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Rhiannon Giddens, Patty Griffin And Shakey Graves - A Musical Conversation
by Ann Powers, NPR Music (photo by Joshua Shoemaker)
"I think songs can have different lives," said Rhiannon Giddens in the conversation that flowed throughout NPR Music's "Songs We Love: Americana Fest Edition" panel on September 16 at Nashville's historic RCA Victor Studio A. "Each song has its own way that it likes to be done, but it can be more than one way," the Carolina Chocolate Drops multi-instrumentalist and singer continued. "If you tap into it, you can feel it."
Sharing tunes and conversation with fellow Americana stars Patty Griffin and Shakey Graves, Giddens embodied the mood of the festival that would unfold over the following four days. Her selections during the daytime event, spanned Tejano music, Appalachian folk and '90s honky-tonk, illustrating the enduring truth that in a genre whose boundaries remain fluid, song craft remains the magnetic core. Griffin added to the conversation by showing how learning new things (perfecting her piano skills) and turning to old sources (re-reading James Baldwin) influenced her songwriting process on the stunning new album 'Servant of Love.' Graves, a spontaneous raconteur, reflected upon the many different versions his songs take as they evolve - the waltz version, the slow country one, the "I'm yelling at you!" one. At one point, he performed a beautiful, spare take on Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall" that showed how the poetry held within a song's musical frame matters most.
Singer/songwriter Kevin Gordon grew up in the northeast corner of Louisiana, in a town called Monroe. He played in the school band, probably fished in Black Bayou, and went to football games at what was, back then, Northeast Louisiana University. Although Gordon has left Louisiana, Louisiana has never left him...or his music. The places and people that comprised his youth are ever-present in his songs, including the ones that fill his new album, 'Long Gone Time'.
Kelly McCartney: You moved to Nashville quite a while ago, but you still visit your Louisiana homeland. How have things changed or not changed down there in the past few decades?
Kevin Gordon: It's still "home" - the cliche says you can't go back, but you really can't get away from it, either. It's a fascinating, beautiful, and nasty place, full of contradictions ... the best music and food; poorly funded public schools and exceptionally corrupt, eccentric governance. There's nowhere else like it. And I keep going back. I guess I think I'm going to figure it all out somehow. Or, I just have the need to drive south for a good po-boy once in a while.
Your songs are often cited for their literary qualities. Is that a style you chose to pursue or did it choose you?
I don't believe in style as a conscious choice, at least as a way to make art or music that's honest. I just try to be true to whatever I'm hearing in my head, to what feels good and right at the time. Yes, I did go to grad school in poetry ... but I'm also, essentially, a self-taught guitar player, and my deepest ties to music have more to do with rhythm, with the body, than with any high-minded thoughts about melodic structure or lyrical complexity.
This is a three-parter: What's the trick to getting inside the heads and hearts of your characters? Do you have a favorite character? And do any of them have recurring roles in more than one song?
I don't have any tricks, though listening critically seems most important to me for just about all aspects of songwriting. You have to forget it's you when you're listening back to a draft of a song. Most of my characters are or were "real" people - so I either still hear their voices in my mind or, in the case of Brownie Ford -- who appears in two songs on 'Long Gone Time' -- I read interviews with him and combined that with the memory I have of meeting him that one time in Monroe.
I don't have a favorite character, though I have written four or five songs about a guy who closely resembles an old friend from Monroe, who doesn't seem able to keep his life together. (This friend used to come to my shows down there, and would request those songs.) There's a song on 'Gloryland' about a woman I read about in a book, called 'Local Color,' by folklorist William Ferris. She was a quilter, named Pecolia Warner, from Yazoo City, MS, and the prose on the page was in first-person, like she was just sitting there talking to you. I read the chapter on Ms. Warner and, within five minutes, had started what became the song "Pecolia's Star."
So many glowing articles about you make mention of how you are under-appreciated. But you do a pretty specific thing, musically. These aren't three-minute pop songs you're writing. Obviously, you want people to hear your music, but what's the ultimate, long-term win for you?
I just want to keep writing songs and making records, and hopefully get better at it as I go along. I think that when you start feeling too proud of, or satisfied with, your work, you've kind of lost it - the idea of why you're doing this in the first place. To stay humbled by the persistent mystery and wonder of this life feels like the most important thing to me, as a creative person. To not give a damn about what people think is also important. Practically speaking, though, things seem to get a little better out there with each record. So I keep going. This is just what I do. I want to keep doing it as long as I'm able.
"Colfax," from your last album, caught a lot of ears off guard. If that song turns out to be the pillar of your legacy, how would you feel?
I'm glad I finished that song; I'd been trying to write it for several years. I wasn't sure where I was going with it - except that I wanted the song to stay true to the story as it actually happened. But that presented a problem, because the story didn't have some sort of Hollywood, CGI-induced, bombs-and-glory ending*. (And that kind of monotony, that lack of drama, ended up being one of the things the song is "about," I think - the constant, often silent struggle that victims of prejudice face, and their often quiet, yet heroic, push-back against all that.) But the song had to be about the experience itself first, including all the goofy adolescent stuff, which everybody can relate to. So, yeah, if whoever decides these things thinks "Colfax" is at the top of the heap, I'm fine with it.
*And the first version I came up with, which had a kind of north Mississippi, hill-country blues groove, seemed to want that. But I heard a couple of friends play their own long, linear, lyric-driven songs (Tommy Womack, "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood"; Peter Cooper's song about Hank Aaron, "715") and that inspired me to go back and try again. Once I simplified the chord structure and the groove, I had 90 percent of those lyrics within an hour. They just fell out. I'd never written anything like it.
Stream 'Long Gone Time' in its entirety in the player below!
October 4 - Roots Music House Concert - Peace Dale, RI
October 6 - Atwood's - Cambridge, MA
October 7 - Norey's - Newport, RI (October 9 - Folk Alley Session taping - Saranac Lake, NY)
October 10 - Nelson Odeon - Cazenovia, NY
October 24 - Landhaven - Barto, PA
Some 23 years ago, Iris DeMent appeared on the singer/songwriter scene with her 'Infamous Angel' debut. With that set, she set her own artistic bar remarkably high, particularly with the folk perfection that is "Our Town." Since then, DeMent has built an impressive catalog of albums and collaborations, all filled with her personal blend of charm and melancholy. Her newest project, 'The Trackless Woods,' finds DeMent setting the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to music. It's a somber, yet serene collection inspired by DeMent's personal exploration of her adopted daughter's native culture.
Kelly McCartney: Being one of 14(!) children, you've said that you understood your parents best through music. What do you hope to convey to your daughter through your work... this new album, in particular?
Iris DeMent: My daughter spent the first six years of her life in Russia. Anna is one of Russia's most beloved poets. It was a combination of my love for her work and a desire to, in some small way, bridge the gap between my daughter's two worlds that led to the making of this record. I hope to help reconnect her to her heritage... OR, at least open the door to it.
Music is such a mysterious force. You've said that you felt like the music was already in these poems when you found them. That must mean you didn't find many that weren't singing dirges to you because, save a couple that have some pep, this is a solemn affair. Talk to me about translating and honoring someone else's work in that way.
Anna's poetry is filled with hope, forgiveness, and love, even though she was living in times that spoke to none of those qualities. Her entire adult life was one revolution or war after another, loved ones being executed or dying in prison camps and her work being banned and her character being brought into question. She not only survived all these things but thrived, somehow, as an artist. By way of her poetry, she brought comfort and encouragement to countless others who were enduring the same suffering. I didn't concern myself with trying to entertain anyone with this record. There's no shortage of that out there already. I concerned myself with honoring her life, her work, and the victorious human spirit that sings in all of these poems and can sing in each of us.
Akhmatova lived and wrote during such a tumultuous time in Russian history. Were there certain poems or themes that you shied away from? Or were you able to find little threads of hope pretty consistently?
Some of her poems have very Russian-specific themes and, for obvious reasons, I chose not to take those on. But, basically, if a poem spoke to me and I felt it lent itself to music, or at least the music that runs through me, I went to work on it.
Do you agree with Akhmatova's summation in "To My Poems," in regard to your songs? Because it's a fairly dark take on creativity as a pursuit or an outlet.
Anna devoted her life to this work and the work nearly cost her her life! It's pretty safe to say she believed in the value of what she was doing. I don't think of this particular poem, or any creative work, for that matter, as something to agree or disagree with. I look for the integrity of it, the spirit of it, and take it or leave it on its own terms. "To My Poems" feels to me like the expression of someone's truth, a truth that may have lasted five minutes or a lifetime -- I don't know or care. Truth is inherently beautiful and valuable, no matter its lifespan.
One of the things that's so striking about you is that you come off as just an everyday Jane. Then you sing and that's out the window. Do you feel like Iowa allows you that space or would you have maintained a sense of normalcy in, say, L.A. or Nashville?
I don't relate to the idea of an everyday anything. I've never met an everyday "Jane" or "Joe"! All of life... the fact that we are here... that there is an Iowa, a Mars, a California... that Anna lived and poured her heart into these poems and lifted the hearts of others by doing that, mine included... that I'm raising this child from Russia, a place that sounded like another universe to me not all that long ago... there is no such thing as ordinary. All of it is "out the window." No exceptions!
'The Trackless Woods' is out now on Flariella Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:47 AM
Album Review: Jason Isbell, 'Something More Than Free'
As soon as "If It Takes a Lifetime" opens Jason Isbell's 'Something More Than Free,' it's obvious that the singer/songwriter did not make 'Southeastern: The Sequel.' Quite the opposite, really. 'Southeastern' overflowed with cutting lyrics that rock his fellow writers back on their heels in awe every time they hear them. Lines like this (from "Songs That She Sang in the Shower"): "On a lark, on a whim, I said 'There's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them.' And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke." Those kinds of brilliant turns of phrases filled each song on that album and made it what it was.
Here, though, Isbell is far more exacting and economical in his eloquence, applying rigorous standards to his word choices and reserving the grandiosity for his musical explorations. That's not to say that his character sketches aren't poetic. They are. They are merely more grounded than lofty this time out, leaving less of a vapor trail. "And the couple in the corner of the bar have traveled light and, clearly, traveled far. She's got nothing left to learn about his heart and they're sitting there a thousand miles apart," he sings in "Flagship" to set the scene. Then he injects himself into the story: "Baby, let's not ever get that way. I'll say whatever words I need to say." It's the most tender moment on the record, haunting in its simplicity.
Contrasting that piece are entries more reminiscent of the Band and Neil Young than anything on 'Southeastern.' And while specific lyrics may not linger, Isbell's melodies certainly do. While "If It Takes a Lifetime," "Flagship," "24 Frames," "Children of Children," and "Hudson Commodore" are certainly stand-out tracks, 'Something More Than Free' is one of those top-to-bottom albums that, just drop the needle anywhere and it'll hit a great song.
'Something More Than Free' is out now on Southeastern Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Oklahoma's Samantha Crain is a musical force to be reckoned with. As a singer, her phrasing and rhythms fail to follow traditional folk patterns. And, as a songwriter, her compositions prick and pry at our hearts and minds in the best possible ways. Her latest endeavor, 'Under Branch & Thorn & Tree,' puts those talents to work on a collection of songs that folds the political into the personal. From the easy swagger of "Big Rock" to the gentle folk of "Elk City," the set finds Crain in fine form.
Kelly McCartney: You're a live-to-tape, one-take kind of recording artist. Do you ever go back and fiddle with arrangements after the fact? Or do they stay true for their life cycles?
Samantha Crain: My live performances are rarely exactly like the recorded songs. I strongly believe in the fluidity of songs depending on what musicians you're playing with or the mood of the audience. However, arrangements are very important to me. Just because we do analog recording and do few takes, doesn't mean I don't give thought to arrangement; I do. I'm very deliberate in everything I do. I just do a lot of pre-recording practice and talking with the other musicians. I want everyone to be on the same page, in the same headspace, but, at the same time, in the moment and surprising. Most songs, through their lifetimes, take several different forms regarding tempo or groove; it just happens organically after you haven't listened to the recording for years.
A lot of singer/songwriters put more emphasis on the songwriting part of their craft. You weight them pretty evenly, though. Who are your influences as a singer? And how does the singing affect or inform the writing for you?
I'm really drawn to any singers who are overly emotional or do something different tonally or rhythmically. I've always been into pretty polarizing voices. I love Billie Holiday, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Roy Orbison, Marc Bolan, Lhasa de Sela, and Annie Lennox. I've been told I'm a very rhythmic singer. Its not something I'm particularly aware of, but I assume my natural inclinations to move words in certain ways affects the way I write. I don't try to study how I create; I just do it.
In your songs, you use personal perspectives to make political points. Do you ever worry that the nuance softens the blow you're landing too much? Or do you find that it's the sugar that helps the medicine go down?
I feel a little of both. Part of me feels I'm being too gentle; the other part of me thinks its the best way to get the narratives into a public consciousness. I go back and forth with how I feel about it. I probably always will. I still do believe the only way to have intelligent and meaningful conversations about anything political or social is through empathy, though. And I know empathy only comes with understanding other people's stories and lives. That is something I will always believe. So however hard or soft I'm being with my issue, the story will always be the base.
If you had to pick one song, from this album or another, that represented the heart of what you're trying to do as an artist... which one and why?
I really feel like "Elk City" on this album was a breakthrough song for me -- a song that represents the exact sort of song I'd like to keep writing for the rest of my life. Something that has humanity in the lyrics and, to me, that song is interesting musically without seeming difficult. I'm just really proud of that song. I feel like I'll want to play that song for the rest of my life.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic these days. And it's something you've stood up to in the past, in terms of your Native American heritage. Some people argue that every culture is appropriated. Why do you think it's such a hard thing for folks to grasp that even "all-in-good-fun" mockery is still mockery?
Racism is a learned thing. Its very hard to unlearn. Moving away from cultural appropriation starts in our education system... and it's not being addressed at all really, considering the history in our history books is terribly skewed. These aren't problems that are easy to address in an abrupt manner. These are solutions we start pumping into the framework of society now for a more positive, equal future.
'Under Branch & Thorn & Tree' is out now on Ramseur Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
There's a reason sophomore albums are considered a tough nut to crack. An artist has only a year or two to write a batch of tunes that stack up to the batch from their debut that they had their whole pre-debut life to write. Whether or not that debut was successful, the artist also has to decide to stay that artistic course or branch out in a different direction. Kacey Musgraves stayed firmly put on 'Pageant Material,' her follow-up to the wildly successful 'Same Trailer, Different Park.'
Taken on its own, without any knowledge of its sibling, 'Pageant Material' is a fun and lovely album. The songs are overflowing with memorable melodies, clever catchphrases, and pitch-perfect performances. And the first five cuts, from "High Time" through "This Town," are as thoroughly appealing as anything in her arsenal. At the heart of that mini-set is the sweet-but-not-saccharin "Late to the Party" which serves very nicely as the free-wheeling Millennial's version of a love song. It also provides a wonderful counterpoint to the snappy repartee of "Dimestore Cowgirl," "Pageant Material," and "This Town."
But, then, in the number six slot is "Biscuits." The album's first single can't help but be compared to the high watermark of Musgraves' career that is "Follow Your Arrow." In fact, a casual listener would be forgiven for confusing the two -- that's how similar they are in style and substance. Throughout the second half of the cycle, the comparisons could easily continue, but taking a step back allows "Somebody to Love," "Miserable," and "Good Ol' Boys Club" to shine on their own merits, in their own lights. Trouble is, albums in an artist's career don't exist in a vacuum, so a lot of these tunes make the whole feel like 'Same Trailer, Another Different Park.'
No question, Musgraves is a talented and spirited artist who is shaking things up in the best of ways. Here's hoping she applies some of that boundary pushing to album number three.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 3:15 PM
Album Review: Eilen Jewell, 'Sundown Over Ghost Town'
With a title like 'Sundown over Ghost Town' and cover art of a silhouetted figure with an acoustic guitar in front of a vast, star-filled horizon, Eilen Jewell's new album sends a signal that what lies therein could easily be simple and spacious country-folk songs. Uh, not quite. Yes, there are some simple and spacious country-folk songs here -- "Half-Broke Horse," "Green Hills," and "Songbird," at the very least. Otherwise, Jewell takes the theme of coming home and has fun with it. After all, you can come home again, but it may or may not be what you remember.
In Jewell's case, the story unfolds from the point of her return to Idaho after living in Boston. Oh, and having a baby, too. Most of the lyrical content draws from those endlessly deep wells. On the whole, the set is more refined and more restrained than Jewell records past, but no less creative, in its own way. From the gentle, mandolin-filled folk of "Worried Mind" to the delightful, Tex-Mex rockabilly of "Rio Grande" to the high lonesome torch balladry of "Here with Me," the album alternately lopes and lilts in all the right places.
For instance, Jewell isn't the first artist this year to set surf rock against a spaghetti western backdrop as she does on the spirited "Hallelujah Band" -- Lord Huron, too, makes that mix on 'Strange Trails' -- but it works well and shows just how many different colors Jewell has on her artist's palette.
'Sundown Over Ghost Town' is out now on Signature Sounds, and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:55 PM
Video Premiere: The Stray Birds, "Never For Nothing"
You might not make a lot of money. You might not win awards or accolades. You might not make new friends or establish important new connections. But sometimes, following your heart and doing what you KNOW is right, what you FEEL is right - well, that's reward enough.
Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds says this song is "an homage to music as an offering--on a back porch, singing for nobody but the birds--on a subway platform, tossed as a rope for anyone to hold--around a campfire, shared between friends and the stars." In other words, music is enough of a reason to make music.
The Stray Birds - they're a band known for their tight harmonies, their impeccable instrumentation and their ability to make their audience feel completely involved in the music they make. With "Never for Nothing," the Birds also prove how capable they are of creating incredibly vivid stories and characters with their music.
Lyrics like "I'm dripping from the rivers I never meant to cross/But I like the things I'm learning more than anything I've lost/And, oh, I have lost...but not for nothing," let the band paint a very clear picture of complicated and oh-so-human emotions. The gorgeous music video that accompanies the song, featuring Fish & Bird's Taylor Ashton and filmed and edited by Jacob Blumberg, only helps us better understand those emotions - the contradictions of hope and heartbreak, longing and gratitude, that we are all capable of feeling at the same time.
The Stray Birds' 'Best Medicine' is available via YepRoc Records at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Country singer Kasey Chambers, who has been a prime representative for Southern Australia's rural music tradition, strikes a balance of exploration and maintaining her core sound on her latest release 'Bittersweet,' due out via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th. It is notable that Chambers' tenth studio album, which sees her writing about freedom, sweet releases and the bittersweet, is her first release since the separation from her husband, singer/songwriter, Shane Nicholson. Her last solo album of originals was 2010's 'Little Bird' followed by the 2012 'Wreck and Ruin' collaboration with Nicholson. On listening to this new record, it is clear that she has had some life altering experiences, which have left her with a lot to say. It is not an outright breakup album, but there are certainly songs that hint strongly towards starting anew and surviving. Take, for example, the closer "I'm Alive," where she boldly professes: "And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears/Things ain't always what they appear/I made it through the hardest f****** year." On the other side of that is the title track - a duet with fellow Australian, Bernard Fanning. "Bittersweet," the slow burning ballad about the pain of needing to end a relationship, but not knowing how, is poignant and heartbreaking. Chambers' songwriting impressively displays the many complicated dynamics that ending a relationship brings out, and she sounds so free while doing so.
'Bittersweet' also marks a change sonically for Chambers, who has exclusively worked with her brother/manager Nash Chambers. This album sees her looking to broaden her range and sound with the production skills of Nick DiDia. DiDia's credits include huge sounds like Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam and Train. His past work's influence is not very noticeable on many tracks that have that classic Chambers' folk/country tinged sound like "Oh Grace," "I Would Do" or "Heaven or Hell." Chambers also nails that familiar sound she's known for on "House On a Hill," which marks the first duet with her father and mentor, the musician Bill Chambers. It seems like DiDia's ability to bring out this intensity and drama from Chambers' songs is unprecedented. Chambers' shows massive growth in that department in the song "Wheelbarrow," which sounds like it could be on an Alan Lomax prisoner chain-gang field recording (aside from the super dirty electric guitar). A highlight on the record is the barnburner, "Too Late To Save Me." It is hard to understand why this stirring performance is all the way on track ten on the record.
While there are elements that will be familiar from the Kasey Chambers' albums of the past: sweet alt-country sounds and that beautiful clear voice of hers, this album truly marks a turning point for her. After 15 years recording, Chambers has won multiple ARIA and CMAA awards in Australian music, including the ARIA for Country Music Album of the year for 'Bittersweet' in 2014 (The record was released last year in her native country). It's inspiring to hear a musician and songwriter who is so celebrated, broaden her range so successfully in what has been a challenging time of change in her life.
Kasey Chambers releases 'Bittersweet' via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th, available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Seeing as Muscle Shoals is not more than a hop, skip, and a jump or two from their home base in Nashville -- and lead singer Gary Nichols grew up there -- the SteelDrivers headed down that way for their new set, unceremoniously titled as 'The Muscle Shoals Recordings.' But it sounds nothing like anything ever recorded in Muscle Shoals. There are no slinky bass runs, no funky horn parts, and no deep drum grooves anywhere to be found here.
That's not to say, though, that it's a bad record. It's not. It's just not what you might expect from the title. But it's exactly what you might expect from the SteelDrivers -- a head-on, taste-the-dirt blend of bluegrass, folk, and country that wraps itself around Nichols' soulful voice and the deft skills of fiddler Tammy Rogers, banjo player Richard Bailey, mandolin man Brent Truitt, and bassist Mike Fleming. For another dash of authenticity, Nichols' longtime friend and fellow Alabaman Jason Isbell even co-produced and added slide guitar to two tracks, "Brother John" and "Ashes of Yesterday."
It's a thoroughly supple, occasionally somber set, but even the darker hues have a fluidity that keep them from getting too bogged down in their own self-importance. Considering the rampant racial tensions that continue to wreak havoc on the U.S., the SteelDrivers' heartfelt ode to the Civil War in "River Runs Red" seems ever-timely as Nichols intimates that the harrowing legacy, indeed, lives on: "The winners are losers, when you count the dead. We watch it go by. We all bow our heads. The guns have gone silent, but the river runs red."
The SteelDrivers' 'The Muscle Shoals Recordings' (Rounder) is available now at iTunes and Amazon.com.