Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Prescription Bluegrass CD Review–Feller and Hill and The Bluegrass Buckaroos


Image634992818246789610Feller and Hill and The Bluegrass Buckaroos

Released:   February, 2013

Label:   Blue Circle Records

Review by:   W.J. Hallock

My buddy, Brian McNeal, and I, have been friends since the mid 70’s. Besides being friends, we have one other thing in common….. a love affair with that 60’s Bakersfield country music sound. Brian played all those Buck and Merle songs when he was a disc jockey for KNIX in Phoenix, which was owned by Buck Owens. My band “Cactus County,” and I were playing country music (yeah, LOTS of Buck and Merle!), for dance hall crowds in every honky-tonk and road house in the southwest, with Phoenix being home base.

That sound of Buck and Don Rich singing together, Bonnie Owens (Buck’s ex-wife) vocalizing on all of Merle Haggard’s hit records, and that famous chicken-pickin’ Telecaster guitar playing of Don, James Burton and Roy Nichols will forever be a special part of country music history that we’ll always love. So, now, when anything reminds us of that era, we’re all in and checkin’ it out!

A few months back, Brian sent me some songs to listen to by “Feller and Hill and the Bluegrass Buckaroos.” We both couldn’t believe how much Tom Feller and Chris Hill sounded like Buck and Don singing together! We were pretty excited to see just how this musical adventure was going to turn out, as the CD wasn’t finished and ready for release.

The completed project came last week, and it was all we had hoped it would be. To quote Brian, “Feller and Hill do the third best version of TOGETHER AGAIN ever recorded!”Image634992824285094981 and I whole-heartedly agree. The original version by Buck Owens will always be #1.…. Emmylou Harris OWNS the #2 spot….. and, time will only tell for sure, but, in my humble opinion (AND Brian’s) Feller and Hill have made their version so personalized and passionate as to forever nail down that #3 slot. When you think of all the many artists who have recorded TOGETHER AGAIN, that’s a BIG deal! To re-do a song that defined a specific sound and musical era, and do it in such a way that it makes the song relevant to another generation of listeners, that is the epitome of successful communication skills.

Just so there’s no confusion, this CD is straight ahead bluegrass. Tom and Chris have spent years as sidemen for some of the best bluegrass bands around, and their credentials are exceptional. On this release, Tom plays acoustic and Pedal Steel guitars, mandolin and upright bass. Chris plays all the banjo tracks, and plays any style called for. Earl Scruggs would be proud of Chris’ proficiency in his style, especially with his use of Earl’s patented “Scruggs tuners.” Don Reno and Ralph Stanley’s styles are also in Chris’ arsenal. But what sets this CD apart from those of so many other bluegrass bands, is the way these two talented gentlemen sing together. The two of them have that cohesive magic that not every duo have, and they have taken all their vocal and studio/technical strengths and added layers of vocals to the entire CD to make it a total pleasure to hear.

The very first song on this musical trip kicks off with a bang. The old Delmore Brother’s standard, “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” leaps out of the speakers, complete with two part harmony, a Lester Flatt “G-run” guitar lick and Chris’ 5-string banjo just a cookin’! This song will make you smile, because it’s alive, traditional and as authentic as it gets. Especially notable on this tune is the lead guitar solo of Brian Blaylock. It just plain sizzles!

Image634938367010025187To have your CD considered for review, contact: W.J. Hallock  for specific submission and mailing instructions.


Feller and Hill have learned this genre inside out, studied the masters and absorbed all the aura and mystique of the superstars of bluegrass music. “Southern Moon,” another Alton Delmore number comes next, and they prove it’s no fluke how well they can capture the beauty of a time tested melody and acoustic instruments. Steve Thomas’ fiddle on both of these songs is super, and the vocals are flawless.

The two gospel songs included here, “Is That Footsteps That I Hear,” and “The Lord Keeps A Record,” are, simply put, beautifully done vocally. Tom and Chris also brought in Cody Jones to add his bass vocals to the mixes. To me, gospel singing is the proving ground for just how talented any singer really is. Tom and Chris can easily stand with the best. Each man has a voice that is full of personality, poise, strength and charisma. They each easily stand head and shoulders above a lot of supposedly “great” singers, and they both, in turn, can sing harmony behind the other with an affinity for the other man’s phrasing and technique that is eerily masterful.

Not only do they have the voices to sing all these different parts, but they have the ears to listen for each other and blend appropriately. And the way the songs were recorded, the vocals sound HUGE!, full, rich, perfectly arranged and executed with an aptitude that only comes from years of performing AND recording experience. These two gentlemen have obviously paid attention to every minute detail in this CD, and Co-Producer Steve Thomas expertly delivers technical muscle to this project.

Song #3 is my favorite! I just have to digress and say it again….. “Together Again,” is one of the keynote songs of the Bakersfield sound, and Feller and Hill do a marvelous arrangement of it. Chris and Tom just have that “THING” that makes them sound like Buck and Don. They don’t have to try to do it, they don’t seem to intentionally accentuate the similarity, and the don’t even push the fact that much in their PR material. They just have “IT,“ and that vocal sound helps this song connect the past to the present in a very positive and singular way.

The instrumental side of this recording is just as strong as the vocals. When it comes time for the solo, the dobro, played by Brian Blaylock, and mandolin, by Tom, harmonize for a distinct, one of a kind union on the first half, and then it sounds like about a hundred violins come in for a lush, retro, ‘60’s, Billy Sherrill uptown country string arrangement that perfectly adds to the simple beauty of the song. The magic of those strings was in fact the work of Producer Steve Thomas playing nine different violin parts during sessions at his “Gain Train Studios,“ in Hendersonville, TN. Absolutely spectacular work, and I’ll bet Buck and Don would love this version of the song……. and so would Emmylou!

In their liner notes, Tom and Chris discuss their love of old country music, and on two more of the CD’s tracks they nail down that old swing “mood” perfectly. Don Gibson’s hit (for Ray Price AND George Jones!) Image634992826830810588“Wasted Words,” and Tom T and Miss Dixie’s “Big Blue Roses,” will make you crave a hard wood, sawdust covered dance floor. When you hear twin fiddles, a steel guitar, twin mandolins and a twangy banjo that sounds right at home because of those Scrugg’s tuners, you’ll know it’s two steppin’ time. Tom and Chris use their vocals to capture that country flavor, but, truth be told, the main reason these songs work so well is the upright bass playing of Tom Feller. He plays right on the top side of the beat, pushing and propelling all the other instruments like a Mac truck! If you listen very closely, you’ll hear some of the snazziest swing bass licks you may ever hear. His feel for “time,” which is so essential to this dance hall oriented music, is spot on, lively and perfect.

To show off just how hot Tom and Chris’ “hot licks” can be, give a listen to “I Get The Blues When It Rains.” Chris’ banjo playing is on fire, and Michael Cleveland’s fiddle, Glenn Gibson’s dobro and Tom’s mandolin playing just pour more fuel on the blaze! Tom’s bass track on this one is just as rock solid as on the swing tunes. The song is only 2:08 long, but you’ll be out of breath just listening to it!

Their version of the Mark “Brink” Brinkman tune, “The Old Kentucky Man,” is also a stand out vocally and instrumentally. Mark Brinkman is considered one of the best song writers alive today, and for the boys to include one of his jewels here just shows how serious they were when picking just the right material for their debut.

One of the pleasures of this “job,” is that I sometimes get to exchange e-mails with the artist, asking questions pertaining to the project I’m reviewing. I love to hear all the little details that go into making the music, writing the songs and the recording process. Tom Feller couldn’t have been more accommodating sharing the info of this CD. One of the best cuts on the record is called “What Will You Give For My Old John Deere,“ and with the economic situation the USA is in right now, the song couldn’t be more timely or pertinent. It was written by Judith Feller….. Judy is Tom’s Mother.

She’s written about thirty songs, and this is her first song to be recorded. Tom and Chris did the musical arrangement on this wonderful story song, and Tom is very excited about more of her writings coming to light.

Back in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, she was a columnist for Bluegrass Unlimited, often writing about Tom’s uncles, and their band, “The Boys From Indiana.” Another of those family bands that a young Tom Feller was influenced by was the “Wildwood Valley Boys,” and his uncle, Tom Holt, who was one of the song writing forces for both of those bands, has written three more of the songs Tom and Chris have included here. “Lost Love,” and “Will Heaven Be Like Kentucky,” are both ¾ time waltz’s that are as well written, meaningful and as traditional as bluegrass music gets!

I, for one, would love to hear a lot more of Tom Holt’s original songs! The last song on the CD, “Those Old Things,” was started by Uncle Tom, and young Tom finished it off. All four of these “family” songs add a flavor to the entire CD that speaks volumes about how much Tom and Chris cherish their musical roots and are carrying these gems into today’s bluegrass world.

I find it very impressive that Tom and Chris spent close to two years making a recording that could be so personal, and work so hard to honor those influences they grew up with. The talents these two gentlemen have are gigantic, but, they don’t seem to laud themselves here. They appear grateful for the music, the knowledge they gained on the journey and the friends that helped them along the way. Tom said they set out to make a CD focusing on Feller and Hill, and the challenge was to create a Feller and Hill “sound.” To me, that Feller and Hill sound was born the minute these two started singing together!

When I think of all the great bluegrass and country “Brother” acts, the first thing that comes to my mind is their vocal identity. The Delmore’s, The Stanley’s, The Louvin’s, The Everly’s, The Wilburn’s….. they were all instantly identifiable from the first notes they sang together. Tom and Chris may as well be brothers, because they have that same gift that all those brothers had. Feller and Hill already have their sound, and all their instrumental prowess and studio finesse is just icing on an already tasty cake.

I hope that Tom T, Dixie and Blue Circle Records, put their considerable industry strength behind this CD and push it for all they’re worth. This recording could, and should, be in the running for IBMA Record Of The Year! Feller and Hill, in my mind, have all it takes to be leaders and super stars in the bluegrass industry. They have the roots and history of bluegrass running through their blood, they have a humble demeanor and understand the importance of hard work and family, and they have all the talent necessary to achieve greatness.

GET THIS CD! I’ll bet it’s just the first in what is going to be a long line of wonderful recordings by Feller and Hill.


1 comment:

  1. "Just so there's no confusion..." Any recording which includes electric instruments is not "straight ahead bluegrass" The reviewer does not understand. Bluegrass is acoustic music. Regardless of what instruments are used, that point is clear. Many Bluegrass Festivals do not allow any electric instruments on stage. others allow only electric bass. There is an acoustic resonator pedal guitar, but they are rare. I may enjoy this recording. I would like to see Feller and Hill live, but this is not "straight ahead Bluegrass" Buck Owens wasn't either.


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