Rounder's Heritage series specializes in new anthologies of previously released work - the musical equivalent of old wine in new bottles. Two of their offerings from 2002 have remained in my playlists long after their release dates, to the point where they have become old friends, so I thought I'd introduce you to them.
Norman Blake's Old Ties features selections that span from 1971 to 1990. Musical collaborators include his wife Nancy (at one time ex-wife, but they've re-married; apparently the divorce "didn't work out"), dobro pioneer Tut Taylor, guitar virtuoso Tony Rice, Fiddler James Bryan, and a few others. Most of the songs feature small ensembles of two or three players rather than full bands. Norman Blake's renditions of songs tend to be introspective miniatures rather than big-scale productions. He likes to simplify songs down to their bare essences, which accounts for why most his performances are such classic and elemental versions. One listen to his treatment of "Ginsing Sullivan" or "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar" shows how once he covers a tune it becomes his own.
Nineteen songs drawn from twelve different albums supply a broad cross-section of work from throughout Blake's career. Even from the beginning Norman Blake had a unique style. Except for differences in sonic fidelity between his earliest and latest selections it is next to impossible to tell from the performance themselves when they were done. Even thirty years ago Norman Blake's style was mature and fully developed. If you have never experienced the mastery of Norman Blake, Old Ties is a fine introduction to an artist whose work is both unique and timeless.
Looking to rapidly expand your musical horizons? The Singer Songwriter Collection is a great way to meet seventeen singular artists, each with their own special voice. Looking through the list of performers on The Singer Songwriter Collection I'm immediately struck by both their diversity and musical excellence. Cheryl Wheeler, Ellis Paul, Mary McCaslin, Bill Morrissey, Christine Lavin, Carrie Newcomer, Utah Phillips, Tanya Savory, Patty Larkin, Vance Gilbert, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Nanci Griffith, Jim Ringer, Kimberly McCarver, Bill Stains, Lynn Miles, and David Olney represent an astoundingly varied swath of musical styles, artistic temperaments, and topical concerns. You'll find everything from a tune about man's (and woman's) best friend to one about mankind's most evil creation, both done with wit, style, and a plethora of catchy hooks and bridges. Despite a widely divergent field of artistic sensibilities, compiler Steve Netsky manages to make this whole disc flow smoothly from one song to the next just like a master disk jockey from the golden days of free-form radio. Also Netsky accomplishes the nearly impossible task of capturing the essence of each performer's special qualities with one representative selection. Talk about having to herd cats...
Even if you are familiar with half the artists on The Singer Songwriter Collection it may be worth acquiring just so you can meet the others. I can almost guarantee you that you'll discover some new musical friends in the process.
Ralph Stanley, the voice behind the Klu Klux Klanner singing "Oh Death" on the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, calls his music Mountain Music rather than Bluegrass or Country. This moniker also aptly describes the material on Dolly Parton's new album. Her third release on Sugar Hill, Halos and Horns differs from her last two because it is self-produced. Instead of being populated by A-list session players, it features the musicians Dolly regularly tours with. Their musicianship, while still first-rate, is perhaps a bit more sensitive to the mood of the songs than one-shot hired guns. Overall the album has more of an old-time country string band feel and less of a revved up high-octane bluegrass edge.
Twelve of the fourteen tunes on the album are Parton originals. The two covers are odd bedfellows. David Gates' "If" originally recorded by Bread, shares space with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's epic "Stairway to Heaven." Dolly makes both these selections seem as if they were written especially for her. Her version of "Stairway to Heaven" will drive the original out of your brain after one listening. Her voice soars in a way Robert Plant's never could. Her own songs cover an equally wide array of moods and musical idioms. The title cut "Halos and Horns" nails that honky tonk old time '50's country mood, while "Shattered Image" boogies, driven by a bluesy dobro obbligato. On the most "cinematic" song on the album (and that's saying something) "These Old Bones" she uses two different voices to represent the principal characters in the story. Her old crone voice is most effective. My favorite album selection, "Dagger Through the Heart" features some great double-stop mandolin work by Brent Truitt.
With the assistance of Steven Buckingham, who produced her first two Sugar Hill albums, Halos and Horn, has all the polish of a full-budget major-label project. You'd never suspect that it began as a bunch of demo sessions. Recording engineer Danny Brown at Southern Sound in Knoxville Tennessee, abetted by mastering engineer Seva at Soundcrurrent Mastering, turned out truly top-shelf sound.
So much Country music is merely re-packaged pop-rock with fiddles and dobros instead of synthesizers and Marshall stacks. Real Country, where feeling and emotion predominate like on Halos and Horns, makes it clear that authentic Country is not only more powerful, but more lasting than anything you'll hear on Country radio's top ten hit charts.