Saturday, November 30, 2013

Prescription Bluegrass Reviews The Velvet Blue - Memories & Heartaches


_________________________________Reviewed by: W.J. Hallock 

When this CD arrived, I had no idea who this band was……. the only recognizable name was Steve Gulley, who produced and engineered this release at The Curve Recording Studio, Cumberland Gap, TN.

Steve also sings some harmony, plays some guitar and wrote the opening song, “I Think I’d Rather Fall.” As a fan of Steve’s song-writing, I was immediately drawn to listen to the first song, which is the only one Steve wrote on this project.

With my old ears, I tend to listen to music one way…. LOUD! After I listen to music in my truck, I always try to remember to turn the volume back down, that way I don’t scare myself to death when I put something new into the CD player.

I forgot to do that before I stuck this CD into my old truck‘s player…… all of a sudden, this KICK A_ _, HOT, COOKIN’ banjo is roarin’ out of the speakers and I’m doin’ all I can to get the volume turned down AND keep the truck in my lane and on the highway! After I got everything under control again and checked every direction to make sure no one saw me clawing at the dash board and dodging the ditch, I pushed the re-play button and started over. With the volume turned waaaaay down…….

After about three tries, the volume was just right and I finally got to listen to the entire first song. I was right, this CD starts with a kick a_ _ , hot, cookin’ banjo that will scare the pants right off of you if you aren’t ready for it! And after the kick off, there is this gravelly, unique voice that just forces you to listen to him tell his story, from the very first words out of his mouth all the way to the end, 3:19 later. This song just about got me killed, but what a great way to start off a CD!

That hypnotic voice belongs to singer/guitar player Brian Cooper. The “Napalm Bomb” banjo player is Megan McKamey, who also sings a little harmony, the upright bass player and co-lead singer is Carrie Johnson and Taylor Hampton is on mandolin. Together this quartet is called “THE VELVET BLUE.” I don’t know where they got the name, but my mind went straight to Bobby Vinton singing “Blue Velvet.”

PRESCRIPTION BLUEGRASS IMAGE[6]If you love gospel music sung with beautiful harmony vocals, then “When The Crops Are Laid By,” song number two, will certainly be pleasing to your ears. With a very simple arrangement, this song, written by Lee Penland is gorgeous, and Brian grew up listening to this song in church. Concerning the song, Ms. Penland told him “God just gives me the words.” And very fine words they are. Everything about this song makes it a gem to listen to. Brandon Godman, guest instrumentalist on the CD, plays three heavenly fiddle tracks throughout this song and the orchestral affect is the perfect icing to this lovely and well done song. Taylor Hampton’s mandolin gives the tune extra warmth. Very nicely done by all.

Brian, Carrie and Taylor wrote my favorite song on the CD called “Once For Sadie.” They were aiming to write a “killin’ song,” and they nailed the subject matter down with this one. Lyrically and melodically, it’s excellent song writing! The vocals have a very distinct harmonic dissonance that adds to the drama, and hot solos by Taylor’s mandolin and Brandon’s fiddle, plus the resophonic flourishes of guest artist, Phil Leadbetter are spot on for the song. Megan’s banjo kick off and repetitive hook line add plenty of zing to the dynamics of the song. The only thing I didn’t like about the song was the ending….. they just let it stop and disintegrate into an uncontrolled mess. This would have been a perfect place for the band to stretch out and take an already well recorded song into a “hot lick” fade out. That, or anything else, would have been preferable to what they did, which was put a not very well thought out ending on a great beginning.

Carrie Johnson has written two songs for this project, and she sings both of them with strength, feeling and emotion. “Starting all Over,” written for her parents, is close to her heart, and her delivery of it here, and in a live version from YouTube, is passionate and heart felt. The harmonies are very well sung, Taylor kicks it off with a sweet mandolin line and delivers a nice solo. The fiddle and dobro fills are understated and well placed. Megan plays the second solo on banjo and really shows her adaptability. A banjo can be abrasive and sharp, but she plays it here very softly and makes it fit the song’s tenderness. At 4:49, the song seems overly long. Careful and thoughtful editing from three verses down to just two might have made the song say just as much, but, in a more concise manner. Sometimes the more simple something is, the more meaning it can have.

This band shows it’s bluegrass muscle on Carrie’s “Memories and Heartaches,” the CD’s title song. The lyrics tell it like it is, Carrie sings it with “attitude” and the band throws all it has at it instrumentally. They do the same with another straight ahead bluegrass tune written by Bill Castle called “Blue In The Blue Ridge Mountains.” Both songs are radio friendly and should be pushed for the world to hear. The band sounds great on them, and all their assets are shown off in a good light.

The CD has twelve songs on it, and one, the old Townes Van Zandt song, “If I Needed You,” really isn’t needed here. It has been done to death, and the very first thing my mind started doing was comparing it to the Emmylou Harris/Don Williams version. No matter how well any duo does it, there will always be comparisons. I firmly believe that a new artist should never cover an established artists material, especially when it’s been a super hit that the whole world knows. As good as the song writers in this band are, with Steve Gulley producing this and already contributing one song (he probably has dozens of songs stashed away!), and the wealth of material out there to pick from, there were plenty of better choices they could have made. I’ve said it before….. each and every slot on a CD is important to the artist, especially a “ just getting started” artist. Each song defines YOU. Record YOU in your best light. Record YOUR songs and collect the royalties! Write songs so good that people ask to hear YOUR songs. Why pay good money for studio time that will not benefit YOU in the long run? Don’t give your audience any reason to compare YOU to anyone else.

Now that I’ve said all that, let me go in the opposite direction and say what a good decision it was to record the old Steven Foster song “My Old Kentucky Home.” This song sent them to Ireland as Ambassadors of the great state of Kentucky and they were made Kentucky Colonels by Governor Steve Beshear. All that aside, they have recorded a one of a kind and perfectly original take on this standard that everyone knows. They have made it their own because there is no definitive version that stands out, or one that it can be compared to. It falls into the same category as The Star Spangled Banner. As long as it’s done well, it’s accepted and enjoyed by the audience. This is an especially good, well arranged and personalized rendition of an American classic, and the band will get a lot of mileage out of it.


There are two songs written by Bobby Hedge. Bobby, who lives in Olive Hill, Kentucky is an old friend of the band by way of his close friendship to the late Grandfather of Taylor Hampton, the mandolin player. The two best old friends played in bluegrass bands together until Taylor’s Grandfather was killed in a saw mill accident several years back. What a wonderful tribute from The Velvet Blue to the formative generation that came before them, and what wonderful gifts these two songs are to this second generation of bluegrass players. I would love to hear more of Mr. Hedge’s songs.

“That Old House,” should be the first single released from this CD! It’s that good in every way possible! The song itself has picturesque lyrics so strong, that one line took me back to when I was a kid watching my own Grandmother, Lenna, cook on her old wood stove in her kitchen, just like the “lad” in the story did in this song. Musically it pushes every player to play with all the heart they have, and the chorus is one of the most strikingly good ones I’ve heard in years. In every way possible, the players nailed this song!!

“January Snow,” is every bit as beautiful as Bobby’s first song, “That Old House.” Haunting lyrics and unexpected chord changes make for another sweet original from Bobby Hedge. Again the players did perfect justice to the depth of the song, and the vocals are just plain superb! Brian on lead, Carrie on tenor and Megan on a high baritone part sound great! A very sensitive fiddle solo and mandolin and reso guitar fills fit like a glove into the fabric of this song. Another one of Bobby’s songs would have been right at home on this CD.

The only instrumental on the recording is called “Slick Treed,” written by Taylor Hampton. I guess for an explanation of what the title means, you have to go to one of their live shows! If you’re a coon hunter, you probably know, but if not, it’ll take Taylor or Brian to explain it to you. All I know is I don’t have a clue what it means….. Taylor saved his hottest licks for this tune, and Megan’s banjo and Brandon’s fiddle light it right up. The only thing missing was Mr. Leadbetter on Resophonic guitar. A good song for the CD, a show piece for the lead instruments and it will work well as an addition to their live shows.

Brian wrote the final song and sings it accompanied only by guitar and a tad of bass. It’s a heart wrenching story called “The Night My Grandpa Died.” To be able to relay the grief you feel, this well, is a strength not every song-writer has. Brian’s song is simply emotion and heartbreak set to music, and for him to share it makes it a gift to us listeners. Thank you Brian… This CD is going to go a long way toward making The Velvet Blue a more well known name. There are a lot of strong attributes that they have laid down for us to hear. There are also some weaknesses that have been exposed, but, nothing they can’t overcome. Their timing can be fractious, and they don’t always play together as solidly as they could. Listening and FEELING for what the other members are playing is so very important. All the timing starts with the bass player….. if Carrie is off even in the slightest, it’s a chain reaction that only gets worse. The bass player has to push the time, and if the band is all driving with forward momentum, then anticipation alone can help keep the time clicking along. When that drive is happening, the groove crawls right up your back, settles in your neck and your head starts bobbing…..and then it’s time for the magic of the vocals and instruments to start. That groove was very elusive to my ears on this CD. Maybe that’s why the bass is hidden too low in the final mix. The overall sound of the CD is very good, IF you listen on headphones or really good speakers. But, the bass just about disappears on every day, ordinary computer speakers. I also wasn’t hearing enough rhythm guitar or that necessary mandolin “chop.” The vocals and the lead instruments sound dynamite, but engineers Steve Gulley and Bryan Turner missed the total sound in the mix.

Steve Gulley has produced tons of top bluegrass recordings, with the best there are in the business playing for him, but….. sometimes the real talents of a Producer will reveal themselves when they work with new, raw and less experienced musicians. When the studio clock is ticking, it’s the Producer who has to say “No, this song isn’t working, lets move on.” It’s the Producer who has to instantly hear a tentative take and say “Let’s try that just once more.” If a mistake isn’t found until after the final mix, then somebody behind the recording console wasn’t listening when they should have been…..

A recording session is like a moment in time, it captures the reality of that specific instant. There are a lot of very good aspects to this CD, there are also some flaws but, I have no doubt that all involved gave it 110%. I’ve lived with this CD for two road trips and several weeks, and I have enjoyed it, warts and all. I think the path The Velvet Blue is on will lead to more rewards in the future, and I can hardly wait to hear their next CD. Do I think the listening public should go out and buy this CD? YEP!! Settle in and listen to it, really listen to it!

1 comment:

  1. Good review, Sounds like a good group with a not so good recording, Steve Gulley is usually real good, maybe it was the mastering.


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