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Upated: June, 2008

THE CHURCHMEN - I'll Be Long Gone
CASEY DRISCOLL - Texas Style Fiddling
JOHNNY FAA - Last Night's Fun
GREENBRIER - The Back of the Book
DAVID GRIER - Live at the Linda
KIU HAGHIGHI - Reflections
IVERONI - Iveroni
Steve Kaufman's Favorite 50 Traditional American Fiddle Tunes for the Mandolin: Tunes S-W
LaDeroute - Soul Affirmation: Music for Better Outcomes
CHRIS MARASHLIAN - Beautiful Sounds of Greece
TAD MARKS - Callin' in the Dogs
AUDEY RATLIFF - Piece of Cake
TONY RICE - Night Flyer: The Singer Songwriter Collection
SAMOVAR - Some More of Our Best
LARRY SPARKS - I Don't Regret A Mile
BETH STEVENS & Edge - Strong Enough
VARIOUS ARTISTS - 10 Years of European World of Bluegrass 1998-2007
VARIOUS ARTISTS – Classic Old-Time Fiddle From Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
IDA VIPER - West of Idaho

Night Flyer: The Singer Songwriter Collection

Rounder 1166-11619-2
         Singer-songwriters are oft maligned. Perhaps it's because there are so many guitar-bangers out there singing with tedium about their personal relationships and experiences that none of us really care about. And then there are guys like Tony Rice who have built a signature sound around masterful guitar, comfortable vocals, provocative lyrics, and intriguing storytelling. The title cut on "Night Flyer" comes from a John Mayall blues album, and Tony Rice also covers fascinating material from the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ian Tyson, Bob Franke, Norman Blake, Phil Ochs, Tom Waits, John Starling and of course Bob Dylan. The majority are from Tony's previously-recorded albums. He takes songs from successful singer-songwriters in their own right and then arranges them to blend with his own dynamic instrumentation and vocals to fully tap their sensitivity and emotional qualities. One of the three previously unreleased tracks, "Never Meant to Be" is Tony's own composition that captures the sadness and anger felt after the breakup of a long-term marriage. Another of the three, "About Love," comes from Larry Rice's pen and, like the other, features harmony vocals of Kathy Chiavola and Jimmy Gaudreau. Some cuts feature minimal or laid-back harmony vocals, but don't expect a copious amount of that on this singer-songwriter material. It's also not banjo-centric bluegrass and Bela Fleck's five-string only appears at track 16, Jerry Reed's "Likes of Me." Instead, this release reinforces Rice's reputation as a serious folksinger of heartfelt songs, and the album closes with the third previously unreleased cut -- Tony singing Tom Waits' "Pony" accompanied only by Jon Carroll's piano. (Joe Ross)

Texas Style Fiddling

Patuxent CD-166
         Casey Driscoll is a young man who started fiddling at age six in Washington State. At age 17, Driscoll met Patuxent Records' Tom Mindte at the IBMA convention in Nashville, and this album is apparently the result of their collaboration. Every fiddler worth their salt should have a product that clearly demonstrates their musical tastes, timing, tone and technique. While still young with many years of advancement and maturity ahead of him, Driscoll works effortlessly through some of the Texas fiddlers' favorites like Sally Johnson, Tom & Jerry, and Sally Goodin. He also covers material from the genres of country (Tennessee Waltz), ragtime (The Entertainer), old-time (Bonaparte's Retreat, Old Joe Clark), Celtic (Fishing Jig), and swing (After You're Gone, It Don't Mean A Thing). Of particular interest are those tunes not oft-heard on fiddle albums such as Pete's Waltz, At Break of Dawn, Lake Pontchartrain, and T and T Rag. With only one accompanist on this project (guitarist Jonathan Grisham), the CD's sound maintain a rawboned aural quality throughout. The duo co-wrote "Fishing Jig." Nate Leath adds a second fiddle part to Georgia fiddler Frank Maloy's "At Break of Dawn." I wish they would've added at least a bassist to the mix. "Texas Style Fiddling" is a solid debut album and showcase for a young fiddler, but it only earns average marks when held up to all the other fiddle albums out. I look forward to Casey's future recording projects, and I'm sure that each and everyone will document his continuing musical growth in the years to come. In the meantime, he deserves our support and let's wish him well in every fiddle contest that he chooses to enter with his broad-based repertoire that actually covers much more than just "Texas Style Fiddling." (Joe Ross)

I'll Be Long Gone

Pinecastle PRC-1166
         The Churchmen from southern Virginia heard their calling to a bluegrass gospel music ministry nearly two decades ago. A handful of albums established their group's early commitment to presenting music that emphasizes His glory and power. Signing with the reputable Pinecastle label in the early-2000s, their "On The Journey Home" album release was subsequently nominated for a prestigious Dove Award. On their third Pinecastle release ("I'll Be Long Gone"), The Churchmen still have three of their original members (bassist Keith Clark, banjo-player Freddy Rakes, mandolinist Gerald Harbour). In 2007, The Churchmen welcomed a powerful lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter from North Carolina by the name of David Guthrie. Another North Carolinian, fiddler Tim Smith is the band's newest member who brings a solid resume of bluegrass performance experience. Guthrie's four songs on this album include the title cut that was co-written with Jason Barie (also credited as the sole author of "In My Darkest Hour"). Other material comes from Jim and Jesse McReynolds (Are You Lost in Sin?), Rick Pardue (Smooth Road), Frank Southern (Take Me in the Lifeboat), and others. Guest artists appearing on some tracks include Dale Perry (banjo) and David Coffey (Dobro). While they admit that the road's been long, The Churchmen continue to play and minister with a diverse repertoire of gripping traditional and contemporary material. (Joe Ross)

Strong Enough

Pinecastle PRC-1164
         Establishing herself as a guitarist, banjo-player and vocalist with The Stevens Family (and then in The Stevens Sisters, a duo with her younger sister April), Beth Stevens is now poised to present her own band's sounds that definitely packs an emotional wallop. The band calls itself "Edge" to represent their genre-bending influences from country to bluegrass and gospel to blues. Half of the songs on "Strong Enough" were written by members of the Stevens family, and they are presented in fine fashion with her bandmates Douglas Stevens (her father) on guitar, Gary Wayne Laws on bass and Matt Leadbetter on Dobro. Guests on this project include Steve Thomas, Jesse Cobb, Dale Ann Bradley, Shelton Feazell, Steve Gulley, and Scott Vestal. "Demons and Angels," Beth's vocal duet with Steve Gulley (Grasstowne), speaks to the voices of good and evil on each shoulder when trying to deal with alcoholism. In two other vocal highlights of the album, IBMA female vocalist of the year Dale Ann Bradley harmonizes on "If I Knew Then What I Know Now" and "Echoes of Love." The title cut also makes reference to demons -- those encountered along the rough, rocky road of addiction. Beth's slow and emotional delivery (while also harmonizing with herself) provides a provocative setting and tone for the message. The CD closes with Dixie & Tom T. Hall's "The Filly and the Farm," an up-tempo story that infuses that good old bluegrass spirit into Steven's musical platform. While this CD gives the impression that she may have a slight preference for slower, introspective songs, Beth's found a personalized way to successfully deliver all the goods with punch, drive, and certainly 'edge.' (Joe Ross)

"The Back of the Book"

         The opening title cut of Greenbrier's album exclaims "God's word is true so I won't be afraid." Liner notes for that song, one of four band originals on this CD, quote scripture from the book of Revelation. Messages in "Gloryland" and "I'll Have a New Life" are also drawn from The Revelation. Band photos in this album indicate that Greenbrier is apparently the trio of Jimbo Whaley (guitar), Roger Helton (guitar, banjo, Dobro), and Scott Carris (bass). "Gloryland" is an a cappella duo by just Jimbo and Roger. "You Take The Lead" is arranged with just the trio, and this song written by Jimbo Whaley relates to a parable from Luke 6:39 -- "Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?" Danny Barnes (mandolin), Shad Cobb (fiddle), Dave Peterson (tenor vocal on "Barabbas") and Ray Ball (lead vocal on "I'll Have a New Life") also appear. Singing praise of and thanks to the Lord are central to Greenbrier's exultant music. The band also encourages our call to action. If we were all "Workin' on a Building" to the same extent that Greenbrier executes their vibrant bluegrass gospel, then perhaps the world would be a better place. (Joe Ross)

Live at the Linda

Dreadnought 0701
         This 66-minute set from guitarist David Grier (complete with spoken introductions and applause) was recorded in September 2006 at the Linda (WAMC's Performing Arts Studio in Albany, NY). Playing guitar since age six, David is the son of Lamar Grier who played banjo for Bill Monroe in the 60s. In his nearly six-minute intro to "Red Haired Boy," David relates a few "cool memories" from his younger days. Performing solo, Grier is one of the finest flatpick guitarists on the touring circuit today. His axe is a 1946 Martin D-28, and his repertoire is equally proportioned among covers, traditional, and original tunes. The beginning of the Linda show emphasized the latter, and the evening evolved into more recognizable tunes with David's unique stamp on them. We also get a flavor of Grier's humor and personality. In his short spoken anecdote entitled "Things People Say," Grier tells of an older woman who eventually asks a friend, "why don't you tell him to play something I know so I could tell if he's any good or not?" Anyone familiar with the guitar knows that David Grier's playing could persuasively be argued as flawless. His originals are stark yet mellifluous, and a crosspicked rendition of "The Old Spinning Wheel" is a well-received, familiar crowd-pleaser. Grier leaves no doubt in our minds about his 'goodness' on guitar by the time he's crisply picking his delectable versions of Redwing, Crossing the Cumberlands, Old Ebenezer Scrooge, Bonaparte's Retreat and Randy Lynn Rag during the second half of this "way cool" show. (Joe Ross)

I Don't Regret A Mile

Sparks Music
         It was intriguing to first listen to Rebel Records' release called "The Best of Larry Sparks: Bound To Ride" (REB-CD-7522) before listening to Larry's new all-gospel indie album "I Don't Regret A Mile."
         Larry's music in the 1970s and 1980s had plenty of 'hits' because of his ability to find good material from the likes of songwriters Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm. He's always presented his music with the utmost respect, full transparency and candid assertiveness. We have to thank Larry Sparks for always maintaining strong, respectful attention to his direct, personalized, tradition-based music during his many decades in the business. While always having a significant fan base, his musical maturity and accomplishment have now earned him recognition from his peers as a multi-year winner of IBMA's "Male Vocalist of the Year." Now, with hopes that his new album will be a blessing that will encourage and uplift, Larry sings fine gospel songs with Jeff Brown and Mike Feagan. The instrumental support includes Larry's solid guitar, as well as his son Larry D. Sparks (bass), Josh McMurray (banjo), Jackie Kincaid (mandolin), Mike Feagan (fiddle), and Ronnie Stewart on two cuts (fiddle, banjo, mandolin). Larry Sparks believes that these mostly new songs have been placed with him to sing with the Lord's anointing. In his own up-tempo composition "What Kind of Man?," Sparks answers rhetorically when he sings about Jesus assisting the lame to walk, healing the sick, raising the dead, and helping the blind to see. It's a simple, direct and thought-provoking statement ... just like Larry Sparks' music has been for the last fifty years. (Joe Ross)


McCoury Music MCM 0005
         "Moneyland" opens with Franklin D. Roosevelt espousing a "broader definition of liberty" that allows more freedom and security for the average man than ever known before. Then, the latest news in Bernard "Slim" Smith's 1932 "Breadline Blues" is about the funny relationship between having a job, money, friends, and food. The Del McCoury Band's title cut then establishes a contemporary perspective about the "money disease" and "a thing called greed." You get the idea of this CD's thematic message. The majority of this album consists of previously-released cuts from other artists like Marty Stuart, Merle Haggard, Chris Knight, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Dan Tyminski, Bruce Hornsby & The Fairfield Four. By that point of the album when the new remake of "Breadline Blues 2008" cues up, we are still left wondering about various moral dilemmas and whether there are any clear-cut answers. Bruce Hornsby had earlier claimed "some things will never change, that's just the way it is, but don't you believe them." Of course, the social commentary of "Breadline Blues" between the long-eared mule and the big-mouthed elephant is still relevant today. Relevant for release during a Presidential election year, the McCourys state that the only goal of this album is to send a clear message to the politicians in Washington. Whether you consider yourself "red" or "blue," these songs go beyond partisan politics. They simply get us thinking about the current state of rural Americans, their communities, and their livelihoods. We've got to find a way to keep the corn from getting cobbed. FDR was optimistic, and we should be too. Still timely today, his advice was to overcome our arduous burdens and economic calamities by retaining our faith in our ability to master our own destiny. (Joe Ross)

Callin' in the Dogs

Crop Circle Records CC044
14102-A Reps Road, Cooksville, MD. 21723 OR
         Tad Marks is an eclectic Baltimore-area fiddler with a diverse repertoire with bluegrass, old-time, Cajun, Celtic, folk, calypso and Americana tunes. Even his original tunes (nine on this album) show that he favors no one genre over another, and he appears equally comfortable writing "Flamingo Gringo" as he is "The Cajun Hop." Equally impressive, Tad is also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who accompanies himself on mandolin, guitar, bandolim, octave mandolin, tenor banjo, banjo cumbus, cuatro, bass and steel drums. A few of the 14 tracks on his fourth solo album enlist the instrumental support of Merle Johnson, Stefan Custodi, Pete Kelly, Mike Munford, and Cheryl Prashker. The only vocal selection, "Freight Train," features Charlie Zahm, a folksinger that Tad regularly performs with when he isn't on State Dept. tours through central Asia with Big Hillbilly Bluegrass. Tad's music exudes copious amounts of charisma and personality. He is clearly a likeable character who also knows what it takes to produce a creative and extremely enjoyable fiddle album. I'd like to see his compositions outlive this generation and become our future fiddling standards played by festival attendees in the next century. (Joe Ross)

Steve Kaufman's Favorite 50 Traditional American Fiddle Tunes for the Mandolin: Tunes S-W

by Steve Kaufman
         Well-known musician and teacher Steve Kaufman provides a collection of 53 tunes -- this set with titles beginning with S through W. Standard notation and mandolin tab are provided for all, as well as recorded versions on the accompanying CD. Besides useful for expanding one's repertoire, Kaufman emphasizes the other advantages of a relatively inexpensive book like this. Learning tunes is very helpful to improve hand coordination, timing, speed, technique, clarity and sustain. Why tediously practice scales when you could use this kind of educational material to build dexterity, supplement one's bag of licks, and develop a greater comfort level and feel more prepared in jam sessions? I tip my hat to Kaufman (and Mel Bay Publications) for releasing products like this. In the greater scheme of traditional music perpetuation, a book/CD set like this will certainly keep these chosen 53 tunes vibrant and alive for years to come. Given his dedication to projects like this, we must add "tune carrier" to the list of all the other hats that Steve Kaufman has successfully worn. (Joe Ross)

En Paz

Manovill 700261234007
345 W. 58th Street #9C, New York, NY 10019
Tel. 818-693-2715 Email OR
         A first impression of "En Paz" is its colorful presentation, in both music and production. Cecilia Villar Eljuri is an Ecuadorian singer-songwriter and guitarist whose Latin and world-beat music conveys many tones on the broad spectrum aural palette. While bilingual, Eljuri sings primarily in her native Spanish about world issues and the need for peace, love and tranquility. The daughter of radio/TV/theater pioneer Paco Villar and composer/pianist Olga Eljuri de Villar was significantly inspired by travels to Ecuador while making this album. "Una Ola" is Spanish for "One Wave," and the song relates memories of a dear friend by building upon the analogy of how the ocean's power can sweep you off your feet. Eljuri's music is driven by strong rhythms and crisp guitar work that keep your attention on a visceral level without detracting from her tender vocalizing. Producer Yossi Fine provides the bass and drum tracks for most tracks. Other instrumentalist supporting Eljuri's music comes from Nir Z, Ray Turull, Alex Fox, Nayla Della Penna, Peter Basil, and Jay Rodriguez.
         The CD's intent is to musically build bridges between genres, as well as between cultures. "El Aire" opens the set with a Latin Reggae offering guest appearances by Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare. Another noteworthy guest is Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde) whose soaring timbre imparts considerable energy to "Jaula," a song with rock and flamenco influences. Two interesting tracks of her mother's composition "Como En Un Sueno" appear. The closing bonus track is her mom's original 1960s version released in Ecuador. A few tracks earlier is Eljuri's contemporary rendition that preserves its danceable melody and expressive lyrics in a totally different musical setting. There's nice variety on this album from moody introspection to up-tempo grooves, all presented with a sense of moral urgency and expert musicality. (Joe Ross)

Some More of Our Best

Tel. 703-521-5873 Email
         This hour-long set from the Russian folk music ensemble in the Washington, DC area brings back fond memories of my many visits to the Folklife Festival at the Seattle Center which were the last times I heard the emotional, danceable tunes from this tradition. Samovar formed in 1996 and has played the Smithsonian, Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Russian Embassy and Ambassador's residence. Whether serving up polkas, waltzes, hopaks or songs, the sextet has established a cohesive sound emphasizing vocals, balalaika and accordion. The two women vocalists (Anya Titova, Olga Rines) are folklorists with a strong calling to preserve messages of their traditional musical heritage of Russia and the Ukraine. The songs are driven by feelings of the heart, with many allusions to the trees, river, garden, moon, fields, flowers, sea and wind. In some case, these natural elements calm one's heart. In other cases, they serve as parties in conversations and lyrical discourses that may question or provide advice. The CD jacket includes both Russian (and English translations) for all of the songs.
         Instrumentally, the band features Michael Nazaretz (accordion), Yelena Rector (prima domra), Rick Netherton (contrabass balalaika), and Ilhan Izmirli (alto balalaika, guitar). Netherton's showcase piece is "Korobushka" (Little Peddler Box) with his walking bass line and a featured break. The spotlight shines on Nazaretz when he becomes the sole accompaniment to Anya Titova's singing of "Odinokaya Garmon" (Lonely Accordion) that poignantly asks "Why are you roaming the whole night alone? Why are you keeping the girls awake?" The CD's closing tracks refer to gypsy songs. I wonder if Samovar occasionally gets out of the city to the forest where they and their friends can sing, dance, drink wine and eat borscht and caviar by a river. (Joe Ross)


Beauty Saloon Music 0002
10 Jackson Road, Belmont, MA 02478
         The Republic of Georgia was in the headlines in 2008, and it wasn't in regards to their music. This album arrived in my mailbox at the very same time that Russia was aggressively invading the small, independent, pro-Western democracy to subordinate it and remove its freely elected President. I immediately put on this album and said a prayer for the refugees who were being forced to flee from their homes in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions.
         Regardless of the tense situation in their homeland, Iveroni is a group of five young talented musicians (Roman Lashkhia, Gieorgi Chikovani, Davit Batiashvili, Davit Gogitishivili, Beka Tcertcvadze). Their instruments are the panduri, bass panduri, salamuri, and changuri. Their traditional songs emphasize vocals, and they relate stories of love, heroism, and brotherhood. Producer Nathaniel Berndt traveled to the old city of Tblisi to record Iveroni on location. Additional liner notes would've been nice to explain more about this group, their music and songs. The war with Russia has left Georgia's countryside scorched by bombs and tank fire, and I wonder if Iveroni has songs that would be appropriate in such a circumstance. However, I highly doubt that they are out singing them until peace and freedom are restored to the Caucasus Mountains and Russian forces withdraw. (Joe Ross)

Guidan Haya

Beauty Saloon Music 0001
10 Jackson Road, Belmont, MA 02478
         From Niger, Malam Maman Barka is a teacher, musician and poet who has been performing on his 2-stringed gurumi for over 20 years. The gurumi's body is a calabash shell, and its skin head comes from an iguana. While his music is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Hausa civilization, Barka has composed over 250 new pieces that document life experiences, address contemporary issues, build bridges across cultures, make political statements, and provide optimistic direction to deal with life's struggles. It's understandable how Malam Barka's captivating vocals and intriguing gurumi have built him a strong fan base among Nigerians. While the musical ambassador has traveled internationally, this is his first album to be released outside of Niger. Accompanied by percussionist Oumarou Adamou on douma and kalongu, Barka's music is being disseminated through the efforts of the album's producer Nathaniel Berndt who collected these field recordings on location for our education and enjoyment. I may not be able to speak or understand Barka's language, but I appreciate what he's trying to accomplish as a contemporary African bard. (Joe Ross)

LaDeroute -
Soul Affirmation: Music for Better Outcomes

Tel. 828-264-3140 or 828-406-0128
Email OR
         An affirmation is a positive thought or idea that you consciously focus on to produce a desired outcome. Thus, "affirmation music" encompasses Ken LaDeroute's creative songs for personal awakening, realization and rejuvenation. Built on the premise that we need to awaken our true divine nature, LaDeroute's music strives to yield "strength, wholeness, confidence, passion, power and wealth of the mind, body and spirit." For example, a song like "It Constantly Comes To Me" is a contemplative reaffirmation of one's worthiness. A number of the songs convey messages of Sanskrit mantra -- words or phrases used in Hindu and Buddhist prayer or meditation to help spiritualize and focus the mind. "Baba Nam Kevalam" means "Love Is All There Is." The topics of truth, togetherness, vitality, radiance and being positive are part of the narration in "Shanti" (Sanskrit for peace). By understanding the meaning of Shiva (the Supreme Reality, the Inner Self), it becomes clear what LaDeroute is striving to convey with "Om Namah Shivaya" (I Bow To Shiva).
         Amy LaDeroute provides the pensive and reflective vocals that are central to this body of material. Based in Asheville, NC, Ken and Amy have three decades of performing experience in jazz, rock, and funk groups. Now, a new age approach to music is pioneering their own self-proclaimed genre (Affirmation Music) to offer healing and meditation. Besides programming drum tracks and synthesized strings, Ken plays guitars, keyboards and bass. Along for the journey are co-producer Kit Walker (keyboards, bass, drum programming), Carlos Fernandez (percussion), Duncan Wickel (violin), Tom Shirah (cornet), Elsbeth Van Tongeren (cello), and Richard Shulman (piano). This tightly-crafted and well-produced music is both inspired and inspiring. The next time I'm feeling grumpy, I'll cue up "Soul Affirmation" as a stimulating and uplifting way to focus on more positive thoughts. (Joe Ross)

West of Idaho

2445 Gales Way, Forest Grove, OR. 97116
         These are some very tasty tunes from an Oregon trio that's been tickling the strings for only about three years. When Brian Oberlin (acousic & electric mandolin) and Mark Petteys (guitar, banjo) first met on the streets of Portland in 2005, they realized their mutual affinity for jazz, swing and bluegrass. Both award-winning instrumentalists enjoy the adventure and challenge of tightly presenting eclectic offerings. In 2006, Russ Baker started playing upright bass with Ida Viper, and this recording project enlisted the phenomenal, silky smooth bow work of renown Seattle-based fiddler Paul Antastasio on five cuts.
         Ida Viper's second CD, "West of Idaho" is a perfect and illustrative display of their charisma, character, and musical courage. Their sheer exuberance and energy draw you right in from the opening salvo of "Idaho" to the closing proclamation of "Don't Fence Me In." Like a good book, the boys clearly establish the musical setting. The band's character is defined by elements of boundless hot licks performed in well-conceived arrangements. Twelve of the 14 cuts also feature vocals, but only five songs (The Whole World Round, Miss Molly, I Crept Into the Crypt and Cried, My Window Faces the South, Don't Fence Me In) include Petteys and Oberlin harmonzing together like a couple of brothers from the 30s or 40s. Russ Baker's sole vocal number is their bluegrassy banjo-driven rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Baker has a nice voice, and they might consider working up some trios. Ida Viper gets high marks for musical chutzpah because they're willing to cover so much territory from Bob Dylan to Frank Wakefield and Cole Porter to Thelonious Monk....and they do it all so well in their characteristic and personalized Ida Viper way.
         Oberlin demonstrates his songwriting ability with "Carbondale," an ode to Colorado "the G-spot of the universe." "Gricklegrass" is a great showcase for Petteys' expert banjo picking, and who would've thought that he could masterfully play a Monk tune ("Well You Needn't) on the ol' five-string? I would've enjoyed a little more of Anastasio's guest violin in the mix, especially at mid-set with "Hillbilly Blue" and "Time Changes Everything," but that's only a minor suggestion. "West of Idaho" sends a clear message that this entertaining, hard-working, courageous trio is building a big reputation (and fanbase) for themselves way out in the western territory. Both inspired and inspiring, Ida Viper can count on me as one of their biggest fans too. (Joe Ross)

Piece of Cake

Dream Walk Productions DWP-821957-1
PO Box 914, Church Hill, TN 37642
TEL. 423-357-1623
         Timing, tone, technique .... Tennessee-based luthier and mandolinist Audey Ratliff's first solo album "Piece of Cake" has all three of these necessary elements for success. Besides building 1,000 fine mandolins since 1980, the southpaw instrumentalist also clearly knows how to coax splendid melodic notes from his eight strings. The clarion sound of his expressive instrument is best captured in the one-minute solo, "Carolyn's Concerto," written by blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan. Then, he lays down a high-stepping mandolin arrangement of the Texas fiddle favorite, "Twinkle Little Star." It's double your pleasure when Audey picks twin mandolins in harmony on four tracks, and the CD's closer "Never on Sunday" always keeps the mando front-and-center through to the tune's dynamic ending. Playing guitar, bass and occasionally singing on the project with 14 eclectic offerings, Ratliff keeps the arrangements fairly lean with added support of producer James Alan Shelton (banjo, guitar, bass, vocal), Savannah Vaughn (fiddle, vocals), and John Malayter (guitar on "Foggy Mountain Special"). For example, "Sleepy Eyed John" and five other songs feature just Ratliff and Shelton playing multiple instruments. "Cactus Polka" may be better known as the Jesse Polka, and it's always been one of my favorites for mandolin and fiddle. Audey's mandolin and singing convey many feelings and emotions from upbeat happy to melancholy sad. Most impressively, Ratliff demonstrates his finely-honed ability to transform Appalachian-grown maple into a different kind of tree comprised of ancient roots, contemporary branches, and foliage with personalized colorings as diverse as the seasons. (Joe Ross)

Classic Old-Time Fiddle From Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW 40193
Playing Time – 76:00
         For those who have studied old-time fiddling, you will recognize the names of Clark Kessinger, Wade Ward, Tommy Jarrell, Marion Sumner, Gaither Carlton, Eck Robertson, Melvin Wine and Fred Price. The 38 tracks on this generous album of archival material also feature many other Appalachian style fiddlers whose music has been preserved as part of the Folkways catalog. All of the fiddlers sampled are from LPs released between 1951-1997. Even though put out in 1951, “Jenny on the Railroad” played by Tracy Schwartz and Mike Seeger with the New Lost City Ramblers is a tune that appeared in an 1839 collection of Virginia reels. Ten years before his death is 1971, fiddle Wade Ward recorded his solo Galax-style version of “Mississippi Sawyer.” It’s nice that some of the solos like Gaither Carlton’s rendition of “Old Man Below” also include singing to tell the story of the old man coming with a boule-barrel gun. Buddy Pendleton provides a rousing “Bill Cheatum” accompanied by Ted Lundy on banjo. With the availability of these Folkways recordings, bands like San Francisco’s Crooked Jades have subsequently been able to learn and record their own version of this same tune (see their album, “The Unfortunate Rake Vol. 2”). One revivalist band featured on this disc is the Iron Mountain String Band that was founded in New York City and has been playing old-time music for four decades. Their 1973 recording of a classic “Johnson Boys” is a tribute to a current band that recently released new albums in the 2000s.
         A West Virginian, Clark Kessinger was rediscovered in the mid-1960s during the folk revival of that period. “Red Bird,” “Trombone Rag,” and “Wednesday Night Waltz” display good tone and technique, and we can see why the latter became a hit for Kessinger. While much of the fiddling on this disc is played solo or just accompanied by guitar and/or banjo, we also hear some fuller ensemble sounds. More recent recordings are 1997 pieces “Darling Corey” and “Won’t Come Until Morning” by The Gary Hooven String Band. Fiddler Hooven, a practitioner of the Galax string band tradition, was only 36 years old when he died in 2005. I also enjoyed the cuts (Beaumont Rag, Kentucky Waltz) by multi-instrumentalist David Johnson with his father, Billy Ray, from one of the three albums they produced for Folkways in the 1980s. Each track has its own quaintness, whether saw’ed off in a more rustic fashion with the rosin a-flyin’ before a live audience, or whether recorded by a more euphonious fiddler in a controlled studio environment. A few other rollicking favorites to get the toes tapping are Lee Highway Blues, Piney Woods Gal, Sugar Hill, Bonaparte's Retreat, Richmond Blues, Black Eyed Susie, Pretty Little Girl with the Blue Dress On, Carroll County Blues, Dance All Night, and Give the Fiddler a Dram. You won’t need a dram to get dancing all night long to the music on this disc compiled and annotated by old-time fiddler Jake Krack and Folkways archivist Jeff Place . (Joe Ross)

Mauka Blend

Keepers of Aloha Productions, No Number
PO Box 760, Honaunau, HI 96726
Tel. (808)328-8307
Email: or
         Recorded in Kona, Hawaii, "Mauka" is a family project by John Capron, his wife Rianne, 18-year-old daughter Elizabeth, and eight of their friends who live near the long sylvan ridge from the Pacific Ocean to the top of Mauna Loa. A grass roots project of original music, "Mauka" is a prolific journal of John's eclectic multi-genre songwriting with lyrics that range from provocative to humorous. We hear influences of country pop (Goin' Up Mauka), Latin (Wanting You), jazz (Autumn Waltz), blues (Technology), rock (Workin' Jerk), country (American Dream), and more. Some of Capron's most straightforward messages are found in his 'Jawaiian' tunes such as "Ho'okena" where a parent and offspring lament the passing of time with "When I was young I couldn't wait for things to change. Now that I'm older, I find changes happen while I'm nappin'." Outrigger canoeists will be able to immediately relate to "Paddle-osophy" and the exclamatory statement that "you got to give it all you got, don't hold nothing' back, people who whine don't matter, people who matter don't whine." That's what gives this album a fun and party-like atmosphere. Presumably written prior to Capron's move to Hawaii in 2001 and while working both day & night in San Francisco, "Workin' Jerk" lists many professions full of "turkeys at the bottom who keep pushin' this old world around," but John proclaims that one of these days he's going to have a decent, high-paying job and sit himself "on top of the heap and call everybody a creep."
         Vocals are always front and center, and they are supplemented with plenty of flavorful instrumentation (guitar, keyboard, bass, mandolin, flute, marimba, vibes, ukelele, trumpet, drums, percussion) . John sings lead on all but the two cuts that feature Rianne, a lead vocalist with several mainland jazz and funk bands. The accompaniment of Kona Lowell, Chee, Louis Pinault, Solomon Choo are especially noteworthy for their embellishment of this musical blend with broad appeal. Originating from the Big Island, this is some Big Music with excellent musicianship, strong emotion and heartfelt sentiment. John Capron & his Mauka Family Band may best state the CD's theme in the opening cut that states "With my voice I bring you this song, I will not stay too long, but I will keep you in my spirit until the mountain crumbles down." (Joe Ross)

Beautiful Sounds of Greece

Creative Artists Productions 70026122835
PO Box 3455, Toms River, NJ 08756
TEL. (732)736-1666 OR
         With eight tracks ranging from 3-11 minutes, this album actually has 37 songs written by eight different composers. Arranged in medleys, the instrumentals feature Panos Chrysovergis (piano, synthesizer), Chris Marashlian (12-string guitar, bass), and Michael Stupak (bouzouki, baglama). Bouzouki played by Nick Manioudakis appears on the first four minutes of the CD. With its smooth easy-listening feel, this relaxing album conjures up images of sandy coastline on the azure Mediterranean under a warm blanket of sunshine. Don't expect party music for an ouzo cruise. Rather, "Beautiful Sounds of Greece" is the perfect background music for a quiet dinner party with close friends. The introspective passages and lilting tempos encourage a listener to achieve a meditative state that allows the mind to experientially wander. Also an accomplished ethnomusicologist, Chris Marashlian clearly does have a passion and sensitivity for Greek melodies, and he was formally trained at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Of particular interest, at track 6, are the melodies from Hatzidakis and Manos that ebb and flow like the tide through five different time signatures. Beginning as a ‰½-time waltz, the medley eventually evolves into an 11/8 melody that gets one's toe tapping with an occasional heel emphasis.
         Inspired also by the tides and emotions, a totally different side of Chris Marashlian is on another of his album releases entitled "Raqs el Qamar," with original music for belly dance routines of varying time length ( and with assistance of such top musicians as Zarouhi, Hafez El Ali, Hamit Golbasi, Haig Manoukian, Tamer Pinarbasi, Salah Rhanny, and others. Marashlian, born in New Jersey of Armenian heritage, is clearly a very talented and accomplished musician. In business partnership with Zarouhi (a Zils and Zaghareet player), their Creative Artists Productions is building a catalog of vivid music that is both shimmering and luminescent. (Joe Ross)

Holy Holy Holy

GGM Productions, No Number
1109 Glendon Way, South Pasadena, CA. 91030
(626)403-7136 OR (626)372-7072
         Subtitled "Hymns to a Different Drum," this instrumental CD opens with a very contemporary smooth jazz rendition of the hymn, "Doxology," that dates back to 1551. With sax, flute, clarinet, keyboards, percussion and bass, this project features a quartet of stellar California-based musicians, with special guest percussionist Richie Gajate Garcia. The smooth jazz arrangements (with traditional Latin and Afro Cuban rhythms) of hymns then cover from 1800 (At The Cross) to 1923 (Great Is Thy Faithfulness). Creative renditions are heard throughout, and all blend recognizable melodies with instruments, tempos and rhythms that transform hymns like "Fairest Lord Jesus" into vibrant, inspirational charmers. Of particular interest are the nouveau recordings of chestnuts "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace" that glow with the same joy, exaltation and optimism as more standard offerings. While lyrics are often central to spiritual music, Almario, Pantoja, Rodriquez and Guzman clearly follow their own muse on a very enjoyable and easy-listenable instrumental journey that sings praise in a special, unique way. These smooth jazz players have the tunes from their musical ministry available at Digstation, CDBaby and Itunes. (Joe Ross)


Big Hen Music, No Number
72 Belcher Street, San Francisco, CA. 94114
TEL. (415)621-0865
         The Earl Brothers' "hillbilly mountain music" continues to emphasize pain, sorrow, troubles, loneliness and heartache. The fiddle-less bluegrass quartet features a brother-duo singing style that recreates a traditional sound reminiscent of the 1930s and 40s. But at the same time, their songs are all originals as if they were living another life from decades past. As vocalized in "Dark Days," these boys have a different kind of brotherly bond ... singing about life as rounders with drunken days and evil ways. Earl Brothers songs are all about hurtin' inside, and they contain succinct, concise observations and guidance. For example, in "Troubles To Blame," they tell us to "stay ahead of the game" and "make your own sunshine." It's pure, simple, unadulterated, rustic country folk advice like "I'm going walkin', stay away from bad blues." Their music, old-timey and mountainous, begs for more of the wail and moan of the fiddle such as that provided by guest Bill Foss on the closing cut, "Life is Full of Trouble." While the Earls probably record live around a couple of mics, they could still import fiddle tracks from the likes of guest artists who share their lonely sentiments and blue style. On the other hand, The Earl Brothers have clearly established their conceptually thematic sound on previous releases. Like Billy Boy "that old broken heap" who was abandoned by his mother on the side of the road, The Earl Brothers deserve a happy ending. I encourage you to hear their "pitiful cries," and if their music moves you, please help them along their way. (Joe Ross)


Tel. (847)332-1540
         Kiu Haghighi is a virtuoso on his native Persian instrument known as the santour. In the U.S., we know this trapezoidal instrument as the hammered dulcimer, and it has various other names among countries where it has been played for thousands of years (yang in China, hackbrett in Germany, and cymbalom in Hungary). Affectionately, pioneers to American simply called it the "Lumberjack's piano" or "whammadiddle." With the mallets in the hands of Kiu Haghighi, original music using Middle Eastern scales flows freely with detail, nuance and sensitivity. Haghighi's musical expressions are both delicate and intricate, but they also have a percussive effect by virtue of this instrument's effect. Varying tempo changes impart dynamic, changing moods to the pieces, and the overtones of reverberating strings throughout the 3.5 octaves provide clarion statements.
         Taking up the instrument at age ten, Kiu was a featured performer and instructor at the Iranian Ministry of Education and Art by the time he was in his twenties. In 1965, he left Iran to study in the U.S. He has now performed in concert halls around the world, and this album is funded in part by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council within the state where he currently resides. The four tracks on "Reflections" range from 6-23 minutes, and Haghighi presents his compositions in lean arrangements with only his own accompaniment on tombak, a kind of drum. At 23 minutes, "Dastgah-e Homayoon" is a magical kind of journey through the changing environments of a distant, arid land. Apparently an artist who also uses the canvas to express his creativity, the CD was designed using one of Kiu's oil paintings of his Iranian birthplace. Knowledge of the instrument's traditional art form has now evolved into Kiu's own personal signature sound intended to promote cross-cultural understanding and cooperation.
         With dreamy creative passages, "Reflections" impart multi-hued shades similar to a desert sunset. This musician states that his personal goal is to create a romantic world of excitement, emotion and spirit. This album certainly captures that passion and sentiment. (Joe Ross)

Last Night's Fun

PO Box 16322, Lubbock, Tx. 79490
TEL. (806)441-7466
         Johnny Faa is a Texas-based quartet that presents the songs, tunes and airs that comprise traditional Irish music. With 18 tracks running over 70 minutes, "Last Night's Fun" is a comprehensive set of the band's musical expressions. Prior to the album's production, the band originally known as Last Night's Fun decided to change its name so as to not be confused with others of the same moniker. Personnel include Steve Cooper (flute, tin whistle, guitar), Angela Mariani (guitar, mandola), John Perrin (bodhran), and Chris Smith (bouzouki, tenor banjo, button accordion, guitar). All the musicians also sing, and songs feature each as lead singers. Steve Cooper's songwriting skill is showcased with "Willie Calvin's Surprise," a tale of an emotional reunion with an old friend after thirty years. They are joined by Kathleen Finley's lively step dance on a medley of Derry Hornpipe and Staten Island Hornpipe at track six. This presumably emphasizes their respect for the danceability and deep tradition of the music they play. Another set perfect for any ceili would be the "big tunes" (Humours of Ennystimon, Humours of Ballyloughlin) that segue into Liz Carroll's jig entitled "The Diplodocus."
         The band's musical journey weaves its way along the narrow roads of Ireland, past beautiful coastline to small, quaint pubs that serve as community gathering (and watering) holes. Just like the varied scenery of the Emerald Isle, Johnny Faa's music incorporates the considerable diversity provided by jigs, slides, reels, hornpipes, polkas, airs, and songs. At track eleven, the band also wisely includes what they call their "crooked set," a 9-minute 5-tune medley that begins meditative, builds dynamically, and ends frenetically -- slow air, march, barn dance, schottische to reel. The CD jacket includes a few lines about each of the tracks and their sources. Johnny Faa's strong musicianship, eclectic repertoire, and lively personality will no doubt win them a legion of fans wherever they play. A live recording of their closing number, "There's The Day," indicates that Johnny Faa already has plenty of fans in their "Usual Suspects" chorus supporting them. (Joe Ross)

Dear Mom

Raincoe Music RM010408
         After years of honorable service, guitarist/singer Wayne Taylor has retired from the U.S. Navy and their Country Current bluegrass unit. "Dear Mom," his first release since leaving Country Current in March, 2008, showcases a fair amount of Taylor's original material, as well as an eclectic repertoire of gospel, country, and folk covers presented in stellar fashion with top-notch bluegrassers Ron Stewart (fiddle), Emory Lester (mandolin), Keith Arneson (banjo), Kip Martin (bass), Russell Moore and Ray Deaton (harmony vocals). From a different recording session, John Prine's "Grandpa Was A Carpenter" and Taylor's own "Dear Mom" feature Bill Emerson (banjo), Wyatt Rice (guitar), Mike Nicholson (bass), Rickie Simpkins (fiddle), Mike Auldridge (Dobro), Dan Tyminski or Jimmy Gaudreau (mandolin), and Dan Tyminski (harmony vocals).
         Besides being a troubadour, Wayne Taylor is also still a bounding seafarer at heart. While each song tells an evocative story on its own, the CD could also be viewed as a booklet with each song documenting chapters in Taylor's life. Opening with strong original material, "Golden Hair" emphasizes how something as simple as a lock of hair helps a sailor deal with the angry waves and depths of the seven seas. With Arneson's frailing banjo, "Dreamin of the Sea" is a lilting message that a sailor's choice is clear when faced with deciding between his Tennessee home and the sea. I wonder if Wayne Taylor is really ready and content to just "kick back in my easy chair and dream of the sea." At track three, Taylor admits that he's living and dying with "Choices" made, but track four then reinforces just how much he loves "My Smoky Mountain Home." If it's guidance and wisdom that Taylor needs, he knows where to look -- track five is a beautifully-rendered version of "Be Thou My Vision." So, in just the first 15 minutes of this album, one sees just how Wayne Taylor conceptually organizes his songs, not only as seafarer and musician, but also as storyteller and prophet.
         The jazzy arrangement of "Wayfaring Stranger" allows Ron Stewart's fiddle and Emory Lester's mandolin to converse freely. "Late in September" is an instrumental written by Keith Arneson, and the album's lean arrangement features just banjo, mandolin and guitar for a slight change of pace. Besides paying tribute to those friends he's met on the deep blue sea, "Dear Mom" states that Taylor will be home once he's old and his work is done. When he finally does reach the end of his journey, Taylor exclaims "Lord Take Me Home." Songs like Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me," John Prine's "Grandpa Was A Carpenter ," and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking" all convert nicely to bluegrass treatment. As an optimistic album closer, "Everybody's Talking" does seem to bring it all home. Taylor smoothly vocalizes, "I'm going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain ... sailing on summer breeze, skippin' over the ocean like a stone." Besides his mother, home, family and Lord, there's still clearly a fond place in Wayne's heart for the sea too. (Joe Ross)

10 Years of European World of
Bluegrass 1998-2007

Strictly County SCR-66
PO Box 628, 2130 AP Hoofddorp, The Netherlands
TEL. (31)297-347-101
         When Blue land (from the Slovak and Czech Republics) presents Harley Allen's "Simple Life," the message provides some insight as to why bluegrass has gained such appeal throughout much of Europe. The genre's hard-driving high lonesome sound and evocative substance have many European followers, and its strong entertainment value is appreciated in an otherwise hectic and complicated world today. When long-time supporter Bill Clifton sings his classic "Little Whitewashed Chimney," the message really hits home. The European World of Bluegrass (EWOB) is an annual 3-day event held in May in The Netherlands, and it's obviously a homecoming for bands and fans alike. This outstanding 2-CD album is a sampler of many different European and American groups that have appeared at the festival from 1998-2007 ... showcasing an eclectic range with such bands as Belgium's Rawhide (a 1998 rendition of "The Typewriter") to Italy's Red Wine (a 2007 cut of "Winter's Come and Gone"). Produced by Liz Meyer, it was no easy task to chose from the available live cuts from nearly 200 different groups representing 24 different countries. The action packed album turned out with 48 cuts (eight that are instrumentals), and no band appears twice. Most European groups typically have solid banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass, and it's particularly a treat when a band also complements their overall bluegrass sound with a fiddle and/or resophonic guitar.
         While some vocals may be a little more difficult to understand with European accents, they are all sung with considerable enthusiasm and emotion. From France, Springfield's quartet of "Paul and Silas" has all the energy of the Stanley Brothers' rendition. One can only imagine what Footprints' rendition of "Nazaj u mesto" is about as that original composition is sung in their own Slovenian language, just as The Stroatklinkers do in Gronings (a dialect of Dutch) when they present "Zoltkamp" with a melodic accordion line played by Henk Bloupot. Thus, we see that European bluegrass has evolved to the point that the music's traditional roots have been embraced, and branches have now inspired songs and instrumentals capturing uniquely original and personal feelings from Europe. Propelling his band with his homemade mandolin and heartfelt vocalizing, Jussi Syren (from Finland) sings his self-penned "Life of a Steel Driving Man" in much the same way that Lester Flatt or Bill Monroe probably would have decades before. It's especially gratifying to see that European's best can hold their own alongside their American counterparts. The two CDs (with over two hours of music) offer much variety from frenetic instrumentals to lonesome ballads, solo renditions to quartet harmonies. EWOB recognizes top bands annually, and many of the top award-winning groups are featured -- Relief, Mideando String Quartet, 4-Wheel Drive, Carmel Sheerin & The Ravens, and Petr Brandejs Band. More than just a novelty or curiosity, "10 Years of European World of Bluegrass" captures a love of this genre, as well as the originality and innovation that have taken seed in the fertile soil across the pond. (Joe Ross)

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