CD Reviews for 03/25/05 (Rounder Records Bluegrass Releases) by Dan Ferguson

In the hopes of maybe, just maybe scaring the cold and snow away, this week’s Compact Capsules dives into a style of music which for many conjures up summertime images of warm, sultry weather, blue skies, and green mountain tops. At least that is what pops into this writer’s brain when he catches a whiff of bluegrass. Some fine new recordings from the bluegrass world have already seen release here in 2005 and so, this week, a little bluegrass to warm the soul (and hopefully chase Old Man Winter away).

Queen Rhonda

Other than Alison Krauss (whose music as of recent records resembles bluegrass less and less), I don’t believe there is a hotter commodity on the bluegrass circuit than Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. The proof is certainly in the pudding on the brand new live recording from Vincent and her band aptly titled Ragin’ Live (Rounder Records 11661-0553). Singing has always been a given for Ms. Vincent whose strong soprano voice knows no bounds. Look no further than her being named female vocalist of the year for five consecutive years by the International Bluegrass Music Association for evidence that this lady knows how to sing. What truly separates her from the rest of the lady side of the bluegrass spectrum is that she is absolutely not afraid to strut her female stuff and bring a little sex appeal into bluegrass. Heck, just a glance of Vincent on the cover of Ragin’ Live in her low cut, skimpy black dress is enough to tell you that traditional bluegrass duds are not part of the Rhonda Vincent equation. And what the heck, if you’ve got the looks and the body, why not flaunt it a bit, especially if it might gain you a few more fans in the process. Judging by Vincent’s consistently sold out performances, it’s apparently a winning combination. At 20 tracks packed into 71 minutes of entertainment, Ragin’ Live is a big gulp of Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Recorded live in her home state of Missouri at the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis, Vincent and the Rage put the pedal to the metal right out of the gates with the full-steam ahead original “Kentucky Borderline” which garnered her Song of the Year honors at the IBMA 2004 awards show followed by a hard driving cover of the classic “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin”. They slow it down with a pretty and fitting number, especially considering the locale, called “Missouri Moon”, before launching into a breakdown called “Me Too” with fiddle player Hunter Berry in the spotlight. Highlights are aplenty over the remaining 16 tracks including an urgent reworking of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, the Flatt & Scruggs classic “So Happy I’ll Be”, and a bit of bluegrass-styled honky tonkin’ ala “Cheatin’ Kind of Life” with guitarist Josh Williams doing the honors on vocals. The latter is indicative of a typical Vincent show, that being the democratic process hard at work with Vincent showcasing each and every one of the members of her band. Simply put, Ragin’ Live is a stellar collection of top shelf bluegrass from one of the hottest acts in the business. Highly recommended.

Bluegrass Charlie Daniels? Darn tootin’ it is!

This next release really caught me by surprise. Like many, I jumped on the Charlie Daniels Band bandwagon back in the mid 1970s after hearing “The South’s Gonna Do It”. Probably also like many, I hung with Daniels for the next few albums before the band lost its creative edge relying more on overly Patriot material and those few hits. It all makes the new Daniels release Songs From The Longleaf Pines (Blue Hat/Koch records KOC-CD-9823) such a breath of fresh air. The album marks a return by Daniels to his bluegrass roots of some 40 years ago. It’s a collection of 13 bluegrass gospel numbers, many of which are classics, on which Daniels is backed by such bluegrass big guns as Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, Rob and Ronnie McCoury, Mac Wiseman, and Earl Scruggs. Handling all the vocals and playing guitar and fiddle, Daniels sounds right at home in this setting delivering a record worthy of both his fans and bluegrass lovers’ ears.

The Bluegrass Storyteller

Over the course of what with his latest release titled The Bluegrass Storyteller (Rounder Records 11661-0551) is now four longplayers, James King has demonstrated that he truly knows how to pick ’em when it comes to songs. Hailing from a hotbed of bluegrass music, that being Southwestern Virginia, King has consistently demonstrated impeccable taste when it comes to selecting songs for his albums. The refreshing aspect of his approach is that he does not just rely on the tried and true staples of the genre, instead opting for works from a who’s who of tunesmsiths from the country and Americana ranks. The Bluegrass Storyteller features material from a wide array songwriter types including Robert Earl Keen (“Coldest Day Of Winter” co-written with Fred Koller), David Olney (the powerful “Jerusalem Tomorrow”), Buddy Miller (“Garage Sale”), Fred Eaglesmith (“Flowers In The Dell”), Tom T. Hall (“Second Handed Flowers”, “Whatever Happened To Julie?”) and Carl Jackson (“Cold Hard Facts Of Lies”) to go with tradition-leaning bluegrass reworkings of such classic country nuggets as Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan” and Porter Wagoner’s “Carroll County Accident”. The common thread throughout is the story aspect of each of the selected songs and it is exactly what drove King to choose each for inclusion. And whereas the mix of songwriters is predominantly a contemporary one, in the hands of King and his band the tunes are all given the authentic country bluegrass one-two with terrific results. In other words, The Bluegrass Storyteller follows convention as far as James Kings records are concerned, that being another winning affair.

A Genuine Storyteller

Speaking of storytellers, the Dry Branch Fire Squad has always been as much about the yarn-spinning of its front man Ron Thomason as it has the picking and the singing of the band as a whole. Whereas the story-telling side of Thomason with his farm boy drawl is always in full bloom during the live performances, on record the group has stuck pretty much to just the pickin’ and grinnin’. On its first release in four years and thirteenth overall, the listener is treated to the best of both worlds where the Dry Branch Fire Squad is concerned. The two-CD Live At The Newburyport Firehouse (Rounder Records 11661-0527) takes us back to November of 2002 and a two-night stand by the band at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A perennial favorite on the New England bluegrass scene, the Ohio-based band runs the gamut on this double CD mixing plenty of old favorites from the group’s live repertoire with a number of Thomason’s legendary, as least in bluegrass circles, and oft-times side-splitting tales. The latter is what separates a DBFS show from that of many of its bluegrass contemporaries and has always made the group one of the most entertaining in the live arena. Consider this snapshot the next best thing to being there.

King of the Hill

Here’s thinking that when he played his first professional gig in 1962 as a member of J.D. Crowe’s band, Doyle Lawson could never have dreamed he’d still be making bluegrass music over 40 years later. Now into his fifth decade as a performer, Lawson would go on to work for the likes of such stalwarts as Jimmy Martin, The Country Gentleman and the all-star Bluegrass Album Band before branching off in 1979 to form his own band Quicksilver. These days, he is considered one of the elder statesmen of the genre. Whereas there has been plenty of turnover in his Quicksilver band ranks since its beginning, the constants have been high quality musicianship and material, and of course the consummate professionalism Lawson at the helm. Dig A Little Deeper (Rounder Records 11661-0525) is the name of the brand release from Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. It marks Lawson’s debut for Rounder Records. The dozen song Dig A Little Deeper is status quo Lawson & Quicksilver, that being impeccable musicianship, stellar vocal work marked by striking three and four-part harmonies, and choice material that spans Lawson’s instrumental tribute to Bill Monroe called “Rosine” to a cover of Porter Wagoner’s “What Ain’t To Be, Just Might Happen”, to the touching “Saving Grace” which will strike a nerve in anyone who has dealt with a family member with Alzheimer’s. (Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, or; Koch Records, 1709 19th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, or