We've heard for decades from artists who have poured out of its ranks, from fancy publishing houses and expensive recording studios. Artists who have been marketed to our demographic as directly and with as much precision as if they were pair of clothes or an all-terrain station wagon.
But, beyond music row, there's an actual songwriter's scene - one which defies the sequins of commercial country and pulls together various American music traditions (soul, ragtime, blues, folk) to create music which is as authentic as Music Row is premeditated. One of the latest collectives to burst out of that Nashville is a band adeptly called Humming House, borne of the initial vision of frontman Justin Wade Tam.
With nearly a decade in Nashville under his belt, Tam had tried his hand at other musical pursuits - most recently in a singer-songwriter duo similar to Milk Carton Kids or Gillian and Dave. Bent on pursuing something a little more lush, he scored some studio time with Grammy-winning producer Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay) and pulled some players together to back him on a demo. In one eight-hour day, the newly formed band recorded a single titled "Gypsy Django", then signed Dane up to produce their debut record.
You can read more about that story below, but rest assured Humming House is likely to prove one of the best debut efforts from the folk and Americana world in 2012.
Though the band attests they didn't really feel like a band until after they started making the disc, the music therein comes across as the product of a remarkably intuitive and cohesive unit.
As for the band's name, it calls to mind a house on a quiet street, inside which a righteous party is going down. Even from the sidewalk, you can tell that house is humming. On first look (or listen) you may not know exactly what's going on in there, you just know you want in.
Speaking of which, here's a quick look inside . . . an excerpt of my recent interview with Humming House.
What was your first big Nashville moment?
Justin: Probably recording our record was the first thing. Getting to work with two Grammy-winning producers. I've never done that before. . .
We started working with Mitch Dane. He's the guy who recorded that song "Gypsy Django." We did that as a one-off with him, just to test out working with him. We recorded it all in one day - eight hours. At the end we thought that was really cool . . . we were like, ok we need to figure out how to do a record with him, because this definitely sounds better than anything I've ever done before.
He has a bunch of ridiculous gear like an old console and E-47 mics. When your signal train is worth 25 grand things are going to sound better. Not to mention the Grammys...I mean, he's probably done this 600 times.
Working with Vance was kind of an accident. Literally the day before we went into record the record, Mitch's father fell and broke his hip. He was 91. They said, "We're going to have to go into surgery because he's going to be miserable otherwise." They didn't know if he was going to make it out. Mitch decided he had to go - it was his dad.
So we had the studio booked for a week with two interns. We were just going to do it ourselves, but then he made a phone call. His partner is Vance Powell. Vance is Jack White's house engineer. Buddy Guy, Chris Thile - he built Black Bird with John McBride, Martina McBride.
Ben Jones: I was terrified.
Justin: So we came in that morning having done pre-production and having a plan with Mitch. That all went out the window. Three hours later, Vance Powell walks in - larger than life Vance Powell - and he was like "Alright so we're making a record. How about I set this up and you guys play a song."
He'd never heard [us play] anything. We changed the whole way we'd planned on tracking. We ended up doing my vocals, guitar, upright, and mandolin all live at the same time, then coming back and producing it from there. Mitch came in mid-week the next week after being with his family and helped fill it out and finesse it, in the way only Mitch can. Vance is great with working with a live band and capturing things - he's a killer mixing engineer. We got along so well with him that he wound up wanting to mix the record as well, which is a huge compliment.
Josh Wolak: We really got the best of both worlds there - one, getting to work with both of them; but then we got the live sound to build on with all the toys and stuff. It was really fun.
Justin: They track all their rhythm sections and everything to tape, and I think that's mostly Vance's influence. He works at Third Man. They don't own a computer in that studio. Everything's to tape and analog. That's the way our record was mixed too. It's all outboard analong mixing too. It's not like you can recall all the mixes on a computer.
What does that do to your live show after two weeks with Vance Powell?
Justin: He's like, Well you guys are either gonna be playing bluegrass festivals or you're gonna get yourselves a damn drummer. We haven't gotten a drummer yet, so I'm not really sure. . .
Josh: We have all the elements of a drummer. Ben plays a hi-hat with his foot. Kristin hits a tom, and I'm the mandolin so I'm like a snare. It's like having a drum without the drummer.
Justin: We just need a big gong on the stage for big crashes . . . The thing is, we literally only played two shows together before recording the record.
Josh: It was an anchor on which to learn the songs. I think a lot of us didn't even know the songs when we went to record. We kind of knew the songs but after doing the record it was like, well, now we have something.
Ben: We all came from different musical backgrounds, so the fact that we all had to jump in and spit out whatever we had, building up in our minds . . . it really gave the record an eclectic feel. It came from a lot of different tastes. For the better, of course.
Is it still very much your vision, Justin, or do you all have buy-in now?
Justin: It's definitely become more of a collaborative thing. Nine out of 10 songs are by me and the other one is a co-write with the guy I was playing with before. All but one of our new songs are co-written within the band . . . it's been a learning process of how we co-write. What's a Humming House song? What's not a HH song? How do you define that? I think it might be becoming more eclectic because of that. When it was just me and my songs, we weren't sure who was going to be in the band. It's much more defined now.
Kristin Rogers: It's funny to listen back to it now that we've been playing so much more, evolving. Now that we're all encouraged to have an individual presence in the band, we go back to listen to the record - we love it, we're so happy with it - but it's just funny because the songs on there have changed because of us playing on it, adding to it, working with it. I don't want to say we're boundless but we have a lot of directions we can go. In my other gig, I sing soul.
Josh: I came from bluegrass.
Ben: I was a music major, so I did composition.
Justin: Four out of five of us play piano and there's no songs written on piano yet. Josh plays horns and Mike [Butera] plays banjo. None of that's on that record because we hadn't had time to tap those resources in the band. Now we can feature Kristin more on vocals, we can do piano-driven stuff . . . there's a lot of colors in the palette that we haven't even touched yet.
Josh: But it all weirdly has the same feel. That's the most astounding thing I personally like about playing with all of you. No matter who brings the ideas to the table, once we all get a hold of it, it becomes identifiable as Humming House.
He has played for presidents and garage sales. According to Robert Earl Keen, the audience for his songs is much brighter than critics may think, and it doesn't matter where they might be. The Texas alt-country hero is now 56 and is not looking back.....except to remember his worst job ever: blowing up balloons and selling them out of the back of a truck for Valentine's Day. Well, a lot has changed for him since then. His new album, Ready For Confetti, features some real gems, and he has been nominated as Best Singer-Songwriter in the Folk Category in the Lone Star Music Awards (April 1, 2012).
The album's first song has the power to be on his concert set list forever, "Black Baldy Stallion." It's about someone returning home to a love he never should have left. Instead of a car or train he rides a horse which allows for description of the western landscape set in an imaginary past. In our minds, we've all ridden that horse and the whimsical imagery helps put us in the saddle. The song opens with a beautiful classical guitar played in a Spanish style which embellishes the mood.
"I Gotta Go" is an amusing commentary about America's addiction to being busy. "We never stop," says Keen, "we're always on to the next thing." Think about your own life in the past 10 years, or in just the last year, or even today -- we are constantly racing it seems. Though there is nothing wrong with having goals, do we take time to enjoy our accomplishments? Though there is nothing wrong with multi-tasking, but do we always finish every task? Maybe a song like this one will make us stop, if only for a moment.
The album even features an attack. Keen's most famous song may be "The Road Goes On Forever." Toby Keith, according to Keen, came up with a similar song -- too similar -- and Robert has accused him of plagiarism. These events have been made public not in a lawsuit, but in a new song called "The Road Goes On & On." The accusations and name calling are biting and hilarious all at the same time. And like any good poet, the writing is not restricted to the writer's inspiration. Any one listening can use this song as bullet to anyone else who has been unfair.
The album closes on a more positive note with a delightful message about goodness and giving called "Show the World." There is nothing cliché about this song, and there is nothing wrong about being reminded that we each have the power to do something nice for others.
In case you've been under a rock or off the grid for some reason, you probably know by now - the Grammy Awards took place this past weekend, honoring a slew of popular musicians in a number of categories for the 54th time in the history of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
As much as I don't love admitting it, I kind of love the Grammy Awards. Because I'm so embroiled in the folk and Americana worlds, the Grammys give me an excuse and opportunity to bone up on mainstream music. I know the artists I love the most will probably never appear on the telecast.
Of course it troubles me that folk, metal, classical, jazz, and technical awards have been deemed by some higher power as "disinteresting" and "unimportant" to the average television watcher; thus those awards are presented in private, non-televised ceremonies. As if those styles don't have fans and communities holding their breath and cheering for them...
But, this year, I kept getting caught up on one very small and simple confusion: The Civil Wars were nominated for Best Folk Album for Barton Hollow and Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for the title track of that same album. Granted, the American Roots category is separate from the Country category, so perhaps those two committees weren't working in congress and both thought the Civil Wars were relevant to them.
Nonetheless, I shouldn't have to state this, but I do. Country music and folk music are different things. They share some common lineage, but lumping one band into both categories is kind of like saying "part man, part monkey." That's not even a thing.
Did the Civil Wars deserve attention, recognition, kudos, sales? Yes, absolutely. They're a terrifically talented couple of people. But, if we're going to get into the messy business of categorizing music, of all things (a thing which I personally believe defies definition, or should), we should be clear about those categories and stick to them.
One thing is not another. A bowl is not a fork. A chair is not a roller skate. A country singer is not a folksinger.
What do you think? Are the Civil Wars a band for whom it makes sense to consider them both Nashville darlings and children of Woody? Or are they a pop group influenced by the narrative structure of traditional music, but inclined to fashion it into something palatable on Music Row? Does it matter? Should the Grammy committees pay better attention to what, exactly, constitutes the categories of music they designate?
Or is it enough for us folk music enthusiasts to just see some people who sort of look like maybe folksingers being granted 60 seconds to sing on television?
Last summer, songwriter Laurelyn Dossett spoke to good friend Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) about getting a head start on some songs about winter - specifically, about coming home at wintertime. The plan was for half of the album to feature Christmas songs, and the remainder to be more about the winter season in general. What was not foreseen was the addition of a string band, and for a few performances, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra.
The result is a wonderful album called The Gathering. The performances and the technical recording are both exceptional considering it was recorded in a small cabin in North Carolina. Joining the two are mandolinist Mike Compton (John Hartford Stringband, Nashville Bluegrass Band), banjoist Joe Newbury, and Jason Sypher on upright bass.
"Diamonds in the Pines" personifies the road, asking for its wisdom and direction in the journey home. Rhiannon sings for a generation of mothers in "String of Pearls." This time of year allows time to slow down so we can think about our past and future. The harmonies are carefully thought out and beautifully close.
The holiday specific songs include a striking delivery of "Oh Holy Night" which features only Rhiannon singing to Jason Sypher's bass lines. The Gathering also includes a rollicking visit back to the Cotton Mountain Top Sacred singers of 1929. That's where the group found "Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn." Once you hear this you'll want to sing or play along.
The album's highlight may be "Lights in the Lowlands." Laurelyn trades verses with Rhiannon as the singers wonder for all us if going home after a long absence is a good idea. We all live with doubt about our decisions, and hearing those questions coming forward from our speakers loud and clear force us to bring those thoughts to the surface. This is one of those songs that stays with you. Though it's a seasonal release, something tells me that the whole album will stay with you all year.
If I had to name one artist who is singlehandedly (and surreptitiously) moving Folk forward, I would have to say Justin Vernon.
For those of you unfamiliar with Vernon, aka Bon Iver (a bastardization of the French term Bon Hiver which means 'good winter', and pronounced Bone EEver), he crafts exquisite, heartbreaking ballads that sound like something from the bottom of a long forgotten well in a snowy land. The ache and loneliness come through with his wounded falsetto and spare instrumentation. For his first album For Emma, Forever Ago, he literally holed up in a cabin by himself in the woods in Wisconsin in the middle of winter. His latest, self-titled release expands upon that sound with slightly more instrumentation, but is no less haunting or captivating. So if you were to set up a checklist of 'Making Folk Music', pretty much all the criteria would be met, except for, you know, having a hammer. I wouldn't trust him with that.
None of what I've explained above would make one think that this guy would come to your town and sell out two thousand seat arenas in 30 minutes, BUT HE DOES. EVERYWHERE. To mainly twenty and thirty- something year old hipsters. He'll play the Austin City Limits Festival in the middle of the day when it's 100 degrees and 20, 000 people are standing still with rapt attention, while a rock festival swirls around them.
Now here is another twist: he's buddies with Kanye West. Yeah, that guy. Vernon appeared on West's latest album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and added even more texture to an already over the top production. Do you like Kathleen Edwards? So does Vernon, who produced her new album, Voyageur.
Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart, Laura Marling and their compatriots are the overt choices as hipster indie folk torch bearers because there is precedent. They sound like Donovan or Crosby Stills and Nash. But Vernon is already a pretty big deal and he's done it by not sticking to genre.
Have you ever watched that television show about antiques?Antiques Roadshow? Well, if you have, you're familiar with the look on people's faces when they present what they just know are priceless treasures to the antiquities experts. You know what I'm talking about: that slightly smug "I'm special because I've got something amazing and it just happened to be carelessly lingering in my dusty old attic under a moth eaten dog blanket and a box of grandma's report cards" expression.
So, if you know that look, you also know the look that crosses their faces when the expert tells them they've got a cute little piece of history, valuable only to them and worth, monetarily, nothing at all. You've got to feel a little sorry for those folks.
Well, there's no feeling sorry for Tracy Grammer. She really did make a priceless discovery, a once-in-a-lifetime find. And the great thing about her discovery? We all get to enjoy it.
She was digging around in a basement, trying to rescue some old boxes in danger of moldering away. Imagine how she felt when she realized she was holding onto a box of recordings she'd made with her musical partner, the late Dave Carter. Shock, joy, happiness, despair - all rolled into that one amazing day of discovery, 8 years after Dave Carter died, one week before his 50th birthday.
They'd made the recordings over a 5 year span, 1997 to 2002, and while some of the songs were professionally recorded and mixed in the studio, others were recorded in a more intimate living/family room setting. Grammer, after digitizing the tapes, pulled together Little Blue Egg, a recording of 11 songs, some we've never heard before.
Besides the new recording, we've got five additional songs to look forward to. They'll be released throughout 2012 - part of a year-long celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of Carter's death and what would have been his 60th birthday.
Little Blue Egg has, once again, explained why Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer were - and still are - a truly magical musical duo. Besides the thought provoking lyrics and the balance of guitar, banjo and violin, these are two musicians who take turns in the spotlight, never trying to outshine one another. It's the lyrics and the music that count in these songs - and Carter and Grammer make sure you know it.
What makes this recording especially enjoyable - it's just so clear that these are two musicians who made it a point to listen to each other. The careful way they interact shines through the entire album, but is especially obvious on the opening track, "Better Way," a heart-breaking love song. And the delicate balance of shifting vocals and instrumentation is perhaps most poignant on "Gypsy Rose," the story of lovers who refuse to be parted, even after death.
Don't be surprised if you feel tears pricking in your eyes while you listen to the album. And don't be surprised if you laugh out loud, too (or at least smile a little bit). Little Blue Egg continues the very fine tradition of Carter and Grammer - two musicians who were lucky enough to find each other more than a decade ago and two musicians whose body of work continues to delight and inspire those of us fortunate enough to hear it.
Meet Kit Palmer. We've all seen her. She's that nervous young singer/songwriter at the open mic who is clearly better than the rest -- you know, bound for the next level. We also know the guy running the open mic. Nathan Warren had his chance at the next level, but the drinking, and the behavior that often accompanies it, stopped him just a little bit short. He's not bitter, just tired. So sets the scene for Revival: A Folk Music Novel, Scott Alarik's adventure into the world of fiction.
We recognize the characters in Revival because they are true. Scott Alarik has been an integral part of the folk music community, both as a writer and performer, for several decades. His observations on the music and the people who make it have graced dozens of publications through hundreds of published pieces. He knows the world folk music and he knows that it has never been the backdrop of a work of fiction...until now.
Revival is a multi-tiered love story. As the relationship between Kit and Nathan develops, so does a revival of the love and understanding of the roots and branches of the music. In true symbiotic fashion, Nathan is able to rediscover the power and wisdom of traditional music while passing that wisdom on to Kit. Kit is able to overcome her fears of performing and strengthen her writing by absorbing the wisdom and experience of a guy who's been there. The result is a well-crafted novel set in the environment of house concerts, recording studios, the back room of the bar, the after-party, the dance -- the places that actually make up the contemporary folk music scene.
Interspersed among the various plot lines are stories and insights into the real world of folk music and the craft of songwriting. These observations serve to both lend credibility to the novel, and to make it appealing to lovers of fiction and lovers roots music.
Scott Alarik has discovered something here. The folk music community provides a rich backdrop for fiction. Let's hope this is the first of many works that exploits that in the best possible way.