Cody Shuler,
Cody Shuler
(Rural Rhythm, 2015)

Wood & Wire,
The Coast
(independent, 2015)

On his first solo album -- ordinarily he records and tours with his band Pine Mountain Railroad -- mandolinist Cody Shuler proves himself to be a proud and able carrier of the bluegrass tradition. He is also an outstanding songwriter, which is fortunate because the dozen cuts are all products of his own pen. The songs take up familiar themes -- murder, prison, the hobo life, faith, broken love -- with sometimes surprising, even shocking, twists.

For example, "Listen to the Hammer Ring" is a title out of the John Henry family, often visited in one form or another in bluegrass. Its appearance on the song list encourages a certain expectation of what will follow. The hammer-bearer here is named Bill Henry, but he is not the noble John, and what he does with his hammer is not pretty, whatever the provocation. A hard-hitting story-song, it splits the difference between an oldtime mountain ballad and a Tom T. Hall tale. The other murder ballad, "The Beautiful Hills," has a lovely melody and packs a wallop of its own.

From time to time, somebody will complain to me that bluegrass these days is soulless, feeling more and more like an acoustic equivalent to commercial country-pop music. It's true that some current bluegrass stretches the definition, sometimes interestingly, sometimes not so much. But the heart of bluegrass continues to beat in the music of Cody Shuler and other young performers. Every song here does credit to him and the genre he's chosen to pursue.

It helps, of course, that some of bluegrass' leading lights -- banjoists Terry Baucom and Ron Stewart, guitarist Eli Johnston, dobroist Rob Ickes and fiddler Tim Crouch among them -- shine behind Shuler. The magnificent instrumental "Three Rivers Rambler" shows the band out on a particularly joyful stroll. But there is not a weak cut in the lot,.

Wood & Wire is out of the ordinary both in being a bluegrass trio (most groups have a minimum of four members) and in hailing from Austin, which for all its claims (credible and stretched) to being a haven for roots-oriented music is not known for its 'grass acts. The Coast, however, is an album that just gets better each time you hear it. I harbor a special fondness for such recordings. They tend barely to register an impression on first, inattentive hearing, then sneak up and grab you later. The title song suggests that the band, which writes all of its own material, is rooted indeed. The melody is taken from the British traditional "Tramps & Hawkers," which revival folk singers (e.g., Bob Dylan in "I Pity the Poor Immigrant") used to steal with abandon and which always sounded good, but which one is surprised to encounter in a more or less bluegrass setting.

Tony Kamel (guitar, banjo), Dominic Fisher (bass) and Trevor Smith (banjo, mandolin) -- the first two also contribute vocals -- comprise Wood & Wire. This is not entirely a trio performance, however. Bluegrass heavyweights Andy Leftwich (mandolin, fiddle) and Jason Carter (fiddle) join them here and there. The instrumental "Elucidation," which shows the influence of the esteemed guitarist Tony Rice, is more 'grassy jazz than 'grass as such; a delight, I might add. Most of the songs are sparkling in-the-tradition exercises -- well, one drops an earthy four-letter word that it would not have occurred to Bill Monroe to put to music. I know of two other songs titled "Galveston" (Jimmy Webb's and Jonathan Byrd's), both pretty decent, but Wood & Wire's light-hearted, irresistible piece easily holds its own. It's also the one with the (to some) offending expression.

Overall, the band doesn't sound like anybody in particular, though you can catch snatches of Doc Watson, Flatt & Scruggs and the early Dillards, all worthy points of reference. The Coast is a place you'll want to visit.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 May 2015

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