For decades, Rodney Crowell has been one of the most prolific and consistently stirring songwriters in the Americana realm. He's scored a number of mainstream country hits, but has more recently become a champion of high-quality collaborations. In the past decade, he's made a solo album ceding production to Joe Henry, and joined forces with author Mary Karr and Americana legend Emmylou Harris for a pair of collaborative discs that have been hailed as among the best of the years in which they were released. (The latter took home a Grammy and an Americana Music Award in 2013.)
Now, he has rolled out another solo album, Tarpaper Sky. Self-produced in collaboration with engineer Steuart Smith, the album is heavy on songs about home - going home, leaving home, and pining for home. In fact, it was while he was at home in Nashville, fresh from a stint on the road with Emmylou, that Crowell was kind enough to get on the phone with me one Saturday morning, to discuss the new disc and other matters.
Kim Ruehl: Let's start talking about Tarpaper Sky - your first non-collaborative solo record in, what, six years?
Rodney Crowell: Yeah, I have a solo one. Never said that much before. Yeah, there've been six years. This is 2014, isn't it? Sex and Gasoline was 2008.
KR: What made you decide to make another solo effort?
RC: My book Chinaberry Sidewalks was a solo effort, so I did get one solo effort in there.
KR: How was that different from songwriting for you?
RC: The only thing similar is work ethic. Actually writing a book takes more concentrated effort. You're a writer, you know what it takes. You've got to get up and go to work every day. But I do that writing songs, anyway, if I'm home. It doesn't work so well on the road, but over the years having raised some children, I became a morning-time worker, so I'm up working if I'm home.
KR: Writing a book like that, it takes a lot longer for people to hear it. Are some songs like that, too - they take years to hear?
RC: I don't know. There are songs on Tarpaper Sky that took me 20-plus years to write, so some songs took longer [than the book]. It took me ten years to write Chinaberry Sidewalks. It took me 23 years, I think, to write "Fever on the Bayou".
KR: In what way? Were there lines you were working on?
RC: I didn't have a last verse. Couldn't find the last verse. The first couple verses borrowed so heavily from Louisiana Cajun swamp music. Those words like jolais and creole and such things... the last verses were always too trite and cliché to mean anything. It wasn't until, in conversation, someone said the word Franglais, and I thought That's Cajun. The Cajuns butchered both French and English together and I said, Ah my last verse needs to be that butchered Cajun patois. And voila, there you are.
KR: were you working on this at the same time as Old Yellow Moon?
RC: Loosely. When we were making Old Yellow Moon I was entirely focused on that, although I started Tarpaper Sky before Kin. But, then I got to be around a couple of beautiful women. I put aside my needs for theirs.
KR: That Mary Karr project was interesting. What did you learn from working with her?
RC: Well, it was a conversation, you know. One of the things about my and Mary's collaboration was constant conversation. Most of those songs were born out of that conversation. In "If the Law Don't Want Me", she was talking about her sister and her boyfriend. We said let's put that in a song. The kind of conversation you can have with Mary Karr is very fruitful. The process we went through, that I was very keen on and Mary was very open to, we were trying to figure out how to let the poet's voice speak wherever we could. The words stand on a page to be read, in a poem. They don't have to sing... so there's that intimacy between the one reader and the poem. Words work in a different way in songs sometimes, because of the chord changes and the vowel sounds. Some words don't sing. So, we were very conscious - or I was - of trying to let the poet's choice work wherever we could. The example of that is the opening song. The opening line I had when I was playing guitar and singing was, "When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint." And Mary said, "No, your feet aren't tough as nails, they're tough as horns, like a hoof, like cattle." I [thought she was] right about that, that's the right choice. It doesn't sing well, though. It doesn't sing like that "A" vowel. [sings] When our feet were tough as horns. When our feet were tough as nails... but, in the long run, we went with "horns" because that was the poet's choice and I much prefer it. It is the right word. That kind of thing. I learned a lot about that.
KR: Horn is a great word to sing, though.
RC: Ninety-nine out of a hundred songwriters wouldn't choose that word because of the vowel sound. You can't do as much with the vowel, but it's a great word to sing, you're right. When I sing it live, I always sing that song and when I get to "horns" it propels me through the rest of the song.
KR: You're such a writer and you did this collaboration with Mary Karr and Emmylou... I wonder, did ideas come out of that that maybe didn't spark a song for those projects, but turned into a song for your own work?
RC: Not really. Mind you I had seven songs from before I started with Mary or Emmy. Some of the songs that Mary and I were writing overlapped with some of the writing that became Tarpaper Sky. But, I think what I learned in the beginning of making Tarpaper Sky carried over very much into Kin, because I was recording [Tarpaper] without headphones and we did most of Kin without headphones. I'd gotten such great results just unplugging the headphones when we were in the room playing. When we got making Kin, I carried it over and the first thing I did [was] unplug the headphones. We recorded the first session with Norah Jones. We were talking and I said, "I can't use headphones anymore." She said, "I never could," so we just kept that all the way through. So my answer to your question was that it was less in writing and more in the performing part of things.
KR: Is that you trying to separate your producer brain from your performer brain?
RC: Exactly. I'm not interested much in production anymore. Everything that really stands the test of time with me - the great Ray Charles records that I love, the Howlin' Wolf records that I love - they weren't produced; they were performed. The producers back then just got the musicians together and got out of their way and let them perform. So, I'll spend the rest of my career chasing performance. I've produced enough in my day.
KR: But you produced this record.
RC: Yeah, but insomuch as it was produced. Tarpaper Sky wasn't produced, it was performed. It's all live. It's all what happened in the studio. We added some background vocals and that's it. This is really what happened. We had a really great engineer and I credit him with producing the audio. Steuart Smith and I had an ongoing conversation, so we sort of take credit for the arrangements. What little production there is, it's not really a produced album. It's just a performance of a bunch of songs.
KR: Would you say that's the biggest way your job has changed over the years?
RC: Well, writing has been satisfying for me since day one. I became a real songwriter pretty young. There are songs I wrote in my 20s that I still perform, that I can stand by. But as a recording artist, it was a slow process for me. It was a slow dawning. It wasn't until I was really 50 years old that I felt I had anything to show as a recording artist, felt I had some great songs. Since then, I've been committed to finding a way to perform so that if my kids have anything to hold up as a legacy, it can start with that.
KR: What do you think makes a song good?
RC: Oh shit. Can you describe what makes a song like "Pancho and Lefty" good? Pure poetry, originality, wonderful melody, succinct rhymes, no soft rhymes. Blue doesn't rhyme with black, don't try to convince me that it does. What makes a song great? "Sunday Morning Coming Down", Kris Kristofferson. Woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. I mean, come on. I can't say what's good but I know when it is good. [sings] Hit the road Jack and don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more.They want me to go to rehab, I say no, no, no. Is that poetry? Maybe not, but it certainly is great songwriting.
KR: Why did you call this album Tarpaper Sky?
RC: Because it sounds good. It's a great image. I like how it sounds. And it's a line in the song. Plus I grew up with tarpaper skies. You could see the sky through the roof at my mother and father's house because it was so poorly built and it was rotting out down in the semi-tropical climate of east Houston, so that's where the line comes from.
KR: Well, thank you Rodney. Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you'd like people to know?
RC: God, I wouldn't presume to tell anybody what they ought to know, or even what I think they ought to know.
Catie Curtis is one of those singer-songwriters whose work, if you let it, will quietly worm its way into your subconscious. There's no overt production tricks or big guitar solos to pull it all forward. Her songs hang in a kind of dreamy half-awake state, where one's perspective is most keen and honest, where the sounds are all soft and palatable, and where the truth has plenty of room to just come on out.
Even when she's singing about heartbreaking life scenarios, as she does on her new album 'Flying Dream,' she does so with a sort of warm embrace of the inevitable opportunity of it all. Sadness and disappointment are implicit in love and happiness - two sides to the same coin, so to speak. Anyway, it's all part of the big Life Experience we all share.
Her songs aren't profound as much as they are just plain real and true. And, this time out, she teamed up with Sugarland co-founder Kristen Hall, for a collection of songs that wrestle with the unconscious understanding that major tectonic change is on its way. She got on the phone with me, from her New England home, and talked a bit about the songs, the collaboration, and where 'Flying Dream' began:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start with your new record and where it came from for you. I know you wrote a lot of these songs with Kristen Hall. How did that come to be?
Catie Curtis: We'd get together for coffee and just shoot the breeze about life. We'd just connect about one line that one of us would say and that would be our song for the day.
KR: It was really that easy?
CC: Well, then all the painful cycle of enthusiasm and discouragement that is always songwriting. A lot of times, one of us would have a chord progression that we'd been playing around with over the last few days prior, so we'd take those chords with the one line we had. We may not keep any of that, but it would get us started. It would get a song going and that's the hardest thing, just getting a song going.
KR: You've done mostly solo songwriting in the past. You've co-written a song here or there, but was it a different experience co-writing most of a whole album? Or did it just flow?
CC: It felt like it was perfect for the time that I was writing because at the time, it was sort of like, unbeknownst to me, it was a calm before the storm time of my life. It didn't seem like much was happening. We wrote at a time when I wasn't feeling like independently sitting down and writing. It helped me to get the creative juices flowing.
KR: And then you wound up having a lot of changes in your life in the process?
CC: Yeah, I haven't been talking too much about it because it's still in the midst of happening... my wife and I have separated and it looks like we're getting a divorce. I think a lot of that stuff was brewing and, when I was singing the record, there was a lot of passion and I was beginning to feel changes coming.
KR: Some people have said before that when you're in the middle of a difficult situation, it's hard to have the perspective to write about it, whereas other people are able to find great fruit in that situation. Did you feel like what you were writing became prophetic? Or that there was some opportunity for healing in the songs you were writing as all this started to go down?
CC: I think prophetic may be too strong a way to put it, but I'd say it restores my belief that creativity comes from a place that's unconscious. I think creative expressions... speak from a less conscious place. It's almost frightening to think maybe I could have been more aware of what was happening. But, you're only aware of what you're ready to be aware of. Somehow your creative life, it's possible to express what's there even if you're not ready to think about it.
KR: How has songwriting changed for you over the past 20 years? Do you feel like you know it better or is it something you're still exploring?
CC: I trust myself more now than I used to. I trust that if I really wanted to write a song on a given day, I could. It might not be a song that I love. But, what brings about a really good song that I love... I feel like it came to me from somewhere else. I feel really confident in the craft of it, and feel like I can come up with something. But in terms of having those magical inspiration [moments] where something hits you that you know is going to be a good song, I don't understand the timing of how that happens. Even with Kristen, we wrote several songs that didn't make the record. We'd start something and never finish it. But I think ultimately, you start to understand that as long as you're writing songs, some of them will turn out to be good.
KR: Do you revisit those [parts of songs] that you don't use?
CC: I recorded a demo not released on a record, then two or three records later, the new version is on the record. I think it's possible there are times when you just don't have the answer yet. You don't know what the song needs to say. You know part of it but not all of it. I respect the fact that there are songs that for some reason... sometimes events in our world come along and fill in. I had the chorus to a song once that went "The truth is bigger than these drops of rain." I didn't know what that song was going to be about, but then a few months later Hurricane Katrina happened and I wrote a song [with Mark Erelli] called "People Look Around" about it and it ended up being one of the songs I still play almost every night. If I'd pushed it and tried to finish it when I first started it, I don't think I would have put those two ideas together.
A Folk Alley Discount for Jonatha Brooke's 'My Mother Has 4 Noses'
March 25, 2014
Jonatha Brooke is not only a talented singer/songwriter, she is also the creative force behind a new musical memoir currently playing at New York's The Duke on 42nd St. The play centers on the story of Brooke's mother's battle with Alzheimer's Disease and the changing relationship of mother and daughter. It is getting rave reviews. The New York Times says, "Devastating and gorgeous. A poignantly funny, beautifully created narrative."
Folk Alley listeners can use the code MMH4NRRM20 to purchase $44 tickets for 'My Mother Has 4 Noses' this week (offer good through 3/30). Click the file below for additional information on redeeming the discount code.
Here's a way to get a lot of people to retweet - use the name Nickel Creek in your post. Much to the joy of its legions of fans, the band has rather improbably reunited for a new CD, A Dotted Line, and is out on tour. Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have all had success on their own, but they kept crossing paths, performing together and writing new songs. We'll just call it throw-back summer.
Speaking of throw-backs (and Sean and Sara Watkins, who appear on this CD), singer/songwriter Jackson Browne is the focus of a new tribute. One of the top artists in the singer/songwriter movement in the late '70s, Browne wrote tons of top hits - and is still on the road today. Others lending their talents to Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne include Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, Marc Cohn, Lucinda Williams, and many others.
Eliza Gilkyson was the very first Live From Folk Alley, recorded in 2005 at the Beachland Ballroom. Since then, she's released five more albums on the Red House Records label. Her newest collection is The Nocturne Diaries. In the Hear It First Folk Alley hosted earlier this month, Kim Ruehl said, "The album is wrought with raw recordings that sound like the sort of close and quiet tunes you might hear when you wander late night at the Kerrville Folk Festival outside Gilkyson’s hometown of Austin, Tex. Even the instrumental solos – fiddle, parlor piano, musical saw, the occasional distorted guitar – sound like the restrained contributions of friends seeking more to color the spirit of the song than steal the spotlight."
As March comes to a close, there's still time to get lucky with Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways. The album, no surprise from Folkways, is a comprehensive collection of older, traditional performances and contemporary reinterpretations of Celtic songs. Vocal and instrumental styles are both represented. Thanks to music historian, musician, and folklorist Richard Carlin, this album is a worthy number 20 in the Smithsonian Folkways Classics series.
Other springtime additions:
Amy Black - "This Is Home"
Beoga - "Live at 10: The 10th Anniversary Concert"
Canadafrica: Mike Stevens and Okaidja Afroso - "Where's the One?"
Claudia Schmidt - "New Whirled Order"
Dietrich Strause - "Little Stones to Break the Giant's Heart"
The Director of Advancement is responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive special and major gifts fundraising program to generate private gift support for WKSU and is directly responsible for managing a portfolio of prospects. WKSU is a non-profit public radio station that broadcasts NPR and classical music throughout Northeast Ohio. This position reports to the Senior Associate Vice President, Institutional Advancement.
Education and Experience:
Bachelor's Degree in a relevant field; three - four years progressively responsible fundraising and/or sales experience is required. Experience in higher education fundraising is preferred. Ability and desire to travel and participate in evening and weekend work-related activities are required. Excellent interpersonal skills, written and verbal communications: including public relations skills.
Kent State has recently been selected as a "Great Colleges to Work For" by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the nation's number one source of news, information and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators. This is the third time the university has been selected for this honor in the past four years.
The cover of Eliza Gilkyson's 20th studio album, The Nocturne Diaries (out Mar. 18 on Red House Records), shows her sitting next to a campfire with an acoustic guitar. Though the notion of a fireside folksinger may seem a little cliché, there is nothing campy or predictable about the music contained on this disc. Instead, the album is wrought with raw recordings that sound like the sort of close and quiet tunes you might hear when you wander late night at the Kerrville Folk Festival outside Gilkyson's hometown of Austin, Tex. Even the instrumental solos - fiddle, parlor piano, musical saw, the occasional distorted guitar - sound like the restrained contributions of friends seeking more to color the spirit of the song than steal the spotlight.
As Gilkyson writes in the liners, "The songs that come in the night are very different than the daylight songs. Usually the big themes crop up in the dark, thoughts of mortality, the state of the world, the plight of mankind, one's failures, losses and fears - the things we are too distracted to notice during the day... To me, the challenge today is to remain human when everything around us compels us to shut down."
Though her career has certainly produced its share of great songs that tackle all these difficult nighttime topics, what's new about The Nocturne Diaries is that those themes come to light in an even more honest and arresting way. There's no solving the world's problems at night - only considering them and following them toward their natural anxieties, how one fear often leads to another or, if we're lucky, toward a more open understanding.
An easy highlight is "The Red Rose and the Thorn", whose rhyme scheme as well as its subject matter may make you wonder if it's an old ballad, dug up and dusted off for contemporary use. In fact, it's an Eliza Gilkyson original, written with the kind of astute folk sensibility that she has always purveyed.
"An American Boy" tackles the harsh difficulty of standing in the shoes of an angry young man, who dreams of literally blowing it all up. It's a difficult song to hear, as she attempts to arrive at some empathy. It's also probably the only song you'll hear use the word "Facebook" in a poetic and purposeful way. In the interest of balance, she touches on pretty much every other fear and deep thought, from Noah's Ark and environmental catastrophe all the way to romantic love and back again. There are cover songs from John Gorka and her father, Terry Gilkyson. But it's the final track that closes the night on a high note, saving us all from a rotating door of dark emotions. She sings: "Tonight I confess I am forever blessed / by the riches of family and hearth. / And with this roof o'er my head and you in my bed, I've got it all here in my heart."
The Nocturne Diaries is as much about the darkness in the middle of the night as it is about getting through to night's end. It's a journey album that wrestles with some of life's greatest questions, pays tribute to her family and heroes, and discovers what ultimately matters most.
**This exclusive Hear It First is no longer available for streaming.**
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis - Rap Stars or Fine Young Troubadours?
February 27, 2014
by Ann VerWiebe, for FolkAlley.com
As I was live tweeting the Grammy Award ceremonies, I couldn't help but notice that the most-folkie song on the mainstage came courtesy of rapper Macklemore and his big hit Same Love. You may not know the duo, but they won multiple Grammys and their songs are topping the charts. There is a standing argument that rap is the new folk - a genre that relies on personal observation and reflection on real-world situations. But, there's something extra about Same Love that builds on that premise.
If you haven't heard the song, it's basically a message rap supporting same-sex marriage. Macklemore, who is straight, has been interviewed as saying that he originally wanted to write the song from a gay person's perspective, but his musical partner, Ryan Lewis, convinced him to tell his own story to add to the authenticity of the lyrics. A lot of press covered the mass wedding that took place at the Grammys during his performance, but while it was obviously a stunt, the event illustrated the truth of marriage equality in the U.S. - like snowflakes, no two couplings are truly alike.
And, isn't truth at the core of contemporary folk music? When Pete Seeger died, I was grateful that the sad event could have a positive effect as we were once more reminded how powerful purpose-driven music can be. One of the reasons folk music became the music of a generation in the '60s was its ability to add power to the protests as it brought like-minded people together in a cause. As folk grew in popularity, the songs were able to reach out into the mainstream and work their subtle magic in offering the world a different point of view.
Gay marriage has been a controversial topic and discussions surrounding its legality often become divisive. But, aren't the best conversations strongly felt? Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' Same Love takes hold of the best traditions of folk activism and moves the music to the mainstage to expose their message to the largest audience. In 40 years, will this be a watershed moment in folk music?
For the second month in a row, I'm featuring a young folk artist from Seattle. Washington State is an interesting mix of rural farm country and metropolitan cities. Noah Gundersen reflects this contrast - growing up in a small town and now living in the center of new technology and boutique coffee. His music, which touches on these contradictions in modern life, has found its way to a list of soundtracks. Check Noah out on Ledges.
Leyla McCalla first came to our attention as the cellist touring with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. That band has always made a point of combining great musicianship with the cultural and social history of African Americans and Leyla's new CD follows that path. Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes includes songs created from Hughes' words and original music and tributes to McCalla's Haitian heritage - a country that also inspired Hughes.
It seems amazing that The Haden Triplets is the first CD from this super trio of sisters. The off-spring of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, the young women have made their mark playing in or with The Decemberists, Weezer, Beck, Green Day, That Dog and many others. After playing together live - and backing their dad on his Rambling Boy album - Petra, Rachel and Tanya have recorded a collection of old-time songs produced by Ry Cooder featuring the sister's tight harmony - captured in Tanya's 1900s farm house.
It almost seems as if the world is falling back in love with the banjo. Steve Martin has reinvented himself as a touring picker - and a Grammy winner at that! Martin gained a lot of musicianship cred when he appeared with Tony Trischka, hereforthwith referred to as "the banjo player's banjo player." Trischka is back with Great Big World and the album is almost as big as its name. Welcoming back Martin, along with Aoife O Donovan, Noam Pikelny, Larry Campbell, Abigail Washburn, Ramblin Jack Elliot, and others. As we honor Pete Seeger, Trischka is here to move us into the next iteration of the banjo.
Folk Alley Sponsors a Documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival
February 21, 2014
Folk Alley is pleased to announce a new collaboration with the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival. We are happy to sponsor screenings of The Ballad of Shovels & Rope at the festival, which runs from March 19 to 30 at Tower City Cinemas in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. The documentary film captures the tours and detours of a husband and wife as they create and release the critically acclaimed album, O' Be Joyful. From working for tips to becoming "Emerging Artist of the Year," the two-man family band uses ingenuity and hard work to create something out of nothing. Screenings of The Ballad of Shovels & Rope will be at Tower City on March 24 at 7:20 p.m. and March 25 at 12:15 p.m. with a special screening at the Beachland Ballroom on March 23 at 8 p.m.
Tickets go on sale for all films to CIFF members at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, one week before the general public (11 a.m. on Friday, March 7). Ticket prices for members are $12 and $14 for non-members. Use the code FOLK for a $2 discount per ticket.
Find out more about the film HERE and the Cleveland International Film Festival HERE. See a live performance by Shovels & Rope recording by Folk Alley at the Nelsonville Music Festival HERE.
Twenty-year-old Parker Millsap is the latest in a string of surprisingly bluesy, literary songwriters rising from the small towns of Oklahoma. Despite his youth, Millsap's insight into the characters that populate his songs is fierce. Whether he's singing about deeply troubling heartbreak in "The Villain" or the desperate evangelism of a street preacher in "Truck Stop Gospel", Millsap's songs seem to understand things about the world that belie his two-decades of life thus far.
Then again, his heroes include giants like Tom Waits and John Steinbeck - no slouches in the world of storytelling and unpacking the motivation of heavily-nuanced characters. Speaking of good company, he has plans in the works to tour with Shovels + Rope this spring, and is working out some dates with Patty Griffin for the summer. Chances are you'll hear a lot more about him as the year goes on. His first nationally distributed disc dropped Feb. 4, and recently he was nice enough to hop on the phone with me and talk a little about the source from which it all springs.
Kim Ruehl: I'm curious about the art inside of the CD - the trucker with the Bible. It follows along with one of the songs, but is that a central image to you, for this album?
Parker Millsap: The artist who did all the artwork is named Tessa Raven, she's from Oklahoma. I basically asked her to do a picture for the album cover. When she did that, I was like wow we should just get her to do all the art. She came up with it on her own. I had an idea for a picture of a guy leaning out of the truck with the bible. I [told her to] do whatever she wanted with that idea and that's what she came up with. I was very pleased. I don't know if that's a central idea, but I think it's one of the stronger songs on the record and that makes it interesting to look at.
KR: It's one of my favorite songs on the record. It's difficult to tell if you're sympathizing with the truck stop gospel guy, or if it's a satire. Do you want to say where you sit on that?
PM: I let people think what they want. People are going to interpret it how they want to anyway. It's fun for me to let them take it. I'm real big on perspective. A lot of the songs on the record are first-person narratives but not from my perspective. I had to get in their heads and be [the characters] to write the song. When I was writing that song, it started out as kind of a funny idea. But ... there are many things about him that at first I didn't think I'd be able to relate to, but by the end of the song I realized there's a lot I could relate to about that guy. It's up to people to decide what they think I mean by it. I've had people come up to me after the show and say "I'm glad you're poking fun at the religious establishment with that song." Other people say, "Praise the Lord! Thanks for doing the Lord's work." [laughs] I like that people interpret it in different ways. I'm never going to say if it's one way or another.
KR: You're a young guy but you have all these insightful songs. What did you grow up listening to and what kind of books and music are you into these days that have given you this sense of storytelling?
PM: When I was growing up, I listened to a whole lot of church music, a lot of gospel music. That was at church and then at home, my dad's a big blues music fan so I listened to a lot of blues and a lot of songwriters like Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. Then there was this one John Hiatt record that I listened to a lot called Bring the Family. That record and then a bunch of Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Ry Cooder, and that sort of thing is what I grew up listening to. Then when I got older and started writing songs, I discovered Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. I'm also a big Springsteen and Waits fan, so it's kind of all over the map. I think the thread through all of those is solid songs that paint a picture. As far as books go, I'm a big Steinbeck fan and a big Vonnegut fan. Those are my favorite authors.
KR: That makes sense. The last few years, we've been hearing great stuff, between you and John Fullbright, Samantha Crain, JD McPherson... there seems to be this big Oklahoma boom going on. Do you have any thoughts on why?
PM: There's nothing else to do here. [laughs] Most small towns don't even have a bowling alley. You've got to find something else to do. Some kids get someone to buy them some Keystone, then they drive around in a field and get drunk. Others sit around and write songs.
KR: What were you listening to when you wrote this record?
PM: A lot of Tom Waits. I don't remember what else I was listening to. I'm always listening to a lot of Tom Waits, so I can say that in confidence. I was also just starting to get into Motown. You can hear it in [some parts] that sound like Motown to me. So I guess Tom Waits and Motown, which might not make sense because it doesn't' necessarily sound like either of those things, but that's what I've been listening to.
KR: Is being on the road inspiring, or do you find it stifling? Do you have time to write when you're traveling?
PM: I'm still new to trying to balance touring and writing and that sort of thing. I haven't written a whole lot since we recorded this record because I've basically been self-managing and this is our first national record release. I've had the whole business side of things to do, which is good because I'm learning how it all works. I can protect myself now. I know what to look for, but at the same time it's consuming a lot of my time and energy. I do like being on the road for finding characters. I've never successfully written on the road, but I definitely collect ideas and fragments of ideas.
KR: Is there anything else you'd like folks to know about you or this record?
PM:Buy it. Buy the record so I can eat a hamburger tomorrow.
Traditional old time, folk, and country-western music isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to most people's minds when they think of Seattle. When the Emerald City gets respect for its rootsy music, it's usually from critics praising the acoustic spirit of bands like Fleet Foxes and the Head and the Heart. But, the truth is that Seattle's relationship with old timey music and trad country goes back far beyond the hipster culture that makes it out of that town these days.
The truth is, there is a robust old time community in Seattle, and Cahalen Morrison and Eli West are among its very best practitioners. Luckily for the rest of the country, they've begun making waves well beyond the confines of that bucket of rain. Part of that is attributable to the fact that their simple and direct sound belies the complex and richly nuanced technical skill in their arrangements. It's folk music for people who aren't folky; it's as playful as it is accessible, as imaginative as it is sincere. They tap into Seattle's honky tonk history (everyone from Laam's Happy Hayseeds to Hank Sr. once upon a time passed through), marrying it with deep roots, Appalachian folk elements, parts of bluegrass and jazz and their own creative imaginations. It's the same stuff that came together to characterize the Northwest's pioneer spirit.
Crank up their latest album I'll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands, and you can hear that pioneer spirit through the joyful, hard-working, occasionally expansive nature of their songs. "Livin' in America" is equal parts Appalachian fiddle tune and Rocky Mountain rag. The swinging "Natural Thing to Do" is so catchy and slow-dancey, it almost feels like something you've heard before.
Indeed, Morrison and West have proven, over the course of their small handful of records, that they have a knack for making everything they do feel rather familiar. They're not capitalizing on a trend, but are instead embodying the traditional music that is at the foundation of so much of the millennial folk boom.
I'll Swing My Hammer is their follow-up to Our Lady of the Tall Trees, which was a favorite among folk fans and bloggers alike. And, it marks Cahalen and Eli as one of the most reliable singer-songwriter pairs on the circuit.
Pete Seeger: Folk Singer, Educator, Banjo Player, Activist, Good Person
January 28, 2014
The first year Folk Alley went to the Newport Folk Festival, we were all really excited to be there among so many fans of our music. I was most looking forward to seeing Pete Seeger perform. When I was a girl, one of the first albums my mother bought for us was Pete's Folk Songs for Young People - which we played on our portable record player with a stylus the size of a 3-penny nail. At that time, the mid-'60s, the folk revival was being eclipsed by the British Invasion, but Pete's music stayed with me.
Pete, who died yesterday (Jan. 27) may truly be considered the powerful oak of American folk music. He worked with his father, Charles, and stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, as well as folklorist and archivist Alan Lomax as they gathered and preserved folk songs from rural communities - places where folk music truly drew life from being passed between generations. Pete traveled with Woody Guthrie, singing alongside union workers and learning their stories. He wrote or co-wrote songs - "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "We Shall Overcome" - that are part of the DNA of the American experience.
And, he shared his music (and himself) with people across the country and around the world. His book How to Play the Five-String Banjo is credited for inspiring many to pick up the instrument, giving it a new life in the folk idiom. After he was blacklisted for being a Communist in the '50s, Pete toured college campuses, connecting with the next generation one-on-one. Many younger artists - including Arlo Guthrie - looked up to Seeger, who never liked fame and lived out of the limelight in New York State's Hudson River Valley. He was married to his wife, Toshi, for 70 years (Toshi died in July) and he still performed periodically with his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. A three-time Grammy Award-winner, Pete was nominated again this year in the Spoken Word category, but lost out to Stephen Colbert. He was still chopping wood at 94.
As I stood at the back of the Newport crowd, Pete (who had help start the festival with Toshi and George Wein 50 years before) drew the audience - and fellow performers - into one giant sing-along. Thousands of people, good singers and bad, joined together in heartfelt celebration. And, that's what folk music is all about - sharing our lives through the medium of song. Thank you, Pete! May your legacy last for generations to come and the mighty oak you planted keep us strong!
Pete Seeger has died at age 94. Along with writing songs that have become iconic and at the soul of the American folk music movement, Pete was a life-long activist and withstood being blacklisted to hold his place as a bonafide legend.
If I had no idea that Cahalen Morrison & Eli Westwere from Seattle, I would know anywhere. Their beautiful and skilled songs have a true sense of place that evokes the Pacific Northwest - that despite its big cities, is really a region of mountains and rivers, the ocean and forests. They have an air of the outdoors that travels along with their music. Hear for yourself when Folk Alley presents a First Listen beginning Jan. 28 of the band's most-recent recent release, I'll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands.
Rosanne Cash's new CD, The River & the Thread, is also tied to a geographic location. The songs, written by Cash and collaborator/husband John Leventhal, were inspired by the South (contemporary and historical). Even though she now lives in California, Cash has an especially emotional relationship to Memphis, where she was born, and her father's home state of Arkansas. Rosanne has a very active life in social media - follow her on Twitter @rosannecash (and while you're at it, follow @FolkAlley).
A longtime songwriter stepping back into the spotlight, Irene Kelley returns with her third solo album, Pennsylvania Coal. Kelley's breakout as a songwriter came at age 19 when she felt the need to sing the glories of her home state in "Pennsylvania Is My Home," which also produced a PBS documentary. When her first solo album went unreleased in the '80s, she turned to writing successful songs for some of the most-popular bluegrass and country stars in the business - including Ricky Skaggs, Loretta Lynn, Rhonda Vincent, Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson. The new CD goes back to her roots to tell heartfelt stories of life in coal country.
Parker Millsap adds to Oklahoma's reputation as being home to great musicians. John Fullbright and Samantha Crain are recent adds to a list that dates back to Woody Guthrie and Gene Autry (among others, Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gill are also on the list). Parker's gritty approach to singing and songwriting belies his age. Still in his early 20s, his music sounds like it has already lived a long, hard life. Check in with Parker at the start of what should be a promising career on his debut eponymous CD.
Sure, a calendar year is a construct that doesn't have much to do with waves of creative expression and music releases. But, that doesn't mean it's any less fun to start a new year with a list of predictions about what's likely to be notable as the months march on.
The artists and bands in this brief list are not brand new, but they all happen to be at a place in their careers where a wider audience and more attention just seems to be in the cards. Whether you're interested in moody, introspective songs or rumpus music that gets you up and dancing, there will be plenty of new life breezing through the folk music world in 2014.
Here are some artists you won't want to miss:
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Granted, this New Orleans-based outfit is not exactly brand new on the scene, but they are poised to become one of the new folk crossover bands this year. Their sophomore full-length album (aptly titled Small Town Heroes) doesn't drop until Feb. 11, but already bloggers and critics are buzzing about the impact of the music it contains. NPR's Ann Powers has a profile of frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra due this week, while Spin and Village Voice have also shone spotlights on the release. It may just be one of those rare albums on which folk devotees and mainstream critics alike, can agree.
Also from New Orleans, Leyla McCalla's stunning new album Vari-Colored Songs marries together the stirring poetry of Langston Hughes with traditional Haitian folk music and some of her own, original arrangements. Performed mostly on cello and banjo, the disc is part old timey folk, part jazz, part something else altogether. Besides, McCalla has a stamp of approval from friend, collaborator, and former Carolina Chocolate Drop, Dom Flemmons, who hooked her up with the Haitian music that inspired part of this project.
Oklahoma native Parker Millsap has risen to the attention of the folk and Americana communities in the past year or two, fresh out of high school with an intuitive songwriting skill well beyond his years. Now, he's teamed up with the folks at Thirty Tigers for a self-titled full-length debut that places him neck-and-neck with fellow Oklahoman John Fullbright in the arena of gritty, emphatic folk-blues. No doubt the disc will make a mark with unsuspecting audiences across the folk world, and beyond, this year.
James Vincent McMorrow
Following up on the arresting emotionalism of his self-produced debut, Early in the Morning, James Vincent McMorrow has done it again, with a stunning collection of heartbreak songs titled Post Tropical. Though he has bristled at the notion of being called a folksinger, McMorrow's lyrical song-stories fit neatly with more contemporary interpretations of the form. Think Bon Iver and Ray LaMontagne, wrapped up in a cold wind and blown over a grey sea.
This energetic Southern California-based quintet hops on the trail of big-sound duos like Birds of Chicago and Shovels + Rope (the band began as a duo, and still contains a lot of the duo energy). They pull together pieces of old time Appalachian folk with strong harmonies and rhythms to create a bouncy, fervent energy that's starting to make waves. No doubt they'll attract even more attention on the festival circuit this summer.
Where did the year go? It seems like just yesterday I was making a list just like this one. As you might imagine, I listen to my fair share of music. What follows are some of my personal favorites from 2013. I usually just list them in alphabetical order, but this year one recording really stood out for me. I will list it first--the rest will be in alphabetical order.
This ambitious project seemed to fall naturally into the laps of these two talented musicians. Anais and Jefferson took these old gems and brought them lovingly into the 21st century. They tell these stories like they were born to it. The images are stark, sometimes wonderfully bizarre, and the arrangements are simple yet still extremely musical--just like they were intended to be. Not only do Jefferson Hamer and Anais Mitchell get it, they figured out a way to communicate the power of these old, traditional songs to a new audience--insuring that they might just live for a few hundred more years. This was my favorite recording of 2013.
Not only is Guy Clark the songwriter's songwriter, he's the songwriter's Energizer Bunny--he just keeps going and going--he also just keeps getting better. Battling health issues and grief over the loss of his life- partner Susanna, this collection of songs is a reminder of how art, and songs in particular, can lift us up and give us perspective on issues like, well, failing health and grief. It doesn't stop there though. Guy surrounds himself with friends who also happen to be some of the best musicians and writers in the country. The result is yet another collection of Guy Clark material to treasure for years to come.
Another stellar collection from one of the world's top Celtic bands. The quintet comes by the genre honestly with roots in Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton. On Flash Company, they take the very best of tradition and infuse it with a contemporary energy and drive that is just plain fun to hear. This is a mix of tunes and songs any fan of Celtic music will enjoy.
Kelly and Bruce have been singing together for a couple of decades and, with the release of Cheater's Game, they have earned a place next to some of the great country duos of all time. Johnny and June, George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta--you get the idea. This record just has the sound. It has the songs as well. Mixed in with the excellent writing by Bruce Robison are songs from Razzy Bailey, Don Williams, Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen and more. The result isn't a throwback--it's a fresh look at the future of this time-tested, delightfully entertaining genre.
Making beautiful music and beautiful instruments in the wilds of Western Canada, Pharis and Jason have done it again with this collection of traditional and original material. You can really tell they spend a lot of time listening to the old 78's and then carefully making the songs their own. You can also hear the influence of the old music in the songs they write. Long Gone Out West Blues makes two really good records in a row from this talented duo.
I love a well thought out concept record--especially in the hands of master musicians and writers. Shamrock City tells the story of Irish immigration surrounding Seamus Eagan's Great-Great Uncle, Michael Conway. The songs are great, the playing is as good as it gets, and they feature several guest musicians like Rhiannon Giddens and Aoife O'Donovan. This is one of those rare recordings that will sound fresh for many years to come.
The music has been around awhile, but this 2013 collection was long overdue. The genius of Van Ronk as a guitarist, writer, performer and interpreter shines through on every track of this 3-CD celebration of the mayor of MacDougal Street. Between this, and the upcoming Cohen Brothers film loosely based on Dave's writings, perhaps this musical icon will get more of the recognition he deserves.
Since the spring of 1960, Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, has been welcoming folk singers and musicians onto its stage. Among them have been folks as variant as Tom Paxton and John Gorka, Robin and Linda Williams, Anais Mitchell, Greg Brown, Arlo Guthrie, and Tift Merritt. It's the longest continuously running coffee house in the country, and crowds continue to gather there to take in the music. What's more, it's now a not-for-profit establishment run entirely by volunteers.
Albums recorded live at Caffe Lena have been released before, including the 1972 vinyl release Welcome to Caffe Lena, featuring 13 performances form Patrick Sky, Utah (Bruce) Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, and others. But, to celebrate a landmark 53 years in business, the folks at the Caffe have decided to drop a stellar three-disc collection spanning most of its existence.
Live at Caffe Lena: Music from America's Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 plays out like a brief aural history of the evolution of contemporary American folk music. There are work songs and tragic ballads, love songs, the blues, mythological adaptations, gospel songs, tunes about farming and big mainstream hits like "Cats in the Cradle" and "Mr. Bojangles."
It's hard to imagine a better offering in folk music than an album that jumps from Anais Mitchell on her Hadestown tour, to Mike Seeger singing "O Death," David Amram crooning along with his mighty banjo, and Arlo Guthrie delivering his classic "City of New Orleans."
Thankfully, the crowd is as present in these recordings as are the performers. Great folk songs are, after all, an open conversation. The occasional giggles or gasped breaths of the audience - not to mention their rapt attention - is the constant on this collection, and it only adds to the experience of the album. It makes great sense to hear Dave Van Ronk with an audience chuckling at his surprising one-liners, for example; to hear the crowd sing along with the inimitable Guy Carawan.
Also included is the relevant between-song banter (Jean Ritchie's brief intro to "West Virginia Mine Disaster") and Lena Spencer introductions, where it made sense to do so. As a result, the listener can feel like they're right in the room along with each of these legendary performers, some of whom have long since passed away, for what feels almost like the greatest open mic night of all time.
Americana/folk bands from Colorado tend to write songs with a few common threads. Whether it's the enormity of the Rocky Mountains or the gamut of weather patterns enjoyed by that state, its roots music players make a habit of creating music that sounds like it's one with the nature by which it's surrounded. Elephant Revival may have started with one foot in Oklahoma, but their Colorado roots run just as deep. Their latest album These Changing Skies, sounds like it's swimming in a Boulder moonlight.
From the atmospheric, long-bowed fiddle lines to the quiet, dreamy harmonies and occasional weeping musical saw, the disc is replete with creative arrangements. It feels like a bit of a departure from previous efforts that have verged on the newgrass/jamband style. This time around, they seem to have shirked expectations and decided to just lean harder on their Celtic, pop, and bluegrass influences. The result is an aesthetic all their own, straddling all of contemporary folk music's various, assumed boundaries.
Of course it helps that every song is danceable, backed by a constant buoyant rhythm. Even the slower songs seem to bop about on an easy breeze. By the time "Down to the Sea" swells under the syncopated build of a couple of fiddles and, ultimately, electric guitar, it feels as though the album has its own beating heart.
Elephant Revival have been slowly making strides across the national folk circuit these past few years, but These Changing Skies is likely to be the catapult that sails them above and beyond many of the up-and-coming bands of the genre. Or, at the very least, it should establish them on a grander stage. Defying the trend of creating radio-friendly indie roots music, Elephant Revival has shifted its focus to finding a path most suitable to its talents. As a result, every song is good. What more can you want?
WATCH: more Elephant Revival videos produced by Folk Alley at this year's Fayetteville Roots Festival.
By now, it's almost a cliché that New England is a hotbed of great, outside-the-box roots music. What's more, so much of it has been pouring from the discriminating taste-makers at Signature Sounds these past few years. They're the label that's brought us everyone from Eilen Jewell to Joy Kills Sorrow and Lake Street Dive. Now, they're readying a self-titled debut from Connecticut-based Poor Old Shine, due Nov. 5.
Produced by sharp-eared songwriter/instrumentalist extraordinaire Sam Kassirer, Poor Old Shine introduces some of the most jubilant and danceable indie roots music this side of the Carolinas. That's not terribly surprising, considering the band counts the Avett Brothers among its many influences. Indeed, the Avetts' stomping-and-cavorting energy tumbles along, through this disc, without ever bumping up against imitation. Another cited influence is the great Pete Seeger, whose simple-is-better approach to songwriting is clearly taken under fierce consideration here, as well.
Indeed, Poor Old Shine straddle the influence of new and old throughout the disc, jumping and harmonizing through early highlights like "Footsteps in My Ears" (almost like Sunny Day Real Estate meets Mumford & Sons). But they can just as well deliver quiet, well-considered respite in songs like "Ghost Next Door" or romantic proclamations in songs like "Love Song" ("I've been dreaming of you all night long / but no word my heart sings does justice to these things / and it's hard to write a love song.")
You could tip a hat to Kassirer's off-the-beaten-path Maine studio for so much of the simple, rural energy on this disc, but there's a certain point where that can't be fabricated, even by the most inspiring surroundings. At some point, the raw grit just has to be in the band's bones. Lucky for Poor Old Shine, that seems to be the case.
Sarah Jarosz got started early, releasing stunning albums of imaginative acoustic music before she was so much as out of high school. Of course, it helped that the discs included support from some of the other great mandolinists (her primary instrument) - folks like Sam Bush and Chris Thile, to drop a few names. But the songwriting and the music's overall vision, even when it's been the product of collaboration, has always depicted a young artist who is not afraid of creating music that does the aural equivalent of jumping off a cliff to see if it can fly. From turning Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" into a bluegrass tune to delivering her own unexpected instrumentals, Jarosz has never left her songs longing for imagination.
Now, on her third album for Sugar Hill - this year's Build Me Up from Bones - she demonstrates all the ways she's benefitted from four years at the New England Conservatory. The disc's creative arrangements were borne of her longtime touring trio, consisting of Jarosz, Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), and Nathaniel Smith (cello). It blending elements of jazz and classical music with her habit of traditional aesthetics and, from start to stop, is an emotional and expansive collection.
I recently called Jarosz up on the road, as she was making her way from Minnesota to Madison, Wisc., to chat about the new disc:
Kim Ruehl: There's some clear growth since the last album, but what have you been up to, and where did this record come from for you?
Sarah Jarosz: I think it's a pretty clear blending of a couple of things. A lot of it had to do with my time at the New England Conservatory. In a way, it's the first record of mine that [my experience there] impacted. I think it took the full four years for that to infiltrate my musicality. [I think] Alex and Matt, my touring trio, had a lot to do with the sound of this record. I knew going into it that I wanted the trio to be a big part of the sound.
KR: You were a great musician before you ever went to college. So, I wonder what you learned in college, studying music?
SJ: Well, so many things. I think I definitely had [to make a] decision, whether I wanted to go straight onto the road after high school or if I wanted to go to college. I always wanted to have the experience of going to college. I didn't want to skip over that part of my life. I wanted it to be in Boston because the music scene was so great there. NEC was... so great because it offered up so much musical stuff I wasn't getting inside the acoustic scene. Within my first year, I was learning jazz and free improvisation, being pushed into these styles I'd never really listened to much before going there. I think doing that, and a lot of ear training, really pushed me in ways I may not have been pushed otherwise, or it would have taken me a lot longer in my life to get pushed in that way. On top of that, to have voice lessons for the first time in my life... [Singing] was always something I did on my own. I didn't have a lot of voice lessons, except in musical theater, here and there, when I was really little. Dominique Eade...really helped me grow a lot with my voice.
KR: Do you think the collaboration with Alex and Matt has made you a better listener? As a songwriter, there's a tendency to make a song sound the way you want it to sound, but a collaboration like that requires that you really pay attention to each other. Do you think that's something you picked up?
SJ: Oh, for sure. It was interesting going into the studio because, for the longest time, songwriting was just a solo, alone, private process for me. I would write songs and perform them on my own. So, [it was great] to have them put in this trio stetting. It's an interesting process; writing the songs to the trio and hearing them in different ways... it really pushes me in a lot of different ways. The trio setting, in general, [creates] an interesting dynamic because it's so sparse. There's a lot of room for space. But, trying to pay attention to when [you should] leave the space is sometimes the most important part of that. I think that was a big goal with this record, especially.
KR: Do you even think about what kind of music you want to make?
SJ: Not really. It's funny, when people ask me what genre of music I am, I never really know how to answer that. It's one of those tricky questions. I'm just kind of doing what's always felt natural to me, trying to grow and push myself and not just stay stuck in my old ways. But, at the same time, I do want to sound like myself.
KR: I think because you've played with Sam Bush and Darrell Scott, and all these other incredible artists, there's a tendency of people in my position to want to call you bluegrass or folk, but that doesn't really fit either. I wonder what you think of adding all these other elements of styles that you learned in school... do you think that's contrary to bluegrass and folk, or is it all just part of the same thing?
SJ: It's a difficult thing because I'm not trying to not be bluegrass. I'm not trying to necessarily fit into a genre or not fit into a genre. I think all these things feed into each other in a beautiful way. I think there's a lot to be said for tradition and roots, and honoring a tradition, for sure. I probably wouldn't have gotten into music at all had it not been for bluegrass, and getting excited about bluegrass. But at the same time, the musicians I looked up to growing up were people who weren't afraid to cross lines and boundaries and not pay attention to genres, and infiltrate different styles. Hopefully that winds up telling who each person is. I generally try not to make strict lines about stuff. I just do what seems natural.
KR: What's the best gig you've ever had?
SJ: I feel like Telluride Bluegrass Festival would have to be up there. It's truly amazing. That was also a life-changing place for me in the sense that, in 2007, that's where I met Gary Paczosa for the first time. That's where the whole thing with Sugar Hill came to be. So that seems like a very important place in my life, not to mention it's just stunningly beautiful.
KR: Is there anything else you want to mention? I know you're on the road right now...
SJ: Yeah, it's interesting. This is the first time in my life that I haven't been juggling all this with school. It's a real change, being on the road for this long and touring pretty much nonstop through November... it's great. I'm learning and growing with it. It'll be interesting to see what the next big goal is for me, though. I feel like finishing school still feels so fresh. That was a big goal for my whole life [so far], so it'll be interesting what the next phase leads to.
Rose Cousins at the Rutledge - Rose Cousins most recent album 'We Have Made a Spark' was one of Folk Alley's favorite folk albums last year, and it won a Juno Award, to boot. Nonetheless, Cousins is still growing her audience in the lower 48, so it was nice to see a good crowd show up for this set. Mostly drawing from 'Spark,' she welcomed the beautifully voiced Julie Lee and Robby Hecht onstage to help her out on backing vocals, with the Stray Birds sitting in on dueling fiddles for a couple of songs. Much like 'Spark,' it was a display of the great music that gets made through collaboration. Though, as usual, she was just as good at delivering beautifully without all the extra layers. A new song from the point of view of a farmer's wife - performed on piano, with electric guitar and bass so scant, you hardly knew they were there - was one of the loveliest, most heartbreaking songs I saw performed all night.
Brandy Clark in the round at the Bluebird Cafe - Not technically a part of the Americana conference and festival, Brandy Clark's appearance at the Bluebird Cafe - in the round with fellow songwriters Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Trevor Rosen - was one easy highlight of the weekend. Her new album '12 Stories' leans decidedly more toward the country realm than anything else. But, stripped down, in the round at the Bluebird, it was easy to see the folky roots of Clark's creative, substantive songwriting. Pluck tunes like "Get High" and "Pray to Jesus and Play the Lotto" free from their country production and you've got working class songs about day-to-day struggles and the hope of transcendence. It was a decidedly refreshing highlight, from some of Music Row's strongest writers.
Amanda Shires at the Basement - Amanda Shires has been an exciting talent to watch ever since she landed on the circuit. But, her latest album 'Down Fell the Doves' shows her having hit a certain stride. Her songs are dark and twisted at the same time as heartfelt and poetic. There's humor in there, too, right next to the fear and longing. Watching her deliver the arresting new material in the cramped, dark, dirty Basement was one of the great moments afforded us by the Americana festival. Though Rod Picott joined her toward the end of the set, it was mostly just Shires with an upright bassist and a very restrained drummer. There was no effort to rock-the-heck-out through the songs; just to present them in their full, unfettered nature.
1. Dr. John is a living legend. There are no two ways to put that.
He began his interview sitting on a chair, cane leaned against his knee, talking into a microphone like you might imagine one does when they're being interviewed. But, it wasn't long until Nick Spitzer [the interviewer] asked him to walk to the piano and deliver "one of those bebops your auntie taught you", that the Doc truly seemed to enter his true skin. If that was a bebop his auntie taught him when he was just a boy, it was going to be serious business getting him to deliver anything he's become capable of playing since. Of course, there was plenty of time for him to unleash his freakish talent, in between stories about Professor Longhair and other New Orleans music legends. His hands bounced up and down the keyboard with apparently effortless rhythm. Occasionally, under the bench, his foot would keep some kind of time for a few bars, then relent. For the most part, there was no basis, no foundation, no beat. Just old Malcolm's hands, scampering across a keyboard, playing pure glory into the room.
2. Hurray for the Riff Raff is the real deal.
Speaking of New Orleans, Alynda Lee Segarra and her incredible band of Riff Raff, blew the roof off the tiny High Watt on Thursday night. I'd seen them do the same in a much bigger room (or, rather, a tent) at the Newport Folk Festival a month or so ago. But, seeing them delight and dazzle a room full of jaded industry folks was a whole other kind of amazing. Segarra's vocals are rich and deep, powerful and provocative, back by an old-soul-like weight which adds gravity to every lyric and note she unleashes.
3. Holly Williams makes people cry.
I tweeted after Holly Williams' set at 3rd and Lindsley on Friday night that her song, "Waitin' on June," makes me cry every time. Several people responded that it does the same for them too - one man going so far as to say he noticed half the people in the front row at that same show were crying right along with us. The tune itself is a remarkable feat of folk-pop-country balladry, relaying the entire life story of her maternal grandparents, from the moment they met and fell in love, to their death and beyond. In six verses, she captures more nuance and import about the stuff in life that truly matters, than most songwriters her age could pull off in a whole album. Add to that a basics-only backing band and three-part harmonies that sound as often like a freight train as they do a gospel choir, and you get one of the finest showcase sets of the week so far.
(**CLICK HERE - to listen to the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards show and see more pictures from the event, plus other performances during the festival.**)
Alice Gerrard has played with some of folk music's great legends: Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten. Her career has spanned a half-century and touched upon the realms of country, bluegrass, and old time, influencing generations of players and songwriters alike. But, it wasn't until this summer that she ever released a solo album of all original songs. As she told me in a recent interview, it was an idea she first heard during a week at MerleFest a couple years back, when Laurie Lewis offered her producing skills to the project.
The result is a lovely, catchy, stirring disc full of great story-songs. From lusty love songs to ruminations on life, love, purpose, and death, Bittersweet makes clear why Alice Gerrard's legend is so hugely influential. Of course, she was helped out by some of folk and bluegrass music's most talented players: Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Rob Ickes, and others. But, at the core, it's just a collection of great songwriting.
Recently, Gerrard was nice enough to hop on the phone and discuss the album, as well as her remarkable legacy as a folk music trailblazer during her collaboration with the late Hazel Dickens:
Kim Ruehl: Is Bittersweet something you've always wanted to do, or is that something you just started thinking about recently?
Alice Gerrard: I have thought about it over the past number of years... I wanted to do an album of all originals, rather than having them mixed in with other stuff. I'd been feeling more and more that way. Then Laurie Lewis talked to me several years ago at Merlefest about the possibility of her producing an album of all my originals, and that seemed like a good thing to do. But I was busy, she was busy. We talked about it briefly and then it lay there for a number of years until a couple other people talked to me about doing the same thing. So, I went back and talked to Laurie because she was the first one to ask me about it. I had a few [original songs] here and there but never put them all together before this, in one cohesive album of solo material.
KR: Sometimes you can tell songwriters are telling a story about someone else, and sometimes you can tell they're relating a more personal tale. But, I think sometimes it's hard to tell which you're doing.
AG: I think it's both. I guess most of these are [other people's] stories. "Lonely Night" is certainly more of a personal tale. "Play Me a Song I Can Cry To" is based on a woman who came when I was having a music session with Tommy Jarrell, she came in and plopped herself on the couch and said, "Play me something I can cry to. I just want to cry."
"Sweet South Anna River", that was about something Elizabeth Cotten said to me one time about how she didn't want to be buried when she died. She wanted to be floated down the river, and then all her friends could stand and wave at her as she floats by.
"Sun Keeps Shining on Me" was about my own experience from a long time ago, when I was just getting over something and somebody came into my life and it was pretty nice...
So, I guess I'd have to say most of these songs are telling stories, but they're based on my experiences, like driving around in the country and seeing these old abandoned houses. One time a friend and I went to find the home of a very old, famous fiddle player. We found his old house and that's the house that was in my mind when I was writing "Tell Me Their Story". That was a big, old abandoned house, overgrown. It had a broken window with a curtain in the window. I was thinking of the person who lived in that house, and other places you pass when you're driving through the country and see abandoned houses. [They're abandoned] either because the people built a nicer home nearby or they've been thrown out because the house was repossessed, or whatever the reason. I always wonder, what are those people's lives like? Who lived there?
KR: You've been plugged into the folk and bluegrass worlds for a long time. What do you think of how that's evolved, what younger folkies are doing now?
AG: I think there's a real revival. I don't really think in terms of the folk music world so much as bluegrass, old time, country of all kinds. Whether it's Tex-Mex or African-American or whatever, I think there's a real revival of interest in roots music. There are a lot of younger people really holding the line on tradition and also experimenting with it. It's kind of exciting. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of younger musicians are incorporating singing into it. Before, they were mostly drawn to the instrumental side of [traditional music]. But now they're doing the traditional singing, too, which is great.
He may be mostly unknown to audiences beyond hard-core folkies and fellow singer-songwriters, but Slaid Cleaves is easily one of the finest practitioners of that craft these days. His raw and intimate story-songs balance on the precarious ground of simplicity, nailing complex ideas and emotions in a way which makes them seem wholly digestible, without undermining their worth or glazing over their poetry. "Without Her,' from Slaid's new album, Still Fighting the War, is a perfect example, using the song's title as a repetitious refrain, showing all the ways one's life is affected - for better and worse - when they lose someone they love. In his case, it's a song about a dog that had to be put down, but could be easily applied to any kind of lost love. He talks here about the folk process that informs his songwriting and gives credit to its other masters, like Hank Williams and Pete Seeger, who helped him understand the value of tradition and simplicity. Indeed, their influence is easily felt in this and many of Cleaves' songs.
1. Spontaneous collaboration - Whether it was Neil Gaiman hopping onstage with his wife Amanda Palmer, members of Black Prairie jumping up with Colin Meloy, or Spirit Family Reunion hopping on stage with Iris DeMent and Hurray for the Riff Raff, the long tradition of folk music collaboration was alive and well at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival. At times, it served as an opportunity to get a taste of a band you might not otherwise have sought out. Other times, it simply augmented the entire set, as when Dawes jumped up to be the backing band for Blake Mills. The 25-minute staring contest between Jim James and Chris Funk could also loosely be considered a bit of spontaneous collaboration, though it was more a break from the music than it was a musicsplosion.
2. The Museum Stage - Whether it was the rain or the sun beating down on the festival crowd, the Museum Stage offered a welcome, dry and cool, reprieve. There, Chris Funk hosted a number of artists, as did Joe Fletcher. The latter ran an hours-long revue titled Nashville to Newport, which showcased some of Nashville's finest, from Patrick Sweany to Amanda Shires and Bobby Bare, Jr. The Low Anthem hosted Newport Homegrown, and daily open mics shed light on great artists both new and old. While all the scheduled stuff took place on the stages, the impromptu, surprising moments mostly went down in the museum, where the audience was small and intimate, and "anything goes" seemed to be the motto.
3. Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Newport is great about setting some of the best up-and-coming artists alongside legends in their own time. This year's token "legend" was Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who showed up on the final day for a sunny, hot afternoon set of straight-up old-school folk story-songs. There was nothing particularly theatrical or visually riveting about his set - no jumping around or banging on anything. Instead, he showed us all what greatness could come from one guy, sitting on a stool, telling old stories and singing old songs. Naturally, there were other great songwriter sets throughout the weekend - Milk Carton Kids, Iris DeMent, and Jason Isbell, particularly. But, you simply cannot deny the talent of old Ramblin' Jack.
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1. Hurray for the Riff Raff - This New Orleans-based outfit delivered one of the finest sets of the day, hopping from soul to country, to swamp-folk that was heavy on the dancing fiddle. There are no fancy tricks from this band or any force at work other than purely genuine, excellent songwriting, and honest-to-goodness great instrumentals. They pulled Spirit Family Reunion onstage toward the end, just to make sure they had the largest sound possible. But the crowd of people onstage didn't cut one bit into the level of earnest authenticity pouring from the vocal mics.
2. Trombone Shorty doing "St. James Infirmary" - Speaking of New Orleans, Trombone Shorty took the mainstage in the middle of the afternoon and unleashed the funk. Their entire set was tight and heavy on the groove. Electric bass solos from Michael Ballard were on fire, and the entire band seemed to be flying on some incredible plane. But it was their delivery of the sweaty old number "St. James Infirmary" which brought out some of the most jaw-dropping horn work of the set, certainly the finest of the festival so far.
3. The Avett Brothers sing-along - Scott Avett seemed to be on a "singing high and quiet" kick this time around. He closed out a number of the Avett Brothers tunes by taking his voice higher and quieter, presumably aiming for the vocal fade-out. There's nothing more folky than an audience sing-along, but this one took that tradition in a whole new direction. About halfway through their set, he asked the crowd to come along with him on this odd vocal journey. In "repeat after me" fashion, he got the huge mainstage audience singing at the highest sighs of their voices. Everyone was game and followed right along, like thousands of hissing and sighing balloons.
CLICK HERE for more Newport Folk Festival coverage on FolkAlley.com.
The Los Angeles-based duo opened the Quad Stage at Newport 2013 with one of the best and quietest sets of the day. Resting on tightly matched harmonies and the incredible dexterity of Kenneth Pattengale's guitar picking, they plowed through 50 minutes of beautiful love and heartbreak songs, songs about disillusionment, disappointment, and the hope inherent in imagining their future children. "Memphis" was the set-stealer, though, with its topical nature and beautifully spun lyricism. Pattengale gave all that credit to his partner Joey Ryan who, he says, showed up at his house one day with this perfectly finished song that was poised to just break your heart. Indeed it did.
2. Mountain Goats made me a fan in the pouring rain
I got lost for a little bit, wandering the festival grounds. First waiting for Amanda Palmer at the Senheuser/Paste Ruins, then searching out Phosphorescent and JD McPherson, finding myself too late for both. So, I took shelter under the Folk Alley awning and watched what remained of the Mountain Goats. Having never been much of a fan, I watched skeptically, through oodles of teeming raindrops, and found myself enthralled. There's nothing particularly special about the way John Darnielle and company perform their music. They're straight-shooters, who deliver the music precisely as it comes. But by the time they nailed "This Year" (the final song of the set), I was converted to a fan. What more can be said than that they're just a darn good band who knows well how to bring it live.
3. Old Crow Medicine Show covering Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee
It's called a "folk" festival after all. In a day that was, for me, filled with rock bands and larger, louder outfits, watching the Old Crow Medicine Show throw down on the main stage felt a little more like home. Ketch Sekor, it practically goes without saying, saws a fiddle like crazy. The band lit into several songs from their most recent release 'Carry Me Back,' as well as a number of cover tunes from folk music of yore. Among those covers was a tribute to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee that was heavy on the harmonica (Sekor plays two at once, swapping them back and forth between breaths) and four-part harmonies. It was a fitting tribute to the array of music which has graced the Newport Stage in its 54 years, and an outstanding ending to the first day of the festival.
"Love's a gamble, love's a curse. Love's a bitch but it could be worse."
If any single line on Guy Clark's new album My Favorite Picture of You could sum up the common theme of all eleven tracks, that's it. It comes about halfway into "Hell Bent on a Heartache", where the storied songwriter explores his unending yearning for newness. It's not a song about seeking love so much as it is an admittance of the inevitability of disappointment. Indeed, the coexistence of love and heartbreak - and the various ways the two feed off each other - is at the core of each song on the album. It's this balance Clark strikes which says the most about what he means by a love song.
There are enough songs in the world about all the easy and obvious ways of love - the first storied glance, the romance and lust, the longing and all the other schmaltz. But, when you get to the raw truth of it all, the stuff that lasts doesn't do so devoid of heartbreak, but rather in spite of it.
The title track tells the story behind the Polaroid Clark holds on the cover of the disc. It's a shot of his wife Susanna in the 1970s, when she had just come home to find Guy and his friend Townes Van Zandt drunk again. She was angry and hurt, storming off, full of fire. "You never left but your bags were packed just in case," he sings, describing her as "nobody's fool ... smarter than me." It's not an easy song to hear, but neither is lasting love an easy task. Telling the story in simple terms that are emotional and provocative - and rhyme - is another feat altogether. But, Clark is one of the best.
The disc isn't all romantic love, though. There's "Heroes" - a smart, emotional song about soldiers living with PTSD. He flexes his epic story-song muscles on "The Death of Sis Draper" (set to the tune of "Shady Grove") and turns to commentary on "Good Advice". The latter seems more a reaction to others trying to offer good advice than it is an attempt to provide some. Though, he does manage a few words of wisdom: "If it's not one thing, it's another, and that you can count on."
But, it's "I'll Show Me" - the self-effacing tune which closes the disc - where Clark finally shrugs the downside of his running theme. With wonder and pride, he credits the love: "How'd I get this far, you ask. I'm here today it was no small task."
So much great music continues to pour in to Folk Alley Central on a daily basis. Here's a list of our most recent additions to the Folk Alley stream!
*And don't forget, you can listen to our special 5-hour side stream called 'Fresh Cuts' which is loaded with music from all the new releases added to Folk Alley over the past 6 months!
Click HERE to LISTEN!
Aoife O'Donovan - 'Fossils'
Ashleigh Flynn - 'A Million Stars'
Bruce Molsky - 'If It Ain't Here When I Get Back'
Claire Lynch - 'Dear Sister'
Della Mae - 'This World Oft Can Be'
Donna the Buffalo - 'Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday'
Genticorum - 'Enregistre Live'
Guy Clark - 'My Favorite Picture of You'
Jason Isbell - 'Southeastern'
Joy Kills Sorrow - 'Wide Awake' (EP)
Peter Rowan - 'The Old School'
Pokey LaFarge - 'Pokey LaFarge'
Putnam Smith - 'Kitchen, Love'
Rebecca Frazier - 'When We Fall'
Red Tail Ring - 'The Heart's Swift Foot'
Sam Amidon - 'Bright Sunny South'
Shannon McNally (feat. Dr. John) - 'Small Town Talk (Songs of Bobby Charles)'
Slaid Cleaves - 'Still Fighting the War'
Susan Werner - 'Hayseed'
The Black Lillies - 'Runaway Freeway Blues'
The Boxcar Lilies - 'Sugar Shack'
The Carper Family - 'Old-Fashioned Gal'
The Deadly Gentlemen - 'Roll Me, Tumble Me'
The Gibson Brothers - 'They Called It Music'
The Lone Bellow - 'The Lone Bellow'
Tony McManus - 'Mysterious Boundaries'
Various - 'Woody Guthrie at 100!: Live at the Kennedy Center'
For about the past decade, Girlyman have been slowly but steadily garnering a fiercely loyal cult following at clubs, theaters, and folk festivals across the country. They've opened for everyone from Dar Williams to the Indigo Girls, and have established themselves as a force in three-part harmony. Then, in 2010, guitar/banjoist Doris Muramatsu discovered she'd developed cancer. The diagnosis - together with the natural growing pains of a ten-year-old band seemed to give the troupe a good excuse to take some time off and focus on whatever they needed to focus on. For singer/songwriter Tylan Greenstein, that meant dredging up all the songs she'd been accumulating and explore what she could do with them on her own.
She called up Seattle-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Michael Connolly, who plays in a band with Tylan's partner, Ingrid Elizabeth. Together, Tylan (who has dropped her last name for the solo project) and Connolly holed up and fashioned a recording titled One True Thing - an album which sounds remarkably lush, considering most of it was created by just two people. She called in Indigo Girl Amy Ray to sing backup on a tune, but other than that, One True Thing is entirely Tylan's voice and vision - an intimate and intensely honest album about getting through life's hard times by keeping an eye on what matters most.
Kim Ruehl: Let's talk about your new record. What moved you to go solo and make this record?
Tylan: Girlyman ... had toured about 10 years straight, really hard touring. In 2010, one of our band members got cancer and we were just kind of frayed at the edges, I think, after all of that and personal differences... we just decided to stop touring for a while. Around that time, because we were going to get this break, we all had this incentive to pursue projects we'd thought about in the past but didn't have time to do. My project was a solo album. It's something I'd always wanted to do because I had a large backlog of songs. Three songwriters in a band, you only get a few songs on each album. I had a lot of songs I loved that never made it on albums. I was continuing to write and felt like I had a nice collection of material. So, the time was right, and it really came together.
KR: What was the significance of 'One True Thing' for the title of the album?
T: The past year and a half has been one of the hardest periods of my life. It's been a time when pretty much everything in my life changed at the same time. During times of transition like that, it's hard to know which end is up. It was really intense. But through it, I felt like there was something consistent that was internal, even as so many external things were shifting. This internal thing was a truth I could hold onto. That's what that song is about. There is this beautiful gem, even in hard situations, that persists. The cover of the album has an outstretched hand with a tiny sort of magical-looking bird landing on it. That's an image that comes from that song. That's the metaphor I was working with.
KR: You don't really seem to hold back much in your songwriting. I wonder if you ever stop and think 'Maybe I don't really want to go there', but then you go there anyway. Or is that just naturally an avenue where you feel like you can push yourself all the way?
T: I don't think I've ever been interested in holding back. Especially now in my life. I'm not going to say Girlyman was a slave to convention because that's certainly not true. But on this solo path that I'm on now, there's just a lot at stake. There's a lot, personally, going on that made me feel like I really have nothing left to lose. I feel like the songwriting on this album is very personal and intimate. That's all intentional. I don't think I held back in the past either. I wouldn't be surprised if the next solo album felt different because I feel like I've had a lot come together in this tumultuous time, so the landscape of the writing will shift. But I don't think it'll be less intense.
KR: Tell me about working with Amy Ray. Was that a co-write situation, or did you just call her up to play with you?
T: I wrote the song. I recorded the album with Michael Connolly in Seattle, at Empty Sea studios. That song, we were both hearing a low harmony. Originally, I thought it would be a male voice, but Michael suggested seeing if Amy would do it because she has this really strong, really powerful low female voice. I'm an alto as well, but her voice is even lower. That's not something you hear very often - two lower-range female voices harmonizing. I emailed her to see if she would be interested and she was totally into the idea. She came over and just nailed it. I'm really happy with that track. I think it's really special.