Its never too early to prepare for pickin season
Picking season starts earlier and earlier.The high picking time that is, the bluegrass festival season arrives in summer in the Rockies. But when the Wheeler Opera House instituted its Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music three years ago, local acoustic music fans began their celebration at the crack of spring.This years picking season starts Saturday, Jan. 17, with a concert by Steve Earle at the Wheeler Opera House. The news of Emmylou Harris coming to the Wheeler Feb. 14-15 makes this a particularly strong winter of picking. Beyond Bluegrass, set for March 24-28, will feature Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, the Seldom Scene and the trio of Phillips, Grier & Flinner, with two more headliners and opening acts still to be determined.Looking into the height of the bluegrass season, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, June 17-20, features the Sam Bush Band, the Del McCoury Band, Bla Fleck & the Flecktones, Mark OConnor & the Hot Swing Trio and more. Rockygrass, July 23-25 in Lyons, includes the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band, the Tim OBrien Band, John Reischman & the Jaybirds and more. And the Folks Festival, Aug. 13-15 and also in Lyons, has announced Greg Brown as a headliner.To warm up for the season, following is some suggested at-home listening.Emmylou Harris, Stumble Into Graceproduced by Malcolm Burns (Nonesuch)Emmylou Harris has long been possessed of one of the most soul-stirring voices in the country realm, and a face to match. So need she rub it in the faces of lesser beings by becoming, while in her 50s, a notable songwriter as well?Apparently so. After reinventing herself, with the help of producer Daniel Lanois, as an inventive alt-country singer on the 1995 album of covers Wrecking Ball, Harris tried her wings as a songwriter. Red Dirt Girl, from 2000, found Harris at 53 writing almost all of the material. On Stumble Into Grace, she not only duplicates that feat, but surpasses it.Its hard to say exactly how good a songwriter Harris is. With that voice, almost anything is going to sound full of meaning, and the production here, by Lanois protege Malcolm Burns, provides an ideal setting. But Harris, at bottom, writes brilliantly for herself, her words, voice and melodies coming together as a heavenly trinity. Lost Unto This World and Can You Hear Me Now, both album highlights, echo the theme of spiritual wondering from Wrecking Balls Where Will I Be? Time in Babylon is heavier, a sharp look at recent American history. Harris even lightens up the mood and picks up the beat for the rocking Jupiter Rising.Harris plays the Wheeler Opera House Feb. 14-15.Steve Earle, Just an American Boyproduced by the Twangtrust (Artemis/E-Squared)Just an American Boy, a live two-CD set by Steve Earle, comes off as almost a linear narrative. Earle is so focused on his political and social commentary here that even the few non-message songs pick up the purpose with which Earle delivers his screeds.Most of it is of the political variety. The album opens with Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best That We Can Do), a finger-pointing song with the finger aimed at most anyone who is not an on-the-streets activist. Earle carries on in heavy mode, touching on the Holy War sparked on September 11 (Ashes to Ashes) and what the powers-that-be might be up to behind locked doors. (Conspiracy Theory). Between songs, Earle voices his opposition to the death penalty, our current wars, and to those who would prefer him to just shut up.But Earle has more than anger and alt-country power chords to offer. He expresses empathy for coal miners (Harlan Man), the American-turned-Taliban John Walker Lindh (John Walkers Blues), and prisoners on death row (Over Yonder). On rare occasion he can spin a moment of romance, as he does on I Remember You, a duet with Garrison Starr, or a sweet, nostalgic tone, as on Rexs Blues, written by Earles late mentor, Townes Van Zandt. His stage banter is humorous; he engages the audience happily.Earle closes Just an American Boy on the most hopeful notes: the unexpectedly optimistic Jerusalem; Christmas in Washington, a plea for folk heroes to emerge; and finally, a triumphant, rocking version of Nick Lowes What So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding. For the finale, Earle turns the mike over to his son Justin, who does an acoustic version of his own lonesome tale, Time You Waste. Its Earles way of letting us know that the world isnt completely screwed. Yet.Earle performs a solo show at the Wheeler Opera House tomorrow, Jan. 17, at 9 p.m. See feature story on Page B1 of this section. Cold Mountainproduced by T Bone Burnett (DMZ/Columbia)O Brother, not again. Yes, again. Here is a soundtrack album, from a film where the music actually plays a prominent role, produced by T Bone Burnett, featuring artists from the acoustic world, some well-known, others barely known, playing ancient songs in old-fashioned style. Sound familiar?In almost every way, the Cold Mountain soundtrack mimics the immensely successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack from a few years back. Thankfully, that includes the quality of the music.While Burnett replicates the O Brother formula here, there are also a few innovations. Most noticeable is that, unlike the earlier album, this one has an anchor artist, and it is a surprising one. Jack White, of rock band the White Stripes and a close friend of Cold Mountain star Renee Zellweger, goes old-timey on such songs as Sittin on Top of the World, Wayfaring Stranger and Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over. Even more of a revelation are the Sacred Harp Singers at Liberty Church, a tight choral group that sings two tunes in a style that should awaken some ears. Alison Krauss, an O Brother star, returns here, and its hard to argue with that.But the heart of Cold Mountain are the string players, many of them from O Brother: Tim OBrien, Mike Compton, Stuart Duncan. Conjuring sounds from a Celtic/Appalachian past, they successfully take us to another time.Lonesome Skynyrd Time, featuring Larry Cordle & LST, A Bluegrass Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrdproduced by produced by Cordle (CMH)The O Brother rising tide that lifted all bluegrass boats also lowered standards. One result has been a spate of bluegrass tributes to various rock bands, including Metallica and AC/DC (by a band cleverly billing itself as Hayseed Dixie). Apart from the rare moment where youre almost convinced that the Southern rock/bluegrass connection makes some sense, this is a bad idea, and not particularly well done.Darrell Scott, Theatre of the Unheardproduced by Scott (Full Light Records)Before he became an A-list Nashville songwriter, collaborator with Steve Earle and Tim OBrien, and a performer under his own name, Darrell Scott attended Bostons Tufts University, where he studied poetry and wrote songs. Scott recorded a batch of his songs, which were promptly dismissed by his record label.With a crack band and a decade and a half to think about them Scott re-records those late-80s tunes on Theatre of the Unheard. Theatre is a well-chosen word here. Many of the songs do have a dramatic arc to them, with spoken voices woven into the lyrics. There is a coming-of-age, college-student feel to the material, as Scott faces his rough Kentucky upbringing and searches for release. But songs like Day After Day and Full Light show the young Scotts promise and that a record company long ago dismantled missed the boat.Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson & Ricky Skaggs, The Three Pickersproduced by Skaggs and Jim Brown (Rounder)Recorded in Winston-Salem, N.C., in December 2002, this live CD has picking legends Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs romping, with more joy than polish, through a set of bluegrass standards. Not to be overlooked is how soulfully these pickers sing. Joining in for a handful of tunes is Alison Krauss; members of Scruggs and Skaggs bands also make brief appearances.100% Handmade Bluegrassproduced by David Grisman (Acoustic Disc)One can forgive David Grisman for endlessly resurrecting and repackaging the trove of musical treasures from his Acoustic Disc vaults. The sounds coming from his Northern California studio are always worth hearing, and if another compilation means more ears will latch onto them, so be it.100% Handmade Bluegrass includes tracks from Grismans bands his groundbreaking David Grisman Quintet, bluegrass band Old & In the Way and the updated Old & in the Gray and collaborations with the Del McCoury Band, Tony Rice, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and more. Every bit of it meets Grismans high standards.Lost Highway: Lost and Found. Vol. 1produced by Frank Callari and Andy Nelson (Lost Highway)Another odds-and-ends compilation well worth hearing. The Lost Highway label, with a roster of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Johnny Cash, is far and away the leader in thinking mans countryish music. Lost and Found, Vol. 1 collects B-sides, live tracks and album cuts from most of the above. While some, like Williams stripped-to-the-guitar-strings Buick Blues may be oddities, most of it is fairly representative of the artists usual material and thus well worth hearing.