Turtle Hill Banjo Company


Larry Sifel Custom
Turtle Hill
Banjo Company
David E. Schenkman
P.O. Box 2866
La Plata, MD 20646
301-274-3441

CD Reviews

Ray Hesson
Todd Taylor
Todd Taylor
Frank Solivan

Mark Johnson and Emory Lester

Lee Baber

Ed O'Reilly

The Dick Smith ~ Mike O'Reilly Band

Randy Barrett
Lea Coryell
Ray Hesson
Emory Lester

Tad Marks
Zan McLeod

The Dick Smith ~ Mike O'Reilly Band

Well, Ray Hesson has done it again!

If you know Ray, or own any of his previous CDs, you probably aren't reading this. By now you've skipped down to the last paragraph to learn how to order his latest effort, Sunrise. But, if his name is not familiar to you, read on.

To me, Ray isn't just a great banjo player. He's one of these people who studies the instrument, and uses it to serve his creative objectives. This is evident in his selection of material, and the way in which he performs it.

You won't find much "standard" bluegrass material on this disc. Instead, Ray mines other genres of music and makes them his own. He does render his own versions two popular fiddle tunes, "Red Wing" and "Black Mountain Rag."

You will probably recognize tunes such as "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," "Stars and Stripes Forever," "San Antonio Rose," and "Wait 'til the Sun Shines Nelly." On the other hand, the four following numbers are Hesson originals: "Centipede Shuffle," "Big Hillbilly Breakdown," "Butterfly Bounce," and "Opus #5 in G for Strings." I can assure you Ray's renditions are as intriguing as the titles. "Dixie House Rag," a tune written by Keith Arneson, another great Washington, D.C. area picker, is handled in fine style by Ray. I could tell you about the other five songs on the CD, but doing so would serve no purpose.

Ray mixes picking styles fluidly and with authority. That, combined with his eclectic choice of material, makes for a most enjoyable listening experience. He is supported by a stellar cast of musicians, including David Grier on guitar, Akira Otsuka on mandolin, Mike Auldridge on dobro, and several others.

To order your copy of Sunrise, send $15.00 to Ray Hesson, 16801 Swanson Road Spur, Upper Marlboro, MD 20774. But before doing so, I hope you'll read the review of Ray's other CDs below and consider ordering them also.

Todd Taylor was nominated for two Grammy awards in 2004, and you’ll know why when you listen to his latest tour de force. The CD is titled Taylor Made, and Todd sets the mood on the first cut with a very imaginative arrangement of “Foggy Mtn. Special.” From there he serves up ten more tunes, ranging from standards -- “Dixie Breakdown,” “Shuckin The Corn,” and “John Hardy” -- to tunes such as “El Cumbanchero” and “Stairway To Heaven” which are normally not associated with the banjo. Three of the pieces are originals that were written by Todd.

No matter what the tune, Todd adds his own special touch by seamlessly and creatively mixing Scruggs, melodic, and single string styles. The result is a CD that I found most enjoyable. I think you will also!

To learn more about Todd, and to order this and other Todd Taylor albums, visit his website.

Todd Taylor's Blazin Bluegrass Banjo is indeed just that…blazin! Todd and his twin brother Allen enjoyed a long performance history. They were featured on Hee-Haw as the Taylor Twins, and also performed on the Grand Ole Opry in addition to numerous other venues. Several years ago the twins split up, and Todd has continued to perform as a solo act.

Todd received his first banjo at age seven from Montgomery Ward. He taught himself by listening to records and polished his skills with input from a few teachers along the way. Wish I'd started when I was seven!

The CD begins with "Rawhide," played at breakneck speed, and goes on from there. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of "Nashville Blues," which is fairly straight-ahead but definitely not boring. Very nice! "The Race Is On" explodes with incredible melodic runs and single string work throughout. The CD has many classic banjo tunes on it, including "Wildwood Flower," "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," "Doug's Tune," (wonderful!) in addition to "Home Sweet Home," "Grandfathers Clock," and "Old Joe Clark," among others…all of which will make you wonder how Todd does it. Throughout his performance, he displays his mastery of the banjo and makes it sound incredibly do-able. Now where did I put my fingerpicks?

Todd is joined by a stellar cast of musicians, including Steve Thorpe on Dobro and lead guitar and Bo Frazier on fiddle and mandolin. One thing is for sure; they all got a workout making this CD! Amazing! This wonderful CD is $14.95 and can be ordered online.

My first exposure to Frank Solivan's music was at an outdoor concert in suburban Virginia. It was his first gig with the U.S. Navy's Country Current and someone told me that this guy was great. And, boy, was he!

Frank is a singer, songwriter, mandolinist, and fiddler…and one heck of a nice guy to boot. Rumor has it that he's a fine banjo player, too. He has put together a CD that displays a variety of his talents, in addition to showcasing the talents of some other fine musicians. The CD is titled I Am A Rambler.

Of the thirteen cuts, all but three are originals. The CD opens with "Dirty Kitchen," an upbeat toe-tapping tune with the players swapping leads with incredible facility. It ended too soon! Frank's got a great voice, too, as we find out in "Day to Day." David Grier's guitar break is super, as are all the other instrumental breaks in this song. "Sunny Swing" opens with a superb mandolin break, followed by the fiddle. Richard Bailey plays a fine banjo break and the slap bass is awesome. The title cut "I am a Rambler" is wonderful from beginning to end. The instrumentalists do an incredible job of supporting the melody on this and all the vocals. They continue the vocal line, making it their own voice.

"This Old River" is a tender love song; the lyrics likening the characteristics of a river to the singer's love of his mate. The guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo are all wonderful. "A Mother's Hand" is sentimental and reflects on the many roles our mother's hands play in our early lives. I'll admit that I've worn out a few of the tracks on this CD, and "Across the Great Divide" (written by the late Kate Wolf) is one of those tracks. The combination of a great song, nice vocal and instrumentals that enhance the tune, make it so very listenable! Frank makes his fiddle talk big time on the instrumental "Salad Bowl." David Grier does some amazing things and, Rob Ickes' break is very enjoyable! What a neat tune to end the CD with!

Frank is joined by Byron House (bass), Richard Bailey (banjo), Shad Cobb (fiddle and clawhammer banjo), Kathy Chiavola and Billy Davis (harmony vocals), JD Blair (snare and brushes), in addition to David Grier (guitar), and Rob Ickes (dobro).

This CD is a bargain at $15 (plus $2.50 shipping and handling), and I understand not many copies are left. To get yours, go to http://cdbaby.com/all/thefiddlemon.

Mark Johnson and Emory Lester's CD Acoustic Campaign is great! Mark calls his style of banjo playing clawgrass, which is clawhammer banjo that is exciting, fresh, high-spirited, and teeters ever so close to the edge. This CD exudes those qualities in Mark's as well as Emory's playing from beginning to end.

All the cuts on this CD are superb. "Forked Deer" is explosive and yet played with precision. Mark shares the spotlight with Emory on this cut as well as many others, and their playing makes this an impressive interpretation of a traditional favorite. Another, "Heartbroken," an original composition by Mark, is wonderfully sweet and played with heartfelt emotion. "Cherokee Shuffle" is fine example of how well Mark and Emory execute traditional fiddle tunes. Emory's facility on the guitar is evident as they seamlessly float the melody back and forth between them, neither totally letting go of it, yet allowing the other to take the lead. Emory is an incredible mandolinist and he does a wonderful job on "Jerusalem Ridge." Vince Gill's "Hey God" is superb - a blend of perfect execution and quiet emotion. "Soldier's Joy," which Mark plays both claw and three-finger style, is explosive from start to finish. What fun!

Mark (banjo) and Emory (guitar, mandolin, acoustic bass and vocals) have done a wonderful job on this CD. This is a great mix of traditional, bluegrass, and original material, all in Mark's signature style, and it is guaranteed to entertain banjo players of all persuasions.

The CD is $16.95 (including shipping) and can be ordered online at http://www.clawgrass.com.

A New Day, by Cross Creek Bluegrass Band, from the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, is superb in every way. The wonderful vocal harmonies, cleanly executed instrumentals, and great selection of songs, make this an incredibly enjoyable CD.

All fifteen cuts, including one original, are very listenable. There are two Gordon Lightfoot songs that sound terrific played bluegrass style -- "Early Morning Rain" and "The Old Man from the Forest." Other notable cuts are Flatt/Scruggs' "Your Love is Like a Flower," Larry Sparks' "John Deere Tractor," Terry Kirkman/Dick Halligan's "Cowboys and Indians," and Doyle Lawson/Bill Emerson's "Welcome to New York." The group has succeeded at putting a fresh spin on some classic tunes and every one of them is a standout.

Lee Baber has been playing banjo for 32 years. Her playing is clean, tasteful, and punchy. Playing mostly straight ahead Scruggs style, she also tosses in some tasteful melodic licks to keep things interesting. Cal Baber shows his expertise on the dobro, playing some very nice breaks on this CD. He is also featured as lead vocal on a number of tunes. Dave Smoke sounds great, adding his strong rhythm and innovative guitar leads to their sound. Danny Thomale's bass is unobtrusive but always there. He can also be heard singing lead and harmony vocal. Mike McDonald displays his accomplished mandolin playing and sings lead and harmony vocals. All are excellent musicians.

The CD costs $15, which includes shipping. You can order the CD by emailing the group or mailing payment to Lee Baber, PO Box 661, Woodstock, VA 22664. Cross Creek's website.

Our Crazy Love Affair is a wonderful eclectic collection of tunes performed by a very talented DC area fiddler, Tad Marks. His playing and songwriting capabilities seem to be at home with bluegrass, Celtic, old time, Texas swing and Cajun styles of music.

Each track has a different message and a different style, and Tad displays his tasteful artistry with all. He starts us off with the title track "Our Crazy Love Affair," which is a fun and upbeat Cajun/Bluegrass tune about a relationship that just doesn't quite 'click.' Mark Delaney offers us some very tasteful banjo playing in this one, as well as on one other tune. "The March to Gettysburg" is a very moving fiddle and percussion (the latter subtly beating out a marching cadence) tune that Tad wrote after watching a news clip about our troops based in Baghdad. "True Companion" is a lovely wedding ballad with a simple and pure theme of love and commitment. Ann Roddy's voice is perfect for this heartfelt song. "Oh, Mexico" gives us an idea of Tad's expertise with the Texas swing style … tasteful slides and double stops. "Proud Nation" … I've just about worn out this track! Close your eyes and allow Tad to touch your soul with his 'simple in premise, but complex in effect' original tune. With only fiddle and percussion, the latter provided by the multi-talented Zan McLeod (percussion, guitar, electric bass, high strung guitar, and bouzouki), this one takes you on a wonderful musical meandering that I was sad to see end. Tad states in the liner notes that "Ookpik Waltz" is one of his favorite waltzes. It's one of mine, too, especially after hearing his rendition of it. Tad puts a wonderful spin on it with his tasteful slides and turns. The hammered dulcimer accompaniment by Walt Michael sets this version apart from others I've heard. Mike Munford displays his fine banjo technique in "Hoofers Hornpipe/Temperance Reel," a toe-tapper with Celtic roots.

Other instrumentalists on the CD not mentioned above are Stefan Custodi (upright bass), Esther Haynes (vocal and guitar), and Dave Giegerich (dobro). This production would be a great addition to anyone's collection, and I am very happy it is part of mine. Thanks, Tad!

To order, click HERE or contact Tad by e-mail.

Ed O'Reilly wandered into Turtle Hill and left us one of his CDs, Sure As The Soil. It was a few days before I had a chance to listen to it, and now I'm wondering why I waited so long. This self produced CD grabs you, draws you in…and doesn't release you for a very long time. There's a passion to his music that is reminiscent of the great Bob Dylan, with a little bit of Steve Earle thrown in. It's not quite as perfect as we hear so often in todays digital world, but that makes it so much more appealing. It's music with a purpose. As I closed my eyes and listened, I found that I was enjoying a journey into his world, and heard an incredibly talented musician as he told me the tales of life, both good and bad.

The CD is a mix of traditional and original material. The traditional is not, however, your usual fare. For instance, the words to "Belle Gunness" date to 1958, and Ed says that setting those lyrics to a cowboy ballad was one of the first forays into "creative tampering." Tamper all you want, Ed! "In Buffalo" is one tune that Ed plays clawhammer on. He demonstrates his facility with the claw style of playing and uses the banjo to accentuate the powerful lyrics. The finger picked banjo accompanying "General Patterson" is absolutely wonderful. I can't imagine it played any other way!

This production is dominated by Ed's wonderful guitar playing, clawhammer and finger picked banjo that is so incredibly tasteful and appropriate to the tunes. The lyrics will keep you thinking for days. Ed will take you to places you never thought you wanted to visit. I, for one, can't wait to go there again! Not only is the music wonderful, but so is the price of the CD. $10 including shipping is a tremendous bargain, especially since this has over 60 minutes of music. I highly recommend it! Get your own copy by sending your payment to Ed O'Reilly, 8700 Colesville Road, #309, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Email eboreilly@earthlink.net.

A Honky Tonk Frame of Mind from
The Dick Smith ~ Mike O'Reilly Band is an outstanding CD! I'm repeating myself (read my review of their other CD), but this is some of the finest contemporary bluegrass music I've heard. Mike O'Reilly wrote all 14 songs, and he succeeds, yet again, at taking us with him
on a colorful journey through life.

Besides the great songwriting by Mike, Dick Smith's playing is incredibly clean and tasteful. If you are a banjo player, listen to his backup techniques and great breaks. And if you're not a banjo player, listen to it anyway. They've put together a very talented group for this CD. Ray Legere, who plays both fiddle and mandolin, is just plain wonderful. The vocal harmonies and instrumental picking on the cuts are tight, clean and thoroughly enjoyable. No matter what your interest is, you'll enjoy it.

While all of the cuts are great, some standouts for me were "Dear Old Lad," which on first listen sounds like a nice classic bluegrass tune. Listen closely to the lyrics, though. You might catch a tear welling up in the corner of your eye. "Old Standby" is low key yet powerful. There's something about the lyrics that should hit home for a lot of us. "Promise Me Son" picks you up and places you firmly in a mining community, and leaves you hoping that the son will follow his father's advice not to follow in the family tradition of being a miner. In "Outlaw's Reward" you are living the life of an aging outlaw cowboy, and "Lonnie Ray" is a great up-tempo tune about a moon shiner who runs into, and is pursued by, Sheriff Brown. Sorry, you'll have to buy the CD to hear what happens.

The picking is fabulous, the lyrics take you to places you only dreamed about, and the melodies are timeless. To order, send $15.00 plus $1.50 shipping to Dick Smith, 1501 Baltimore Road, Alexandria, VA 22308. Checks should be made payable to Dick Smith.

 Emory Lester's Cruisin' the 8 is a masterpiece from beginning to end, consisting of fresh material (6 cuts were written by Emory) played by an exceptional musician. Amazingly, Emory plays mandolin, mandola, guitar, violin, acoustic bass, octave violin, piano, synthesizer, 12-string guitar, and percussion on this CD. Dale Lester (drums), George Hodgkiss (trombone), Mike Munford (banjo) and Mark Johnson (clawhammer banjo) each contribute to one track

Each of the thirteen tracks is a gem. The title track by Emory creates a lively texture of mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo weaving back and forth, one picking up where the other leaves off. In this song, as well as throughout the CD, Emory displays his amazing capabilities of both song writing and of each of the instruments he plays. "Salt Creek Revisited" is a wonderful song that opens with Emory's clear, bouncy, and rich-sounding mandolin playing. He changes the pace with the lovely "Impressions." The instruments again trade off the lead with each other eloquently, sometimes mid-stream. This song acts as a transition into a jazzier Miles Davis tune, but don't think the rest of the CD is going to be jazz. "Paul Barfoot's Breakdown" comes next and it's a fun one! Wait until you hear Emory play the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle breaks on "Steel Driver!" The CD ends with a short "Till The Next Time" and it leaves you hoping he'll cut another one soon.

Emory travels from bluegrass to jazz to old time masterfully throughout the CD, just as he transitions from one instrument to the next in each of the tunes. This is one CD that you will enjoy over and over and over again. It's so nice to hear material that isn't tired.

To order, visit Emory's website.

Cornbread and Rum is Lea Coryell's first solo release and is a wonderful way to enter the recording world! Lea plays and sings acoustic folk music and his varied musical influences reflect the style he performs today. He comments that "A lot of the music comes from the people who work with their hands for a living -- farmers and sailors. I identify with that."

This is one of the most delightful clawhammer banjo CDs I've heard. Lea's pleasing voice and solid clawhammer, guitar, and harmonica playing very quickly draw you into his world of mostly traditional tunes. Other musicians on the CD include Joan Kennedy (vocal, guitar), Don Stallone (vocal, concertina, melodeon, bones, forks), Ralph Lee Smith (dulcimer, harmonica), Dennis Doyle (vocal, guitar), Martha Doyle (vocal), Bob Dagostaro (fiddle), and John Gorozdos (vocal, tin whistle). The 17 cuts include "The Lazy Farmer," "Bold Riley," "Green Light on the Southern," "Mississippi Sawyer," and "Snowdrop," along with the wonderful Mennonite hymn "Going Down The Valley." I hadn't heard most of the songs before and I think that's what's so wonderful about this CD.

There are very few CDs that I enjoy listening to over and over, and this is one of those few. Order yours now; you won't be disappointed. Payment of $15 plus $1.50 shipping should be sent to Lea Coryell, 418 Reneau Way, Herndon, VA 20170-4522. You can also order it online at CDBaby.com. Lea also has a website, or you can e-mail him.

 Randy Barrett has collected four Washington Area Music Awards for Best Male Vocalist in Bluegrass and Traditional Folk, and his songwriting has won numerous awards. His CD, Lights of Home, features 12 songs, 11 of which were written by Randy. He comments in the liner notes "All I can say is I write the songs that come to me. It is a true gift when the muse comes to visit and leaves a memento of the occasion." What a wonderful memento this CD is! The selections are a blend of folk, bluegrass, and country and very well written. Randy's rich baritone voice is very personable and warm and a pleasure to listen to. Some standouts on this CD are "That Was Then This Is Now," "Time On My Hands," the traditional murder ballad "Cole Younger," "Herman and Harriet," and the title track, "Lights of Home."

Randy has assembled a stellar group of musicians for the CD to augment his very fine guitar playing. They include Mike Auldridge (dobro and pedal steel), Ira Gitlin (bass), Ron Stewart (fiddle), Jon Carroll (piano), Akira Otsuka (mandolin), Dede Wyland (harmony vocal), and Grace Griffith (harmony vocal). By the way, Randy also plays bluegrass banjo on one track.

I thoroughly enjoyed every cut on this CD and I think you will too. To order, send $15 plus $2 shipping to Randy at 201 W Greenway Blvd, Falls Church, VA 22046, or click here to visit their website.

Zan McLeod is a multi-talented DC area musician who plays guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, tenor banjo, bass guitar, Kurzweil keyboard and percussion on this CD. Highland Soul is a well-planned, well-played, and well-produced musical treat that takes you on an "I wish it wouldn't end" Celtic journey of twelve jigs, waltzes, reels, and laments. Zan is joined by Brendan Mulvihill - fiddle, Donna Long - piano, Dave Abe - fiddle, Myron Bretholz - bodhran, Linda Fotis - digital piano, and Tony Ellis - 5-string banjo, fiddle. Despite the fact that this is Zan's CD, he shows his mastery by allowing others to share the limelight. Listen to Tony Ellis playing 5-string banjo on "Hand in Hand" accompanied by Zan, and then Zan's solo performances of "Miriam's Waltz" and "O'Carolan's Draught" and you'll have to agree that he is comfortable in or out of the spotlight. This is really a wonderful CD!

Order one now! Send $15 plus $2.00 shipping to Joy of Music Productions, 10901 Tuckerman Hill Lane, Potomac, MD 20854. Checks should be made payable to Zan McLeod.

Tad Marks' The Highlander's Farewell features eleven wonderful Celtic and American fiddle favorites, ranging from a haunting version of "Ashokan Farewell" with hammered dulcimer accompaniment to a foot stomping "Ballad of St. Anne's Reel". This is a CD that has something for every acoustic aficionado! Tad, an exquisite fiddler of both genres and also a mandolin player, has assembled a very talented group for this CD, including Zan McLeod (guitars, bass, bouzouki, percussion), Charlie Zahm (vocal), Mike Munford (banjo), Bob Perilla (guitar), Walt Michael (hammered dulcimer) and Dick Smith (mandolin). Other tracks include "Loch Lomond/The Ashgrove," "Forked Deer," "Londonderry Aire," "The Water is Wide" (beautifully sung by Zahm), a medley of "The Foxhunters Jig/Rocky Road to Dublin/Red Haired Boy," and a mournful "Highlander's Farewell" (composed by Marks).

Treat yourself and send $17.00 including shipping to Tad Marks, 14102-A Monticello Drive, Cooksville, MD 21723. Checks should be made payable to Tad Marks.

Clean, fresh song writing and impeccable acoustic instrumental work are the foundation for this wonderful CD from The Dick Smith & Mike O'Reilly Band (CD titled the same). This is some of the finest contemporary bluegrass music I've heard.

Mike O'Reilly has written 13 of the 14 songs, leaving hardly an emotion or story line untouched as the lyrics wind their way through the many "twists and turns that life deals to us all." Dick Smith's superb banjo and mandolin playing are always present and always tasteful while gliding in and out of the limelight. Dick and Mike's voices are a joy to listen to as they sing the sorrows of the woman who always wished for what she didn't have in "The Fifth Line," the ghostly tale of a hanging in "Ebenezer Jones" and others. Bob Goff singing about the simple joy of love in "Baby Girl" is great. The other musicians, Ray Legere - fiddle and guitar, Emory Lester - mandolin, Slavek Hanzlik - guitar, and Bob Goff - bass, reflect Dick and Mike's talent and tastefulness, and complete the package very nicely.

Do yourself a favor and order one now! You'll be glad you did! Send $15.00 plus $1.50 shipping to Dick Smith, 1501 Baltimore Road, Alexandria, VA 22308. Checks should be made payable to Dick Smith.

Ray Hesson CDOn Windfall, Ray Hesson's recently released album, he is joined by such notables as David Grier on guitar, Fred Travers on dobro, Warren Blair on fiddle, and Ira Gitlan (a great banjo player in his own right) on bass.

Ray Hesson is an extremely versatile banjo player who intermingles Scruggs style with a lot of very tasteful melodic picking. Don't expect to hear the same old standard banjo warhorses on this album. Nine of the sixteen cuts were written by Ray and, appropriately enough since he lives in the Washington, DC area, include titles such as "Baltimore Breakdown," Calvert County Meltdown," and "Annapolis Rag." Among the other seven cuts are "Darktown Strutters Ball," "Sweet Georgia Brown," and "Golden Eagle Hornpipe."

Windfall is a wonderful and very listenable banjo album. I strongly encourage you to order a copy. I think you'll like it, and I feel it is important for all of us to support projects such as this. I can tell you that if this was a record I'd have worn it out by now. It's that good!

To order, send $15.00 for CD or $10 for cassette (these prices including shipping) to Ray Hesson, 16801 Swanson Road Spur, Upper Marlboro, MD 20774. Do it today; you won't be sorry.

While you're writing your check, we urge you to include an additional $15.00 for Ray's earlier CD, Five Picker. This wonderful production has 16 selections, including such favorites as "Rosemary's Waltz," "Dixie Hoedown," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Clarinet Polka," "Ragtime Annie," and "St. Anne's Reel." You won't regret it!



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