Happened Yet,” a ballad that proclaims “a man can’t see no future/when he’s blinded by the past”; “You’re Wrong,” a classic country ballad; and “Dirt Poor,” a hard-charging instrumental.

Three of Hale’s old bandmates from Livewire — Scott Vestal, Wayne Benson and Ernie Sykes — join him on the album along with Steve Thomas, Randy Kohrs, Shawn Lane and Alecia Nugent. That’s a strong lineup.

It’s an album that makes you want to hear more from Hale. But bluegrass purists will probably prefer him to make the next one “pure and simple” bluegrass.

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MARKSMEN QUARTET, “This Is My Crowd,” Rural Rhythm Christian. 14 tracks.

September 4, 2012

Earle Wheeler began his singing career in 1961. Six years later, he formed The Marksmen Quartet, a group that rose rapidly through the ranks of Southern gospel music.

But around 1982, the group switched its focus to bluegrass gospel. And The Marksmen have been a major player in that genre for three decades now.

The group has undergone a number of changes in personnel in that past 45 years. But Wheeler is still leading the band.

Today’s lineup includes his son, Mark Wheeler, along with Darrin Chambers, Davey Waller and Mark Autry.

Yes, that is five people in the quartet.

The latest album, “This Is My Crowd,” has been described as bluegrass gospel, country inspirational, old-time Southern gospel and even convention singing.

But it’s mostly bluegrass.

Mark Wheeler wrote or co-wrote five of the songs — one, “The Veil,” with Waller.

The first singles are “Don’t Take Your Life (Take Mine),” Jesus’ plea to a suicidal man, and “Stack Them Stones,” an uptempo number.

Other highlights include “Last Saturday Night,” a song about a man finding God on his way to the electric chair; “The Upper Room,” a ballad about a man finding salvation in a nursing home; “The Mule Song,” a funny song filled with tall tales; and the classic “Rock of Ages.”

Strong album by one of the top acts in bluegrass gospel.

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