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.
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.
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!
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
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."
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.
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"
It's been twenty-six years since the late, great Doc Watson decided to throw a festival near his home in Deep Gap, NC, to honor the memory of his son Merle. The younger Watson died three years earlier in a tractor accident on the family farm but, before that, had been one of the most dexterous and influential guitar pickers of his generation. To honor him, Doc titled his festival Merlefest, and invited some of the finest bluegrass, folk, and old time players around. Since then, just about everyone who matters in the realm of folk, bluegrass, traditional country and Americana music has graced one of the Merlefest stages. Festival alumni include everyone from Dolly Parton to Carolina Chocolate Drops, Donna the Buffalo, Linda Ronstadt, the Avett Brothers, and Zac Brown Band.
This year, Merlefest welcomed the other Merle (Haggard, that is) to headline the festival. His Sunday afternoon set was heavy on classics, from "Mama Tried" to "Pancho and Lefty". He kicked it off with "Silver Wings" and delivered with remarkable charisma from there. At 78 years old, Haggard is a living legend in his field, and the crowd met him with a standing ovation.
He wasn't the only one to get a warm welcome. Todd Snider kept a hillside crowd's attention through the weekend's most assertive rainfall, complete with Woody Guthrie singalong at the end. Jim Lauderdale and his band were embraced in the same space later, albeit in the face of ample sunshine. North Carolina's own Mandolin Orange let loose a beautiful string of harmony-laden tunes and Holly Williams, unfortunately relegated to a quite-brief set on the Cabin stage, easily won some new fans as well.
But, it was Old Crow Medicine Show who delivered the finest set of the festival, to these eyes and ears. Balancing a precarious blend of folk and bluegrass music, old time, and story-telling, the band encompassed all the things that fall under the Merlefest umbrella. Those Nashville boys danced and whooped and whirred about the main stage. They delivered tunes from each of their seven albums, plus new material, to boot. Among the new tunes was "Sweet Amarillo", the second song they've more or less co-written with Bob Dylan. According to frontman Ketch Secor, Dylan was so impressed with what they did by turning his chorus "Rock Me Mama" into their megahit "Wagon Wheel," he sent them another crop of lyrics he started and never finished. It's impossible to know, of course, if "Sweet Amarillo" will have the same beloved-by-buskers-everywhere appeal as "Wagon Wheel," but it delivered darn well on the Merlefest stage.
Other highlights included a stunning set from Carolina Chocolate Drops and a handful of memorable appearances by the reunited Duhks. The latter was swirling with excitement about their new album - due in May, but they were selling it at the festival store. They delivered a number of tunes from it, including a gorgeous cover of Eva Cassidy's "Way Beyond the Blue".
One of the most delightful surprises this year was the presence of Sheila Kay Adams and her husband Joe Penland, who took the stage in the Traditional Tent on the final day, for an hour of mountain stories and ballads. According to them, it was the first time such a set had been included in the Merlefest lineup, and hopefully it won't be the last. Considering the festival's homebase in the mountains of Western North Carolina, including some local tales and traditional ballad-singing seems about right. What's more, Adams and Penland are terrific performers. Though they had to battle the sound from the main stage, which was pervading the entire festival grounds at that point, the pair delivered a rousing, entertaining collection of stories and songs.
All told, Merlefest 2014 was a fitting continuation of Doc's festival vision. There are few gatherings in North America where traditional music is honored on this scale, in such a family friendly, tightly-organized environment. The diversity of stages - from the intimate Plaza and Traditional stages to the indoor theater, natural creek and hillside surroundings, and the enormous main stage flanked by giant screens - there is some kind of festival experience here to suit just about everyone. It's no wonder Merlefest has enough momentum to already have a countdown going for year number twenty-seven.
**For more about MerleFest and to see great photos from this year's festival, check out MerleFest on Facebook - HERE!**
Merlefest 2014 happened last weekend (4/24 - 27) in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, with a stellar lineup that hopped back and forth from bluegrass standards to contemporary singer-songwriters, old time music, various fusion styles, and beyond.
Here's a look at a few of the best moments from days one and two:
Since their debut in 2002, the Duhks have been one of the most creative and energetic bands on the acoustic music circuit, straddling lines between folk, bluegrass, jazz, and pop with remarkable flexibility. But, since frontwoman Jessee Havey left the group in '07, they've been through a number of personnel changes, ups and downs, and an eventual somewhat-hiatus. Now, the Duhks are back in all their original glory - their new album, out next month, includes Havey, Tania Elizabeth, Leonard Podolak, Scott Senior, and Jordan McConnell. Though Havey and Podolak were the only ones who made it to Merlefest (bringing with them Colin Savoie-Levac on guitar and Rosie Newton on fiddle), their appearances were some of the biggest, most obvious early highlights of the weekend. The dynamism and artistry popping between these musicians is unmatchable, and it's nice to see them back in action.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops stand up now
Rhiannon Giddens may be the only remaining original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but that doesn't mean the band has lost much in its various transitions. Giddens is, of course, a powerful singer and gifted fiddler, but the rest of the new lineup is no slouch either. On the mainstage Thursday night, they moved through a collection of old CCDs favorites ("Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Sourwood Mountain" stood out, in particular) and newer material as well. There was abundant, emphatic spoon-playing, fiddling, and bass thumping. And, setting the new CCDs apart from the old, the whole band spent the entire set standing up instead of seated, front-porch-style, in chairs.
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott singing to a field of hippies and country bumpkins, "Dance You Hippies, Dance."
Probably, O'Brien and Scott wrote this song specifically for moments like this, gracing the Watson Stage at Merlefest somewhere around dusk, singing to a field packed with vibrant hippies and folks from the country, alike. Indeed, Merlefest has one of the most interesting mixes of crowd dynamics - from the mountain folks to the country twangers, the hippy jammers and the city folks (with their myriad festival gear) who've driven in from Raleigh and Nashville. There is no more perfect intersection between all those people's interests than the collaboration between Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott; and their set was, it goes almost without saying, quite well-received. But, this song in particular had to make you stop and giggle.
Alan Jackson plays (really good) bluegrass
For those who grew up listening to country music radio in the 1980s and '90s, Alan Jackson's "Chattahoochie" was a touchstone classic. This time around, though, Jackson is dipping his bucket in the bluegrass well. His set was full of old school-style bluegrass of the sort that would make Bill Monroe proud.
Todd Snider on the Hillside Stage
The prolific, subversive American troubadour played the most rousing set possible from a solo singer-songwriter sitting in a chair at the center of a stage, entertaining a packed crowd on a rainy hill. Twenty years after releasing his debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet, Snider is at the top of his game. (Hopefully the top of his game will last a good long while.) He pulled his set from across those two decades, and the crowded audience was rapt, even as the rain came and picked up. A few people departed for shade, but those of us who remained were treated to a seemingly impromptu run through the less-frequently-played verses of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
For 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.