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Wednesday, 12 July 2006 00:00

Rebel Records roundup

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Rebel records, the venerable bluegrass-only imprint that’s as much a home to royalty like Ralph Stanley as it is young upstarts like Steep Canyon Rangers, has issued a slew of fine CDs in the last few months.

With the festival season in bloom and posters popping up everywhere advertising opportunities to see some real live grinning and picking, it seems like a fine time to mention a few of these exceptional releases, or in some cases, re-releases.

Don Reno and Red Smiley: Together Again

Long regarded as one of those lost classics of the middle era of bluegrass, Together Again got the royal treatment in this re-release, with a full remixing and 36 pages of detailed liner notes. Recorded in 1971 after a seven-year hiatus, it found Don Reno and Red Smiley in fine musical form, despite Smiley’s rapidly declining health at the time. Thanks to the careful remixing, there’s plenty of instrumental magic to chew on, especially Reno’s exemplary guitar playing on “A Dime Looks Like A Wagon Wheel” and “Mule Skinner Blues,” where that Martin D-45 booms like a cannon.

Though there are still moments where modern technology couldn’t compensate for flaws in the original recording (the vocals on “Soldier’s Last Letter” are still painfully distorted) other tracks more than make up for this mostly minor discomfort. The closer, “Shine, Hallelujah, Shine” is a fine combination of harmony vocals and barn-burning fretwork: two minutes and 20 seconds of picture-perfect bluegrass.

Tony Holt and the Wildwood Valley Boys: Daylight’s Burnin’

Jumping ahead a few decades, we find Tony Holt and band ably carrying the torch of traditional bluegrass confidently into this new century. Of course, it likely helps if you’re dad is also your tenor vocalist, carrying with him a half century of bluegrass performance and songwriting. The harmonies are, well, perfect to the genetic level- check the chorus of “When The Warden Turns The Key.” Lovely.

But it’s their version of “Silver Ghost” that feels like the star of the album. Maybe it’s that much of bluegrass is dominated by major key tonalities, or maybe I just like spooky songs about trains. Either way, this minor-tinged ghost story is chock full of mood and vibe, complete with a little “spoken word” break near the end. The band also delivers the instrumental goodies on “Boilermaker,” reaffirming the fact that my new favorite instrument to hear played well is the dobro.

Various Artists: Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long

You can’t get much more “naked” than rendering a piece of music a cappella, as in “without instrumental accompaniment.” Though bluegrass isn’t a style of music typically criticized as depending on a multitude of layers to fill it out (like most new country and rock), it still takes quite a lot of nerve to just lay it out there with nary even a guitar to help you out.

But a cappella gospel isn’t really new to bluegrass, as one can surmise from this latest collection from Rebel, Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long. Drawing from a wide variety of artists and albums in the catalog dating as far back as 1971 (when Ralph Stanley introduced this style to the music) Feel Like My Time Ain’t Long is a stunning amalgamation of talent undaunted by this format. From Mr. Stanley himself on “Gloryland” to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ fantastic take of “I Can’t Sit Down,” which appeared on last year’s excellent One Dime At A Time, to the Marshall Family and Judy Marshall’s fragile warble on “Amazing Grace,” the album is as much history lesson as it is a listening experience.

“Gospel Train” is the standout, with Larry Sparks turning in a heartbreaking vocal that’s as much blues as it is high and lonesome. Even if gospel isn’t your “thing,” some of the performances on this particular CD deserve a listen with open ears, starting with this one in particular. Hallelujah!

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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