Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sam Bush - Circles Around Me

Circles Around Me, Bush's seventh solo album is a mix of classic bluegrass covers and new originals. Quite possibly this is Bush’s most cohesive release. Bush has always been a dichotomy. He is influenced by the old but is the original innovator of the new. Hell, he literally coined the term new grass with his original band New Grass Revival, which he founded. The young innovators of today like Chris Thile, Infamous Stringdusters, Old Crow Medicine Show, Chatham County Line, Hackensaw Boys, Crooked Still and more recently the likes of Sarah Jarosz, owe their success to Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan and their peers.

On this new release, Bush blends the old and new seamlessly with both covers and original compositions. Produced by Bush, Circles Around Me includes appearances by Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas to name a few. Let’s not forget Bush's own band; Scott Vestal, Stephen Mougin, Byron House and Chris Brown, which is one of the best in all of Bluegrass.

The album includes some great songwriting collaborations. The title cut was co-written with Jeff Black. My favorite is "The Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle," which Bush co-wrote with Guy Clark and Verlon Thompson. This song is a true story of the 1973 murder of Grand Ole Opry star David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife. "Souvenir Bottles" and "Whisper My Name" are re-workings of New Grass Revival songs. These songs build a nice bridge to the traditional tunes on the record. Del McCoury lends his unmistakable tenor on two Bill Monroe covers, "Roll On Buddy, Roll On" and "Midnight on the Stormy Deep." However, the most poignant and powerful of the traditional songs is the excellent rendition of "Diamond Joe."

Whatever you perspective, Circles Around Me gives us an artist that obviously is content where he is now, where he came from and where he is headed. Maybe that is why he just received the AMA lifetime achievment award.

Check out his AMA performance:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wrinkle Neck Mules - Let the Lead Fly

With the release of their fourth album the Wrinkle Neck Mules have established themselves as one of the premier roots rock bands. Let the Lead Fly is a bit less electric but rocks just as hard. With the use of banjo, mandolin and pedal steel, the roots move to the forefront on this release. As usual the band tells stories of the people on the margins of society. The poignant vignettes are especially effective at a time when the margins of society are growing However, this is not an album about sorrow and despair. As they say on the title cut, “Don’t just stand there raise, your guns and let lead fly.” Instrumentally the linchpin that brings the traditional and the electric rock together is “Medicine Bow.” This song stands in contrast to “The Waters all Run Dry,” which would have been a country standard if it had been recorded in the 40’s or 50’s.

The band has two members that contribute lead vocals and each gives the band a different feel. Andy Stepanian has a raw, edgy voice. Mason Brent has a smoother voice that gives a folksier feel. To put it in terms of bourbon it is like Old Grand Dad versus Basil Hayden. However, either one can result in a good time. This two singer, two style concept has a direct correlation to the Drive-by Truckers. The formula works pretty well for both the Truckers and the Mules. The comparison to the Truckers is not entirely fair given the depth of the Truckers catalogue. However, after four albums the Wrinkle Neck Mules have firmly established themselves. They seem to be here to stay and getting better. If you haven’t listened to them yet it is time for you to Let the Lead Fly.

Sample Title Cut