LAURA CORTESE & THE DANCE CARDS

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards have a vision for their band’s sound: bold and elegant, schooled in the lyrical rituals of folk music and backed by grooves that alternately inspire Cajun two-stepping and rock-n-roll hip swagger. Cellist Valerie Thompson (cello/vox), fiddler Jenna Moynihan (fiddle/vox), and bassist Natalie Bohrn(bass/vox) pair their sophisticated string arrangements and rich vocal harmonies to band leader Laura Cortese’s poignant and powerful singing. For their forthcoming album, the band is exploring their special and less common instrumentation with the support of Sam Kassirer, album producer of folk-pop favorites like Lake Street Dive and Joy Kills Sorrow.

The new record has a wide emotional and sonic scope. The four voices are just as much instruments as they are providers for lyric and harmony. At times its rowdy, delicate and cinematic. The result is a sound that can start as a string band, and morph into a string quartet, female acappella group, or indie band; all while staying honest and true to their identity as folk instrumentalists. Watching them on the main stage at a summer folk festival, or tearing it up late-night at a club, you get the sense that they might snap some fiddle strings or punch a hole in the bass drum. This is post-folk that seriously rocks.

Cortese grew up in San Francisco and moved to Boston to study violin at Berklee College of Music. She has since immersed herself in the city’s vibrant indie music scene and enjoyed a busy sideman career, which has included appearances with Band of Horses at Carnegie Hall, Pete Seeger at Newport Folk Festival, and Patterson Hood and Michael Franti for Seeger’s ninetieth birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. Her vocals and fiddle have been featured prominently on numerous albums including Rose Cousin’s Juno award winning album “We have Made a Spark”, Arc Iris fronted by Jocie Adams (Formerly of the Low Anthem) and on “Wild Flowers” the newest release by Belgium based Bony King.

Jenna Moynihan is an acclaimed fiddler at the forefront of a new generation of acoustic musicians and is a graduate of Berklee College of Music. Her unique style is rooted in the Scottish tradition, with influences from the sounds of Appalachia. Jenna’s love of the music has taken her across the U.S., Canada, France & Scotland, performing with various groups including Darol Anger, The Folk Arts Quartet, Atlantic Seaway, Matt Glaser, Våsen, Hamish Napier (Back of the Moon), Maeve Gilchrist, Bruce Molsky, Fletcher Bright, Courtney Hartman (Della Mae), at Festival InterCeltique (Brittany, France), Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and as a soloist with Hayley Westenra (Celtic Woman) at Symphony Hall in Boston.

Cellist-songwriter-composer, Valerie Thompson, grew up a classical cellist in a household filled with the music of Bach, The Beatles, The Chieftains and the blues. Entranced by dance music in her teens, she supplemented her formal cello studies by attending summer folk camps and studying Irish step-dance and American clogging. She graduated with honors from the Berklee College of Music and holds a Masters of Music in Contemporary Improvisation from New England Conservatory with honors. She has shared the stage with acclaimed jazz pianist, Fred Hersch; indie-rock icon, Amanda Palmer; multimedia artist, Christopher Janney; and CMH Records’, Vitamin String Quartet (including a guest appearance on CW’s TV show, Gossip Girl.) In addition to performing with the Dance Cards, Valerie has toured nationally and internationally with musical projects Fluttr Effect (world music-infused progressive rock,) Long Time Courting (neo-traditional Irish/ American quartet) and Goli (songdriven chamber duo).

Natalie Bohrn is a 2014 graduate of Brandon University’s School of Music. In 2012 Natalie was included among the Women of Distinction at Brandon University, selected by her teachers for her outstanding contribution as a musician to the school and to the province of Manitoba. Before obtaining her degree in 2014, Natalie Bohrn toured professionally across Canada, including points as disparate as the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and St. John’s, Newfoundland. Supporting Canadian post-folk band Fish & Bird, she has played in California, Boston and New York. Graduating from Brandon University “With Great Distinction” in May, 2014 and moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Natalie now fronts her own project, records as a session bassist, and plays electric and upright bass for a host of Winnipeg-based bands, including internationally touring folk-blues outfit, The Crooked Brothers.

The Earls of Leicester take the Top Honor

THE EARLS OF LEICESTER TAKE THE TOP HONOR OF
“ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR”
AT THE 2017 IBMA AWARDS SHOW

 

AirPlay Direct is pleased to announce that Rounder Records recording artist, and AirPlay Direct Artist Endorsee Jerry Douglas and The Earls of Leicester took the top honor of “Entertainer of the Year” at the 2017 IBMA Awards Show.  And, it doesn’t stop there.  The incredible voice of the Earls, Shawn Camp, took home the very well deserved “Male Vocalist of the Year” Award.”

Jerry Douglas states, “It’s always a pleasure coming to IBMA’s, and we’re thrilled and honored to win the Entertainer of the Year Award.  Personally, I loved it that so many young people where winning awards last night.  Things are moving in the right direction for bluegrass.”

“It was a true honor to win the Male Vocalist of the year,” says Shawn Camp.  “It was especially humbling to win this award after seeing greats like Hazel & Alice, Roland White, and my favorite fiddle player Bobby Hicks get inducted in to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.  Without those folks, I don’t know if I’d be here.”

Another highlight of the event was when Earls of Leicester performed alongside Bluegrass 45, a Japanese bluegrass band celebrating their 50th Anniversary. They performed the Flatt & Scruggs classic “Salty Dog”.  The performance was one of the highlights of the evening with energy and comic relief.  It consisted of plenty of bowing to each band and even audience participation with the crowd chanting the Japanese version of a dog bark which is pronounced “wan-wan.”

“We are very proud of the on-going accomplishments and awards granted our Artist Endorsee Jerry Douglas and this incredible group of musicians,” says Lynda Weingartz, CEO – AirPlay Direct.   “I have known Shawn for many years now, and I am never surprised, but always proud of his talent and successes. Congratulations to everyone on The Earls of Leicester team that greatly contributed to the success of the band this year.”

 

About AirPlay Direct:  AirPlay Direct is the premiere digital delivery / distribution company, brand and platform for engaging radio and airplay worldwide.  AirPlay Direct is a professional B2B music business environment for artists, labels, publishing companies, radio promotion firms, PR / Media firms, etc.

 

AirPlay Direct currently has 10,000+ radio station members over 90 countries, and also serves over 42,000 artist / label members globally on a daily basis.  AirPlay Direct currently operates and services the largest global independent radio distribution network in the world with respect to Americana, Bluegrass, Folk, Blues, Alt. Country, Roots Music, etc.  AirPlayDirect.com

Kim Robins

Kim Robins has blended the sounds of hardcore traditional and progressive bluegrass to produce her debut CD, 40 Years Late – a collection of intimate stories that reflect Robins’ own journey as told through a mix of original songs and remakes of bluegrass and country legends.

Born into a musical family and singing from the age of five in church and in her father’s band, Robins was influenced largely by the music of Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, Ray Price, Bill Monroe, and Barbara Mandrell. She was an original member, and the youngest, of the Little Nashville Opry in Nashville, Indiana. Her mother’s encouragement that she practice daily and sing loud paid off as she traveled all over the country, opening for legends such as Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Barbara Mandrell and The Oak Ridge Boys.

Robins grew up with music in her veins but, at age 19, gave her first love a backseat to a new love – her baby girl. After earning two college degrees, single handedly raising her daughter and establishing a career, Robins met and married renowned banjo player Butch Robins – and her dream of performing music was reignited. With Butch’s encouragement, she started writing music and finding venues to showcase her powerful vocals – starting with singing backup harmony with bluegrass band Misty Stevens and Reminisce Road. Since then, Robins has gained attention with her high-energy, contemporary sound, performing at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America, The Folk Alliance in Memphis, and opening for Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice at the Historic Jonesborough Bluegrass Series.

All at once feminine yet fierce, transparent yet tough, vulnerable yet versatile, 40 Years Late includes 12 songs that center on the theme of heartbreak and redemption. Of the seven which were written by Robins herself, the title track deals with the heartache and redemption of the relationship between a little girl and her father, and of the heartache and redemption of putting passions on hold. With a hint to her years on the road as a medical sales rep, dreaming of one day being able to perform music again, it speaks to anyone who has given a back seat to dreams:

And years out on the highway has brought me where I am today
We all have a dream but some of us must wait
But we are all defined by the choices that we make
This time I’m gonna make it work, I’m just 40 years late.

Others, of course, deal with romantic heartache and of grace both extended and received. In “It’s Me Again,” written by Sheila Stephen and Jerry Salley, Robins sings from the point of view of a betrayed lover:                    

When the touch you left me for
Don’t satisfy you anymore
You’ll close your eyes and you’ll pretend
It’s me again.

And, in her original “Cry,” she sings from the point of view of the betrayer:                    

I tried a million times to tell him but I couldn’t find a way out
They say the truth is hidden in a lie
Until a warm night in autumn, at a motel close to our home
The truth I no longer could deny

Traditional bluegrass fans will enjoy remakes of the likes of Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, and Porter Wagoner, and should keep an ear open for some humor as well. In a tribute to her idol Connie Smith, “I’ve Got My Baby On My Mind,” Robins sneaks in Smith’s trademark hiccup. 

Lastly, the CD comes full circle with a bonus track featuring the man who originally ignited Robins’ love for bluegrass – her 82 year-old father — and the man who fanned the flame forty years later – bluegrass great Butch Robins. Of his original album’s namesake, Butch Robins says Kim Robins’ 40 Years Late is in the top 25% of all first time efforts he has ever heard.

Robins has managed to assemble a team for 40 Years Late to produce a sound that is both impeccable and ingenious —  legendary musicians including Butch Robins on banjo; Michael Cleveland, International Bluegrass Music Association’s nine-time Fiddle Performer of the Year; Jeff Guernsey, former fiddle player for Vince Gill, on guitar; and Lynn Manzenberger, formerly with The Wildwood Valley Boys, on bass. Cleveland’s mandolin player, Nathan Livers, also played on several tracks.  Richard Torstrick engineered and co-produced 40 Years Late, and local favorites Mark Stonecipher, Mike Curtis, Seth Mulder, Misty Stevens and Kent Todd of Blue Mafia also contributed.

Jeff Guernsey says “There is something for everyone, from traditionalist to progressive bluegrass lovers.”

Now married to businessman and college basketball official Mark Gines, Robins resides in her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, balancing her career as Registered Nurse for a Wound Care Physician, with time enjoyed with her husband, daughter, two stepsons, and two grandchildren. And, some forty years after she started, she is writing, recording, and performing music — proving that, sometimes, even forty years late is right on time.

Stuart Wyrick – East Tennessee Sunrise

Wyrick has played banjo with a number of bluegrass groups including the Dale Ann Bradley Band and Brand New Strings and is now a member of Flashback.
His new solo release features top–name bluegrass musicians and a host
of excellent singers.

No one sings “Walking the Floor Over You” like its composer, Ernest Tubb. Originally recorded with just Tubb and Fay “Smitty” Smith on electric guitar, he re–recorded it with the Troubadors. Fiddler Bobby Atcheson doesn’t get air time in this version of Tubb’s many renditions but Tim Crouch shares the kickoff on Wyrick’s version with Keith Garrett singing lead and Kenny Smith covering Billy Byrd’s spot on lead guitar.

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The Bucking Mules – Smoke Behind the Clouds

The most satisfying Old-time sounds are the ones that hit you straight as an arrow. It’s the fervently rendered tune that transports you to another time and place, but doesn’t allow you to forget that the players are fashioning a deep groove right here and right now. It’s the honest, uncompromised blending of voices in harmony, never watered down by flashy production or a motivation beyond breathing new life into old stories and songs.

This purity of presence is the bread and butter of straight-shooting stringband The Bucking Mules. On their new full-length album “Smoke Behind the Clouds” (April 2017, Free Dirt Records), the Mules treat 17 mostly traditional tracks with their characteristic throw-down groove. They traverse the traditional musical landscape of the Cumberland Plateau, the Tennessee River Valley, the Blue Ridge, and beyond, weaving together a meditation on the region.

Recorded at an old farmhouse in the rolling hills of Floyd, Virginia, “Smoke Behind the Clouds” was self-produced by The Mules with band member Joseph DeJarnette at the helm in the studio. Recorded live—face-to-face in one room—the album unfolds in real time; listeners can trace each spark and hear the band remap familiar ground. “Smoke Behind the Clouds” serves as a mission statement on the organic collaboration and creative process that The Bucking Mules hold dear in their performance of Old-time songs and tunes.


The Bucking Mules consist of some of the finest players on the Old-time scene today: Joseph Decosimo (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Karen Celia Heil (guitar, vocals), Luke Richardson (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, vocals), and Joseph “Joe Bass” DeJarnette (bass). The band cut their teeth in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, paying their dues with elder master musicians and old 78s. Dedicated to teaching the music, they are in-demand at workshops and music camps around the world. Decosimo, a folklorist, specializes in Old-time music.

The result is a group of well-studied musicians with a deep, scholarly understanding of the region’s musical traditions. Yet they distill this reverence for the past into a driving, heartfelt sound—one tailored for contemporary fans of folk, bluegrass, Americana, and more. The Bucking Mules are a backbone in the Old-time community, known for their joyous force in conveying the spirit of this music, but their powerhouse performances continue to win over audiences far beyond that niche. They know how to bust down on a fiddle tune, belt an old song, and move square dancers just as well as they know historic origins and intricacies.

On “Smoke Behind the Clouds,” the group is in conversation with one another, effortlessly trading fiddle, banjo, and harmonica lines like banter between old friends. After all, The Mules are a band born from sitting knee to knee at traditional music gatherings and sharing music, lives, and laughter together deep into the night. This connectedness–to one another, and from the present to past–makes “Smoke Behind the Clouds” an exuberant listen. Favoring joy and simplicity over pretense, The Bucking Mules remind us why this music should never be cast aside as they carve out their place in making sure that it isn’t.

Noam Pikelny

Universal Favorite is the fourth record Noam Pikelny has released under his own name, but it’s truly his solo debut. His previous efforts—including 2011’s Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail and 2014’s landmark Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe—were full-band affairs that revealed his abilities as a dynamic bandleader while reinforcing his reputation as an inventive accompanist. The new release features only the man himself, playing lovely originals and covers that showcase his unique approach to the instrument and compositional flair. He recorded them live in the studio without accompaniment, coaxing a wide array of sounds and colors out of his instruments, embracing the challenges and exploring the new possibilities of the solo setting.

And, for the first time in his long and illustrious career, Pikelny even sings. It turns out he has a striking deadpan baritone that conveys humor and melancholy in equal measure. This album, he says, is “my musical manifesto. It’s the most personal statement I’ve put forward. The setting couldn’t be more stark and I think it lays bare my musical core. At times it’s autobiographical, as these songs I gathered illuminate the path I’ve traveled so far. Most importantly, it’s an incredibly honest solo album, in that there are honestly no other people on this record other than me.”

The idea for this sort-of-debut was born out of a solo tour Pikelny launched in early 2016. Punch Brothers—the Americana supergroup he co-founded in 2006 were taking a break after the release of their innovative 2015 album Phosphorescent Blues, and he took the opportunity to play some shows by himself. “It’s hard to say whether I started doing the one-man solo show because my bandmates were starting families, or if they were starting families because I was doing solo shows and were then inspired to seek greater meaning in their lives as well? We’ll never know, because when someone tells you that they’re having a baby, the proper response is not, ‘Why?’”

It was, however, not simply a case of a sideman taking centerstage. Pikelny may be a seasoned musician—arguably the finest banjoist of his generation, a three-time Grammy nominee and the winner of the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass—but he realized that his experience was solely with duos, trios, quartets, and quintets. “I had never played solo on stage—not even for a song. Not once in my life. I never really thought of the banjo as much of a solo instrument; I thought it shone best in collaboration. It began to dawn upon me that if I was instead playing piano comfortably in a five-piece band, I would likely see the piano as an unsuitable solo instrument. Eventually I realized that this was a cop-out and that any good musician, if he finds himself in front of a room full of people, should be able to hold his own with just his instrument and his voice. It was clear to me: If I can stand on stage with a five-piece band to a sold-out Beacon Theater, why couldn’t I stand on stage solo and play to a nearly empty bar?”

He proved that much and more with the tour, for which he assembled a loose set list of new originals and carefully chosen covers by Josh Ritter, Elliott Smith, Roy Acuff, and Roger Miller. “Taking the show on the road really helped break the ice for me. I was able to see the reactions on people’s faces and test the material to see what worked and what didn’t. Having an audience to teach me how to do this was crucial to the process. It confirmed that there was something here, something special and personal that I could deliver in this intimate setting.” Playing solo allowed Pikelny to reconsider the banjo and how he played it, to develop new techniques and new compositional strategies. During a solo set, “you get to hear the banjo in so much detail, and I think there were some surprising elements that people don’t expect. Most people think the banjo is such a staccato instrument where the notes just die immediately, but I had a rare opportunity to exploit the warmth and sustain a banjo can have.”

In Fall 2016 he took those songs into the studio with his fellow Punch Brother, Gabe Witcher producing and longtime Punch engineer, Dave Sinko recording. Otherwise, Universal Favorite is all Pikelny. Opener “Waveland,” named after a street behind the leftfield wall of Wrigley Field, is the sound of a curtain rising, his fingers spidering over the frets, notes like scalloped edges of a great proscenium arch, leading into “Old Banjo” like a dramatic monologue. While he has never been tied to a whipping post after buying wine in Lynchburg, Virginia, the song has personal meaning for the player, as it is one he has been listening to and playing for most of his life. “That song was the very first track on the very first album I ever personally owned. When I was eight, my dad took me to a record store and he bought me this record by a Chicago folk singer named Fleming Brown, called The Little Rosewood Casket… and Other Songs of Joy. That should give you a picture of how my musical life started. It explains a lot. I still have a copy of that album, with my eight-year-old’s handwriting on the back: Property of Noam Pikelny.”

These are highly personal songs—not in the confessional mode, but in a way that maps his adventurous and wide-ranging tastes. He first performed Josh Ritter’s “Folk Bloodbath”—a clever and ultimately heart-rending mash-up of several old murder ballads—when Punch Brothers opened for the Idaho-born singer-songwriter in Boston a few years ago, and joined him on stage for the encore. Understated and thoughtful, Pikelny’s version hinges on his deep voice and thoughtful choice of instrument. “I’ve been told many times that the key to singing is finding material that suits your voice. Well, my voice has been described as funerary, and this song offers some serious bang for its buck. Exceptional funerary value.”


To convey the sense of mystery in that song, he chose an unusual instrument: a resophonic four-string guitar made by National in the 1920s. “It has three metal cones acting as the soundboard. I stumbled upon one once at a guitar shop and was impressed with its ethereal and velvety tone. I did some research on it, and one of the experts on these instruments said this model, when it was introduced in the 1920s, ‘served no musical purpose and that remains true to this day.’ So of course, I had to have it!”

An obsessive collector of vintage instruments, Pikelny is fascinated by the insights they provide into bygone days—the way these objects connect the present with the past. He chose the instruments on Universal Favorite carefully, including the ’53 Fender Telecaster on “My Tears Don’t Show” and the ’38 Kalamazoo KG-11 flat-top guitar on “Sweet Sunny South.” Most of the album was performed on a Gibson banjo that was made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1941, but was found in the 1980s in a pawnshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, and repatriated back to the U.S. Its tone is rich and earthy, and its tale is captivating: How did this object travel halfway around the world and back again? “Each of these instruments has a unique story and has known the world much longer than I have. Picking them up makes me feel more connected with generations that have come before. Perhaps this bond with old instruments that are filled with character and charisma makes performing solo feel less lonely.”

In fact, the album title was inspired by a banjo made around the turn of the century by the S.S. Stewart company. It was their most popular model of the era, so they named it “Universal Favorite”—a bold marketing move that more than 100 years later elicited a laugh from Pikelny. “I stumbled upon an old catalog of theirs and saw the words ‘Universal Favorite’ and thought, ‘That is the most audacious thing I’ve ever seen. Who would have the gall to make a product and officially name it ‘Universal Favorite?’’”

Universal Favorite carries a great deal of history, yet it remains relevant and bears the artist’s own innovative touch. “I’ve always loved the ability of a great bluegrass or country song to conjure up days gone by but simultaneously be current and ripe for reinterpretation. And the real power is that when music really does its job, when it fully resonates, our world becomes more interconnected. It cultivates a community of people who share in that response. That community can be encapsulated on stage within an orchestra or within a five-piece band. That bond can be between one person standing alone onstage and the people in audience.”

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Croweology – Rickey Wasson

Remarkable is the only way to describe Ron Stewart’s banjo playing on Croweology. Another New South alum, Ron probably remembers more Crowe licks than J.D. himself, and he displays that monumental vocabulary across all 13 tracks. Playing fiddle with Crowe for years has allowed Ron to not only play like his idol, but think like him as well. Banjo players will be poring over this CD for years trying to pick up what Stewart knows. Most pickers would shrink from stepping into Crowe’s shoes, but Ron plainly revels in it.

Blue Highway – Original Traditional

Blue Highway have been one of the most well-respected bands in bluegrass since they made their debut in 1996, and with the group’s consistent excellence on-stage and in the studio, there hasn’t been much in the way of change in their story. 2016’s Original Traditional actually marks a turning point in Blue Highway‘s career as they celebrate their 20th Anniversary — it’s their first album since Dobro master and founding member Rob Ickes left the group, and introduces Gaven Largent, a gifted 19-year-old picker making his debut with the band. (All the more remarkably, this is only the second personnel change in the group’s history, and Largent is the only current member of Blue Highway who didn’t appear on their debut album.) It’s a compliment to Largent to say that many fans might not notice the difference; the young man’s Dobro solos on numbers like “If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me,” “Last Time I’ll Ever Leave This Town,” and “She Ain’t Worth It” are technically impressive and melodically sound, and fit these songs like a glove. Elsewhere, Original Traditional finds Blue Highway doing what’s made them bluegrass legends; the group’s instrumental work is uniformly excellent, with tight ensemble picking and great soloing from Jason Burleson on banjo, Shawn Lane on fiddle and mandolin, and Tim Stafford on guitar. The band’s outstanding harmonies are still in excellent shape (their a cappella version of the gospel standard “Hallelujah” is one of this album’s highlights), and the lead vocals from Stafford, Lane, and bassist Wayne Taylor are strong and sincere. And as the title suggests, Original Traditional testifies to Blue Highway‘s gift for bringing fresh ideas to music that still honors the roots of bluegrass, with 11 original songs that deal with subjects as old as love gone wrong, and as urgent as a young man running from a life of abuse and desperation. Not many groups in any genre can sound as fresh and vital after two decades together as Blue Highway do on Original Traditional, and if another 20 years might seem overly optimistic, there’s no audible reason why this group shouldn’t have at least another good decade of heartfelt music in them.

Rayna Gellert

Rayna Gellert grew up in a musical family, and has spent most of her life immersed in the sounds of rural stringband music, heartfelt gospel songs, and old ballads. After honing her fiddle skills playing at jam sessions and square dances, Rayna fell into a life of traveling and performing. Her fiddle albums are widely celebrated in the old-time music community, and she has recorded with a host of musicians in a variety of styles – including Robyn Hitchcock, Tyler Ramsey, Sara Watkins, Loudon Wainwright III, John Paul Jones, and Abigail Washburn. From 2003 through 2008, Rayna was a member of the acclaimed stringband Uncle Earl, with whom she released two albums on Rounder Records and toured like mad. In 2010, she met songwriter Scott Miller, and they began performing and recording together. In 2012, Rayna released her first vocal album, Old Light: Songs from my Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, on StorySound Records. She lives in Swannanoa, North Carolina.

 

 

It’s taken Rayna Gellert some time to follow up on that album, though, but this new seven-tracker, Workin’s Too Hard, has clearly been worth the wait.

David Kidman@”FRUK”

While accepting the importance of her role in conserving and protecting the old-time tradition, Rayna didn’t want to fall into the same trap as her father in becoming obsessed with traditional music to the exclusion of finding her own voice. “Eventually I realised that my job is to play music I love, which is bigger than protecting any one concept of tradition. I realised I was an artist, and I wanted to claim that.” The light-bulb moment came with the creation of the Old Light album, where Rayna showed that deep immersion in our musical past can bring a collision between cultural and personal memory, giving rise to a new tradition of her own devising. As evidenced in the disc’s title song, where her imagination is triggered by the memory of lyric snippets from a 1937 Kentucky field recording. One of the disc’s standout tracks for me is the wistful waltzer River Town, where the collision of heartbreaking personal memories is at its most haunting. It’s one of two songs which turn out to be jointly penned by Rayna Gellert and her co-producer Kieran Kane – the other being Grey Bird, which draws additionally on traditional lyrics for its expression of timeless yearning. Strike The Bells poignantly explores old age, and both complements and contrasts with Perry, which simply but powerfully distills the essence of a universal truth.

Perry is the disc’s other major triumph in a whole disc of high points, and, coincidentally, it’s one of only two songs to include the sound of the fiddle in its instrumental backing. Here, it’s joined by just a lone piano in a distinctive departure from the muted, largely guitar-and-soft-keys-based scoring of the rest of the record. Its primitive, yet slightly eerie retro signature sound owes much to the low-key, intensely live real-time feel of the recording (all credit due to engineer Charles Yingling) and the empathic playing of long-time musical friends Kai Welch, Jamie Dick and Kieran Kane. As well as three of Rayna’s own compositions and the two aforementioned co-writes, the album also contains two traditional songs, Oh Lovin’ Babe and I’m Bound For The Promised Land; the former is given a mysterious, almost reverential aura with gentle supporting vocal harmonies, whereas the latter, rather intriguingly, comes across like darkly grungy and surprisingly dirty rockabilly and sports a raw, grinding fiddle solo.

 

Workin’s Too Hard is a warmly inclusive and rather special record, with a feeling of back porch intimacy that at times recalls (but nowhere apes) Gillian Welch’s landmark Revival sessions. But Rayna’s vision has its own unique perspective and atmosphere. The distinctive and memorable music and songwriting on Workin’s Too Hard sure left me wanting much more, and I do hope Rayna can get it all together again soon.

 

Kenny & Amanda Smith – Unbound

In the late 1940s through the ’50s, a style of American jazz music emerged that came to be know as cool jazz, characterized by more restrained and subtle soloing, and less hectic arrangements than the be-bop era that had preceded it. All the elements of jazz were present – improvisation, complex harmony, adventurous melodies – but absent the hard edges and somewhat frantic sound of be-bop.
Artists like Miles Davis, who had been a bop guy himself, carried the cool jazz torch, as did others like Dave Brubeck, John Lewis, and George Shearing who recorded in this more accessible jazz idiom, finding tremendous commercial success during the audiophile boom in the 1950s and ’60s.
I thought of cool jazz this week listening to Unbound, the new release from Kenny & Amanda Smith on their Farm Boy Records label. It’s almost the exact approach they take, smoothing all the rough edges on their decidedly bluegrass style, producing a subdued, calm-and-calming sound 180 degrees out from the equally charming vibe of The Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe.
But unlike most “bluegrass for people who don’t like bluegrass,” it retains all the virtuosity, rhythmic precision, and intrepid spirit that we’ve all come to expect from contemporary bluegrass, without the anemic, “sad girl with guitar” despond that gums up so much modern acoustic music.
In short, Unbound is a brilliant recording. It finds Amanda Smith’s captivating voice supported by her husband Kenny, and his understated but powerful guitar on 13 finely-crafted, carefully-chosen new songs. All of the singing is lovely – Amanda’s leads are enthralling, with her tone fully covered, and never blaring – and ethereal three-part harmony provided by Kenny and Wayne Winkle. All the songs were cut with what is essentially their road band, Jacob Burleson on mandolin, and Justin Jenkins on banjo, with Kyle Perkins on bass.
The opening track, You Know That I Would, which has been dominating our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay chart this past few weeks, sets the tone for the project. Starting with an easygoing guitar strum and a mandolin chop, Amanda’s voice quickly comes in with Ed Williams’ lyrics about the sort of deep and abiding love that makes you long to do everything in your power to make your beloved as happy and fulfilled as possible. Everything is low key, and sumptuous.
Dennis K Duff, who has written several for Darin & Brooke Aldridge, contributes a pair of moving songs that shine with the Kenny & Amanda treatment. The title track is his, along with perhaps the album’s most memorable song, Hills Of Logan County, written with Lisa Shaffer. It’s a Civil War ballad about young lovers separated by the fighting. From the start, you get the feeling that this will be a desperately sad story, which it is, but with a twist in the final verse. There’s a special knack to creating a sorrowful number that is starkly beautiful at the same time, and both Dennis and Lisa, and Kenny and Amanda, pull it off here.
Other strong songs include Something’s Missing from Sally Barris, and Reaching Out from Elli Lowe, both looks at lost or nearly-lost love, and I Don’t Want To Fall from Mark Morton and Jimmy Alan Stewart, a reflection on the fear we feel when realizing that love is working on our heart. The vocals on this last are so delicate and light, it sounds like they’re barely breathing.
Special credit goes to the Smiths for finding a Gordon Lightfoot song suitable for a bluegrass arrangement not yet recorded by Tony Rice. Wherefore And Why first appeared on Lightfoot’s 1968 album, Did She Mention My Name, and it gets a sprightly grassification from this talented duo and their crack band. Listen closely to the vocals in the final chorus.
Kenny also gets to sing a couple on Unbound, Barry Bales and Craig Market’s Preaching My Own Funeral, and Tea Party, performed with just voices and guitar, a song by Roger Helton about the joys of raising a baby girl, which has been these two’s occupation this past year.
So do we dub Kenny & Amanda Smith the progenitors of cool grass? Not sure that needs to be done, but there’s no doubt that they are pioneering they own kind of bluegrass, with a smooth, controlled sound that really sets them apart.
You’ll want this one in your collection.