Sara Watkins – Young in all the Wrong Ways

Don’t read too much into the title of Young in All the Wrong Ways, Sara Watkins‘ third solo album. Certainly, the Nickel Creek singer/violinist isn’t necessarily acting deliberately youthful here — the record isn’t as brightly pop as its 2012 predecessor, Sun Midnight Sun — but that doesn’t mean that bluegrass factors heavily into the equation either. Young in All the Wrong Ways does make feints to roots music — if it weren’t for the stylishly sculpted fuzz guitar, “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free” could be suited for a honky tonk hardwood floor, while “One Last Time” contains some fleet-fingered picking — but the record feels settled and assured as it leans into its maturation. A large part of its charm lies in its ease. Watkins never is particularly forceful — she seems to lead from her voice, reveling in its lightness but also letting it bruise when it verges toward heartbreak — but she’s certainly considered, choosing her topics and tempos with care. Young in All the Wrong Ways underscores this sense of craft by accentuating steady, almost thundering, rock rhythms, anxious guitars, and also delicately structured ballads that function as tonic to the bold incidents elsewhere. It’s a brief album, ten songs lasting no longer than 41 minutes, but it feels deep due to its nicely shifting sounds and styles, not to mention the sense that Watkins is setting into her own skin here. She’s never seemed awkward — the opposite, really, releasing her first album with Nickel Creek when she was a teenager — but what makes Young in All the Wrong Ways resonate is how it touches upon her bluegrass and folk roots while feeling entirely different: the work of a musician who is integrating the whole of her influences into an idiosyncratic voice.

The Duhks – Beyond The Blue

Mixing Celtic fiddles, old-time claw hammer banjo, Latin percussion, blues- and Cajun-infused vocals, and a deft country pop touch, Winnipeg’s Duhks, at their best, stretch traditional folk and string band sounds into the 21st century with a sharp freshness, all without distorting or demolishing the group’s traditional base, something that is a lot easier to say than actually do. They aren’t deliberately innovative so much as they’re smart assimilators, and even that can get stale and predictable, a difficult line the band walks and mostly avoids on Beyond the Blue, the group’s fifth studio album. Produced by Mike Merenda and Ruth Unger of the Mammals, and helped by the return of vocalist Jessee Havey (non-touring founding vocalists Tania Elizabeth and Jordan McConnell are also present here) and new members, fiddler Rosie Newton, drummer/percussionist Kevin Garcia, and guitarist/bouzouki player Colin Savoie-Levac, the Duhks seem rejuvenated throughout this set. The opener and title track, a fine cover of Beth Nielson Chapman and Gary Nicholson‘s “Beyond the Blue,” suits Havey‘s near-alto and wonderfully nuanced vocals, and sets the tone for the varied fare that follows, including a nice reworking of the traditional “Banjo Roustabout.” No matter how far afield the band travels musically, founder Leonard Podolak‘s fine claw hammer banjo playing is always at the rhythmic center of things, and paces nearly every track, including the stomping Cajun reel “Lazy John,” another of the album’s highlights. If there’s a danger in the weeds for the Duhks, it might be in trying to be all things at once, a situation they avoid, for the most part, on this fine addition to their catalog.


Chris Jones and the Night Drivers – Run Away Tonight

In the ever-present debate on tradition vs. innovation in bluegrass music, I feel that the value of consistency is sometimes overlooked. It seems like bands are always seeking to change up their sound from one album to the next – adding in more country influences, or becoming more “progressive,” or trying to be the next Lonesome River Band or IIIrd Tyme Out. And that is all well and good, to an extent. However, there’s something to be said about a band that finds a sound that fits them and consistently produces good, solid albums that embody that sound. Chris Jones & the Night Drivers is such a band.
With the group’s newest album, Run Away Tonight, there are few surprises – Jones and his bandmates aren’t throwing in any xylophones or guest vocalists from the death metal genre. Instead, they deliver twelve well-written, well-chosen contemporary bluegrass songs that occasionally lean towards a classic country feel. Jones’ lead vocals are smooth and warm and the instrumentation is tasteful and tight – just what fans have come to expect from the group.
The album opens with lead single Laurie, one of three co-writes from Jones and bass player Jon Weisberger and the current number one song on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart. It’s a pretty simple song – the singer is at the window of the girl he loves, asking her to run away with him – but there’s a nice mixture of cheer and urgency as the singer almost pleads, “come on down, we’re running out of time.” The mood switches on One Night in Paducah, a mysterious, haunting tale of a one night stand that goes wrong in more ways than one. Guest Tim Surrett’s dobro and Mark Stoffel’s mandolin create a great dark atmosphere for the song.
Jones and Weisberger also collaborated on She’s Just About to Say Goodbye, which features harmony vocals from Darin and Brooke Aldridge and country-style fiddle from Troy Engle. The song is poised on the edge of heartbreak, with the singer walking himself through what’s going to happen when the one he loves leaves him. Once You’re Gone, written by Weisberger and Jeremy Garrett, takes the opposite stance on lost love, as the singer matter-of-factly tells his listeners that “If you already know leaving is the right thing to do, then why don’t you go and find something new.” Ned Luberecki’s cheery banjo opening on Dust Off the Pain helps take this theme one step farther, with Jones stepping through “the grief, the sorrow, and the tears” and looking forward to a new love.
One of my favorite songs here is one of the few songs not written by band members, and also might win the prize for “Song I Was Most Hesitant About Based on Title Alone.” I’d never heard Tom T. Hall’s Pinto the Wonder Horse is Dead, and I was expecting something humorous or silly. However, the song is an excellent reflection on the power of memories and the loss of childhood, set to a mid-tempo, bouncy melody that fits well with the singer’s memories of watching old westerns at the movie theater.
Other highlights here include the traditional, Celtic-tinged The Leaving of Liverpool, which features some fine harmonies on the chorus, and the thoroughly traditional cover of Flatt & Scruggs’ Thinking About You. Del McCoury’s tenor is hard to miss on the latter, as is Bobby Hicks’ always strong fiddling.
Fans of Chris Jones & the Night Drivers should have few, if any, complaints about this album. Neither should those not as familiar with the band. Jones, Weisberger, Luberecki, and Stoffel have been playing together for close to a decade now, and they’ve just about got their style down to an art.

Robert Earl Keen – Happy Prisoner

Robert Earl Keen has been playing the Texas singer/songwriter circuit for over three decades, and as a guy who often favors the acoustic side of the country and Americana music scenes, it’s no kind of surprise that he’s crossed paths with the bluegrass music community, and it certainly makes sense that he’s a fan. What is a bit of a surprise is not that Keen has decided to cut a bluegrass album, but that the respected tunesmith has chosen to make it a collection of covers rather than writing a new set of songs. Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions finds Keen and a crew of top-notch pickers (including Danny Barnes, former leader of bluegrass iconoclasts the Bad Livers) whooping it up on a set of tunes that have become bluegrass standards; this isn’t always bluegrass for purists (which is to say there are drums on a few tracks and the version of “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” takes serious liberties with the traditional arrangement), but the fiddles, banjos, and mandolins keep this rooted within the accepted boundaries of the genre, and the players certainly do right by the songs. Just as importantly, Keen sings these numbers with a genuine enthusiasm and a dash of swagger that suit his Lone Star attitude, with a small but meaningful helping of twang (though he dials back the strutting for pathos on numbers like “East Virginia Blues” and “Long Black Veil”). Lloyd Maines, who has worked with Keen many times over the years, produced and engineered Happy Prisoner, and he brings a warm, natural sound to these sessions, which sound like a bunch of pickers circled around a mike in the best of all possible ways. Some fans of Keen‘s songwriting might lament the lack of new material on Happy Prisoner, but as a performer he’s in great shape here, and he makes the most of his duet spots with Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines. In his liner notes, Keen writes, “When I listen to music I want the sound to wash over me like a wave,” and at its strongest, Happy Prisoner does just that, and it’s a worthwhile detour for one of Texas’s best songwriters.

The Cox Family – Gone Like The Cotton

The Cox Family‘s major-label debut, 1996’s Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, was a small triumph that demonstrated the different directions they could travel with their eclectic Southern-styled music and glorious four-part harmonies, but to say that they had trouble completing the follow-up is a few steps past understatement. The Cox Family were dropped by their label before the album they recorded in 1998 could be completed, and in 2000 family patriarch and group founder Willard Cox was paralyzed from the waist down in an auto accident. His wife Marie Cox was also battling cancer at the time, which would claim her life in 2009, and the Cox Family‘s personal and professional troubles slowed the group nearly to a halt. But 17 years on, the story of the family’s unfinished album finally has a happy ending; after the masters for the 1998 sessions were recovered, the Cox Family returned to the studio to put the finishing touches on the album they long thought was lost, and Gone Like the Cotton has emerged sounding fresh, passionate, and thoroughly satisfying, a mixture of country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, and a dash of pop that sounds rootsy but thoroughly up-to-date at the same time. Despite the passage of time, the new vocal tracks featuring Evelyn, Sidney, and Suzanne Cox sound as soulful and precise as the material they cut in the ’90s, and Willard‘s occasional leads (rescued from the 1998 sessions) are great, sweet and just a bit rough in the true honky tonk manner. The production by Alison Krauss is splendid, honoring the Coxes‘ traditionalism while adding a dash of rock & roll attitude on “In My Eyes” and “Good Imitation of the Blues,” and even giving bluegrass-styled numbers like “I’m Not So Far Away” a welcome dose of energy. Considering the Cox Family‘s appearance on the multi-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, it’s not hard to imagine that Gone Like the Cotton could have been a major crossover hit if the group had been allowed to finish it in, say, 2002, but without playing guessing games about what could have been, this long-fermenting project is a more than worthy follow-up to Just When We’re Thinking It’s Over, and it leaves no doubt that tough times have not dulled Evelyn, Sidney, and Suzanne Cox‘s talents, and hopefully we won’t have to wait so long to hear them harmonize again.

Sam Bush – Late as Usual

Like many of the modern bluegrass masters who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Sam Bush is a multi-instrumentalist who excels no matter which style he is playing. These 1984 sessions feature the leader in a variety of contexts. He plays fiddle in a traditional duet of Bill Monroe‘s “Big Mon” with banjo picker Courtney Johnson, then switches to mandolin and singing lead in “Last Letter Home,” backed by guitarist Norman Blake and cellist Nancy Blake with bassist John Cowan‘s harmony vocal and Dobro player Curtis Burch. Perhaps the most fun track is his interpretation of the unjustly overlooked mandolinist Dave Apollon‘s “Russian Rag”; Bush overdubs himself on mandolins, mandolas, and bass, accompanied by Mike Marshall‘s multiple mandolins, mandocellos, and guitar. His mandolin duet of the standard “Broadway” with Jethro Burns (a brilliant instrumentalist best known for his work as a part of the country music comedy duo Homer & Jethro) is a meeting between two masters of the instrument. Bush also includes a few originals, with banjo star Béla Fleck added for his progressive “Crooked Smile.”

Drew Emmitt – Long Road

When attempting to pay homage to a 20-year span of time on the road, it’s best to bring all your friends along.  Drew Emmitt, the lead singer and mandolin player from the great ‘90s (and ‘00s) jam band Leftover Salmon, has assembled an all-star bluegrass guest list for his album of road tales and triumphs.  Long Road, his third solo release, features musicians from the Infamous String Dusters, the String Cheese Incident, Alison Brown (Allison Krauss), John Cowan (Sam Bush, New Grass Revival), Stuart Duncan (Dolly Partin, George Strait), Ronnie McCoury (Del’s son), Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and the former drummer for Leftover Salmon, Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit).  Recruiting some of the greats in today’s bluegrass scene reiterates the notion of collaboration that usually accompanies the road.
Long Road pays respect to Emmitt’s 25 years on the road with allegorical tunes made for endless summer days and warm summer nights.  Fluid bluegrass banjo picking by Chris Pandolfini and the seamless mandolin background instrumentation and solos by Emmitt give the compositions layer after layer of thick, priceless twang.
Among the eight original songs (some of which are co-written with Cowan or Jim Lauderdale) are three covers.  While some might question the decision to include Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home”, the theme certainly fits the rest of the album.  Its reggae undertones are echoed a couple tracks later with Emmitt’s “Beat of the World”.  The wah-heavy guitar chks oversimplify the jamming springboard, but the high-paced record also might beg for some relaxed tracks like these.  The other two cover songs better fit the rugged Southern rocker seasoned with road experience.  Van Morrison’s “Gypsy in My Soul” is a soulful, calypso-drenched bluegrass ballad.  The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Take the Highway” offers a better jumping point for bluegrass-backed jam rock.  Tyler Grant’s electric slide guitar solo offers the perfect building and release of tension, and then Emmitt enters on electric guitar.  The soloists converge into a “Layla”-esque moment of Southern rock bliss.  Stuart Duncan contrasts his sound with each soloist in a stellar combination of strings.
Emmitt’s new compositions sound like time-treasured bluegrass classics, as track after track has effortless quick-picking and fiddle-charged power-grass.  The title track sets its pace on high after an initial mandolin-led warm up.  “Lord you know I’ve been so many places / At least I know I have a longer view,” begin Emmitt’s smooth, twanged vocals.  The frenetic pace alone is impressive. Each string soloist brings with him a precise, fervent plucking, bowing, or strumming.  As the windup for the refrain hits, four-part vocal harmonies churn out the catchy line, “On this long road back to you”.  The final song, “River’s Risin’”, is another original fast-grass number that makes use of Emmitt’s blending vocal abilities.  The man’s voice melts with others’ well.  After about four minutes of a straight-forward grass jam laced with foreboding, funk-infused Hammond B3 organ, the instruments slyly wind down, suggesting the end of the song and album.  Pandolfini gears his banjo into double time for a bluegrass breakdown of sorts.  As though with a second, fuller wind, the band rushes into the energetic second half of the song.  Before the B3 signals a fading out, a final “risin’” lingers just long enough on the sound palate.  Although the CD’s road has run its course, Emmitt’s road is clearly hitting its stride.

Older album from 2008, but still worthy. This gentleman is one of the founders of Leftover Salmon.

Peter Rowan – Dharma Blues

In his liner essay, Peter Rowan writes: “These songs…are a place on the spiritual journey where the commitment has been made, the intent established, and the journey begun. The doubts and resolutions of the spiritual journey are what drives Dharma Blues….” That’s dead on, but it doesn’t touch the musical reach on this fine album. Some of these tunes have been part of Rowan‘s live repertoire for years. In his painting studio in 2006, he played them for producer John Chelew and the pair began to conceive a recording. Rowan delves deep into his American roots bag: country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel are often stitched together and woven into other sounds. In “River of Time,” a cappella country gospel is appended by a country-rock band rife with pedal steel, and later with tamboura. “Raven,” based on Edgar Allan Poe‘s poem, features Gillian Welch in duet. Progressive bluegrass meets country adorned with a rock & roll rhythm section featuring Jack Casady on bass. The title track is based on an Eastern modal signature played in 12-bar form, with guitar, bass, tamboura, bass sarod, Indian flute, and two drummers. Rowan, in full command of his vocal range in his early seventies, delivers a yodel near the end that recalls Leon Thomas. The droning slow blues in “Vulture Peak” uses a bluegrass choral architecture textured by drums, pedal steel, guitar, tamboura, and flute. Rowan sings the Heart Sutra (complete with mantra) and accents the middle with a canny guitar solo. “Restless Grave” is a minor-key country blues with excellent flatpicking, breaking, syncopated drums, Casady‘s bass, skittering pedal steel, and the glorious meld of Rowan‘s and Welch‘s voices. “Who Will Live” is gospelized country-rock kissed by beautiful bluegrass banjo work from Jody Stecher, steel, and beautiful lyrics from Rowan. “Snow Country Girl” is a simple mountain folk song performed with Welch. Their only accompaniment is his guitar and Casady‘s bass. “A Grain of Sand,” another folk song, has water drum, flute, and bass sarod adding dimension to the guitar and layered vocals. If all this reads like the sound here is “exotic,” it is, but it’s so warm, relaxed, and intuitive it feels natural. Rowan is never preachy or overly reverent in these songs; he doesn’t offer revelation or realization, just his own experience of everyday life on the road to get there. Even so, their poetry descends directly from the American folk and blues traditions. Chelew‘s production is empathic, but not overly careful. He understands not only what these songs mean, but what they mean to Rowan. In a career as long and as musically varied as Rowan‘s, some records come off better than others. Dharma Blues, for all the wily chances it takes, is a jewel, finding the artist at another creative peak.

I think he qualifies as an old fart and a jackass. Have you heard that is what Willie Nelson rename his tour after some comments were made on the relevancy of the music of his generation? Oi!

Greensky Bluegrass – If Sorrows Swim

Michigan’s perennial string band Greensky Bluegrass deliver the follow-up to their breakthrough 2011 album Handguns with the equally robust If Sorrows Swim. In the three years since Handguns hit number three on Billboard’s bluegrass chart, the progressive Kalamazoo quintet have honed their distinct style which blends the earthy warmth of traditional bluegrass styles with a more muscular, darkly hued rock tone. The fifth studio album in their 14-career, If Sorrows Swim contains contributions from dueling songwriters, mandolinist Paul Hoffman and guitarist Dave Bruzza, whose differing styles create a complementary whole that is a major part of the band’s identity. Full of the top-notch playing fans have come to expect, it’s an album grounded in the lonesome rural sound, but with plenty of punch and immediacy.

John Cowan

John Cowan, also known as the Voice of Newgrass, has been singing his heart out for thirty-five years now, and his soaring vocals have only improved with time. A true innovator, John applies his powerful pipes to genres from country, bluegrass, and gospel to soul, jazz, and rock-and-roll – often within the space of a single concert. His ability to move fluidly through multiple styles, and carry mesmerized audiences on the journey with him, has set him apart as one of the most loved and admired vocal artists of his generation, not just by fans and critics but among fellow musicians as well.

John Cowan was born on August 24, 1953, in Minerva, Ohio, and got his musical start in Louisville, Kentucky, where he played in various rock outfits like Everyday People and Louisville Sound Department in the early 1970s. But his rise to fame began in earnest in 1974 when he auditioned to play bass for the then up-and-coming New Grass Revival. The audition went well, and John was offered the gig. It wasn’t until he’d accepted the job that the shy 22-year-old casually mentioned, “By the way, I can sing too.”

With his distinctive, rock-tinged tenor vocal and heart-thumping electric bass, John, along with fellow New Grass Revival band mates Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, and Curtis Burch, and later Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn, introduced a new generation of music fans to an explosive, experimental and ultimately, eponymous brand of bluegrass. The “newgrass” sound spawned popular jam bands such as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band in addition to shaping the sensibilities of country megastars Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, the Zac Brown Band, and Darius Rucker.

After New Grass Revival disbanded in 1990, John went on to record a series of critically acclaimed solo albums including Soul’d Out (Sugar Hill, 1986), the self-titled John Cowan (Sugar Hill, 2000), Always Take Me Back (Sugar Hill, 2002), New Tattoo (Pinecastle, 2006), 8,745 Feet, Live at Telluride (2005, re-released by E-1 Entertainment, 2009), Comfort & Joy (E-1 Entertainment, 2009), and The Massenburg Sessions (E-1 Entertainment, 2010).

Over the years, he also has been in high demand as a session musician and boasts vocal and/or bass credits on some 120 recordings, including albums by Garth Brooks, Glen Campbell, Rosanne Cash, Ashley Cleveland, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Hootie and the Blowfish, Janis Ian, Hal Ketchum, Alison Krauss, Delbert McClinton, Reba McEntire, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Poco, John Prine, Kenny Rogers, Darius Rucker, Leon Russell, Darrell Scott, Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt, Hank Williams Jr., Jesse Winchester, Wynonna, and the Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums.

In the early 1990s, John teamed up with Rusty Young of Poco, Bill Lloyd of Foster & Lloyd, and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers in a country rock band called The Sky Kings. Despite the successful run of their CMT video “Picture Perfect,” the band’s recordings went unreleased due to a series of personnel changes first at RCA Records and then Warner Brothers, and the group was forced to call it quits in 1997. Shelved for years, The Sky Kings unreleased album, along with 14 additional tracks from the Warner Brothers archives, was finally published in 2000 by Rhino Handmade Records. Meanwhile, John’s alliance with Pat Simmons gained him a slot as bassist for the Doobie Brothers from 1992 through 1995 as well as a songwriting credit for “Can’t Stand to Lose” on the Doobie Brothers 2000 release Sibling Rivalry.

bioNot content to remain a sideman, however, John left the Doobie Brothers to follow his creative muse in pursuit of a solo career that, at the dawn of the 21st century, found him circling back to his acoustic “newgrass” roots.

“What we did back in the New Grass Revival days was unique,” he says. “Our vision was to take acoustic music somewhere new. What I’ve done with the John Cowan Band is try to recapture the magic of that ground-breaking experimentation and take it to the next level.”

The John Cowan Band, in various incarnations that inevitably feature some of acoustic music’s finest players, has been a force to be reckoned with these fifteen years – and counting. John is a fixture and a favorite at major festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and Wilkesboro, North Carolina’s “traditional-plus” MerleFest, and he routinely sells out performing arts theaters and distinguished music clubs and listening rooms around the country. Stints in his band have helped launch the careers of Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers), Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett), and Scott Vestal, among others. The band’s current lineup most often features long-time collaborator and outstanding flatpick guitarist Jeff Autry, renowned and in-demand fiddler Shad Cobb, and mandolinist extraordinaire John Frazier.

John also is known for mixing it up; his creative collaborations range from his 2012 MerleFest performance alongside Darrell Scott and Pat Simmons to appearances with Nashville favorites The Long Players and Grooveyard. On his 2010 recording, The Massenburg Sessions, John joined forces with legendary producer George Massenburg (Little Feat, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt and others) to craft a collection that has the warm, intimate feel of a living room jam. It features duets with Maura O’Connell and Del McCoury. Longtime friend and co-writer Darrell Scott composed the haunting melody for John’s autobiographical ballad “Drown” (New Tattoo), a harrowing and graphic tale of childhood sexual abuse. The song led to John becoming the 2006 national spokesperson for Safe Place, an organization that provides and promotes safety and healing for individuals and families affected by sexual and domestic violence. “Drown” was also used in a video featuring John and others telling their stories to promote Nashville-based Our Kids, which provides medical evaluations and crisis counseling in response to concerns of child sexual abuse. It’s an issue close to his heart and one about which he remains vocal.

These days, John Cowan fans have to wait a little longer between shows and possibly travel a little farther to get to them. That’s because he’s working his own performances into and around another very busy schedule. In 2010, the Doobie Brothers found themselves once again in need of a bass player, and John Cowan was the first person they called. He took the job, and now he travels the world with the Doobies, laying down the low notes and singing the high ones as they perform hits such as “Black Water,” “China Grove,” “Taking it to the Streets,” and “Listen to the Music” as well as new songs that showcase the relevancy of this iconic classic rock band.

“I love my ‘job’,” Cowan says. “I love these guys. I love being in a band – a great band – and I love playing music for people every night. I’m also very grateful for every opportunity I have to play my music with my own band for the fans that have been so loyal to me over the years. I don’t ever want to stop sharing my music with them.”

And as if two touring gigs didn’t keep him busy enough, in March of 2012, WSM Radio – home of The Grand Ole Opry – launched John Cowan – I Believe To My Soul, an hour-long radio program that airs monthly and features John interviewing and playing the music of some of the giants and legends of contemporary music. For example, his first guest was Leon Russell, whose catalog of songs includes timeless classics like “Masquerade” and “A Song For You,”  and whom Elton John names among his biggest influences. Season One of I Believe To My Soul features John’s former New Grass Revival band mate and world-renowned banjo innovator Bela Fleck; beloved singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell; Justin Hayward, lead singer and songwriter of Moody Blues fame; Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires; and many more.