A little while ago, I got the chance to interview one of my heroes of Appalachian old-time music, Riley Baugus. Riley's the real deal. He grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and learned as a kid from all the greats, especially Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham. He's not nearly as well known as he deserves, especially considering that he truly understands the heart of the music. He grew up not just with old-time dance music, but also with the deep religious singing of the South. That kind of knowledge of religious song traditions means that his voice and his singing are as true-blue Southern old-time as you can possibly experience.
Riley works a lot with T-Bone Burnett, and seems to be Burnett's banjo-picker of choice. Riley appears on the new-ish Willie Nelson album (Country Music) picking out "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," and he appears on the famed Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album, playing a plaintive banjo on the beautiful last track "Your Last Journey." Of course, you likely know him from his singing in the Hollywood movie Cold Mountain (also a T Bone Burnett project). Not only did Riley contribute some key vocals, along with Tim O'Brien, Dirk Powell, and Tim Eriksen, but he also made all the banjos that appeared in the movie. If you haven't seen this movie, close this article right now and go to your Netflix account to rent it. It's pretty amazing, and hard to believe that they got Nicole Kidman singing Appalachian shape-note music!!
Since Riley's a star artist, along with Kirk Sutphin, at the upcoming Seattle Folk Festival that we're presenting, I got the chance to interview him. He sure had a lot of interesting things to say!
Hearth Music Interview with Riley Baugus
Hearth Music: Where did you grow up? What town?
Riley Baugus: I grew up in Walkertown, NC, near Winston-Salem.
HM: How did you meet Tommy Jarrell and what was your earliest memory of him?
RB: I met Tommy Jarrell at his house. Kirk and I went there to visit and play music in 1982 with Terri McMurray, who is now married to Paul Brown of NPR fame. My earliest memory of Tommy is of him sitting on his green, Naugahyde couch in his living room, playing the fiddle. I don't know what tune he was playing, but I do remember him sitting there playing the fiddle and singing every once and a while during the tune.
HM: Did Tommy Jarrell mentor you?
RB: To say "Mentor " is not really accurate. That's not how it worked. You didn't really go to Tommy's to get lessons, you would go there as an interested musician and he would play and you'd pay attention. If you wanted to learn things from him, he would show you, but it wasn't really a one-on-one teacher/student relationship as we think of it nowadays in a music lesson situation. He would play the tune, break down its parts, but at full speed, and that's how you learned. You could ask specific questions and he'd answer them the best he could. That is how the tradition has been passed since the first musicians in the area began playing.
HM: What did you learn from him?
RB: Wow! That question is like asking someone who does Karate, "What did you learn from the Sensei?" Tommy had a lifetime's worth of knowledge about all sorts of things. Life in general, tunes, how to play them in the archaic style that he learned as a boy, hundreds of stories about things that happened to him in his life, stories about his family, the community, other musicians that he played with over the years, where he first learned the tunes that he played, stories relating to particular tunes, how to attack a tune..... and the list goes on and on. When you went there you didn't just go to learn one thing. You might go with the idea that you would learn, "Sally Ann," but come away with three versions of the tune from different time periods, but the stories of why it was changed at certain times and what the song lyrics in the tune meant. I learned and still learn from him things about tunes on the banjo and fiddle and guitar and mandolin and singing that are from the 1800s that he learned from his father and his uncles and his neighbors. To learn from Tommy Jarrell was like having a time machine at your disposal. He was in his 80s, learned most of his music as a teenager at about 15 or 16 years old, from men and women who were in their 80s and 90s at the time he was learning, so the information you were getting was one person removed from the mid 1800s, and to people removed from and even earlier time, likely the late 1700s. Great experience.
HM: Who were some other Round Peak players that you learned from at an early age?
RB: I was learning from a variety of places and methods at the time, from recordings to people that you'd run into at festivals or people that we'd go visit, or just folks that showed up at Tommy's. I learned a lot from folks like Verlin Clifton, Frank Bode, Dix Freeman, Benton Flippen, Paul Brown and Ernest Creed to name a few, but I was also playing with Greg Hooven back in those days too, so there was a lot of learning going on. He was a powerhouse fiddler and singer, who was a little younger than Kirk and myself, but about the same age. He was learning things from Albert Hash and Thornton Spencer, and Tom Norman as well as Tommy and the whole Round Peak community. We did spend a fair bit of time over at Chester McMillian's house learning from him and his father-in-law, Dix Freeman, who was a wonderful fretless, Round Peak banjo player. He too has his share of stories and information about the old days. He was more the generation of Kyle Creed and Fred Cockerham, who were several years younger than Tommy, but had learned a lot of their music from Charlie Lowe. We went to visit musicians like Boyd and Cindy McKinney, Robert Sykes, Jake Norman and others. We spent time learning from all of them.
Tommy Jarrell w/Chester MacMillian, Frank Bodie, and Ray Chatfield
HM: Was Kirk Sutphin there with you when you were learning?
RB: Yes. Kirk and I started going up together back in '82. We had been playing music together for several years at that point. We met on the school bus back around '76 and became friends. We discovered that our families were from that same sort of part of the state, up around Surry and Alleghany counties, in the Blue Ridge, and we both like old music and old people. We have taken slightly different paths with our focus, but we still have the same love of the music and people. We used to drive around everywhere together. I was a bit older and got my license first, so I got to do the driving. Before that, our parents would drive us to visit musicians or to fiddler's conventions or we'd get a lift with some of the folks that we met in the old time community.
HM: When and how did you meet Dirk Powell?
RB: Dirk and I met at The Galax Fiddler's Convention around 1984 or 1985. We were both very young and in those days there weren't a lot of really young musicians around, like now. We started hanging out in jam sessions together with lots of our mutual friends and became friends ourselves. We like each other's vibe and music.
HM: Did you guys go through the countryside looking for players? Or was it more organic, like there were just people all around to learn from?
RB: Well, we did do that, but not together. We didn't really just go out looking for people who played music. Dirk's family is from Eastern Kentucky and mine is from the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC. Being part of those communities, we and our family knew, or knew of, all the people around that played music. You just had to get to meet them, or get taken there by someone who knew them. Many times it was easier if the person you were going to visit knew your family, but hadn't met you. It was an easier in that way.
HM: Tell me a story about you and Dirk and tunes. I bet he was a pretty crazy guy back in the day (he still is!).
RB: Dirk and I have played tunes for a long time, but one of the best times was a few years ago at Tonderfest, in Tonder, Denmark. You are literally playing for 10s of thousands of people at any performance at that festival, and usually on a huge stage with really big time professional sound systems. He and I sort of went over into a little shed that was provided back stage at the festival, away from the sound of the stage and the other performers and the spectators and the whole big scene. We just played a Round Peak tune together. It was the most magnificent feeling to be there at that moment, just the two of us, right in the midst of that huge environment, playing with total abandon and pure emotion, feeling each other's music and soul and talking with each other using the instruments as our voices. It was incredible. We knew we loved playing with each other and being with each other, but that moment was really special. I have a memory of Dirk at another festival when we were young. We were in Somerset, Pennsylvania playing at a music and dance festival. I remember leaving Dirk sitting in a chair around 2 or 3 am, playing the banjo. I went to bed, got up several hours later and found Dirk, still sitting in the chair, playing the banjo by himself, just as I'd left him. He loves music and he loves playing and there was still music to be made. We couldn't get enough back in those days. We had to play almost all the time we were awake. It's still that way to some degree.
HM: What does old-time music mean to you? On the one hand, it's a career, but on the other hand, it must be a powerful way to connect with family and friends. How do you reconcile the down-home family nature of the music with an international touring and recording career? Can the music be both humble and famous at the same time?
RB: Old time music, as I see it is one of the forms of traditional folk music of this country. Traditional Southern Appalachian music is the melding of several musics to create what we now call Old Time. The European fiddle tunes and pipe tunes came over to the Appalachians. Once here the players were faced with living in the same areas as people the Canadians refer to as people of The First Nations. They had their musical styles. They were also living with and around black slaves, forced here from several African nations, and these people had their own music. The rhythms and melodies all melded to form what we now know as Old Time. It is old music, but new music. It is usually music that is deeply heartfelt and meaningful. Speaking for myself, the performances of the music that I give today are not merely recreations nor an attempt at preservation, but a living, breathing example of music and tradition that still lives in the mountains near my home, where my family has been living since the 1700s. In these mountain communities you can still go to several dances every weekend, jam sessions within the community, and to performances of old time music all over this area. It is not an art form that is dead and simply being recreated by people as a spectacle, but the music and culture of people from the Southern Appalachians. Of course, I am only referring to the Southern Appalachian region, because that is what I am most familiar with. There are Old Time musical traditions all over the nation. The Southern Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Midwest, the North East. The Appalachian chain runs from Alabama all the way up into Canada and there is Old Time music all the the way through them.
I do feel that the music can remain humble and become famous at the same time. Tunes like, "Man of Constant Sorrow", first recorded in the 1920s by Emry Arthur, and "Keep On The Sunny Side," from The Carter Family are great examples. Two very humble songs, which through the vehicles of film, TV and radio, became very famous after O Brother Where Art Thou hit the theaters. The fact that I, and other musicians, perform and record this music as our careers in no way detracts from the humble nature of the music. In fact, I feel that the fact that the music comes from such a background is part of what people enjoy about it. In this day and age where people rely on the stores and corporations to tell them what they need, how they should look, what to eat, what to wear, what to listen to and so on, I think that many people are looking for something that is real and connected to the culture of a simpler place and time, and traditional music is one of those things. I feel that this is the very reason that I can have a career playing the traditional music of the United States, because it is real, and honest and connected to the Earth and the soul and the spirit of people and with times past, long ago. Music that is recorded and performed and written now that is called Old Time music is just as authentic and real as the music that was being played in the 1800s. All those tunes that people collected from players from years and years ago were made up or written by someone. They didn't just spring into existence. The music that we make in the studio now for films and CDs and call it Old Time is still, "Old Time." It is about the spirit and style of the music. Music cannot live in a vacuum. It must be allowed to breath and evolve and live or over time it will die out, just as anything deprived of space to grow or air to breath would.
HM: Tell me about working on Cold Mountain.
RB: Working on Cold Mountain was a great experience for me. I didn't really have to change who I was to be part of the project. I just had to go to the studio everyday and be Riley Baugus and sing songs the way that I would any other day and play the banjo just the same way. It was great working with T-Bone and Anthony Minghella and all the other musicians and the actors. We were all trying to do the best music that we could do for the project. It was a story that we all loved and wanted it to be as great as possible, as so much of the story was about the music. I learned a tremendous amount about working on a really big project and about sound and making things be the way you want them to be and sound the way you want them to sound. We really did have fun with it. A lot of work, but fun nonetheless.
HM: Was Jack White pretty down-to-earth, did he learn from you, or was he more distant?
RB: Jack White was great. I can't say that Jack learned anything directly from me, but I can say that Jack is a marvelous musician. He really "listens" to music, not just hearing it, but listening for the deeper parts that make music special. I think we all learned from each other during that experience. I know that I came away with more knowledge than I could wrap my head around at the time. It takes time to absorb so much information.
Jack was truly down to earth. He was right there with us, doing what we were all doing....making music. We all jammed a great deal and talked about music and listened to music and played and sang songs. He was great to work with. We did have fun. I didn't find him to be distant at all. We sat around and chatted between takes and when we weren't needed in the recording area. He's very interesting and a good guy to hangout with.
HM: What did you think of the final product of Cold Mountain? Was it pretty fair to old-time mountain life, or was it more of a Hollywood fantasy?
RB: When I finally got to see the whole thing together, I was deeply moved, and the way the music worked with the action was stunning. Due to time limitations there wasn't as much music in the film as we recorded, but there was still a huge amount of music in the film. I thought the screenplay was great and the final film was excellent. We all worked very hard to have it be great and I do think it was. It was the most realistic view of the Civil War that we've seen portrayed in film. The Crater scene at Petersburg was astonishingly realistic. I think it was a fair portrayal of mountain life for the time. There are always little things that one might see and say, "Oh, that's not how it was," but every detail was painstakingly seen to. Even the tin cups and plates were period correct. They were made by a Civil War expert, who is a tinsmith that lives close to me here near Winston-Salem, NC. I think that especially for Hollywood, they got this one as close as possible and it was great.
HM: What did you do on the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album? Was that a fun project?
RB: I played banjo on that recording. I was there for several days working with Norman Blake on some of the tunes that were to be on the album. We played and recorded several things with Robert and Alison. The cut that ended up on the album is a song by Rosa Lee Watson, "Your Long Journey." We played it and Robert and Alison sang it. We set up around the sofa in the studio and just cut it. It was great.
HM: Tell me more about Willie Nelson and working with him. How did he gel with your music?
RB: Working with Willie was great. He is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's a great musician and a wonderful soul. He loved the banjo and I was asked by him on several cuts to kick off the tune. It was as if we'd all been playing together forever. The band was great and Willie was great. T-Bone knew just the right people to put together for the project and what material to bring to the table for us to record. I ended up on 12 or the 15 tracks I think.
We did do a short bit of touring, just to promote the new record. We played at The Ryman, on Soundstage in Chicago, on David Letterman's show, on The View and a concert at The Grand Ballroom in Manhattan. It was really, really fun and a great experience all the way around.
Willie Nelson with Riley Baugus
HM: Tell me more about T-Bone Burnett. It sounds like he's getting more and more connected to your old-time Southern music roots. Like Appalachian music. How has it been collaborating with him?
RB: Working with T-Bone is great. He is connected with Southern Music totally. Old time, Cajun, Country, Rockabilly, Rock and Roll. He is a big fan of the Appalachian sound and really seems to like it on his records and soundtracks. He is from Texas and has heard all sorts of music as well as written in lots of styles. He loves Bluegrass and Old Time. It is very cool getting to work with him and try to pull off what he's looking for in the studio. Always a pleasure.
HM: Where do you think old-time music is today? With a whole new generation embracing the music (I live close to Portland, OR, so I know a bunch of hot young stringbands), is the music being reborn in new ways? Is the core of the music: community, family, friends, still the same, or has it been changed by its brush with fame?
RB: That's a hard one to answer accurately. You need a control in the test group. I am always around music and musicians and quite a few of them are Old Time musicians, but I would say, seeing that there is still a strong community in these mountains, of people that are interested in Old Time music, that it is still strong. The sense of community, family and friends is still very strong. There are now even programs in the public school systems in some counties that encourage school age kids to get involved and learn Old Time music from players in the community who run the program. The program is known as JAM (Junior Appalachian Musicians). They get together after school about 3 days a week for jamming and lessons. It's a great way for kids to get involved without too much pressure. It's just about fun, and music and culture and community.
Surely the music is being reborn in new ways. As I said earlier, it can't survive in a vacuum. I think what's happening is that folks are picking up tunes from different geographic regions and styles, taking them back to their community and playing them in the style that they play where they live. That is exactly what was going on at the turn of the century, around 1900 and later when people would go to labor camps, like puncheon camps or coal camps to work. There they would encounter people from all over, some of which were musicians who would bring their tunes with them. Many of the tunes in Round Peak arrived there that very way. Someone would go off to work somewhere, and come back with a new tune or two. Of course the tune would be then adapted to the Round Peak style rather than being played in the style of the region where it came from. Looks to me like things are just as they have been in terms of Old Time music, except that people now have more access, more ability to travel and the resources to make it easier to learn, such as Computer slow-downers and cds that can be played over and over and over, instead of having to learn a tune in real time at full speed after only getting to hear it once or twice at a dance or from an individual you might pass on the road as you were walking to or from somewhere. There are teaching camps all over too that offer tuition in specific instruments for extended periods of time, like Augusta or Swannanoa, or Banjo Camp North, the classes offered in Brasstown, NC at the John C. Campbell Folkschool, or a similar tuition offered in Galax, Virginia at the Chestnut Creek School for the Arts. People can go there and get 15, 24, or even 40 hours of instruction from an expert teacher and player with every question answered. Old Time music is more available than ever and it seems to be becoming more so. The internet is a great place to find music, do research, and get all the information you can imagine. The resources are endless.
HM: Is the true old-time Southern music dying out?
RB: I don't really think so. It is changing and has always changed, but it is by no means dying out. As I say, more resources and activities are available than ever. The Mt. Airy Fiddler's Convention has around 10,000 people in attendance every year, and the majority of them are there for the Old Time competition and parking lot and campground music. There is a Bluegrass contingent, but it's not as prevalent as the Old Time followers.
HM: Are people still singing the old way in Baptist churches and passing on ballads, or is it alive and changing? What's your take?
RB: Ballad singing isn't really done in Church. Ballad singing is still done in the mountains in the Southern Appalachians, and is alive and well. There are lots of young folks learning the old ballads, or "love songs," as they are called, even if they're murder ballads. Donna Ray Norton, and Elizabeth Laprelle [ed note: appearing with Riley at the Seattle Folk Festival] are two good examples of young folks learning and carrying on the old ballads. There are folks of my generation too that are still doing the old ballads, like Rick Ward from Beech Mountain, Watauga County, NC, and Tim Eriksen. Ballads are still songs of story that were once used as a means of conveying news from one place to another about an occurrence, or as cautionary tales to people to say sort of, "Don't do as the person in this song did," but now and for a long time they have been passed from one generation to the next as examples of old songs with a good story. They are now a way of relaying history, which is still a very important function. Many of the old fiddle tunes perform that function as well.
The singing that is done in the Baptist churches takes many different forms in the mountains. The style that is done by the Old Regular Baptists in Eastern Kentucky and the Mountain Primitive Baptist styles are similar. They sing old songs in a lined-out fashion. That is to say that a song leader "Chants" the first line of a verse and the congregation repeats the line to the melody. This continues for each line of each verse. That way no one except the song leader has to have a book or know the words to a song. This method is also still used in the churches in the Hebrides, on the Isles of Scotland, except they sing the songs in Gaelic. It is called Psalm singing there and the melodies are very similar to the ones used in the Southern Appalachians for many of the old songs. The Regular and Union Baptists vary their method of singing. This is the case for the Freewill Baptists in the mountains as well. They still mostly sing the old songs, but not necessarily with the lining out. Some do, some don't. Just depends on the particular church. For the most part, all the churches that I have mentioned still sing unaccompanied. No musical instruments are allowed in the church. They believe that the New Testament doesn't say that they are to praise God with music in any other way than with their voices, so this tradition continues very strongly today. The documentation of the Lined-Out Hymnody of The Old Regular Baptists of Eastern Kentucky, I think has done a lot to bring people back to that style of singing. I think church attendance is up in those areas.
HM: Tell me about your town.
RB: Walkertown is a small town just outside the city limits of Winston-Salem, NC. I live actually out in the more rural area, out in the county, but our mailing address is Walkertown. Kirk Sutphin and I live here. We are as far as I know, the only Old Time musicians in Walkertown. It isn't really a music town. We gravitate more toward the Northwest of Surry County or over to the Northeast toward Rockingham County where Charlie Poole was from. These are the areas where Kirk and I learned most of our music from NC.
HM: Do you play a lot at home, like with Kirk and others?
RB: Kirk and I do play together when we get the chance. We live on the same street and have done forever, with the exception of just a couple of years when I lived in Stokes County and then on the South side of town. We still live on the road where we grew up, just a half mile apart.
HM: Do people come from all over to visit for tunes? Is there maybe even a tourism industry for the music in your town?
RB: People do travel down here from time to time to play with Kirk and myself. We get folks from Japan, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, France. They come from all over. Mt. Airy, NC has more of the tourism vibe going on. That is the town closest to where Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Benton Flippen lived. The Surry Arts council does have functions based around and including the music of Surry County, and people come from far away for those functions.
HM: Tell me about your album with Kirk. That looks great! What kind of tunes and songs are on it? Was it fun to make?
RB: The new album is called Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, Long Time Piedmont Pals. We were approached by Charlie Faurot of Old Blue Records to make the album. He is the collector that recorded Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and Oscar Jenkins back in the 60s. Those recordings sort of got the ball rolling for the "revival" of Round Peak music, which really means that it spread outside the Surry County area and was discovered by loads of people who fell in love with the sound and the idea of the living tradition. It is a collection of tunes that we have known since childhood as well as some we learned just for the recording. We included some tunes that we learned from recording of a great musician named Matt Simmons from Stokes County, NC. It is the county just to the North of us here and is often overlooked musically. "Drunkard's Dream" and part of our version of "Wild Bill Jones" comes from Matt Simmons. It also includes a version of "Paddy On The Turnpike," which we learned from H.O. Jenkins, the grandson of Frank Jenkins who played with Tommy Jarrell's dad, Ben Jarrell in DaCosta Woltz' Southern Broadcasters, in the late 1920s. We did a couple of tunes that we learned from field recordings of Fields Ward from Galax, VA and some tunes from Wade Ward, and tunes we learned from Tommy Jarrell, and others that we learned along the way from several different players.
It was huge fun to make. We recorded it all live. No overdubs, or punching in. We played the tunes and recorded them. Charlie set up in Kirk's living room in true field recorder fashion, and we did the record. We like to think of it as our field recording. It's cool to do a record that way without all the bells and whistles that you have at your disposal in a studio. Just the instruments and the voice and the room sound and whatever editing gets done. One of my favorite ways to record.
I played Banjo and Guitar on most of the recording while Kirk played Fiddle and Banjo on most of it, but we did switch around a bit too. I played Fiddle on a couple and he played Guitar and Old Time Fingerstyle Banjo on a couple. Most people tend to think that Clawhammer is "THE" old time way of playing 5 string Banjo, but Fingerstyles were just about as common in the Southern Appalachian region.
Kirk's brother Darren built a log cabin out behind his house, so Kirk and I went out there and my wife Rosalind took our photos for the cover. It was very appropriate to take those photos at the cabin. Ros is a great photographer and really caught the feeling and us in our element. As kids we always loved the things that were old, seemed old or stood for the old ways. It was like getting to be kids again to do this record. We played tunes that we actually had to learn, and we spent several days together playing tunes and telling stories and just having fun, just like when we were kids.
I am a very fortunate man to be able to do something that is so fun and interesting for my work and have people enjoy what I do and hopefully be moved in some positive way by the music I make and the stories I tell.
HAVE A LISTEN
Riley Baugus: What Are They Doing in Heaven
Riley Baugus: Cumberland Gap
Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin: Wild Bill Jones
PURCHASE RILEY'S MUSIC
Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin: Long-Time Piedmont Pals
Riley Baugus: Long Steel Rail
Riley's Recent Solo Album from Rounder Records --HIGHLY recommended
Riley Baugus: Life of Riley
(Riley's First Solo Album)
Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin are headlining the 2011 Seattle Folk Festival, December 9-11. You can catch them at the gala Appalachian Winter Concert on Sat December 10 at Columbia City Theater, and they'll both be teaching workshops (old-time fiddle and Blue Ridge Mountain singing) during the day on Saturday, on Friday they'll be playing our benefit square dance for Bike Works, and on Sunday they'll be playing our Sunday Family Jam at Town Hall Seattle. Weekend Passes are only $40 and get you in to everything!
11/22/2011 | comments (1)
The 'nets have been buzzing about Seattle's own Bryan John Appleby ever since his newest album, Fire on the Vine, dropped this year. After finally sitting down to explore this album, I was floored to hear one of the best voices in indie roots music today. And it's not just the singing and the beautiful, complex instrumental arrangements on the albums; really the meat of what makes Bryan's music so appetizing is the lyrics. At turns heart-wrenching and transcendent, the album moves between our fragile lives and our endless capacity for faith. It's not religious per se, but it does tap into old epics and Biblical characters.
Driven by my own curiosity, I asked Bryan John Appleby for more information about how faith works into the lyrics. "To be specific, the album relates to the faith that I knew in my formative years, up until the last few years, and the irreconcilable aspects of that former faith and my current position," he said. "It should be clear through the lyrics that I've made a departure. It is more ambiguous than it may seem though."
You can hear this ambiguity in a song like The Words of the Revelator. Bryan said he wasn't specifically referencing John the Revelator, but it's hard not to hear the connection in the lyrics. "You turn away/I am left alone/Then came the sign/Then came the revelation," is a great lyric that touches on the ambiguity of signs, while "You will find what you did not seek/A road less narrow/A way not steep," sure sounds to me like the sigh of relief that comes from moving out from under the weight of religion. Talking further with my friend April at the blog Common Folk Music, Bryan said "In the song 'Words of the Revelator,' I created a conversation between an old craggy hermit scholar type and a young man. This relationship is analogous to the inner struggle that a thinking, reasoning person encounters when she or he is confronted by irreconcilable ways of thinking." [read that Q&A here]
Bryan John Appleby: The Words of the Revelator
"Glory" is another powerful song from Bryan's new album. At turns it's a soaring ode to the human emotions of glory and accomplishment, an uplifting song, but there's a biting edge underneath, a feeling of something lost. As if the glory he's singing about, the kind of glory you'd get from growing up with epic Biblical stories, has slipped away as he's passed into a later phase of his life. I asked Bryan about this song in particular: "Glory is the one song that sounds like its about God but really it means something different than that. No, not sex. It's a salve for me. The album is sad most of the time so the song Glory is a nod to the beauty in our existence. It is subtle and wonderful." I love the thought of this song as a salve, a healing intended to move us along on a new path.
Bryan John Appleby: Glory
Moving on from religion, I really wanted to ask Bryan more about how his music fits into the Pacific Northwest. It certainly seems so connected to our dark, rainy environment; it's the kind of album that can only come out of an endless Seattle winter. I asked him what places in the Northwest inspired him. "My bedroom in the Beacon Hill house [note: check out this great video of Appleby composing at home]. My underground apartment after that," he said. "It was all pretty spectacular when I first got up here. The Puget Sound and the islands. I've only been out there a few times but it's a pretty overwhelming place. Georgetown has always felt good to be down in. Specific spaces, Acme Rubber Stamp Co, used to be in Ballard. The hand painted signage in the I.D..." Bryan's been putting together some amazing videos recently, featuring different landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. And the venerable Doe Bay Fest just release an exceptional video of him out on the Puget Sound's Orcas Island, so you can see him performing in the environment that first inspired his music out in the NW.
Bryan John Appleby: The Doe Bay Sessions
Bryan John Appleby w/Mychal of Campfire OK
BUY THE ALBUM (it's only out on Bandcamp)
Bryan John Appleby is performing at the 2011 Seattle Folk Festival. You can check out the full lineup at www.seattlefolkfestival.com. Bryan's performing as part of the Columbia City Celebration, all-day Saturday, December 10, along with Sons of Warren Oates, Youth Rescue Mission, Brother Bear, Kevin Murphy of the Moondoggies, Pharis & Jason Romero, and more!
11/21/2011 | comments (1)
Frank Solivan's Dirty Kitchen
by MJ Turner
I first met the members of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen at the Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, CA in June of 2010. This was one happening week. The best part about it, at least for me, is that CBA (California Bluegrass Association) hosts a camp 3 days before the festival and the headliners teach the classes, camp with, jam with and hang out with the campers. This particular year as you might guess, Frank and his boys were headliners. By the end of camp, classes, staff/band performances and lots of all night jamming with them, it was abundantly clear that we were being taught by and playing with an immensely talented emerging bluegrass group.
If you have ever had the privilege of seeing Frank live, you have seen that he thoroughly throws all his heart, soul and passion into every song. Now, if you ever have the good fortune of being invited to a personal house concert, where Frank and the boys cook you dinner, schmooze with you while cooking, and then give you an “in your face” concert, do whatever it takes to get there! Frank is known for his gourmet cooking and seems to love preparing as much as performing. I have heard several people ask him if he leaves the kitchens at these house concerts really dirty and is that where he came up with the name. He just looks up and grins saying, naw, I just love getting down and dirty in the kitchen!
The band’s newest member, Dan Booth was my bass workshop instructor last year at camp. He is incredibly talented on several instruments and has a wicked lonesome voice. Dan is an asset to any band in every way; Frank, you got lucky dude! He is also a great teacher that has taught and encouraged me tremendously. His mentoring and support helped me get started in writing a dozen songs this year and helped me to be a valuable member in a really good bluegrass band. If you ever get a chance to take a bass workshop with him, don’t pass it up. The band’s “flat picker” extraordinaire is Lincoln Meyers. Mike Munford, holy smoking moly on the banjo, is just plain awesome.
O.K. So I was asked to actually write a bit about the DK CD. I have literally played mine to death, yet it still lives! As a matter of fact, last year driving to Wintergrass from Vancouver, a blizzard set in and it was a white out for over two hours. I saw 5 wrecks in 5 minutes in Chehalis alone. I happened to be listening to my DK CD when the storm hit. It ended up playing over and over cause I was so freaked out by the weather I was afraid to take my hands off the wheel. I guess it was an omen, cause that night quite unexpectedly, Frank showed up in the OBA (Oregon Bluegrass Association) suite. He had flown in to surprise his father Frank Sr. (a really sweet guy that has mentored and supported many children for years, heading up the “Kids on Bluegrass” in CA.) We all had a great time jamming with him throughout the weekend. The whole CD is a driving force that grabs your bluegrass soul from the first song to the last.
Don’t miss the opportunity to pick up this great CD at the festival and say hello and get to know these guys. This newly planted Pacific NW bluegrass gal is excited to have Dirty Kitchen here in our neck of the woods and proud to call them my friends.
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen: Tarred & Feathered
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen: Paul and Silas
In honor of the upcoming Seattle Folk Festival, we'll be profiling artists on the Hearth Music blog. These profiles will be a great way to get to know the artists and to listen to and discover their music.
Seattle Folk Festival
December 9-11, 2011
Columbia City Theater, Town Hall Seattle, and more!
Featuring Bryan John Appleby, Riley Baugus & Kirk Sutphin, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Anna & Elizabeth, Laura Love & Orville Johnson, Kevin Murphy of the Moondoggies, Sons of Warren Oates, Youth Rescue Mission, Pharis & Jason Romero, Jackstraw, The Tallboys, Northern Departure, Brother Bear, Sean Flinn & The Royal We, The Canote Brothers, Ben Fisher, Goldfinch, Annie Ford & Gregory Paul, Alina Hardin
11/10/2011 | comments (1)
Portland's Tucker Martine is the storied producer and visionary behind much of today's best indie roots music coming out of the Northwest. He's the man behind The Decemberists 2011 album, The King is Dead (see our previous AST review), which rose to #1 on the national charts, and he's behind a host of other beautiful albums coming out of PDX. His ties to the folk and roots worlds are strong. Though he's worked with artists like R.E.M., Spoon, Mudhoney and My Morning Jacket, he's also produced all of indie-folk shining star Laura Veirs' albums (ok technically they're married, so that helps), as well as the lovely 2011 album from renowned banjo luminary Abigail Washburn. This album married Washburn's wind-swept vocals with Martine's aesthetic for soaring fiddle arrangements and lush instrumentation.
We just found out recently that Martine was actually friends with Harry Smith back in the day, and counts Smith's oeuvre as a large inspiration for his own work. Like Smith, Martine cut his teeth releasing wildly creative, eccentric field recordings. Released by NW label Sublime Frequencies, Bush Taxi Mali is an album of recordings from Martine's 1998 trip to Mali in Western Africa, and Brokenhearted Dragonflies is an album of "insect electronica," hyper-accurate recordings of insects in SE Asia. And like Smith, Martine has continually plumbed the depths of the American roots music for inspiration.
Thanks to the upcoming Tribute To Harry Smith that American Standard Time, Ball of Wax, and Hearth Music are producing at Columbia City Theater (Nov 25), we asked Martine for his memories of hanging out with mad maegi Harry Smith, and how this has influenced his own work. Here's what he had to say:
Tucker Martine on Harry Smith
"I got to know Harry because he came in each day to the coffee shop I worked at in Boulder in 1990 and 91, the Trident Cafe. The owners of the cafe, knowing my interests - suggested that I spend my breaks sitting at Harry's table getting to know him. He was usually wearing a blue and white pinstriped jacket that reminded me of the candyman. He would often pour a bottle of technicolored pills out on to the table and begin to organize them while talking to himself. He was always very happy to talk when I sat as his table, a complete stranger in the beginning. I never studied with Harry - at that time I'm pretty sure he wasn't "teaching" anymore but the Naropa Institute had taken him under their wing and were providing housing for Harry, who wasn't necessarily great at looking after himself. He would usually do all of the talking, I was happy to listen. He talked often of his many buddhist kittens and their rapidly expanding population in his apartment. He said there were even a few Buddhist squirrels on the Naropa campus as well. I wish I had kept the phone message he once left me where he was hoping I would take one of his new Buddhist kittens that he said had successfully completed it's basic Dharma training. My time with Harry mostly preceded my immersion into his life's work. By the time I had fully realized the profundity of his life, he was gone. I was left with fond memories of this warm, eccentric man that I felt drawn to - though didn't understand why until after he had passed away. Harry has inspired me in so many ways, as a field recordist, a guerilla ethnomusicologist and as a lover of things natural, manipulated and surreal."
Inside the Trident Cafe, Boulder CO
Laura Veirs: John Henry Lives (from The Triumphs & Travails of Orphan Mae)
Martine-produced track inspired by Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
Join us on November 25 for an all-star Tribute to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, featuring Kevin Murphy (The Moondoggies), RedDog, Kevin Barrans and Friends, Folichon Cajun Band, Pacific Northwest Sacred Harp Singers, Jeremy Burk, Colin J Nelson, Sokai Stilhed, Norman Baker, Ben Fisher, and Virgin of the Birds.
Plus a Harry Smith story from John Cohen, animated by Drew Christie!
Friday, November 25
Columbia City Theater
$10 advance / $15 doors
Free copy of Ball of Wax 26 - a tribute CD to the Anthology of American Folk Music - with entry.
11/08/2011 | comments (0)
I've been impatiently awaiting a new album from Canadian roots music artist Michael Jerome Browne for quite a while now. The last album of his that I have, Michael Jerome Browne & The Twin Rivers String Band, is one of my favorite roots albums, with gorgeous picking and singing with powerful cuts of old-time, blues, honky-tonk and Cajun songs. Having just received his new album, The Road is Dark (out now on Borealis Records), and having listened to it now twice in a row without stopping, this was definitely worth the wait!
Browne may not be too well known in the States–though he was born in Indiana, Montreal is his adopted home–but he should be. He's one of those rare musicians who have the artistry to transform traditional material that would sound old and tired in another's hands into something so refreshing that it feels like you're hearing the song for the first time. Browne nails this right out the gate with a surprising cover of the 1949 Flatt & Scruggs Mercury Records classic "Doin' My Time." This song was always one of the funkiest, blusiest bluegrass numbers around, so it makes perfect sense when Browne takes it into a deep Delta blues setting. It's a bold move to cast a classic of the bluegrass canon as country blues, but it's a sign of Browne's familiarity and comfort with American roots music. He's done this before on previous albums, effortlessly blending country blues, Appalachian old-time and even some killer Cajun music, and though The Road is Dark is primarily blues-based, the reason the album sounds so rich and effortless is because he's got so much knowledge and appreciation of the roots of the music he plays. On "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Browne takes a Rev. Gary Davis song into darker, eerier territory by channeling the influences of Skip James and Lightnin' Hopkins.
What's even more impressive than these re-imaginings of country blues, are Browne's original songs, which are sprinkled throughout the album. He writes so well and so cleanly, that it's pretty much impossible to tell the original songs from the traditional ones. Though some of the original veer away from the universality of blues lyrics towards more topical matters, this is an asset to the album. His "G20 Rag" is a welcome addition to any political songbook:
"caught the midnight train to Hogton
I went to have my say
'bout the way the rich keep gettin' richer
and the way the poor folks pay
up above the barricade
inside the penthouse suite
twenty future CEOs
raised a glass to the elite
and when the streets were empty
when we're all in jail
our leaders smiled and said 'you see?
democracy can't fail!' "
One of the strongest moments in the album comes right after the "G20 Rag" with Browne's spare and hair-raising song "Sing Low." Accompanied by Rwandan guitarist Mighty Popo and a finger-plucked gourd banjo, Browne's song is ostensibly an homage to Afghan women, drawing a comparison to African-American slaves, who used song to communicate with less fear of reprisal. On any other artist, a heavy-handed blues homage to the cultural complexities of the Afghan nation would be unbearable, but Browne's song is so deftly written and his rendition so subtle and rich, that he manages to convey the intended power to the song.
This is a great album, not only a delight to connoisseurs of American roots music for the way that Michael Jerome Browne reinterprets and subverts old blues paradigms, but also a delight for those just looking for some great acoustic blues. It's eminently listenable from start to finish and will likely enjoy a long shelf-life on repeat in your collection.
Michael Jerome Browne: G20 Rag
BUY THE ALBUM
BUY THE ALBUM ON ITUNES
10/29/2011 | comments (4)
I just got this email from Compass Records:
They've got select overstock albums on sale for $FIVE DOLLARS from Now until October 31. You still have to pay shipping, I think, but this is pretty great. Since Compass now owns Green Linnet records (the powerhouse Celtic label of the 80s and 90s), they have some SEMINAL albums that I would really recommend you buy if you don't have them already:
Celtic Fiddle Festival: Encore
The original lineup of Kevin Burke (Ireland), Christian Lemaitre (Brittany) and Johnny Cunningham (Scotland). Classic.
Donna Long & Brendan Mulvihill - The Morning Dew
This album changed my life. Best album of Irish music I HAVE. EVER. HEARD.
Dervish - Live in Palma (2 Disk)
My favorite Irish band. This is a live 2-CD set, but 2 CDs for 5 bucks is pretty awesome.
Gerry O'Connor - Myriad
Great intro to the Irish tenor banjo tradition. Gerry O'Connor is pretty amazing. A bit poppy, but a great album.
Great intro to the Irish button accordion. Raw trad, but masterfully done.
Dead brilliant classic album of British trad. Jeez, Kate Rusby for $5? Yes please!
A true classic, this album of Irish fiddle Kevin Burke and the late accompanist/singer Micheal O Domhnaill is a must-have.
Sligo Irish fiddle legend Kevin Burke's made his home in Portland for decades, and his NW band Open House was a wonderful blend of West Coast sounds, from klezmer to old-time to Mark Graham's funny songs and Sandy Silva's inspiring dancing.Pure classic must-have.
Kevin Crawford - In Good Company
Irish fluter Kevin Crawford is known for his work with super-group Lunasa, but this album is straight up trad, and the best you can get. It also features an ultra-rare appearance from fiddler Tony Linnane, one of my most favorites. Oh man, and Frankie Gavin kills it on a track here.
Kornog - Premiere
The band that put the eerie melodies of French Brittany on the Celtic map. Classic.
Orkney singer Kris Drever turns out top-flight albums that never seem to make it to the US. This is a rare chance to catch him at his best. Wonderful songs here.
Damn, yo! Lunasa is hands-down one of the best Irish trad bands. They've also been a huge influence on pretty much everyone else. This isn't their best album, per se, but if you don't have it, you need it!
Mick McAuley & Winifred Horan - Serenade
Not strict trad, that's for sure, but no one can fault these two master artists from Solas and how much fun they have on this great album.
One of my favorite little-known Irish trad bands. Part of what makes them great is the absolutely stunning fiddling of Maeve Donnelly. She's a back-room brawler of a fiddler, all punch and spit. Love her playing! The other part that makes them great is their old-school dance sound, too rare in today's ultra-slick Irish trad world.
Oisin McAuley - Far From The Hills of Donegal
Dang, I don't have this, but I'm getting it! The Donegal fiddle style is punchier and more rhythmic than any other Irish fiddle style. Great stuff, and not only does this album from Danu's fiddler have great Donegal tunes, but more eclectic fare as well.
Sharon Shannon Albums!!
Dang, they have like every Sharon Shannon album up for $5. She's one of the best living Irish accordionists, but I love her for her gentle, subtle, and briliant Clare style of playing. Sure she's fun when she plays super fast and sings weird, unusual pop songs, but damn when she hits the trad Clare style with Mary Custy on fiddle.... Swooon....
Sharon Shannon/Frankie Gavin/Michael McGoldrick - Tunes
Oh, this album is awesome. This album is so powerful, they should tile the space shuttles with extra copies. Three of the best players ever to play Irish trad, even God himself, ol' Frankie Gavin? YES PLEASE!!!!
Susan McKeown - Lowlands
Though McKeown's a great Irish singer, she can travel pretty far afield. This is one of her best, most understated albums, and it draws primarily from the rich loam of Irish soil. Great stuff.
The Unwanted - Music from the Atlantic Fringe
A totally surprising, unexpected album of delights. Cathy Jordan and Seamie O'Dowd of Dervish join forces with harmonica whiz Rick Epping for an album that explores the links between Ireland and America. Check out our earlier review of this album
NOW, if you have all these albums, or most, already, then maybe you should pick up a new release or two? John Doyle's got a new album out, and Punch Brothers' Noam Pikelny has a pretty awesome solo bluegrass banjo out now too.
Noam Pilkeny: Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail
John Doyle: Shadow and Light
Your Friends at Hearth Music