Reviewed: Trolley Days by Thomas Porter

Thomas Porter may be the youngest member of the Copper River Band, but he’s also the current front man, guitarist, lead vocalist and primary songwriter for the Arizona-based group together since late-2004 when Bob Denoncourt, John Thompson, Jim Govern, and Charlie Edsall formed the band. When John and Charlie moved on to other endeavors, the lineup supplemented Bob (bass, vocals) and Jim (mandolin) with three other excellent musicians and vocalists — guitarist Thomas Porter (since 2005), fiddler Doug Bartlett and banjo-player Dick Brown (since 2010).

Emphasizing all-original material, “Trolley Days” kicks off with a nostalgic tribute to the popular Phoenix Street Railway System that operated from 1887 to 1948 and had the motto “Ride a mile and smile the while.” Porter’s historically accurate song mentions the nickel fare, horse-drawn cars that were converted to electric power in 1893, and the 1948 car barn fire that led to the trolleys’ replacement with buses.

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While eleven of the songs on this album were written solely by Thomas Porter, “No More Room” and “Steady As She Goes” were collaborations between Porter and Bartlett, a fine multi-instrumentalist who has won two IBMA awards and is a two-time Grammy award nominee. The album presents nice variety from a sad ¾-time “Poor Sister Cry” to a barn-burning closer for the workingman, “Tool and Die.” Porter shows he can write a swingy country number “Belt Buckle Polishing Song” or keep the message straightforward and direct with “Next Time’s A Charm.” Somewhat in novelty vein, Porter shows his respect for bandmate Dick Brown with “That’s a Fine Fine Banjo Mr. Brown.” Formerly with such bands as Traditional Bluegrass, Pacific Crest, Lost Highway, and Sawmill Road, Dick Brown is given plenty of room to strut his stuff in the song with some favorite banjo licks, harmonics and use of his Scruggs tuners. Besides being consummate instrumentalists, the members of Copper River also have a pleasant and engaging vocal blend. “Echoes of Your Name” has a purity that conveys plenty of emotional electricity. “Waves Crash Down on Me” is a sturdy story song with both imagery and immediacy.

Thomas Porter & the Copper River Band have shown a canny ability to carefully cultivate contemporary bluegrass music with Arizona flavorings. This band has a formidable sound, built around Porter’s lead vocals and seasoned professionals presenting original material. With the help of many sponsors, Porter has also released a single in 2011 called “Simple Box of Pine” with some top names in bluegrass music. He’s clearly a precocious talent to be reckoned with, and his collaboration in Copper River with four veterans who have been around the block will give us many more wild, thrilling musical rides like “Trolley Days.” (Joe Ross)

David Bethany: True Love

Independent folk-rock lives, breathes, and is making good music — exhibit A,  David Bethany, with a great new album, True Love. David is a “seasoned” Sullivans Island, SC artist who’s done a fair amount of thinking and songwriting just off the continent’s edge, from an island perspective. The result is a thoughtful, mature commentary on love and life, twelve new songs that get very personal; the voice is honest, the words are true. He has an attitude, for sure, but it’s a good attitude.

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David’s “previous life” was in rock & roll (Killer Whales), and he’s as comfortable  fronting an electric band with a horn line as he is with an acoustic guitar. He covers the stylistic bases in this collection, a tasty and melodical musical salad with ample dressing.   Excellent players and production by David and Jay Miley, and the horn arrangements and backup vocals are very hip. As Leicester Bangs says, True Love

Reviewed: Sounds of Home by Blue Highway

Blue Highway performed its first gig on New Year’s Eve in 1994 with its original lineup that includes the same consummate musicians that comprise the band today: Tim Stafford (guitar), Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), and Rob Ickes (Dobro, lap steel). Tim, Wayne and Shawn provide the vocals. Their early years found them associated with the reputable Rebel record label. In 1996, Blue Highway won an IBMA award for “Emerging Artist of the Year.” In 1996 and 2006, they were recognized with IBMA “Album of the Year” awards. In 1997 and 2004, they won IBMA awards for “Gospel Recording of the Year.” What a treat to hear a band with such a stable and solid lineup so full of talent! The internationally-renown quintet has now been associated with Rounder Records for over a decade.

 

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Over the years, Blue Highway has carved out their niche in bluegrass. Their musical vision has always incorporated accessible melodies, bright lyricism, and interesting dynamics. “Sounds of Home” is noteworthy for its all-original emphasis, with the exception of the public domain cover “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” Taylor, Stafford and Lane’s songwriting abilities are showcased. Burleson also penned a snappy instrumental “Roaring Creek.” The band’s considerable emotional depth shines through on moving songs like “Storm” and “Drinking from a Deeper Well.” The former has us looking inward “to see the dawn when the storm is gone.” The sorrow of a generic mining disaster is captured in the mournful ¾-time “Only Seventeen.” Every band has a few unique signature arrangements we have become accustomed to, and Shawn Lane’s solo vocalizing on “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” is an example that opens the album. One thing I miss here is a Wayne Taylor/Shawn Lane brother-style duet, as well as a Bluegrass Highway a cappella vocal arrangement typical of some we’ve heard on previous releases. But it always delights me when they use solid tried-and-true traditional messages to craft contemporary songs like “Bluebird Days” and “Restless Working Man.” No Blue Highway album would be complete without a solid story song, and they masterfully fill that slot with “Heather and Billy,” co-penned by Tim Stafford with Steve Gulley, about a couple with a great amount of love and compassion for children in need. Their musicality and approach are simply able to covey many aesthetic moods, along with considerable respect and depth.

Blue Highway boasts an impressive track record as a contemporary bluegrass band, and the musicians individually as award-winners. They’ve released ten highly-acclaimed albums, been nominated for two Grammy awards (in 2004 and 2005), topped the Bluegrass Unlimited chart, won a Dove Award in 2004 for “Best Bluegrass Album” (“Wondrous Love”) and taken home over a dozen IBMA and SPBGMA awards (either as a band or individually).

“Sounds of Home” illustrates why Blue Highway has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most lauded groups in contemporary bluegrass music today due to their brilliant instrumental virtuosity, soaring harmonies, driving rhythms, well-crafted original material, and creative arrangements. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)

Reviewed: Country Side of Bluegrass by Janie Fricke

anie Fricke has had success with various country styles, whether slower numbers, snappy hard-driving songs, or duet hits with the likes of Johnny Duncan, Charlie Rich, Merle Haggard and Moe Bandy. Like so many other country artists who have released bluegrass music projects, it only seems logical that she add that genre to her catalogue. She started her professional career as a Nashville backup vocalist in 1975. She sang on over 1,200 albums before producer Billy Sherrill launched her career as a solo artist. The two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year (1982-83) has a professional and precise vocal style, and she doesn’t try to deliver either backwoods rusticity or intense vocals that more often characterize bluegrass music of the hard-driving variety. Rather, it’s polished, smooth, and best described as pop-oriented radio-friendly bluegrass, hence the album’s title.

njoyable listening. (Joe Ross)

While we’ve heard her sing these songs before, “You Don’t Know Love,” “Tell Me a Lie,” “Don’t Worry ‘bout Me Baby,” and “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Easy” are given some additional tempo and acoustic flair that breathe new life into their bluegrassy renditions. Janie’s only self-penned number on the album, “Goodbye Broken Heart,” has a conservative country music formula, message and hook that have succeeded for decades. That same goes for the smooth Nashville background vocals of Chip Davis, Margie Cates and Judy Rodman. The duet with Davis on the classic “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” (In Love with You)” will surely be a crowd-pleaser.

Regardless of how you define bluegrass, this album has some enchanting repertoire with Fricke’s torchy voice always in the forefront. If your brand of bluegrass requires banjo, then focus on those eight (of 13) tracks with David Talbot’s 5-string in the mix. Songs like “She’s Single Again” and “I’ll Need Someone to Hold Me (When I Cry)” do it for me. “Don’t Worry ‘bout Me Baby” has plenty of banjo and fiddle (and a cleanly flatpicked guitar break by Johnny Hiland), but it’s tough to call it bluegrass without that alluring heartfelt simplicity that’s so prevalent in older bluegrass. The songs without banjo are infused with Randy Kohrs’ nimble-fingered Dobro. I definitely miss more of the lively sound of the mandolin that is relegated to a rather minor understated role on nine tracks, courtesy of four different Nashville session players (Luke Bulla, Andy Leftwich, Jimmy Mattingly, Glen Duncan) better known for their world-class fiddling also heard on the CD. Bob Mater’s drums provide that “chop” and “bark” which the mandolin typically play in a bluegrass band. So, this album is really acoustic country music, and perhaps it should’ve been named Janie Fricke’s “bluegrassy side of country” instead. No matter … there’s plenty for folks in both camps to enjoy. Nashville bluegrass-pop has a lot of fans, and this album provides an hour of very enjoyable listening. (Joe Ross)