when reviewing Sara Grey records is to cut down on the
superlatives. Whatever she does has 'Class' written all over it
and 'Sandy Boys' is no exception. Along with backing musicians
Keiron Means (guitar), Ben Paley (fiddle), Mike Whellans (mouth
harp), she brings us a superbly chosen group of traditional
songs plus two modern beauties, 'Goodnight Loving Trail', by
Bruce Phillips, and Si Kahn's wonderful 'Walking Down the Road'
with Linda Adams and Betty MacDonald joining in the choruses.
As usual Sara's 'less is more' banjo style cushions the vocals
without interference, while her singing is as fluent and
expressive as I've ever heard it. She just gets better and
better. How's that for a review without superlatives?
Roy Harris August 2009
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Mike Harding's Review Sept 2009
Sara Grey has a new CD just out called 'Sandy Boys'. It
is the pure drop - great music played and sung with shovelfuls
of soul - old timey songs, African-American folk rhymes and
Appalachian ballads and tunes. Terrific stuff, every track a
I've been a fan of Sara's since I first heard her in folk clubs
in the early seventies, she's a lovely singer and a great banjo
picker. She's joined on the album by a heap of fine musicians
and singers including her son Kieron Means on guitar and Ben
Paley on fiddle.
An added bonus for me was hearing Mike Whellans on mouth harp.
An amazingly talented bloke from Scotland, Mike isn't known half
as well as he should be which is a crying shame, because he's a
simply amazing musician.
The CD has a lot of classic tracks on it such as 'East Virginia
Blues' and 'Young Hunting', but also features some superb tunes
and a brilliant version of one of my favourite songs ever,
'Goodnight-Loving Trail', written by Utah Phillips. It tells the
story of an old cook on a cattle drive on the trail named after
Goodnight and Loving who first drove the cattle road through. It
has the immortal lines, "It's a wonder the wind don't tear off
your skin. Get in there and blow out the light."
A wonderful song from a great man, a union man, poet,
storyteller and singer, sadly no longer with us. Sara sings this
as a fine tribute to him.
I listen to a lot of CDs for my show and it's never a chore when
albums as good as 'Sandy Boys' come along - good stuff.
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Issue 40 11/2009 - Hanover, Germany
I personally find Sara Grey much
more interesting. This American musician has a deep passion for
old time banjo music and that can be heard on this album.
Together with five fine musicians, she impresses with some great
country/blues. Great start with Sandy Boys in
which she shows her fabulous banjo techniques. Nice also is the
ballad that follows, Goodnight Loving Trail, in which her
instrument is more subtle. Great harmony vocals in songs like
East Virginia Blues which has a seldom heard pureness. That she
is a great storyteller shows in the ballad The Cruel
This shows her love for British traditional music as well. With
Sandy Boys, Grey recorded a beautiful album rooted deeply in old
traditions, but without any doubt suitable for this century.
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R2 (Rock 'n' Reel)
I discovered Sara Grey pretty late, with her outstanding
contribution to Fellside's 'Song Links 2’ set of Anglo-American
songs but, right from that brief introduction, her commanding
way with a traditional song made an indelible impact. Hers is a
full, passionate but sprightly voice that is equally at home on
a vibrant spiritual like 'Sheep, Sheep Don't You Know The Road',
the brooding 'Young Hunting' or a tastily blues-inflected 'Black
Is the Color'.
Many of the songs here have, like those on the Song Links set,
crossed the Atlantic more than once – a cross-cultural heritage
that, as the sleeve notes explain, makes them all the more
fascinating. Whether a cappella or accompanying herself on the
5-string banjo with top-class support from Kieron Means on
guitar and the tremendous Ben Paley on fiddle (not to mention
Mike Whellans blowing a mean harp on ‘Goodnight-Loving Trail’,
Grey continues to prove herself one of the finest exponents of
American old-time music.
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English Dance & Song
Although there are many singers who sing songs to us, there are
few singers through whom the songs reach out to touch us. Sara
Grey, an American who has made the British Isles her home for
the last 38 years, is one of the latter.
Her love of old-time banjo music and songs began after hearing
this music during her youth in North Carolina, and carried over
into her study of folklore and collecting and performing music
from the various areas in which she has lived. Along the way,
Sara has become not only a very fine banjo player in the
old-time style, but also a singer whose distinctive, emotionally
charged voice reveals a deep understanding of traditional music
and whose understated approach allows the songs she sings to
On Sandy Boys, her latest release on Paul Adams’ Fellside label,
Sara is joined by her son (and regular accompanist) Kieron Means
on guitar and Ben Paley on fiddle. Their contributions are an
integral part of the solid foundation over which Sara crafts her
songs. The CD contains fifteen tracks, all of which are absolute
beauties. In among the traditional songs, the choice of which
reflects in several cases her interest in song migration across
the Atlantic, Sara has woven three contemporary tracks, although
you would be forgiven for not noticing the anachronism, so well
chosen and performed are they.
For me the standout track, which features Mike Whellans on
harmonica, is Sara’s interpretation of one of these contemporary
songs, the late Utah Phillips’ ‘Goodnight-Loving Trail’, a song
that contemplates the approach of age through the eyes of a
cowboy reflecting on the inevitability, when he becomes too old
to ride, of ending up as a camp cook on the eponymous cattle
trail, which ran from Texas, through New Mexico and north
If you know her music, Sandy Boys is another CD that you’ll want
to own, and if you don’t, then you’ll find this CD a great place
to get to know Sara.
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I’ve been a fan of Sara Grey’s music ever since I first heard
her perform with Ellie Ellis at the now derelict Norfolk Arms at
Rivelin, sometime in the early 1980s. Although Sara likes to
claim that her music ignores the vagaries of fashion, it’s
nonetheless evolved a lot since those days. Having decided after
Ellie’s departure to concentrate on the traditional music she’s
most at home with, there’s been a further development since Sara
began working with her son Kieron Means: where her 1990s
releases reflected her growing interest in Irish song, her
recent CDs are more strongly American. The arrival of Ben Paley
as regular fiddle accompanist has coincided with a further
subtle relocation, southwards towards Appalachia.
It’s the rasp of Paley’s bow that kicks of the title track, a
Virginia fiddle tune with verses to which Means adds
richly-textured harmonies, and this lively opener sets the tone.
The detailed credits in the booklet source predominantly
Southern states - North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and
Arkansas, with the odd foray into Western cowboy country.
There’s just one Northern representative, the unusual broadside
ballad The Cruel Lowland Maid from Maine, and a couple of
contemporary songs – Si Khan’s stark Civil Rights era testimony
Walkin’ Down The Road, and a reappraisal of the
fondly-remembered Goodnight Loving Trial from Utah Phillips.
The excellence of Paley’s playing compliments the songs well,
and imparts real sparkle to fiddle tunes like Fine Times At Our
House and Train On The Island. Kieron Means – whose presence has
given Sara’s career a real charge of electricity these last few
years – is not only the perfect harmony foil for her voice, but
a really inventive guitarist who during the proceedings supplies
open-tuned chordings, authentic blues picking, driving boogie
beat and a convincing impression of slap bass. Confidence in her
accompanists has brought out the best in Sara: her banjo drives
along as cleanly as ever, and her singing has surely never been
better: the delightfully sparse Old Paint and the unaccompanied
The Jealous Brothers (a Bruton Town descendent) are big vocal
performances. And, as a lover of the more sinister Child
Ballads, I just have to mention the deliciously dark version of
Although this is an intense recording with little of the whimsy
that Sara’s sometimes shown a taste for, it’s well-varied and
entertaining as well as substantial. A fine piece of work – I
don’t think she’s made a better album.
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Any new record from the unforgettable Sara is cause for
celebration, and Sandy Boys is even more so for it also involves
the abundantly sensitive fiddle playing of Ben Paley and (like
its 2005 predecessor) the exceptional musicianship of Sara's son
Kieron Means. This particular performing partnership of mother
and son is something realty special, and the intimate quality of
Paul Adams' recording brings out the intense closeness of that
relationship, not just in its 'home kitchen' feel. The key
achievement of both performances and recording is that while
it's all superbly intimate, it's not in any way exclusive or
excluding to the listener. And Sara herself is on especially
compelling vocal form on this occasion too.
Sara's pre-eminence as practitioner of the old-time style
(whether singing or trailing the banjo) is assured, and this new
disc furnishes us with a further 15 prime examples of her
artistry, many of which will be new even to hardened devotees of
old-time. Naturally, Sara's core repertoire remains songs and
ballads which originated in the British Isles and relocated in
the USA, and her enterprise in seeking out fresh sources ensures
constant interest for both performer and listener. So this disc
contains a liberal helping of expertly managed ballads in
interesting or unusual variants (including the broadside The
Cruel Low/and Maid and a particularly driven, sinister modal
Young Hunting). Here we also encounter a beautifully-paced
treatment of Old Paint, a tender rendition of Utah Phillips'
Goodnight-Loving Trail, and a hauntingly spare voices-and-fiddle
rendition of Joe New-berry's Resurrection Day. Another major
revelation is the unexpectedly bluesy version of the Scottish
'parlour ballad' Black Is The Colour, which turns out to have
been sourced by Sara from North Carolina singer Deli Norton. The
menu is completed by further delicious discoveries like the
Georgia Sea Islands call-and-response song Sheep, Sheep Don't
You Know The Road, while the disc closes with the June
Apple-Shady Grove conglomeration Train On The Island fading on
down the track into the distance.
Earlier, the three musicians give gentle relaxed rip on the
disc's lone instrumental track, the all-too-aptly titled Fine
Times At Our House. Fine times indeed, for this kind of playing
and singing just brings a lump to the throat every time. Sandy
Boys is simply a gorgeous and treasurable release: a veritable
oasis, a haven for the weary soul.
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Paying tribute to artists and songs which may have escaped many
people's radar, this fine album is a must for all bluegrass and
Consisting of fifteen tracks and sung by an exquisitely fine
singer, Sara here has released a beautiful album. I admit to
having not heard these songs before due to their original
authors not being in the public eye, but I will certainly
investigate further due to the awesome way in which Sara (along
with Ben Paley and her son Kieron Means) sing, strum and pick
their way through this quite glorious album.
Perhaps the best of the lot has to be Goodnight-Loving Trail.
Possessing much history about it, it is dealt with rather
delightfully by Sara. The backing harmonies are most delightful
as well as the harp playing, which is just too good to be
believed. The banjo playing on Old Paint, provided by Sara
demonstrates valid evidence that she does have the voice of a
genius but also picking to be envied. It has an Oriental sound
about it which just delights the soul with every note. Not being
the most energetic of songs proves to be this tune's advantage,
and a quite stonking sound is created right before your very
ears. Although the story of The Cruel Lowland Maid is a gruesome
one, you find yourself drawn into this world due to Sara's
perseverance of trying to convince you that the lyrics she sings
are worth hearing. The accompaniment simply allows Sara to
sing-this track in her own unique way, and what a style it is.
With the voice of a troubadour and impeccable playing by all
involved, this album is a must for anyone who adores quality and
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Along with backing musicians Keiron Means (guitar), Ben
Paley (fiddle), Mike Whellans (mouth harp); Sara Grey lives up
to her long-held standards of excellence with this superbly
chosen group of traditional songs.
Sara also includes some modern beauties, one each by Bruce
Phillips, and Si Kahn, and one by North Carolina singer Joe
Newberry. Phillips' 'Goodnight Loving Trail' can rarely have had
such a beautiful reading as this, sung simply by Sara and Kieron
in a manner that brings out the inherent poignancy of the words.
I played this three times on the trot after the first hearing.
It's the best version of this song I've ever heard. Newberry's
'Resurrection Day' could pass for a traditional gospel song
anytime. Sara and Kieron sing this with such fervour, and
Paley's fiddle backing is just right. Si Kahn's 'Walkin' Down
the Road' with Linda Adams and Betty MacDonald joining in the
choruses would make the writer rejoice!
The traditional songs here are a fine bunch gathered from a wide
range of sources such as Cas Wallin, Dell Norton, and Sheila Kay
Adams, great voices from North Carolina, and the late Helen
Schneyer and Tom Gibney of Washington DC, and Princeton NJ,
leading singers both. The Cas Wallins version of 'East Virginia
Blues' is a standout, as is 'The Cruel Lowland Maid'. 'Old
Paint', stands out too, along with 'Black is the Color'. As
usual Sara's 'never a note too many' banjo style underlines the
words without interference, while her singing is as fluent and
expressive as I've ever heard it.
I've long held the opinion that Sara Grey is a model for any
would-be singer in the revival to aspire to. And I know what I'm
talking about. This CD proves it.
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This is her best CD yet. Here we have 15 tracks of songs and
tunes from the USA sung and played by Sara joined by her son
Kieron Means on guitar and Ben Paley on fiddle with the mouth
harp of Mike Whellans. The CD starts with an upbeat song Sandy
Boys which uses a traditional fiddle tune from Virginia and has
had a set of words put to it by Sara. The Goodnight-Loving
Trail, written by Utah Phillips is a gentle and poignant song
about growing old. I have always thought that family members'
voices blend in a particularly harmonious way and this certainly
applies to Sara and Kieron. Just listen to the unaccompanied
East Virginia Blues from Cas Wallins or Resurrection Day, where
two voices are joined by a lone fiddle accompaniment. My
favourite song is Old Paint, a song collected by Alan Lomax.
Sara sings it solo accompanied only by banjo. It has such a
complex rhythm that seems to vary with each verse. I could
listen to it all day - it is mesmerising.
I could end up listing every song on the CD - each has something
wonderful to offer, but why not go out and buy the CD? There are
Child ballads, broadsides,fiddle & banjo tunes and songs written
by such as Si Kahn. There is something for all here. Sara Grey
appears regularly at festivals and folk clubs in the UK - we
bought this CD at the Milkmaid when she and Kieron appeared a
few weeks ago. If you were not there you missed a brilliant
This CD comes with Sara's wonderfully erudite and informative
sleeve notes which give many an anecdote about the sources or
collectors of the songs. Highly recommended.
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Sara Grey is the archetype for traditional singers, with a vast
repertoire and a deep understanding of the songs she sings.
American born and raised, and having lived all over the U.S.,
she transplanted herself first to England, and now Scotland,
which explains this release on the England-based Fellside label.
Living on both sides of the pond has introduced her to folk
songs from the American West to the far tip of Scotland and all
points in between. Thus, the songs on this CD range far and
wide, from "Old Paint" to "Young Hunting" (Child 68), collected
in northeast Scotland. To her mix of 15 songs, she adds two of
the best by contemporary songwriters in the folk tradition -
"Goodnight-Loving Trail" by the late Utah Phillips and "Walkin'
Down the Road" by Si Kahn.
Grey makes the effort to go as far back in the tradition as
possible to learn a song. To this end, she has sought out the
originators and early collectors for many of the recordings on
this CD. For example, "Old Paint" goes back to a version
collected in 1942 via the oral tradition. Grey shares some
well-known ballads on this recording - "The Jealous Brothers" (a
cousin of "Clerk Saunders") and "Rake and Rambling Boy" - and
lyric songs, such as "Black Is the Color," as well as play party
songs from the Appalachians and African American songs. She
performs every one with spirit and a style appropriate to that
song, so each selection sounds distinct. Because she has chosen
such a variety of songs, ably accompanying herself on the banjo
where appropriate, the album remains interesting and
entertaining from start to finish. Kieron Means, Grey's son, on
guitar and vocals, and Ben Paley on fiddle and chorus vocals,
admirably spice up the recording; Mike Whellans occasionally
contributes mouth harp. Grey gives the gift of traditional music
as an entertainment as well as a scholarly pursuit.
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Shreds and Patches
A long time favourite with folk club, concert and festival
audiences this latest offering from singer and banjo player Sara
easily illustrates why. From the opening title tack to the
closing Train on the Island (15) , the whole is a delight. A
mixture of old timey tunes, hymnals, minstrel tunes and little
known variants of big ballads it really offers something for
everyone. Ably supported by son Kieron, (guitar, vocals) and Ben
Paley (son of legendary musician Tom) the standard of
musicianship and singing is exemplary. Fine Times at Our House
(8) is sheer instrumental fireworks, whilst Sheep, Sheep Don't
You Know the Road (4) shows the assembled company as no slouch
at the old acapella The Jealous brothers ( 10) and Young Hunting
(14) are versions of Child 69 and 68, albeit in slightly pared
down versions. Stand out track however, must be a wonderful high
lonesome version of Utah Phillips' Goodnight Loving Trail (2):
which tells the story of the "old woman'' of the cattle drive;
the cook Retired from active cattle drive service due to failing
sight and aching limbs (I know how he feels!), his life grows
increasingly solitary and introspective Some wonderful harmonica
from guest Mike Wheelans (I'd forgotten what a great player he
is) adds to the whole melancholy air. Just one slight complaint
here, though For years, I'd thought what a great name the
Goodnight Loving Trail was ... al1 those cowboys riding off from
their wives and sweethearts bidding Goodnight to all that Loving
... no wonder the songs are so poignant. Imagine my surprise
then, dear reader, to discover such a notion is arrant nonsense.
Charles Goodnight Esq. and Mr. Oliver Loving founded the said
trail, running from Texas to Colorado, in the Nineteenth Century
and it was named for them. But this album's such a delight, I'll
forgive Sara for shattering my illusions.
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