Some might insist that comparing Rayland Baxter to Paul Simon is inappropriate, the likening of a go-kart to a Mercedes. But that would be overly reductive and dismissive of Baxter's burgeoning talent. Baxter isn't a carbon copy of Simon, to be sure, but how can anyone listen to "Mr. Rodriguez" and not hear the similarities vocally, musically, and poetically?
Setting that comparison aside and looking at Baxter in relation to only his previous work, 'Imaginary Man' represents a sizable leap forward for him. Whereas 'Feathers & Fishhooks' found him wandering through a more rural aesthetic, this effort urbanizes the space with heartier production elements -- thick guitars, churning organs, and lush strings echo, gurgle, and swirl through cuts like "Young Man," "Oh My Captain," and "Rugged Lovers" giving Baxter's delicate tenor that much more heft. While the adventurous pieces are certainly fun and lively, offering Baxter grittier spaces in which to roam, it's the quieter moments ("Rugged Lovers" and "Lady of the Desert," in particular) that allow his inner romantic to really revel.
Rayland Baxter's 'Imaginary Man' is out now on ATO Records and is available at Amazon.com and iTunes.
After six critically acclaimed releases over the course of 10 years, the unbridled Americana force that is Langhorne Slim recently issued his seventh project, 'The Spirit Moves.' Slim got sober two years ago and became a meditator in order to harness his energy in a whole new way. The resulting songs speak for themselves, reflecting the new level of openness and clarity that have emerged in the aftermath of that seismic life shift.
Kelly McCartney: You've had a few different firsts with this new record. For one: co-writing. The results are clearly positive, but how'd that go for you in the process?
Langhorne Slim: My process on this record was... and maybe it's always been this way... I have some songs that come to me like the great gifts that songwriters have talked about from the beginning of songwriting. That occurs to me, thank goodness, from time to time. A lot of them are battles and they'll come in through bits and spurts, little pieces that are floating around my head. Eventually they start to accumulate and drive me a little crazy, and I'll just have a ton of recordings on my phone and bits and pieces floating around my head.
I didn't do it on purpose, but I was out there working with Kenny [Siegal] in Catskill, New York, and I was playing him some of the new tunes... or the ideas. He was just effortlessly, in the beginning, kind of finishing my musical thoughts in a way that I hadn't experienced ever before. And I had never really sought that out before. I don't remember the beginning stages of the process. I just recall being in Nashville and building up these songs for a month or two, starting to feel very frantic and anxious and freaked out. [Laughs] Because what happens is, eventually, you have to get this thing out or else it weighs your soul down. It becomes a physical feeling, a kind of uneasiness. To get it out is certainly therapy. Then I could be a little bit calmer for a little while until the ideas would build up again and start driving me mad. Then I would retreat to the Catskills with Kenny and we would drive each other completely bat-shit crazy, but come out with songs. [Laughs] It was certainly madness. I don't know what our method was, but... it worked. We got songs that I'm really proud of.
For two: sobriety. So what do songwriting and performing bring to your self-reflection and recovery and working through things?
I never attempted shyness through art or music. Some people connect with what I do and like it. Some people think it's too over the top. I really find strength in being open and being vulnerable, in some ways. Something like getting sober and needing to... I had a lot to prove to myself and others -- that I could take that step, make that change, and live that way, number one. Music is my air, in a lot of ways. It's the driving force in my life. I hadn't, for 15 years, performed or written or really been creative without some whiskey or wine or some other thing. I always had something. And something turned into a crutch that I was dependent on. I want to be dependent on love and friendship and music, but in a healthy, positive way -- relationships that move me and keep me on my toes.
I was a very passionate kid. It got me in a lot of trouble when I was a kid. And that fire never went away. Now I'm a passionate 35-year-old man. I was pissing on my own flame for a while and sort of tempting it to see if it would stay awake. And it did. But it was having problems. That flame needs to stay awake and alive and be a healthy fire. I think for a lot of people who are very, very passionate, you can get yourself into trouble. I've done it my whole life. One of my main goals is to keep that energy and that intensity and that passion for it all... for life, for music, and for love. But to refine it and to unite with my inner bad-ass and not be a bee-otch to anything. Because it's not me. That's not my true self.
It makes more sense now that you are a meditator which, for someone known for a sort of uninhibited energy, is a bit unexpected... and yet not. I would imagine that's part of how you are able to now refine and harness all that energy. So what are the best lessons you've learned or the best gifts you've gotten from that practice, personally and/or professionally?
To be still is an immense gift, when you put it onto yourself, when you struggle with restlessness or anxiety with addiction -- or anything, I guess. Life is beautiful, but very challenging for us all, in ways. To be still and just breathe and allow yourself to be soft and try to be kind to yourself... our society and a lot of what most of us are all about are not really tying to the soul. It's a lot of this exterior stuff that I believe is dangerous, in a lot of ways.
And I'm a part of it, too. I'm not wagging my finger. It's a lot of "Where can we go and what can we achieve outside of ourselves?" And I'm continuing to find, through music and now through meditation and other things, I don't know about the answers, but a lot of what I have been looking for is already there. I believe that deeply. Meditation can help with that. I've always been a restless guy. That restlessness and passion and fire has allowed me a career. But it also has presented me with a lot of problems and a lot of challenges.
Do you feel like the 'The Spirit Moves' is a new beginning altogether or is just the next chapter in the Life of Langhorne?
Uhhh... both. It's the new beginning of the next chapter, I guess.
Or it could be a whole other story.
It's a whole new book, but it's still little ol' me. Maybe it could be... it's not a sequel when it's a book... but, yeah, a new book but the same theme. I've opened the same heart, but it's opening in a different way. That ain't the end of that book. There's a lot more to go.
I keep talking about hippie things, like energy and spirits, but it's because I believe in it. And when these changes have been going on in my life, I've felt the shift in that energy. So when you write a song, I suppose it's going to be a little different. I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song about being sober now." Similar to when I've gone through a break-up, music never works for me like that. It's always been more of a spiritual, energetic thing in that it's not a conscious process. It moves through me. But it moves through me differently now, I suppose, than when I was always somewhere else. [Laughs] For better of for worse, I'm right here, man. For better or for worse. And I'm grateful to feel that. It's not always easy, but not everybody gets out of the other end.
Langhorne Slim's 'The Spirit Moves' is out now via Dualtone Music and available at Amazon.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:07 AM
NPR Music's 'Songs We Love - Americana Edition'
September 25, 2015
Rhiannon Giddens, Patty Griffin And Shakey Graves - A Musical Conversation
by Ann Powers, NPR Music (photo by Joshua Shoemaker)
"I think songs can have different lives," said Rhiannon Giddens in the conversation that flowed throughout NPR Music's "Songs We Love: Americana Fest Edition" panel on September 16 at Nashville's historic RCA Victor Studio A. "Each song has its own way that it likes to be done, but it can be more than one way," the Carolina Chocolate Drops multi-instrumentalist and singer continued. "If you tap into it, you can feel it."
Sharing tunes and conversation with fellow Americana stars Patty Griffin and Shakey Graves, Giddens embodied the mood of the festival that would unfold over the following four days. Her selections during the daytime event, spanned Tejano music, Appalachian folk and '90s honky-tonk, illustrating the enduring truth that in a genre whose boundaries remain fluid, song craft remains the magnetic core. Griffin added to the conversation by showing how learning new things (perfecting her piano skills) and turning to old sources (re-reading James Baldwin) influenced her songwriting process on the stunning new album 'Servant of Love.' Graves, a spontaneous raconteur, reflected upon the many different versions his songs take as they evolve - the waltz version, the slow country one, the "I'm yelling at you!" one. At one point, he performed a beautiful, spare take on Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall" that showed how the poetry held within a song's musical frame matters most.
Singer/songwriter Kevin Gordon grew up in the northeast corner of Louisiana, in a town called Monroe. He played in the school band, probably fished in Black Bayou, and went to football games at what was, back then, Northeast Louisiana University. Although Gordon has left Louisiana, Louisiana has never left him...or his music. The places and people that comprised his youth are ever-present in his songs, including the ones that fill his new album, 'Long Gone Time'.
Kelly McCartney: You moved to Nashville quite a while ago, but you still visit your Louisiana homeland. How have things changed or not changed down there in the past few decades?
Kevin Gordon: It's still "home" - the cliche says you can't go back, but you really can't get away from it, either. It's a fascinating, beautiful, and nasty place, full of contradictions ... the best music and food; poorly funded public schools and exceptionally corrupt, eccentric governance. There's nowhere else like it. And I keep going back. I guess I think I'm going to figure it all out somehow. Or, I just have the need to drive south for a good po-boy once in a while.
Your songs are often cited for their literary qualities. Is that a style you chose to pursue or did it choose you?
I don't believe in style as a conscious choice, at least as a way to make art or music that's honest. I just try to be true to whatever I'm hearing in my head, to what feels good and right at the time. Yes, I did go to grad school in poetry ... but I'm also, essentially, a self-taught guitar player, and my deepest ties to music have more to do with rhythm, with the body, than with any high-minded thoughts about melodic structure or lyrical complexity.
This is a three-parter: What's the trick to getting inside the heads and hearts of your characters? Do you have a favorite character? And do any of them have recurring roles in more than one song?
I don't have any tricks, though listening critically seems most important to me for just about all aspects of songwriting. You have to forget it's you when you're listening back to a draft of a song. Most of my characters are or were "real" people - so I either still hear their voices in my mind or, in the case of Brownie Ford -- who appears in two songs on 'Long Gone Time' -- I read interviews with him and combined that with the memory I have of meeting him that one time in Monroe.
I don't have a favorite character, though I have written four or five songs about a guy who closely resembles an old friend from Monroe, who doesn't seem able to keep his life together. (This friend used to come to my shows down there, and would request those songs.) There's a song on 'Gloryland' about a woman I read about in a book, called 'Local Color,' by folklorist William Ferris. She was a quilter, named Pecolia Warner, from Yazoo City, MS, and the prose on the page was in first-person, like she was just sitting there talking to you. I read the chapter on Ms. Warner and, within five minutes, had started what became the song "Pecolia's Star."
So many glowing articles about you make mention of how you are under-appreciated. But you do a pretty specific thing, musically. These aren't three-minute pop songs you're writing. Obviously, you want people to hear your music, but what's the ultimate, long-term win for you?
I just want to keep writing songs and making records, and hopefully get better at it as I go along. I think that when you start feeling too proud of, or satisfied with, your work, you've kind of lost it - the idea of why you're doing this in the first place. To stay humbled by the persistent mystery and wonder of this life feels like the most important thing to me, as a creative person. To not give a damn about what people think is also important. Practically speaking, though, things seem to get a little better out there with each record. So I keep going. This is just what I do. I want to keep doing it as long as I'm able.
"Colfax," from your last album, caught a lot of ears off guard. If that song turns out to be the pillar of your legacy, how would you feel?
I'm glad I finished that song; I'd been trying to write it for several years. I wasn't sure where I was going with it - except that I wanted the song to stay true to the story as it actually happened. But that presented a problem, because the story didn't have some sort of Hollywood, CGI-induced, bombs-and-glory ending*. (And that kind of monotony, that lack of drama, ended up being one of the things the song is "about," I think - the constant, often silent struggle that victims of prejudice face, and their often quiet, yet heroic, push-back against all that.) But the song had to be about the experience itself first, including all the goofy adolescent stuff, which everybody can relate to. So, yeah, if whoever decides these things thinks "Colfax" is at the top of the heap, I'm fine with it.
*And the first version I came up with, which had a kind of north Mississippi, hill-country blues groove, seemed to want that. But I heard a couple of friends play their own long, linear, lyric-driven songs (Tommy Womack, "Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood"; Peter Cooper's song about Hank Aaron, "715") and that inspired me to go back and try again. Once I simplified the chord structure and the groove, I had 90 percent of those lyrics within an hour. They just fell out. I'd never written anything like it.
Stream 'Long Gone Time' in its entirety in the player below!
October 4 - Roots Music House Concert - Peace Dale, RI
October 6 - Atwood's - Cambridge, MA
October 7 - Norey's - Newport, RI (October 9 - Folk Alley Session taping - Saranac Lake, NY)
October 10 - Nelson Odeon - Cazenovia, NY
October 24 - Landhaven - Barto, PA
Some 23 years ago, Iris DeMent appeared on the singer/songwriter scene with her 'Infamous Angel' debut. With that set, she set her own artistic bar remarkably high, particularly with the folk perfection that is "Our Town." Since then, DeMent has built an impressive catalog of albums and collaborations, all filled with her personal blend of charm and melancholy. Her newest project, 'The Trackless Woods,' finds DeMent setting the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova to music. It's a somber, yet serene collection inspired by DeMent's personal exploration of her adopted daughter's native culture.
Kelly McCartney: Being one of 14(!) children, you've said that you understood your parents best through music. What do you hope to convey to your daughter through your work... this new album, in particular?
Iris DeMent: My daughter spent the first six years of her life in Russia. Anna is one of Russia's most beloved poets. It was a combination of my love for her work and a desire to, in some small way, bridge the gap between my daughter's two worlds that led to the making of this record. I hope to help reconnect her to her heritage... OR, at least open the door to it.
Music is such a mysterious force. You've said that you felt like the music was already in these poems when you found them. That must mean you didn't find many that weren't singing dirges to you because, save a couple that have some pep, this is a solemn affair. Talk to me about translating and honoring someone else's work in that way.
Anna's poetry is filled with hope, forgiveness, and love, even though she was living in times that spoke to none of those qualities. Her entire adult life was one revolution or war after another, loved ones being executed or dying in prison camps and her work being banned and her character being brought into question. She not only survived all these things but thrived, somehow, as an artist. By way of her poetry, she brought comfort and encouragement to countless others who were enduring the same suffering. I didn't concern myself with trying to entertain anyone with this record. There's no shortage of that out there already. I concerned myself with honoring her life, her work, and the victorious human spirit that sings in all of these poems and can sing in each of us.
Akhmatova lived and wrote during such a tumultuous time in Russian history. Were there certain poems or themes that you shied away from? Or were you able to find little threads of hope pretty consistently?
Some of her poems have very Russian-specific themes and, for obvious reasons, I chose not to take those on. But, basically, if a poem spoke to me and I felt it lent itself to music, or at least the music that runs through me, I went to work on it.
Do you agree with Akhmatova's summation in "To My Poems," in regard to your songs? Because it's a fairly dark take on creativity as a pursuit or an outlet.
Anna devoted her life to this work and the work nearly cost her her life! It's pretty safe to say she believed in the value of what she was doing. I don't think of this particular poem, or any creative work, for that matter, as something to agree or disagree with. I look for the integrity of it, the spirit of it, and take it or leave it on its own terms. "To My Poems" feels to me like the expression of someone's truth, a truth that may have lasted five minutes or a lifetime -- I don't know or care. Truth is inherently beautiful and valuable, no matter its lifespan.
One of the things that's so striking about you is that you come off as just an everyday Jane. Then you sing and that's out the window. Do you feel like Iowa allows you that space or would you have maintained a sense of normalcy in, say, L.A. or Nashville?
I don't relate to the idea of an everyday anything. I've never met an everyday "Jane" or "Joe"! All of life... the fact that we are here... that there is an Iowa, a Mars, a California... that Anna lived and poured her heart into these poems and lifted the hearts of others by doing that, mine included... that I'm raising this child from Russia, a place that sounded like another universe to me not all that long ago... there is no such thing as ordinary. All of it is "out the window." No exceptions!
'The Trackless Woods' is out now on Flariella Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:47 AM
Album Review: Jason Isbell, 'Something More Than Free'
As soon as "If It Takes a Lifetime" opens Jason Isbell's 'Something More Than Free,' it's obvious that the singer/songwriter did not make 'Southeastern: The Sequel.' Quite the opposite, really. 'Southeastern' overflowed with cutting lyrics that rock his fellow writers back on their heels in awe every time they hear them. Lines like this (from "Songs That She Sang in the Shower"): "On a lark, on a whim, I said 'There's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them.' And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke." Those kinds of brilliant turns of phrases filled each song on that album and made it what it was.
Here, though, Isbell is far more exacting and economical in his eloquence, applying rigorous standards to his word choices and reserving the grandiosity for his musical explorations. That's not to say that his character sketches aren't poetic. They are. They are merely more grounded than lofty this time out, leaving less of a vapor trail. "And the couple in the corner of the bar have traveled light and, clearly, traveled far. She's got nothing left to learn about his heart and they're sitting there a thousand miles apart," he sings in "Flagship" to set the scene. Then he injects himself into the story: "Baby, let's not ever get that way. I'll say whatever words I need to say." It's the most tender moment on the record, haunting in its simplicity.
Contrasting that piece are entries more reminiscent of the Band and Neil Young than anything on 'Southeastern.' And while specific lyrics may not linger, Isbell's melodies certainly do. While "If It Takes a Lifetime," "Flagship," "24 Frames," "Children of Children," and "Hudson Commodore" are certainly stand-out tracks, 'Something More Than Free' is one of those top-to-bottom albums that, just drop the needle anywhere and it'll hit a great song.
'Something More Than Free' is out now on Southeastern Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Oklahoma's Samantha Crain is a musical force to be reckoned with. As a singer, her phrasing and rhythms fail to follow traditional folk patterns. And, as a songwriter, her compositions prick and pry at our hearts and minds in the best possible ways. Her latest endeavor, 'Under Branch & Thorn & Tree,' puts those talents to work on a collection of songs that folds the political into the personal. From the easy swagger of "Big Rock" to the gentle folk of "Elk City," the set finds Crain in fine form.
Kelly McCartney: You're a live-to-tape, one-take kind of recording artist. Do you ever go back and fiddle with arrangements after the fact? Or do they stay true for their life cycles?
Samantha Crain: My live performances are rarely exactly like the recorded songs. I strongly believe in the fluidity of songs depending on what musicians you're playing with or the mood of the audience. However, arrangements are very important to me. Just because we do analog recording and do few takes, doesn't mean I don't give thought to arrangement; I do. I'm very deliberate in everything I do. I just do a lot of pre-recording practice and talking with the other musicians. I want everyone to be on the same page, in the same headspace, but, at the same time, in the moment and surprising. Most songs, through their lifetimes, take several different forms regarding tempo or groove; it just happens organically after you haven't listened to the recording for years.
A lot of singer/songwriters put more emphasis on the songwriting part of their craft. You weight them pretty evenly, though. Who are your influences as a singer? And how does the singing affect or inform the writing for you?
I'm really drawn to any singers who are overly emotional or do something different tonally or rhythmically. I've always been into pretty polarizing voices. I love Billie Holiday, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Roy Orbison, Marc Bolan, Lhasa de Sela, and Annie Lennox. I've been told I'm a very rhythmic singer. Its not something I'm particularly aware of, but I assume my natural inclinations to move words in certain ways affects the way I write. I don't try to study how I create; I just do it.
In your songs, you use personal perspectives to make political points. Do you ever worry that the nuance softens the blow you're landing too much? Or do you find that it's the sugar that helps the medicine go down?
I feel a little of both. Part of me feels I'm being too gentle; the other part of me thinks its the best way to get the narratives into a public consciousness. I go back and forth with how I feel about it. I probably always will. I still do believe the only way to have intelligent and meaningful conversations about anything political or social is through empathy, though. And I know empathy only comes with understanding other people's stories and lives. That is something I will always believe. So however hard or soft I'm being with my issue, the story will always be the base.
If you had to pick one song, from this album or another, that represented the heart of what you're trying to do as an artist... which one and why?
I really feel like "Elk City" on this album was a breakthrough song for me -- a song that represents the exact sort of song I'd like to keep writing for the rest of my life. Something that has humanity in the lyrics and, to me, that song is interesting musically without seeming difficult. I'm just really proud of that song. I feel like I'll want to play that song for the rest of my life.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic these days. And it's something you've stood up to in the past, in terms of your Native American heritage. Some people argue that every culture is appropriated. Why do you think it's such a hard thing for folks to grasp that even "all-in-good-fun" mockery is still mockery?
Racism is a learned thing. Its very hard to unlearn. Moving away from cultural appropriation starts in our education system... and it's not being addressed at all really, considering the history in our history books is terribly skewed. These aren't problems that are easy to address in an abrupt manner. These are solutions we start pumping into the framework of society now for a more positive, equal future.
'Under Branch & Thorn & Tree' is out now on Ramseur Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
There's a reason sophomore albums are considered a tough nut to crack. An artist has only a year or two to write a batch of tunes that stack up to the batch from their debut that they had their whole pre-debut life to write. Whether or not that debut was successful, the artist also has to decide to stay that artistic course or branch out in a different direction. Kacey Musgraves stayed firmly put on 'Pageant Material,' her follow-up to the wildly successful 'Same Trailer, Different Park.'
Taken on its own, without any knowledge of its sibling, 'Pageant Material' is a fun and lovely album. The songs are overflowing with memorable melodies, clever catchphrases, and pitch-perfect performances. And the first five cuts, from "High Time" through "This Town," are as thoroughly appealing as anything in her arsenal. At the heart of that mini-set is the sweet-but-not-saccharin "Late to the Party" which serves very nicely as the free-wheeling Millennial's version of a love song. It also provides a wonderful counterpoint to the snappy repartee of "Dimestore Cowgirl," "Pageant Material," and "This Town."
But, then, in the number six slot is "Biscuits." The album's first single can't help but be compared to the high watermark of Musgraves' career that is "Follow Your Arrow." In fact, a casual listener would be forgiven for confusing the two -- that's how similar they are in style and substance. Throughout the second half of the cycle, the comparisons could easily continue, but taking a step back allows "Somebody to Love," "Miserable," and "Good Ol' Boys Club" to shine on their own merits, in their own lights. Trouble is, albums in an artist's career don't exist in a vacuum, so a lot of these tunes make the whole feel like 'Same Trailer, Another Different Park.'
No question, Musgraves is a talented and spirited artist who is shaking things up in the best of ways. Here's hoping she applies some of that boundary pushing to album number three.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 3:15 PM
Album Review: Eilen Jewell, 'Sundown Over Ghost Town'
With a title like 'Sundown over Ghost Town' and cover art of a silhouetted figure with an acoustic guitar in front of a vast, star-filled horizon, Eilen Jewell's new album sends a signal that what lies therein could easily be simple and spacious country-folk songs. Uh, not quite. Yes, there are some simple and spacious country-folk songs here -- "Half-Broke Horse," "Green Hills," and "Songbird," at the very least. Otherwise, Jewell takes the theme of coming home and has fun with it. After all, you can come home again, but it may or may not be what you remember.
In Jewell's case, the story unfolds from the point of her return to Idaho after living in Boston. Oh, and having a baby, too. Most of the lyrical content draws from those endlessly deep wells. On the whole, the set is more refined and more restrained than Jewell records past, but no less creative, in its own way. From the gentle, mandolin-filled folk of "Worried Mind" to the delightful, Tex-Mex rockabilly of "Rio Grande" to the high lonesome torch balladry of "Here with Me," the album alternately lopes and lilts in all the right places.
For instance, Jewell isn't the first artist this year to set surf rock against a spaghetti western backdrop as she does on the spirited "Hallelujah Band" -- Lord Huron, too, makes that mix on 'Strange Trails' -- but it works well and shows just how many different colors Jewell has on her artist's palette.
'Sundown Over Ghost Town' is out now on Signature Sounds, and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:55 PM
Video Premiere: The Stray Birds, "Never For Nothing"
You might not make a lot of money. You might not win awards or accolades. You might not make new friends or establish important new connections. But sometimes, following your heart and doing what you KNOW is right, what you FEEL is right - well, that's reward enough.
Maya de Vitry of The Stray Birds says this song is "an homage to music as an offering--on a back porch, singing for nobody but the birds--on a subway platform, tossed as a rope for anyone to hold--around a campfire, shared between friends and the stars." In other words, music is enough of a reason to make music.
The Stray Birds - they're a band known for their tight harmonies, their impeccable instrumentation and their ability to make their audience feel completely involved in the music they make. With "Never for Nothing," the Birds also prove how capable they are of creating incredibly vivid stories and characters with their music.
Lyrics like "I'm dripping from the rivers I never meant to cross/But I like the things I'm learning more than anything I've lost/And, oh, I have lost...but not for nothing," let the band paint a very clear picture of complicated and oh-so-human emotions. The gorgeous music video that accompanies the song, featuring Fish & Bird's Taylor Ashton and filmed and edited by Jacob Blumberg, only helps us better understand those emotions - the contradictions of hope and heartbreak, longing and gratitude, that we are all capable of feeling at the same time.
The Stray Birds' 'Best Medicine' is available via YepRoc Records at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Country singer Kasey Chambers, who has been a prime representative for Southern Australia's rural music tradition, strikes a balance of exploration and maintaining her core sound on her latest release 'Bittersweet,' due out via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th. It is notable that Chambers' tenth studio album, which sees her writing about freedom, sweet releases and the bittersweet, is her first release since the separation from her husband, singer/songwriter, Shane Nicholson. Her last solo album of originals was 2010's 'Little Bird' followed by the 2012 'Wreck and Ruin' collaboration with Nicholson. On listening to this new record, it is clear that she has had some life altering experiences, which have left her with a lot to say. It is not an outright breakup album, but there are certainly songs that hint strongly towards starting anew and surviving. Take, for example, the closer "I'm Alive," where she boldly professes: "And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears/Things ain't always what they appear/I made it through the hardest f****** year." On the other side of that is the title track - a duet with fellow Australian, Bernard Fanning. "Bittersweet," the slow burning ballad about the pain of needing to end a relationship, but not knowing how, is poignant and heartbreaking. Chambers' songwriting impressively displays the many complicated dynamics that ending a relationship brings out, and she sounds so free while doing so.
'Bittersweet' also marks a change sonically for Chambers, who has exclusively worked with her brother/manager Nash Chambers. This album sees her looking to broaden her range and sound with the production skills of Nick DiDia. DiDia's credits include huge sounds like Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam and Train. His past work's influence is not very noticeable on many tracks that have that classic Chambers' folk/country tinged sound like "Oh Grace," "I Would Do" or "Heaven or Hell." Chambers also nails that familiar sound she's known for on "House On a Hill," which marks the first duet with her father and mentor, the musician Bill Chambers. It seems like DiDia's ability to bring out this intensity and drama from Chambers' songs is unprecedented. Chambers' shows massive growth in that department in the song "Wheelbarrow," which sounds like it could be on an Alan Lomax prisoner chain-gang field recording (aside from the super dirty electric guitar). A highlight on the record is the barnburner, "Too Late To Save Me." It is hard to understand why this stirring performance is all the way on track ten on the record.
While there are elements that will be familiar from the Kasey Chambers' albums of the past: sweet alt-country sounds and that beautiful clear voice of hers, this album truly marks a turning point for her. After 15 years recording, Chambers has won multiple ARIA and CMAA awards in Australian music, including the ARIA for Country Music Album of the year for 'Bittersweet' in 2014 (The record was released last year in her native country). It's inspiring to hear a musician and songwriter who is so celebrated, broaden her range so successfully in what has been a challenging time of change in her life.
Kasey Chambers releases 'Bittersweet' via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th, available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Seeing as Muscle Shoals is not more than a hop, skip, and a jump or two from their home base in Nashville -- and lead singer Gary Nichols grew up there -- the SteelDrivers headed down that way for their new set, unceremoniously titled as 'The Muscle Shoals Recordings.' But it sounds nothing like anything ever recorded in Muscle Shoals. There are no slinky bass runs, no funky horn parts, and no deep drum grooves anywhere to be found here.
That's not to say, though, that it's a bad record. It's not. It's just not what you might expect from the title. But it's exactly what you might expect from the SteelDrivers -- a head-on, taste-the-dirt blend of bluegrass, folk, and country that wraps itself around Nichols' soulful voice and the deft skills of fiddler Tammy Rogers, banjo player Richard Bailey, mandolin man Brent Truitt, and bassist Mike Fleming. For another dash of authenticity, Nichols' longtime friend and fellow Alabaman Jason Isbell even co-produced and added slide guitar to two tracks, "Brother John" and "Ashes of Yesterday."
It's a thoroughly supple, occasionally somber set, but even the darker hues have a fluidity that keep them from getting too bogged down in their own self-importance. Considering the rampant racial tensions that continue to wreak havoc on the U.S., the SteelDrivers' heartfelt ode to the Civil War in "River Runs Red" seems ever-timely as Nichols intimates that the harrowing legacy, indeed, lives on: "The winners are losers, when you count the dead. We watch it go by. We all bow our heads. The guns have gone silent, but the river runs red."
The SteelDrivers' 'The Muscle Shoals Recordings' (Rounder) is available now at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:51 PM
Hear It First - Old Man Luedecke, 'Domestic Eccentric'
July 17, 2015
*Old Man Luedecke releases his new album 'Domestic Eccentric' on July 24. You can listen to the album in its entirety before then in the player below!*
I had a friend in college who, when asked if she was homesick on the first day of our freshmen year by the well-meaning resident advisor, shrugged her shoulders and said, "Eh. Home, to me, is where your pillow is."
What was she talking about? Home is where your dog is. Where the neighbor's front door slams loud enough so that you can hear it in your bedroom, two stories up. Where the church bells seem to ring incessantly, no matter the time of day or night. And where everything you love and hate seems to exist in some sort of comfortable chaos.
That was the first time I learned that "home" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. To Chris "Old Man" Luedecke, for example, home is babies growing up too fast and a wife who only gets more wonderful as the years go on. Home is a rustic, quiet existence, filled with the sounds of coffee percolating, stories of true love being told around the dinner table, and, of course, the non-stop plucking and strumming of banjo strings.
For his new recording 'Domestic Eccentric,' Old Man Luedecke invited one of his musical heroes, Tim O'Brien, to his hand-crafted cabin in the woods of Nova Scotia. The two spent some time pondering the meanings of home and family and good music. Other friends gradually joined in - some in that cabin and some in other cities - and the end result is what Old Man Luedecke describes as "a rich portrait of personal friendships." From the listener's point of view, it's also a rich sonic portrait with each musician getting a well-deserved turn in the spotlight.
From the opening track "Yodelady" (which is really a love song that, yes, includes yodeling) through "The Briar and the Rose" and the oh-so-poignant "The Early Days," and winding up at the final track, "Happy Ever After," we get a very clear picture about the most important people and experiences in Old Man Luedecke's life.
If you think about it, it's really quite gracious of him to give us this personal glimpse of what makes his life tick - and it sure doesn't hurt that the musicianship surrounding these intensely individual revelations and observations is incredible. Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass and drums - it all serves to underscore what's most important to this banjo savant from Nova Scotia. And that, of course, is his home.
'Domestic Eccentric' is due out on July 24 via True North Records, and is availabe now for pre-order at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Sometimes, no matter how much you love a place, no matter how deeply it seems to speak to you, no matter how much it seems like home, it's simply not the right place for you. And sometimes, the healthiest thing you can do is pack up, put your boots on and leave to make a new home somewhere else. That's the realization Eilen Jewell came to awhile back. And that's what inspired her to write "Rio Grande," which you'll find on her new album 'Sundown Over Ghost Town.'
Jewell describes the album as a whole as "very autobiographical." And it's true - there are lots of personal reflections and introspective musings throughout. The real beauty of this recording, however, lies in Jewell's ability to take what's relevant to her life and turn it into something that's relevant to the lives of anyone who chooses to listen.
"Rio Grande" is a perfect example of the personal becoming universal. After all, who among us has not had the experience of longing for and despising a place at the same time? You know: that push-pull-back-forth-I-want-it-no-I-don't kind of feeling - we've all experienced it. And through the spaghetti western-esque stylings of Eilen Jewell, guitar master Jerry Miller and trumpeter Jack Gardner, we get to experience it again, this time from the outside looking in.
The video perfectly highlights that feeling, too. Shots of Jewell and the band, nearly expressionless, interspersed with landscapes that look bright and dull at the same time, that seem beautiful and desolate all at once, only serve to emphasize the contradiction she feels - I love this place so much, I want so badly to be happy and healthy here...and, sadly, it just isn't right.
'Sundown Over Ghost Town' is out now on Signature Sounds Records, and is available here at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:58 PM
A Q & A and Video Premiere: The Earnest Lovers - 'San Andreas' Fault'
When Pete Krebs and Leslie Beia came together as Earnest Lovers, it was a meeting of both minds and hearts. Musically, they shared a passion for classic country. Romantically, they shared a passion for each other. You don't have to look very far back in the lineage to find myriad tellings of the very same tale in Johnny and June, Dolly and Porter, George and Tammy. Krebs and Beia, though, found each other and their sound in Portland, not Nashville. Still, their EP, 'Sing Sad Songs,' could have come just as easily from the rolling hills of Tennessee, as it did the urban environs of Oregon. It's a classic collection for the modern age.
Kelly McCartney: The Earnest Lovers had an auspicious start, right? Something about a ring of fire and a winning lottery ticket? Story please.
Pete Krebs: Our first night performing together ended at about 6 am, after a night of drinking whiskey and playing songs around the fire (built inside of an old washing machine liner) in Leslie's back yard. A few hours later, we woke to a rush of feet, cursing, and someone yelling, "Call the fire department!!!" Our fire, which we thought we had extinguished fully, had smoldered, heated back up again, and burned a perfect circle through her back deck and was working on the supports underneath. This is a very awkward way to meet someone's roommates, let me tell you.
Our first weekly gig together was at a place called the Gold Dust Meridian, which we still play every Wednesday (when we're in town). That first night, a guy came up and put three lottery tickets in the tip jar. We got home and tossed them on the kitchen ledge and forgot about them for a few weeks. We finally got around to looking at them more closely and, since they were scratch-offs, each took one. Neither were winners, but the third one, we shared. We won $100 and instantly had a band fund!
Tell me about some of your favorite classic country duets and what makes them so special.
Leslie Beia: There's something very special about husband/wife duos that I find fascinating. Although the best performers, like Dolly and Porter, sing magically together and play the part on stage, there's something else at work when the relationship is both personal and professional. It's like sister or brother harmony: You can come very, very close to approximating it, but there's just this other level that can only be reached through a certain depth of familiarity.
I sometimes watch old George and Tammy videos and try to imagine what they were really feeling for each other on stage, knowing there was so much chaos behind the scenes. Sometimes she looks like she's about ready to strap him to an anvil and send him over! Pete and I are enjoying this grand adventure together with all the layers. It's a lot of work, but there's a richness we get to experience that hopefully informs the music. And to date, no one has yet purchased an anvil... so far so good!
Obviously, three chords and the truth factor in, but how do you craft new songs that sound classic and timeless?
PK: The classic country music that we love is deceptively simple music. It often deals with very complicated subjects that are communicated or implied in such a way that the underlying, deeper story is made as human as possible, and is thus very inclusive. "She Thinks I Still Care," recorded by George Jones, is a great example of this. So much is left unsaid, but the deeper story is crystal clear.
When we write our original tunes, we try to write about things we know and care about, and pay a great deal of attention to nuance and language, framing them inside the familiar sounds of classic country music that we love. The result, hopefully, reflects that deceptive simplicity which holds a deep story.
Portland doesn't seem like a honky tonk town. What's that scene like there?
PK: Portland has a historically strong traditional country music heritage that might not seem apparent at first. Willie Nelson lived here, playing the local honky tonks and DJing at a radio station in neighboring Vancouver, Washington. During the '40s and '50s, we had some of the biggest country music dance halls on the West Coast. The scene was huge thanks to the Kaiser shipyards located here during the war, which attracted thousand and thousands of workers from Texas, Oklahoma, and the Southern states. After the war was over, a lot of them stayed and the music remained strong for decades.
We're lucky to have several venues that feature country music exclusively (or at least frequently), and a pool of world-class musicians to draw from. While there's certainly a lot of modern country fans around, we have a great scene which loves and embraces the older sounds of classic country music of the '40s, '50s, and '60s.
You and Pete -- and your players -- all dress the part for gigs. Does that help summon the proper spirit?
PK: We think it's nice to get decked out when we perform because it adds something special, visually, to the show and because, back in the day, the performers seemed to always make a point of looking sharp. It's debatable whether or not songs of heartbreak and loss translate better when you're looking fancy, but it can't hurt (no pun intended).
The Earnest Lovers new EP, 'Sing Sad Songs' is out now via Elko Records, and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 5:41 PM
Online Benefit for Emanuel AME Church via Concert Window
July 10, 2015
Peter Mulvey is organizing an online benefit concert via Concert Window for the Emanuel AME Church, featuring Mulvey, Pamela Means, Vance Gilbert, Peter Yarrow and more special guests to be announced.
Pay what you can and tune in Sunday, July 12 at 3pm EDT - HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:19 AM
An Exclusive Interview with Peter Mulvey - 'Take Down Your Flag'
In response to the Charleston, SC shootings, Milwaukee singer-songwriter, Peter Mulvey, has found himself at the forefront of a folk musicians' movement with his protest song "Take Down Your Flag". The song began as a simple request for the South Carolina government to take the confederate flag down to half-staff in the wake of the massacre, in which 9 black Americans were gunned down in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mulvey wrote one verse of the song and then asked other folk musicians to write 8 more verses, one for each victim. Since the song's posting online, over 200 verses have been written by songwriters like Ani Difranco, Melissa Ferrick, Anais Mitchell, Vance Gilbert, Mark Erelli and many more.
On June 30th - two weeks after the shootings - Peter Mulvey took the time to talk to Folk Alley about "Take Down Your Flag".
Cindy Howes: You wrote the song "Take Down Your Flag" in response to the Charleston, SC shootings on June 17. When did you actually write the song?
Peter Mulvey: I wrote the song in the dressing room, next to Ani Difranco, underneath the Calvin Theater in Northampton, on Friday June 19. I wrote it about a half hour before I went on stage, it took ten minutes.
Can you explain the moment that you were moved to write it?
It was the two days of talking. The shootings, I found out about them Wednesday night, Thursday I spent the day alone and hanging out with Pamela Means. She and I are Milwaukee ex-patriots, although I have since moved back. We've been talking about race for 25 years, she's of mixed race and we have our own stories. Then I talked to Ani and her band members before our show. Then I wrote the song just before the show. What led up to it was 25 years, actually 40 years, of thinking about this and then two days of conversation and then it was all distilled in ten minutes.
How did you come up with the idea of using other songwriters to add their own verse? Why was it important for other songwriters to add their voice and verses?
There's only so much one song can do, and the only verse I wrote which mentioned any of the victims was a verse for Susie Jackson because I was appalled that an 87-year old person could be murdered. I wrote a verse only for her as sort of a window to get into this tragedy. A fan of mine wrote and asked if I was going to write 8 more verses (for each of the victims). At that moment, a friend called and ask to cover the song. I said "Fine, but write another verse." Then Pamela Means, Ani Difranco, Erin Mckeown, Melissa Ferrick, Birds of Chicago, Paula Cole and many others have all written a verse. Jeff Daniels, the actor, told me he wrote a verse, but hasn't recorded it yet. This has kind of gotten out from under me.
Whose verses have you been surprised the most by?
Vance Gilbert. I wrote to him at one o'clock in the morning on Saturday. He told me he would do it the next morning, but then he got out of bed and wrote a verse right that moment. He sent it to me by 3 in the morning. He chose Dylan Roof as his victim. He chose the shooter as his victim. That surprised me and then what startled me more is when I wrote to him "That's an Olympic level amount of forgiveness," he wrote back and said "No. It's a verse in a song. Forgiveness is a process and I'm going to be working on it". That was a really bracing clarification of what it must feel like to have the same color skin as the people who were killed for the color of their skin and nothing more. It's like messing with the Taliban, in that; you don't even have to mess with these people for them to kill you. You can just be alive and they'll kill you for it. We who are not marked as targets, we can't know what it's like until we talk to somebody who is. That's the thing I most hope: that people will talk to each other, so they can wake up to the realities of their fellow human beings.
You told me that you only wrote one verse for "Take Down Your Flag", but in actuality, you wrote two?
Yes. I wrote a verse for Bree Newsome the incredibly brave hero who climbed that flag pole and took that flag down. She did it respectfully, with love, she had a smile on her face, and she was quoting from the bible. She and her pal who helped her, James, they didn't even let the flag touch the ground, they didn't burn it and they didn't shout profanity. They just took it down. She's made an amazing statement and she is my hero. She is in real danger now. She has messed with people who will remember her name. I am awestruck by her courage. You know, I've written a song, politicians have talked and Walmart has weighed in, but every funeral that was happening, had to happen underneath that flag. She is the only human being who has managed to give even an hour or two of relief from that small measure that must add to the pain and sorrow of those people.
The classic way of presenting a "folk protest song" is in a live setting usually feeding off the energy of other protestors (Pete Seeger, Joan Baez), but can you talk about the experience you have felt writing a protest song in 2015 and using social media as your way of spreading the word?
Yeah, it's super weird! It's super beautiful and super weird. The whole world is like this giant amalgamated, atomized, on-going concert/high school reunion. Everyone can talk to everyone in real time. I remember seeing a documentary about "We Shall Overcome" and it took months for the version to solidify, and then it swept. Now we have this weird thing where it's only been ten days and it's been sweeping, obviously a shallower version of impact within the culture, but it happens more quickly and happens in a more surreal way. I know the internet is a weird place and Facebook is a weird place, but I'm glad to see this song get out there. The first inkling of how powerful this stuff was for me was The Arab Spring and The Black Lives Matter moment. Some of the central figures, Deray McKesson and Netta Elzie, their work is almost exclusively on Twitter. It's amazing what they are accomplishing. They are holding to the fire, the President of the United States of America and twitter is allowing them to do this. It's just head spinning how everything has changed. I think it's changing for the good.
What is the next step for "Take Down Your Flag"?
We're going to be doing a benefit concert via Concert Window on July 12th in the afternoon. It'll probably start with me and probably be a rolling tag-team thing where everyone will be streaming on their feeds. The idea is to raise money. I did an impromptu one with almost no promotion on a hotel room on Friday night and about 50 people watched and donated $700 to the Emanuel Hope Fund which was immensely soothing to all the heartache here. I'm hoping we can raise thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars. There are so many bereft children here who are going to need braces and tuition and probably therapy. The last funeral happens this Thursday when Rev. Simmons is laid to rest in Colombia. Then everyone's just gotta walk through the alien landscape of loss and we have to help them. It's just imperative that we help them.
When they first got started back in 2008, the founders of Good Old War -- Keith Goodwin, Tim Arnold, and Dan Schwartz -- carved their band name out of their own. Though they bid farewell to Arnold, the moniker still stands for the group's fourth full-length release, 'Broken Into Better Shape,' just out on Nettwerk.
The album leans heavily on raucous folk-pop to make its point, but closes with the tender acoustic ballad, "Don't Forget." While traveling around in support of the release, Goodwin and Schwartz stopped by the Mobli Beach House in Florida to lay down an even more tender, more acoustic rendering of the tune.
Schwartz explains the sparseness, "The song was written to say goodbye to a person very close to us. The music was meant to be as intimate as the lyrics are, so it was recorded that way. Because of that, it doesn't really change much in an acoustic setting. Mainly, we try to make sure we're on the meanings of songs and do our best to make sure we're expressing that whenever we play."
The Canadian folk duo of Hannah Walker and Jamie Elliott -- aka Twin Bandit -- comes from a long line of harmony makers. Many times the pairing is made of siblings like the Louvins, Everlys McGarrigles, or Roches. While Walker and Elliott may not share biological DNA, their musical chemistry is undeniable. Twin Bandit's debut album, 'For You,' comes out on Monday and opens in the sparest of ways with "Tides," building from there. If the Wailin' Jennys had made Emmylou Harris's 'Wrecking Ball,' it might well sound like 'For You.'
The two of you met while working at St. James Music Academy. How did you discover your musical chemistry?
Hannah Walker: We discovered our mutual love of harmonies the good ol' fashioned way... by singing together! We were cooking at the St.James Music Academy and I started to sing an old traditional. Jamie joined me in beautiful harmony. It's rare to find two voices that blend. We knew it was a special thing to find a singing soulmate. So began the early days of Twin Bandit.
Being signed to Nettwerk and gearing up for the album release has happened pretty quickly, right? How does it feel to be getting your music out there?
Jamie Elliott: It feels incredible to be able to share our music with a large audience. We have gone from playing for our family and friends in living rooms to sharing the stage with musicians that we really admire in some of the most beautiful venues. We feel honoured for our opportunity to work with Nettwerk. They believe in the power of music just as we do.
What other duos do you two study or admire for their harmony techniques? Is there one, in particular, that Twin Bandit is musically related to?
JE: Some duos that we look up to are the Louvin Brothers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Simon and Garfunkle. Although Fleetwood Mac isn't a duo, we have always felt very inspired by their harmonies.
It's interesting that you cover a Daniel Lanois tune on the record because "Rosalyn" sounds like a Lanois production. Are you both fans of his? One more than the other?
HW: I think back fondly to Lanois's music in the background of my life. He was a musical fixture in our household, from his familiar production on many of our favourite albums to his own music. When I met Jamie, I introduced her to the album 'Shine.' She felt a connection to his lyrical honesty and the evocative soundscapes the same way I did.
This album could have easily been just your voices, your guitars, and your songs. But it got gussied up a bit, and gorgeously so. Did the two of you have a vision going in or did Jon [Anderson] shape the sound?
JE: We would have to say it was a little of both. Jon Anderson was amazing to work with. Even though we often play live as a duo, we were so excited to fill out our sound with the insight of Jon's production and our friends' musical talents. We were able to meet many times before recording to find mutual inspiration for the album's sound. Jon has an incredible taste in music and he helped us actualize our vision and bring it to life in a new way.
'For You' is out on June 29th via Nettwerk Music Group and is available at iTunes. You can stream the album in its entirety below!
From Ireland to England to the United States: 'Because I Did Murder That Poor Little Girl Whose Name Was Rose Connelly'
In this piece, I am looking at the popular trope of the murdered sweetheart, in a range of traditional British, Irish, American and Anglo-American ballads. I will look at the stories of the songs and the characters they contain, as well as the roles played by both men and women in not only a core set of songs (variously titled the Oxford Girl, the Wexford Girl and the Knoxville Girl), as well as a wider collection of songs containing The Banks Of The Ohio, and also Down In The Willow Garden/Rose Connelly.
I will look at notions of 'fact' and 'true life' in these songs, and I want to explore the relationships between the songs in the sample, and the essential differences between the various stories.
This 'core' set of songs takes the form of differing versions of the same story. A young man, a miller by trade, takes it upon himself to murder his young sweetheart, for reasons which are not immediately obvious (indeed, in many versions, not obvious at all). The song seems to have its origins in 18th century (or earlier) English broadsides (cheap street literature), which came into the oral tradition in a variety of ways. The young man's crime is not detected, and he carries on with his normal life, more or less.
The songs have proved hugely popular across folk, roots and country circles, and the variation in the lyrics of the traditional versions have been stabilized in cut-down forms of the story which have been popularized in recorded versions.
"The Banks of the Ohio" is another, related song, which follows the same basic story as the Oxford/Knoxville Girl. In Banks...the girl rejects his marriage proposal, a possible 'motive' for his undeniable cruelty.
"Down In The Willow Garden" (also known as "Rose Connolly") takes us from Ireland to the United States, and, although following on from the above songs, may have an American origin. Unlike some of its predecessors, it has a named character (Rose), and, rather gruesomely, some versions describe the murder in more detail. As well as being stabbed, as in Oxford... et al, she is poisoned and drowned for her sins.
One cannot help but reflect on the question of why these songs have proved so popular, so resolute in the tradition? There are so many versions which have been left to us from singers and communities across the generations. Sure, the story is a strong one, one which speaks to our humanity, but there must be more to it than that. There seems to be some voyeurism, some attraction to cruelty, a 'ritual misogyny', as Teresa Goddu has described it.
It is worth for a moment looking at the characters portrayed in the stories, and the roles which they play. We never seem to get much biographical information on the characters (perhaps symptomatic of traditional song), bar the fact that young Willie is an apprentice miller (as revealed in some takes on Oxford...). Of the woman, we know next to nothing, except that she is a tragic innocent who can act in nothing but deference to her man. She chooses nothing, has no agency. As we are more or less in the dark as to the male's motives (he may have been on the receiving end of some bad news, or a disagreement - hardly the stuff of murder, surely), we can only wonder at why he commits the heinous act.
And indeed, murder sometimes makes a hero of a man, or at least boosts his profile. But in all of the songs I am looking at, I can't help but think of him as something of a weakling, a man defined by his cruelty alone. We are looking at a cut-down version of a cut-down story, but it is still one which makes me think of a senseless crime with a bit-part victim and a weak and feckless perpetrator.
Down...does take his portrait further, as he realizes, when he is brought to justice, that the murder has had unforeseen consequences, and that he must face the hangman's noose. This contrition is certainly not found in every instance of the ballad.
'Fact' and 'true life' are notoriously difficult concepts to attach to traditional music, and, as much as it does reflect and reinforce everyday concerns, norms and experiences, it is still the result of the fictionalisation of real events. Willie and Rose, and their contemporaries, are versions of real people, their lives imagined (and re-told and re-contextualised). For songs to be 'successful' in tradition, for them to pass into, and through space and time, they have to be popular. They have to resonate with singers and audiences, and to do this, they have to be good stories. Songs have to hook people in, and grab their attention. This is to take nothing away from the tragic events of the songs, but simply to point out their strengths as songs and performances.
Traditional ballads take us on voyages through history, geography, social conditions and politics, and, in the case of "The Oxford Girl," "Down In The Willow Garden" and the like, gender relations. The situation of women is not something that is immediately considered when listening to the exploits of so many poor victims of male violence or misogyny, but is something which we should not ignore. I am the first to celebrate the beauty and poignancy of the form, but this appreciation should not be at the expense of the recognition of historical and contemporary malfeasance.
Jonathan Edwards is one of those singer/songwriters that everyone knows, even if they don't know they know. That's largely due to his 1971 folk-pop hit "Sunshine." The iconic tune paved the way for Edwards who has since released 16 albums with 'Tomorrow's Child' now joining the collection. Over the decades, Edwards has worked with Emmylou Harris, Michael Martin Murphey, B.B. King, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the Allman Brothers, and so many more. For his new project, he got a little help from his friends... including Darrell Scott as producer.
Kelly McCartney: When you were back in military school, just starting to write songs, did you have an ambition to pursue music as a career? Or were you just trying to pass the time and chase your muse?
Jonathan Edwards: I didn't even know how to spell "career" at that time. Like most kids, I was like a thirsty sponge, soaking up chords, rhythms, grooves, lyrics, structure, and the whole self-expression, artistic, creative culture and community. Of course, the entire "process" of writing poetry and prose and the translation into songwriting was soon to follow. The muse shall not be chased; she will come on her own volition, at a time and place of her choosing. Just make her comfortable and happy.
Thinking back on making your first record -- losing the "Please Find Me" recording and adding "Sunshine" in its place -- that has to be the greatest "meant to be" moment in your life, right?
I have always been a creature of serendipity and convergence. What I mean by that is being open to the often subtle winds and currents and tides that push and pull your ship slightly off your intended course. There are rocks out there and shallow water, and I take it all in as I survey the horizon in front of me. I don't miss a thing. I'm lucky I have such an unblemished driving record.
Do you ever go into "what if" mode and imagine how things might have turned out if that hadn't happened?
Perhaps my high school guidance counselor would have been right when, after reviewing my aptitude test, she asked if I had ever considered welding as a profession. I don't really believe in predestination or any of that; I just believe a creative soul (and I think everyone has one) needs to be wide open to ALL of the senses we are endowed with and the energy to sustain the impulse to reflect that inspiration for others to enjoy.
From the Broadway stage to the folk circuit to the silver screen, you've kind of done it all. Do you have a preference for one art form? Or do they each have their own special place in your heart and creativity?
I'd like to know what the statistics are regarding ADD and the creative process. I love doing it ALL. There is SO much to be learned from all these efforts, and they all inform and enrich each other all the time. Challenging? Sure, but it always seems to travel in a positive direction and I'm forever grateful that my friends and fans have joined me on this journey and have rambled through their changes right along with me.
For the songs, you balance confessionals and classics. How important is that levity for you? And how tricky is it to get the ratio right?
My approach has always been to talk about the feelings I am dealing with at the time, in hopes that other people will be able to relate and maybe gain some insight, perspective, pleasure -- or maybe just the knowledge that they are not alone, that other folks, even the ones in the spotlight, may be going through those same feelings. The balance is tricky. I want so much to give the people who venture out on a Saturday night everything they want -- everything and more that they expect from our almost 50-year relationship -- while at the same time gently urging us all to move forward and make new memories and create new pictures.
Similarly, you've worked with a whole lot of folks... Emmy, B.B., Chapin, the Allmans, Murphey... so many. How did it feel to recruit some of your friends to help out on this record? You and Alison Krauss sound lovely together.
Speaking of memories, I have such amazing recollections of hanging out with some of the most treasured and revered artists of all time and I hold them dear to my heart. One of my favorite old photographs is me sitting in a chair in some dressing room somewhere playing James Taylor's guitar and he is bending over examining my picking technique. You can't make this stuff up!
And as for dreams coming true, when Darrell Scott and I met and started talking songs, musicians, studios, and soul, it was clear from "hello" that yet another dream was going to be realized in my waking hours. At the urging of my wife and manager (two different people), I very tentatively started calling up some of the people whose work I have so admired all my life, to carefully inquire whether they might possibly be interested in coming in and singing and playing with me on my new album. I didn't hear, "I"m really busy" or, "Not right now" or, "I'd love to but..." I heard a resounding, "Yes, I'll be there, just tell me where and when!" To sing with people like Shawn Colvin, Vince Gill, and Alison Krauss, and have Jerry Douglas play dobro -- just to name a few -- are among the greatest gifts I've ever been given.
From an outsider's perspective, English folk singer Sam Lee's eclectic -- if not downright eccentric -- life as a Chelsea School of Art student, burlesque dancer, and wilderness expert was either going to prepare him for absolutely anything or absolutely nothing. Middle of the road, it certainly was not. But, when he met Scottish Traveller singer Stanley Robertson, the preparation for absolutely anything came in handy.
For four years, Robertson mentored Lee in the ages-old tradition of Traveller and Gypsy music. He also met and studied with other masters of the form, including Freda Black, who passed her "Bonny Bunch of Roses" torch to the young singer. With that front-row seat and first-hand experience, Lee embarked upon his own mission of bringing those old songs into the now, as well as the future. And the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with critics calling Lee the Alan Lomax of Gypsy music. His debut album, 'Ground of Its Own,' won the United Kingdom's Arts Foundation prize in 2011 and was nominated for the Mercury Music Award in 2012.
Lee's follow-up LP, 'The Fade in Time,' will be released in the U.S. -- in tandem with 'Ground of Its Own' -- next week. Recorded over the course of three months at Imogen Heap's Hideaway Studio in Essex with Arthur Jeffes and Jamie Orchard-Lisle serving as co-producers, it is filled with ancient Gypsy folk songs that have rarely been heard outside the Traveller communities that roam the British Isles.
'The Fade In Time' was released in the US via Thirty Tigers on June 16. The full album stream is no longer available, but you can sample a track from the collection below!
The album is available at iTunes, HERE and at Amazon.com, HERE.
On their best record in a decade, the Indigo Girls harken back even as they move forward. Rites of Passage, Swamp Ophelia, Shaming of the Sun, and Come on Now Social -- arguably the best albums in the Indigo catalog -- all echo softly through this set, whether in the note choices of a harmony or the layout of an arrangement. And One Lost Day rises up from those roots to find its own wings, set aloft on the thoroughly thoughtful production of Jordan Brooke Hamlin.
As should be expected, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers alternate between the political and the personal in their songwriting, sometimes blurring the lines that divide the two. Saliers starts the set by recounting a tale from her Tulane days that involved her friend "Elizabeth." (She has joked that writing songs like this one is her way of reaching out to old friends because she doesn't do Facebook. Whatever works!) Ray counters that sentiment with the album's lead single, "Happy in the Sorrow Key." Here, she contemplates what it means to be content -- yes, happy -- even while riding out the turbulence of the human existence.
Themes of life and death, the coming and the going, are plentiful in Ray's half of the song cycle -- at least a few of her compositions were finished during and after a small window of time that saw both her father's passing and her daughter's birth. "Texas Was Clean" is a hypnotic dream of a life long lost to the passing of time. "Texas was clean, just a no-man's dream. A slate that I'd never written on. The dust blown 'round, lonely town, boots on the porch of a barn. As far from the South without getting out of the corner of my heart," Ray and Saliers sing in harmonic unison before splitting off into separate parts -- the muted drums and tender guitars leading the way.
Reckoning is another theme that finds its way into tunes like "Spread the Pain Around," "If I Don't Leave Here Now," and "Fishtails," each of which evidences some of the best writing and performances the Girls have ever laid down. And, of course, they both give what they got in spades as Ray puts her customary edge on "The Rise of the Black Messiah" and Saliers lays her lovely lilt all over "Come a Long Way."
More than 30 years into playing together, the Indigo Girls once again remind us why they have lasted and why they are loved. Their songs continue to be both bold and thoughtful, and their voices are as rich and robust as ever.
One Lost Day is out now on Vanguard Records and is available Amazon.com and iTunes.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:07 AM
Video Premiere: April Verch, "Bring Your Clothes Back Home"
It's true: we're not all as lucky as April Verch. When WE want to honor a hero, we might tell a friend about him or her. We might send a heartfelt email or post something sappy and/or respectful on Facebook. When someone like April Verch wants to honor HER hero - well, this multi-talented fiddler and dancer and singer does it in her own unique way.
The hero in this case? The late John Hartford. "I'm a huge John Hartford fan," April Verch says. "His music and career are unending sources of inspiration to me. I've always loved this lighthearted song of his and when we were putting the album together I came across a Youtube version of John performing it with just his voice, fiddle and feet, and 2 double bass players. We decided to arrange it in a similar fashion, so it's sparse and vulnerable in some ways, but I think that's what makes it so special."
And it IS special. Her tone when she sings the plea, "Bring your clothes back home, try me one more time," fits perfectly with her knowing little smile, her delicate shrug and, of course, her light handed fiddling and graceful feet. Verch looks, in that moment, like there's nothing else in the world she'd rather be doing.
You'll find "Bring Your Clothes Back Home" on April Verch's new recording, 'The Newpart' out now on Slab Town Records - available HERE.
You can download a copy of "Bring Your Clothes Back Home" - HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 7:59 AM
Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, 'The Traveling Kind'
Emmylou Harris makes magic with pretty much everyone she sings with, from Gram Parsons to Lyle Lovett. One of her most trusted sidekicks over the years, though, has been Rodney Crowell, and the two never fail to shimmer and shine as evidenced on 'The Traveling Kind.' Like they did on 'Old Yellow Moon,' Harris and Crowell harmonize on some tunes, hand off on others. Either way, they strike a natural balance and a beautiful chord. As always, Crowell provides the roots and Harris, the wings.
The lithesome title track opens the set with a mandolin-laced meandering through their individual yet shared experience of giving themselves and their lives over to the world through their music: "We were born to brave this tilted world with our hearts laid on the line. Be it way-crossed boy or red dirt girl, the song becomes the traveling kind." Other highlights include "No Memories Hangin' Around," "You Can't Say We Didn't Try," "Just Pleasing You," and "Her Hair Was Red" -- all of which could have been on almost any Harris or Crowell record of the past 40 years. From rootsy rockers and country croons, the songs here feel fairly old-fashioned, but never dated... timeless, to be sure. That's a credit to both the compositions and the performances.
There's nothing earth-shattering about 'The Traveling Kind,' because that's not the point. What's clear, though, is how much Harris and Crowell enjoy working together and how well they do it.
'The Traveling Kind' is out now on Nonesuch Records and available HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:02 PM
Hear It First - The Good Lovelies, 'Burn the Plan'
May 19, 2015
(**The Good Lovelies will self-release thier new album, 'Burn the Plan' next week. Until then, you can listen to the complete album in the player below!)
Every now and again, you just need to shake things up. Take a new job, try a new hobby, learn a new skill - do whatever you have to do to remind yourself that life is happening NOW and that we need to enjoy every moment of it. In other words, you need to burn the plan. When's the last time YOU did that?
If it's been awhile, take a page from the Canadian trio The Good Lovelies' book. Their new recording (appropriately titled 'Burn the Plan') not only burns the plan, it builds something new - and rather extraordinary - from the papery remains.
8 years ago, friends Caroline Brooks, Kerri Ough and Sue Passmore decided to start making music together. They must have known they had something special - harmonies that hearken back to a golden era of music, a time when female singers walked onto the stage in petticoat-stiffened dresses with hairdos up to there. That's really where you'll find the trio's bread and butter - with their three very different voices, voices that just happen to blend rather marvelously together, in that magical way of music.
And it's those voices that, once again, take center stage on the new recording. This time, though, the voices are joined not just by guitar, mandolin, piano and dobro, but also by a drum machine and other elements of good old-fashioned electronica. Yes, the careful musicianship is still there. Yes, the trio takes turns in the lead and follow vocal roles. But no, this is not your average folk trio. The Good Lovelies push boundaries with 'Burn the Plan' - which is, after all, part of the burning the plan...plan.
I will admit - the stand out track for me on the album is the one that sounds the most like a traditional contemporary folk trio. Track 9, "Four O'Clock," is a poignant reminder that life is short. Anyone who has experienced any kind of loss - well, just go ahead and grab the tissues. Before we reach the point of crying, though, the Lovelies do their part to make you smile and dance with non-stop energy. So much energy, and with so much drum machine, in fact, that when things slow down a bit for the songs "Last Night" and "When the City Settles," it's a relief.
All three of the Lovelies are in fine voice on 'Burn the Plan.' And while it's clear that there's a comfort amongst them, a sense of ease that comes from years of singing together, there's also a new edginess that seems to foreshadow what the trio might yet do in the future. Whatever that may be (and if we go by what they're doing with THIS new release), well, it's bound to be worth a listen.
'Burn the Plan' will be released on May 26th and is available for pre-order - HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:22 AM
A Q & A with Darrell Scott on '10 - Songs of Ben Bullington'
Ben Bullington wasn't just any small-town Montana doctor. He was also a revered songwriter who counted Rodney Crowell, Will Kimbrough, and Darrell Scott among his fans and friends. But despite his fanbase, Bullington's first-ever Nashville performance happened in December of 2012 at the Station Inn, a month after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The following November, Bullington died, though his songs lived on. To give them even more life, Scott put his own fine touch on them on the upcoming '10 - Songs of Ben Bullington' album. It's a touching affair, through and through, with Scott's fondness for the writer and the written shining bright.
Kelly McCartney: When Ben got his diagnosis, he quit his work as a doctor and devoted his remaining time to making music. That seems like a pretty solid endorsement for platitudes like "do what you love" and "live like you're dying." What lessons did you learn from watching how he moved through that time?
Darrell Scott: I had great respect for his choices -- both NOT touring before his last year AND starting to tour in his last year. I understood both and admired him for his decisions.
What is it about his songs that touched you enough to record an album's worth of them?
They were simply great songs and I wanted to do it as a gift to Ben and his boys. (By the way, he has other great songs.)
What do you think you bring to these songs that no one else could have?
I think I brought a sincere simplicity. (I think others could do the same.) Plus, these songs are folk songs and I love folk songs -- so did Ben.
Does being a songwriter yourself make it easier or harder to step into someone else's stories?
It makes it easier, I suppose. I know what the song is trying to do.
You took a decidedly simple approach to the production of '10.' Why go that way rather than another?
I thought the songs had a simplicity (while talking about complex things) which I thought was beautiful. I wanted to portray them honestly and without any recording trickery -- what you hear is what you get. Ben was that way, too.
'10 - Songs of Ben Bullington' will be released on May 19 via Full Light Records and is available HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:00 AM
Song Premiere: The Mike + Ruthy Band, "Rock on Little Jane"
If there's one piece of advice you wish you'd gotten from your parents...what is it? Does it involve falling in (or out of) love? Living life to its fullest? Never giving up? Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar, aka Mike + Ruthy, try to cover all those bases (and more, too) on their new single "Rock on Little Jane," which was inspired by their daughter. (And no, their daughter's name is NOT Jane. It's Opal June. Her name, says Merenda, didn't quite fit the rhythm of the song.)
Besides giving Ruthy Ungar the chance to explore the ups and downs of her most soulful vocal range, "Rock on Little Jane" is jam-packed with the hopes, both realistic and un, all parents have for their kids. It's also a song that centers around the promises parents make to their kids - promises that have no guarantee of actually coming true, but promises that inspire and soothe and encourage and calm just the same. "I know it seems today that no one can see you," Ruthy sings, but "there's going to come a day when they're going to want to be you." Don't we all hope that for the special young people in our lives?
This single from Mike + Ruthy's new recording 'Bright as You Can' (out on June 2nd), "Rock on Little Jane" captures the theme of family that runs throughout the whole album. It also offers a sneak preview of the musical direction Mike + Ruthy are currently traveling - yes, there are fiddles and acoustic guitars and lyrics that take center stage. But there's also a lot of electricity on the new record too. And the combination is simply sizzling.
'Bright as You Can' seems to be honoring the great musical traditions of the past while at the same time welcoming, with open arms, the future of what music can be. And "Rock on Little Jane" is perfectly indicative of what music should be - it's an anthem. A fist-raising, you can do it, don't ever stop trying anthem, one that inspires all kids, no matter how old we are, to sing along.
'Bright As You Can' will be released June 2 on Humble Abode Music (Thirty Tigers) and you can pre-order it HERE.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 9:00 AM
Hear It First: Jimmy LaFave, 'The Night Tribe'
May 9, 2015
Music Road Records (Austin, TX) - Even before he named his first band back in Oklahoma, Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave knew he belonged to that special fraternity of shadowy creatures who move to rhythms dictated by darkness: the 24-hour diner waitress, the graveyard-shift radio DJs, the cops, the taxi drivers - the musicians. His night tribe. A few versions of Jimmy LaFave & the Night Tribe have existed over the years, but he'd never reflected life "in the neon glow of perpetual sin" via song until now, with 'The Night Tribe,' his new album, releasing May 12th on Music Road Records.
Explaining the term's origin, LaFave says, "In Oklahoma, you hear the word tribe a lot because of all the different Indian tribes, and I thought, 'What tribe of people am I part of?' It was always the night people." After reactivating the Night Tribe name for a recent European tour, he decided he wanted to do something thematic with it. "And that is when I write most of my songs," he adds. "Almost all the songs on the record were written at nighttime, driving."
While hardly dark in texture, LaFave's self-produced album captures the varied moods and musings of an accomplished folk/Americana artist known for possessing what critic Dave Marsh has called "one of America's greatest voices." LaFave is also known for his ability to draw musical lines from Oklahoma native son Woody Guthrie to Dylan, Neil Young and other influences in ways that feel completely organic. As most of LaFave's albums do, The Night Tribe contains a Dylan cover: his elegantly rendered "Queen Jane Approximately"; it also contains his gorgeously spare, yet majestic version of Young's "Journey Through the Past."
As for Guthrie, the folk icon's spirit directly inhabits the rockabilly-tinged "Dust Bowl Okies," and it certainly imbues the title tune, a bluesy noir that paints every shade of the "shadow world" where passion, promise, danger and loneliness all lurk. But it's safe to say it hovers throughout 'The Night Tribe,' from the mid-tempo opener "The Beauty of You" to the closing benediction, a prayer of sorts for fellow travelers, "The Roads of the Earth."
'The Night Tribe' will be released on May 12 via Music Road Records and you can stream the album in its entirety until then in the player below. Order the album - HERE.