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Articles and Interviews – 2016


For nearly a decade and a half, The Devil Makes Three has concocted an amazing blend of bluegrass, folk, country, blues, rockabilly and whatever happens to bubble to the surface, and applied it liberally to their songwriting ethic. The result has been an incendiary cross-pollination of old time authenticity and contemporary invention which the trio – guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjoist Cooper McBean - has translated into their estimable catalog of four studio albums and two live recordings.

For the band's fifth studio album, Bernhard, Turino and McBean envisioned a thematic work exploring the duality of humanity, the push and pull between damnation and salvation, evil and good, carnality and spirituality. To that end, they chose a handful of covers that dealt in those issues, rearranged them to fit comfortably in The Devil Makes Three's oeuvre and recorded them live for the beatific and brutal "Redemption & Ruin."

From Bernhard's perspective, the concept didn't require much research on the band's part.... »»»

Mercy Rose Isbell recently celebrated her first birthday and, ironically, the album she helped inspire has just been released. Synchronicity is a beautiful thing.

Mercy Rose is, of course, the daughter of singer/songwriters Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, two of the most gifted Americana artists working today, and the album in question is her mother's just-released fifth full length, "My Piece of Land." And while Mercy Rose's presence had a profound effect on the outcome of "My Piece of Land," Shires is quick to clarify that her influence was not necessarily direct; most of the album's songs were written last year at the end of Shire's pregnancy.

"I couldn't travel anymore at that 33-week mark, and it gave me time to write, for sure," says Shires. "There are songs on there that allude to being pregnant, but it's not a pregnancy record. It's kind of about my feelings and my perspective of a time in my life. Bringing a child into the world is pretty scary. So many... »»»

Something old is new again. The Earls of Leicester, fresh from their first release in late 2014 and the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award for 2015, followed that remarkable success with "Rattle and Roar."

The Earls of Leicester play the songs popularized by, and in the musical style of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. They were one of the first generation bluegrass bands (along with Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys and The Stanley Brothers) that worked the local circuits in the southeastern U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, touring relentlessly from the base of their radio station of the time and forming the foundation of traditional bluegrass as it is known today. While Monroe is credited with popularizing, some say inventing, the genre, Flatt and Scruggs added their own songs and instrumentalization to carve out a unique corner of the bluegrass sound.

But, nearly 70 years on, they are a distant memory to most bluegrass fans. The sole surviving member of the Flatt and Scruggs band, Curly Seckler, has retired his tenor voice and mandolin chops.... »»»

In the nine years since Nickel Creek declared itself on indefinite hiatus, violinist/vocalist Sara Watkins has been relentlessly busy. She discovered a new pathway for her harmonic gifts with Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan in the vocal trio I'm With Her.

She lent her talents to the super group Works Progress Administration with Glen Phillips and Benmont Tench, among others. She found new inspiration in her longest standing collaboration with brother Sean in the Watkins Family Hour and even reunited with Sean and Chris Thile to scale greater heights with the groundbreaking band that thrust her into the spotlight in the first place.

But more than anything, Watkins has been endeavoring to identify and refine her solo voice. Her eponymous 2009 solo debut established her as a creative entity beyond the confines of Nickel Creek and earned her opening slots for Robert Earl Keen, Tift Merritt and many others. Watkins' sophomore album, 2012's "Sun Midnight Sun," was her... »»»

Four years after forming in Boston and a year after receiving their first major award (an IBMA Momentum nod), when most bands might be expected to have two or three already in circulation, the Lonely Heartstring Band finally has its first full-length CD release "Deep Waters" (Rounder) out on the street.

Patrick M'Gonigle, the band's fiddler, says, "We're perfectionists, and I think that that's probably why that is…We weren't gonna have just four great songs and then eight mediocre songs of ‘filler' to just get that out into the world. I think we all, without even discussing it, knew we wanted to have a great record, start to finish, with great original songs and unique and original sounding covers."

A "preliminary" version was ready for release a year ago, M'Gonigle relates, explaining that they sought out Boston-area resident and Rounder Records founder Ken Irwin for advice, got picked up by the label and wound up remixing a good bit of it before finally putting it out. "We're really trying to be careful about making the music that we really want to be making and doing things right the first time," he concludes.... »»»

Sam Bush is back with a new record, "Storyman," not that he ever went anywhere. Identified with The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which he has played in one form or another for each year but one, he helped define the newgrass sound. Starting with Poor Richard's Almanac (along with Alan Munde and Wayne Stewart) in 1970, continuing to turns with New Grass Revival and Nash Ramblers, Bush has played fiddle, mandolin and mandolin variants (including slide mandolin) solidly since that time.

"Storyman," his first release in seven years, is a throwback in the sense that it is an album to be listened to and considered as a whole, distinct from the one-song-at-a-time consumption patterns of the popular streaming services of the day.

"The last five years or so, I've just been writing with my friends. I collected some songs and actually had quite a few of them, and for me, I still think about the entire package and tried to get the songs that really fit together. I still think of recording an album." Bush emphasizes, "I think of it as an album, building a project."... »»»

Nearly 10 years on, The Infamous Stringdusters have carved out a singular place for themselves in the bluegrass/jamgrass world. The Stringdusters tour aggressively, are fixtures on the festival circuit and released several intriguing recording projects since late 2015: an EP of covers, including Tom Petty's "American Girl," and a full-length album of songs collaborating with some of the finest female singers in the Americana genre ("Ladies and Gentlemen").

Along the way already this year, they headlined at Red Rocks outside Denver and continued their collaboration on the Grateful Grass project.

Their live shows lie at the core of The Stringdusters' success. The five-piece (Chris Pandolfi on banjo, Travis Book on bass, Andy Falco on guitar, Andy Hall on Dobro and Jeremy Garrett on fiddle) rip into 20-30 songs a night in their stage set and never let up.

The Stringdusters' fans are an integral part of their touring success. "The Jamily, we love the Jamily," says... »»»

James Reams is one of bluegrass music's unconventional stalwarts.

A son of Kentucky, Reams' journey has taken any number of unusual pathways since the mid-seventies. Producing albums for more than 20 years, Reams' ninth release of personable bluegrass, "Rhyme and Season," is a relaunch for Reams, an artist who has never followed a singular route.

Having worked out of Brooklyn the majority of his adult life, 2011 found Reams at a crossroads. His partner and greatest supporter passed following a lengthy illness. He moved to Arizona to be near his failing mother; despite his loses, the desert air agreed with the freshly retired teacher, and in it, Reams found healing.

Having completed his long-term film project "Making History with the Pioneers of Bluegrass" a couple of years ago, Reams has most recently focused his attention to capturing current inspirations in the recording studio. Fronting The Barnstormers for many years, with both east- and west-coast versions of the group intact, "Rhyme and Season" is on his own Mountain Redbird imprint.... »»»

After scoring a 2015 IBMA nomination for Best Bluegrass Album for "Cold Spell," Frank Solivan tried something a little different this time around - an album of songs recorded by "Family, Friends and Heroes" (Compass).

In an earlier musical life, Solivan served as stalwart in Country Current, the Navy's touring bluegrass band. Solivan left the service about seven years ago and formed Dirty Kitchen, a tip of the hat to his background and continuing efforts as a chef.

Solivan grew up in an extended musical family: he spent time in Alaska and now operates out of the Washington, D.C. area — long a center of bluegrass activity, dating back to the days of The Seldom Scene in the early ‘70s.

"Technically, it's not a Dirty Kitchen record," says Solivan of "Family, Friends and Heroes." "It's my family, friends and heroes, although my band is on more than half of the record."

"The first few songs we started recording in November 2014, and then all of last year into March and April 2015. Over the period of six or seven months, we got everything kind of situated."... »»»

Aubrie Sellers just may be onto something on her debut – garage country. After all, we've already witnessed traditional country, new country, neo-traditional, country rock, pop country and bro country.

Sellers, a 25-year-old Nashvillian with a big time musical pedigree who released her debut, "New City Blues," in January, said the moniker came to mind as her bio was being written. "I sort of was talking about the sounds, and people would ask me what it is, and I'd say it was country. (But) I don't feel that accurately describes it. It's got this trashy sound. I think it's garage rock. The garage describes the rawness of it, the element of it and the drive."

"This whole record is electric, and it has a lot of that very grungy guitar sound and also some sort of very spaced out stuff," she says from her Nashville apartment. "The drums are…very big. When I talk about it being trashy, I talk about the drums…I have had a lot of influences from old country to old bluegrass to rock obviously, Led Zep obviously. Every thing that I love has a rock quality and is very soulful. All of that influenced the sound."... »»»

Twenty two years have passed since Jon Langford formed the Waco Brothers as a jalapeno-spiced country adjunct to his primary gig with his punk-infused Mekons. And while The Mekons have inserted some twang in their stomp and the Wacos have punked up their hoedown, Langford and his talented cast remain focused on each band's primary sonic direction.

Since the Waco Brothers' 1995 debut, "To the Last Dead Cowboy" to the just released "Going Down in History," the relatively stable line-up (Langford, guitarist Dean Schlabowske, bassists Tom Ray, then Alan Doughty, mandolinist Tracy Dear and drummers Steve Goulding, then Joe Camarillo, with longtime assistance from pedal steeler Mark Durante) has definitively proved they understand the synergy between country and punk.

"The country music I like is very direct and the subject matter is about every day, and musically it's inclusive. It's the sort of thing you can pick up and join in with," says Langford. "And punk had that... »»»

Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have been together as Freakwater for over a quarter of a century, which gives their creative pairing at least the outward appearance of a marriage. And while Bean and Irwin haven't even lived in the same city for the entirety of Freakwater's existence, their simultaneous conversation via conference call to discuss their new album "Scheherazade," the duo's first new album since 2005's "Thinking of You" and debut for Bloodshot, finds them finishing each other's sentences, talking over each other and generally cajoling and regaling each other with a familial vibe that characterizes their long creative relationship.

Case in point: Freakwater reunited after the 20th anniversary reissue of 1993's "Feels Like the Third Time," and played shows in 2014, which was, in fact, the duo's 25th anniversary year. When asked if they did anything to mark that momentous occasion, Irwin sought to clarify the year of their actual launch, and with 1989 verified as the year of the duo's first album, Bean reacted with mock indignation.... »»»

Reaching her early twenties, Sierra Hull found herself beset by the same kinds of emotional angst and vulnerability that most of experience coming face-to-face with the challenges of life stretching out ahead. In her case, though, introduction to adulthood came at the age of 16 when she recorded her first Rounder release, 2008's "Secrets," and set out on a touring schedule that would make her one of the rising young stars of bluegrass. She managed to work a college education into the mix, making her way through Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music.

Following another bluegrass release, "Daybreak," in 2011, she set her sights on her next project, but found that her muse was taking her in directions she had not anticipated. Having already laid down several tracks, Hull felt she was at something of an impasse when she decided to call in Béla Fleck to help produce.

"I had already recorded six tracks…probably a year or so before I even started talking to Béla…and a... »»»

The Grascals are a well-established collection of players, featuring a six-piece mix of some of the most talented musicians in bluegrass. What happens when there's some turnover in the lineup of an established band? It either gets better or goes home. With "And Then There's This…" on Mountain Home Records, there's not much likelihood of The Grascals sticking home, unless it's their own choice.

The pedigree of The Grascals extends back to The Osborne Brothers. Co-founder and guitar player Terry Eldredge started backing Grand Ole Opry staples Lonzo and Oscar in the 1980s and joined with The Osborne Brothers in 1988. Danny Roberts started The New Tradition band, and after many years with them and a bunch of session work, he joined up with The Grascals.

Along the way, The Grascals added some members and lost some others. But, the current lineup has been touring since 2013, and features Eldredge, Roberts, Kristin Scott Benson on banjo, John Bryan, bassist Terry Smith (another Osborne Brothers' alumnus) and fiddle player Adam Haynes, who played with Larry Stevenson's Band and Grasstowne.... »»»

The song "Mystery and Wonder" is the centerpiece of Blitzen Trapper's eighth and latest album, "All Across This Land." It finds the band's vocalist and primary songwriter Eric Earley reflecting upon various songs and experiences over the years and vainly attempting to figure out what it all means.

Well I wrote this song when I was 17

What makes us write our lives man, you know what I mean?

And If I'm older now, it's all just an act

And after all of these years I wouldn't take a thing back

The upside to these reflective words is that, even after being at it for over a decade, Blitzen Trapper has still not lost the mystery and wonder of creating music. You can ask some of the most poetic and literate songwriters of our day about their inspirations, only to be met with blank stares. Some call songs blessings from God, while others credit their muse. Few, though, take full credit for the creativity with which they're blessed. Inspiration is a gift, to be sure, even if we may never quite know how to give credit to its cryptic giver.... »»»