Reviews by Declan Culliton

Mark Olson Spokeswoman Of The Bright Sun 

The Jayhawks finest moments were captured when both Mark Olson and Gary Louris were on board, most particularly on the albums Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow The Green Grass which remain classic albums to this day. As forefathers of alternative country alongside Uncle Tupelo, their ability as both song writers and harmonisers to create an inimitable wistful sound was unparalleled back in the early to mid-90’s.

It may have been the disciplined band structure or possibly one too many song writers that resulted in Olson abandoning ship in 1996 to form The Original Harmony Ridge Crippledippers with his first wife Victoria Williams. Living in Joshua Tree in California, the band recorded a number of impressive, if somewhat disjointed albums that mirrored their carefree hippie like existence but failed to make anything like the industry impact of his previous work with The Jayhawks.

Fast forward to 2005 and Olson was to be found in a different place entirely - divorced, without a record label, homeless and suffering from depression. While recovering in Cardiff he wrote and recorded his first solo album, the excellent The Salvation Blues, reflective of his state of mind at that time. Equally impressive was his follow up album in 2010 Many Coloured Kites following a similar path, stripped down songs of love, loss and grief. Olson reunited with Louris and the rest of the original Jayhawks to record Mockingbird Time and tour the album before, surprisingly, leaving again in 2012. 

2014 saw the release of Good-bye Lizelle, recorded while he toured Europe and South Africa with his Danish wife Ingunn Ringvold, who has performed on his earlier solo albums. Recorded on portable equipment while touring, the album echoed his new-found love, happiness and fulfilment. More experimental than his previous work, it found Olson dabbling in world music, sometimes successfully other times less so. The album featured Ringvold on harmonium and backing vocals and was the stepping stone for another chapter in Olson’s nomadic musical lifestyle. 

Spokeswoman Of The Bright Side is in many ways a natural progression from Good-bye Lizelle, taking its lead yet offering a more organised package of songs that avoids much of the world music influences of its predecessor. Recorded at their home in Joshua Tree, Olson’s typical reflections on life, love and the passage of time result in a collection of songs that often present the innocence and simplicity found in his strongest work. As is often the case in Olson’s song writing the lyrics are whimsical and imaginative without being over challenging but are brought to life by his ability to create beautiful melodies. His vocals and shared harmonies with Ringvolt are delightfully easy on the ear with much of the content falling between folk and country with a nod in the direction of psychedelic pop at times. Seminole Valley Tea Sippers Society and Death Valley Soda Pop Cool Down Dream recall David Bowie late 60’s work while opener Dear Elisabeth, You Are All, All My Days and the superb Time Of Love are closer to Olson’s Jayhawks work, all immediately catchy and joyful.

It’s probably fair to say that Olson has never quite fully reached the enormous potential his early career suggested but for all that, in my opinion, he has not released an album that did not contain many magical moments. The new album's magical moments are plentiful suggesting his strongest work since The Salvation Blues and a return to form for Olson who seems emotionally and creatively to be in as good a place as he’s been at any stage of his career. Long may it last. 

Emi Sunshine Ragged Dreams Little Blackbird

Emily Sunshine Hamilton, at the tender age of 13, has already attracted over 14 million You Tube visits and can boast over half a million Facebook followers. Having started her career playing churches, community halls and local festivals Emi, supported by family members, has become a child prodigy in musical terms. With over a dozen appearances to date at The Grand Old Opry and endorsements from Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart her career continues to blossom four years after performing professionally for the first time at the age of nine.

Not merely a vocalist, she also plays guitar, mandolin and ukulele, but her most striking talent is her song writing ability which finds her tackling thorny and dark subjects such as murder (Tennessee Killing Song, KatieBelle), redemption (Sinners Serenade), environmental issues (As The Waters Rise, Resting Place) and autism (Ninety Miles). It can be somewhat unsettling yet perversely refreshing that someone of her age would visit such topics when most aspiring child musicians would be more likely to experiment with pop country and less challenging issues. All 15 tracks on Ragged Dreams, her fourth release, are written or co-written by Sunshine who also produced the album with the assistance of family members Randall Hamilton (father), Johnathon Hamilton (brother) and Bobby Hill (uncle).

With an exceptional vocal capacity to hit notes Iris De Ment wouldn’t even attempt she is accompanied musically on the album by her family members together with cameo contributions by Tim Crouch (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Justin Moses (fiddle, guitar, dobro, banjo), Randy Kohrs (resonator guitar), Ben Probus (fiddle) and Hitoshi Yamaguchi (cello).

It will be interesting to follow her career going forward. Many artists recording old timey and bluegrass seek out traditional material to cover so it’s to Sunshine’s credit that the self-penned material throughout is of the highest standard with Little Blackbird, Strong Armed Robbery, Ninety Miles and  As The Waters Rise particularly impressive.

A single indication of her enormous potential is the stunning KatieBell, a murder ballad as good as it gets, it also features Sunshine’s vocal pitched a few octaves lower than much of the material on the album and with Randall Hamilton adding backing vocals it’s an instant classic.

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Life Is A Story Mountain Music

Native Tennessean and mandolin virtuoso Doyle Lawson together with his band Quicksilver have been a leading light in bluegrass circles for over 35 years since the release of the bluegrass gospel project Rock My Soul (1981), an album still considered to be ground-breaking by genre enthusiasts to this day. Up to forty musicians have played their part in Quicksilver in the intervening period but the core sound and quality output remains consistent with Lawson’s stunning mandolin playing, lead and baritone vocals still reaching dizzy heights. The current line-up includes Josh Swift (Guitars & Percussion), Joe Dean (Banjo & Guitar), Dustin Pyrtle (Vocals & Guitar), Eli Johnston (Vocals & Bass) and Stephen Burwell (Fiddles).

The awards won by Lawson and Quicksilver are endless including seven International Bluegrass Association Vocal Group of the Year Awards and Lawson himself was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame in 2012.

Like Is A Story is the latest in over forty recording by them and it manages to both recreate trademark old timey sounds with more recent and poignant storylines. Opening track Kids These Days could relate to any era with it’s  ‘ wasn’t like that in our day sentiment’ followed by Little Girl (penned by Harley Allen) with it’s theme of innocence and redemption, telling  the tale of a child born into a troubled family and finding emancipation  and sanctity when adopted into a loving family environment. Other highlights range from the Doyle Lawson written I See A Heartbreak Comin’ to the Fred Jay classic What Am I Living For first released by Bob Willis in 1958 and subsequently also recorded by Van Morrison and Ray Charles.

It goes without saying that the playing throughout is top drawer complimented by delightful harmonies and often soothing lead vocals from Lawson himself. A must have  album for lovers of bluegrass and a recommended place to start for any newcomers to the genre.

Mike Cullison Front Porch Philosophy Self Release

Mike Cullison’s roadmap into the recording industry may be somewhat unorthodox yet in many ways suggests a quite sensible approach given the meagre pickings and competition in an industry that suffers from increasingly over saturation levels. His debut album, recorded in 2004, coincided with his retirement after 32 years continuous employment with The Bell Telephone Company. Originally from Oklahoma he combined his nine to five job with song writing and performances and with music running through his veins even relocated to Atlanta during his career to be closer to Nashville. He finally made the final leg of his journey to the Music City in 1995 and currently enjoys the good life with the mundane forty hour a week career a distant memory and his current status as a performing and recording artist the ideal (semi) retirement.

Front Porch Philosophy is his fifth recording and follows the same template as his previous albums, telescopic observations of people, their actions and mannerisms considered, studied and moulded into stories that eventually become songs.

Kicking off the album with West Texas State Of Mind one could be forgiven for drawing comparisons with another elder statesman and Nashville resident Mr. John Prine.  Ain’t Enough Whiskey heads in an old timey Hank Williams lost highway direction. Front porch music would not sit comfortably with the absence of lost love and is represented solidly by  I Can’t Throw Stones while To God and Back, a delightful love song, characterises the flip side of that coin. If you’re going to include a tender love song and a love lost song on an album there has to be room for something in between and Big Legged Woman ticks that box famously. The title suggested a blues number before I even played the track and blues it is – closing the album in style. The blues is also well represented by Dorothy’s Shoes with its rootsy bluesy jam intro.

The album was recorded live at the Art Institute of Tennessee – Nashville Recording Studio with the design and photography on the album created by students at Ai TN. The playing throughout is top drawer with the wonderful guitar work by Mark Robinson particularly impressive.  It’s a cosy and charming album and we can thank the stars that Cullison chose a musically creative retirement rather than investing all his hours tending to the back garden and other somewhat less creative pastimes.

The Grascals Before Breakfast Mountain Home

Three-time Grammy nominated Bluegrass band The Grascals are a six-piece group founded in 2004 who can claim over one hundred and fifty appearances at The Grand Olde Opry to date and can also boast performing twice for President George W. Bush and at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball. Before Breakfast is another solid collection of songs from founding member Terry Eldredge and their second album featuring the present line up of John Bryan (Guitar, Banjo, Vocals), Adam Haynes (Fiddle), Danny Roberts (Mandolin), Kristin Scott Benson (Banjo, Guitar) and Tony Creasman (Drums, Percussion). 

The twelve track album includes the frisky toe tapping instrumental Lynchburg Chicken Run, composed by Danny Roberts and Adam Haynes, the gorgeous country ballad Lonesome, written by Terry Smith and his brother Billy and the Lester Flatt/ Earl Scruggs classic He Took Your Place. Christian themes are visited in both Sleepin’ With The Reaper and  I’ve Been Redeemed with Pathway Of Teardrops ambling  along delightfully with an exquisite three way harmony from Eldredge, Smith and newest band member John Bryan. 

Self-produced and recorded at Crossroads Studios in Arden North Carolina Before Breakfast, easy on the ear as it is, will no doubt excite The Grascals large fan base and with their ability to mix old timey and modern day bluegrass will continue to win them new followers.

The Wynntown Marshals After All These Years Wynntown Recordings

My initial introduction to The Wynntown Marshalls was in 2009 when they played a Saturday afternoon gig in a local pub in Kilkenny on a stage the size of a postage stamp. They made an immediate impact on me – and many others at the gig – with their rootsy sound, slick hooks and clever harmonies.  Regarded as the leading purveyors in Europe of Americana music over the past ten years, both as a live act and over three studio albums, After All These Years offers the perfect introduction to them for those unfamiliar with their music and an equally impressive collection of their work for their fanbase.  With a sound that incorporates many of the precious  elements of Americana while leaving lots of room for power pop noticeable comparisons to The Jayhawks emerge, possibly with a touch of Teenage Fanclub on the side.  Hailing from Edinburgh rather than some romantic sounding townland such as Greenville or Archer County may be an unfortunate contributor to them not making the industry impact they deserve, we Europeans have an annoying habit of often underestimating and even dismissing acts close to home rather than embracing and supporting them. Ironically the recognition they have achieved locally was boosted when a record label in New Jersey gave them the opportunity of contributing a song to a Hair Metal tribute album. The Marshals chose to give the L.A. Guns glam rocker Ballad of Jayne a rootsy make over which came to the attention of Bob Harris who featured it on his show and subsequently interview live on the show. 

The album celebrates the tenth anniversary of the band and over its sixteen tracks revisits material from their three studio albums together with the inclusions of three previously unreleased offerings. Those ten years have seen a number of personnel changes but their core sound remains the same and the tracks work snugly together as a unit from opener Low Country Comedown to closer Different Drug, the latter being a recently written song and one of the many highlights on the album. Red Clay Hill recalls The Jayhawks while Being Lazy tips it’s hat in the direction of Jeff Tweedy and the previously unrecorded Odessa and both 11.15 and Thunder In The Valley (each checking in at over six minutes) have a characteristic Marshal’s sound.

 Keith Benzie and Iain Sloan continue to handle vocals, guitars and pedal steel and the current rhythm section sees Richie Noble on keyboards, David Mc Kee on bass and Simon Walker on drums. On the evidence of the aforementioned closer Different Drug, recorded by the current line up, there is still lots more gas in the Marshals tank.