This is bluegrass-music week.
What’s that you say? You don’t hear much bluegrass in the clubs right now? That’s because Nashville let the genre’s annual convention slip through its fingers in 2013. It now takes place in Raleigh, NC.
So that’s where you’ll hear wall-to-wall, real country music all this week, and the IBMA’s annual awards show takes place there tonight.
In this column’s roundup of current bluegrass CDs. Irene Kelley takes home a Disc of the Day award, and the DisCovery prize goes to Mickey Galyean & Cullen’s Bridge.
MERLE MONROE/This Town
Writer: Roger Miller; Producers: Tim Raybon, Daniel Grindstaff & Stephen Burwell; Publisher: Sony/ATV Tree, BMI; Pinecastle (track)
– Ya gotta love the band name. The wry, downbeat song is taken at a lightning tempo, but somehow all five members keep pace, both instrumentally and vocally, complete with harmonies. The banjo and fiddle playing are exemplary, in particular. What the group lacks in vocal distinctiveness is compensated by crisp perfectionism. Vocalist/bassist Tim Raybon is the brother of Shenandoah’s lead singer Marty Raybon, and the two formerly performed as a country duo (1997’s “Butterfly Kisses”).
STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN & RICKY SKAGGS/Dive
Writer: SCC; Producers: Brent Milligan/Steven Curtis Chapman; Publishers: Primary Wave Brian/BMG Rights/Sparrow Song/CapitolCMG, BMI; SCSEE (track)
– CCM superstar Chapman hails from Kentucky, and he saluted his rural roots with a 2013 collection titled Deep Roots. The bluegrass community welcomed him by making it a No. 1 album in the genre. Deeper Roots is the follow-up, and this lead-off single enters the bluegrass top-20 this month. He’s aided on the choppy, uptempo, inspirational tune by Bluegrass and Country Hall of Famer Ricky Skaggs.
LARRY STEPHENSON & RONNIE BOWMAN/Two Ol’ Country Boys Like Us
Writers: Stephenson/Bowman; Producers: Ben Surratt/Stephenson; Publishers: Lee Dawn/Eclipse Music/Whenever You’re Around, BMI; Whysper Dream
– The Larry Stephenson Band is storming the bluegrass charts with this, a vocal and songwriting collaboration with stellar ‘grass vocalist Ronnie Bowman. It’s a light-hearted, midtempo jaunt about downhome friendship. The other songs are equally topnotch, since they boast authors such as Boudleaux & Felice Bryant, Ernest Tubb, Randy Van Warmer, Kostas and Donna Ulisse. The album is titled 30, because this year marks the band’s 30th anniversary.
DALE ANN BRADLEY/Hard Way Every Time
Writer: Jim Croce; Producer: Dale Ann Bradley; Publishers: BMG Gold, no PRO listed; Pinecastle
– Bradley is a five-time Female Vocalist IBMA winner, and she’s competing for that prize again this year. She’s also a member of the Grammy-nominated, all-female band Sister Sadie, which is nominated for IBMA Vocal Group and Album of the Year. Her new solo album’s title tune and lead single enters the top-10 on the field’s popularity chart this month. It’s a rippling, lilting, folkie tune that looks back at tough times as learning experiences. It comes from the pen of one of the great pop troubadours of the 1970s.
MICKEY GALYEAN & CULLEN’S BRIDGE/No Candy In My Bluegrass
Writers: Rick Pardue; Producers: Mickey Galyean/Cullen’s Bridge; Publisher: Mitchell River, BMI
– These mountaineers have the goods. This is hard-core, straight-from-the-heart, unapologetic, pure bluegrass. The single has blasted into the top-5 on the Bluegrass Unlimited Chart, and it is a defiant, statement-of-purpose anthem for traditionalism. I am completely into these guys. The album is appropriately titled Songs From the Blue Ridge, and I heartily recommend it.
IRENE KELLEY/Bluegrass Radio
Writers: Irene Kelley/Jerry Salley; Producer: Kelley; Publisher: Shiny Stuff/Very Jerry, BMI/SESAC; Mountain Fever
– This Nashvillian is the hottest bluegrass act heading into this week’s IBMA convention. Her album, Benny’s TV Repair, sits at No. 1. This single has already topped the chart in Bluegrass Today and seems poised to repeat the feat in Bluegrass Unlimited (where it currently sits at No. 3). She’s also the subject of a laudatory feature in the new issue of BU. “Bluegrass Radio” sounds so sweet and Appalachian that she might as well be a mountain angel. Heavenly, heavenly, heavenly.
LONESOME RIVER BAND/Little Magnolia
Writers: Adam Wright/Milan Miller; Producer: Lonesome River Band; Publishers: Songs From the Stillhouse/Wrightone, SESAC/BMI; Mountain Home
– It’s an upbeat waltz, so I was hooked from the opening notes of this heartache tune. The twin-brother harmonies of Brandon Rickman and Jesse Smathers are electrifying. The song is at No. 14 and is taken from the Lonesome River Band’s current Outside Looking In CD. Group leader Sammy Shelor is the key to the band’s flawless grooves and is a five-time winner of IBMA Banjo Player of the Year honor.
GENA BRITT/Over and Over
Writers: Eli Johnson/Kevin KcKinnon; Producer: Gena Britt; Publisher: Top O Holston, BMI; Pinecastle (track)
– Chronicle is the solo debut of this sweet-singing banjo player. On it, Britt collaborates with such top talents as Brooke Aldridge, Alecia Nugent, Marty Raybon, Charli Robertson (of Flatt Lonesome) and her Grammy and IBMA nominated Sister Sadie bandmates Dale Ann Bradley, Deanie Richardson and Tina Adair. The set kicks off with this zippy, high-lonesome, heartbreak train tune. Promising.
UNSPOKEN TRADITION/Dark Side of the Mountain
Writers: paula Breedlove/Brad Davis: Producers: Unspoken Tradition/Scott Barnett; Publishers: PaulaJon, Brad Davis, ASCAP/BMI; Mountain Home
– This spent six months on the bluegrass charts this year. It’s a haunting, graveside tune bolstered by slightly gritty, bluesy vocals and a minor-key melody. With their edgy vocals and passionate instrumental attack, Unspoken Tradition is a band to watch. The CD is titled Myths We Tell Our Young.
LONELY HEARTSTRING BAND/The Other Side
Writers: Lonely Heartstring Band; Producer: Bridget Kearney; Publishers: Lonely Heartstring, BMI; Rounder (track)
– This Boston band definitely pushes at the bluegrass boundaries. It is an acoustic act, but draws from pop, folk, jam-band and even classical influences. The vocals here are soft and mesmerizing. The instrumentation is accomplished, improvisational and experimental. The lyric expresses youthful hope in a time of political distress. Challenging, beautiful and altogether wonderful. The CD that contains this is titled Smoke & Ashes. It will dazzle and delight you. It’s definitely going into my repeat-play stash.