Old Archives

CD Review: Celtic Fiddle Festival Take a Victory Lap

Celtic Fiddle Festival. Live in Brittany, 20th Anniversary Concert.
2013. Loftus Music.

Hard to believe it's been 20 years since the first Celtic Fiddle Festival album. I must have been 12 or 13 years old and I got that first album for Christmas. I put it on that night, and listened to it over and over on my little yellow walkman. I just couldn't believe the music. The swiftly flowing and wickedly twisted fiddling of master Irish musician Kevin Burke, the inherent stomping beats in the fiddling of Johnny Cunningham, and of course the utterly haunted and eerie fiddle tunes from Breton master fiddler Christian Lemaître. It helped set me down the path of a lifelong love of Celtic fiddling, and each fiddler became a touchstone to me. Sadly, Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham passed away some years ago, but his replacement, young Québécois fiddle powerhouse André Brunet was a godsend to me. His fiddling was so explosive and full of joy, that it reaffirmed how much I loved the music of French Canada, the music of my own heritage. Honestly, for me, the be-all-and-end-all of Celtic music is Celtic Fiddle Festival. I can't think of a better band.

Their new album, Live in Brittany, only serves to cement their reputation. The general idea of Celtic Fiddle Festival is to bring three grandmasters (and one master guitarist: Breton Nicolas Quémener in this case) together on stage and give them both a chance to shine individually and a chance to showcase their group arrangements. Thus each fiddler here gets a track or two just them and guitar, and there are four tracks where they all play together. It's hard to say which aspect of the album is better: the solo or the group. Solo, Kevin Burke's understated genius really comes through. As he gets further into a lifelong career that's seen him rise to the top as one of the very best living Irish fiddlers, he seems less and less interested in the traditional Irish trad album structures, where rarer and rarer tunes are sourced or original tunes composed if there aren't enough rare tunes found. Rather, he's taking victory laps here around the track of some very old chestnuts. Which isn't a bad thing at all. With Burke at the helm, these old tunes take on an entirely new life. "Galway Bay" and "Drunken Sailor" (both from the unique fiddling of Tommy Potts) are utterly sublime here and could both serve as primers on how to bring a transcendental beauty to traditional music. Christian Lemaître is in fine form as ever, bringing forth a goodly number of new, creepy Breton tunes. His slow airs are still some of the most haunting fiddling I know. And of course André Brunet brings his irrepressible energy back to the group. First with a set of lovely French-Canadian jigs (called 6/8 or "six-huits" in Québec), and then with two gorgeous and lush waltzes from his own pen. I've always felt that French Canada has the market cornered on intricate and beautiful waltzes, so it's nice to hear them get their due here.

The whole album was recorded live at an intimate concert in the ancient Breton town of Guémené-sur-Scorff, where guitarist Nicolas Quémener lives (I should mention too that Quémener turns in a truly beautiful set of guitar-picked fiddle tunes on the album). The setting and atmosphere of the concert can be felt through the recording and it all adds up to another stellar outing from Celtic Fiddle Festival. Whenever I hear their music, I'm taken back to that Christmas 20 years ago when I first discovered the magic of Celtic music. I hope you'll feel some of that magic too when listening to this album.

Celtic Fiddle Festival: Gavottes 'Swing'

Celtic Fiddle Festival: Galway Bay/The Drunken Sailor



blog date 05/08/2013  | comments comments (0)

HearthPR: Scots Gaelic Singer Joy Dunlop's Argyll Home

In our globalized, digital world, it’s amazing how powerful it can be to turn away from the noise and bustle to focus on one small, beautiful place. This is exactly what Scottish traditional singer Joy Dunlop has done with her new album, Faileasan (Reflections), pronounced “Fah- luh-sun.” She’s turned her head from the larger world to draw forth the raw and vibrantly alive music of her home region of Argyll, Scotland. A vocalist renowned for her ability to breath freshness into even the most traditional material, Joy brings ancient music traditions into the
twenty-first century with elegance and ease.

Raised in a small village in the Western Highlands of Scotland, Joy was steeped in the musical traditions of Argyll since childhood. She has been singing all her life, getting her start performing as a child in ceilidhs, and has risen to great honors as a vocalist, winning Gaelic Singer of the Year in 2010 and 2011 and the Royal National Mod Gold Medal in 2010. But Joy is more than a singer: she is an ambassador of Gaelic culture in the widest sense. She teaches, performs, translates, interprets, writes a newspaper column, and even appears in Gaelic language TV programming. Her signature across all her work is the generosity with which she shares her culture, and the enthusiasm she brings to her interpretations. Her haunting debut album, Dùsgadh (Awakening), won both the Scots New Music Award “Roots Recording of the Year” and the Fatea “Tradition” Award. In Faileasan, Joy ventures further into Scotland’s musical history, synthesizing the best of Gaelic vocal traditions with contemporary playing and poetry into a timeless whole.

Faileasan is not only a beautiful recording but also a carefully curated tour through life in Argyll. A unique production in today’s global music industry, Faileasan is an intensely local affair: all elements of the album were sourced from Argyll itself, from the material to the performers to the design/photography. Some of the songs take their words from contemporary Scottish poetry and their melody from recent compositions, while others are highly traditional, sourced from oral traditions and field recordings. “’S fhad’ an sealladh”, a waulking (clothmaking) song, even features a clip from the archives, sung by Nan MacKinnon in the 1950s. Joy’s translations of the lyrics and interpretive comments are included in her liner notes, keeping the songs accessible across language barriers. But no translation is needed for the emotional power of the songs, which shine through in Joy’s voice. Her arrangements are sparse yet precise, allowing Joy’s poignant, effortless vocals to float over the support of many of Argyll’s finest traditional musicians, including Aidan O’Rourke, Lorne MacDougall (bagpiper on the soundtrack of Disney Pixar’s Brave) and Donald Shaw and Karen Matheson of Capercaillie.

In Faileasan, Joy Dunlop focuses the brilliance of her voice and breadth of her knowledge on the material closest to her heart. The result is an album deeply grounded in the authenticity and traditions of Scotland, yet infused with the energy and creativity of a new generation, all lit up with the passion and power of Joy’s shimmering voice.

Joy Dunlop: Ma phòsas mi idir, cha ghabh mi tè mhòr

Joy Dunlop: 'S daor a cheannaich mi 'phóg



blog date 05/06/2013  | comments comments (0)

CD Reviews: Scandinavian Roots Roundup - Denmark & Finland

The albums have been piling up here at Hearth Music HQ, and I've been getting pretty behind! My apologies for that, but I think you'll agree that these four beautiful albums from Scandinavia were worth the wait.


Harald Haugaard: Den Femte Søster (The Fifth Sister)
2012. Pile House Records.

I first heard Danish fiddler Harald Haugaard when he was touring the US as part of his former group, duo Haugaard & Høirup. Høirup was the excellent Danish guitarist and cultural impresario Morten Alfred Høirup, and what a great group they were!! Their album Gastebud is one of my most favorite Scandinavian albums, though probably also because of some sweet guest spots from Le Vent du Nord. Anyways, that duo split up and Harald has embarked on a solo career and also a duo career with the truly wonderful Danish singer Helene Blum (also his wife). Harald released Den Femte Søster (The Fifth Sister), his newest solo album, in early 2012 and I highly recommend it not only to anyone interested in Scandinavian fiddling, but just fiddling in general. His playing on tracks like "The King Arrives" is so epic it's almost cinematic. The accompaniment by top-notch players like Väsen guitarist Roger Tallroth, Finnish multi-instrumentalist Tapani Varis, and Swedish guitarist Mattias Perez propels the music in new directions, and there's even a beautiful string quartet arrangement of traditional music in the middle of the album (plus a gorgeous song from Helene to finish off the album). You get the sense from Den Femte Søster that Harald is fairly bursting with creative energy and talent, and the results are as delightful as they are, at times, unexpected.

Harald comes originally from the small island of Funen in Northwestern Denmark. His father was a traditional woodcarver and accordionist, and his mother was an active folk dancer. He started playing at 7 years old, first with traditional music and then classical music in conservatory. Haugaard & Høirup formed in 1998 and went on to become the gold standard of Danish folk music, rescuing many wonderful tunes from nearly-lost sources, and dedicating themselves to bringing this music to the larger world. It's wonderful that Harald continues this work on his own, and with Helene Blum now, and with the release of his new solo album, he's clearly eager to push the music in new, innovative directions. He's been called one of the best fiddlers in the world, and I don't think that's an exaggeration at all.

Harald Haugaard: The King Arrives (comp. Haugaard)


Harald Haugaard: Den Femte Soster - The Fifth Sister


Kaivama. self-titled.
2011. self-released.

Arto Järvelä & Kaivama. self-titled.

2011. self-released.

In 2011, their debut album helped launch Kaivama, a duo of Finnish-American instrumentalists, into the Scandinavian music scene internationally. Fiddler Sara Pajunen and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Rundman, had only been together 11 months as a group when their first album dropped, so it's really surprising how well their playing blended on the disc, and how tight and accomplished their arrangements sound. It probably helped that they both come from strong Finnish-American communities in the Midwest United States (Minnesota and Michigan), but they're both such wonderful players that it's no wonder people sat up to take notice. A US tour with acclaimed Finnish fiddler Arto Järvelä (of Finnish trad super-group JPP) has now led to a new album from both Järvelä and Kaivama (with gorgeous cover art can I add?).

On Kaivama's debut album, Sara overdubs her fiddle with the gorgeous, intricate harmonies that you'd expect from great Scandinavian and Finnish music. But she also adds her own compositions (Jonathan too!) and these are some of the best tracks on the album. At once staunchly traditional, her compositions also have the slightest playful edge, just tweaking the melodies a teeny bit to show that she's in control. It's a nice trick and shows how much mastery she has over the tradition. Jonathan's guitar lends a lot of harmonic support to the album as well, ultimately defining the tunes in a number of cases, and ranging across a wide variety of styles. Plus he brings some new sounds to the tradition with mandolin and banjo, both of which work great. Overall, Kaivama's first album is eminently listenable and masterfully done.

The new Kaivama album is a collaboration between the duo and famed Finnish fiddler Arto Järvelä. It's a great romp through a good number of tunes, most of them composed by Arto himself. It was made in 2012 during a MidWest joint tour which sounds like it must have been a lot of fun. Arto would open a set by himself, then Kaivama, then all of them together. This album feels less arranged than the debut Kaivama album and really feels more like a laidback affair, which is also nice. Sara and Arto's fiddling weaves deftly together through the tight, interlocking harmonies key to so many Scandinavian fiddle styles. Jonathan's guitar has a huge sound, laying down a deep bed over which the fiddles intertwine. But more than the technical capabilities, which are top-notch, there's a real joy to the music being made here. You just can't beat music made with friends, as Arto Järvelä and Kaivama prove.

Kaivama: Cross Country (comp. Sara Pajunen)

Arto Järvelä & Kaivama: Hoppavalsi (comp. Arto Järvelä)


Kaivama: Kaivama


Arto Järvelä: Arto Järvelä & Kaivama


. Hopsadaddy.

2011. GO' Danish Folk Music.

Québécois super-group La Bottine Souriante should have proved by now that brass bands and regional folk traditions go together with wonderful results, but surprisingly few groups have stepped up to take this lesson to hear. Thank goodness for Danish band Habadekuk, who prove on their album Hopsadaddy that they can bring Danish instrumental dance tunes together with a bold brass sections for a great result. It's impossible to sit still for this album, and I can only imagine that Habadekuk live would be a powerfully delightful experience! Hopefully they'll come through the US soon. Fiddler and band leader Kristian Bugge has been making trips to the US with various ensembles, including his fascinating work with Iowa old-time fiddler and repository of old and rare Danish folk tunes, Dwight Lamb (culminating in this excellent album).

Don't be fooled by all the cool brass band arrangements, though, Hopsaddady is based on melody first and foremost, and makes excellent use of a horde of great Danish folk tunes, most pulled from old manuscripts (one dating back to 1799), but also from new compositions and tunes learned from older traditional artists. It's clear that the tune hounds in Habadekuk (I think Kristian is most active in this way) have been hard at work pulling out dance tunes and beautiful melodies from the Danish tradition. Piano accordionist Peter Eget shares most of the melody duties with Kristian and is a powerful player for sure! It's nice to hear saxophonist Rasmus Fribo sharing the melody as well at times. And what fun melodies! "Hornpiben" is the kind of tune that made me want to run for my fiddle straight away. The two tune medley "Pe' Broen & Jens Carl" is irrepresible fun; you can even hear the musicians shouting and hooting away behind the music, and the Latin beat that breaks in at the middle was an inspired touch. There are also nice Americana touches throughout the album from guitar/lapsteel/banjo player Morten Nordal. This is the kind of album that gives and gives and it's a great window into all the fun our Danish friends are having these days!

Habadekuk: Proptraekkeren (The Corkscrew)




blog date 05/04/2013  | comments comments (0)

HearthPR: Laura Cortese's String-Fueled Odyssey

We can learn a lot from how Boston fiddler and songwriter Laura Cortese (cor-TAY-zee) approaches her music. On her new album, Into the Dark, she’s turned the humblest sounds and ideas from American roots music into a gloriously ambitious musical project. The album centers on her masterful songwriting, but feels like a huge community affair, bringing in her many friends from the Boston acoustic music scene and abroad. She does everything on a large scale here, flying in friends from afar, arranging wickedly complex, borderline-classical string movements, singing with a power bordering on triumphant, writing compelling original songs, fiddling like a woman possessed, and drawing back into her creative muse to pull forth entrancingly beautiful ballads. Cortese’s not content to rest on her laurels as one of the best young American fiddlers (originally inspired by the Scottish fiddling of Alasdair Fraser), or as a lion of Boston’s creatively-electric roots music scene. She plays every song on this album (and every show) with an enthusiasm as fresh as her inventive fiddle lines and vocal interpretations. Behind the boldness and passion, Into the Dark shows at its root a deep confidence in the power of music played without artifice of any kind.

As one of the most in-demand side players in Boston, Cortese’s far-reaching career has included stints as an instrumentalist with Band of Horses, Pete Seeger, Rose Cousins, Jocie Adams (of the Low Anthem), and Uncle Earl. She recorded a duo album with Jefferson Hamer, founded musical collective The Poison Oaks with roots music icons like Aoife O’Donovan and Sam Amidon, and has released two solo albums under her own name. The past few years have found Cortese in creative overdrive, balancing sideman duties, solo tours, and recording sessions. With Into the Dark, all this energy spirals into one central place, which explains the album’s powerful sense of focus.

Though Into the Dark features carefully curated covers (Laura Veirs’ “Life is Good Blues,” the incredibly catchy “Heel to Toe” from Sean Staples, a beautifully-stripped back version of the stringband classic “Train on the Island”), most of the songs come from Cortese’s pen. There’s a push and pull here between the past and the present: though her songs are foundationally based on American folk music, they also tackle current issues. “Brown Wrinkled Dress” is a vintage Americana story set to song, evoking subtle and beautiful images (a steamed up window, a gold watch and chain) to tell the oldest tale: a man’s betrayal of his wife. But the opening track, “For Catherine,” though it too seems to be based on tradition, speaks to the chilling and brutal rape in 2009 of a young woman in Richmond, California (close to Cortese’s hometown of San Francisco). “Village Green” states the album’s mission and speaks to Cortese’s greater purpose as an artist. “And in the dark I would sing/Sing a song whispered low/Singing for the people in the shadows. I would not wish for petticoats or gloves of crocheted lace/But for a story worth being told…”

Laura Cortese: "Village Green"

Laura Cortese: "Heel to Toe"




blog date 05/02/2013  | comments comments (0)

Saro Lynch-Thomason's New Project Remembers America's Largest Labor Uprising

In honor of May Day (International Worker's Day), we're proud to present this interview with Appalachian labor activist Saro Lynch-Thomason, who recently released an impressive compilation album, Blair Pathways, of artists dedicated to remembering the Battle of Blair Mountain. This was one of the largest civil uprisings in US history and the largest armed rebellion since the Civil War, and it all stemmed from Appalachian miners who determined to regain their human dignity. Forbidden from unionising, their strikes broken through violent means– like families machine-gunned by strike breakers–and their voices largely ignored, West Virginia miners rose up in a series of skirmishes that have become known as the West Virginia Coal Wars.

Close to a hundred years later, young activist Saro Lynch-Thomason has assembled an album remembering these wars and the culture of labor activism. It's a wonderfully eclectic album, tapping into historical West Virginia music traditions, not only the old-time stringband music we're used to hearing about, but also the music of early 19th century immigrants to the region, like the Italian song "Stornelli d'esilio" and other great Southern genres like African-American gospel. The guest list here is just great: The Stray Birds bring in a killer cover of the labor song "Welcome, Mother Jones", two of my most fav old-time players Tim Eriksen & Riley Baugus sing "The Company Store," young ballad singer Elizabeth Laprelle covers "Lonesome Jailhouse Blues," and Dom Flemons of The Carolina Chocolate Drops covers "Harlan County Blues." I'd also like to thank Saro for bringing the amazing young Appalachian singer Sam Gleaves to my attention through his tracks on this album.

As a quick aside: Sam Gleaves' new album, A Little While in the Wilderness, is a must-have for any fan of Appalachian music. A student of famed ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams (like Elizabeth Laprelle), Gleaves was born and raised in the hills of Southwest Virginia, so he should know the historical area of Blair Mountain well. He loves his home and takes its preservation seriously. When I shot him a quick email to get a review copy of the album, he emailed back and concluded with this heart-breaking little sentence: "Thanks also for celebrating Saro's incredible work, I hope your review of it convinces more people that our mountains are worth saving." Sam's got a beautiful voice, and his album touches on both the unaccompanied ballad traditions of his home and the more raucous stringband traditions. He's too young to be singing this well and with such authority and I hope more people will get the chance to fall in love with his music. -BUY Sam's Album HERE-

Sam Gleaves, Myra Morrison, Jordan Engel - Law in the West Virginia Hills


In order to learn more about the history of Blair Mountain and this new CD compilation, we called up Saro Lynch-Thomason at her home in Asheville, North Carolina to get the scoop.

Hearth Music Interview with Saro Lynch-Thomason

So, what’s your background? Did you grow up in Appalachia?

Saro Lynch-Thomason: Not technically, but certainly in the South. I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, which is in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee, but my family, on both sides, stretches back several hundred years in Appalachia. So, I definitely feel very connected to the region.

What brought you out to do this album? Do you travel out to the area of the West Virginia Mine Wars a lot?

Saro: For several years, since high school, I have working on mountain-top removal issues in Appalachia. I have become inspired to do this particular project because there is a mountain in West Virginia called Blair Mountain that is being destroyed due to strip mining for coal. Blair Mountain was the site of a historic uprising of about 10,000 miners and supporters back in 1921. So, back in June 2011, there was a week-long march that traced the march that the miners took during the rebellion and it was really inspiring to see everyone… the bravery and the versatility people had to have on that march. We got a lot of support from locals and there were some hard times too. I became interested in what kind of music had kept that original movement back in 1921, had kept those miners going and those communities strong. So, that’s why I started this project, by doing research into the music of those Mine Wars, of those Coal Wars.

Do those Mine Wars include Blair Mountain or were those earlier?

Saro: Sure. Let me clairify. There are several different Coal Wars or Mine Wars that happened all over Appalachia, northern and southern. Some of the earliest ones happened in the 1870s up in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania involving a group of union organizers who are now referred to as the Molly Maguires. It’s happened anywhere where the coal industry has been dominant in Appalachia. The Coal Wars that this particular CD focuses on were in West Virginia and they occured between 1902 and 1921. There were 3 main periods of conflict that I’m covering: one was strikes in 1902. The second was what are called the Painted Creek and the Cabin Creek Strikes in 1912 and 1913. Then, most famous are called the Mingo-Logan Wars from 1919 to 1921 which culminated with that march to Blair Mountain in August of 1921.

What were the miners striking about for the most part?

Saro: At a basic level, it was for dignified treatment. These wars are often looked at as wars for union recognition and they were. But, at a broader level, whether people wanted the union or not, they wanted to have dignity in their workplaces and in their home places. One of the main demands of the miners, every time they struck, was to eliminate the mine guard system which essentially meant that these folks were being guarded at work and being spied on at home by private spies and by armed guards that were hired by the coal companies. The minute that you started talking union or started talking about changes in workplace safety etc., you could get blacklisted and you couldn’t find any work in the coal field. These miners were asking for unions and, along with that, they wanted to insure that the mine guard system went away and that they could be paid in American dollar bills instead of in scrip which was a replacement form of money that they could only use at company-owned establishments. So, they were asking for several different things, but it all comes down to humane treatment and a life with dignity.


Right. This might be a bit ahead of the questions but… do you feel that the issues now with mountain-top removal in Appalachia and the protests against it, are those still in line with the workers? Or, are the workers on the other side of this? Do you feel the movement to stop mountain-top removal is in the workers’ best interests and do the workers agree?

Saro: In terms of what it means to have a dignified life in Appalachia, whether you’re a coal miner or work as a nurse or a homesteader, whoever you are... To have a life with dignity in Appalachia means to be able to not have the risk of getting cancer from the water you’re drinking or to live in a healthy environment, that’s not going to harm you because of the effects of practices like mountain-top removal. People are in a really challenged place because mountain-top removal pays better, in many cases, than other forms of income in parts of Appalachia especially West Virginia and parts of Kentucky. Union locals marched with us to Blair Mountain. A lot of miners are concerned especially in the UMWA itself is concerned, which is the United Mineworkers of America, is concerned about saving this mountain and is concerned about jobs. I can definitely say, it depends on who you ask but, if you look at, statistically, how many jobs have left Appalachia, especially because mining has become more mechanized, you could see that deep mining provides more jobs for people in Appalachia and the elimination of mountain-top removal provides for healthy Appalachians, no matter what you’re working background is.


It seems that, back with the Mine Wars and Blair Mountain, that there were a lot more workers who were actively fighting, even physically fighting, for these rights. Does it seem that you’re not seeing that as much now that it’s really split and is that because the marketing is so much better on the proponants of mountain-top removal?

Saro: There is definitely a very successful form of propaganda… Yes! (laughing) I think the myth that is perpetuated now is that it’s the tree-huggers versus the workers and that the tree-huggers can’t possibly understand or care about the economic needs of the workers. This is a total myth and it is definitely a way to divide and conquer and keep people from organizing, from unionizing themselves and also from communicating with people who are trying to do hard work around environmental issues in their own communities. This is part of the myth, that the tree-huggers are all from out of state or aren’t from here or are different economic backgrounds. In fact, the people who care about this the most are people who are living in the coal fields and trying to find out how they can keep their water supplies clean and also have a good job for themselves and for their families. These problems go hand-in-hand; they’re completely inter-related. The major myth that these companies tell their workers is that these problems are not related and that they should be ignoring the issues that they’re facing at home.

Did you find that the mine companies, back when you were doing all this research, that they had similar marketing or propaganda too?

Saro: The way that these movements came about was because there were all sorts of powerful new philosophies happening in the country: populism, democratic populism, socialism, anarchism... and all these movements were having influences on workers and how they saw themselves and the rights that they were beginning to see they deserved. The coal operators response to that situation was definitely anxiety and paranoia and this fear that the workers wanted to take labor… that labor was going to be taken away from the coal operators and their mines wouldn’t exist anymore. A lot of miners and philosophers were envisioning that workers would have control over their own means of production. [The coal operators]  produced their own propaganda that was anti-populist, anti-communist. There were also efforts as we saw during the mine wars, even the state itself, the West Virginia government, made efforts to destroy the offices of papers that were socialist and anarchist in what they were pronouncing. There was definitely a lot of control over the media during that period too.

That’s interesting. Maybe we could back up and you could talk about mountain top removal. When did it come about? Why is it popular? There are some pretty obvious reasons why it’s a problem.

Saro: Mountain top removal is a form of surface mining for coal. It began in the 60s in Appalachia and it involves scraping the topsoil off of land. You take off the topsoil; you take down all the trees and then you blast and create sidewalls along mountain tops in order to scrape out, with huge machines, the thin seams of coal. It developed as a way to get coal out of the ground faster; it developed as a way to employ less people and use a more mechanized form of production and it also developed because coal seams were getting thinner and thinner. The quality of coal and the amount of coal that is coming out of Appalachia now, and coal companies will tell you differently, but it is less and less. The quality of coal that is being mined now is what would have been thrown away by our grandfathers. It was not considered as good... what happens in the process, is that the coal, which acts as a natural filter underground, it catches and holds on to hard metals. All those hard metals are released into the water system. The animal, plant life and human life is all exposed to these hard metals, not to mention that when these mountains are gone, erosion and flooding become huge issues and people lose their homes. Flooding has become so much worse as a result. That’s just a few of the problems around mountain top removal. It makes communities sick and it endangers communities because of the waste that is produced.

It seems that it’s kind of a short-term gain. It’s like clear-cut logging; you get something in the short term but you’re really killing the business in the long term.

Saro: It’s definitely killing Appalachia. The recovery process… there’s no way to measure it. It takes countless numbers of years for that kind of topsoil and the complicated beauty of the forest to form. To take that all away, recovery takes so long. The coal companies will do things like spray, they’ll spray a hydro-seed, quite often of non-native, fast-growing grass across the landscape to make it look green so it gives a semblance of health but it’s trying to hide away the fact that this land has been devastated in a way that it can’t recover from for thousands of years.

Let’s talk about the album. I really love the album. It’s a beautiful album. You’ve got a lot of really great artists as well. Are all the artists specifically from Appalachia or at least, deeply connected to Appalachia?

Saro: Several of the artists are connected to Appalachia. People like Elizabeth LaPrelle and Brett Ratliff and Sam Gleaves, Riley Baugus, Wayne Erbsen. I would say the majority of the people on this album are connected to Appalachia. The folks that are from further places, from the Northeast or down in Florida etc., they all were really excited to be a part of this CD because of their love of that labor history or because of their sense of the environmental urgency, their love of the land of Appalachia. So, everyone had a different emotional connections to participate in this.

Do you think that this kind of work is helping? I remember that Daniel Martin Moore and Jim James and Ben Sollee did that big album about mountain top removal. Did you see an effect from that and are you seeing an effect from this? Do you think it’s helping?

Saro: I do. It’s all about how much the word can get out. The immediate satisfaction is the emotional reaction that it creates in people. Using music to tell the story creates an emotional validation, for people who really care about these issues and that’s a really beautiful part of this process. In terms of it making a real difference as a whole, I really hope it can teach people who are not aware of this history to become engaged with it through this music. I will be doing a lot of touring and other forms of promotion to get people to know that the story exists and that they can engage with it through music.

Where did you learn the music and the songs?

Saro: Some from CDs... but I also moved to western North Carolina about 3 years ago and have been studying off and on from local ballad singers. A good friend of mine is Bobby McMillon who is a really wonderful historian and ballad singer. I’ve gotten to learn directly from several people while I’ve been here and that’s been really wonderful.

How did you pick the tracks? I love how each of the tracks somehow relates back to the mine wars. Did you choose the tracks or did the artists choose the tracks?

Saro: I chose the tracks. It was a complicated process. I had a whole series of tracks, a bit longer than what ended up on the CD and, in many cases, was able to give artists a few different choices, saying, "Which one of these appeals to you?" And in most cases, there wasn’t even music for the musicians to listen to. They were just given a set of lyrics because a lot of these songs are sourced from old mine workers’ journals and that sort of thing. We might be able to guess what tune they were to, but we don’t have the music for it. So, I would give the artists a few different choices and ask them what inspired them more and then they’d choose a piece to do. Based off of that, I would move on to the next artist and figure out what part of the story they could cover as well.

So, you actually went back and did a lot of research to find the songs.

Saro: Yes, I did research through the West Virginia state archives and through the national archives in D.C. Fortunately, these labor wars are better known than some. A lot of books have been published on this history and those books provide links to music that was being utilized during these campaigns as well.


The main question I really want to ask about the project is: What can we learn today from the history that you’re presenting here? What can this history teach us about what’s happening today?

Saro: What captures me the most about this story is that these folks were driven to a place where they they didn’t feel like they had much to lose by standing up for themselves. They were working amongst people who were from incredibly different backgrounds from each other. There were Hungarians, there were Italians, there were blacks who had come up from farm work in the south, there were white Appalachians, there were young men from New York. These people are working in such diversity with each other and they don’t even know how to physically talk to each other quite often but they’re working in the same miserable conditions and they just reach a point where they know that if they stand up for their own dignity they’re going to potentially lose their lives, but it’s worth it. I think we can learn from these people’s willingness to overcome their differences and their misunderstandings across the spectrum of backgrounds and ethnicities and languages to demand what they deserved as human beings: to live with dignity. In our country today, we’ve been taught that we’ve been deprived of that history. We don’t know that exists and through that deprivation, we don’t know that it’s possible for us to reach inside and honor that spirit that tells us that we are able to ask for what we deserve. The story serves as an inspiration and tell us that as Americans we have that heritage if we choose to acknowledge it. 

This CD was created to bring attention to what is happening to Blair Mountain right now. It is under threat of mountain top removal mining and pretty important parts of the battle that took place there, are fought exactly where the coal companies urgently also want to mine. If people go to my website which is: Blairpathways.com, they can learn more ways to bring attention to what’s happening at Blair and hopefully, save it from being strip mined.


"Being people in the 21st century it is easy to lose sight of all of those before us who fought for the freedoms enjoyed now. Blair Pathways is a call for historical equity which is bringing every story in our history to the forefront so that it can shine its light on the past and show us the way to move toward the future. Don’t let the heroes who fought with their hearts and fists die in vain. Celebrate them and let their stories be told!"

-Dom Flemons (The Carolina Chocolate Drops)



“I’m involved with Blair Pathways because I think that the landscape is an indivisible part of mountain music. I hope that the more we know about the land and its history, the better care we’ll take of the mountains and each other.”

-Elizabeth Laprelle




“Wendell Berry once said that ‘what we stand for is what we stand on.’ If we, then, ignore nature’s red flags; if we become apathetic; if we refuse to step up and promote real change, every one of us – then we’ll soon have nothing left to stand on and therefore nothing left to stand for.”

-Jubal's Kin




“I am involved with Blair Pathways because these mountains are my home and I want to help ensure that this will be a healthy place for me to raise my family. We owe it to the miners, the families, and everyone else who has given their life in the struggle for social and economic justice in the coal fields to educate ourselves and continue the fight.”

-Brett Ratliff








blog date 05/01/2013  | comments comments (1)

HearthPR: Los Angeles Roots Music Collective The Dustbowl Revival Break Out

The spirit of the West is alive and well in the music of Los Angeles-based roots music collective The Dustbowl Revival. This rambling, rolling spirit is the same spark that lit a fire under the past two centuries of Westward migration in America. It comes from a need for wide-open vistas, rollicking street parties, laidback lifestyles, and communities that you build yourself. For the folks in The Dustbowl Revival, West Coast living suits them just fine. Their high-spirited blend of old school bluegrass, gospel, jug-band, swamp blues, piercing brass blasts, and the hot swing of the 1930’s has made them one of the hottest roots music bands in LA and garnered them praise from the likes of tastemaker radio station KCRW, the Los Angeles Times, and alt-paper the LA Weekly! That’s what happens when you owe your allegiance to old-school inspirations like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Sevens, Fats Waller’s barrelhouse vibe, Bessie Smith’s ass-kicking backroom blues, and New Orleans brass bands. Growing steadily from a small string band playing up and down the west coast (hundreds of shows in the last two years), The Dustbowl Revival has blossomed into a traveling collective featuring instrumentation that includes fiddle, mandolin, trombone, clarinet, trumpet, banjo, accordion, tuba, pedal steel, drums, guitars, a bass made from a canoe oar, harmonica and plenty of washboard and kazoo for good luck. This ain’t no fake-mustached hipster revivalism here, The Dustbowl Revival are the real deal, shouting and hollering the nearly derailed, buzz-saw crazed music of the American South that first inspired them.

The Dustbowl Revival’s new album, Carry Me Home, is a full-on assault on the idea that folk music should be in any way restrained or boring.

Check out the official video for "New River Train":

The Dustbowl Revival barrel through old-school songs like the spiritual “Swing Low” or the old stringband number “New River Train,” bringing a kind of raucous energy born from all-night parties and impromptu street parades. The biblical wailer “John the Revelator” gets a gin-soaked barroom reimagining here, with ceiling-scraping clarinet solos, and a creepy chorus line that would have done Son House proud. And the original songs rock just as hard as the traditional songs. “Riverboat Queen” blends the 1920s-influenced blues vocals of Caitlyn Doyle together with a Tom Waits cabaret feel that taps equally into the world of Balkan brass and accordions. “Josephine” veers into doo-wop, but with a decidedly cracked modern approach. “Soldiers Joy” may be an age-old song about the horrors of the Civil War, but lead singer and songwriter Zach Lupetin gives the song new words and a new feel to reflect the reality of modern warfare. It’s part of a pattern that unites The Dustbowl Revival’s many different influences: the old music traditions that inspire them are evoked not for some kind of vintage aesthetic, but because The Dustbowl Revival honestly believe that these old songs and sounds have a lot to say today. You can find the same burning energy that made the old recordings so electric in the Los Angeles city street music of The Dustbowl Revival.


The Dustbowl Revival: Swing Low


The Dustbowl Revival: Josephine


The Dustbowl Revival: Carry Me Home


blog date 04/24/2013  | comments comments (0)