Eddy Raven with Carolina Road,
All Grassed Up
(Pinecastle, 2017)

Kim Robins,
Raining in Baltimore
(Pinecastle, 2017)

As songwriter and performer, Louisiana-born Eddy Raven (Futch on his birth certificate) has recorded in a variety of styles over the course of his long life. He is best known, though, for a string of country hits in the 1980s. In those days I was listening to country radio -- it still had something to offer the discerning listener -- and just about every Raven release was a treat. The songs were solid, and his easy baritone, adept at telling ordinary-guy stories, was always welcome in the ear.

On All Grassed Up he has what -- as far as I know -- is his first bluegrass release. I confess I had never thought of "Eddy Raven" and "bluegrass" at the same moment or (till now) placed them in the same sentence. I certainly would not have associated him with Lorraine Jordan's excellent trad-grass outfit, Carolina Road (see my review in this space on 31 August 2013). It proves a happy pairing, this marriage of Raven's country soul and Carolina Road's bluegrass muscle.

This sort of thing doesn't always work, however logical it may seem on paper. A genre with its own requirements, bluegrass is not really a form of country but an entity onto itself. Often, even listenable would-be 'grass outings by seasoned honkytonkers (e.g., Merle Haggard, Alan Jackson) turn out to be neither fish nor fowl, but more like hybrid curiosities.

Make no mistake: this is bluegrass of a high order. If the opener and title tune, a Raven original (with David Stewart), is any clue, Raven knows the music. He name-drops Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, the Osborne Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs. Of course, anybody can have heard of these giants. The proof is in the doing, and Raven does it as if he's been doing it forever.

It helps that the songs, mostly Raven's (sometimes co-written), are consistently worthy, more so than on a typical bluegrass disc, on which too much material can feel like little more than an exercise in picking and harmonizing. Those who know Raven's work will recognize old friends decked out in grassy duds, notably "Good Morning, Country Rain," "Who Do You Know in California," "I Should Have Called" and "I Got Mexico." The one cut to step outside a strict bluegrass format, the folkish "Island," draws Kenneth Barrier's Hawaiian lap steel into a memorably lovely arrangement.

Let me put it this way: I'm already hoping for a sequel.

On the other side of the career trajectory, Kim Robins' debut Raining in Baltimore opens promisingly with an ominous folk-bluegrass ballad, Kim Fox's "Eye for an Eye." To my hearing it remains the strongest cut, but if what follow are more standard 'grass flavors, they're tasty ones. Robins' approach incorporates both traditional and contemporary. Naturally, my preference is for the former, and so I am pleased there's more of the former than of the latter.

Even so, her country alto is distinctive and smartly employed even on otherwise slight pop fare (e.g., Donna Hughes's "A Dream"). At another high point Robins and bandmates turn in a deliriously swinging arrangement of Leroy Preston's often-covered "My Baby Thinks He's a Train." Her handling of Dolly Parton's "Sacred Memories" touches on gospel perfection. A big plus is the accompanying bluegrass supergroup, counting the likes of Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey, and Rickey Wasson. Stewart and Wasson also produce.

Though starting late as new artists go (she's old enough to mention a granddaughter), Robins uses her adult perspective to full advantage on this, her first Pinecastle release. With her abundant talent and grown-up outlook, hers gives every indication of being a career bluegrass fans will want to follow.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 June 2017

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