As everyone should, I have a friend named Dave.
My friend Dave has an inspiring record collection. While I am sure Dave hasn't purchased a vinyl album in the last thirty years-the most contemporary pieces of vinyl I recall in his boxes are popular releases from J.D. Souther and Juice Newton circa 1980-the breadth of his collection is staggering, ranging from Jackie DeShannon brilliant "New Arrangement" to Bill Keith, The Sir Douglas Quintet, Tracy Nelson, and Marshall Chapman, as well as Canadian folk artists few remember.
Dave has been generous with his collection, lending me albums on several occasions. You see, Dave isn't one of those vinyl aficionados who believes that his records should be kept in plastic sleeves and only played in dust-free environments. Nope, Dave most obviously believes music should be heard and records are to be played. A lot.
Every one of his album covers show significant abrasions. Most of the records themselves have surface wear, some have nicks resulting in the occasional pop when played, and a few have scratches. Dave is okay with these, and-because of what Dave has taught me-so am I.
The wear on his records offer proof that these albums have been heard. The albums have been played, have been enjoyed. Dave once told me that when his kids were young, they would have sock hops in the living room, dancing to the sounds of these records. Not only were the records for Dave's enjoyment, through them he ensured that his children received a comprehensive musical education. For Dave, the records are incredibly valuable insomuch as they provide a soundtrack to his life, his children's lives, and their time together.
What mattered was the music.
Today, when we pay out $30 plus for 180 gram vinyl albums, keep such stored in 3 mil archival-quality plastic sleeves, and wouldn't consider lending one to even our best friend for fear of damage, maybe we've forgotten that the music is what matters. I love vinyl more than the next person, but even I understand that Dave's philosophy has considerable merit.
Just play the music.
This summer, that is what I'm trying to do. As I am driving around the province this summer, as I am reading late into the night, and as I'm lounging on the deck in the sun, I am going to be listening to music for its basic qualities: How does the music make my day better?
Of course, the music I'm playing this summer-at least for current releases-will be in digital formats, and I'll have to do more than just enjoy it...I'll have to write about some of it. But, I'm going to be emphasizing what the music adds to my life.
All of which is a (very) long way of getting to this installment at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.
What will be the bluegrass (and closely associated) songs of the summer? I'm putting forth a dozen songs that I believe should receive (in some cases, continue to receive) significant play over the next two months, both in my house and across the continent. I'm not suggesting these will become chart-toppers, but I believe they all deserve to be heard.
The Steeldrivers- "Six Feet Away" (Rounder) A cautionary tale of our fragility-"Nobody knows the hour, nobody knows the way; on any given day, we're only six feet away," sings lead vocalist Gary Nichols-this song is buried deep in The Steeldrivers' fourth Rounder album, "The Muscle Shoals Sessions." Written by songwriting veteran Jerry Salley and fiddler Tammy Rogers (under whose spell I first fell as a Dead Reckoner some time ago,) this song sounds so different from the typical bluegrass fare that it can't help but be noticed. There is drive within the song, but it isn't obvious. The album's lead track, "Long Way Down," has a similar dark, bluesy feel, but for me "Six Feet Away" is a more ambitious creation.
Dale Ann Bradley- "Till I Hear It From You" (Pinecastle) Dale Ann Bradley has made grassifying pop hits her signature. Going back to her earliest recordings, including those with the New Coon Creek Girls, she has brought "Stuck In the Middle With You," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "Burning Love" to bluegrass audiences, while on her most recent albums Seals & Crofts, Tom Petty, and Ann Peebles/Tina Turner have found their songs reinterpreted. The Gin Blossoms are the latest to be similarly honoured, and this time out the song is barely recognizable, so different is her approach. Transforming the guitar-driven, but vocally tepid early 90s elevator-lite track into something more personal, with mandolin prominently featured, Bradley and her collaborators have created a lasting performance. It isn't the best song on the album, by far, but it is the one garnering attention as a breezy summer song.
Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell- "Test of Time" (Rounder) An old-timey sounding vocal duet, this stand-alone track isn't slated for the upcoming Steep Canyon Rangers album. The fiddling is prime, the mandolin break is lively, and the playful singing keeps the listener's interest. Just as appealing is the early release, title track from the SCR's forthcoming album, "Radio."
Chris Jones & The NightDrivers- "Thinking About You" (Mountain Home) An old number from Flatt & Scruggs (okay, they are all old ones...), I've read that some have called "Thinking About You" F&S's finest performance. It is mighty impressive, true. A sad one. In the hands and voices of Chris Jones & the NightDrivers, the song is equally substantial. Jones is among the finest of the contemporary bluegrass singers-and some day the IBMA voters might just realize that-and what sets this song apart is the harmonies on the chorus: if you squint your ears 'just right,' you'll hear Del McCoury's tenor in the mix. Bobby Hicks lays out some sweet fiddle, too, while the NightDrivers take care of the rest. A brilliant little performance, as is the song that closes their upcoming album "Run Away Tonight," that being "My Portion and My Cup."
Dave Adkins and Edgar Loudermilk- "Open Roads" (Mountain Fever) This fresh duo has had considerable radio success with two tracks from their debut, self-titled album, but I just purchased the download this week; glad I did. Both "Georgia Mountain Man" and "Cut the Rope" have climbed the charts, but their album offers more than these. "Open Roads" is the track that has garnered my attention, and is a real nice summer-sounding song, capturing the spirit of freedom many of us feel during these warmest months.
Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle- "Not Fade Away" (Rural Rhythm) Steve Gulley can sing the heck of any song, but I had would never have thought to have him tackle a Buddy Holly classic. The arrangement removes the pulsing backbeat, smoothing things out to reveal more subtle passions. As well, I really like the guitar work. No shortage of good songs on this album.
Darin & Brooke Aldridge- "Tennessee Flat Top Box" (Mountain Home) This one has been out for awhile, but still it makes for a good listen. We've all heard the song a couple hundred times, either Johnny Cash's original version, Rosanne Cash's #1 from 1987, or by every honky tonk band that has played the local tavern since, and really I didn't think we needed another bluegrass version of the song after Charlie Waller and Randall Hylton recorded it. I was wrong. Brooke sings everything with such flair and passion, and Darin's guitar playing has never been in doubt. It is a refreshing rendition of a very familiar song.
Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack- "Little Birdie" (Self-released) From their new album "Fiddle & Banjo," this take on "Little Birdie" features lead vocals from Joey Landreth of The Bros. Landreth, one of Canada's preeminent roots outfits. While the entire album is beautifully constructed-largely around fiddle and clawhammer duets with just a bit of Dobro (again, from Landreth) and not too much else. It is a fresh and invigorating album, and "Little Birdie"-despite its familiarity, and perhaps because of it-is a delightful highlight. The song flies along at a nice clip, and the long bow strokes of Sawitsky give the sound a genuine, mountain feel. Quite stellar.
Big Country Bluegrass- "The Hound Dog From Harlan" (Rebel Records) Written by Tom T. Hall and Miss Dixie Hall, this another 'dog' song that may call forth a tear. Yes, it is predictable and sentimental. Big Country Bluegrass pulls it off, playing to the heartfelt images the song contains while conveying the gravity of the emotions the song possesses. Don't over-think it, just appreciate its simplicity and homespun charm.
The Hillbenders- "Sparks" (Compass Records) An instrumental showstopper, this Dobro-heavy selection from "Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry" is a standout. Immersing themselves into the project, The Hillbenders have rebuilt "Tommy" from the ground up. Within "Sparks," the band hits their peak bridging the rock classic with acoustic bluegrass. The changes within the song are flawless, note-for-note taking the energy of the full-fledged rock extravaganza and remaking it as a thoughtful, pensive bluegrass tune that features the range of instruments.
The Grass Cats- "Can It Get More Lonesome Than This" (New Time) A most consistent band, The Grass Cats don't get a lot of the (limited) attention provided bluegrass outfits. What they do get, is bluegrass. High, yearnsome, low, and uplifting-they understand that which makes the bluegrass fan tick. "The Old School Road" is a very strong album, and "Can It Get More Lonesome Than This" is one of several superior numbers. The answer is, of course, Yes. Glad I bought this one.
Della Mae- "Rude Awakening" (Rounder) Oh, how Della Mae has changed. No longer a bluegrass band (in my opinion, and possibly their own-the promo page for the album at Rounder Records doesn't mention the word)-they remain a powerhouse outfit, pouring out a loud 'n' proud blend of soulful Americana. "Rude Awakening" is an incredible song, and Celia Woodsmith's voice can't be contained. I've been playing it for months...and need to get to a full review!
There you are, twelve songs that will be part of my Bluegrass Summer of '15 soundtrack.
What's on yours?