John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”


It’s pretty much impossible to discuss John Driskell Hopkins without discussing Zac Brown, and there are a number of reasons for that. Brown, though still young, is one of those people who has more energy than any single person rightfully should—he’s a Grammy winner, he’s run a restaurant, tours incessantly, is a father of four. He’s also the founder of the label Southern Ground, which he runs as a stable of talent. Those signed to the label, which includes Hopkins, are virtually indistinguishable from the Zac Brown band. They tour together, and Brown’s shows can feel more like a label sampler than a concert. Everyone gets a chance at the mic, and keeping them all straight can be a job. I saw their show at Merlefest last year, and it felt like an extended advertisement for Southern Ground records.

Continue reading John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”

The Deerings and the American Dream

Published in the Kruger Brothers Newsletter, December 2012.

It’s one of the great stories in the history of fretted instrument building in the US: In 1970 Sam Radding began a small manufacturing shop to serve a local community of musicians in the greater San Diego area. Small, unassuming, not a little bit rag-tag, it was run like no other shop had been before, or likely would since. And, in just four years, it left a legacy like none other. “It was like co-op,” recalls Sam Radding of the American Dream Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, a grand name for what was a small and very fluid organization.

“Everybody set their time. and put their effort into it. It was Just a group of people who were equally interested in building and repairing instruments. And we just tried to make it work.”

Radding’s hiring practice was simple, and perhaps emblematic of the time. “If you want to work here, that was enough for me! And we picked up a very interesting collection of people.”

The aspect of the shop that Radding feels was most unique was that kind of open-minded approach to people and ideas coupled with a culture of learning, growing, and sharing. He says, “I left hopefully, even back then, a small legacy of ways of thinking about what you’re doing. This thing about sharing information. I honestly believed that sharing information about building something, it’s what one has to do if they have that information.

“I could never understand why anybody would look me in the eye and say ‘I can’t tell you what that glue is.’ You know, you might use that glue and do a better job than I do. And I’ve always felt that if someone can do a better job than I do, then they should be doing the job. And there was the knowledge that, you know, you may have to scrape and scratch, but you can make a living building something.”

By his own admission, in his book Guitar Lessons, when Bob Taylor started working at American Dream he was just 18 years old and “didn’t have any of the necessary skills.” Taylor had been building guitars as a hobbyist and approached Radding to buy supplies, such as fret wire and abalone for inlay. He brought guitars around for “show and tell” and otherwise just hung around, simply to be near like-minded people.

He pestered Radding into letting him have a bench in the shop in order to do repairs to clients’ guitars, and soon he was rubbing shoulders with a roomful of people who gained in enthusiasm and dedication whatever they lacked in skill, including Geoff Stelling, Kurt Listig, and later Kim Breedlove, Larry Breedlove, and James Goodall. All had the same perspective and the same dedication to what Radding was trying to do, and little else.

One of the builders who had been there virtually from the start was Greg Deering, who was often tasked with training those new to the shop. But, even for him, the initial impulse was fairly basic. In an interview with David Holt in 1988 Deering said of his initial interest in the shop, “I wanted a better banjo and couldn’t afford it, so I built one. Then another one and another one, and the next thing you know I was doing it for a living.”

While the shop was short lived, it’s easy to see that the lessons learned there have carried on long since, including that desire to share ideas. Geoff Stelling and Greg Deering worked together on the first instruments in the Stelling line. When Bob Taylor and Kurt Listig bought the shop in 1974, they transformed it into Taylor Guitar. Larry Breedlove and Bob Taylor worked together on many of the technological aspects that make Taylor guitars unique today.

Greg and Janet remained within that community of builders, and Greg worked for a time at Taylor, ultimately founding Deering Banjos in 1977. Working out of their home, Greg and Janet made their first Deering model to have “Deering” on the headstock: an intermediate model with a steel drum. Their next model was a basic one with a lightweight rim, a precursor to the extremely popular Goodtime Banjo which they would premiere in 1996.

The business grew and in 1978 they moved to a shop in Lemon Grove and hired seven employees, using hiring practices that were not unlike those at American Dream. Deering noted that, for him, skill was less important than commitment. In 1979 Chuck Neitzel was hired away from his job as a house painter after Greg saw him in action painting his banjo teacher’s house. He’s been with them ever since. Joe Falletta was an electronics engineer. Many other long-time employees began, literally, sweeping the floors.

“It’s really surprising how much you learn about somebody when their job is to sweep the floor,” said Deering. “When you don’t have to keep pushing him, and you don’t have to keep pointing to what he didn’t do, you know you’ve got a competent individual. And that’s what we look for more than anything, people who are just competent individuals. If they really care about what they do and are conscientious, then you can train them to do anything and they’ll learn. But if they don’t care, you can’t train that into somebody.”

Those values remained as the company grew, later acquiring one of the most famed brands of banjo, the Vega Banjo Company. It was the company that built the instruments that were used in the folk boom of the 60s and which created for Pete Seeger his iconic long-neck banjo. Greg jokes that he had always wanted a Seeger long-neck banjo, though to get one he ultimately had to buy the company and build one himself.

While the American Dream Musical Instruments Company is now long gone, it’s ripples are still being felt throughout the musical instrument industry and can be seen on the headstocks of guitar shops from coast to coast: Breedlove, Taylor, Stelling, Goodall, and Deering.

These days, Deering has an impressive legacy of it’s own. John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has said, “The Deerings have a mission that I’m totally behind. They want to change the world five strings at a time, and I think they’re doing it.”

Old Man Luedecke’s “Tender is the Night”


Tender Is the Night is the fifth solo collection from Old Man (Chris) Luedecke, and it feels like some of the musical ideas he’s been working with are really beginning to gel. His writing has always been very strong, remaining true to the roots of American folk and country music, though dealing with modern themes and ideas.

Continue reading Old Man Luedecke’s “Tender is the Night”

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”


In 2000 Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott released “Real Time,” a gorgeous album of duets by two complete masters of instrumentation, arrangement, and performance. Beautiful. Then they toured it, and pretty much immediately demonstrated that there was a dimension to their playing that the recording lacked; it was a studio piece, and didn’t entirely capture the energy, spontaneity, camaraderie and humour that both O’Brien and Scott share. In a live setting, the pairing of these two performers—who can be absolutely commanding of an audience on their own—was pure unadorned fireworks.

Continue reading Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”

An interview with Darrell Scott


There are no easy labels for Darrell Scott. In his career he’s been a first-call session musician in Nashville, a songwriter, performer, collaborator and producer — and he recently toured with Robert Plant as part of his Band of Joy.

In Scott’s world, it’s not that he’s all over the map, but rather it’s just a very big map. In the end, as he discussed with me on the phone from his home in Nashville, whatever it is that he’s doing or wherever he is, it’s all music.

Glen Herbert: What’s the new project, and when is it coming out?

Darrell Scott: I’ve got a new record coming out in January called “Long Ride Home.”

How does it differ from the other things you’ve done?

This one in terms of style is very country. Still singer-songwriter oriented, I’ve written all the songs, but if someone were to hear it they’d probably know within the first 10 seconds that this is old-style country.

This is country music from my childhood basically. In my band for that [album] was a guy named Pig Robbins on piano. His first hit that he played on was 1961, George Jones, a song called “White Lightning.” And Pig has just been a central piano player for the next 30 years after that, I would say. And so when I wanted to make this record, sort of an old country sounding record, I simply hired some of the people who played on old country back when it was old country. Pig was one of those. And a guy named Lloyd Green on pedal steel. I used upright bass, which is the old sound of country music, as opposed to an electric bass.

I tend to make records that have a sonic kind of theme, for example on this one old country music would be the theme, or other records that have a subject matter of a theme, like “A Crooked Road,” a double CD that to me was based on the idea of how did I get here. So that becomes a subject, a theme that will try to hold the record together.

So that’s the musical theme on that one. On “A Crooked Road” it was looking at 30 years of relationships, just somehow taking off on this road of chasing love and marriage and romance and all this stuff. Thirty years of it and being a 50-year-old man. And that’s the other thing — I turned 50 while I made the record — and somehow that seems significant as it related to the subject, looking at this crooked road of me chasing love and relationships. So it just seemed like, OK, this is a record for me to play everything on it. Because it’s such a personal note and a personal view. I’ve always wanted to make a record where I played everything, anyway. And so I just went ahead and did that. And it seemed the appropriate record to go ahead and do that.

On the title track from your last album, “A Crooked Road,” you sing that you are a happy man, though it comes off like you are convincing yourself a bit. So I’ll ask you in the words of the song: Do you “have the makings to be a happy man”?

Absolutely! Part of it is not even what they are. It’s that you doubted that you even had the makings for, like, decades. If you didn’t think you ever could be happy, which is where I come from, the idea that you had the makings, not that you even had them. It’s so humble, it’s so beaten, and all that you can muster, of recognition of yourself, is just that you have the makings of it, not that you even have it. But I mean it that I have the makings, and that I’m even working at it. Because [happy] was never even a word that could ever describe me, say, years ago or beyond. That it could be or would be is a very, very recent piece of information.

You mentioned playing with others on the new project, though on “A Crooked Road” you played all the instruments yourself. Was that a more difficult process than working with a band in the studio?

It’s just another way to do it. I love playing with musicians. I love playing a solo show and it’s just me. I love being in the studio with great bluegrass players, and making another record that had more country in it, or more rock. I love it all. I didn’t sense anything that was difficult. It’s just another way to do it. And, I probably won’t do that again, probably because I don’t need to. Plus I love playing with other musicians. But it seemed appropriate to the personal subject matter.

In an interview you once noted that you like to bring something unique to the songwriting community. What do you bring to the songwriting community, or what do you hope to bring to it?

I’d like to think that I bring authenticity. I’d like to think that. [laughs] I hope that’s what I bring.

What is the skill of a songwriter?

Well, it’s a number of things, on some level. I don’t mean this as crassly as it will sound. It’s not just songwriters, but any artist, to be able to manipulate — and that sounds like a terrible word, but I don’t mean it as such — to manipulate emotional things, and kind of direct it somewhere. To direct emotions and focus them into a 3 to 4, or maybe 5 minute kind of thing so that there’s something revealed or expressed in that 3 to 5 minutes. And then it was worth taking the ride on if you were a listener. It’s like, “That was worth spending 5 minutes on.” You know? For now that’s what comes out answering that question [laughs]. Tomorrow it could be different.

Often when people introduce or interview you they begin with a list of all the many things you’ve done in your career as a musician, from the writing and performing to the collaborations, to the awards you’ve won. But if you were to introduce yourself, what is the thing that you are most proud of, perhaps that you would put out front? What is the aspect of your career that you are most proud of?

I think it’s the ability or the luxury to slip in and out of all sorts of different camps, from very personal singer-songwriter records to being in a band with Robert Plant, to having been in the studio world where I’ve helped to produce a Guy Clark record. Slipping in and having a song that goes number one out on the country charts — I like it all, I really do. And I really feel that I bring it all back to my own personal records, but I don’t know if anyone else would see it that way or agree.

But I like that freedom, because to me that is what creative freedom is — the ability and freedom to jump over here in this world a little bit, come back into my own records, jump over into that world, and come back to my own records. I like that, I’m proud of that. I’m kind of glad that you can’t easily nail down exactly what I do, because I could do something that, to me, doesn’t look like some crazy, giant leap or move.

It’s all music, is really what it amounts to. Whether it’s a number one country song that I’ve written, and being in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, having my own records, and playing festivals that most of the music world doesn’t even know about. I like just jumping in and out of all that stuff. To me it’s fun. And I like to be a part of something that works in all of those capacities, and that I’ve not made some musical mistake or decision. I just see it all as music.

A Fiddler’s Holiday, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band


Partnering with an orchestra seems to be the thing to do these days. Bela Fleck did it last year with his concerto, as did the Kruger Brothers, as did Ricky Skaggs with the Boston Pops a few years ago, as did Cherryholmes before they disbanded. It’s easy to wonder what the impulse is. The pessimist might say that it’s a desire for respectability or, in the case of the Jay Unger and Molly Mason Family Band, a desire to take their music into bigger markets. Continue reading A Fiddler’s Holiday, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band

Claire Lynch, “Hills of Alabam”


While “The Hills of Alabam” is a new release, the material all dates from the early 1980s or thereabouts—it’s a compilation of material from two Front Porch String Band albums (the only ones that were ever released) with the one exception being “The Day that Lester Died” which comes from Mark Newton’s album “Follow Me Back to the Fold.” Continue reading Claire Lynch, “Hills of Alabam”

Mark O’Connor and Rieko Aizawa, “American Classics”


I thinAmerican Classicsk it’s probably safe to say that this album won’t appear on many year-end best of 2012 lists this year, likely because it’s really a kind of teaching tool: a presentation of the pieces that O’Connor included in his fiddle method books. O’Connor is interested in building a sound fiddle teaching method based in the cadences and tunes of American music, and this album is ancillary to that project. And, yes, there are pieces like “Rubber Dolly Rag” that perhaps don’t bear repeated listening for those without an interest in the curriculum. Nevertheless, there are other pieces that are breathtaking, such as, believe it or not, “Old Folks at Home.” Continue reading Mark O’Connor and Rieko Aizawa, “American Classics”

Music for the fall: Art Tatum and Ben Webster


The things we desire in the fall—the movies we want to watch, the soups we want to cook, the music we want to hear—are expressions, I think, of what we want the fall to be. For me, if summer is the colouring outside the lines of the Grateful Dead—what I think of as quintessentially summer music—fall ushers in a need for the familiar, the organized and the small. Summer music is expansive; autumn music is chamber music, closed-in and close.

The album I think of first is an old one, recorded for Verve in 1956, and which has been released under a number of different titles over the intervening years. It was initially released as “The Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet” though these days is better known through a 1992 CD release, “The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 8″ or “The Album.” All present the same sessions: the great jazz pianist Art Tatum with saxophonist Ben Webster supported by Red Callender (bass) and Bill Douglas (drums). Tatum is that early god of jazz piano, and plays with the kinds of embellishments that you don’t hear a lot of these days. Webster’s saxophone is breathy, rich, and beautiful—the perfect accompaniment to Tatum.

Part of my association between the album and the autumn is because Woody Allen used it as a de facto soundtrack to his movie September. Whatever you think about Woody Allen, there’s no doubt that he’s a very keen and knowledgeable jazz consumer, and it’s not by chance that he chose this music for his film. It just really feels like fall: close, inward looking, contemplative. Like all great instrumental music, it gives us a chance to sit down and to quietly think about some of the important things in life.

Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies”


Sometimes with new albums, as is the case with David Gunning’s “No More Pennies,” it’s as much about the packaging as it is the music.

First the music: David Gunning is very much a songwriter of the Canadian Maritimes, and in this release he  revisits so many of the themes we commonly see from that part of the world. In “Living in Alberta” we hear about the displacement of the young people to travel west to look for work.  “A Game Goin’ On” is another anthem to the joys of hockey. Hard work, hard times and coal are the themes of “Coal from the Train.” Also here is homesteading (The Family Name) rootlessness (“All Along the Way” and “Too Soon to Turn Back”) the Lone Musician (“The Weight of My Guitar”). Continue reading Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies”

The fiddles of Phil Elsworthy

(Penguin Eggs)

Make even the slightest adjustment to a violin design—add a string, use a different scroll shape—and you can turn heads, which is true of the work of Phil Elsworthy, an instrument maker from Waterloo, Ontario. Extra strings, fingerboard inlay, a square scroll—in the staid world of violin design, Elsworthy’s fiddles aren’t for the faint of heart.

“Most people say ‘I haven’t seen anything like this before!’” notes Elsworthy. “And certainly they wouldn’t have. I call them Hardanger fiddles’ after the Norwegian ones, and that’s kind of where I got the idea.”

The most obvious aspect of Elsworthy’s work is the ornamentation, which on some instruments can include inlay extending the length of a fingerboard bound with maple binding. Different, yes, but he’s quick to note that it’s nevertheless a much older and perhaps more traditional idea than we might think. “Certainly if you go back to the baroque era with viols, they varied enormously, and the same was true for violins. Stradivarius made a set of instruments for the King of Spain that were elaborately inlaid.”

Continue reading The fiddles of Phil Elsworthy

Caroline Herring’s “Camilla”


I’m not certain that this is Herring’s best album to date, and then again I’m not sure that it isn’t. But what I am sure of is that it continues, beautifully, what she has been up to since her first solo release, “Twilight,” in 2001.

Herring writes, it would appear, because of a desire to say something and to engage her listener. That’s uncommon in the world of popular music, which is one of the reasons that it is has been so distinct from the other arts, such as painting, sculpture, dance, writing. Popular music for a large part of the 20th century was about commerce; “good albums” were the ones that sold. Getting signed was an end to itself — as brilliantly skewered in the Cameron Crowe movie “Almost Famous” — not the desire to say something, or affect listeners, or to turn over ideas. Continue reading Caroline Herring’s “Camilla”

Chris Smither’s “Hundred Dollar Valentine”


As I listen to this new collection, which is just as good as anything he’s done in his career if not better, I can’t help wondering why Smither isn’t better known.

In 2006 he released the glorious “Leave the Light On,” with a title track that feels like an instant classic (though, in a real head-scratcher,  Rolling Stone chose another track, “Diplomacy,” for their list of top 100 songs of the year). Smither has got star quality, magnetic presence, A-list chops, and can write songs like, well, “Leave the Light On.” Again, it’s one of those songs that simply should have a larger life than it does. Continue reading Chris Smither’s “Hundred Dollar Valentine”

Kruger Brothers’ “Best of the Kruger Brothers”

Liner notes from the Kruger Brothers’ 2012 release, Best of the Kruger Brothers

best of“ … and you know you won’t turn back, as you move along the track … ”

In the liner notes to the album Forever and a Day Uwe wrote that, “When we began our career in 1975, nothing could have prepared us for the journey that lay ahead.” As we approach the 40th anniversary of that beginning, it is difficult to comprehend the full extent of what is, by any measure, a truly remarkable journey.

Continue reading Kruger Brothers’ “Best of the Kruger Brothers”

Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re aware that Bob Dylan released a new album today, and with it the canonization continues. With the reflex of a congregant, Jody Rosen, who reviewed it for the New Yorker, calls it a collection of “beautifully written songs.” The voice is rough, he admits, but wonders “If he sauces up his vocals with a little extra wheeze and rasp—well, what do you think the Voice of Experience sounds like?” If that’s correct (caps and all) I suppose the Voice of Experience sounds like Shit. Rosen compares the sound of his voice on this album to Tom Waits, which must infuriate Waits fans. Waits is a persona, not a codger playing at the rebellion of youth; Waits conjures narratives, Dylan conjures other things, like a missed retirement opportunity. Continue reading Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

Kelly Joe Phelps “Brother Sinner and the Whale”


So much of the traditional, roots, and country songbook, is about death, family, and God, with likely an over-representation of the latter. Ralph Stanley, both with his brother Carter and later in his solo career, seems to rarely about much else, though I don’t think we’d call him a gospel artist. And while I’m not of the flock, I find so much of Stanley’s work compelling. His sense of the gospel seems to come from some other exotic, ancient place. His connection to family, too, comes with a sense of tragic depth. His songs may be about his mother but they have none of the sweetness and shine of Mother’s Day cards. Rather, they are about a desperate provision of care, love, and connectedness, set against all the odds of poverty, hard work, and discord. Each song is a point in a longer narrative. I’d say that his presentation of gospel is much the same: it’s less about the product–a communion with God–than it is the process, the rocky road that leads a person there.

For the secular listener, at least in my experience, the power of the work comes from those longer narratives. We are interested in the sins more than we are the forgiveness. It’s an important distinction, and one that is missing from the material Kelly Joe Phelps’ presents in “Brother Sinner and the Whale.”

The concepts come from the biblical book of Jonah, so says the PR for the release, but the poetry of that book is transformed, at times, into something dangerously close to bible-belt road signs. “Goodbye to Sorrow” is a two-dimensional presentation of a modern interpretation of faith, and in which Phelps sings “In the eyes of the Lord I am redeemed.” Okay. So too in “Hope in the Lord to Provide” where the narrator states “ There are days when I can’t stop singing/let’s say you and I hold hands/keep on for the promised land/ the lord to provide.” Elsewhere he asks, “Why do I choose to suffer when I can live with God?” On “The Holy Spirit Flood” he spends the breadth of the song simply proclaiming that he is a sinner and asking for forgiveness; we’re left to wonder what exactly he’s done or why he should be forgiven for it. To believers, I suppose those are rhetorical thoughts.  The rest of us just really want to know what he did. When not preaching to a choir, Phelps’ writing lacks the kind of rigor we’ve grown to expect of him.

That’s perhaps not true of all the writing here, and a standout on the other side of the ledger is the beautiful blues ballad “Sometimes a Drifter.” But even on that track, it’s hard to get beyond the album concept that Phelps has set for himself. In his review of the album, Jason Verlinde of the Fretboard Journal writes “whether or not you consider yourself religious, this gorgeous album is well worth checking out” and from a guitar/production standpoint, that’s exactly correct. Phelps’ guitar playing is a lesson unto itself, with some fantastic slide work—as on the instrumental “Spit Me Outta the Whale”—something that he is returning to from a hiatus of sorts. His brilliant collaboration with Corinne West, “Magnetic Skyline” has left a lot of listeners wanting more, though lacking the harder blues presence that Phelps’ core fan base has grown to love.

But Verlinde mentions and dismisses the gospel aspect of the album in a way that (I suspect) he may not when approaching the recordings of Ralph Stanley. And he does it, I’m speculating, because the gospel concepts, in the way they are handled, provide some very conspicuous stumbling blocks. “I’ve Been Converted” comes dangerously close, or worse, to proselytising. There Phelps sings “I know I’ve been converted, oh, do you?/ God knows I made a change/I’m not afraid to call my Jesus name/ I know I’ve been converted, oh, do you?”

So, yes, it’s worth checking out. Phelps is a compelling musician. For those who share his belief, this album is truly a gift. For the rest of us, it can leave you feeling like you entered the wrong room and wondering how long you have stay before you can leave.

Finding Appalachia

Liner essay for the Kruger Brothers’ CD release Appalachian Concerto


The Appalachian Concerto is a very different kind of recording for the Kruger Brothers, and is without any true precedents within their catalogue to date. Still, if there are any real surprises in this work, perhaps the greatest is how entirely natural and obvious it was to pair the Kruger Brothers with a string quartet. The Kruger Brothers’ sound, after all, is principally an ensemble sound, with each of the players refining and contributing to a singular presentation. In that sense, it’s as far from a traditional bluegrass arrangement—with instruments alternating between accompaniment and soloing—as you can get. Likewise, a classical string quartet, with its close harmonies, counterpoint, and the lack of a true “soloist” in a jazz or bluegrass sense, is an accurate analogue for the kind of ensemble playing that Jens, Joel, and Uwe have been doing for years. On hearing the concerto, we’re less apt to wonder why they would choose to pair with a chamber orchestra than we are to wonder why they haven’t done it sooner. Continue reading Finding Appalachia

Steve Spurgin’s “Folk Remedies”


You never know, but Steve Spurgin’s Folk Remedies might be the best album of 2012. 

We could probably argue at length, if we wanted to, about what makes good music good. Despite the fact that we all have different tastes, different opinions, we feel in our bones that we can recognise good music when we hear it.

Continue reading Steve Spurgin’s “Folk Remedies”

Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio “Across the Imaginary Divide”


Bela Fleck is great. Now if only he could swing.

Across the Imaginary Divide“Across the Imaginary Divide” is another foray for Bela Fleck into jazz, coupling with a pianist much as he has done with Chick Corea in their live shows and on their CD “The Enchantment” (2007). The trio is filled out by Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums.

Fleck is—and this of course needs not be said, but here I go saying it again—a musician of the first order. He has brought new audiences to the banjo, or at least that’s how the story goes, but his music since the release of the “The Bluegrass Sessions” in 1999 has really been less about the banjo and simply more about music. He’s ventured into classical music, jazz, old time, traditional Chinese music (with Abigail Washburn), African rhythms, all while keeping college audiences happy with the work he does with the Flecktones.  The fact that it is “banjo” is superfluous; rather, it is just music, masterfully conceived and performed.

Continue reading Bela Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio “Across the Imaginary Divide”

Mike Comptons’ “Rotten Taters”


“Rotten Taters” is, unbelievably, the first solo release from a mandolinist that, despite playing Carnegie Hall and the White House, simply should be more widely known than he is.

Mike Compton - Rotten TatersThere are lots of reasons for making albums, and Mike Compton’s Rotten Taters is one that was made for the best reason of all: because some people wanted to hear it. Fans in Australia pooled the funds and got Compton into a studio to do what precisely what he does best: play the mandolin.

If we’re being entirely honest, Compton can seem like a bit of an anomaly these days, especially with all the attention that Chris Thile is bringing to the mandolin. Thile is an innovator, an experimenter, looking for new territory to conquer, and that is something audiences seem to prise not only of mandolin players, of course, but musicians generally. Continue reading Mike Comptons’ “Rotten Taters”

Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein’s “Home from the Mills”


If you’re looking for a hidden gem, “Home from the Mills”–by bluegrass veterans Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein–is it. artists, while lesser known, have been in the A-league of bluegrass music for decades, playing in bands with lots of names you know well: Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, JD Crowe, Mike Auldridge, the Country Gentlemen. They have been with Emmylou Harris on her recent tours, and much of the material on this disc comes from the work they were presenting there. But I only say all of that in order to say this: these are players that have been at the top of their game for literally decades. As a result, this collection has a relaxed confidence that is so gorgeous, so real, and so rare. Continue reading Jimmy Gaudreau and Moondi Klein’s “Home from the Mills”

Punch Brothers’ “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

Reviewed for KDHX Radio, St. Louis

“Who’s Feeling Young Now?” will prove to be one of the most respected, lauded, challenging and influential works of the year. But that doesn’t mean you’ll like it.


This is a band that I admire immensely, and there is no doubt that their talent is simply staggering. As one reviewer noted, their work is “inexplicable,” and he meant that as a compliment: It’s not bluegrass, though the members here come, in a way, from that world. It’s not stringband music, though the strings are there and they refer to themselves as a band.

What they do is so remarkably different from the surrounding landscape that approaching their work might be similar to seeing cubism for the first time. You’re left wondering: Is it good? Do I like it? Of course what the Punch Brothers have that the first cubists didn’t is that, no matter what you think of what they’re doing, their authority as artists is simply impossible to overlook. They really are that good. Continue reading Punch Brothers’ “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

Noam Pikelny’s “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail”

For KDHX Radio, St. Louis

In “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail,” his latest solo release, Noam Pikelny has created a moving, playful collection that features so much top-flight playing it can make your head spin.

Pikelny’s main gig these days is as banjo player for the Punch Brothers, a band that he co-founded with Chris Thile. It’s a group known for pushing against, whenever not wholly ignoring, the traditions of bluegrass, a musical style from which the group takes its instrumentation. To say that they do it well is an understatement. Since they formed they’ve been at the epicentre of progressive acoustic music, skilfully charting new territory in an old musical world.

Continue reading Noam Pikelny’s “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail”

Top Discs of 2011

For KDHX Radio, St. Louis

Music isn’t a sport though the idea of a top 10 list can make it seem competitive. It isn’t like that, of course, but there are some recordings that are, well, better than others.

The Wailin’ Jennys, “Bright Morning Stars”
Good lord I love this recording, I could go on and on. Varied, beautiful, and pristine.

Sarah Jaroz, “Follow Me Down”
Oh man, this is a great one too. Jaroz’s cover of Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” has haunted me, but in a good way. Everything else here is equally brilliant.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves,  “Sleep With One Eye Open”
Weird, perhaps, as is the love they profess to the Louvin Brothers. Still, this album is even better than we thought it would be, had we had a chance to think about it.

Sierra Hull, “Daybreak”
This is just a beautiful album with impeccable presentation. The material is a bit heavy on young love, but, she’s young, so she’s entitled, and the sterling musicianship makes up for it.

Gillian Welch, “The Harrow and the Harvest”
Another gorgeous, long awaited album from a truly inspired and inspiring writer and performer.

Caroline Herring, “The Little House Songs”
This is the first album from Herring intended for a child audience, though it’s also a great collection of new work from one of my favourite writers and performers. The CD retells the story of the house in the children’s book The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. It’s what any great kids album should be—a collection that both kids and adults enjoy listening to.

Blue Highway, “Sounds of Home”
This band is always  so solid and tasteful, and their writing just takes me away. Nothing too thick or heavy, just great song writing presented by a set of stellar musicians.

The Kruger Brothers, “Appalachian Concerto”
If banjo is America’s only indigenous instrument, at least in popular music, then this long overdue: the banjo in classical setting, telling the story of a part of the world where banjo music comes from. But, even if we place all of that aside, this concerto still stands on its own.

Noam Pikelny, “Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail”
This a seminal work from a fantastic musician with, it turns out, lots of high flying friends. Challenging, listenable, funny—all of that and more on a superbly produced album from the banjo player from the Punch Brothers.

The Laws, “Try Love”
This album doesn’t make the same kind of splash that some of the others on this list do, but it’s a disc that stayed in the CD player in the car for quite a long time this year.

Top 10 Banjo moments of 2011

Derided in countless jokes, often by the very people that play it, the banjo just might be poised to show us why it really is the greatest instrument ever. Or, at the very least, to make a good case as to why it isn’t the worst.

  1. Jens Kruger releases the “Appalachian Concerto,” an homage to the banjo and its place in the history of Appalachia. And it’s a concerto. With, like, strings and everything.
  2. Noam Pikelny releases “Bluegrass Diva” a video that is not only funny, but includes some of the most notable players of the instrument ever, including Bela and Earl. And, for once, it’s the singing that makes the piece funny, not the presence of a banjo.
  3. Bela Fleck premieres his “Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra.” Hmm, that makes two banjo concertos this year …
  4. Steve Martin releases a banjo album with a title intended to poke a bit of fun at birdwatchers. (How’s that for the pot calling the kettle black?)The strength of “Rare Bird Alert” helps make Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers the IBMA performers of the year.
  5. Eight year old Jimmy Mizzone records a version of “Flint Hill Special” with his two brothers in his bedroom that, when posted to youtube garners, like, a gazillion hits.
  6. Steve Martin awards his second Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass to Sammy Shelor on Letterman. It’s $50,000 of his own money, simply because he thinks banjo is a great instrument and deserves a better rap.
  7.  “Give Me the Banjo” airs in primetime nationally on PBS. It’s a slick documentary about why banjo matters. Haven’t seen anything like that for the guitar, have you? Only saying.
  8. Kermit goes back to the big screen, plays the banjo, and nets millions on the first weekend of release.
  9. With the release of “Follow Me Down”  Sarah Jarosz demonstrated once again that “banjo prodigy” isn’t a contradiction in terms. (The New York Times called her that in their coverage of the Grammies this year.)
  10. Thanks to Abigail Washburn’s “City of Refuge,” released this year, NPRs Bob Boylen fell in love with a banjo album and admits it on air.

Sarah Jarosz’s “Follow Me Down”

If Sarah Jarosz is unfamiliar to you, the support she has on her second album, released just shy of her 20th birthday, will ring lots of bells: Bela Fleck, Edgar Myers, Dan Tyminski, Shawn Colvin, Darrell Scott, Mark Shatz, Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, and the list of guest artists just keeps going. By any measure, she’s gathered an all-star line up and then some and in so doing she has placed herself in a league of heavy hitters. Given her playing, writing and interpretive skills, that’s exactly where she deserves to be. This a young musician who seems to know who she is and where she wants to go, and who has the level of musicianship that she needs to get there.

There are only two covers on the latest album, Follow Me Down, but both are prime examples of what Jarosz is up to, which is to bring something new to something old. On her beautiful take of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” she arguably creates the song entirely. By presenting it in such a different way—gently, lyrically—she separates the sentiment of the piece from the peronsa of Dylan himself. There’s a lot of brilliance there, and Jarosz lets us see it. On “The Tourist”—a Radiohead song and the other cover on the release—she matches the drive, confidence, and musicianship of Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, who are featured on the track

Of course, all of that is really saying something. In the world of acoustic music, the Punch Brothers are the crest of a wave of young musicians who, with spectacular chops and equal confidence, are putting the grit and energy back into acoustic and bluegrass-based music. These are young people—Chris Thile and Michael Daves, Crooked Still, Darrell Scott, Abigail Washburn, the sadly disbanded Cadillac Sky—who not only are willing to update the tradition but are able to do it with astonishing credibility, bringing in pop elements, new instrumentation, and references from urban culture.

So too does Sarah Jarosz. Her music is challenging, layered, complex, and beautiful, and based in a broad, rich swath of American music. In Jarosz’s world the Louvin Brothers and Bill Monroe sit comfortably next to Radiohead and Tom Waits. It’s a world where old-time songs, as in the case on the haunting “Annabelle Lee,” can have a drum kit; one where she can play clawhamer banjo one moment, and a masterful mandolin duet with Mike Marshall the next.

Her writing is fresh and bold, and sparkles most when delivered in the first person as on songs like “Run Away” and “Here Nor There” (a track which, incidentally, pairs her vocal wonderfully with that of another brilliant singer and songwriter, Darrell Scott).  It’s a testament to her writing that it’s hard to tell the new from the old, the originals from the covers.

In the end Jarosz reminds us that, in many ways, youth, energy, and experimentation is perhaps the only truly abiding hallmark of American music. Bill Monroe didn’t sit back and play the music from the past, rather he took those traditions and made something new. And that’s exactly what Sarah Jarosz is doing, too. It’s safe to say that, if her name is unfamiliar now, it certainly won’t be for long.

Si Kahn then, Si Kahn now

Published in Penguin Eggs, Autumn, 2010.

Si Kahn first learned of the power of song—perhaps like so many in the 60s—from his work in activism. In his recent book Creative Community Organizing: A guide for rabble rousers, activists, and quiet lovers of justice, he writes about his experience as a skinny, dewy kid from the north on the front lines of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. “At the beginning I was totally naive,” he says. “I went south to the southern civil rights movement because all the cool people were going south.” There was a lot to impress a person in those days looking for cool stuff, but what impressed Kahn most was the power of song to affect change.

“Singing together can help people prepare to act and take risks … It can change our hearts, and reinforce our willingness to act in the face of fear and danger.” He writes that many of the songs associated with the movement “reached us in a deep, personal way, even though they are in a sense a language we do not completely understand, a language that can only be translated by the heart.”

“The great political songs connect us across time. Who can stand swaying in a circle with arms linked, singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and not be taken back to the Movement and to the South, whether they were there in person or in spirit, whether they were even yet born?”

When he took up the guitar he sought to use song in the same way: to resolve people to action, to connect them, to reinforce a willingness to face their fears, and to touch them. And in the 40-plus years since then, he hasn’t done half bad. He’s pressed 16 albums and has written songs that would be recorded by artists ranging from Eddi Reader and Thomas Dolby to Hazel Dickens. (“Aragon Mill” is perhaps the most covered, and is available on iTunes in nearly 30 different versions.) He’s shared stages and CDs with Pete Seeger, he’s lectured on the politics of country music, taught organizing, and songwriting. He’s also now completing a musical that will premier in Boston next May.

It’s not bad for a career in music that he calls “hobby that got out of hand.” Throughout he continues to think of his music as a sideline to this true work, that of community organizing. After those early years cutting his teeth during the Civil Rights years he went on to found Grassroots Leadership in 1980 with the goal then to work to end social and economic oppression and to achieve justice and equality. Among other things, the organization was instrumental in bringing and end to immigrant family detention in the US, most notably the T. Don Hutto detention centre in Taylor, Texas. And when Kahn announced this year that he was retiring, it was his role at the helm of Grassroots Leadership that he was thinking of.

“Somebody once said to me, you know, if you had just been a musician, just been a songwriter, think of how many more songs you would have had time to write. And I say, yeah, but what would they have been about? In my songwriting, I’ve been documenting what these people were like, what their work was like, what their communities were like, what their lives were like. So, sure, if I hadn’t been an organizer I wouldn’t have had those stories. And probably if I hadn’t been a musician I wouldn’t have been as effective as an organizer.”

Arguably, some of his best songs are those that were initially written to document a person or an event, but also touched on more universal concepts and ideas. “Aragon Mill” is popular because of its sentiment, not for the light it sheds on a specific town at a specific time. The same is true of Kahn’s “What you do with what you’ve got”–it was written when an editor of Sing Out! couldn’t find enough good songs about disability to mark the International Year of Disabled Persons and. Kahn wrote one. In other’s hands, perhaps most notably those of Dick Gaughan’s, it becomes an indictment of us all, and given a setting that seems a world away from literal physical impairment.

Nevertheless, he says that “I’m fully aware that, if I’m remembered for anything, it may be for writing Rubber Blubber Whale.” Were it true (it won’t be) he says he wouldn’t mind. “As organizers we have to be entertainers,” he says. “I don’t want people to endure the struggle for injustice, I want them to enjoy it. I want music to lift people up. I want it to make them feel better,” even when faced with topics and issues that are at times impossibly bleak.

His new collection of songs released this summer, Courage, comes from the same place, and is the latest chapter in a project that spans his career as an organizer. The CD is a collection of songs about people, many of whom he knows through his community work. “It’s really a thank you to everyone from whom I learned who courage means.” In the book he writes about his grandfather, his father, community leaders, and people who have endured so much, yet have remained so hopeful. It’s perhaps a more produced offering than most of his others, and the songs benefit from a lush setting and instrumentation provided by banjo whiz Jens Kruger.

“There is a reason I start [the CD] with a song about a Labrador retriever who thinks he can fly,” he says. “Because one of the ways we can live this life richly is by attempting the impossible.” Given the richness of his life, of the risks he’s taken, that is truly something he knows something about. It’s probably safe to say that, retirement or no, we haven’t heard the last of Si Kahn yet.