Monday, September 15, 2008

Hank Snow - Big Country Hits: Songs I Hadn't Recorded Till Now (1960)

Hank Snow’s Big Country Hits: Songs I Hadn't Recorded Till Now belongs to that class of albums where a country artist records an assortment of hits made popular by other singers. I think these albums of cover songs were often released when an artist was under contractual obligations to release a new LP but did not have enough original songs—songs written by or for the artist—to justify a new recording. They were very popular in the 1960s when country singers were releasing multiple records per year, and Hank Snow’s Big Country Hits is an above average example.

The songs on Big Country Hits are mostly slow ballads that emphasize the distinctive vocal style of Hank Snow. The arrangements are about what you would expect for a 1961 RCA recording produced by Chet Atkins; the backup singers are prominent, and the overall feel of the music is smooth and polished with masterful guitar, steel guitar, piano, drum, and bass accompaniment. Hank’s unusual guitar playing and expressive singing is clear and up front in the mix, and the album features both country-crossover selections such as “A Legend in My Time” and “Return to Me” and traditional country standards such as “Mansion on the Hill.” I think that the two best songs on the album are probably “Bury Me Deep” and “Address Unknown,” which are both relatively obscure compared to the other offerings.

Though Big Country Hits is not one of his best recordings, I always enjoy listening to Hank Snow. Back when Hank was making music, each of the major country singers had a distinct vocal and instrumental style and you could recognize all of them instantly. I wish there were more diversity in today’s country music and I wish there was someone out there who played guitar in the unique Hank Snow style.

Side note: Despite the album title, Hank Snow previously recorded “Address Unknown” in the early 1950s. Perhaps the title of this album should have been Big Country Hits: Songs I Hadn’t Recorded Till Now (Except for One of Them).

AMG Rating: ***
My Rating: ***

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Del McCoury - Don't Stop the Music (1988)

After thirty years in the business, when most artists would start winding down, Del McCoury launched a new beginning with this outstanding hard-driving bluegrass album from the late 1980s. Don’t Stop the Music was the first Del McCoury release to feature both sons, Ronnie and Rob McCoury, and this album also features the twin fiddles of Jon Glik and Warren Blair, which contribute heavily to its traditional sound.

After his sons joined the band, Del changed the name of his group from The Dixie Pals to The Del McCoury Band, and this group dominated the bluegrass scene of the 1990s, putting on some of the best live performances I’ve ever seen in any style of music. While the oldest and more naturally gifted son Ronnie had blossomed into a brilliant mandolin player and formidable singer by the late 80s, teenage Robbie had yet to reach the height of his skills and his banjo understandably takes a backseat on this recording. My favorite cuts on Don't Stop the Music are probably “I Feel the Blues Moving In” and “Don’t Our Love Look Natural,” but every song features the impeccable high lonesome harmonies and disciplined yet adventerous soloing that you would expect from the Del McCoury Band. Del and the boys are also very good at adapting non-bluegrass material to their distinctive style and their rendition of the George Jones title track is better than the original.

Good bluegrass music is filled with excitement and intensity, and the Del McCoury Band plays some of the best bluegrass music ever made.

AMG Rating: ****1/2
My Rating: ****

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tony Rice - California Autumn (1975)

California Autumn is a bit of a sleeper in the Tony Rice catalogue. The album presents many different sides of Tony, as he was defining his style in the mid 1970s. We hear the singer-songwriter (“California Autumn”), the interpretive singer (“Georgia on My Mind”), the traditional bluegrass artist (“Good Woman’s Love,” “You Don’t Know My Mind”), and the innovative flatpicker (“Red Haired Boy”). Tony has rarely sang better than he does on this album and his talents as a vocalist more than make up for his limitations as a songwriter. I think the album’s biggest flaw is that it simply doesn’t flow very well.

The guitar playing on California Autumn is as solid as you would expect, though John Starling's production is rather flat when compared to Tony's later albums. I think the instrumental with the best picking is probably “Red Haired Boy,” which includes many of Tony’s trademark licks and is a staple of his live performances. Side A of the original LP ends with an excellent cover of Bill Monroe’s “Good Woman’s Love,” which features nice harmony vocals from Ricky Skaggs and a slight change to the melody that suits the song well.

Tony is backed on this recording by Seldom Scene members Tom Gray, Mike Auldridge, and Ben Eldridge, and this gives it a bit of a Seldom Scene vibe, particularly with the distinctive dobro playing of Mike Auldridge ringing throughout each tune. Despite the fact that Tony recorded better music with super-pickers like Sam Bush, David Grisman, and Jerry Douglas, this line-up is intriguing for its uniqueness when compared to the rest of Tony’s albums. Basically, California Autumn sounds like Tony sitting in with the Seldom Scene and the overall feel is softer and less jazz-oriented than a session with Bush, Douglas and/or David Grisman would have been. Regardless of the fact that Tony achieved greater heights a few years later, California Autumn is an enjoyable listen and is well worth owning.

AMG Rating: ***
My Rating: ***1/2

Norman Blake - Live at McCabe's (1976)

This intimate, laid-back live album from the mid 1970s documents Norman’s first West Coast appearance and captures this great artist in his prime. There is some astounding unaccompanied flatpicking on Live at McCabe's, as well as some pretty cello playing from Nancy Blake with Norman accompanying her on fiddle or guitar, depending on the track.

When I first heard Live at McCabe’s, I wasn’t sure what to think about the constant soloing but as I listen to it now I amazed by Norman’s impeccable sense of timing and the way his guitar runs last forever. I also love the clarity of his playing; each string rings out like a bell. Norman is all over the fretboard on this recording, and his always tasteful soloing is more adventurous and more plentiful on Live at McCabe’s than on any of his contemporary albums. Norman’s arrangement of “John Hardy” is actually quite beautiful and, to my knowledge, this is the only time he recorded it.

If you are a Norman Blake fan or just a fan of great flatpicking music, this album should be in your collection. If I had to find any flaws with Live at McCabe’s, I would say that it lacks continuity. You get the feeling that the actual concert flowed differently than the way it is presented here and you are only hearing a smattering of the material played that night. The entire unedited program (both sets) would probably warrant an even higher rating.

AMG Rating: ****1/2
My Rating: ****

Ricky Skaggs - Sweet Temptation (1979)

Sweet Temptation was Ricky Skaggs’ first album as a solo artist. Ricky was then a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band but had previously worked with J.D. Crowe, The Country Gentlemen, Boone Creek, and Ralph Stanley. The album is essentially a collection of impeccably played bluegrass and country standards, with some decent but forgettable contemporary country songs thrown in. Sweet Temptation is similar in feel to the Emmylou Harris albums that were coming out at that time, but it’s just not as good.

Looking at the album critically, I think that its biggest flaw is that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a bluegrass or a country album. It sounds like Ricky recorded four or five cuts with a bluegrass band and four or five cuts with a country band and spliced them together to create a full album; it feels like two projects combined into one, rather than a carefully planned blend of two styles. Sweet Temptation also feels a little too comfortable and a little too polished with these incredibly talented musicians effortlessly churning out conservative, respectful renditions of these classic songs.

Having said all this, it is simply impossible to find any flaws with the musicianship on this album. If you like traditional country and bluegrass, and you like Ricky Skaggs, you will like this album. Ultimately, Sweet Temptation is pleasant, but non-essential.

AMG Rating: ****1/2
My Rating: ***

The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys (1959)

The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys is the first of many albums the Stanley Brothers recorded for the King Record Company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Of course by this time the Stanleys were already popular recording artists, having recorded for Rich-R-Tone, Columbia, Mercury, and Starday prior to their tenure with King. While this material is available on numerous compilations of the Stanleys’ King and Starday years, I think it warrants a discussion on its own terms.

This self-titled King LP was the first classic bluegrass album I ever owned, and I remember being immediately floored by the opening track “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” I had never heard a banjo played with that kind of speed and intensity before and I was equally taken by the “lonesome” harmonies of Carter and Ralph Stanley. To this day, I don’t think anybody in bluegrass can top the Stanley Brothers in their prime and I think their early King material, such as the honkytonk numbers (“She’s More to Be Pitied”) the straight-up bluegrass (“Love Me, Darling, Just Tonight”) and the blistering instrumentals (“Train 45,” “Clinch Mountain Backstep”) found on this album, are some of the finest recordings in bluegrass history. The fact that almost every song on this record became a bluegrass standard makes it a worthy successor to the Stanleys’ seminal Columbia and Mercury recordings of the late 1940s and early 1950s. I wish the Stanley Brothers’ later King releases such as the disappointing Remarkable Stanley Brothers from 1964 were this consistent.

AMG Rating: ***
My Rating: *****

The Seldom Scene - Change of Scenery (1988)

This album is called Change of Scenery because Lou Reid had recently replaced Phil Rosenthal on lead vocals and guitar and T. Michael Coleman had even more recently replaced founding member Tom Gray on bass. This change in lineup resulted in a different vocal sound, though the band was still anchored by John Duffey’s unmistakable high tenor vocals. The change in bass players was quite noticeable, particularly in live performance, because unlike Tom Gray, T. Michael played an electric bass. Like its predecessor At the Scene, this album has a slightly country feel to it, with the inclusion of drums on several tracks and the somewhat slick (by bluegrass standards) production. Both albums also feature a considerable amount of lead guitar playing.

Over all, I think this relatively short-lived change in lineup was a decent thing for the band, as Change of Scenery has more adrenaline and basically sounds fresher than At the Scene. Lou Reid turns in a stellar vocal performance and this album showcases his considerable talent without being overbearing. Sometimes in live performance, Lou will oversing certain lines and shout when he is in his upper vocal register. He thankfully doesn’t do any of that here, perhaps because Duffey is around to fill in the necessary gaps with his gorgeous harmony singing. While Lou fit the band vocally as well as Phil ever did, neither of these guys complemented the other voices in the band quite like original front man John Starling.

Highlights on Change of Scenery for me are “West Texas Wind,” “What Goes On,” and the opening track “Breaking New Ground.” “West Texas Wind” is essentially a country song with bluegrass instruments but the lyrics are memorable and the melody is really nice. I think this might be the best song Lou Reid ever sang with the Seldom Scene. The Beatles’ “What Goes On” works surprisingly well in a bluegrass context, but maybe that’s because John Duffey sings lead on this one. Finally, “Breaking New Ground” is a great opener because it launches out of the gate and the listener immediately feels the excitement of the change in lineup.

AMG Rating: ***
My Rating: ***

The Seldon Scene - After Midnight (1981)

After Midnight might be the best Seldom Scene album of the Phil Rosenthal era (1977-1986). It was the third to feature Phil as lead singer and guitarist and while I prefer John Starling as front man for the Scene, I think Phil is a better guitar player. All of the musicians shine on this album, but it’s Mike Auldridge and John Duffey who impress me the most. Mike absolutely nails Benny Goodman’s “Stompin at the Savoy,” redefining it as a dobro instrumental and Duffey’s unconventional mandolin breaks are always a delight. After Midnight is one of the Seldom Scene’s more pop-friendly releases, featuring not one, but two Eric Clapton hits, “Lay Down Sally” and J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight.” Both these songs work surprisingly well in a bluegrass context and they were frequent crowd pleasers in live performance.

Listening to this album now, the track that really hits me is “The Border Incident,” also known as “Spanish is the Loving Tongue.” John Duffey sings lead on this quiet, beautiful song and it’s really nice to hear him sing the verses so softly and then wail out the tenor harmony like no one else could on the chorus. John Duffey was a one-in-a-million singer and personality and I really wish he were still around.

While After Midnight may not quite be in the same league as earlier Seldom Scene classics like Old Train and Act II, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable album and I really enjoyed revisiting it for this review.

One final comment: The original album cover (top left) was a drawing of the band in blue silhouette. For the CD reissue, Sugar Hill used the actual photograph that the illustrator worked from.

AMG Rating: ***
My Rating: ***1/2

Larry Sparks - Silver Reflections (1988)

The All Music Guide dismisses this underrated, now-classic bluegrass album with the following one-sentence review: "Sparks updates his bluegrass sound for the 1990s on Silver Reflections." This review is inaccurate for two reasons. Number one: this material was recorded in 1986 and 1987, not in the 1990s. Number two: Larry Sparks did not "update" his sound for this album. As you would expect, Larry's soulful singing, his bluesy, unpredictable guitar breaks, and his impeccable rhythm playing are all represented here, and his band (featuring Art Stamper and Glen Duncan on fiddle, Barry Crabtree on banjo, and Tim Sargent on dobro) plays the same type of hard-driving, traditional bluegrass that is present on all of Larry's albums. I think what makes this album stand out is not the updating of Larry's sound, but the uniform strength and freshness of the material. Many of these songs, particularly the Goble/Drumm compositions "Blue Virginia Blue" and "Tennessee 1949," can hold their own standing alongside the works of Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers. Don't let the generic cover shot fool you -- Silver Reflections belongs in every bluegrass collection. As an interesting side note, the original album cover showed the reflection of Larry's 1953 Martin D-28 on a glass table (image on right), echoing the album title. Rebel Records cut off the bottom third of the cover when they printed the CD edition (image on left).

AMG Rating: ***
My Rating: ****1/2