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.
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!
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.
I do seem to get drawn to the roots and branches of bluegrass: old-time music, traditional bluegrass, new-grass, string band, Celtic, etc.
This band would fit comfortably under the old-time umbrella, but carries plenty of folk, country, and Americana; aren't they all related in some way? Imagine Woody Guthrie sitting down for a front porch jam session with Johnny Cash, throw in a couple of fiddles, a washboard, a clog dancer, and an occasional kazoo and you're starting to get the idea. Toss in a musical saw to add it's somewhat eerie flight among the other instruments and you're really on the right track. After all, when was the last time you saw a band with a saw-player sitting in? And you know, with that whole collection of players I almost forgot to mention the jug player.
Since they bill themselves as a "hillbilly old-time band" (even though they hail from Minnesota) I think they have all the bases covered!
I've read another review that calls Hammertowne's music "blue collar bluegrass." If you take that to mean no-nonsense, straight up traditionally crafted bluegrass that honors the greats of bluegrass but stands on their own well-written tunes, well, you're on the right track.
Since the band hails from eastern Kentucky their bluegrass roots run deep, many of the band members growing up in extended, musically talented families. The band also crosses musical generations, with at least one member out playing in bands long before other members were born, but they're all united in their love of bluegrass. The band is Chaston Carroll, Dave Carroll, Brent Pack, Bryan Russell, and Scott Tacket, and Hillbilly Heroes is their third album.