On Gone Away With A Friend, Frank Newsome sings a more than four-century-long American tradition into the present. His arresting style—the ancient lined-out hymn singing of the Old Regular Baptists from the borderlands of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia—is a direct sonic ancestor to genres like old-time, Bluegrass, and gospel. In fact, Bluegrass master Ralph Stanley grew up hearing this once-common, unhurried style; Stanley and Newsome were good friends and spent time singing together. Originally from Pike County, KY, Newsome has preached at the Little David Church in Haysi, VA since 1972, singing these songs from what is the oldest, English-language religious music tradition passed down orally in America. This recording, captured over one evening in 2006 in the cozy sanctuary of Newsome’s church, features nine old songs and two contemporary numbers, all sung in the traditional, unaccompanied style. Since the original recording was made, Newsome has been recognized widely for his singular voice; in 2011 he was named an NEA National Heritage Fellow, the country's highest honor for traditional artists. To listen closely to Newsome’s singing on this sparse, captivating album is to dip your toe into the placid headwaters of the great stream of American music.
It’s just before noon and Ric Robertson heads out the door on an already sweltry New Orleans morning. A short walk into the French Quarter and his day begins. He spends the next few hours at the piano, hypnotizing the crowd while lending his honey-warm voice to the swampy tunes of Bobby Charles. As the day begins to cool, Ric picks up a Telecaster to wield a band in the songs of Willie Nelson and hopping seamlessly to drums, to bass, and back to keys, transitions into a set of funk tunes a la Sly Stone. Late into the night Ric commands the room with sincerity and credibility, leading the band in classic standards and deep cuts alongside his own song in a voice as nimble and beguiling as his predecessors. This voice spills out onto Frenchman street and into the world on Ric Robertson’s debut album, The Fool, The Friend.
Ric has the gift of injecting heartbreak with a sweet and forgiving humor that few songwriters possess, magnifying his natural charm. His is a kind of musicianship and lyricism bred only by those with the keen ability to listen and absorb and the relentless ability to create. It’s had him fill in for the Woods Brothers and has him touring Rhiannon Giddens this summer. The Fool, The Friend gathers an august cadre of musicians and friends, including Oliver Wood of The Wood Brothers, Dori Freeman, Nicholas Falk, Phoebe Hunt, Brother Roy, and Duncan Wickel (the album will be released on Dori Freeman's record label Blue Hens Music). Robertson is an artist with the chameleon-like ability to slink from genre to genre, instrument to instrument, and cover to original, all the while enchanting listeners to believe that there is no sorcery involved - just damn fine tunes. But there is indeed magic on The Fool, The Friend, a spell you’ll wish to be under again as soon as it’s over.
Nashville-based cello/fiddle duo Oliver the Crow are a union built for the airy plains of the South. Their vast sound, which has been called “inspired” by NPR, evokes the wide open spaces surrounding Music City, but grounds itself in the minimal, stripped down instrumentation of cellist Kaitlyn Raitz and fiddler Ben Plotnick.
Each of the ten original songs on their first full-length offering unlocks a different musical world. Oliver the Crow navigates effortlessly between the gravitas of chamber composition, the longing of folk music, and the near dreamlike quality of atmospheric sound art.
It’s not that Toronto’s The Slocan Ramblers are old-fashioned, it’s that they’re making bluegrass that harkens back to an older need. They’re not here for the concert halls, they’re not here for the flash and glitz of the music industry, they’re here to grind out the hottest tunes they can, picking fast and furious through traditional and original pieces, and they’re here to sing their songs to hardworn people looking for release. They came out of Toronto’s gritty bluegrass scene, playing late-night bars to rowdy crowds in a city once known for its industrial pigmeat industry. The dust in banjo player Frank Evans’ voice fits perfectly into an older world of bluegrass that still remembers its roots in working class communities. They’re more Louvin Brothers than Ricky Skaggs, and some of this comes for their long-term interest in and respect for old-time Appalachian traditions. Evans moves back and forth between clawhammer and Scruggs-style banjo, while mandolinist Adrian Gross has the speed and aggression of Big Mon himself in his playing. Thundering bassist Alastair Whitehead has a softer voice than Evans, but with a hint of world-weary wistfulness. Guitarist Darryl Poulsen’s as steady as rolling train, shoveling coal into the red-hot furnace of racing bluegrass tempos. These four young men are at the top of their game, each of them powerful enough in the genre to move these old sounds in fascinating new directions. On their new album, Queen City Jubilee, coming June 15, 2018, The Slocan Ramblers mix original and traditional songs with instrumental tunes, tapping the old vein of Appalachian music that first inspired so many early bluegrass bands, but also looking to the softer side of folk and Americana for its complex, interwoven songcraft.
Originally hailing from the industrial landscape of Hamilton, Ontario, Dana Sipos inhabited the far Canadian north - Yellowknife, Northwest Territories - for many years before going nomad. Her captivatingly nuanced songs continue to be infused with a wild wind and a haunting, slightly hypnotic surrealism, akin to the mysteries of the north.
The ten songs that make up her new album Trick of the Light, travel extensively as well; to the Blue Ridge mountains of Appalachia, the Kentucky foothills, the wilds of Tennessee, the rolling hills of Virginia. It is partly by chance and partly by choice that rural, mountainous regions of the US inform so much of of the music, along with the pull of the tides, amateur palm readers, guiding lighthouses and hurricane season. These are tenuous times and there are gentle, tenuous threads that tie this evocative collection of sonic stories together. In making Trick of the Light, Sipos employed the help of experimental Toronto producer Sandro Perri and features Mary Margaret O’Hara, Jesse Zubot and Doug Tielli.
Meet Beatrice Deer, a songwriter who creates silvery, gossamer indie pop songs in three languages, English, French and Inuktitut (an Inuit language of northern Canada).
Deer, a mother, television director, clothing-maker, mental health advocate and songwriter, is originally from one of Quebec’s most northernmost towns, a population in the mere hundreds. Now based in Montreal, Deer readies for the release of her fourth full-length album My All To You, coming May 11, 2018 in Canada and the US. Her voice, delicate yet determined, tells stories of resilience both personal and communal. As a whole, the songs of My All To You focus on finding the big answers in the small glances, scents and gestures that linger and build. Companionship is a major theme, and Deer’s invocation of the legend of “Atungak,” a man who doesn’t age and travels the world with his wife only to return and find his children have grown old, is a striking parable of togetherness in loneliness.
There’s a playfulness to the best old country songwriting, a kind of delight in turning a phrase, in surprising a listener. It’s a trick that Colorado Americana songwriter Jackson Emmer learned early on playing noisy bars in Aspen. Inspired equally by Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt, Emmer weaves the kind of bittersweet, barroom ballads that Nashville songwriters used to fight over in the 70s. And if he understands the subtle humor of this old style of songwriting, it’s because he’s truly a student of American roots music. Emmer cut his teeth early on with Sam Moss, known for his American primitive guitar work, in the Appalachian old-time duo The Howling Kettles, and he’s studied everything from Guy Clark to Bob Wills. “In mainstream country today,” Emmer explains, “you stretch a sad feeling out for a whole song in a Disneyland kind of way. Classic country had these stories that pivot on small moments and little details. It comes out of nowhere. You think something’s going to go down smooth, but then there’s a sudden right hook.” On his new album, Jukebox, Emmer spins tales of love gone wrong around quick surprises and sucker punches, dancing like Roger Miller and stinging like John Prine. His voice has a bit of gravel in it, like a refurbished bar that still has a hint of cigarette smoke from years past, and his guitar shifts between electric chicken pickin’ and John Hurt fingerstyle. There’s an ease to Emmer’s music that comes from the joy he feels playing and writing great songs, and this ease draws the listener in, allowing them to see themselves in his songs.
Sunny War is tirelessly creating. LA-based but nomadic at heart, Sunny defies the notion of permanence just as she rejects the boundaries of genre. Whether crooning in a style reminiscent of smoky bars and stages long torn down, or hollering “No gods, no masters” on the crowded streets of Venice Beach, Sunny continues to refuse the barriers of categorization. Instead, her music is punk, blues, folk, and antifolk all rolled into one. It is precisely this rebellious, unapologetically individual nature that brought Sunny into the spotlight she never directly sought, preferring the home free warmth of daylight. Her newest solo release, With the Sun, was met with rave reviews from Rolling Stone, Afropunk, NPR, and many more, with NPR stating the album’s tracks “evoke a wondrous, breathless beauty and are filled with hypnotic, acoustic calm.”
But she’s not done yet. Just two months off the heels of her solo release, Sunny’s releasing a collaborative album between herself and Micah Nelson of Particle Kid, out April 20th. Instead of following the typical split LP archetype, Sunny and Micah of Particle War have opted for a more communal songwriting approach, with each of them playing or singing on each track, be it bass, drums, or backing vocals. It’s a release that’s drenched in the anything-but-typical demeanor of With the Sun, featuring mid-century rhythmic blues and introspective acoustic refrains. Above all, in her solo efforts and collaborations, Sunny shows us what it's like to live as a woman without a compass, preferring the direction of her own instincts.
There’s warmth to the music of Alaska indie folk band The Super Saturated Sugar Strings. It’s the warmth of friendship, good cheer, and the kind of community needed to make it through the bitter isolation and hard winters in the 49th state. Based in Anchorage, the Sugar Strings are a beloved institution there, packing sweaty bodies together in small halls under neon light to dance into the night. On their new album, All Their Many Miles (release date: March 23, 2018) they’ve managed to translate not only the high energy stomp and swing of their live shows to the studio, but also to capture some of the magic that brings together Anchorage’s music community. A windswept town on the edge of the Alaska ocean, Anchorage has a remarkably robust music scene, one characterized by unconditional support among bands and wildly passionate audiences. It’s a model for other scenes and an idea that’s catching, and The Super Saturated Sugar Strings aim to bring that kind of human connection to the rest of the states, as they begin touring nationally. On stage, you see this kind of egalitarian, open communication directly among the six band members as they freely swap instruments, sometimes more than once in the same song. They gather around the drum in the center of the stage, with band members jumping in and out of the seat, joining together in harmony, swaying back and forth as they blast out their horn lines. The music they create seems cinematic at times, drenched in strings and horns and bombastic ideas. This is Alaska, where nobody does anything small, so this roots band’s take on modern Americana is full of dense, intricate, virtuosic instrumental arrangements and shout-to-the-rafter vocals.
For being such a notoriously dark and dreary city, Seattle puts out some remarkably upbeat music. Mid-century Seattle was responsible for Ray Charles’ first recording, Loretta Lynn’s rise to fame, and even—for reasons completely unknown—the first surf guitar, à la The Ventures. Birch Pereira & The Gin Joints understand this eclectic musical landscape well. The Gin Joints, based in the Pacific Northwest, got their footing playing music from the 1930s to 1950s, a lost era of what would become the death rattle of big band swing and the birth song of rock n’ roll. However, in what music history remembers as a void, Birch Pereira found a treasure trove. He reaches back in time to pull forward the elements that the Pacific Northwest has forgotten—the timber-darkened soul music, the Black & Tan underground jazz, the improbable surf music—and in his hands, they become Western Soul, a blend of west coast sounds and early Americana.
For 3hattrio, the Southwest desert has an almost spiritual significance. Rooted in the natural world of their sacred homeland near Zion National Park in Utah, they say that their genre is “American desert music,” a simple idea for a complex sound. The music 3hattrio are making on their new album, Lord of the Desert, sounds more like extended landscapes of sound, bare mesas that ring with electronic echoes of acoustic instruments, twisting and turning as the wind shifts. On Lord of the Desert, to be released February 23, 2018, 3hattrio mix the routine with the unusual, fusing American folk music with outsider elements like autotune, psychedelia, and minimalism. It’s a wildly unusual sound, but the product of three very different musicians coming together to form something new.