I always hope to return from the summer bluegrass fests with one great new find; and this year I hit upon Cane Mill Road at the GreyFox Bluegrass Festival in the Catskills.
Apparently I'm not the first to find them, as their debut CD 5 Speed hit #9 on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart and they've been gaining lots of airplay. As if that's not enough of attracting good attention, the IBMA chose them as one of 30 showcase bands in 2017 and two-time Grammy winner Cathy Fink signed on to produce their first album along with Tom Mindte of Patuxent Studios in Maryland. Want even more attention? This album was produced via crowdfunding and released without a label and still climbed the charts!
The band hails from Doc Watson territory in Deep Gap NC, with Liam Purcell (mandolin, fiddle, clawhammer banjo, guitar, and vocals), Tray Wellington (banjo and guitar), and Elliot Smith (bass). Also in the band is Casey Lewis, who for some reason doesn't appear on this first album.
The album is a mix of traditional bluegrass, Americana, and folk, with a strong dose of rock sensibility thrown in, and ranging from covers of Bill Monroe to The Beatles and Bob Dylan to their own tunes.
The setting for this concert couldn't be more charming and comfortable. Enjoy this fun music and then treat yourself to a delicious dinner in quaint Rhinebeck, NY.
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Bill and the Belles have captured the freewheeling, lighthearted approach to music that has endeared them to listeners of every generation. With a spirited sound that falls somewhere between old-time country and vaudeville, the group puts its own spin on a golden era of music, specifically the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
“We like old music and some of us are consumed by it,” says lead singer and guitarist Kris Truelsen with a knowing laugh. “But we don't have a desire to copy it. We want to sound like ourselves and tell our story.”
In the early 1970s “Fox on the Run” was among the most requested bluegrass songs. Along with “Rocky Top,” a bluegrass band could scarcely play a show without fans yelling for “Rocky Top” or “Fox on the Run.” The song was written in 1968 by an Englishman named Tony Hazzard and first recorded as a rock song by Manfred Mann in February, 1969. The first bluegrass band to record it was Cliff Waldren and the New Shades of Grass. Listening to this bluegrass recording, a lot of people were puzzled by one line of the lyrics that sounded like Cliff was singing “I fillustrate a girl.” Of course, nobody had a clue what Cliff was singing about. Relief came in 1970 when “Fox on the Run” was recorded by the Country Gentlemen. The lead singer, Charlie Waller, clearly sang “I see a string of girls,” which made a lot more sense than “I Fillustrate” a girl, so that’s how most bluegrass bands sang it.
About twenty years ago I received am email message from Cliff Waldren, who contacted me about playing his new CD on my “Country Roots” bluegrass radio show. Armed with Cliff’s email address, I seized the opportunity to get to the bottom of the “fillustrate a girl” question that had been bugging me for years. Here’s what I wrote to Cliff.
“Hi Cliff: While I've got you on the line, I have a question that's been burning a hole in my mind for almost 30 years. On the second line of the 2nd verse of your early recording of Fox on the Run, you seem to be singing "I fillustrate a girl." What, pray tell, are you singing?”
Here is Cliff’s response.
As a long-time fan of Mac Wiseman (born Malcolm B. Wiseman, May 23, 1925 ), I looked forward (cautiously) to reviewing this CD, an album of 15 covers of Wiseman tunes, including a number of my favorites. For those who don’t know, Mac Wiseman is a Virginia boy, conservatory trained, having played with many of the best—Bill Monroe among others—at many venues, including the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. He has the magic combination, sincerity and great bluegrass sound.
So along comes Jerry Wicentowski, born in Brooklyn, New York, a fan of Mac since he was 17 years old. Having a yen for bluegrass, he played with a band, the Bluegrass Hoppers, in the Madison WI area, for both students and the locals. In the interim he picked up an undergraduate degree and a masters, and later became a financial planner, which flies in the face of current wisdom that bluegrass pickers seldom know how to count higher than the number of strings on their instrument. That, by the way, is why mandolin pickers tend to be the smartest in a bluegrass group, they have to count up to 8!
If the “big bang theory” helps to explain the origin of the universe, perhaps “the big bang theory of bluegrass” will shed some light on the origin of the bluegrass music universe.
First, let me say that there are two schools of thought as to the origins of bluegrass music. One has Bill Monroe single-handedly inventing bluegrass music around 1945. The other takes a more evolutionary approach, with a number of musicians and bands contributing to the sound we now call “bluegrass.” In particular, this approach points to Wade and JE Mainer’s Mountaineers as the first band that had all the ingredients of bluegrass music going back at least to 1935. For this article, let’s put aside the evolutionary argument, and concentrate on the theory that Bill Monroe invented bluegrass.
It is commonly known that Bill and Charlie, the Monroe Brothers, had a contentious and turbulent relationship. Perhaps Charlie said it best, “We were hot-headed and mean as snakes.” In early 1938, they went their separate ways. To replace Bill, Charlie hired Zeke Morris to play mandolin and sing tenor. Interestingly enough, Zeke had been a mainstay of Mainer’s Mountaineers.
Balsam Range’s new album, Mountain Overture, recorded with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, only contains previously released tracks. Since it is a compilation of the group’s most popular songs from their previous six album releases, one may be tempted to give it a “greatest hits” or “best of “album title. I would prefer to label Mountain Overture as a concept album. Great bluegrass music enhanced by an orchestral background.
If you are unfamiliar with Balsam Range, the original members have played together for eleven years and each is a superb instrumentalist. Four members sing and all five contribute original music to the group.
Buddy Melton is on fiddle and winner of the "Male Vocalist of the Year" at the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards.