Steve Gulley (left) and Tim Stafford: Offering the chill of an early winter

The Chill And The Thaw
By David McGee

Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford
Rural Rhythm

Roots music suffered a blow earlier this year when Pinecastle Records shut down owing to the declining health of founder Tom Riggs. At the time, the fate of some pending projects was undetermined, and there was no assurance any of those would ever see the light of day. Since then, only good news: Pinecastle has found a new owner in Riggs family friend Lonnie Lassiter ( and one of those orphaned projects, having found a new home on Rural Rhythm, turns out to be one of 2010’s finest releases—a dream pairing of acclaimed bluegrass veterans Steve Gulley (a founding member of his current group, Grasstowne, and formerly with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, after which he became a founding member of Mountain Heart) and Tim Stafford (a true bluegrass Renaissance man as a former member of Alison Krauss + Union Station; and a founding member of his much-honored current affiliation, Blue Highway, now celebrating its 15th year together; a sought-after producer and songwriter; a guitar teacher at East Tennessee State’s Bluegrass and Country Music Program; and a co-author [with Caroline Wright] of Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story [Word of Mouth Press, 2010].

Those are the bonafides; the bottom line is, as Gulley said in a statement to the press, “the songs themselves.” Dogwood Winter may be oddly named for a late spring-early summer release (it surfaced this past May), but the title, the title song and the desolate cover photo—a lone dogwood tree blooming in the midst of a deep snowfall—prove an apt metaphor for a batch of tunes as deeply reflective as these, performed with singer-songwriter intimacy and subtly accompanied by pickers who know about atmospherics, namely Adam Steffey on mandolin, Ron Stewart on banjo (and fiddle on one cut), Justin Moses on dobro and fiddle, with Michael Alvy adding piano on one number and Mark Laws performing tasty, understated percussion duties on two quietly mesmerizing meditations (“Nebraska Sky” and “Torches”). A female voice is on hand, too, and what a female voice it is—Dale Ann Bradley, contributing aching harmonies as pure and affecting as the lyrics’ personal confessions.

Tim Stafford (left) and Steve Gulley at the Bluegrass All-Star Jam at the Paramount Center for the Arts, Bristol, TN, February 28, 2010, performing one of the original gems from Dogwood Winter, ‘Angel On Its Side.’

Working together as they do here, Gulley and Stafford come at their material from two vantagepoints. First and foremost is that of speaking in the voices we’ve come to recognize from Mountain Heart, Grasstowne and Blue Highway; second, the duo indicates in its liner notes an attempt to work in styles associated with some of its multitude of influences. One of those, by their own admission, is James Taylor. Fans of Gulley and Stafford are in for a treat in hearing not one but two songs that might well have come from JT. Now, they identify “Nebraska Sky” as being more akin to an homage to Jimmy Webb, and certainly the harmonic structure and the impressionistic, ruminative piano work of Alvy gives it the feel of Webb’s striking portraits of his protagonists at work—in this instance it’s a soldier on short time writing from the trenches with an intense longing for “the big Nebraska sky” at home—but the rhythm and language of the lyrics smacks of Taylor at his most incisive; a song they indicate is a Taylor-made deal, “Torches,” indeed has the gentle, jazzy feel of latter-day JT ballads, and in this case the laid-back, dreamy feel is deceptive, because the story it tells is of mismatched lovers, one coming to understand how no good end is going to come of the affair, so, “mark it down to lessons learned/when I carry torches, I always get burned/you can’t take chances where love’s concerned.” Simply beautiful, this, from first note to last, especially Gulley’s graceful, knowing vocal. Not least of all in this grouping is a wonderful hobo tale, “Sixteen Cents,” modeled on the rustic Blake and Rice/Rice and Skaggs duets. It chronicles the passing of a subculture in the sketch of a near-penniless vagabond nearing extinction as “time and fortune” pass him by. Stafford, accompanied only by fingerpicked guitar, sings this one much as Woody Guthrie did his story-songs, with a surface reportorial objectivity that heightens the bittersweet portrait of a man out of time, makes no secret of where the narrator’s sympathies lay and is lent greater impact by its stark instrumental backdrop. Digging deeper into history, Gulley and Stafford craft the tragic story-song from which this album takes its title with a nod towards the chilling country blues of Dock Boggs. The story concerns a family moved by its patriarch to “a land of milk and honey,” in Tennessee, hoping for a better life. Winter blew in unexpectedly early, and while the song (the narrator) was out gathering wood for a fire, the family cabin caught fire and burned to the ground, taking the father’s life with it. Ron Stewart picks an oddly tuned banjo in a Boggs style that is riveting unto itself, but Stafford’s plaintive vocal really drives home the horror of the family’s plight, as the son is praying at the end to be delivered from a land offering no promise save tragedy.

When not referencing other artists, Gulley and Stafford give wide berth to their own sensibilities. It’s easy to find them in the loping gait of “Just Another Setting Sun,” a poignant story-song told from the point of view of the widow of western gunslinger (and dentist) Doc Holliday as she buries her husband (who has perished from consumption) and then, in her waning years, alone in an old folks’ home, is haunted by his vision in her mind’s eye. Anyone who heard April Verch’s devastating version of Stafford’s “You Hurt Me All Over Again” on her 2008 Steal The Blue album is in for a heartbreaking treat—if that’s the way to put it—on the plaintive Gulley-Stafford version here, with Gulley’s affecting lead vocal complemented by Bradley’s keening harmony and Justin Moses’ abject fiddle and dobro cries punctuated by a stark, succinct, remorseful mandolin solo courtesy Adam Steffey.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The assembled musicians literally get into the swing of things on the sprightly “How Did That Turn Into My Problem,” a lively bit of bluegrass schadenfreude in which the narrator indulges when his old girlfriend comes seeking his comfort after she’s been dumped. Ending on a philosophical note, Gulley offers a subdued guitar (by Stafford)-and-vocal performance of his “Angel On Its Way,” concerning the good karma accruing from helping an elderly stranger in need of a ride home. The guitar is so soft it’s practically an a cappella performance, thought provoking with a simple metaphorical moral always worth heeding: “It seems to me there’s a circle of love unbroken in life/We’re all the same inside; we all could use a ride/You never know when you might help an angel on its way.” One hesitates to say Gully and Stafford could never top Dogwood Winter, because they are, after all, Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford, but it sure would be nice if they tried. Ball’s in your court, fellas.

Steve Gulley & Tim Stafford’s Dogwood Winter is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024