Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Young Man, Old Soul by Brandon Rickman - CD Review

In his solo album Young Man, Old Soul Brandon Rickman has effectively mined the rich vein lying between bluegrass and country music to produce a dozen songs that communicate the experience of maturing the hard way. The songs, many of them familiar to fans who attend performances of the Lonesome River Band, capture images of lost youth, true love, missed opportunities, and the ever-growing awareness that life is short, sweet, and poignant. Rickman’s voice and lyrics are straightforward and honest. His soulful singing is sincere and just rough enough to suggest a chaw stuck in his lip. These twelve songs effortlessly give off an odor of truth that captures the spirit and imagination. It’s truly a masterful production.

I’m not generally a great fan of studio albums. When a band gets to work up a song over time in live performance, it discovers what works well and what doesn’t, making adjustments that no amount of studio manipulation can equal. Many of the songs on this solo disk have seen the light of day over the past couple of years in LRB performances. The pieces show the polish and increased authenticity that comes from such leavening. Nevertheless, Rickman has brought together a group of seasoned musicians, including many of his band mates in LRB, but adding to the mix some of the finest studio musicians and bandsmen to be found in Nashville. The result is more than satisfying. Brandon is either the sole author or collaborator on ten of the twelve songs in this CD, which, in addition to providing fine music for listening, functions as a first rate demo disk for other artists who might wish to record or perform these pieces.

“Always Have, Always Will” (Chris Stapleton and Brandon Rickman) with Rickman playing multiple instruments and Terry Eldredge (harmony vocals), Aaron McDaris (banjo), Jenee Fleenor (fiddle), and Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar)

I drink alone here every night, For the pain I’m trying to hide,

I drink it down ‘till I get my fill, Always have and I always will.

The singer seeks to change, but knows that his will power, despite his desire to love, won’t ever be strong enough to help him leave the whiskey behind. Rickman’s voice communicates a sense of desperation coupled with resignation, knowing that he won’t ever be able to change. The closing guitar solo winds down to a lonely, lovelorn ending.

“Rain and Snow” (Fleenor, Rickman) with Rickman on guitar and lead vocal and Fleenor on fiddle and harmony vocal captures a plaintive tone of the dispossessed husband complaining of the trouble his wife causes, never suggesting any complicity.

I married me a wife, she gave me trouble all my life,

Threw me out in the cold rain and snow, Ooh Lord, Lord

Threw me out in the cold rain and snow.

The very effective bluesy fiddle in this song soars and keens, communicating the sexiness of the wife and the sense of hopeless loss of the mistreated husband.

“Here Comes that Feeling Again” (Rickman with Craig Market) is a solid bluegrass song with Rickman on guitar, mandolin, bass, and lead vocal, Fleenor on fiddle, McDaris on banjo, and Shelby Kennedy (harmony vocal) is another song of loss and regret along with self-delusion.

Sometimes there’s knock on my hearts door wanting me to let you in.

Here comes that feeling again.

Rickman’s flexible and versatile voice is particularly adept at communicating loss and loneliness. It seems to come from some deep well of feeling and spills out into the song with heart wrenching sincerity. The moments when an image seen in passing draw out an unwanted memory or feeling seem particularly real when Brandon delivers them.

“I Bought Her a Dog” is a perfect example of a song that’s developed through being played on the festival circuit. When I first heard this song, Brandon preceded it with a rather long story about his giving up the single life. Afterwards, heading for the merchandise table, I heard a woman say, “He really shouldn’t be putting his private life out in public like that.” The tendency to view an imaginative interpretation of life as telling a true story of the singer/songwriter’s life is an easy trap to fall into. This amusing song about pets as surrogate children captures the sense that perhaps child bearing isn’t the solution to all our problems. Aaron McDaris lilting banjo and Tammy Rogers (co-writer on this song) harmony contribute to this delightful ditty.

Another Market/Rickman collaboration “What I Know Now” is just a great song. Sung as a vocal solo accompanied only by his own guitar, Rickman captures the longing for lost chances and the acceptance of the consequences:

I don’t like to dwell on what I’ve done wrong in my life,

Chalk it up to being young, and full of foolish pride,

But you can’t go back, and I know that, but if I could somehow,

I might have stayed a little longer, loved a little stronger,

If I knew then what I know now.

This simple lyric pushes all the right buttons and captures completely the costs of youth and the benefits of increasing maturity. Rickman finds a crack in his voice that communicates emotion as well as any note. The held guitar note with a moment of silence at the end says it all.

“Wide Spot in the Road,” a Rickman/Buddy Owens composition, has great potential as a mainstream country song. The singer returns to his tiny home town somewhere in rural America to rediscover the place where he grew up and found his values still lie. I’m sometimes a bit cynical about this yearning for a mythical place of simplicity and comfort, but people seem to believe in its existence, so who am I to throw cold water on it. Jamie Johnson, of The Grascals, contributes a first rate harmony vocal on this one. “I Take the Backroads” (Salley/Rickman) returns to the love of home town and the simple living that once existed there.

I take the backroads,

Kick back and drive slow,

Roll down the windows,

And familiar memories start blowing in the wind.

It’s in leaving the haste and stress of the highway and returning to ones roots where one can, at least in memory, return to the past. Even so, it’s all memory…all gone except in those nostalgic moments. The arc of content and interesting musical contrasts once again reinforce for me the importance of purchasing and listening to entire albums rather than downloading cuts.

Written with Kevin Denney, “So Long 20’s” covers some of the same ground as “What I know Now” with a very different emphasis. As the singer contemplates his thirtieth birthday and sees the grey beginning to appear in his hair, he understands that life is shorter than he ever thought before with a wistful sense of not having paid enough attention to the passing of life.

I don’t feel any different than I felt yesteryear,

Hell, thirty’s just a number anyway.

It’s not my age that scares me, it’s how fast I got here.

So long twenties, hello thirty years.

For me this song is the most compelling combination of lyric and tune in the album. Perhaps, at my age, the issue of aging has taken on even greater meaning, but the song would be difficult for anyone hearing it to resist.

Carter Stanley’s “Let Me Walk, Lord, By Your Side” stands as an interesting contrast in this album where most of the work is Rickman’s either alone or in collaboration. Andy Ball, a band mate in LRB, contributes vocal harmony and mandolin solos on this one. “Rest for His Workers,” a gospel song (Mullins and Carpenter) features a simple guitar accompaniment with Andy Ball, Rickman’s bandmate, usually on mandolin in support. Harmony vocals by Val Storey and Larry Cordle fill the sound out very nicely. The song captures the difficulty of life and the promise of eternity for those who strive and labor throughout their lives. The message is uplifting in both lyric and tone – a happy song. The two gospel songs on this album show Rickman’s versatility, but lack some of the punch of his own work.

At LRB performance, when Brandon sings “Dime Store Rings” (Rickman, Stefl) I often look over at my wife and see the tears glistening in her eyes. Sung as a guitar solo, the song needs no other augmentation, as it follows a couple from their leaving home and looking toward the future, through the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that a really quite ordinary life can provide two people "Bigger than the west Texas sky, with a whole lot of faith, a few good breaks, and a couple of dime store rings.” I have trouble imagining that this song won’t become a country standard. It’s just too good.

“Wearin’ Her Knees Out Over Me” (Rickman, Salley, David) is a regret and thanks to Mom song that hits the spot for every son who lived the wild life only to come to understand the sacrifices, sorrow, work, and prayer that goes into being a parent, and more particularly a Mother.

Wish I could go back through the years,

and dry up all the tears I made her cry.

I thank God she got to see the man I turned out to be,

All because she spent the time, wearin’ her knees out over me.

With Jerry Salley and Val Storey contributing unassuming harmony vocals, the song stands as a fitting finale to this fine CD. The major recurring theme of “Young Man, Old Soul” examines facing the world with increasing maturity, understanding of sacrifice, sadness at loss, and the triumph of perseverance. Rickman’s soulful country voice is ideal for the songs he’s chosen. The CD is available on line from Amazon and other outlets and can be downloaded from iTunes or other sites. As usual, if you wish to support the artist and will be seeing Lonesome River Band any time in the near future, arrange to buy it directly. It’s also available through Rural Rhythm records. Regardless of how you legally obtain this fine CD, it belongs in your collection.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

MACC - Saturday and Final Assessment

Saturday at The MACC provided a wonderful series of experiences in what showed signs of deteriorating into serious weather problems. The day opened warm and overcast with the annual MACC Children's Band providing, as usual, a reinforcement of the idea that the future of bluegrass music is alive and well so long as we continue to invest in and believe in our children's future. Then, just as Bradley Walker and his band had completed a few minutes of their set, the skies opened up and the operation had to close down as lightning and thunder surrounded the area. As the storm passed, the sound was turned back on and the schedule resumed, although bands had to abbreviate their shows. By dark, when it came time for the Classic Performances created and orchestrated by promoter Darrel Adkins, the sky was clear, stars could be seen, and it remained warm into the evening as Musicians Against Childhood Cancer came to a rousing and successful end with a tribute to the music of Tony Rice. On Monday, while driving home, we learned that Randy Kohrs had had a number of instruments stolen from his van at the nearby motel where many of the musicians and volunteers had stayed. This outrageous theft failed to dampen the overall effect of the festival as a trimphant musical event that each year provides significant contributions to St. Jude Children's Reasearch Hospital.

MACC Children's Band

The MACC Children's Band is an important element of the festival. The Children begin meeting to rehearse twice daily on Thursday and work hard all weekend. Their performance is a highlight of early Saturday morning, when they perform from the stage. They range in age from age three to about seventeen and in ability from rank beginner to highly skilled contest winnder. I've posted a web album of pictures of the MACC Children's Band. Here's the key:

Key to Web Album

Darrel Adkins isn't much of a speech maker. The festival is about commememorating his daughter Mandy's tragic loss to cancer through providing support to St. Jude and about the music. While he is very much in charge of the festival, he generally keeps to the background, letting the music and the spirit it builds speek for themselves. In his words, though, he linked the appearance of the Children's Band to the future of bluegrass music. He spoke about change and people's resistance to it, emphasizing the changes that had occurred in the early days as Bill Monroe worked to achieve the sound he imagined. He asked whether bands now considered to be standard bearers like the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Jim & Jesse, The Osborne Brothers and others would have emerged had they not brought something new and different to bluegrass. He also suggested that every band at a bluegrass festival didn't have to appeal to every individual's taste or idea of what constituted bluegrass music. People, he maintained, could use bands that weren't to their taste as an opportunity to stretch their legs, get something to eat, take a nap, or even listen to a new and different sound to see whether they might like it. He argued that someone new to bluegrass music might hear a new and unusual band, like it, and become interested in what led the band to the music it was creating, and through that insight begin to seek out the roots. In such a process, he maintained, the future of bluegrass music could be assured. Throughout the day, fans came up to him and thanked him for his message.

Bradley Walker Band
Bradley Walker

Patton Wages

Shane Blackwell

Nick Keen

David Babb


Randy Kohrs & the Lites

Randy Kohrs

Ashley Brown

Elio Giordano

Chris Woods

Mike Sumner

Josh Williams

Josh and Randy

Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time

Jody King

Kim Gardner

Booie Beech

Chris Harris

Larry Cordle

Darrel Adkins Presents Prize Guitar

Mathew & Debbie Hubbard

Ronnie Bowman Band

Ronnie Bowman

Garnet Imes Bowman

Patton Wages

Greg Martin

Chris Harris

Ronnie Bowman

Was Dr. Tom Bibey at MACC?

The Gibson Brothers
MACC Debut

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber

Clayton Campbell

Joe Walsh

Eric & Leigh

Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Jerry Salley

Carl Jackson

Larry Cordle

Jerry Salley

The Church Sisters
Jackson, Cordle and Salley

What'll We Sing Today?
Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley

Jerry Salley, Phyllis Adkins, Tami Adkins Lee

Blue Highway

Jason Burleson

Shawn Lane

Wayne Taylor

Tim Stafford

Rob Ickes

Darrel Adkins Auctions Quilt Made by his Mother

And the Todd Sams Guitar

Darrel even sold his cap to raise money for St. Jude. There's more than one way to bring in the money for the hospital. Unless you've been around him for a while, there's almost no way to understand how deep and genuine his and Phyllis' commitment to this cause is. Someone asked me during the weekend whether they take a cut. The answer is "NO!" They don't even take their personal expenses. The beneficiary is St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and everything above the costs of putting on the festival goes to them. If you want to donate, send your checks here:
Musicians Against Childhood Cancer®
1434 S. 3B's & K Rd.
Galena, OH 43021

The final two events of The MACC were what the festival calls "Classic Performances." On Saturday night, two entirely different groups of musicians played and sang quite different music with participants you might never see together again. Dudley Connell spearheaded a group of musicians who love and cherish traditional bluegrass. Their set list was filled with songs by the Stanley Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Bill Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs. Connell brings such an infectious enthusiasm to his performance, and his band mates were so involved and with him in the effort, that no one could resist the work. If every band calling itself traditional could bring such life and power to the music, there might never again be a question about the future of traditional bluegrass. Here's some pictures from that set:

Dudley Connell

Aubrey Haynie

Don Rigsby was obviously ill, but wouldn't miss the event.

Randy Kohrs

Joe Mullins

Randy Barnes

Junior Sisk Guests with his Idol from Johnson Mt. Boys Days

Sally Love Connell

Dudley Connell

The Tony Rice Tribute

Josh Williams hosted the Tony Rice Tribute with grace, charm, and dignity. Josh, 2008 IBMA Guitar Player of the Year, is well recognized as a disciple of Rice who has managed to forge a guitar style of his own. During the more than an hour long final set of the weekend, Williams worked closely with the great Tony Rice to reprise a number of his best known songs with a band well suited to playing with the master. Rice was in excellent form, playing his unique and haunting solos as well as frequently breaking into a broad smile that I haven't been privileged to see much of before. The familiar tunes came one after the other: Blue Railroad Train, Ginseng Sullivan, Freeborn Man, Manzanita, Roll on Buddy, Old Train, and many more. The set was truly a feast for Rice fans and music lovers. What a rare treat!

Tony Rice

Josh Williams

Aaron Ramsay

Randy Barnes
Don Rigsby

Aubrey Haynie

Rob Ickes

Aaron Ramsay

In the end Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is more than a bluegrass festival, but it begins with a family who love bluegrass music and have promoted it for thirty years and grew from the loss of a daughter, Mandy, who was known and loved by many of the musicians who perform here. During its four days, the meaning of the event encompasses and, finally, overwhelms the quality of the music. This is a don't miss event for the music and the spirit generated by it. Next year's MACC will be held at Hoover Y Park in Columbus, Ohio from July 21 - 24.