CD reviews: bluegrass, newgrass and beyond |

CD reviews: bluegrass, newgrass and beyond

Stewart Oksenhorn
Chatham County Line has released a new CD titled Route 23. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.

It seems like only yesterday I was reviewing a batch of bluegrass-related CDs. (Actually, it was a whole two weeks ago.) But the stack remains, the Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music continues through Saturday, March 19, at the Wheeler Opera House, and if anyone has a better idea than listening to some bluegrass … they’re wrong.Following are review of recent CDs by bands who would fit into the Beyond Bluegrass confines.Chatham County Line, “Route 23″produced by Chris Stamey (Yep Roc)The fact that the members of North Carolina quartet didn’t grow up on an exclusive diet is abundantly clear on their second CD, “Route 23.” While keeping things all acoustic, and singing about freight trains, old highways and cold jailhouses, Chatham County Line avoids the pitch-perfect harmonies in favor of a from-the-gut sloppiness that gets the Neil Young stamp of approval. Led by singer-guitarist Dave Wilson, who writes most of the material, Chatham County Line pours emotion into the nostalgic “Louisiana Freight Train”; drives its way through the instrumental “Gunfight in Durango” hitched to John Teer’s fiddle; and makes good country fun out of the optimistic “Engine 709.””Route 23” is not the sound of a band intentionally breaking the rules, but one that might follow the rules if only they knew them. The approach has served them well. Chatham County Line is the reigning champion of the Rockygrass band competition, and “Route 23” offers a refreshing ride beginning to end.Chatham County Line performs March 26 in the Acoustic Concert Series at the Paradise Theater in Paonia.

NewFound Road, “Somewhere Between”produced by NewFound Road(Mountain Home Music Company)”Somewhere Between,” the third CD by young acoustic quartet NewFound Road, is everything that Chatham County Line’s “Route 23” is not: polished, clean and, above all, studied. NewFound Road has a solid grip on the ways of neotraditional bluegrass: tight harmony singing, a heavy dose of gospel (“I Need You Lord,” “Jesus Sure Changed Me”), a bluegrass cover of a well-chosen tune (Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis”), the tasty instrumental (“Edinburgh”). It doesn’t make “Somewhere Between” lifeless. Only predictable, and another addition to the pile of sound-alikes.

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, “Exploration”produced by Gary Louris andEd Ackerson (New West)Sarah Lee Guthrie may have inherited her talent from her father and grandfather (you know who). But her sound is a few giant steps removed from old folk. Though “Exploration,” her first collaboration with singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Johnny Irion features fiddles and banjos, the drums, piano and expansive production add up to country-flavored roots-rock akin to Gram Parsons-era Byrds, or contemporaries like Lucinda Williams and the Jayhawks.Heady company, but Guthrie, who sings, strums and writes here, earns the comparisons. The title track cleverly moves from gentle harmony vocals over tinkling piano to chugging country-rock to an unexpected electric guitar lead and psychedelic ’60s interlude. The mix is reminiscent of Wilco ar Beck. On other tunes – the romantic “Kindness,” with yearning pedal steel sounds; the folky “In Lieu of Flowers,” in which Guthrie and Irion closely echo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – they play it straighter.Guthrie did inherit her ancestors’ populism. The title song is about the downtrodden: “People asking us for change, people sleeping in the streets/Politicians still don’t have a clue.” The lone cover tune is a rollicking take on Pete Seeger’s “Dr. King,” a celebration of MLK’s nonviolent means of revolution.Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver,”You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper”produced by Lawson (Rounder)After numerous recordings heavy with praiseful gospel, singer-mandolinist Doyle Lawson and his long-running combo Quicksilver take a sharp turn. For their debut on the Rounder label, Lawson ditches gospel almost entirely for more earthly concerns. Most everything song here is about a girl: the girl who left in “The Girl in the Valley,” the life-changing Jenny in “Girl From West Virginia,” the “Oak Valley Girl.”Which makes the songs that aren’t simple odes to a pretty little thing stand out. “Saving Grace” isn’t gospel, nor about a lost romance, but a different kind of heartbreak: Alzheimer’s, and a man’s devotion to his afflicted wife. The instrumental “Rosine” is titled after the Kentucky town that produced bluegrass granddaddy Bill Monroe. A cover of Porter Wagoner’s “What Ain’t to Be, Just Might Happen” is simplistic in its cheery message of accentuating the positive.

Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, “Live at Mechanics Hall”produced by David Grisman (Acoustic Disc)David Grisman shows once again that his legacy won’t be just the groundbreaking music made by his quartet. The mandolinist’s Acoustic Disc label churns out one CD after another of music, new and old, that expands the well of acoustic sounds. “Live at Mechanics Hall,” recorded in Massachusetts in 1963 and featuring a Blue Grass Boys lineup of Del McCoury and Bill Keith, is a fine-sounding historic document. And like virtually every Acoustic Disc release, the package – including notes on each musician (including guest singers Bessie Lee, Bill Monroe’s sweetheart, and Melissa Monroe, his daughter) and each song, and plenty of photos – is first-rate.”Allstar Bluegrass Celebration”produced by Terry Lickona (Lickonavision)For an overview of today’s blue-chip bluegrass scene, it would be tough to beat the “Allstar Bluegrass Celebration,” recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in January 2002. It’s long on superstars – Vince Gill with the Del McCoury Band, Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs – and short on surprises, with most of the acts contributing their best-known material. Stanley does his Grammy-winning “O Death”; Krauss + Union Station do “Let Me Touch You for Awhile”; and Earl Scruggs does “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The presence of pianist Bruce Hornsby is the only curveball, but he teams with Skaggs on “Darlin’ Corey,” which the two recorded previously. All wonderful, and all heard many times over, though the disc does conclude with two all-fingers-on-deck instrumentals, “Lonesome Ruben” and “Rawhide.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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