Archive for June, 2017

in performance: festival of the bluegrass, first day

mike hartgrove and sammy shelor of lonesome river band. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“Bluegrass – it’s legal everywhere.”

So read the T-short slogan of a patron roaming the Kentucky Horse Park Campground shortly before dusk on an evening that felt more like mid-autumn than early summer. Askew climate setting aside, the surrounding and especially the sounds all signaled the 44th start to one of Lexington’s most honored musical gatherings, the Festival of the Bluegrass.

As has been the case for many years, the Lonesome River Band headlined the Festival’s first night with a set boasting a musicality both rustic and relaxed. Leader Sammy Shelor again typlified the mix. As an often awarded banjoist, he remains a retiring figure onstage, keep his solos to a lean minimum in favor of piloting a richly rhythmic ensemble. You heard with the percolating accessibility of “Thunder and Lighting” and a crisp, set-opening cover of “Ida Red” (the latter a preview of LRB’s forthcoming “Mayhayley’s House” album). But guitarist Brandon Rickmand and mandolinist Jesse Smathers, who rotated led vocal chores throughout the performance also deftly decelerated LRB’s propulsion at times, as during the sterling weeper “Mary Ann.”

flatt lonesome: siblings kelsi harigill, buddy robertson and charli robertson.

Flatt Lonesome, a youthful, gospel-tooted band with members spread from Alabama to Ohio, preceded LRB with a set that was akin to round at a country music jukebox. Fronted by three siblings – fiddler Charli Robertson, guitarist Buddy Robertson and mandolinist Kelsi Harigill, all of whom traded vocal duties – the band provided a youthful gusto to songs penned and/or popularized by Buddy Miller, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Martin, Merle Haggard and more. The opening “Cold Rain and Snow” set the pace, spotlighting a light instrumental fabric highlighted by dobroist Michael Stockton. The siblings harmonies regularly swooped either in three part symmetry or in beautifully splintered form, as the sisterly vibe fueling the Texas swing stride of “Never Let Me Go.”

ron bowling of custom made bluegrass.

Rounding out the bill was Custom Made Bluegrass, a very capable band of Central and Eastern Kentucky performers with a bright balance of gospel originals, a far-reaching array of bluegrass standards (“In the Pines,” “Molly and Tenbrooks”) and a flair of retro-inclined country material (“Streets of Bakersfield,” “I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent”) that played nicely to the inviting vocal leads of guitarist Van Ramey and mandolinist Ron Bowling.

A footnote to last night’s program: Dolton Robertson, grandfather to the Flatt Lonesomne siblings, died Wednesday. The band cancelled all of its weekend performance, except for the Festival of the Bluegrass. While it didn’t arrive at the Horse Park until Custom Made Bluegrass was onstage, Flatt Lonesome began its set on time. “It’s been quite a week,” remarked Harigill. Regardless of the loss, an strongly animated family spirit drove the performance.


critic’s pick: roger waters, ‘is this the life we really want?’

“We cannot turn back the clock, cannot go back in time,” sings Rogers Waters near the midway point of “Is This the Life We Really Want?” True to form, the Pink Floyd co-pilot follows that somber reflection with a defiant jab we can’t reprint here. It’s hardly provocative. In fact, given the vehemence Waters has been dispelling from his songs for the last four decades, it’s all but expected. Even that opening line is, in essence, old news, as “Is This the Life We Really Want?” falls so eerily in line with his last proper rock recording, “Amused to Death,” that the most shocking attribute to the music is that the two recordings were released nearly 25 years apart.

At 73, Waters remains unfazed in his outrage. He blasts our current president in “Picture That” (again with lyrics we would love to quote here, but can’t) against a dark, jangly groove that sounds like it fell right off his Floyd-ian opus “The Wall.” Later, “Smell the Roses” keeps the groove elemental and fearsome as it underscores a saga of warfare with a spitfire of sound effects montages and spoken word chatter that brings to mind the lost 1977 Floyd epic “Animals.”

So why does the aural strife Waters summons throughout “Is This the Life We Really Want?” make for a recommended listen? Part of it is the Pink Floyd appeal, for sure. Waters has often flirted with the narcissistic, fashioning solo music that is dramatically bleaker than the post-Floyd work of former bandmate David Gilmour. While some might find such despondency repetitive and even boorish, Waters gives plenty of reasons on “Is This the Life We Really Want?” for us to buy into the bleakness, especially when the music settles.

For all its inner turmoil, Waters’ message on the new album is rooted in anti-war and global human rights sentiments. On its finest track, “The Last Refugee,” he outlines a tale of separation that isn’t violent or revolutionary, just human and sad. That it dances about lightly with a warmer, ballet-like melody (echoed later in the album during “The Most Beautiful Girl”) makes the tune even more absorbing.

Waters likes to work with en vogue producers, as well, from ‘70s arena rock heavy Bob Ezrin (for “The Wall”) to pop journeyman Patrick Leonard (for “Amused to Death”). On “Is This the Life We Really Want,” he enlists longtime Radiohead sidekick Nigel Godrich. That might provide Waters some cred with new generation fans but it matters not a smidge to the music. Waters rattles on here the same way he always has, with a clenched fist attitude, an unrelenting world weariness and a sonic splendor that proves the mighty Pink Floyd grandeur is alive, well and highly ticked off.

lonesome ruhks

Band of Ruhks: Kenny Smith, Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby.

It’s been quite some time since Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby have been this Lonesome.

As the foundation of the contemporary bluegrass troupe Band of Ruhks, the three established their far reaching musical profiles as bassist, guitarist and mandolinist, respectively, with the Lonesome River Band. All three departed in 2001, after solidifying the group’s mighty instrumental drive alongside banjoist Sammy Shelor and, in the process, fortifying a level of popularity carried on by subsequent versions of the band.

But the chemistry between Bowman, Smith, and Rigsby was never forgotten as the three established separate careers. Band of Ruhks rekindles it completely. While its self-titled 2015 debut album hardly ignores tradition, as shown by a vocal cameo by the late bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley on “Coal Mining Man,” the record regularly extends its reach to more contemporary country and Americana inspirations.

“We’re a bluegrass band with traditional sensibilities but are forward leaning,” said Isonville native Rigsby, who served as the inaugural director of Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music for eight years following his exit from the Lonesome River Band.

“We definitely pay respect and revere the old guys. I mean, shoot, we had Ralph on the last album. But it’s one of these deals where we know we can’t beat the guys who have already done this, so we’re going to do our own thing. When I play with these guys, I think that I’m with some of the best musicians on the planet. There is nobody who can sing better than Ronnie Bowman. There is nobody who can play guitar better than Kenny Smith.”

The three reteamed with Shelor for a one-off reunion of their Lonesome River Band roster in 2010. But with Shelor still committed full time to the group’s present lineup, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby worked with a succession of other banjoists to form Band of Ruhks. Its current enlistee is Brian Fesler, who preceded Shelor, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby in the Lonesome River Band.

“When the three of us were all in the Lonesome River Band together, we knew we could make great music and get along because we did so for years,” Rigsby said. “But at the same time, everybody kind of gets in a spot where they feel they need to explore more, so we all went our separate ways. Ronnie became quite a well known songwriter (he has penned chart-topping songs for Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, among others), Kenny went on to teaching and did great records with his wife Amanda. I went into the education field and had my own band together. There were growth opportunities for all of us.

“But when I was getting ready to leave my job at the university, I had been kind of itching to play with the guys again, so I contacted all of my bandmates for a Lonesome River Band reunion. We only did one concert because Sammy already had his Lonesome River Band lineup going since we had all been gone. We talked about doing some more dates, but I think it got to the point where Sammy felt like it might be counterproductive to have two Lonesome River Bands out there. Still, Kenny, Ronnie and me decided there was a lot of great music left for us to make together.”

A sophomore Band of Ruhks album, the group’s first with Fesler on board, is in the planning stages. Before that will be considerable summer touring. When off the road, Rigsby calls Sandy Hook, just a few miles from Isonville, home.

“They couldn’t run me off if they tried,” he said. “Even if they did, I’d just wind up back there in Elliott County. It’s good because they keep you humble there. They don’t want you to get too big. They like to keep you anonymity. I kind of like that anonymity, too.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and hear someone say, ‘Hey, there’s ol’ Don. He’s no big deal.’”

Band of Ruhks performs at 5 and 8 p.m. on June 10 as part of the Festival of the Bluegrass at the  Kentucky Horse Park Campground. The festival runs through June 11. Tickets are $10 (June 11 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only). Call: 859-253-0806 or go to

the lowdown from hammertowne

Hammmertowne. Top row: Scott Tackett, Bryan Russell, Dave Carroll; Bottom row: Caston Carroll, Brent Pack. Photo by Allison Pack.

The name is a little tricky – Hammertowne. Dave Carroll says it’s derived from the kind of aggressive, rhythmic bluegrass music his band fell in line with.

“We’re traditional in terms of the pace of our music and the type of music we prefer, but we’re also kind of edgy in how we play. We’re high energy and kind of like to hammer down onstage. That’s where our name came from.”

But then there is the town aspect of Hammertowne, which performs Friday as the Festival of the Bluegrass gets into full gear at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. That could be seen as a reference to the variety of Eastern Kentucky communities the band’s members hail from. Guitarist Carroll lives in Johnson County (specifically, Flat Gap) but is a native of Ashland, which is where his son, Hammertowne mandolinist Chaston Carroll, now resides. Bassist Bryan Russell makes his home in Magoffin County, just outside of Salyersville. Banjoist Brent Pack is from Louisa and lead vocalist Scott Tackett lives in Olive Hill.

“We describe our origin as Eastern Kentucky,” Carroll said. “That’s the best way it works for us. We all live within about an 80 mile radius of each other.

“For me, music was just part of my life growing up in that area. I actually didn’t start playing music until I got out of high school. I have a relative who is very well known throughout Central and Eastern Kentucky, an old time fiddle player by the name of Marvin Carroll. I remember when Marvin was playing with a band in a local community center. I went out and saw him one night and the bug bit me hard. From that point, I was determined to play and sing. I got me a guitar which has encompassed a whole lot of my life ever since.”

Hammertowne got its start when Tackett, weary of his previous bluegrass band, set out to make a solo record with Carroll’s help. Once the record, titled “Looking Back,” was completed, the two took on concert dates initially booked for Tackett’s previous band. Friends soon joined and what was once a solo endeavor became Hammertowne. The band’s third album, “Hillbilly Heroes,” is set for release on June 30.

“Folks in the industry will tell you how, most of the time, bands don’t last to the third album,” Carroll said “The third album is kind of the bar setter. I’m more excited about this record than any project I’ve ever been a part of. We’ve got, I think, really great songs to work with.”

Carroll knows his way around a good song, too. His compositions have been recorded and popularized by, among many others, two longtime headliners at the Festival of the Bluegrass – the Lonesome River Band (which tops Thursday’s abbreviated bill) and Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out (which leads the Friday lineup).

While a few of the Hammertowne members have played the Festival of the Bluegrass previously in other groups, Carroll hasn’t. Like many, though, he has been a patron.

“I attended that festival for the first time in 1985, when it was still at Masterson Station Park, but haven’t been back since it moved to the Horse Park. Still, it’s one of those great festivals, like Bill Monroe’s festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, which we got to play last year (and will again next week).

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but 2017 is only our fourth year as a touring band. When you look at the tradition of the Festival of the Bluegrass and the bands that have come across the stage… I mean, we could not be any more excited. This is one of those bucket list festivals. It was on our list, certainly, when we first formed this group. We were so thrilled to find out that we made the bill, so we’re super excited to be there this year.”

The Festival of the Bluegrass runs June 9 through June 11 at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. Hammertowne performs at 2 and 7 p.m. June 9. Tickets: $10 (June 11 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only); $100-$115 (entire festival). Call: 859-253-0806 or go to

in performance: tommy emmanuel

tommy emmanuel.

Tommy Emmanuel took great pride last night at the Lexington Opera House in explaining his family heritage.

“I come from a long line of mechanics,” he beamed.

That might not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the kind of industrial strength potency the Aussie native displayed on solo acoustic guitar. For the better part of two primarily instrumental hours, Emmanuel unleashed dizzying but highly proficient melodic runs, stern percussive rolls, blinding speed and an agility in shifting from style to style as readily as one might shift the gears on a bike.

Take the way, for instance, “Blood Brothers,” eased out of its dark, Southern intro into a Spanish flavored melody while slaps on the strings cut through the tune like cracks of thunder. Consider the way a homeland staple like “Waltzing Matilda” was thoroughly Americanized with a generous dose of country whimsy inherited by mentor Chet Atkins. Then there was Emmanuel’s cover of the Mason Williams hit “Classical Gas,” which was hotwired into the aural equivalent of a car chase. It became less an exercise in emotively melodic drama and more of a warp speed dash.

The pace and intensity was purposeful, the guitarist said, stating his upbringing in Aussie pubs taught him to play “loud, fast and hard.” After the first 20 minutes or so, when the full scope and drive of Emmanuel’s astonishing technique was unleashed, it was hard not to wish for at least some kind of reprieve, a tune or two that would allow audience members to at least loosen their seat belts for a moment.

Such a breather was presented in a newly composed original for the guitarist’s daughter, “Rachel’s Lullaby,” and the “Bridge of Spies”- inspired “Eva Waits,” the only new tune from the recent “Live! At the Ryman” album. Both works turned the performance inward to a lighter, more lyrical sensibility. Emmanuel’s technical prowess was just as commanding as the music performed at a breakneck pace, but its emotional impact was understandably more reserved and graceful.

Cap all that off with tunes that had Emmanuel juggling lead and rhythm lines simultaneously (as on “Day Tripper,” which was tucked inside a briskly executed Beatles medley) and a joyous performance attitude that insured no one was having more fun last night than Emmanuel himself and you had an expert evening of cross-continental guitar play.


critic’s pick: the beatles, ‘sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band’ (anniversary edition)

“I think there’ll be another day singing it,” remarks Paul McCartney to John Lennon at the end of a very different take to the title tune of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that sits at the heart of a new two-disc edition marking the classic Beatles record’s 50th anniversary. How very fortuitous of the future Sir Paul. A half century on, “Sgt. Pepper” has been rightly viewed as a watershed album in terms of production, arrangement and, of course, pop composition. But it doesn’t hurt having an accompanying fly-on-the-wall scrapbook disc, which accompanies Giles Martin’s new remastering of the original album, to help us view how one of the most heralded recordings of the psychedelic era came to be.

We got a very brief hint of the inner workings to “Sgt. Pepper” on the Beatles’ “Anthology” series in 1995. Needless to day, this new edition is far more detailed and enlightening. Hearing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” emerge from a rattle of studio chatter, folkish strumming and even a sneeze? Lennon shouting bits of advice and nonsense before McCartney takes over a loose but absorbing “Lovely Rita”? Marching harpsichord lines searching for a melody that Ringo Starr cements with the groove of “Fixing a Hole” before McCartney offers subtle approval (“And that’s right”)?

Admittedly, the second disc to the new “Sgt. Pepper” is a bit of a nerdish paradise. But think of it more like a childhood investigation akin to the dismantling of a clock to find out literally what makes it tick? “Sgt. Pepper” has been such a familiar part of pop history for so long that discovering some new element to its construction and appeal seems remote. This new edition doesn’t altogether do that, but it does succeed in the way, say, a museum exhibition might – by gathering all the elements of a work we know by heart with sketches and blueprints of how that masterpiece came to be. For the curious, this two disc edition offers appealing insight. The morbidly obsessive, though, will likely lap up a different, six-disc version that further examines “Sgt. Pepper” with additional outtakes and a variety of studio mixes. The two-disc version was reviewed here.

My favorite moment on this new edition doesn’t deal with any of that, though. It’s a deconstructed version of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” that isolates the tune’s Eastern instrumentation. Aside from the audible studio intro stating “take one,” a stirring blend of sitar and tabla wash over you, creating a moment unlike any other on the album. This is where you again realize, a half-century on, just how worldly “Sgt. Pepper” and the Beatles truly were.

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