Since the spring of 1960, Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, has been welcoming folk singers and musicians onto its stage. Among them have been folks as variant as Tom Paxton and John Gorka, Robin and Linda Williams, Anais Mitchell, Greg Brown, Arlo Guthrie, and Tift Merritt. It's the longest continuously running coffee house in the country, and crowds continue to gather there to take in the music. What's more, it's now a not-for-profit establishment run entirely by volunteers.
Albums recorded live at Caffe Lena have been released before, including the 1972 vinyl release Welcome to Caffe Lena, featuring 13 performances form Patrick Sky, Utah (Bruce) Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels, and others. But, to celebrate a landmark 53 years in business, the folks at the Caffe have decided to drop a stellar three-disc collection spanning most of its existence.
Live at Caffe Lena: Music from America's Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013 plays out like a brief aural history of the evolution of contemporary American folk music. There are work songs and tragic ballads, love songs, the blues, mythological adaptations, gospel songs, tunes about farming and big mainstream hits like "Cats in the Cradle" and "Mr. Bojangles."
It's hard to imagine a better offering in folk music than an album that jumps from Anais Mitchell on her Hadestown tour, to Mike Seeger singing "O Death," David Amram crooning along with his mighty banjo, and Arlo Guthrie delivering his classic "City of New Orleans."
Thankfully, the crowd is as present in these recordings as are the performers. Great folk songs are, after all, an open conversation. The occasional giggles or gasped breaths of the audience - not to mention their rapt attention - is the constant on this collection, and it only adds to the experience of the album. It makes great sense to hear Dave Van Ronk with an audience chuckling at his surprising one-liners, for example; to hear the crowd sing along with the inimitable Guy Carawan.
Also included is the relevant between-song banter (Jean Ritchie's brief intro to "West Virginia Mine Disaster") and Lena Spencer introductions, where it made sense to do so. As a result, the listener can feel like they're right in the room along with each of these legendary performers, some of whom have long since passed away, for what feels almost like the greatest open mic night of all time.
Americana/folk bands from Colorado tend to write songs with a few common threads. Whether it's the enormity of the Rocky Mountains or the gamut of weather patterns enjoyed by that state, its roots music players make a habit of creating music that sounds like it's one with the nature by which it's surrounded. Elephant Revival may have started with one foot in Oklahoma, but their Colorado roots run just as deep. Their latest album These Changing Skies, sounds like it's swimming in a Boulder moonlight.
From the atmospheric, long-bowed fiddle lines to the quiet, dreamy harmonies and occasional weeping musical saw, the disc is replete with creative arrangements. It feels like a bit of a departure from previous efforts that have verged on the newgrass/jamband style. This time around, they seem to have shirked expectations and decided to just lean harder on their Celtic, pop, and bluegrass influences. The result is an aesthetic all their own, straddling all of contemporary folk music's various, assumed boundaries.
Of course it helps that every song is danceable, backed by a constant buoyant rhythm. Even the slower songs seem to bop about on an easy breeze. By the time "Down to the Sea" swells under the syncopated build of a couple of fiddles and, ultimately, electric guitar, it feels as though the album has its own beating heart.
Elephant Revival have been slowly making strides across the national folk circuit these past few years, but These Changing Skies is likely to be the catapult that sails them above and beyond many of the up-and-coming bands of the genre. Or, at the very least, it should establish them on a grander stage. Defying the trend of creating radio-friendly indie roots music, Elephant Revival has shifted its focus to finding a path most suitable to its talents. As a result, every song is good. What more can you want?
WATCH: more Elephant Revival videos produced by Folk Alley at this year's Fayetteville Roots Festival.
By now, it's almost a cliché that New England is a hotbed of great, outside-the-box roots music. What's more, so much of it has been pouring from the discriminating taste-makers at Signature Sounds these past few years. They're the label that's brought us everyone from Eilen Jewell to Joy Kills Sorrow and Lake Street Dive. Now, they're readying a self-titled debut from Connecticut-based Poor Old Shine, due Nov. 5.
Produced by sharp-eared songwriter/instrumentalist extraordinaire Sam Kassirer, Poor Old Shine introduces some of the most jubilant and danceable indie roots music this side of the Carolinas. That's not terribly surprising, considering the band counts the Avett Brothers among its many influences. Indeed, the Avetts' stomping-and-cavorting energy tumbles along, through this disc, without ever bumping up against imitation. Another cited influence is the great Pete Seeger, whose simple-is-better approach to songwriting is clearly taken under fierce consideration here, as well.
Indeed, Poor Old Shine straddle the influence of new and old throughout the disc, jumping and harmonizing through early highlights like "Footsteps in My Ears" (almost like Sunny Day Real Estate meets Mumford & Sons). But they can just as well deliver quiet, well-considered respite in songs like "Ghost Next Door" or romantic proclamations in songs like "Love Song" ("I've been dreaming of you all night long / but no word my heart sings does justice to these things / and it's hard to write a love song.")
You could tip a hat to Kassirer's off-the-beaten-path Maine studio for so much of the simple, rural energy on this disc, but there's a certain point where that can't be fabricated, even by the most inspiring surroundings. At some point, the raw grit just has to be in the band's bones. Lucky for Poor Old Shine, that seems to be the case.
Sarah Jarosz got started early, releasing stunning albums of imaginative acoustic music before she was so much as out of high school. Of course, it helped that the discs included support from some of the other great mandolinists (her primary instrument) - folks like Sam Bush and Chris Thile, to drop a few names. But the songwriting and the music's overall vision, even when it's been the product of collaboration, has always depicted a young artist who is not afraid of creating music that does the aural equivalent of jumping off a cliff to see if it can fly. From turning Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" into a bluegrass tune to delivering her own unexpected instrumentals, Jarosz has never left her songs longing for imagination.
Now, on her third album for Sugar Hill - this year's Build Me Up from Bones - she demonstrates all the ways she's benefitted from four years at the New England Conservatory. The disc's creative arrangements were borne of her longtime touring trio, consisting of Jarosz, Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), and Nathaniel Smith (cello). It blending elements of jazz and classical music with her habit of traditional aesthetics and, from start to stop, is an emotional and expansive collection.
I recently called Jarosz up on the road, as she was making her way from Minnesota to Madison, Wisc., to chat about the new disc:
Kim Ruehl: There's some clear growth since the last album, but what have you been up to, and where did this record come from for you?
Sarah Jarosz: I think it's a pretty clear blending of a couple of things. A lot of it had to do with my time at the New England Conservatory. In a way, it's the first record of mine that [my experience there] impacted. I think it took the full four years for that to infiltrate my musicality. [I think] Alex and Matt, my touring trio, had a lot to do with the sound of this record. I knew going into it that I wanted the trio to be a big part of the sound.
KR: You were a great musician before you ever went to college. So, I wonder what you learned in college, studying music?
SJ: Well, so many things. I think I definitely had [to make a] decision, whether I wanted to go straight onto the road after high school or if I wanted to go to college. I always wanted to have the experience of going to college. I didn't want to skip over that part of my life. I wanted it to be in Boston because the music scene was so great there. NEC was... so great because it offered up so much musical stuff I wasn't getting inside the acoustic scene. Within my first year, I was learning jazz and free improvisation, being pushed into these styles I'd never really listened to much before going there. I think doing that, and a lot of ear training, really pushed me in ways I may not have been pushed otherwise, or it would have taken me a lot longer in my life to get pushed in that way. On top of that, to have voice lessons for the first time in my life... [Singing] was always something I did on my own. I didn't have a lot of voice lessons, except in musical theater, here and there, when I was really little. Dominique Eade...really helped me grow a lot with my voice.
KR: Do you think the collaboration with Alex and Matt has made you a better listener? As a songwriter, there's a tendency to make a song sound the way you want it to sound, but a collaboration like that requires that you really pay attention to each other. Do you think that's something you picked up?
SJ: Oh, for sure. It was interesting going into the studio because, for the longest time, songwriting was just a solo, alone, private process for me. I would write songs and perform them on my own. So, [it was great] to have them put in this trio stetting. It's an interesting process; writing the songs to the trio and hearing them in different ways... it really pushes me in a lot of different ways. The trio setting, in general, [creates] an interesting dynamic because it's so sparse. There's a lot of room for space. But, trying to pay attention to when [you should] leave the space is sometimes the most important part of that. I think that was a big goal with this record, especially.
KR: Do you even think about what kind of music you want to make?
SJ: Not really. It's funny, when people ask me what genre of music I am, I never really know how to answer that. It's one of those tricky questions. I'm just kind of doing what's always felt natural to me, trying to grow and push myself and not just stay stuck in my old ways. But, at the same time, I do want to sound like myself.
KR: I think because you've played with Sam Bush and Darrell Scott, and all these other incredible artists, there's a tendency of people in my position to want to call you bluegrass or folk, but that doesn't really fit either. I wonder what you think of adding all these other elements of styles that you learned in school... do you think that's contrary to bluegrass and folk, or is it all just part of the same thing?
SJ: It's a difficult thing because I'm not trying to not be bluegrass. I'm not trying to necessarily fit into a genre or not fit into a genre. I think all these things feed into each other in a beautiful way. I think there's a lot to be said for tradition and roots, and honoring a tradition, for sure. I probably wouldn't have gotten into music at all had it not been for bluegrass, and getting excited about bluegrass. But at the same time, the musicians I looked up to growing up were people who weren't afraid to cross lines and boundaries and not pay attention to genres, and infiltrate different styles. Hopefully that winds up telling who each person is. I generally try not to make strict lines about stuff. I just do what seems natural.
KR: What's the best gig you've ever had?
SJ: I feel like Telluride Bluegrass Festival would have to be up there. It's truly amazing. That was also a life-changing place for me in the sense that, in 2007, that's where I met Gary Paczosa for the first time. That's where the whole thing with Sugar Hill came to be. So that seems like a very important place in my life, not to mention it's just stunningly beautiful.
KR: Is there anything else you want to mention? I know you're on the road right now...
SJ: Yeah, it's interesting. This is the first time in my life that I haven't been juggling all this with school. It's a real change, being on the road for this long and touring pretty much nonstop through November... it's great. I'm learning and growing with it. It'll be interesting to see what the next big goal is for me, though. I feel like finishing school still feels so fresh. That was a big goal for my whole life [so far], so it'll be interesting what the next phase leads to.
Rose Cousins at the Rutledge - Rose Cousins most recent album 'We Have Made a Spark' was one of Folk Alley's favorite folk albums last year, and it won a Juno Award, to boot. Nonetheless, Cousins is still growing her audience in the lower 48, so it was nice to see a good crowd show up for this set. Mostly drawing from 'Spark,' she welcomed the beautifully voiced Julie Lee and Robby Hecht onstage to help her out on backing vocals, with the Stray Birds sitting in on dueling fiddles for a couple of songs. Much like 'Spark,' it was a display of the great music that gets made through collaboration. Though, as usual, she was just as good at delivering beautifully without all the extra layers. A new song from the point of view of a farmer's wife - performed on piano, with electric guitar and bass so scant, you hardly knew they were there - was one of the loveliest, most heartbreaking songs I saw performed all night.
Brandy Clark in the round at the Bluebird Cafe - Not technically a part of the Americana conference and festival, Brandy Clark's appearance at the Bluebird Cafe - in the round with fellow songwriters Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Trevor Rosen - was one easy highlight of the weekend. Her new album '12 Stories' leans decidedly more toward the country realm than anything else. But, stripped down, in the round at the Bluebird, it was easy to see the folky roots of Clark's creative, substantive songwriting. Pluck tunes like "Get High" and "Pray to Jesus and Play the Lotto" free from their country production and you've got working class songs about day-to-day struggles and the hope of transcendence. It was a decidedly refreshing highlight, from some of Music Row's strongest writers.
Amanda Shires at the Basement - Amanda Shires has been an exciting talent to watch ever since she landed on the circuit. But, her latest album 'Down Fell the Doves' shows her having hit a certain stride. Her songs are dark and twisted at the same time as heartfelt and poetic. There's humor in there, too, right next to the fear and longing. Watching her deliver the arresting new material in the cramped, dark, dirty Basement was one of the great moments afforded us by the Americana festival. Though Rod Picott joined her toward the end of the set, it was mostly just Shires with an upright bassist and a very restrained drummer. There was no effort to rock-the-heck-out through the songs; just to present them in their full, unfettered nature.
1. Dr. John is a living legend. There are no two ways to put that.
He began his interview sitting on a chair, cane leaned against his knee, talking into a microphone like you might imagine one does when they're being interviewed. But, it wasn't long until Nick Spitzer [the interviewer] asked him to walk to the piano and deliver "one of those bebops your auntie taught you", that the Doc truly seemed to enter his true skin. If that was a bebop his auntie taught him when he was just a boy, it was going to be serious business getting him to deliver anything he's become capable of playing since. Of course, there was plenty of time for him to unleash his freakish talent, in between stories about Professor Longhair and other New Orleans music legends. His hands bounced up and down the keyboard with apparently effortless rhythm. Occasionally, under the bench, his foot would keep some kind of time for a few bars, then relent. For the most part, there was no basis, no foundation, no beat. Just old Malcolm's hands, scampering across a keyboard, playing pure glory into the room.
2. Hurray for the Riff Raff is the real deal.
Speaking of New Orleans, Alynda Lee Segarra and her incredible band of Riff Raff, blew the roof off the tiny High Watt on Thursday night. I'd seen them do the same in a much bigger room (or, rather, a tent) at the Newport Folk Festival a month or so ago. But, seeing them delight and dazzle a room full of jaded industry folks was a whole other kind of amazing. Segarra's vocals are rich and deep, powerful and provocative, back by an old-soul-like weight which adds gravity to every lyric and note she unleashes.
3. Holly Williams makes people cry.
I tweeted after Holly Williams' set at 3rd and Lindsley on Friday night that her song, "Waitin' on June," makes me cry every time. Several people responded that it does the same for them too - one man going so far as to say he noticed half the people in the front row at that same show were crying right along with us. The tune itself is a remarkable feat of folk-pop-country balladry, relaying the entire life story of her maternal grandparents, from the moment they met and fell in love, to their death and beyond. In six verses, she captures more nuance and import about the stuff in life that truly matters, than most songwriters her age could pull off in a whole album. Add to that a basics-only backing band and three-part harmonies that sound as often like a freight train as they do a gospel choir, and you get one of the finest showcase sets of the week so far.
(**CLICK HERE - to listen to the Americana Music Association Honors & Awards show and see more pictures from the event, plus other performances during the festival.**)
Alice Gerrard has played with some of folk music's great legends: Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten. Her career has spanned a half-century and touched upon the realms of country, bluegrass, and old time, influencing generations of players and songwriters alike. But, it wasn't until this summer that she ever released a solo album of all original songs. As she told me in a recent interview, it was an idea she first heard during a week at MerleFest a couple years back, when Laurie Lewis offered her producing skills to the project.
The result is a lovely, catchy, stirring disc full of great story-songs. From lusty love songs to ruminations on life, love, purpose, and death, Bittersweet makes clear why Alice Gerrard's legend is so hugely influential. Of course, she was helped out by some of folk and bluegrass music's most talented players: Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Rob Ickes, and others. But, at the core, it's just a collection of great songwriting.
Recently, Gerrard was nice enough to hop on the phone and discuss the album, as well as her remarkable legacy as a folk music trailblazer during her collaboration with the late Hazel Dickens:
Kim Ruehl: Is Bittersweet something you've always wanted to do, or is that something you just started thinking about recently?
Alice Gerrard: I have thought about it over the past number of years... I wanted to do an album of all originals, rather than having them mixed in with other stuff. I'd been feeling more and more that way. Then Laurie Lewis talked to me several years ago at Merlefest about the possibility of her producing an album of all my originals, and that seemed like a good thing to do. But I was busy, she was busy. We talked about it briefly and then it lay there for a number of years until a couple other people talked to me about doing the same thing. So, I went back and talked to Laurie because she was the first one to ask me about it. I had a few [original songs] here and there but never put them all together before this, in one cohesive album of solo material.
KR: Sometimes you can tell songwriters are telling a story about someone else, and sometimes you can tell they're relating a more personal tale. But, I think sometimes it's hard to tell which you're doing.
AG: I think it's both. I guess most of these are [other people's] stories. "Lonely Night" is certainly more of a personal tale. "Play Me a Song I Can Cry To" is based on a woman who came when I was having a music session with Tommy Jarrell, she came in and plopped herself on the couch and said, "Play me something I can cry to. I just want to cry."
"Sweet South Anna River", that was about something Elizabeth Cotten said to me one time about how she didn't want to be buried when she died. She wanted to be floated down the river, and then all her friends could stand and wave at her as she floats by.
"Sun Keeps Shining on Me" was about my own experience from a long time ago, when I was just getting over something and somebody came into my life and it was pretty nice...
So, I guess I'd have to say most of these songs are telling stories, but they're based on my experiences, like driving around in the country and seeing these old abandoned houses. One time a friend and I went to find the home of a very old, famous fiddle player. We found his old house and that's the house that was in my mind when I was writing "Tell Me Their Story". That was a big, old abandoned house, overgrown. It had a broken window with a curtain in the window. I was thinking of the person who lived in that house, and other places you pass when you're driving through the country and see abandoned houses. [They're abandoned] either because the people built a nicer home nearby or they've been thrown out because the house was repossessed, or whatever the reason. I always wonder, what are those people's lives like? Who lived there?
KR: You've been plugged into the folk and bluegrass worlds for a long time. What do you think of how that's evolved, what younger folkies are doing now?
AG: I think there's a real revival. I don't really think in terms of the folk music world so much as bluegrass, old time, country of all kinds. Whether it's Tex-Mex or African-American or whatever, I think there's a real revival of interest in roots music. There are a lot of younger people really holding the line on tradition and also experimenting with it. It's kind of exciting. One thing I've noticed is that a lot of younger musicians are incorporating singing into it. Before, they were mostly drawn to the instrumental side of [traditional music]. But now they're doing the traditional singing, too, which is great.
He may be mostly unknown to audiences beyond hard-core folkies and fellow singer-songwriters, but Slaid Cleaves is easily one of the finest practitioners of that craft these days. His raw and intimate story-songs balance on the precarious ground of simplicity, nailing complex ideas and emotions in a way which makes them seem wholly digestible, without undermining their worth or glazing over their poetry. "Without Her,' from Slaid's new album, Still Fighting the War, is a perfect example, using the song's title as a repetitious refrain, showing all the ways one's life is affected - for better and worse - when they lose someone they love. In his case, it's a song about a dog that had to be put down, but could be easily applied to any kind of lost love. He talks here about the folk process that informs his songwriting and gives credit to its other masters, like Hank Williams and Pete Seeger, who helped him understand the value of tradition and simplicity. Indeed, their influence is easily felt in this and many of Cleaves' songs.
1. Spontaneous collaboration - Whether it was Neil Gaiman hopping onstage with his wife Amanda Palmer, members of Black Prairie jumping up with Colin Meloy, or Spirit Family Reunion hopping on stage with Iris DeMent and Hurray for the Riff Raff, the long tradition of folk music collaboration was alive and well at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival. At times, it served as an opportunity to get a taste of a band you might not otherwise have sought out. Other times, it simply augmented the entire set, as when Dawes jumped up to be the backing band for Blake Mills. The 25-minute staring contest between Jim James and Chris Funk could also loosely be considered a bit of spontaneous collaboration, though it was more a break from the music than it was a musicsplosion.
2. The Museum Stage - Whether it was the rain or the sun beating down on the festival crowd, the Museum Stage offered a welcome, dry and cool, reprieve. There, Chris Funk hosted a number of artists, as did Joe Fletcher. The latter ran an hours-long revue titled Nashville to Newport, which showcased some of Nashville's finest, from Patrick Sweany to Amanda Shires and Bobby Bare, Jr. The Low Anthem hosted Newport Homegrown, and daily open mics shed light on great artists both new and old. While all the scheduled stuff took place on the stages, the impromptu, surprising moments mostly went down in the museum, where the audience was small and intimate, and "anything goes" seemed to be the motto.
3. Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Newport is great about setting some of the best up-and-coming artists alongside legends in their own time. This year's token "legend" was Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who showed up on the final day for a sunny, hot afternoon set of straight-up old-school folk story-songs. There was nothing particularly theatrical or visually riveting about his set - no jumping around or banging on anything. Instead, he showed us all what greatness could come from one guy, sitting on a stool, telling old stories and singing old songs. Naturally, there were other great songwriter sets throughout the weekend - Milk Carton Kids, Iris DeMent, and Jason Isbell, particularly. But, you simply cannot deny the talent of old Ramblin' Jack.
(CLICK HERE to see and hear more Newport Folk Festival coverage by Folk Alley.)
1. Hurray for the Riff Raff - This New Orleans-based outfit delivered one of the finest sets of the day, hopping from soul to country, to swamp-folk that was heavy on the dancing fiddle. There are no fancy tricks from this band or any force at work other than purely genuine, excellent songwriting, and honest-to-goodness great instrumentals. They pulled Spirit Family Reunion onstage toward the end, just to make sure they had the largest sound possible. But the crowd of people onstage didn't cut one bit into the level of earnest authenticity pouring from the vocal mics.
2. Trombone Shorty doing "St. James Infirmary" - Speaking of New Orleans, Trombone Shorty took the mainstage in the middle of the afternoon and unleashed the funk. Their entire set was tight and heavy on the groove. Electric bass solos from Michael Ballard were on fire, and the entire band seemed to be flying on some incredible plane. But it was their delivery of the sweaty old number "St. James Infirmary" which brought out some of the most jaw-dropping horn work of the set, certainly the finest of the festival so far.
3. The Avett Brothers sing-along - Scott Avett seemed to be on a "singing high and quiet" kick this time around. He closed out a number of the Avett Brothers tunes by taking his voice higher and quieter, presumably aiming for the vocal fade-out. There's nothing more folky than an audience sing-along, but this one took that tradition in a whole new direction. About halfway through their set, he asked the crowd to come along with him on this odd vocal journey. In "repeat after me" fashion, he got the huge mainstage audience singing at the highest sighs of their voices. Everyone was game and followed right along, like thousands of hissing and sighing balloons.
CLICK HERE for more Newport Folk Festival coverage on FolkAlley.com.
The Los Angeles-based duo opened the Quad Stage at Newport 2013 with one of the best and quietest sets of the day. Resting on tightly matched harmonies and the incredible dexterity of Kenneth Pattengale's guitar picking, they plowed through 50 minutes of beautiful love and heartbreak songs, songs about disillusionment, disappointment, and the hope inherent in imagining their future children. "Memphis" was the set-stealer, though, with its topical nature and beautifully spun lyricism. Pattengale gave all that credit to his partner Joey Ryan who, he says, showed up at his house one day with this perfectly finished song that was poised to just break your heart. Indeed it did.
2. Mountain Goats made me a fan in the pouring rain
I got lost for a little bit, wandering the festival grounds. First waiting for Amanda Palmer at the Senheuser/Paste Ruins, then searching out Phosphorescent and JD McPherson, finding myself too late for both. So, I took shelter under the Folk Alley awning and watched what remained of the Mountain Goats. Having never been much of a fan, I watched skeptically, through oodles of teeming raindrops, and found myself enthralled. There's nothing particularly special about the way John Darnielle and company perform their music. They're straight-shooters, who deliver the music precisely as it comes. But by the time they nailed "This Year" (the final song of the set), I was converted to a fan. What more can be said than that they're just a darn good band who knows well how to bring it live.
3. Old Crow Medicine Show covering Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee
It's called a "folk" festival after all. In a day that was, for me, filled with rock bands and larger, louder outfits, watching the Old Crow Medicine Show throw down on the main stage felt a little more like home. Ketch Sekor, it practically goes without saying, saws a fiddle like crazy. The band lit into several songs from their most recent release 'Carry Me Back,' as well as a number of cover tunes from folk music of yore. Among those covers was a tribute to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee that was heavy on the harmonica (Sekor plays two at once, swapping them back and forth between breaths) and four-part harmonies. It was a fitting tribute to the array of music which has graced the Newport Stage in its 54 years, and an outstanding ending to the first day of the festival.
"Love's a gamble, love's a curse. Love's a bitch but it could be worse."
If any single line on Guy Clark's new album My Favorite Picture of You could sum up the common theme of all eleven tracks, that's it. It comes about halfway into "Hell Bent on a Heartache", where the storied songwriter explores his unending yearning for newness. It's not a song about seeking love so much as it is an admittance of the inevitability of disappointment. Indeed, the coexistence of love and heartbreak - and the various ways the two feed off each other - is at the core of each song on the album. It's this balance Clark strikes which says the most about what he means by a love song.
There are enough songs in the world about all the easy and obvious ways of love - the first storied glance, the romance and lust, the longing and all the other schmaltz. But, when you get to the raw truth of it all, the stuff that lasts doesn't do so devoid of heartbreak, but rather in spite of it.
The title track tells the story behind the Polaroid Clark holds on the cover of the disc. It's a shot of his wife Susanna in the 1970s, when she had just come home to find Guy and his friend Townes Van Zandt drunk again. She was angry and hurt, storming off, full of fire. "You never left but your bags were packed just in case," he sings, describing her as "nobody's fool ... smarter than me." It's not an easy song to hear, but neither is lasting love an easy task. Telling the story in simple terms that are emotional and provocative - and rhyme - is another feat altogether. But, Clark is one of the best.
The disc isn't all romantic love, though. There's "Heroes" - a smart, emotional song about soldiers living with PTSD. He flexes his epic story-song muscles on "The Death of Sis Draper" (set to the tune of "Shady Grove") and turns to commentary on "Good Advice". The latter seems more a reaction to others trying to offer good advice than it is an attempt to provide some. Though, he does manage a few words of wisdom: "If it's not one thing, it's another, and that you can count on."
But, it's "I'll Show Me" - the self-effacing tune which closes the disc - where Clark finally shrugs the downside of his running theme. With wonder and pride, he credits the love: "How'd I get this far, you ask. I'm here today it was no small task."
So much great music continues to pour in to Folk Alley Central on a daily basis. Here's a list of our most recent additions to the Folk Alley stream!
*And don't forget, you can listen to our special 5-hour side stream called 'Fresh Cuts' which is loaded with music from all the new releases added to Folk Alley over the past 6 months!
Click HERE to LISTEN!
Aoife O'Donovan - 'Fossils'
Ashleigh Flynn - 'A Million Stars'
Bruce Molsky - 'If It Ain't Here When I Get Back'
Claire Lynch - 'Dear Sister'
Della Mae - 'This World Oft Can Be'
Donna the Buffalo - 'Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday'
Genticorum - 'Enregistre Live'
Guy Clark - 'My Favorite Picture of You'
Jason Isbell - 'Southeastern'
Joy Kills Sorrow - 'Wide Awake' (EP)
Peter Rowan - 'The Old School'
Pokey LaFarge - 'Pokey LaFarge'
Putnam Smith - 'Kitchen, Love'
Rebecca Frazier - 'When We Fall'
Red Tail Ring - 'The Heart's Swift Foot'
Sam Amidon - 'Bright Sunny South'
Shannon McNally (feat. Dr. John) - 'Small Town Talk (Songs of Bobby Charles)'
Slaid Cleaves - 'Still Fighting the War'
Susan Werner - 'Hayseed'
The Black Lillies - 'Runaway Freeway Blues'
The Boxcar Lilies - 'Sugar Shack'
The Carper Family - 'Old-Fashioned Gal'
The Deadly Gentlemen - 'Roll Me, Tumble Me'
The Gibson Brothers - 'They Called It Music'
The Lone Bellow - 'The Lone Bellow'
Tony McManus - 'Mysterious Boundaries'
Various - 'Woody Guthrie at 100!: Live at the Kennedy Center'
For about the past decade, Girlyman have been slowly but steadily garnering a fiercely loyal cult following at clubs, theaters, and folk festivals across the country. They've opened for everyone from Dar Williams to the Indigo Girls, and have established themselves as a force in three-part harmony. Then, in 2010, guitar/banjoist Doris Muramatsu discovered she'd developed cancer. The diagnosis - together with the natural growing pains of a ten-year-old band seemed to give the troupe a good excuse to take some time off and focus on whatever they needed to focus on. For singer/songwriter Tylan Greenstein, that meant dredging up all the songs she'd been accumulating and explore what she could do with them on her own.
She called up Seattle-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Michael Connolly, who plays in a band with Tylan's partner, Ingrid Elizabeth. Together, Tylan (who has dropped her last name for the solo project) and Connolly holed up and fashioned a recording titled One True Thing - an album which sounds remarkably lush, considering most of it was created by just two people. She called in Indigo Girl Amy Ray to sing backup on a tune, but other than that, One True Thing is entirely Tylan's voice and vision - an intimate and intensely honest album about getting through life's hard times by keeping an eye on what matters most.
Kim Ruehl: Let's talk about your new record. What moved you to go solo and make this record?
Tylan: Girlyman ... had toured about 10 years straight, really hard touring. In 2010, one of our band members got cancer and we were just kind of frayed at the edges, I think, after all of that and personal differences... we just decided to stop touring for a while. Around that time, because we were going to get this break, we all had this incentive to pursue projects we'd thought about in the past but didn't have time to do. My project was a solo album. It's something I'd always wanted to do because I had a large backlog of songs. Three songwriters in a band, you only get a few songs on each album. I had a lot of songs I loved that never made it on albums. I was continuing to write and felt like I had a nice collection of material. So, the time was right, and it really came together.
KR: What was the significance of 'One True Thing' for the title of the album?
T: The past year and a half has been one of the hardest periods of my life. It's been a time when pretty much everything in my life changed at the same time. During times of transition like that, it's hard to know which end is up. It was really intense. But through it, I felt like there was something consistent that was internal, even as so many external things were shifting. This internal thing was a truth I could hold onto. That's what that song is about. There is this beautiful gem, even in hard situations, that persists. The cover of the album has an outstretched hand with a tiny sort of magical-looking bird landing on it. That's an image that comes from that song. That's the metaphor I was working with.
KR: You don't really seem to hold back much in your songwriting. I wonder if you ever stop and think 'Maybe I don't really want to go there', but then you go there anyway. Or is that just naturally an avenue where you feel like you can push yourself all the way?
T: I don't think I've ever been interested in holding back. Especially now in my life. I'm not going to say Girlyman was a slave to convention because that's certainly not true. But on this solo path that I'm on now, there's just a lot at stake. There's a lot, personally, going on that made me feel like I really have nothing left to lose. I feel like the songwriting on this album is very personal and intimate. That's all intentional. I don't think I held back in the past either. I wouldn't be surprised if the next solo album felt different because I feel like I've had a lot come together in this tumultuous time, so the landscape of the writing will shift. But I don't think it'll be less intense.
KR: Tell me about working with Amy Ray. Was that a co-write situation, or did you just call her up to play with you?
T: I wrote the song. I recorded the album with Michael Connolly in Seattle, at Empty Sea studios. That song, we were both hearing a low harmony. Originally, I thought it would be a male voice, but Michael suggested seeing if Amy would do it because she has this really strong, really powerful low female voice. I'm an alto as well, but her voice is even lower. That's not something you hear very often - two lower-range female voices harmonizing. I emailed her to see if she would be interested and she was totally into the idea. She came over and just nailed it. I'm really happy with that track. I think it's really special.
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.