It’s that time of year!
Kenny and Amanda Smith first met at a Lonesome River Band
concert in 1985 when Kenny was playing guitar with that band. Since then, they
have gone on to create a partnership that garnered the IBMA (International
Bluegrass Musicians Association) 2003 Emerging Artist of the Year award for
their musical efforts. As far back as the early 1990’s Kenny Smith’s reputation
put him up with the first rung of elite bluegrass guitar players. Luthier Randy
Lucas used Kenny’s 1937 D-18 as the model for his Kenny Smith signature model
dreadnought. As the proud owner of one of these instruments I can attest to its
House Down the Block
represents Kenny and Amanda Smith’s second album. Steve Huber on banjo, Ron
Inscore on mandolin, and Greg Martin on bass, join Kenny and Amanda on guitar
to form a unit that is both tight and euphonious. Amanda handles most of the
lead vocals. Her alto voice has more midrange power than many female vocalists.
Tinged with a slight southern lilt, her direct but rhythmic phrasing gives the
band’s songs drive and momentum. Steve Huber’s banjo and Ron Inscore’s mandolin
solos show they are quite capable of keeping up with Kenny Smith’s guitar
pyrotechnics. The band’s version of “Big Ball In Boston” showcases their
ability to play with both lightening speed and creative innovation.
Three original songs by Kenny Smith join material from Dee
Shelton (I Know Where Love Lives,) Alan Bartram (Without a Trace,) Bobby
Harrison (It’s not the Wind,) Tim Stafford (All She Ever Wants,) Mike Evans
(I’ve Traveled down this Lonesome Road Before,) Becky Butler (Why Don’t Yo Just
Say Goodbye,) Tommy Duncan (Stay A Little Longer,) and Buck Owens (House Down
The Block.) I especially like Kenny’s instrumental “Song for Emily;” it has a
lyrical grace that belies its technical difficulty.
The Kenny and Amanda Smith band fills the musical space halfway
between the male bonding of Del McCoury’s band and the singularity of bluegrass
Diva Rhonda Vincent. They prove that you
can have an egalitarian bluegrass band with a female lead that has both
rhythmic drive and stellar musicianship.
Many virtuosos find it difficult to make music that entertains
both their listeners and themselves. Darol Anger admirably accomplishes this
daunting task on his latest Compass Records release Republic of Strings. Instead of creating left-brained musical
esoterica that leaves listeners groping for direction, Anger weaves a tapestry
that takes traditional tunes to places that are new yet still accessible.
Given Anger’s background with groups such as the David Grisman
Quintet, Turtle Island Quartet, and The New Grange, his affinity for genre
bending should come as no surprise. Still, putting Stevie Wonder’s “Highest
Ground” on the same disk as Bill Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield” seems like a big cultural gap to bridge. In less
accomplished hands they would clash like oil and water, but here they work
together because Anger sees their similarities rather than their differences.
The Stevie Wonder song has a pulsing drive that only bowed instruments could
provide, while Anger’s arrangement brings out slinky the Hendrix-like side of
the Monroe tune.
Assisting Anger in his quest of discovery are Scott Nygaard on
guitars, Brittany Haas on 5-string fiddle, Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas on
cello, Todd and Sickafoose on string bass. Guest vocalists Laurie Lewis and
Sara Watkins add a welcome break to this otherwise all-instrumental album.
Laurie Lewis’ vocals on the Joni Mitchell song “Help Me” display her consummate
mastery of both phrasing and articulation. Joni, eat your heart out.
Republic of Strings is the perfect disk to put on during a
party, not because it will make people dance, but because it will make people
think. Its unique combination of new with familiar seduces the listener into
paying attention. On second thought, playing this disc at a party might be a
bad idea; after all you don’t want everyone just standing around listening, do
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman played together on and off for
well over forty years. Some of that playing time was spent in David Grisman’s
studio. Luckily, during some of these last occasions David had his tape
recorders running. The results can be heard on Acoustic Disc’s new release Been All Around This World.
This disc includes twelve songs drawn from traditional, roots,
country western, folk, and even R&B sources. Some tunes, such as “Been All
Around This World,” and “I’m Troubled,” come from Garcia and Grisman’s early
string band repertoire, while others including “I Ain’t Never, ” and “Dark As A
Dungeon,” draw on early country influences. Perhaps the most surprising song
selections are the reggae tune “Sitting Here In Limbo” and James Brown’s “I’ll
Go Crazy.” These demonstrate the remarkable scope of G&G’s musical
interests. Even these last two, somewhat oddball, musical selections become
perfect string band fare once they have been filtered through the musical
consciousness of these two consummate musicians.
David Grisman on mandolin, mandola, plus tenor and baritone
vocals, and Jerry Garcia on lead vocals and acoustic guitar are joined by
veteran sidemen Joe Craven on percussion and fiddle, Jim Kerwin on bass, Matt
Eakle on flute, George Marsh on drums, and Sally van Meter on dobro. Despite
the added musical firepower the disc still feels primarily like a duo album
rather than an ensemble effort. The backing musicians remain in the shadows,
adding to the overall sound, but never detracting from the gray-bearded
The sound has the usual down-home suavity I’ve come to expect
from Acoustic Disc. I know of no label that consistently produces more albums
that sound so acoustically right. I’m convinced that Dawg Studios should be
declared a sonic shrine.
Naturally Deadheads and Dawg fans will snap up this disc with
acquisitive fervor, but even less rabid acoustic music connoisseurs should at
least give this disc a serious listen. It’s not often we have the chance to
hear contemporary master musicians play with each other for no reason other than
the pure joy of it.