Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Celtic CDs
Metroland Holiday Gift Guide-12/6/07
By Glenn Weiser

Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Celtic Music CDs

You’re tired of scouring the malls and surfing the Web looking for gift ideas for a folk, blues, bluegrass, or Celtic-music fan, aren’t you? Somehow I just knew, so let me ease your holiday quest with some CD suggestions for these genres.

One of this year’s more unlikely folk collaborations is the new release from Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and 20-time Grammy winning bluegrass fiddler and singer Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (Rounder). Both artists had to stretch their skills to pull off this project—Plant had never sung harmony and had to soften up his vocals considerably, while Krauss was new to blues singing. The result—13 tracks of country, folk, blues, gospel, and R&B material by Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, the Everly Brothers, Sam Phillips, and Mel Tillis—made critics’ 2007 hot lists. Among the contributing artists on this T-Bone Burnett produced gem are guitarists Marc Ribot and Norman Blake, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, among others.

Back in the early 1920s, the first blues records featured female singers accompanied by Dixieland bands. Veteran folkie Maria Muldaur, who got started singing in Greenwich Village folk coffeehouses in the early 1960s and went on to record with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, has completed a trio of tribute albums to blues singers from the 1920s through 1940s with Naughty, Bawdy, and Blues (Stoney Plain). Backed by James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band, an authentic New Orleans-sounding outfit, this latest disc focuses on 1920s singers. Muldaur delivers luscious renditions of songs from Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Sippy Wallace, Ethel Waters and Victoria Spivey. Bonnie Raitt guests on one track also.

By the 1950s, the newly electrified blues had taken up residence in Chicago. For fans of South Side-style blues, there is a new Muddy Waters CD, Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down (Legacy). This was compiled from a series of late-1970s live shows with James Cotton and Johnny Winter, who produced a series of albums for Muddy shortly after Waters left Chess, his longtime label, in 1976. Also playing on these 11 blues standards are pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, guitarist Bob Margolin, and bassist Charles Calmese. Winter is in exceptionally good form here, so his fans, as well as Muddy’s, will want this one.

For aficionados of bluegrass and old-time string-band music, the all-female quartet Uncle Earl have a release that will fill a holiday stocking nicely. Waterloo, Tennessee (Rounder) was chosen for the title of this 16-track offering after one of the band members thought she saw a roadside sign for the town while they were traveling through the Volunteer State. The place was probably Waterloo Falls, but no matter—what they got right is the plain singing and fancy picking and that have won them national acclaim. For this record, banjoist Abigail Washburn, mandolinist-bassist-guitarist KC Groves, fiddler Ranya Gellert, and guitarist-fiddler Kristen Andreassen went to British producer John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame, a move that paid off with a 4 1/2-star customer rating. Waterloo encompasses fiddle tunes, songs ranging from the slow and mournful to the fast and lighthearted, and even a shape-note hymn that evokes early American church music.

Along with fellow Californian Buck Owens, country icon Merle Haggard forged the Bakersfield sound, a return to the pedal steel and fiddle-led instrumentation that dominated country music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, augmented by the Fender Telecaster. This year, though, Hag decided to do his first-ever bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions (McCoury). With a crack band led by mandolinist-guitarist Marty Stuart sitting in a circle with Merle, the group recorded a 12-cut live CD that features tunes by Jimmy Rogers and the Delmore Brothers, as well as some remakes of Hag’s hits, and four new originals. Even though the album lacks some of the flashy picking you’d expect in a bluegrass disc, Haggard’s insightful songwriting (only Hank Williams Sr. is ranked above him as a lyricist here) is why this one is worth it.

Kevin Burke is a master of the Sligo style of Irish fiddling, and has played with the Celtic supergroups the Bothy Band and Patrick Street. His new effort, Across the Black River (Loftus) is an exuberant outing with guitarist-composer Cal Scott, containing 10 tracks of pure fiddling bliss. Burke and Scott serve up a well-chosen and-arranged batch of both traditional and freshly minted reels and jigs, as well as a Bill Monroe tune and a lament by Scottish accordionist Phil Cunningham for his late brother, fiddler Johnny Cunningham. Burke and Scott have an obviously swell time playing together, which adds immensely to the record’s appeal. Sidemen include accordionist Johnny B. Connolly, Michael McGoldrick on flute, and bassist Phil Baker.

See the article on the Metroland website 
List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          ©2007 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved. 


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