Plan It Or Build It – Independent (2020)

Late For The Train

Every once in a while something unexpected emerges. New, at least for me over here in Germany. The people of northern California probably knew about this remarkable band called “Late For The Train.” The quartet consists of David Pascoe on guitar, mandolin and vocals, Laura Benson plays fiddle and also contributes vocals, Thomas Beneduci on the bass and vocals and Nick Blechman playing the mandolin, banjo and guitar.

Obviously well skilled instrumentalists with a large background of musical experience, and the quality of performing live regularly – this band has put together a ten track debut album which is definitely worth mentioning. The mixture of styles here is very elegant and sensitive. We get celtic music, folk, bluegrass, but most of all, excellent songwriting. There is love present for tradition, including folk, old-time and bluegrass styles. We also get a tribute to more modern acts like Mandolin Orange or Mipso.

If you decide to give them a listen then I recommend the first track, “Sang Through The Summer.“ This song combines all the above mentioned instrumental and vocal skills and arrangement. The next stand out for me was track 4, “Timbre“ - a very nice up-tempo folk song with great lyrics, a beautiful arrangement and tight harmonies. Another one of my favorites is track #7, “Sweet Sierra“.

This record is like a small blooming flower inside of this year's chaos. Skillful musicianship, well delivered vocal and harmony, and the diversified songwriting. Also worth a mention, the recording and the production, all the way down to the artwork.

October 2020

The Mountain Minor Motion Picture Soundtrack – Alt452 Records (2020)

Various Artists

I was honored to be asked to write a review about the soundtrack of the award-winning film “The Mountain Minor“ by Dale Farmer. In the early 20th century, millions of Appalachian people left their homes in search of jobs in industrialized cities, spreading traditional mountain music wherever they went. The motion picture follows one such family through several generations beginning in the Great Depression. Based loosely on the experiences of writer-director Dale Farmer’s grandparents, the film tells the story of an Eastern Kentucky family forced to leave their mountain home to find work in Ohio during the Great Depression.

Instead of using professional actors, Farmer cast old-time musicians in most of the roles. Featuring performances by Dan Gellert, Elizabeth LaPrelle, Ma Crow, Asa Nelson, Hazel Pasley, Lucas Pasley, Aaron Wolfe, Warren Waldron, Judy Waldron, Trevor McKenzie and Mike Oberst and The Tillers. The album is produced by Keyth Neso and Scott Young. It is really amazing since the recordings were recorded on-screen during the filming – live on scene. That's an incredible piece of work and accomplishment for every musician mentioned. Special mention is deserved for the two child actors and musicians Hazel Pasley and Asa Nelson. They are playing the “young Charlie and Ruth“, the ones we follow through their lives. But what is more is how well they play their instruments and the deep emotion harnessed for the old-time music and such young ages.

Initially, the film delivers an atmosphere of those being the days when everything was alright. As it goes on, it reflects just how tough daily life was and the reality of privation. Throughout the picture, the high lonesome is present. It reflects the melancholy that seems to be the one thing that is so hard to describe about bluegrass music. The whole soundtrack opens you up to feel the musical heritage that bluegrass was built upon. There is a unique mixture of European and African folk music weaved in with gospel and church music. Dale Farmer, an old-time musician himself, composed an original song, “Across the Ohio,” which he performs with lead singer Jake Book and musicians Susan Pepper, Lucas Pasley and Trevor McKenzie. More than any other song on the album, “Across the Ohio'' sums up what the film is about: “Fare you well, Kentucky girl, my time has come to go, going to make my living there, across the Ohio.”

Mike Oberst, of The Tillers, and Trevor McKenzie contributed quite a few original tracks on the soundtrack album as well. The majority of the compilation consists of old, traditional songs. They reach way back and give you the same feelings that Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Charlie Poole and Roscoe Holcomb did. You’ll hear simple fiddle tunes and some clawhammer accompaniment, acapella tunes, as well as old Baptist hymns from southeastern Kentucky. The 39 tracks on this soundtrack album present themselves as if scenes from throughout the whole story. Like a good movie soundtrack should, the music delivers the complete picture. You’re transported back to another time and place when listening to this record, even without having watched the movie. And I, for one, can't wait to see the motion picture.

October 2020

Fast Track – Engelhardt Music Group (2020)

Fast Track

This is the long awaited debut album of the new bluegrass supergroup Fast Track. The members of this all-star extravaganza are Dale Perry (banjo), Steve Day (fiddle), Ron Spears (bass), Jesse D. Brock (mandolin) and Duane Sparks (guitar). And as you read these names you know for yourself that each and every band member is providing vocals. One could say that this band is mostly “David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition“ without David Parmley, which was pretty amazing already, but wouldn't tell half the story. The different members of “Fast Track“ have played with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Continental Divide, Larry Stephenson, Special Consensus, The James King Band, Ronnie Reno, Lonesome River Band, Gary Brewer, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Chris Jones and the Nightdrivers, Audie Blaylock and Redline, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers and more. And Ron Spears had his own outfit as a band leader some years back with “Ron Spears and Within Tradition“. These guys have all been around but they never have lost their love for the music.. And this is exactly what makes this record so special. This is not one star beside another on stage – this is a true band. A band with so much experience and respect, making the band leader unnecessary.

Like the members of the band, the song selection is exquisite. Three originals by Ron Spears and the title track instrumental by Dale Perry. These four tracks pretty much set the tone for what this band is all about. Hard-driving traditional bluegrass with a love for melody and harmony. We also get songs from the record written by Brink Brinkman, David Stewart and more. It's needless to say but there is not one song that isn't worth being on this record.

I’ll kick off by mentioning my favorites. Check out the opener “Blue And Lonesome Again“ written by Ron Spears. It boasts a great rhythm, awesome melody and harmony vocals, and has a bluesy kind of feeling. Next, the bluegrass cover of country tune, “Play Me A Song I Can Cry To,“ written by Jerry Chesnut and originally recorded by “The Killer,“ Jerry Lee Lewis. Another great cover song is the 1989 “(I Wish I Had) A Heart Of Stone,“ by Baillie & the Boys, turned into an up-tempo bluegrass hit. And the thought provoking, “Ghost Of A Miner,“ about the hard working Appalachian people during the mining days. There is something unconditionally uplifting like “Come On Down“ with one of the most beautiful mandolin breaks I've heard yet. The CD closes with another great song from 'Brink' Brinkman, arranged and recorded in a stripped down folky style with a pleasant and surprising ‘walloon’ banjo and mandolin melody line.

I think you can get the picture: This is one of the BEST BLUEGRASS RECORDS I have heard this year! I say this not only because of the wide ranged, brilliant song selection, or the absolutely remarkable musicians and singers. But also because of the most perceptive recording, engineered by Adam Engelhardt and Glen Duncan of Engelhardt Music Group. Let's just hope that these guys stick together for many years of live shows and records to come.

September 2020

Any Fair Number – self released (2020)

Tugalo Holler

This is third record by Tugalo Holler and the first in twelve years. The six piece Tugalo Holler first started playing in 2001, in and around South Carolina and deliver now their first all self produced album. And let me tell you – it's good.

The band consists of Stephen Hudson – lead and harmony vocals, guitar, fiddle; Michael Hill – banjo; Michael 'Porkchop' Branch – bass; Dennis James – mandolin and Bradley Webb – guitar. And of course, Jessica Hudson providing lead and harmony vocals. I had not heard of them or their earlier releases before. I got to know the band because Michael 'Porkchop' Branch also played the bass for Wilson Banjo Co. and so it was inevitable that Melanie or Steve Wilson would draw my attention to them.

This lovingly recorded album includes eleven high-class tracks. All but one written by Stephen Hudson, surely the driving force behind this project. Well-crafted songs, skilled instrumentation and an amazing voice are all the gifts he is blessed with. Together with his wife Jessica, they provide singing and playing of modern bluegrass and gospel music, deeply rooted in tradition.

Try the opener “Mockingbird“ or track #4 “Go Sin No More“ and you'll hear what I mean right away. The fifth track “Between A Rock And A Hard Place“, written by 'Porkchop' presents a hard-driving bluegrass anthem. Followed by the sweet waltz “Road To Emmaus“ on which Hudson plays a stout fiddle. “Prince Of Peace,” carried by the rhythmic banjo of Michael Hill, Stephen Hudson's fiddle and the amazing voice of Jessica Hudson.

This record has all that we are longing for in this troubled year and time. It has warmth, heartfelt musicianship and uplifting lyrics. You can hear the love it was performed with. Tugalo Holler shows that they have played their share of live shows together. Their sound is new and fresh, yet wise and experienced at the same time. It's just a shame they’re not better known, because they surely have no reason to hide. This record will help to change that. I recommend purchasing it through the band's website or downloading from your favorite online distributor.

August 2020

Bill Monroe's Ol' Mandolin – Pinecastle Records (2020)

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road

This one's gonna be a hard one. Just because I wasn't quite sure where to start. Should I go from the great songs and songwriting or should I start naming the incredible line-up and the amazing musicianship that come together on this record. Right after receiving the sound files and having had my first listen, I had heard about the passing of Steve Gulley. This made me speechless and pause in grief. I reflected on the many great songs, records and people Steve has worked with and I've had the pleasure of listening to over the years. I believe that Steve would want us to go on, especially in these strange times. To go on celebrating life and music together – bluegrass music. And that's just what Lorraine Jordan does best once again, on this beautiful new album.

The record starts off with the title track and first single, “Bill Monroe's Ol' Mandolin“ written by David Stewart, featuring Allen Dyer on lead vocals. The song showcases a slow waltz celebrating Bill Monroe, and his heritage that we all were reminded of by the moment when Ricky Skaggs played Bill Monroe's mandolin at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum. For those who don't know this single by now: it's wonderful. Deep, heartfelt, traditional bluegrass. Quickly followed by another ode to bluegrass, is the banjo driven “They Call It Bluegrass“ with its great Earl Scruggs citations. Topped off by the unexpected cover of Crystal Gayle's “Ready For the Times To Get Better“ from 1976. Lorraine sings lead on this gem, and turns it into a high lonesome bluegrass song. And these are only the three first tracks of this well balanced bluegrass record. But like I said it's not only due to the song selection, but also the gathering of great musicians.

You’ll enjoy Allen Dyer – lead and harmony vocals; Randy Graham – lead and harmony vocals; Matt Hooper – fiddle; Beth Lawrence – bass; Joe Pessolano – bass, guitar, dobro, harmony vocals; Josh Goforth – guitar, fiddle, mandolin, harmony vocals, Jason Moore – bass; Ethan Burkhardt – bass; Randy Graham – guitar; Daniel Aldridge – mandolin; Skip Cherryholmes – guitar and Andy Leftwich – guitar, fiddle, mandolin. And maybe it's my thing with banjos, but really noticeable to me is the incomparable Ben Greene, playing banjo all over the record and also providing harmony vocals.

Year after year, Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road provide us with solid and inspired bluegrass “born in Kentucky but raised in Caroline“. And they didn't disappoint us this time. One of the hardest working women in the bluegrass world and definitely one of the most remarkable voices, Lorraine Jordan once again sets the bar high for this year's releases.

August 2020

Starry Southern Nights – self released (2020)

Rock Hearts

This is an eight track debut record of a five piece band that I initially just kinda stumbled across on facebook. After making contact and asking if there was a CD available, the bass-player Rick Brodsky said he'd hook me up. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect at that point. Two weeks later I found it in my mailbox and couldn't wait to put it in my CD player. It took exactly 20 seconds to know that this was a good find. The banjo kicked off on the opening track and then brilliant fiddle work opened the door for the vocals. Amazing!

Alex MacLeod is playing the guitar, Joe Deetz plays the banjo, Danny Musher on fiddle, Billy Thibodeau is on the mandolin and the backbone of the project, a stout bass performance by Rick Brodsky. Stephen Mougin recorded and mixed the project and it was produced by Ned Luberecki – need I say more?

The opener '99 Year Blues' is followed by seven superb bluegrass tracks, including three original tunes. The banjo instrumental by Joe Deetz deserves honorable mention. It’s called Juxtaposed, and is followed by the elegant cover of Don't Take It Too Bad from Townes van Zandt.

Every song is well balanced and arranged with the right tempo and mood. Each band member adds just what is necessary to carry the songs and the great vocals and harmonies. This record is really...really good. There’s an element of fun and surprise that leaves you absolutely satisfied. The only negative… it's too short! After hearing the last track Stagger Lee, that showcases amazing mandolin support, you just want more. More Rock Hearts!