Hit & Run Bluegrass balances old and new
Judging by the number of string music CDs stacking up, I have to figure that the “O Brother” phenomenon, now 4 years old, is no passing fling.
Following are reviews of recent CDs with the focus on acoustic string sounds.
Hit & Run Bluegrass, “Beauty Fades”
produced by Tim Austin
The debut CD by Hit & Run Bluegrass comes with good buzz behind the band. Last year the all-acoustic Colorado quintet won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition, adding to the trophy they won at RockyGrass the year before.
“Beauty Fades” is a fine first effort, marked by perfect balance. The band finds the ideal line between traditional and contemporary, between jams and songs, between polish and grit. Lead singer Rebecca Hoggan has a lovely and substantial voice in the Alison Krauss vein; mandolinist John Frazier, who also takes some lead vocals, complements Hoggan with a more backwoods sound.
Best of all, Hit & Run aims at bringing a distinctive touch to traditional bluegrass and they frequently hit the mark. Frazier’s “Trouble & Pain” sports interesting chord changes and tight interplay on the instruments. With banjoist Aaron Youngberg’s instrumental “Coach’s Stomp,” Hit & Run demonstrates its knack for contemporary jamming while maintaining ties to bluegrass roots.
Hit & Run plays at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale Saturday, May 8.
Béla Fleck & Edgar Meyer, “Music For Two”
produced by Fleck & Meyer (Sony Classical)
Banjo god Béla Fleck and bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer rank as the finest practitioners of their respective instruments. Both are ambitious composers. Working together, as they often do, they push one another to insane heights of technical wizardry and innovation. To top it off, there is little egghead quality to this music. Tunes like “Pile-up,” co-written by Fleck and Meyer, are like a high-wire act, so fast and challenging you holds your breath and wonder if they’ll land safely. The music has the melodic sophistication of classical, but as Fleck and Meyer are both well-versed in bluegrass, there is a catchy rhythmic quality here as well, even a sense of humor.
“Music For Two” was recorded during several brief tours between 2001 and 2003, and features arrangements of Bach and Eccles, a take on Miles Davis’ “Solar,” and a heap of stunning original works. The recording comes with a DVD – by Sascha Paladino, Fleck’s brother – documenting one of the tours, and offering vast insight into the creative process of music’s most dynamic duo.
Fleck & Meyer perform an Aspen Music Festival concert Thursday, May 27, at Harris Hall. Meyer will also appear this summer at the Aspen Music Festival, playing a July 30 Aspen Chamber Symphony concert, with conductor Michael Stern, featuring Meyer’s own Bass Concerto.
Earl Scruggs, “The Essential Earl Scruggs”
Bill Monroe may be rightly considered the creator of bluegrass. But Earl Scruggs defined the music, garnered the attention and added the virtuoso element to bluegrass. An early member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Scruggs put the banjo center stage in the bluegrass sound. “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” – the theme of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” punctuated by Scruggs’ picking – is easily the most widely recognized example of bluegrass; “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” written by Scruggs and performed with his longtime partner, guitarist Lester Flatt, was the celebrated soundtrack to the groundbreaking film “Bonnie & Clyde.”
The two-CD set “The Essential Earl Scruggs” collects music from 1946-84, and includes recordings with Monroe, the Foggy Mountain Boys (the band led by Flatt and Scruggs), the Earl Scruggs Revue (featuring several of Scruggs’ sons) and tunes featuring Mother Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It casts ample light on a stellar career, and shows Scruggs was not the hardheaded traditionalist that Monroe and Flatt were. Among the tracks here are covers of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a take on “Some of Shelley’s Blues,” and “Song of the South,” featuring drums, piano and a big country choir.
Whether Scrugg’s is leading a breakdown, jamming with country-rockers or backing a singer, that banjo sound always stands out.
Rob Ickes, “Big Time”
produced by Ickes (Rounder)
On “Big Time,” dobroist Rob Ickes aims to show there are no limits to what his instrument can do. The album opens with the country rocker “Machine Gun Kelly,” progresses to the Celtic-tinged fiddle tune “Elzic’s Farewell,” slows down for the delicate, folky “Matt Hyland,” and gets in a thick jazz groove for a unique
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take on “I Am a Pilgrim.” No shortage of chops or diversity here.
King Wilkie, “Broke”
produced by Bob Carlin (Rebel)
Young Virginia band King Wilkie – named for Bill Monroe’s favorite horse – was put together by two friends, Ted Pitney and Reid Burgess, who first dove into bluegrass way back in 2000. “Broke” sounds like a band that hasn’t had time to develop its ideas. They play well and with considerable energy, but there is something thin and generic about the album. Song after song speaks of experiences – lonesome train rides, oceans of sorrow – that you just know these 20-somethings have never come close to.
Steep Canyon Rangers, “The Steep Canyon Rangers”
produced by Steep Canyon Rangers and Jerry Brown (Rebel)
The Steep Canyon Rangers are another young, Southern group that sings well, plays the heck out of their instruments and has made a fun, listenable album. But like King Wilkie’s “Broke,” “The Steep Canyon Rangers” comes up short in depth, originality and conviction. Musically, it’s a notch above King Wilkie; the instrumental “454” is hot. But in this day when bluegrass is attracting plenty of forward-thinking young pickers, “The Steep Canyon Rangers” is just a half-step beyond the pack.
Jeff Austin & Chris Castino, “Songs From the Tin Shed”
produced by Austin, Castino & Nick Forster (Frog Pad Records)
Jeff Austin, mandolinist from Colorado’s Yonder Mountain String Band, and Chris Castino, guitarist of jam-band The Big Wu, got together in a small Lyons studio with a bunch of Colorado pickers, including Hot Rize’s Nick Forster, Leftover Salmon’s Noam Pikelny, Sally Van Meter and the rest of Yonder Mountain. The result is an amiable record, with a decided lack of polishing. Castino doesn’t have a bluegrass voice, and when he tries, as on a cover of the Louvins Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone,” it’s dismal.
Del McCoury, “High, Lonesome and Blue”
Singer-guitarist Del McCoury has become a bluegrass superstar in recent years thanks to the blistering band, featuring two of his sons, that bears his name. The collection “High, Lonesome and Blue” is small in scale – one CD of tunes from 1987 to 1996, just before the Del McCoury Band hit its stride. The music is solid enough; McCoury’s voice, the definition of high and lonesome, never gets tiring. Still, most of the tracks here – including the classic “High on a Mountain,” the lightninglike “If You’ve Got the Money Honey” and Steve Earle’s “If You Need a Fool” – barely hint at the heights McCoury would soon reach. No surprise that the ones that come closest are two tunes, “The Cold Hard Facts” and “Blackjack County Chains,” from ’96 with the lineup that would become the Del McCoury Band.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Amid the pre-Thanksgiving gloom of grim pandemic news here in Aspen, across Colorado and the mountain west came a small but significant dose of hope in the unlikely form of an Aspen Music Festival and School announcement.