July has allowed me time to listen to a lot of music while sitting on the deck in the sun. We're just a few days away from the annual Blueberry Bluegrass fest in Stony Plain, Alberta and a lot of what I've been listening to is top-notch bluegrass.
A month ago I made a list of 12 songs I thought would form an important part of my bluegrass soundtrack this summer. With a few additional weeks of listening time in, I've come up with a few more songs I highly recommend: if you haven't heard them yet, do yourself a favour and seek them out. Legally, dang it.
Dale Ann Bradley's recent Pinecastle release "Pocket Full of Keys" is chockablock with stunning moments, few sweeter than the aching quality Michael Cleveland brings with some sweet fiddling on a song that is currently my favourite on the disc, "Rachel Pack Your Sunday Clothes." This one reminds me of the material that has become Bradley's forte-emotionally charged, lyrically rich songs of substance which require engagement from the listener. In this one the protagonist is being called home, having previously been ostracized by her family, judged too harshly by the father now in his deathbed. What appeals about this song, and Bradley's interpretation of it, is that the outcome is left open-ended, without a tearful, bedside reunion offered. The song drips with emotion, not the least of which a product of Cleveland's long bow strokes, as the family calls for Rachel's return: the listener is left wondering, Can, or even should, the effort be made to undertake a journey of forgiveness?
Another of my favourite albums this summer comes from Colorado-based Trout Steak Revival. "Oklahoma," sung by Steve Foltz, is another individual song highlight this month, one which features vocals that soar within the confines of the melody: no one is showing off within TSR's songs-every note counts and supports, each phrasing adds to the sharp dexterity of the song.
About 20 years ago, Marty Stuart released what was, to that point, his strongest, most focused album, "Love and Luck." Coming on the heels of his Top 10 chart successes, including "Little Things," "Tempted," and "Hillbilly Rock," and duets with Travis Tritt, the album should have been huge. It wasn't. Despite featuring several 'career' performances-"I Ain't Giving Up on Love," "Kiss Me, I'm Gone," and "If I Give My Soul" among them-and living in my little green Mazda pickup truck's cassette deck for months on end, "Love and Luck" signaled the beginning of the end of the Marty Party, at least as far as commercial radio was concerned.
I tell you all that because that "Love and Luck" album was one of my favourite summer albums in the mid-90s: I listened to it easily a hundred times. The Grass Cat's "The Old School Road" has similarly captured my attention. One of my favourite songs on this independently-released disc is a Marty Stuart-Kostas title, "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long." Originally on Stuart's breakthrough "Hillbilly Rock' album, "Don't Leave Her Lonely Too Long" is a mighty powerful, yet gentle number. Hidden late in the proceedings, this one stands out as an inspired revisiting of a song that isn't as well known as it should be. Good job.
Shotgun Holler- "Out In the Parking Lot" I'm not a fan of the band's name-to me, sounds like a rejected Nashville Network puppet proposal-but man, I like the music . "Out in the Parking Lot" isn't my favourite Guy Clark song, neither is it my favourite Darrell Scott song, but it is a mighty good one, one that captures the acerbic wit of two musicians who themselves have likely spent too many hours 'out in the parking lot.' In Shotgun Holler's hands, it becomes a bluegrass tune.
I've been listening to a lot of Tim O'Brien this summer, the recent Hot Rize album included. But I've mostly been listening to his recent single releases, something he is calling the "Short Order Sessions." The 13th volume in this series is a reworking of "Jimmy Brown the News Boy" into a pointed commentary (he calls it a parody) on the file sharing foibles that is the current recording industry, and more. "Jimmy Brown the Blues Boy" is five minutes of curmudgeon bliss. O'Brien may be shaking his fists at clouds, but that doesn't make him wrong!
Kaia Kater, much like Anna & Elizabeth have done with their deeply satisfying and adventurous, self-titled album, plays with traditional music to gently knit together connections between ancient tones and modern times. Whereas that duo does so largely through their interpretation of traditional songs, Kater takes a more modernist approach, one equally necessary to allow the music to thrive and flourish. "Southern Girl ," one of several originals contained on "Sorrow Bound," Toronto-based Kater's recorded debut, has its foundation in the remnants of another time, but its passionate hopes are well observed in the changes our society is currently undergoing. Old-time rather than bluegrass, Kaia Kater and "Southern Girl" has become part of my summer, roots soundtrack.