Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton

An old recording, heard for the first time

for Penguin Eggs

While there have been other recordings that document Doc Watson’s early years as a performing musician, they tend to shine a light more directly on him as a performer.

This recording, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton, distinguishes itself in some key ways. It’s earlier, for one—it’s Watson’s first trip north—drawing from two concerts in Greenwich Village in October 1962. It’s also notably natural; they aren’t working up an act but rather just playing the songs they knew, just as they would play them at home in the front room.

There aren’t any lost gems, though the arrangements offer a unique view of how Watson was developing the material. Some tunes, as with the arrangement of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” aren’t yet fully formed. It’s short, paced a bit slower than we know, but it’s there.

Watson plays banjo for about half of the tunes, including a beautiful duet on “Willie Moore” with Carlton on fiddle. It’s a standout for its precision as well as for what Bill Monroe called the “ancient tones.” The drone of the fiddle, and the story of the murder, make it like listening through a keyhole to 19th century rural Appalachia.

“Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” demonstrates the contrast between arranging for banjo and fiddle and arranging for guitar and fiddle. It’s an example of what Watson would become known for, with all the bass runs, fills, and inversions that really give life to a song. Same, too, with “Billy in the Lowground.” A notable absence are the fast lead lines that, in time, would influence entire. generations of guitarists.

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton is a rare window into a important moment in Watson’s development. He’s young, relaxed, playing for a joyful audience of strangers who love what he has to give. We’re lucky to be able to hear it.

Natalie MacMaster, “Sketches”

(For Penguin Eggs Magazine)

Natalie MacMaster is one of those artists that is described from time to time as a national treasure. She is that, but she’s a local treasure, too. There’s a video online of her going to play at Glencoe Mills Hall on Cape Breton with Bela Fleck in tow. The music, of course, is fantastic, though the most memorable part is simply when she enters the room. Nobody there treats her like a star, but rather as a friend who happens to play music—their music—with joy, skill, honesty, and love. Fleck tries to join in, but he comes from a world where virtuosity comes first, and he struggles to find a space in the mix. MacMaster is a virtuoso, though the world that she comes from is one where fellowship, connection, and seemingly no end of dancing, comes first. This is where she lives, and it shows.

This new collection, Sketches, continues the theme. It was inspired, as she writes in the liner notes, “when [guitarist] Tim Edey and I were just playing tunes together at my house.” Some of the tunes are old favourites, such as “Killiecrankie”—she writes that it’s one of her “favourite fiddle tunes EVER!”—though there are newer tunes, too, including one in honour of a family friend, Hannah Corkery. Indeed, if there’s anything that unites the material here, it’s friendship. “Patricia Kelso’s” was written for Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded it on a holiday disc. “Tribute to John Allen” is a collection of tunes in honour of John Allen Cameron, her cousin and 12-string guitar player. His son guests on the track playing his late father’s guitar. “Judy’s Dance” is for Judy, simply noted as a friend. The album ends with “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a tribute in a sense to Bonnie Raitt, a friend that MacMaster hopes one day to have: she writes “Bonnie Raitt where are you? Come and play with me!”

All of it is impeccable yet never precious; fun yet never fatuous. MacMaster has a smile as big as her sense of dignity, and it’s the personality that she brings to the music that has made her the treasure that she is. She plays our music, even if you’re hearing it for the first time, with joy, skill, and honesty. She makes music for friends, and when we listen to it, she enters our lives, our houses, and she’s our friend, too. If there’s a better album of instrumental music out there this year, please do let me know.

The long journey of Doc Watson

(KDHX)

It’s perhaps easy to underestimate the impact that Doc Watson has had over the course of his career, in part because of the ways we choose to express it. We like superlatives—first, longest, fastest, best. He’s credited as the first to play fiddle tunes on guitar, and certainly he’s been influential in that regard, though it’s likely that, if not Doc, someone else would have shepherded the fiddle repertoire onto flattop. Continue reading The long journey of Doc Watson

Gee’s Bend Quilters, “Boykin, Alabama: Sacred Spirituals of Gee’s Bend”

For Penguin Eggs

Everything about this album is an absolute, unqualified, unbridled delight. It’s four women who live in Boykin, Alabama, and take part in a quilting tradition that began in the 19th century. They sing while they quilt, and the songs are polished just as the needles are, through endless passes through the fabric of their lives. “Quilting is a healing,” says China Pettway, one of the four. “I think quilting and singing is healing for our soul.”

This is a recording made recently, but in analogue on a portable reel-to-reel Ampex 601. It’s the same equipment used to make all those field recordings—per the Lomaxes—that have formed the canon of North American folk music. Inconceivably, these women have never been recorded before now. But thanks to this, people all over the world will hear them, because this is the kind of recording that people are going to share, and rightly so. It’s joyful, humorous, mysterious, wise. As with the entire tradition of field recording, it’s like listening through a cosmic keyhole onto another reality. It’s hard not to think that it’s a better one, despite the pain that has informed the African-American signing traditions that it exemplifies.

The first track is the women—Mary Anne, China, Larine, and Nancy Pettway—just in the studio giggling and trying out some lines. It’s the perfect beginning to a perfect, moving, telling, important recording. Some of the songs will be familiar; others won’t be. Some are tantalizing, such as “Give Me My Flowers,” which bears some relation to the Carter’s “Give Me Roses While I Live” though it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that relation might be. Did “Roses” come before “Flowers,” or was it the other way around? It’s likely a little bit of both. “This Little Light of Mine” is the song you know, but at a tangent, in a minor key, making the chestnut new in ways you wouldn’t expect possible. But there you go. You have to hear this. Please jot that down, and do it as soon as you have a chance: “Must hear this.”

Great is an overused word, but it’s great in the truest use of the term. There are a few challenges—this is a full meal, not a mid-day snack—though all efforts are rewarded. The physical copy is recommended, this for the book, the essays, and the photos that come within it. Jazz guitarist Bill Frizell writes that, “music … [is] a reminder to see, to look, to listen. The women of Gee’s Bend are the pure embodiment of this. I was there for only a few moments. They may not remember me, but I will never forget them. I am so thankful.” Which is what music is about, ultimately. Ephemeral moments that nevertheless have the power to connect us in meaningful, substantive, powerfully mysterious ways.

The quilting tradition of Gee’s bend is distinctive. The designs are often asymmetrical, improvisational, and replicating patterns that were informed by the type and quality of the materials to hand. The artistic heritage is unique to the region, with the relative isolation of the community granting it the space to develop and evolve in its own way.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, “If You Can’t Stand the Heat”

For Penguin Eggs

Frank Solivan spent much of his youth in Alaska, which perhaps accounts for his range of talents. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a poet. He plays guitar, violin, and mandolin. He writes songs, sings, and is the leader of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, the IBMA band of the year in 2014 and again in 2016. Their album, Cold Spell, was nominated for the Grammy for 2015’s best bluegrass album of the year. Solivan is also a professional chef, something hinted at by the band name as well as the title of this collection, “If You Can’t Stand the Heat.”

In his life, as in his cooking, he is keen to take chances, to go out on a limb, and to meet challenges with drive, dedication, and rabid ambition. That’s been evident throughout his career, but is particularly evident here. His mandolin playing alone is a big draw–tight, efficient, clean–though his voice is as well. This is bluegrass very much in the vein of the Punch Brothers and New Grass Revival a generation before: it roams the breadth of a very large musical territory. The players are at the top of their classes; the arrangements atypical for bluegrass, deploying a unique brand of confidence and gymnastic ability; the material unique, surprising. Mike Munford’s “Crack of Noon” is a standout, as is a take on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.”

The band can risk sounding a bit too perfect at times, a bit on the academic side, and there’s a pong of a pissing match in any bluegrass endeavour. But they rein that in, and the sounds, the voices, work fantastically well together. Where some tunes, such as “Lena,” take us closer to the core of the tradition, others, such as “Shiver” take us further out. “My Own Way” is a beautiful ballad that allows a nice break from the challenge of tunes like “Crave.” The band demands a lot of the listener, delivers on everything it promises.

Missy Raines, “Royal Traveller”

Women in bluegrass—unfortunately, sadly—get short shrift. Ask about the greats, and you’ll open the floodgates for a lot of testosterone. That said, women have long been doing great work and, while often enough, have actually been acclaimed for it. Much of what we think of as bluegrass guitar—a rhythm with a melody picked within it—is derived from the Carter Scratch, named for Mother Maybell Carter. She learned to play that way because men wouldn’t play with her, so she had to do both herself, and changed the world of acoustic guitar forever. Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard would also top the list, though part of an unbroken chain, one that brings us to Missy Raines, who has made an indelible mark in what some might unfairly see as a man’s world. All of that is prologue to this beautifully crafted and conceived album, “Royal Traveller.” The album title references a label on a cosmetics case that Raines once had with her, and which caught her eye one night, while on the road. There’s an irony there that she brings forward on the song of the same name. The song “Swept Away,” will—and should—get more attention, and this is why: all five who sing and play on it are, like Raines herself, the first women to win IBMA player of the year awards for their respective instruments (Raines, Sierra Hull, Becky Buller, Molly Tuttle, and Alison Brown). Raines, for her part, has gone on to win 7 times. That backstory adds a lovely dimension to the music. The rest of the album follows in kind. It’s more approachable than some of the work Raines is better known for, that being her albums and tours with the jazz-inflected New Hip. There are lots of other guests here, too, and all as welcome as old friends. Tim O’Brien features in a delightful duet with Raines on “Fearless Love,” as the Steel Wheel’s Trent Wagler does on “Goodbye Virginia.” The string arrangement of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” is as poignant as the sentiment. And on it goes. There’s only one name on the cover, but there’s a welcome crowd participating in the tracks. This album will very rightly feature on lots of best of the year lists come Christmas time—it’s simply one of the best things you’ll hear this year.

David Benedict’s “The Golden Angle”

There is no piece of music, and for that matter no musician, that exists alone. Music, by its very nature, is call and response, each person adding their voice to an ongoing conversation. Some people can see a bit further down the road, or skip a couple rhetorical steps, and those are the people we think of as geniuses: Mozart, Miles Davis. Those people.

In the world of acoustic Americana, or folk, or stringband, or whatever it is that we’re calling it at the moment, we don’t really care for the Giant Steps, but prefer to rejoice in the reasoned increments. And that’s what makes this new release, The Golden Angle, from David Benedict so enjoyable. There are some ancient tones in here—a la Bill Monroe and whoever’s call Monroe was responding to—though there are some fresher tones, too. (Is it just me, or is there a whiff of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” in Bendict’s “Leaf by Niggle”?)

Benedict and his peeps—he records and tours with Mile Twelve, though his peeps include lots of other people, too—are keen to join the bigger conversation, responding to the people that have inspired them to speak. Some of them, actually, are on this album: David Grier, Matt Flinner, Missy Raines, Stuart Duncan. Those guys, in turn, have spent careers responding to the people that went before them: Clarence White, Roland White, Monroe, Doc Watson, Tony Rice, John Coltrane, and on it goes. (And Jimi Hendrix, too. Flinner and Grier, along with Todd Phillips included a version of “Little Wing” on their 1999 release, Looking Back. Hmmm … )

Benedict, delightfully, has joined that conversation, and you can hear it all within his work. He brings not just the chops, but also the mind, the perspective, and the joy that comes from participating in something larger than ourselves. He’s learned at the feet of the masters, to be sure, most pointedly as as student of Matt Flinner (who also produced this release) yet brings so much of himself to the project, in turn working masterfully in the service of helping to add—just as all those guys and gals did before—another ring to the big stately tree of, well, folk or Americana or stringband or whatever we’re calling it these days. The album is a delight. It’s nice to check in with Grier, in particular, who hasn’t released anything of his own for a while (though his 2002 I’ve Got the House to Myself is as glorious today as was when it was released). The ensemble work is sterling, as are the arrangements and the production. It’s a very reasoned, studied, yet absolutely joyful noise.

Balsam Range, “Mountain Overture”

It’s easy to wonder about the attraction bluegrass bands have to working with orchestras, but it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be dying anytime soon. Cherryholmes, Daily and Vincent, Michael Cleveland—the cynic might feel that it’s a desire to grant respectability, and what better way to do it than to sit in front of a bunch of musicians in formal wear.

Balsam Range is, to my mind, one of the very best bands working today, and now they’ve done it, too. “Mountain Overture,” is a collaboration with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and includes some of their best material, including “Last Train to Kitty Hawk,” “Eldorado Blue,” and “I Hear the Mountains.” That material, in the original recordings, had a brilliant mix of caution and drive; it served to relate stories of various kinds of isolation, a perennial trope of bluegrass. Balsam Range doesn’t have the high lonesome voices of some of the originators of the form, but they do have the sentiment, that of being out there, on your own, left to puzzle over the vagaries of love, and work, and the fickleness of fortune.

Classical music, of course, doesn’t share the same perspective, and the tension between sensibilities exists throughout this recording. The drive is held back by the arcing strings, the agility reduced by weighty arrangements. Sometimes the punctuation that the orchestra adds is unfortunate, as the horns just after the line “Last train to Kitty Hawk,” undercutting the sentiment, cheapening it, rather than supporting it.

The thoughts—as in that case, the things that we lose within an encroaching modernity—are reduced to footnotes. Which is too bad, because these are great thoughts, related within some fantastically written songs. I’m not exactly sure who this album is for—a grump will say that working with an orchestra is more for the band than the audience—but, in any case, the better recordings are the originals.

Balsam Range is a great band, with great writing, and beautiful arrangements, all most evident when it’s just them, alone against the world. If you are new to Balsam Range, start with the albums “Mountain Voodoo” and “Last Train to Kitty Hawk.” They’re fantastic and truly deserve your attention. “Mountain Overture” is meh.

 

 

 

Chris Coole, “The Road to the River”

In the world of magic there are the big stage illusions—cutting a person in half, making an elephant disappear—and there is table magic—cards, coins, cups and balls. The two are both thought of equally as magic, but they are of such different orders as to be different undertakings entirely. To the connoisseur, the close work takes the day—it’s smaller, more intimate, requires a greater facility, and is often more meaningful.

This latest release from Chris Coole is an example of the table magic of the musical world: seemingly limited resources are manipulated to reveal an impossible range of emotion. It requires close attention, and it rewards that attention. Not everything here is new. Most of the material has been released prior, with a number of tracks recorded for this project in particular. The reason is because it’s a fundraiser for the Elk River Alliance, which is great of course. But even if you know these tunes, the project nevertheless feels new. The various pieces speak to each other, and sit comfortably within a new frame.

Coole is an avid fly-fisher, and it seems some of the other musicians that are featured here are too, including Arnie Naiman and, if new to it, fiddler John Showman. The project is a testament to his passion for fishing. Coole brings the full range of experience to the material, from the contemplation of “Rainbow on the Moormons”—the bowed bass there is a study in doing a lot with little—to the humour of “Hell to Pay,” a children’s tune for the child in all of us. Throughout, it’s a window onto worlds that we don’t see every day—clawhammer banjo and fly fishing—though it will make you wish you could.

Clay Parker and Jodi James, “The Lonesomest Sound that Can Sound” 

I’m not sure why I love this recording so much. We like to talk in superlatives whenever given a chance, and it’s not the best of anything, or the most skilled, or the most telling. It’s just, well, lovely. The voices are beautiful, the thoughts quietly moving. The playing doesn’t jump out at you, but rather sits back. Like a kid busking in the farmers market, it catches you as you walk past, turning your head with the thought, “hey, that’s pretty good.” It’s more than pretty good, actually. This is one of those albums that sparks a desire to participate within it, to grab a guitar or a mandolin and play along. It’s all new material, but so much of it sounds familiar, perhaps because they are participating in something, too. There are responses here to Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, Willie Watson. The titles suggest connections to the canon, and I think that’s intentional: the gallows tree, Cumberland, the willow garden, the killing floor—the songs are like stepping stones added to an existing path. The arrangements are gorgeous, played with a skilled touch and handled with respect and wisdom. The lap steel in “Far Away” sneaks in like an afterthought, adding a welcome poignancy. The lyrics tell a lot, but don’t give anything away. Why is Katie’s sky full of blues? Well, that’s a good question, and one that you can get a bit lost in. And maybe that’s why I love this album so much. It doesn’t perform in front of you, asking for applause. Instead it sits next to you, like a friend who seems to know exactly what you’re about to say before you say it. They aren’t trying to make you feel better about things, rather just to let you know that you’re not alone. Which is why I don’t like the title. It’s actually about a shared experience, not an isolated one, full of voices, memories, and people just like you and me.

Brunch with the Lonesome Ace Stringband

(For Penguin Eggs magazine)

Chris Coole often comments during shows that the Lonesome Ace Stringband—a trio that includes John Showman (fiddle) and Max Heineman (bass)—formed out of a brunch gig. There’s some tongue-in-cheek in that, though there’s some truth in there as well. The three did actually start playing formally together for a brunch gig at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto, something that continues, many weeks, to this day.

That said, that’s only part of a much larger origin story. They’re all part of a Toronto music scene that’s been thriving for decades, starting in the early ’90s. Coole says that “it was almost like a club, though not an exclusive one. We had that Silver Dollar gig”—a perpetual bluegrass night at the club also famous for being in the movie Adventures in Babysitting—“that went for almost 20 years. It had a rotating cast and everyone knew if you played that gig you’d see your buddies there. So there was a real social aspect, and it grew out from there.”

The extent of that growth is hinted at in the liner notes to the latest Lonesome Ace album, When The Sun Comes Up. There are the usual Toronto suspects—Andrew Collins, Arnie Naiman, Chris Quinn—along with people from farther afield, such as banjo player Craig Korth. The relationships have taken years, and thousands of road miles, to accrue.

“Craig and Julie run the Nimble Fingers camp that many of us teach at out in B.C.,” says Coole. “Through that camp we got hooked into the sort of Alberta/B.C. scene, and then teaching in Saskatchewan at the Northern Lights camps…it all spreads and it all becomes a part of a larger community. It’s extremely important. And that’s a real community, it’s not an online community. And I think that is so important now.”

It is important, though he admits that it can be hard to adequately express why. One reason might be that a rising tide floats all ships, something that was borne out at Merlefest this past April. The festival, long associated with Doc Watson until his death in 2012, sits at the heart of Appalachian musical culture, both literally and figuratively. The Canadian community was strikingly well-represented there—acts included Andrew Collins, Hannah Naiman, Arnie Naiman, and Sarah Jane Scouten, among others. The way the schedule laid out, attendees could easily have spent most of the Friday seeing and hearing nothing but Canadians.

Travelling to that festival is to travel into the heart of old-time music, which Coole admits can be a bit daunting. Many in Toronto, including a majority who happily and regularly attend those bluegrass brunches, weren’t raised on this music, and don’t have the kind of musical vocabulary that those in rural North Carolina might, and do.

“That last tour we did was really exciting,” Coole says of that latest trip south, “because we were playing for audiences that were packed with people who play this type of music. And I was nervous to see how they would like our music. And I was really pleased that a couple of them came up after, and really liked what we were doing. That was very gratifying, and I’d be lying to you if I said it hadn’t been on my mind.”

The members of Lonesome Ace know the old-time canon up, down, and sideways. One of the things that has remained throughout is a desire not to solo or play licks in a true bluegrass sense, but rather—and this is something that has long been at the very heart of old-time playing—to bring the ensemble forward.

Much of the freshness in their sound comes from the quality of musicians themselves, all of whom are A-listers. Were this a product of the pop world, we’d talk about Lonesome Ace as a power group. All three are really as good as it gets, and not just for Toronto but for anywhere, something which in itself draws audiences. Because all three are impressive vocalists, there is also a variety to the material that other trios wouldn’t be able to create.

“We’re happy to try different things, and it’s all going to come out in our own style,” says Coole, something that is also endemic to the instrumentation. Namely, there’s no guitar, something that many may not notice right away, but is nevertheless remarkable.

To compensate, Coole has adapted his banjo style to fill in the spaces that would normally be the purview of the guitarist, while also leaving a lot of air in the mix. “I just found such freedom playing without the guitar…we could play some fairly dense music, yet it didn’t become a muck. And that developed our style.”

The band works with an express intention to avoid sounding clever, just letting the writing come naturally, and serving the narrative, while also bringing the format, and their unique voice, front and centre.

The structure of some songs, such as “O’Grady Road,” depart almost subliminally from the three-chord format, adding a kind of freshness that, while not announcing itself, is nevertheless there. While there are lots of old-time sounds on this album, only two of the 14 tracks are traditional. Some sound older than they are, as with the brilliant “Pretty Boy Floyd”; a majority, including that one, were written for this project.

The audiences at Merlefest were attracted not just for what Lonesome Ace was doing—the faithfulness and facility with the old-time repertoire—but also all those things that they were adding to it. “Fresh” and “old-time” are not concepts that, perhaps, we’d readily associate, though that’s what Lonesome Ace is really bringing to the table, over brunch and beyond.

The Grascals, “Before Breakfast”

(For HVbluegrass.org)

Some songs, like Tom T. Hall’s “I Love,” unintentionally demonstrate that there’s a fine line between sincerity and satire. Some people maybe find the song to be a simple presentation of a complex idea. Others, Bob Dylan among them, think of it derisively as the “little baby duck” song: 

I love little baby ducks, old pickup trucks

Slow-movin’ trains

And rain

It was a hit on the country charts presumably because listeners related to the sentiment. Still, it would have been just as popular if presented on Saturday Night Live, only for very different reasons. (Think Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” which actually was a hit a few years after “I Love” charted.)

download-1This latest from the Grascals, Before Breakfast, finds the band right there, straddling the same line between profundity and parody. Bluegrass bands certainly don’t shirk from a cliché—who can get enough of a Lester Flatt G-run?—but if there are limits, some of them are here. The songs chart all the heart ache, lost loves, and loneliness that bluegrass is famous for, with nary a wink. The narrator of “Demons” finds his nemesis lurking in a bottle, high-heel shoes, rolling papers, and blues songs. The narrator of “I’ve Been Redeemed” has committed a wealth of sin which sadly goes unnamed. We’re left wondering what it was that he did. Must have been pretty bad. Though, unlike the narrator of “Lonesome,” it hasn’t landed him in prison, at least not yet anyway.

There’s a bit of insomnia to go around. The narrator of “There is You” lies awake at night thinking of the woman who clearly has had enough of his funks. The narrator of “Beer Tree” is awake at 2am wondering why beer doesn’t grow on trees. It’s clearly intended as a moment of levity, but it doesn’t work as well as it could. Given the alcoholism elsewhere in this album, the thought feels a bit unsavoury.

Ultimately, all of this risks giggles in places, and for reasons, that perhaps weren’t intended. The ending of “Pathway of Teardrops” loads one clichéd ending on top of another, becoming quite a brilliant parody at the end of a song that really isn’t intended to be one.

To be fair, the players here are expert, and musically there’s a lot to love. The only thing that doesn’t quite work with “Lynchburg Chicken Run” is the title. It’s the only instrumental, which too bad. It’s a great one, and would that there was at least one more.

Elsewhere, the lyrical content—all the bottles and broken hearts and church pews—doesn’t quite reach the mark, which perhaps is to tell a story, or bring a new idea to the table. Instead, it’s is as if the band wanted to write some bluegrass songs, so that’s what they did. I think Grascals fans will like this one, but it’s not the album that’s likely to grow their audience much. Which is too bad, because they are so adept at their instruments. They just need better material.

The Wailin Jennys, “Fifteen”

The+Wailin'+Jennys+-+'Fifteen'+-+cover+(300dpi)_preview.jpgThe Wailin Jennys is one of those groups that causes lots of people to fall all over themselves with praise. And they’re absolutely right to. Truly, you can’t say enough good things about them. It starts here: “One Voice.” Their latest release will cause lots of praise too, just as it should. When I heard that they were doing a collection of cover songs, I’ll admit to feeling a bit disappointed. Sometimes covers are the things that people do when they are feeling a bit at sea. Not so with Fifteen. The songs here don’t all announce themselves as covers, which is part of the project. They’ve really brought their considerable powers of arrangement to these, and have chosen the tunes so well, that the project doesn’t feel like the presentation of other people’s work, but rather their work. That they do “Boulder to Birmingham” is itself a master stroke, and is masterfully done. “Loves Me Like a Rock” is a bit of a highwire act. It’s like they’re taking it on for the challenge it presents. “Think we can’t bring something new to this chestnut?” Think again. It brings shivers. The whole album does. I’m tempted to fall all over myself with praise, but better is just for you to listen to the work. You simply must. Crikey, these women are a national treasure, and this album just confirms it.

Andy Hall and Roosevelt Collier, “Let the Steel Play”

downloadRemember Josh Graves? How about Tut Taylor? Or Paul Franklin? For anyone other than guitar geeks the names conjure something like memories, if not quite formed enough to warrant the term. They are all steel guitar players, meaning they played guitars with a piece of steel. Slide players. Which means that they were side players, playing second to their more popular band mates: Earl Scruggs, John Hartford, and every country singer you’ve ever heard. Jerry Douglas is the only slide player that really gained a spotlight of his own, though the style of playing traces a long line through popular music and international geography—it comes from Hawaiian styles, though the Dobro was created by Slovakians: the Dopyera brothers, John and Emil.

Because we only seem to know about slide playing tangentially, rather than straight on, there’s a bit of mystery within it, and that mystery is at heart of this recording by Andy Hall and Roosevelt Collier, two slide players that met a few years ago on a music cruise they were both hired to perform on. Hall is the Dobro player of the Infamous Stringdusters, and while he plays across genres, his entrée was bluegrass. Collier is a blues player. The tracks on their album Let the Steel Play take in all of that territory and then some. Close to the top of the program they ease us in with a beautifully poetic take on “Maiden’s Prayer.” And then they’re off. There are some sharp edges, and left turns along the way, but it’s a wonderful collection of material. You can get a bit precious and find all those threads in here—rock and the blues, country and bluegrass, Hartford to Hendrix—though better is just to let all the echoes wash over you. In any event, it deserves your attention. Slide playing isn’t really a novelty, after all. Those guys were some of the hardest workers in show business.                

Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn, “Echo in the Valley”

download-1One of the delightful moments is this recording is in the 5th track, when both segue into a lovely take on Bela Fleck’s “Big Country.” It’s a tune he’s presented himself a lot, most notably within the “Live from the Quick” release. It’s not as challenging as some of the things he does, which makes it a nice entrée to what he does. Moving between voices, shifting chords here and there. That all takes on an added dimension here, playing with Abigail Washburn. She’s a master of old-time banjo, he the master of everything else, and both add their separate personalities to the piece. Washburn is more poetic, Fleck more rhythmic. She’s more of a feel player, he more studied. That 5th track, a medley, is the only instrumental on the album, and too bad there aren’t a couple more. Between them they can do no wrong, of course, though this is a better release than their last one. That one, their self-titled release, felt a bit rushed in a way, maybe a album for the sake of it. It was interesting for what it was—again, these two have the reputation as being masters, and it’s a reputation that is earned—but this release, Echo in the Valley, feels more polished, maybe, more thoughtful, in a way. In all, it’s a lovely way to while away a bit of time. They are interested in opening a big piece of musical territory, and they do.

Volume Five, “Milestones”

When people who are really into wine talk about wine they don’t tend to speak in generalities, but rather a whole range of specifics. They talk about the hints of this and that, the various notes of such and such. Seeing people talk about these things on TV, it seems it’s not just descriptors. They seem to take enjoyment in all the elements of the wine as much or more as they like a wine as a whole. A wine isn’t a thing itself, but rather a collection of little things, all of which seem to deliver a little hit of appreciation or pleasure.

This new disc from Volume Five, Milestones, is much like that. There are some really great songs—“North Dakota” perhaps particularly—but it’s almost more about the parts than it is the whole. The mandolin chops are so clean, so dry, and so beautifully placed within the mix. The guitar entry to “Tell Me You’re Not Leaving” so perfect, with such a clear tone. In those things, and many more, there is a lot to love here, all of it pointing to the mastery of the musicians and the quality of the production. The content can be bleak, and there’s loads of heartbreak and bare-bones introspection on offer. The narrator in “North Dakota” says that it’s “less than you deserve, but you stay with me anyway.” The song ends with a hope to get the barley in the ground, if only to make it through another year on a farm that’s “twenty miles from either town.” The narrator of “Hayley,” has a history that is a bit murky yet clearly full of regret. There aren’t many moments of joy to go around, but maybe that’s just part and parcel of the genre (well, of course it is) and also one of the things that draw us to it.

Volume Five was named emerging artist of the year at this year’s IBMA. They’ve been at it for ten years, and have grown in that time, both as musically as well as a becoming a more cohesive group. There is a clarity of vision here, too, which buoys the quality of the work; the personality of the band is coming forward, and the members are stating that identity with more ease. For all of that, this album is easily their best to date, so to be named emerging artist after a decade of work isn’t really as wilting as it might seem. Emerging doesn’t mean new, necessarily but gaining a wider audience and a more prominent place. Indeed, Volume Five is really coming into its own, and rightly finding a place in a very busy musical marketplace. It’s certainly nice to see them gaining more attention at the IBMA. They deserve it. This album is definitely worth your attention.

 

Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, “Penny’s Farm”

You’ll be forgiven if you groan a bit when you see the track listing of this new release from Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, “Penny’s Farm.” Like right there. Did you breathe out a bit, an almost imperceptible sigh, just then when I typed “Penny’s Farm”? Did you have flashbacks of John Cohen talking about how Dylan took “Penny’s Farm” from the Harry Smith anthology and turned it into “Maggie’s Farm”? When you read Geoff Muldaur, did you think of Maria, and her marriage to Geoff? And all those rehashes of the basket houses, and the tour busses, and the black and white clip of Maria, newly single, swaying with Jim Kweskin at the Bitter End, or the Gaslight, or whatever it was.

These are names and songs that have a lot of miles on them, and lots of stories attached to them, too. And, yes, it can take a bit of effort to push play on the mail-order gramophone. But, actually, you really should. Just put all that stuff away, put down the CD cover, and forget all the names and the miles. Try to listen to all of these songs as if for the first time. Because it’s absolutely worth any effort you can give it, though it doesn’t take all that much really. You’ll soon be reminded why you remember all that stuff in the first place. These are just fantastic songs. They’re like children’s stories, and they make children out of all of us. Tell me again about how my good wife will catch more fish than me. And how you played cards in Spain. And how Frankie shot her man. There she is, still wearing the kimono. Yes, it certainly is a little while to be here and a long time to be gone. I know exactly what you mean.

Truly, there’s a lot to love on this release. The guitar work is great, and the arrangements are simple, charming, and superb. They’re joined by Cindy Cashdollar and Suzy Thompson. As my daughter would say: I know, right? Yes, I know.

There are lots of memories, though the repetition is nice too. After all, that’s one of the reasons we like this stuff to begin with. The stories remind us where we are, and where we came from, even if it’s Toronto and we never ever did get around to fishing for catfish in the old fishing hole, truth be told. But it’s the idea, and the familiarity, that we love. And that picture on the cover? With the shack and the chickens? If you squint a bit, and turn a bit to the side, doesn’t it look a lot like home? I think it does. It really does.

Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life”

This is a brilliant release in all kinds of ways. Musicianship, arrangement, recording. Each one of those is wonderfully on display. It’s there in the details, such as the strings entering on “Only in My Mind,” and then the pizzicato, or the way she sings the word “Barcelona.” There are harmonies added to isolated phrases that make you think, wow, that’s brilliant. So beautiful in themselves, but also so delightful in the level skill that they belie, and the way they help support and propel the narrative.

The writing is the thing that stands out, even given the quality of the setting and the skill. Ask anyone about writing songs and, more often than not, they’ll say something about a hook. But a hook isn’t songwriting, it’s marketing. Selling something. Writing, good writing, tells something. Though it’s even more than that. There’s a pleasure that comes from finding the structures-, in realizing the care and the complexity that went into crafting these pieces. There’s a delight that comes from seeing something that is just so brilliantly constructed. (Have you listened to Lightfoot’s “Great Canadian Railroad Trilogy” recently? It’s as much a marvel as it ever was.)

The first track, “Rookie Dreaming,” sneaks in, and just when you’re doubting it, it delights you. Before we get to the confessional voice—“I was movin’ too fast ” etc.—she’s already broadening the narrative, gesturing to a universal: “I was singing with the choir on the train/I was a traveling man/I did not yet have a name/I was a 1960s movie/I was a one-night love story.” Certainly, that’s the thing about confessional songwriting. It’s not about grabbing a guitar and telling us about your day. It might sound like that. “The wind is in from Africa/last night I couldn’t sleep … “ But it’s not. Andrews clearly knows that.

She often has the diction of Joni Mitchell, the full vowels and clipped Rs and Ts. She adds her own harmonies, as Mitchell did, and adds similar ornaments, uses similar phrasing. Most importantly, of course, is a similar attention to narrative. Like Mitchell, it might sound like she’s telling you about what happened last week, as in “Table for One” when she sings “Table for one/I’ve got no one I’m waiting on/I just pulled into town an hour ago/from the streets of Houston/to this diner in Ohio.” But she’s not, and it’s the idea that comes to mind, not the details. By the end of album, we don’t know her any more than we did at the beginning. Because it’s not about her. It’s about us.

I know that music isn’t a race, but if this album doesn’t win some awards this year, I don’t know what.

Sam Bush’s, “Storyman”

(Published by Hudson Valley Bluegrass)

sam-bush-s-270Sam Bush is such a perennial of Americana music, from first gaining lots of attention with Newgrass Revival, going on to be the King of Telluride, and he’s just kept on going. Through it all, subtle is not something that anyone might readily claim of him, what with his mullet bobbing in time while chopping on stage.

That said, it’s always been clear that Bush is far more than his stage presence might suggest. He’s played on countless recordings, and is a master of many things, prime being an ability to apply himself to the music at hand. He can play quiet. Publicly, and on his own albums, he’s more inclined to be louder, and that’s true on this one as well.

On Storyman, this latest and long-in-coming release, he’s joined by a raft of greats, with whom he’s also had a very long association. They all co-wrote the songs here, even—as with Emmylou Harris—if they aren’t known as writers themselves.

Nevertheless, those associations are what make the album really work. These are all people really working at the top of their field. Likewise, it’s not a guest-based album of the kind we typically see—i.e., greats joining in to bolster the profile of a project. Here, these are people that Bush knows well, and has done for decades. The result is playful, interesting, and warm. Bush has nothing to prove, and that’s certainly on display here, making songs like “Bowling Green” really, um, sing. That’s his hometown, and the tobacco fields, the tunes, the history feels genuine. Because, of course, it is.

There are guest vocalists here, for the most part adding harmony, but the core band is the one that Bush has toured with recently. Truly a cabal of whippersnappers if ever there was one. Scott Vestal shines, as always, on banjo. Some of the arrangements sound a bit dated, harkening back to the kind of things he was doing in the late 80s and early 90s, such as the Reggae arrangement on “Everything is Possible.” I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s truly new. But, he says it is, so I guess he would know.

This album isn’t likely to bring many new listeners, but for those of us who have been interested in everything he’s done, it’s nice to have something new. “Transcendental Meditation Blues” is a standout, as is the ballad “Lefty’s Song,” featuring Allison Krauss.

Bush will no doubt be touring the ass out of these tunes this summer. Fair enough. Nothing here to bump “Howlin’ at the Moon,” from the set list, but it will add some welcome variety. And, you know, it’s Sam Bush after all.

Arnie Naiman’s, “My Lucky Stars”

Published in Penguin Eggs, Issue #71, Fall 2016

my-lucky-stars-coverYou’ve got to love this album, and I’ll tell you why. Look at the liner notes. Each song lists the people that join Naiman, adding their stuff to his. Chris Coole’s there pretty much on every one. Love that. Naiman is credited on every track, less because he’s there than because he wants us to know which banjo he played: Vega Tubaphone, Romero. Love that! Honestly, gives your heart a bit of a thrill at every mention. Then, right after the banjo, there’s the tuning he used. Love that!!!

The reason why I love all of this, and why you should, too, is because Naiman himself so clearly loves it. There’s no other reason. He’s from Toronto. That says something. No, there’s no money in the banjo, and if you live in Toronto, it’s not cool either. If not for a very deep love, this wouldn’t be here at all. He loves clawhammer banjo—its tone, the tunes, the lilt—and it shows.

He wants to share it. And he does, quietly, carefully, and as comfortably as an old shoe. This is a beautiful, thoughtful, glorious collection of tunes that we can get lost in, precisely because Naiman does. Love it, love it, love it.

Dave Pomfret’s, A Devil’s Urge

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-1-35-59-pmI’m forever being impressed with the level, variety, and quality of music coming out of Hamilton. The city doesn’t have the reputation of Cape Breton or Nashville, New Orleans or Muscle Shoals, and one reason might be because there isn’t just one genre of music being produced, but so many. So, too, that the blues people, for example, don’t know what’s happening in the bluegrass or fingerstyle guitar community. But the recent unearthing of a long lost Gordon Lightfoot recording at a Hamilton studio is telling, in a way. The Band signed their first contract here, just as it gave rise to Daniel Lanois. Today it’s the home—bet you didn’t know this one—of Emory Lester, one of the foremost bluegrass mandolin players in the world. We tend to look at locals and think, “well, she’s pretty good for here.” But Alfie Smith is great for anywhere. And he lives here. And on and on it goes. Hamilton, when you really get down to it, is an embarrassment of musical riches, in spite of the fact that so few seem to really think of it that way.

This latest release, A Devil’s Urge, from Dave Pomfret only supports the point. I worry that people might hear this and think, “yes, he’s good, you know, for here.” But if it wasn’t clear before, he’s good for anywhere. (Musically anyway. As a graphic artist … um … let’s say, given the cover art here, his desire exceeds his grasp.)

He clearly is willing to take some risks, and they pay off. The horn parts that bring in “Ballad of the Body Building Bandit,” set an aggressive tone for the album, and underscores the intention to work beyond the tried and true rock format. There’s some clarinet in here, too. Nice.

The stories that he tells perhaps don’t stray as far, and the writing sticks close to the typical rock themes: failed relationships, trouble, and regrets. The tune “Bury the Hatchet” takes it into overly aggressive territory—he sings, “I’ll bury the hatchet, as long as I can bury you too”—and it perhaps backfires a bit. It’s a revenge song, but it edges into psychokiller territory. Maybe she was better without him, one starts to think. Just saying. It might just be a safety issue.

Where the album really shines is in the richness of the production, and there’s an impressive cast that have lent their skills to the project. They bring a lot of grit and depth, while also opening up some space on the ballads, as on “Maybe It’s Me” and “She Can’t Smile Anymore.”

From top to bottom, there’s a lot to like. I only worry that the album won’t gain the kind of legs that it should. Because it deserves an audience, one beyond the city limits. I hope that it finds it.

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, “Live at Southern Ground”

 

This isn’t a live album in the way that you think: it’s live in the sense of two musicians playing together, no overdubs or added tracks. There’s less audience noise than you’d expect from a live album, as in none at all. There’s more effect than we’d expect to hear on a live album, at least one that wasn’t recorded in the 80s. They say that it was recorded in a “handful of hours” within a single day. Um. Okay. I’m not sure why it matters one way or the other. It’s not a race, but if you need a stopwatch, fair enough.

Martin Harley is a dobro player, and he has the kind of voice we’d associate with the Avett Brothers, were we inclined to do so. Thin, forward, requiring a pretty face to come out of. Daniel Kimbro plays bass and adds a strikingly sympathetic backing vocal.

So, yes, there’s a bit of bravado here, though it doesn’t take long to really get on board. Harley’s playing is delicate, tasteful, and beautifully rich, restrained even when he ventures into rocking-out territory. Kimbro’s bass is gorgeous and full. At times be bows it, which is a nice touch. Between that and the vocals, there are moments when it feels like someone else has stepped into the mix, but they haven’t. It’s just the two guys, and their ability to move between moods and feels is a testament to the quality of the arrangements.

There are some covers here, including a slow take on Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene.” It’s like a porch swing on a hot summer’s day. Bees buzzing, all of that. It’s lovely. There’s also a lovely take on Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus.” As such, Harley and Kimbro make some connections that are as welcome as they are surprising. “Automatic Life” is one of those songs that you can get stuck on in the car, which is a great place to listen to this album. It’s a great accompaniment to staring at the horizon, thinking about where you’ve been and where you’re going. And then the song ends and you remember that you haven’t got a clue.

Joe Ely, “Panhandle Rambler”

 

The panhandle of the title is the Texan one, not the Floridian, and the album comprises a something of a tour of the writers and the styles that we associate with the singer/songwriter culture of Texas. All but two of the songs are written by Ely, though they reference many others, including Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, and Guy Clark. There are two covers, a nice take on Clark’s “Magdalene” and Butch Hancock’s “When the Nights Are Cold.” Ely doesn’t bring anything particularly new to either, and both serve as reminders of how great the originals were. Which, perhaps, is partially the intent.

Ely has spent the bulk of his career straddling the folk/country/rock divides, such as they are. In 1972 he founded The Flatlanders with Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, though the band was short lived. Their “Dallas” was meant to be a hit, though it wasn’t. (It’s puzzling that it didn’t catch on a bit more, actually.) Some sessions from 1972 weren’t released until 1991, and then bearing a title that is as good a précis of the band’s career you could ever hope to find: “More a Legend than a Band.”

Commercial success is fickle, of course, and whatever opportunities the Flatlanders were unable to make something of, on breaking up the members went on to find success as solo acts. Given the focus of their individual careers—Hancock tends to gravitate to folk music, and Gilmore to country—it’s easy to wonder if the Flatlanders suffered a crisis of identity more than anything else, with each member pulling in different directions.

Certainly, a more complex place than we might be prone to give it credit for. Ely has said that he was surprised at how many minor keys he used here on the songs that he wrote for the album. It’s darker than we expect out of Texas, perhaps, and light years away from smiles and winks of Bob Wills. This album isn’t folk, or rock, or country, but a conflation of them all. But it’s the songwriting that, rightly, pulls the focus.

The Noisy Locomotive

published in Penguin Eggs, issue #69 

On the face of it, Ben Nesrallah is the height of improbability. He’s 26 years old, has grown up in Montreal, and he plays old-time music in a duo with a friend he’s had since childhood, Trevor Pool. Together they make up The Noisy Locomotive. Their latest release, “All Nature Soon Will Settle Down to Rest,” isn’t just a lot of fun, it’s also a quick , adept tour of the form and its history.

For many Canadians, the music is unfamiliar, confusing. It’s associated with the movie Deliverance or the frantic dancing that George Clooney did, complete with fake beard and bib overalls, in O Brother Where Art Thou. Certainly, it’s easy to make fun of, and people laugh even when they don’t quite get the joke.

The fact is that there is much more here than most people think, and it’s the tradition, more than anything, that Nesrallah and Pool seek to promote. And, as they make clear in their shows and their work in schools, it’s truly one worth promoting, perhaps now more than ever.

Prior to the 1920s, there wasn’t such thing as old time music, or at least it wasn’t called that. It was just called music. It came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers, and once in the new world, took off on its own. Over time, it continued to change and evolve, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles across the eastern United States were as unique and clustered as English accents are even today. You could tell, within a few miles at times, where a player was from just by hearing them play.

Through the 20th century the sound of old-time music became more homogenous. So much so that these days, wherever you go—Tulsa to Tokyo, San Diego to St. Louis—the old-time style that you are most likely to hear is the Round Peak style, a highly influential music that comes from Surry County, North Carolina. Surry County is, um, small. Round Peak—the town that gives its name to the style—is even smaller still. But, if we wanted to stretch a point, we could say that for much of the 20th century, the epicenter of the Round Peak style was even more exact than that: Tommy Jarrell’s house, a small, white clapboard bungalow in Toast, NC, a town just west of Mount Airy. Jarrell was a great teacher, a lively personality, and a magnet for young players who wanted to learn old-time music. Some, such as Mike Seeger and Bob Carlin, made the drive down from New York City; others, such as Riley Baugus and David Holt, arrived from within Appalachia. But they came in the hundreds for the same reason: to sit at the feet of the master.

There are lots of indirect descendants, too, and Nesrallah and Pool are terrific examples of that. They play lots of classic tunes, including “Jimmie Brown the Newsboy” and “Lulu Walls” and they remain close to the traditional style. Fiddle often is forward in the mix, we might say these days, taking the melody and embellishing it through bow work and all those beautiful drones. The banjo is played claw hammer, and supports the syncopation of the fiddle melody. In much old-time music guitar is relegated to a back seat, providing rhythm for the fiddle and banjo. Here, that’s what it does for the most part, providing the accompaniment to the fiddle and mandolin.

“It’s music at a human level,” says Ben. “We’re all just so plugged in these days, in our own little worlds. The idea of sharing music by actually sitting down and playing with each other and learning from each other. It’s kind of a lost art form.

You can sit in a circle with a bunch of folks here, and I like that it’s not about ego or one person over another. It’s about sharing and having a good time and building something together. It has a lot to do with the idea that it’s not about the individual, it’s about the community, building a sound, and being in the moment.”

For many people, particularly in Ottawa and Montreal where Nesrallah and Pool come from and play, it can take some getting used to. Old time music is social music, meant for dancers to dance to—and for players to participate in—more than it is to be sat in front of and listened to. It’s about being together, not showing off. While instruments will take turns with the melody, they don’t solo in the way that bluegrass, blues, and jazz musicians do. Instead, they play the melody straight, pretty much, which can make the music sound repetitive (and, well, it is).

What’s also wonderful about the music (and I realize that this might take a bit of a leap of imagination for the uninitiated) is the subtlety. Slight variations have meaning. Sometimes, delightfully so. “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” certainly has a home within old-time music, though we know it today perhaps largely because the Carter Family had a hit with it in 1931. On the recording by Noisy Locomotive the mandolin intro and turnarounds—the bars that Earl Scruggs added to the arrangement—quote another Carter tune, “You are my Flower.” (There are five Carter songs on the Noisy Locomotive’s latest disc, All Nature Soon will Settle Down to Rest. Can you spot them all?)

It’s delightful to have those kinds of nods and winks. For many people, these songs aren’t just songs, they’re like favourite bedtime stories, full of drama, history, interesting turns, and familiar faces. Tommy, Earl, Maybelle, AP, Charlie, Mac, and Bill. (And look, there’s good old Jimmy Brown, still not wearing any shoes!) This is music that comes to us through various filters, voices, and years. Like the steps of the Agora, they’ve been shaped and burnished over the years by all the people they have supported. Even if you don’t know all the details, you still can have a sense of that a lot of people have been here before, and there are hints of all lives that these songs have touched.

Those kinds of historical details, or whatever they are, aren’t essential though they can add some of the charm. When used best, of course, the songs aren’t presented for the nostalgia, but in order to say something new. “We’re bringing in old songs for a reason,” says Ben. “They’re songs that happen to be resonating with us at a certain point in time.” No, you can’t buy a table for 15 cents, as in the lyric of “Stern Old Bachelor.” For that matter, bachelor probably doesn’t mean the same thing it did in the 30s, when the Carter’s recorded it (at a time when AP and Sara were estranged, still singing together even when they couldn’t speak to each other anymore).

But the messages are larger than the details. The music is about austerity, disappointment and, as Ben says, “the struggles and the grief and the good times too.”

“Old time and the old country tunes, it’s just a style of music that resonates within us. And with any traditional genre, it’s got that soul in it,” he says, then adds with a chuckle, “And, hey, it’s just a lot of fun.”

 

Sierra Hull’s “Weighted Mind”

Innovation has long been an important part of the musical endeavour, and it’s often the first person to happen upon a new idea—rather than the people who refine it—that remains foremost in our minds. That’s certainly true in bluegrass, and Bill Monroe will remain the king of the genre even when a majority of the bluegrass audience isn’t familiar with his recordings. Becky Buller includes the Monroe penned “Southern Flavor” on her recent album, though it’s likely that the majority of her audience won’t recognize it for what it is. Monroe, even if listeners aren’t aware of it, continues to be a force within the music.

That’s fine of course. Where the idea of innovation can start to get away from us is when it exerts too much of an influence on the music that other people are making, or becomes too much of a touchstone for the production and the consumption of musical ideas. In the world of mandolin, the force that looms large these days is Chris Thile. He’s an innovator extraordinare, and he’s also highly visible. Ask anyone to name a mandolin player, and if they can name one, he’s it. Most would then be hard pressed to offer a second.

His music is as distinctive as his stage persona—he’s as remarkable an entertainer as he is a musician. In the concert footage of the performance of “The Auld Triangle” Thile gets laughs with nothing more than a well timed tilt of the head, a glance, an upraised thumb, or a shrug, as after the line “Humpy Gussie was creeping.” That’s because everyone in the audience is fixated on him. Rightfully so. He’s just that compelling a performer, with an instinct for stagecraft that has been honed over the arc of a long, busy career. It looks effortless, of course, and that’s part of it too. Still, that shrug got a laugh from an audience of 1500 people—it’s not everyone who can command so large a room with so little.

It’s that command and confidence that affords him room for his musical innovation. His audience will follow him anywhere, and he rewards their trust—he takes them all over the place, and for the most part we’re all grateful for it. Even in the New York Times his playing is still discussed as bluegrass mandolin—with the ubiquitous references to Bill Monroe—though he’s come so far from that point that the reference doesn’t really have any meaning. He’s very nearly created his own genre. Perhaps the only thing it lacks is a name.

What’s unfortunate, perhaps, is that other players are left to deal with the elephant in the mandolin room—Thile—in the awareness that they are invariably going to be compared to him. The choices are to tag along, or to give him wide berth. On her latest release, Sierra Hull has chosen to tag along. She’s made motions toward Thile’s style of playing and composition before, though never as blatantly as this.

She does it masterfully, of course. She’s long been worth our attention, even at a tender age (that becomes a comparison, too: both Thile and Hull are prodigies). Here she uses the light, clean touch that we associate with Thile, creating music that’s made with the delicacy that a microphone can afford. Monroe was the Ethel Merman of the bluegrass world, trading tonal quality for projection. Hull can do that, though here she’s the opposite: clean, clear, intimate. On “Weighted Mind” she varies between muddy and clean, using all the paints in the box, though it’s still very close music, full of all the dissonance and complexity that has become Thile’s signature sound. On “Stranded” and “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” Hull also writes with the autobiographical tone that Thile does so well. Or, if we’re being totally honest, better.

Sadly, that type of material feels like a distraction, as if the force of Thile and the genre that the Punch Brothers have defined has been too seductive, too overbearing. On this album, the best tracks are the ones where Hull remains closer to her own persona, or at least the persona that she’s presented in her music in the past. “Lullaby” uses a more familiar structure, one which allows her voice to really do what it does best.

One of the best things I’ve heard from Hull in the last while is her duet with Mac Wiseman on “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood” released in 2014. There her playing is adept, sympathetic, and entirely authentic. She’s supporting Wiseman, and while her playing and singing wouldn’t thrill a Vegas audience, it does thrill a listener who knows what she’s doing. Her solo is straightforward and, it’s the economy that exposes it for what it is: masterful. It’s that authentic voice that I hoped to hear on Weighted Mind. Instead, it feels like she’s wrestling with someone else’s persona rather than simply relaxing and being herself.

Ronnie Reno’s “Lessons Learned”

Ronnie Reno is, I hate to say it, one of the last of a dying breed. He began his career in music at age 8, and while he’s spent a lot of time on stage, throughout his career it was mostly in the service of people that claimed a larger part of the spotlight: Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, the Osborne Brothers, Johnny Cash.

The reason for remaining a part of the game for so long, if not commanding a greater portion of the spotlight, is because not only is he a brilliant, he is also tenacious. When he was 8, he stood on a milk carton to be seen. In a sense, he’s been standing on that milk carton ever since for no other reason, perhaps, than it’s just what he had to do. For him it was a job, just as making movies was for James Stewart. Someone once asked Steward why he made some duds, even later in his career, and his response was, well, it’s my job. If I’m not working, and I’m offered something, I take it. There are few stars in Hollywood like that today, and I’d venture there are few bluegrass musicians like Reno anywhere. He’s out there doing it because, well, that’s what he does.

This album, “Lessons Learned,” brings all of that to the fore. You can hear his experience in his voice and his mandolin. It’s called confidence. Which is different than bravado, of course. You can hear that too. Just rock solid, take it or leave it confidence. He’s not trying to impress anyone, he’s just trying to present some songs, and he does it impeccably.

Part of that, though, means that he’s not reaching beyond his audience, which is one that straddles bluegrass and country music. It’s traditional in the sense that he’s not breaking any barriers, yet the production is slicker on this project than some bluegrass audiences might like. There was quite a bit of knob-twiddling in the studio, which is unfortunate, as it didn’t add anything. Some might say that evened some things out, while others might feel it removed something. A bit of grit would serve the sentiments. There are drums throughout, and they are emblematic of a production style that comes more from Nashville than Asheville. Again, it depends on what you like, I suppose.

The sentiments here are more typical of country music, which is where Reno spent most of his career. Sorrow, lost loves, and, yes, lessons learned, and it’s not calculus he’s talking about. The band, however, is strong, and Reno’s mandolin—something that gets a particularly welcome outing on “Reno’s Mando Magic”—is worth the price of admission.

No, it won’t burn up the charts. But, a fall day, in the car, Reno’s a fine companion to have along.

The Steep Canyon Rangers, “Radio”

Since they began, there has been a goofy quality to the Steep Canyon Rangers, though in a good way. They were five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, and good chops out to have some fun. When they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wife is a friend of a friend of the band—they became his touring band and, ever since Martin’s Rare Bird Alert (2011) they’ve been his studio band as well. As a result they’ve gone to places—Carnegie Hall, recording with Paul McCartney—that most bluegrass musicians can only ever dream of. They’ve toured big halls and done a wealth of media, again, which most bluegrass musicians, including some of the greats, never attain.

It’s easy to envy them, but then again, it’s equally easy to wonder what might have been had they not had (at least what seems) such an effortless rise. Martin himself considers this idea from time to time, as in a recent issue of Fretboard Journal when he says, thinking of when he first started working with the Steeps, “I was a little bit worried. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll taint them a bit. They’re a traditional bluegrass band, and they’re teaming up with a comedian.’”

The fact is, he indeed may have tainted them a bit. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music. It suits hard luck, the life of the underdog not cruise ships and pop royalty. Would we wish that on someone? No, we wouldn’t, though just as Martin may have worried, the gravity of his association may have thrown them a bit off course creatively.

I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. Too much success may not be the best thing for a bluegrass band. On their last couple releases, and especially this one, Radio, they break from tradition (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. With Radio they’ve also added a sixth member to the band, Mike Ashworth on percussion. Also very present on this album is Jerry Douglas, who produced it, including having a large hand in editing and arranging the songs.

All that said, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. There is some lovely instrumental work, for sure, including the mandolin and banjo on “Looking Glass.” Mike Guggino, on mandolin, often takes a back seat to other members of the band that often command center stage, both literally and figuratively. Which is too bad. Another very strong entry in this collection is “Down that Road Again,” which features Graham Sharp on lead vocals. Woody Platt typically takes the lead role, though he lacks the kind of introspection that Sharp can clearly bring to a song. (True to the idea of being relegated to a back seat, Sharp’s name in the band’s Wikipedia entry links to the wrong Graham Sharp, a UK Olympic ice skater.)

That song, “Down that Road Again,” is an example of what the band can do best, though leads into a song, “Break,” that is the other side of the coin. Platt’s vocals are indelicate, over confident; Nicky Sanders’ fiddle breaks are indelicate, overconfident, and he’s reaching for things that he’s unable to deliver, something that he’s doing with an increasing frequency.

The Steeps make very nice music, and I wanted to love this release which, it has to be said, is the best work they’ve yet done. As I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is yet to come. Platt has said that, “We’re just getting started. It’s almost daunting, to think about how much more there is that we want to accomplish as the Steep Canyon Rangers.” The thing is, I wonder if the success they’ve had as a result of their work with Steve Martin hasn’t derailed things a bit. Yes, they get lots of ovations, though a bit of humility at this point—getting back to the basics and just telling good stories—might be what they need more than accolades. Are we happy for their success? Of course. But business and music are two different things. Are they making the best music that they can? For whatever reason, no, I don’t think they are. Not yet, but they remain a great band to watch.

The Steeldrivers, “The Muscle Shoals Recordings”

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is the place that musicians have travelled to when they wanted to change, to sound different. Aretha Franklin went to Muscle Shoals as an unknown pop singer who had recently been released from a recording contract. When she came back, she was Aretha Franklin, the one that we know today. The recording studio there—Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—began as a cinder block bunker in Sheffield, Alabama, literally in sight of cotton fields. Aretha, as with all the people that the studio recorded in the early days, arrived without a band, and used the session musicians that the studio had on hand. Locals, to a person, were white with thick southern accents. Bono, from U2, noted rightly that they looked more like supermarket cashiers than soul musicians.

Still, there they are on Franklin’s “Respect” the first song she recorded at Muscle Shoals. Wilson Pickett came, as did The Rolling Stones, Elton John, U2, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, and on and on. It’s one of those improbable stories that, for whatever reason, is true: this little place in the middle of nowhere, with these musicians, has had a huge impact in the world of pop, country, and rock music.

It’s the Muscle Shoals sound that musicians come for, one that is a bit grittier, more soulful, more situated in R&B. For some, they’re hoping that a bit of the storied success of the studio will rub off as well.

For the SteelDrivers, however, the sound on this album isn’t really different in any tangible way from what they’ve been doing all along. Chris Stapleton, the original singer for the band, has a rough, gouged voice that, if it doesn’t do delicate, it does loud, brash, assertive. It’s the kind of voice that people respond to, especially the ones who like to get up out of their seats and wave their arms around.

Stapleton solidified the place of the band within the grand sweep of bluegrass: rough and ready. He left the band in 2010, with Gary Nichols stepping in, a singer who continued pretty much in the same vein, though perhaps tending a touch more to the country end of the musical spectrum. He’s featured on 2012’s Hammer Down, though it’s clear that the band has been looking for a project that will gain a bit of a bigger splash, and they’ve found it in The Muscle Shoals Recordings. It’s gritty, forward, and full of all the allusions we expect from the outlaw end of the musical spectrum. “Brother John” is a criminal on the run. “Drinkin’ Alone” is about drinking and fighting. Elsewhere there is regret, cheap thrills, excess, ill-conceived affairs, and all of it drenched in country wisdom. “When the gas is gone, you’ll be left out in the rain.”

It’s the right mix for radio, and the album debuted at number 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart. The playing is tight, just as we’d expect from the SteelDrivers, and there is a lot of crossover here with the tropes of country music, not limited to the focus and the hooks of the lyrics. There are only two ballads in the lot, though they both lack delicacy. “River Runs Red” attempts to capitalize on the patriotism that follows the Civil War, and tries to gain emotion through strained vocals and quotes of “Dixie” and “Home Sweet Home.” And it works in the way that an advertisement does: hits the right notes to gain some attention to itself without adding anything to the conversation.

The album’s pretty good, I guess, if this is the kind of thing you’re into. But it’s an album made to appeal to a wider audience, namely a country audience. It’s achieving that goal, and no doubt this album will get a Grammy nod in the bluegrass category. Which I’m not sure is a great thing.

Alive! In Concert! with Dailey and Vincent!

(for HVBA) It’s hard to be a Dailey and Vincent fan because they can be so unabashedly shameless. Where other bluegrass musicians grew up wanting to be like Bill, or Earl, or Doc, these guys grew up wanting to be the Statler Brothers. When I first saw them live I was turned off pretty much instantly by the pure geekiness and showiness of it all. On stage they are less people than they are Muppets.

Which is too bad, because they are truly great singers and can craft a song beautifully. They won me over when they released Brothers of the Highway in 2013. It’s a fantastic album, and it made me reconsider the one before it, Brothers from Different Mothers, which actually is pretty good too. When they came out with their tribute to the Statler Brothers I was enough of a fan to say, ok, that’s fine, it’s good for what it is.

This live album was recorded in Manassas, Virginia, but it comes, conceptually, straight out of Branson, MO. Glitter, rhinestones, bright lights, corny jokes. The instrumentation is way over the top, an orchestra adding soporific strings to four of the tracks, and soporific piano pretty much everywhere else. Their love for the Statlers is given another airing in “Elizabeth,” though other tracks are arranged to sound like the Statlers. “American Pride” is meant as a patriotic song, and it achieves it in the way that truck commercials do, by being artless and shallow. They play the same card in “Til They Come Home” about soldiers returning from overseas. People will applaud these songs because they’ll feel they have to, not necessarily because they want to. Dailey and Vincent are going for ovations through the easiest routes, and no doubt they’ll get them, though the applause will be as shallow as the songs.

It seems that they’ve got their sights on Vegas, and, clearly—and I think regrettably—they’re headed in the right direction. But if you’re a fan of bluegrass, and moved more by stories than by showmanship, you’re probably not going to be a fan of Alive! In Concert.

The Honey Dewdrops’ “Tangled Country”

(Penguin Eggs, issue #66) The Honey Dewdrops (Laura Wortman and Kagey Parris) have been around for a while now, perhaps flying a bit below the radar. In that time, Laura’s cut her hair, Kagey’s grown his beard, and they’ve otherwise built their skills, their confidence, their attention to detail, and this year might just be their year. At Merlefest this past April their sets were enthusiastically embraced, and that enthusiasm was well placed: gorgeous harmonies, thrilling arrangements, and some remarkably insightful, honest writing to apply all of that to.

In interview, when they could be talking about themselves, or their songs, or business, or the drudgery of life on the road, they instead say things like this: “Touring is like collecting images of landscapes, sounds of voices, contents of stories, moods of places and environments. All of that can be useful. It tells you something about human nature, about how the world works, little by little.”

With this album, the Honey Dewdrops have truly defined their moment. If you’re not giving some attention to it, then you should be. Like, right now. Start with “Horses.” Let me know how it goes.

Anna and Elizabeth

(KDHX) Folk music is a lot more like golf than you might think, were you ever to think this kind of thing. The more muscle you put into it, the more erratic your game becomes. You can’t force it. You need to set your grip, and your stance, and not mess with them. Keep your head down. Keep things economical; let the club do the work. You’re the fulcrum of a pendulum, not a hammer to a nail. There’s a difference, and it’s a big one. Good golfers know that.

Apparently, good musicians know that too. It’s that kind of trust and economy that really underlies this simply brilliant album from Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle. There is no muscle here. Instead, they find their grip on the song, give it the support that it needs from them, and then they trust the song to do the work. The darkness in songs like “Little Black Train” is there without us needing to underline it; it’s darker if we don’t.

That might sound simple, but it’s not. Economy can be terrifying. Playing a song that has only an A-part—no identifiable chorus, no bridge, not even a little turnaround in sight—brings its own unique challenges. There’s just very little to hold on to, and that’s where the terror comes in, one that makes lesser musicians start running for ornaments, flash, and complexity. It’s just easier to get an ovation with “Orange Blossom Special” than it is ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and that’s because monotony can feel like an ever-present risk.

But it’s that kind of negotiation, and the unflagging trust in the songs, that makes Anna and Elizabeth so breathtaking and so unique. “Orfeo” begins with a single voice over a drone of the uilleann pipes, and when the vocal part ends, there is a long drone before the pipes take up the melody. Stark as stark can be. Yet the result is mesmerizing. That drone in the middle is like a pause in conversation, one that many people would be compelled to fill, though here it is fearlessly left to stand alone. And it’s utterly powerful.

“Everything serves the voice and the story,” says Anna. “We try to be direct storytellers—to express these songs in a way that people of today can feel connected to. We aren’t trying to transport people to the past—rather we are trying to bring the past back into the room, bring history into our understanding of the present.”

There isn’t a note amiss here, and the arrangements are deceptively complex, as with the harmony entries and exits in “Father Neptune.” Yet, in a time when some bands present old-time music as camp, Anna and Elizabeth choose to bring forth the dignity in these songs, and it’s absolutely welcome. Like the Carter Family mounting the stage in their Sunday best, this album grants a respect to the harmonies, the tones, the instruments, the depth, and the ideas that drive these songs. “Voice from on High” is slower, more reverent here than most people would play it, as is “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.” The result is something akin to hearing the songs for the first time. They bring the ideas forward, and with it the humanity behind them.

There are many comparisons to be made to another groundbreaking recording, Hazel and Alice, and I suspect some of them are intentional. Alice Gerrard sings on this recording, though her inclusion feels less like a cameo and more like a necessity. To find her here is as about as remarkable as finding her in her own living room.

If there is one roots album that will be selling better twenty years from now that it is right now, this is it. Albums like this don’t come along every day, or every year, or maybe even every decade. They are albums that are transformative, and that become a touchstone that later recordings invariably refer back to. This one is one of those.

Le vent du nord

(For Sing Out! magazine) I suspect that the Quebecois band Le Vent du Nord is unfamiliar to many in the English-speaking world. Which is too bad, because they are exceptionally skilled, exceptionally experienced, and exceptionally entertaining.

Since they formed in 2002, the band has been breathing new life into the traditional music of Quebec, often taking up some of the most traditional songs you could ever hope to find there. On their 2005 release, Les Amants du Saint-Laurent, they begin with the title track which, musically, is as much a statement about music historically in Quebec as it is about the band itself. The piece begins with the instruments that the Habitants would have played: a button box accordion, a mouth harp, a bodhran. As the piece advances, it’s like we’re coming forward in time, ultimately to electric instruments. It’s about the past, and it’s about the present, too. And it’s kind of thrilling the way it all plays out.

As there, this new album, Têtu, digs deep into the tradition and, again, it is presented as modern and vital. There’s a hurdy gurdy in here, and a mouth harp, and fiddles. There’s also a masterful approach to arrangement. “Petit reve IX” begins in a very traditional vein yet then expands to include complex harmonies, and a very rich, full arrangement that draws connections to the classical music of Europe. “La march des Iroquois/Papineau” does the same, though in a different way. Men’s voices in a drone harmony, singing non-sense syllables, accompanied by a bhodran. It sounds like a historical piece, something that might be sung over a round in a bar somewhere on the periphery of polite society. But then the harmonies grow, as does the counterpart, and you know that you’re here, now.

This is music that benefits from close listening, and a repeated listening. There’s something just, well, thrilling in the off-chords in a “D’ouest en est,” and the piano accompaniment, on that departs from the one/three accents we associate with eastern Canadian folk music, accenting rather in the way that a jazz pianist does. “Amant volage,” too, brings a jazz tradition to the music, yet in a wonderfully sympathetic way. The musicians here are not interested in building walls around the music they cherish, and they also are clear to locate themselves within the context of North American music today.

One of the things that I love about this recording, as with all the recordings that Le Vent du Nord have done, is that they clearly identify their audience as francophone. They are making this music for their community, and perhaps not thinking of the larger world of north American music, or the music industry that supports it. The notes are all in French, the only exception being a sentence or two describing each song in English. These descriptions are like found poetry, and can be as enigmatic as the capsule descriptions that Harry Smith wrote for the liner notes of his Anthology of American Folk Music. The description of “Chaise ardent,” on of the traditional tunes included here, reads, “Extreme curiosity drives the character to hell, literally, to see what has become of his lover.” The description of “Papineau” reads “After the Patriot’s War, an author took the liberty of changing the characters, probably to free himself of a political obsession.”

It sounds like curation, in a way, yet there’s always a wink or a nod or a bit of wisdom. The description of “Confédération” reads “A song about North-American French speakers who can often be forgetful. Perhaps they don’t recall their own existence.” Truly, that’s a message to us all. Le Vent du Nord reminds us that North America is perhaps a bigger, richer place than we my typically give it credit for.

Growing up

 by Glen Herbert

Looking at the current listing for Adult Contemporary within the Billboard Charts you’ll find two Taylor Swift singles along with songs from Meghan Trainor and Ed Sheeran. “Uptown Funk!” is on there, too. If you’re an adult (which of course you are, as no one else is going to be clicking through to the Adult Contemporary chart), it’s easy to wonder all the other adults have gone. Where is our experience reflected in the world of contemporary music? We did grow up, it turns out, and our thoughts have turned to different things. Popular music, however, doesn’t often provide much space in which to think them.

Yet, there are lots of people who are, in fact, adults, which makes it so refreshing to find some of them once in a while. People like Noa, who really should be better known than she is. She released “Love Medicine”…

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Being there: Norman Blake on a new recording and a long career

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(published in Penguin Eggs magazine, issue #65) “It’s kind of a downer if you listen to the words,” says Norman Blake about his new album, titled Wood, Wire and Words. He’s having a bit of fun—he laughed as he said that—and when pressed he admits that it’s just that, throughout his career, he’s been less interested in artifice and more interested in telling stories, in shining a light on a more intimate history of American life. He writes about the small struggles, joys, and doubts, and troubles that, while they may not have affected the life of the nation, have nevertheless shaped the context of his life. In “The Incident at Condra Switch” Blake tells a story of a murder along the railroad.

“I came to that through a railroad history type book. That happened close to home, about 35 miles from here, though it’s not common knowledge. I hardly found anyone who knows anything about it. It was written down in some railroad history.” But, of all the stories he could tell, why that one? “It’s close to home.”

Certainly “home” is the thing that has attracted his attention throughout his life and has informed his writing throughout his career. Home, of course, is Sulphur Springs, Georgia, a rural community near Chattanooga where Blake has lived his entire life. Calling him there is a bit like calling Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon, or John Updike in Brewer, Pennsylvania, the exception being that Blake writes about himself and he writes about a real place. His first album was titled Home in Sulphur Springs, a concept he reprised in 2006 with Back Home in Sulphur Springs. This latest recording takes up the same theme, again turning our attention to the small, intimate details of life in small town America.

The irony, perhaps, is that it is from the close intimacy of Sulphur Springs that he set out to participate, if reluctantly, in some of the moments that have defined and redefined roots and Americana music. He was there at the recording of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. He played on Nashville Skyline, that great outlier in the Bob Dylan catalogue. He played on John Hartford’s positively seismic recording, Aereoplane, which created the space and the inspiration for what we now think of as newgrass. He was a fixture on Johnny Cash’s television show, one that renewed interest in the music of the Carter family, and unabashedly provided a venue for a number of musicians who, at the time, were all but banned from prime time television. In 2000 he recorded for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack; in 2007 he took part in Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ recording, Raising Sand. The only moment he missed, seemingly, was the Bristol sessions, though had he been alive in 1927, he would have been there, too.

If all of that is impressive—and certainly it is—any sense of awe is entirely lost on Blake himself. “I don’t think about any of that,” he says. “You know, I was really not trying to be on [the Circle recording]. I wasn’t feeling good—I was ill after a road trip with [John] Hartford, and I kinda got roped into that and I ended up being on it. I’m glad at this point that I was, but, you know, it was not something I was trying to do. I was trying to get out of doing it.”

“And I almost didn’t do O Brother,” again by trying to get out of it. “I’ve never been able to see these things; hindsight is twenty-twenty or whatever they say. But the album with John, Aereoplane, you know, we were just trying to make a living at that point, but I guess I was just in the right place at the right time on some of these things.”

In speaking with him, it becomes obvious that he’d much rather talk about trains, or murder ballads, or hoop cheese, which he mentions in “Grady Forester’s Store.” The store is real, and a photograph of it is included in the liner notes of Wood, Wire, and Words. “I was going there when I was a little boy to get the mail and stuff. That picture was made in ’43, and I was born in ’38, so I was going down there then. There was no electricity or nothing down there along the railroad.”

“In the old days cheese came in wooden hoops” in his accent it rhymes with ‘hook’, “like a banjo ring. It was about four inches thick usually. You had this wooden ring, and the cheese was in that. A circle of cheese. And you’d go to a store, like that song’s about, and they would cut you some and sell it to you. But it laid around unrefrigerated for quite a time.”

In the song there are cats sleeping on the flour sacks, the crackers are stale, and by the third verse the dog, Prince, is run over and killed by the ice truck. “That’s all true! There is some humour there. It’s tainted I guess. But all of that really happened just like in the song. … You know, this particular place had its drawbacks. We were living in a very rural part of the country, down on the dirt road so to speak. It was the good old days, but it was pretty rough shod as well.”

His guitar playing has been rightly celebrated for decades, and it remains as strong, comfortable, and honest as ever, seen best in the instrumentals included on the new album, a standout perhaps being “Blake’s Rag.” He’s not out to impress us with licks, but to capture a feeling. “I don’t care for a lot of hype about things, especially when it’s concerned with something that I do … It’s whatever comes out. I try to more than just accompany a song. Every tune has a particular individuality, and you can find something that fits with it.”

He’s retired now, or at least retired from the road, and he realizes that the songs on this album are not of a kind that will attract the attention of radio DJs. He made it because he wants to tell us about hoop cheese, the railroad, and the lights on the river. He’s always maintained that his music has never been just his job, it’s also part of his life. Thankfully, he’s allowed it to be part of ours as well.

Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, “The Travelling Kind”

by Glen Herbert

 

(For KDHX radio) There’s a scene in the first season of Nashville where Rayna James approaches a young rock producer to make her next album. She’s only written one song toward the project, but nevertheless, she’s more interested in her sound. She gets drunk, cuts a track at the hipster’s studio, and presents it to the CEO of her record label, who isn’t thrilled. Undaunted, she says, “this is my sound.” It’s a moment where she appears—and I realize that it’s written to be this way—defiant, confident, taking charge of her career by thumbing her nose at the bean counters.

Fine. But if I were the CEO I would have responded, “That’s your sound? Okay, but where are your songs?” She knows as well as he does that they haven’t been written yet. To be so fixated on sound, in the absence of content, seems a bit like an artist saying, “well, I don’t know what I’m going to paint, but it’s going to be red.”

Still, watching that scene between Rayna James and the producer, it’s easy to wonder if there was a similar interaction between Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois just prior to the creation of the Wrecking Ball album. I don’t suppose Lanois was resistant, but I think Harris’ desire was probably the same: to find a new sound. And she did. And, even now, she still hasn’t recovered from it.

The irony is that, in interview, Harris has said that her goal is to find her way back to the living room, that is, to what music was like before she was so much a part of the industry of music; a time when music was sitting around with friends, singing songs; a time when, I think we can infer, it was less about sound, or the electronic patina of a recording, than it was the content of the songs themselves. It wasn’t about sound, but heartache, loss, joy, friendship.

Indeed, Harris’ best work is when she is closest to that ideal, in recordings where she doesn’t rely only on the “sound”—using the term as Rayna James does—but trusts the content to get the message across. Listen, for example, to how she uses her voice on “Get Up John” or “Smoke Along the Track” from At the Ryman. It’s an understatement to say that she has a brilliant voice, and on those recordings she uses it to just to sing the songs, not to sell them or sell herself. There are none of the swallowed syllables, excessive vibrato, or breathed tones that characterize her later work. It’s not fair to compare her voice now to what it was thirty years ago, I realize, but again, I don’t think it’s about her voice—her voice has been remarkably consistent through the years—it’s rather about the choices she makes about how to apply it to a song. “Boulder to Birmingham,” “I’ll Go Stepping Too” everything on Roses in the Snow or Evangeline or Last Date—yes these recordings are from a long time ago, but they are also from a time when she clearly trusted the content, and it showed.  Those songs worked because she filled them with air, and then she let them go.

She can still do that, and we see glimpses of it from time to time. In 2002 she played Merlefest, as did all of the other members of the Nash Ramblers (though with other acts) the band she had with her for At the Ryman. Wrecking Ball had been out for seven years at that point, Red Dirt Girl for two, but it was the pre-Lanois voice and approach that flowed from the stage. She was having a blast, joking with Sam Bush about baseball, and she just sang the songs. It was, hands-down, the best performance I’ve ever seen from her.

The teaser and title track for this latest release—The Travelling Kind, a second album of duets with Rodney Crowel—suggested that it might be closer to that than she’s been in a long time. The track that ends the collection, “Le Danse de la Joie” is a broader arrangement, but it succeeds in the same way. Still, those two songs aren’t representative of the album as a whole. More typically, Harris forces the lyric, trying to put emotion into it rather than simply bringing forward the emotion that is already there. These songs are all very well written, after all, and expertly crafted and arranged. All she has to do is sing them, to trust them, and let the content do it’s work. As a demonstration, compare the entry of “Higher Mountains” or “Her Hair Was Red” on this recording with that of “Icy Blue Heart” from Bluebird. There, she stepped back; here, she steps forward, and in the process loses something. She wants these songs to sound mournful, and does it by sounding mournfully, which just becomes distracting. The breathed syllables on “No Memories Hanging Around” break the phrases where they shouldn’t be broken. She’s thinking too much about sound, not enough about the narrative.

The best moments on this recording, and there are more than a few of them, are when Crowell takes the lead vocal and Harris the harmony. She has always been an electrifying harmony singer, and it’s her presence on the two Trio albums, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, that take the material from good to great. Here, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now” is a standout for exactly that reason—she supports Crowell, who happily lets the song speak for itself, the harmony beautifully supporting his ability to do so.

In any event, I’ve been hoping that Harris would find her way back the living room, and had hoped that this album might be it. Instead, it’s another indication that she could if she wanted to, but for whatever reason is choosing not to.

Classic American Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways

Update: Since I posted the review below, Jeff Place, an archivist at Smithsonian Folkways, was in touch to note that I’m confusing the Library of Congress Collections with those of the Smithsonian. “All the Lomax etc collections are at LOC, I drew from the much smaller Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian, which is really Folkways and 12 other small labels.” Clearly, a very important distinction.

When I heard that Smithsonian Folkways was releasing a collection of classic American ballads, I was intrigued, maybe a bit excited, and also assumed that I would love it. Given that I’ve just said that, I guess it’s clear that the album is, at least in some ways, a disappointment.

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Jayme Stone and The Lomax Project

(For Sing Out!) There is a recording of John Hartford in the studio giving direction to the musicians he’s gathered there. Whatever the song they were prepping – it may have been “Madison Tennessee” – he says, “this is not going to be a showstopper. I want to do this like it was ‘Brushy Fork of John’s Creek.’ I want it to be straight ahead, where it leads us to the music, and not tricky.” It’s an idea that was central to Hartford’s career, or at least the later part of it; his performances relied entirely on the content, and his arrangements were careful ones, built to support the content, to lead us to the music. He felt that it wasn’t his job to promote the music so much as to hold it up, to turn it around, and to show it to us.

Jayme Stone is cut from the same musical cloth. He’s accomplished enough as a musician to stop a show, and to be tricky, but what makes his work so effective is that he doesn’t. Like Hartford, he trusts the content, is obviously excited by it and wants to share his excitement with us. Like a child bringing a grasshopper in from the yard saying, “Look at this!” He’s not interested in building a better grasshopper, rather he wants to bring the grasshopper to us so that we can see how cool it really is.

Stone’s latest release, the sprawling Lomax Project, is an excellent example of that impulse. Over the course of 19 tracks he pays tribute to song collector and musicologist Alan Lomax, who would have been 100 this year. Lomax has had more influence on folk and roots music than most of us know, and then some. Stone has gathered a fantastic group of musicians to survey all the corners of the musical world that, at one time or another, attracted Lomax’s attention, from the hollows of Appalachia to the Caribbean.

There are lots of very familiar songs here, though Stone writes that “the unexpected chemistry of collaboration [makes] music that’s informed by tradition but not bound to it.” It’s a fine balance, and you need to give yourself over to it a bit. Some songs, such as “Shenandoah” and “Goodbye Old Paint,” are so familiar that any adjustments can feel artificial or forced.

But, even if some things might work a bit better than others, it’s true that everything on this disc is interesting, and everything benefits from repeated listening. It doesn’t hurt that Stone collaborating with some of the best, including Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Julian Lage, Margaret Glaspy and Brittany Haas. Molsky’s “Julie and Joe” is gorgeous, marrying two traditional tunes, “Julie Ann Johnson” and “Old Joe Clark,” the second done here in a minor key rather than the typical major, and drawing on a Cajun style of fiddling. It’s one of those tracks that you get stuck on, playing again and again.

Stone’s role, perhaps more than anything, is as a kind of musical director, bringing together the kinds of musicians that share a vision of traditional music as alive, important, and beautiful, and with the kind of chops needed to show all of that to us. The variety of songs is wonderful, and the program includes an a capella call and response work song, “Sheep, Sheep don’t you Know the Road,” and a calypso piece, “Bury Boula for Me” featuring Drew Gonsalves. There’s a charming song, “T-I-M-O-T-H-Y” that apparently was collected by Lomax in the Dutch Antilles. It features Tim O’Brien and Moira Smiley. Did I say it was charming? When you listen to it, you’ll see what I mean.

There is a lot on this recording, and there is a lot in the package, too including two essays as well notes on each of the songs. All of it is absolutely welcome. Stone is the leader, but this isn’t a “banjo album.” Rather, it’s an album of beautiful, intriguing, thoughtful music coming from a collaboration of outstanding musicians who apply their talents together.

It was a big project to undertake, perhaps, and of a kind that we see less and less of these days. It’s an album with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It asks us, as listeners, to immerse ourselves in the idea of it all, and it rewards that attention as much as it captures it, leading us to the music, rather than pushing us to it. It’s something we may not be so familiar with these days: give and take.

Baltic Crossing, The Tune Machine

This disc is an absolute, unbridled joy. Five musicians—two Finns, two Danes and one Brit—use the instruments and music of Scandinavia to, as far as I can tell, have about the best possible time you can ever think of having. A fair amount of traditional music, including jigs, polkas, fiddle tunes—there’s even a Schottische in here—is woven together with new material and new ideas and instrumentation, including bringing things like Northumberland pipes to the music of Italy, or hardanger fiddle to the music of England.

The band ranges across European music with an academic gaze—in the notes for “Menuet from Falster,” to give a typical example, they write that the piece “was written down in 1917 by a lady called Karen Suder and collected by local musician Rasmus Roxværd”—though the object, very clearly, is celebration not curation. There are at least as many exclamation points in the liner notes as there are umlauts, which is saying something (it looks like someone sneezed, what with all the dots).

In any event, these musicans’ spirit and their ability is infectious, poignant, and invigorating. Sometimes, especially in the world of folk music, we forget about the big wide world out there, or that irony and sarcasm aren’t the only serious emotions left to us. This disc is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that we aren’t alone. Apparently we’re surrounded by Scandinavians.

Interview with Sarah Jarosz

(KDHX) When she was 16, Sarah Jarosz came into the acoustic-music scene seemingly fully formed. She has continued to demand and hold our attention ever since. On her latest album, “Build Me Up from Bones,” Jarosz’s material is less guarded, and therefore more adult, though her writing and her delivery have always been astonishing, and not only because she was — and at 23, still is — very young. 

If there is an upside to getting older, though, it means that that there is less noise in her life. When I spoke to her she had just completed her first year of touring full time, the year since she graduated college. When she got her first Grammy nomination, she was in her dorm at the New England Conservatory. The first person she told was her roommate, then she called her parents, and then she got back to a homework assignment that was due the following day.

Then, and for most of her life as a professional musician, there has been a lot to juggle. What hasn’t changed despite the time on the road, which can be grueling, is her dedication to her work and her knowledge that this, above all, is exactly what she was meant to be doing.

Glen Herbert: In a recent interview you described this past summer as a whirlwind. Describe that for me. 

Sarah Jarosz: I’ve just been on the road full time because it’s the first time that I’ve been able to tour full time, and not having the commitment of school. So, it has been a whirlwind. I’ve been travelling all over the world pretty much. This summer we did a lot of festivals. We also did the Cambridge Folk Festival—we were over in the UK and Ireland for about a month, touring there. Which was a blast. I had never been to Ireland before, and we had some really great shows there. We did a bunch of shows opening up for Nickel Creek. It’s just been one thing after the next.

GH: Does it ever seem like a dream? It’s happened so quickly for you, and it seems that you just hit the ground running at pretty much full tilt. 

SJ: Yeah, I definitely have to pinch myself sometimes, especially with things like opening for Nickel Creek. Ten to twelve years ago was I was first starting to play the mandolin, and at that time I was so inspired by Nickel Creek. And now, to be on stage opening up their show, it’s a total dream come true. Because I am still so young, it does sort of seem like it’s all happened so quickly, and it has. But at the same time, I really have been working at this since I was really little.

GH: Were you always the driver? Did you ask for piano lessons, or did your parents tell you “you’re going to take piano lessons now”? 

SJ: My parents said “you’re going to take piano lessons now.” [Laughs] Yeah, I’d been singing basically my whole life, and that was just something that I naturally just loved to do. But with piano, I was always [saying] “I don’t want to practice piano.” I started taking piano lessons when I was six, and it wasn’t until I picked up the mandolin that I became very self driven and motivated to keep practicing.

GH: Do you have a sense of where that kind of motivation comes from? 

SJ: Initially, just because I was such a little girl, I think it just came from my first interactions musically in the central-Texas music community. Those interactions were just fun. Of course, at that time, I wasn’t thinking that this was going to be my career. It was more that it was just a fun hobby as a young girl. And I think that’s initially why I fell in love with it so much. I just loved it. Obviously, from there it grew into the realization that this is what I want to do with my life. So, having that realization, it became more of a self-driven thing to want to work really hard to become as good as I could.

It is funny with the piano. It’s not like I hadn’t been interested in music before that. But I think [with the mandolin] it was about wrapping my arms around an instrument that seemed unique—one that not a lot of people were playing—it just seemed like this fresh thing that I could get excited about.

GH: So, you get the mandolin when you are nine. Seven years later your first album comes out and you’ve got everybody playing on it. Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien … the list goes on and on. Darrell Scott is there, and he also co-wrote one of the songs. And you absolutely owned it, both in the recording and in performance. Where does that confidence come from? That incredible confidence, even then, though it’s of course remained to this day. 

SJ: It’s a good question! No one has asked me that before. I’m not sure. I guess, for as long as I can remember, I’ve just loved performing and singing and being on the stage. And it just made sense; it felt like the truest representation of my being to be performing and to be putting out this other part of me that was able to come out in songs.

But early on I think it had a lot to do with those heroes of mine that are on my records. I think it’s very telling of the acoustic music community for those people to even be willing to lend their talents and their time to a project of this, you know, this little girl basically. [Chuckles] I had really been able to become friends with a lot of those people just through the festival scene, the camps that I went to growing up, and just learning from them. I think that says a lot, and their willingness to be so open really added to my confidence. And [with “Song Up in her Head”] being my first time in the studio recording, to have the chance to be able watch those people in the studio doing their thing was the best learning experience one could ever ask for. I think that all just contributed to me becoming the person that I am, to have those incredible people to look up to.

As well, I’m an only child, so a lot of my life I was with older people a lot of the time. My parents would opt out of the baby sitter and take me with them to shows. I guess that’s maybe a part of it, too, actually: just always being around such positive, awesome mentors.

GH: The New York Times had a note in a capsule review that with this latest album you’ve kind of grown up, in a sense, and that you have moved “past precocity toward the full bloom of artistry: the singing is more deeply self-assured, and the songs are grounded in truer emotional terrain.” I think an example is in the song “Gone Too Soon” you sing: “You and I and this bottle of red/Getting lost under the moon/When the morning comes/I’ll be gone too soon.” Is it awkward knowing that your parents are going to listen to this? 

SJ: [Laughs] You might guess that it would be! But it isn’t. I guess that one of the reasons that I’m able and willing to be so honest in those songs is because I have awesome parents. I remember playing them that song and they loved it, and actually the thought of it being awkward wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. That’s just how open we are. And for as long as I can remember they were my first audience for the songs that I would write. I would finish a song in my room after working on it for a couple weeks, and the first thing I would do would be to go out into the living room and say “Okay, can I play you guys this song I just finished?”

So, they were the first ones to listen to the songs and often offer critiques and try to help me out. My mom has been a songwriter all her life, just as a hobby, never as a job. But to have those ears is something that I feel may be rare. And, anyway, the thought of it being awkward never have crossed my mind because they’re so supportive.

GH: How much of songwriting is art and how much of it is craft? Or is it indeed both art and craft?

SJ: I think it’s definitely both, mostly because I’ve had both experiences. I’ve had maybe two or three songs, in all the songs that I’ve written, happen very quickly, as in over the course of thirty minutes. That’s extremely rare. It’s happened, and it’s very special when it does happen, but more often than not it’s a lot of collecting of ideas over a long period of time.

I’m a very slow writer and I have a hard time writing when I’m on tour because the mindset of being on tour is very different than the mindset of being creative and crafting songs. At the Americana Music Awards a couple nights ago and Jackson Brown …  was saying [while accepting an award] that the hardest thing for a songwriter to do was to find a space in the world where they think no one can hear them. That really hit home with me, to hear him say that. Which is why I feel I can’t write when I’m on tour, because there are always people around.

So most of the time I’m just collecting words and phrases, lyric ideas, melodic ideas, making little recordings. Then when I do have time to sit down and be in my own space I sift back through those things seeing what might work and ultimately crafting a song.

GH: You’ve also covered other peoples’ songs, both on stage and in your recordings. What is it that you see in a song that makes you choose to record it? 

SJ: I think there are lot of factors that go into it. I have to love the song; I have to love to sing it and also feel that I can bring something to the song that is different and original. I certainly feel that there are songs out there that I love more than anything, but that I wouldn’t even dare touch. Song that you think, “well, that’s perfect!”

And that’s not to say that I don’t feel that way about some of the songs that I’ve chosen to cover, but if they bring something different to the table than my own songs, then I’ll consider doing them. With the Joanna Newsome song for example I don’t feel that I write songs like her. Her lyrics are very quirky, and it brings a different aesthetic to the table, which I like. I like bringing in another writer’s voice in order to have something a little different in the mix.

Other songs bring other things. With the Bob Dylan song, “Simple Twist of Fate” for instance, I wanted to record that one because it brought something different sonically to the table. Having just voice and cello it has a different texture from what was already included on the record.

GH: I once heard an interviewer ask Roni Stoneman what advice she would give to a young musician just starting in music. And  Stoneman said something like “You’ve got to love it honey. You’ve got to enjoy your music, because most of the time, that’s all you’re ever going to get out of it.” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but if you could give advice to the 14-year-old Sarah Jarosz, what would you say? 

SJ: Well, actually, I think Roni Stoneman nailed it on the head! That’s so true, and I think that goes back to what I was saying to you earlier about being such a young girl getting into all this music. The reason I was inspired to keep going was because I just loved it. It made sense to me and I enjoyed working at it. And, obviously, when you’re a young person you’re trying a lot of different stuff. You’re seeing what interests you and so it’s good to have your foot in a lot of different doors. But whatever you end up thinking is the right thing for you you have to love it. Even outside of music, I think that’s the way anything is.

Because, you know, this business is crazy and even this last year has been a real learning experience for me, to be on the road full time. That’s not something you can mentally prepare for ahead of time. You just have to do it in order to realize what it is. And it’s really hard. It’s really hard to not be home. So this last year has been the first time when it really has been “you have to love it.” Because that’s the only thing that’s going to get you through the really difficult times, is to be able come back to that feeling of “well, at least I’m getting to do this in the first place.”

Mac Wiseman, Songs from my Mother’s Hand

(For HVBA) This is the first thing that anyone will know about this album, so I’ll get it out of the way: Mac Wiseman is 89 years old. He’s old, even for bluegrass. In pop music terms, he’s ancient. There aren’t any pop musicians that we’ll be listening to when they are 89.

Age can be weakening, of course, or at least a gauge of what a performer has lost through the years. So many performers have pushed the envelope too far, such as B.B. King or Doc Watson, both of whom were placed on stage after the point they should have taken a pass and left us with the memory that both, sadly, didn’t have.

But, age is also a double-edged sword. It can take some things away, though it can add something, too. Like wisdom, or perspective. Joni Mitchell’s 2000 recording of “Both Sides Now” couldn’t be more different than the one she made in 1969: her voice is diminished by decades of smoking, the pace is slower, the accompaniment is strings rather than guitar. And it’s gut-wrenching in its beauty. Age, partly because we’re aware that this is a song she wrote when young and is now singing as a senior, adds a poignancy that is, in a word, remarkable. At an age when most pop stars have retired, she delivered a performance that we’d simply be poorer without.

Wiseman, with this recording, Songs from my Mother’s Hand, has shown himself to be in that same category. His instrument isn’t what it was in the 50s and 60s, but it’s not a question of quality, it’s just a different instrument. His voice at 89 is an important one, and he is using it to tell some stories that he likely couldn’t have told before, or at least not told as well.

The songs he presents here foreshadow that: they are all songs that his mother copied down in a series of notebooks from listening to them on the radio. She collected the songs in order to play them, and Wiseman, understandably, treasures those notebooks today. They are songs about life and death, poverty and uncertainty, faith and doubt.

Some of these are songs that he’s recorded before, and comparing this recording to the earlier one is telling. His earlier recording of “Little Rosewood Casket” is more confident, cleaner, perhaps slicker. The one on this album is better, more honest. It’s rougher, but age makes it a clearer reflection of what the song is about: reflecting, and comforting those who will be left behind.

It’s not all sad, and he takes a lovely romp through “Old Rattler” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” But it’s the ballads—and this album is rightly and understandably weighted toward the ballad end of the spectrum—that really grab our attention through their poignancy. The tear-jerker “Put my Little Shoes Away” could easily become morose, but Wiseman of course knows what he’s doing, and navigates the song expertly, steering it toward meaning and thoughtfulness rather than, well, not.

The musicianship here is gorgeous, though a standout is perhaps his duet with Sierra Hull, “You’re a Flower that is Blooming in the Wildwood.” Hull’s mandolin is so tasteful, so supportive, that you simply get lost within it. No hot licks, just a wonderful support to a wonderful song. Her harmony vocals are cut from the same cloth.

Songs From My Mother’s Hand will prove to be an important one in the scope of Wiseman’s work, though we needn’t think of it that way. It’s just a beautiful album that tells some stories, expresses some ideas, and we’d be poorer without it.

Writing about music

“It’s about us. Art doesn’t change, we do.”
–Peter Schjeldahl

Whenever we think of critical writing about music, from capsule album reviews on up, it’s hard not to recall that quote—apparently it remains a mystery as to who said it first—that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The suggestion is that the value of music is apparent in and of itself, a priori, and that it doesn’t need to be discussed: the language of music is music, not words.

It is a nice quip, which is why so many people repeat it—when Elvis Costello said it he added “it’s a really stupid thing to want to do”—but I don’t trust it. Anyone who writes about music begins with the belief that what they’re doing is meaningful and worthwhile. If they are approaching the task honestly, then it’s good writing. If not, then it’s bad writing: if they are writing in order promote something, then they’re not really writing about music, they’re marketing a product; if they are writing simply to condemn something, or to demonstrate their intellect, then they are simply insulting, especially to their readers, they are being dishonest.

Better writing, honest writing, requires an approach rooted in some basic understandings. The first is an understanding that all music—good, bad, or otherwise—is like any other form of art in that each expression is part of an ongoing conversation about the world around us, our history, our foibles, and our desire as listeners to be lead on a journey somewhere beyond the moment that we are in. All art comprises–or attempts–a journey of imagination and of understanding.

And every piece of art–be it a painting or a song or a symphony–doesn’t exist alone. Each is a single moment in an ongoing conversation. Being aware of the conversation the artist was joining into, or the context the audience experienced it within, is important. For example, here is a lyric from a Bob Dylan song:

the world’s on its side
and time is running backward and so is the bride
… it’s rush hour now, on the wheel and the plow
and the sun is going down upon the sacred cow

If those words were from a song on an early album, or one in the 1970s, we’d perhaps have an idea about what he was talking about, and an audience at that time certainly would, or at least they would have thought they did. The world was changing: the shootings in Ohio, the sense of disappointment coming out of Woodstock, Vietnam, and Watergate, the assassinations of the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights. The world was on its side, and the sun was going down on a lot of sacred cows.

But the thing is, he didn’t write those words then, or at least he didn’t sing them then. Those words are from “Ring them Bells” which was released on the album Oh Mercy in 1994. The wall had just come down, give or take, and the malaise of the X generation was in full bore. Of course there was a lot else going on then too, but those are at least elements of the context in which he wrote about the world being on its side. More importantly, those are elements of the context that his audience would have heard them within. Indeed, Dylan himself described the song as an update to “With God on Our Side” which he released in 1964. That song was cranky, but in a sense it was hopeful. It implied, with a sneer, that we can have some perspective, and that the concept of God being on our side was an old, dusty one, one that we’d have (or want) a chance to revise. “Ring them Bells” is just a description of a world in disarray and confusion, entirely lacking of a compass to point the way. There is no other song from the album that had as much resonance. It is, I think we can say, the best song on that album, both for how it was written—yes it’s very skilfully done—but more importantly for how it entered the artistic conversation that was going on at the time.

Commerce, of course, gets in the way. There are ticket prices, and album sales, but there is also PR, and corporate backing. Those who have been marketed well, and praised, are often able to rise above an honest critical eye. There is nothing that Bob Dylan will ever release that will be roundly condemned—he will always find someone to champion his work, including music journalists, no matter how off-putting it might be. Though, truly, he has released some positively awful stuff, such as the recent “Tempest” which probably gathered more negative critical perspective than anything Dylan has done. Yet, reviewers were kind. Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal called the title song “undisciplined and banal.” Fusilli nevertheless writes of the album saying that “it is an uneven work whose finest qualities are found in the shadings and subtleties. At its best, it reveals the skills of a master craftsman who uses a variety of American musical forms to create atmosphere in support of his lyrics, which have grown increasingly novelistic and as such are keen-eyed, colorful and effective.” Subtleties? Really? I don’t think there is much subtlety in anything Dylan has done–he’s always been about spectacle, perhaps most obviously since Newport in 1965–and Tempest is true to his form. And would a master craftsman really let anything out of his shop that was “undisciplined and banal” hoping that we’d, nevertheless, appreciate it’s mastery? 

For people like Dylan, or Bowie, or the Rolling Stones, no matter how bad some of their music might be it would take an awful lot to unseat them critically. With them, and to the envy of others, jounralists will look for the good, not the bad. Dylan may create a mind-numbing, trying, 14-minute retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, but we’ll still note his use of a variety of musical forms, and his ability to create atmosphere (and, with a voice like that, there isn’t much more he’d be capable of—everything sounds like a bar). Likewise, bands like Red June will be overlooked, no matter how phenomenally good their music might be (as with Ancient Dreams, an album that will go unnoticed, and it’s a shame).

But, of course, we should be able to expect that as easily as we should be able to discount it. Money, commerce, is never a good metric with which to judge any form of art. As Peter Schjeldahl has said,

“commerce in art is the way that art is moved around and is introduced into the culture. … [but] at the root of art and commerce is in fact a conflict that most of us feel, I believe, between money values and ineffable values. That art and commerce is a place where eros has a head-on collision with mammon.”

When asked what we should judge art on, this is what Schjeldahl says:

“Experience. What it does for you. What it does for your feeling; what it does for your thoughts; what it does for your sense of yourself; and what enhancement it brings to your life.”

Elsewhere he adds that “any price—many millions, a buck fifty—paid for any work of art is absurd.”[1]

Organization, or how we categorize art, is messy too. Alain de Botton has argued that art galleries are typically organized in a way that discounts the art that they collect. He notes that galleries are usually guided by the discipline of art, arranged by historical period or artistic style, rather than thematically. “Instead of being organized by period,” writes Joshua Rothman when summarizing de Botton’s approach,

“galleries could be organized around human-scale themes, like marriage, aging, and work. Rather than providing art-historical trivia, wall text might address personal questions: How do I stop envying my friends? How can I be more patient? Where can I find more beauty in my life?”[2]

If he’s right, then we don’t really need to understand the context for a work, but rather can access the work in its own terms–that writing about art is like dancing about architecture. The idea is appealing if only because it is so democratic: we all can approach art on the same level, and it doesn’t require expertise, just an openness of thought and perception. I read Rothman’s article during a trip with some friends to New York. Since Rothman, like de Botton, was using specific examples from the Frick collection, a friend and I decided to go to the Frick and test out the idea. At the time there was a collection of Dutch masters being shown in addition to the permanent collection. I took one of the audio guide headsets, but before listening to any of the commentary, I’d approach a painting and really look at it, wondering about what it was saying, about the relationships within it, and what thematic questions around “human-scale themes” they might be addressing.

Then I listened to the headset, which of course presented all the “art-historical trivia” that we’d expect from an audio tour. And it was entirely enlightening. Elements of the paintings that, prior, had seemed minor, were brought into focus. This is why: the vast majority of us are not students of seventeeth-century art, for example, and therefore we don’t have all the tools in order to engage with the pieces in a way that we truly apprehend the human-themes within them. We don’t understand the symbols, or the stories that the artists were using as tools to tell their stories. We don’t understand the context for the piece of work. That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand the life story of the artist, rather, we aren’t privy to the conversation that the artist was joining into, what the artist had to say, the artist was working within, or who the artist was responding to. But it’s worth a bit of effort–not a phenomenal effort, but a bit of effort–because the cost is fantastically outweighed by the reward. 

An example is a painting that was in that show: Jan Steen’s, “As the old sing, so pipe the young”[3]:

Mauritshuis_Steen_742

Even the title is well worth knowing; it is a Dutch proverb that Steen’s audience would have known well. It means that children learn through example. Is the scene judgemental? We might at first feel that it is, what with the man slouching in the corner, the debauch taking place all around. Fine, but what you wouldn’t know without a bit of background is that Steen has put himself right there, in the thick of it; he is the man laughing while he teaches a boy how to smoke a pipe. We also wouldn’t know that Steen was an innkeeper, so he not only saw many scenes along these lines, but participated in them and profited by them. The old man is wearing a hat worn by young fathers. These are all things that he would have been confident that his original audience would have known. As such, perhaps he’s playing with their knowledge, bouncing ideas around, rather than documenting a time, a place, or his personal perspective on a time or a place.

One of many scenes of this type that Steen painted, here the family is celebrating a baptism; the child is being baptized. Once we know that Steen has implicated himself in this, and he’s depicting a scene from within his social and political class, the piece becomes less judgemental, and we begin to look for other themes. Perhaps he’s saying that the child is not only being baptised into the life of the church, but into the life of the world, with all the good and bad that comes along with it. The parents will teach the child not only the things that they choose to—as perhaps the lessons of the gospel—but also all those things that they don’t choose to, such as smoking, and drinking, and lapses of responsibility. The parrot is a mimic, and it’s there in the corner adding a bit of punctuation to Steen’s idea. Then, as now, parrots were as likely to repeat swear words as they were names and “hello.” There is a stress in here that most parents share: we want our kids to reflect the better angels of our nature but, well, they learn lots of other things from us as well.

So, is it trivia, or is the background worth knowing? Is a bit of context worth reviewing? Is it worth our while to try to get a sense of the conversation that artists were adding their voices to? I think it is. As in the Steen example, the image becomes richer with these kinds of details in mind, and brings forward the human-theme rather than obscuring it: We’d all prefer to be upstanding in every way, though in fact, we’re not, we’re imperfect, and family life is messy. Further is a question that Steen implies: is it wrong that children are brought up within the full range of family life, seeing everything, and learning both our good habits as well as our faults? What a great question. Perhaps Steen has included himself in the painting in order to suggest a potential answer, that children are resilient and perhaps openness is better than overprotection, and that everything that we teach them has value because it is part of ourselves.

It nothing else, it just makes the picture more interesting to look at, it becomes a moving picture–moving through thought and idea–rather than a snapshot of a silly party all those years ago. It’s through some of this knowledge that the work really gains its ideas, its equivocation, and its interest. The ideas are richer than if we are left only to our own devices. Rather than therapy for the moment, we found ourselves able to get in on a conversation that lasts longer and could be, at least potentially, more meaningful; knowing a bit more adds to our experience, our thoughts, and the enhancement it can give to our lives. Putting the image in a room full of other Dutch paintings from the same time period, in this light, also seems to make sense. They are all speaking with each other, and if we can get into it a bit, we can get hear better what they are saying. Having them side by side only helps. A scholar of Steen might find the audio tour material limited given that she knows the entire range of things about Steen’s life, his work, and his world that the material there can only hint at. For the rest of us, while it may be limited, it gives us a necessary and welcome step up.

A good writer doesn’t tell us that he likes mustard on a hotdog, but rather he tells us what mustard is, what a hotdog is, and ventures why you might like it on a hotdog, or how it relates to the culinary culture and why. I think that’s what good writing about music can do, too. Each piece, whether or a review or a longer essay, needs to be about something, not just the person who made the music, or the songs they present. Good writing tells us about the context and gives us a sense of the larger conversation that the music is engaging within. Good writing can let us know why music is important, what it represents, what kinds of things to listen for and why it is worthy of our attention.

As well, good writing is readerly even to those who may never hear the recording being discussed. Rather, the recording is used as peg to hang an idea on, such as how times have changed, or how we judge quality, or some aspect of the history of music that is interesting and telling, or even how art interacts with the culture that creates it. Each piece should have some bit ideas, or at least some biggish ideas. 

Laurence Stern said “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” And, as at a cocktail party, it is polite, for the most part, avoids diatribes, and listens as much as it speaks, just like the most enjoyable party guests do. It interacts with the greater world, reaching out and inviting others in rather than shutting them out. It’s knows that it can only provide one moment, and works not to kill the conversation, but to open it up, add to it, and to keep it going for the sake of understanding, or enjoyment, or just to underscore the idea that we aren’t alone.

[1] Blog, “The Circus,” November 13, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/11/record-auction-sale-of-francis-bacons-three-studies-of-lucian-freud.html#entry-more

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/11/alain-de-bottons-healing-arts.html#slide_ss_0=1

[3] http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/mauritshuis/742

Silent Bear’s “The Green Lion”

I once heard someone saying that, given the ubiquity of 70s ranch-style housing, Frank Lloyd Wright had a lot to answer for. He was the source, and a very affective one, of a revisioning of domestic architecture. And while his prairie homes look as lively and affective today as they did when they were made, split-level ranch homes … um … don’t. The two styles are related, yet also underscore an important lesson in innovation and imitation.

I think that the Grateful Dead are like Wright in that sense, and we could say that they too have got a lot to answer for. They introduced some important musical ideas—stream of conscious lyrics, odd juxtapositions, loping guitar solos, a wash of sound—that perhaps solidified into a genre that, at the time, was fresh and inspiring. By and large it had some staying power, and if meaning was fluid and evasive, it somehow made its own kind of sense. Someone might think they know what “China Cat Sunflower” is about—the “silk trombone,” the “double-e waterfall” the “crazy quilt star gown through a dream night wind”—but they might just as easily be wrong. Still, for whatever reason, it seems to work. You may not love it, but it would be hard to write off entirely.

The problem, though, is that it looks easy. It seems that all you need are odd juxtapositions, a streaming consciousness, some loping guitar licks, and the result will have some sort of merit. Silent Bear, on their new album The Green Lion, unwittingly demonstrate that the formula is actually a bit trickier than that. If Christopher Guest thought to make a Spinal-Tap-style parody of psychedelic jam bands, this album could provide the soundtrack. Offered for ridicule, it would be hilarious.

Taken seriously, however, it’s just awkward. The Green Lion of the title and the cover art is an alchemic sign with a range of convoluted meaning, exactly the kind of thing that 20-somethings use to impress co-eds at toga parties. For the rest of us, it’s hard not to sigh and roll your eyes. In “Carrie,” the narrator of the song tries to impress the titular woman by saying “Your words are like fishhooks baited with fire/Your red hair is flaming like a bus that is burning.” Hunh? Elsewhere she’s “hiding behind bells, untorn and untattered/Like a Sphinx in the desert, unriddled by care.” The descriptors then turn to a direct harangue. Through a haze of Hammond B3 licks and swells, the narrator asks if she knows “the books of the writers who wrote on typewriters?/What do you see when you look in the mirror? Is it yesterday’s face on a finger of dawn?” Um, maybe. With the typewriters, are you thinking manual or electric?

That’s the first song on the album and, moving on from there, we get philosophers’ stones, Kerouac, angels, transformations, unicorns, peace, Mother Earth, Mercury … your basic grab bag of tired allusions and half-assed mythology.

Fine. But the reason that you’ll have heard of this album, if you’ve heard of it at all, is because Pete Seeger guests on two tracks, one of which is “Freedom for Leonard Peltier (Bring Him Home).” Peltier was the subject of an unfair trial, and is currently serving two life sentences. The impulse behind the song is laudable in the way that Dylan’s “Hurricane” and Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line are. If there has been a miscarriage of justice, sometimes it requires more than the courts to correct it. Certainly it’s because of the issue, not the art, that Seeger appears on this recording. His banjo is instantly recognizable and his voice is there in the mix, and he’s using both to draw attention to the issue of Peltier’s conviction. Fair enough, though if the song were better, less literal, and if the flute went flat a bit less often, it certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

Seeger also appears on “Ode to the Peace Master” reading the text of a poem, and it’s by far the most effective piece on the album. It’s a short track, meant as an introduction to the song “Teach Peace” but it’s over too soon, and we’re back into the fatuous material and strained rhymes that characterize the bulk of the album. It’s a good thing that it’s instantly forgettable.

 

The Tao of Peter Rowan

If you are a glass-half-empty kind of person, then this new documentary of Peter Rowan, titled The Tao of Peter Rowan, will seem like  a half-empty glass. The photography and sound are at times a bit south of polished, the lighting of some of the shots—such as the interview segments with Ricky Skaggs—could and should be considerably better. The edits are sometimes awkward, incongruous, or  jarring. In terms of content, you’ll probably long for a bit more substance, too. The interview clips from Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Jerry Douglas don’t really engage with the music, rather they come off like book jacket blurbs: “he’s really interesting, he’s really great.” As a film, I’m fairly certain that this one isn’t going to be winning any Oscars.

But there is a place for this film nevertheless. Say what you will about Peter Rowan (certainly many have, and not all of it or even the majority of it flattering) he’s had a long and fascinating career in music. He’s been a bluegrass boy, and he also toured as the opening act for the Doors. Those are probably the extremes, with most of the things he’s done falling somewhere between them. Throughout, if not at the top of the charts, he’s remained a prominent and important musical figure since he joined the Bluegrass Boys in 1963.

What he has to say about his time with Bill Monroe is fascinating, given that we’ve only ever heard snippets of it before. Rowan only toured with him a short time, and it seems that most of it was acrimonious. Here, however, we get a sense of why that may have been: Monroe didn’t pay him. “You know Pete, your money is as good with me as it is in a bank,” says Rowan quoting Monroe, then acknowledging that that kind of paternalism can understandably cause friction, and indeed it did. Rowan stayed on as an apprentice, and once he got what he wanted out of the relationship, he went elsewhere in order to apply it to another important concept: earning a living.

At that point, he was off: prog rock, jam bands, newgrass, “hillbilly jazz,” bluegrass, folk, reggae, raga. Perhaps we know parts of this story, but it’s interesting to see it all at once. The archival clips are as fascinating as they are hilarious, such as the clips of Seatrain. All of it underscores the fact, were we to doubt it, that Rowan is utterly unique—aside from his time with Monroe, he’s been produced by George Martin, toured with Jerry Douglas, and Tony Rice, and Vassar Clements. Old and In the Way was my first introduction to bluegrass music, as it probably was for lots of people who didn’t grow up on the blue ridge. The first time I heard it was during a party when I was a university student. It riveted me and, if it didn’t change my life, it was a moment when I found something that I didn’t even know that I was looking for. I believe that I was likely one of many. (Their first album is one of the few bluegrass albums ever to make it onto the pop charts, and for that reason provided the kind of lift that the O Brother soundtrack did many years later.)

It’s hard to imagine how so many different projects can draw the attention of one man, or that so many projects can appeal to the same audience. Of course, in terms of the audience, they don’t, and in that way it’s a bit hard to be a true Peter Rowan fan. His world music projects, such as the recent Dharma Blues album, can be hard nuts for a bluegrass audience to crack. But by the same token, there are some projects that are fabulously enjoyable, especially for a bluegrass fan, such as Peter Rowan and Tony Rice (2007) its follow up You Were There for Me (2009), and the recent The Old School (2013). There are other standouts as well, such as Tree on a Hill with the Rowan Brothers, and the positively delightful High Lonesome Cowboy (2004) with Don Edwards, Tony Rice, and Norman Blake.

Ultimately, the film is a unique chance to get your head around the kind of career that Rowan has had, and the changing musical landscape that he has moved though over the course of his career. We see him as the entertainer, though it’s clear that the filmmaker interviewed him at length and over a long period of time, and was able to get past the set pieces—how he wrote “Walls of Time” or talk of the “Buddhaverse”—to allow us to see him just talking in a less rehearsed way.

It’s fascinating, just as his music is. He’s at Merlefest most years, and I always make a point of seeing what he is up to. Many years, as the one he was touring Crucial Country, I don’t stay for more than a song. Other years, as those when he was touring with Tony Rice, I’d follow him around to every set of his during the festival. He’s just that kind of musician, frustratingly peripatetic. At one point in the movie he is seen during a break from recording and the producer notes that that one song presents a nice compact image while “the others tend to ramble on.” Rowan chuckles, saying almost apologetically, “but that’s my specialty, rambling on is my thing.” We may not like all the directions he goes off in, but of course it’s not necessary that we do. Throughout, he’s consistently fascinating, and for the most part this film is as well.

Discovering Peter, Paul, and Mary

(for KDHX) I suspect that there are lots of things that the average person doesn’t know about Peter, Paul, and Mary. We think of them, if we think of them at all, as earnest and goofy, perhaps due to the persona of the most visible of the three these days, Peter Yarrow. On stage he can raise cringes due to a sincerity that is so arch it begins to backfire on itself, much like a car salesman’s statements of great mileage. And, fairly or unfairly, the media has never let us forget that he is a convicted sex offender.

More generally, the trio was formed in the same way that the Monkeys were, by an agent who sought to build an act to promote into a market that was ripe for it. All three—Noel Stookey, Mary Travers, Peter Yarrow—were part of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late 50s, though Albert Grossman was drawn to them specifically because each remained virtually unknown. The market he was aiming at was the one that the Kingston Trio was monopolizing—a national, young audience of people who wanted to get on a bandwagon. Grossman wanted to supply them the boost. The songs were smart, modern for the most part, and he chose Travers for her sex appeal.

Curiously, he asked Dave Van Ronk to be the third to Yarrow and Travers, though he declined. “I would have stood out like sore thumb,” Van Ronk admitted, rightly, in his fantastic autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Of course Noel got the nod, at which point the three went into seclusion for seven months, working up a repertoire relying heavily on Milt Okun arrangements. Then they played the Bitter End in Greenwich Village as if they were just three kids walking by with some songs to sing. The first album shows them there, with their names chalked on the brick wall behind them.

Grossman, of course, was in the business of making money, not music, something he had a decided knack for. The formula came first, then the band, though that was not generally known at the time, as it would have appeared crass. But, if we are being honest about Peter, Paul and Mary, we have to also admit that it worked. There is a skill there, and a delivery, that was seminal then and remains impressive and effective today. They weren’t great guitar players, but together, the whole far exceeded the sum of the parts. Vocally, it was a beautiful mix, with Mary’s voice seeking the low register while, elsewhere, women folkies were seeking the stratosphere. Mary flipped her hair, threw her head back, and belted it out. Love it.

Of course, we can’t think of them today in the same way as audiences would have then. Not with the intervening years, the children’s material, the campfire scenes, the PBS specials, Stookey’s monologues, Yarrow’s colonoscopy song. They are the model for the Folksmen in “The Mighty Wind”—Michael McKean recalled that during a festival at UCLA “Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary looked at us and muttered, ‘Too close, too close.’” It’s true that the Folksmen didn’t have to do much to send up Peter, Paul and Mary, with them doing such a great job at it themselves. If at first they were sexy, as the decades moved on, they became Muppets.

Part of the reason that we perhaps view them harshly—and why the Folksmen can be so funny—is that we typically don’t look to kind people for inspiration or entertainment. As Peter Yarrow said in an interview, we look to people like “Paris Hilton, who take pleasure in their disfunctionality, or Donald Trump who takes pleasure in being a bully.”[1] We doubt kindness, which is one of the reasons why the media loves to remind us of that 1970 Peter Yarrow conviction. We live in a cynical age, and Peter Paul and Mary, throughout their careers, simply refused to. The liner notes to their first release praises the songs as “strong with the perfume of sincerity.” That’s funny. But it’s true. They are. That’s one of the reasons they are powerful.

This is true, too: their early albums are simply fantastic, and as worth our attention now as they were when they were first released. The first eponymous album, A Song Will Rise, See What Tomorrow Brings—in the length and breadth of American folk music, these albums simply demand a place.

This fall, impossibly, there is a new Peter, Paul and Mary album, Discovered. No, it’s not really new, but rather a selection of live recordings from the early 80s, well into the trio’s downward slide into mockumentary fodder. What is new, though, is that none of the songs collected here ever made it onto an album despite being common in their live repertoire. “You Can Tell the World” is a song that Simon and Garfunkel made famous, or as famous as it ever was, and the recording here is alive, energetic, and captures the energy that PP&M brought to the stage even two decades in.

The album, perhaps inevitably, shows the whole  spectrum of their material, including the kooky, as in “Parallel Universe,” and the toddler humor, as in “Space Suits.” Yes, as always, for the fan, these things can be an exercise in endurance if not outright doubt.

But it also very happily shows their strengths, principally to be better together than apart, as on “Show the Way” and “Midnight Special.” It’s a reminder of that ability to step out on stage with two guitars, three mics, goofy jokes, silly asides, sub-par solo voices, and nevertheless proceed to entertain us for two hours and to send us out into the night with a few more songs to sing. It’s nice, too, to be reminded that some people dedicated themselves to sincerity, and hope, and kindness. Yes, that sounds funny, but it’s true. This album won’t keep you coming back again and again in the way that the early albums will, but it’s a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

 

Fleck and Washburn

(for Sing Out!)

When I first heard that Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn had married I thought it was a joke, though that was in part because of the source of the news. The “Bluegrass Intelligencer,” a satire web magazine, ran the story under the headline “Strategic marriage will consolidate power within single banjo sovereignty: Fleck, Washburn promise male heir, Holy Banjo Emperor.” A faux anonymous source close to the couple is quoted as saying that the future bride and groom “barely detest each other at all.”

Of course, the article was meant in fun even if there was a bit of truth behind it. Which, as it turns out, there was. Yet, when Fleck and Washburn did in fact marry (they’ve also since had a male child, Juno, born last year) it still felt like someone was pulling our legs. As musicians, they have often seemed to be singing from different hymnals, so to speak.

Fleck is known, rightly, for a very complex, heady approach to the banjo, one based in the kind of precision that we associate more with classical musicians than, well, anyone else. Sometimes it works, as in an early recording that is now a classic, Fiddle Tunes for the Banjo, with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith. Fleck’s timing and precision, as well as his musical intuitions, really burnish the work to a sparkling sheen.

In other instances, that academic kind of approach doesn’t work as well. Fleck’s symphonic piece “The Imposter,” one reviewer noted “feels as if Fleck worried the piece into existence. It’s too fastidious, and it never really soars.”[1] If there is anything to fault in Fleck’s playing, it’s that inability to really loosen up, to relinquish a bit of precision in the service of feel, especially in settings such as jazz and swing that simply require it. In Ray Charles famous formula, “genius + soul = jazz,” though having soul, despite the apparent genius, is not something it’s easy to accuse Fleck of. In his work with the Marcus Roberts Trio, his accompaniment and solos float like oil in a vinaigrette dressing—they’re there, but they never really combine or take the flavor of the rest of the mix.

Washburn, while not as technically robust, brings a rich, immersive emotion to everything she does. She crept into the Americana mainstream through old-time music, rising to attention as a member of Uncle Earl, a group in which she demonstrated her ability as a singer and banjo player as well as her willingness to take risks in the service of reaching an audience. During sets with Uncle Earl she’d include a song in Mandarin, sometimes accompanying herself on banjo, and others, as in a translation of Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone,” with an old-time accompaniment. Because many in the audiences in those days didn’t know that she had lived in China and speaks Mandarin fluently, the idea, when first presented, felt put on, or showy, or just ill advised. Then she showed us why it wasn’t. She regularly brought audiences to their feet, perhaps none of whom had any idea what she had sung, let alone why. The emotion, and the power in her voice, was captivating and moving. Where Fleck wants us to listen to him, Washburn wants to speak to us.

That contrast animates their first album of duets, titled simply Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. The first track is an example of Washburn’s fearlessness: she opens with a reworking of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It’s hard to conceive of such a thing not seeming trite, and placing it as the first track has a whiff of bravado about it. She gives it her best, but it can’t avoid feeling self-conscious. The arrangement is set in a minor key, which feels like a feint toward adding depth. Fleck only adds to the tension, most noticeably when he inserts a few bars of the melody of “Oh Suzanna.” It’s campy and hard to bear. The political flourish at the end—“one day I’ll own this railroad, and everyone will ride for free”—comes out of left field and feels like another feint at adding thematic depth.

There as elsewhere the presentation is overly muscular and the album doesn’t find its emotional core until the fifth track, “New South Africa,” which is, frankly, breathtaking. It’s an instrumental piece pitting Washburn on one side, Fleck on the other, as they work through a composition that Fleck first recorded with the Flecktones in 1995. Here, it’s the musical equivalent of a mid-afternoon discussion over coffee—playful, light, comfortable, a moment away from the rush of the day. It works because it allows both players to express their own character and to retain their own voices—Fleck with his runs and complex chords; Washburn bringing in a lovely old-time claw hammer banjo—as they circle effortlessly, joyfully, and at times impishly around a number of musical ideas. There are other highlights too, including another instrumental, “Banjo, Banjo,” and a reworking of “And Am I Born to Die” which pays tribute to Doc Watson and his approach to that song.

But, in all, there is more here that doesn’t work than does, in part because they are trying to do too much. Instead of settling into a room and exploring it, they want to tour the whole building. In an earlier time, say even just twenty years ago, this album would have been the first of two or even three, or at least have been pared and edited in order to describe a clearer narrative arc across the album. An instrumental album would be nice, and “Railroad,” “Bye, Bye Baby” and “For the Children” suggest how nice a children’s album could be especially when framed as such. In choosing a smaller frame, they’d allow themselves the time to really settle into and explore specific musical areas, and to unpack them, to turn them over, and to work through them at a more leisurely pace.

These days, however, there isn’t the industry to support such a long view. Nor are there producers in the studio anymore giving suggestions as to what to try and what to tweek, what to include and what to leave off. We tend to sneer at that idea, believing that the musicians are the best judges of what to do. But, had it not been for Norman Granz in the studio, Oscar Peterson wouldn’t have written “Hymn to Freedom.” Likewise, there are reasons that people hire T Bone Burnett. Sometimes there is a benefit to having someone with an objective perspective weighing in and providing direction.

Given the approach, as well as the admission that the album was made in order to allow the two to spend more time with their infant child, [2] –it was literally recorded around feedings and rest—there is a risk of the fiction upstaging the reality. They’ve been marketed, including in the radio spots for their one Canadian tour stop in support of this album, as “the unofficial first family of the banjo.” We need a first family of the banjo, official or otherwise, as much as we need a holy banjo emperor, though it seems we now have both: those are Juno’s giggles at the end of the album, styling the final punctuation in the form of a birth announcement. Hakuna matata y’all!

[1] http://www.mercurynews.com/music/ci_26264764/review-cabrillo-festival-unleashes-bela-fleck-mattingly-norman

[2] http://www.abigailwashburn.com/#/belaandabigail/

Seamons and Hunter, “Take Yo Time”

(For Sing Out! magazine) For anyone who has learned to play an instrument in the usual way – lessons, scales, exercises, practice, recitals – Joe Seamons can make you feel like you’ve missed something. He grew up in a rural setting in the Pacific Northwest in a log cabin that his parents built. There he learned music in a way that most of us these days simply can’t: through active transmission, sitting and listening to the neighbors and, then, having a go himself.

It’s a (sadly) unique approach in our day and age when skill development, whether it’s math or hockey or music, tends to be prized more than having a bit of fun together. Because of that disparity, Seamons and Ben Hunter founded the Rhapsody project, an organization based in Seattle that intends to bring children to music. The goal, Seamons said recently, is “letting kids know that they don’t have to play music off a page … they can play music just by making noise with their instruments.” The project then shines a light on the kind of songs that allow children to do that, ones that are comfortable, familiar, and approachable. The point isn’t to keep perfect time, or to impress an audience with solos, but to exercise the spirit of the songs, and to encourage participation within a distinctly American musical tradition.

While Take Yo Time isn’t entirely derivative of the Rhapsody project, in that it can and will stand on its own, it’s nevertheless emblematic of it. Here Hunter and Seamons present the kinds of songs that invite participation, and they give lots of indications of the various forms participation might take. A hand slapping a knee on “Some of these Days,” a gloriously goofy kazoo on “Jungle Nights in Harlem” a pair of bones on “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues,” the solo callouts on “Jazz Fiddler” – whether you actually do grab something and play along, the point is made that this is not music for the stage, it’s music for the living room, specifically your living room, not just theirs. The very sympathetic production across the album underscores that idea. For those of us who aren’t able to be in the room with them, this disc is so inviting, so intimate, that you’ll feel like you were.

While the album needn’t be anything more than that, scratch the surface a bit and you’ll see that Hunter and Seamons are quite cunningly surveying the length and breath of American music in the pre-war years, that time when most music was still largely being made at home. They’ve beautifully chosen songs that might easily seem a bit like strange bedfellows. Duke Ellington’s “Jungle Nights in Harlem,” is placed with a Child ballad, Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine Blues,” the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Jazz Fiddler.” The musical styles that Hunter and Seamons adopt beautifully reflect the genres that these pieces represent – the Appalachian fiddle drones on “Tom Dooley,” for example, contrasts the jazz phrasing on “Beaumont Rag” – though, despite those kinds of differences, they bring all of these various musical ideas together and demonstrate not the contrasts, but rather what they have in common. Which is America, after all. It’s not jazz or jug band, it’s not blues or old-time, it’s just songs to learn, to play, to play with, to clap along to. These are our songs to teach, to learn, and to share, if for no other reason that this: because it’s fun.

Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein, “If I had a Boat”

Bob Snider is a musician you’ve never heard of, though nevertheless he has spent his life in music, playing in the streets of Toronto and in folk clubs across Canada. He’s also written two books on performing and songwriting, and they draw from his long experience reaching audiences. There is a lot of wisdom in those books—since he’s never gained fame, he always has to work hard to gain and keep the ear of an audience.

In his book “On Performing” Snider writes that for a performance to work “what you want is a clear, clean, simple unit that keeps moving.” He’s speaking about a set of music, not an individual song. “By clear I mean it should be easy to follow. In vaudeville they used to say ‘Tell ‘em what you’re gonna do. Tell ‘em what you’re doing. And tell ‘em what you did.’”

That doesn’t mean that you have to be simplistic or pandering, but rather you have to meet an audience’s trust with a sense of responsibility. You can take them anywhere you want, but you have to be the guide. That’s how the best performances work.

I’d add that that is also how the best recordings work. Rather than a collection of songs, they take the listener on a little journey. They used to talk about “programming” recordings, which was deciding on the order of songs. Still, even at that point, the songs should have been chosen to compliment each other, provide variety, and to make sense when set together.

And, indeed, these are the kinds of ideas that pop up when listening to the latest release from Jimmy Gaudreu and Moondi Klein, “If I Had a Boat.” Does it make sense? That’s an interesting question it turns out.

Gaudreau and Klein don’t have the same level of name recognition as some of the people they’ve been in bands with, but they’ve been present, in one form or another, though a sizeable portion of bluegrass history. Playing together is a recent thing, though that, too, has been impressive. Their first recording together, 2:10 Train, is gorgeous, including some unusual song choices that, nevertheless, really worked well. They covered a song that Linda Rondstat made famous, “High Sierra,” as well as Tim O’Brien’s “Colleen Malone.” Those were standouts, though the album was consistent: from beginning to end, it made sense. “Evening” was presented as a swing piece, and there’s a very playful take on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time.” Those two might have stuck out a bit from the rest, but they added variety and feel, and it worked.

Since then they’ve toured with Emmylou Harris as the opening band, and made a second album, Home from the Mills, that, if not as fantastic as the first, was nevertheless excellent. There is a care that went into the arrangements, and a delicacy of touch that was unique, to say nothing of how well the two played together. Like the first one, the sources ranged more than a bit. There’s Eric Bogle’s “Leaving Nancy,” Tim O’Brien’s “Rod MacNeil,” Bob Wills’ “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” and Alpha Rev’s “New Morning.” You perhaps haven’t heard of Alpha Rev—I hadn’t—and frankly that’s probably a good thing.

Like the first album, “Home From the Mills” worked because it made sense. It reflected the personality of the musicians, but it also was a work that could, more or less, stand alone as a testament to the breadth of North American folk music, and everything there was presented through that lens. “Red Haired Boy” was set next to Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” in order to highlight all the things they have in common, not the differences they share.

This latest recording, If I Had Boat, doesn’t work as well. The personality remains, though they’ve stretched the project too far. “Waltz for Anais” includes a piano that is strikingly conspicuous, and not in a good way, because it jars with all the rest of the things happening both in the song and on the album. It’s far too saccharine to support the mandolin in that piece, and otherwise draws too much attention to itself. “Grassnost” too feels like something from a different album, also because it includes a piano part that plays at being classical, yet only succeeds at being Muzak.

There are some other head scratchers here, including the title track, which is a cover of a Lyle Lovett song released in 1987. It’s bizarre, lyrically, which may have worked for Lovett, but it doesn’t work for Gaudreau and Klein. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Did She Mention my Name” is a nice enough song, but the version here makes you want to dig out Tony Rice’s. The vocal harmonies are strained and distracting.

Those diversions are unfortunate because there are some real highlights in here. “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” may not be a song that you feel you need to hear again, but you do, it turns out, as the version here is as beautiful as it is fresh and surprising. “One More Night” is the Bob Dylan song from Nashville Skyline, and it works well, as does the first track here, “I’m Always on a Mountain.” There are some other lovely moments in here as well.

As a whole, however, this album feels less like a journey than it does a tour of Gaudreau and Klein’s sock drawers. Each piece comes with its own intention, and I suspect the only thing that unites them is that they like them, have fun playing them, or are amused by them. The piano is an idea that they had in isolation, and the same is true of “Grassnost.” If I’m wrong, it’s only because the performers haven’t done their job: at the end of the album, I have now idea what they intended to do, what they were doing, and what they did. It’s just songs.

The Duhks, “Beyond the Blue”

(KDHX) When the Duhks first came on the scene in 2001 they were, right off the mark, as challenging as they were entertaining, and as infectious as they were affecting. Jessee Havey’s voice was the band in a nutshell: soulful, though not typically so, and able to add depth to material that in other hands might be entirely unremarkable. The albums they made became essential expressions of the time and, on stage or on CD, they grabbed your attention and kept it.

And then it began to dissolve. There were regrettable personnel changes, and when Havey left it felt like she took the point of the band with her. The group slowly receded from view. When at last their website noted an indefinite hiatus, it was easy to assume that it had vanished for good.

Which makes the release of this new album, “Beyond the Blue,” such a welcome and surprising event. There is a new lineup, though the twin suns of the Duhks universe — Havey and Leonard Podolak — are very happily back together again. The ensemble is still finding its legs, it should be said, and this album isn’t as consistently authoritative or confident as some of the earlier material. At times the arrangements, such as “Burn” and “Suffer No Fools,” rely too heavily on repetition and inflection to carry the piece. The song “Burn” in particular comes off as weak, as far as content and sentiment goes, which is that a lover wants his ex to, as the title suggests, burn. (Ho hum. Yes, I remember high school too.)

The production across the album feels rushed and uneven, as with the snare drum and horns on “These Dreams.” On the other end of the spectrum, the production of “Je Pense á Toi” is wonderful, especially around the use of the percussion instruments to create a very lovely feel behind the layered vocals.

Still, the high points handily outnumber the low. The title track, “Beyond the Blue,” is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. “Je Pense á Toi” is stated and reprised, both tracks becoming highlights, as does “Lazy John.” If the use of horns and drums feels tentative elsewhere, the band makes up for it spades on “Just One Step Away.”

If there are a few soft spots here and there, the band has nevertheless revived its ability to command attention. This album grabs you, takes you on a journey, and when it’s over, it seems that the energy has gone out of the room. And it has.

Michael Cleveland, “On Down the Line”

(KDHX) Sometimes fiddle players can be hard to get a handle on, if only because it’s a kind of music making that we are less familiar with than, say, guitar. On this album as on all the albums Cleveland has made, it may not be obvious why he gets lead billing: he doesn’t sing, or write songs, and those are the things that general audiences tend to focus on. In performance, likewise, he also doesn’t move around, like Leahy or Sythian. His band, Flamekeeper, does all the singing and moving, and even some of the songwriting. Apparently nobody thinks too much about wardrobe.

But if you need to know why the world needs more Michael Cleveland, listen to the one solo track on this album, “Jack O Diamonds.” It’s an old-time standard that, when set beside any other recording (such as one by Bruce Molsky) demonstrates exactly what Cleveland is up to. He takes the piece entirely out of the old-time context, quoting phrases from bluegrass while also giving a few nods to jazz here and there. He adjusts the chord accompaniment, dropping a tone here, adding a minor there. He’s playing in the truest sense of the word, and as with any kind of play, there’s some humour in there, too.

And, indeed, that’s what he’s doing in all the other pieces on this album. They, too, are full of nods and winks, a masterful presentation that includes a wonderful sense of empathy and joy. The players he has with him are truly excellent, and it’s clear that they are there entirely because Cleveland is. That, precisely, is why this recording should demand your attention. These people are excited about it, and with very good reason.

The album ends with “The Orange Blossom Special,” a piece that Cleveland has been playing since he was a child. There is video of him at perhaps 12 years of age playing it with Doc Watson, and it’s a moment that I think of whenever I see Cleveland. They are backstage at the IBMA and, afterword, Watson asks if he has been blind since birth. Cleveland says “yeah, but I don’t think of it too much. You know, there are some things I can’t do, but I’m going to make do with what I can do.” Good lord, does he ever.