october 2008

Happy 50th Birthday, Marty Stuart!

Photo by Brad Henderson

This issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com goes online on the day of our ol' podna Marty Stuart's 50th birthday, September 27. You may even be reading this at the moment he and his incomparable Fabulous Superlatives band are onstage at the Grand Ole Opry celebrating his half-century milestone, with a bunch of his friends (Keith Urban, his bride Connie Smith, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, other surprise pop-ins). As far as we're concerned, Marty's been on a roll ever since he joined Lester Flatt's band as a 13-year-old prodigy, but he's really been humming since 1999's brilliant concept album, The Pilgrim. Following that, he kicked it up a notch when he formed the Superlatives and ventured deep into traditional country (Country Music), gospel (Soul's Chapel), bluegrass (Live at the Ryman), and delivered a moving and courageous concept album exploring the triumphs and travails of the Lakota Sioux tribe (Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota). We're ready for some new music from Marty any time he wants to deliver it, but in the meantime we'll wish him well on this momentous occasion in his life, on his new TV series on RFD-TV, The Marty Stuart Show, and on the Nov. 11 release of his second book of photography, Country Music: The Masters. He's got a lot more going on that we can detail here, so log on to his web site, www.martystuart.net, and keep tabs on what this great artist is up to. There's never a dull moment when it comes to Marty Stuart. Happy birthday, hoss!

The Dunce's Corner


John Rich is entitled to support any politician he so desires and in any way he finds appropriate. But he was way outta line in championing his Presidential candidate of choice in August when CMT.com reported him telling a John McCain campaign rally, "I'm sure Johnny Cash would have been a John McCain supporter if he was still around." This prompted an immediate smackdown from Rosanne Cash, published on the CMT website and reprinted here last month. It's one thing for politicians and political campaigns to co-opt popular songs as their themes, because, as we've seen in cases involving Republicans adopting songs by Bruce Springsteen, Heart and Jackson Browne, the artists in question are alive and well and quite capable of alerting the public (and the candidates) to what they consider inappropriate use of their work. Presuming to know the choices a deceased person, much less a man as complex as Johnny Cash, would have made in any election year is reprehensible. We're not sure about Johnny Cash's preferences, but we are absolutely certain that we're declaring John Rich a dunce emeritus. The hat is kind of flattering, no?

Jammed Up Blues


We'll be looking into Elvin Bishop's rousing new guest-studded new album, The Blues Rolls On, in a future issue, but we had to pass along this story Bishop has told about going to Las Vegas to meet up with B.B. King to record one of the album tracks. Seems Bishop was passing through the security check at the Oakland airport (he now lives in Northern California) on his way to B.B.'s Vegas home when he was stopped by an agent who had pulled a jar of jam from Elvin's bag. Elvin, you see, has grown his own food, for years, and is revered in some quarters for his homemade jams and salsas; B.B., in fact, had requested Bishop bring him some jam. Looking at the product, the security agent said, "This looks good. Is it homemade?" Elvin answered in the affirmative, and was then informed he wouldn't be allowed to take it on the plane. Elvin quietly pleaded his case, appealing that an exception be made because this particular shipment was for B.B. King. Unmoved, the agent stared blankly back at Elvin. "Well," he said, "you can tell B.B. King that the thrill is gone, and so is his jam." As he shuffled away jam-less, Elvin noted that the agent had not deposited the jam in the basket with other confiscated items, but rather had slipped it under his chair for his own personal use at a later date. Them's the blues.

Cover Story: The Duhks Take On the World
By David McGee

Consider the headline on this piece: The Duhks Take On the World. Now, this can be read two ways: The Duhks Take On the World. Or, The Duhks Take On the World. Either interpretation is correct. And both are correct, too. Because in their mesmerizing new album, Fast Paced World, the Duhks deploy their aggressive progressive worldbeat bluegrass-call it pancultural bluegrass, if you prefer-in service of a message, or a news bulletin, announcing a humanistic platform for making a better habitat of this planet, and admitting to very human struggles with issues of intimacy and love. The rich may be different, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the Duhks, whose riches are of a spiritual rather than monetary nature, are really different.

The BluegrassSpecial.com Interview: Henry Butler: NOLA On His Mind
A scintillating Q&A with the outstanding New Orleans piano player Henry Butler, on assembling his resonant new live album, PiaNOLA Live, from two decades' worth of tapes that survived Hurricane Katrina; working with his friend and producer George Winston; and the state of the Crescent City today, post-flood, which elicits from Butler some sharp, unforgiving assessments of those he feels bear responsibility for the mess on the bayou.

Patty Loveless: The Heart of a Classic
By David McGee

Since her first appearance in the Top 10 in 1988 ("If My Heart Had Windows"), Patty Loveless has carved out a most remarkable career marked by platinum-level mainstream success and critically acclaimed, unimpeachable forays into the heart of the music she loves most, classic country and bluegrass. Following a three-year absence from the studio, she's back with another routinely amazing album, Sleepless Nights, the subtitle of which says it all: The Traditional Country Soul of Patty Loveless. Fourteen songs in all, it's an album with multiple meanings for Loveless and her usual co-conspirator, husband-producer Emory Gordy. In an interview with TheBluegrassSpecial.com, Loveless discusses the deeply personal meaning of her song choices and their musical presentation.

THE GOSPEL SET: Then Sings My Soul: A Tribute to George Beverly Shea
A long overdue tribute to one of the greatest voices in gospel music history, Then Sings My Soul chronicles George Beverly Shea's rise from his childhood in Winchester, Ontario, Canada (his father was a Wesleyan minister), to world renown as the voice of the Billy Graham Crusades over the course of a 65-year friendship/partnership with Billy Graham. With nimble wit and keen insight, the 98-year-old Shea, ably guided by producer Bill Gaither's informed questioning, recounts his remarkable career with the same humility and gratitude millions of people around the world have seen him exhibit on the stage of the Crusades and express in the songs he's helped forge into the gospel canon with one of the most expressive bass voices of the 20th Century. To his repertoire he brings the commanding presence of another imposing bass singer, Paul Robeson, and the unquestioned integrity and commitment of his friend, and sometime Billy Graham performing partner, Mahalia Jackson. Plus an exclusive interview with executive producer and long time George Beverly Shea friend, Bill Gaither.

News & Notes

CROSSING OVER: Remembering Jerry Reed; Charlie Walker; Buddy Harmon.

ALBUM SPOTLIGHT: B.B. King, One Kind of Favor
One Kind Favor is not a good B.B. King album at all; it's a great one, ranking with some of the finest work the artist has done since he began releasing albums in 1957. Credit producer T Bone Burnett not for staying out of the way, but for absorbing the lessons of his subject's recording history, and taking heed. This accounts for One Kind Favor being the least T Bone of all T Bone productions, reminiscent as it is of others' approaches to the art of Riley B. King—namely those of producers Bill Szymczyk and Stewart Levine, who together account for 10 of B.B.'s most memorable long players, primarily by challenging their subject with new thinking.

ALBUM SPOTLIGHT: The Youngers, Heritage
Produced by John Carter cash, who is getting very good at what he does, The Youngers' Heritage strikes a mighty blow for the rank and file. Kicking off with an easygoing cautionary warning about a flighty woman ("Heartbreaker"), it quickly engages real world issues in dramatic fashion, as it tells of a bitter, befuddled and angry American workforce-the railroad man, truck driving man, the displaced land owner in a armed standoff with the law-and the more you listen the more you realize songwriter/lead singer/lead guitarist Todd Bartolo's Haggardian world view is coming from a real place in his soul, and he's hurting for those to whom he sings. Which is not to say he can't pen and deliver a righteous, Springsteen-style night-riding, high-octane rocker ("In the Middle Of the Night," complete with some wailing, Clarence Clemons-style sax courtesy Jim Hoke), or probe broken hearts with the best of 'em, because he damn sure does when he goes pure honky tonk on "Right All the Wrongs" (he gets a big assist in that department from bassist Randy Krater, who offers his own compelling, alcohol-drenched ode to a busted relationship in the twang- and steel-rich "Our Little Secret"). Given the recent headlines emanating from the financial community and the ongoing economic crises, Bartolo's portraits of working class fears and frustrations hit with devastating impact, right on the money, or what's left of it. Good morning, America, how are you?

Paul Williams & The Victory Trio, WHAT A JOURNEY

Bluegrass gospel on an exalted plane, Paul Williams & The Victory Trio's What a Journey is a stirring message of faith and salvation with a pronounced uplifting spirit about it. That is to say, the album's 13 songs seem to have been selected with an eye towards making a statement about the beauty of life on earth and the promise of greater rewards in the afterlife. Williams, his keening tenor at its most expressive here, sings not of death approaching as a thief in the night, but rather as a matter of fact, a necessary step on the road to gloryland that necessitates neither fearful warnings nor melancholic resignation.

Valerie Smith & Becky Buller, HERE'S A LITTLE SONG
Unassuming and inspired, Here's a Little Song brings two gifted women of different generations together in song, and they proceed to make sure you don't forget that they passed through your life. The principals are the exemplary veteran bluegrass/country vocalist Valerie Smith and one of the outstanding young bluegrass/country songwriters and fiddlers of the day, Becky Buller, the latter being a member of Smith's group Liberty Pike, whose members join them here along with a stellar cast of guest pickers from bands such as IIIrd Tyme Out and Special Consensus.

David Bromberg Quartet, LIVE NEW YORK CITY 1982
No mere relic of an earlier time by a younger artist at his peak, the David Bromberg Quartet's Live New York City 1982 previously available only years ago in a limited edition, has been remastered to a brilliant, pristine clarity by Marc Moss, the better to serve an evening of instrumental virtuosity alternately incendiary and sensitive, and soulful vocal meditations in blues and country.

Redd Volkaert, REDDHEAD
You expect the Master of the Telecaster to dazzle you with some exciting fretwork, and he doesn't disappoint. What was less predictable was that Redd would prove to be such an effective singer. And who woulda taken him for a philosopher king-in-song? Reddhead packs a punch that hurts so good.

You know a record's got something going for it when it has two cuts with James Burton on guitar, and it doesn't even need him to be compelling. Wilderness springs from the environmentally conscious, musically rich interior landscape that defines the singular voice and viewpoint of Randy Riviere (pronounced Ri-veer), whose interesting wanderings have found him occupying a variety of blue collar jobs, serving a stint in the U.S. Army, undertaking an education that's earned him a master's degree in wildlife biology, toiling in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leading an effort to preserve more than 40,000 acres as permanent wildlife conservation easements and earning awards for his environmental efforts. This in part helps explain why the intriguing songs on the aptly titled Wilderness bear such a strong sense of place, a connection to the physical geography of the land and the psychological contours of a restless soul in pursuit of some degree of grace and definition.

Inspired by the current of life and characters in her native Galveston, TX, Denice Frank's Gulf Coast Blue is as unerring in its sense of place as it is colorful and piercing in its depictions of the forces tugging at people making their way across landscapes measured both in literal and metaphysical miles. Singing in a husky, smoky voice that has some of the color of Joni Mitchell's and a lot of the sultriness of Bobbie Gentry's, Franke brings her original songs to vivid life in taut tales following a less-is-more pattern of employing a few well-chosen instruments to add compelling textures to what are essentially short stories disguised as folk and blues ballads.

Darrell Scott, MODERN HYMNS
When last we heard from Darrrell Scott the solo artist, it was 2006 and in The Invisible Man he was contemplating some weighty existential questions spurred by the death of his friend Stuart Adamson, founder and voice of the formidable Scottish rock band Big Country, and he had enlisted Dan Dugmore, Richard Bennett, Sam Bush, John Cowan and other titans of our times to assist him on his journey. On Modern Hymns he's not exactly dispensed with his existential angst, but rather is exploring its manifestations in the songs of some of his favorite artists, attended by a supporting cast every bit as formidable as that encountered on his previous long player.

Kenny and Amanda Smith Band, LIVE AND LEARN
Returning to largely secular terrain following their Grammy nominated 2007 long player, Tell Someone, Kenny and Amanda Smith, along with bandmates Zachary McLamb (bass) and Aaron Williams (mandolin), with Ron Stewart providing a memorable assist sitting in on fiddle and banjo, give as much of themselves to the corporeal world as they do to the spiritual one in polishing this particular gem. Given the long shadow it casts in the gospel world, be advised that the band hardly dispenses with its spiritual focus here.


On Witness to the Blues, Joe Louis Walker has topped himself, and that's saying something. With an able assistant from producer/guitarist Duke Robillard, Walker fashions an invigorating jaunt into blues country, working that Memphis-Muscle Shoals-Clarksdale axis for all it's worth with a horn-bolstered band, a variety of guitars at his disposal and a stirring collection of songs, more than half of which he penned, ranging from mean woman blues to gospel-rooted pleas.

Liz Mandeville, RED TOP
Proving that a Liz by any other name is formidable, Chicago-based blues babe Liz Mandeville, now using her family name after recording three albums as Liz Mandville Greeson, is making a run at the big time on this assured, richly textured collection of 15 original tunes, nine of which she produced and recorded on her own, with another six steered in the studio by Earwig CEO Michael Robert Frank. No slouch on guitar, she shows a deft, expressive touch taking the lead on three numbers, with her subtle dynamics on the double-entendre gem "Scratch the Kitty" being most impressive. But Red Top is really a showcase for her ever more mature vocalizing, which is nothing short of captivating throughout.

Angela Desveaux, THE MIGHTY SHIP
On her new album, Angela Desveaux casts a sharp on an unsettled age. Live with The Mighty Ship for awhile, get your sea legs, and it becomes a powerful, memorable journey begging repeat visits.


With some sizzling live performances filmed on board his 2006 "Sandy Beaches" cruise supplemented by a wealth of vintage photos, footage and reminiscences of his early scuffling days and a trying, 50-years-plus journey to solvency and sobriety, Delbert McClinton recounts his life and times in vivid, highly entertaining fashion in this documentary, which was awarded Best Documentary 2007 at the Woods Hole Film Festival. Interspersed amongst some riotous tales of Delbert and his band's misfortunes back in the day (as related by Delbert and some of those stellar bandmates) are some powerhouse musical interludes by the likes of Rodney Crowell, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Hall, Wayne Toups, Al Anderson, Buddy Miller, Jeffrey Steele, and not least of all, Delbert himself.

Originally released in 1993, Steve Gebhardt's Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass remains the definitive film document of this American innovator's life and career. A fascinating 90-minute journey, the story is vividly recalled by Monroe himself (ably interrogated by John Hartford), members of his Bluegrass Boys band (Chubby Wise steals the show), and redoubtable musician/historians Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Peter Rowan and Emmylou Harris. In one of his final interviews, Roy Acuff speaks eloquently to the topic of why Monroe ranks in the top tier of the American music pantheon. Bill Monroe's art and style continue to exert a profound influence on bluegrass musicians, from the youngest to the oldest generations. Why that is so is answered in this intelligently conceived, admirably executed, invaluable video portrait.

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