Perhaps it is the abundance of outdoor festivals that take place this time of the year, but there’s just something about summer and bluegrass that goes hand in hand. In keeping with the summer season, we present another in a series of Compact Capsules roundups with this week’s focus a mix of new recordings and reissues from the bluegrass and old time music realms. Let’s take a look.
Texas Fiddler, Extraordinaire
From Grammy awards to International Bluegrass Music Association honors to fiddle contest winner on multiple occasions, fiddle/violin player Mark O’Connor has won just about every award there is to win. He is that good. Suffice to say that when someone of Mr. O’Connor’s stature singles out a fellow fiddle player, it carries some weight. “I devotingly place Benny Thomasson as the greatest old-time fiddler I have heard,” proclaims O’Connor in the liner notes to the new collection Legendary Texas Fiddler: Recordings From 1966 – 1969 (County Records CO-CD-2737). The set brings together 20 selections from the great Thomasson, five of which see release for the first time. A native of Winters, Texas, like O’Connor Thomasson was also a contest fiddler following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He played in the “Long Bow” style which originated in Texas and took its name from the bowing technique used by many of the fiddlers in that region. Almost entirely self-taught, Thomasson himself began winning contests in the mid-1950s and taking the top prize in his own state an incredible 15 years in a row. So good was Thomasson that such esteemed Western Swing bandleaders as Bob Wills and Spade Cooley each offered him a position in their respective bands. What with a young family to support, life on the road did not appeal to Thomasson and turned them all down preferring the home state fiddle contest route to keep sharp. By the time these recordings were made in the late 1960s, Thomasson was no longer at his peak as a combination of the physical demands of his job at an auto body and heavy drinking began to take its toll. He would rebound in the early 1970s after relocating to Washington and once again begin to play the festival and contest circuit. The 20 recordings found on Legendary Texas Fiddler come from two albums recorded for County Records in the late 1960s. It mixes old favorites from Thomasson’s youth along with tunes he played at contests. An extra special bonus is live recordings of the final two tunes that helped Thomasson win the 1965 Gilmer, Texas Fiddle contest.
Also out recently from County Records is a new collection of old-time tunes from a group calling themselves the Troublesome Creek String Band. Fast As Time Can Take Me (County Records CO-CD-2738) presents 23 songs in the mountain style all originating from Kentucky and Virginia. A four-piece string band that calls central Virginia home, the recording is chock full of tight playing featuring some exceptionally hot fiddling, not to mention some pretty wonderful harmony sining. Its debut for County Records, Fast As Time Can Take Me from the Troublesome Creek String Band is recommended listening for lovers of the old-time string band sound.
The Other Rice
Whereas brother Tony has always garnered the bulk of the attention, Larry Rice has also distinguished himself as a bluegrass artist to be reckoned with over his long career. Whereas Tony took the guitar route, Larry went with the mandolin. Handling all the vocal lead in addition to playing mandolin, his latest solo release called Clouds Over Carolina (REB-CD-1801) features a dozen songs that nicely straddle the traditional and contemporary when it comes to bluegrass. With a supporting cast that includes brothers Tony and Wyatt on guitars, the brother duo of Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins on fiddle and bass, respectively, and Sammy Shelor on the banjo, Rice has himself a killer collection of pickers. It pays nothing but dividends with the end result a fine album that wears well on the ears.
Perhaps you caught Adrienne Young when she bandied her way through these parts on multiple occasions last summer. Touring with her band Little Sadie, Young made a splash at such events as the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Newport Folk Festival, and Rhythm & Roots at Ninigret Festival enchanting audiences with her sort of bluegrassy, sort of newgrassy, sort of country, sort of old timey mix of tradition-bending tunes with the occasional, ear-friendly pop sheen. Now along comes round two from the young singer/songwriter and her band Little Saide called The Art of Virtue (Addiebelle Records). Simply put, it is a highly worthy follow-up to her 2003 debut Plow to the End of the Row. The album mixes originals, a number of which are co-written by Young with collaborators Will Kimbrough (who also plays some pretty nifty guitar throughout) and Mark D. Sanders, to go with traditional tunes (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”, “Billy In the Lowground”, Uncle Dave Macon’s “Don’t Get Weary Children”, and “Brokedown Palace” from the Garcia/Hunter archives). Heck, there’s even a dash of Cajun music on this latest. Possessing a highly likeable voice with an easy gait to it, The Art of Virtue has plenty of appeal and shows Ms. Young to be a rising star in the acoustic-and-beyond music ranks.
New from Copper Creek
From Copper Creek Records comes four new releases spanning the bluegrass and old time music genres. First up is Rolling Again (Copper Creek CCCD-0239) from Washington, D.C. area bluegrass pioneer Pete Pike & Country Bluegrass. Pike is renowned as one of the first people to bring live hillbilly music to D.C. area clubs beginning in the late 1940s. Add to that running one of the first bluegrass festivals, not to mention hosting one of the first five day a week hillbilly music TV shows, and we’re talking trailblazer territory. What with all that, Pike also built himself a highly respectable recording career. Now over 50 years later, Pike is still writing, singing, and playing and doing it quite well as the new Rolling Again will attest. With backing from the West Virginia-based Black Diamond Band, Rolling Again is a walk down memory lane that mixes re-recordings of old favorites along with a handful of vintage Pike recordings dating back to 1950s and ’60s.
Also out from Copper Creek is a reissue of the Curly Seckler collection 60 Years of Bluegrass (CCCD-0227). First released in 1995, it features the mandolinist/guitarist Seckler along with a cast of some 32 mighty pickers and singers from the bluegrass ranks – Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Jim & Jesse – all of whom hopped onboard to help him celebrate 60 years of making music. Another new anniversary collection from Copper Creek is Venango (CCCD-0235) which commemorates the 50th anniversary of long-running Pittsburgh-based bluegrass entity Mac Martin & the Dixie Travelers. Rounding things out on the Copper Creek new release front is A Pretty Gal’s Love (CCCD-2007) from the Virginia-based New Roanoke Jug Band. Mixing rural blues, jug music, and string band music, the newfangled antique sounds found on A Pretty Gal’s Love is the real deal.
Mr. Good and Country
When the country music world lost Jimmy Martin this past spring, it lost one of the giants. Beginning his career in the late 1940s as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys before striking out on his own in the 1950s, Mr. “Good & Country,” as Martin was known, brought a verve and swagger to bluegrass music which to this day has never been surpassed. The new release A Tribute to Jimmy Martin “The King Of Bluegrass” (Koch Records KOC-CD-9819) may be the ultimate tribute to this fireplug of a performer. Instead of opting for a star-studded event, this tribute instead calls upon prominent alumni of Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys band to pay respect by covering many of the mountaintop numbers of the Martin catalogue, that being the foursome of J.D. Crowe, Paul Williams, Audie Blaylock, and Kenny Ingram. Together, they do the Martin bluegrass legacy nothing but proud on this handsome tribute. (County Records, P.O. Box 7405, Charlottesville, VA 22906; Addiebelle Records, 1101 17th Ave South, Nashville, TN 37212, or www.echomusic.com; Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, or www.rounder.com; Koch Records, 1709 19th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, or www.kochrecords.com; Copper Creek Records, P.O. Box 3161, Roanoke, VA 24015, or www.coppercreekrecords.com)
Speaking of bluegrass, I’ve heard nothing but great things about The Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival. Held at Martin Park in East Hartford, Connecticut, this year’s 9th annual event will run from Thursday, August 5 through Sunday, August 8. The lineup is one of the strongest yet for this tidy little festival and will feature the legendary Doc Watson with Richard Watson and Jack Lawrence (Saturday), Alecia Nugent & Band (Saturday), Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters (Sunday), Auldridge, Stewart & Ferguson with Emory Lester and Kene Hyat (Saturday), Dale Ann Bradley (Saturday & Sunday), Mike Burns & North Country (Saturday), Foghorn Stringband (Friday), Larry Stephenson Band (Thursday & Friday), Mark Newton Band (Friday & Saturday), Pine Mountain Railroad (Saturday), Mountain Heart (Saturday & Sunday), Rhonda Vincent & The Rage (Thursday), and the great Vassar Clements (Friday). Complete festival information may be obtained by calling the East Hartford Special Events Hotline at (860)291-7350 or by checking the festival web site at www.podunkbluegrass.net.