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Macklemore and Ryan Lewis - Rap Stars or Fine Young Troubadours?

February 27, 2014

by Ann VerWiebe, for

As I was live tweeting the Grammy Award ceremonies, I couldn't help but notice that the most-folkie song on the mainstage came courtesy of rapper Macklemore and his big hit Same Love. You may not know the duo, but they won multiple Grammys and their songs are topping the charts. There is a standing argument that rap is the new folk - a genre that relies on personal observation and reflection on real-world situations. But, there's something extra about Same Love that builds on that premise.

If you haven't heard the song, it's basically a message rap supporting same-sex marriage. Macklemore, who is straight, has been interviewed as saying that he originally wanted to write the song from a gay person's perspective, but his musical partner, Ryan Lewis, convinced him to tell his own story to add to the authenticity of the lyrics. A lot of press covered the mass wedding that took place at the Grammys during his performance, but while it was obviously a stunt, the event illustrated the truth of marriage equality in the U.S. - like snowflakes, no two couplings are truly alike.

And, isn't truth at the core of contemporary folk music? When Pete Seeger died, I was grateful that the sad event could have a positive effect as we were once more reminded how powerful purpose-driven music can be. One of the reasons folk music became the music of a generation in the '60s was its ability to add power to the protests as it brought like-minded people together in a cause. As folk grew in popularity, the songs were able to reach out into the mainstream and work their subtle magic in offering the world a different point of view.

Gay marriage has been a controversial topic and discussions surrounding its legality often become divisive. But, aren't the best conversations strongly felt? Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' Same Love takes hold of the best traditions of folk activism and moves the music to the mainstage to expose their message to the largest audience. In 40 years, will this be a watershed moment in folk music?

Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 3:49 PM | Comments (1)

New Music for February

New Music for the Folk Alley Collection

For the second month in a row, I'm featuring a young folk artist from Seattle. Washington State is an interesting mix of rural farm country and metropolitan cities. Noah Gundersen reflects this contrast - growing up in a small town and now living in the center of new technology and boutique coffee. His music, which touches on these contradictions in modern life, has found its way to a list of soundtracks. Check Noah out on Ledges.

Leyla McCalla first came to our attention as the cellist touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That band has always made a point of combining great musicianship with the cultural and social history of African Americans and Leyla's new CD follows that path. Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes includes songs created from Hughes' words and original music and tributes to McCalla's Haitian heritage - a country that also inspired Hughes.

It seems amazing that The Haden Triplets is the first CD from this super trio of sisters. The off-spring of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, the young women have made their mark playing in or with The Decemberists, Weezer, Beck, Green Day, That Dog and many others. After playing together live - and backing their dad on his Rambling Boy album - Petra, Rachel and Tanya have recorded a collection of old-time songs produced by Ry Cooder featuring the sister's tight harmony - captured in Tanya's 1900s farm house.

It almost seems as if the world is falling back in love with the banjo. Steve Martin has reinvented himself as a touring picker - and a Grammy winner at that! Martin gained a lot of musicianship cred when he appeared with Tony Trischka, hereforthwith referred to as "the banjo player's banjo player." Trischka is back with Great Big World and the album is almost as big as its name. Welcoming back Martin, along with Aoife O Donovan, Noam Pikelny, Larry Campbell, Abigail Washburn, Ramblin Jack Elliot, and others. As we honor Pete Seeger, Trischka is here to move us into the next iteration of the banjo.

More from February's list:

Suzy Bogguss - "Lucky"
The Sea The Sea - "Love We Are We Love"
Steve Dawson - "Rattlesnake Cage"
Karan Casey - "Two More Hours"
Brandy Clark - "12 Stories"
Will Kimbrough - "Sideshow Love"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 12:45 PM

Folk Alley Sponsors a Documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival

February 21, 2014

Folk Alley is pleased to announce a new collaboration with the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival. We are happy to sponsor screenings of The Ballad of Shovels & Rope at the festival, which runs from March 19 to 30 at Tower City Cinemas in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. The documentary film captures the tours and detours of a husband and wife as they create and release the critically acclaimed album, O' Be Joyful. From working for tips to becoming "Emerging Artist of the Year," the two-man family band uses ingenuity and hard work to create something out of nothing. Screenings of The Ballad of Shovels & Rope will be at Tower City on March 24 at 7:20 p.m. and March 25 at 12:15 p.m. with a special screening at the Beachland Ballroom on March 23 at 8 p.m.

Tickets go on sale for all films to CIFF members at 11 a.m. on  Friday, Feb. 28, one week before the general public (11 a.m. on Friday, March 7). Ticket prices for members are $12 and $14 for non-members. Use the code FOLK for a $2 discount per ticket.

Find out more about the film HERE and the Cleveland International Film Festival HERE. See a live performance by Shovels & Rope recording by Folk Alley at the Nelsonville Music Festival HERE.

Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 2:04 PM

A Q & A with Parker Millsap

February 7, 2014

by Kim Ruehl, for

Twenty-year-old Parker Millsap is the latest in a string of surprisingly bluesy, literary songwriters rising from the small towns of Oklahoma. Despite his youth, Millsap's insight into the characters that populate his songs is fierce. Whether he's singing about deeply troubling heartbreak in "The Villain" or the desperate evangelism of a street preacher in "Truck Stop Gospel", Millsap's songs seem to understand things about the world that belie his two-decades of life thus far.

Then again, his heroes include giants like Tom Waits and John Steinbeck - no slouches in the world of storytelling and unpacking the motivation of heavily-nuanced characters. Speaking of good company, he has plans in the works to tour with Shovels + Rope this spring, and is working out some dates with Patty Griffin for the summer. Chances are you'll hear a lot more about him as the year goes on. His first nationally distributed disc dropped Feb. 4, and recently he was nice enough to hop on the phone with me and talk a little about the source from which it all springs.

Kim Ruehl: I'm curious about the art inside of the CD - the trucker with the Bible. It follows along with one of the songs, but is that a central image to you, for this album?

Parker Millsap: The artist who did all the artwork is named Tessa Raven, she's from Oklahoma. I basically asked her to do a picture for the album cover. When she did that, I was like wow we should just get her to do all the art. She came up with it on her own. I had an idea for a picture of a guy leaning out of the truck with the bible. I [told her to] do whatever she wanted with that idea and that's what she came up with. I was very pleased. I don't know if that's a central idea, but I think it's one of the stronger songs on the record and that makes it interesting to look at.

KR: It's one of my favorite songs on the record. It's difficult to tell if you're sympathizing with the truck stop gospel guy, or if it's a satire. Do you want to say where you sit on that?

PM: I let people think what they want. People are going to interpret it how they want to anyway. It's fun for me to let them take it. I'm real big on perspective. A lot of the songs on the record are first-person narratives but not from my perspective. I had to get in their heads and be [the characters] to write the song. When I was writing that song, it started out as kind of a funny idea. But ... there are many things about him that at first I didn't think I'd be able to relate to, but by the end of the song I realized there's a lot I could relate to about that guy. It's up to people to decide what they think I mean by it. I've had people come up to me after the show and say "I'm glad you're poking fun at the religious establishment with that song." Other people say, "Praise the Lord! Thanks for doing the Lord's work." [laughs] I like that people interpret it in different ways. I'm never going to say if it's one way or another.

KR: You're a young guy but you have all these insightful songs. What did you grow up listening to and what kind of books and music are you into these days that have given you this sense of storytelling?

PM: When I was growing up, I listened to a whole lot of church music, a lot of gospel music. That was at church and then at home, my dad's a big blues music fan so I listened to a lot of blues and a lot of songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. Then there was this one John Hiatt record that I listened to a lot called Bring the Family. That record and then a bunch of Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Ry Cooder, and that sort of thing is what I grew up listening to. Then when I got older and started writing songs, I discovered Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. I'm also a big Springsteen and Waits fan, so it's kind of all over the map. I think the thread through all of those is solid songs that paint a picture. As far as books go, I'm a big Steinbeck fan and a big Vonnegut fan. Those are my favorite authors.

KR: That makes sense. The last few years, we've been hearing great stuff, between you and John Fullbright, Samantha Crain, JD McPherson... there seems to be this big Oklahoma boom going on. Do you have any thoughts on why?

PM: There's nothing else to do here. [laughs] Most small towns don't even have a bowling alley. You've got to find something else to do. Some kids get someone to buy them some Keystone, then they drive around in a field and get drunk. Others sit around and write songs.

KR: What were you listening to when you wrote this record?

PM: A lot of Tom Waits. I don't remember what else I was listening to. I'm always listening to a lot of Tom Waits, so I can say that in confidence. I was also just starting to get into Motown. You can hear it in [some parts] that sound like Motown to me. So I guess Tom Waits and Motown, which might not make sense because it doesn't' necessarily sound like either of those things, but that's what I've been listening to.

KR: Is being on the road inspiring, or do you find it stifling? Do you have time to write when you're traveling?

PM: I'm still new to trying to balance touring and writing and that sort of thing. I haven't written a whole lot since we recorded this record because I've basically been self-managing and this is our first national record release. I've had the whole business side of things to do, which is good because I'm learning how it all works. I can protect myself now. I know what to look for, but at the same time it's consuming a lot of my time and energy. I do like being on the road for finding characters. I've never successfully written on the road, but I definitely collect ideas and fragments of ideas.

KR: Is there anything else you'd like folks to know about you or this record?

PM: Buy it. Buy the record so I can eat a hamburger tomorrow.

Posted by Kim Ruehl at 3:55 PM

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