may 2008

Cover Story: Dream Ticket
Amanda Shaw and Sierra Hull: Yes, We Can!
Advancing the Youth Agenda in Traditional Music

This is a story of two young ladies, both slightly beyond their mid-teens, both ordinary teenagers in many respects, both extraordinarily gifted musicians by any measure who also happen to be in the spotlight now with new albums on the Rounder label that position them in the forefront of a burgeoning embrace of traditional music by young people in this country (a topic to be addressed more fully in next month’s issue). Moreover, as females they are charging into male-dominated fields and becoming pioneering role models for others of their generation and sex. They are serious, dedicated musicians with a keen sense of history, musical and otherwise, and both have reached out to their communities to make a life a little better for those around them. Both are impressively articulate in conversation, speaking in complete, slang-free sentences, answering questions with thoughtful responses revealing admirable common sense and a strong moral code guiding their actions and aspirations. The past lives in Amanda Shaw and Sierra Hull, but the future is what they’re all about. We take a look at their lives and careers, let them speak for themselves, and offer as well informed perspectives on their artistry courtesy, respectively, Scott Billington and Ron Block, who produced their impressive new albums and guided them through rigorous pre-production sessions leading up to the actual recording. (Cover photo of Amanda Shaw by Alicia Zappier)

Bonnie Bramlett Gets An Amen To That
One of the all-time great blue-eyed soul singers is back, doing what she does best, and with a cast of familiar characters from her illustrious past pitching in. On her stirring new album, the aptly titled Beautiful, Bonnie Bramlett teams again with producer Johnny Sandlin, and digs into some well-crafted songs by the likes of Dan Penn, Gary Nicholson, Stephen Stills and even her own gifted vocalist daughter Bekka. The topics she sings of include intolerance, both racial and religious, and the spiritual quest. This isn’t business, it’s personal, especially when she channels Dinah Washington on the torchy title track. Some days she doesn’t know one end of a phone receiver from another (we explain why in the story), but when that voice of hers makes its presence known, it shakes somethin’ loose. It’s a beautiful thing, and so is Sweet Bonnie Bramlett.

Radney Foster in ’08: Behind the Board, On the Boards
It’s been more than two years since Radney Foster, one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, has released a new solo album, and another year may yet pass before a new RF long player surfaces. But Foster’s low profile should not be mistaken for inactivity, or lack of inspiration, or even a well-earned sabbatical. In fact, last year found his songs showing up on CDs by six different artists, and he added to his producer’s resume by helming two tracks for Brandon Rhyder’s live album, as well as co-writing a single off the album. This year he’s got two more big production jobs going, one with the Randy Rogers Band, the other on half of a new album by one of his favorite artists, Jack Ingram. And besides that, he’s doing some select live dates with guitarist Eric Borash to try out some new songs he’s written for a new album he hopes to release in early ’09. We checked in with Foster for an update on all things Radney.

Moreland & Arbuckle: A Hill Country Rumbling
A word of caution to anyone approaching Moreland & Arbuckle's 1861: if you're standing, brace yourself; if you're sitting, strap in. 1861 is one of the fiercest blues assaults leveled on mortal man in many a year. Moreland & Arbuckle are actually a trio (rounded out by drummer Brad Horner) that calls Kansas home, 1861 marking the state’s entry into the union. A common misconception is that Kansas is flat, but in fact it has its own hill country, as surely as does Mississippi, and M&A happen to be the finest blues trio to emerge on the scene since the North Mississippi All-Stars came charging out of the Coldwater hill country in the '90s.

We remember Eddy Arnold, Dan Federici, Sean Costello and Jerry Wallace, and take a look at a new approach to energy conservation by way of the Pleasant Revolution Bicycle Tour featuring indie rock bands Ginger Ninjas and SHAKE YOUR PEACE!, whose itinerary has taken them, by bicycle, from the Sierra Nevada mountains through southern California, into Baja and eventually Mexico City, playing shows, recording music with local musicians, and advocating a leapfrog-style transition to sustainable transportation. Their sound system is mounted on their bikes, and works by foot power, when random fans are recruited to pedal throughout the show, thus powering the JBL loudspeakers mounted on the bands’ specially constructed Xtracycles.

THE GOSPEL SET will return next month, with Jeremiah Lockwood

Secrets: The first we hear from 16-year-old Sierra Hull on her debut album is a quick pair of delicate, descending mandolin lines that run back up the neck before she enters asserting in a high, sweet, crystalline voice, “No one else will ever know/This is how these passions always grow…” in the Kevin McClung-penned title song. All of this is pure Sierra—the seamless, confident instrumental work, the uncommonly expressive voice of tender years suggesting a well of complex feelings about to overflow in an ache of classic dimensions.

Bound to Ride: The Best of Larry Sparks: Larry Sparks is one of the greatest bluegrass vocalists of all time, and this splendid 14-song overview does his artistry proud. This is as smart a "best of" package that's come down the pike in some time. As with any artist of Larry Sparks's stature, though, the good news to report is that there's a lot more where this comes from.

Best of the Vetco Years: Dave Evans fully inhabits every song he sings, almost to a frightening point. He burrows so deep into sad songs that they threaten to collapse in on themselves, like musical black holes. But unlike the black holes in our galaxy, plenty of energy and light escapes from these musical counterparts, thanks to the ineluctable power of Evans’s deeply committed readings. He simply will not deny his listeners a chance to experience the full range of life described in the turmoil and exultation of his narratives. Having acquired the tapes of Evans’s first two albums, released in 1979 and 1980 on the long-defunct Cincinnati-based Vetco label, Rebel has repackaged a sampling of 15 cuts from those essential long players into one powerful single disc survey.

Greatest Hits/Every Mile A Memory 2003-2006: More so than many of his contemporaries who have risen to arena-level popularity, Dierks Bentley has never forgotten to take his cues from country first, and let the rock propulsion drive but not overshadow the content of his music. His is state-of-the-art mainstream country, with a generous helping of acoustic instruments and crying pedal steel supporting Bentley’s gritty, personable baritone. Like George Strait, he’s covered the waterfront of feelings, and done so credibly—enough to have notched 10 top 10 singles and five chart toppers in a mere five years. For his first of what will likely be many volumes of greatest hits, Bentley shows off what he brung to the dance.

Prayer of a Common Man: Five cuts into his intriguing new album, Phil Vassar offers the title song. Whenever it was written, it couldn’t be more appropriate for a moment in time when 70 percent of Americans are telling pollsters our Republic is headed in the wrong direction. Anger is a seldom-explored theme in Vassar’s immaculately crafted tunes, but there is anger aplenty on this long player.

My Life’s Been a Country Song: For his fourth album, Chris Cagle has delivered a mostly high-octane workout heavy on the wailing guitars and thundering percussion of '80s arena rock, all in service to meaty songs in which he sounds personally invested. Co-produced by Cagle and the estimable Scott Hendricks, My Life's Been a Country Song puts the music and the message together in compelling fashion, suggesting that Chris Cagle is on the verge of something big.

Bluegrass Smash Hits, Volume 1: The title may seem comical, or at the least ironic, but in the bluegrass world certain songs do indeed qualify as “smash hits.” Those would be far more in number than the 16 generous tracks here (which encompass a sweep of history dating from the mid-19th Century up to the present day), but they certainly would include de rigeur warhorses such as the furious fiddle workout that is the traditional “Sally Goodin’” and the Stanley Brothers’ keening rouser, “Little Maggie,” a showcase for spitfire banjo and breakneck fiddle soloing. The Mashville Brigade quintet makes its album debut in exemplary fashion here, showing an ease and fluidity in its playing befitting its members’ pedigrees.

Mountain Tracks: Volume 5: Continuing an ongoing documentation of its live shows, the Yonder Mountain String Band returns with Volume 5, two discs of live performances. The first is a frenetic show that has reached legendary proportions among YMSB faithful, being a July 21, 2007 performance in Columbus, OH, in which the quartet surpassed even its own high-energy standard. Disc 2 is a collection of the band members’ favorite live numbers from the past couple of years.

Get Off Your Money: Together with the implicit empowerment aspect of their being an all-female band, Get Off Your Money adds up to quite a statement by the Stairwell Sisters—and the fact that you can stepdance to it, too…well, that just makes it all the more impressive, at least to this brother.

Downsville Blues: In his national debut as a recording artist, 78-year-old Texas bluesman (transplanted to San Diego 35 years ago) Tomcat Courtney is focused on the basics of life: in the slow grind of “Cook My Breakfast,” he demands only that his woman do exactly as the title suggests, but leaves it for the listener to decide whether grits is groceries or if he has something else in mind when he growls, “Turn my damper down, baby/Don’t you burn my coffee pot.” With a guitar style blending Delta, Chicago and Texas stylings and a laconic, undaunted voice of experience, Courtney makes an impression, and then makes it stick.

Tapestry: Legacy Edition: One of the landmarks fueling the singer-songwriter era in the early '70s, Carole King's Tapestry remains what it always has been: a wondrous exhibit of impeccably tailored songs, subtle arrangements that left King's earthy voice and churchy piano out front, and plainspoken, commanding vocals reliant for power not on bombast or virtuoso octave leaps, but rather on their heart-to-heart, conversational tone. This reissue adds nothing musical to the original album—no bonus tracks or alternative versions, only a remastered, sonically righteous edition of the 1971 masterpiece. Disc two is a live version of the studio album, performed in sequence, with King accompanied only by her church-steeped piano stylings and emotionally charged vocals, seamlessly assembled from concerts recorded in 1973 and 1976. The adventure is in hearing the old songs anew, with new years and considerable musical history under the bridge.

Forever Changes: Released at the end of 1967 to the sound of almost no hands clapping (even Rolling Stone appraised it in tepid terms), Love's Forever Changes, the third and final album from the original band lineup led by the late Arthur Lee, has gained an Olympian stature in time, brooking favorable comparisons to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (released earlier in the same year as Forever Changes) and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (released in 1966) for its daring compositional, structural and production appropriations from various non-rock sources and its articulation of the prevailing, increasingly splintered, post-Summer of Love zeitgeist, when the Vietnam War came home with a vengeance. So rich in so many ways, and so open to continuing debate about its proper place in the hierarchy of ambitious, late '60s rock experiments in form and substance, Forever Changes remains—dare it be said?—forever young, and ever fascinating. Mark this reissue essential.

Always Lift Him Up: A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed: A lot of people were introduced to Blind Alfred Reed by way of Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions album, on which the Boss offered a slightly updated version of Reed's ever-timely lament, "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live"; this long overdue tribute underscores how seriously Reed approached the song as a meaningful vessel for appraising his times and contemporary mores. Although hardly a household name, even among roots music enthusiasts, Reed's music has endured, because his themes—tough times, abiding faith and the battle of the sexes—endure. A multi-generational mix of West Virginia-rooted artists is represented here, and theirs is good work, and true.

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