Bursts of bluegrass spice this week's releases, with mountain-music legend Ralph Stanley topping a slate that also includes a long, long-awaited solo disc from the idiosyncratic Dan Hicks, a starry tribute to Bill Monroe and a George Thorogood anthology.
Also new and noteworthy this week: solo albums from formidable vocal stylist Mollie O'Brien and an unexpectedly folky turn by former Jason and the Scorchers frontman Jason Ringenberg, plus Route 50, a two-disc, 50th anniversary folk-and-blues sampler from the vaults of Vanguard Records.
(Click here for a select list of this week's releases.)
For his musical contributions as half of the Stanley Brothers, Ralph Stanley is considered part of bluegrass' holy trinity, alongside partners Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and genre father Bill Monroe. But Stanley himself has always called what he does "mountain music," and indeed the style and inflections of his craggy, thrilling voice still powerful at 73 have been shaped by the Virginia mountains in which he's spent his life.
Among the highlights of his new bluegrass gospel album While the Ages Roll On (Rebel) are "Gone Away With a Friend" and especially "Waiting for Me," a cappella numbers masterfully rendered by Stanley and his band. The group's harmonies and instrumentals are tight and bright throughout the 12-track disc.
Longtime Stanley associate George Shuffler turns up with his bass on "Are You Ready" and contributes baritone vocals to "The Day Is Past and Gone."
Keeping It Alive
Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe (Skaggs Family Records) is a starry tribute to the Father of Bluegrass. Organized by label owner Ricky Skaggs who promised Monroe he would help keep the music alive the 13-track disc offers performances by an array of bluegrass, folk, country and rock artists whose diversity enhances the music's inherent vitality.
Skaggs' duet with bluesy rocker Joan Osborne for "On the Old Kentucky Shore" provides some of the album's more quietly memorable moments, as does his pairing with the Dixie Chicks for a wailing version of "Walk Softly" (a recent hit for the Kentucky HeadHunters).
Another delight is John Fogerty's jaunty romp through "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which opens with a snippet of Monroe's 1946 take on the tune and features Kayton Roberts' sprightly steel-guitar work. Elsewhere, Dolly Parton delivers a crystal-clear version of "Cry, Cry Darlin'," Patty Loveless nails "Close By," the Whites swing through "Used To Be," jazzy pianist Bruce Hornsby fronts a host of bluegrass musicians on "Darlin' Corey," and Mary Chapin Carpenter's warm alto caresses "Blue Night."
It's been 24 years since Dan Hicks left the recording studio and took up residence in comfy but relative obscurity. Beatin' the Heat (Surfdog) is a fun, funky, rhythmic travelogue through musical styles and genres.
Hicks swaps verses with Elvis Costello and Brian Setzer on the bouncy, guitar-driven "Meet Me on the Corner." Guest appearances by Costello, Setzer, Rickie Lee Jones ("I Scare Myself," "Driftin' "), Bette Midler (the snappy "Strike It While It's Hot!") and Tom Waits (the sly "I'll Tell You Why That Is") attest to the enduring admiration with which Hicks is regarded by his peers.
The sounds of whipping prairie wind with which Jason and the Scorchers frontman Jason Ringenberg opens A Pocketful of Soul (Courageous Chicken) serve notice that this isn't going to be the blazing rockfest that Scorcher fans might have expected.
The first two tracks, "Oh Lonesome Prairie" and "Whispering Pines," are much closer to traditional folk territory than the punk energy fueling Ringenberg's previous outings. Songs such as "Under Your Command" display some of the aggressive verve of old, but the focus of this earnestly performed 12-track disc is Ringenberg's songs. He brings a touch of hill-country lonesome to bear on "The Price of Progress," and the old-folk feel also imbues "Merry Christmas My Darling" and "Last of the Neon Cowboys."
Colorado-based vocalist Mollie O'Brien is well-known for bluegrass and old-timey collaborations with her brother, multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter Tim O'Brien, but with her own albums, O'Brien has developed a label-resistant sound that's primarily informed by folk and R&B.
O'Brien possesses a formidable set of pipes that can torch roadhouse rockers or sigh soft lullabies, and wields her voice with the rhythmic precision of a skilled instrumentalist. On her latest album, Things I Gave Away (Sugar Hill), she once again displays fine taste when it comes to selecting songs and gets sympathetic support from guitarist and frequent touring partner Nina Gerber (who also produced).
Thirty tracks represent the 30 years that Delaware slide-guitarist George Thorogood has been cranking out party-time music inspired by Chicago blues as well as Chuck Berry, and heavily saturated in FM-radio, arena-rock guitar stylings. The double-disc George Thorogood and the Destroyers Anthology (Capitol) includes 23 studio recordings, six live tracks and one previously unreleased tune, "Christine."
Route 50: Driving New Roots for 50 Years (Vanguard) is a two-disc, 50th anniversary folk-and-blues sampler from the extensive vaults of Vanguard Records. The 21 tracks on the first disc focus primarily on the label's deep blues-archive, and includes such names as James Cotton, Junior Wells, and harp-meister Charlie Musselwhite, Big Mama Thornton, Skip James, Buddy Guy and Mississippi John Hurt.
Doc Watson, Maria Muldaur with Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, and cult-fave singer/songwriter Eric Andersen also are featured, along with a drowsy duet between Jerry Jeff Walker and Nicolette Larson on Paul Seibel's classic ballad "Louise."
The second, 18-track disc features only nine artists, contributing two tracks each. Like the first disc, it opens with two brisk blues numbers, "Don't You Throw That Mojo on Me" (RealAudio excerpt) and the anthemic "I'm the Lucky One," both from songwriter/guitarist Mark Selby's forthcoming blues album. Other artists here include folk-pop group Venice, cowboy/folk-hero Ian Tyson, contemporary blues artist Tab Benoit and singer/songwriters Peter Case, Bill Miller, Patty Larkin, Terry Radigan and David Wilcox (whose "This Tattoo" and "Rule Number One" are both from his What You Whispered disc, also out this week).