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Radio Bob's 2013 Trail Mix Year in Review

Bob McWilliams,               aka Radio Bob

From Americana to singer-songwriters, progressive to traditional bluegrass, contemporary to traditional folk, and old-time to Celtic music, 2013 brought a bumper crop of impressive new albums. Here's my favorite five Trail Mix CDs of the year, and below your find my thoughts on many other notable new releases.


A Year In Review: 2013

It was a rich year in bluegrass music, both on the progressive edge and those firmly in the tradition. Banjo player Steve Martin teamed with lyricist and singer Edie Brickell for a totally engaging and catchy set of banjo based songs on Love Has Come for You, while The Deadly Gentlemen, featuring longtime Crooked Still banjo player Greg Liszt, put a supercharged take on traditional bluegrass instrumentation on Roll Me, Tumble Me



On Carnival, Nora Jane Struthers weaves a rich tapestry of rural life in a not-too-distant past, with all the songs from a woman's perspective, and blending folk, country and bluegrass elements. Run Boy Run makes an exciting debut on So Sang the Whippoorwill, with their distinctive two fiddle, cello, mandolin and bass lineup and songs rooted in old-time string band music, but incorporating elements of bluegrass, jazz, country and classical music. While the Boston-based all-female band Della Mae had a self-released album two years ago, their new CD, This World Oft Can Be, had rightly garnered much more attention with a powerful blend of highly accomplished instrumental and vocal talent and strong contemporary songwriting.


Stepping away from the contemporary sounds of The Punch Brothers, that band's banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny explores traditional bluegrass in Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, where he plays all the songs on that classic album by fiddler Kenny Baker, shifting the focus to banjo. In another homage, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience pays tribute to the old time music of Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson on Muddy Roads  (wherein young bassist Samson Grisman of The Deadly Gentlemen makes his second appearance on this best of 2013 list). Speaking of tribute albums, Don Rigsby does a dandy one in honor of Ralph Stanley on Doctor's Orders. The leadoff track, The Mountain Doctor, is worth the price of admission all by itself, with the perfect banjo work of Steve Sparkman. The Del McCoury Band continues to be the gold standard in traditional bluegrass, and this year brought another gem from that well-honed band, most of which has been together for two decades, in The Streets of Baltimore.


Steep Canyon RangersIn recent years, the Steep Canyon Rangers have gotten great prominence as the backing band on Steve Martin's tours, but they continue to show they are a great band on their own with the release of Tell the Ones I Love. One of the giants of the newgrass movement back in the 1970s, Peter Rowan never lost his love for traditional bluegrass (dating to his days with Bill Monroe in the 1960s), as he shows on The Old School, with its great kick off song Keepin' It Between the Lines, and a lovely, quiet tribute to Doc Watson on Doc Watson Morning.



While Ron Block is best known for his banjo work with Alison Krauss and Union Station, on Walking Song, he steps out in front as lead singer and guitar player on a set of songs mostly co-written with a strong new lyricist, poet Rebecca Reynolds. One of the most lovely voices in bluegrass, Claire Lynch, shines on Dear Sister, which blends folk, roots, country and bluegrass elements in a strong collection of songs by Lynch, as well as covers of songs by the likes of Sarah Siskind, Martha Scanlon and Pierce Pettis.


Predating bluegrass and the banjo innovations of Earl Scruggs, the sometimes haunting, sometimes driving sound of clawhammer banjo playing survives, and often thrives. Two excellent examples arrived recently. The versatile folk musician Joel Mabus brought up Pepper's Ghost, with 13 solo banjo numbers, some with Mabus's warm vocals and lyrics. The CD ends with a delicious, slowed-down version of the classic fiddle tune, Fire on the Mountain. From Canada comes young banjo player and singer Hannah Shira Naiman with her debut Tether My Heart. No stranger to old time music (her father, Arnie Naiman, a noted old time music master), she takes the roots of clawhammer banjo playing and Appalachian song on an album of strong original songs. Best known as an old-time fiddler from her years in The Wilders, Betse Ellis goes in a new direction on much of High Moon Order, which still has some traditional fiddle tracks, but puts her singing and songwriting in a contemporary vein to the fore. She proves adept at all aspects of the diverse music herein


2013 brought forth an impressive number of duo recordings. Two of the best instrumentalists, singers and songwriters in Nashville, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, released a powerful collection, Memories and Moments, with strong original songs (including the biting environmental message of Keep Your Dirty Lights On), and covers of John Prine, George Jones, and Hank Williams.



Melody Walker & Jacob GroopmanStepping away from their progressive bluegrass band Front Country, Melody Walker and Jacob Groopman, with the help of producer Laurie Lewis, brought forth We Made It Home, filled with catchy melodies, tasty harmonies and inspired songwriting. The duo of Cia Cherryholmes and Stetson Adkisson now calls themselves Songs of the Fall, and on their album of the same name they sing songs exploring all sorts of falling, from the original fall of man, to falling in and out of love, and more. Songwriters Jonathan Byrd and Chris Kokesh come together on The Barn Birds for a collection of stripped down songs rooted in everyday life, highlighted by Byrd's soul baring It's Too Late to Call it a Night.


Two great veterans of Americana, folk and country music, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, come together on Old Yellow Moon, with heartfelt covers of songs by the likes of Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson and Matraca Berg, whose cover of Back When We Were Beautiful is followed by Crowell's gem, Here We Are. With a vocal blend reminiscent of both the Everley Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel, The Milk Carton Kids have both a sound recalling the folk boom of the early '60s and a contemporary sensibility on The Ash and Clay. And one trio deserves special mention, as well, as Brother Sun's second release, Some Part of the Sun highlighted the gorgeous harmonies of songwriters Greg Greenway, Joe Jencks and Pat Wictor.


Richard Thompson (Photo Credit: Ron Sleznak)In the world of singer-songwriters, 2013 saw notable albums from legends, lesser known veterans and newcomers, as well. Richard Thompson had one of his strongest releases in years with Electric, which despite the title, featured more of his innovative acoustic guitar playing on 11 new songs, including the touching Saving the Good Stuff for You. He also made an appearance with his ex-wife Linda Thompson on her terrific song, Love's for Babies and Fools, which opened her new CD, Won't Be Long Now, which also features their son Teddy among various family members, and other notable guests such as John Doyle, Amy Helm, and Eliza and Martin Carthy. Patty Griffin pens and sings stark, emotion-filled songs of death and loss and desolation on American Kid with Don't Let Me Die in Florida and Gonna Miss You When You're Gone as special highlights.


His voice may be gruffer than ever, but an aging Guy Clark imbues his lovingly crafted songs on My Favorite Picture of You, the title track is a moving evocation of his recently deceased wife, Susannah, and is one of Clark's finest songs ever. Steve Earle, together with the band The Dukes (and Duchesses), ranges from rocking numbers to banjo breakdowns on The Low Highway. This strikes me, as a whole, as a cut below Earle's best, but the title track is certainly one of his best songs. Slaid Cleaves trods ground oft covered by Earle in Still Fighting the War. The title track, with special guest Jimmy Lafave, and such songs as Rust Belt Fields and Hometown USA give a penetrating oversight of those falling farther and farther behind the evaporating American dream. One of the lesser-known Texas songwriters, Darden Smith, has a somewhat smoother, less rootsy sound than many of his fellow Texans, but no less powerful songs, and Love Calling is one of his finest CDs.



Buddy Mondlock is one of those often termed a "songwriter's songwriter," with the likes of Guy Clark, Janis Ian, David Wilcox, Peter Paul and Mary, and Art Garfunkel recording his music. On The Memory Wall, the Nashville based Mondlock brings forth a sterling collection of new songs, including writing collaborations with Guy Clark and Garth Brooks. I'm especially enamored of his catchy, somewhat pop song What Do I Know. Melissa Greener, who sings harmony on Mondlock's CD, makes a great leap in her own career with Transistor Corazon, which blends the Tex-Mex influence of the title track with bluesy songs, folk-country influences, catchy melodies ( Ghost in the Van) and a lovely cover of If I Fell.


was not even planning on making a whole album when she got together to record a few numbers with multi instrumentalist Jordan Brooke Hamlin, but things went so swimmingly that the very fine CD There's a Last Time for Everything was the result. Roche's hauntingly gorgeous voice and astute insights into matters of the heart are well demonstrated, especially on duets with Colin Meloy ( Seek and Hide) and Mary Chapin Carpenter ( A Quiet Line). Another impressive young artist, Jenna Lindbo, plays piano and banjo and writes and sings somewhat offbeat songs which prove very catchy, on Jasmine Parade, which includes touching tributes to a piano teacher ( Thank You Jane) and gardener ( Eleanor's Garden). A master of offbeat songs, the tremendously creative Cary Cooper, has released what may be her strongest CD, Zuzu's Petals. A master of the details of everyday life, Cooper has real winners in such songs as Charlie Brown Kinda Day and Little Things.


Ruth Moody


Patty Larkin wrote many of the songs for Still Green in a one room shack on the Outer Dunes of Cape Cod, where she took refuge to sort through the emotions of a year of losing both her parents and facing other family challenges. The resulting songs show both sadness and resilience and feature Larkin's always distinctive and innovative guitar playing. One of the founding members of The Wailin' Jennys, Ruth Moody showcases her gorgeous voice and multi-instrumental (banjo, guitar, ukelele and piano) on These Wilder Things, which has the knockout opening track, Trouble and Woe, and a great song of affirmation and hope in One Light Shining.



Two CDs by New York City based songwriters new to my ears that are worth checking out are Nels Andrews' Scrimshaw and the eponymous release by Ed Romanoff. Nautical themes reverberate through Andrews' songs, with highlights being Flotsam and Tridents, on a CD produced by Todd Sickafoose, who has worked with the likes of Ani DiFranco and Anais Mitchell, Romanoff's deep voice inhabits a poignant slice of life songs like St. Vincent de Paul (co-written with Josh Ritter) and Breakfast for One on the 4th of July. Darryl Purpose marks a return to music after an extended hiatus with Next Time Around, and the title track and Dreams of Life are especially strong highlights, as is the previously unrecorded song, Girl from Golden, by the late songwriter Dave Carter.



Putnam Smith Brooks Williams  and Jack Williams share not only the same last name, but exceptional acoustic guitar skills in American roots and blues music. On New Everything, Brooks has strong original songs, notably One Step and Carry On, a very cool cover of Dave Alvin's King of California, and a tasty duet with fellow guitarist Martin Simpson on the Delmore Brothers' Deep River Blues. On Four Good Days, Jack presents songs spanning his decades in music, some from long out-of-print albums and others never recorded, plus a few new ones, including the outstanding title track. He also pays tribute to the late Levon Helm with his cover of Robbie Robertson's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a great vehicle for Williams' rich, deep South vocals. Also very rootsy is the new one from Putnam Smith, who lives in a log cabin in Maine and plays his grandfather's banjo. The CD Kitchen, Love... has plenty of banjo-based string band delights, such as Succotash and New Shoes, but Smith also turns to the piano for lovely songs such as Looking Up.


One of the preeminent bands in Scottish music, Capercaille, released a fine new CD, At The Heart of It All, with the trademark Scots Gaelic vocals of Karen Matheson and the all-star cast of instrumentalists Charlie McKerron, Manus Lunny, Donald Shaw, Even Vernal and Michael McGoldrick shining on various jigs, reels, strathspeys, marches and airs. Best known for his stirring vocal work for decades with The Tannahill Weavers, Phil MacLennan Smillie features his flute and whistle playing on a gorgeous instrumental CD, Sound of Taransay, which features such guests as fiddler Charlie McKerron and bouzouki player Aaron Jones. Jim Malcolm, once the singer in the band Old Blind Dogs, has been making solo CDs for a number of years that mostly focus on his original songs, but on his new one, Still, he lends his lovely voice to mostly traditional material, such as The Baron o’Brackley and Jock o Hazeldean.



Open the Door for Three Téada showed once again why they are considered one of the premier bands in traditional Irish music with the new CD, In Spite of the Storm, featuring four vocals by new band member Seamus Begley, and the driving tune sets that the band is noted for, with special honors to the great fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada. The band Burning Bridget Cleary brought its twin fiddle sound to this year's KC Irish Fest, and also released the CD Pressed for Time. Along with lots of traditional songs and tunes, they did a very fine version of Richard Shindell’s song On a Sea of Fleu de Lis. Also at this year’s KC Irish Fest were the trio of Pat Broaders, Liz Knowles and Kieran O’Hare, who call their band, and CD, Open the Door for Three. Knowles’ fiddle and the pipes and whistle playing of O’Hare shine throughout, and the rich vocals of Broaders is featured on traditional songs and a great cover of Richard Thompson’s song Beeswing.

Last but not least, special mention should go to a delightfully upbeat collection of songs for kids of all ages, If I Were an Otter, from Oregon-based songwriter and singer Alice DiMicele, who is adept at rootsy folk with blues, gospel and jazz influences. She puts a fun folky twist on Bob Marley's Three Little Birds, gets one clapping and singing along on This Little Light of Mine, and reprises one of her catchiest songs, the stirring Made Out of Water. This writer may be nearing geezerhood, but still loved this "kids" album...and bought one for his new granddaughter.

Bob McWilliams, who earned his B.A. and M.A. in history at the University of Kansas and his J.D. from Harvard Law School, far prefers radio to law. He's hosted jazz programs on KANU and KPR since 1983, and became jazz director and Jazz in the Night's weeknight host in 1996. He also did graduate work in jazz history with the late Dick Wright. He co-hosted the Flint Hills Special for many years, and has produced and hosted Trail Mix, blending contemporary and traditional celtic, folk, bluegrass and beyond, since it began in 1994. He's also active in teaching U.S. History at Johnson County Community College, and is a passionate St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and Kansas Jayhawk basketball fan, as well as an avid if not particulary talented tennis player. Somehow, he also finds time to be an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, and indulges his news habit with three daily newspapers and numerous magazines. Bob also founded the nonprofit West Side Folk concert series in Lawrence. "To me, there's nothing quite like 'goosebump music,' the music that makes time slow down and draws you in, away from everything else, and leaves you with goosebumps," Bob said. "I hope listeners enjoy the music on many levels, but I also hope that, on occasion, I can leave them with 'goosebump' moments."