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Friday, February 17, 11:45am - Friday, February 17, 11:30pm
I admit it, I failed. Badly. I'm back in my hotel room and it's not even midnight. It's 11:30pm. I could make all sorts of excuses (and that is exactly what I am doing, in my head) but instead, I'll just be honest and tell you the truth: I'm tired. So, without further ado, let's get to the good stuff.
It was another amazing day at the 2017 Folk Alliance International Conference. Things started off strongly with a special presentation by Ani DiFranco. Before she even opened her mouth to speak, the audience was on its feet, cheering and clapping. It's praise that's well deserved, as she has spent her entire life fighting to get people to realize that staying back and not standing up against greed, hatred and intolerance is wrong. Today's presentation focused on resistance and persistence: resist what you know is wrong and persist in the fight against it, even when you don't think it's worthwhile. It was a message that resonated with a lot of people, I think.
After the presentation, I spent some time this afternoon at a couple of different panel discussions, including one called "Take Me to Your Leader." Executive directors and other higher ups from the IBMA, the Blues Foundation, FAI, and the Americana Association sat together on a panel and talked about the challenges and opportunities each of their genres face in 2017. What struck me most? The absolutely genuine love each panelist seems to have for the music. These are people not in it for money or fame but because they genuinely believe in the power of music. It was the kind of conversation that makes you feel really happy with your choice of career, that's for sure.
Before the "A New Look at Radio" panel started, I trotted up to the 6th floor to catch an afternoon showcase with an Irish musician who performs as Gallie. (Born in Ireland, he now lives and works mostly in Melbourne, Australia.) He had bronchitis, poor guy, but, in spite of that and in spite of the fact that I was the only one in the room for the first half of his performance, he put on one helluva show. Sometimes the simplest songs and sounds are the most affective, the most compelling and Gallie proved it as he shared musical stories about his little boys and about the trials and tribulations that come with trying to stay in love in the face of the real-world realities. One thing I wish he would have done? Given the names of the songs he played. But, seeing as how he was pushing through an illness, I suppose I'll let it slide. Seriously, his performance was tender, charming, and heartfelt and I'm glad I got to hear it and meet him.
After the "A New Look at Radio" panel, it was down to the hotel bar for some networking with old and new friends. And it was there that I had my first geek/nerd/I-am-13-years-old moment of the day (yeah, there was more than one moment today). As I was talking with Folk Alley's Linda Fahey and the Minnesota Music Coalition's Ellen Stanley (aka Mother Banjo), the guy next to us turned around to ask Linda if she was having a good time and OMDOUBLEG it was Ellis Paul. Ellis Paul. I was cool, though. I swear I was. I did not tell him I was a fan, I did not blush furiously when he shook my hand.
Can I say the same when Linda waved Jeff Black over? I cannot. I've met him before and he's delightful - if you haven't listened to the exclusive session he did for us awhile back, you should. He was also the first showcase of the evening and I was, once again, blown away by how the simple things are the most compelling. After all, he's just a guy with a guitar (and sometimes a banjo and sometimes a keyboard) but there is magic in how he's able to put words and phrases together to create a story. The rest of the audience seemed to agree: there was a standing ovation when he finished his set and the applause was very, very loud when he announced that he's "allegedly" working on a new album. Fingers crossed.
After Jeff Black, it was time to head upstairs to catch Caitlin Canty's showcase. She made my best of 2015 list with her album Reckless Skyline and I was really curious to hear what she has been up to in the past two years. She made the move to Nashville and I think there definitely is a more country-rock esque sound and vibe to her music. That's not to say it's not good music - it is, most definitely. She's a good performer with a strong voice and a charming stage presence. I loved hearing her "hit" - "Get Up" - and the two new songs she played (for an album to be released in August) were fun to hear, too.
Next up - OSOG. That's On the Shoulders of Giants, an 8-piece Israeli folk and roots band from Tel Aviv. They've got a heavy blues vibe, one that got the whole room cheering out loud from the very beginning of their set. They're a young band; I want to hear what they sound like in a year or two. Right now, they're a band absolutely brimming with potential. Frankly, the music mix for their performance wasn't great - there was too much percussion and not enough volume on the vocal microphones. Plus, the harmonica, fiddle and even the guitar got a little lost. Still, I loved getting to hear something different and unexpected. That's what Folk Alliance is all about, really - getting to hear music you might not have heard otherwise.
The party moved right along to the official showcase for Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards. I kept thinking to myself: "this band is all about strings and harmonies." Front woman Laura Cortese plays a mean fiddle and she was more than adequately backed up by another violin, a double bass and a cello. This is a high energy quartet, one that takes the traditional string band feel and amps it up with interesting arrangements. The band played a few tracks off of their soon-to-be-released new album California Calling (it'll be out this fall, they said).
Keeping the jam band mood alive, it was on to Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers. If you were a fan of The Belleville Outfit, then you are familiar with this powerhouse singer and fiddler. This performance was easily one of my favorites of the conference: high energy, perfectly crafted musicianship, a charming stage presence and the fact that each of the 6 musicians seemed to be having a great time on stage. The 5 band members provide a gorgeous cradle for Hunt's intricate fiddling and strong vocals and I was glad to hear that they've got a new album coming out in early June.
I'd planned on heading up to the 7th floor to see and hear Portland, Oregon based singer/songwriter John Craigie but unfortunately (for me, not for him), his showcase room was absolutely packed with people. So, sadly, I didn't get to hear him tonight.
Other bands I wanted to hear but did not? Harrow Fair; Trout Steak Revival; Front Country, and Max Hatt and Edda Glass. I could share a more extensive list of bands/musicians I wanted to hear but didn't (if you want that list, just let me know), too. All in all, though, I was impressed with the level of talent that waited for me at the 2017 FAI Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. What a trip!
Thursday, February 16, 9:15pm - Friday, February 17 1:45am
The great thing about an event like Folk Alliance is that it gives you a chance to connect with people you might not normally connect with. For example: I got to speak with the talented team from Bluegrass Situation, I introduced myself to musicians Sam Lee and Sam Gleaves, I was introduced to Lindsay Lou of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys (and made an idiot of myself, too - "Did you do something different with your hair? You look different than you do on your website." Oh Elena), I shook hands with Kaia Kater and stared longingly after Jimmy LaFave as he wandered through the hotel lobby.
Plus, I saw a great shirt. And sometimes a great shirt can just make your day.
Besides that, I heard brand spanking new music from the very talented Suzie Ungerleider, aka Oh Susanna. She's working on a new album, one inspired by her childhood in Vancouver and the songs she played tonight were, indeed, absolutely filled with the longing, lust, heartbreak and heartache that only a teenager can feel. Her voice is strong and clear, the kind of voice you hear and the kind of voice that makes you think to yourself, "This woman absolutely OWNS this room." She did - she had the audience singing along with her off and on throughout her set and it was clear that she could have played for much longer than she did and kept our rapt attention.
It was a tough act to follow, but I jumped headlong into the Thursday night fray and went to hear a band called Hermitage Green. This 5-piece band from Limerick bills itself as a group playing "Irish acoustic folk rock." Take out the "acoustic" and the "folk" and you've got what I heard tonight. "It's going to be loud," I said to myself as they finished up their sound check. They were fun - and clearly talented, playing lots of different kinds of guitars and percussion instruments - but since I did not bring earplugs and wasn't at a bar with 200 of my closest friends, I wasn't too keen on the vibrations I could feel rumbling through my chest when they started. I left halfway through their set.
For a complete change of pace after my Irish rockers, I climbed the stairs to the 5th floor - one of the designated "music floors" - and went to hear William Prince. Swoon, hearts, flowers, sighs. From Winnipeg, Manitoba, this guy has a sound that will destroy you if you let it. Not only does Prince has an absolutely gorgeous, pitch perfect, baritone-bass voice, a voice that sounds like fine-grit sandpaper coated in velvet, he sings about the harsh realities of life in such a way that your heart longs to reach out to comfort his. Singing songs from his most recent recording, Earthly Day, he encouraged his audience to eat out of his hand...I mean sing along with him. Does he want us to participate, to feel connected to him and his music, to be moved? If so, he succeeds.
Banjoist and singer/songwriterKaia Kater played tonight, too. Here's what I kept thinking during her entire set: "How in the world can someone this young have the kind of life experience and knowledge that she has? How does she KNOW about these things?" She's utterly convincing in everything she does - the phrase "older than her years" is definitely appropriate when it comes to Kaia Kater and the incredibly mature view she has of the world. I did notice that she either wasn't mic'ed properly or maybe isn't quite sure exactly how to use the mic to her best advantage but, frankly, who cares? She's awesome, in every sense of the word and if you HAVEN'T checked out Folk Alley's exclusive session with her - do it right now. Immediately. Don't waste another moment NOT knowing about Kaia Kater.
Other acts of note that I heard and saw tonight: the sister act Annie Oakley, a band that has a very interesting back story (check out the video - HERE) and a band that I'll be curious to hear again in a couple of years and Portland, Maine based singer Caroline Cotter, who has a voice that doesn't sound like anyone else's, a voice that makes you want to lean in real close to hear what she has to say.
Staying up until 2:45 in the morning? Not something this folk dj does on a regular basis. So therefore, we got off to a rather later than anticipated start this morning.
I did make it to one of the panels I wanted to attend - "Radio and Folk Brand Awareness." It was a fascinating discussion headed by four very engaging presenters: Mike Pengra from Radio Heartland/Minnesota Public Radio; Linda Fahey from (yay!) Folk Alley/WKSU; Joe Swank from Swank Promotions and Michael Park from The International Americana Music Show.
The questions from the moderator came fast and furious - what makes folk music folk music? How do we market or sell ourselves to other stations and listeners? How do we program, how do we choose what to play, how can we combat the perception of the word "folk" with the reality of what it is? Single versus full album, what does "international really mean"? It was an interesting conversation with some very perceptive questions from the audience, too.
After the panel, more coffee of course. (Maybe too much today. Will consider this tomorrow.) I wandered through the merchandise area and drooled over some guitars. Then I decided it was time for more music so up to the British Underground room I went to try and catch another performance from The Changing Room, a band from Cornwall. I saw them last night and mused that perhaps they'd be more impressive and affective in a smaller room. Guess what. I was right. In this space, you could really hear how well their voices mesh together. AND - they answered the question I had about their name. Why are they called The Changing Room? Because they envisioned a sort of rotating cast of musicians joining them on tour and in the recording studio, leading to different instrumentation and different vocal harmonies that would back up the two lead voices of Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly. Answer!
After that satisfying discovery, I wandered down to room #529, the "Break Out West" room. And, once again, magic happened.
It was sort of a Canadian round robin this afternoon - several talented musicians from Canada taking turns performing for a very appreciative crowd. There were two standouts for me:
JP Hoe. He's a youngish guy from Winnipeg and he played a song called "Run Away From Me." The whole time, I just kept thinking: "What a beautiful voice this guy has." It's clear but not thin, rich and warm, but not muddy. It was a joy to listen to him...plus, the song was a sort of kiss off/heartbreak song which always drags me in.
Belle Plaine is a musician from Saskatchewan and she's got a voice that's filled with blues and soul. When she sings, she sounds absolutely effortless - and that's a real treat for a listener. Playing guitar with a double bassist friend of hers (I didn't catch her name, unfortunately), she had the audience swaying along to one of her songs called "Good Heart." I snagged one of her CDs on the way out and cannot wait to listen to it when I get home.
Oh, as a postscript:
You want to know why the Edinburgh duo The Jellyman's Daughter is called The Jellyman's Daughter? I asked them. You can hear what they said.
And I got to nerd it out a little and chat with a musician I've admired for a very long time - since I first heard her at my last Folk Alliance International Conference, as a matter of fact. Corrine West. I'm going to try and catch her performance tonight!
Wednesday, February 15, 9:15pm - Thursday, February 16, 1:40am (CST)
There are two kinds of music performances here at the Folk Alliance Conference. There's the "Official Showcase" and there's the "Private Showcase." Some musicians do one or the other. Some do both. Night one of Folk Alliance started with three Official Showcases: Ellis Paul, The Changing Room, and The Railsplitters. After that, I wandered up to the 5th floor of the Westin (where the conference is being held) and ventured into two Private Showcases: Amilia K. Spicer and The Jellyman's Daughter.
Being slightly intimidated by the breadth and scope of this enormous music lovers' conference, I decided I should start things off with an old favorite, Ellis Paul. As always, he was a consummate musician. He knows exactly what consonants to stress and which vowels to elongate, he shapes his lyrics gracefully, his guitar playing is technically flawless...in short, Ellis Paul is a delight to listen to. That said: part of me wishes he were performing in a smaller room, one where he didn't need a microphone. The details of his voice get lost in a larger space, I think, and so I missed some of the warm intimacy that I was expecting.
There were three standouts in his performance: First, a tribute to Johnny Cash called "Kick Out the Lights." It's inspired by an experience Cash had at the Grand Ol Opry where he really did - you guessed it - kick out the stage lights. He was banned from the Opry for life after that performance. Ellis Paul got his audience to sing along - and enthusiastically, too! - during the chorus. It was fun. (Not that I sang along, of course. Being from Minnesota...singing in public isn't something we generally feel comfortable doing.)
The second highlight was a new song called, I think, "Scarecrow in a Corn Maze." THIS is where Ellis Paul shines. Moving over to a keyboard, he created a cast of characters who participate in what turned out to be a very compelling story. Classic Ellis Paul, for sure.
The last highlight wasn't actually a musical one. As he was preparing to do one final song, he started doing what he does - telling a story. It was the story of the absolutely gorgeous guitar he was playing tonight, a guitar he calls "Guinness" because of its beautiful multi-toned wood. Ellis Paul had the whole audience laughing with him as he wrapped up his set.
Act two of tonight was a performance I've been looking forward to for a couple of weeks now. The Changing Room is a band from a seaside fishing town in Cornwall called Looe. It's a five-piece ensemble featuring Celtic harp, accordion, guitar, banjo, and bodhran (in addition to vocals). While I wouldn't say I was disappointed in the performance, I would say that it wasn't quite as high energy as I was expecting/hoping for. This may well be because the band only arrived in Kansas City 2 hours before they took the stage...and that's after traveling for something like 23 hours. No wonder they were tired!
I imagine it's a real challenge to mic a band like this: two primary vocalists with very different ranges and two vocalists who provide harmony vocals, a Celtic harp, an accordion, a guitar, a banjo and a (so awesomely fantastic) bodhran. The band's sound was muddy at times, which makes me think they might be better suited for a smaller venue. There were, however, moments of sheer beauty when the two musicians who lead the band (and who founded it, incidentally, a few years ago), Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly, traded verses back and forth. If I had one wish, it would be to hear more of Tanya and to hear how the band sounds in a smaller space. Ok, here's another wish: to figure out why they call themselves The Changing Room.
Act three. In a word: Whoa. The Railsplitters are a 5-piece bluegrass band from Boulder, Colorado and they blew me away. Now, when you hear someone describing a "hot young bluegrass band," there's a certain image that comes to your mind. And it's not a bad image - not at all. But it's a sort of "oh, haven't we heard this kind of thing before" image. I wasn't too terribly excited about the band initially, I admit. Their online videos are fine, the music I've heard from recordings is definitely interesting and technically well played. But where they really shine? Live in concert. That's where they bring the kind of energy that makes the hairs on your arms stand straight up.
Headed by a woman with an absolute powerhouse of a voice, Lauren Stovall, this band takes incredible chances when it comes to harmonies and rhythms. They seem to delight in sudden changes that should seem jarring but somehow are not and there was not a weak moment in their 30 minute set. As of this moment, The Railsplitters are in the number one slot on my "Favorite Acts From Folk Alliance 2017" list.
Act 4 was the first of the two private showcases I attended tonight: Amilia K. Spicer. Her voice is compelling in a way that's kind of hard to describe. Think Aimee Mann...but not as intense. It's this strange mix of delicacy and husky grit - a sound that's so different that it makes you want to hear more. She performed with a percussionist and a (most amazing) mandolin player tonight and all in all it was a decent performance. I will say it was hard to hear her; there was a lot of music making in the hallway and in the other rooms so it was a challenge to catch all the details of her songs.
What did come through, though, was the fact that Amilia K. Spicer is a master when it comes to creating vivid visuals for her audience. Lines like "vines around my ankles" and "chased by lions and dreaming of the Serengeti" make me want to hear more of her music.
The final act of the night, Act 5, was an absolute delight from start to finish. Tired, sleepy, hungry, and ready for some quiet, I almost blew off seeing The Jellyman's Daughter. I am so glad I didn't.
This is a duo from Edinburgh (which tonight was a trio, with the addition of a double bassist): two vocalists who play cello, mandolin and guitar. They started a few minutes late and so the audience was chit-chatting as audiences do. However, as soon as Emily Kelly opened her mouth and started to sing, every single person in the audience shut up. I'm not exaggerating - it really happened.
She and Graham Coe traded verses back and forth on their three songs and it was a delight to hear how comfortable they sound with each other. Interesting harmonies, interesting interplay between voice and various instruments, and this kind of cool old-yet-new feel (contemporary Celtic music with a torch song influence? Is that a thing?). This is a band that's poised for something big and I can't wait to hear more.
Here I am at the 2017 Folk Alliance International Conference, in Kansas City, Missouri. Airport code MCI, in case you like knowing things like that - I do. 29th floor, lovely view of the old part of downtown (according to the friendly lady who checked me in). I've discovered there's a fitness center on the E level ("That's for Executive Level and, ma'am, no. You do not need a special card or key to access it. Your regular key will work.") and there appears to be a coffee shop and a couple of bars within strolling distance. Bathroom stuff unpacked. Suitcase opened and arranged. Computer on and internet code typed in.
Do you know how long it has been since I've been to one of these things? "Things" being a real, honest to goodness, folk conference? It's been 9 years, that's how long. 9. Years. Some things you never forget and I will never forget how much fun I had 9 years ago at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Memphis.
Something I did forget? How many people show up to these things. I mean, sure, you've got musicians (amazing musicians - have you seen the line up? Here it is. But you also have "Industry" people and "Press" people - each of us has our own special name badge, by the way, color coded to go with whatever category we fall into. (Mine, if you're curious, is "Press" and it's a purpley-reddish color.)
Walking into the hotel to register before walking over to the other hotel to check in, I was assaulted by a barrage of...noise. Laughing, shouting, echoing, yelling, talking, glasses clinking. There are guitars everywhere. I mean, everywhere. It's an assault on the senses, for sure. And, to be honest, it's kind of overwhelming, especially for a radio person with, shall we say, rather introverted tendencies. There's a reason we work in closed off studios, you know.
But. I just downloaded the official Folk Alliance app. And I just added the musicians I want to see to my calendar. And I can feel myself getting excited to experience some amazing new music which I will, hopefully, get to share with you very soon.
So, let's do this. Notebook? Check. Pens (4)? Check. Fresh batteries in the recorder? Check. Water bottle, gum, phone, ID, cash, room key. I am ready.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 8:54 AM
Hear It First: Blair Crimmins & the Hookers, 'You Gotta Sell Something'
Ten years ago, the music of Blair Crimmins was extremely different than his cheery modern take on 1920's Dixieland Jazz. Crimmins, the lead singer and guitarist for Atlanta alternative rock band Bishop Don, suffered a concussion in a skateboarding accident and everything kind of changed from there. He was drawn to swing, jazz and ragtime because it was fun and inclusive in nature. After ten years and two full-length albums, the new release You Gotta Sell Something is a culmination in Crimmins' careful study and practice of this specialized music. Says Crimmins:
"You Gotta Sell Something is the most focused record I've ever done. I had ten songs that I thought were really strong so we didn't need to develop the album in the studio. There were a few improvised sections but for the most part the band knew exactly what to do when the mic's were on. I also took more solos than on previous albums. I feel like I got to shine as a songwriter and an instrumentalist while also showcasing a damn tight band. For those reasons I'm really proud of what we've done."
While this music is a throwback to 1920's nostalgia (all I can see are 'Boardwalk Empire' and 'Downton Abbey' characters when listening!), there are moments where Crimmins puts his own twist on things. "Beautiful Thang" sounds like he's channeling a theatrical ragtime Elton John with that amazing piano work and the dramatic song structure. All in all, get your dancing shoes on and slam down an energy drink because you will be itching to move.
To give credit where credit is due, it is not easy to create this style of nostalgic Dixieland jazz and not have it seem inauthentic or uncool. Crimmins, a multi-instrumentalist, has surrounded himself with players who are not only tight, but have a cool swing.
'You Gotta Sell Something' is out on February 17 and is available for pre-order at iTunes and Amazon.com
WATCH: River Whyless' Special Video in Support of America's National Wildlife Refuges
January 31, 2017
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Folk-rock bandRiver Whyless has released a special new song and music video, inspired by a trip to Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southwestern Wyoming. The band, along with a variety of nonprofit partners, intends to generate support for National Wildlife Refuges and other public lands across the country. A portion of the proceeds of song sales will be donated to the National Wildlife Refuge Association to support National Wildlife Refuges across the country.
"National Wildlife Refuges, along with our state and national parks and forests, are vital parts of our continued effort to preserve America's natural beauty and essential ecosystems. They also happen to inspire our music," said River Whyless' Alex McWalters.
The song, "Hold Me To Ya," is the result of a collaboration with the nonprofit group Sustain Music and Nature through their Songscapes program.
In an effort to access new audiences and support public lands, Songscapes provide musicians with the opportunity to travel into, learn about, and create music inspired by protected landscapes.
For this most recent Songscape, River Whyless partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to spend a week enjoying Seedskadee NWR in southwest Wyoming. The refuge protects a vast sagebrush landscape, ribboned by 36 miles of the Green River and the lush riparian areas lining its banks. During their visit, River Whyless experienced the unique beauty of the landscape and the wildlife that call the it home, including moose, pronghorn, cutthroat trout and the iconic greater sage-grouse.
Greater sage-grouse, which have dramatically declined due to the loss of healthy sagebrush habitat, inspired the band to create a new instrument for their Songscape. When listening closely to "Hold Me To Ya", audiences will hear the sound of the grouse's display dance mimicked with a mason jar and water.
The stunning beauty of Seedskadee and the band's songwriting journey were brought to life on film by National Geographic Young Explorer Corey Robinson.
To learn more about the project, download "Hold Me To Ya", and support the National Wildlife Refuge Association, visit the project's home page: Songscape.refugeassociation.org
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, No Depression Editor-in-Chief, Kim Ruehl joined us in the guest DJ seat for a special hour of music from the Civil Rights Era and beyond. You'll hear songs that were the soundtrack to Martin Luther King's Civil Rights marches from Joan Baez, Mavis Staples and Odetta. Also included in this hour are examples of modern artists creating music inspired by King's message like Rhiannon Giddens, The Roots and Common.
They say the devil's in the details and when it comes to storytelling, those devilish details are especially important. The difference between a great storyteller and a ho-hum storyteller? The great storyteller knows exactly which details to include in his or her story...and which details to leave out. With a voice that's as warm as a crackling fire on a sub-zero January day, Rayna Gellert's detail-filled songs on her new album Workin's Too Hard represent storytelling at its finest.
After listening through Workin's Too Hard just once, it's clear that Rayna Gellert, for all her technical virtuosity as an instrumentalist (she's a first-rate fiddler), has a deep and profound appreciation and respect for the simplicity of old-time American music. Her original songs sound like they could have been written decades earlier, probably a nod to Gellert's childhood, growing up steeped in the traditions of Appalachian ballads and stringband sounds. And the way she delivers those songs? Sheer perfection: she knows exactly when to step back in a story to give it a little room, to give the listener a chance to catch up (the fiddle break in "Perry" serves as a good example).
Gellert admits reaching into her own life experiences for inspiration in Workin's Too Hard, but, again, there's simply no escaping her respect for musical traditions of the past. These are characters we've all met or known before: your down on his luck character, just trying to make it through each day in the title track, your character who warns that going through life not making any decisions is, actually, a decision ("River Town"), and the character with arms and eyes wide open to any experiences that might come his or her way ("I'm Bound for the Promised Land").
Recording with Kieran Kane and engineer Charles Yingling (and other talented friends, including Kai Welch and Jamie Dick) in one room, Gellert pours her heart and soul into these seven tracks. Her voice is intimate and it immediately grabs your attention because it's not TRYING to grab your attention. Instead, the quality of Gellert's vocals forces you to lean in to really understand the story she's telling. And by the time you do that, well, that's it. Rayna Gellert has you by the heartstrings and she isn't letting go.
Workin's Too Hard is out on January 20th via StorySound Records and available at iTunes and Amazon.com
Once upon a time, singer/songwriter records involved little more than an artist, a guitar, and some songs. But producers like Dave Cobb, Joe Henry, Gary Paczosa, and John Paul White have taken the form to new heights, adding textures and tones that enhance the music without ever overpowering it. Long story short: These aren't your mama's folk records.
Having a way with words is a gift not all songwriters wield well. Too often, they take the low road of easy emotion and simple sentiment. Amanda Shires runs right past those without looking twice, headed straight for the high hills of poetry with lyrical lines that carve themselves into the hearts of their listeners. iTunes . Amazon.com
Brent Cobb: Shine on Rainy Day (Elektra Records)
One of three Dave Cobb productions to make the cut, Brent Cobb's Shine on Rainy Day takes a similar tack to Andrew Combs' All These Dreams last year, in that it harkens back to the early '70s when country music collided with folk-rock in the music of Glen Campbell, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, and others. It's a stellar set the Cobb cousins have offered up. iTunes . Amazon.com
Chely Wright: I Am the Rain (Painted Red Music Group)
Not all albums stand up to a deep, deep listen, while some get better and better the more you linger inside them. I Am the Rain is a lingerer. On first blush, it's lovely enough. But spend a bit more time with eyes closed and headphones on and its beauty will find its way to you. And what beauty it is. iTunes . Amazon.com
Courtney Marie Andrews: Honest Life (Mama Bird Recordings)
Sometimes a record comes along and captivates your ears within the first few bars. This is one of those times. So much more than just a girl with a guitar, Courtney Marie Andrews has made a virtually flawless LP with Honest Life. Yes, she tips her hat to early Joni Mitchell in a big, big way; but she does so with such grace and gravitas that any comparisons are well-warranted. iTunes . Amazon.com
Dan Layus: Dangerous Things (Plated Records)
Coming out fairly quietly this Fall, Dan Layus's Dangerous Things made a late-stage, dark horse run to get on this list. Nevertheless, it's a worthy entry, showcasing the kind of music Layus has long wanted to make. The wonder of Dangerous Things lies in its sparseness. It is what it is. And what it is is a beautiful, beautiful record. iTunes . Amazon.com
Dylan LeBlanc: Cautionary Tale (Single Lock Records )
This was my first favorite record of 2016 and stood its ground all year to remain tied for the number one spot with two others. Every song on the set is a stunner, as Dylan LeBlanc dives in to deconstruct his demons and set them to music. Addiction, depression, and hard Southern living are the threads running through Cautionary Tale and LeBlanc alternately cuts and ties them as he sees fit. iTunes . Amazon.com
John Paul White: Beulah (Single Lock Records)
If John Paul White has an artistic chip on his shoulder, let's hope it stays there because he has shown us something special with Beulah. There's a dark, almost Southern Gothic vibe to this set. Part of that is embedded in White's plaintive voice. The rest of it comes from the somewhat haunted quality of his writing and production. iTunes . Amazon.com
Lori McKenna: The Bird & the Rifle (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)
A mainstay of the folk circuit for the past 15 years, Lori McKenna has always displayed a rare deftness with detail. And it's wonderful to see her get recognized and rewarded for her gifts on a much bigger stage. The Bird & the Rifle brings together everything folkies have long-loved about McKenna and packages it in a way that a broader audience can also appreciate it - Grammy voters, included. iTunes . Amazon.com
Sara Watkins: Young in All the Wrong Ways (New West Records)
Sara Watkins upped her artistic ante on this release delivering a set of songs that is absolutely mesmerizing. "Like New Year's Day" and "Without a Word," in particular are so beautiful, you'll want to crawl inside them, never to return to normal life ever again. That's just what happens when melody and magic mingle. iTunes . Amazon.com
Sarah Jarosz: Undercurrent (Sugar Hill Records)
The second Grammy nominee on the list, Sarah Jarosz has also taken a big step forward with Undercurrent. And casual fans might well become dedicated followers because of it. This is another case of still waters running very deep, demanding and deserving a little extra effort on the part of listeners who will, in turn, be handsomely rewarded. iTunes . Amazon.com