Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern & Ray SMM 1012
"It’s straight-up, meat-and-potatoes bluegrass music of the kind that all too rarely features prominent female vocals...Truly great stuff." –CD Hotlist
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 Ol’ 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, “This album is respectfully dedicated to Vern Williams and Ray Park, early sources of inspiration for both of us.” 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. – 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 I’ll Be * Black-Eyed Susie * To Hell With The Land * Flying Cloud * Montana Cowboy * Down Among the Budded Roses * Thinkin’ of Home * Field of Flowers * How Many Times * My Clinch Mountain Home * My Old Kentucky Home * Blue Grass Style * Touch of God’s Hand
Vern Williams and Ray Park were both from the Ozarks, but only met after each had moved to San Francisco in the 1950s. There they had a huge influence on the bluegrass and folk scene that burgeoned in the Bay Area throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Fans (and occasional sidepersons) included singer/guitarist Kathy Kallick and singer/fiddler Laurie Lewis, who both went on to successful careers of their own and have now collaborated on this wonderful tribute album. It’s straight-up, meat-and-potatoes bluegrass music of the kind that all too rarely features prominent female vocals; here Lewis and Kallick handle most lead and harmony singing, and they’re accompanied by such illustrious helpers as slide guitarist Sally Van Meter and mandolinist Tom Rozum. Truly great stuff.
Born in Arkansas before moving west and settling there, Vern Williams & Ray Park met in Stockton, California, in 1959. Williams, a mandolinist, and Park, a fiddler, went on to form a -- the adjective is not employed loosely -- legendary bluegrass band Vern & Ray. The group dealt in razor-sharp harmony singing and hard-driving Southern mountain sounds on a level of brilliance seldom encountered then or now. If you didn't live on the West Coast, though, you needed to be a hard-core bluegrass devotee simply to have heard of them; their recordings were few and treasured. It didn't help that they were far from bluegrass' geographical center, even today located in the Southeast. The duo broke up in the early 1970s, though the Vern Williams Band continued to produce fierce and compelling 'grass into the 1990s, including two Arhoolie collaborations with country pioneer and fellow Californian Rose Maddox.
As young musicians Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick, now hugely respected figures on California's folk and bluegrass stages, knew Vern & Ray, and Lewis played bass for a time in Vern's outfit. The first Lewis & Kallick collaboration, Together, released on Rounder in 1991, was dedicated to Vern & Ray. Their second, The Songs of Vern & Ray, is just what it says. Specifically, it's 18 cuts chosen from Williams and Park's stellar songbook. They were as adept at choosing songs as they were at delivering them.
I don't hear every bluegrass album that's released over the course of a year, and frankly, I'm pretty sure I don't want to. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and there's plenty of other good rooted music meriting attention. But I do love bluegrass, and I've been hearing it most days of most of my life. So take my word for it: Songs just plain sparkles, and it's as good as any bluegrass recording you'll encounter in 2014. It'll restore your faith in the genre if you've found it faltering lately as weak-in-the-knees pretenders have offended your sense of bluegrass' truth and power. It's also a return to form for Lewis & Kallick, whose most recent, singer-songwriterish solo efforts, while not bad, hardly represent their strongest work.
It bears noting that Vern & Ray's music was, one might say, high-testosterone stuff, tough and intense enough to peel the paint off any building in its way. Lewis & Kallick do not attempt to imitate the originals. They don't have to; their own approach is robust and confident enough to produce a music that is fully credible on its own terms. Sometimes the two recall a bluegrass-era Carter Family, and not just when they're performing A.P. Carter's "My Clinch Mountain Home," though I suspect that the original Carters, if still around, would be thrilled at what's been done to their song.
Stephen Foster may seem an unlikely source for bluegrass songs, but Vern & Ray managed to make "My Old Kentucky Home" seem as if actually from an old Kentucky home. Lewis & Kallick resurrect it with harmonies that will make you weep some more, though in a nice way. The album opens with a high-stepping version of "Oh! Susanna" that turns out to be a much better song than you may have remembered. Lewis & Kallick gallop through the range country of Ray's celebratory "Montana Cowboy," Vern & Ray's one enduring contribution to the bluegrass repertoire (covered by Emmylou Harris among others), and cut through the heart of the Carters' doleful "Cowboy Jack."
In all of this, they have superior musical backing from a small ensemble featuring Lewis's longtime musical partner Tom Rozum (mandolin) and Patrick Sauber (banjo) while Kallick plays guitar and Lewis fiddle and bass. Banjoist/guitarist Keith Little, once a member of the Vern Williams Band, joins them here and there, as does resophonic guitarist Sally Van Meter. Annie Staninec adds a second fiddle to the exquisite "Thinkin' of Home," a rare Park/Williams writing collaboration.
Tribute albums are sometimes -- well, mostly -- pointless exercises. Not this one, the product of love and sincerity, certainly, but more than that, of talents equal to the ones being celebrated.
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 and Woody 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!
KCBL Radio ~ Al Shusterman
As a big fan of Vern & Ray, I couldn't wait to put this project in my cd player. After playing your newest project "Sing The Songs of Vern & Ray" numerous times, I just had to tell you how much I loved this project. This dynamic project brought all of their music "back to life" again. The vocals both lead and harmony were "magical". I was riveted to my cd player the entire time this project was playing. I even found myself singing along with you. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is definitely a 10! I can't wait to share it with my listeners.
Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick got their start in the music business playing in the California bluegrass scene of the 1970s, and have been singing together just as long. Long critically acclaimed, the pair often played in the bands of legends Vern Williams and Ray Park, who formed much of what their descendants would try to emulate in the intervening years. Laurie and Kathy recorded their first duet album ‘Together’ of Vern & Ray songs, and now they’re back with a brand new collection, ‘Laurie & Kathy Sing The Songs of Vern & Ray’. Implanting themselves firmly back in their roots, the duo perfectly complement each other, interpreting the various tracks faithfully and sprightfully. One of the songs is ‘Montana Cowboy’, overtly twangy in these days of modern polish and digital editing techniques, but wonderfully so. Those looking for a window in the past with crystal clarity won’t be disappointed.
Brenda Hough, Bluegrass Breakdown (California Bluegrass Association newsletter), August, 2014
Sugar and spice, salt and pepper, Vern and Ray, Laurie and Kathy. Marvelous pairings of flavor and sound soar in this collaboration between Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick. Their last pairing on an album was over twenty years ago, and it unites two talented singers with some of the songs that propelled bluegrass into prominence in California… Laurie and Kathy have a marvelous vocal blend together and their love for the music of Vern and Ray shines through every note.
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 Family’s “My Clinch Mountain Home” and Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna.” On tracks like “To Hell with the Land” Lewis and Kallick capture the swagger of the music as well as the culture of the time when these songs were written.
If you’re a fan of both Lewis and Kallick, this is the album you’ve been waiting for—one 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 “Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern &.Ray.”
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 that’s 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 didn’t 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 – women in our 30s and 40s who loved bluegrass but who didn’t see how we could possibly fit in.
When they recorded their “Together” 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, they’ve done remarkable work on their own and with others. They’ve written tear jerkers and hilarious songs and kids’ 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 Kathy’s band consistently stay in the top of the bluegrass charts for months and months.
So, OK, back to the CD, right?
It’s just stunning. From the first notes of Oh! Susanna you know it’s 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 it’s obviously not all about the music. It’s so much about enduring friendships and about being able to go off in all directions and know you really can go home again. It’s 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 I’m particularly grateful to Laurie & Kathy, for so much.
But really, go buy the CD, even if it’s just for the music. Because that’s certainly enough.