Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper,
On Down the Line
(Compass, 2014)

Steep Canyon Rangers,
Tell the Ones I Love
(Rounder, 2013)

Two exceptionally accomplished bluegrass albums approach the music from different but congruent paths. Persons only passingly conversant in the genre sometimes remark to me that the music is played out and that only smooth, modernist styles define it these days. That's not true at all. Each in its own way, these bands demonstrate how bluegrass retains its soul in the post-Monroe age.

As the very name suggests, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper seek to keep the original vision of bluegrass alive as an organic link not only to its foundational sound but also to old-time Southern music generally. Indeed, fiddler Cleveland conjures up another time with a riveting solo reading of the antique "Jack o' Diamonds." That's something you might have heard once upon a time on a New Lost City Ramblers album, but you don't expect it on a bluegrass record. Many bluegrass musicians, especially younger ones, define "tradition" as the approach Bill Monroe devised in the 1940s, though that music was in many ways a radical break from the mountain vernacular music that preceded it. The flame Cleveland and associates keep, in other words, was not necessarily lit all that recently. Along that line, story-songs about hobos, outlaws and condemned prisoners evince a keen awareness of older ballads chronicling the deeds, real and imagined, of characters at society's margins.

Other reviews I've seen miss the significance of a song titled "The Garden Wall." (Frustratingly, the minimally packaged disc mailed to reviewers contains no composer credits, and my efforts to find their names elsewhere have been unsuccessful.) It should be noted that "Wall," apparently a new song (at least I haven't heard it before), is intended to be a sequel to "Over the Garden Wall," an almost hypnotically lovely parlor ballad the Carter Family cut in 1933. Minstrel performers Harry Hunter and George D. Fox wrote the original in 1879. The modern song picks up the story, about a young couple's elopement in defiance of determined parental resistance. It's my favorite cut, and that, let me stress, is something; Cleveland and his band have a finely tuned ear for first-rate songs and instrumentals. There's not a weak number anywhere. Even the one familiar piece, the done-to-death "Orange Blossom Special," which closes the set, returns miraculously to life in these capable hands.

As I've observed probably more than once in this space, the best CDs are the ones you can play as often as you please without tiring of them. On Down the Line is one. Cleveland & Flamekeeper are tight, spirited and joyful, and positioned close to the front of the line of bluegrass' current generation. If theirs doesn't claim the deep Appalachian resonance of the Stanley Brothers, it's broadly reminiscent of the approach, smoother but undeniably downhome, that Flatt & Scruggs mastered in their classic 1950s recordings. Anyone who is fond of bluegrass will soon sense warmth around the heart.

On their way to marking their place in the bluegrass world, the North Carolina-based Steep Canyon Rangers got a huge career boost when, purely through circumstance, they met the comedian/actor/writer Steve Martin, who happens also to be a banjo picker and knowledgeable bluegrass fan. Since then, they've toured and recorded with him, the benefits falling both ways. Happily, the SCR still record on their own, and their latest, Tell the Ones I Love, plays to their abundant strengths: distinctive vocals, interesting harmonies, impressive songwriting, a perfect blend of older and contemporary styles. Even with the occasional addition of steel guitar and drums, neither a standard genre instrument, there is no doubt that Tell the Ones is always a bluegrass album.

The songs -- the bulk of them, with exceptions to be noted, by band banjoist Graham Sharp -- feature more compelling lyrics than most bluegrass numbers even attempt. Perhaps these reflect Sharp's early influences, specifically John Hartford and Norman Blake, both steeped in old folk music. Another piece, "Bluer Words Were Never Spoken" by SCR bassist Charles Humphrey III and singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd, mentions a blues singer named "Blind Willie," presumably Blind Willie McTell. One line seems to evoke an image from McTell's famous "Searching the Desert for the Blues."

In one recent week of listening to CDs as they wandered onto my doorstep, I heard no fewer than three songs influenced by The Band. One is Humphrey/Philip Barker's "Camellia," which may give us some sense of what that revered folk-rock outfit would have sounded like if it had been a bluegrass band. Moreover, the song feels as if "jumped" -- a wonderful Willie McTell expression -- from The Band's "Ophelia." (By "jumped" McTell meant "inspired.") Or maybe all of SCR evolves as much from Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson as from Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Not a displeasing thought, actually.

In any event, however you hear them, the Steep Canyon Rangers stand among the most exciting bands on the 21st-century bluegrass scene, and Tell the Ones I Love captures them in peak form.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 October 2014

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