Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray SMM 1012
Before Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick became the highly respected and successful singers, songwriters, and bluegrass bandleaders they are today, they were founding members of the groundbreaking northern California band the Good Olí Persons. Although Laurie remained in that group for only a short while before moving on to lead her own bands, she and Kathy forged a lifelong personal and professional friendship that endures to this day. They recorded a collaborative album, Together, in 1991, for Kaleidoscope Records, on which they performed their wonderful interpretation of the venerable "Little Annie," learned from Vern & Ray. Laurie and Kathy wrote in the liner notes, ďThis album is respectfully dedicated to Vern Williams and Ray Park, early sources of inspiration for both of us.Ē This new album, in which the two perform music exclusively drawn from the repertoires of those early mentors, is the latest coming-together of this multi-talented twosome. It is long overdue. Ė Randy Pitts, from the liner notes
Oh! Susanna * Cabin On A Mountain * Cowboy Jack * Little Birdie * If I Had My Life To Live Over Again * Happy Iíll Be * Black-Eyed Susie * To Hell With The Land * Flying Cloud * Montana Cowboy * Down Among the Budded Roses * Thinkiní of Home * Field of Flowers * How Many Times * My Clinch Mountain Home * My Old Kentucky Home * Blue Grass Style * Touch of Godís Hand
Lots of discs have appeared in my box lately on which great women musicians take on tunes and songs stemming from the old-time tree. I thought I'd share my thoughts on some of those here.
I'll start with Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick, who have sung and played together since they founded the California bluegrass band The Good Ol' Persons back in the 1970s. They learned the craft of bluegrass from the acknowledged masters of the northern California scene, Vern Williams and Ray Park. Williams and Park's careers presaged Lewis and Kallick's important ways: both duos teamed up for a while to make some great music, then went their separate ways, reuniting only occasionally.
In the case of Kallick and Lewis, each fronts her own bluegrass band playing a mix of good old bluegrass numbers and self-penned songs, and they don't often record together. So it's a joy to hear them pay tribute to their late mentors on Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray.
The disc's material reflects the eclectic repertoire of Vern & Ray's band, finding the sweet spot among traditional folk music, early country classics, and more modern compositions, with everything from Foster's "Oh! Susanna" and "My Old Kentucky Home" to the Carter Family's "Cowboy Jack" and "My Clinch Mountain Home," and from folk tunes "Black-Eyed Susie" and "Flying Cloud" to Luther Riley's "Bluegrass Style" and Ray Park's "Thinkin' of Home." Themes of home and love, wandering and worrying, and God and prayer come up again and again, presenting the American experience crystallized in country music. Several songs stand out: Park's "To Hell With the Land" is a riff on environmental degradation, all the more chilling for being forty years old, and his "Happy I'll Be" is a simple gospel song that might just make you feel better.
"Down Among the Budded Roses" is an unusual love song known to Charlie Poole andWoody Guthrie, and given a plaintive reading by Lewis, and "Little Birdie" is a lively folksong that's a perennial favorite in bluegrass. Both frontwomen are in great form, providing what Kallick calls the "razor-sharp laser-beam voices" that give traditional bluegrass its bite, as well as chunky guitar and fantastic lonesome fiddle, while bandmates Tom Rozum and Patrick Sauber fill out the ladies' sparkling arrangements on banjo and mandolin. This is my favorite bluegrass album in years!
Andy Donelly and Roddy Campbell ~ Penguin Eggs Picks
An inspiration for numerous California-based bluegrass bands of the '60's and '70's. And it's a refreshing and wonderful reminder how good Lewis and Kallick can be.
Glenn Herbert ~ Penguin Eggs
Vern Williams and Ray Park are a lesser known duo from the first generation of bluegrass, though in large part brought bluegrass to California. Williams is thought of as the father of California bluegrass, and his recordings and performances with Ray Park were, in a time before iTunes, the entry point for many players who then went on to define the California scene, one that would give rise to Clarence White, Roland White, and Tony Rice, among others.
This collection pays tribute in the purest sense, giving a tour of the songs and the arrangements that Vern and Ray made famous as well as standards that they interpreted, such as the Carter Familyís ďMy Clinch Mountain HomeĒ and Stephen Fosterís ďOh Susanna.Ē On tracks like ďTo Hell with the LandĒ Lewis and Kallick capture the swagger of the music as well as the culture of the time when these songs were written.
If youíre a fan of both Lewis and Kallick, this is the album youíve been waiting foróone that finds them together, applying themselves to the kind of material that they do best.
Randy Pitts ~ Randog's Daily Pick 6/19/2014
Listening to Vern Williams and/or Ray Park live or recorded has always taken me back to a place in my heart and mind that only exists now in memory, when bluegrass was actually taking shape, when it related directly to the folks from whence it came, when it was palpably about the people, the times and the places in the songs, sung and played by people who were at one with the music...The music's elements were more obvious in the singing and playing of pioneers like those two fellows from Arkansas, and closer to the ground; you could hear it in the cowboy ballads like "Cowboy Jack" and "Montana Cowboy", in their heartfelt renditions of traditional stuff like "Little Birdie", "Down Among The Budded Roses", and "Field Of Flowers", Vern's unique interpretations of Stephen Foster compositions, their versions of Carter Family classics, and Vern and Ray's own "hits", songs like "Cabin On A Mountain" ,"Happy I'll Be", and "How Many Times" (all of which are here).Laurie and Kathy listened closely and learned their lessons well from Vern and Ray, and the evidence is here in abundance. I expected a lot from this album, and I'm not in the least disappointed. Both Laurie and Kathy have gone on from their early days as founding members of the--I think we can safely say now-"progressive"- Good Ol' Persons- to their own fully formed and highly distinctive vocal, instrumental, and compositional voices...but there is always more than a little of that hard charging, emotive, no frills approach of Vern and Ray in everything they do, individually or together...and this album is a fitting testament to Vern and Ray, but it's also evidence of how much those two, without even trying, influenced the full flowering of northern California bluegrass, through Laurie, Kathy, and other early highly influential players and singers of northern California--Herb Pedersen, Butch Waller, and Ed Neff come to mind...as well, of course, as Vern's son Delbert and Ray's sons Cary and Larry. Abetted by Tom Rozum on mandolin(playing this traditional stuff to a fare the well), Patrick Sauber on banjo, Laurie on fiddle and bass, Kathy on guitar, with additional help from another northernCalifornia great on dobro, Sally Van Meter, Annie Staninec, and Vern and Ray compadre from days of yore Keith Little... check out his, LL's and KK's version of the great Vern & Ray classic "The Touch Of God's Hand", which closes the album. Great album, destined to be a benchmark for years to come, if I'm any judge.
Claire Levine, Portland, OR 6/20/14
This is a shamelessly gushing and adoring mini-review of the new CD ďLaurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern &.Ray.Ē
I can write this on FB but probably never would tell them directly: These two remarkable women have probably inspired me more than anyone else in bluegrass (excepting Murphy, of course, but thatís a whole different story).
Back when I got serious about learning, there was Kathy Kallick and there was Laurie Lewis. (Those of us on the West Coast didnít learn about Lynn Morris and Claire Lynch until years later.)
Kathy & Laurie.
They sang. They wrote. They fronted bands. They were personable and funny and gutsy and honest and lovely. And, in a way, they belonged to us Ė women in our 30s and 40s who loved bluegrass but who didnít see how we could possibly fit in.
When they recorded their ďTogetherĒ CD, every woman bg-er I knew learned to sing Little Annie, and we all wished for a singing partner who made harmonies sound as easy as breathing.
And for the last 20 years, theyíve done remarkable work on their own and with others. Theyíve written tear jerkers and hilarious songs and kidsí music and bird tributes. Laurie has entertained in an amazingly diverse collection of ensembles, including her band the Right Hands; as a duo with Tom Rozum; and with the next generation of super-talented acoustic musicians. The CDs from Kathyís band consistently stay in the top of the bluegrass charts for months and months.
So, OK, back to the CD, right?
Itís just stunning. From the first notes of Oh! Susanna you know itís going to be a doozy. Their voices are as powerful and precise as when I first heard them: perhaps even more so. They are such masters of their voices. We know they are as versatile in their vocal stylings as they are in their songwriting. But itís still surprising how well they have nailed the clean intensity of the genre they way they learned it from their early mentors, Vern & Ray.
Of course, their back-up musicians are impeccable and, well, exciting. Itís a CD full of joy.But maybe what I love the best is the cover photo.
They are more than 25 years older than when I first heard them. And they are more beautiful than ever. And they clearly love each other.
OK, so for me itís obviously not all about the music. Itís so much about enduring friendships and about being able to go off in all directions and know you really can go home again. Itís about creating new models of beauty and creativity and how to be graceful and gracious under all circumstances.
Their liner notes are full of gratitude. They point me to my own gratitude toward the music and how it has led me to long-standing friendship and a greater sense of community than I ever thought I could experience. And Iím particularly grateful to Laurie & Kathy, for so much.
But really, go buy the CD, even if itís just for the music. Because thatís certainly enough.