A Conversation with Joy Kills Sorrow's Matt Arcara
May 20, 2013
by Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
Boston is a town where acoustic guitars - and their players - seem to collect on the street like so many snowflakes. Whether it's the number of schools and colleges, the diverse community, the weather, or simply something in the water, Boston has granted us folk fans songcrafters as variant as Mark Erelli, Crooked Still, and Lake Street Dive. Wherever its artists have fallen on the spectrum of traditional music, though, Boston has always instilled in them a certain contemporary zeal for creative imagination and aural experimentation.
Joy Kills Sorrow is no exception. Pulling together highly skilled instrumentalists with backgrounds in everything from jazz to classical and indie rock, the troupe started with a stringband lineup and seems to have made every effort to defy its own parameters. On their forthcoming EP Wide Awake, the quintet welcomes new bassist Zoe Guigueno by making space in their style for her influence as well. The result is even more indefinable than the Joy Kills Sorrow you thought you already knew. From the speed-train chugging mandolin of the opening track "Was It You" to their entirely non-gimmicky, reimagining of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights," and beyond, Wide Awake is a wonderful little disc.
I was recently lucky enough to chat with guitarist Matthew Arcara about the origins of the recording and what has driven the band to where they are now:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start by talking about your new EP 'Wide Awake' - what is this album about for you and where did you start?
Matthew Arcara: For us, I think this record is really about getting a bigger, more powerful sound from the band. Trying to get more of a vocals-in-band sound rather than a vocals-in-front-of-band sound, and trying to make a really strong upbeat record. That informed the whole process from arranging to EQing instruments for the record, how the mix was done - trying to get a fuller sound that has more impact and holds a little bit more air in the band. It informed how we made arrangement choices and what we did with guitar and mandolin at different points of time, how we could fill it out a little bit more and get the power and impact a rock and roll band has with drums and stuff, while maintaining the stringband structure and texture.
KR: Sounds like, instead of just trying to share some new songs you wrote, you're really trying to get the recording experience down, to make the finished product as authentic as possible.
MA: Yeah, I think we really were focused on the acoustic quality of the record as well as making sure the guitar sounded as full as possible and building arrangements around an idea: How do we make this tune really interesting but still stay rocking the whole way through? We were trying to take advantage of being able to do that, overdubbing a baritone guitar to fill things out or taking the octave banjo for a double-banjo [sound], to fatten it up.
KR: Why did you stick to just seven tracks?
MA: We went into the studio with seven tunes prepared that we wanted to record, that we loved, and we felt great about all of them. We made it an EP because we have a new bass player, and we wanted to put out [something] that said we have a new lineup and this is what we're doing. This is a new turn we've taken, and if you know where we've come from, you're still going to like it, but this is a new sound. We wanted to be able to go into the studio, do the tunes, do the mixing and editing and have it come out on a convenient time frame, to make a statement about what the new lineup is doing... The EP format fit that equation and lessened the pressure on us to not have to come up with all the new material. We're planning to do a full-length in the next year, year-and-a-half. But we had some tunes we felt really strong about, so we decided to put them out now and then continue working on the full-length for the future.
Singer/songwriter David Francey has long been a Folk Alley favorite (heck, he even headlined our 5th anniversary party at Cain Park). His music is the best kind of contemporary folk - taking his own story of immigrating from Scotland to Canada and the many lives he lived before becoming a professional musician and turning them into personal songs. Francey's work connects with listeners on a variety of levels, all of them sincere and authentic. His newest CD is So Say We All.
When an American Idol contestant sang a Patty Griffin song last month, I was both excited and mortified. Griffin's music is so beautiful that she should get more national (and international) exposure. But NOBODY sings Patty better than the woman herself - a unique voice that rises above the masses. Griffin says that most of the songs on her new album, American Kid, are about her father, "a World War II veteran who returned home to live for a time in a Trappist monastery before becoming a high school teacher and raising seven children."
The Bills formed in 1996 as the Bill Hilly Band and have become extremely popular in their native Canada and beyond. Although the band is known for their energetic live shows and the humor they incorporate in The Bills' music, they are very serious about what they do - winning two JUNO Awards in the process for Best Roots & Traditional Music. Discover what the buzz is about and listen to the band's latest release, Yes Please.
The East Coast of Canada has such a strong music scene that the region has even produced its own much celebrated music awards. Rose Cousins won this year's Folk Award - which might be Amelia Curran's prize in 2014 for her 2012 release, Spectators. Both women are part of a community of artists in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that also includes Old Man Luedecke. All three were nominated for the JUNO - Canada's equivalent of the Grammy in the US. It must be something in that Atlantic Ocean water!
More new music added to Folk Alley:
Amy Speace - "How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat"
Dervish - "The Thrush in the Storm"
Go Jane Go - "Go Jane Go"
HEM - "Departure & Farewell"
John Reischman - "Walk Along John"
Kim Richey - "Thorn in My Heart"
Maya & the Ruins - "Take This Song with You"
Rita Hosking - "Little Boat"
Run Boy Run - "So Sang the Whippoorwill"
Run Boy Run - "Run Boy Run"
Ruth Moody - "These Wilder Things"
Stella! - "Sorry, Stella"
Steve Martin & Edie Brickell - "Love Has Come For You"
The Lone Bellow - "The Lone Bellow"
The Steel Wheels - "No More Rain"
HEAR IT FIRST at Folk Alley: David Francey - 'So Say We All'
April 30, 2013
by Kim Ruehl, FolkAlley.com
On his tenth album in 14 years, So Say We All, David Francey delivers a rousing collection of traditional-sounding story-songs. From the ever-falling rain in the opening tune to the shooting stars in the title track (which closes the album), this disc spins a web of melodies that shows easy connections between hard work and rest, joy and sorrow, loss and ultimate hope.
As he has been doing for more than a decade, Francey captures all of life's nuances in a way which is both eloquent and accessible. "Long Long Road," for example, sounds like it could be a Scottish drinking song about keeping faith no matter what comes. It's hard to resist the urge to raise a glass and join in singing, "The waves of the water, they endlessly break on the long, long road."
Francey knows the long road well. He took it toward a songwriting career, not casting his line into those waters until he was 45 years old. Nonetheless, from his childhood in Scotland to his working days in Toronto, he has brought with him a keen ear for melody. His songs are so honest and real, you'd think folks had been singing them for generations. But, more likely, these tunes have been hanging in the air all this time, waiting for David Francey.
It's not just the impeccable songwriting which makes this disc an early favorite. Behind Francey comes an intuitive band of gifted pickers - Darren McMullen's mandolin, especially, brings light into even the toughest turns of these tales. As Francey sings, struggling out of a certain depression, in comes McMullen with a flutter of color, turning the songs into inklings of hope and promise.
Though it certainly delves into life's dark moments, So Say We All is ultimately a disc about finding something to hold onto. He sums this up well on "Weather Vane," where he sings, "Everybody leaves their mark, some profound and some profane...forget the wind that howls and turns the weather vane." Listen in and decide for yourself what kind of mark David Francey has left.
It's been about a century and a half since Francis James Child collected upwards of 300 English and Scottish folk ballads and compiled them into a book now known as, simply, the Child Ballads. Folksingers have been pulling from that collection ever since, most notably during the mid-20th Century folk revival, with forerunners of that movement - Fairport Convention, Joan Baez, Buffy Ste. Marie - making recordings which have cemented these songs in the hearts and minds of folkies for generations.
It's not easy to record a song which has been recorded so many times before, and to do so with the grace and creativity that makes the song worth listening to again, in its newly realized version. Especially when great artists like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, and Baez have already touched the song(s) in question. Yet, a couple of young singer-songwriters from Brooklyn have nailed the spirit of the Child Ballads yet again with a seven-song EP out this month on Wilderland Records.
You probably know Anais Mitchell from her handful of solo albums (last year's Young Man in America topped the Folk Alley Best of 2012 countdown), if not from her folk-opera Hadestown, which she wrote by herself and then recorded with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, and Greg Brown. Jefferson Hamer started his career playing bluegrass music and topical folk songs before joining Great American Taxi for a spell, moving to Brooklyn, and forming a trad Irish group called the Murphy Beds with Eamon O'Leary. All these things considered, it makes perfect sense that these two artists - with their frequent straddling of the old and the new - should be well-poised to deliver a remarkable set of interpretations from Child's collection.
In the interest of keeping the songs fresh, they changed some musical phrases, updated the language here and there, and evolved the songs so they could be palatable to a contemporary audience. Aware of 21st Century music fans' short attention spans, they massaged the storylines of these richly nuanced and intellectually complex fairytales and stories of seafaring escapades, until they became wholly digestible and unintimidating. The result is a collection of hundreds-of-years-old songs which sound like they were dreamed up by Mitchell and Hamer themselves.
When Americans talk about folk music with someone from the British Isles, they are very often talking about two very different animals. English, Scottish and Irish musicians regularly perform songs that can be traced back hundreds of years - while people in the US think that acoustic Dylan is old! Jefferson Hamer was inspired by traditional music from across the pond. With Anais Mitchell, he recorded a collection of child ballads (hear more about this adventure in a Folk Alley Sessions captured at Folk Alliance). With Eamon O'Leary, he formed The Murphy Beds and made another great album of songs with long roots.
Billy Bragg works the absolute other end of the British spectrum. On Tooth & Nail, his first studio release in five years, he offers the best folk take on contemporary life and everyday people just trying to get by (although he does stop to cover a Woody Guthrie tune). Bragg writes story songs in a language that is relatable to the world around us.
An amazing thing happened to Josh Ritter following his divorce. He birthed a top-notch collection of songs. Introspective and examining in a way that makes it engaging and not annoying, The Beast in Its Tracks is on its way to making many people happy - even if it was spawned from emotional break-up.
I <3 John Denver! It makes me sad to consider how much he could have accomplished in today's singer/songwriter-friendly climate. A group of artists - including My Morning Jacket, Dave Matthews, Kathleen Edwards, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and many other big names - are featured on The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver. Sixteen of Denver's biggest hits have been reinterpreted for a new audience with a portion of proceeds going to The Wilderness Society.
More music recently added to the Folk Alley playlist:
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - "Child Ballads"
Annie & The Beekeepers - "My Bonneville"
Laura Cortese - "Into the Dark"
Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line - "Carnival"
Brown Bird - "Fits of Reason"
BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet - "From Bamako to Carencro"
Congratulations to Jeffrey Siegel from Tokyo, Japan, who was the randomly selected winner from our most recent listener survey! Jeffery is a fan and a longtime member of Folk Alley and we will be sending him a fleece pullover and 10 folk CDs as a big thank you for taking his time to help us out.
The information that all of you provided will be very valuable to us as we determine what the tweaks we need to make in turning Folk Alley into an even better service for you. The good news is that overall our service received a high approval rating - and we now have your suggestions to help us formulate our short- and long-term strategy for Folk Alley.
The best observation we made after looking at the survey results is that for you, Folk Alley is truly about the music. There are a lot of amateur musicians in our audience who play guitar and maybe you sometimes find yourself strumming along while you listen to the music. It is also apparent that for those who say they support Folk Alley financially, they do so because they love the music and because folk music is getting harder to find on the radio. Our 24/7 folk music service just adds to our value to you.
Again, thanks for the time and effort so many of you took taking our survey. We are happy to have your support and we will continually strive to make Folk Alley a great experience for you.
Twenty-six years into a career that has spanned two dozen highly acclaimed albums (if you count her solo stuff and that with the Indigo Girls, holiday recordings, live albums), Amy Ray can still fly under the radar. Even many Indigo Girls fans don't realize she's had a robust - and decidedly not-Indigo-Girls-sounding - solo career for more than a decade. Much of her work outside of the duo has been heavily influenced by some combination of her punk and soul influences, though she'll be heading into a New York studio this May to start recording a classic-style country album.
In her spare time, whatever that is, she dedicates her energy and celebrity to a number of social issues, from eradicating poverty and racism across the South to LGBT rights and environmental justice. Recently, I spoke with Ray about her work with groups like the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Southerners on New Ground, and Project South (if you visit her website, you can order a live concert DVD she recorded as a fundraiser for Project South). Naturally, our conversation inevitably led to the music.
Here's an excerpt:
Kim Ruehl: Are you hearing an increase in socially-minded songwriters lately? For a little while there those folks were harder to find. It seems to be coming back into the foreground.
Amy Ray: Yeah, It seems like a lot of people around me are socially conscious. I don't know who gets attention and who doesn't. But...I think the environment [for music] right now is, to a certain extent, more progressive because Obama's in office...the gay rights movement and the immigration movement, the environmental movement. There's been so much...I don't want to say progress, but [there's been] movement. I think when that happens songwriters who are in that context get talked about more.
Let's just get the Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings comparison out of the way.
Good, now we can listen more deeply. After all, Pharis & Jason Romero are artists unto themselves - instrument makers, songwriters, pickers extraordinaire. These two clearly have as much adoration and natural talent for the traditions of American folk music as they do for the intrinsic musicality of their two voices.
Fresh from a win at the Canadian Folk Music Awards (they won New/Emerging Artist of the Year), they've got a sophomore album ready (Long Gone Out West Blues), which wanders deeper into their craft. Like a path through the woods, you think you know where you're headed until you to hear the running water. Then come the lonely songs.
There can be a desperation in singing lonely songs - something quiet, sad, and seething. But, when the Romeros sing, there's more of a letting go. You're not peering into the mind of a songwriter; you're witnessing the release of some long-clenched story or emotion. Though these are all beautifully composed, well-considered songs, there's a sense that the music is coming more from the spur of the moment - the newness of the emotion - than from the channeling spirit you might witness with Welch & Rawlings. For example, when Pharis comes in on "Wild Bill Jones," it's like she was listening to this confession then joined in out of urgent solidarity.
Besides, as the album progresses, the influence of Joni Mitchell surfaces on "The Little Things Are Hardest in the End" - possibly the album's hardest hitting tune - followed by hints of Dylan and Baez, and other more elusive influences. A spirit emerges, clearly plucked from deep within obscure field recordings. From Pharis' thoughtful, creative originals to classics like "Sally Goodin", you might be hard pressed to determine what's old and what's new.
This is music made on a timeless continuum, where yesterday's troubles contribute to today's lonesome songs. Listen in, and see where it takes you.
Early 2013 Adds to the Folk Alley Music Collection
February 4, 2013
New Music for 2013
One of the best live shows I ever saw was Cheryl Wheeler at the Kent State Folk Festival. Outside, there was a thunderstorm raging, but inside it was warm and cozy as Wheeler pulled together a set that included her funny songs (like "Potato" - honestly, the best!) and deeply touching personal songs, not to mention the wonderful on-stage banter. Now, you can experience Cheryl Wheeler in all of her glory with Greetings from Cheryl Wheeler Live (featuring piano great Kenny White).
Another artist I first saw at the KSFF (as we affectionately call it) was Seth Glier. He was just breaking out when he played the Kent Stage as an opening act. Since then, Glier has been earning more and more praise for his piano-based singer/songwriter style. Check him out on Things I Should Let You Know.
There has always been a strong connection between Ireland and American roots music. Philadelphia-based Solas has always been something of a Celtic bridge between the Old World and the New. In their latest album, Shamrock City, the story of immigration is told more directly. The songs track a young Irishman (in the form of Michael Conway, the great-great-uncle of Solas frontman Seamus Egan) in 1910 who moves hopefully to Montana, only to meet an unhappy end.
Pharis & Jason Romero are also inspired by days gone by, although less directly. The couple met at an old-time fiddle jam and it must have been true love because Jason (who also has a business making banjos) packed up and moved to a small town in British Columbia to be with Pharis. The pair now record heartfelt and honest songs that would sound at home in Dust Bowl-era Kansas. FolkAlley.com is pleased to offer Long Gone Out West Blues as a Hear It First streaming option on the website.
Folk Alley's Best of 2012 - Linda Fahey's Top Picks of the Year
December 21, 2012
Linda Fahey's 15 Folk Alley Faves of 2012
I'll admit a part of me absolutely dreads putting together my "best of" list every year. It's usually pretty easy to come up with 10 favorite albums of the year. But then I'll think of one more that I absolutely love that should be included, and then another, and another... this is pressure, people. So usually the way I end up narrowing down my final list is to ask myself, "What albums from this year will I be reaching for in another 5 years to take on one of those 9 hour road trips between NYS and Ohio? For 2012, it was impossible for me to keep it to 10....so I didn't. Here are 15 of my favorite albums of the year, and the ones I recommend to my friends (in alphabetical order):
Anais Mitchell - Young Man In America, "Dyin' Day"
Disclaimer: I love music - almost every kind, but bluegrass music holds a special place for me. I enjoy great instrumental playing, and I love to laugh, so I think my favorites span the gamut between virtuosic and ridiculous. I'll let you sort them out! Here are my faves of the year, in no particular order:
Tony Rice: The Bill Monroe Collection---
This is a compilation of recordings made over a 15-year period, featuring Bill Monroe favorites, played and sung by one of America's favorite bluegrass musicians.
Bill Evans: Good Company ---
Evans teamed up with Tim O'Brien, Laurie Lewis, The Infamous Stringdusters, and many more to present this varied collection of original, traditional and contemporary collaborations. Mostly instrumental, with some great singing too, and a healthy dose of classic Beatles songs.
Liam Fitzgerald and The Rainieros: Last Call!---
Full disclosure: I am a western swing/honky tonk head. I LOVE this album. It's fun, ALL original, and so rhythmic you just can't keep your feet still - and the name - a chip off ol' Mt. Rainier! If I could hire one party band, this would be it.
New Multitudes: Music by Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames. Lyrics by Woody Guthrie. ---
At the invitation of Woody Guthrie's sister Nora, these four musicians set Woody Guthrie's unpublished lyrics to music and recorded them on this EP. To hear Guthrie's lyrics plugged into 21st century arrangements makes one realize how timeless they are, and what a lyrical genius he was. 2012 is the 100th anniversary of Woody's birth, and this is a good way to remember him.
The Foghorn String Band: Outshine the Sun ---
It's funky and fun, and it keeps my feet tappin' - and the picking is great too. A simple album that makes you want to dance. Enough said.
Ricky Skaggs: Music To My Ears ---
Ricky Skaggs is a bluegrass icon, but this album is a little different that previous releases: a little less frenetic, and more lyrical. Nice songs, nicely played by some of the best in the business. I think it's one of his best.
Peter Ostroushko: The Mando Chronicles ---
As a late-year release, this one is easy to overlook. It's only been out a few weeks. This collection of arrangements includes everything from fiddle tune medleys to Duke Ellington hits to a classical march. Starring Peter Ostroushko, with Norman Blake and a few other guest artists.
Hot Steel & Cool Ukelele: Hapa Haole Hit Parade ---
Yes, this is just what the title implies, and it DOES contain the hit single, "Makin' Wicky Wacky Down In Waikiki". If you like that one, you'll love the rest of the album, superbly sung by Erich Sylvester (who also plays uke on the album). One listen, and I was hooked! A must-have for your next luau! Warning: If Hawaiian songs (like, 'When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop') are not your thing, then run away as fast as you can! You will hate this album.
2012 is almost completely in the rear view mirror which means it's time to take a look back at some of outstanding releases of the year. I'm happy to report, at least from this host's point of view, that the state of the music is good! There are so many obvious choices this year--Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Lumineers, Iris Dement--I decided to limit my list to a few of the releases that might get overlooked. Here they are in alphabetical order:
Kevin Crawford, Carrying the Tune ---
This is just a solid collection of tunes, produced flawlessly and played with virtuosity. Most people know Kevin's work as the flute and whistle player for Lunasa. On this recording he is backed by John Doyle on guitars, Mick Conneely on Bouzouki, and Brian Morrissey thumping the bodhran. You'll find jigs, reels, waltzes, and hornpipes--perfectly arranged for maximum musicality.
Rayna Gellert, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood and Other Gone Worlds ---
Wow. Rayna Gellert has taken, what she calls, an obsession for traditional music and turned it into a shining example of what can happen when a talented young performer draws from the old to create the new, and takes from the new to re-imagine the old. The result is a kind of originality these ears haven't heard in a while. Nathan Salsburg's guitar is present throughout as well as guest appearances by Abigail Washburn, Kai Welch, Scott Miller, and Alice Gerrard.
I Draw Slow, Redhills ---
I think this one took everybody at Folk Alley by surprise this year--especially when we realized that the band wasn't from Virginia. They are, in fact, from Ireland. It makes perfect sense really. Most of the music that settled in the American South migrated from either that part of Europe or from Africa. It's just really exciting to hear the influence once again in the form of well written songs that sound traditional. Once you realize they are from Ireland, you hear that direct influence as well. This is simply a solid band. Oh, and that song "Goldmine" is a gem.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Carry Me Back ---
Given that Old Crow Medicine Show's very existence as a band was under question just a few years back, it was really good to see such a solid and coherent collection of songs emerge in 2012. The quintessential road band, Old Crow continues to be a polished outfit playing well-written new songs with an authentic old-time feel. "Levi," "Carry Me Back to Virginia," "Genevieve," and "Ways of Man" all stand out for me.
Cathie Ryan, Through Wind and Rain ---
I have loved Cathie's singing since her days with Cherish the Ladies. Her solo records have been consistently well written, performed, and produced, but I think she bumps it up another level on Through Wind and Rain. Perhaps it's because she took more of a hand as producer. This one just seems personal. As you might expect, this is a mix of traditional, original and contemporary songs, but you can hear Cathie's heart and soul in every one of them--in the singing, of course, but also in the arrangements. Cathie is backed by a stellar group of musicians led by the amazing John Doyle and Seamus Eagan.
The Steel Wheels, Lay Down, Lay Low ---
Keep your eyes (and ears) on this quartet from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They can play, they can sing, they can write, and they can perform. I loved their album, Redwing, and I was really hoping for a strong follow-up. Well, I got it. Combining the talents of band members, Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel, and Jay Lapp, Lay Down, Lay Low delivers a high energy mix of modern mountain music with really solid four part harmony. Hear the CD, see them live!
The Waymores, The Waymores ---
There is an exciting trend right now for outstanding solo performers and writers to band together to record and tour. Groups like Brother Sun and the Refugees are good examples of this. The Waymores are from Nashville and they are Don Henry, Sally Barris, and Tom Kimmel--all award- winning, hit songwriters. Not the names you see in bold print on the Billboard Country chart, but the names in parenthesis--the song crafters. But what happens when they get together? Harmony. Harmony of humor, harmony of notes, and harmony of friendship. You can hear it all in this collection of finely crafted and lovingly performed songs.
Various Artists, Mercyland: Hymns For the Rest Of Us ---
I'm kind of a sucker for songs held together by a theme--especially when it's done this well. Mercyland was the brainchild of Nashville songwriter and producer Phil Madeira. He decided to tempt his musical friends into contributing songs that felt spiritual without sounding religious or preachy. I've heard some refer to the genre as "agnostic gospel." Lucky for us, Phil has some talented friends. These talented friends include (among others) Emmylou Harris, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Buddy Miller. The songs and styles are varied, but there is a consistent and pleasing spirit throughout.
Do you ever feel like you're standing in the batting cage...getting ready to swing...and then something goes haywire with the machine? And the baseballs start coming at you without pause, one right after the other, speeding up faster and faster until you just give up and crouch down and cover your head, attempting to avoid getting smacked at 95mph? That's kind of how 2012 went for me - so much music coming my way...and so much of it good that eventually I just gave up and let it all hit me. In no particular order - here are a few of the baseballs - or, I mean, recordings - that really stood out:
Caroline Herring - Camilla --- There is A LOT going on in this recording. I love how Caroline Herring is able to write a song about something complex, heart breaking and incredibly thought provoking - like "Camilla" - and then turn around and write a piece of music that's inspired by something as simple as a little girl chasing fireflies ("Fireflies".)
Compilation - Mercyland-Hymns for the Rest of Us --- Besides the incredible list of musicians who participated on this exquisitely recorded Phil Madeira produced compilation (Emmylou Harris, the Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, etc., etc.), the concept of an album that connects music and spirituality in a non-organized religion kind of way - well, it's appealing. And that was, I think, the point.
Gretchen Peters - Hello Cruel World --- Gretchen Peters said this recording is her "most close-to-the-bone work," a collection of songs she wrote during a time of personal challenges and heartbreaks. For the listener, it is a body of music that is incredibly honest, touching, sorrowful and triumphant all at the same time. Who can resist lyrics like "I'm a ticking clock, a losing bet/a girl without a safety net/I'm a cause for some concern..." ?
Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac - Seinn --- Music from a couple of Cape Breton music legends? Yes please. Seinn is the first collaboration between two long time friends who share a love of the musical traditions of Nova Scotia. It's an album created by a couple of virtuosos and it's a real delight from beginning to end - traditional and original music blending wonderfully together.
Rose Cousins - We Have Made a Spark --- This recording didn't catch my eye right away...so I was a little late on the Rose Cousins train. But I'm glad I caught it. Cousins has a way of writing lyrics that make you think she's either speaking directly to you or she somehow has tapped into your own brain and pulled out your biggest fears, insecurities, joys, etc., etc., etc. It's almost scary.
The Lumineers - The Lumineers --- This was the big one of the year, I think. And I admit - I turned my nose up at first, prejudiced by all the good press it got. But then I actually listened to it. And listened again. And again. And blushed, ashamed that I'd made such a quick judgment. This duo-turned-trio has something to offer to anyone who cares to listen - songs about love and happiness, about sorrow and loss, conveyed by talented musicians who really seem to care about what they're doing.
Steep Canyon Rangers - Nobody Knows You --- What's there to say? Great bluegrass music. Great musicians. Great production value. Etc. Etc. Etc. It's just ... great.
Folk Alley's Best of 2012 - Jim Blum's Top Picks of the Year
December 17, 2012
Jim Blum's Top Picks of 2012
Some new albums jump out at you, others grow on you. The following collection represents my observations after sampling hundreds of submissions over the year. Though Folk Alley's mission is to provide a healthy mix of many styles, these selections were based on individual merit only. In most cases, multiple songs from each release were chosen for rotation (an obvious indicator). Other factors included originality, technique, poetry, arrangement, performance, and frankly, flair. These are my picks for 2012, in order.
1) I Draw Slow - 'Redhills' --- Kind of bizarre name, but this group doesn't need to do make anything up to draw attention to them. Most obviously defined as an old time string band, I Draw Slow is all acoustic, 5 pieces, but unlike most string bands most of the songs are original. Lead by siblings Dave (guitar) and Louise (voice) Holden, this album is engaging, beautiful, and consistent from start to finish. Believe it or not, though they sound like they're from North Carolina, they are from Ireland.
2) The Honeycutters - 'When Bitter Met Sweet' --- From Asheville, singer Amanda Anne Platt leads the way with songs of regret, challenge, and new found hope. If you see the full band live they might sound a bit country rock at times, but most of this album isn't honky tonk, it's acoustic - perhaps "folk-tonk." Check out "For Eleanora," a lament for a great singer despite poor circumstances. Peter James's guitar playing is subtle and full of taste throughout.
3) Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson - 'Wreck and Ruin' --- This should be no surprise; the Australian duo's 2008 release 'Rattlin' Bones' was the #1 album that year. You should have both. Though Kasey has found success with pop and rock, these recordings with her husband are banjo and fiddle driven, and despite growing up listening to American country legends in the Australian outback, these songs are original, and you'll soon be singing along with them.
4) Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem - 'Some Bright Morning' --- Fiddler and singer Rani Arbo recovered fully from a cancer which could have robbed her life, and the gifts keep on coming. "Miami Moon" is a delightful celebration of a love gone right; "Bridges" makes us think twice about things in life we believe are permanent. This is not the first group to interpret Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Crossing The Bar," but no one gives it more meaning.
5) Darrell Scott - 'Long Road Home' --- There are few legitimate triple threats, but Darrell Scott is a monster singer, writer, and session player on multiple instruments. These songs cover a range of emotions, from "No Use Living For Today" to "You're Everything I wanted Love to Be." He brought in several legends for this recording: Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano, Lloyd Green on pedal steel, and Charlie McCoy and Mickey Raphael on harmonicas.
6) Nels Andrews - 'Scrimshaw' --- Where has this guy been hiding? In the library, maybe. Andrews is based in Brooklyn and was a New Folk Finalist at Kerrville. These songs are thoughtful, deeply poetic, and real catchy. The full band arrangements are varied to keep things interesting and have the right energy to invite you in and convince you to stay. The whole album is solid and should attract younger listeners through the indie groove, while not disappointing the veteran listener who demands depth.
7) Mariel Vandersteel - 'Hickory' --- This fiddler performed at a recent Folk Alliance conference with Putnam Smith in an old timey setting, with the Celtic roots quartet Annalivia, and then during her own showcase she played brilliantly on a Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mariel can play well in any folk style, all with joy, and this album will prove it. David Grisman's son Sam Grisman plays bass. All instrumental.
8) 100 Mile House - 'Hollow Ponds' --- From Edmonton, Alberta, this group is led by husband and wife Peter Stone and Denise MacKay. The songs are dreamy and soft spoken, but by no means dull. Listen for themes of escape or second chances. You'll catch yourself wondering why we continue to wish for things we can't have. Multi instrumentalist Scott Zubot fills out the sound nicely. (2011 release)
9) Steep Canyon Rangers - 'Nobody Knows You' --- Though they back up Steve Martin on tour, The Steeps can hold their own as live performances and all of their CDs demonstrate. Some might label them traditional, but they've given us a whole batch of new songs which do not cover tired themes. "Rescue Me" is a cry for help; "Between Midnight and Dawn" is for those on hold; "Open Country" is a joyous realization of the freedom of the road. Woody Platt sings, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle may be Scotty Stoneman reincarnated.
10) Chatham County Line - 'Sight and Sound' --- This is the third band from North Carolina in this top ten list (The Honeycutters and The Steep Canyon Rangers are the other two.) 'Sight and Sound' is a live album with most of the chatter cut out. Though some of their popular songs are included, they smartly add many songs not previously recorded. Chatham County Line presents one of our best examples of ensemble playing - these guys really are on the same page - showing that rehearsal counts. The overall live energy was captured and this "feels" like "Old And In The Way" from 35 years ago.
My co-workers get a little annoyed when I start playing Christmas music mid-November - but I don't mind. That's about the time that the new holiday CDs start rolling in to Folk Alley and we need to start adding songs to our playlist if we're going to have new content for seasonal shows. I usually am on the front lines as the submissions pile up, because music has always been a part of my Christmas celebrations - from my earliest days with my arms wrapped around The Kingston Trio's Last Month of the Year and numerous Firestone Tire compilations to my dedicated seasonal CD wallet that lives in my car from Thanksgiving to the end of December.
Here is a sample of some new holiday CDs that may soon become part of your annual celebrations:
Sufjan Stevens: Silver & Gold - If I like Christmas music, Sufjan Stevens bathes in it and eats it every meal. I admire the guts and gumption it takes to assemble a collection with 58 tracks (it's a massive package, with five CDs, a poster and temporary tattoos). To build his collection there are plenty of originals, along with beloved favorites, and instrumentation running from classical guitar and violin to Theremin.
Various: Holidays Rule - Every year, Starbucks sells a holiday CD - "I'll take a grande decaf latte and some Christmas spirit!" This year's collection on the Hear Music label (which can also be purchased at other outlets) is a mix of indie artists and music perfect for Folk Alley, including great contributions from The Civil Wars, the Punch Brothers, The Head and the Heart, Andrew Bird and some guy named Sir Paul McCartney.
The Sweetback Sisters: Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular - Really, any holiday CD that includes "Hark, the Herald Angles Sing" as if it was sung by cats, is most-likely going into heavy rotation on my Christmas playlist. The album mixes harmonies, rock-a-billy instrumentation and an appropriate sense of seasonal whimsy for what I'll be playing - and singing along with - to get into the holiday spirit as I wrap my Christmas presents.
Tracey Thorn: Tinsel and Lights - I brought this album to the table. I've loved Thorn since her days with Everything But The Girl. The songs on this seasonal CD lean more towards the thoughtful (and sometimes, even sad) side of winter. Listening to her cover of Joni Mitchell's "River" does NOT make me want to visit Canada in December, but her voice is so rich and beautiful, the collection is a lovely counterpoint to more treacle fair.
The Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band: A Fiddler's Holiday - With the addition of Jay's daughter Ruth and her husband, Mike Merenda (both of The Mammals), the Ungars are turning into an old-fashioned family folk band specializing in haunting instrumentals. This CD is a mix of traditional songs for the season from a new PBS special and features the University of Mary Washington's Philharmonic Orchestra as a super-sized back-up band.
Willie Nelson: The Classic Christmas Album - Following in the footsteps of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, everyone's favorite crooner, Willie Nelson, adds his voice to some of the most-treasured songs in the Christmas canon. And, the result is a lovely CD filled with heartfelt vocals and pared-back arrangements that will make the perfect holiday soundtrack and are sure to make this album a family favorite for years to come.
The Stray Birds - Folk Alley Backstage Session at BluSeed Studios
November 14, 2012
by Linda Fahey, folkalley.com
A year ago, I attended my first Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference in Kerhonkson, New York - a four-day music conference jam-packed with showcasing musicians. Some artists are fairly established, but many are looking to get "discovered" by the folk talent buyers in attendance, folk radio types, managers, publicists, and other folk industry professionals. For me, it's a great way to reconnect with friends and to discover up and coming artists.
Last year, the highlight of the conference was The Stray Birds - an acoustic trio from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: Oliver Craven, Maya de Vitry and Charlie Muench. They have it all - chops, great harmonies, songwriting.
In October, Folk Alley caught up with The Stray Birds to record a backstage session before their concert at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake, New York.
Album titles can be a funny thing. Sometimes artists go for something cryptic or pull a lyric from the center of one of the songs on the disc - a sentiment which seems to sum it up, but only if you listen closely. For her latest release, though, Carrie Newcomer has chosen to cut straight to the heart of the reason she makes music at all.
"When a song places its finger on the open palm of something true," she says, "it shakes the world just a little bit. Why would I want to do anything else as a writer, or as a person? Part of my work as a writer is to put into language and music moments of wonder that have no words."
Kindred Spirits: A Collection delves into the nuances of human commonality. It's a spiritual album, to be sure, but without all the high-fallutin' gospel praise anthems which tie together so many other spiritually-focused recordings. These songs speak for the depth of humanity which transcends anyone's definition of "holy" or "secular"...or any other word, for that matter.
These are songs not about some unseen spiritual force in the air, but that which resides in each person, which moves each of us in the work we do. These are songs of the common bond between my spirit and yours, those between neighbors and others who may agree or disagree, as we all strive to improve the world around us.
On "I Believe," for example, she sings, "I don't know a single soul who didn't get lost along the way." Indeed, finding one's self lost at one time or another is a universal human experience. The gumption we tap to find our way out is the spirit to which she attributes awakening.
On Kindred Spirits, Newcomer enlists the assistance of some like-minded friends - Krista Detor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Ayaan Ali Khan - and includes a pair of brand new songs to please long-time fans. Take a listen for yourself, and be reminded that spirit is neither political nor divisive; but, rather, like music, is something which can keep us together.
Click HERE to order a copy of Kindred Spirits: A Collection.
40th Anniversary of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" - Interview with John McEuen
October 19, 2012
In the late 60's radio was different. FM was just beginning to be embraced. Not only was the signal more enriched and in stereo, but the new stations were less regimented and not as targeted as they are today. So called "rock" stations might pair Led Zeppelin right next to Tom Rush or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The host - or DJ - actually made most of the musical choices.
Musicians themselves were freer to follow their dreams as well. John McEuen, one of the founding members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - a very popular "folk-rock" band at the time - knew that Nashville was changing. The traditional country music stars were beginning to be passed over for more glamorized younger singers. John feared that younger fans might not ever discover Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, or Mother Maybelle Carter. He also knew that he might be able to use the newfound freedom of FM radio and borrow on his own group's popularity to make a difference.
John McEuen, Jeff Hanna & the rest of the band thought it might be cool to include these early stars on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album. Most of them lived in Nashville, or not far from it. Once Doc and Earl Scruggs agreed, they figured others would follow. John and his brother went to the label and pitched the idea. To hear what happened next is a fascinating story.
John approached me at the Bliss Festival in Michigan this summer and we sat down and talked about "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" 40 years ago. John brought a guitar and played a couple tunes, and we also talked about his latest album with his two sons.
This is where I must begin," sings Rayna Gellert at the onset of her new album - Old Light: Songs from My Childhood and Other Gone Worlds. With that, she pulls the listener into a world fashioned out of songs which have shaped her through the years.
These are tunes she heard her parents play when she was a child (she grew up in a musical family - her father Dan appears on the record). There are also original songs, but Gellert is so adept at traditional music, you'd be hard-pressed to decide which ones are hers and which come from long ago and far away.
Indeed, it's always interesting to delve into what influenced an artist's ear. One of the most common questions journalists pose to musicians is: "Who are your influences?" It's common because the kind of music a person grows up to make is heavily informed by the tunes they grew up cutting their teeth on.
In Gellert's case, traditional folk music was there from the beginning - it's how she learned to understand music, how she learned to play, and the way she eventually figured out to make her way as a fiddler.
She has earned a solid place in contemporary roots music by moving straight from homespun jam sessions to a career lending her skills to folks like Loudon Wainwright III, Abigail Washburn, Robyn Hitchcock, and others. There were also a couple albums on Rounder Records with Uncle Earl (the all-female old time troupe who earned a lot of praise breathing new life into old songs). Indeed, Gellert's fiddle skills precede her, so it's interesting to hear her lay down the bow and deliver this collection of mostly guitar-and-banjo-accompanied tunes.
There are a couple exceptional moments when bow hits strings. "The Fatal Flower Garden" has a fiddle sawing deeply in the background so it almost sounds like car breaks screeching. But, even there, it's a tertiary instrument to the lyrics and melodies she's selected, knowing all the while that where we go is best understood by embracing where we've been.
*To order this CD, click here to visit Rayna Gellert's website!*
For all the buzz that's been made about members of Black Prairie having performed for years as the Decemberists, one truth has stuck through their releases. This is a separate band built on a foundation of folk and bluegrass, and is by no means intended to be anything Decemberists-like. Sure, there's bleed-over - these same instrumentalists with these same minds have contributed to Decemberists projects. But they've done so pulling on their long history and affection for traditional music.
At the end of the day, these folks can pick a guitar and banjo and saw the hell out of a fiddle - nothing ironic about it. They proved it on their self-titled debut two years ago, and they're solidifying it here on their new album A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart (due Sept. 18 on Sugar Hill Records).
Granted, they're taking more liberty with the form this time around.
"Nowhere Massachusetts" has a little Jessica Lea Mayfield energy in it. You might hear a smattering of a PJ Harvey-meets-Sara-Watkins vibe here and there. Nonetheless, this is back porch music - from the twilight-and-fireflies of "Rock of Ages" to the fiddle-and-clog of "For the Love of John Hartford," to the swig-and-swagger instrumentalism of "Evil Leaves" and "Taraf".
It's an album which speaks for the ever-evolving face of the Portland, Oregon, music scene. In addition to the rawness of the bluegrass influence, the disc is heavy on piano, accordion, dobro, and percussion. There are Vaudeville moments and others which transport you straight to the heart of Appalachia.
It's also a long disc, capping out at sixteen tracks, but every single one is a keeper. Sure, hardcore bluegrass fans may be disappointed about the diversions toward something more imaginative and dreamy and outside tradition's box, but these are clothes Black Prairie wears well. Try them on for yourself
**CLICK HERE to order the album and receive a free download of "How Do You Ruin Me"!**
There's something about the way Caroline Herring delivers a line like, "Mama, sweet mama, where are you going with all your babies and that casserole?" Indeed, this is the opening line of "Camilla" - the title track on her new album - and it sets the tone and scene for the rest of the exquisitely written songs included therein. You know even as she's delivering that line, this isn't just a single song. This is a world in which women know they must take a casserole with them when they're trying to appeal to justice. (The next line: "I'm going to the jailhouse in Camilla, Georgia, to see a woman and ask for her parole.")
You can listen to Camilla in the same way you might drive through such a town. If you're just passing by, it comes off as a pretty little thing. Sure, it has its imperfections, but it's not unlike a number of other small towns through which you might pass.
But, dive in, and you'll be endeared by women taking casseroles to the jailhouse, little girls chasing fireflies even as tradition gets destroyed around them, people singing "This Land Is Your Land", people lamenting about their hard summer. It's a difficult world in Herring's Camilla (a real town, mind you, just south of Albany, GA, with a population of 5,669).
According to the songs, race relations there are tenuous at best, but the characters here maintain a certain level of defiance and hope. By the end of the disc, they've come to the conclusion that "Joy Never Ends".
Granted, Camilla isn't presented as a folk opera. It's quite possible some of these songs are about different places and things (the 3,000,000 people afraid to share their name in "Maiden Voyage," for example, are clearly not all in Camilla, GA). But the themes consistently tie back to the South, the small towns, the places where people "fight to keep on living" (as they do in "Until You Go"), despite inequity and other barriers we create for each other for no legitimate discernible reason.
As topical as the songs come off, these aren't protest songs in the history of protest music. These are just stories about real people struggling, failing, succeeding, and just getting by - the kinds of songs Woody Guthrie might be writing these days, in other words.
**Click HERE to order Camilla from Signature Sounds!**
Folk music can be a tricky thing sometimes. There's a temptation, as an instrumentalist who knows and loves the way their instrument sounds, to follow any fluid emotion through an overreaching solo. When your bow draws against the fiddle strings in such a way that they positively sing, you can run away with it if you're not careful.
So, there's a lot to be said for the art of restraint. This is true of any style of music, but particularly in folk music - where the strings sing on their own and the songs are, as a general rule, more sparsely arranged.
A few contemporary artists keep it checked - most famously Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who have committed themselves to whatever they're capable of doing with two voices and two guitars. Within those confines, they've crafted a career of extraordinary musicianship which few others have managed to match.
The Be Good Tanyas have nailed it across their three albums. Last year, the Milk Carton Kids burst on the scene with their similar approach to duo songwriting, swapping vocal leads and accompanying each other only on harmony vocals and guitar. They've displayed a new expertise for delivering exquisite music using only the tools available to their hands and voices.
Now, here come the Stray Birds - a trio based in Pennsylvania with a traditional folk lineup (three voices, banjo, bass, and fiddle) whose only diversions see them picking up a guitar or adding a second fiddle. The songs on their new self-titled album are remarkably stripped-down, written by the two lead vocalist, Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven. Even the backing vocals are delivered with artful restraint - an "ooh" here, an "ah" there.
Lyrically, they're songs are about love ("Just Sayin'") and fear and making bad decisions ("25 to Life") - all the things folk songs are there to do. They trot and waltz and swing ("No Part of Nothin") and take an original path to pay homage to the Celtic roots of many folk instrumentals ("Give That Wildman a Knife/Bellows Falls/Waitin' on a Hannah").
The Be Good Tanyas have been such an incredible presence in the evolution of Americana and indie roots music, it's hard to believe they've only released three albums in their 13-year career. Granted, those three albums included some of the most remarkably well-written heartbreak songs ("Scattered Leaves") and songs of hope ("The Littlest Birds") in the genre. They've also recorded excellent renditions of other people's songs (Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting Around to Die") and old time folk standards ("The Coo Coo Bird").
Now they're readying The Be Good Tanyas: A Collection - an extended 16-song retrospective which firmly encapsulates their solid, inimitable, banjo-driven folk-soul. Indeed, the Tanyas are adept at straddling lines - classic and contemporary, old-timey and newfangled. Their folk instrumentation, paired with Frazey Ford's deep delta soul vocals, has proven timeless in its innovation and cross-genre appeal.
The Be Good Tanyas: A Collection pulls together highlights of all three of their releases - Blue Horse, Chinatown, and Hello Love - with such seamlessness; it feels like this was the album they were reaching for all along, anyway. While the trio's members have struck out the past few years with remarkable solo projects (both Ford and Sam Parton have released albums worth dropping everything to hear, as has Trish Klein with Po' Girl), they're reuniting this year for a tour around the release of this retrospective.
In the spirit of reunion, they included two new songs. Both "Little Black Bear" and "Gospel Song" fit soundly within the Tanyas repertoire, as if no time had passed since their last recording. As Canadians, they still present traditional American music better than most folks from The States, bridging eras in a way which is more natural than nostalgia, more art than anachronism.
Indeed, this is a disc meant to revisit the Tanyas' creative accomplishments in a way which will remind long-time fans of their command over their craft, while introducing newcomers to their bigger picture. Kick back with a tall one and let them play you through a sweltering summer. No matter what, the Be Good Tanyas always keep it cool.
*Click HERE to pre-order The Be Good Tanyas: A Collection at Amazon.com.* *Click HERE to see their summer reunion tour schedule.*
It's been eight years since Mindy Smith dropped her intensely introspective debut - One Moment More - on Vanguard Records. Since then, she's become a staple in the realm of gloriously sad songs, an area championed by artists as variant as legends like Emmylou Harris and newer-comers like Rose Cousins. It's unquestionably good company to be in, but Smith's fifth album starts to veer out of that territory. With songs about rebirth, redemption, rediscovery, and revelation, she steers herself away from the sadness and instead toward hope. Here and there, when the songs allow themselves to relax, the self-titled disc is darn near upbeat.
On "Tin Can," we even see her carelessly caterwauling "I'm just a happy old fool set free."
But, it's track six - "Everything Here Will Be Fine" - which seems to be the root of this album. It's a hymn of sorts sung to a dying mother, to comfort her in her final moments. The song could nearly be misconstrued as a dirge, except it's clear she believes what she's singing about things turning out okay in the end.
Besides, that's a major key she's singing in, despite its occasionally minor chords. For all its sadness and resignation, there's a certain driving determination toward life in this song - perhaps the same determination which directs the rest of the album.
Go ahead mother, he's calling you home.
You can't stay here forever; it's time you moved on.
Don't worry now, everything here will be fine.
Everything here is all right.
Your children are stronger than they may know;
Some will take longer letting you go.
Don't worry now, everything here will be fine...
It must be noted that, five albums into her career, it was this project which Smith decided to title as her most self-definitive. For all the ruminating in shadows and dark corners she's done, here's an artist declaring hope truest expression is one of resilience and hope for the future.
Granted, Smith still has a voice like crying. There's a certain emotionalism running rampant through everything she does - a singer at a fork in the road to revelation. One way is a road full of tears; the other is redemption. There are moments of relapse ("Sober"), granted, but in the end it's clear that this time, she opted for the latter.
Random thoughts, hidden emotions rising to the surface, daring admissions of guilt or pleasure.....that's what you'll get from The Honeycutters. Their new album, When Bitter Met Sweet, is not a therapy session, but rather a joyful release, presented in a folk/honky tonk mix. Acoustic guitar and mandolin combine with pedal steel and drums to provide a pleasing backdrop for singer Amanda Anne Platt's original songs.
Co-leading the band is guitarist Peter James, who is full of a wonderful nervous energy, and you can tell he is listening carefully to Amanda's words before he creates his musical fills. They are based out of Asheville, North Carolina, and are beginning to tour throughout the country. Matt Smith plays the pedal steel, and Tal Taylor the mandolin.
When Bitter Met Sweet recalls old emotions and will easily pull yours out of the closet too. If you have ever written a "Dear John" letter, then you'll understand "90 Miles (The Tennessee Song)" which details specific reasons for leaving. Usually these feelings are felt but never shared, but songs can be the perfect vehicle. There are happy songs too.
"Getting Good at Waiting" is a misleading title, as it is an expression of gratitude for a place on earth. One day we all hope to have that cabin in the woods, and once it's there and you're there, you might feel just as satisfied, with no desires for more.
"For Eleanora" is a perhaps the album's best song - it's certainly catchy, and it tells a good story too. Eleanora is a New York singer falling from grace. Fame usually brings success, but too often temptations come along for the ride. It's not clear if this singer is real or imagined, but many singers from history easily come to mind.
"All I Got" is about a couple making an effort to compromise. The wonderful side effect of the conversation is that admissions of love come pouring out, trumping the reasons for the discussion in the first place. Hopefully you're enticed enough to listen for yourself.
Two songs into his new album Hundred Dollar Valentine, Chris Smither sings, "I don't have to prove anything to anyone." Considering his entire career, that seems about right.
It's not so much an original sentiment for modern music, of course, but this is no expression of youthful angst and hubristic defiance. After all, this is Smither's 15th studio album since he threw his hat into the ring back in 1970. Since then, he's watched the landscape evolve and shift, bands come and go, moods change, and the wavelike interest of music fans in folk and the blues - his two remarkable specialties. Once again, he's responded to it all with a collection of songs which take on a life of their own - from resignation through the storm clouds of worry, and back to hope again.
Hundred Dollar Valentine is full of hopeful songs about having a grip and contemplative tunes, worrying that grip might slip. No better place do all these sentiments collide than on "What They Say" - perhaps Smither's finest moment on the disc. With an upbeat New Orleans-style energy and some rolling guitar grooves, he lights into the truth of it all. Considering the way motivation sometimes shifts, taking us toward some unexpected destination, he sings: "I didn't want to change but the road kept sliding in a funny way / I kept riding on it anyway / sometimes you do what you gotta."
He has a knack for tackling the hard in an easy way. He roots even his moodiest songs, like "Feeling By Degrees", in a low, strong rhythm. . .like a heartbeat. Here, you can almost feel the ghost of Townes Van Zandt lurking somewhere between the toe tap and the dreamy violins. Indeed, he and Van Zandt share a common influence in the glory of Lightnin' Hopkins, but Smithers has tended more toward the blues in previous efforts. Here, instead, he seems to lean more heavily in a story-song direction.
With four decades of great music under his belt, Smither certainly doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, but on Hundred Dollar Valentine, he proves something anyway: an old dog can not only learn new tricks, but he can master them too.
Here's a list of some of our favorite new music that has come across our desk recently, that has found its way into the Folk Alley stream!
Anais Mitchell - 'Young Man in America'
Annalivia - 'Barrier Falls'
Bill Evans - 'In Good Company'
Clarence Bucaro - 'Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker'
Dala - 'Best Day'
Coyote Grace - 'Now Take Flight'
Doug Paisley - 'Golden Embers'
George Harrison - 'Early Takes Volume 1'
John Fullbright - 'From the Ground Up'
Jon Brooks - 'Delicate Cages'
Kate Campbell - '1000 Pound Machine'
Leftover Salmon - 'Aquatic Hitchhiker'
Loudon Wainwright III - 'Older Than My Old Man Now'
Martyn Joseph - 'Live at the Brook'
Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell - 'KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell'
MAZ - 'Telescope'
Natasha Borzilova - 'Out of my Hands'
O'Brien Party of 7 - 'Reincarnation: The Songs of Roger Miller'
Phoebe Hunt - 'Phoebe Hunt'
Punch Brothers - 'Who's Feeling Young Now?'
Rose Cousins - 'We Have Made a Spark'
Sara Watkins - 'Sun Midnight Sun'
Shawn Colvin - 'All Fall Down'
Stephane Wrembel - 'Origins'
Sultans of Swing - 'Move'
The Fretless - 'Waterbound'
The Honey Dewdrops - 'Silver Lining'
The Honeycutters - 'When Bitter Met Sweet'
The Tillers (with Uncle Mike Carr) - 'Wild Hog in the Woods'
The Wandering - 'Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here'
Willie Nelson - 'Heroes'
Folk music, in all traditions, spawns from communal activity bringing people together to share in a cultural fusion of life, love, hardships and happiness through the experience of live music. The popular folk-duo, Brown Bird exemplified this point in a rare intimate performance Sunday evening (6/3) at a Mechanic Street House Concert , a family-run house concert series in a fascinating 100-year-old house located in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. "This is a great way to end this tour and you've made our trip to Cleveland a really special experience," exclaimed guitarist David Lamb as he spoke to those who were lucky enough to secure their entry through the venue's private email RSVP process.
As their bio states, Brown Bird is "better listened to in a room made of wood," and indeed this was a fortunate affair to watch David Lamb and MorganEve Swain deliver their dark and catchy blend of blues, folk and rockabilly soul from an elegant living room adorned with wood-carved moldings and archways reflecting the decadence of a once prominent home in the heart of industrial Cleveland. Hailing from Warren, RI, which according to Lamb is "the smallest town in the smallest county of the smallest state in the country," Brown Bird's performance to an enthusiastic crowd in the smallest venue in Cleveland was a fitting finale as this band ventures home from a recent tour with the bluegrass juggernaut, Trampled by Turtles.
The show kicked off with a fiery pace featuring songs off the duo's latest album Salt for Salt, including "Fingers to the Bone," an up-tempo composition featuring David Lamb on banjo and vocals, as well as MorganEve Swain on double bass, and "Thunder & Lightning" with Lamb on guitar while pounding at foot percussions that project prominently throughout the bands' music. Soon thereafter, "Come My Way" featured MorganEve Swain on cello and supporting vocals where she demonstrated her virtuosity on the stringed instruments by displaying a range of pizzicato dynamics as she snapped and slapped at her untraditional color painted fret board in sequence with regular arco bowing.
Throughout the performance Swain showed a breadth of technicality and talent as she gracefully transitioned from double bass to the cello and ultimately to the fiddle in a continuous cycle, which aided the flow of the show's delivery. A great example of her impressive playing came in the second set during the song "Nothing Left" where Swain bows a Slavic rhythmic melody on the cello and engages in dynamic interplay with Lamb's guitar through a series of upbeat verses and a signifying chorus. This fast-paced dynamism continued in the instrumental "Shilo," another song off Salt for Salt, where the cello and the guitar are engaged in a percussive battle that culminates in a fantastic melody with Lamb slapping his guitar and stomping on his downbeat foot shaker crafted with a screwdriver's handle for a mallet.
"We'll play one more for you, on the condition that some of you get up and dance," Lamb stated at the end of the second set with a serious gleam towards the crowd who had remained seated and respectful of the close environment in the venue throughout the evening. Several folks in the crowd took to their feet with agility to indulge the wishes of the guitarist as Brown Bird closed out the evening playing an encore with the beat-driven fiddle focused song "Cast No Shadow," again off of the new record Salt of Salt. The audience clapped loudly while a cohort of dancers let lose in the obstructed, and therefore previously unoccupied, front hall of the house to close out the evening in traditional folk fashion. The unique experience of this bi-monthly pop-up music venue and the energy of this road vindicated band is a memory that all in attendance got to take home with them to begin their first summery weeks of June. Adding to that, guests at the Mechanic Street House also received the unique thrill of getting to know wonderfully talented artists and enjoying the company of new and old friends from the vastly cultural Cleveland community.
You can catch Brown Bird again on dates in June at folk festivals throughout the Northeast, including the Newport Folk Festival, after which their next tour may pick up in late August out to the west coast of the country. Hopefully you can catch Brown Bird playing more in intimate wooden-made venues for you to truly experience the depths of their sound, but if that opportunity doesn't cross your path "you may be able to catch us with Yonder Mountain String Band again soon," Lamb said candidly. That would surely be a treat for all of us folk and bluegrass fans.
A memoir can be a shaky thing. The author has to balance two very delicate plates: her memory and the truth. The latter is held prisoner to the former; what constitutes a story often depends on how it's told.
If you're doing it right, the same can go for songwriting. Of course, in the field of music, the storyteller gets to lean against a precarious pole of nonverbal communication, building dramatic tension through harmony and rhythm, emphasizing certain parts of a story by relying on the subtleties of the singer. Et cetera.
It's not surprising, then, that an award-winning, best-selling author and a similarly beloved songwriter might get together and make the kind of music which pretty much nails the very best things a story and a song are capable of achieving together. Indeed, Mary Karr (of Cherry, The Liars Club, Lit) and Rodney Crowell (of Grammy Awards and the Songwriter Hall of Fame) have done just that with Kin.
It doesn't hurt a bit that they've also gathered some of the finest song interpreters in the Americana field. Here's Lucinda Williams, Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, and Lee Ann Womack - not to mention Crowell himself - delivering ten songs. Each is wrought with those things which haunt so many of our memories and truths: family, lovers, heartbreak, loneliness, feeling lost, feeling found, wondering, figuring it out, then back to family again.
As it turns out, Crowell and Karr grew up not too far from each other, in turbulent Texas homes drenched with booze and bitterness. Their childhoods had so many similarities, a certain kinship emerged (hence the title of the album). But, these aren't all songs about how messed-up family can be, how much it can hurt and confuse us; they're also songs about the ways in which it sustains and supports us as we reckon with our memories and the truth.
CLICK HERE to listen to KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell in its entirety through June 4th!