BALSAM RANGE, “Mountain Voodoo,” Mountain Home. 13 tracks

Posted October 17, 2016 by klawrence
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Balsam Range, the quintet named for the North Carolina mountains where band members live, has released five highly acclaimed albums since its formation in 2007.

Make that six.

“Mountain Voodoo,” the band’s latest, hits record bins on Nov. 11.

And it’s as strong as the other five, which helped the band win 10 International Bluegrass Music Association awards in eight years.

“Something ‘Bout That Suitcase” finds the singer wondering about a worn suitcase he sees and what stories it could tell.

“Blue Collar Dreams” is about struggling to make a living and survive in a world that grinds a man down and leaves him struggling with debt.

“Voodoo Doll” finds the singer unable to sleep, missing a woman who may have put a curse on him to torture him with her memory.

“Eldorado Blue” is about a woman who never left her small town because it suits her just fine.

“The Girl From The Highlands” is about a man who leaves the woman he loves behind when he sails for America, promising to send for her when he saves some money. But she dies before he can and he still misses her 20 years later.

“Rise And Shine,” a beautiful song with a gospel feel, advises people to lay their burdens down, put them in the past and get ready for a better day.

“Wish You Were Here” finds a man missing a woman who has died.

Another strong album by one of bluegrass’ best bands.

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HOLLY NORMAN, “Taking Care of Bluegrass: A Tribute to Elvis,” Freedom Entertainment. 13 tracks.

Posted October 10, 2016 by klawrence
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Holly Norman, an East Tennessee native, grew up hearing stories about how her grandfather, Bill Norman, worked in a band with Roy Acuff around Knoxville.

And how Acuff offered him a chance to go to Nashville with him, when he became famous.

But Bill Norman decided to stay home and raise his children.

Now, Holly Norman has made the move her grandfather didn’t.

After years of honing her skills at Dollywood, the East Tennessee theme park, Norman is now working in Music City.

Her latest album, “Taking Care of Bluegrass,” is a tribute to Elvis Presley.

There are 12 Elvis songs and a tribute — “Long Live The King” — written by Norman.

Songs include “CC Rider,” “In The Ghetto,” “Always On My Mind,” “Moody Blue,” “Love Me Tender/Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “Kentucky Rain,” “Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” “Separate Ways,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “I’ll Remember You” and the gospel, “Sweet Sweet Spirit.”

James Burton, who led Elivs’ TCB Band from 1969 to 1977, joins Norman on “Kentucky Rain.”

And Terry Blackwood & The Imperials, who recorded with Elvis from 1966 to 1971, join her on “Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” “I’ll Remember You” and “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”

Norman is backed by a strong lineup of bluegrass musicians — Cody Kilby, Stuart Duncan, Aubrey Haynie,  Rob Ickes, Glen Duncan and Scott Vestal among them.

She has a good voice and the songs all work well in bluegrass.

If you’re an Elvis fan — and a bluegrass fan — this is for you.

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KENNY & AMANDA SMITH, “Unbound,” Farm Boy Records. 13 tracks

Posted October 3, 2016 by klawrence
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Kenny and Amanda Smith were named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2003.

And they’ve lived up to those expectations in the 13 years since.

In 2014, Amanda was named female vocalist of the year by the IBMA.

She’s one of bluegrass’ best singers.

Kenny is a two-time IBMA guitar player of the year.

The duo hasn’t been too active professionally for more than a year,

Kenny has been touring with Band of Ruhks.

And Amanda has been taking time off to be with their daughter, Annabelle, who was born in April of 2015.

But they’re back on the road now, promoting their latest album, “Unbound.”

The first single, “You Know That I Would,” is a mother singing to her newborn about how she would do anything to make the child’s life better.

The title track is about a woman facing doubts about following her dreams, but wondering what it would be like to be free.

“Something’s Missing” finds the singer walking through London, seeing all the sights but missing the person most important to her.

“Hills of Logan County” is a Civil War ballad about a soldier who proposes to the woman he loves before going off to war. She turns him down because she’s not ready. But when the war ends and he’s not home, she grieves herself to death.

Kenny sings “Preaching My Own Funeral,” a song that says we preach our funerals every day with our actions.

He also sings lead on “Tea Party,” a song not about politics but about a man changing his life, when he was a daughter.

But it’s Amanda Smith’s vocals that people want to hear.

And she shines on “Unbound” like she always does.

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CLAYBANK, “Playing Hard To Forget,” Rural Rhythm. 12 tracks

Posted September 26, 2016 by klawrence
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ClayBank isn’t a person.

It’s a bluegrass band — named for Claybank Road in the Claybank community in West Jefferson, North Carolina, where the band rehearses.

ClayBank has only been active for a little over a year, but it’s already gaining a lot of attention with its debut album.

The first single, “Up On Claybank,” recently made it into Bluegrass Today’s Top 15 singles.

ClayBank’s lead singers — Zack Arnold and Jacob Greer — are still in their teens.

But they’ve both been musicians for years.

They wrote “Up On Claybank” and the instrumental, “Foot of the Phoenix.

And Gary Trivette, the bass player, wrote and sings lead on “Daddy Would Sing,” a song about a hard-working farmer whose singing could be heard until the day he died.

“Demise of Handsome Molly” is a murder ballad.

“It Almost Feels Like Love,” one of the best sounds on the album, features the trio vocals of Greer, Arnold and Trivette.

“Sticking With The Old Stuff” and “I Believe” are bluegrass gospel.

The title track is a ballad about a man who took the woman he loves for granted — and lost her.

A good debut by a band that should be going places.

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ADAM STEFFEY, “Here To Stay,” Mountain Home Music. 12 tracks.

Posted August 30, 2016 by klawrence
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At 50, Adam Steffey has spent more than half of his life on the bluegrass music trail.

He has been a member of such bands as Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Isaacs and Mountain Heart.

And these days, Steffey is a member of The Boxcars —  the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumental Group Of The Year from 2011 through 2013.

He’s won the IBMA’s mandolin player of the year award an unprecedented 11 times.

But “Here To Stay,” which Steffey surely is, is only his fourth solo album.

It features new recordings of songs that Steffey helped make popular through his years with other bands.

You don’t see Tex Ritter with songwriting credit on many bluegrass albums.

But “Dear John,” which was recorded by Hank Williams in 1951, definitely fits well into bluegrass.

So do the Wilburn Brothers‘ “Town That Never Sleeps” and “Little Liza Jane,” a song that dates to before the Civil War.

Shawn Lane‘s “Mountain Man” tells the story of a man who refuses to sell his land to the government and is willing to fight for it.

“Town That Isn’t There” is about a place destroyed by coal mining.

“Twister (Devil’s Dance)” is about a man watching a tornado destroy his farm.

Instrumentals include “Pitching Wedge,” “Hell Among The Yearlings” and “Come Thou Fount.”

Another good album by a bluegrass master.

Look for it Sept. 23.

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STUART WYRICK, “East Tennessee Sunrise,” Rural Rhythm. 12 tracks.

Posted August 15, 2016 by klawrence
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Stuart Wyrick has been playing banjo in bluegrass bands for years with the likes of The Tater Creek Boys, the Better Way Quartet, New Road, Brand New Strings, the Dale Ann Bradley Band and now Flashback, a reunion band of musicians who worked with J.D. Crowe & the New South in the mid-1990s.

Surprisingly, “East Tennessee Sunrise” is his first solo album.

Wyrick is joined by some top musicians here including Kenny Smith, Alan Bibey, Tim Crouch, Phil Leadbetter and Steve Gulley.

He wrote three of the five instrumentals — the title track, “Jennifer Dale Breakdown” and “Riding On The Clouds.”

Dale Ann Bradley provides the vocals on Dolly Parton’s “When Somebody Wants To Leave,” the album’s best track.

The list of guest vocalists includes Gary Kidwell on the Louvin Brothers‘ “Born Again,” Keith Garret on Ernest Tubb‘s “Walking The Floor,” Randall Massengill on “You’re The One,” Keith Williams on “Little Moonshine Johnny,” Steve Gulley on “Hitchhiking To California” and Vic Graves on “The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow.”

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THE WEEPING WILLOWS, “Before Darkness Comes A-Callin’,” 10 tracks, no label

Posted August 8, 2016 by klawrence
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Laura Coates and Andy Wrigglesworth, an Australian duo, call themselves The Weeping Willows.

Their sophomore album is called “Before Darkness Comes A-Callin’.”

And the cover art is a picture of the Angel of Death.

So, if you’re expecting a dark album, you’re right.

Theme albums aren’t common in bluegrass or Americana or alt-country or whatever pigeon-hole this album falls into.

But “Darkness” is definitely an album whose theme is, well, darkness.

The Willows say all the songs, at their heart, are love songs.

But light, they are not.

The duo wrote or co-wrote all 10 songs.

“Devil’s Road” is a bluesy tale of despair — “The Devil’s Road gonna steal your soul,” they sing.

“River of Gold,” the first single off the album, is about greed, temptation and surrender.

“Pale Rider” is about the apocalyptic horseman whose name is Death.

“Garden of Tears” is about a man who murders the woman he loves and buries her beneath a rose bush.

“Fallen Ring” is about “a future in misery…until the devil takes you.”

“Valley of Darkness,” a bluesy number, says “in the valley we’re eternally alone.”

But the standout track is a haunting a capella number, “When The Sun Came Down,” which features Sweet Jean (Sime Nugent and Alice Keath) blending their voices with The Willows.

Yes, it’s as dark as midnight on a cloudy night.

But it’s good.

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