Welcome to the first issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com, a new online monthly publication covering bluegrass, country, blues, gospel, folk and all manner of worthwhile, rootsy music, to coin a phrase. Compared to the mighty Wabash Cannonball shown in our logo, we are truly the little engine that could, being a small but nimble and experienced power source. We believe only the hardest of hard-core bluegrass purists will object to the range of music we cover under the bluegrass banner, because we believe every bit of music chronicled herein will be welcome in the homes of those who appreciate the work of artists for whom music is life, not a career option; music that elevates the spirit and lyrics that speak to the truth of getting through a day with body and soul intact, including the Right Rev. Little Richard’s “a-wop-boma-luma-belomp-bomp-bomp!” — truly an all-purpose cure for existential angst. Our main features in this premiere issue—The Punch Brothers, Willie Nelson, the acclaimed country and pop songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, an account of the Bluzapalooza tour of the U.S. military bases in the Middle East, and tributes to the late honky tonk giant Hank Thompson and the late Canadian blues great Jeff Healey—pretty much define where our hearts are at, and we will strive for a similar eclectic mix in future issues. Chapman’s moving story is not a traditional profile, but rather an account of her personal, near-lifelong exploration of faith and spirituality as reflected in her remarkable new double CD, Prism: A Human Songbook; it’s the first installment in a regular series called The Gospel Set, an examination of faith in music and music in faith, based on the well-founded theory that every good gospel show includes a gospel interlude. We offer two sections of reviews: one, Reviews, embraces bluegrass and country exclusively; the other, Beyond the Blue, surveys blues, jazz, gospel, folk and “all manner of rootsy, worthwhile music.” We have some interesting ideas percolating for future issues, and welcome our readers to join us for what we trust will be an interesting journey. Enjoy the scenic wonders. All aboard!
Cover Story: Knockout ‘Punch’
Chris Thile’s Bluegrass Odyssey Rolls With the Punch Brothers—From his auspicious debut as a member of Nickel Creek to his four solo albums to his new band, the Punch Brothers, Chris Thile has pushed the boundaries of bluegrass’s embrace of progressive musical elements. On the Punch Brothers’ Punch album, he takes an even bigger leap, fusing classical composition elements to hot picking and piercing lyrics born of a wrecked marriage to create a breathtaking four-movement bluegrass suite. In TheBluegrassSpecial.com cover story, Thile and fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher examine the whys and wherefores of Punch and Thile reflects on his own enthralling musical journey.
Bluzapalooza, the first blues concert tour to go to a war zone, shipped out to military bases in Iraq and Kuwait on April 1 to entertain our troops. Created and produced by St. John concert impresario Steve Simon and presented by Armed Forces Entertainment, this inaugural Bluzapalooza tour stars blues icon and four-time Blues Music Awards (BMA) nominee Bobby Rush, two-time BMA Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year Janiva Magness, Beale Street Entertainer of the Year Billy Gibson, and Tony Braunagel from The Phantom Blues Band heading the Bluzapalooza All-Stars Blues Band.Chip Eagle, publisher of Blues Revue, BluesWax, Dirty Linen and FolkWax, accompanied the Bluzapooloza tour to the Middle East as a roving reporter. He graciously contributed this report without compensation to TheBluegrassSpecial.com.
Willie Nelson. Damn Right.
The folks at Columbia/Legacy have raised the bar to a daunting standard with an awesome new Willie Nelson retrospective, One Hell Of a Ride, four CDs of inspired music representing more than 50 years in the saddle. A complete appraisal is offered, and in a sidebar feature, two discs of fundamental early Willie Nelson essential to every collection.
Contrasting Lives, Enduring Legacies:
Saluting Hank Thompson and Jeff Healey
Country music giant Hank Thompson passed away on Nov. 6, 2007, following a battle with lung cancer. The 82-year-old singer, songwriter and bandleader played his final concert on Oct. 8 on Hank Thompson Day in his naïve Waco, TX. TheBluegrassSpecial.com wasn’t around at the time to honor Hank, so we take time now to pay our respects. In the U.S., April 22 will see the release of Mess Of Blues, the final album from Canadian blues guitar great Jeff Healey, who died of cancer shortly after finishing the record. The 41-year-old Canadian, blinded as a baby by a rare form of cancer, lived for his music and his family. Both are richer for his presence, and diminished by his absence. In an exclusive interview with TheBluegrasSpecial.com, Healey’s long-time bass player, co-producer and confidant Alec Fraser reminisces about the Mess of Blues sessions and recalls Healey’s generous spirit.
THE GOSPEL SET with Beth Nielsen Chapman
On the theory that every good bluegrass show includes a gospel interlude, TheBluegrassSpecial.com offers a regular feature examining the role of faith, ethic and belief in and out of the music world. In the initial installment, Beth Nielsen Chapman discusses her journey to faith, as represented most recently, and most dramatically, on her two disc album, Prism: The Human Songbook. Inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu's concept of a common humanity, Prism: The Human Songbook explores the universal spiritual light infusing diverse religions, in nine different languages. Prism is the stuff of life, and Chapman’s finest hour, but getting here was not easy.
Amanda Shaw - Pretty Runs Out
16-year old Amanda Shaw writes with a wisdom befitting a more worldly lass, attacks the fiddle with a fluid, historically resonant style and sings in a husky, pixie-ish voice that is at once innocent and earthy, sort of a cross between Kasey Chambers and Deana Carter. She’s arrived, and she belongs.
The Waybacks - Loaded
The Waybacks’ primary musical touchstones remain bluegrass and country, but the band’s soul belongs to the San Francisco Bay Area it calls home. Consequently, Loaded’s idiomatic range embraces Commander Cody–esque honky tonk and Asleep at the Wheel-ish western swing and meanders as far afield as Gypsy jazz and Celtic sea shanties.
Carlene Carter - Stronger
Carlene Carter has survived it all and emerged with new purpose. Stronger, her first album of new material since 1995, is a mission statement that unflinchingly acknowledges the past while moving Carter into a dynamic present tense.
Longview - Deep In The Mountain
Retooled and re-energized, the bluegrass supergroup Longview hits a tape-measure blast in its first at-bat since 2002's exemplary Lessons in Stone long player. Good to have you back, fellas. Feels like the first time.
Blue Highway - Through The Window Of A Train
Not that Blue Highway hasn't been working on a higher plane all along, but on Through The Window Of a Train the quintet outdoes itself. Produced by the band at Maggard Sound in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the album resonates with a contemporary backwoods feel coupled to an urgency born of strong original material flush with social consciousness. It's compelling as both literature and music, a memorable achievement in every respect.
George Strait - Troubadour
George Strait's getting older. The years are creeping up on his once unlined, matinee idol face and in his graying hair. He leads off his new album with the title song, an unabashedly winsome ballad reflecting on the passing of time that sounds torn from a page in his diary, replete as it is with its acknowledgments of insecurities, the contrast between perception and reality when it comes to image and an embrace of the truth about himself: "I was a young troubadour when I rode in on a song/I'll be an old troubadour when I'm gone." Strait has never been so frankly personal on record before, but having opened a door into his inner sanctum he proceeds to guide visitors through its various chambers in the same unflinching manner he's adopted at the outset.
The Gibson Brothers - Iron & Diamonds
Who knew that Tom Petty could write a bluegrass come-on song? Eric and Leigh Gibson, that's who. The ever-more-impressive brother duo opens its fourth album with a feisty treatment of Petty's "Cabin Down Below.” The Gibsons are making a habit of finding first-rate material to cover, yet their own original songs, eight on this album, stand toe-to-toe with good work from others' pens.
Tim O'Brien - Chameleon / Gaudreau & Klein - 2:10 Train
Tim O’Brien (Chameleon) and the veteran duo of Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein (2:10 Train) offer bluegrass meditations in intimate, introspective, intensely personal settings.
Coming on the heels of Rhonda Vincent’s exhilarating Good Thing Going, the Steeldrivers’ surprising debut made January a banner month for bluegrass. The wow factor for this album is off the scales, whetting the appetite for more—much more.
Also reviewed: Lady Antebellum, George Strait, Dolly Parton, Rhonda Vincent, Blue Highway, Dailey & Vincent, Tift Merritt, Tim Hensley, Best Loved Bluegrass
David Honeyboy Edwards - Roamin' and Ramblin'by David McGee
An expansive tip of the hat goes to producer Michael Robert Frank for the inspired idea to recreate Delta blues giant David Honeyboy Edwards’s powerful early guitar-harmonica duo teamings, few of which were ever recorded. The performances here are so ferocious and the soundscape so live that Honeyboy seems present in the room, inveighing against all manner of hard-hearted womenfolk and last fair deals gone down.
Karan Casey - Ships In The Forest by Billy Altman
Lest anyone think there's even an ounce of hyperbolic blarney to the statement that singer Karan Casey is one of the brightest lights on the contemporary Celtic music scene, then perhaps the best way to begin discussing her latest CD Ships In The Forest is to say that her renditions here of "Black is the Colour (of My True Love's Hair)" and "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" will have you re-thinking songs you were sure you never wanted hear again in this and maybe even a few yet-to-come lifetimes.
Allison Moorer - Mockingbird
Produced by Buddy Miller, Mockingbird has atmosphere to burn, with shifting, swirling instrumental textures, a discreet use of electronics, and an admirably judicious use of strings to wring that extra bit of smoldering sensuality out of, say, a deliberately rendered inquisition into "Ring of Fire" or to enhance the winsome mood Moorer adopts in reinvigorating Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now."
The Kennedys - Better Dreams
With songs inspired by their dreams, Pete and Maura Kennedy meld '60s rock, folk and country into a stunning concept album that takes the listener from the footloose frolic of not-so-long-ago into a world of abridged civil liberties, before concluding on an upbeat note with a bracing appeal for peace.
Also reviewed: Bonnie Bramlett, Tom Paxton, Shelby Lynne, Anne Murray, Mando Saenz, Caroline Herring, Al Basile