DISClaimer Single Reviews (9/28/11)

The hills are alive with the sound of bluegrass.

This week at the Convention Center, it’s round-the-clock picking and singing at the IBMA World of Bluegrass confab. Among the week’s highlights are the presentation of the IBMA Awards at the Ryman Auditorium on Thursday evening. The discs in this week’s column all belong to nominees.

The record to beat for Album of the Year belongs to Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers. I don’t know how it will fare at the Ryman, but in this publication it is the Disc of the Day.

For my DisCovery Award, I am choosing IBMA Emerging Artist nominees Darin & Brooke Aldridge.

DOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER/Gone At Last
Writer: Paul Simon; Producer: Doyle Lawson; Publisher: Paul Simon, BMI; Mountain Home (track) (www.doylelawson.com)
—These guys just don’t know how to make a bad record, and their current Drive Time CD is no break in their streak of excellence. It kicks off with this lickety-split bluegrass take on Paul Simon’s rousing 1975 hand clapper, originally recorded with Phoebe Snow and the Jessy Dixon Singers (Jessy passed away on Monday at age 73). Quicksilver is nominated this week as the bluegrass Vocal Group of the Year, and on his own, Lawson is nominated for Gospel Performance and Recorded Event for his collaboration with fellow stars Paul Williams and J.D. Crowe.

BLUE HIGHWAY/Sounds Of Home
Writer: Shawn Lane; Producer: Blue Highway; Publisher: Cat Town, BMI; Rounder (track) (www.bluehighwayband.com)
—The title tune of Blue Highway’s current album is a tender ballad of nostalgia for creaking floorboards, rain on the roof, rustling leaves and the song of a mockingbird. Lead singer Tim Stafford remains a heart-piercing vocalist, and the moan of the Dobro that echoes his phrasing is audio poetry. The group is nominated for IBMA Vocal Group and Instrumental Group of the Year. Rob Ickes is once again up for Dobro Player of the Year. He practically owns this category, having won every year in 1996-2000, in 2003 and 2004, then again yearly from 2006-2010.

STEVE CANYON & THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS/Rare Bird Alert
Writer: none listed; Producer: none listed; Publisher: none listed; Rounder (track) (www.stevemartin.com)
—This track is nominated for Bluegrass Instrumental Performance of the Year at Thursday’s IBMA Awards. It is a sprightly, merry thing that bubbles right along. The Rare Bird Alert CD also includes such delights as “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” “Women Like to Slow Dance” and a remake of Martin’s 1978 hit “King Tut.” It is an Album of the Year nominee, and the band is up for Entertainer of the Year. He might not be the greatest banjo player in history, but this multi-media superstar is a huge benefit to the bluegrass genre.

JOSH WILLIAMS/Dream Of Me
Writer: Murray E. Cannon; Producer: Josh Williams; Publisher: Universal Sawgrass, BMI; Rounder (track)
—Last year’s Emerging Artist winner and a three-time Guitarist of the Year has an album titled Down Home that is a perfect jewel. He has been making records since he was 10 years old, but it is his first truly mature work. This take on the Vern Gosdin classic showcases lovely harmony singing. Other highlights include his version of The Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train,” a dandy bluegrass arrangement of “Streets of Bakersfield,” a remake of Jimmy Martin’s “The Last Song,” a revival of Earl Scruggs’ “Polka on the Banjo” and songs by Tom T. Hall and Tommy Jackson, plus Carl Jackson’s title tune. On Thursday, Williams again competes for Bluegrass Guitarist of the Year and is also up for Male Vocalist.

DALE ANN BRADLEY/Somewhere South Of Crazy
Writer: Dale Ann Bradley/Pam Tillis; Producer: Alison Brown; Publisher: Dale Ann Bradley/Vibe Room/Lucky Squirrel/BPJ Administration, BMI; Compass (track)
—This Kentucky soprano is as country as a mountain breeze. She won the IBMA Female Vocalist prize in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and is nominated again this year. This wistful title tune of her current CD features soft harmony work by co-writer Pam Tillis plus guitarist Steve Gulley. And get a load of her supporting cast—Sierra Hull on mandolin, producer Alison Brown on banjo, fiddler Stuart Duncan and Mike Bub on bass. The rest of the album’s repertoire includes the Seals & Crofts pop classic “Summer Breeze,” Reba Rambo’s “New Shoes,” Leslie Satcher’s “Old Southern Porches” and the George Jones oldie “Will You Visit Me on Sunday.”

MICHAEL CLEVELAND & FLAMEKEEPER/Goin’ Up Dry Branch
Writer: Buddy Spicher/Jimmy Martin; Producer: Jeff White & Michael Cleveland; Publisher: Bocephus, BMI; Rounder (track) (www.flamekeeperband.com)
—This toe tapper is my favorite hoedown of the day. Cleveland’s flawless fiddle technique is the envy of his industry, and Flamekeeper totally kicks butt. This track from the group’s aptly titled Fired Up CD is nominated as Instrumental Performance of the Year. The band is competing for Instrumental Group. Cleveland vies for his ninth IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year trophy and the group’s Marshall Wilborn in nominated for his third consecutive Bass Player of the Year honor.

THE GRASCALS/Dooley
Writer: none listed; Producer: The Grascals; Publisher: none listed; Time Life/Blugrascal (track) (www.mayberrysfinest.com)
—The seven-song Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot and Ravelin’ album is The Grascals tribute to the music of The Andy Griffith Show. The call-and-response vocals on this bluegrass classic are done in a mellow, tongue-in-cheek style (”Dooley,” “Slippin’ up the holler,” “Dooley,” “Gimme a swaller and I’ll pay you back some day.”) The Grascals are again nominated as IBMA Entertainer of the Year. The group’s Kristin Scott Benson is up for her fourth consecutive Banjo Player of the Year prize, and its “I Am Strong” collaboration with Dolly Parton is nominated for Recorded Event.

DARIN & BROOKE ALDRIDGE/Let’s Not Go There
Writer: Dixie Hall/Tom T. Hall; Producer: Jerry Salley; Publisher: Good Home Grown, BMI; Moutain Home (track) (www.darinandbrookealdridge.com)
—This husband-wife duet is sometimes billed as bluegrass music’s “sweethearts.” Jerry Salley has produced an album of remarkable clarity and class on these newcomers. On this ballad, Darin’s high tenor is matched by Brooke’s even higher harmony voice. Later in the track, Salley adds a thrilling harmonized third voice. Lovely work. Darin and Brooke are nominated for this year’s Emerging Artist award.

LARRY SPARKS/Almost Home
Writer: Michael Keith/Dave Lindsey; Producer: Larry Sparks; Publisher: Palm Island Press/Cross Timbers/Lindsey and Sons, BMI; Rounder (track) (www.larrysparks.com)
—Sparks has a classic, “high lonesome” bluegrass voice. He’s a veteran of five decades in this business, but he’s still in there swinging, since his Almost Home collection is competing for Album of the Year. Its title tune ripples with Appalachian authenticity.

SIERRA HULL/Easy Come, Easy Go
Writer: none listed; Producer: Barry Bales & Sierra Hull; Publisher: none listed; Rounder (track) (www.sierrahull.com)
—The former teen mandolin prodigy is now a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Her current Daybreak CD includes this lilting ode with the autobiographical line, “I’m not a child anymore.” She sings in a tender, daughter-of-Alison soprano, and the mandolin playing that made her a star remains dazzling. This week, she’s aiming for her first Mandolin Player of the Year award, as well as for the Emerging Artist trophy.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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