To create a superior anthology disc you need a good concept to
inspire strong performances. Sony’s new Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs
of Johnny Cash provides a wide assortment of stellar recording artists with
ample opportunity to explore material from Johnny Cash’s copious catalog. In
every case, these performers not only rise to the occasion, but create new
memorable versions of Cash’s best songs.
The cast of characters contributing to Kindred Spirits: A
Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash features an impressive assemblage of
contemporary musical heavy hitters. The CD’s roster includes Dwight Yoakum,
Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Keb Mo, Travis Tritt, Hank Williams
Jr., Bruce Springsteen, Charlie Robison, Sheryl Crowe, Emmylou Harris, Mary
Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, and Janette Carter. Impressed yet?
Picking the most outstanding performances is nearly impossible since every
artist nails their song. Seriously, not a single clinker slid into the album.
My personal favorites include Bob Dylan, whose song “Train of Love,” features a
spine-tingling introduction, and Little Richard’s “Get Rhythm” which churns up
sparks rocking so hard it could melt down your speakers. Keb Mo slows “Folsom
Prison Blues” way down and turns it into a country blues worthy of Robert
Johnson, complete with its signature lick transposed to slide guitar.
Produced by ex-son-in-law Marty Stuart (Johnny has maintained
good relations with all his ex-son-in-laws who also include Nick Lowe and
Rodney Crowell,) Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash ends up
being far more than your typical star-studded cluster pluck. It showcases the
man in black’s superb songwriting ability by demonstrating how his songs can
work beautifully with a wide variety of musical styles. Many anthologies end up
languishing on dusty shelves because after a few spins they loose their luster,
but Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash is a musical pearl
of inestimable beauty and value that you can enjoy again and again.
New England isn’t a place you
typically associate with bluegrass music, but it has been a hotbed of activity
ever since the early 1950’s, due largely to the regional influence of The Lilly
Brothers and Don Stover. Their disciples included Joe Val, Herb Applin, Jim
Rooney, Bill Keith, Dave Dillon and Peter Rowan. The close-harmony vocal style
of the Lilly brothers is reminiscent of other great brother duets like the
Louvin and Delmore Brothers, but they were among the first to apply it to
bluegrass. Their radio career began in 1939 on West Virginia’s WJLS, and they
went on to be regulars on “The Old Farm Hour” on WCHS in Charleston, West
Virginia, and WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree, before moving north in 1952 to join
fiddler Tex Logan in Boston. There, along with banjoist Don Stover, they hosted
a daily radio show on WCOP, performed on the station’s Hayloft Jamboree
program, and spent the next two decades as regulars at Boston’s Hillbilly Ranch
Unfortunately, except for two singles
released on Page records, no recordings were made during the first twenty years
of the Lilly Brothers career. On the Radio 1952 – 1953 is the first and
only recording of their early work. Collected from the actual acetate disks the
Lillys made for their morning radio show, transferred to tape in 1970, and then
to digital masters, these performances effectively capture The Lilly Brothers
early fun-loving style. Sure, the recording quality is not up to today’s high
standards, with little top end extension and a certain amount of groove noise,
but you can still hear each part clearly and appreciate their rock-solid
harmonies and hot solos. Mandolinists will especially appreciate the chance to
study Everett Lilly’s tremolo-laden double-stop solo style. His version of the
Bill Monroe mandolin showpiece “Rawhide” drives just as hard as Bill’s. Don
Stover’s banjo playing is also first rate. On “Why Did You Wander” Stover sets
the pace with blistering banjo licks.
If your library of older bluegrass begins with Bill Monroe and
ends with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, you need a copy of On the Radio 1952 –
1953. The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover typify the more Northern and urban
bluegrass style that has had a major influence on contemporary bluegrass. You
want roots? You found ’em.
When someone asked me “What exactly
IS Bluegrass?” I used to go into a long spiel about Bill Monroe, post-WWII
urbanization, and city dweller’s nostalgia for agrarian America. Now I just put
on the new release from Open Road Cold Wind. About 30 seconds into the title
cut, they get it. Open Road captures the essence of the traditional Bluegrass
sound. While not as flashy or slick as more modern-sounding bands like Mountain
Heart, Open Road creates an ensemble sound that conjures up images of big ‘ol
Cadillac touring cars with stand-up basses strapped to their roofs. Open Road
delivers that early 50’s bluegrass sound without any irony or need for apology.
At the center of Open Road’s sound is
the voice and pen of Bradford Lee Folk. In my review of their first album I
called his vocals “unabashed hillbilly twang.” I can’t say it any better now.
His songwriting also harkens back to the early days of Bluegrass. I hear the
many hours he’s spent listening to Ira Louvin, Bill Monroe, and Carter Stanley.
At times it’s hard to believe you are hearing newly penned songs when you hear
Folk’s tunes, they just sound so…old. The only way to know for sure whether you
are listening to one of Folk’s compositions or a forty or fifty year-old song
by Mac Martin or Hank Williams is to read the liner notes.
Caleb Roberts’ mandolin and singing
style also reinforces Open Road’s new/old style. He eschews flashy single
string pyrotechnics in favor of double-stop tremolo laden solos that harkens
back to the style of Bill Monroe’s earliest recordings. His vocal style on
“I’ll Forgive You” has an emotional directness that a slicker voice would lose
in the translation. Band members Jim Runnels on banjo and Ben O’Connor on
stand-up bass contribute in the traditional ways these instruments are supposed
to contribute to a bluegrass band. Runnel’s banjo supplies the drive and
sparkle while O’Connor’s bass is the solid heartbeat for the music. Fiddlers
Dan Mitchell and Eddie Stubbs add the obligatory hot fiddle parts. At the time
of the recording Open Road was between regular fiddlers, but recent high school
graduate Robert Britt joined the band shortly after this recording was
Sally Van Meter, known in bluegrass
circles as one of the finest dobro players on two legs, handled production
duties on Cold Wind. She chose a Colorado-based production team headed up by
James Tuttle as chief engineer and David Glasser of Airshow Mastering for
post-production. The results sound great. Cold Wind’s sonics are clean without
being overly slick, warm without getting muddy. Perhaps it might be possible to
produce a better-sounding album containing more heartfelt music, but I suspect
you would have to go to an alternative universe to find it.