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Articles and Interviews – 2007


There are only three shopping days until Christmas, and Scott Avett has just begun his annual quest for gifts. Avett's absence from the Christmas hustle and bustle this year is not the result of garden variety procrastination or an unreasonable fear of the mall. This year, Avett's band, the Avett Brothers, has been pathologically busy.

The Avetts - brothers banjoist/vocalist Scott and guitarist/vocalist Seth, with stand-up bassist Bob Crawford - are closing the book on a calendar year that has been the most rewarding since the band officially began six years ago. 2007 has seen the Avetts sell more albums, log more road time and mileage and score more industry accolades than ever before, and it's clearly a great feeling.

The year began, naturally enough with roadwork, but not until The Avetts had put the finishing touches on their 10th release, "Emotionalism," which hit the streets back in May. In the midst of a grueling touring cycle that saw them spend nearly two-thirds of the... »»»

Country music followed the rest of the music industry by not having a particularly boffo year at the sales register. This continues the trend of declining record sales in an increasingly digital world with digital sales growth slowing.

It also was a year marked by the return of Garth Brooks, the careers of a few artists surging and record labels being sold and having significant problems.

Brooks returned in November with "The Ultimate Hits," ostensibly a greatest hits package with four new songs. But one of them, "More Than a Memory," resulted in a number one hit once again for Brooks.

And he also made his way back to the concert stage for the first time in nine years with a slew of shows in Kansas City in November and more forthcoming in January in Los Angeles.. Brooks has said he would not return to the concert tour full-time until his youngest daughter is finished with school.

Carrie Underwood survived the sophomore slump with "Carnival Ride" out this fall. She had an... »»»

Bill Anderson he may not be loud and flashy, but he has quietly written some of the greatest songs in country music, including "Po' Folks" and "Tip of My Fingers." Connie Smith, Hank Locklin, Porter Wagoner and Jim Reeves all recorded his songs. This gentle gentleman from Columbia, S.C. is also a fine singer, and his most recent CD release draws upon the bluegrass influences of his youth.

"Whisperin' Bluegrass" is evenly divided between secular and sacred songs. The first half is filled with sinful tunes about drinking, cheating and dying, whereas the second part could easily fit into a Sunday morning church service.

"That was the idea of Steve Ivey, who owns the record label and who co-produced the record," explains Anderson, who also just won a Country Music Association Award for helping write "Give It Away," a hit for George Strait. He also was nominated for a Grammy for the song.

"We both go back to the days when acoustical music – they called it hillbilly music before they... »»»

Sarah Johns may not be today's typical female country artist. For starters, she does not have a hit on radio (yet), but she feels that everyone knows who she is in radio land. (That's a good thing).

Second, instead of veering towards the pop side of the country spectrum, a la today's stars like Carrie Underwood, the Kentucky native remains true to her country roots.

And in this day when music is so song driven, Johns is taking the credit/blame for what the listener hears because she had a hand in writing all 11 songs on her debut, "Big Love in a Small Town" (BNA).

Johns, 26, who was discovered in a bar by Toby Keith's manager, isn't in a looking back mode of coulda, shoulda, woulda on the album.

"I did exactly what I wanted to do," she says laughing, while talking from Nashville. "I wanted to make a record that within 20 years, I'd be proud that I did that record. I ended up writing every single song on there. I've got a lot of fiddle and a lot of steel, and it's a very country record. And I really wanted to make a country record."... »»»

Mel Tillis was just inducted into the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. But if you think this man just sits around polishing his many awards, you're wrong. Talking while driving from Florida to Branson to perform., Tillis apologized for doing so while driving, but multitasking is nothing new for this multitalented man.

Tillis is also a patient man. "It took me 52 years to make it, but I'm mighty proud, and it's good to be honored by your peers," says Tillis of his Hall of Fame induction. "I'm in good company; I went in with Ralph Emery and Vince Gill. And they had quite a ceremony where they presented us with our medallions."

In addition to this recent CMA election, Tillis is in the Nashville Songwriters Interna-tional Hall of Fame. The CMA also bestowed upon him the Entertainer of the Year award in 1976, and The Grand Ole Opry inducted Tillis as a member in 2007.

Tillis could have just as easily been inducted as a songwriter or as a comedian because of his natural sense... »»»

Dom Flemons is an accomplished musician, well versed in the signatures and nuances of all of the genres that he has played professionally throughout his career. Two years ago, Flemons channeled all of his experience and knowledge into his explorations of bluegrass music, joining with like-minded friends Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson to form the acclaimed and highly skilled string band/old time/bluegrass-based Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The trio's instrumental virtuosity and inherent sense of historical perspective are displayed brilliantly on their debut album, "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind."

Mentored by fiddle master Joe Thompson, the Drops cover a wide variety of bluegrass obscurities with traditional expertise and contemporary abandon, infusing songs from the earliest part of the last century with a modern, yet completely appropriate vibrancy.

Given that we're nearly five decades past the opening volleys of the civil rights movement, the fact that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a group of African American musicians should not be among their most striking characteristics.... »»»

This year marks a half-century since singer and guitarist Charlie Waller and a then-teenaged banjo standout Bill Emerson formed the Country Gentlemen, a band that changed the face of bluegrass and continues today under the direction of Waller's son, Randy.

Now the sole surviving original Gent, Emerson left the band (returning for a time later) and embarked on a career that included stints with Jimmy Martin, countless guest appearances and collaborations and 20 years in military service as the cornerstone of the U.S. Navy's sterling bluegrass band, Country Current. After (mostly) retiring from the music business in the late 1990s, he returns just in time for his 70th birthday fronting his own new band and eponymous Rebel album, "Bill Emerson and the Sweet Dixie Band."

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area where his father owned a Buick dealership, Emerson still lives in the Virginia suburbs and speaks with a gentle drawl as he remarks that he had to be coaxed back into the business.... »»»

Recounting the story from his home in his native Knoxville, Tenn., Grasstowne's Phil Leadbetter acknowledges that from the moment he answered the phone shortly before Thanksgiving 2006 to the early August release of the band's debut CD, "The Road Headin' Home," it has been an intense, but rewarding experience.

The voice at the other end of the line that day was longtime friend Steve Gulley, whom he had met on the same night more than 30 years ago that Leadbetter got the chance to play with his idol, the late Josh Graves.

"I started playing about '74, playing Dobro." says Leadbetter, now 45. "When I first got one, I had no idea what it was. My brother played banjo at the time, and he got to talking about a Dobro, and I had no idea what it was. He brought me a Flatt and Scruggs record, and I heard Josh Graves, and I really liked the sound - about three months later from the time I started playing, I actually got to meet Josh Graves, and he invited me up on stage to play with him. I got to play a tune called 'Shuckin' The Corn' with him - that was the first tune I ever heard him play on a record. That actually hooked me."... »»»

Steve Earle keeps moving. If it's not physically, it's musically. After 33 years living in Nashville, the outspoken, sometimes controversial singer/songwriter with the Texas twang in his voice split Nashville for the Big Apple two years ago.

"Sunset in my mirror pedal on the floor/Bound for New York City and I won't be back no more/...boys won't see me around/Goodbye Guitar Town," sings Earle on "Tennessee Blues," the lead-off song of his new disc, "Washington Square Serenade," which hit streets in late September on New West Records.

Living in New York City has had its effect on Earle, who writes and sings about it on with sounds of country, blues, bluegrass, a touch of hip hop beats and rootsy sounds.

New York informs Earle's music and writing through its melting pot population, architecture and neighborhoods.

New York City isn't exactly Nashville North, and while Earle has been skewered in the past over some of his liberal leaning songs, particularly "John Walker Blues" - he... »»»

Mary Gauthier is a restless spirit. But when it comes to singer/songwriters, these restless ones are usually best qualified for the job. They're always searching, but rarely finding a soft place to land. And it is a sad truth, at least within the artist/audience dynamic, that their pain is oftentimes our gain; trials and troubles are many times raw material for wonderful songs.

Gauthier's new CD, "Between Daylight and Dark," (Lost Highway) is packed with many painfully beautiful songs. It's obvious she has strong New Orleans roots, as many of this new disc's songs draw upon those roots - especially with regard to Katrina's horrific affect on her beloved city.

One song in particular, "Can't Find the Way," appears to be pointedly informed by the Katrina tragedy.

"It was inspired by Katrina, but it is also just about the sense of trying to find home," Gauthier explains. "I mean, there's a sense of immediate loss with the people who lost everything in New Orleans and who are spread... »»»

Anyone who says women can't have it all clearly has never confronted the force of nature that is Lori McKenna. She has been a devoted wife for 18 years - almost half her life - and equally doting stay-at-home mother of 5 along the way.

But somewhere in the painting of this slightly tilted Norman Rockwell portrait, McKenna also became one of the country's most gifted songwriters, beloved by a cultish fan base, championed by Faith Hill and feted by Oprah Winfrey.

Sometimes McKenna herself has to take a deep breath and try to sort out everything that has transpired over the past couple of years, from Hill covering 3 of McKenna's songs for her 2005 album "Fireflies" to her acclaimed opening slots on the recent Tim McGraw/Faith Hill Soul2Soul 2007 Tour to the overwhelmingly positive attention being lavished on her fifth album and major label debut, "Unglamorous." McKenna's "pinch me" moments seem to come more frequently these days.

"I know, isn't it crazy?" says McKenna with a giddy laugh from her hectic home in Stoughton, Mass, a Boston suburb.... »»»

It is still a bit of a rarity to see a bluegrass band made up of players aged 20s to 30s who are committed to preserving the traditional sounds of the first generation of bluegrass founders, while still striking out for their own sound with a repertoire of predominately original songs.

"Lovin' Pretty Women," the third Rebel Records release by the Steep Canyon Rangers, shows that such a band can thrive in bluegrass.

"We kind of came into it backwards as far as a traditional sense," say mandolin player Mike Guggino by phone from his home in Brevard, N. C. "We definitely didn't listen to the traditional stuff at first. That's not what got us directly into bluegrass, but as we got into being a band and playing longer and longer, it seems our tastes in what we like to listen to and sound like was beginning to get more traditional."

The Rangers originally formed around the trio of banjoist and vocalist Graham Sharp, guitarist and lead vocalist Woody Platt and bass player Charles R.... »»»

Robert Gordon can't recall exactly where he was or what he was doing when he heard that Elvis Presley had died, but he definitely remembers how he felt. "It was just heartbreaking, and I literally just didn't go out of the house for like three days, and I just listened to his music," the singer reminisces from his New York home. "I think I wept when I first heard the news. It affected me, and that was strange because I didn't realize that I would ever be affected like that. It just really hit me hard."

(Photo: Robert Gordon, left, and Chris Spedding, right)

That was 1977. It is now the 30th anniversary of Presley's death, and Gordon is currently paying tribute to him with a new album on Rykodisc done with guitarist Chris Spedding, "It's Now or Never."

Asked if recording a collection Elvis tunes in his own inimitable style was a long cherished dream project, Gordon chuckles and replies, " Not really. In fact, I shied away from it for many years. But we felt that it was the right time, being that it's the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death."... »»»

It's not "eye-lin," it's "ee-lin." And that's not the only thing a little different about Eilen Jewell.

If a listener to one of Jewell's latest songs wasn't careful, he or she might think he had put on a country or swing record from years gone by. "Letters from Sinners and Strangers," released in mid-July on the western Massachusetts label, Signature Sounds, is distinctive in its lack of studio flash and modern-day sonics. Instead, the singer just likes her voice front and center backed by spare instrumentation.

"Yeah, it's definitely intentional," she says of her music in a recent phone interview. "I just really like that style...My sense of aesthetics is just such that I can't stand a lot of clutter."

Instead, Jewell delivers straight-up tunes that might best be described as "parlor music": the sounds are so unvarnished, so immediate, that it feels as if you are sitting on the front steps of the porch while she and her combo test out one song, then another.... »»»

Teddy Thompson is speaking from a phone booth in the middle of noisy London. And as he talks, he does so with a strong British accent. But that should come as no surprise; he is the son of legendary British folk singers Richard and Linda Thompson, after all.

Quite naturally, songs like "Everybody Move It" from his previous "Separate Ways" release roll to gentle folk rhythms and show that he is, indeed, his parents' son. Yet the singing voice on his new Verve Forecast release, "Up Front and Down Low," doesn't sound British or folk at all.

Instead, it is nearly a dead ringer for modern country crooner Raul Malo, as it finds him performing a set of mostly traditional country songs

"Well, I actually grew up listening to country music because of my parents." Thompson explains. "They played a lot of country music in the car - Hank Williams and The Everly Brothers - when we were traveling around. Like a lot of musicians, they didn't really listen to the music similar to the kind of music they were making. That was sort of their day job. So they listened to a lot of American music."... »»»

Adrienne Young is down to earth. On a phone interview from her home in Nashville, it sounds as if Young is doing the dishes and tidying up the kitchen before she pushes back a chair on a wood floor and sits down to talk.

Young is about go to a special producer's only farmers market, only locally grown produce and goods, but she takes time out to talk about her third CD, "Room to Grow," running her own label (AddieBelle Music), sustainable farming and how it all fits together.

After working on "Room to Grow" for so long, Young says, "I can't wait for it to get out on the radio and to start to get back on the stage and playing music." Young has an extensive tour schedule, including some big summer festivals.

And she has plans in the works for a fall tour to support a movement that's close to her heart. "We're going to be donating a portion of each record to the Save a Seed Fund, which is something AddieBelle Music started with the American Community Garden Association. A portion of the sale of each CD will go to a non-genetically modified seed fund to community gardens across America."... »»»

Kelly Willis didn't exactly go on the fast track in releasing the follow-up to 2002's "Easy." The Texan could not plead guilty to being gun shy especially since "Easy" received very positive reviews.

But fans of the singer had to wait until late June for "Translated From Love," a dozen-song package produced by rootsy guitarist Chuck Prophet.

"Translated From Love" is quite a different breed of music from "Easy." That is apparent from the get go with electric guitars in evidence, a big departure from the acoustic bent of the more traditional country sounding "Easy." Willis still is country, but she offers several twists and turns.

So, what gives with Willis succumbing to Lucinda Williamsitis - being slow in the output department?

Willis, 38, has a few answers.

"Part of it is I'm slow at making records. That's sort of my nature," says Willis, laughing, in a telephone interview from Austin just home from shows in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala. and Houston in support of... »»»

It has been more than a year and a half since family bluegrass band Cherryholmes turned the bluegrass world upside down by walking off the Ryman stage at the 2005 IBMA Awards with the coveted Entertainer of the Year Award tightly in their collective grasps, leaving no less than Alison Krauss, Del McCoury and Doyle Lawson in their wake.

Shortly thereafter, their self-titled debut release on Skaggs Family was released to sterling reviews and the whirlwind surrounding this close-knit family from Nashville (by way of Los Angeles) began spinning harder and generating even more momentum.

With "Black and White" out in June, Sandy Cherryholmes, the mama of the band, takes a few moments during an all-too-rare night off prior to a festival in North Carolina to reflect on their sudden shift of gear into life in the fast lane, bluegrass-style.

"Because we didn't expect a whole lot from it going in to begin with, everything has been like another exciting piece of the puzzle. Since we won... »»»

In a field consisting of Cherryholmes, Nothin' Fancy, Alecia Nugent and Pine Mountain Railroad, King Wilkie walked away as the IBMA's Emerging Artist of the Year in 2004 thanks to its debut "Broke." For many groups, this is the spot where they can see the Entertainer of the Year award dangling just ahead.

For King Wilkie, which just released "Low Country Suite," their debut for Rounder, it was both a crowning achievement and their bluegrass swan song of sorts.

"Since that time, we decided to slow down, get some day jobs. We wanted to be able to concentrate on our sound a little bit more," explains King Wilkie mandolin player and vocalist Reid Burgess. "Not that we didn't have a developed sound in 2004, but it to us it felt a little bit like we were aping other people."

"You can go and play Stanley Brothers songs because it's cool, and it feels good, but it's kind of like musical tourism in a way. It's fine, but when you're doing it for a living you kind of start feeling like you... »»»

John Carter Cash's very name gives him away as famous offspring; the only child of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash's marital pairing. If you haven't noticed, it's a busy time for time for Cash-related activities, especially because of the new June Carter Cash biography, "Anchored in Love," and the simultaneously released and same-named all-star tribute album to June's musical legacy.

(Photo of John Carter Cash and Loretta Lynn)

"I think that I'm stubborn like my dad, but I can be a little bit easily distracted like my mom," John admits, when asked how he's most like his parents. With the sound of kids playing in the background during our phone conversation, Cash's stubbornness must fight to avoid being distracted by all of the horseplay going on in his home. But it's a battle he mostly wins.

It's tough to imagine just how difficult it must have been for Cash to lose both his parents in 2003, only months apart. But undertaking both these June Carter Cash-related projects has helped him in the grieving process, at least some.

In retrospect, tracking the music came far easier than writing the words... »»»

After a career marked by colorful outfits, a pompadour, a bunch of hits dating back to the 1950's, a long-running television show, a chunk of time singing with Dolly Parton and a half-century performing at the Grand Ole Opry, it would be easy to give Porter Wagoner a fast pass into the comforts of a rocking chair.

Forget about that notion because Wagoner, 79, just released a brand new album, "Wagonmaster," on a very edgy label that is home from everyone from Nick Cave to Tom Waits.

And if recording for the Anti- label wasn't enough to give Wagoner's recording a kick start, consider that Marty Stuart produced.

"I did want to put out new music," says Wagoner on the phone from Nashville. "Marty had introduced me to the people at the record label, Anti- Records...I knew they were excited to have an album by Porter Wagoner. I got inspired and enthused about doing the record then. The main people at that label were so good and so excited about me being on the record label, it was encouraging that I'd have a great group to promote the album."... »»»

In 1980, the country music world was ruled by the pop country of the Urban Cowboy movement and crossover stars like Barbara Mandrell, the Oak Ridge Boys, Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray ruled the charts. The signal of change back to a more traditional sound came from George Jones' hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and on the horizon was stars that would lead the ‘80s neo-traditional movement.

One of those stars was John Anderson, a soulful hillbilly singer whose voice sounds like the physical manifestation of a pedal steel guitar. Beginning with his 1980 eponymous debut on Warner, Anderson began to steadily climb the country music charts with hits such as "She Just Started Liking Cheating Song," "Your Lying Blue Eyes" and "1959," his first song to crack the top 10. After that he remained in the top 10 with songs like "I Just Came Home to Count the Memories" and "Would You Catch a Falling Star" and occupying the top slot with "Black Sheep," "Wild and Blue' and the song most closely associated with him, "Swingin'."... »»»

It's a little more than a two-hour drive from the Big Apple up the New York State Thruway, into the Catskills and just past Woodstock to reach the tiny town of Phoenicia, N.Y.

It's a world away from the early '70s New York City punk scene where Tommy Erdelyi, along with friends Johnny Cummings, Douglas Colvin and Jeffrey Hyman co-founded The Ramones. Yet Erdelyi, the only surviving original member of the legendary punk group, has called this pastoral village home for the past 13 years.

Erdelyi still goes by his band name Tommy Ramone, though he hasn't exactly settled for a quiet retirement in an artsy community in upstate New York. Instead, Ramone's music these days as half of the duo Uncle Monk reflects little Phoenicia, rising above the din of gritty New York punk and plunking itself squarely in the midst of the old timey world of folk.

But it was some three decades ago, amid the angst-ridden, multi-pierced punkers screaming out their three-chord rage, that Erdelyi, the band's... »»»

Miranda Lambert emerged from the pack of country music newbies with an energetic, electrifying performance of "Kerosene," the title track of her debut disc at the 2005 Country Music Association awards show. With columns of fire shooting off about the stage, her career took off.

But that was then, and now the Texas native who first gained acclaim for being a finalist on Nashville Star in its first year will see if her brand of honky tonkers and aggressive country can take off again with the release of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend."

"It's kind of split down the middle," says Lambert about the pressures she feels in round two during a telephone interview from Jacksonville, Fla. while on a concert tour a few weeks before the CD drops. "I feel pressure because 'Kerosene' was successful, and now I have expectations to live up to, but on the other side of that, I'm also comfortable in the fact 'Kerosene' went platinum. So, that means a million people are liking what I'm doing, so that gives (me) a little more faith in this record."... »»»

"I think I'm the most hard headed person you'll ever meet," says Pam Tillis with a wry smile in her voice. "Not personally, but the way my mind works, once I head in a direction, I don't look back."

It is clearly Tillis' hard-headed drive and determination that saw her through the dark days of her fizzled pop career in the early '80s and her subsequent doldrums when she inevitably switched to country and followed the highly regarded path of her legendary father, Mel Tillis. It was that same tenacious spirit that guided Tillis through the industry jungle of her spectacular successes as well as her disappointing periods.

And it was that very same stubborn resolve that led Tillis to record her latest album, "Rhinestoned," on her own, without a label and its "support" and inspired her to eventually release it herself on her newly established Stellar Cat imprint.

"There was a lot of deliberation that went into it," says Tillis of her decision to start her own label. "I was with Sony... »»»

Musicians can at times be a naive bunch, believing in the good in everyone and giving all the benefit of the doubt. These same musicians are often the ones that get hosed when it comes to signing contracts and other legal paperwork. But for anyone trying to pull the wool or any other fabric over the eyes of Scottish singer-songwriter Roddy Hart, think again. Hart has a law degree to fall back on.

"I didn't really feel old enough to be writing about some things," says Hart, 26, on the phone from across the Atlantic. "Sometimes what I hate in music is insincerity, and if you're particularly young, sometimes it can come across as if you don't really know what you're singing about. You've not really necessarily had the life experience."

Although he took the time to complete the degree, Hart also kept writing and honing his craft. The end result was his 2004 debut "Home Tapes," which earned him a loyal following, in Great Britain.

"I recorded a bunch of songs that I put together over... »»»

The annual music/schmooze fest known as the SXSW Music Festival, is underway in Austin with more than 1,300 bands hitting various stages around the city ended Sunday. The fest included a variety of music ranging from country and alt.-country to hip hop and rock from acts from widespread places around the U.S. England, Russia, Scandinavia, China and other countries.

Country performers attending included Steve Earle, Charlie Robison, Kelly Willis, Tracy Lawrence, Pam Tillis, Charlie Louvin, Sunny Sweeney plus a slew of acts on the Bloodshot Records and Palo Duro Records labels.

SXSW - The Wrap Up: Amoeba Records, Gram Parsons

AUSTIN - Amoeba Records deserves a gold star for providing the most memorable party experience of SXSW 2007. On Thursday night, the California record chain hosted a listening party for the upcoming CD entitled Gram Parsons Archive: The Flying Burrito Brothers Live at the Avalon 1969.

The record sounded stunning, Gram in fine voice and the Burritos at... »»»

A quick glance at the Shanachie Entertainment web contains new release listings for the Soweto Gospel Choir, reggae singer Alpha Blondy, soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello and jazz bassist Charles Mingus. There is no George Jones or Merle Haggard CDs. Nevertheless, Shanachie is releasing a new album by, perhaps, the best modern day Jones/Haggard disciple, Daryle Singletary. Somebody please tell Alan Jackson that even world music has gone country.

Singletary has tracked music with on the majors (3 '90s releases for Giant), as well as 2 albums for the relatively diminutive and now defunct Audium. Yet who would have predicted Shanachie was in the cards for this traditional country singer? The label released "Straight From the Heart" in late February.

"Well, they approached me," Singletary begins. "And honestly, I wasn't familiar with their work. I'm a country listener. I'm a country fan. But we got a-talkin to 'em and, you know, they had some great ideas. They had never done country before. They wanted to do a country record. And it's very flattering that they wanted me to be the first artist they worked with."... »»»

The four women of Uncle Earl, a.k.a., the g'Earls, live in different states, but that hasn't stifled their musical career.

Abigail Washburn plays banjo in Uncle Earl, which released "Waterloo, Tennessee," their second CD for Rounder and third overall. KC Groves plays mandolin; she lives outside of Boulder in Lyons, Col. Rayna Gellert plays fiddle and lives in Asheville, NC. Kristin Andreassen plays guitar and harmonica and lives in Watertown, Mass. All four sing lead and backup vocals.

They're able to handle the geographic challenges of spreading a band across the country by planning time together. They call it an Uncle Earl retreat. But they're ready for the new six-week tour to support the CD because they recently returned from playing in Scotland and England.

Gellert, who blogs about Uncle Earl's adventures on the band's web site says, "We played a gig in London, and there were loads of people. We don't know where they all came from."

Band members gathered at the home of Washburn, the "newest" member (since 2003). They take breaks from chopping kale and preparing minestrone to talk over a speakerphone.... »»»

"It's been a lot of hard work over the last year and a half, clawing back out to the place where we'd been before, and there's been an enormous amount of work with that." Thus speaks Elana James, better known as Elana Fremerman, the fiddle-playing co-founder of the hot jazz aggregation Hot Club of Cowtown, which abruptly disbanded in 2005. Since then, she has toured behind Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, created a solo debut album for her own Snarf Records label and re-christened herself Elana James.

Speaking from her parent's home, James tells the story behind her previous band's break-up. "We reached a really great point and were kind of on a roll where we were going on some really neat tours and doing all sort of things," she says. "At that point in 2005, Whit (Smith) - the Hot Club guitar player - decided that he just didn't want to continue with the band's format. I think he just sort of had enough of it, and that was very disappointing to me because I loved that band, and I love that kind of music, and I loved playing with Whit. So, it was really a major, major bummer."... »»»

After more than a decade in the music business, Jack Ingram finds himself in enviable, but very unfamiliar territory. He is about to release his 15th album, with the possibly prophetic title of "This Is It," with the big mo' going into it because of the success he enjoyed on his previous disc.

That is not something that the Texan has ever experienced before through stints on labels such as Rising Tide and Lucky Dog - both part of major labels - nor on his own, self-released discs.

But somehow, some way he started making a name for himself with "Wherever You Are," which came out in early January 2006 and contained his first ever number 1 single thanks to the title track. As if to prove that was not fluke, a second single from the disc, the catchy, humorous, somewhat mischievously sly, "Love You," also did well on the charts, proving that Ingram was not ready to join the One Hit Wonder club.

"I wasn't necessarily surprised," says Ingram in a cell phone interview from Nashville... »»»

The catalogs of the major bluegrass-oriented labels are chock-full these days of solo releases by the various band members and sidemen who make up the fluid and ever-changing landscape of modern bluegrass. For a guy like Jack Cooke with a half-century resume of playing with two of the most legendary and iconic bands, it's more than a little surprising that the late-February release of "Sittin' On Top Of The World" on Pinecastle marks his debut as a solo artist.

Now 70, Cooke's 37-year tenure as bass player for Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys certainly ranks among the longest in the history of the music, and while the idea of a solo album had been on his mind for years, it took some prodding from songwriter and producer Jim Lauderdale to finally make it happen.

"Jim...has been after me a long time to do this, and I've just kept putting him off. He's been after me eight or nine years, something like that. He said he'd like to produce it, and I said, 'Well, let me think it over,' and I just kept putting him off."... »»»

Although John Starling's name is up front on the new John Starling and Carolina Star project "Slidin' Home," it is strictly a group effort between the vocalist/guitarist and Dobro player Mike Auldridge and bassist Tom Gray.

"They suggested I take the heat and put my name up front, so I grudgingly agreed to do that," Starling jokes.

The decision was made as a group, the same way all of their decisions are made. "This group that we have, it's not a boss man band. It's what I call a Three Musketeers band like Seldom Scene was, everybody's got an opinion," laughs Starling, referring to the band the three used to call home. "It's not John Starling telling everyone what to do, it's mostly everyone telling me what to do."

The three principle members of Carolina Star - Starling, Auldridge and Gray - have played together off and on since 1971. After completing medical school and a stint in Vietnam as a surgeon, Starling moved to Washington D.C. for his residency where he met Auldridge... »»»

After issuing a live album in 2005, "Doublewide And Live!," that captured their concert vibe perfectly, Southern Culture On The Skids tossed around the idea of a covers album. The trio, led by singer and guitarist Rick Miller, had a big problem though – namely trying to pare down the choices to fit onto one album. While "Sentimental Favorites" was one album title the band toyed with, the end result is "Countrypolitan Favorites," (Yep Roc) a record that Miller is quite proud of.

"My dad had a lot of Roger Miller and Tammy Wynette and all that kind of stuff," Miller says. "I just remember the word ‘Countrypolitan.' I used to have some of those old Nashville Country Music Songbooks, and I found an old stack of used ones. I remember reading about the countrypolitan sound and how it was a polished up version of the Nashville sound, but geared towards crossing over into pop and the pop charts."

The group seems to have struck gold with this latest project, with quite a number of... »»»

While many have explored the open plains and cultural curiosity of Texas with great passion, few have embraced it as fervently as has Lubbock's own Butch Hancock, who just released "War and Peace" on his own label. Not only is the place embedded within his music, it is entrenched within his heart and soul. Lubbock might have given way to other locals in the process of Hancock's musical exploration, but he has always come back to Texas.

"I'm sitting here working on a poster at the moment for some of the shows that we have coming up." beams Hancock from his home in Terlingua in the heart of Big Bend country. "I have been doing this crazy artwork. I actually having a book coming later this year of some of the strangest drawings you're ever likely to see. They are all otherworldly, architectural, highly detailed drawings, and I have been working on these things for about the same amount of time that I've been doing music."

This disclosure should come as no surprise to anyone familiar... »»»

Cary Hudson ascribes to two important tenants of the Guy Clark school of songwriting. First, write about what you know. Second, the more specific your personal experience, the more universal the message.

Take, for example, "Snow in Mississippi," the opening track on "Bittersweet Blues," Hudson's third solo album since disbanding the pioneering alt.-country outfit Blue Mountain.

"I remember one winter I was 10, when the big snow fell like it would never end," Hudson sings. "Weatherman said there'll be no school today, so we dressed up warm and went out to play."

A day-long recess gifted by inclement weather is something everyone can relate to, even in the South where snow is so rare. There's an intangible beauty in such fleeting joy, and Hudson captures it as he deepens the song's meaning: "All the best things never last too long, they go by to fast like a rock and roll song/Like snow in Mississippi…Time is a circle, that's what I've found/Everything that happens is gonna come back around."... »»»

While it may seem like the relationship between gospel and bluegrass is as close as two musical styles can get, Kenny and Amanda Smith are taking that bond to a whole new level.

With the release of their new album "Tell Someone," their third on Rebel Records, the husband-and-wife duo from the little town of Meadows of Dan, tucked into the southwest corner of Virginia near Galax (which boasts the nation's longest-continuously running fiddle convention, now in its 70th year), are embarking on a new journey as well. Their strong Christian faith has been in place for a number of years, but they've never fully divulged it on record.

"Since we've been dating, we've wanted to record a gospel album," says Kenny, who was the guitarist in the seminal bluegrass group Lonesome River Band for six years until breaking off to pursue a solo career and then forming the group with his wife. "But something would always happen that would stop us. Last year, we finally got to record one."... »»»

When his radio show started nearly a decade ago, Rick Cornell gave "Border Radio" on Duke University's WXDU the subtitle "Drive Time for Truckers" because of its less than desirable time slot of 5 to 7 Friday mornings.

"Figured that truckers might be the only folks up and listening at that hour," Cornell says.

He's since moved to a better time slot, 8 to 10 Saturday nights (EST), but WXDU also helped to expand the station's and Cornell's audience a few years later by broadcasting online at

Anyone from Bangor to Budapest can now join Durham-area truck driving men and women and others in listening to "Border Radio." Cornell's not sure how many people actually do listen from far away places - he estimates getting 50 to 200 total listeners a show - but he says it has at least planted the "illusion of a larger audience" in his mind.

"Border Radio" is one of many quality local radio shows that can be listened to anywhere in the world these days thanks to the internet.... »»»

Joe Ely shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down and easing into the easy chair as he hits 60. First off, Ely releases a new CD, "Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch" in February on his own Rack 'Em label, yet itself a new venture.

Later in February is publication of Ely's poetic musings of life as a musician on the road, "Bonfire of Roadmaps," on the University of Texas Press.

March brings an exhibit of the Texan's drawings at the University of Texas.

Then, there's the release of another - sort of - new album in March, "Silver City," featuring age-old songs penned by Ely, but only recently recorded, followed by two spoken word CDs in April from the "Bonfire" book.

Not to mention reissues of a few of his CDs later in the year, probable studio time with The Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Ely) this summer, future recording projects and a novel.

Lest we forget...Ely is still a road warrior. He's now on the road with a bunch of songwriter friends with names like Lovett, Clark and Hiatt, sprinkled with solo acoustic dates and potential tours of Europe and Australia later this year.... »»»

2006 presented listeners with a lot of great under the radar albums that weren't getting played on country. Well, in fact, neither was the top album of 2006 either!

This isn't the gospel, but just one person's humble view of the year past.

Best of 2006 albums:

1. The Dixie Chicks - "Taking the Long Way" (Open Wide/-Monument/Sony) The Chicks' country star isn't what it once was, of course, but so what? They still sound great and aren't taking any prisoners here either, not even country radio (sic).

2. Johnny Cash - "American V: A Hundred Highways." Just because the Man in Black died three years ago doesn't mean the music stopped coming.

3. Sunny Sweeney - "Heartbreakers Hall of Fame" (Self-released) Hopefully an up and coming Texas honky tonker. And we need more quality female singers also. Very expressive singing and lively playing.

4. Hank Williams III - "Straight to Hell" (Curb). Hank 3 could be headed in the direction of the title, but the "somewhat" outspoken singer puts together a CD filled with vim, vigor and viewpoint to say the least.... »»»

Although there is Canadian pop star named Nelly Furtado, you would be hard pressed to find California native Tony Furtado attempting to do the same thing - getting people on the dance floor with a genre-blending blend of pop, disco, hip-hop and rock.

Furtado, who mixes rootsy, old time, folk, swing and jazz styles, comes from a fine line of guitarists who got their start through their guitar playing before realizing they could create songs that were just as fine.

After releasing the critically acclaimed "These Chains" in 2004, Furtado returned with a live album entitled "Bare Bones" in 2005. Now, closing in on almost 2 decades since his 1989 debut "Swamped," the musician and ace banjo player is back with "Thirteen" (Funzalo).

And for Furtado, it just might be that luck is on his side.

"I'm very pleased," Furtado says from the shoulder of some Oregon highway en route to a pre-Christmas gig that evening. "It was definitely a different process for me having so many producers that were playing on it. It went surprisingly well. It was a lot of fun."... »»»

For all its renown as the home of American musical icons like Bob Wills, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Townes Van Zandt, there have been relatively few top-rank bluegrass bands to come out of the Lone Star State. As he and his Cadillac Sky band mates await the late January release of their debut CD "Blind Man Walking" on Skaggs Family, Fort Worth native Bryan Simpson hopes the disc will introduce them to new fans as a band well-grounded in bluegrass tradition but with a "Texas twist" all their own.

In addition to being the band's founder, lead singer and mandolin player, Simpson, 31, is the primary songwriter, and he points to "Never Been So Blue," a tribute to Bill Monroe as evidence of their traditional roots.

"The first few years I grew up listening to - it's kind of ironic at this point - Ricky Skaggs and J. D. Crowe and the New South, and bands like that when I was first getting into bluegrass. I was like five, six, seven, eight years old when my grandpa was introducing me to... »»»

Bill Kirchen's guitar skills have earned him the nickname Titan of the Telecaster, so - quite naturally - the title track to his new CD, "Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods," is a tribute to a few of his favorite Telecaster players. And without a doubt, Kirchen loves his Telecaster guitar.

"It's kind of got its own cache for a variety of reasons," says Kirchen, when asked what makes this particular guitar so special. "One, it's a design that's remained virtually unchanged since it was invented in the late '40s/early '50s. So, it's over a half century old, and it's still just about how it started. So, it's one of those things they got right the first time."

"In a way it's kind of the bicycle of guitars, too," he continues. "It's the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B. It was, in its day, an inexpensive guitar. Not a lot of frills; just two pickups, one switch and two knobs. To me, it's got this kind of working man's vibe to it, although it's been used by everybody from Keith Richards to Jimmy Page."... »»»

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