Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King
January 18, 2015
By Kelly McCartney
On January 15, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 86, if not for the bullet that cut short his life in 1968. Today, Folk Alley remembers his life, his legacy, and his lessons as documented in song by some of the great roots artists of our time, from Pete Seeger to Patty Griffin, from Bruce Springsteen to Ben Harper. Now, almost more than ever, our world is at a crossroads, with love and peace down one road, fear and hatred down the other. It's easy to wish we still had Dr. King around to show us which way to go, but he already did that. We just have yet to follow him.
Pete Seeger: "Take It from Dr. King"
Written in 2002, "Take It from Dr. King" was one of so many songs by Pete Seeger that called for peace. Here, in the wake of 9/11, he urges against a rush to war: "Don't say it can't be done. The battle's just begun. Take it from Dr. King. You, too, can learn to sing so drop the gun."
Otis Spann: "Blues for Martin Luther King"
On April 5, 1968, only a day after Dr. King's assassination as the city burned around him, the great blues pianist Otis Spann performed in a storefront church in Chicago, unveiling two MLK tributes -- "Blues for Martin Luther King" and "Hotel Lorraine": "Oh did you hear the news happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday? Yeah, fellas, I know you had to heard the news that happened down in Memphis, Tennessee, yesterday. There came a sniper, wiped Dr. Luther King's life away."
Old Crow Medicine Show: "Motel in Memphis"
Focusing on Dr. King's death, Old Crow Medicine Show lays it all out in "Motel in Memphis," even name-checking the CIA. "Were you there when the man from Atlanta was murdered in Memphis? Did you see him layin' at the Lorraine motel? Did you hear them say that the CIA is witness to the murder of a man at a motel in Memphis?"
Patty Griffin: "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)"
Inspired by Dr. King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, which he gave the day before his assassination, Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)" was first recorded by Solomon Burke in 2006. Other artists have also tackled it, but Griffin makes it ache: "The peaceful valley just over the mountain, the peaceful valley few come to know. I may never get there ever in this lifetime. But sooner or later, it's there I will go."
Daddy: "The Ballad of Martin Luther King"
Written by Mike Millius in 1968 and brought back around by Daddy, the band with Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack at its heart, in 2009, "The Ballad of Martin Luther King" serves as a clarion call to never forget: "Gather 'round me, friends, I have a song to sing about a hero of our time named Martin Luther King; Martin Luther King was born to a sharecropper's son and ev'ry racist feared him, and he never owned a gun. And I've been to the mountain top, and today I have a dream. Don't you ever forget the words of Martin Luther King."
Ben Harper: "Like A King"
Ben Harper, in response to the 1991 beating by police officers of Rodney King, drew a direct line between the two Kings in "Like a King" to highlight how far we had not come: "So if you catch yourself thinking it has changed for the best, you better second guess, 'cause Martin's dream has become Rodney's worst nightmare. Like a King, like a King, like a King."
Dion: "Abraham, Martin & John"
This 1968 composition by Dick Holler emerged from that year's deaths of both Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but also incorporates two other fallen civil rights heroes, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. Although Andy Williams, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and others recorded the ballad, Dion made it his own: "Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin? Can you tell me, where he's gone? He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young. I just looked around and he was gone."
Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band: "We Shall Overcome"
First published in 1948, the gospel-inspired "We Shall Overcome" has served as a protest anthem for more than one generation standing up for more than one cause. A lot of folk singers have called out and on its message of hope: "We shall overcome, we shall overcome. We shall overcome someday; Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday."
Eileen Jewell: "How Long"
Also inspired by Dr. King's words, Eileen Jewell's "How Long" holds tight to a faith in the arc of the moral universe that, Dr. King says, bends toward justice: "The darkness is deep, but night will end 'cause truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long will it take, you want to know? How long, not long because you reap just what you sow."
Paul Simon: "So Beautiful or So What"
On his 2011 'So Beautiful or So What' album, Paul Simon used the title track to shine light where there is darkness, offer hope where this is none. Because he invoked Dr. King's message, he thought it also fitting to include his memory, as well: "Four men on the balcony overlooking the parking lot pointing at a figure in the distance. Dr. King has just been shot."
Music from the 1963 March on Washington
Including performances by Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul & Mary, and others, this compilation brings it all home.
1. Joan Baez: "We Shall Overcome"
2. Peter, Paul & Mary: "Blowin' in the Wind"
3. Peter, Paul & Mary: "If I Had a Hammer (Part)"
4. Odetta: "I'm on My Way"
5. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez: "When the Ship Comes In"
6. The Freedom Singers: "We Shall Not Be Moved" (Cordell Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Charles Neblett, and Rutha Mae Harris)
7. Peter, Paul, & Mary: "If I Had a Hammer"
8. Joan Baez: "All My Trials"
9. Bob Dylan: "Only a Pawn in Their Game"
10. Len Chandler, Joan Baez, Stuart Scharf, and Bob Dylan: "Rally Song"/"Keep Your Eyes On The Prize (Hold On)"
11. Marian Anderson: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"
12. Eva Jessye Choir: "Freedom Is a Thing Worth Thinking About"
13. Mahalia Jackson: "How I Got Over"
14. Eva Jessye Choir: "We Shall Overcome"
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:32 AM
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PLAYLIST - Folk Alley nationally syndicated weekly radio show #150108
January 11, 2015
PLAYLIST: Folk Alley nationally syndicated radio show #150108. Aired between January 9 - 15, 2015. Hosted by Elena See
Artist - Title - Album - Label
The Decemberists - January Hymn - The King Is Dead - Capitol
John Whelan - Reels: January's Journey Medley - Flirting with the Edge - Narada
John Doyle - The Month of January - Wayward Son - Compass Records
Claire Lynch - How Many Moons - Dear Sister - Compass
Hal Ketchum - Devil Moon - I'm the Troubadour - Music Road Records
Bob Dylan & Joan Baez - Mama You've Been On My Mind - LIVE 1964 - Columbia
Joan Baez - Farewell, Angelina(Live) - Rare, Live, and Classic - Vanguard
The Punch Brothers - I Blew It Off - The Phosphorescent Blues - Nonesuch
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn - Banjo Banjo - Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn - Rounder
Heather Styka - Birch Log - While This Planet Spins Beneath Our Feet - Kite Stripe
Mumford & Sons - Winter Winds - Sigh No More - Island
David Francey - A Winter Night - Skating Rink - Laker
Claudia Schmidt - Winter Love - It Looks Fine From Here - Red House
The Earls of Leicester - I'll Go Stepping Too - The Earls of Leicester - Rounder
Flatt & Scruggs - Old Leather Britches - Live at Vanderbilt University - Columbia
Earl Scruggs w - Family & Friends - Step It Up and Go - The Ultimate Collection (live) - Rounder
Lucinda Williams - Stowaway In Your Heart - Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone - Highway 20 Records (Thirty Tiger)
Cindy Cashdollar(Mike Auldridge) - Keep My Heart - Slide Show - Silvershot
Passenger - Heart's On Fire - Whispers - Nettwerk - Black Crow
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley - Workin' Man Can't Get Nowhere Today - Before the Sun Goes Down - Compass
Blue Highway - Remind Me of You - The Game - Rounder
Ellis Paul - Drive In Movie - Chasing Beauty - Black Wolf
Ellis Paul (live) - The World Ain't Slowin' Down - Live - Philo
Christine Albert - Old New Mexico (feat. Eliza Gilkyson & Jerry Jeff Walker) - Everything's Beautiful Now - Moon House
Jerry Jeff Walker - Ramblin', Scramblin' - Driftin' Way of Life - Vanguard
Amelia Curran - The Reverie - They Promised You Mercy - Six Shooter
Wendy MacIsaac - Magnificent 7 - Off the Floor - Wendy MacIsaac
The Duhks - Rock Of Ages - Your Daughters & Your Sons - Sugar Hill
The New Basement Tapes - Diamond Ring - Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes - Electromagnetic
Bob Dylan - I'll Be Your Baby Tonight - Original Mono Recordings (Best Of) - Columbia Legacy
Folk Alley's weekly, syndicated radio show is produced by WKSU (NPR-affiliate in Kent, OH). The show is available for free to stations via PRX.org or via FTP for non-PRX members. Stations may air the show as either a one-, or two-hour program. The Folk Alley Radio Show is presently carried by over 36 stations nationally. Folk Alley also presents a 24/7 hosted Internet channel available at FolkAlley.com, TuneIn, iTunes, Live 365 and more. :: for more information contact Linda Fahey at 518-354-8077: Linda@folkalley.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 8:55 PM
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A Q & A with Pieta Brown
January 7, 2015
by Kelly McCartney for FolkAlley.com
Anyone writing about Pieta Brown would be remiss to not mention that her father is the incredibly prolific and thoroughly respected singer/songwriter Greg Brown. But for the writing to stop there, would be negligent because the younger Brown has certainly made a name for herself with five albums and three EPs. On her latest studio set, 'Paradise Outlaw,' she churns through 14 tunes that are more than just well-crafted and well-produced; they are also interesting -- captivating, even. For her Folk Alley Session, Pieta sets three of those gems in a spare, duo setting accompanied by guitarist Bo Ramsey. (Click HERE to watch videos from that session.) Her father's shadow may be long and wide, but Pieta Brown shines just fine.
Kelly McCartney: You grew up in Iowa and Alabama, the daughter of a noted singer/songwriter. How would you say both nurture and nature have influenced your work?
Pieta Brown: Hopefully the songs and the music speak to that directly. I had a lot of time around people playing music together, as a kid. I also spent a whole lot of time alone as a kid and a teenager, too. I felt the music and heard the internal voices early on. The way that all converged -- and continues to -- has led me this far.
KM: Even though you've been around music and musicians your whole life, what's it like to work with legends like John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, and Mark Knofler? Does it ever not feel surreal?
PB: The music doesn't feel surreal to me. And working with great musicians doesn't feel surreal to me. It feels very real and charged. It's fun and deeply inspiring, and always an honor to work with great musicians and great artists. The songs and music and writing have become my life's work and the artists/legends you mentioned have all become masters in some way. They have all remained dedicated and driven and vibrant. That is an endless inspiration.
KM: What led you to self-produce the new album? And what differences do you think that made?
PB: The vision I had for 'Paradise Outlaw' was very strong and, though it shifted a bit here and there, it really was a clear vision and was easy to follow. The songs and the music were driving me and I just went with it. Because I felt so close to the songs and what I was hearing inside, it made taking the reins as the main producer easy. I didn't have to think about it much. It just seemed natural. April Base (the studio) and the players I called on for the session all felt right. Besides just the obvious line of having some experience in the studio to lean on, the songs and vision gave me a lot of confidence which over-rode some of my natural shyness that has been a factor, at times, during other recordings. It was freeing. Hopefully that comes through in the music and the way the record sounds.
KM: As with a lot of projects over the years, 'Paradise Outlaw' found inspiration in the Beat Poets. What's different about your take on that genre?
PB: I don't feel like 'Paradise Outlaw' is a take on the Beat Poets or that genre. If anything, it's just a "hats off" or "three cheers" for all the sparks those writers and that movement created... in poetry, music, and beyond. I feel like the Beats were part of a continuous collective, you know? Go back to William Blake and others and you can feel that fervent quest! So, I'm just chiming in with my own variations and explorations of all of that here and now.
KM: You've said that this record is about "artistic activism" rather than "political activism." What's the distinction there?
PB: The lines are blurry for sure, but I think the "artistic activism" thing came out of someone's questions to me about some of the songs on 'Paradise Outlaw.' The interviewer described feeling/hearing political undercurrents in some of the messages of the songs. Now, I don't really understand politics, but "political activism" seems to me to be acted out in the political realm... through demonstrations, laws, meetings. It seems direct and specific and action-oriented. "Artistic activism" seems to me to be about calling names, about calling things into view, about making sure all the questions keep getting asked. I reckon maybe all art and music is artistic activism in one way or another.
For more from Pieta, see Folk Alley's in-studio video session and hear the interview - HERE
Posted by Linda Fahey at 5:14 PM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Jon Nungesser's Top Picks of the Year
December 29, 2014
Top Picks of 2014 by Jon Nungesser
2014, what a year! A vibrant and diverse year for music with releases from First Aid Kit, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Nickel Creek, Rodney Crowell and many more that I don't have time to list here. The list I chose below passed a crucial test for me - am I still playing them in my car's CD player? I got hooked on these albums this year and am finding it hard to give them up. Surely, they will be playing in my car well into 2015!
Passenger - 'Whispers'
Mike Rosenberg aka Passenger ditched the band and went solo for 2012's release 'All the Little Lights' which produced the memorable hit "Let Her Go." Now he is back with 'Whispers' which builds on the last album's momentum. It features strong writing that really comes out in tracks like "Scare Away the Dark", providing a blatantly true look on our modern society.
First Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
This album is a bit more amped up sonically for the sisters than their last release, but the addition of an orchestra on tracks like "My Silver Lining" only adds to the haunting vocals and vivid imagery featured in this 10-song set. It's an album that's hard to put down for sure!
Rodrigo y Gabriela - '9 Dead Alive'
Flamenco cranked up to 11! That is how I describe the release from this Mexican duo. Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero grew up on a mix of flamenco, jazz, and heavy metal with one of their biggest influences being Metallica. It really should be no wonder this record is pure energy and driving rhythms that would be at home in either a rock stadium or coffee shop.
Nickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'
The trio (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins) reunited for this much-anticipated 2014 release. I had the pleasure of seeing them live this past year on their tour through Cleveland, and I can tell you, they haven't lost a step! This album features tight harmonies that truly complement each other. Take a listen to the track "Destination" to see what I mean.
Justin Townes Earle - 'Single Mothers'
Back for his fifth studio album, 'Single Mothers' features tracks with a mixture of country-tinged soul as present on the title track and emotional ballads like "Picture In a Drawer." He takes the concerns and problems of the millennial generation and puts them to song - much like his dad did in his.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:50 PM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Chris Dudley's Top Picks of the Year
Top Picks of 2014 by Chris Dudley
It's pretty easy to say that we've had some excellent albums 2014. While my tastes are constantly changing, I chose five (okay, six actually) that were my favorites, that I kept going back to more consistently. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of other albums that aren't on this list that could be on any other given day. I chose these albums not only because of how often I listen to them, but because of how they stretch the genre of what we consider folk. All of these albums have songs that we play on Folk Alley, but the albums themselves expand outward into other realms that challenge the listener and that challenge me. Whether it be through production, instrumentation, lyrically, or harmonically, these albums have something in them that have stood out.
Noah Gundersen - 'Ledges'
With its warm and earthy tones, 'Ledges' strips down the songwriting elements to its bare bones. The songs are spacious and allow the lyrics to shine. It seems like a very minimalist setup, but it allows for his words to remain dynamic and carry most of the weight. The lyrics are introspective and evoke those tugging internal conflicts that we experience daily-- the struggle of living without or having baggage that constantly weighs on us. With its tentative moments that slowly bloom and burst into public confessions, 'Ledges' deals a heartfelt punch for those who are living a struggle.
Nickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'
What isn't there to be thrilled with in this album? With power that continuously drives, their harmonies and technical excellence is enough to make your ear swoon and beg for more. This album is chalked full of memorable melodies. It's an exceptionally well produced album with musicianship that is articulate and interesting. You can't help but love the fun way it catches you by surprise. I love occasions in the album where the chords are peculiar and the melodies are even a littler stranger. There is enough oddity to challenge you, but enough familiarity to keep grasp of what's going on.
Ryan Adams - 'Ryan Adams'
(PaxAm Records/Blue Note)
The gritty and raw sounds from 'Ryan Adams' are quick to shake you up. I adore the raspy guitar tone and the crunchy vocals. Every time I listen to this album, I get my "aww yeah" face on. While not quite folk in a traditional sense, the acoustic songs on this album still carry that folk vibe while still maintaining that raucous shadow that you continue to sense. This album makes great driving music. I had "My Wrecking Ball" and "Let Go" on repeat for a while.
First Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
This album has a very ethereal sound to it. The drones and sustained sounds definitely have uniqueness to it. The album has largeness to it, and the harmonies are very lush. I enjoy how full and different this album sounds. The enormity of the sound is like an ocean wave. Lilting melodies keep you singing every time. You can get lost in this album, but it still has rhythm to it. I love the way the flutes, strings, organ, and other sustained instruments cradle you along as you move through the songs. A wonderful mix of indie/pop and folk.
Robert Plant - 'Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar'
The juxtaposition between natural and processed sound in this album is very alluring. I try not to limit my listening to any specific sounds, and albums like this are why I don't. There are so many colorful and contrasting sounds that can paint an enticing and vivid picture. Robert Plant mixes some heavily processed and overdriven drums and synths with the likes of acoustic guitars, banjos, and hurdy gurdy (at least I think it's a hurdy gurdy). It somehow manages to sounds mechanical and organic at the same time. Talk about some avant garde folk.
The Henry Girls - 'Louder Than Words'
I just simply like this album and the songs. It's a very natural folk sound, and the songs are ones that I happen to press the play button on a lot. I like the feel of the songs on this album, and I just like the harmonized melodies. The songs, even the minor ones, seem bright and make me sway back and forth. At the end of the day, you don't need a complicated or particular reason to like something. Sometimes you just simply like it. I like the songs. It's as simple as that.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:10 PM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Barb Heller's Top Picks of the Year
Top Picks of 2014 by Barb Heller
Disclaimer: I'm a rabid bluegrass fan, so expect my picks to be heavily weight toward that genre. If you don't mind banjos and resophonic guitars, then read on and enjoy! These are in no particular order. Happy 2015!
The Claire Lynch Band - 'Holiday'
(Thrill Hill Records)
I know it's a bit late to suggest this for holiday listening, but put it on your list for next year! Claire Lynch's voice, and her band's virtuosity put every note in just the right place. They also include a dynamite arrangement of "We Three Kings" that'll put all others to shame.
Tim Stafford - 'Just To Hear the Whistle Blow'
(Hedge Drive Records)
Tim Stafford plays in the band, Blue Highway - already well known for their great songs, tight delivery and staying power as a working group of artists. Stafford is a poetic, sensitive writer who puts another best foot forward with this collection. My favorite track: "Dimes." It's about finding souvenirs from heaven. This album is a great escape, with fabulous musicianship and top notch songwriting. What more could you want?
Seldom Scene - 'Long Time'
I love the Seldom Scene - then, and now. This is the group's first studio album since 2007. If you've ever liked them, you'll love this latest release.
Special Consensus & Friends - 'Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver'
Even if you were lukewarm about John Denver's music in the 1970s and '80s, you can't help but appreciate these great arrangements of his greatest hits. It's a bluegrass dream lineup: Michael Cleveland, John Cowan, Rob Ickes, Claire Lynch, and many other guests. Alison Brown on double production and banjo detail. Great job all around!
Nickel Creek - 'A Dotted Line'
Sometimes it's not the words or the music that catch me. It's the process of transforming great musings into musical art that really impresses me. Nickel Creek seems to have it all: they're great musicians, they know how to write a hit song, and they can also express old sentiments and sounds in new and different ways. This is a very impressive demonstration of what the next generation is growing into.
And here are a few more that shouldn't go unnoticed:
Bob Amos - 'Sunrise Blues'
Another great songwriter. Bob Amos has an old soul, and it shines through his songs. For years, Amos was the lead singer for the bluegrass band Front Range. Now he's back in Vermont, forging a new road.
Phil Leadbetter - 'The Next Move'
Leadbetter was voted IBMA's 'Dobro Player of the Year' this fall, and his latest album was released just before the awards were announced. His big heart and friendly nature is eclipsed only by his stellar playing.
Irene Kelley - 'Pennsylvania Coal'
Kelley is a veteran songwriter, and she's put a best foot forward on this collection of originals based on her ancestors' lives in the mines. Well written, beautifully sung, with tasteful production. It's a gem.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:55 AM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Matt Reilly's Top Picks of the Year
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Matt Reilly
You'd think by now I wouldn't get freaked out by having to make end-of-year lists. How do I whittle it down? Am I sure I REALLY like this whole record? What will the neighbors say? So after much wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth (sort of), here is my list.
Beck - 'Morning Phase'
Sad Beck works for me. Lots of space in these songs to zone out and great for long drives.
First Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
On first listen, seems pretty straightforward: Swedish sisters with great harmonies. On repeated listens, there's a whole Nordic underworld full of ice and mystery and refracted sunlight. Or am I just weird?
Israel Nash - 'Rain Plans'
If you're a fan of Neil Young and Crazy Horse you'll dig the new arrival to Central Texas. Sometimes you need a long jahm, mahn.
Ryan Adams - 'Ryan Adams'
Who writes better songs than Ryan Adams? No, Bryan Adams does not.
Shakey Graves - 'And The War Came'
This is a guy we've known about for a long time in Austin. It's great to see him finally breaking out nationally. Great songs and totally relatable.
Spoon - 'They Want My Soul'
The best indie rock band going. They never lose that jittery, jagged pop sensibility.
St. Vincent - 'St. Vincent'
An acolyte of David Byrne, she's making accessible art rock for the 21st century. And she absolutely shreds on guitar.
Sturgill Simpson - 'Metamodern Sounds in Country Music'
(High Top Mountain/Loose Music)
He's like Waylon Jennings tripping out. A great melding of straight ahead country and psychedelia.
Tweedy - 'Sukierae'
I've always liked Wilco, but they can get irritating. Jeff teaming up with his son Spencer makes for an infinitely listenable record that can be taken anywhere.
The War on Drugs 'Lost In The Dream'
Expansive psych rock from these Philly boys that - weirdly - reminds me of Jackson Browne sometimes.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:10 AM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Kelly McCartney's Top Picks of the Year
December 18, 2014
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Kelly McCartney
In a year chock full of truly great records, it's hard to narrow it down to 10 stand-outs. But what's wonderful about the leveling field of music is that newcomers like Jonah Tolchin, Hozier, and Parker Millsap who really deliver the goods can sidle up alongside icons like Ani DiFranco, Rosanne Cash, and Lee Ann Womack at the top of their games, all without missing a beat. Such is the case here as newly discovered and long-time favorites alike jockey for position as some of the Best Albums of 2014.
Ani DiFranco - 'Allergic to Water'
There are two camps within the Ani DiFranco fan base -- those who swear allegiance to her early, more raw works and those who stand devoted to her later, more refined efforts. 'Allergic to Water' falls squarely into the latter's lap as DiFranco, now a mother of two, continues to explore the subtler, quieter realms. She is still brash, still brazen, in terms of the points she's attempting to get across. It's just that she does so in ways that are, at once, more playful and more serious. Gone are the days of boot stomping and guitar thrashing. But, as this album evidences, DiFranco continues to be one of the most thoughtful and innovative singer/songwriters of any generation.
First Aid Kit - 'Stay Gold'
Though Sweden is fast becoming a hotbed for electro-pop music thanks to the work of artists like Lykke Li, Robyn, and Avicii, it is not as overflowing with indie folk. It will be, though, if First Aid Kit is any indicator. Their latest collection, 'Stay Gold,' draws inspiration in both style and substance from Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg also take Frost's words as something of a challenge as they make every attempt to capture and hold their own goldest musical hues against an orchestral backdrop that lifts and lilts along with their sweetly soaring vocal harmonies.
Hozier - 'Hozier'
The second of four blues-influenced gents under 25 years of age on the list (along with Tolchin, Millsap, and Ellis), Hozier emerged from Ireland with a bold cut that stopped a lot of people in their tracks with "Take Me to Church." While that is, indeed, a stunning effort, the whole of Hozier's eponymous debut showcases an artist with an impressive grasp on multiple melodic styles and an intuitive knack for intelligent lyrical twists. Bittersweetly recalling the promise of guys like Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith, Hozier will, hopefully, be a more lasting presence. He certainly has the talent.
Jonah Tolchin - 'Clover Lane'
From "Mockingbird" on down, listeners know they are in for quite a ride down 'Clover Lane.' Jonah Tolchin's collection succeeds where neo-retro bands like Mumford & Sons fail because Tolchin is a fan first, a student second, and an artist third. He understands why the Mississippi Delta music speaks to him and he knows how to translate it into his own language. Equal parts crazy barn dance and lazy campfire singalong, 'Clover Lane' moves effortlessly between styles and genres -- from the swampy shuffle of "Hey Baby Blues" to the slow saunter of "Low Life." A truly fantastic album, 'Clover Lane' should easily put Tolchin on the map.
Lee Ann Womack - 'The Way I'm Livin''
For whatever reason, voices that have just a little bit of ache tell a story a whole lot better than those that don't. And, when it comes to country music, Lee Ann Womack has one of the loveliest aches around. She can coax the lonesome out of any tune, and then hold it right where she wants it. That's how, as an interpreter, Womack makes great songs even greater, especially when they flow from the pens of outlier writers like Hayes Carll, Julie Miller, and Bruce Robison. With 'The Way I'm Livin',' she brings her fullest talent to bear and it's something special to behold.
Parker Millsap - 'Parker Millsap'
The first two tracks on Parker Millsap's self-titled release -- the one-two punch of "Old Time Religion" and "Truck Stop Gospel" -- deliver quite a knock-out blow to all who stumble into this debut. A couple cuts later, though, "The Villain" answers a call sent out more than 40 years ago by Tom Waits' "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You." Either way you go, Millsap, who is in his early 20s, knows how to write and deliver a song. And, as potent as this record is, his live performances are even more show stopping, so to speak.
Pieta Brown - 'Paradise Outlaw'
Unlike some of her past efforts, there's nothing urgent or insistent about Pieta Brown's latest turn, 'Paradise Outlaw.' Instead, it's a gorgeously meandering affair that takes its own, sweet time getting where it needs to go. The slow motion unfolding of these songs makes for an immersive listening experience, one that refuses to be anything more than it is. Here, everything feels a little bit muted, a little bit muddled, but never overly so because there's always plenty of room to breathe amidst the sparse arrangements and nuanced production.
Robby Hecht - 'Robby Hecht'
On his 2014 eponymous release, Robby Hecht continues to prove the case for himself as a true descendant of the Paul Simon/James Taylor lineage of singer/songwriters. Like those greats, Hecht's contemplative, acoustic tunes search and rescue the hearts and souls of anyone who hears them. One listen to "Feeling It Now" (or "The Sea and the Shore" or "Stars") is like a healing balm, a salve to soothe whatever ails you. So classic is Hecht's voice and craft, it's sometimes hard to tell whether he is covering an old standard or offering a new original.
Robert Ellis - 'The Lights from the Chemical Plant'
So much of what makes 'The Lights from the Chemical Plant' great is between the lines and under the surface, just like in the stories of so many small town lives that fill it. Unlike the artists on mainstream country radio, Robert Ellis doesn't paint with primary colors. He prefers the greys, the browns, and, yes, the blues. Those are the shades that fit the stark, dark tales he tells on this challenging and intimate work. A phrase from the lead track, "Only Lies", captures the album's credo: "Just because a thing's convenient, well that doesn't make it true."
Rosanne Cash - 'The River & the Thread'
On her first set of original songs since 2006's 'Black Cadillac,' Rosanne Cash held nothing back as she journeyed into the geography and history that have shaped her life, her art, her family. It's a heritage that is her own, sure, but it's also a heritage that is also ours. And that point is not lost on Cash. She understands the ties that bind, perhaps more than most, which is why the metaphors on 'The River & the Thread' run deep and wide. The chorus of the opening track lays it out perfectly: "A feather's not a bird. The rain is not the sea. A stone is not a mountain, but a river runs through me."
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:45 AM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Cindy Howes' Top Picks of the Year
December 16, 2014
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Cindy Howes
Full disclosure: I love making my yearly best-of list and I love looking at everyone else's. I love the exercise of combing through the year of music; reliving the first emotional moments felt after hearing the perfect song or new favorite artist. Some on my list were no surprise to me: of course I've included Anais Mitchell and First Aid Kit. Those unexpected artists on this list now feel like new friends who kept me company throughout the long year. I hope you agree on some and find some new friends among my favorite albums for 2014 and thank you for the opportunity to throw a spotlight on folk music.
Have a listen to my Top 10 Playlist at Spotify - HERE.
Ben Howard. 'I Forget Where We Were'
On his second full length album, UK singer-songwriter, Ben Howard manages to harness all sorts of emotive power through his striking lyrics and layered guitar work. This sounds is as if Joni Mitchell had joined Genesis and decided to play an electric guitar on her lap.
The Barr Brothers, 'Sleeping Operator'
Montreal's Barr Brothers have returned on a sophomore release that combines magnificent songwriting, psychedelic and world music elements... and oh yeah, they also have a harp. The experimental nature of 'Sleeping Operator' that can make it a challenging listen is redeemed by mostly standout, accessible tracks.
The Early Mays, 'The Early Mays'
(The Early Mays)
Three previously solo performers come together to create beautiful harmonies and folk gems with The Early Mays: Judith Avers, Ellen Gozion and Emily Pinkerton. Thoughtfully created in Pittsburgh, PA, the trio effortlessly bring to life original, traditional and reworked songs while combining the folk music expertise of each May: Appalachia, country and modern.
The Stray Birds, 'Best Medicine'
The Stray Birds were a new discovery for me this year, but one I won't soon forget due to their ability to combine folk tradition with a modern approach. The fact that this album, their second full-length, was recorded live in the studio around one mic is astounding.
Anais Mitchell, 'Xoa'
Anais Mitchell is one of the best writers of her generation. With a brilliant mind and a cool delivery that 100% drives me insane (in the best way), there was no way I wasn't going to love this record. 'Xoa,' which is her signature for her email newsletter, is kind of a reworked, best-of collection (including songs from her folk opera, 'Hadestown'). The album is just Anais and her guitar in the studio, singing and playing these incredible songs, just like it's not a big deal at all.
First Aid Kit, 'Stay Gold'
The first time I heard the Swedish sister-duo, First Aid Kit's 'Stay Gold,' I was sanding the ceiling of my kitchen, covered in dust and wearing a face mask, which is a memory that is forever embedded in my mind. It sounds like someone seriously got their heart broken and is on an adventure, not unlike sanding a ceiling for two hours straight. I'm still astounded how well these young, non-American songwriters, manage to write such great American folk music.
Vance Joy, 'Dream Your Life Away'
Australia is usually a few years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to finding the hip, new music, so it's makes a lot of sense that they would be WAY on top of their own Vance Joy. They were all over his massive hit "Riptide" way before Taylor Swift ever thought to cover it. It's nice to see the U.S. finally catching on. I'm glad to include 'Dream Your Life Away' on my list as it includes some stellar songs lead by Joy's sweet tenor voice, percussive melodies (Xavier Rudd comes to mind) and dynamic build.
Damien Jurado, 'Brothers and Sisters of The Eternal Son'
Folk enigma, Damien Jurado, calls his eleventh album as a sequel to his previous release which centered around a man who disappeared from society to a mysterious place. It kind of sounds like a weird, freaky Wizard of Oz where Dorothy never goes home.
Rose Cousins, 'Stray Birds'
Rose Cousin's latest EP was a beautiful sweet September surprise with covers and a couple of originals. A small, quiet celebration in contrast to it's predecessor, 'We Have Made a Spark.' It was nice to hear Cousins pull back a bit on this release and show off some of her friends songs and tell us about some of her heroes.
Shakey Graves, 'And The War Came'
Austin's Alejandro Rose-Garcia impresses on his second release as the indie-folk act, Shakey Graves. The lead-off track, "Dearly Departed" has become one of the best new Halloween-inspired songs I've heard in years. Rose-Garcia seems out of place in 2014. After listening through 'And Then The War Came,' it's no wonder that these songs were not around for Lomaxes to discover in the early part of the 20th century.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:20 PM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Elena See's Top Picks of the Year
Top 10 Picks of 2014 by Elena See
I don't know why I'm still surprised, more than a DECADE after beginning a career in the music radio biz, about the amount of amazing music (in all genres) that comes out each and every year. Without fail - you'll find a new favorite musician, a new favorite band, an unexpected surprise, and, let's be honest, a disappointment or two as well. So, without further adieu, here are just a few (in no particular order) of my unexpected surprises, new favorite bands and new favorite musicians from 2014:
John Mellencamp, 'Plain Spoken'
And the award for shocker of the year...goes to John Mellencamp and 'Plain Spoken.' Not being a huge Mellencamp fan, I was totally surprised by this album. I think the production quality is great and once I took a bit of time and started reading the lyrics, I was able to appreciate Mellencamp and his music on a whole new level. The care he takes with his words! It's...awesome.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, 'Small Town Heroes'
I'm not at all what you'd call "quirky" and so that, naturally, leads me to really appreciate the quirkiness of others. Alynda Lee Segarra, frontwoman of Hurray for the Riff Raff, might be called quirky. But most importantly - she's got something important to say - she has a voice that needs to be heard. And she makes us hear it on this recording. "The Body Electric" is the stand out for me.
Dave/Phil Alvin, 'Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy'
(Yep Roc Records)
More than anything else, I appreciated this record because it marks the coming together, again, of two greats...who wanted nothing more than to set any differences aside and honor a third great, Big Bill Broonzy. Of course, it was wonderful to hear the brothers together again and, at the same time, this recording introduced me to SOOOOOO much more of Big Bill Broonzy's music. Thanks, Alvins!
Carlene Carter, 'Carter Girl'
I am fascinated with this family - what a legacy they left for us to explore and enjoy. Carlene Carter honors the legacy of her family's name with this recording, an album she says she's been waiting to make for years. I think her choice of material was quite inspired - the right mix of familiar tunes and lesser known numbers that give us an exclusive behind the scenes look at growing up as a member of the Carter clan.
John Fullbright, 'Songs'
(Blue Dirt Records)
One of the songs on this recording is called "Happy" and I admit it makes me happy every time I hear it. What IS it about John Fullbright's voice? Gravelly, wiser than his years would lead you to expect...I like this guy from Oklahoma. He's asking some good questions on this album - simple ones, sometimes...but definitely questions that we ALL ask every now and again. It's nice to get HIS perspectives on the answers.
Ben/Ellen Harper, 'Childhood Home'
Even if you had the most idyllic childhood anyone could ever imagine, I'd be willing to bet you still might have an opinion or two on how things could have been done differently. Ben Harper and his mother Ellen Harper said they'd always known they were going to make a record together that explores questions of home and family and what it all meant...and in Childhood Home they explore those ideas separately and together, offering a multi-dimensional look at how families really work together.
Various, 'Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways'
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
Here's why this recording makes my best of 2014 list: Brownie McGhee. Lead Belly. Mississippi John Hurt. Little Brother Montgomery. Peg Leg Sam. All these amazing musicians I've heard of, in passing, but don't really know...here there are, all together, waiting to be discovered, and ready to make you sit up and say, "Whoa. I want more of this, please." It's a great collection, 21 tracks, and it is yet one more reason why I, personally, am grateful for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Shovels and Rope, 'Swimmin' Time'
(Dualtone Music Group)
Part of me loves this duo because of their name. Part of me is always just giddily delighted when I hear their harmonies. And then another part just swims in the lyrics they write. I adore how they make even the simplest ideas, questions, and thoughts into veritable poetry...then they back it up with impeccable playing and heart plucking harmonies. Americana's darlings, they're sometimes called...yeah. I agree.
Mary Gauthier, 'Trouble and Love'
I think this is one of the most honest recordings I've ever heard. I love it when musicians (talented ones, anyway) use their own lives, their own experiences, their own heartbreaks and troubles as inspiration. Somehow, even though this is intensely personal stuff, Mary Gauthier makes it relevant to ME, to my life. And that lets me appreciate HER in whole new way, while at the same time giving me a unique perspective on things I've experienced in my own life.
Red Molly, 'The Red Album'
I'm a sucker for great harmonies and so, not surprisingly, I'm a big fan of the trio Red Molly. To celebrate 10 years of making music - including a couple of years with a new member - they released The Red Album. Great things are in the future for the group...they made a conscious choice to include more original songs on this album than they've ever done before and the result is exciting. A couple of covers, too...including the song that gave them their name, Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:45 AM
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Video Premiere: Lee Ann Womack, "The Way I'm Livin'" (Live)
December 9, 2014
by Kelly McCartney
A lot has been said (and written) about the bro-country trend of late. It's had a good run, to be sure, but trucks and beer and girls in too-short shorts can only get you so far. At some point, you need more than that. To borrow from Wade Bowen's "Songs about Trucks": "Whatever happened to a feeling bad song? Lost the best damn woman that you ever had song? It's all four-wheel drives and jacked-up tires rollin' out of them speakers. But for a trip down memory lane tonight I need something a little deeper."
Whatever did happen to all those feeling bad songs that went a little deeper? Well, they are still there. To find them, you just have to flip to the other side of the country music coin -- the women. Artists like Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, and Kacey Musgraves are, indeed, writing some really good feeling bad songs, full of depth and resonance, consequence and soulfulness. And that's where we find Lee Ann Womack with her newest release, 'The Way I'm Livin'. Like the records of Clark, Monroe, and Musgraves, 'The Way I'm Livin' is "not your kids' country music," Womack notes. "This is grown-up country music."
Not surprisingly, the album's title track feels like the natural heart of the set, in both style and substance. The cut tells the tale of a tortured soul, one that's made a deal with the devil in the form of the bottle. Womack explains, "We hear so many songs about drinking -- and we have for years in country music -- but this is a song that's not about, 'Hey, let's party. Let's have a good time. Let's drink.' This is a song about, 'I might have a problem here.'"
Womack's producer and husband, Frank Liddell, admires her willingness to broach that very tenuous topic, and others, on the album. "The pain and the darkness of some of these songs is not negative," Liddell says. "I see these themes as part of everybody's life. She's just addressing them, where a lot of artists won't." To support the twinge and twang of Womack's sympathetic, but potent vocal testimony, Liddell lays the song down on a dirty, outlaw-style sonic bed that feels just urgent enough to demand attention.
By the last verse of the song, the singer is resolved, but not necessarily redeemed: "On the day I die, when they lay me down, I know where my soul is bound. And don't you cry, and don't you weep 'cause it's too late to rescue me. If you see the devil coming your way, get down on your knees and start to pray."
Womack understands the challenge inherent in the song because she has seen it in the everyday lives and struggles of those around her. She says, "The juxtaposition between the sin and the redemption... When you grow up in a small town in east Texas, it's like Saturday night and Sunday morning. That's the way people live. I mean, that is it."
Posted by Linda Fahey at 7:54 PM
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Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Listener Poll
December 3, 2014
VOTE!! Folk Alley's Best of 2014 - Listener Poll
2014 was an outstanding year for great folk, roots and Americana music! Everything from debut and breakout albums by new artists on the scene, to brilliant masterpieces from some of our favorite songwriters, and everything in between.
Folk Alley wants to know YOUR Top 10 Favorite Albums of the Year.
CLICK HERE to VOTE!
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:41 AM
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Video Premiere: Indigo Girls - Backstage at the Greek, "Elizabeth"
December 1, 2014
Premiere: Indigo Girls - Backstage at the Greek, "Elizabeth"
By Kelly McCartney
Over the past couple of months, the Indigo Girls have released the first seven videos in an eight-part series filmed backstage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles this summer. Those pieces have found Amy Ray and Emily Saliers discussing their personal best songs ("Share the Moon" and "She's Saving Me," respectively), performing with Joan Baez ("Our Deliverance" and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright"), and sharing their collaboration process. For the final installment, the Girls premiere a new song, "Elizabeth," which is slated to appear on the album they just last week finished recording in Nashville with producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin.
Saliers introduces the tune saying that she had originally thought it would go on the solo record she's been working on with Lyris Hung, but decided it was more of an Indigo Girls' cut, after all. Explaining the autobiographical sketch of some time she spent in New Orleans with the song's titular character, Saliers jokes, "Elizabeth, are you out there? I don't do Facebook. I just write songs."
Firm release dates for both projects have yet to be set, but look for the new Indigo Girls' record in February of 2015 with Saliers' solo set coming later in the year.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:38 PM
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Video Premiere: The Once, 'All the Hours'
October 27, 2014
Over the past five years, The Once has been quietly making a name for themselves in their native Canada. The Newfoundland-based band has collected a trio of Canadian Folk Music Awards, been named Newfoundland & Labrador Art Council's Artist of the Year, earned a Juno nomination for best Roots/Traditional album, and just recently won the 2014 MusicNL Award for Group of the Year and The Telegram Folk/Roots Recording of the Year.
On August 5, 2014, the trio (Geraldine Hollett, Andrew Dale and Phil Churchill) released 'Departures' - their first album on Nettwerk Records. The songs themselves often touch upon a sense of departure - whether it is in a tribute to someone who has died ("The Town Where You Lived"), a tale of murder ("The Nameless Murderess"), a tune about leaving someone (the breakup ode "Fool For You"), or a song such as, "All the Hours" - an on-the-road love letter to a loved one left behind.
As Geraldine introduces, "Here is a video we shot on a day off in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC this past September. The song is about being away from home and feeling disconnected to the people that love you the most. The ones that are waiting for you to return. The special few that you bare your soul to. Sometimes the best thing to do when you feel that lost is to just go on home."
The Once are currently on their first ever world tour as support for Passenger. See them live!
Purchase 'Departures' on iTunes!
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:59 AM
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Folk Alley Welcomes Host Cindy Howes
October 13, 2014
Folk Alley is excited to welcome Cindy Howes to our esteemed team of Folk Alley hosts!
Starting today (10/13) you'll hear Cindy every Monday - Friday from 2:00 - 7:00pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from midnight to 5:00am EASTERN.
"From the day my parents bought me a radio on my 12th birthday, I listened to it pretty much all-the-time-every-day. I'm not quite sure what made me think this as a 6th grader, but I decided being a DJ was what I was going to do. I made it my mission to join the high school's radio club and broadcasted my first show in September of my freshman year. Staying close to home, I ran and hosted WERS' morning folk program at Emerson College in Boston. My affinity for folk music flourished in the city's rich music scene. If I wasn't at the radio station, I'd be at Club Passim soaking in as much live music as I could. I have fond memories of being snuck in through the back of 21+ clubs and being given a band member's wrist band, so I could stay and watch. This desire to be around Boston folk music continued after college, when I was lucky enough to fall in with one of the most talented music communities in the country. Concerts from people like Mark Erelli, Rose Cousins, Peter Mulvey and Anais Mitchell were weekly occurrences. In 2007, after working at several Boston stations (Triple A, AM News, folk and NPR News), I was hired as the Morning Mix host at WYEP in Pittsburgh, PA. I am honored to be a part of the Folk Alley team, where I'm able to combine my passion for radio and folk music once again!"
Join us in welcoming Cindy to the Alley!
Cindy can be reached at Cindy@folkalley.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 4:21 PM
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Song Premiere: Alice Gerrard, "Boll Weevil"
September 16, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Alice Gerrard started her career as one-half of the groundbreaking, hugely influential duo Hazel & Alice (with the late Hazel Dickens) around a half-century ago. It was a time when musicians from all over the country were discovering the traditional songs of places they'd never even been to. Not only was the mid-20th century folk boom about turning on to different areas of American life, but it was sort of like learning the language of people you'd previously thought were so different from you.
"Boll Weevil" was one of those songs - popularized by the legendary Leadbelly, then picked up and performed by Brook Benton (who had a pop hit with it in the 1960s. On her new album, Follow the Music (due out September 30th on Tompkins Square Records), Gerrard performs "Boll Weevil" in true folk fashion, delivering it straight-forward, over the old-timey fiddle, backed by members of Hiss Golden Messenger and Megafun. The result is not so much the delving into a time capsule as it is a vivacious, modern performance to remind us of from whence American folk music came.
Pre-order a copy of 'Follow the Music' HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:00 AM
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Video Premiere: Eliza Gilkyson, "Fast Freight"
September 15, 2014
By Cindy Howes for FolkAlley.com
Eliza Gilkyson's new album, 'The Nocturne Diaries,' is "inspired by the sort of thoughts that keep us awake at night in this modern world, where the news always seems to be bad". This video for the record's lead track "Fast Freight" captures that feeling and combines two elements that the singer is strongly associated with: Austin, TX and her father, the late folk singer, Terry Gilkyson.
The video was directed by her son, Cisco Ryder and shot in her hometown of Austin. It shows Eliza wandering the train yards while she plays her fathers song - a folk standard since the 1950's and has been covered by artists like The Kingston Trio, Tim Hardin and Gordon Lightfoot.
There is a bonus element that may be new territory for Eliza: absolute creepiness, and that is meant in a good way. "Fast Freight" is a dark song about someone who is tempted by the sound of the trains and the railroad to go back their past life of being a bum. It could be compared to an addict being tempted by their vice. Gilkyson claims she included her version of "Fast Freight" on her latest album, The Nocturne Diaries, to represent "a page from my dad's nocturne diaries, a window into what he was thinking about late at night back then." Her mission is very much accomplished. Her version of the song makes you wonder and worry about what her dad was going through at the time.
The special appearance in the video of the self-proclaimed "Roaming Blues Musician and Poet" Ray Bonneville - playing harmonica as the "kind of alter-ego" - seals the deal for the chills that this video sends down your spine. Plus, it's hard to imagine the lovely Eliza Gilkyson as a bum who hops trains, so Bonneville fills that role quite nicely.
Highlight of the video: the pair playing music around a hobo campfire with a can of a certain Texas beer set upon a concrete block. The lonesome black and white images showing Gilkyson standing alone in a graffiti covered railway, match perfectly alongside the daunting melody of this creepy folk standard.
Catch Eliza live on tour now!!
Posted by Linda Fahey at 2:03 PM
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REVIEW: Rose Cousins, 'Stray Birds'
September 13, 2014
Rose Cousins - 'Stray Birds' (EP)
Old Farm Pony Records
By Cindy Howes, for FolkAlley.com
A new surprise EP from one of Canada's brightest singer-songwriters? Yes, please. Oh, she's covering some of her good friends and heroes? This includes Gordon Lightfoot? Well, don't mind if I just start weeping my face off.
Stray Birds, the new EP from Halifax's Rose Cousins is a small, quiet celebration in contrast to its predecessor. The beautiful We Have Made a Spark, was, indeed, a spark of a celebration for Cousins and her musician friends in Boston, where she made that album and which she calls her second home.
It's nice to hear Cousins pull back a bit on this release to show off some of her friends' songs and tell us about some of her heroes. The EP opens with Cousins slaying a jaw-droppingly gorgeous cover of Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind". No one else need cover this song again - the woman nailed it.
The two covers of her songwriter friends are "Tired Eyes" by Mark Erelli and "Shake" by Lori McKenna, both among Boston's finest. It's nice to see that Cousins is not done paying homage to the fantastic Boston/Cambridge music community.
Another surprised on Stray Birds, is her cover of "What's Love Got To Do With It", which is fun to play for someone who doesn't know it's Tina Turner's biggest hit until Cousins slides into the chorus.
The two original compositions on the EP include "The Farmer's Wife", perhaps referring to Cousins' time growing up on a farm in Prince Edward Island, and the standout title track - a pretty country sounding song with great additions of banjo (Charlie Rose) and fiddle (Bronwyn Keith-Hynes).
Stray Birds was recorded over the course of two days at the Dimension Sound Studio in Boston. While it seems like the spotlight is more on Cousins this time around, she does have some of Boston's finest players on this release, including Zachariah Hickman, Kevin Barry, Duke Levine, and the aforementioned, Rose and Keith-Hynes. These gentleman and lady are careful to add subtle and sweet layers to the already well-crafted songs.
Cousins claims that her favorite part of the EP is the cover art, which is a self-developed black and white photo of her father's hands holding a new chick from their farm. Cousins broke her elbow over the winter, which gave her opportunity to learn how to develop black and white photos. The gentle image on the cover tends to reflect the songs on this lovely collection that leaves the listener satisfied, yet anticipating this brilliant performer's next move.
Order a copy of 'Stray Birds' HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:42 PM
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Hear It First at Folk Alley - Irish Power Trio, The Alt
September 12, 2014
*Irish traditional music power trio, The Alt are unveiling their new self-titled album this week, and you can listen to it in its entirety in the player below. *
By Gideon Thomas, for FolkAlley.com
The group, made up of ex-Solas member John Doyle, flautist, singer and songwriter Nuala Kennedy and Eamon O'Leary, are all world-class musicians in their own right, and have now come together to produce a sumptuous and beguiling album which fully represents all of the fire and skill of the group's constituent parts.
The songs, both Irish and British songs in English and one Irish song ("Cha Tig Mor Mo Bhean Dhachaigh") find Doyle and Kennedy's voices intertwining to fantastic effect. The album follows in the traditions of Irish song and singers, but very much with its own feel, and the band members have clearly put into it what is important to them, and the strengths, both of the songs and the performers, is clear. The playing is forthright and sympathetic, and the tunes exciting, dynamic, intricate and beautiful - especially "Geese In The Bog/Covering Ground."
The story of the album is equally fascinating. The three musicians gathered in the village of Coolaney to conceive the idea of the album, but it came into being in a cabin in the Appalachians. This is a conscious nod to the impact that Irish music has had, and continues to have on many different forms of American roots music.
The Alt have put together an album of beauty, care and precision, a distillation of the power of modern traditional Irish music, with a unique American angle.
Enjoy the album, and make sure to check out The Alt!
Click HERE to order the album!
Posted by Linda Fahey at 2:32 PM
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Dom Flemons On 'Prospect Hill'
September 5, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Many people know Dom Flemons as one-third of the original membership of groundbreaking revivalist stringband Carolina Chocolate Drops. Indeed, with the CCDs, Flemons achieved international acclaim and earned award nominations from organizations like the Americana Music Association and the Grammys. But, before the Chocolate Drops made their debut, he was a performing songster and songwriter, covering the entire scope of what constitutes American folk and roots music - not just the stringband, Carolina-based stuff that would eventually make him folk-famous.
Now, Flemons has ventured out on his own again, with a "debut" solo album of sorts (he's released two recordings outside of the Chocolate Drops before, but seems to view this one as more of a definitive debut effort). 'Prospect Hill' is a collection of blues and ragtime, folk and bluegrass tunes. It's quick and simple, to-the-point, and wholly digestible. It's timely and timeless, and everything you might hope a good folk album would be.
I hopped on the phone recently with Flemons to talk about the genesis of this album, among other things:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start by talking about 'Prospect Hill' and where this album came from for you. You delve into a lot of different styles than you did with the Chocolate Drops. Where did this start? Was it with a song?
Dom Flemons: There's always a song, to start. When I started making this record, my full intention was to make a record that I felt would be good enough that I could make another record. I have a lot of ideas for songs and working with different material, whether it's original material or traditional material... This is my first solo record outside of the Carolina Chocolate Drops - I did two recordings before that were just me solo or a little bit of accompaniment with me. This one, I decided I wanted to have a small ensemble with me on each of the songs and I wanted to delve into the different [kinds of] songs I'm interested in, in one way or another, and kind of do some of the things I started doing with the CCDs.
The Chocolate Drops were very specific about the kind of material we wanted to put out there - North Carolina black stringband music or stringband music with our own sort of edge that we...researched specifically in that flavor. That was the goal. But all of us always studied different kinds of music. I'd been playing solo for five or six years before I started the Chocolate Drops with Rhiannon and Justin, so I wanted to re-introduce the other styles I've been into the last 15 years with this record, and just give a broad cannon of stuff so people could hear: Oh, he doesn't just do that one thing. He does a bunch of different things.
I tried to be specific in how I put the record together. I tried to make it a quick record that you could have a really good time listening to without having to invest too much time. It's a nice one to listen to in the car or blast out of the speakers, and it repeats really easily too. I tried to do a couple of things like that in my sequencing and how I recorded things.
KR: When you're coming from so many different traditions and styles, how do you choose what songs you're going to do?
DF: I recorded about 30 songs altogether. I whittled it down into a nice 14-song album. I made it about 39 minutes to the dot. That's how I chose the songs.
I wanted every song to be a song that really showcased what I do as a musician. I didn't stay emotionally invested with any of the songs that I picked. They were all songs I've been playing for 10 years so, so I invested in the way I enjoy the songs. Some of the songs I wrote on the album, I wrote in the last three or four years. I picked out the best of those songs and decided to put them out. I tried to work the best of both sides of what I've been doing the past 15 years as a musician.
As a member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, I got a great fan base through that. But there's a whole big world of people that are interested in a lot of different types of music. There's a new generation of younger people who are getting into the music in a big way. When I got into the music, there were still all the people who had established the music in the past 50 or 60 years, who were still very active members of the community. Now that they're not there, there's a whole generation of people that are my peers or a few years or older [than me] - I'm 32 years old - that are being pushed into a higher status spot. We have different ideas and different ways to define the music we're doing.
I notice that the demographic is growing of people who have no idea what the standards are. Just because, in general, with the post-digital revolution, anybody can learn anything they want to, but it's a matter of how much the things that need to be learned get exposed to these people. That's what I felt like on this record. When I was growing up, it was 1950s and 60s music all the time on the oldies station. That's not what's happening now. It's 1980s...the 80s has kind of even fallen off the mark to the 90s, 2000s, 2010. That's what kids can hear on the radio if they just turn the radio on. Also LPs. People are getting more interested in LPs. That's not going to grow too huge, but I think it's getting to be how it used to be, where if you really wanted an LP and the artwork and the product...people love stuff.
I thought of all these things when I made the record. The songs themselves were songs I thought pushed the concepts that I wanted to get out there, without me having to explain it. You just put the record on and you say, "Oh I like this record, I like how it sounds and I like the songs that are on it." I made sure it had songs I thought people might want to sing. I tried to make it very simple and short, so it was easy to listen to.
In the industry, I feel like there's a lot of music that's really long. We have a lot of emotional arcs in the music that comes out. I tried to cut that out. A lot of the old recordings I like are so straight to the point. I wanted to make a straight-to-the-point record. I'm so glad that people have been enjoying it so far. I wanted to have a particular sound and a certain urgency to it. I feel like I was able to make that come off.
KR: In the folk world, there's the singer-songwriters following the Woody and Bob tradition, then there are the stringbands like the CCDs, then there are guys like you who are very steeped in tradition but are doing it in an interesting, contemporary way without being gimmicky about it. I always wonder how you keep in mind honoring tradition and moving it forward without losing touch of the tradition?
DF: I don't even bother with what's popular. I mean, I keep an eye out for what's new. If I go to the airport, I'll buy a copy of Rolling Stone, or I'll buy something that shows popular music. I'll actually actively seek out stuff if it looks interesting to me. But I don't just go out of my way to buy stuff that's not in my realm. That, for me, helps me stay contemporary, to keep my mind in a contemporary setting, because I can't help but be living right now.
That's a thing that some people tend to get a little bit confused about. They present a certain image and they want to be that old thing and make references to that old thing. I used to do that myself. It's a strong way to develop, learning a style note for note. It's a very good way to become an excellent musician - to learn a style, learn something you want to and be that. Then, after a while - this is something Mike Seeger said in every video he ever made: "You can't help but be yourself in the end." So you know, all you have to do as a person is interpret the music and immerse yourself in it, and eventually your own style will come out. Even if you do something note for note, after a certain point, when you become a real musician who's mastered their craft, you're going to put your own stamp on it.
It's always going to be personal. That's the hangup I think that's been there for a long time, especially when it comes to original music and interpretations of songs - what people call covers. It sets things off-kilter in a way to where people have hangups about it. For me, I've been a fan of music for a long enough period, I've scrutinized albums professionally and even before I was professional in a way, that I've tried to not have that hang-up.
I'm ok with presenting what I'm good at, and not needing to present 100% of my being in an album. Some musicians get caught up in that. There are a lot of weird egos and rock star culture that feeds into that. I have no desire to do that. Even with writing songs, I've tried to downplay it. I don't want to be a songwriter full-time. I'd rather be a performer and, if I write songs, great. That's why I'm an "American songster" instead of "American singer-songwriter" or "folksinger," or something like that. Songster can cover both of those realms. That's something I've developed over 10 years of performing. It's nice to be able to get out there and honor the old people who've influenced me, but it's also nice to give a shout out for all those old people to the young folks who don't know [about them]. Say, "Come on you cats, get hip. Go to the library. Figure out what this stuff's all about."
I tried to do that with the music I put out there. That's always been a trajectory for me personally. This album, in my own mind, is kind of conservative in a way, because I try to reach out to the communities I've been to before, in the introduction, to say, "I'm out here and this is just the beginning."
Posted by Linda Fahey at 3:56 PM
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Hear It First at Folk Alley - Mark Erelli, 'Milltowns'
September 3, 2014
*Mark Erelli releases 'Milltowns,' his special tribute to his friend and mentor, singer/songwriter Bill Morrissey, on Tuesday, September 9. Until then, you can stream this album in its entirety in the player below.*
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Just like you couldn't pry the Texas and Colorado out of Townes Van Zandt's songs, you'd be hard-pressed to separate New England from the simple, deceptively complex music of the late, great Bill Morrissey. His literary approach to songwriting not only meant his songs told beautiful stories in poetic verse, but they also followed along with the intrinsic melodies and rhythms inherent in the words themselves. Few songwriters encapsulate this kind of literary quality with the same consistency and aplomb as did Morrissey, except for, perhaps, Mark Erelli.
Erelli is widely known as one of the hardest working, most artful singer-songwriters on the New England folk circuit, and his original songs are as full of love and community as they are stories about triumph and heartache. So, it makes sense, somehow, that Erelli would dedicate his thirteenth recording to songs written by Bill Morrissey (plus a title track he composed himself).
'Milltowns' doesn't come off as a covers record or a tribute album, though, so much as it does a thank-you note for the songs Morrissey put out into the world. With each performance, Erelli gives himself over to the song and seems to be simply following along and learning from where the song takes him. Backed by Sam Kassirer on piano, Charlie Rose on pedal steel and banjo, and Zack Hickman on upright bass, Erelli also welcomes backing vocals from the area's finest singers: Rose Cousins, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault, Anais Mitchell, Peter Mulvey, and Rose Polenzani. It's hard to argue that these voices all together occupy the gaping hole that Bill Morrissey left behind, as all of their music speaks on behalf of the community and literary traditions of New England's musical past.
Needless to say, 'Milltowns' is an album that demands listening. Listen close; there's sure to be something in there to break your heart a split second before it leads you straight to grace.
CLICK HERE to order a copy of 'Milltowns.'
Posted by Linda Fahey at 8:54 AM
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RUNA 'Current Affairs' - Review and Interview
August 27, 2014
RUNA - Current Affairs - Review and Interview
By Gideon Thomas, for FolkAlley.com
Runa is a band whose five members hail from three different countries - the US, Canada and Ireland. The band won Top Group and Top Traditional Group in the Irish Music Awards this year, and their love of the (often shared) traditions they find in music are ties that bind the members together, and their new album, Current Affairs draws from a range of musical forms and song types.
From the singing of Pete Seeger to Gaelic ballads to traditional British songs to modern singer-songwriter-penned pieces, the collection has an interesting mix and blend of pieces which have entered the bands' repertoire. I discuss this and more with Shannon Lambert-Ryan from the band below, but first, let's take a dip into the album and see how it feels.
Opener "The Banks Are Made Of Marble" reveals a musicianship that is immediately both Irish and American. Almost as a statement of intent, Maggie Estes White's fiddle reaches across the oceans. The sometimes-sombre "Wife Of Usher's Well" is then treated to quite a jaunty, accordion-led arrangement, and, as the tale spills out, you realise how fitting the vocal actually is. It is so great to see new blood taking on the various song and tune traditions as contained on the album, and treating them as well as RUNA do.
"The Hunter Set" shows clarity and drive, highlighting the adaptability of the musicians - and their ease with playing away from their 'home' styles. Estes White's fiddle leads things off, followed by an especially effective use of a bluesharp /banjo combination. Next up is an interesting take on "Henry Lee," with a pumping, driving feel, which it shares with a lot of its compatriots on Current Affairs. Again, Lambert-Ryan's voice fits the choice of songs well, backed with a chopping fiddle and well-placed percussion. Songs like this, indeed Current Affairs as a whole, take the traditions in different directions, with the band's selection of instruments adding to the story.
A gorgeous version of Amos Lee's "Black River" is fabulously sung, with some very neat harmonies bringing it up and down. The Gaelic song set, "Aoidh, Na Dean Cadal Idir / A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn Ó," is well tempered between voice and a simple but effective backing, where the beauty of the songs is to the fore, never encumbered - the band have that ineffable quality, understanding, which is not always obvious with other groups.
"The False Knight Upon The Road" is both bright and exuberant, with the band taking the decision to treat it thus. The tune really flows, bringing out different parts of the song in different ways. The harmonies have a rushing quality to them, with guitar and some deft mandolin underpinning everything. "Ain't No Grave" is the only moment where the album falls down slightly for me. The version is a little 'lacking', amid the desire for a little more grit. Still, there are effective, multi-layered harmonies, and an interesting, vibrant arrangement. The sliding fiddle and coda works very well.
Inclusions from the pens of Kate Rusby and Davy Steele show that the net which Runa cast spreads far and wide, and will no doubt bring more listeners to the original writers. "The Ruthless Wife" has a lovely bouncing banjo courtesy of Ron Block, and the song stands out as a fascinating story, continuing traditions in different ways, those of family stories and stories of families. The musical journey visits more new and different places on the "Land Of Sunshine" set, which proves that instrumental music can and does actually tell a story, on a piece which feels new and contemporary. Bright, breezy, elegant, and very well put together.
"Rarie's Hill" is a fitting summation of the project - full of personal input, and wanting to take the traditions forward by working out new ways for its songs.
Current Affairs will draw favourable comparison with bands like Bodega, and listening to it makes you glad that Runa exist and are making the music which they are. I hope that the album brings as much joy to as many other people as it has to me. It is a bold statement, one which blends Irish music (in the instrumentation, and especially in the tune sets), with an American sensibility in its influences and execution.
I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to Shannon Lambert-Ryan from RUNA about the band, the new record, and their choices of songs and tunes.
Continue reading "RUNA 'Current Affairs' - Review and Interview"
Posted by Linda Fahey at 7:58 PM
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Song Premiere: The Stray Birds, "Best Medicine"
August 22, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
The Stray Birds seemed to show up out of nowhere back in 2012, with a self-titled debut that stopped short the folk and Americana worlds. Driven by a contemporary grasp on traditional music that rivals that of giants like Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, the Stray Birds followed the debut up with 'Echo Sessions,' an EP of cover songs. But now, they're back with another full-length album titled for one of its most infectious tracks. When Maya de Vitry howls out the first "well, well, well" of the chorus on "Best Medicine," it's part proclamation, part revelation. There to catch her are the supportive harmonies of guitarist Oliver Craven and bassist Charles Muench. Together, the three carry the song through to its stirringly poetic catharsis: "If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell / That's why music is the best medicine I sell."
Best Medicine will be released on October 21st on Yep Roc Records.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 2:47 PM
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It's a Ticket Drawing for City Winery Chicago!
July 25, 2014
Our new friends at City Winery Chicago, a 300-seat concert hall and winery in the West Loop neighborhood, are offering three-pair of tickets each to Guy Forsyth's Hot Nut Riveters & the Appleseed Collective on 8/7, John McCutcheon on 8/8 and Carlene Carter with Jodee Lewis on 8/9. To enter the drawing, send an email to email@example.com by Sunday, Aug. 3. Names will be left at the door and this is probably better for people living in the Chicago area, because transportation is not included!
In your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, include your name, phone number and email address. Your phone number will only be used in case we need to contact you for this drawing. Please put Forsyth, McCutcheon or Carter in the subject line!
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 5:27 PM
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The Family Roots of Conjunto: Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca
July 17, 2014
by Devon Leger, KITHFOLK
Flaco & Max. Legends & Legacies.
2014. Smithsonian Folkways.
Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca are two of the most famous artists in Texas Mexican (Tejano) conjunto music. But they're also both the sons of legends as well. Flaco's father, Don Santiago Jimenez, was a pioneering accordionist, singer, and songwriter in Tejano music, and Max's father, Max Baca, Sr, was also a great accordionist and bandleader, though based out of his native New Mexico, rather than Texas. Both Max and Flaco are actually third-generation accordionists, as their grandfathers played as well. For both artists, this is a family business, so it's a real pleasure to hear them both going back to their family repertoires on their new release on Smithsonian Folkways: Legends & Legacies. Together, Flaco and Max make up the classic duo that is at the heart of all conjunto music: the three-row button accordion and the bajo sexto (a large stringed instrument somewhat similar to the 12-string guitar). Both artists, Flaco on accordion and Max on bajo, are considered among the very best in the world and have become ambassadors both for their music and for the instruments. So what you hear on this album is the very best Tejano conjunto music there is. Here it's gloriously simple, but also devilishly complex, tied to the family roots that sustain it, and freed from the glitz and glamor of modern conjunto music (not that there's anything wrong with a little glam in your accordion music!). The songs are rustic and heartfelt, drawn from their fathers' songs, but also from classics of the genre. The songs, like most country music, are about lost loves, unrequited loves, and the love of drink.
The album is also an ode to fathers and to families, with great stories about how both Flaco and Max grew up in the dancehalls of the American Southwest, surrounded by seminal music making. Growing up in San Antonio, Flaco remembers his father playing Friday through Sunday night at the Gaucho Garden and working as a janitor during the day to support his kids. "He always wanted me around," says Flaco in the liner notes, "and I wanted to be around him, because I loved the accordion, I loved how he played. I used to check out everything. I took care of him in some ways, and I packed his accordion in his Model A car. Then afterward, I started growing up a little more, and he decided to take me to where he played because I think he knew that I was ready to perform. It was like him taking me to Disneyland or something, you know, for me to go with him to where we played! It was a spontaneous thing, because I was just sitting on the side of him because he was playing at the dances." Eventually, Flaco got invited up onstage and cause quite the fervor in the joint with his accordion playing, though he was too small to reach the mic (they had to put a case of Lone Star Beer under him to get him to reach). He was only seven years old.
Max grew up in New Mexico, and his father was responsible for pioneering much of the New Mexican Hispanic music that still exists today, though there clearly have always been ties with the Tejano community in Texas. I interviewed Max Baca over the phone at his house in San Antonio a little while back, and he talked about the fascinating story of his father's music and his father's influence on "chicken scratch" music (the music of Southwest Native Americans). Here's an excerpt from that interview with Max Baca:
"I remember as a kid growing up, playing at different festivals and events, especially the fiestas at the Indian reservations. My dad would play and I was just a kid, I was maybe 6, 7 years old. I was tagging along with my dad, he had me go with him to gigs and by the time that I was 8, I was already playing the bajo, I was already playing the bass. I was actually my dad's bass player, and that's how I got into the music. My dad would say, "Okay, here's the bass guitar and learn it! I need a bass player. We need you. We're not going to pay another musician, I'd rather pay you." We all contributed: me and my brother were part of my dad's band as well, plus my uncle. It was kind of a family band type thing. My uncle played the drums and my other uncle played the bajo. I was the bass player and my brother was the back-up accordion player for my dad. My brother would play accordion and my dad would grab the trumpet. It was pretty cool, a different sound, accordion and trumpet. They would sound beautiful together, harmonizing."
Living in such a multi-cultural society, there were many ties to Southwest Native American culture. In blood, but also in music. Here's Max on his father's influence on chicken scratch music:
"I remember going to festivals, or fiestas rather, when I was playing in the afternoon and then we'd always play the "baile" or the dance at night. I remember there was a couple of [Native] accordionists, and they would go to my dad and my dad would actually teach them a few pointers here or a few songs and that's how they got started in the "chicken scratch" scene. Now there's a lot of Native Indian chicken scratch. In Tucson, there's quite a bit. My dad was a big influence on that because he had his band. His band was really popular and he had a big band. He had 2 accordion players, he had 2 sax players, he would grab the trumpet and would play with the sax players and they would have a kind of orchestra with the conjunto, it's cool. Some of these Native Indians would pick up on it and before you know it, when I was maybe 12 years old, and we'd go back to play these festivals and they would be getting a band together and, of course they would never sing the songs because it's another language. So, I noticed they would just play instrumentals and they would play the same songs and they would play them but instrumentally without the words. It was interesting and it was really cool and I think that's pretty much how they do it nowadays too."
"My dad was New Mexican, Indian, he had a little bit of these different influences... My dad, for some reason, he was a polka freak. He came out with polkas that were off the wall. Flaco Jimenez loved my dad's polkas. They were just different. They had this really cool twist to them. They'd sound hard. hey were simple but they sounded kind of hard. It was a technique that he would use. Really catchy polkas and really, really catchy music. It's funny because the native Indians, when they would dance my dad's polkas, they would dance like the Germans. They would jump up and down, instead of like the Texans. The Texans would dance really slow, in a circular motion, clockwise and shuffling their feet but the native Indians would dance. They would actually jump; they would hop to my dad's polka music! It was different. I have seen some of the German polka dancers. They hop like that. They jump and have little hops with it."
Native Indian dancers, accordion riffs with no words, polkas you can't stop thinking about, songs you can't stop drinking to, and Germans lurking at the edges of the music, this was the roots of Tex-Mex accordion and bajo sexton, and these glory days live on in Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca. Long may they reign as the kings of conjunto!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of KITHFOLK, a digital roots music magazine based in the US. For more information and to read additional articles: www.kithfolk.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 2:00 PM
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On Race and Folk Music: Classic African-American Songsters and Keb' Mo'
July 15, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, originally published in NoDepression.com, July 11, 2014
I've been listening to a little bit of Keb' Mo' recently and a whole lot of the Smithsonian Folkways Classic African-American Songsters collection, thinking about the strange connection I have to African-American storytelling traditions. Strange because I'm a white lady who grew up in a small self-segregated Southern town.
As a student of literature, I gravitated toward African-American stories. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker -- these were my heroes during young adulthood. People who met an oppressive, confusing, scary, often violent world, not with anger or fear or violence in return. They met it with stories. Stories that shooed away the idea that black voices didn't carry important ideas. Stories that answered the oppression of black lives by lifting up black beliefs. Stories that, by virtue of being told, broke silences with strength and the command: "Listen."
Toni Morrison, for example, has said she won't write white privilege into her books. It lives in the real world; we don't need it in stories. Stories are there to give us an idea of how much greater we could be if we exercised a little imagination, a little will, a little defiant hope.
As a student of music, it took me a while longer to come around to African-American stories. Maybe it was my classical upbringing, maybe something else. After finding folk music, when faced with Leadbelly, I chose Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. When encountering Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee, I opted for the Carter Family and Charlie Poole.
I remember walking through the Marigny in New Orleans shortly after I moved there, taking in the color of the houses, recognizing the connection with the Carribbean and African influences, moving through Congo Square and wandering along the river. Walking through the music. Hearing the black banjo and the black trumpeteer. Watching the sax player in the Quarter, under an awning, in the rain. A light switch flicked on and I suddenly understood there would be none of this music I loved without the music I had been locking out. There was more music than I could ever have imagined, behind the music I knew. The music that sings through the storm, that flits along in the throes of a gale. Music that, by virtue of having melody, commands: "Listen."
Make me a pallet on your floor...
I learned that one from Lucinda Williams. I could say, "what a shame," but a doorway is a doorway, as long as it leads you somewhere you need to go. The song went through a half-dozen recordings and thousands of performances before the Weavers brought it into the mainstream, which is to say the awareness of white folks. Since then, it's gone everywhere from Gillian Welch to Sharon, Lois, and Bram's elephant show, where it no doubt lost all meaning. If you Google the lyrics, the first result that comes up is for Gillian Welch lyrics. Like she wrote it. (That would have been W.C. Handy.)
But, listening to Brownie McGhee sing it on this Smithsonian collection, you sail down the paved highway that ends at the dirt road. You know where you're headed. You know what this song is about. As smooth and fluid and easy as McGhee's guitar picking flows, you know this is a song about being down and out, and wanting to run away.
"Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," now that's one you probably know from Flatt & Scruggs or good old Charlie Poole, who had a hit record with it in 1925. I can't find the specific origins of the song, but it came from African-American communities and was about the cardgame Georgia Skin. Here, it's sung by John Jackson of Virginia -- a guy who made his way in music by playing it in his living room for friends and family. Suddenly the folk boom happened in the mid-20th Century and Jackson became a darling of the Washington D.C. folk and blues community. By that time "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" was probably close to a century old, but we count it as a 1925 hit for Poole.
Keb' Mo', meanwhile, picks up these traditions and updates them with a kind of humor and accessibility that you just won't see from any other contemporary performers, except maybe Todd Snider. "You made me a brand new man / but I like the old me better," Mo' sings. And, even though it's just him and the band, it feels like a party in the room. Like a crowd of people has just moved on in, clawing past the command to "Listen" and is instead demanding: "Dance."
As I've mentioned before, dancing is freedom. Dancing to music is embracing humanity. It's meeting someone else's ideas and letting them flow through your own body. It's giving space and movement to the voice of a stranger. It's an agreement, an endorsement. The thing about dancing is you can't do it if you think about it too much. You must realize the thing this person is singing, is something you have in common. It's the essence of life, of living freely.
Keb' Mo' no doubt spent a little time in his formative years listening to Jackson or Broonzy or McGhee, or some of these other "songsters." He's carrying that pallet, so to speak, and he's making it his stage. There is absolutely no finer artist of his caliber, doing what he's doing.
Anyhow, I've been ruminating on all these things since Terry Roland posted in this space, quoting Otis Taylor: "When a songwriter is white, he's called a singer-songwriter. When he's black, he's called blues." I would submit that this is because it's listeners doing the naming. Listeners call it "singer-songwriter" or "blues." Listeners or companies, marketing departments, record store organizers. The musicians have always just called it music. Mother Maybelle learned to play guitar in a way that's now called the Carter Scratch from an African-American friend. Woody and Pete were students of Leadbelly and McGhee. They wanted to tell a story like those guys could tell it. They wanted to get inside the song like those guys did. Seeger soared in his career, not by appropriating African-American spirituals, but by opening doors to them and inviting audiences in.
It's difficult for me, this -- writing about African-American music while naming the cultural divide. Perhaps that's why it's so infrequently done by Americana/folk critics. There's an impulse when discussing these recordings, to ignore racial history in the U.S. and just talk about the music -- the notes and melodies, the rhythms. To put aside the stories which led to these things. But folk music is borne of the daily life of its makers.
You cannot write a song like "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" unless you're a white midwestern young man frustrated by the headlines and the direction you see your parents' generation steering its socio-political endeavors. You cannot make "Pastures of Plenty" unless you are an Okie who's been set to ramble due to oppressive dust storms, facing extreme poverty during an economic crash. You cannot make a song like "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" without living in a world that won't allow you to stop at any hotel you feel like stopping at, washing up in any bathroom on the side of the road. It's not a song about the Jim Crow South, but it's a song that was borne of it. It's not a song of oppression and racism, but the determination to sing it is an assertion of personal freedom in the face of daily reality that disallows absolute assertion of your personal freedom.
It's impossible to ignore that there is a cultural experience in these songs that is not my cultural experience. It's impossible to listen without hearing our shared history and the embarrassment innate in the knowledge that Woody and Pete will forever be heroes and Broonzy and McGhee and Jackson are, at least now, barely known outside of certain circles. That Keb' Mo's extraordinary new album BluesAmericana has yet to be discussed in this space, whether that has anything at all to do with race or whether the audience of this site simply isn't aware he released it, both are results of the same historical institutions. And, anyway, it's what I do -- talk about the context of the music, the stories that led to it. It's my schtick as a critic. I must admit how natural it is for me to turn on and enjoy the exceptional musicality in these recordings, and how clumsily I stumble over the best words to use, to discuss it here. The only thing I can think is to name the dominance of white voices in American folk music and the fact that, as Taylor nailed, the listener is inclined to recognize white singer-songwriters as "singer-songwriters" and African-American singer-songwriters as "blues" artists, whether or not what they're playing is actually the blues*.
All I know is I can't stop hearing, can't stop listening, can't stop dancing.
*Townes Van Zandt said there are two kinds of music: the blues and "Zippadeedoodah."
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:23 AM
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Album Review: BettySoo 'When We're Gone'
June 19, 2014
by Kim Ruehl for FolkAlley.com
Texas has a way of popping out as many talented story-songwriters as it does prolific patches of bluebells. BettySoo has been among those up-and-coming story-songwriters for the better part of a decade. In that time, her recordings have bounced back and forth from Americana-rocky to intimate and folky, but at the heart of them all is a woman with a fierce eye for detail and an empathic streak that will make your little arm hairs stand on end.
Her latest self-released disc, When We're Gone, straddles the line between those two realms (Americana-rock and folk) with balance and poise. "100 Different Ways of Being Alone" calls to mind fellow Austinite Kelly Willis, while "Last Night" verges on an Alison Krauss and Union Station vibe. "Love Is Real" could be a Sheryl Crow hit, if Sheryl could write them this well ("the hope for love came and left, come dawn / left you empty-handed and alone"). "Wheels" is a good old-fashioned Texas road song about caring less than you once did, or at least trying to convince yourself to do that, as you drive away from it all. "I'm gonna take it like a man, take these punches where I stand," she sings, as a slow and steady fiddle line wipes rare raindrops off the windshield.
There's a lot of loneliness and moving on in this album. But, by the time it reaches the final "Lullaby," whatever well of emotions that spun the disc into motion, drifts off into a welcoming night sky. "So faint, it almost disappears," she sings, before lighting into the chorus with some of the purest, clearest long notes. It's the cello-guitar-and-flute instrumental that closes it out, however, which places careful punctuation at the end of the sentence. As the instruments build into tension, the music feels like a night breeze just blowing by. There is never any real resolution, only an ending that brings with it exactly the amount of melodic catharsis to make you feel like all that's left is the moving on.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 5:02 PM
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New Music for June
June 17, 2014
New Adds Heating Up
It's summertime - and that means many of your favorite artists are on the road supporting new CDs (even if they had to apply for visas to visit the U.S.).
After a three-year-long "vacation," The Duhks are touring behind Beyond the Blue. The Canadian group is still reconfiguring its line-up - Jessee Havey and Leonard Podolak are back, recruiting a new band that honors the spirit of the original Duhks recordings more than a decade ago. It's an exciting reunion long in the making! See the band onstage in Harbor Springs, Michigan, at Blissfest on July 13.
We first saw First Aid Kit live at the Newport Folk Festival when we were recording the Harbor Stage in 2012. The sisters from Sweden were discovered on YouTube covering a Fleet Foxes song and have become international favorites for their American-style folk music and close harmonies. The pairs new album, Stay Gold, is getting a lot of positive buzz.
When our old pal Jim Blum brought I Draw Slow to Folk Alley, we were a bit thrown by the band's name. What did it mean? I still don't know - and their skill as contemporary bluegrass artists has rendered the issue moot. Formed around siblings Dave and Louise Holden, I Draw Slow is a high-powered bluegrass band from Ireland, who discovered the genre while busking in Australia. Perfect for an all-American musical mish-mash of Appalachian Mountain music, blues, jazz and traditional country! Hear for yourself on White Wave Chapel or - if you're near Gateshead on July 20 - enjoy the band live at SummerTyne Americana Festival.
There was a discussion yesterday on Twitter about grit in Americana music. John Fullbright earned his grit honestly, coming out of the same Oklahoma flatlands that created Woody Guthrie. His newest album, Songs, is a reaction to the phenomenal success of his label debut - From the Ground Up. Suddenly, he was the newest Americana star and earned nationwide notice for his songwriting. Fullbright's second effort proves he is the real thing and cements his place as a voice to be reckoned with. He takes the show on the road this summer, including a stop at Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, on June 21.
Scorching CDs added to the Folk Alley stream:
Carlene Carter - "Carter Girl"
Chatham County Line - "Tightrope"
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin - "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy"
Hanneke Cassel - "Dot the Dragon's Eyes"
Jenny Scheinman - "The Littlest Prisoner"
Joe Crookston - "Georgia I'm Here"
Keb' Mo' - "Bluesamericana"
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - "Our Year"
Mary Gauthier - "Trouble and Love"
Red June - "Ancient Dreams"
Red Molly - "The Red Album"
Ryley Walker - "All Kinds of You"
Toumani & Sidiki Diabate - "Toumani & Sidiki"
T Sisters - "Kindred Lines"
Zoe Muth - "World of Strangers"
Various - "Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 1:55 PM
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