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Blazing the West

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    A great banjo album

    "'Blazing the West' is a collection of cowboy and western songs that I wrote or adapted for the five-string banjo..." This concise introduction opens the liner notes to his latest recording, by Ross Nickerson. If you like either western or banjo music, stop reading and go get this one. I'll use "Texas Blues," which is the sixth of thirteen tunes on this album, as a perfect example of several qualities which permeate "Blazing the West." Ross Nickerson makes you believe these were banjo tunes to begin with; there is no struggle to hear the melody line of familiar tunes which can plague some banjo albums. "Texas Blues" is very lyrical and moody. Other interpretations are just as appropriate. I've heard other versions of "Panhandle Rag" which were all speed and no rag. Not so for Ross. This version is not even in Scruggs style, but a combination of single-string and jazz (New Orleans style) which really makes Panhandle a rag again. He is adept in choosing which style to use for each particular tune. On slow tunes like "Gunslinger's Blues" and "Streets of Laredo" his single string work sounds more like a Willie Nelson guitar break than a typical banjo instrumental; and it works well (including all the reverb). "Red River Valley" was the one tune that I didn't immediately recognize in its Scruggs-style rendition; during the dobro break I realized what I was hearing. In contradiction to the title, this is not a nonstop barrage of Scruggsian or melodic showstoppers. He uses all the techniques and tools in a banjo player's toolbox to bring out the feel of a song. For instance, in "Texas Blues" he uses single-string, jazz and tenor banjo techniques with generous helpings of slides, pulls and bending to give a blues interpretation on a par with the subsequent fiddle/mandolin duet by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum (you'd think those guys had been playing together forever, instead of just providing a guest appearance on somebody's album). Not that he is timid. Several showstoppers are included. The opening number "El Cumbanchero" and "Ghost Riders In The Sky" are tours de force worthy of many hours at the stereo trying to decipher the Nickerson method. Speaking of Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum introduces another attribute of this CD: top notch sidemen. Besides Laurie & Tom and a full compliment of "Riders In The Sky" (Woody Paul, Too Slim and Ranger Doug), he is assisted by David Grier and Peter McLaughlin on guitar, Joe Craven, Butch Baldassari and Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, Mike Bub on bass, Jason Carter and Ben Wilborn on fiddle. There is one aspect of this album that puzzles me. Why no vocals? Even on the archetypal cowboy song "Don't Fence Me In" and accompanied by the Riders In The Sky the presentation is purely instrumental. Well done, but it still feels as if something's missing. The same holds true for numbers like "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "Streets of Laredo" and "Red River Valley." But who's complaining? This is a great banjo album. It is also a great fiddle, guitar, dobro and mandolin album. If you already like cowboy and western tunes, even better. (Matt Snook, reviewer, Nwbluegrass Yahoogroup)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    Splendid compilation of highly-arranged hotly-picked tunes that break new trail for demonstrating the great versatility of the banjo & its master

    Award-winning banjo wizard Ross Nickerson does a bang-up job on his new release, "Blazing the West." He has assembled a stunning cast of master musicians that serve up tasty instrumental renditions of bluegrass, western swing, country and folk, from the opening notes of a ripsnorting "El Cumbanchero" to the closing refrain of a dreamy "Streets of Laredo." Guest artists include Ranger Doug, Woody Paul, Too Slim, Tim O'Brien, Butch Baldassari, Mike Bub, Jason Carter, Joe Craven, David Grier, Darol Anger, Rob Ickes, Laurie Lewis, Peter McLaughlin, Ben Wilborn, and Tom Rozum. Wow, what a killer lineup! A special treat is to also hear Nickerson and friends pick the living daylights out of four self-penned tunes: Garcia, Gunslinger's Blues, Lonesome Cowboy, and Standing Eagle. Garcia is a challenging contemporary piece that features some hot melodic picking. Gunslinger's Blues hits the target dead on for showing that, yes, a banjo can effectively play the blues. Lonesome Cowboy is a minor-keyed fiddle tune that trucks, and Standing Eagle is a screaming Texas-style fiddle tune that reminds me a bit of an uptempo Sally Goodin'. Nickerson has much performing, recording, and teaching experience under his belt, and it clearly shows that he's a consummate and professional 5-stringer. He currently fronts his own band called Ross Nickerson and The Fast Brothers which showcases his original and other material. Although he plays a Goldstar banjo affectionately called his "Masterclone" on this album, Nickerson currently plays a Huber Banjo, made by Steve Huber. Clearly a product of many musical influences, Nickerson shows that he is comfortable with an eclectic body of music. I can almost see sagebrush rolling by as Nickerson's fingers roll on his strings. "Blazing the West" is a splendid compilation of highly-arranged hotly-picked tunes that break new trail for demonstrating the great versatility of the instrument and its master. I highly recommend that you pick up this album and throw it on your Walkman during your next trailride. Five-string players may also want to get the tablature book for this album. (Joe Ross, staff writer, Bluegrass Now)

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