"Free On This Mountain"
(Upheaval Dome Music)
This is a CD, that makes the unsuspecting listener sit up and pay attention. Sand Sheff -the rather tough blond cowboy type- lives in Durango, Colorado. Even without his music I would admire him, as he was one of those wildland firefighters who fought the horrible forest fires. Born in Flagstaff, Arizona and raised in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, he moved West at eighteen and started performing regularly in Colorado and Utah.
"Free On This Mountain" is not his debut, he released two cassettes and during the five years he spent in Nashville he made two CD's with his band Buck 50 plus an album produced by Marshall Morgan, who also worked with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs and The Whites.
This is an impressive Americana statement, the influences take turns and seep in from country, folk, bluegrass, rock, old-time music and even jazz. Sand found over twenty musicians willing to participate in his project, among them Reeltime Travelers, well-known from the "Cold Mountain"-soundtrack. The album starts off with a soundscape featuring Jimmy Rodgers and then we hear in the crystal clear production Sand himself, who reminds me of Johnny Cash during his best years, Chip Taylor and John Prine. Many tracks leave room for a lady: there are four sweetvoiced lady-singers in total doing the harmonies.
The first lyrics on an album should have something special right away. "Last Song For The Days" meets the requirements and more: "In the graveyards where the Indians take their bones / There's ghosts that walk out slowly through the stones / I went there once on a chilly Halloween / And all the spirits were the strangest color green." "Babylon Boogie" follows: "We'll go dance into a dead-end street" and "Hard Luck Woman" with this first line: "There's a dust devil blowing the garbage off the side of the road", while intriguing "Bang On Me" also features the right amount of ghosts.
I could go on for a while, but everything is just marvellously good, simple as that! I saw a great expression in the promotion material: "New Rural Renaissance", that's one we keep in mind, don't we?
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, Dutch original (short version) of this review previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.
"The Dust Trilogy":
"Cowboyin'" & "Lion On A White Horse"
(Upheaval Dome Music)
He signs his name with a little drawing of a lasso, he is a genuine cowboy, currently working at a ranch in Southern Utah and it's sure good to hear from Sand Sheff again! I was very enthusiastic about his 2004 release "Free On This Mountain" and now he came back with no less than a trilogy! The three CD's arrived with a good-looking handmade wooden box, adorned with a piece of rope, "Dust" burned on the front and yes, they fit perfectly in there! On the covers colorful paintings by Don Weller, the inlays show various pictures of the impressive landscapes with horses & riders, very nicely done on a -no doubt- small budget.
A trilogy from the American West. I start my voyage of discovery listening to "Cowboyin'". Ten tracks, recorded in just two days, Sand's vocal and his acoustic guitar only. Very different from the production of "Free On This Mountain" with all those musicians and singers who contributed. But this is nevertheless spell-binding from the first to the last minute! The man knows how to play a guitar and his voice is BEAUTIFUL. This is the way to deliver a song, from the inside out, speak-singing or melodious and catchy, from quiet to emphatic and loud. "Cowboyin'" features -indeed- songs about horses and the men who ride them. "Me and that pony got miles to go / Me and that horse are friends, you know" from opener "Riding My Paint Out In The Snow" explains it all. "Mr. Jones (The Buckskin Stallion)" tells the best story of the album, with a good sense of humor! Imagine a very wild horse with romance on his mind, it takes eight cowboys to catch him in a canyon, but of course he escapes again... "Bandit" has a gorgeous melody, it's followed by traditional "The Colorado Trail"; "The Old Double Diamond" (Gary McMahan) and "Man Walks Among Us" (Marty Robbins) are covers, while "Clouds Turned To Horses" (what a title!) is a co-write with Sean Ray. I assume Sand recorded it before, in 1997 with his band Buck 50 during his Nashville years, right?
Then we move on to the heart of the trilogy, the CD "Dust"! Also recorded in two days, one November 2006 weekend, to be precise. Grand Junction, Colorado. Been there a few times, the Greyhound always took a one-hour rest stop to change drivers, so everybody had to leave the bus. I see myself sitting again in the bare, brightly lit cafetaria at 2.30 a.m. (!) with nothing better to do than writing postcards, lots of friends must have received a card of those mountains... And Sand mentions the Greyhound too! "I'm looking for change / To take the Greyhound / Buy a one way ticket out of nowhere town." That catchy fast song "Nowhere Town" paints a vivid picture of life in a trailer park: the temptress in trailer sixteen, the boyfriend who's been to prison -we've seen his face on TV-, their meth lab blew up, killing the pitbull... But now we're already on track three and I wanted to tell you first that this CD also features two of Sand's friends: Thomas Sneed (Reeltime Travelers) on mandolin, mandola and harmony vocals, Glenn Keefe (Leftover Salmon) on bass. They both played also on "Free On This Mountain", Sand tells: "I've known Thomas for almost 25 years. I thought about us just being a duo so we could try and be nominated at the Country Music Awards for "Duo Of The Year" but then Glenn showed up and they don't have a "Trio Of The Year" category and nobody seems to think we stand a chance as "Band Of The Year"... Not unless we can find someone to overhaul our image..." Uhm, stick with that image, girls luv handsome cowboys, remember?
The results of this cooperation is that "Dust" turned into an acoustic americana album: besides country, we also hear bluegrass and folk influences. Twelve tracks, all originals written by Sand, a few times with help of co-writers like Rev. Monty Risenhoover and James Dixon, who also ride the range with him. An awesome album with all this fine singing & playing, from impressive long ballads with wonderful harmonies, like "Come And I Go" ("Even scavengers got some pride / Ask any buzzard you know") and "It Ain't Too Late", along instrumental "Morton Mill" and uptempo "Tijuana" ("I've never been a slave to the night") towards the last track, partly spoken, partly sung in Spanish and English: "Polvo", that means... "Dust"!
The third CD "Lion On A White Horse" is subtitled "Sand's Gospel Record". Recorded during the same weekend when "Dust" came to life. Another thirteen tracks, so this must be mostly "one take" work, otherwise there are just not enough hours in a day! Thomas Sneed and Glenn Keefe play along on most songs too, Thomas sings leadvocals on "Just As Well Get Ready" and Rev. Monty Risenhoover recites Psalm 23. A few traditionals and Sand's originals, the same sound as "Dust", only with religious lyrics. Have to say that I myself shed my religious feathers, which wasn't even easy. Up until I left home at barely sixteen I was dragged through all strict churches & sects imaginable, so I developed a sharp eye for the various wrong combinations: religion & money, religion & infidelity or religion & plain meanness, but I still respect people who honestly believe. I can easily tell Sand and his friends are sincere, so I just enjoy this record!
"Mary Heard Him Singing On The Cross" is a beautiful bluegrass gospel, in "Jesus Turn Me Loose" smart references are made to movies and TV-series, "New King In Babylon (Lion On A White Horse)" also shifts from the story of prophet Daniel in the lion's den to modern day technology - after the bridge in the song. Lots of other good stuff still to follow, especially "Come Out Of Babylon" -almost rockgrass- sounds very convincing.
No remarks about this trilogy, Johanna? Nope, can't think of anything. This is an amazing job done on a small budget. I had a wonderful evening playing these CD's and repeating favorite tracks! I understand Sand's website is being developed, I do hope the lyrics of all these songs will be posted, I don't want to miss one single word here! In the meantime all the CD's can be ordered (also separately) from CD Baby (the gospel record will be added soon), but I would recommend to acquire the whole Trilogy... And then ask Sand nicely about that cool wooden box!
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, May 2007.