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Highlights from MerleFest 2014

April 28, 2014

MerleFest 2014 logo.jpgby Kim Ruehl, FolkAlley.com

It's been twenty-six years since the late, great Doc Watson decided to throw a festival near his home in Deep Gap, NC, to honor the memory of his son Merle. The younger Watson died three years earlier in a tractor accident on the family farm but, before that, had been one of the most dexterous and influential guitar pickers of his generation. To honor him, Doc titled his festival Merlefest, and invited some of the finest bluegrass, folk, and old time players around. Since then, just about everyone who matters in the realm of folk, bluegrass, traditional country and Americana music has graced one of the Merlefest stages. Festival alumni include everyone from Dolly Parton to Carolina Chocolate Drops, Donna the Buffalo, Linda Ronstadt, the Avett Brothers, and Zac Brown Band.

This year, Merlefest welcomed the other Merle (Haggard, that is) to headline the festival. His Sunday afternoon set was heavy on classics, from "Mama Tried" to "Pancho and Lefty". He kicked it off with "Silver Wings" and delivered with remarkable charisma from there. At 78 years old, Haggard is a living legend in his field, and the crowd met him with a standing ovation.

He wasn't the only one to get a warm welcome. Todd Snider kept a hillside crowd's attention through the weekend's most assertive rainfall, complete with Woody Guthrie singalong at the end. Jim Lauderdale and his band were embraced in the same space later, albeit in the face of ample sunshine. North Carolina's own Mandolin Orange let loose a beautiful string of harmony-laden tunes and Holly Williams, unfortunately relegated to a quite-brief set on the Cabin stage, easily won some new fans as well.

OCMS MerlFest 2014.jpgBut, it was Old Crow Medicine Show who delivered the finest set of the festival, to these eyes and ears. Balancing a precarious blend of folk and bluegrass music, old time, and story-telling, the band encompassed all the things that fall under the Merlefest umbrella. Those Nashville boys danced and whooped and whirred about the main stage. They delivered tunes from each of their seven albums, plus new material, to boot. Among the new tunes was "Sweet Amarillo", the second song they've more or less co-written with Bob Dylan. According to frontman Ketch Secor, Dylan was so impressed with what they did by turning his chorus "Rock Me Mama" into their megahit "Wagon Wheel," he sent them another crop of lyrics he started and never finished. It's impossible to know, of course, if "Sweet Amarillo" will have the same beloved-by-buskers-everywhere appeal as "Wagon Wheel," but it delivered darn well on the Merlefest stage.

Other highlights included a stunning set from Carolina Chocolate Drops and a handful of memorable appearances by the reunited Duhks. The latter was swirling with excitement about their new album - due in May, but they were selling it at the festival store. They delivered a number of tunes from it, including a gorgeous cover of Eva Cassidy's "Way Beyond the Blue".

One of the most delightful surprises this year was the presence of Sheila Kay Adams and her husband Joe Penland, who took the stage in the Traditional Tent on the final day, for an hour of mountain stories and ballads. According to them, it was the first time such a set had been included in the Merlefest lineup, and hopefully it won't be the last. Considering the festival's homebase in the mountains of Western North Carolina, including some local tales and traditional ballad-singing seems about right. What's more, Adams and Penland are terrific performers. Though they had to battle the sound from the main stage, which was pervading the entire festival grounds at that point, the pair delivered a rousing, entertaining collection of stories and songs.

All told, Merlefest 2014 was a fitting continuation of Doc's festival vision. There are few gatherings in North America where traditional music is honored on this scale, in such a family friendly, tightly-organized environment. The diversity of stages - from the intimate Plaza and Traditional stages to the indoor theater, natural creek and hillside surroundings, and the enormous main stage flanked by giant screens - there is some kind of festival experience here to suit just about everyone. It's no wonder Merlefest has enough momentum to already have a countdown going for year number twenty-seven.

**For more about MerleFest and to see great photos from this year's festival, check out MerleFest on Facebook - HERE!**

Posted by Linda Fahey at 6:33 PM | Comments (2)

Five of the Best Moments from MerleFest 2014, Days 1 & 2

By Kim Ruehl, FolkAlley.com

Merlefest 2014 happened last weekend (4/24 - 27) in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, with a stellar lineup that hopped back and forth from bluegrass standards to contemporary singer-songwriters, old time music, various fusion styles, and beyond.

Here's a look at a few of the best moments from days one and two:

Leonard and Jessee MerlFest 2014.jpg The Duhks
Since their debut in 2002, the Duhks have been one of the most creative and energetic bands on the acoustic music circuit, straddling lines between folk, bluegrass, jazz, and pop with remarkable flexibility. But, since frontwoman Jessee Havey left the group in '07, they've been through a number of personnel changes, ups and downs, and an eventual somewhat-hiatus. Now, the Duhks are back in all their original glory - their new album, out next month, includes Havey, Tania Elizabeth, Leonard Podolak, Scott Senior, and Jordan McConnell. Though Havey and Podolak were the only ones who made it to Merlefest (bringing with them Colin Savoie-Levac on guitar and Rosie Newton on fiddle), their appearances were some of the biggest, most obvious early highlights of the weekend. The dynamism and artistry popping between these musicians is unmatchable, and it's nice to see them back in action.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops stand up now
Rhiannon Giddens may be the only remaining original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but that doesn't mean the band has lost much in its various transitions. Giddens is, of course, a powerful singer and gifted fiddler, but the rest of the new lineup is no slouch either. On the mainstage Thursday night, they moved through a collection of old CCDs favorites ("Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Sourwood Mountain" stood out, in particular) and newer material as well. There was abundant, emphatic spoon-playing, fiddling, and bass thumping. And, setting the new CCDs apart from the old, the whole band spent the entire set standing up instead of seated, front-porch-style, in chairs.

Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott singing to a field of hippies and country bumpkins, "Dance You Hippies, Dance."
Probably, O'Brien and Scott wrote this song specifically for moments like this, gracing the Watson Stage at Merlefest somewhere around dusk, singing to a field packed with vibrant hippies and folks from the country, alike. Indeed, Merlefest has one of the most interesting mixes of crowd dynamics - from the mountain folks to the country twangers, the hippy jammers and the city folks (with their myriad festival gear) who've driven in from Raleigh and Nashville. There is no more perfect intersection between all those people's interests than the collaboration between Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott; and their set was, it goes almost without saying, quite well-received. But, this song in particular had to make you stop and giggle.

Todd Snider - MerleFest 2014.jpgAlan Jackson plays (really good) bluegrass
For those who grew up listening to country music radio in the 1980s and '90s, Alan Jackson's "Chattahoochie" was a touchstone classic. This time around, though, Jackson is dipping his bucket in the bluegrass well. His set was full of old school-style bluegrass of the sort that would make Bill Monroe proud.

Todd Snider on the Hillside Stage
The prolific, subversive American troubadour played the most rousing set possible from a solo singer-songwriter sitting in a chair at the center of a stage, entertaining a packed crowd on a rainy hill. Twenty years after releasing his debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet, Snider is at the top of his game. (Hopefully the top of his game will last a good long while.) He pulled his set from across those two decades, and the crowded audience was rapt, even as the rain came and picked up. A few people departed for shade, but those of us who remained were treated to a seemingly impromptu run through the less-frequently-played verses of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

For more great photos from MerlFest 2014 - visit their Facebook page!

Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:04 PM | Comments (0)

Kim Ruehl Talks with Rodney Crowell About Writing and His New Album, 'Tarpaper Sky'

April 14, 2014

By Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com

For decades, Rodney Crowell has been one of the most prolific and consistently stirring songwriters in the Americana realm. He's scored a number of mainstream country hits, but has more recently become a champion of high-quality collaborations. In the past decade, he's made a solo album ceding production to Joe Henry, and joined forces with author Mary Karr and Americana legend Emmylou Harris for a pair of collaborative discs that have been hailed as among the best of the years in which they were released. (The latter took home a Grammy and an Americana Music Award in 2013.)

Now, he has rolled out another solo album, Tarpaper Sky. Self-produced in collaboration with engineer Steuart Smith, the album is heavy on songs about home - going home, leaving home, and pining for home. In fact, it was while he was at home in Nashville, fresh from a stint on the road with Emmylou, that Crowell was kind enough to get on the phone with me one Saturday morning, to discuss the new disc and other matters.

Kim Ruehl: Let's start talking about Tarpaper Sky - your first non-collaborative solo record in, what, six years?

Rodney Crowell: Yeah, I have a solo one. Never said that much before. Yeah, there've been six years. This is 2014, isn't it? Sex and Gasoline was 2008.

KR: What made you decide to make another solo effort?

RC: My book Chinaberry Sidewalks was a solo effort, so I did get one solo effort in there.

KR: How was that different from songwriting for you?

RC: The only thing similar is work ethic. Actually writing a book takes more concentrated effort. You're a writer, you know what it takes. You've got to get up and go to work every day. But I do that writing songs, anyway, if I'm home. It doesn't work so well on the road, but over the years having raised some children, I became a morning-time worker, so I'm up working if I'm home.

KR: Writing a book like that, it takes a lot longer for people to hear it. Are some songs like that, too - they take years to hear?

RC: I don't know. There are songs on Tarpaper Sky that took me 20-plus years to write, so some songs took longer [than the book]. It took me ten years to write Chinaberry Sidewalks. It took me 23 years, I think, to write "Fever on the Bayou".

KR: In what way? Were there lines you were working on?

RC: I didn't have a last verse. Couldn't find the last verse. The first couple verses borrowed so heavily from Louisiana Cajun swamp music. Those words like jolais and creole and such things... the last verses were always too trite and cliché to mean anything. It wasn't until, in conversation, someone said the word Franglais, and I thought That's Cajun. The Cajuns butchered both French and English together and I said, Ah my last verse needs to be that butchered Cajun patois. And voila, there you are.





KR: were you working on this at the same time as Old Yellow Moon?

RC: Loosely. When we were making Old Yellow Moon I was entirely focused on that, although I started Tarpaper Sky before Kin. But, then I got to be around a couple of beautiful women. I put aside my needs for theirs.

KR: That Mary Karr project was interesting. What did you learn from working with her?

RC: Well, it was a conversation, you know. One of the things about my and Mary's collaboration was constant conversation. Most of those songs were born out of that conversation. In "If the Law Don't Want Me", she was talking about her sister and her boyfriend. We said let's put that in a song. The kind of conversation you can have with Mary Karr is very fruitful. The process we went through, that I was very keen on and Mary was very open to, we were trying to figure out how to let the poet's voice speak wherever we could. The words stand on a page to be read, in a poem. They don't have to sing... so there's that intimacy between the one reader and the poem. Words work in a different way in songs sometimes, because of the chord changes and the vowel sounds. Some words don't sing. So, we were very conscious - or I was - of trying to let the poet's choice work wherever we could. The example of that is the opening song. The opening line I had when I was playing guitar and singing was, "When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint." And Mary said, "No, your feet aren't tough as nails, they're tough as horns, like a hoof, like cattle." I [thought she was] right about that, that's the right choice. It doesn't sing well, though. It doesn't sing like that "A" vowel. [sings] When our feet were tough as horns. When our feet were tough as nails... but, in the long run, we went with "horns" because that was the poet's choice and I much prefer it. It is the right word. That kind of thing. I learned a lot about that.

KR: Horn is a great word to sing, though.

RC: Ninety-nine out of a hundred songwriters wouldn't choose that word because of the vowel sound. You can't do as much with the vowel, but it's a great word to sing, you're right. When I sing it live, I always sing that song and when I get to "horns" it propels me through the rest of the song.

KR: You're such a writer and you did this collaboration with Mary Karr and Emmylou... I wonder, did ideas come out of that that maybe didn't spark a song for those projects, but turned into a song for your own work?

RC: Not really. Mind you I had seven songs from before I started with Mary or Emmy. Some of the songs that Mary and I were writing overlapped with some of the writing that became Tarpaper Sky. But, I think what I learned in the beginning of making Tarpaper Sky carried over very much into Kin, because I was recording [Tarpaper] without headphones and we did most of Kin without headphones. I'd gotten such great results just unplugging the headphones when we were in the room playing. When we got making Kin, I carried it over and the first thing I did [was] unplug the headphones. We recorded the first session with Norah Jones. We were talking and I said, "I can't use headphones anymore." She said, "I never could," so we just kept that all the way through. So my answer to your question was that it was less in writing and more in the performing part of things.

KR: Is that you trying to separate your producer brain from your performer brain?

RC: Exactly. I'm not interested much in production anymore. Everything that really stands the test of time with me - the great Ray Charles records that I love, the Howlin' Wolf records that I love - they weren't produced; they were performed. The producers back then just got the musicians together and got out of their way and let them perform. So, I'll spend the rest of my career chasing performance. I've produced enough in my day.

KR: But you produced this record.

RC: Yeah, but insomuch as it was produced. Tarpaper Sky wasn't produced, it was performed. It's all live. It's all what happened in the studio. We added some background vocals and that's it. This is really what happened. We had a really great engineer and I credit him with producing the audio. Steuart Smith and I had an ongoing conversation, so we sort of take credit for the arrangements. What little production there is, it's not really a produced album. It's just a performance of a bunch of songs.

KR: Would you say that's the biggest way your job has changed over the years?

RC: Well, writing has been satisfying for me since day one. I became a real songwriter pretty young. There are songs I wrote in my 20s that I still perform, that I can stand by. But as a recording artist, it was a slow process for me. It was a slow dawning. It wasn't until I was really 50 years old that I felt I had anything to show as a recording artist, felt I had some great songs. Since then, I've been committed to finding a way to perform so that if my kids have anything to hold up as a legacy, it can start with that.

KR: What do you think makes a song good?

RC: Oh shit. Can you describe what makes a song like "Pancho and Lefty" good? Pure poetry, originality, wonderful melody, succinct rhymes, no soft rhymes. Blue doesn't rhyme with black, don't try to convince me that it does. What makes a song great? "Sunday Morning Coming Down", Kris Kristofferson. Woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. I mean, come on. I can't say what's good but I know when it is good. [sings] Hit the road Jack and don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. They want me to go to rehab, I say no, no, no. Is that poetry? Maybe not, but it certainly is great songwriting.

KR: Why did you call this album Tarpaper Sky?

RC: Because it sounds good. It's a great image. I like how it sounds. And it's a line in the song. Plus I grew up with tarpaper skies. You could see the sky through the roof at my mother and father's house because it was so poorly built and it was rotting out down in the semi-tropical climate of east Houston, so that's where the line comes from.

KR: Well, thank you Rodney. Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you'd like people to know?

RC: God, I wouldn't presume to tell anybody what they ought to know, or even what I think they ought to know.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:53 PM | Comments (1)

Kim Ruehl Talks Songwriting With Catie Curtis

April 4, 2014

by Kim Ruehl for FolkAlley.com

Catie Curtis is one of those singer-songwriters whose work, if you let it, will quietly worm its way into your subconscious. There's no overt production tricks or big guitar solos to pull it all forward. Her songs hang in a kind of dreamy half-awake state, where one's perspective is most keen and honest, where the sounds are all soft and palatable, and where the truth has plenty of room to just come on out.

Even when she's singing about heartbreaking life scenarios, as she does on her new album 'Flying Dream,' she does so with a sort of warm embrace of the inevitable opportunity of it all. Sadness and disappointment are implicit in love and happiness - two sides to the same coin, so to speak. Anyway, it's all part of the big Life Experience we all share.

Her songs aren't profound as much as they are just plain real and true. And, this time out, she teamed up with Sugarland co-founder Kristen Hall, for a collection of songs that wrestle with the unconscious understanding that major tectonic change is on its way. She got on the phone with me, from her New England home, and talked a bit about the songs, the collaboration, and where 'Flying Dream' began:

Kim Ruehl: Let's start with your new record and where it came from for you. I know you wrote a lot of these songs with Kristen Hall. How did that come to be?

Catie Curtis: We'd get together for coffee and just shoot the breeze about life. We'd just connect about one line that one of us would say and that would be our song for the day.





KR: It was really that easy?

CC: Well, then all the painful cycle of enthusiasm and discouragement that is always songwriting. A lot of times, one of us would have a chord progression that we'd been playing around with over the last few days prior, so we'd take those chords with the one line we had. We may not keep any of that, but it would get us started. It would get a song going and that's the hardest thing, just getting a song going.

KR: You've done mostly solo songwriting in the past. You've co-written a song here or there, but was it a different experience co-writing most of a whole album? Or did it just flow?

CC: It felt like it was perfect for the time that I was writing because at the time, it was sort of like, unbeknownst to me, it was a calm before the storm time of my life. It didn't seem like much was happening. We wrote at a time when I wasn't feeling like independently sitting down and writing. It helped me to get the creative juices flowing.

KR: And then you wound up having a lot of changes in your life in the process?

CC: Yeah, I haven't been talking too much about it because it's still in the midst of happening... my wife and I have separated and it looks like we're getting a divorce. I think a lot of that stuff was brewing and, when I was singing the record, there was a lot of passion and I was beginning to feel changes coming.

KR: Some people have said before that when you're in the middle of a difficult situation, it's hard to have the perspective to write about it, whereas other people are able to find great fruit in that situation. Did you feel like what you were writing became prophetic? Or that there was some opportunity for healing in the songs you were writing as all this started to go down?

CC: I think prophetic may be too strong a way to put it, but I'd say it restores my belief that creativity comes from a place that's unconscious. I think creative expressions... speak from a less conscious place. It's almost frightening to think maybe I could have been more aware of what was happening. But, you're only aware of what you're ready to be aware of. Somehow your creative life, it's possible to express what's there even if you're not ready to think about it.

KR: How has songwriting changed for you over the past 20 years? Do you feel like you know it better or is it something you're still exploring?

CC: I trust myself more now than I used to. I trust that if I really wanted to write a song on a given day, I could. It might not be a song that I love. But, what brings about a really good song that I love... I feel like it came to me from somewhere else. I feel really confident in the craft of it, and feel like I can come up with something. But in terms of having those magical inspiration [moments] where something hits you that you know is going to be a good song, I don't understand the timing of how that happens. Even with Kristen, we wrote several songs that didn't make the record. We'd start something and never finish it. But I think ultimately, you start to understand that as long as you're writing songs, some of them will turn out to be good.

KR: Do you revisit those [parts of songs] that you don't use?

CC: I recorded a demo not released on a record, then two or three records later, the new version is on the record. I think it's possible there are times when you just don't have the answer yet. You don't know what the song needs to say. You know part of it but not all of it. I respect the fact that there are songs that for some reason... sometimes events in our world come along and fill in. I had the chorus to a song once that went "The truth is bigger than these drops of rain." I didn't know what that song was going to be about, but then a few months later Hurricane Katrina happened and I wrote a song [with Mark Erelli] called "People Look Around" about it and it ended up being one of the songs I still play almost every night. If I'd pushed it and tried to finish it when I first started it, I don't think I would have put those two ideas together.

Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:37 PM | Comments (0)

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