Let me first say that I hate folk-pop music. God, how I hate it. I hate it because invariably the folk is the smallest consideration in the equation. It's usually just standard pop music with one acoustic guitar in the mix. Or now, with a banjo. Hell, I don't even really like "folk" music that much. Too often "folk" means Martin guitar-slinging singer-songwriter with overly simplified emo songs. What I like is music that feels like it's made with other people in mind. Not one person looking to get out some unresolved emotions, but one person who wants to make songs that can touch other people and resonate in someone else's life. Andrew Duhon is just that kind of songwriter, and I found myself utterly won over listening to his new album, The Moorings (which drops April 30).
Duhon writes folk-pop, but not the kind I hate. He writes songs that will trick lazy listeners into believing they're disposable pop songs, when really there are deep and solidly rooted foundations beneath the surface. That's why his music works. Pop is meant to be shallow and ethereal, to evaporate in the summer sun. It's a bit of a mirage, really. Or maybe an iceberg would be a better metaphor. Duhon's music has depth because he's drawing not only from different traditions–the hazy harmonica folk of "Shelter You Through", the burned-out Delta roadhouse wreck of "Sidestep Your Grave", the Celtic-tinged sea-drenched singalong of "The Mooring"–but he's also drawing water from a deeper well of human experience. The hairline fractures that run through his vocals inflect his singing with enough humility that you find yourself drawn into the song, looking for the story behind the lyrics. As for Duhon's story, I really don't know anything about him. I know it's a good album when I don't even care who the artist is. When I'm not looking for a story to help me understand the artist, I know that I've found music that was meant to reach further than just one person.
For More Info about Andrew Duhon, check out this quick piece in the very very excellent blog CMT Edge.
04/06/2013 | comments (0)
John Reischman is one of the premier mandolinists of his generation. He’s a master instrumentalist capable of swinging between re-inventions of traditional old-time tunes, deconstructions from the bluegrass repertoire, and compelling original tunes. He’s also a powerful bandleader, touring his band the Jaybirds all over Canada and the United States. But most of all, he’s an understated visionary, the kind of master craftsman whose music is virtuosic without ever being flashy and who is renowned for his impeccable taste and tone as an artist. John Reischman embodies the true spirit of bluegrass in the 21st century.
Walk Along John is John Reischman’s first solo instrumental album in thirteen years, and it’s a triumphant return to form. It’s also a celebration of his seminal influence in the world of bluegrass and “new acoustic music,” a movement he contributed to with Tony Rice in the 1980s. A new generation of musicians has now grown up playing his tunes at jams and obsessing over his recordings. Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers joins John on the opening tune “Itzbin Reel,” an early composition of John’s that Chris has been playing since the age of 8. Eli West, from Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, listened endlessly to John’s recordings while studying in college and guests on the album as well. Other next gen star players on the album include Sam Grisman and Mike Barnett from the young grasscore band The Deadly Gentlemen, and Canadian clawhammer banjo king Chris Coole. Old friends return as well, from renowned old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky to innovative banjo genius Tony Trischka and star bluegrass guitarist Kenny Smith, not to mention members of John’s band The Jaybirds. But the real focus of the album is John’s musicianship, both as an artist and as a composer. His compositions, many of which have become jamming standards, run the gamut from the old-timey “Little Pine Siskin” to the bluesy (in the Dock Boggs sense) “Gold Mountain Blues,” the eerily modal “Ice on the Dogwater,” the blazing Bill Monroe tribute tune “Joe Ahr’s Dream,” and the softly gentle waltzes “Anisa’s Lullaby” and “A Prairie Jewel.” John’s compositions shine here because he has the subtle ability to draw out the true heart of the melody. He does this through his lifelong obsession with obtaining the purest tones from his mandolin playing. It’s the same quest that drove Monroe to the roots of the music looking for “ancient tones,” and it’s a quest shared by other great mandolinists. Coupled with his renowned sense of musical taste, John Reischman is able to redefine the sound of bluegrass mandolin without ever veering away from the traditions at its core.
Walk Along John plumbs the deepest level of John Reischman’s talent. His years of touring, guesting, and inspiring have given his music a weight that few other artists have attained. After 35 years of playing at the forefront of the American bluegrass tradition, it should come as no surprise that he still has a lot to say.
John Reischman w/Chris Thile - Itzbin Reel
John Reischman w/Bruce Molsky - Walk Along John to Kansas
04/04/2013 | comments (0)
I met Anna Tivel at the same fateful Triple Door show that brought me Inside the Songs features for Jeffrey Martin and Nathaniel Talbot, and the three are all friends and colleagues. Together they're building quite a creative songwriting community! On her new album, Brimstone Lullaby, Anna Tivel (recording with her band as Anna and the Underbelly) brings a raft of beautiful songs with brine-soaked images of Pacific Northwest tidepools, oceans, and the birds that wheel above them in the gray skies. Her gentle, fragile voice sounds a bit like Laura Veirs, and brings to mind the same effortless folk phrasing and soft inflections of Veirs' best work. We loved the songs on her new album and wanted to catch up with her to find out more.
Inside the Songs with Portland songwriter Anna Tivel
Rosy-colored Skulls is a song about watching the world go by from a treehouse. I used to live in the top story of a house in north Portland, and spent a lot of time sitting at the tiny kitchen table playing guitar and writing and looking out the window. The cutest firecracker of a seven year old girl lived next door, and I wrote that song watching her play with her friend down by the woodpile. They made up this game with lava and monsters and a wooden city and about nine thousand different rules. It made me think about what it is to be young and see so much magic everywhere, even in the places where the rest of the world can find very little, like dirt fields, and woodpiles, and concrete steps. It's about feeling hopeful and innocent and free, and about falling asleep and waking up trusting that there's good to be seen and done and had.
Reservation Road was a poem I wrote about this eerie stretch of road in my little hometown in Northern Washington. It's the first song I ever wrote from a poem, which is probably why it only has lots of words and next to none chords. Driving there late at night always gave me this feeling that time had slowed down to a crawl and everyone was hanging suspended in it, just waiting and watching for something. Maybe waiting to leave town, or for things to get better, or for someone to come home. It's the kind of quiet road where you can hear a dog barking somewhere far away, or a coyote, and the few houses through the trees are dark except for the blue flicker of a TV, or the glow of someone's cigarette on the porch, even at 3 or 4 in the morning.
I wrote Brimstone Lullaby in that same north Portland house. It had the best windows overlooking a park:) I guess sometimes I spend more time looking out windows or into windows than actually existing in the places where I am. Anyway, that little neighborhood park had so many different kinds of people and so much life going on. Daytime and nighttime were vastly different in their colors and sounds. There were gospel concerts in the summer, kids trying to chase each other and make out with each other, people lurking and dealing on the corners, people walking around and around yelling and talking to themselves, babies screaming and parents screaming and dogs barking and always the sound of sirens and ice cream trucks and basketballs thumping and bass lines thumping in the cars going by. I've never lived somewhere so alive, where people do everything as loud as they can, where they rejoice, and play, and fight, and sob with everything they have. The song is sort of about how people live and believe in things with their whole hearts in order to survive. And when something difficult and terrible comes and shoots it out of the sky, they find a way to keep trudging along and something else to believe in and hold on to just to get by.
04/03/2013 | comments (0)
There’s a rambler at the heart of Woody Pines, a rounder nestled into the heart of his music. It’s the kind of rambler that motored Robert Johnson’s car, the vagabond spirit that pushed Kerouac on frenetic road trips across the US, the aimless soul that rode trains with Woody Guthrie. This trickster character is the very core of American roots music, and Woody Pines knows it well. His songs are filled with these characters: wandering broken hearts, swaggering pimps, crusty hobos, but he himself has lived these stories. Woody’s journey has taken him from street corners and smoky bars to folk festivals and the Grand Ole Opry, but he started with Bob Dylan. As a child, unable to read music, he made up new tunes for the Bob Dylan songbooks around his house. Later, he hitchhiked with a friend to visit his heroes such as Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Utah Philips. By the age of nineteen, he’d already played in forty-nine states. Since then he’s lived as a street performer in New Orleans, wandered the West Coast leading the legendary underground jugband The Kitchen Syncopators, set up home in a trailer in Asheville and now Nashville, and cut four solo albums full of his wickedly inventive musings on American roots music. His last album, You Gotta Roll, was lauded by No Depression as “old-time feel-good music done by a young master who clearly understands that this kind of music was always about having a great time,” and PopMatters, who declared it “a delightful vintage Americana romp.”
With his brand-new, full-length album, Rabbits Motel, Woody Pines returns to the roads that have long inspired him, packing along his many inspirations, from Bill Haley to Leadbelly, Chuck Berry to Hank Williams, and Sam Cook to Doc Watson. True to form, most of the songs on the album are original, though we challenge you to tell us which ones just from listening. This is juke joint music, the kind of roadhouse songs that are made to get people up and dancing. With Rabbits Motel, Woody took the time to really use the studio to his advantage, bringing a much harder edge to his music. Still thoroughly grounded in the blues and rags of before, this album has a strong independent streak. The song “Hobo & His Bride” starts from a folk song foundation but winds up a kind of epic tale about young lovers. “Railroad Vine” speaks of long train travels while channeling a dusty Southwest vibe. The infectious opening song “Like I Do” bumps along like a pickup on an old dirt road, singing about shattered relationships. Woody Pines’ new full studio sound leaves the street corner behind, but opens up rich new possibilities.
On his new album, Rabbits Motel, Woody Pines plays with the American traditions he fell in love with years ago as a teenager. He subverts these traditions, pressing them into new shapes, forcing them through new genres, and building a new sound out of the junkyard scraps from over a century of recorded music. But his album should come with a “Don’t try this at home” warning! Unless you’ve actually traveled the backroads of America like Woody, or unless you’ve spent countless hours poring over old 78s learning mostly forgotten old songs, don’t try what he’s attempting here! The reason Woody can push the envelope the way he does is because he lives his songs and sings his life.
Woody Pines: "Hobo & His Bride":
Woody Pines: "Like I Do":
03/27/2013 | comments (0)
Our pile of awesome new albums of Southern old-time music is growing by the day and this makes us happy! There's nothing we like more than lots of albums of barn-burning fiddle and banjo duets, or eerie old mountain ballads. Here's our latest finds and delights, check 'em out and enjoy!
Bruce Molsky. If It Ain't Here When I Get Back.
2013. Tree Frog Music.
Bruce Molsky is one of the premiere old-time fiddlers in the world, despite the fact that he hails originally from the Bronx and didn't get his start in the music until he was in his 40s. But he's sure made up for lost time and geographical differences! If It Ain't Here When I Get Back is his first solo album in six years, though he's been touring and performing with various other groups and ensembles. He's been busy for sure, but it's nice that he's circled back to his original inspirations. Like previous Molsky albums, this really is a solo affair. It's just him on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and his brittle-glass vocals (plus he produced it). And it's lovely, of course. He draws the songs and tunes from his prime inspirations, which means this is more eclectic than you might think. "Bimini Gal" is a fun and rhythmic guitar number inspired by the great Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence, and he includes tunes from other inspirations like Metis and Irish fiddlers. But the emphasis on this album is more on old-time than his previous albums. There's much here for true-blue old-time music heads, like the shifty fiddling on "Rattle Down the Acorns" from lesser-known fiddler Delbert Hughes, Molsky's softly sublime clawhammer banjo playing on classic tune "Johnny Booger", and a sweet version of the chestnut "Bonaparte's Retreat" from the fiddler in John Dilleshaw's wonderfully named band "Seven Foot Dilly and his Dill Pickles". I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something that might be a bit controversial: the best part of any Bruce Molsky album is not his fiddling, but his singing. On each album he includes a tour-de-force song of absolute beauty, not just in his singing but in his quietly assured phrasing that manages to let the words float first into our minds. On his last album he cut a version of "The Brave Cowboy" that was utterly heart-rending (I was so happy to see my friends Cahalen Morrison & Eli West cover this version on their new album). Here that song is "Piney Mountains" from old-time songwriter Craig Johnson. I hadn't really heard of Johnson before this but I immediately went out and bought his album to hear his version of this song. Johnson passed away not too long ago, but he was renowned as an old-time singer and songwriter, and his ice-fragile vocals and cracked mountain accent are a wonder to hear. "Piney Mountains" is a song about rough living in the mountains ("Lost my fingers in the Galax mill"... "I started out logging when I was in my prime/Woman don't you weep for me"). It's one of the best examples I've ever heard of true mountain blues. Kudos to Molsky not only for finding this amazing gem, but also for pulling out the heart of it for us to see.
Of course this as an album from an absolute master. Of course the music here is just fabulous. Of course you'll find new tunes or new players by buying and listening to this album. Of course you won't regret your purchase. So pick up your copy already!
Bruce Molsky: Rattle Down the Acorns
Bruce Molsky: Piney Mountains (C. Johnson)
If you'd like to find out more about Craig Johnson, check out his only solo album here:
Craig Johnson - Away Down the Road
Tom Paley's Old-Time Moonshine Revue. Roll On, Roll On.
2012. Hornbeam Recordings.
Old-time singer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Paley has been around the block... to say the least. Cutting his first album for Elektra in 1953, he became a lynchpin of the folk revival through his early work in the seminal stringband The New Lost City Ramblers. Along with Mike Seeger and John Cohen, Paley influenced a generation of roots musicians, not least Bob Dylan, who was a huge fan of the Ramblers. Paley's got the kind of autobiography where he can casually drop that he taught Ry Cooder his open guitar tunings. And booked (and played!) gigs with Woody Guthrie. Not many can claim that anymore. But unlike Seeger or Cohen, Paley left the US and left the scene in the early 1960s, moving to England. He was replaced by Tracy Schwarz in the Ramblers, and spent the rest of his years until now living in the UK and playing regionally. With his new album, Roll On, Roll On, here's hoping that his name will move back to the top of old-time and American roots music elders.
Roll On, Roll On is a homey affair, just Paley and some UK friends, plus his son Ben, playing through some classic tunes from the old-time repertoire like "Little Birdie", "Whiskey Seller", "Devilish Mary" and others. But there's such a lovely weight to his voice... the weight of years and years spent at the forefront of a cultural movement. Perhaps most importantly, he's clearly still having fun with the traditions. "Beelzebubbles" is a charmingly funny song about the daughter of the devil that Paley wrote and set to the tune of an old Charlie Poole song. The ballad "The Morning of 1845" has some lovely notes from Paley that show his sense of the fun behind the music: "We usually think of ballads as being about weighty matters, like war, murder, death and disasters, but this one, though a ballad in the sense of a story-telling song, just deals with getting drunk and going off to a dance."
He may move a bit slower now than in the rambling rough-and-tumble days of the New Lost City Ramblers, but Paley's just as nimble as ever with this old music and his love through the years for the music shines through clearly.
Tom Paley's Old Time Moonshine Revue: Whiskey Seller
Erynn Marshall & Friends. Tune Tramp.
2012. Hickoryjack Music.
Erynn chose the name Tune Tramp for herself as a way to convey the wide-ranging promiscuity of old-time music jammers. Some of these jammers travel all over the US, Canada, even the world looking for the great jams and reveling in the fun of picking and playing with friends. I call them "jam hounds", and could probably be considered one myself. I've jammed with Erynn a few times, in fact, and she's a wonderful jamming partner. Open to any tune, considerate about not bringing out super-hard or super-obscure tunes if the players aren't up for it, and genuinely happy to be playing with people no matter their level as musicians. It's a breath of fresh air in a world where star players can sequester themselves in back rooms hiding from the legions of lower-level players who want to jam with them. Jamming isn't always the most egalitarian activity (though it should be) and Erynn is a strong force towards changing that. She's also a strong force for the preservation and continuation of Appalachian old-time music and fiddling. Though she was originally from Canada, she lives now in Galax, VA, leading the Blue Ridge Music Center at the heart of Appalachian old-time's motherland. It's the perfect place for such an outgoing advocate for the music and she's been doing great work there.
With Tune Tramp, Erynn documents some of her travels across the US and Canada, each track a kind of field recording of her playing with friends. And what friends! The guest list reads like a who's-who of old-time music: Skip Gorman, Kirk Sutphin, Rafe & Clelia Stefanini, Pharis & Jason Romero, Chris Coole, Foghorn Stringband, The Canote Brothers, Paul Brown, Bruce Greene, Eddie Bond, John Harrod, even young Cajun all-stars Joel Savoy and Kelli Jones-Savoy. Some of this is called keepin-it-in-the-family: Erynn's engaged to ace old-time mandolinist and songwriter Carl Jones, who's Kelli's father, so there's that. And Erynn and The Romeros had an amazing old-time band together for a few years called The Haints. But the rest of the folks here are all traveling friends. As with any kind of far-reaching album like this, there are real gems here. "Trouble on the Mind" from beloved Kentucky fiddler John Salyer is played here with such thoughtful expression that Erynn's really able to bring out the beautiful melody. "Tune Tramp," a song written by Carl Jones based on the album's title is a lovely ode to the long travels that traditional musicians undergo to learn and spread tunes. "Rambler's Blues," an old Stanley Brothers cut, sounds amazing with Caleb Klauder and Sammy Lind from Foghorn Stringband trading vocals, and Joel & Kelli Savoy turn a great Cajun version of the song "Poor Hobo." Billy McCumbers is a great find here; he's the son of aged West Virginia fiddler Lester McCumbers and a powerful Appalachian singer in his own right on "Silver Bridge." This album is a joy throughout and a great look at old-time music as it's passed between generations.
Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness. Fine Times At Our House.
Young clawhammer banjo player Adam Hurt is widely considered to be an intense virtuoso on his instrument, and his new album with guitarist and singer Beth Williams Hartness is pretty much another case of proof-positive. His playing is effortlessly melodic, no small feat for an instrument (the clawhammer banjo) whose playing is designed for rhythm first and melody second (or third). The particular playing style of clawhammer banjo, in which pickers have to keep returning to the high-pitched fifth string at rapid intervals has always hampered players looking to bring out full and complete melodies. Of course this "limitation" has also given the banjo its characteristic rhythmic punch, and in the hands of a great player like Hurt, you get an instrument that can punch through a melody like machine gun fire. Don't think for a second that Hurt is bound by the old Ken Perlman melodic clawhammer banjo school that, though beautiful, frequently overclutters the playing with complex machinations designed to play every note of a fiddle tune. Rather, Hurt floats between this school and the dazzling power of the old guard of Appalachian clawhammer banjo players, able to bring out the essence of every tune without sacrificing a second of rhythmic intensity. It's a tour-de-force.
On Fine Times at Our House, Hurt fiddles along wonderfully as well. Is there anything he can't do in old-time music? The tunes are chosen with care, and though mostly well known, each tune sounds as fresh and new as the day it was written. Special love should be given to Hurt's cover of the sublime newly composed tune "Obama's March to the White House" from Seattle's Greg Canote. This and Red Prairie Dawn from Garry Harrison are two of the best new tunes these days and deserve to be played by all and sundry. Fine Times at Our House is an easy romp from one of the best clawhammer banjo players around, and it's an all-around great joy to listen to.
Adam Hurt: Richmond
Metis Fiddler Quartet. North West Voyage Nord Ouest.
I'm not sure Métis fiddling really qualifies as old-time music (though it's certainly old-timey), but heck, if it's good enough for Bruce Molsky, then it's good enough for me! Métis fiddling comes from the mixed populations living in Canada's Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces–and down into North Dakota and Montana in the States. The Métis people come from the intermarriage and genetic mixing of Native American and French-Canadians, historically based around the fur trade. There's a long and intense history here and much for the Métis to be proud of today; after all, they shaped the character and content of Western Canada and roamed the plains for a couple centuries as avowed badasses.
In the world of traditional North American fiddling, the Métis borrowed a lot from their French-Canadian roots, but the music was refracted through their Native American heritage. Tunes that might be recognizable in French-Canadian quarters were fractured and rebuilt, reflecting new rhythms and ideas that bend the tunes to a whole new cultural world. It's quite a wondrous thing, and great Métis fiddlers like John Arcand or Teddy Boy Houle never cease to amaze and inspire me. For the young members of Metis Fiddler Quartet, these inspirations have directly guided them and their debut album pays clear homage to the elders. Both Houle and Arcand taught the kids directly, or had a hand in the tunes they've chosen for the album. The tunes are arranged somewhat, since the instruments for this quartet are twin fiddles, guitar, and cello. The arrangements help bring new character to the tunes though, and the tunes are played with a remarkable dexterity in players so young. This album is clearly the start of a bright career as these young kids bring Métis fiddling to a new generation, and kudos to them for having such a clear respect for the traditions. This album is a pleasure to enjoy and I hope these kids go very far!
03/24/2013 | comments (0)
Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, that venerated holiday of green beer, ugly shamrocks, and watered-down Irish culture, trad supergroup Dervish is back with one of their hottest albums yet. While their past albums have lightly been pushing on the walls of the Irish tradition bit by bit, the new album, The Thrush in the Storm, is a solid return to their roots in the Irish session culture of County Sligo. The tunes fly fast and furious here, and Dervish again earn their title as one of the most technically dazzling bands in Irish traditional music today. I heard (but can't confirm) that this album was made in 5 days, and only Dervish could pull off something like that. I'm sure just hanging around and jamming they sound about this great.
The Thrush in the Storm is an even split between sets of instrumental dance tunes and songs. In the songs, of course, singer Cathy Jordan is a revelation as always. Her voice sparkles like a clear mountain stream, as she flows effortlessly through beautiful and rare songs in English and Irish Gaelic. "Baba Chonraoi" is a standout here, the story of a young girl mistreated by her (forcibly) adopted family who deserts to run away with the English army. Though you may not understand the Gaelic vocals, the song is remarkably touching nonetheless. "Handsome Polly-O" is a great example of Jordan's trademark ability to sing the more rhythmic and sprightly songs of the Irish tradition. Her voice is remarkably nimble here, and she navigates the twists and turns of the song with effortless ease. "The Lover's Token" is a beautiful and seemingly old ballad that tells of a love returning from war to test the faith of his beloved. It's a stunning showcase for Jordan's arresting vocals and a great song to boot.
Instrumentally Dervish are at the top of their game. They can blaze through a set of reels better than pretty much anyone else out there. But there are some nice slower moments here as well, perhaps more than on other Dervish albums. "The Harp and the Shamrock" is a lovely set of of hornpipes, I believe, that Dervish plows through ever so softly and carefully. It's a nice moment of restraint for a band perhaps better known for their show-stopping instrumentals. It's also nice to hear "The Rolling Wave", a set of beautiful jigs that ends with the ubiquitous tune, "The Rolling Wave". Dervish have nothing left to prove, having already cut albums full of rare and obscure tunes, so it's nice for them to have a victory lap around this old chestnut.
If you've never heard Dervish before, this album shows them at their best. If you have heard the before, then this album is a return to their most traditional roots and a great showcase for a band totally at ease with the music. Either way, this is about the best you can find today or any day in the world of Irish traditional music!
Dervish: Baba Chonrai