Billy Strings & Don Julin: Fiddle Tune X
Incendiary American roots duo Billy Strings & Don Julin tap into the vein of the earliest bluegrass music on their new album Fiddle Tune X, back when bluegrass was a rough-and-tumble art form pouring out of the Appalachian mountains, made with great virtuosity and huge attitude. With just two instruments (guitar and mandolin) and two voices, this duo has been tearing up stages across America and generating huge buzz based on their intense live shows. Drenched in sweat, grimacing like a banshee, howling like a bluegrass berserker, and picking with such ferocity that he’s been known to break three strings in one song, 22-year-old guitarist and singer Billy Strings could have tumbled out of coal country in the old mountains, tattoos and all, but actually hails from Michigan, where he met mandolinist Don Julin. Older in years and experience, Strings’ musical partner Julin has carved out a lengthy career at the forefront of acoustic mandolin music, known for his wide versatility, powerful picking technique, and remarkable creativity on this humble instrument. On stage, the two egg each other on to more and more intense riffs and improvised breaks, pushing harder and harder on their own abilities to try to break through to new levels of musicianship. There’s a reason that they were called “the unholy child of Pantera and Tony Rice” by The Bluegrass Situation, and they show this intensity on their new album, Fiddle Tune X.
Recorded live, Fiddle Tune X reflects the hard-traveling life of Billy Strings and Don Julin. These tracks were recorded in a snowed-in cabin in Bliss, Michigan, a bar in Ludington, MI, a packed house concert in New York, a church in Lake Ann, MI, an Elks Club in Cadillac, MI, and the last song was cut in the Third Man Records’ recording booth in Nashville. Each song was recorded around one microphone, with either Don or Billy moving in and out of range to take the lead. It’s a tricky recording technique (and also a hallmark of traditional bluegrass performance) that accounts for how vibrant these recordings sound. Since it’s live, you can hear a bit more than just the music, which was the plan. As Don, who engineered the recording, explains, “Upon careful listening, you will hear a variety of distortions and noises, ranging from mechanical and electronic noises to audience comments and traffic sounds, and we feel that all of this adds to the realness of the recording.” This open-minded approach to music is also reflected in the diversity of the tracks on the album. There’s plenty of fire-breathing bluegrass here (check out the six minute tour de force on “Little Maggie”) but there are also moments of surprising subtlety, like the slow-rolling Doc Watson-inspired “Walk On Boy,” or the soft beauty of Julin’s mandolin on Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.” Throughout the album, however, there’s no doubt that Strings and Julin are out to explode this art form, not only through the passion of their performance, but also through the cutting-edge instrumental twists and turns they take on each song.
Listen to Billy Strings & Don Julin’s cover of “Poor Ellen Smith” on Fiddle Tune X and you can hear that backwoods howl that first electrified a nation through the early music of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Mountain music was never made to be safe; this was music born out of hard-working, hard-hit lives, from people whose voice was systematically suppressed by the mainstream. Bluegrass started off with a howl to be heard, and this same spirit is alive and well today in Billy Strings & Don Julin.
Billy Strings & Don Julin: "Walk On Boy"
Billy Strings & Don Julin: "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz"
09/29/2014 | comments (0)
The beautiful mountain Knocknarea in Ireland’s County Sligo is said to be the final resting place of the ancient Irish warrior-queen Maeve. The ‘Alt’ is a storied glen on the side of Knocknarea, and it was in the shadow of this glen in the little village of Coolaney that the three master Irish traditional musicians in The Alt–John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary–first gathered to rehearse. The old ballads, winding tunes, and freshly discovered songs that each artist brought to the table reflect the pure love of the song that has made Irish music so beautiful and compelling over thousands of years. It’s this same love of the song that the Irish brought to America, nestling into their new homes in Appalachia and forming the bedrock that would bring us American country, bluegrass, and old-time music. The Alt are fully aware of this history, and in fact chose to record their debut album in the quiet isolation of a small cabin in North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains. Alone with just the scurrying sounds of little mice accompanying them, each of these master musicians was able to use their partnership to touch at something deeper in the music, something swift and beautiful and magical that has always run beneath these songs.
Each player in The Alt is a leading light of today’s folk scene and though this could be easily called a supergroup, at its heart The Alt is really a celebration of friendship and song. Guitarist and singer John Doyle, whose family hails from around Knocknarea, was born and raised in Dublin, lives in Asheville, NC, and is one of the pre-eminent guitarists and vocalists of his generation. His ground-breaking work with Irish band Solas and with Karen Casey has influenced many other artists and his style of guitar accompaniment is iconic in Irish music. He met flutist and singer Nuala Kennedy at Celtic Colors and while touring in Europe and the two hit it off while exploring songs and tunes in common. Nuala is herself a singer and songwriter well known internationally for her beautiful vocals and her unusual arrangements of traditional songs as showcased on multiple solo albums for Compass Records. Looking to add a third voice to the band, John suggested his long-time friend and fellow Dubliner Eamon O’Leary, who also plays guitar and bouzouki. O’Leary is one of the most in-demand Irish vocalists and guitarists in the US today thanks to his subtle and beautiful work with Jefferson Hamer in The Murphy Beds. Each artist in The Alt delved into their own pasts to draw forth the songs on their debut album. Though each member is a fine songwriter in their own right, for this first album The Alt give their attention to traditional Irish songs. Some of the songs they grew up hearing and others they have collected along the road, from friends and mentors, from archival recordings and written collections.
Gathered in the mountains of North Carolina, The Alt recorded their debut album in just three days, a testament to the ease each member feels with their native music. The singular sound of The Alt that came from this recording session is greater than the sum of its parts; at once delicate, deliberate and always in deference to the song at its core.
The Alt: Lovely Nancy
The Alt: What Put The Blood
09/08/2014 | comments (0)
Front Country: Sake of the Sound
From the first notes of “Gospel Train,” as Melody Walker’s soaring voice entwines around the phrase “I woke up with heaven on my mind,” you’ll hear that Front Country isn’t your usual bluegrass band. When the fiddle and distorted acoustic guitar come crashing into the song like roaring waves, rushing back and forth with swelling ferocity, you’ll know that this is bluegrass unleashed, American roots music that refuses to be constrained. Each song on the album points to traditional influences, but it’s clear that Front Country views these traditions as a launching pad for grander explorations. On their highly anticipated debut full-length album, Sake of the Sound, Front Country blend everything from high-lonesome mountain music to new-wave power pop, newgrass picking, oldgrass harmonies, and just plain glorious musicality. This is Americana at its best: music with deep roots and wide-ranging vision.
Coming out of the California Bay Area’s red-hot roots music scene, Front Country first made waves with a rare double band competition win at both the Telluride and Rockygrass music festivals. Following national tours and invites to prestigious events like Wintergrass and IBMA, anticipation has been mounting for their debut full-length album. Wanting to create something that pushed their sound even further, Front Country recruited renowned instrumentalist, composer, and songwriter Kai Welch (Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck) to produce Sake of the Sound. With Welch at the helm, Front Country were able to unite their many far-reaching musical influences and inspirations and do credit to their electrifying live show. The songs on the new album are sourced from all across the Americana spectrum (Utah Philips, Bob Dylan, Kate Wolf), but each cover brings a fresh, new perspective. New songwriters like Nashville scribe Sarah Siskind or Laura Wortman of The Honey Dewdrops bring powerful songs as well, but Front Country truly shines when the original songs of lead singer Melody Walker give them room to flex. “Colorado” is a gorgeously crafted showcase to both Walker’s voice and the understated power of each instrumentalist in Front Country. Melody’s songs draw out Front Country’s furthest reaching interests in music. Her title song “Sake of the Sound,” a rapturous musical ode set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, references Paul Simon’s “Graceland” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as easily as new-wave progressive bluegrass bands like Crooked Still or The Punch Brothers, and even dips into Melody and Jacob’s interests in ethnomusicology and Afro Pop. With a global span of interests and world-class talent, it’s no wonder Front Country’s bluegrass sounds like it was born in a new century.
Front Country formed in 2011 from a monthly gig with friends in San Francisco’s Mission District. They quickly found a musical rapport that was open to challenging arrangements, unique covers and original songwriting. Melody Walker brought her award-winning songwriting to the table and her hall-shaking voice, which sounds like a mix between Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Maines. Mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz was nominated for a Grammy in 2013 for his work with the Modern Mandolin Quartet, and is a composer of new acoustic instrumental music. The offspring of a concert violinist and a geology professor, fiddler Leif Karlstrom is an explosive mix of talent and precision, erupting like a bluegrass volcano. Banjo player Jordan Klein has been an asset to the Bay Area bluegrass scene for over ten years and can be found picking in the campground of many a festival till the wee hours. Starting out on electric bass in funk bands, Zach Sharpe plays upright bass on-stage, and picks a mean banjo off-stage. Jacob Groopman is the hardest working man in Front Country, acting as both lead guitarist and head cat-wrangler, while supplying sweet harmony vocals and spiritual guidance for a crew of six.
Six powerhouse roots musicians at the top of their game may be a lot to wrangle, but Front Country has pulled off an album that not only showcases each artist, but also has something new to say about what American roots music can mean today. It’s no small feat, but they do it for the sake of the sound.
Front Country: "Sake of the Sound"
Front Country: "Colorado"
09/08/2014 | comments (0)
Hearth Music's own Mindie Lind is heading to Nashville this September 17-21 for the annual Americana Music Association Conference! It's her first time there, so what should she look out for? Let us know in the comments, and here are five artists that Mindie (and Devon Leger from Hearth) are very excited to check out! Who else should we see?
THE QUEBE SISTERS BAND
I’ve had a deep love for “sister harmony” groups for as long as I can remember. There is something about sibling voices acting as one that will forever jump start my heart. From The Bozzies (known to the less-fanatic as Boswell Sisters) to The Andrew Sisters, gal harmonies make me feel like I am floating and it’s a feeling I have come to love. So when I began looking over bands playing AMA this year, I was immediately struck by the The Quebe Sisters Band swooping, swoony sister style! And if that isn’t enough to percolate your pallet, these gals are taking it up a notch with three masterfully played fiddles that sound so tight, it’s as if they’re acting as one bow. Seeing The Quebe Sisters Band in Nashville is really a no brainer.
Gospel blues singer Leo Welch spent decades in rural Mississippi singing for his community both in formal (church) and informal (picnics) settings. He's got a voice bent with age that has the hardwood strength of the old trees he used to log for a living. Though the blues has always been torn between Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, Welch runs roughshod over this historical cultural division. To him the blues and the good news of the gospel go hand in hand and because of this his music shines with life, joy and hope. What a glory that he's got his music down on tape for us today and how fun it will be to discover him at AMA!
OVER THE RHINE
It’s no secret we love our groups in packs of two; American roots duos are Hearth’s bread and butter! As the clean growl of Karin Bergquist burst through my speakers channeling the best parts of Melissa Etheridge, Joan Osborne and other power chicks from the 90s, I was immediately caught by this group’s more-than-rootsy sound. Alongside the musical and emotional accompaniment of musical partner Linford Detweile, Over The Rhine sounds like a kind of homemade Christmas card, thoughtfully crafted and worn with the care of many seasons.
BRADFORD LEE FOLK
We worked PR for Bradford Lee Folk's last album, so yeah we're probably a little biased on this one. But then again, I saw Brad get two standing ovations off of a freaking interview at Pickathon two years ago! He's got crazy charisma onstage, bluegrass pedigree for days, and a roving musical curiosity that turned his last album from your standard newgrass bluegrass release into a fascinating, cutting vision of how bluegrass and Americana can get along. Brad's a force to be reckoned with, both on the Nashville farm he works during the day and the Nashville picking sessions he hits up at night! Don't miss this one, folks!
For the sake of full disclosure, Devon from Hearth played Shakey Graves' Pickathon videos for me a few months ago, and I stole his copy of Shakey's album Roll the Bones with my cold hearted hands and once spent the entirety of a trip to the coast and back (total of 6 hours) listening to it on repeat. I cannot wait for Shakey’s driving, catchy guitar lines to slowly burn some warmth into my cold cold heart, and don’t even mind if hearing his unbelievably attractive voice live actually puts me in my grave.
Americana Music Association Festival & Conference
September 17-21, 2015
09/03/2014 | comments (0)
Kyle Carey: North Star
The paths that the Celts traveled from the Old World to the New are not etched in stone or traced on maps. But they are recorded in songs, and if you know the songs well enough you can retrace these paths to discover what binds these cultures across the ocean. This is exactly the kind of voyage that American vocalist Kyle Carey undertakes in her new album, North Star, which was produced by renowned Irish-American artist Séamus Egan (Solas). Her songs draw from Americana roots, Irish-American traditions, and Scots Gaelic poetry with the kind of effortless ease that only a lifetime traveler and a musical polyglot can pull off. Once a full-time waitress as the famed Caffe Lena in New York, Carey traveled to Cape Breton, Canada on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Scots Gaelic, before ending up on the Isle of Skye in Scotland studying Gaelic song intensively. She then traveled to Ireland to record her debut album. With so much travel and study under her belt, it’s no wonder that Kyle Carey’s new album, North Star, masterfully blends the traditions of three nations into a sound that she calls “Gaelic Americana.”
A look at the guest list on North Star shows Kyle Carey’s diverse vision: master American roots musicians like Dirk Powell, Katie McNally, and Natalie Haas rub shoulders with young leading lights of the British folk scene Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, and Irish and Scottish traditional artists like Pauline Scanlon, Catriona McKay, and Chris Stout. It’s quite the list of collaborators, something that Carey has always prided herself in cultivating, but the real stars here are the songs. Each song was written by Carey, excepting two songs in Scots Gaelic and a truly lovely cover of Kate Wolf’s ‘Across the Great Divide,’ and though she’s crafting new music, she’s clearly still tied to the tradition. In writing her songs, Carey draws on long-standing traditional themes of immigration and longing. “Casey Jones Whistle Blow” uses tropes of American folk song to talk about a woman’s dreams for a better life. A song like “Nora O’Kane,” which Carey wrote about an outcast woman bent on revenge, rubs shoulders here with the sad Gaelic lament “Cairistiona” that sings of lost love. “Wind Through Casper” is a haunting lament on immigration and “North Star” speaks to love that comes and goes. All of these emotions are found in traditional songs throughout America, Ireland, and Scotland, and Carey draws from these influences to create an album that uses universal human ideals to speak to our condition today. North Star is at once an homage to the traditions that inspired her and also a statement on her life’s work uniting American and Celtic traditions. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in the song “Sios Dhan an Abhainn” which is a cover of the classic hymn “Down to the River” (as featured in O Brother Where Art Thou) translated to Gaelic.
With North Star, Gaelic Americana singer Kyle Carey is making a powerful statement about the ties that bind us together; ties so strong that they pull families back and forth across this world as easily as the tides. With beautiful vocals, masterful accompaniment, and a far-reaching vision, Kyle Carey is making songs that look forward to the next hundred years of American and Celtic tradition.
Kyle Carey : "Casey Jones Whistle Blow"
Kyle Carey: "Sios Dhan an Abhainn"
09/02/2014 | comments (0)
Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer:
The Flower of Muscle Shoals
Some dust just won’t wash off. Ask roots country songwriter Cahalen Morrison. His new album, The Flower of Muscle Shoals (out Aug 19 on Free Dirt Records), with his full band Country Hammer, is caked with the dust of the American Southwest. It’s the dust of a childhood growing up in Northern New Mexico; days spent exploring lost canyons, hiking hillsides covered in cottonwoods, and discovering old ghost towns. It’s also the dust of nostalgia, the kind of reflection of a just-married man looking back towards the inspirations of his youth. Cahalen Morrison grew up surrounded by the deep roots of country music; he played in his first country (and ranchero) band as a precocious 13 year old. Leaving New Mexico as a young man, his music began to branch out. “I did what every teenager does, and decided to go down the rock, and whatever road,” Cahalen explains. “But then I came back around to acoustic music, and now back to country. I love the focus on singing and the songs; I love the deep sincerity, the absurd humor… But obviously, overall, I really just love the music.” That full circle journey enabled Cahalen to develop a sound that sets him apart from other country artists. Exploring acoustic roots music and touring internationally with his acclaimed Seattle duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, he learned from the guidance of friends like Tim O’Brien and Kelly Joe Phelps. With his new project, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer, and his new album, he’s taken all these influences and distilled them into a new form of American roots music, at once literate and profound, but written in the language of the country greats.
While offering up the comforting sounds of country and western’s roots, The Flower of Muscle Shoals plays more like a new classic than a dusty Nashville relic. That’s because, as a lyricist, Cahalen Morrison points much further afield than the lynchpins of country that he grew up listening to. As a songwriter, he draws from influences like literary legend Gabriél Garcia Marquez, Swedish naturalist poet Tomas Tranströmer, cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, and especially the author Cormac McCarthy. As Cahalen says, “The sparse quality of McCarthy’s writing allows the reader to do much of the work themselves.” It’s a credo he follows in his songwriting, for though he’s adept at crafting the quick metaphors and turns-of-phrases that define country songwriting, there are images in The Flower of Muscle Shoals that stay with you well beyond the last note.
Cahalen Morrison now lives in Seattle with his wife, for whom he wrote the lovely title track (she’s from Muscle Shoals, AL). His band, Country Hammer, features some of the best Americana musicians in the Northwest and beyond: Country Dave Harmonson (Zoe Muth) on pedal steel, Jim Miller (Donna The Buffalo, Preston Frank) on guitar and additional vocals, Robert Adesso on guitar/harmony vocals, Mary Maass on fiddle, Ethan Lawton on drums, and Michael Thomas Connolly (Coyote Grace) on bass and accordion. Recorded at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle, Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer move through The Flower of Muscle Shoals with the precision of two-steppers on a honky-tonk dance floor. They prove, like Zoe Muth, Loretta Lynn, and Buck Owens before them, that the Northwest is a hotbed for true country roots. These days, Cahalen Morrison may be far from his Southwest roots, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons of great country music: tell a story, keep it short, let the listener do the work. When you hear the dusty sounds of Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer rising from the grooves of your record, you’ll know this is music built to last.
Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer: "Nighttime is Here On the Valley"
Cahalen Morrison & Country Hammer: "Sorrow Lines the Highway of Regret"