Balsam Range redefines regional bluegrass

By Chris Cooper

Two things still stick in my mind about Darren Nicholson’s excellent self-titled 2006 release; state of the art musicality married to a completely down to earth attitude, whether in person or on disc. Nicholson’s mastery in bluegrass mandolin has earned him no shortage of acclaim, some of which came in the form of an IBMA award for his work with Alecia Nugent.

Fresh voices gain ground

Angi West: Orange Thread In A Blue Sea

Thoughtfully arranged tunes that wander through elements of folk, sun-dappled guitar and piano-driven pop and the occasional hint at twangy alt-country aren’t difficult to find on Angi West’s new CD.

Carried by a shape-shifting voice and nicely crafted storytelling, Orange Thread In A Blue Sea takes a few attention-grabbing turns. Check out the cabaret drama brought by the accordion halfway through “Every Drop In This Glass,” or the shimmering pedal steel and piano of “The Light In Your Eyes” for fine examples of choosing exactly the right color at the right time to enhance a song.

West demonstrates a disarming fragility in sections of “A Good Catholic Boy,” but no other tune reveals her “old soul in a young body” personality and tone as well as “Black Crow,” sung a cappella with nary a frill to be found.

“Home” shines brightly as well, and has the most potential as a song that could gain her more attention if heard by the right ears. It wouldn’t sound out of place on an older Kate Bush album, either, in the way it’s delicate verses build until giving way to a chorus and bridge peppered with strings and West’s aching delivery. And though the word “love” makes several appearances in the lyric, there’s a pervasive sense of sadness to the song that keeps you from breathing too easily. Again, it’s that sense of drama that pulls you in, marking the difference between simply hearing something that’s “good” or something that deserves another spin to really digest and enjoy.

It probably doesn’t need to be mentioned that West is a local musician, this is her very first CD, and that the majority of the recording of Orange Thread In A Blue Sea was handled right here in WNC, but just in the case it did, well, there you go. West is a musician with no shortage of potential, and seeing where she goes with it is just one benefit of having another gifted songwriter in our midst.


Corinne West: Second Sight

I swear that it’s pure coincidence that both artists reviewed this week are female and happen to have the same last name. Just wanted to get that out of the way.

Corinne West has a voice that’s sweet, but just beneath the surface is something a little coarse and blue and just waiting to jump out. Even on the first cut, during the line “you know why I lose it /and I know why you’re quiet,” it’s the way she yells “quiet,” the frustration in her voice that gives this already powerful song real wings.

Of course, having the baddest cats out of Nashville in your corner can’t hurt in the least, especially when they have names like Jerry Douglas (jedi of the Dobro that he is) and similarly talented mandolin master Mike Marshall. Toss Tony Furtado and Darol Anger into the mix and you have the makings of a fine CD.

West isn’t afraid at all to embrace bluegrass and country as her roots, but it’s a quality in her voice that keeps the music from feeling too “grassy.” At once playful and the next moment world-weary and matter of fact, her interpretive skills are truly impressive, doing great service to an already stellar bunch of songs. Wells’ ability to go straight for the gut with a tune could easily have been developed in the formative years she spent as a busker, where one’s skill ability to emote is directly related to one’s likelihood of eating that night.

Second Sight has a distinct personality as an album — the choices to keep a chuckle into the microphone at the end of “Gandy Dancer” or the birds chirping at the close of “Cabin Door” heighten the quirkiness factor. West’s voice and songwriting are chock full of humor, wit and emotion as well, and she’s endowed with an innate understanding of harmony. Creating train whistle-styled layers here and lush waves of voice there (“All Good Things” being one of the best illustrations of these qualities) she sounds like she enjoys what she’s doing, let alone how good she is at doing it. Add to it the stellar playing of the “band” and you’ve got one of the most enjoyable new bluegrass CD’s I’ve heard in months. Excellent.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Exploring every angle: Alison Brown’s bluegrass journey comes to Maggie Valley’s Eaglenest Entertainment Sept. 8

By Chris Cooper

The phrase “well rounded” gets thrown about pretty often, but it fits few people better than banjoist extraordinaire Alison Brown. Her forays into the many facets of bluegrass music, as well as her superb technical and compositional abilities have earned her Grammy and IBMA awards, critical acclaim and immense respect from music fans of every stripe.

Truth is, Sloe Gin fizzed

By Chris Cooper

Robben Ford: Truth

Not many guitarists can meld the harmonic sensibilities of jazz with the visceral punch of blues and make it work. Often, the “blues” part of it gets watered down in order to better accommodate the instrumentalist’s need to demonstrate their “jazz” leanings, and we know that never works very well.

Beach Boys coming to Canton

By Chris Cooper

The ocean’s a powerful thing. Source of life, nice to look at ... all that stuff. How many fond memories do you have of the beach, the sights and smells, seagulls and bikinis? Ever found yourself wandering the shoreline and had some little tune pop into your head that went something like, oh, I don’t know — “... I wish they all could be California girls ...” or “... little deuce coupe, you know what I like ...”

Recommended diversions

“Picket Fences,” and “Northern Exposure”

Is it possible to be nostalgic for the 1990s already? Or maybe it is the relative lack of excellent, quirky, hour-long “dramadies,” especially on network television. Before HBO blew the networks away with “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood,” and the like, these shows were two of the best television had to offer. “Picket Fences” was created by David Kelley, who also created “LA Law,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Boston Legal,” among other shows, but I thought “Picket Fences” might be the best of the bunch, and after a long delay, the first season is finally available on DVD. Since Kelley’s shows are often topical, some of the episodes seem a bit dated now, and the edginess of the show is not nearly as edgy now in the wake of “The Sopranos,” et al. Still, it is well worth seeking out. “Northern Exposure,” on the other hand, has not dated at all, remaining as fresh and inventive as the day it aired. Instead of watching another stupid reality show, give these a try, or if you know and love them already, go ahead and wallow in some ‘90s nostalgia.

A smashing residency in Asheville

By Joe Hooten

As I was barreling down Interstate 40, racing to make it to Asheville in time to see the fifth concert in a nine-show residency put on by the Smashing Pumpkins at one of the South’s finest venues, the Orange Peel, I hesitantly reached into my glove compartment to find my map. I slowly unfolded the aged paper with some lingering anxiety and felt compelled to double-check to see if my favorite mountain metropolis was still there.

I played in a classic rock cover band and lived to tell about it

By Chris Cooper

Through the last few “Play For Peace” extravaganzas I’ve been lucky enough to meet and perform with some musicians I might not have had the opportunity to otherwise. Having studied, poked and prodded Sylva’s little microcosm of a music scene over the years, I’ve attended many more shows than I’ve actually participated in, something most of my closer friends have graciously tolerated me whining about somewhat incessantly. “Oh, woe is me, always a bridesmaid, never a guitarist...” it would go, ad infinitum, with much eye-rolling and self conscious gnashing of teeth. “If only I could get out there and play some rock and roll, then everybody would know I wasn’t totally full of... myself.” I mean, Mark Knopfler was a music writer back in the day, and he doesn’t suck, right?

Celebrating a jazz guitar legend

By Chris Cooper

Up for review this week is a live set of inspiring music from an incredibly influential musician in his genre: a burning birthday celebration from one of jazz guitar’s brightest and most enduring lights, the inimitable Kenny Burrell, flanked here by a host of remarkable musicians from the cream of the jazz crop.

Women to watch

By Chris Cooper

In the mid 90’s it would’ve been nearly impossible to write about “new to the scene” female artists without mentioning Paula Cole. You know, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and all that.

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