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MUSIC REVIEWS: New bluegrass releases

THE CHARLIE SIZEMORE BAND, "Good News," Rounder. 14 tracks.

At 46, Charlie Sizemore is a veteran of more than 30 years in bluegrass.

He had already toured with The Goins Brothers before Ralph Stanley hired the then-16-year-old to replace Keith Whitley as his lead singer three decades ago.

Sizemore stayed with Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys for nearly a decade before going out on his own.

But he was also took time out to get a degree in political science (with honors) from the University of Kentucky, attend law school and establish a solo practice in a Nashville suburb.

So, it's been a long wait for fans since his last album - 2002's "The Story Is...The Songs of Tom T. Hall."

The fact that "The Story Is" was one of 2002's best albums made the wait seem even longer.

But Sizemore is back in bluegrass now with a new band and a new album.

Call it countrygrass, a smooth blend of country music and bluegrass by one of the best vocalists in either genre.

He's known for his songwriting as well as his vocals and picking. And Sizemore doesn't disappoint with four new songs on "Good News" - "I Won't Be Far From Here," about a man waiting patiently for his love to return; "Alison's Band," about a picker with a crush on Alison Krauss; "The Less That I Drink," about a man who discovers that the less he drinks the more he doesn't want her around; and "The Silver Bugle," a Civil War ghost song.

There's some super picking on the blazing "I've Fallen And I Can't Get Up" among other tunes.

"Blame It On Vern" finds a man blaming his drinking on the songs of bluegrass and country singer Vern Gosdin.

Matt DeSpain, the band's Dobro player, wrote the title cut, "Good News When I Die," and sings lead on "Hey Moon."

One of the best bluegrass or country albums of 2007 so far.

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PETE WERNICK & FLEXIGRASS, "What The," Niwot Records. 14 tracks.

Back in 1992, a couple of years after Hot Rize, arguably the top bluegrass band of the 1980s, stopped touring, Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick formed the Live Five.

The Live Five, which he called a "virtual bluegrass band," featured a clarinet, vibes, electric bass, drums and, of course, a banjo.

Traditionalists had a cow. But most others conceded that there was definitely a strong flavor of bluegrass in the mix.

Now, the Live Five has grown to seven members - adding Wernick's wife, Joan, on vocals, and Greg Harris on vibraphone - and changed its name to Flexigrass.

But the sound is pretty much the same.

"What The" takes its title from people's reaction to the music.

What is it? Jazz? Bop? Dixieland? Bluegrass?

A little bit of all plus a little swing and who knows what else.

But it's good.

And that's definitely a bluegrass banjo on "Blue Train," "Leavin' Town," "Traveling Home," "Just Thinking of You" and Gram Parsons' "Luxury Liner."

Wernick wrote five songs for the album.

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