Archive for My New Favorite Band category
Old Crow Medicine Show, everyone's favorite old-timey roots music band, are back with a brand-new album, Carry Me Back, and it's been getting some wonderful press (You can check out our review of the albumhere on KEXP's Blog)! But they've also added a new member, and though he doesn't appear on the new album, we're incredibly excited to see what he brings to the band. Chance McCoy is one of the brightest lights in old-time music, a renowned fiddler and singer whose debut album made him a well known name in insider old-time circles. He grew up in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, though he was born in Washington DC, and connected with the music after playing in garage and punk bands in the region. Following his solo debut album, he joined the band Old Sledge and cut two incendiary albums of straight-up old-time music before the group disbanded. Just a few months ago, he was snapped up to join Old Crow Medicine Show, playing guitar and fiddle and singing with the band. Old Crow seem stoked to have him, as Critter Fuqua told us: "Chance McCoy, besides being a dude with a great name, is one of the most tasteful and accomplished multi-instrumentalists and singers I have had the honor to play with. He's a natural fit for Old Crow in talent and in spirit, a true brother in arms."
Hearth Music Interview with Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show
Are you staying in Nashville right now?
Chance McCoy: Yeah. I’m renting a house here and living with another band mate, Critter [Fuqua]. We’re sharing a house together and I’m gonna move down here full time at the end of the summer and rent my own house.
I see. What’s it like living with Critter?
CM: It’s great. It’s been wonderful living with Critter. He’s really funny and easy to get along with and he grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, so we have a similar background too, which is nice.
It’s just an arrangement until you get your own place?
CM: Yeah, I’m gonna try to get my own place here in the end of the summer. But Critter just moved back from Texas, so we both needed a place, so we found a place so we could have something for the summer cuz rehearsals started a couple of weeks ago, so we both moved down here about the middle of May.
So, Critter is actually coming back to the band, right? He had taken a break from the band?
CM: Yeah. He had taken a break from the band. He had been out of the band for 4 years.
What brought him back?
CM: What brought him back? Well, I think it was a timing thing. He was down there in Texas and he’s an alcoholic, so he had gone into treatment and rehab and had to get clean. He’s been clean and sober for a couple of years now, been down in Texas, and then Old Crow was on hiatus for a while, and then Ketch and Critter got back in touch with each other. They started to do some of that Ketch and Critter stuff together, and got the idea of doing the “Old Crow” thing together again and Critter was really, really into doing it. He just wanted to move back and he was in school down in Texas and he was getting an English degree. He was having an okay time in school but I think he really just realized that he really loved being a musician, and really loved being a songwriter, and now he’s clean and sober, there’s a lot to do here in Nashville. He just wanted to come back and be in the band, be here in Nashville doing his thing.
So, what’s the feeling in the band right now when you guys are getting together to rehearse? Is it a good feeling or is there still tension? How’s it going?
CM: There’s no tension at all. It’s awesome; everybody’s having a great time. So that’s a good feeling. We’re just all having a really good time, playing music together. There’s no tension at all, it’s really enjoyable, really fun. I think that’s good. I think they’d been under some tension for a while. It’s a good place to be in right now.
Chance McCoy: Gospel Plow
Well, tell me about joining Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s really exciting. How did that come about for you?
CM: That came out of nowhere. It was totally out of nowhere. I was just getting home from work one day; I was living in Floyd. I was getting home from a really long day and I came home and I checked my email on my phone right before I went to bed and there was an email from Ketch that said, “Hey, this is Ketch from Old Crow Medicine Show and we’re looking for a new member of our band and we’re really interested in you and we want you to come and audition for our band. So, get back to me and let me know what you think.” I took his phone number and called him up the next day and talked to him and he seemed like a really nice guy and he said that they wanted to get Old Crow back together and on the road again. They had a new record coming out and they wanted somebody to join the band as a singer and guitar player and banjo and fiddle too. They were looking for somebody who was steeped in old time music and they found me through Augusta Heritage Center because Ketch and Critter both went to Augusta when they were teenagers. They remembered from their experience there that there were a lot of really great old time musicians who teach there. When they were thinking about people to ask to audition for their band, they went to the Augusta web site and saw who was teaching this year and I was on the roster and then, they started asking around and they heard really good things about me. So they just decided to call me but it was completely out of the blue. I had never even met those guys before.
That’s crazy. You were pretty excited?
CM: Yeah, definitely. It was cool! I came down to Nashville; we set up an audition, and they gave me some pieces to audition with and I learned those pieces... There was 5 other people who auditioned for the part and we had a great time. It was like the audition turned into way more than an audition. We just ended up hanging out all day and playing a bunch of music. We did some recording together. I just felt really good, right off the bat. Then, they called me a couple of days later and said, “We want to give you a job.” That was exciting for sure.
You gotta tell me about this audition. Did it take place in a theater, like you were on stage and they were on chairs?
CM: Yeah, it was a lot more organic than that. They have a studio in Hendersonville, which is their studio. They said, “Come on down to Hendersonville and come down to our studio and audition. We’ll audition and we’ll record some of it, so we can listen back to it.” So I went down there and I rolled up to the studio in a non-descript brick building in the suburbs of Hendersonville. Their manager, Norm, was waiting for me outside and he introduced himself and he said, “Come on inside. The boys are just warming up now.” I could hear, inside the studio, it’s like rock music, it was like garage rock, like electric guitar and drums coming from inside the studio. I thought, “Oh, maybe there’s a session going on right now.” and I opened the door and Ketch had his electric guitar. He was whaling on it with his foot up on the amplifier and Critter was over in the corner beating the drums and they were just going at it, garage rock style, when I came in. There was a really funny scene but I have played garage rock and stuff like that too. It was, “Oh, cool, these guys rock out too.” It was a good feeling and then, we talked for a little while and then we just went upstairs basically and jammed like you would in an old time jam. We sat down, pulled out fiddle, guitar, banjo. Morgan was there with his bass and we just played some tunes. They were like, “Don’t worry about your audition pieces right now, let’s just sit down and play some music.” That’s what we did and then, we ran through some of the audition pieces and it was great! We passed the instruments around too, so I played some guitar and they had me play some fiddle and they had me play some banjo. We jammed for an hour or two, just hanging out jamming, and then we went and got some lunch and we came back, and then we got around mics and we recorded some of the audition pieces. It was fun. It wasn’t nerve wracking at all. It wasn’t high tension and it wasn’t like some auditions when you’re in bands this big, can be pretty business-like. This wasn’t like that at all. And then, after the audition was over, they were just like, “Hey, you want to hang out and help us record some stuff?” I was like, “Sure!” So we just ended hanging out the whole day.
Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance McCoy (playing guitar next to the bass)
Sounds like the perfect audition. Have Old Crow Medicine Show been influential to you as an Old Time artist?
CM: They haven’t, because I didn’t listen to their music. I, of course, heard some of their songs and they were everywhere. I saw them playing at festivals and I appreciated what they did, but they weren’t influential to me as an old time artist because I was staying away from modern bands. Even the Old Crows, though obviously very traditional and very rooted in old time music; they’re still a contemporary band and all the stuff that I was listening to and being inspired by was old 78s and field recordings. So I wasn’t really that influenced by them, but it’s kind of funny, because, even though I wasn’t influenced by them, we have such a similar take on old time music. But the way I got into old time music, it was something that was really social, and it was something that young people did and it was very energized and very much dance music. I started playing old time music with this band called The Speakeasy Boys, which was a rag-tag bunch of kids that just graduated college that ran their own speakeasy in this college town, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It was just basically a booze fest, selling beer out of a cooler and playing string band music. This band became really popular and we would pack our speakeasy and there would be 100 – 200 college kids there. They were dancing. It was very wild and energetic and then, when I got more into the old time scene, I was disappointed how tame it was in a way, where people just sat down in chairs and it just seemed very stuffy sometimes. When I wanted to do old time music, like perform it, I wanted to stand up and jump around stage and not be inhibited in performing it. I ran into some confrontations with that, where people thought that that was inappropriate, to be playing old time music and to be energizing it and making it a performance. So, it was nice to meet Old Crow and play with them because they totally got the performance aspect of it. For some kinds of old time music, going back to the tradition of minstrelsy, I think the show part of it is a big part of it. I think sometimes people miss that and they think old time music should be some kind of pure Appalachian traditional art form that is not performed. But I think, even if you look historically at it, there’s precedence for that. So, it was cool to meet those guys and play with them. They have the same attitude about performing.
Yeah. The people who recorded old time music in the 20s and 30s, a lot of those guys were hard-core performers, who came out of medicine shows.
CM: Yeah, exactly. That’s what great about Old Crow, it’s “Old Crow Medicine Show”. Right off the bat, they’re already saying, “Hey, this is a show.”
Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance Mccoy
Right, right. So you got in trouble, you said, when you were playing Old Time? Tell me about that.
CM: Well, yeah. I think you know. Some people just want to be stuffy and some kind of re-enactment of some forgotten style of music, and everything’s got to be by the book and played exactly like it is on old recordings. I was always really young and energetic and the music was my own. I learned it from other people and learned it from old recordings but I played it the way that I play it. Sometimes I want to get into it and have fun and yell a little bit and fuck stuff up. [laughing] So that offends people.
Did you get in trouble in West Virginia or playing outside of West Virginia?
CM: I think outside of West Virginia. The people in West Virginia are completely different about it. There’s not as many strict boundaries. Occasionally, somebody would get upset in West Virginia because I played something too fast or something wasn’t what they considered right. Most of the people in West Virginia, for them it’s just music. They don’t even have boundaries between Bluegrass and Old Time; that doesn’t even exist really. When I first got together with the Speakeasy Boys, they didn’t even know what old time music was, even though that’s what they were playing. They just thought it was bluegrass, they didn’t know really much about it. They just played the old songs. They had a washtub bass and a claw hammer banjo player but they considered themselves a bluegrass band just cuz they’d never really heard of old time music yet, even though that’s what they were playing. That’s funny.
Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance McCoy on banjo
It must have pissed you off to be lectured about your own music by people who were outside of the tradition, who weren’t from your area.
CM: Yeah. It is kind of annoying but I don’t feel like I have any special claim to the music anymore than anyone else does, just cuz I’m from West Virginia. I just feel grateful that I was included in the scene there, was able to be part of the scene, because that’s such a special thing but I never really got up on a high horse and felt that I had any... That’s exactly the thing that I’ve been fighting against, is people thinking that they have some kind of claim or say against something, because I could do the same thing. I could get up on my pedestal and try to be all-righteous because I’m from West Virginia and be like, “Well, this is how it’s supposed to go.” But, whoever’s playing the music, they’re the one’s have to decide what they’re going to do with it. I feel like nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to do with their music even if it is a traditional music form. I just always thought the only thing that was really important about the old time music scene is that you learned it from other people that were in the scene. So there was always that connection, a healing connection.
You learned from your peers, you learned from people of your generation. Did you ever go back and try and hunt down older players or were you content to learn from your friends?
CM: I was influenced half and half. I definitely learned from older players. I hung out and played with some of the old-timers, like the real old-timers, like Lester McCumbers from West Virginia. A lot of them were passing away about the time that I was getting into the music. Some people felt a real need to go and visit people like Clyde Davenport and Lester McCumbers and go to their houses and hang out with them but I always felt kind of awkward doing that. I wasn’t friends with them really, so it just seemed kind of weird to be going over to their houses but they were around. A lot of the people that I learned from, the older folks, were my parent’s generation... A lot of those people in West Virginia; they weren’t old-old-timers. They weren’t 80 years old but they were in their 50s and 60s and those are the guys that I was really influenced by, but I was also influenced by my own peers a lot too. So, it was sort of a mix. But I didn’t have to go out for anybody too much. I just went to the festivals and everybody was there.
So, do you think that the torch has been passed from the baby boomer, folk-revival generation to the new generation of players, or did the new generation just take over and do it their own way?
CM: I think that there is definitely a torch passing going on. I think, overall, the older generation, our parent’s generation, has been really supportive, and they set the groundwork for us to come in. If they hadn’t been supporting festivals like Clifftop and camps like Augusta, we wouldn’t have had anything to go to or to get into. I know for people like me a huge part of being inspired by the music is to go to these festivals and just see all this great music being played... Just starting out, you can’t even play worth a shit and then you go see a hot jammer of the older generation playing and they're just tearing it up and that’s really inspiring. Without that, I don’t really think there would be a revival... It doesn’t seem to be that much tension between the generations. I think there’s always a little bit of tension between generations but I think, overall, there’s a real kinship there and real support and I think that the young generation has been enabled by the older one to come into the whole thing.
Chance McCoy: Yew Piney Mountain
Well said, well said. Your work has been described as having a punk attitude. What does that mean to you? Have you played actual punk music or do you more have an affinity for DIY punk culture?
CM: No. I definitely have played punk music. When I was growing up in West Virginia, when I was a teenager, I hadn’t heard old time music yet. I hadn’t even really heard bluegrass music yet, and I got hit by the Seattle sound, the grunge sound and then classic rock, so I learned how to play all that music first. And then, I think, just being Generation X, just having an independent attitude and having this underdog attitude, has carried over into my old time music too. So, I think that that’s been a big influence on me, just having that as a musical background and just an attitude. I think my generation just didn’t really give a shit about what was going on in the world, where people were at, and nobody wanted to join modern society. None of our friends wanted to be part of the system, we all wanted to rebel and do our own thing. I think we did in our own way; we eventually got pulled into this hole and now we’re trying to reclaim it with our own voice and our own music. That’s part of what I brought to old time music, is trying to reclaim it as my own music. I am still very much a part of something bigger but not feeling like I have to conform. That’s the non-conformance type of attitude, I think, that comes from punk music. I’m not gonna play it like somebody else. I’m not gonna listen, I’m not necessarily gonna take it if someone comes up and tells me it should be played a certain way, I’m more likely to just say, “Fuck you!” [laughing] And I think that comes with that attitude. To me, it’s not disrespectful, I still have very much respect for where the music’s coming from, I haven’t disrespected that, I just tried to take it as an independent thing and reclaim it. What’s going on here, and I’m sure that it’s the same on the West coast as it is on the East coast is, a lot of these kids are very counter-culture here, as far as the music. The music is very social; it’s not commercial, it’s not commercialized. Some aspects of it are, but for most people, old time music is a completely non-commercial art form, which is great. I think that’s a big part of what punk was, was having a non-commercial style of music.
Right, right. Does it seem a little ironic to you that, in trying to move away from mainstream society that you have adapted something that’s traditionally, a pretty conservative tradition? I mean, this is conservative, Southern culture, so they think.
CM: Well, what I’ve learned a lot about the music is that old time music was sort of the “bad boy” music though too. The moonshine, the drinking, the fights, and everybody knows what happens when you stay up all night playing music and drinking alcohol. It’s a good combination for non-Christian things to happen. [laughing] I think that’s a big part of it. This music is very rough and ready and to me, it doesn’t seem super-conservative as a music form.
Okay. I see. And now, you’re thinking about sticking around Nashville for a while, right? How do you like Nashville?
CM: Nashville’s great! I really like Nashville. I’ve come here and visited a couple of times and sort of have been interested in moving here several times but I didn’t want to try to come here and try to make it, quote, end quote. Now I have an opportunity to come play with this band, it was so easy just to come and do and I feel like, being here in Nashville, even the commercial country music industry’s here. There’s also a lot of other great music going on in Nashville and it’s starting to open up a lot, I think.
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08/09/2012 | comments (0)
Nashville, Tennessee songwriter Arthur Alligood has been on my radar for a while now, and I feel bad this is the first chance I've had to write about his music. I've got his earlier album, I Have Not Seen the Wind, and it's a great slice of dark Americana and a vehicle for Alligood's excellent songwriting chops. I'm not the only who thinks he's a precociously talented songwriter either: in 2011 he won the Mountain Stage New Song contest. No small feat that, and he got a recording contract as well out of the win! His new full-length album, One Silver Needle, comes out of that contract and it's more proof positive as to his rock-solid songwriting chops. Each song on the album is carefully constructed, in fact I'm starting to think of Alligood as a master craftsman of American songwriting. Arthur's also been moving into the producer's chair more, first with the excellent album from Alabama indie roots band Fire Mountain. I figured it was high time we got to new Arthur a little better, so I sent him along some questions to find out more.
Hearth Music Interview with Arthur Alligood
What's Nashville like? Do you find it hopelessly mired in old-school mainstream country, or is there a great creative community for you to work with? Where are you from originally?
Arthur Alligood: I've lived in middle TN most of my life…mostly in suburban towns just around Nashville. Nashville is a great city with lots of history. As far as the music scene goes, a lot is going on besides modern country music. You have everything here from gospel to hard rock. I think more and more outsiders are taking notice of the diversity of our music scene.
What were your earliest musical inspirations?
AA: Good question. Didn't listen to much music until late high school. I remember having an oldies tape that had songs like "Yakety Yak" and "La Bamba" on it. Not sure if I was really inspired though. I think the band that made me want to play guitar was Jars of Clay.
Where do you write most of your songs? Is there a place you go to for inspiration, or isolation?
AA: I write 99% of my songs in my house either at the kitchen table or in the bathroom. Sometimes I record melody ideas on my phone when I'm driving and then work on them more when I get home.
Tell me about the new album and the Mountain Song contest. How did that come about? What song/songs helped you win the contest? Is the album, One Silver Needle, a direct result of that?
Well, I entered three songs in the contest this past year. I was fortunate to be chosen (based on those songs) as one of 12 finalists. So, I flew to New York for the competition and long story short, I ended up winning the whole shebang. The grand prize was an opportunity to record with producer Mikal Blue out in L.A. One Silver Needle is the record we made. I'm pretty proud of it. The songs I entered in the contest were the same songs I played during the live competition. They were: Gavel, Keep Your Head Up, and Turn It Over. [note: Songs from his 2011 album, I Have Not Seen the Wind]
You seem to move effortlessly between beautiful acoustic folk songs with carefully crafted, subtle lyrics, to more pop-oriented songwriting (great hooks and choruses, lyrics less about telling a story, more about conveying emotion). That's not a dig at all, that's a compliment. Do you see this in your own songwriting, or do you see less of a dichotomy between singer-songwriter lyricism and pop songcraft?
I've learned over the years to just run with what's working. I'll go through seasons where all I can write are ballads. Then I get bored I think and start experimenting with melody and guitar hooks. This fog eventually lifts and I find myself writing an old country song. I seem to jump from one rock to the next. It all feels good to me. I think my albums for the most part reflect this method. In my mind, there is no division between any of it. I am really aware though that it's easy sometimes to write the same type of song over and over. I don't want my records to come off this way. The trick is to write songs that can stand up all on their own and also fit together to make a greater work i.e. the album. People say the album is dead, but I still believe in its power. When you can take a group of "singles" and make a great record you have done something.
How is the new album, One Silver Needle, different from your past album, I Have Not Seen the Wind?
There is lots more storytelling on One Silver Needle. I think this is the major difference. I Have Not Seen the Wind in my estimation was more of a "relational" record. There were some narrative songs there, but for the most part the album felt more like a conversation. One Silver Needle feels more like a group of short stories.
Your new album seems more produced (bigger band, more arrangements, fewer acoustic numbers) than the last album. Did you have more time in the studio, or a different vision for the music?
I had way more resources at my disposal this time around. Mikal brought in players that he thought would suit my style well. Legends like Jim Keltner and Leland Sklar played on several songs, which was an honor. I was out recording in L.A. for nearly two weeks. We were really only supposed to do an EP, but we decided early on we were going to press hard for a full-length album. Beyond writing the songs I didn't really have a vision in terms of production. It was fun to see how Mikal shaped the songs.
Tell me about your work as a producer. I recall you produced the Fire Mountain EP, which was excellent. How did that go and was it a challenge for you to move outside your own perspective as solo artist to produce the work of a full band that you're not actively a part of?
I met Perry from Fire Mountain a while back and fell in love with his voice and songwriting. We did some pre-production via Skype and then they came into town and we tracked the whole EP in one weekend. I'm not really a producer, but I do enjoy the process and seeing the end result. Working on songs that aren't mine makes me a better songwriter. It gives me a different perspective and helps me to see my own songs more clearly.
I can't find a bio of you anywhere on the web. Why is that? Do you not like writing about your music? As a challenge, I'd love to hear how you'd describe your music in a sentence or two! :)
Bios are way harder to write than songs. I've written them over the years and have never really been happy with how they've come off. I make the music and am up for talking about it, but I just don't like having that conversation with myself, which is what a bio seems to be to me. Describe my music? Why don't I describe the music I like and hope I make. It has to have a certain ache. It doesn't take long to listen to feel it and hear it. It's the ache of the broken and lost. It's that desperate ache to see things made right as they should be. I guess you could say I make modern roots music with subtle, poetic lyrics. Hopefully, it has the ache too.
Who are some other songwriters who've really inspired you? What about writers, like authors? Do you read much for inspiration?
My songwriter list continues to grow, but here are a few of my favorites: Paul Simon, Townes Van Zandt, Washington Phillips, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty. I used to read a ton, but my reading has died down due to having kids and what not. Some of my favorite writers are Flannery O'Connor, Wendell Berry, Ernest Gaines, William Gay. I love me some Southern literature.
Arthur Alligood: Darkness to Light
Arthur Alligood: We Had A Mind To Run
07/28/2012 | comments (0)
We've been waiting to post this review for a while, but with rain pouring down on our roof in Seattle and a roaring fire in the hearth, there's no better time for some deep, dark British folk music.
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker. The Seas are Dead.
It's no secret that British folk traditions laid the groundwork for all the Southern music we've come to love. The old songs that the Appalachian settlers brought with them would form the basis for folk revival after folk revival up to the present day. So there's something deeply inspiring about listening to the music back at its source. Young British folk singer Josienne Clarke has a wonderfully thick British accent, the kind you actually notice while she's singing. Which is funny, because British music is so engrained on our American psyche thanks to their ubiquity in rock and roll that we Americans hardly even register a British singer's accent anymore.
Josienne's a masterful songwriter in her own right, as she proved with her 2010 album, One Light is Gone. But with her new album, The Seas are Dead, she turns to the songbook of British folk ballads for inspiration and delivers an album's worth of stunning renditions of the classic songs. You've never heard "Silver Dagger" like this before. And you'll not soon forget her version of "Lily of the West" either. There's nothing fake or artificial here, no hazy hipster re-envisioning of old Steeleye Span/Fairport Convention influences. She presents the songs as utterly simply as possible, just her gorgeous, rending vocals and the clever, deft acoustic arrangements of her musical compatriot Ben Walker. She's stripped the songs to the bone and given them new flesh purely through the power of her beautiful vocals and her staunch respect for the tradition. This album floored me.
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker: Silver Dagger
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker: Hare on the Mountain
05/22/2012 | comments (1)
A little while ago, I got the chance to interview one of my heroes of Appalachian old-time music, Riley Baugus. Riley's the real deal. He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and learned as a kid from all the greats, especially Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. He's not nearly as well known as he deserves, especially considering that he truly understands the heart of the music. He grew up not just with old-time dance music, but also with the deep religious singing of the South. That kind of knowledge of religious song traditions means that his voice and his singing are as true-blue Southern old-time as you can possibly experience.
Riley works a lot with T-Bone Burnett, and seems to be Burnett's banjo-picker of choice. Riley appears on the new-ish Willie Nelson album (Country Music) picking out "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," and he appears on the famed Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album, playing a plaintive banjo on the beautiful last track "Your Last Journey." Of course, you likely know him from his singing in the Hollywood movie Cold Mountain (also a T Bone Burnett project). Not only did Riley contribute some key vocals, along with Tim O'Brien, Dirk Powell, and Tim Eriksen, but he also made all the banjos that appeared in the movie. If you haven't seen this movie, close this article right now and go to your Netflix account to rent it. It's pretty amazing, and hard to believe that they got Nicole Kidman singing Appalachian shape-note music!!
Since Riley's a star artist, along with Kirk Sutphin, at the upcoming Seattle Folk Festival that we're presenting, I got the chance to interview him. He sure had a lot of interesting things to say!
Hearth Music Interview with Riley Baugus
Hearth Music: Where did you grow up? What town?
Riley Baugus: I grew up in Walkertown, NC, near Winston-Salem.
HM: How did you meet Tommy Jarrell and what was your earliest memory of him?
RB: I met Tommy Jarrell at his house. Kirk and I went there to visit and play music in 1982 with Terri McMurray, who is now married to Paul Brown of NPR fame. My earliest memory of Tommy is of him sitting on his green, Naugahyde couch in his living room, playing the fiddle. I don't know what tune he was playing, but I do remember him sitting there playing the fiddle and singing every once and a while during the tune.
HM: Did Tommy Jarrell mentor you?
RB: To say "Mentor " is not really accurate. That's not how it worked. You didn't really go to Tommy's to get lessons, you would go there as an interested musician and he would play and you'd pay attention. If you wanted to learn things from him, he would show you, but it wasn't really a one-on-one teacher/student relationship as we think of it nowadays in a music lesson situation. He would play the tune, break down its parts, but at full speed, and that's how you learned. You could ask specific questions and he'd answer them the best he could. That is how the tradition has been passed since the first musicians in the area began playing.
HM: What did you learn from him?
RB: Wow! That question is like asking someone who does Karate, "What did you learn from the Sensei?" Tommy had a lifetime's worth of knowledge about all sorts of things. Life in general, tunes, how to play them in the archaic style that he learned as a boy, hundreds of stories about things that happened to him in his life, stories about his family, the community, other musicians that he played with over the years, where he first learned the tunes that he played, stories relating to particular tunes, how to attack a tune..... and the list goes on and on. When you went there you didn't just go to learn one thing. You might go with the idea that you would learn, "Sally Ann," but come away with three versions of the tune from different time periods, but the stories of why it was changed at certain times and what the song lyrics in the tune meant. I learned and still learn from him things about tunes on the banjo and fiddle and guitar and mandolin and singing that are from the 1800s that he learned from his father and his uncles and his neighbors. To learn from Tommy Jarrell was like having a time machine at your disposal. He was in his 80s, learned most of his music as a teenager at about 15 or 16 years old, from men and women who were in their 80s and 90s at the time he was learning, so the information you were getting was one person removed from the mid 1800s, and to people removed from and even earlier time, likely the late 1700s. Great experience.
HM: Who were some other Round Peak players that you learned from at an early age?
RB: I was learning from a variety of places and methods at the time, from recordings to people that you'd run into at festivals or people that we'd go visit, or just folks that showed up at Tommy's. I learned a lot from folks like Verlin Clifton, Frank Bode, Dix Freeman, Benton Flippen, Paul Brown and Ernest Creed to name a few, but I was also playing with Greg Hooven back in those days too, so there was a lot of learning going on. He was a powerhouse fiddler and singer, who was a little younger than Kirk and myself, but about the same age. He was learning things from Albert Hash and Thornton Spencer, and Tom Norman as well as Tommy and the whole Round Peak community. We did spend a fair bit of time over at Chester McMillian's house learning from him and his father-in-law, Dix Freeman, who was a wonderful fretless, Round Peak banjo player. He too has his share of stories and information about the old days. He was more the generation of Kyle Creed and Fred Cockerham, who were several years younger than Tommy, but had learned a lot of their music from Charlie Lowe. We went to visit musicians like Boyd and Cindy McKinney, Robert Sykes, Jake Norman and others. We spent time learning from all of them.
Tommy Jarrell w/Chester MacMillian, Frank Bodie, and Ray Chatfield
HM: Was Kirk Sutphin there with you when you were learning?
RB: Yes. Kirk and I started going up together back in '82. We had been playing music together for several years at that point. We met on the school bus back around '76 and became friends. We discovered that our families were from that same sort of part of the state, up around Surry and Alleghany counties, in the Blue Ridge, and we both like old music and old people. We have taken slightly different paths with our focus, but we still have the same love of the music and people. We used to drive around everywhere together. I was a bit older and got my license first, so I got to do the driving. Before that, our parents would drive us to visit musicians or to fiddler's conventions or we'd get a lift with some of the folks that we met in the old time community.
HM: When and how did you meet Dirk Powell?
RB: Dirk and I met at The Galax Fiddler's Convention around 1984 or 1985. We were both very young and in those days there weren't a lot of really young musicians around, like now. We started hanging out in jam sessions together with lots of our mutual friends and became friends ourselves. We like each other's vibe and music.
HM: Did you guys go through the countryside looking for players? Or was it more organic, like there were just people all around to learn from?
RB: Well, we did do that, but not together. We didn't really just go out looking for people who played music. Dirk's family is from Eastern Kentucky and mine is from the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. Being part of those communities, we and our family knew, or knew of, all the people around that played music. You just had to get to meet them, or get taken there by someone who knew them. Many times it was easier if the person you were going to visit knew your family, but hadn't met you. It was an easier in that way.
HM: Tell me a story about you and Dirk and tunes. I bet he was a pretty crazy guy back in the day (he still is!).
RB: Dirk and I have played tunes for a long time, but one of the best times was a few years ago at Tonderfest, in Tonder, Denmark. You are literally playing for 10s of thousands of people at any performance at that festival, and usually on a huge stage with really big time professional sound systems. He and I sort of went over into a little shed that was provided back stage at the festival, away from the sound of the stage and the other performers and the spectators and the whole big scene. We just played a Round Peak tune together. It was the most magnificent feeling to be there at that moment, just the two of us, right in the midst of that huge environment, playing with total abandon and pure emotion, feeling each other's music and soul and talking with each other using the instruments as our voices. It was incredible. We knew we loved playing with each other and being with each other, but that moment was really special. I have a memory of Dirk at another festival when we were young. We were in Somerset, Pennsylvania playing at a music and dance festival. I remember leaving Dirk sitting in a chair around 2 or 3 am, playing the banjo. I went to bed, got up several hours later and found Dirk, still sitting in the chair, playing the banjo by himself, just as I'd left him. He loves music and he loves playing and there was still music to be made. We couldn't get enough back in those days. We had to play almost all the time we were awake. It's still that way to some degree.
HM: What does old-time music mean to you? On the one hand, it's a career, but on the other hand, it must be a powerful way to connect with family and friends. How do you reconcile the down-home family nature of the music with an international touring and recording career? Can the music be both humble and famous at the same time?
RB: Old time music, as I see it is one of the forms of traditional folk music of this country. Traditional Southern Appalachian music is the melding of several musics to create what we now call Old Time. The European fiddle tunes and pipe tunes came over to the Appalachians. Once here the players were faced with living in the same areas as people the Canadians refer to as people of The First Nations. They had their musical styles. They were also living with and around black slaves, forced here from several African nations, and these people had their own music. The rhythms and melodies all melded to form what we now know as Old Time. It is old music, but new music. It is usually music that is deeply heartfelt and meaningful. Speaking for myself, the performances of the music that I give today are not merely recreations nor an attempt at preservation, but a living, breathing example of music and tradition that still lives in the mountains near my home, where my family has been living since the 1700s. In these mountain communities you can still go to several dances every weekend, jam sessions within the community, and to performances of old time music all over this area. It is not an art form that is dead and simply being recreated by people as a spectacle, but the music and culture of people from the Southern Appalachians. Of course, I am only referring to the Southern Appalachian region, because that is what I am most familiar with. There are Old Time musical traditions all over the nation. The Southern Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Midwest, the North East. The Appalachian chain runs from Alabama all the way up into Canada and there is Old Time music all the the way through them.
I do feel that the music can remain humble and become famous at the same time. Tunes like, "Man of Constant Sorrow", first recorded in the 1920s by Emry Arthur, and "Keep On The Sunny Side," from The Carter Family are great examples. Two very humble songs, which through the vehicles of film, TV and radio, became very famous after O Brother Where Art Thou hit the theaters. The fact that I, and other musicians, perform and record this music as our careers in no way detracts from the humble nature of the music. In fact, I feel that the fact that the music comes from such a background is part of what people enjoy about it. In this day and age where people rely on the stores and corporations to tell them what they need, how they should look, what to eat, what to wear, what to listen to and so on, I think that many people are looking for something that is real and connected to the culture of a simpler place and time, and traditional music is one of those things. I feel that this is the very reason that I can have a career playing the traditional music of the United States, because it is real, and honest and connected to the Earth and the soul and the spirit of people and with times past, long ago. Music that is recorded and performed and written now that is called Old Time music is just as authentic and real as the music that was being played in the 1800s. All those tunes that people collected from players from years and years ago were made up or written by someone. They didn't just spring into existence. The music that we make in the studio now for films and CDs and call it Old Time is still, "Old Time." It is about the spirit and style of the music. Music cannot live in a vacuum. It must be allowed to breath and evolve and live or over time it will die out, just as anything deprived of space to grow or air to breath would.
HM: Tell me about working on Cold Mountain.
RB: Working on Cold Mountain was a great experience for me. I didn't really have to change who I was to be part of the project. I just had to go to the studio everyday and be Riley Baugus and sing songs the way that I would any other day and play the banjo just the same way. It was great working with T-Bone and Anthony Minghella and all the other musicians and the actors. We were all trying to do the best music that we could do for the project. It was a story that we all loved and wanted it to be as great as possible, as so much of the story was about the music. I learned a tremendous amount about working on a really big project and about sound and making things be the way you want them to be and sound the way you want them to sound. We really did have fun with it. A lot of work, but fun nonetheless.
HM: Was Jack White pretty down-to-earth, did he learn from you, or was he more distant?
RB: Jack White was great. I can't say that Jack learned anything directly from me, but I can say that Jack is a marvelous musician. He really "listens" to music, not just hearing it, but listening for the deeper parts that make music special. I think we all learned from each other during that experience. I know that I came away with more knowledge than I could wrap my head around at the time. It takes time to absorb so much information.
Jack was truly down to earth. He was right there with us, doing what we were all doing....making music. We all jammed a great deal and talked about music and listened to music and played and sang songs. He was great to work with. We did have fun. I didn't find him to be distant at all. We sat around and chatted between takes and when we weren't needed in the recording area. He's very interesting and a good guy to hangout with.
HM: What did you think of the final product of Cold Mountain? Was it pretty fair to old-time mountain life, or was it more of a Hollywood fantasy?
RB: When I finally got to see the whole thing together, I was deeply moved, and the way the music worked with the action was stunning. Due to time limitations there wasn't as much music in the film as we recorded, but there was still a huge amount of music in the film. I thought the screenplay was great and the final film was excellent. We all worked very hard to have it be great and I do think it was. It was the most realistic view of the Civil War that we've seen portrayed in film. The Crater scene at Petersburg was astonishingly realistic. I think it was a fair portrayal of mountain life for the time. There are always little things that one might see and say, "Oh, that's not how it was," but every detail was painstakingly seen to. Even the tin cups and plates were period correct. They were made by a Civil War expert, who is a tinsmith that lives close to me here near Winston-Salem, NC. I think that especially for Hollywood, they got this one as close as possible and it was great.
HM: What did you do on the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album? Was that a fun project?
RB: I played banjo on that recording. I was there for several days working with Norman Blake on some of the tunes that were to be on the album. We played and recorded several things with Robert and Alison. The cut that ended up on the album is a song by Rosa Lee Watson, "Your Long Journey." We played it and Robert and Alison sang it. We set up around the sofa in the studio and just cut it. It was great.
HM: Tell me more about Willie Nelson and working with him. How did he gel with your music?
RB: Working with Willie was great. He is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's a great musician and a wonderful soul. He loved the banjo and I was asked by him on several cuts to kick off the tune. It was as if we'd all been playing together forever. The band was great and Willie was great. T-Bone knew just the right people to put together for the project and what material to bring to the table for us to record. I ended up on 12 or the 15 tracks I think.
We did do a short bit of touring, just to promote the new record. We played at The Ryman, on Soundstage in Chicago, on David Letterman's show, on The View and a concert at The Grand Ballroom in Manhattan. It was really, really fun and a great experience all the way around.
Willie Nelson with Riley Baugus
HM: Tell me more about T-Bone Burnett. It sounds like he's getting more and more connected to your old-time Southern music roots. Like Appalachian music. How has it been collaborating with him?
RB: Working with T-Bone is great. He is connected with Southern Music totally. Old time, Cajun, Country, Rockabilly, Rock and Roll. He is a big fan of the Appalachian sound and really seems to like it on his records and soundtracks. He is from Texas and has heard all sorts of music as well as written in lots of styles. He loves Bluegrass and Old Time. It is very cool getting to work with him and try to pull off what he's looking for in the studio. Always a pleasure.
HM: Where do you think old-time music is today? With a whole new generation embracing the music (I live close to Portland, OR, so I know a bunch of hot young stringbands), is the music being reborn in new ways? Is the core of the music: community, family, friends, still the same, or has it been changed by its brush with fame?
RB: That's a hard one to answer accurately. You need a control in the test group. I am always around music and musicians and quite a few of them are Old Time musicians, but I would say, seeing that there is still a strong community in these mountains, of people that are interested in Old Time music, that it is still strong. The sense of community, family and friends is still very strong. There are now even programs in the public school systems in some counties that encourage school age kids to get involved and learn Old Time music from players in the community who run the program. The program is known as JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians). They get together after school about 3 days a week for jamming and lessons. It's a great way for kids to get involved without too much pressure. It's just about fun, and music and culture and community.
Surely the music is being reborn in new ways. As I said earlier, it can't survive in a vacuum. I think what's happening is that folks are picking up tunes from different geographic regions and styles, taking them back to their community and playing them in the style that they play where they live. That is exactly what was going on at the turn of the century, around 1900 and later when people would go to labor camps, like puncheon camps or coal camps to work. There they would encounter people from all over, some of which were musicians who would bring their tunes with them. Many of the tunes in Round Peak arrived there that very way. Someone would go off to work somewhere, and come back with a new tune or two. Of course the tune would be then adapted to the Round Peak style rather than being played in the style of the region where it came from. Looks to me like things are just as they have been in terms of Old Time music, except that people now have more access, more ability to travel and the resources to make it easier to learn, such as Computer slow-downers and cds that can be played over and over and over, instead of having to learn a tune in real time at full speed after only getting to hear it once or twice at a dance or from an individual you might pass on the road as you were walking to or from somewhere. There are teaching camps all over too that offer tuition in specific instruments for extended periods of time, like Augusta or Swannanoa, or Banjo Camp North, the classes offered in Brasstown, NC at the John C. Campbell Folkschool, or a similar tuition offered in Galax, Virginia at the Chestnut Creek School for the Arts. People can go there and get 15, 24, or even 40 hours of instruction from an expert teacher and player with every question answered. Old Time music is more available than ever and it seems to be becoming more so. The internet is a great place to find music, do research, and get all the information you can imagine. The resources are endless.
HM: Is the true old-time Southern music dying out?
RB: I don't really think so. It is changing and has always changed, but it is by no means dying out. As I say, more resources and activities are available than ever. The Mt. Airy Fiddler's Convention has around 10,000 people in attendance every year, and the majority of them are there for the Old Time competition and parking lot and campground music. There is a Bluegrass contingent, but it's not as prevalent as the Old Time followers.
HM: Are people still singing the old way in Baptist churches and passing on ballads, or is it alive and changing? What's your take?
RB: Ballad singing isn't really done in Church. Ballad singing is still done in the mountains in the Southern Appalachians, and is alive and well. There are lots of young folks learning the old ballads, or "love songs," as they are called, even if they're murder ballads. Donna Ray Norton, and Elizabeth Laprelle [ed note: appearing with Riley at the Seattle Folk Festival] are two good examples of young folks learning and carrying on the old ballads. There are folks of my generation too that are still doing the old ballads, like Rick Ward from Beech Mountain, Watauga County, NC, and Tim Eriksen. Ballads are still songs of story that were once used as a means of conveying news from one place to another about an occurrence, or as cautionary tales to people to say sort of, "Don't do as the person in this song did," but now and for a long time they have been passed from one generation to the next as examples of old songs with a good story. They are now a way of relaying history, which is still a very important function. Many of the old fiddle tunes perform that function as well.
The singing that is done in the Baptist churches takes many different forms in the mountains. The style that is done by the Old Regular Baptists in Eastern Kentucky and the Mountain Primitive Baptist styles are similar. They sing old songs in a lined-out fashion. That is to say that a song leader "Chants" the first line of a verse and the congregation repeats the line to the melody. This continues for each line of each verse. That way no one except the song leader has to have a book or know the words to a song. This method is also still used in the churches in the Hebrides, on the Isles of Scotland, except they sing the songs in Gaelic. It is called Psalm singing there and the melodies are very similar to the ones used in the Southern Appalachians for many of the old songs. The Regular and Union Baptists vary their method of singing. This is the case for the Freewill Baptists in the mountains as well. They still mostly sing the old songs, but not necessarily with the lining out. Some do, some don't. Just depends on the particular church. For the most part, all the churches that I have mentioned still sing unaccompanied. No musical instruments are allowed in the church. They believe that the New Testament doesn't say that they are to praise God with music in any other way than with their voices, so this tradition continues very strongly today. The documentation of the Lined-Out Hymnody of The Old Regular Baptists of Eastern Kentucky, I think has done a lot to bring people back to that style of singing. I think church attendance is up in those areas.
HM: Tell me about your town.
RB: Walkertown is a small town just outside the city limits of Winston-Salem, NC. I live actually out in the more rural area, out in the county, but our mailing address is Walkertown. Kirk Sutphin and I live here. We are as far as I know, the only Old Time musicians in Walkertown. It isn't really a music town. We gravitate more toward the Northwest of Surry County or over to the Northeast toward Rockingham County where Charlie Poole was from. These are the areas where Kirk and I learned most of our music from NC.
HM: Do you play a lot at home, like with Kirk and others?
RB: Kirk and I do play together when we get the chance. We live on the same street and have done forever, with the exception of just a couple of years when I lived in Stokes County and then on the South side of town. We still live on the road where we grew up, just a half mile apart.
HM: Do people come from all over to visit for tunes? Is there maybe even a tourism industry for the music in your town?
RB: People do travel down here from time to time to play with Kirk and myself. We get folks from Japan, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, France. They come from all over. Mt. Airy, NC has more of the tourism vibe going on. That is the town closest to where Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Benton Flippen lived. The Surry Arts council does have functions based around and including the music of Surry County, and people come from far away for those functions.
HM: Tell me about your album with Kirk. That looks great! What kind of tunes and songs are on it? Was it fun to make?
RB: The new album is called Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, Long Time Piedmont Pals. We were approached by Charlie Faurot of Old Blue Records to make the album. He is the collector that recorded Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins back in the 60s. Those recordings sort of got the ball rolling for the "revival" of Round Peak music, which really means that it spread outside the Surry County area and was discovered by loads of people who fell in love with the sound and the idea of the living tradition. It is a collection of tunes that we have known since childhood as well as some we learned just for the recording. We included some tunes that we learned from recording of a great musician named Matt Simmons from Stokes County, NC. It is the county just to the North of us here and is often overlooked musically. "Drunkard's Dream" and part of our version of "Wild Bill Jones" comes from Matt Simmons. It also includes a version of "Paddy On The Turnpike," which we learned from H.O. Jenkins, the grandson of Frank Jenkins who played with Tommy Jarrell's dad, Ben Jarrell in DaCosta Woltz' Southern Broadcasters, in the late 1920s. We did a couple of tunes that we learned from field recordings of Fields Ward from Galax, VA and some tunes from Wade Ward, and tunes we learned from Tommy Jarrell, and others that we learned along the way from several different players.
It was huge fun to make. We recorded it all live. No overdubs, or punching in. We played the tunes and recorded them. Charlie set up in Kirk's living room in true field recorder fashion, and we did the record. We like to think of it as our field recording. It's cool to do a record that way without all the bells and whistles that you have at your disposal in a studio. Just the instruments and the voice and the room sound and whatever editing gets done. One of my favorite ways to record.
I played Banjo and Guitar on most of the recording while Kirk played Fiddle and Banjo on most of it, but we did switch around a bit too. I played Fiddle on a couple and he played Guitar and Old Time Fingerstyle Banjo on a couple. Most people tend to think that Clawhammer is "THE" old time way of playing 5 string Banjo, but Fingerstyles were just about as common in the Southern Appalachian region.
Kirk's brother Darren built a log cabin out behind his house, so Kirk and I went out there and my wife Rosalind took our photos for the cover. It was very appropriate to take those photos at the cabin. Ros is a great photographer and really caught the feeling and us in our element. As kids we always loved the things that were old, seemed old or stood for the old ways. It was like getting to be kids again to do this record. We played tunes that we actually had to learn, and we spent several days together playing tunes and telling stories and just having fun, just like when we were kids.
I am a very fortunate man to be able to do something that is so fun and interesting for my work and have people enjoy what I do and hopefully be moved in some positive way by the music I make and the stories I tell.
HAVE A LISTEN
Riley Baugus: What Are They Doing in Heaven
Riley Baugus: Cumberland Gap
Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin: Wild Bill Jones
PURCHASE RILEY'S MUSIC
Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin: Long-Time Piedmont Pals
Riley Baugus: Long Steel Rail
Riley's Recent Solo Album from Rounder Records --HIGHLY recommended
Riley Baugus: Life of Riley
(Riley's First Solo Album)
Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin are headlining the 2011 Seattle Folk Festival, December 9-11. You can catch them at the gala Appalachian Winter Concert on Sat December 10 at Columbia City Theater, and they'll both be teaching workshops (old-time fiddle and Blue Ridge Mountain singing) during the day on Saturday, on Friday they'll be playing our benefit square dance for Bike Works, and on Sunday they'll be playing our Sunday Family Jam at Town Hall Seattle. Weekend Passes are only $40 and get you in to everything!
11/22/2011 | comments (1)
The 'nets have been buzzing about Seattle's own Bryan John Appleby ever since his newest album, Fire on the Vine, dropped this year. After finally sitting down to explore this album, I was floored to hear one of the best voices in indie roots music today. And it's not just the singing and the beautiful, complex instrumental arrangements on the albums; really the meat of what makes Bryan's music so appetizing is the lyrics. At turns heart-wrenching and transcendent, the album moves between our fragile lives and our endless capacity for faith. It's not religious per se, but it does tap into old epics and Biblical characters.
Driven by my own curiosity, I asked Bryan John Appleby for more information about how faith works into the lyrics. "To be specific, the album relates to the faith that I knew in my formative years, up until the last few years, and the irreconcilable aspects of that former faith and my current position," he said. "It should be clear through the lyrics that I've made a departure. It is more ambiguous than it may seem though."
You can hear this ambiguity in a song like The Words of the Revelator. Bryan said he wasn't specifically referencing John the Revelator, but it's hard not to hear the connection in the lyrics. "You turn away/I am left alone/Then came the sign/Then came the revelation," is a great lyric that touches on the ambiguity of signs, while "You will find what you did not seek/A road less narrow/A way not steep," sure sounds to me like the sigh of relief that comes from moving out from under the weight of religion. Talking further with my friend April at the blog Common Folk Music, Bryan said "In the song 'Words of the Revelator,' I created a conversation between an old craggy hermit scholar type and a young man. This relationship is analogous to the inner struggle that a thinking, reasoning person encounters when she or he is confronted by irreconcilable ways of thinking." [read that Q&A here]
Bryan John Appleby: The Words of the Revelator
"Glory" is another powerful song from Bryan's new album. At turns it's a soaring ode to the human emotions of glory and accomplishment, an uplifting song, but there's a biting edge underneath, a feeling of something lost. As if the glory he's singing about, the kind of glory you'd get from growing up with epic Biblical stories, has slipped away as he's passed into a later phase of his life. I asked Bryan about this song in particular: "Glory is the one song that sounds like its about God but really it means something different than that. No, not sex. It's a salve for me. The album is sad most of the time so the song Glory is a nod to the beauty in our existence. It is subtle and wonderful." I love the thought of this song as a salve, a healing intended to move us along on a new path.
Bryan John Appleby: Glory
Moving on from religion, I really wanted to ask Bryan more about how his music fits into the Pacific Northwest. It certainly seems so connected to our dark, rainy environment; it's the kind of album that can only come out of an endless Seattle winter. I asked him what places in the Northwest inspired him. "My bedroom in the Beacon Hill house [note: check out this great video of Appleby composing at home]. My underground apartment after that," he said. "It was all pretty spectacular when I first got up here. The Puget Sound and the islands. I've only been out there a few times but it's a pretty overwhelming place. Georgetown has always felt good to be down in. Specific spaces, Acme Rubber Stamp Co, used to be in Ballard. The hand painted signage in the I.D..." Bryan's been putting together some amazing videos recently, featuring different landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. And the venerable Doe Bay Fest just release an exceptional video of him out on the Puget Sound's Orcas Island, so you can see him performing in the environment that first inspired his music out in the NW.
Bryan John Appleby: The Doe Bay Sessions
Bryan John Appleby w/Mychal of Campfire OK
BUY THE ALBUM (it's only out on Bandcamp)
Bryan John Appleby is performing at the 2011 Seattle Folk Festival. You can check out the full lineup at www.seattlefolkfestival.com. Bryan's performing as part of the Columbia City Celebration, all-day Saturday, December 10, along with Sons of Warren Oates, Youth Rescue Mission, Brother Bear, Kevin Murphy of the Moondoggies, Pharis & Jason Romero, and more!
11/21/2011 | comments (1)
I've been impatiently awaiting a new album from Canadian roots music artist Michael Jerome Browne for quite a while now. The last album of his that I have, Michael Jerome Browne & The Twin Rivers String Band, is one of my favorite roots albums, with gorgeous picking and singing with powerful cuts of old-time, blues, honky-tonk and Cajun songs. Having just received his new album, The Road is Dark (out now on Borealis Records), and having listened to it now twice in a row without stopping, this was definitely worth the wait!
Browne may not be too well known in the States–though he was born in Indiana, Montreal is his adopted home–but he should be. He's one of those rare musicians who have the artistry to transform traditional material that would sound old and tired in another's hands into something so refreshing that it feels like you're hearing the song for the first time. Browne nails this right out the gate with a surprising cover of the 1949 Flatt & Scruggs Mercury Records classic "Doin' My Time." This song was always one of the funkiest, blusiest bluegrass numbers around, so it makes perfect sense when Browne takes it into a deep Delta blues setting. It's a bold move to cast a classic of the bluegrass canon as country blues, but it's a sign of Browne's familiarity and comfort with American roots music. He's done this before on previous albums, effortlessly blending country blues, Appalachian old-time and even some killer Cajun music, and though The Road is Dark is primarily blues-based, the reason the album sounds so rich and effortless is because he's got so much knowledge and appreciation of the roots of the music he plays. On "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Browne takes a Rev. Gary Davis song into darker, eerier territory by channeling the influences of Skip James and Lightnin' Hopkins.
What's even more impressive than these re-imaginings of country blues, are Browne's original songs, which are sprinkled throughout the album. He writes so well and so cleanly, that it's pretty much impossible to tell the original songs from the traditional ones. Though some of the original veer away from the universality of blues lyrics towards more topical matters, this is an asset to the album. His "G20 Rag" is a welcome addition to any political songbook:
"caught the midnight train to Hogton
I went to have my say
'bout the way the rich keep gettin' richer
and the way the poor folks pay
up above the barricade
inside the penthouse suite
twenty future CEOs
raised a glass to the elite
and when the streets were empty
when we're all in jail
our leaders smiled and said 'you see?
democracy can't fail!' "
One of the strongest moments in the album comes right after the "G20 Rag" with Browne's spare and hair-raising song "Sing Low." Accompanied by Rwandan guitarist Mighty Popo and a finger-plucked gourd banjo, Browne's song is ostensibly an homage to Afghan women, drawing a comparison to African-American slaves, who used song to communicate with less fear of reprisal. On any other artist, a heavy-handed blues homage to the cultural complexities of the Afghan nation would be unbearable, but Browne's song is so deftly written and his rendition so subtle and rich, that he manages to convey the intended power to the song.
This is a great album, not only a delight to connoisseurs of American roots music for the way that Michael Jerome Browne reinterprets and subverts old blues paradigms, but also a delight for those just looking for some great acoustic blues. It's eminently listenable from start to finish and will likely enjoy a long shelf-life on repeat in your collection.
Michael Jerome Browne: G20 Rag
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