Della Mae performs "Carter Country" in the Folk Alley studio.
The Family Roots of Conjunto: Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca
July 17, 2014
by Devon Leger, KITHFOLK
Flaco & Max. Legends & Legacies.
2014. Smithsonian Folkways.
Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca are two of the most famous artists in Texas Mexican (Tejano) conjunto music. But they're also both the sons of legends as well. Flaco's father, Don Santiago Jimenez, was a pioneering accordionist, singer, and songwriter in Tejano music, and Max's father, Max Baca, Sr, was also a great accordionist and bandleader, though based out of his native New Mexico, rather than Texas. Both Max and Flaco are actually third-generation accordionists, as their grandfathers played as well. For both artists, this is a family business, so it's a real pleasure to hear them both going back to their family repertoires on their new release on Smithsonian Folkways: Legends & Legacies. Together, Flaco and Max make up the classic duo that is at the heart of all conjunto music: the three-row button accordion and the bajo sexto (a large stringed instrument somewhat similar to the 12-string guitar). Both artists, Flaco on accordion and Max on bajo, are considered among the very best in the world and have become ambassadors both for their music and for the instruments. So what you hear on this album is the very best Tejano conjunto music there is. Here it's gloriously simple, but also devilishly complex, tied to the family roots that sustain it, and freed from the glitz and glamor of modern conjunto music (not that there's anything wrong with a little glam in your accordion music!). The songs are rustic and heartfelt, drawn from their fathers' songs, but also from classics of the genre. The songs, like most country music, are about lost loves, unrequited loves, and the love of drink.
The album is also an ode to fathers and to families, with great stories about how both Flaco and Max grew up in the dancehalls of the American Southwest, surrounded by seminal music making. Growing up in San Antonio, Flaco remembers his father playing Friday through Sunday night at the Gaucho Garden and working as a janitor during the day to support his kids. "He always wanted me around," says Flaco in the liner notes, "and I wanted to be around him, because I loved the accordion, I loved how he played. I used to check out everything. I took care of him in some ways, and I packed his accordion in his Model A car. Then afterward, I started growing up a little more, and he decided to take me to where he played because I think he knew that I was ready to perform. It was like him taking me to Disneyland or something, you know, for me to go with him to where we played! It was a spontaneous thing, because I was just sitting on the side of him because he was playing at the dances." Eventually, Flaco got invited up onstage and cause quite the fervor in the joint with his accordion playing, though he was too small to reach the mic (they had to put a case of Lone Star Beer under him to get him to reach). He was only seven years old.
Max grew up in New Mexico, and his father was responsible for pioneering much of the New Mexican Hispanic music that still exists today, though there clearly have always been ties with the Tejano community in Texas. I interviewed Max Baca over the phone at his house in San Antonio a little while back, and he talked about the fascinating story of his father's music and his father's influence on "chicken scratch" music (the music of Southwest Native Americans). Here's an excerpt from that interview with Max Baca:
"I remember as a kid growing up, playing at different festivals and events, especially the fiestas at the Indian reservations. My dad would play and I was just a kid, I was maybe 6, 7 years old. I was tagging along with my dad, he had me go with him to gigs and by the time that I was 8, I was already playing the bajo, I was already playing the bass. I was actually my dad's bass player, and that's how I got into the music. My dad would say, "Okay, here's the bass guitar and learn it! I need a bass player. We need you. We're not going to pay another musician, I'd rather pay you." We all contributed: me and my brother were part of my dad's band as well, plus my uncle. It was kind of a family band type thing. My uncle played the drums and my other uncle played the bajo. I was the bass player and my brother was the back-up accordion player for my dad. My brother would play accordion and my dad would grab the trumpet. It was pretty cool, a different sound, accordion and trumpet. They would sound beautiful together, harmonizing."
Living in such a multi-cultural society, there were many ties to Southwest Native American culture. In blood, but also in music. Here's Max on his father's influence on chicken scratch music:
"I remember going to festivals, or fiestas rather, when I was playing in the afternoon and then we'd always play the "baile" or the dance at night. I remember there was a couple of [Native] accordionists, and they would go to my dad and my dad would actually teach them a few pointers here or a few songs and that's how they got started in the "chicken scratch" scene. Now there's a lot of Native Indian chicken scratch. In Tucson, there's quite a bit. My dad was a big influence on that because he had his band. His band was really popular and he had a big band. He had 2 accordion players, he had 2 sax players, he would grab the trumpet and would play with the sax players and they would have a kind of orchestra with the conjunto, it's cool. Some of these Native Indians would pick up on it and before you know it, when I was maybe 12 years old, and we'd go back to play these festivals and they would be getting a band together and, of course they would never sing the songs because it's another language. So, I noticed they would just play instrumentals and they would play the same songs and they would play them but instrumentally without the words. It was interesting and it was really cool and I think that's pretty much how they do it nowadays too."
"My dad was New Mexican, Indian, he had a little bit of these different influences... My dad, for some reason, he was a polka freak. He came out with polkas that were off the wall. Flaco Jimenez loved my dad's polkas. They were just different. They had this really cool twist to them. They'd sound hard. hey were simple but they sounded kind of hard. It was a technique that he would use. Really catchy polkas and really, really catchy music. It's funny because the native Indians, when they would dance my dad's polkas, they would dance like the Germans. They would jump up and down, instead of like the Texans. The Texans would dance really slow, in a circular motion, clockwise and shuffling their feet but the native Indians would dance. They would actually jump; they would hop to my dad's polka music! It was different. I have seen some of the German polka dancers. They hop like that. They jump and have little hops with it."
Native Indian dancers, accordion riffs with no words, polkas you can't stop thinking about, songs you can't stop drinking to, and Germans lurking at the edges of the music, this was the roots of Tex-Mex accordion and bajo sexton, and these glory days live on in Flaco Jimenez and Max Baca. Long may they reign as the kings of conjunto!
This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of KITHFOLK, a digital roots music magazine based in the US. For more information and to read additional articles: www.kithfolk.com
Posted by Linda Fahey at 2:00 PM
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On Race and Folk Music: Classic African-American Songsters and Keb' Mo'
July 15, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, originally published in NoDepression.com, July 11, 2014
I've been listening to a little bit of Keb' Mo' recently and a whole lot of the Smithsonian Folkways Classic African-American Songsters collection, thinking about the strange connection I have to African-American storytelling traditions. Strange because I'm a white lady who grew up in a small self-segregated Southern town.
As a student of literature, I gravitated toward African-American stories. Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker -- these were my heroes during young adulthood. People who met an oppressive, confusing, scary, often violent world, not with anger or fear or violence in return. They met it with stories. Stories that shooed away the idea that black voices didn't carry important ideas. Stories that answered the oppression of black lives by lifting up black beliefs. Stories that, by virtue of being told, broke silences with strength and the command: "Listen."
Toni Morrison, for example, has said she won't write white privilege into her books. It lives in the real world; we don't need it in stories. Stories are there to give us an idea of how much greater we could be if we exercised a little imagination, a little will, a little defiant hope.
As a student of music, it took me a while longer to come around to African-American stories. Maybe it was my classical upbringing, maybe something else. After finding folk music, when faced with Leadbelly, I chose Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. When encountering Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee, I opted for the Carter Family and Charlie Poole.
I remember walking through the Marigny in New Orleans shortly after I moved there, taking in the color of the houses, recognizing the connection with the Carribbean and African influences, moving through Congo Square and wandering along the river. Walking through the music. Hearing the black banjo and the black trumpeteer. Watching the sax player in the Quarter, under an awning, in the rain. A light switch flicked on and I suddenly understood there would be none of this music I loved without the music I had been locking out. There was more music than I could ever have imagined, behind the music I knew. The music that sings through the storm, that flits along in the throes of a gale. Music that, by virtue of having melody, commands: "Listen."
Make me a pallet on your floor...
I learned that one from Lucinda Williams. I could say, "what a shame," but a doorway is a doorway, as long as it leads you somewhere you need to go. The song went through a half-dozen recordings and thousands of performances before the Weavers brought it into the mainstream, which is to say the awareness of white folks. Since then, it's gone everywhere from Gillian Welch to Sharon, Lois, and Bram's elephant show, where it no doubt lost all meaning. If you Google the lyrics, the first result that comes up is for Gillian Welch lyrics. Like she wrote it. (That would have been W.C. Handy.)
But, listening to Brownie McGhee sing it on this Smithsonian collection, you sail down the paved highway that ends at the dirt road. You know where you're headed. You know what this song is about. As smooth and fluid and easy as McGhee's guitar picking flows, you know this is a song about being down and out, and wanting to run away.
"Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," now that's one you probably know from Flatt & Scruggs or good old Charlie Poole, who had a hit record with it in 1925. I can't find the specific origins of the song, but it came from African-American communities and was about the cardgame Georgia Skin. Here, it's sung by John Jackson of Virginia -- a guy who made his way in music by playing it in his living room for friends and family. Suddenly the folk boom happened in the mid-20th Century and Jackson became a darling of the Washington D.C. folk and blues community. By that time "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" was probably close to a century old, but we count it as a 1925 hit for Poole.
Keb' Mo', meanwhile, picks up these traditions and updates them with a kind of humor and accessibility that you just won't see from any other contemporary performers, except maybe Todd Snider. "You made me a brand new man / but I like the old me better," Mo' sings. And, even though it's just him and the band, it feels like a party in the room. Like a crowd of people has just moved on in, clawing past the command to "Listen" and is instead demanding: "Dance."
As I've mentioned before, dancing is freedom. Dancing to music is embracing humanity. It's meeting someone else's ideas and letting them flow through your own body. It's giving space and movement to the voice of a stranger. It's an agreement, an endorsement. The thing about dancing is you can't do it if you think about it too much. You must realize the thing this person is singing, is something you have in common. It's the essence of life, of living freely.
Keb' Mo' no doubt spent a little time in his formative years listening to Jackson or Broonzy or McGhee, or some of these other "songsters." He's carrying that pallet, so to speak, and he's making it his stage. There is absolutely no finer artist of his caliber, doing what he's doing.
Anyhow, I've been ruminating on all these things since Terry Roland posted in this space, quoting Otis Taylor: "When a songwriter is white, he's called a singer-songwriter. When he's black, he's called blues." I would submit that this is because it's listeners doing the naming. Listeners call it "singer-songwriter" or "blues." Listeners or companies, marketing departments, record store organizers. The musicians have always just called it music. Mother Maybelle learned to play guitar in a way that's now called the Carter Scratch from an African-American friend. Woody and Pete were students of Leadbelly and McGhee. They wanted to tell a story like those guys could tell it. They wanted to get inside the song like those guys did. Seeger soared in his career, not by appropriating African-American spirituals, but by opening doors to them and inviting audiences in.
It's difficult for me, this -- writing about African-American music while naming the cultural divide. Perhaps that's why it's so infrequently done by Americana/folk critics. There's an impulse when discussing these recordings, to ignore racial history in the U.S. and just talk about the music -- the notes and melodies, the rhythms. To put aside the stories which led to these things. But folk music is borne of the daily life of its makers.
You cannot write a song like "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" unless you're a white midwestern young man frustrated by the headlines and the direction you see your parents' generation steering its socio-political endeavors. You cannot make "Pastures of Plenty" unless you are an Okie who's been set to ramble due to oppressive dust storms, facing extreme poverty during an economic crash. You cannot make a song like "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor" without living in a world that won't allow you to stop at any hotel you feel like stopping at, washing up in any bathroom on the side of the road. It's not a song about the Jim Crow South, but it's a song that was borne of it. It's not a song of oppression and racism, but the determination to sing it is an assertion of personal freedom in the face of daily reality that disallows absolute assertion of your personal freedom.
It's impossible to ignore that there is a cultural experience in these songs that is not my cultural experience. It's impossible to listen without hearing our shared history and the embarrassment innate in the knowledge that Woody and Pete will forever be heroes and Broonzy and McGhee and Jackson are, at least now, barely known outside of certain circles. That Keb' Mo's extraordinary new album BluesAmericana has yet to be discussed in this space, whether that has anything at all to do with race or whether the audience of this site simply isn't aware he released it, both are results of the same historical institutions. And, anyway, it's what I do -- talk about the context of the music, the stories that led to it. It's my schtick as a critic. I must admit how natural it is for me to turn on and enjoy the exceptional musicality in these recordings, and how clumsily I stumble over the best words to use, to discuss it here. The only thing I can think is to name the dominance of white voices in American folk music and the fact that, as Taylor nailed, the listener is inclined to recognize white singer-songwriters as "singer-songwriters" and African-American singer-songwriters as "blues" artists, whether or not what they're playing is actually the blues*.
All I know is I can't stop hearing, can't stop listening, can't stop dancing.
*Townes Van Zandt said there are two kinds of music: the blues and "Zippadeedoodah."
Posted by Linda Fahey at 11:23 AM
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Album Review: BettySoo 'When We're Gone'
June 19, 2014
by Kim Ruehl for FolkAlley.com
Texas has a way of popping out as many talented story-songwriters as it does prolific patches of bluebells. BettySoo has been among those up-and-coming story-songwriters for the better part of a decade. In that time, her recordings have bounced back and forth from Americana-rocky to intimate and folky, but at the heart of them all is a woman with a fierce eye for detail and an empathic streak that will make your little arm hairs stand on end.
Her latest self-released disc, When We're Gone, straddles the line between those two realms (Americana-rock and folk) with balance and poise. "100 Different Ways of Being Alone" calls to mind fellow Austinite Kelly Willis, while "Last Night" verges on an Alison Krauss and Union Station vibe. "Love Is Real" could be a Sheryl Crow hit, if Sheryl could write them this well ("the hope for love came and left, come dawn / left you empty-handed and alone"). "Wheels" is a good old-fashioned Texas road song about caring less than you once did, or at least trying to convince yourself to do that, as you drive away from it all. "I'm gonna take it like a man, take these punches where I stand," she sings, as a slow and steady fiddle line wipes rare raindrops off the windshield.
There's a lot of loneliness and moving on in this album. But, by the time it reaches the final "Lullaby," whatever well of emotions that spun the disc into motion, drifts off into a welcoming night sky. "So faint, it almost disappears," she sings, before lighting into the chorus with some of the purest, clearest long notes. It's the cello-guitar-and-flute instrumental that closes it out, however, which places careful punctuation at the end of the sentence. As the instruments build into tension, the music feels like a night breeze just blowing by. There is never any real resolution, only an ending that brings with it exactly the amount of melodic catharsis to make you feel like all that's left is the moving on.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 5:02 PM
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New Music for June
June 17, 2014
New Adds Heating Up
It's summertime - and that means many of your favorite artists are on the road supporting new CDs (even if they had to apply for visas to visit the U.S.).
After a three-year-long "vacation," The Duhks are touring behind Beyond the Blue. The Canadian group is still reconfiguring its line-up - Jessee Havey and Leonard Podolak are back, recruiting a new band that honors the spirit of the original Duhks recordings more than a decade ago. It's an exciting reunion long in the making! See the band onstage in Harbor Springs, Michigan, at Blissfest on July 13.
We first saw First Aid Kit live at the Newport Folk Festival when we were recording the Harbor Stage in 2012. The sisters from Sweden were discovered on YouTube covering a Fleet Foxes song and have become international favorites for their American-style folk music and close harmonies. The pairs new album, Stay Gold, is getting a lot of positive buzz.
When our old pal Jim Blum brought I Draw Slow to Folk Alley, we were a bit thrown by the band's name. What did it mean? I still don't know - and their skill as contemporary bluegrass artists has rendered the issue moot. Formed around siblings Dave and Louise Holden, I Draw Slow is a high-powered bluegrass band from Ireland, who discovered the genre while busking in Australia. Perfect for an all-American musical mish-mash of Appalachian Mountain music, blues, jazz and traditional country! Hear for yourself on White Wave Chapel or - if you're near Gateshead on July 20 - enjoy the band live at SummerTyne Americana Festival.
There was a discussion yesterday on Twitter about grit in Americana music. John Fullbright earned his grit honestly, coming out of the same Oklahoma flatlands that created Woody Guthrie. His newest album, Songs, is a reaction to the phenomenal success of his label debut - From the Ground Up. Suddenly, he was the newest Americana star and earned nationwide notice for his songwriting. Fullbright's second effort proves he is the real thing and cements his place as a voice to be reckoned with. He takes the show on the road this summer, including a stop at Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, on June 21.
Scorching CDs added to the Folk Alley stream:
Carlene Carter - "Carter Girl"
Chatham County Line - "Tightrope"
Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin - "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy"
Hanneke Cassel - "Dot the Dragon's Eyes"
Jenny Scheinman - "The Littlest Prisoner"
Joe Crookston - "Georgia I'm Here"
Keb' Mo' - "Bluesamericana"
Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - "Our Year"
Mary Gauthier - "Trouble and Love"
Red June - "Ancient Dreams"
Red Molly - "The Red Album"
Ryley Walker - "All Kinds of You"
Toumani & Sidiki Diabate - "Toumani & Sidiki"
T Sisters - "Kindred Lines"
Zoe Muth - "World of Strangers"
Various - "Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 1:55 PM
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Highlights from MerleFest 2014
April 28, 2014
by Kim Ruehl, FolkAlley.com
It's been twenty-six years since the late, great Doc Watson decided to throw a festival near his home in Deep Gap, NC, to honor the memory of his son Merle. The younger Watson died three years earlier in a tractor accident on the family farm but, before that, had been one of the most dexterous and influential guitar pickers of his generation. To honor him, Doc titled his festival Merlefest, and invited some of the finest bluegrass, folk, and old time players around. Since then, just about everyone who matters in the realm of folk, bluegrass, traditional country and Americana music has graced one of the Merlefest stages. Festival alumni include everyone from Dolly Parton to Carolina Chocolate Drops, Donna the Buffalo, Linda Ronstadt, the Avett Brothers, and Zac Brown Band.
This year, Merlefest welcomed the other Merle (Haggard, that is) to headline the festival. His Sunday afternoon set was heavy on classics, from "Mama Tried" to "Pancho and Lefty". He kicked it off with "Silver Wings" and delivered with remarkable charisma from there. At 78 years old, Haggard is a living legend in his field, and the crowd met him with a standing ovation.
He wasn't the only one to get a warm welcome. Todd Snider kept a hillside crowd's attention through the weekend's most assertive rainfall, complete with Woody Guthrie singalong at the end. Jim Lauderdale and his band were embraced in the same space later, albeit in the face of ample sunshine. North Carolina's own Mandolin Orange let loose a beautiful string of harmony-laden tunes and Holly Williams, unfortunately relegated to a quite-brief set on the Cabin stage, easily won some new fans as well.
But, it was Old Crow Medicine Show who delivered the finest set of the festival, to these eyes and ears. Balancing a precarious blend of folk and bluegrass music, old time, and story-telling, the band encompassed all the things that fall under the Merlefest umbrella. Those Nashville boys danced and whooped and whirred about the main stage. They delivered tunes from each of their seven albums, plus new material, to boot. Among the new tunes was "Sweet Amarillo", the second song they've more or less co-written with Bob Dylan. According to frontman Ketch Secor, Dylan was so impressed with what they did by turning his chorus "Rock Me Mama" into their megahit "Wagon Wheel," he sent them another crop of lyrics he started and never finished. It's impossible to know, of course, if "Sweet Amarillo" will have the same beloved-by-buskers-everywhere appeal as "Wagon Wheel," but it delivered darn well on the Merlefest stage.
Other highlights included a stunning set from Carolina Chocolate Drops and a handful of memorable appearances by the reunited Duhks. The latter was swirling with excitement about their new album - due in May, but they were selling it at the festival store. They delivered a number of tunes from it, including a gorgeous cover of Eva Cassidy's "Way Beyond the Blue".
One of the most delightful surprises this year was the presence of Sheila Kay Adams and her husband Joe Penland, who took the stage in the Traditional Tent on the final day, for an hour of mountain stories and ballads. According to them, it was the first time such a set had been included in the Merlefest lineup, and hopefully it won't be the last. Considering the festival's homebase in the mountains of Western North Carolina, including some local tales and traditional ballad-singing seems about right. What's more, Adams and Penland are terrific performers. Though they had to battle the sound from the main stage, which was pervading the entire festival grounds at that point, the pair delivered a rousing, entertaining collection of stories and songs.
All told, Merlefest 2014 was a fitting continuation of Doc's festival vision. There are few gatherings in North America where traditional music is honored on this scale, in such a family friendly, tightly-organized environment. The diversity of stages - from the intimate Plaza and Traditional stages to the indoor theater, natural creek and hillside surroundings, and the enormous main stage flanked by giant screens - there is some kind of festival experience here to suit just about everyone. It's no wonder Merlefest has enough momentum to already have a countdown going for year number twenty-seven.
**For more about MerleFest and to see great photos from this year's festival, check out MerleFest on Facebook - HERE!**
Posted by Linda Fahey at 6:33 PM
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Five of the Best Moments from MerleFest 2014, Days 1 & 2
By Kim Ruehl, FolkAlley.com
Merlefest 2014 happened last weekend (4/24 - 27) in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, with a stellar lineup that hopped back and forth from bluegrass standards to contemporary singer-songwriters, old time music, various fusion styles, and beyond.
Here's a look at a few of the best moments from days one and two:
Since their debut in 2002, the Duhks have been one of the most creative and energetic bands on the acoustic music circuit, straddling lines between folk, bluegrass, jazz, and pop with remarkable flexibility. But, since frontwoman Jessee Havey left the group in '07, they've been through a number of personnel changes, ups and downs, and an eventual somewhat-hiatus. Now, the Duhks are back in all their original glory - their new album, out next month, includes Havey, Tania Elizabeth, Leonard Podolak, Scott Senior, and Jordan McConnell. Though Havey and Podolak were the only ones who made it to Merlefest (bringing with them Colin Savoie-Levac on guitar and Rosie Newton on fiddle), their appearances were some of the biggest, most obvious early highlights of the weekend. The dynamism and artistry popping between these musicians is unmatchable, and it's nice to see them back in action.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops stand up now
Rhiannon Giddens may be the only remaining original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but that doesn't mean the band has lost much in its various transitions. Giddens is, of course, a powerful singer and gifted fiddler, but the rest of the new lineup is no slouch either. On the mainstage Thursday night, they moved through a collection of old CCDs favorites ("Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Sourwood Mountain" stood out, in particular) and newer material as well. There was abundant, emphatic spoon-playing, fiddling, and bass thumping. And, setting the new CCDs apart from the old, the whole band spent the entire set standing up instead of seated, front-porch-style, in chairs.
Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott singing to a field of hippies and country bumpkins, "Dance You Hippies, Dance."
Probably, O'Brien and Scott wrote this song specifically for moments like this, gracing the Watson Stage at Merlefest somewhere around dusk, singing to a field packed with vibrant hippies and folks from the country, alike. Indeed, Merlefest has one of the most interesting mixes of crowd dynamics - from the mountain folks to the country twangers, the hippy jammers and the city folks (with their myriad festival gear) who've driven in from Raleigh and Nashville. There is no more perfect intersection between all those people's interests than the collaboration between Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott; and their set was, it goes almost without saying, quite well-received. But, this song in particular had to make you stop and giggle.
Alan Jackson plays (really good) bluegrass
For those who grew up listening to country music radio in the 1980s and '90s, Alan Jackson's "Chattahoochie" was a touchstone classic. This time around, though, Jackson is dipping his bucket in the bluegrass well. His set was full of old school-style bluegrass of the sort that would make Bill Monroe proud.
Todd Snider on the Hillside Stage
The prolific, subversive American troubadour played the most rousing set possible from a solo singer-songwriter sitting in a chair at the center of a stage, entertaining a packed crowd on a rainy hill. Twenty years after releasing his debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet, Snider is at the top of his game. (Hopefully the top of his game will last a good long while.) He pulled his set from across those two decades, and the crowded audience was rapt, even as the rain came and picked up. A few people departed for shade, but those of us who remained were treated to a seemingly impromptu run through the less-frequently-played verses of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."
For more great photos from MerlFest 2014 - visit their Facebook page!
Posted by Linda Fahey at 12:04 PM
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Kim Ruehl Talks with Rodney Crowell About Writing and His New Album, 'Tarpaper Sky'
April 14, 2014
By Kim Ruehl, for FolkAlley.com
For decades, Rodney Crowell has been one of the most prolific and consistently stirring songwriters in the Americana realm. He's scored a number of mainstream country hits, but has more recently become a champion of high-quality collaborations. In the past decade, he's made a solo album ceding production to Joe Henry, and joined forces with author Mary Karr and Americana legend Emmylou Harris for a pair of collaborative discs that have been hailed as among the best of the years in which they were released. (The latter took home a Grammy and an Americana Music Award in 2013.)
Now, he has rolled out another solo album, Tarpaper Sky. Self-produced in collaboration with engineer Steuart Smith, the album is heavy on songs about home - going home, leaving home, and pining for home. In fact, it was while he was at home in Nashville, fresh from a stint on the road with Emmylou, that Crowell was kind enough to get on the phone with me one Saturday morning, to discuss the new disc and other matters.
Kim Ruehl: Let's start talking about Tarpaper Sky - your first non-collaborative solo record in, what, six years?
Rodney Crowell: Yeah, I have a solo one. Never said that much before. Yeah, there've been six years. This is 2014, isn't it? Sex and Gasoline was 2008.
KR: What made you decide to make another solo effort?
RC: My book Chinaberry Sidewalks was a solo effort, so I did get one solo effort in there.
KR: How was that different from songwriting for you?
RC: The only thing similar is work ethic. Actually writing a book takes more concentrated effort. You're a writer, you know what it takes. You've got to get up and go to work every day. But I do that writing songs, anyway, if I'm home. It doesn't work so well on the road, but over the years having raised some children, I became a morning-time worker, so I'm up working if I'm home.
KR: Writing a book like that, it takes a lot longer for people to hear it. Are some songs like that, too - they take years to hear?
RC: I don't know. There are songs on Tarpaper Sky that took me 20-plus years to write, so some songs took longer [than the book]. It took me ten years to write Chinaberry Sidewalks. It took me 23 years, I think, to write "Fever on the Bayou".
KR: In what way? Were there lines you were working on?
RC: I didn't have a last verse. Couldn't find the last verse. The first couple verses borrowed so heavily from Louisiana Cajun swamp music. Those words like jolais and creole and such things... the last verses were always too trite and cliché to mean anything. It wasn't until, in conversation, someone said the word Franglais, and I thought That's Cajun. The Cajuns butchered both French and English together and I said, Ah my last verse needs to be that butchered Cajun patois. And voila, there you are.
KR: were you working on this at the same time as Old Yellow Moon?
RC: Loosely. When we were making Old Yellow Moon I was entirely focused on that, although I started Tarpaper Sky before Kin. But, then I got to be around a couple of beautiful women. I put aside my needs for theirs.
KR: That Mary Karr project was interesting. What did you learn from working with her?
RC: Well, it was a conversation, you know. One of the things about my and Mary's collaboration was constant conversation. Most of those songs were born out of that conversation. In "If the Law Don't Want Me", she was talking about her sister and her boyfriend. We said let's put that in a song. The kind of conversation you can have with Mary Karr is very fruitful. The process we went through, that I was very keen on and Mary was very open to, we were trying to figure out how to let the poet's voice speak wherever we could. The words stand on a page to be read, in a poem. They don't have to sing... so there's that intimacy between the one reader and the poem. Words work in a different way in songs sometimes, because of the chord changes and the vowel sounds. Some words don't sing. So, we were very conscious - or I was - of trying to let the poet's choice work wherever we could. The example of that is the opening song. The opening line I had when I was playing guitar and singing was, "When our feet were tough as nails and our eyes were sharp as flint." And Mary said, "No, your feet aren't tough as nails, they're tough as horns, like a hoof, like cattle." I [thought she was] right about that, that's the right choice. It doesn't sing well, though. It doesn't sing like that "A" vowel. [sings] When our feet were tough as horns. When our feet were tough as nails... but, in the long run, we went with "horns" because that was the poet's choice and I much prefer it. It is the right word. That kind of thing. I learned a lot about that.
KR: Horn is a great word to sing, though.
RC: Ninety-nine out of a hundred songwriters wouldn't choose that word because of the vowel sound. You can't do as much with the vowel, but it's a great word to sing, you're right. When I sing it live, I always sing that song and when I get to "horns" it propels me through the rest of the song.
KR: You're such a writer and you did this collaboration with Mary Karr and Emmylou... I wonder, did ideas come out of that that maybe didn't spark a song for those projects, but turned into a song for your own work?
RC: Not really. Mind you I had seven songs from before I started with Mary or Emmy. Some of the songs that Mary and I were writing overlapped with some of the writing that became Tarpaper Sky. But, I think what I learned in the beginning of making Tarpaper Sky carried over very much into Kin, because I was recording [Tarpaper] without headphones and we did most of Kin without headphones. I'd gotten such great results just unplugging the headphones when we were in the room playing. When we got making Kin, I carried it over and the first thing I did [was] unplug the headphones. We recorded the first session with Norah Jones. We were talking and I said, "I can't use headphones anymore." She said, "I never could," so we just kept that all the way through. So my answer to your question was that it was less in writing and more in the performing part of things.
KR: Is that you trying to separate your producer brain from your performer brain?
RC: Exactly. I'm not interested much in production anymore. Everything that really stands the test of time with me - the great Ray Charles records that I love, the Howlin' Wolf records that I love - they weren't produced; they were performed. The producers back then just got the musicians together and got out of their way and let them perform. So, I'll spend the rest of my career chasing performance. I've produced enough in my day.
KR: But you produced this record.
RC: Yeah, but insomuch as it was produced. Tarpaper Sky wasn't produced, it was performed. It's all live. It's all what happened in the studio. We added some background vocals and that's it. This is really what happened. We had a really great engineer and I credit him with producing the audio. Steuart Smith and I had an ongoing conversation, so we sort of take credit for the arrangements. What little production there is, it's not really a produced album. It's just a performance of a bunch of songs.
KR: Would you say that's the biggest way your job has changed over the years?
RC: Well, writing has been satisfying for me since day one. I became a real songwriter pretty young. There are songs I wrote in my 20s that I still perform, that I can stand by. But as a recording artist, it was a slow process for me. It was a slow dawning. It wasn't until I was really 50 years old that I felt I had anything to show as a recording artist, felt I had some great songs. Since then, I've been committed to finding a way to perform so that if my kids have anything to hold up as a legacy, it can start with that.
KR: What do you think makes a song good?
RC: Oh shit. Can you describe what makes a song like "Pancho and Lefty" good? Pure poetry, originality, wonderful melody, succinct rhymes, no soft rhymes. Blue doesn't rhyme with black, don't try to convince me that it does. What makes a song great? "Sunday Morning Coming Down", Kris Kristofferson. Woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. I mean, come on. I can't say what's good but I know when it is good. [sings] Hit the road Jack and don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. They want me to go to rehab, I say no, no, no. Is that poetry? Maybe not, but it certainly is great songwriting.
KR: Why did you call this album Tarpaper Sky?
RC: Because it sounds good. It's a great image. I like how it sounds. And it's a line in the song. Plus I grew up with tarpaper skies. You could see the sky through the roof at my mother and father's house because it was so poorly built and it was rotting out down in the semi-tropical climate of east Houston, so that's where the line comes from.
KR: Well, thank you Rodney. Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you'd like people to know?
RC: God, I wouldn't presume to tell anybody what they ought to know, or even what I think they ought to know.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:53 PM
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Kim Ruehl Talks Songwriting With Catie Curtis
April 4, 2014
by Kim Ruehl for FolkAlley.com
Catie Curtis is one of those singer-songwriters whose work, if you let it, will quietly worm its way into your subconscious. There's no overt production tricks or big guitar solos to pull it all forward. Her songs hang in a kind of dreamy half-awake state, where one's perspective is most keen and honest, where the sounds are all soft and palatable, and where the truth has plenty of room to just come on out.
Even when she's singing about heartbreaking life scenarios, as she does on her new album 'Flying Dream,' she does so with a sort of warm embrace of the inevitable opportunity of it all. Sadness and disappointment are implicit in love and happiness - two sides to the same coin, so to speak. Anyway, it's all part of the big Life Experience we all share.
Her songs aren't profound as much as they are just plain real and true. And, this time out, she teamed up with Sugarland co-founder Kristen Hall, for a collection of songs that wrestle with the unconscious understanding that major tectonic change is on its way. She got on the phone with me, from her New England home, and talked a bit about the songs, the collaboration, and where 'Flying Dream' began:
Kim Ruehl: Let's start with your new record and where it came from for you. I know you wrote a lot of these songs with Kristen Hall. How did that come to be?
Catie Curtis: We'd get together for coffee and just shoot the breeze about life. We'd just connect about one line that one of us would say and that would be our song for the day.
KR: It was really that easy?
CC: Well, then all the painful cycle of enthusiasm and discouragement that is always songwriting. A lot of times, one of us would have a chord progression that we'd been playing around with over the last few days prior, so we'd take those chords with the one line we had. We may not keep any of that, but it would get us started. It would get a song going and that's the hardest thing, just getting a song going.
KR: You've done mostly solo songwriting in the past. You've co-written a song here or there, but was it a different experience co-writing most of a whole album? Or did it just flow?
CC: It felt like it was perfect for the time that I was writing because at the time, it was sort of like, unbeknownst to me, it was a calm before the storm time of my life. It didn't seem like much was happening. We wrote at a time when I wasn't feeling like independently sitting down and writing. It helped me to get the creative juices flowing.
KR: And then you wound up having a lot of changes in your life in the process?
CC: Yeah, I haven't been talking too much about it because it's still in the midst of happening... my wife and I have separated and it looks like we're getting a divorce. I think a lot of that stuff was brewing and, when I was singing the record, there was a lot of passion and I was beginning to feel changes coming.
KR: Some people have said before that when you're in the middle of a difficult situation, it's hard to have the perspective to write about it, whereas other people are able to find great fruit in that situation. Did you feel like what you were writing became prophetic? Or that there was some opportunity for healing in the songs you were writing as all this started to go down?
CC: I think prophetic may be too strong a way to put it, but I'd say it restores my belief that creativity comes from a place that's unconscious. I think creative expressions... speak from a less conscious place. It's almost frightening to think maybe I could have been more aware of what was happening. But, you're only aware of what you're ready to be aware of. Somehow your creative life, it's possible to express what's there even if you're not ready to think about it.
KR: How has songwriting changed for you over the past 20 years? Do you feel like you know it better or is it something you're still exploring?
CC: I trust myself more now than I used to. I trust that if I really wanted to write a song on a given day, I could. It might not be a song that I love. But, what brings about a really good song that I love... I feel like it came to me from somewhere else. I feel really confident in the craft of it, and feel like I can come up with something. But in terms of having those magical inspiration [moments] where something hits you that you know is going to be a good song, I don't understand the timing of how that happens. Even with Kristen, we wrote several songs that didn't make the record. We'd start something and never finish it. But I think ultimately, you start to understand that as long as you're writing songs, some of them will turn out to be good.
KR: Do you revisit those [parts of songs] that you don't use?
CC: I recorded a demo not released on a record, then two or three records later, the new version is on the record. I think it's possible there are times when you just don't have the answer yet. You don't know what the song needs to say. You know part of it but not all of it. I respect the fact that there are songs that for some reason... sometimes events in our world come along and fill in. I had the chorus to a song once that went "The truth is bigger than these drops of rain." I didn't know what that song was going to be about, but then a few months later Hurricane Katrina happened and I wrote a song [with Mark Erelli] called "People Look Around" about it and it ended up being one of the songs I still play almost every night. If I'd pushed it and tried to finish it when I first started it, I don't think I would have put those two ideas together.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 1:37 PM
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A Folk Alley Discount for Jonatha Brooke's 'My Mother Has 4 Noses'
March 25, 2014
Jonatha Brooke is not only a talented singer/songwriter, she is also the creative force behind a new musical memoir currently playing at New York's The Duke on 42nd St. The play centers on the story of Brooke's mother's battle with Alzheimer's Disease and the changing relationship of mother and daughter. It is getting rave reviews. The New York Times says, "Devastating and gorgeous. A poignantly funny, beautifully created narrative."
Folk Alley listeners can use the code MMH4NRRM20 to purchase $44 tickets for 'My Mother Has 4 Noses' this week (offer good through 3/30). Click the file below for additional information on redeeming the discount code.
Four Noses Contest Offer.2.doc
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 5:50 PM
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New Music for March
New Music for a Happy Spring
Here's a way to get a lot of people to retweet - use the name Nickel Creek in your post. Much to the joy of its legions of fans, the band has rather improbably reunited for a new CD, A Dotted Line, and is out on tour. Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have all had success on their own, but they kept crossing paths, performing together and writing new songs. We'll just call it throw-back summer.
Speaking of throw-backs (and Sean and Sara Watkins, who appear on this CD), singer/songwriter Jackson Browne is the focus of a new tribute. One of the top artists in the singer/songwriter movement in the late '70s, Browne wrote tons of top hits - and is still on the road today. Others lending their talents to Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne include Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, Marc Cohn, Lucinda Williams, and many others.
Eliza Gilkyson was the very first Live From Folk Alley, recorded in 2005 at the Beachland Ballroom. Since then, she's released five more albums on the Red House Records label. Her newest collection is The Nocturne Diaries. In the Hear It First Folk Alley hosted earlier this month, Kim Ruehl said, "The album is wrought with raw recordings that sound like the sort of close and quiet tunes you might hear when you wander late night at the Kerrville Folk Festival outside Gilkyson’s hometown of Austin, Tex. Even the instrumental solos – fiddle, parlor piano, musical saw, the occasional distorted guitar – sound like the restrained contributions of friends seeking more to color the spirit of the song than steal the spotlight."
As March comes to a close, there's still time to get lucky with Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways. The album, no surprise from Folkways, is a comprehensive collection of older, traditional performances and contemporary reinterpretations of Celtic songs. Vocal and instrumental styles are both represented.
Other springtime additions:
Amy Black - "This Is Home"
Beoga - "Live at 10: The 10th Anniversary Concert"
Canadafrica: Mike Stevens and Okaidja Afroso - "Where's the One?"
Claudia Schmidt - "New Whirled Order"
Dietrich Strause - "Little Stones to Break the Giant's Heart"
Flaco Jimenez & Max Baca - "Flaco & Max: Legends & Legacies"
Jamestown Revival - "Utah"
John Gorka - "Bright Side of Down"
Laurie Lewis - "One Evening in May"
Rhonda Vincent - "Only Me"
Robby Hecht - "Robby Hecht"
Robert Sarazin Blake - "Robert Sarazin Blake"
Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers feat. Edie Brickell - "Live"
Teada - "In Spite of the Storm"
The Farwell Drifters - "Tomorrow Forever"
The Infamous Stringdusters - "Let It Go"
Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 5:46 PM
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