Hard Life – self released (2021)
Derek Johnson & Hardgrass
This is the first solo project for Minnesota's Derek Johnson. A singer and guitar player, founding member of “The High 48's,” Derek also joined the band “Monroe Crossing” in 2011. On this recording he shines as a singer-songwriter and guitar player as well as playing the mandolin. Six of the fourteen tracks are original and fit very well among the wisely chosen songs. The range he chose from bluegrass classics, Carter Stanley and Hazel Dickens, all the way to folk and rock songs by Townes van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen. Even the marvelous 'Bootleg John' by Marvin C. Davis in a fiery, hard-driving version here with David Robinson playing the banjo.
Even though the name Derek Johnson & Hardgrass suggests that there is a band going by the name of 'Hardgrass' – it is not exactly. It's more like a Minnesota all-star collaboration. Derek Johnson sings lead and harmony vocals and plays guitar and mandolin. Jamey Guy on Banjo, Catie Jo Pidel playing the fiddle, Rina Rossi and Rich Casey on bass. Then Benji Flaming on banjo, Eric Christopher on fiddle, David Tousley on bass. The marvellous Tony Ihrig playing banjo, as well as David Robinson and Graham Sones. Clint Birzer contributed vocals and mandolin, Chad Johnson singing lead vocals on 'If I Needed You' as well as playing the mandolin. Then there are Craig Evans, David Robinson and Dale Reichert on banjo, Chris Silver and Mike Hedding on mandolin. Tom Schaefer and AJ Srubas playing the fiddle and last but not least Kim Roe from the 'Roe Family Singers' contributing harmony vocals.
As there are so many fine tracks on this record, here are some you might like to check out to get a good taste of the collection: The album starts with the self-written title track 'Hard Life'. An uplifting bluegrass gem. Jumpy and joyful with a fine melody, super drive and fluid harmony vocals. Another highlight foe me is 'Aragon Mill' by Si Kahn and the Looping Brothers. “And the only tune I hear is the sound of the wind as it blows through the town, weave and spin, weave and spin.”
'North Dakota Wind', also penned by Derek Johnson, is the next track you should listen to. Together with The High 48's Johnson delivers a very special tune about life in the northern part of the US. And at the same time this song embodies everything that makes bluegrass from this region so unique. It may not be high and lonesome, but it is cold and windy lonesome. Listen to this song and you will get the same feeling – I love it.
Songs like The River, White Dove and If I Needed You, speak for themselves. But another original track worth mentioning is the closing 'Ballad Of The 1st Minnesota Volunteers'. A 4:30 anthem about the Minnesota volunteers fighting at Gettysburg. “Time to say your prayers and try to hold the Union lines.”
All in all this is a record coming straight from the heart of a man and musician who's been around and knows what he is doing. Not showing off, but offering his full bandwidth of musical influences to paint a portrait of a hard life, worth living. Thank you Derek!
for Uncut Grass
Ramblin' On – self released (2021)
The JackTown Ramblers
This is the first album of the four piece bluegrass band called the JackTown Ramblers. With Shannon Leasure on guitar and vocals, Gabriel Wiseman on mandolin and vocals, Brett Setzer on banjo and vocals and Mike Ramsey playing the bass and also contributing lead vocals on two tracks. I ran across them because of Gabriel Wiseman and his extraordinary mandolin skills, and have been eagerly awaiting the release of this album ever since. The waiting was worth it.
This album has such a warm and heartfelt vibe to it that you will fall in love with it from track one: Lefty Frizzell's, “She's Gone, Gone, Gone”. Followed up by David Grisman's “Cedar Hill,” in a superb rendition. These two tracks alone show the demands this band is able to meet and capability they have. Track number three is an original by Mike Ramsey. It plays along with the potential of becoming a bluegrass classic already.
Seriously – this record contains all of what bluegrass is about, in my humble opinion. Good song selection, from old-timey traditional stuff to folk and jazz, and back to country and bluegrass. With awesome harmony vocals and instrumental skill that serve the songs beautifully, and never show a hint of overbearance or ego in their playing. The best example might be the great “Ophelia” by The Band. It takes some backbone to cover a tower of a song like this. But these guys handle it just like “Tipsy Gypsy”. They make this song their own. Quite nonchalant but retaining their respect. And…. great big respect for traditional bluegrass all over.
Also worth a mention are the other two original tunes. Track 6 “Raindrops,” by banjo player Brett Setzer, and the final track “Another Girl Left Crying,” by Gabriel Wiseman. Another one that could easily become a bluegrass standard.
Let me add in a quote from Darren Nicholson of Balsam Range: “As I sit here enjoying the new release by my pals, The JackTown Ramblers, it hits home. It’s heartfelt music, delivered in an honest way, that is true to our southern Appalachian heritage. It’s good clean picking, fun, energetic music that you will be tapping your toes to. Enjoy!! I sure did.”
Yes, Darren, I do too!
Severin Theinert for
Things She Couldn't Get Over – Pinecastle Records (2021)
Dale Ann Bradley
And so the story goes … the fabulous Dale Ann Bradley has delivered once again. But only very few in the business manage to surpass the bar they've set by themselves. Dale Ann Bradley does this almost every time. This new project, “Things She Couldn’t Get Over,” released by Pinecastle Records is another prime example.
I mean – seriously – name me someone who would release four albums in four years without a single weak link. 2018 Sister Sadie's #2, 2019 her own 'The Hard Way' and 2020 'Oh Darlin' together with Tina Adair. And now just a few months later she delivers this new and stand alone record that absolutely fulfills any expectations one could have.
Dale Ann Bradley produced this album herself and once again showed her talent in picking the right songs and musicians for the material. You must have a vision to blend every piece needed to record such a good album. The right songs and also the right musical companions like Jim Hurst on guitar, Kim Fox on guitar and harmony, Matt Leadbetter playing the resophonic guitar, Mike Sumner on banjo, Ethan Burkhardt on bass and such guests as Ashby Frank, Ronnie Bowman and Aaron Bibelhauser. Award winning songwriter Bibelhauser, also co-wrote two songs with Dale Ann Bradley.
But regardless how good she is at songwriting or picking the right tunes, or how well balanced her choices of the musicians involved – most of all this lady can sing!! And she just gets better all the time. I won't go through this album song by song because I really believe you should listen to it as a whole and take the journey for yourself. My personal favorites are “Living On The Edge”, “After A While” and “In The End.” For me, these songs show the complete variety and depth of Dale Ann Bradley's artistry and moreover, exactly why she is a five-time IBMA Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year.
Thank you Dale Ann for another great album. Can't wait for the next to come.
Severin Theinert for
Cup Of Loneliness – self released (2021)
David Peterson & 1946
David Peterson strikes once again! David Peterson & 1946 are back. I don't know exactly how long this man has been in the business but it's always a thrill for me when he emerges. After six years, David Peterson has released his eighth album. Well chosen songs, excellent co-workers and musicians, superb production and recording – yes, all in all this is a very good record of traditional bluegrass at its best.
But let's get a little more detailed. David Peterson stands for good music. Traditional bluegrass in the style of Flatt & Scruggs. With a voice so smooth and yet so lonesome that it can give you shivers. Gentle and powerful at the same time and always with a deep, profound love for what he's doing: traditional grass.
This edition of the band “1946 “ showcases Mike Compton and Mickey Boles on mandolin, Brent Lamons, Eric Ellis and Jeremy Stephens on banjo, Kent Blanton on bass and on the fiddles are Stuart Duncan, Aubrey Haynie, Tim Crouch and Shad Cobb. And then there are Larry Marrs and Brad Benge contributing some harmony vocals. For me, this is what characterizes this record the most: the vocals and the fiddles. There are great harmony vocals, but what is more, there are triple fiddle arrangements on all sixteen tracks! And with Duncan, Haynie, Crouch and Cobb you can't go wrong – what a ride!
The song selection extends from Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs over Buzz Busby, Everett Lilly and Hank Williams, way back to J.E.Mainer and the fabulous Grayson & Whitter. Sixteen tracks, some of them well known and given a fresh interpretation. Some of them are hidden gems pulled into the spotlight. And of course the title track, 'Cup of Loneliness' by George Jones. This version certainly turns out to be the theme song of the entire album. That's what's so remarkable about David Peterson & 1946: to pick the right selection of songs to get the whole bandwidth of the picture you want to draw. This record is not just a traditional bluegrass album in a reminiscent way. It's the modern, vibrating, swinging and hard-driving, high lonesome bluegrass album we need every once in a while.
David Peterson refuses to go digital. So, there are no downloads or streams of this record. You need to contact him directly for a physical CD. It's absolutely worth it. Do it.
Severin Theinert for
The Lucky Ones – self released (2021)
The Lucky Ones
Here's a little gem from Yukon, Canada called “The Lucky Ones”. A six piece string band from Canada's far north that is carrying the torch of string-band music. Music that – like they say – was played by their parents and the parents of their parents. “It's the sound that filled barrooms and taverns and brought people together for barn dances and kitchen parties.”
The band is JD McCallen on guitar and vocals, Ian Smith also contributing vocals and guitar, Ryan West playing mandolin and singing, Aaron P. Burnie on the banjo, Jerome Belanger on bass and Kieran Polle playing the fiddle. They have delivered a beautiful, raw, yet sparkling debut record. What is more, the eight songs on this album are all originals.
The opening song 'Fool's Gold' is almost like a roadmap for this album. It is an atmospheric folk song about hope and greed, and being used by one's own expectations. Well arranged and played, it shows what this project is all about. Some great musicians with a reminiscent way to play modern, acoustic, string-band music. It's all in there... old-time, folk, bluegrass. Story telling troubadours that are travelling from one gold hunter's camp to another.
Another highlight is 'Waitin' On A Paycheque'. A honky-tonk like tune with some extra piano added in. But just like this track seems to sort of fall outside of the theme, the whole record just wouldn't be the same without it. With it's laid back attitude and bar atmosphere it blends with the album. Oh, and watch out for the lyrics …
All in all a very loveable eight track debut. A great variety of styles, well played and with thoughtful arrangements. Not exactly high lonesome but certainly an enjoyable Canadian distinction.
Severin Theinert for
Currahee Stomp – self released (2020)
This is an interesting debut of an eclectic new band. This north Georgia based four piece band brings a fresh sound and exciting vibe to the bluegrass standards as well as introducing some of their own original tunes. The debut EP contains five tracks. We get Flatt & Scruggs as well as Townes van Zandt. Also be sure to check out the classic 'Lonesome Reuben's Train' with it’s great, banjo driven arrangement.
And then there are the two original tunes. First the instrumental 'Currahee Stomp,' showing us that these guys (and gal) know how to play off of each other and have had their share of practicing and jamming together. The band members blend well with this funky up-tempo tune – it's a real blast!
It's Luke Cotton on guitar, Cameron Watkins on mandolin, Laura Ray on banjo and her brother, Jason Ray playing the bass. They do a bang up job on vocals throughout as well, sharing multiple unique sounds by the members. They are also supported by Patrick Chisolm with his fiddle on the EP.
Another self-penned tune called 'The Bounty' shows the ability to combine their wide variety of musical influences into a great tune. It almost has a Dylanesque folk-ballad vibe. But played in an up-tempo bluegrass way – amazing!
Do yourself a favor and check them out online or social media, and keep your eyes open for more to come. These guys are just getting started!!
Severin Theinert for