As a music writer, I get a fair amount of album submissions from hopeful musicians. I listen to them all, or as many as I can, but honestly these days most of my musical finds come from my own research or from friends. That said, every now and then and album comes completely out of the blue to blow me away. Jeffrey Martin's Gold in the Water is a perfect example. I'd never heard of Jeffrey Martin before getting a random email about him, but immediately, on the first listen, I knew this was special. Martin's a marvelous songwriter, effortlessly drawing out fully-fleshed stories and lush natural metaphors from a simple folk music structure. He's an incredibly rare find among today's glut of singer-songwriters: a songwriter whose songs are immediately affecting. These are the kind of songs that can change you. I listened to Gold in the Water over and over, and got the same feeling from his songs that I got from Cahalen Morrison's songwriting. Somehow his songs sound like they're coming out of a great novel, or that they're part of a larger work.
I checked into his background, and unsurprisingly he's a creative writing teacher in Eugene, Oregon. He doesn't tour very much, and his album isn't too widely known, even in the Northwest. But I can't imagine him staying hidden for long. His music is too good! I fired off an email to try and get more understanding of his songs. He wrote back about three songs I'd chosen and added some extra info too on his songwriting process. Enjoy!
Inside the Songs with Jeffrey Martin
How does being a creative writing teacher influence your songwriting (or vice versa)?
Jeffrey Martin: The greatest thing about teaching high school English is that it is impossible not to be constantly humbled by it. Young people are, by nature, testing the waters in all areas of their lives, with every word they say and everything they do. This results in a lot of stupidity, but also in a lot of creativity and genius. I haven’t had much experience teaching at this point, but I’ve already been floored more times than I can remember by what my students have come up with. As we get older we carve out grooves that we like to follow, in our thinking and in how we feel our way through things. I think those grooves are just less defined in teenagers. They are wild and free to try on perspectives that escape older folks entirely. Sometimes this is maddening. Most times, even when it’s maddening, I realize I’m holding on too tightly to the groove I’ve carved out for myself.
The second greatest thing about teaching is that I’m forced to read (and write) constantly. To be immersed in so many words and stories, edits and suggestions, keeps me primed for my own writing.
How do you keep from tapping out creatively, i.e. hitting a block because you're writing so much?
JM: When I was earning my BA in English I realized that you can’t approach creativity like it’s a finite substance. It’s not the oxygen, it’s the act of breathing. Even if there was no oxygen, you’d still make the attempt to breathe, and that’s what writing needs to be. And I suppose, if you were constantly concerned about the levels of oxygen available, you’d begin each new breath with trepidation. But writing is gasping; you have to be gulping things down, heaving, recycling all the time. So I think I just decided that something that carried so much passion and weight in my life as writing does can’t possibly be dependent on something that can be exhausted. On the flipside, I get exhausted often. Creativity can’t run out, but the muscles to wrangle it are muscles just the same as any other. I think it’s okay to lay down the guitar for a while, and the pen. Maybe they need time to rest also. I do a lot of carpentry on the side, and exhausting myself physically with manual labor is a perfect way to let the songwriter section of my brain get some sleep.
Jeffrey Martin: "Stolen from Them"
JM: I was living in Tacoma (WA), on Hilltop, and losing my mind when I wrote this song. I was working days and weekends at a country club, and living alone in this crummy little studio apartment with a hugely slanted floor, like a ship always titled to one side. The neighbor had a dog he wasn’t supposed to have, a big old muddy colored mutt with a bark like a gunshot, and across the street was a halfway house for pregnant young mothers (essentially a depot for late night ambulances). The song came entirely from the first line, something I jotted down in a poem, living in the city feels like crying in the rain / until you learn how to scream everybody looks the same. I stole the guitar part from a thousand different folk singers before me, it’s nothing fancy, just a podium for me to rest my elbows on while I get the words out. Or something like that. I felt swallowed up by concrete and fumes and noise and orange streetlights, and it seemed like the only way to be noticed in all that mess as anything remotely human was to scream out loud at people, or at the world in general. I wanted to get somewhere, to woods, the mountains, where there was no desperation to be noticed. Then the song (as they often do) became something else. It became this call and response between a boy (maybe) and his older wiser self (maybe.) It became a realization that I’m always assuming that I can think up a better outcome than what my life has produced at any given moment. If only I was hopping a train out of the city to the mountains, then I’d have some peace. If only I’d not been so scared to reveal myself to that woman. If only the world didn’t have such ugly corners, then it would be a whole lot easier to believe in God. If only I could be some place where I wouldn’t wish to be in any other. But all of these if only’s are answered by that other voice in my head, the one I should pay more attention to, that reminds me to take a breath, and own my failure, and see the human heart for what it is, fickle.
Jeffrey Martin: Why Can’t I
JM: One night I was sitting in my car outside my girlfriend’s apartment, waiting for her to get home from a party. It was one of those off nights when you just can’t stand the quiet of being alone, and you drive just to move some place, or you browse through shops you’d otherwise not be caught dead in just to feel like you have a mission of some sort. I had a junky old garage-sale guitar in the backseat, all out of tune and missing the low E; but it had this perfect tone for the moment, like every note passed through a soup can, like a radio in another room. The song is just a question to myself: why can’t I just be? Why do I have to look at every instance and determine it to be good or bad, positive or negative? I was struck by the idea that the natural world exists apart from value and moral implication. A leaf falls from a tree, and it just does. It’s blown by the wind, and it just is. I had a rough day, and I pick it apart and dwell on it and trying to extrapolate the reasons for it. I definitely think there is great value in thinking about our lives, our choices; and I’m not trying to be one of those people who claim everything is what it is, and we have no responsibilities and we suffer no consequences. I just think there might be a balance to be had, and sometimes we should just let things be. I have a love-hate (no, not hate, more like love and let’s-just-be-friends) relationship with the song. I like the words, but sometimes it feels hokey to sing. I have this specific idea in my head that it should sound tinny, and old timey, something that would be playing on a scratchy radio on a Sunday afternoon in 1951 while everything is sweaty and metal and dusty. And when I do it live, it never lines up with how it exists in my head. Maybe I could tape a soup can to the mic, and put a pick-up in that junky old guitar.
Jeffrey Martin: Winter Place
JM: This song exists in a very specific time and place. It was written during one of those brief windows of time when that easy feeling comes crashing down through the muck, and it’s wonderful and life giving, but it doesn’t stay for long, and one morning you wake up and it’s hissed away. I love Christmas time. I like the cold and how people’s attitudes change into something more jolly (usually) while they are all bundled up and bouncing down the street. I like coming home after working outside (I was siding houses that winter) and getting warm and clean and buzzed on whiskey. But there is this obvious level of superficiality to Christmas (in the pop culture sense.) We all know everything isn’t so peachy as those jolly songs make us feel. We all know twinkling lights and ribbons and hot cider are just props for a very temporary season. But we embrace it for what it is. And despite the fact that the season is so temporary, and is based on so much fluff, we can still grab hold of such strong and meaningful memories that we carry with us throughout the rest of the year. Your girl dancing to your new guitar diddy while she makes homemade eggnog, for example. So Winter Place feels like a pop song to me. I don’t think anything about it, the lyrics or the melody, is particularly challenging or thought provoking, but that’s okay. We all know what it feels like to hope that it snows so deep we are stuck home from work with someone we love the next day, and that’s all that song is.
How does the natural environment of Eugene, Oregon affect your songs?
JM: Eugene is a beautiful town, and the beach and mountains and rivers and lakes are so easy to access. But nature doesn’t often find its way into my songwriting, at least as a main character. There are archetypes from my boyhood that will forever exist in my songs, mountains and rivers; and they serve as ancient places that I can always count on to bring me back somewhere I got too far from. I think the separation between the city and the wild is a really interesting concept. I think if you spend time in the wild with the city too much in your heart (if that makes sense) then you might as well not have come. And I think if you spend time in the city with the wild too much in your heart, then people will treat you like you shouldn’t be there. And it seems like so much of life is about trying to be courageous enough to claim what we are at our most raw. In the woods, a mirror can be the most terrifying thing. In the city, a mirror is a tool that we use for everything but examining who we really are. I think I’m getting way out there now, and I better bring it back down to the concrete. Yes, without a doubt, nature affects my songs, but more so behind the scenes, in the foundations.
Do you have a new album coming soon? Are you making new songs?
JM: I have a truckload, and a boatload, of new songs. Last year I had the chance to hang out with Martyn Joseph for a bit, and listen to some of his advice. Something he told me was that I should take my time in making albums. Everyone is always so anxious to make an album, to capture the sounds, but, according to Joseph, not enough folks give enough time to shaping their songs on stage before they get in the studio.
I’ve been playing a lot of shows this past year, and will continue to do that through the fall, and I really like how my songs have found a final identity. I’m currently recording an EP in Portland, six or seven songs that I can tour on this fall. And then this winter (January) I’ll be getting to work recording another full length album.
08/13/2012 | comments (0)
When the young pickers in Austin's MilkDrive use the phrase "jazzgrass," they mean it! These are players that came out of the bluegrass tradition looking for more space to move, more places to maneuver, more room to breathe. Their new album, Waves, is as informed by pop songwriting and jazz breaks as it is by Bill Monroe, so don't let the presence of all acoustic instruments and a hefty slice of banjo, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin-driven Americana fool you. While they're not the first group taking bluegrass into chamber ensembles and jazz clubs, they are playing it the hardest, never losing sight of how much fun the music should be!
With their second album, Waves, young Austin jazz-grass pickers MilkDrive are poised to move into the national spotlight. These young road warriors have been grinding pavement for the past few years, bringing their roots music to venues across the United States, and building a solid and engaged fan base. It’s no surprise why they’re winning such grassroots praise: their picking is as tight as a tick, their original songs crackle with energy, and their arrangements bring a high level of complexity to the music. MilkDrive is not what you’d expect from a young band of once-bluegrass musicians. Their songs channel the Beatles and 70s folk-rock as much as The Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, and it’s a testament that they can nail these varied and iconic influences on fully acoustic instruments with minimal production. But don’t mistake these many influences for irreverence to the tradition, for MilkDrive cut their teeth on the classics, but they’re not afraid to plow new ground, and to push the music in new directions.
They came together as precocious kids jamming into the wee hours at the National Old-Time Festival of Weiser, Idaho, and winning awards for their virtuosic instrumentals. Then they cut their teeth in Austin’s ultra-competitive bar scene, and took on the weight of developing their singing and songwriting. Now young lions of jazz-grass, MilkDrive has brought on legendary 7-time Grammy award winning producer Bill VornDick (Jim Lauderdale, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss) to produce Waves, their sophomore album. Capturing the band’s sophisticated arrangements and fierce musicianship, the album showcases a number of original compositions and features guests Noam Pikelny (of Punch Brothers) and Futureman (of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones). So who are the award-winning instrumentalist members of MilkDrive? Brian Beken leads off on fiddle and main vocals, Noah Jeffries follows on guitar and harmony vocals, with Dennis Ludiker on mandolin and harmony vocals, and Matt Mefford on double bass. On Waves, each band member shines, delivering a one-two bluegrass punch tempered only by the subtlety of the band’s arrangements and musical aesthetic.
Fueled by equal parts tradition and innovation, MilkDrive delivers a distinctive acoustic experience that crosses genres, geographies, and generations.
08/11/2012 | comments (0)
Old Crow Medicine Show, everyone's favorite old-timey roots music band, are back with a brand-new album, Carry Me Back, and it's been getting some wonderful press (You can check out our review of the albumhere on KEXP's Blog)! But they've also added a new member, and though he doesn't appear on the new album, we're incredibly excited to see what he brings to the band. Chance McCoy is one of the brightest lights in old-time music, a renowned fiddler and singer whose debut album made him a well known name in insider old-time circles. He grew up in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, though he was born in Washington DC, and connected with the music after playing in garage and punk bands in the region. Following his solo debut album, he joined the band Old Sledge and cut two incendiary albums of straight-up old-time music before the group disbanded. Just a few months ago, he was snapped up to join Old Crow Medicine Show, playing guitar and fiddle and singing with the band. Old Crow seem stoked to have him, as Critter Fuqua told us: "Chance McCoy, besides being a dude with a great name, is one of the most tasteful and accomplished multi-instrumentalists and singers I have had the honor to play with. He's a natural fit for Old Crow in talent and in spirit, a true brother in arms."
Hearth Music Interview with Chance McCoy of Old Crow Medicine Show
Are you staying in Nashville right now?
Chance McCoy: Yeah. I’m renting a house here and living with another band mate, Critter [Fuqua]. We’re sharing a house together and I’m gonna move down here full time at the end of the summer and rent my own house.
I see. What’s it like living with Critter?
CM: It’s great. It’s been wonderful living with Critter. He’s really funny and easy to get along with and he grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, so we have a similar background too, which is nice.
It’s just an arrangement until you get your own place?
CM: Yeah, I’m gonna try to get my own place here in the end of the summer. But Critter just moved back from Texas, so we both needed a place, so we found a place so we could have something for the summer cuz rehearsals started a couple of weeks ago, so we both moved down here about the middle of May.
So, Critter is actually coming back to the band, right? He had taken a break from the band?
CM: Yeah. He had taken a break from the band. He had been out of the band for 4 years.
What brought him back?
CM: What brought him back? Well, I think it was a timing thing. He was down there in Texas and he’s an alcoholic, so he had gone into treatment and rehab and had to get clean. He’s been clean and sober for a couple of years now, been down in Texas, and then Old Crow was on hiatus for a while, and then Ketch and Critter got back in touch with each other. They started to do some of that Ketch and Critter stuff together, and got the idea of doing the “Old Crow” thing together again and Critter was really, really into doing it. He just wanted to move back and he was in school down in Texas and he was getting an English degree. He was having an okay time in school but I think he really just realized that he really loved being a musician, and really loved being a songwriter, and now he’s clean and sober, there’s a lot to do here in Nashville. He just wanted to come back and be in the band, be here in Nashville doing his thing.
So, what’s the feeling in the band right now when you guys are getting together to rehearse? Is it a good feeling or is there still tension? How’s it going?
CM: There’s no tension at all. It’s awesome; everybody’s having a great time. So that’s a good feeling. We’re just all having a really good time, playing music together. There’s no tension at all, it’s really enjoyable, really fun. I think that’s good. I think they’d been under some tension for a while. It’s a good place to be in right now.
Chance McCoy: Gospel Plow
Well, tell me about joining Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s really exciting. How did that come about for you?
CM: That came out of nowhere. It was totally out of nowhere. I was just getting home from work one day; I was living in Floyd. I was getting home from a really long day and I came home and I checked my email on my phone right before I went to bed and there was an email from Ketch that said, “Hey, this is Ketch from Old Crow Medicine Show and we’re looking for a new member of our band and we’re really interested in you and we want you to come and audition for our band. So, get back to me and let me know what you think.” I took his phone number and called him up the next day and talked to him and he seemed like a really nice guy and he said that they wanted to get Old Crow back together and on the road again. They had a new record coming out and they wanted somebody to join the band as a singer and guitar player and banjo and fiddle too. They were looking for somebody who was steeped in old time music and they found me through Augusta Heritage Center because Ketch and Critter both went to Augusta when they were teenagers. They remembered from their experience there that there were a lot of really great old time musicians who teach there. When they were thinking about people to ask to audition for their band, they went to the Augusta web site and saw who was teaching this year and I was on the roster and then, they started asking around and they heard really good things about me. So they just decided to call me but it was completely out of the blue. I had never even met those guys before.
That’s crazy. You were pretty excited?
CM: Yeah, definitely. It was cool! I came down to Nashville; we set up an audition, and they gave me some pieces to audition with and I learned those pieces... There was 5 other people who auditioned for the part and we had a great time. It was like the audition turned into way more than an audition. We just ended up hanging out all day and playing a bunch of music. We did some recording together. I just felt really good, right off the bat. Then, they called me a couple of days later and said, “We want to give you a job.” That was exciting for sure.
You gotta tell me about this audition. Did it take place in a theater, like you were on stage and they were on chairs?
CM: Yeah, it was a lot more organic than that. They have a studio in Hendersonville, which is their studio. They said, “Come on down to Hendersonville and come down to our studio and audition. We’ll audition and we’ll record some of it, so we can listen back to it.” So I went down there and I rolled up to the studio in a non-descript brick building in the suburbs of Hendersonville. Their manager, Norm, was waiting for me outside and he introduced himself and he said, “Come on inside. The boys are just warming up now.” I could hear, inside the studio, it’s like rock music, it was like garage rock, like electric guitar and drums coming from inside the studio. I thought, “Oh, maybe there’s a session going on right now.” and I opened the door and Ketch had his electric guitar. He was whaling on it with his foot up on the amplifier and Critter was over in the corner beating the drums and they were just going at it, garage rock style, when I came in. There was a really funny scene but I have played garage rock and stuff like that too. It was, “Oh, cool, these guys rock out too.” It was a good feeling and then, we talked for a little while and then we just went upstairs basically and jammed like you would in an old time jam. We sat down, pulled out fiddle, guitar, banjo. Morgan was there with his bass and we just played some tunes. They were like, “Don’t worry about your audition pieces right now, let’s just sit down and play some music.” That’s what we did and then, we ran through some of the audition pieces and it was great! We passed the instruments around too, so I played some guitar and they had me play some fiddle and they had me play some banjo. We jammed for an hour or two, just hanging out jamming, and then we went and got some lunch and we came back, and then we got around mics and we recorded some of the audition pieces. It was fun. It wasn’t nerve wracking at all. It wasn’t high tension and it wasn’t like some auditions when you’re in bands this big, can be pretty business-like. This wasn’t like that at all. And then, after the audition was over, they were just like, “Hey, you want to hang out and help us record some stuff?” I was like, “Sure!” So we just ended hanging out the whole day.
Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance McCoy (playing guitar next to the bass)
Sounds like the perfect audition. Have Old Crow Medicine Show been influential to you as an Old Time artist?
CM: They haven’t, because I didn’t listen to their music. I, of course, heard some of their songs and they were everywhere. I saw them playing at festivals and I appreciated what they did, but they weren’t influential to me as an old time artist because I was staying away from modern bands. Even the Old Crows, though obviously very traditional and very rooted in old time music; they’re still a contemporary band and all the stuff that I was listening to and being inspired by was old 78s and field recordings. So I wasn’t really that influenced by them, but it’s kind of funny, because, even though I wasn’t influenced by them, we have such a similar take on old time music. But the way I got into old time music, it was something that was really social, and it was something that young people did and it was very energized and very much dance music. I started playing old time music with this band called The Speakeasy Boys, which was a rag-tag bunch of kids that just graduated college that ran their own speakeasy in this college town, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. It was just basically a booze fest, selling beer out of a cooler and playing string band music. This band became really popular and we would pack our speakeasy and there would be 100 – 200 college kids there. They were dancing. It was very wild and energetic and then, when I got more into the old time scene, I was disappointed how tame it was in a way, where people just sat down in chairs and it just seemed very stuffy sometimes. When I wanted to do old time music, like perform it, I wanted to stand up and jump around stage and not be inhibited in performing it. I ran into some confrontations with that, where people thought that that was inappropriate, to be playing old time music and to be energizing it and making it a performance. So, it was nice to meet Old Crow and play with them because they totally got the performance aspect of it. For some kinds of old time music, going back to the tradition of minstrelsy, I think the show part of it is a big part of it. I think sometimes people miss that and they think old time music should be some kind of pure Appalachian traditional art form that is not performed. But I think, even if you look historically at it, there’s precedence for that. So, it was cool to meet those guys and play with them. They have the same attitude about performing.
Yeah. The people who recorded old time music in the 20s and 30s, a lot of those guys were hard-core performers, who came out of medicine shows.
CM: Yeah, exactly. That’s what great about Old Crow, it’s “Old Crow Medicine Show”. Right off the bat, they’re already saying, “Hey, this is a show.”
Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance Mccoy
Right, right. So you got in trouble, you said, when you were playing Old Time? Tell me about that.
CM: Well, yeah. I think you know. Some people just want to be stuffy and some kind of re-enactment of some forgotten style of music, and everything’s got to be by the book and played exactly like it is on old recordings. I was always really young and energetic and the music was my own. I learned it from other people and learned it from old recordings but I played it the way that I play it. Sometimes I want to get into it and have fun and yell a little bit and fuck stuff up. [laughing] So that offends people.
Did you get in trouble in West Virginia or playing outside of West Virginia?
CM: I think outside of West Virginia. The people in West Virginia are completely different about it. There’s not as many strict boundaries. Occasionally, somebody would get upset in West Virginia because I played something too fast or something wasn’t what they considered right. Most of the people in West Virginia, for them it’s just music. They don’t even have boundaries between Bluegrass and Old Time; that doesn’t even exist really. When I first got together with the Speakeasy Boys, they didn’t even know what old time music was, even though that’s what they were playing. They just thought it was bluegrass, they didn’t know really much about it. They just played the old songs. They had a washtub bass and a claw hammer banjo player but they considered themselves a bluegrass band just cuz they’d never really heard of old time music yet, even though that’s what they were playing. That’s funny.
Old Crow Medicine Show w/Chance McCoy on banjo
It must have pissed you off to be lectured about your own music by people who were outside of the tradition, who weren’t from your area.
CM: Yeah. It is kind of annoying but I don’t feel like I have any special claim to the music anymore than anyone else does, just cuz I’m from West Virginia. I just feel grateful that I was included in the scene there, was able to be part of the scene, because that’s such a special thing but I never really got up on a high horse and felt that I had any... That’s exactly the thing that I’ve been fighting against, is people thinking that they have some kind of claim or say against something, because I could do the same thing. I could get up on my pedestal and try to be all-righteous because I’m from West Virginia and be like, “Well, this is how it’s supposed to go.” But, whoever’s playing the music, they’re the one’s have to decide what they’re going to do with it. I feel like nobody has a right to tell anybody else what to do with their music even if it is a traditional music form. I just always thought the only thing that was really important about the old time music scene is that you learned it from other people that were in the scene. So there was always that connection, a healing connection.
You learned from your peers, you learned from people of your generation. Did you ever go back and try and hunt down older players or were you content to learn from your friends?
CM: I was influenced half and half. I definitely learned from older players. I hung out and played with some of the old-timers, like the real old-timers, like Lester McCumbers from West Virginia. A lot of them were passing away about the time that I was getting into the music. Some people felt a real need to go and visit people like Clyde Davenport and Lester McCumbers and go to their houses and hang out with them but I always felt kind of awkward doing that. I wasn’t friends with them really, so it just seemed kind of weird to be going over to their houses but they were around. A lot of the people that I learned from, the older folks, were my parent’s generation... A lot of those people in West Virginia; they weren’t old-old-timers. They weren’t 80 years old but they were in their 50s and 60s and those are the guys that I was really influenced by, but I was also influenced by my own peers a lot too. So, it was sort of a mix. But I didn’t have to go out for anybody too much. I just went to the festivals and everybody was there.
So, do you think that the torch has been passed from the baby boomer, folk-revival generation to the new generation of players, or did the new generation just take over and do it their own way?
CM: I think that there is definitely a torch passing going on. I think, overall, the older generation, our parent’s generation, has been really supportive, and they set the groundwork for us to come in. If they hadn’t been supporting festivals like Clifftop and camps like Augusta, we wouldn’t have had anything to go to or to get into. I know for people like me a huge part of being inspired by the music is to go to these festivals and just see all this great music being played... Just starting out, you can’t even play worth a shit and then you go see a hot jammer of the older generation playing and they're just tearing it up and that’s really inspiring. Without that, I don’t really think there would be a revival... It doesn’t seem to be that much tension between the generations. I think there’s always a little bit of tension between generations but I think, overall, there’s a real kinship there and real support and I think that the young generation has been enabled by the older one to come into the whole thing.
Chance McCoy: Yew Piney Mountain
Well said, well said. Your work has been described as having a punk attitude. What does that mean to you? Have you played actual punk music or do you more have an affinity for DIY punk culture?
CM: No. I definitely have played punk music. When I was growing up in West Virginia, when I was a teenager, I hadn’t heard old time music yet. I hadn’t even really heard bluegrass music yet, and I got hit by the Seattle sound, the grunge sound and then classic rock, so I learned how to play all that music first. And then, I think, just being Generation X, just having an independent attitude and having this underdog attitude, has carried over into my old time music too. So, I think that that’s been a big influence on me, just having that as a musical background and just an attitude. I think my generation just didn’t really give a shit about what was going on in the world, where people were at, and nobody wanted to join modern society. None of our friends wanted to be part of the system, we all wanted to rebel and do our own thing. I think we did in our own way; we eventually got pulled into this hole and now we’re trying to reclaim it with our own voice and our own music. That’s part of what I brought to old time music, is trying to reclaim it as my own music. I am still very much a part of something bigger but not feeling like I have to conform. That’s the non-conformance type of attitude, I think, that comes from punk music. I’m not gonna play it like somebody else. I’m not gonna listen, I’m not necessarily gonna take it if someone comes up and tells me it should be played a certain way, I’m more likely to just say, “Fuck you!” [laughing] And I think that comes with that attitude. To me, it’s not disrespectful, I still have very much respect for where the music’s coming from, I haven’t disrespected that, I just tried to take it as an independent thing and reclaim it. What’s going on here, and I’m sure that it’s the same on the West coast as it is on the East coast is, a lot of these kids are very counter-culture here, as far as the music. The music is very social; it’s not commercial, it’s not commercialized. Some aspects of it are, but for most people, old time music is a completely non-commercial art form, which is great. I think that’s a big part of what punk was, was having a non-commercial style of music.
Right, right. Does it seem a little ironic to you that, in trying to move away from mainstream society that you have adapted something that’s traditionally, a pretty conservative tradition? I mean, this is conservative, Southern culture, so they think.
CM: Well, what I’ve learned a lot about the music is that old time music was sort of the “bad boy” music though too. The moonshine, the drinking, the fights, and everybody knows what happens when you stay up all night playing music and drinking alcohol. It’s a good combination for non-Christian things to happen. [laughing] I think that’s a big part of it. This music is very rough and ready and to me, it doesn’t seem super-conservative as a music form.
Okay. I see. And now, you’re thinking about sticking around Nashville for a while, right? How do you like Nashville?
CM: Nashville’s great! I really like Nashville. I’ve come here and visited a couple of times and sort of have been interested in moving here several times but I didn’t want to try to come here and try to make it, quote, end quote. Now I have an opportunity to come play with this band, it was so easy just to come and do and I feel like, being here in Nashville, even the commercial country music industry’s here. There’s also a lot of other great music going on in Nashville and it’s starting to open up a lot, I think.
BUY THE MUSIC YOU HEARD HERE:
08/09/2012 | comments (0)
We've been keeping a close eye on young Michigan bluegrass pickers Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys and good thing too, since their new album is a delight from start to finish. Anchored by great songwriting and the utterly charming vocals of Lindsay Lou, the band is red-hot, pickin' up a storm throughout the album. There's hints of swing jazz and pre-war American music alongside progressive bluegrass and plain old-fashioned fun. Check it out!
Young Michigan “rootsgrass” band Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys pack a tight punch. Instrumentally, they can turn on a dime, and their arrangements show a well-developed taste in music. Based on bluegrass traditions but frequently dipping into swing jazz and popular song craft, their sound is deftly guided by the clarion vocals of lead singer Lindsay “Lou” Rilko. Their new album, Release Your Shrouds, marks a remarkable step forward, and that’s thanks in part to the relationship between the two singers, Lindsay and Joshua Rilko, which blossomed in their college days and, with their recent marriage in July 2011, now forms the core of the band. Josh was one of the group’s founders and has guided their development from college band to national touring group. He plays mandolin and joins his voice with his wife, Lindsay, in beautiful harmony on the new album. A precocious talent, Lindsay joined the band after a series of open-mics and kitchen jams in college. During a study abroad in Ecuador, she knuckled-down to focus on writing songs and discovered a hidden talent for song craft that now puts her at the top of current acoustic roots music songwriters. It’s impossible to leave the new Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys album without humming at least one of her songs for the rest of the day. With the full band melding their sound to hers, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys have jumped into the forefront of today’s progressive roots music movement. The twelve songs on Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys’ new album, Release Your Shrouds, show that this is the sound of a band moving quickly to maturity, and turning what was once a college project into a tightly knit family.
Release Your Shrouds is a window to a bluegrass band spreading its wings and incorporating new influences into their sound. On “Wonderful You Are,” bass player Spencer Cain shines in a duet with Lindsay’s Billie-Holiday-like vocals, and dobro player Mark Lavengood brings the fire on “Lemon Squeezy.” Keith Billik’s banjo playing not only offers the driving bluegrass sound, but also brings a level of sophistication to the less traditional numbers, like instrumental track “Barbarossa.” Lindsay’s songs are fully crafted stories, often based on real-life experiences, with lovely hooks and choruses. The breadth of the songs’ themes pushes each band member to work outside the bluegrass box, and the results are delightful. With the addition of trumpet to “Tied Down to You,” the swing-jazz roots of Lindsay’s singing make this song seem almost like a Squirrel Nut Zippers number, while “Leaves and Pods” has all the slow-burning fun of an old rockabilly waltz from the 50s, and “The Leaves Are Changin’” sounds like a sweeter-than-honey Western swing song. Songs like “My Side of the Mountain” and “Pass Me the Whiskey” are pitch-perfect romps through traditional bluegrass, just to show that each band member can still pick with the best.
Like any family, Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys are more than the sum of their parts. They’re an all-American family, front-porch pickin’ party, with each song shining with the polish of handmade homemade acoustic roots music.
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: All Day
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: Hat's Off
08/06/2012 | comments (0)
Kevin Brown is a well loved musician, songwriter and bluegrass DJ based out of Eastern Washington, an arid land of high desert, dense forests, and some serious cowboy culture. We've been working with him promoting his new album, The Beloved Country, but we also keep hearing about The Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival (Aug 10-12 this year outside Spokane, WA), an all-star Washington State bluegrass festival that he curates and runs. After spending last weekend at Pickathon, we were more curious than ever to learn about what goes into building a great roots music festival. This is part of our ongoing "Behind the Scenes" interview series in which we get to meet some of the people behind the scenes of the roots music industry. The quiet builders and humble workers who get it done without much credit or many accolades. We loved how Kevin thought about acoustic roots music and turns out he brings that same quiet thoughtfulness and refreshing honesty to building and producing one of the best bluegrass festivals in the Northwest!
[Kevin Brown at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival]
Hearth Music Interview with Kevin Brown
When was Blue Waters started? Did you start it? If not, when did you start working for it? If so, what caused you to start the festival?
Kevin Brown: Blue Waters was started in 2002 by some folks in the community of Medical Lake , a small lake town near Spokane, WA, who wanted to have a music festival to raise money for some local charities. They decided on bluegrass even though none of them knew much about the music, and wisely enlisted the help of some people in the Inland Northwest bluegrass community. I attended the first meeting with my friend Jim Faddis and it was a strange mixture of beer-can-pounding Good Old Boys, suburban bluegrassers, and miscellaneous business and community leaders, with very little organization to the meeting. I think most of us felt like spectators at a rodeo, but somehow a planning committee was formed. I had recently started doing a bluegrass radio show on our public radio station so I got recruited to help book the bands. The festival was held at the city park on the shores of Medical Lake that August, and if I remember correctly there were about 50 people in attendance at that first festival. The saving grace was an absolutely beautiful location and some great music from Jackstraw, John Reischman & The Jaybirds, and a few local bands. It took a few years to really get off the ground and grow, but the lakeside park and some high-energy bands in those next few years like Broken Valley Roadshow (Montana's young hotshot band at the time), Hit & Run Bluegrass, The Biscuit Burners and The Wilders helped the word to get out, and we grew to our present size of 800 - 1000 people.
Steep Canyon Rangers at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Why do you think bluegrass fests seem to be so location-focused? I'm thinking of the Colorado festivals that have these amazing backdrops of mountains and nature.
I want to think that location is everything, but then there are festivals like Wintergrass that are held in the most ungodly un-bluegrass places on the planet (a hotel complex in downtown Bellevue WA?!) that are wildly popular so I guess that sort of deflates the theory. Still, when it comes to outdoor summertime festivals I think you've got to have some natural beauty and an environment conducive to sitting in a chair and watching bluegrass without baking in the sun. Also, not everyone in a family or group of friends has the same tolerance for sitting and listening all day, so having the opportunity to swim, hike, ride bikes, or go join the campground jam session all make for a more enjoyable weekend. Water, trees and great summer weather make for a multi-sensory experience, and the natural beauty seems to go with the earthy nature of the music.
What's the natural environment like around the fest? Tell me more about the location!
One of the most consistent bits of positive feedback we get about Blue Waters is that we have a stellar location. The festival is held in a park on a nice little lake under a canopy of Ponderosa Pine trees. The stage actually sits nestled between 4 or 5 really big Ponderosas that are kind of like pillars. Eastern Washington summers can be hot, but we don't have humidity, we have great shade, and the lake has a family-friendly swimming area and a nice walking path around it. It's just a sweet spot, and it's also within walking distance of local shops and restaurants. In fact, there's a second lake within walking distance as well, with better fishing and it's a nice place for an hour or two of quiet during the weekend. We are only a 4 hour drive from Seattle, 3 hours from Missoula, and 2 hours from Eastern British Columbia, so we're centrally-located for a wide geographic region of folks who tend to love the outdoors. Spokane is sort of off-the-beaten-path, but I think that's part of the charm. If you want to get away, you want to GET AWAY to some place that feels like summer!
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
How is Blue Waters different from other bluegrass festivals you've been to? What other festivals have inspired you recently?
There are several other great summertime bluegrass festivals in the region (Darrington, Columbia Gorge, Pickathon). I guess if I were to differentiate our festival I'd say that we're a little more "small town" than those, being farther from the major cities on the I-5 corridor, but still very passionate about maintaining a high-caliber of music and a breadth of styles while being affordable. Our national headliners have been some of the best of any bluegrass festival our size in the west -- Dan Tyminski Band (his only festival appearance in the US the summer of 2010, with a one-time all-star backing band), The Seldom Scene, Darrell Scott, Mountain Heart, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, etc. Many of the Northwest bluegrass festivals tend to stay in a pocket of more mainstream bluegrass, or just regional bands, or picking-only festivals. I think we offer more variety. And yet our weekend passes are still lower than most festivals our size.
As far as inspiration goes, I have to admit I haven't been to as many other regional bluegrass festivals recently as I would like, but I do scour the lineups of other festivals to see who's booking who, and which festivals seem to have some unique personality. There are several that I have my eyes on to attend, like the Durango Meltdown and Pagosa Festival in Colorado, the Big Horn Mountain Festival in Wyoming, and of course some of the big ones like Merlefest and Delfest. Every year or two I try to go to one of those (my favorites have been Grey Fox and Rockygrass), but they do always get a bit depressing from a Festival Promoter standpoint, because our budget is so small compared to theirs.
Dan Tyminski Band at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
How do you pick the performers? Are you focusing on draw, or artistic choices? What are you looking for in choosing your lineup?
Being a DJ at heart, I approach the lineup similar to my bluegrass radio show, as a set of music that gives everybody something they already love as well as something they maybe haven't heard before, and have it all hold together and yet still be sort of organic. We offer a variety that includes some of the young progressive bands, songwriting legends, old-time masters, and a blend of local, regional and national artists. I do look for draw, but maybe in less conventional ways. Dirk Powell for instance, is not a household name -- not even in casual bluegrass circles -- but he has such mega-respect in the roots music community that I already know people are making some pretty long drives just to come for him. We had the same experience with Darrell Scott a few years ago for his reputation as a performer and songwriter who isn't necessarily "bluegrass". I am committed to keeping this a bluegrass festival, but want to keep somewhat off-center with that, in some different ways perhaps than other festivals do.
For instance, this year I think we're simultaneously a bit less bluegrass than past years, but ironically we're more traditional! We are also more fiddle-heavy than we've ever been, which is great because Spokane has an absolutely thriving fiddle scene with some of the best instructors in the region, and a couple of fiddle dynasties that have multiple National Champions, and an openness to a wide range of styles. This really happened quite unintentionally. It just hit me when the lineup was about finished that there was such sheer power in the breadth of fiddlers and the bands they play with and styles they play: Dirk Powell, The Quebe Sisters, Jenny Anne (Bulla) Mannan, the Foghorn Stringband's Sammy Lind, and the husband wife fiddle duo of Greg & Caridwen Spatz who will be playing in Jim Faddis' band. Greg is the fiddler for John Reischman & The Jaybirds but he'll be playing mandolin for this set! There is also a really incredible local band called The Dead Fiddler's Society that is steeped in traditional fiddle tunes and styles, and they always host one of the best jams in the campground as well as putting on a great stage show.
The Quebe Sisters aren't bluegrass, but the style of Texas Swing they play is so retro that it can certainly be called "traditional", and so infectious and danceable that I know they're going to be a huge hit. And our other major headliner is The Josh Williams Band, who are certainly VERY bluegrass and who I'm very excited to finally see live. Josh Williams is just so ridiculously talented and solid in every respect.
There is also a young husband-wife duo Anne & Pete Sibley who are a lot like Pharis & Jason Romero, or The Honey Dewdrops (who they are good friends with). Very traditional, and yet armed with plenty of powerful original songs, and the sweetest stage presence.
Really the bottom line is I want a lineup I can personally be excited about. That is definitely the case this year!
Crooked Still at Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival
Do you run the festival as a non-profit, or is it for-profit?
We are a 501-C-3 non-profit, and I can tell you we definitely do NOT make a profit!! Our goal has been to support some local charities after all the bills have been paid, but these past few years especially have made that hard with some loss of sponsorship due to the economy. We are entirely volunteer-driven, and we are short-staffed with committee folks. Several of us have been involved since the very beginning, and we all wear multiple hats. It's a lot of work to put on a festival, and I can see why some of them don't last more than a few years. But every year at the end of the Festival Weekend we all kind of look at each other and say "Wow! That was a blast!", and people thank us profusely as they are leaving, and so we gear up and do it again.
What are some of the challenges of producing a bluegrass festival? Name one or two of your best AND worst moments producing Blue Waters.
Finances, obviously -- especially in an economic climate where it's hard to get consistent sponsorships. But perhaps even more so, trying to make a festival succeed when all you've got is a motley collection of folks who collectively don't have all the skills or know-how necessary to make it all happen smoothly. We are woefully deficient in fundraising energy and experience, and not the most organized committee in the world. The hardest moments have definitely been related to finances, or staffing (100% volunteer), or the myriad of drudgery pre-festival tasks and meetings. But somehow the festival weekend goes off without a hitch and we all have a blast.
Probably the worst moment I can think of was back in 2006 when The Wilders played. They arrived late after fighting traffic on their way out of Seattle, so they came straight to the festival. They put on an incredible set (starting with Ike's yell "MAN, I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW GLAD WE ARE TO BE IN SOME REAL COUNTRY!!"), and then they hung around and talked and maybe even jammed a little afterwards, and then headed to their hotel room. I had forgotten to un-silence my cell phone, and even though I was up late picking in the campground I never heard the 3 or 4 frantic calls from Betse Ellis. Apparently the hotel had given away their rooms to some other tired travelers when midnight rolled around, and they only had one room available for the guys, and ended up putting Betse in a rollout cot in a tiny room. I was horrified when I found the voicemails about 2AM! Fortunately the hotel was able to find her a real room for the next night, but I'm pretty sure we ended up switching hotels for the next year. The great thing, though, is we had The Wilders back last year and Betse didn't even remember that incident, and she even helped me fix a broken tent pole on my tent (I camp behind the stage) after their set!
I think one of my favorite stories was a couple of years ago when Martha Scanlan played. She arrived a bit late and got out of her van and there was a young man with her. He seemed quite a bit younger than her and I wasn't about to start speculating about what the relationship might be, but was more focused on wanting to get Martha backstage where she could start getting ready for her set. But the story came out in bits and pieces as she was getting ready and he was sitting their quietly writing in a journal. A few songs into her set she stopped and told the whole story to the audience. She said that she had been driving through The Middle Of Nowhere, Washington by herself and passed a young man hitchhiking, and just had some inner jolt that she needed to stop and pick this young man up. He was soft-spoken and seemed nice enough, and it turns out his wallet and cell-phone had been stolen in Portland and he was hitchhiking home to the Midwest where he was supposed to be teaching a class in a few days. So Martha -- being Martha -- gave him a ride, brought him to the festival, and proceeded to take up an offering to buy him a bus ticket home. It was a Sunday afternoon set she was playing, and being a preacher's son I know the difference between a religious experience and a hole in the ground, and this was nothing short of the weirdest and holiest moment I've ever witnessed at a music festival. People filled four or five ball caps full of money and the young man sat backstage crying, witnessing this whole spontaneous outpouring of goodwill, and no doubt wondering by what token he had ended up in Martha Scanlan's van that day. I told him most guys there would have just been satisfied to end up getting a ride from Martha Scanlan.
It also struck me that day that in order to be a good songwriter you've got to live like a songwriter. That's why Martha is so good. I think I learned more in that moment about bluegrass & folk music than in any workshop I've ever attended at a festival.
What's your general philosophy behind the festival?
Good, live, authentic music is IMPORTANT. I believe that to the bottom of my soul. People need real music in their lives -- not the stuff you hear in the background at the store, or listen to half-engaged on Pandora or Spotify. People need to experience music, either by playing it themselves or being right up close to a performer who is passionately playing it under the stars. The beauty of a good outdoor festival is people are brought together to enjoy music without being encumbered by their daily responsibilities, and some really beautiful Community happens and some incredible music is made. There's just something about that energy that makes all the time and effort of putting on the festival worthwhile.
The Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival will take place August 10-12 on Medical Lake, near Spokane, WA. Sounds like a great day trip out for all our Seattle friends!! Find out more :
THIS YEAR'S LINEUP: The Josh Williams Band, The Quebe Sisters Band, Foghorn Stringband, Dirk Powell, Anne & Pete Sibley, Jim Faddis & One More Ride, Jenny Anne Mannan, The Callenders, Big Red Barn, The Dead Fiddler's Society, Old Bear Mountain, and Kevin Pace & The Early Edition.
08/04/2012 | comments (0)
Hokey Smokes, we are insanely excited to be heading off to Pickathon this weekend! This scrappy little festival outside Portland, Oregon, has gone from an all weekend picking party among friends to one of the most creatively advanced festivals in the nation. Seriously, you kinda have to go to believe this, but it will blow your mind. Check out our interview HERE with Pickathon founder Zale to get a better idea of his risky programming strategy. Here's a quote from Zale: "We feel more confident in the fact that, ‘Hey, this is just great music’ and people are going to catch on and gravitate for the fact that this is something different and people are going to be okay with crossing a lot of ground."
We'll be interviewing artists for Pickathon at their brand-new Interview Stage. It's gonna be really cool, we'll be interviewing artists as they come off the Mainstages (well, Devon Leger of Hearth will be interviewing along with other crack interviewers from around the NW). It'll be like those sports reporters who interview the sweaty, heaving athletes as they roll off the field. Only we'll be asking nerdy questions about their banjos.
The Interview Stage is backstage and closed to the public, BUT you can watch our interviews live on either KEXP or Paste Magazine! Here's more info from KEXP and Paste on that.
Artists we'll be interviewing directly:
-Sierra Leone Refugee All-Star