by Rich O’Hanley
The folks at Rebel Records must have been cleaning out an attic, or a cellar, or a shed or some other outbuilding and found some previously released material and, because they found it, they decided to release it anew. The result is two CDs from Ralph Stanley and one each from the Coon Creek Girls, Kenny Baker and Joe Greene, Dave Evans, Bill Grant and Delia Bell, and A.L. Wood and the Smokey Ridge Boys.
There seems to be a tendency on bluegrass radio to gush over each new release. I find that as helpful as reviews on Amazon. Being a book publisher, I’m well aware of how easy it is to game the review process on Amazon to ensure five stars. Seriously, folks, not everything rates five stars, nor deserves a standing ovation.
Until I listened to “Lily May, Rosie & Susie,” I hadn’t heard of the Coon Creek Girls. The name suggested a kick-ass contemporary bluegrass band comprised of virtuoso women with vocals like the Angel Band. Needless to say, I was more than a little surprised.
The Coon Creek Girls are a band from the ‘30s through ‘50s playing Appalachian music—not quite bluegrass, not quite country. The original band was sisters Lily May and Rosie Ledford from Kentucky and Esther Koehler and Evelyn Lange. Aside from the Ledford sisters, I don’t know who’s playing on “Lily May, Rosie & Susie,” because personnel did change over time. For example, little sister Susie (or Minnie, depending on the source) joined the band following the departure of Esther Koehler and Evelyn Lange. For years, the band was featured on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance on WLS radio in Chicago. By some accounts, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance later led to the Grand Ole Opry.
“I Have No Mother Now”
I don’t know if this is a new release of some old recording, or some recently discovered tapes. It features some widely covered songs– “Pretty Polly,” “Old Bill Jones,” “Black-eyed Susie,” and “Little Birdie”—as well as eight songs that I’ve heard here for the first time. All the songs feature a frenetic frailing banjo and the Carter Family-style vocals common to the era.
On Rollin’, Bill Grant and Delia Bell combine contemporary instrumental arrangements with old-time sounding vocals, which is a welcome relief to the American Idol or CMA-type vocals on so many albums today. Both made the transition from country to bluegrass, and the music reflects it.
“Memories In The Fall”
I like this a lot. Released in 1981, Rollin’ was the second of two albums the duo recorded for Rebel. It features Grant on mandolin and vocals, Bell on guitar and vocals, Benny Martin on fiddle, Joe Stuart on lead guitar, Gordon Reid on banjo, Joe Pointer on bass, and Josh Graves, who produced the album, playing dobro.
“The Girl at the Crossroad Bar” and the Stanley Bros.’ “Stonewalls and Steel Bars” are awesome songs, something I’d expect from George and Tammy.
Songs: Rollin’; “No One Else,” “Only You,” “Take My Hand and Tell Me,” “The Bluest Girl in Town,” “Goin’ to See My Jesus,” “The Girl at the Crossroad Bar,” “The Mood of a Fool,” “The Rock Pile,” “Stonewalls and Steel Bars,” “Memories of the Fall,” and “I Am the Man, Thomas”
High Country, recorded in 1968, features Kenny Baker and Joe Greene on twin fiddles. Kenny Baker, who died in 2011, played with Bill Monroe longer than anyone, but had a falling out, which I guess wasn’t too uncommon. Baker is noted for mixing the jazz technique of Stéphane Grappelli with that of country swing fiddlers and bringing it to bluegrass. Joe Greene, with whom Baker recorded two albums, is less well known, but no less a fiddler.
“Friday Night Waltz”
On High Country, they’re accompanied by Vernon Lee on guitar, Bill Grimes on banjo, Glenn Isom on mandolin, and Ray Hoskin on bass. Because it is all fiddles, all the time, you can barely tell they’re on the album. They’re mixed way back, and aren’t given many opportunities to step out.
The song “High Country” is a Kenny Baker song. In addition to the fiddle tune “Leather Breeches” and “Live and Let Live” with a nice banjo break by Bill Grimes, the other songs are “Boating up Sandy,” “Reuben’s Ridge,” “Goldenrod Waltz,” “Birdie,” “Friday Night Waltz,” “Stoney Creek,” “Done Gone,” and “High Point.”
Being neither a Kenny Baker nor a fiddle fanatic, High Country reminds me of Myron Floren on the accordion: great technique but basically soulless. That’s not to say that fiddlers can’t have boatloads of soul. Witness Fiddle Fever with Matt Glaser, Evan Stover and Jay Unger accompanied by Russ Barenberg on guitar and Molly Mason on bass. High Country just seems uninspired, and little boring. I listen to lot of traditional jazz—Miles, Trane, Bird, Monk—so I’m used to all instrumental albums. Truthfully, not all albums by the greats are worth listening to more than once.
Sing a Bluegrass Song features on A.L. Wood singing and playing banjo, Odell Word, A.L.’s older brother on bass, Dewey Farmer on mandolin, and Lester Denten, who played with the Country Gentlemen and the Bluegrass Cardinals, on guitar. They’re from North Carolina. The record has a 60s’ sound to it—great instrumentals, but okay vocals and harmonies—but dated. All the songs are originals except for the Stanley Bros.’ “Pretty Polly.”
“The Hills Of Home”
I want to like this more than I do. I think it’s because the lyrics are pretty weak, and there are no memorable songs. “Lines of the Highway,” is reminiscent of Red Sovine’s “Giddy Up Go” and other 60s’ truck driving songs, such as those on Leon Copas’ Truck Drivin’ Man. “Do Unto Others” could be called the “Golden Rule Song.” It’s interesting to listen to them singing “Pretty Polly,” then the Coon Creek Girls doing the same song. The Smokey Ridge Boys kick it up with “Lonesome Smokey” and “Hombre,” both instrumentals well worth a listen.
Songs: “Mountain Man,” “Lines of the Highway,” “The Hills of Home,” “Uncle Bill’s Still,” “Hombre,” “Lonesome Smokey,” “Do Unto Others,” “Sing a Bluegrass Song,” “Carolina’s Calling Me,” “Pretty Polly,” “Story of the F.F.E.,” and “Sally the Rogue”
What can I say about Ralph Stanley? What might be most notable is who’s playing on the each record. Like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers launched the careers of some bluegrass greats.
Something Old, Something New, released in 1971, features the Clinch Mountain Boys of Curly Ray Cline on fiddle, Roy Lee Centers signing and playing rhythm guitar, plus newcomers Keith Whitley on guitar and Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle. This is a mix of hard-driving bluegrass, plaintive ballads as only Ralph can do them, and a capella gospel. I haven’t listened to the complete canon of the Stanley’s, so aside from “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” I don’t know which are new and which are old songs.
“A Little Boy Called Joe”
Songs: “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” “Six More Miles,” “Cluck Old Hen,” “A Little Boy Called Joe,” “Going to Georgia,” “Gloryland,” “Shot-Gun Slade,” “Will You Miss Me,” “Old Time Pickin’,” “Katy Daly,” “That Lonesome Old Song,” and “The Prettiest Bird of Flower”
I’ll Wear a White Robe, a gospel album, features Charley Sizemore on vocals, at that time new to the band, Junior Blankenship on guitar, and long time Clinch Mountain Boys Curly Ray Cline on fiddle and Jack Cooke on bass.
“Who Rolled This Stone Away?”
Songs: “What Is It for a Saint to Die?,” “I’ll Wear a White Robe,” “Just over the Stars,” “Oh Lord, Remember Me,” “No Sorrow Can Reach Us There,” “Old Time Religion,” “Life’s Other Side,” “Who Rolled this Stone Away?,” “Walking Up this Hill on Declaration Day,” “Mountain Preacher’s Child,” and “Oak Grove Church”
Long before Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass, Dave Evans released Bluegrass Memories on Rebel Records. The year was 1984, and Dave recorded songs by Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers, along with some traditional tunes and originals. While clearly not as much a cover album as Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass, Bluegrass Memories, or at least the title song, is an homage to bluegrass, although it seems like most bluegrass albums contain some or many of the classics. “Bluegrass Memories,” which Dave wrote, dutifully checks off the names of the fathers of bluegrass.
I wish I could have found out who’s playing on this record. There isn’t anything about it that I don’t like. Dave Evans’ vocals are great, his band is tight, and traditional and innovative at the same time, the harmonies just where they should be. One minor disappointment is on Bill Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” which steps out sharply as it should, but it fades out instead of ends.
Songs: “Tragic (Traditional),” “When the Snow Falls on My Foggy Mountain Home (Dave Evans),” “Down in the Willow Garden (Traditional),” “Someone Took My Place with You (Flatt & Scruggs),” “Wheel Hoss,” “My Bluegrass Memories,” “I’ll Be On That Good Road Someday (credited on Bluegrass Lyrics to Bruce Philips),” “If I Ever Get Back to Old Kentucky (Dave Evans),” “Sweet Thing (Stanley Bros.),” “Six Feet under the Ground,” “Bummin’ an Old Freight Train,” and “Rock Bottom.”
Now, I’m gonna find some more albums by Dave Evans.