Wood, Wire & Words
The new album from American roots music legend Norman Blake is out January 20 on Plectrafone Records. It's his first album of original songs in 30 years!
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A living legend, Norman Blake has influenced multiple generations of roots musicians with his uncompromising vision of American roots music. Acclaimed by the greatest artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Blake has become a touchstone for the guitar in American folk music in the forty+ years since his first LP was released. Throughout his long career, Blake has been at the forefront of multiple revivals of American roots music: in 1969, he brought Johnny Cash’s early Americana to millions as Cash’s house guitarist; the same year he joined Bob Dylan’s exploration of country roots, playing guitar on Nashville Skyline; in 1971 he helped create newgrass via John Hartford’s influential Aereo-Plain album; in 1971 he accompanied the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s homage to early country roots as part of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken sessions; in the 80s and 90s, Norman’s albums with his wife Nancy Blake set a new standard for acoustic roots music; in 2000, he was invited by T Bone Burnett to be a key part of the ground-breaking soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and he’s since appeared on the soundtrack of Hollywood films like Cold Mountain, Walk the Line, and Inside Llewyn Davis. Few artists can claim the influence that Blake has had, but throughout he’s never varied his formula, staying true to the roots of the music and to the stories that the old songs tell.
On January 20, 2015 Plectrafone Records, (The Old Time Country Division of Western Jubilee Recording Company), will release Norman Blake’s new album, Wood, Wire & Words. It’s his first album of all original songs in over 30 years! Wood, Wire & Words is a stripped-back acoustic album, just the way Blake likes it, featuring Blake’s vocals and guitar, with Nancy Blake joining on a song. The songs paint intricate and moving pictures of a rogue’s gallery of American outlaws and country folk. Black Bart and Joseph Hare (the outlaw of the Natchez Trace) appear here, as does ill-fated Mexican president Francisco Madero, assassinated in 1913, and the hapless postmaster of Cedar Springs, TN, Audrey Conda, who was gunned down on the job. Blake lays these story songs over a rolling riverbed of turn of the century ragtime guitar picking, his specialty. Born from a time when blues and hillbilly music were just beginning to be marketed to the masses, early ragtime guitar wasn’t afraid to pull in influences from continental Europe or down South in Mexico. On Wood, Wire & Words instrumental rags and a jaunty march rub shoulders with Blake’s nostalgia for an older, more innocent America. Blake has an uncanny ability to remix the roots of our American past and his songs on this album delve deep to tell these stories. He’s chronicling hard lives and bitter tales, but throughout there’s a strain of hope that maybe this time around we’ll learn from our mistakes; maybe we’ll learn from our past.
Our modern world teams with ghosts, with visions of remnants of our collective American past. Few people know these ghosts better than folk guitarist and songwriter Norman Blake, for few people have traveled as far on the back roads of American music as he has. With Wood, Wire & Words he returns to the roads around his home in Sulphur Springs, Georgia, drawing from a lifetime of performance to craft new songs on very old themes.
01/20/2015 | comments (0)
John Reischman & The Jaybirds
On A Winter's Night
To celebrate the deepening of winter and the coming of the holiday season, all-star West Coast bluegrass/roots ensemble John Reischman & The Jaybirds are releasing their new EP, On A Winter’s Night. It’s a lovely romp through the snowy backwoods of American roots music, inspired in part by the classic American Folk Songs for Christmas by composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (stepmom to Pete Seeger). First a book, then an LP and CD, the music Seeger compiled has inspired generations of musicians, but it also gave John Reischman a focal point for a new recording. It was a chance for John to showcase the talents of his stellar band, breaking The Jaybirds into different small ensembles for each track and giving each vocalist and instrumentalist a chance to shine. Staffed by some of the best acoustic musicians in North America, The Jaybirds weave an acoustic music tapestry behind these wintry songs and tunes.
On a Winter’s Night features John Reischman & The Jaybirds in fine form, each member clearly relishing the opportunity to turn in a new vision of these beautiful and evocative old songs. Bassist and vocalist Trisha Gagnon, a well-known solo roots artist in Canada, opens the album with her stunning take on the old spiritual “I Heard From Heaven Today,” and continues with the Child Ballad The Cherry Tree Carol (“Joseph and Mary”). Respected bluegrass guitarist Jim Nunally brings his vocals to the Doc Watson classic “A Roving On A Winter’s Night.” Ace fiddler Greg Spatz and masterful banjo picker Nick Hornbuckle clearly delight in one of the album’s instrumentals (“Breaking Up Christmas”), spinning banjo and fiddle lines around each other. The Jaybirds break into a quartet for a rousing bluegrass rendition of the classic “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby” and then close the album with John shining on mandolin for “Shine Like A Star in the Morning.” With so much talent, The Jaybirds operate as an incredibly tight unit, while John Reischman’s clear, cool playing on mandolin, mandola, and octave mandolin rings out as a beacon.
In a marketplace flooded with virtuosic ensembles, John Reischman & The Jaybirds have found a recipe to stand out from the rest: they go back to the roots of bluegrass and old-time music for their inspiration, then spin these roots into a new sound.
John Reischman & The Jaybirds: I Heard From Heaven Today
John Reischman & The Jaybirds: Breaking Up Christmas
12/09/2014 | comments (0)
The Sweet Lowdown: Chasing the Sun
There’s something about living on the edge of the Western world that tends to encourage far-reaching perspectives. Canadian roots trio The Sweet Lowdown certainly understand this. All three members (Miriam Sonstenes, fiddle; Amanda Blied, guitar; Shanti Bremer, banjo) hail from Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. With the rough waters of the Pacific behind them and the wilds of the Canadian North above them, The Sweet Lowdown have developed original acoustic roots music that draws from earth and sky for their third album, Chasing the Sun. Earth in the form of the Appalachian old-time stringband music that underpins and fuels their music, and sky in the form of the soaring that uplift their songs. This is mountain music to be sure; mountains tied to the natural environment of the Canadian Northwest. As such, you’ll hear influences in this music as far-ranging as Celtic jigs, Scandinavian fiddling, and that particularly Canadian blend of driving tradition and ground-breaking originality made famous by groups like The Duhks and The Wailin’ Jennys. The Sweet Lowdown draw from these influences, but are not beholden, instead blazing a new trail with original songwriting and innovative instrumental arrangements.
Each member of The Sweet Lowdown contributes creatively to the group, writing songs and tunes and trading off lead and harmony vocals. Each member also brings their own background in other forms of traditional music, contributing a creative diversity that accounts for the innovative and beautiful arrangements you’ll hear on this album: fiddler Miriam Sonstenes’ background as both a classical violinist and a purely traditional fiddler; guitarist Amanda Blied’s passion for Appalachian music as well as her early background in Balkan song; and banjo player Shanti Bremer’s love of hard-driving bluegrass banjo and her study of the darker tones of old-time clawhammer banjo. This whirling blend of influences could throw off any other band, but The Sweet Lowdown have a focus to their vision that fuses these disparate ingredients into a totally cohesive whole. This is old-time music with very new sensibilities.
Living so close to the natural beauty of British Columbia, the songs on Chasing the Sun stem from encounters with the natural world and from worries about the future of our environment. The opening track “River Winding Down” was inspired by the shocking sight of a flooded downtown Calgary as seen from an incoming plane, while “Fallout” was written about the continuing tragedy of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Other tracks on the album channel the wonder and grandeur of nature, from the title track which refers to a stunning sunrise seen when leaving Victoria, to the song “You Can Find the North,” which uses astronomy to chart a path out of the confines of the modern city. The music of The Sweet Lowdown comes from a generation of powerfully talented young roots musicians who have taken the music on as their own as a shield to protect the creative spirit from the crushing pressures of the 21st century. This is music as memory and as a force for change, and as The Sweet Lowdown sing in “Leaving”: “I’ll hold on to one sweet memory, singing songs until the dawn.”
The Sweet Lowdown: "Chasing the Sun"
The Sweet Lowdown: "River Winding Down"
11/20/2014 | comments (0)
Cassie & Maggie MacDonald: Sterling Road
Born in Halifax, but raised in the little seaside village of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, within sight of both Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, sisters Cassie & Maggie MacDonald are heirs to the traditions of Maritime Canada. On their new album, Sterling Road, they show a remarkable deftness for interpreting these traditions, from the fiery reels of Cape Breton to the lilting polkas of their home region, the old Irish and Scottish songs that nestled into the seabord towns on the coast, and the traditions of Scottish Gaelic that still have a home there. The MacDonald’s music is a beautiful blend of all these Celtic sounds, anchored by the powerful, lively fiddling of elder sister Cassie MacDonald and the beautiful guitar and piano work and clear-as-a-mountain-spring vocals of her younger sister Maggie MacDonald. This is the kind of family music that has always fueled the Maritimes, and there’s a very real closeness in this music that can only come from siblings making music together.
Sterling Road was produced with cutting-edge Canadian composer and roots musician Andrew Collins, who keeps the focus on the remarkable energy and power that Cassie & Maggie MacDonald put out on stage. It’s undeniable that Cape Breton fiddle and piano is some of the most rhythmically powerful traditional music in Canada, but Cassie & Maggie bring the same rhythmic punch to tunes of their own composition, like opening track “Jimmie’s” which Cassie wrote for her uncle Jimmie MacDonald and the family farm in Antigonish that’s been in the family since the 1800s, or “Hurricane Jane” which Cassie wrote as a nickname for her sister! One of the sweetest tracks on the album, the “Starlight Waltz” is done in homage to the sisters’ celebrated fiddling grandfather Hugh A. MacDonald, who recorded the tune on the “Celtic” music label in Montreal in 1935. Not many people can lay claim to a heritage like this that ranges from scratchy old 78rpm records to fireplace polka sets in a little village by the sea in Nova Scotia. It’s all part of the uniquely Canadian heritage that Cassie & Maggie MacDonald inherited and are now paying homage to on an international scale.
The other remarkable discovery on this album is the beautiful singing of both sisters. Maggie MacDonald, who leads the songs, has wonderful interpretations of traditional ballads like “The King’s Shilling,” which laments the cost of war, and the traditional Scots Gaelic milling song “Buain A’ Choirce” (Reaping the Oats). Maggie’s voice rings pure and clear, like the great singers of Scotland and Ireland, and together the sisters have the loveliest harmonies. Cassie MacDonald also contributes a song she wrote, the charming “Sweet Melodies,” and, together with Maggie, reworks the ending of “Sisters,” an ancient song of two sisters torn apart by the love of a man, which Cassie & Maggie tackle ironically. Sterling Road is a great joy to listen to, and its even greater joy is that the music of the MacDonalds still rings clear in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and now throughout the world.
Cassie & Maggie MacDonald: "Polkas"
Cassie & Maggie MacDonald: "The King's Shilling"
11/05/2014 | comments (0)
Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons : Take Yo Time
The history of American roots music in the early 20th century could never fit into an encyclopedia. It’s too ramshackle, too rambunctious, too radical. Fiddlers, guitarists, banjo players, and all kinds of folks rambled those early roads, learning from each other, inspiring each other, and pushing the music in new directions. Music constantly switched back and forth across the racial divide, beholden only to the beat and the dance. It’s this fevered period of musical exchange that inspires Northwest roots music duo Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons. The songs on their new album, Take Yo Time, tap into everything from the hokum jugbands of Gus Cannon and the Memphis Sheiks, to country blues masters Reverend Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell. They also touch on ancient English ballads like “House Carpenter,” Appalachian murder ballads like the classic “Tom Dooley,” and the early jazz compositions of Shelton Brooks and Duke Ellington. All of these traditions are tied together in the swirling musical whirlpool of pre-war American music. With a well-rosined fiddle and an old banjo, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons are tracing these backroads, bringing the songs back to life.
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons met at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, learning at the feet of the elders. They found an affinity in the many branches that tied into the blues and created this duo as a way to explore these branches. Their musical kinship and sense of joy in interpreting this music is evident and was the basis of an invitation from Dom Flemons (formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) to form his band when he went solo. Ben and Joe joined Dom on his recent album, Prospect Hill, and toured the US with him, furthering their knowledge of Anglo and African American music traditions. Rather than thinking of their music as blues, it’s best to situate Ben and Joe (and Dom) as American songsters. A songster traditionally refers to an African-American artist whose repertoire is much broader than the old blues, and spans many of the genres that Ben and Joe inhabit. Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt are classic examples of songsters. Whatever you want to call it, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons make American music. They make music that hews to the rough-and-tumble collisions of musical inspirations from the early 20th century; music that paved the way for everything we enjoy today.
Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons: "Buck Rag"
Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons: "Goin' to German"
11/05/2014 | comments (0)
The Show Ponies: Run For Your Life
There’s California sunshine in the music of Los Angeles indie Americana band The Show Ponies, even a hint of that West Coast brand of optimism. Joined by special guest bluegrass banjo master Noam Pikelny, their new EP, Run For Your Life, showcases their driving hooks and good-humored harmonies, even while tackling tough subjects like life in the modern world. The Show Ponies tour hard, play hard, and take the business of their craft seriously. Each of their albums, including their new EP, have been crowd funded from their many fans and supporters, and they frequently tour to rapturous crowds. It helps that they have a fantastically entertaining live show, but what’s surprising is that they’re able to translate the intensity of their stage performances to the recording studio, a traditionally difficult feat. On Run For Your Life, The Show Ponies channel their bluegrass roots into a new kind of indie Americana, flush with racing fiddle lines, barn-burning banjo solos, and the kind of old-school harmonies that are still at the heart of American roots music. But they’re also children of a new century, and their songs are written for their new life on the road; each member of The Show Ponies has now quit their day job and the band is going full bore. This gives new meaning to the title of the EP, Run For Your Life!
Founded by lead singers and songwriters Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney, The Show Ponies includes guitarist and producer Jason Harris, champion fiddler Philip Glenn, and master percussionist Kevin Brown. The music they make now can be described as Bluegrass-Infused Americana, but really they’re just making songs that speak to their lives today. “Honey, Dog and Home” reflects the reality of hard-touring bands, as Carder sings of being 14 days on the road and how hard it is to keep up appearances. The title track, “Run For Your Life,” showcases The Show Ponies tight, complex arrangements and rollicking full band sound, but also speaks to our modern reality of debt-ridden malaise. The only way out is to “run for your life!” Using old-school call-and-response singing, the light-hearted “Stupid,” is a romp of a love song that’s brings in an early 1940s big band jazz sound. “Get Me While I’m Young” chronicles the struggles of translating young love into marriage, while the final track “Some Lonesome Tune” offers a deeply powerful perspective on modern faith.
The Show Ponies’ new EP is the perfect introduction to their music, and they couldn’t have made it without the help of banjo master Noam Pikelny. Noam came onboard to be a part of the EP, joining The Show Ponies on the songs “Honey, Dog and Home” and “Stupid.” Just a few weeks later, Noam was at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards picking up Album of the Year and Banjo Player of the Year!
With Run For Your Life, The Show Ponies are crafting anthems for their generation, fueled by soaring vocals, ultra-tight picking, meticulously arranged instrumental parts, and masterful musicianship. This is a band that wears their hearts on their sleeves and is only looking for room to run.
The Show Ponies: "Honey, Dog and Home, featuring Noam Pikelny"
The Show Ponies: "Run For Your Life"