Wildflower Blues, the debut album from The Be Good Tanyas founders Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton, is a page from the big book of North Americana and outsider folk. It’s been eighteen years since Holland and Parton first joined forces, and with Wildflower Blues, they begin a new chapter in their ever-evolving creative relationship. On the album's ten tracks, they weave together influences spanning jazz, blues, country, folk, rock, experimental, and the great wide history of American song, into their own kind of soul music. Wildflower Blues features mostly original tracks written by Holland and Parton, as well as reimagined versions of songs by Bob Dylan, Michael Hurley, and Townes Van Zandt. Despite this sonic vastness, there is a deep intimacy running through everything the pair creates. The duo's songwriting is at the forefront throughout—emotive and raw, marrying words and sound to both the dark and light corners of life.
For Portland, Oregon songwriter Anna Tivel, the open road is more than a way to bring her songs to new places, it's also a near-endless source of stories. On her new album, Small Believer, Tivel taps into the stories she hears every night, after every show. “When you're touring,” Tivel explains, “you're naked onstage each time. You're doing this vulnerable thing in front of strangers and it encourages people to open up themselves.” You'll see it after one of Tivel’s shows, a young woman who steels up the courage to go up and speak to her. Something in a song has touched this person and her story comes tumbling out, tears streaming down her face. It's powerful to watch, and a testament to the intimate connection between the songwriter and the audience. For Tivel, herself a naturally soft-spoken introvert, perhaps people see in her the struggle they see in themselves to be heard in such a noisy world.
The songs on Small Believer were written while Tivel was touring, but also in-between shifts at the odd waitressing job, or driving Meals on Wheels in her spare time. She has an extraordinarily keen eye for recasting the images she sees into song. To make Small Believer, Anna Tivel drew her close community of friends and collaborators in Portland, starting with Austin Nevins (Josh Ritter, Della Mae), who produced the album. Nevins shared a deep love for the kind of quiet stories Tivel loves to tell. Nevins brought together Portland collaborators to make the understated accompaniment that pervades the album: slow-driving fiddles, accordions, electric guitars moving beneath and supporting Tivel’s soft words. Released on Fluff & Gravy Records, label-head John Shepski has long championed Anna’s music along with other great, unheralded Northwest songwriters across genres.
Where Else, the new EP from Minnesota indie-folk band Humbird opens gently with softly whispered voices. As these voices begin to collide and overlap, the sound of human vocals begins to flow into water, harmonic drones floating overhead. It’s a viscerally visual sound, an echo of the clear, unbroken silences of the Minnesota woods that first inspired Humbird songwriter Siri Undlin. The eldest daughter of a trial lawyer and Lutheran preacher, Undlin witnessed the power of stories from a young age and began writing music and performing at the age of 12. Born and raised in Minneapolis, she speaks today of a city that’s still surprisingly close to the rivers and forests of the land, the images of her youth in the Midwest coming back unbidden as she travels the earth. In 2014, Undlin undertook a year’s travel through Northern Europe as part of a fellowship, drawing lasting inspiration from Norse mythology, Sami animism and joiks, the Welsh countryside, Paleolithic cave paintings, old world lutherie, and frozen Icelandic landscapes. These inspirations, and inspirations from further travels across five continents, remain in Undlin’s music today, though Humbird is much more of a collaborative process, bringing together the talents of Undlin’s long-time musical partner Dexter Wolfe (from their duo Undlin & Wolfe) with Minneapolis musician Pat Keen (bass/drums) and others. Where Else presents a sound that touches on lodestones as diverse a Bon Iver, Bill Frisell, and Joni Mitchell, a sound meant to reflect a global North, a sense of place tied to the hyperborean realms.
Billy Strings plays hard and he lives hard, picking so fast and intensely that he’s known to break multiple strings per song, and basing the songs he writes on the hard lives he grew up around in the abandoned rural communities of America. His debut LP, Turmoil & Tinfoil, taps into a deep vein of psychedelia in Americana, referencing everything from the Dead to Sturgill Simpson, but all underlaid by Billy’s undeniable virtuosity and his knowledge of the roots of American music. He’s one of the most beloved young bluegrass guitarists today within the bluegrass community, and his front porch in East Nashville is constantly filled up with Nashville’s best roots musicians just picking up a storm.
The tricky part of making the new album, Turmoil & Tinfoil, was translating Billy Strings’ incendiary live show into the studio. Returning to his home state of Michigan, Billy enlisted acoustic roots wizard Glenn Brown (Greensky Bluegrass) as producer, and centered the music around his new band, featuring Drew Matulich on mandolin with banjo prodigy Billy Failing and much-loved Nashville bassist Brad Tucker. Rich with special guests, Turmoil & Tinfoil shows off Billy’s East Nashville community of picking friends, among them Miss Tess, Molly Tuttle, John Mailander, Shad Cobb and Peter Madcat Ruth. Of special note is a virtuosic duet between Billy and bluegrass guitarist Bryan Sutton on “Salty Sheep” that shows the speed, precision, and creative craftsmanship of bluegrass when it’s done right.
We’ve all experienced how great it feels when everything clicks into place, when hard effort suddenly becomes effortless. It’s usually at the long end of a struggle, at the moment just when we’re about to give up. This was the case with Portland witch-folk band Lenore., formed by two songwriters Rebecca Marie Miller and Joy Pearson. Both had about given up on the music industry, Miller following her time as harmony vocalist in renowned indie band The Mynabirds, and Pearson after her divorce. But when they met one late night at a Pokey Lafarge show, it was kismet. Hitting it off immediately (“It felt like meeting your other musical half!” Pearson exclaims), they smoked and drank their way to the bar’s close, stumbling onto the streets in the early morning. Days later they’d formed Lenore. and began collaborating as songwriters, and even more importantly, as singers. “We're both singers and we're both trained singers,” Miller explains. “We’ve both been in situations where people have said to our faces that they prefer voices that are more 'unusual' or that our voices are too 'pretty.’ We were excited about making music that was as ‘emotional’ as we wanted it to be, as ‘pretty’ as we wanted it to be.”
If there’s a sense of triumph and freedom in both Miller and Pearson’s words, it’s hard earned, and that’s part of the appeal of Lenore., who have quickly risen to be one of the most buzzed-about new bands on Portland’s burgeoning indie scene. “It's really liberating to be in this place right now,” Miller says, “to write the songs we want to write, make the music we want to make, and sing the way we want to sing. People respond to this aspect as much as they respond to the actual music.”
Recruiting well-known producer John Askew (Alela Diane, Sera Cahoone, Laura Gibson), Miller and Pearson brought together close friends and powerful stalwarts of the Portland scene to record the album, including guitarist Paul Rigby and drummer Dan Hunt from Neko Case’s team, bassist Dave Depper of Death Cab for Cutie, and permanent Lenore. band members classical guitarist Edward Cameron and cellist Jessie Detwiller. Even though Lenore.’s debut self-titled album can easily reference everything from Fleetwood Mac to Simon & Garfunkel, from the Everly Brothers to Enya, the main goal was to make something that sounded different. To make music that brought together the glorious uprising of their vocals and harmonies, the stark intimacy of the lyrics, and the open-gazed sense of place that comes from the beautiful sweeping vistas of the Pacific Northwest.
There’s a duality to the music of Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons; the same duality that lies at the heart of the blues. It’s the dichotomy between the weight of history that hangs over black America and the lightness of these old folk songs, which are meant to uplift and charm, to trick away danger, to fool authority, to squeeze a person out of harm’s way, but also to assert a subtle sense of worth and dignity. These songs brought black Americans through the darkest years of our country’s history, and they have an unsettling amount of currency in today’s world, where saying that the blues is black music or even saying that the life of a black person matters are both controversial statements.
The music that renowned Seattle roots duo Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons are making on their new album, A Black & Tan Ball, is not just blues music. The better term is a new and important one: Black Americana. To make this music, they’ve recruited good friend and touring partner Phil Wiggins, an eclectic legend of American blues harmonica (who received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship this year). By pulling together the many threads of black American roots music, and demonstrating the underlying meanings behind the black experience in folk music, Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons are showing another side to Americana that can help expand the genre’s boundaries.
Nashville-based Americana songwriter Matt Haeck was still in shock last year after Trump’s election when a new song from an artist whose album he was producing, Rayvon Pettis, shook him out of his stupor. “Lailly and Abdullah” is the heart-breaking story of two young Aghani lovers torn apart by war, and it came to Haeck just a few days post-election. Unsure of how to respond and bombarded by fellow folk songwriters looking to fight back, the song unlocked a new perspective on resistance. “Love is protest,” Haeck says now over the phone, and “protest is love. That’s what I realized. I love people and I see vulnerable people getting trampled on. As someone who's been privileged not to be affected by oppression, I feel responsible to do what I can to fight against it when I see it.” That feeling of love that Haeck got from being exposed to a humanized Afghani story, as opposed to the daily barrage of virtual news, was something he wanted to pay forward, a new way to resist Trump’s regime. The next day he put out an ask on Facebook for friends to help him put together an album of love and protest and was bombarded by requests, many from Nashville friends and colleagues. Working together with Doug Williams of Wild Ponies, the two took the small bit of money sent them from a willing donor and booked two days at John Prine’s Butcher Shoppe recording studio in Nashville and brought in as many artists as they could for a whirlwind series of recordings. A key idea of the album was to keep the resistance local to Nashville artists.
Each artist latched on to the idea of love and protest, bringing new or newly-recorded songs that dealt with the balance between anger over Trumps policies and compassion for the modern tragedies they’re engendering. Celebrated songwriter Mary Gauthier contributed an alternate version of her classic song “Mercy Now,” produced by Ray Kennedy. Nashville songwriter Tim Easton recorded a brand-new version of his classic song “News Blackout,” as did folk rock icon & agitator Derek Webb, who freshly mixed and even updated the lyrics for his song “A Savior on Capitol Hill.” Eclectic Americana songwriter Steve Poltz wrote a funny anti-Trump screed, “Hey God,” with the opening line, “Hey God, I’ll trade you Donald Trump for Leonard Cohen.” Young psych-country singer Rorey Carroll cut her dream-like song “When the Wind Breaks Your Knees” with engineer/producer Gabe Masterson at Cafe Rooster’s studio in one day. Matt Haeck contributed a new song of his own, “America’s Watching TV,” with this stand-out line: “All the world is watching America, America’s watching TV.” Breakout Nashville soul singer Devon Gilfillian reaches across the aisle with a new song, “Use Your Words,” and Will Kimbrough wrote one of the most affecting songs of the album, requoting Trump’s infamous Pussygate speech. “We all can do something,” Haeck says. “Take what you do already and apply it. I figured, I know how to make records and music, what if I just applied this on as big a scale as I could.” The result of Haeck’s initiative is an album of some of Nashville’s best songwriters coming together in love and protest.
Authenticity is a difficult thing to measure in American roots music. It’s not in the hat you wear, or the twang in your voice. It’s in how well you understand that the music comes from the land, and that its roots run deep. Americana songwriter Amber Cross understands this, and on her new album, Savage on the Downhill, she makes music as beholden to the landscapes of Northern and Pacific California, where she lives and travels, as to the visually-rich songwriting she crafts around it. Her songs hang heavy with the yellow dust of dirt roads, plunge deep into the soft loam of the forest. As a hunter, a fisherman, and a woman of the backcountry, she knows the countryside well, and has a deep respect for the honest work that makes you a steward of the land.
The songs on Savage on the Downhill are deeply visual and inextricably tied to nature, whether the California forests that Cross roams through, or the high deserts outside Austin, Texas, where she recorded the album. Even the title of the album paints a picture of Cross in the backcountry. “Savage” refers to a brand of hunting rifle, and the phrase “Savage on the Downhill” refers to how a tracker should hold a rifle so as not to bury the barrel into the dirt when side-hilling or climbing down an incline.
Throughout, Cross moves easily through different styles of country and folk songwriting, from Bakersfield outlaw attitude to Woody Guthrie plain-spoken folk. She’s a songwriter able to juxtapose a simple image with a powerful poetic emotion. On “Echoes,” she paints the picture of a humble domestic scene, then wonders what happens to a house when the people who made it a home have left it behind. On “Pack of Lies,” she moves between hard-hitting lines like “Pretending to love is a wicked game” and vision-laden verses like “Barking dogs rule the moonless night.” Her songs carry weight because they speak to our experiences, speak to the moments we can’t put to words.
It may come as no surprise that Amber Cross first came to music through singing in a small church in rural Maine, where she was born and raised. Her father was a small-town pastor and she was raised on the rough-hewn homilies of the hymnal. Now, Cross is creating her world by hand, working her songs until they shine with a worn polish, finding truth in tradition.
American folk music has always had a populist perspective, a vision of music made by the people, for the people. Asheville, North Carolina roots band The Resonant Rogues know this well, for they’ve traveled the byways and highways of America, even crossed the water to Europe and the Mediterranean with instruments and songs in tow. Anchored by the songwriting duo Sparrow and Keith Smith, the Rogues have shared songs with train-hoppers in New Orleans, busked on the streets of Budapest, learned Turkish Romani dance in Istanbul, and marched in protest in the hills of Appalachia. Throughout, the stories they’ve heard and the people they’ve met have fueled their music, which abounds with influences like Eastern European Romani brass bands, New Orleans street jazz, old-time stringbands, Woody Guthrie anti-fascist folk, French jazz manouche, and Middle Eastern rhythms. It’s not easy to pull off such a bold combination of genres, but The Resonant Rogues learned this music in person from the people who created it, so they have a tie to each tradition and a working knowledge of what this music means to the ordinary people that make this music every day. It’s a tintype view on the modern world, a cracked image that reflects the past through a prism of the future.
On their new album, Hands in the Dirt, The Resonant Rogues bring these stories and influences to the fore, all filtered through a thoroughly contemporary perspective. The title track speaks to a younger generation’s renewed interest in sustainable gardening and agriculture, but pulses like an old country blues song. Opening track “Muddy River,” pulls from the banjo/fiddle pulse of stringband music, but speaks to the ever-increasing speed of change. The song “Am I Right” channels the swing of American doo-wop, blended with New Orleans second-line influences and fueled by the tenor sax of Asheville’s Ben Colvin (and Sparrow’s accordion). To make Hands in the Dirt, The Resonant Rogues drew from their rich network of musical friends in the progressive Appalachian city of Asheville, North Carolina, like fiddler Drayton Aldridge, bassist Craig Sandberg, pedal steel player Matt Smith, cellist Franklin Keel, and drummer Mattick Frick. However, for their final song on the album, the powerfully moving protest song, “Can’t Come In,” they invited a new friend, Basher Balleh, a Syrian refugee musician and country singer living in Istanbul who plays with the band Country for Syria. The song references classic folk tropes like John Hurt’s “Make Me A Pallet on the Floor” to talk about the current anti-immigration sentiment in the United States. It’s a scary new world today, but The Resonant Rogues make music that refuses to shy away from our current reality. They make music for the people they meet every day who are affected by our current policies, and they make music to take us through these dark times.
Cognizant, outspoken, and at the top of her craft, Canadian songwriter Sarah Jane Scouten’s new full-length album, When the Bloom Falls from The Rose, dropping on June 16th on Vancouver indie label Light Organ Records, is a luminous body of work, shining a light on the wind-whipped highway of Scouten’s life as a gifted songwriter, scholar of roots music history, and hard-travelling musician. The two-time Canadian Folk Music Award nominee's new songs are faithful to the folk tradition, but spill over into modern themes that are outspoken and edgy, from homelessness to midwifery to tongue-in-cheek heartache songs and unabashed Canadiana. With flavours of Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, and a wealth of old-time and bluegrass music, Scouten’s raw, untainted voice hits like a rock to a windshield.
As it turns out, “I was on tour in Manitoba, driving along a gravel road in February and a huge pick-up truck flew past me, throwing a rock up that cracked my windshield. It turned into a metaphorical image that reminded of the Leonard Cohen lyric, ‘there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’”
This is how Scouten describes her favorite song on the album, “Crack in Your Windshield”, a lush and heartfelt tribute to her brother. Most of the songs on the album come directly from Scouten’s personal life. “Rosehips for Scurvy” is the result of her interest in herbal medicine, for instance, and the up-tempo “Bang, Bang” resulted from when she traded a song for a night’s sleep on a trip to Aberdeen, Scotland.
Scouten’s songwriting is also informed by feminism and her commitment to putting constructive art into the world. “I am cautious of writing in such a way that continues to perpetuate assumptions about women that are harmful. That also goes for the men I portray... Assumptions like I want to get married and have children as soon as possible, that I am jealous of partners spending time with friends or other women, that my forwardness demonstrates sexual interest and my directness comes off as being bossy.” When the Bloom Falls from The Rose includes ten original songs, ranging in style from classic honky-tonk to Western-swing to indie-folk rock, and two traditional Western Canadian songs, discovered on crackly recordings in university archives and given new life through Scouten's haunting arrangements.
Sarah Jane Scouten has always shown a signature flair for roots music. At age 5, she was sitting on the dining room table, singing “Lace and Pretty Flowers,” by Canadian country-folk musician, Willie P. Bennett. Bluegrass and gospel music were integral to the fabric of Scouten’s childhood Bowen Island, BC home, and Hank Williams and Stan Rogers were not only her greatest inspirations, but staples at her family’s Sunday morning pancake breakfast. Singing with her father and sister, Scouten’s talent for performing came naturally, and with it emerged a knack for song-writing. A traditionalist at heart, Scouten takes these early influences and rejuvenates them, giving When the Bloom Falls from the Rose new life.
Life is the intersection of empty and full, dark and light. This relationship, inherent in all things, is the underpinning of Pierce Edens’ new release, Stripped Down Gussied Up dropping June 2nd. Over the last ten years, Edens has been drawing on his roots in Appalachian songwriting and blending them with the gritty rock and roll sounds that captivated him in his teenage years. Here again, Edens pulls together light and dark— Stripped Down Gussied Up is both haunting and fiery; a concoction of psychedelic-grunge, with Eden’s raw, tortured country bray at the helm.
His fifth fully independent album, Edens has taken his singular voice back home to Western North Carolina. Edens recorded Stripped Down Gussied Up in his childhood home, which he stripped and renovated into a studio a few years back. Even the environment, thus, is an incarnation of the album’s crux. Edens said, “Recording often feels paradoxical; like taking a song and distilling it down, then building it back up from the bare bones. It's like pulling your skin off your back and then putting a nice shirt on, maybe a coat too. This is me doing that. Stripping down, gussying up.”
Stripped Down Gussied Up delivers a new evolution on Edens’ sound; both intimate as it is atmospheric, glittery as it is gritty. Edens plays alongside his longtime band-mate Kevin Reese on lead guitar, mandolin, and occasional banjo for a handful of songs. With the abandonment of his long-time backing band, we see new elements emerge for the duo, moving beyond the bombastic blues-rock stylings of his earlier work, towards more tender, acoustic arrangements, juxtaposed against Southern gothic storytelling. “The Bonfire” is the perfect example of this chemistry—Eden’s take on the murder ballads he grew up with. “All that dark old songwriting really appealed to me,” Edens said, “They would explore really complex human things from the worst parts of people. All that ugly stuff makes for great storytelling to boot. So, I thought I'd try my hand at it, since it was a stretch for me (since most of my stuff ain't fictional or narrative like that), but it felt like pointing home.” He brings this same gruff sensitivity to his raucous cover of Tom Waits’ “Mr. Seigel,” and his more vulnerable, introspective track “Sirens.”
Edens’ Appalachian roots are the glue of Stripped Down Gussied Up, an album that teeters between sonic extremes, between Edens’ present and sepia past. The result is a swirling tapestry of story and sound that swathes the listener then chills them to the bone.
Many Canadian music fans know Joel Plaskett. Multiple JUNO Award winning songwriter. Multiple times on the Polaris Music Prize Short List. Sold out clubs and concert halls from one side of the country to the other. But in 2017 he’ll be sharing the spotlight with his earliest musical influence- his father, Bill Plaskett. Solidarity, to be released on Pheromone Recordings February 17, 2017, is the first full-length musical collaboration between father and son and will be followed by a cross-country tour in the spring.
The album is a powerful collection of original and traditional songs, reflecting the duo’s individual journeys and personal politics. From the introspective opening track, “Dragonfly,” a song about a paranormal experience that Joel had, to “On Down the River,” Bill’s closing track about leaving his home in England, the album is grounded in folk music but informed by rock and roll history. Folk-based political songs like “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years,” and “Jim Jones” sit side by side with contemplative love songs (“No Sight Compares” and “New California”), a touch of rockabilly country blues (“Help Me Somebody Depression Blues”) and more fully arranged folk rock songs of contemporary social commentary (“Blank Cheque” and “The Next Blue Sky”).
Born in 1945 in London, England, Bill Plaskett spent the early 1960s playing tenor banjo (learned from his father) in a traditional jazz and skiffle band and later graduated to playing electric bass in a high-school rock and roll band called Section 62. In 1966, Bill traveled through the United States on a 99 days for $99 Greyhound bus pass. He immigrated to Vancouver, Canada in 1967 before moving to Nova Scotia where Joel was born in 1975. Through much of the 1980s the family lived in historic Lunenburg, a town transitioning from a fishing village to a tourist economy, where Bill played in an old time band called Starb’ard Side and helped found the beloved Lunenburg Folk Festival. Moving to Halifax in 1987, Bill immersed himself in the local folk music scene and watched with pride as his son picked up the guitar and eventually built a full time music career through the 90s with his first band, Thrush Hermit and more recently with his band, The Emergency.
“I’ve been impressed with the scope of the music Joel continues to make,” Bill says. “I’ve joined him on the road before, and it’s enjoyable traveling across the country and spending time together. On stage, I just play and pick up on the energy in the room that Joel is able to bring out of the audience with his charisma and stage presence. The upcoming tour to support this new record is exciting as it will be more ambitious and collaborative than anything we’ve done in the past.”
Solidarity is a surprising and adventurous album, full of strong guitar playing and thoughtful, accessible songs. An excellent addition to both Plasketts’ catalogues and hopefully the first of many for the Plasketts.
If Rayna Gellert seems a preternaturally gifted songwriter, it’s because she’s seen farther into the old songs than most. Growing up in a musical family, Gellert turned to Appalachian old-time music at a young age, becoming a prodigious fiddler and leading a new revival of American stringband music through her work with the acclaimed American roots band Uncle Earl. Through the late nights at music festivals, the kerosene-lit jam sessions in campgrounds, the all-night sessions in a warm kitchen, the old songs have fueled her passion for the music. The Appalachian ballads leave so many parts unknown, so many stories half told, that it’s only natural she’d turn at some point to finishing the stories herself. What she found when she did was that she had an uncommon talent for songwriting that reads both as simple and accessible, but also heartfelt and profound. A great songwriter never overwrites a song, and that’s a lesson Gellert learned from folk song.
With her new album, Workin’s Too Hard, out January 20, 2016 on StorySound Records, she pulls from the tradition, but the songs are all her own and the arrangements are built on a collaboration with Nashville songwriter Kieran Kane (co-producer, mandolin, guitar, vocals). Of the seven songs on this mini album, two are old traditionals reworked by Gellert, and the rest are all original (two co-written with Kane). Each new song looks back on the arcane language of the old songs for lyrical inspiration, but also to Gellert’s life experiences in a modern world. In the vein of other artists like Sam Amidon and Gillian Welch, Gellert’s roots in Americana run so deep that no matter what she writes, it will always have a timeless quality to it.
Featuring multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch (Abigail Washburn, Bobby Bare Jr.) and drummer Jamie Dick (Rhiannon Giddens, Joan Shelley), Workin’s Too Hard was recorded old-school live in one room by engineer Charles Yingling (Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard), giving it a sound as warm, intimate, and deep as the songs themselves. These songs have rolled in the dust of Woody Guthrie, marinated in the moonshine of Dock Boggs, and plucked out an old tune in the vein of Doc Watson. With this album, Rayna Gellert’s managed to make the new sound old and to make the old new again.
It’s a dark little bar, named after Guy Clark’s bass player, that’s tucked into a lost corner of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The band’s crammed up on the stage, nearly spilling into the audience, and young couples are two-stepping around the edges. With a nightly lineup of the best young honky-tonk bands in the US coming through, Skinny Dennis has become the center of New York’s burgeoning roots country scene, and Zephaniah OHora–his hair slicked back, all decked out in black–is leading this new community. OHora’s encyclopedic knowledge and burning love for old country music glows triumphantly throughout his new album This Highway (set for release May 26, 2017), which frames his original songs right in the crossroads of a golden era in the music: the meeting of the Bakersfield and Nashville Sounds of the 1960s. This blend of New-York-City-meets-Merle-Haggard songwriting means that OHora’s songs feel deeply personal even while presented through the smooth sound of a bygone era.
Perhaps it’s a credit to his ability to imagine himself in any place or time. OHora is originally from New Hampshire, where he grew up playing music for worship meetings at his church. These evangelical meetings centered around improvisational music, intense prayer, and even speaking in tongues. “It was kind of like a cult, although I didn’t realize it at the time”, he says with a laugh. Leaving the church, OHora walked a winding path through his early 20s. “I experimented with psychedelics at the time, and after you have that first life changing trip, everything seems to take on a more surrealistic nature.” Listening to the LSD-inspired “Way Down in my Soul”, you can almost envision OHora floating through a 70’s country love affair.
It was through a hair salon job that OHora first connected with the New York City country music community that has now become his home. He had just taken a job booking live music for newly-opened Skinny Dennis when he met his friend and salon co-worker John Shannon, who plays guitar on This Highway. He also met one of the album’s producers and lead guitarist, Jim Campilongo (The Little Willies feat. Norah Jones, Honeyfingers), who shared OHora’s archaic love of trucker country songs. “Jim had the best record collection of this music I’d ever seen,” OHora says. Wanting to create new music that drew from the classic eras of country and touched on the gritty love of the road that country truckers sang to, OHora formed up The 18 Wheelers to accompany him on the new album. These top New York country musicians–co-producer Luca Benedetti (Honeyfingers), Jon Graboff (Shooter Jennings, The Cardinals), Alex Hargreaves, Roy Williams–were drawn from the Skinny Dennis scene that Zephaniah built as the booker. Under his direction, the bar has become a gathering place for New York’s top country musicians. “This record is a really beautiful culmination of the amazing people who are involved in that scene” he says of This Highway, “it’s not that I’m special, I’m just a product of this amazing wealth of talent and all these hardworking musicians that exist in one place here in NYC. I think the community really made this album”.
It is clear, however, that OHora is something special. At a time when “throwback” artists are a dime a dozen, he has captured a beautiful, specific, and lesser known moment in the history of country music, and brought it to life through his own voice. Back in the late 60s and early 70s, country music decided it needed to try appealing to an urban demographic, and maybe it’s some kind of beautiful irony that New York’s Zephaniah OHora is now creating some of the best country music today.
In many ways, Shame, the new album from 27-year-old Nashville Americana songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Baiman, is an exploration of growing up female in America. “I wasn't necessarily trying to write songs that would be easy to listen to”, Baiman says of the project, “I wanted to write about reality, in all of its terror and beauty.” From the title track about abortion politics, to love, sex, and abuse in relationships, to classism and inequality, the album is ambitious in its scope, yet remains cohesive through Baiman's personal perspective. Despite the serious subject matter, the overall feeling of the album remains light, with the tongue-in-cheek “Getting Ready to Start (Getting Ready)” and feel-good anthem “Let them Go To Heaven”. A departure from her work with progressive folk duo 10 String Symphony, Shame is lush and varied in instrumentation and musical texture. Inspired in equal parts by John Hartford and Courtney Barnett, Baiman's influences span a wide range, but years spent playing traditional music shine through in the album’s firmly rooted sound. For recording and production, Baiman turned to the talents of Mandolin Orange's Andrew Marlin. “At the time that I was writing the music for this record, I was listening to all North Carolina-made albums, including Mandolin Orange and the album Andrew produced for Josh Oliver (Oliver is also featured heavily on Shame)." Shortly after reaching out to Marlin, Baiman traveled to Chapel Hill, NC for three intensive days in the studio. "The energy was amazing," Baiman says. "It became clear that we were making something really special that needed to be finished.”
Added to the musical intensity was the context of the material they were recording - namely, how the songwriting on Shame sits within the current American political climate. "I think what is happening in the country right now has really shifted my career priorities, and brought the folk music community together.” In addition to the release of her new solo album, Baiman is the co-founder of Folk Fights Back, a new musician-led national organization that puts together benefit concerts and awareness events in response to the Trump administration.
Baiman is no newcomer to activism. Raised in Chicago by a radical economist and a social worker, she was surrounded by social justice issues her entire life. “If I wanted to rebel against my parents I could have become a finance banker or a corporate lawyer” she says of her childhood. As a teenager, Baiman found music to be a welcome escape from worrying about global politics. “”When I moved to Nashville to pursue music it felt like something positive, beautiful, and productive that I could put into the world. Now that I've had some years to devote to music,”--Baiman has been recording and touring internationally for the past 4 years with 10 String Symphony, and has played fiddle for numerous other artists including Kacey Musgraves and Winnipeg folk band Oh My Darling--“I find it hard to escape from the values that I grew up with, and I feel compelled to write politically, to speak out about things that I've experienced or seen. I love the political tradition of folk music, from Woody Guthrie to Tupac, and my hope is that this record adds another voice to it.”
Like an oasis appearing to the lone, wearied cowboy, rebel-psych Americana group Modern Mal’s The Misanthrope Family Album dropping May 12th 2017, is the meeting of traditional country with a mirage of tropical beach-psych. In the writing process, it seems the band’s northern Michigan songwriting pair of Rachel Brooke and Brooks Robbins, had a specific recluse in mind—a close family friend they recently took care of on his deathbed. A misanthrope with a unique way of looking at life; it’s his eerie polaroid portrait that adorns the cover of The Misanthrope Family Album, and his peaceful passage into the afterlife guides the spirit of the album. Though rife with his quirky melancholia and the grief inherent in loss, this album also celebrates their friend’s magic, and the magic of family. That is Modern Mal’s genius: the dark and the light balance each other out. Rachel’s high, floating vocals and Brooks’ dark, foreboding harmonies make The Misanthrope Family Album some twisted lovechild of Brian Wilson and Lou Reed, and the use of slide, surf guitar, ukulele, and 1950s doo-op influences make the album as sunny and intricately produced as it is dark and gritty.
Rachel and Brooks met playing shows together in Detroit. At the time, Brooks was a loner songwriter writing pretty, dark lullabies, and Rachel had been releasing her own gothic Americana—infused with punked-out murder ballads, rockabilly and early jazz. Hailed as an underground country queen, Rachel found her match with Brooks Robbins—who’s dark baritone voice and preoccupation with the mysterious complemented her artistic vision. In the meeting of their twisted, talented minds, Modern Mal was born.
The Misanthrope Family Album was recorded at Halohorn Studios in Traverse City, Michigan, with some of the people who are closest to Rachel and Brooks. For instance, Rachel’s brother Andy Van Guilder played drums, their best friend Nick Carnes and his first cousin Mike Cullen played played guitar on the album, and Rachel’s childhood friend TJ Rankin (bass, percussion) also made an appearance. Throughout the process of recording, Rachel and Brooks were careful to include the creative perspectives of all involved, which accounts for everyone’s disparate quirks and makes the new release feel authentic and alive.
“Brooks and I are the songwriters, and the orchestrators, but we believe in hearing out other people's ideas and interpretations,” said Rachel. “What really stands out to us is that most of the people on the record are all really close to us. Either family, or very close friends who all just happen to be brilliant people, and introverts... "Most of the songs are about feelings of sadness, inadequacy in love, exploration, introspection and self-reflection,” said Rachel.
The heavy subject matter is mesh ed with jangly harmonies and washed-out psychedelia—both Rachel and Brooks cite The Beach Boys as a major early influence—but with an eerie sci-fi element that underscores their collective fascination with the unknown. As Brooks so aptly said, “If we are the product of purposeful design, hopefully death will be a celebration,” and with The Misanthrope Family Album Modern Mal have indulged all the magical, quirky mystery inherent in death, and life.
To make his debut album, In Times Like These, noted activist, author, documentary filmmaker and theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou went back to his Southern home searching for his family’s musical roots in the deep Arkansas blues and gospel traditions. Produced by six-time Grammy nominated Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, featuring Luther’s brother Cody Dickinson, and supported by Thirty Tigers, Rev. Sekou’s debut solo album is a new vision for what Southern blues and rock can mean today. In Times Like These is drenched with the sweat and tears of the Mississippi River, the great tributary that ties so much of the South together. The album’s sonic landscape captures the toil of Southern field hands, the guttural cry of chain gangs, the vibrancy of contemporary street protest, backwoods juke joints, and shotgun churches—all saturated with Pentecostal sacred steel and soul legacy.
Rev. Sekou’s blues lineage runs deep. Rev. Sekou's biological grandfather, Richard Braselman played with legends like Louis Jordan, Albert King, and B.B. King. The grandfather, Rev. James Thomas, who raised Sekou, was an ordained Elder in the Church of God in Christ and a railroad union organizer. Carrying the legacy of his grandfathers, Rev. Sekou is a Pentecostal bluesman. During the recording of In Times Like These, Rev. Sekou made a pilgrimage home to Zent, Arkansas and stood at his beloved grandparents gravesite. “I had to go home, smell the air, and be in the presence of the folks who gave me the best pieces of themselves to make me who I am,” Rev. Sekou says. In Times Like These is actually Rev. Sekou’s second outing. In January 2016, Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost released the critically acclaimed album, The Revolution Has Come. The single—“We Comin'”—was named the new anthem for the modern Civil Rights movement by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In Times Like These’s opening song, “Resist,” opens with a rousing speech given by Rev. Sekou at a rally in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting the shooting of Michael Brown. Upon hearing about Brown’s death, Sekou immediately returned to his hometown of St. Louis, MO, taking to the streets in a series of protests and interfaith demonstrations that led to his being arrested multiple times. “Resist” surrounds the listener with the spirit of protest. An homage to Standing Rock— the song’s driving bass line, blaring horns, and potent lyrics champion a long line of freedom fighters. The images of Ferguson’s protests are burned into Sekou’s mind even today, and led to his moving cover of Bob Marley’s classic, “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” which captures the feeling of the riots. “In Times Like These”—the album’s title track—confronts the sense of helplessness that many feel in this current political moment. Carried by congas and explosive steel guitar, the song moves around the central line “In times like this, ain’t no one going to save us, we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
While the record speaks to the current political moment, there is more at stake.
Three generations of musicians play on In Times Like These—each with their own intergenerational connections to the music. Luther Dickinson, and his brother Cody Dickinson, form the critically acclaimed North Mississippi Allstars. They are the sons of the late Jim Dickinson who recorded with Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan and founded Zebra Ranch Studios, where the album was recorded. The album also includes legendary Hammond B3 player, Rev. Charles Hodges, known for his collaborations with Al Green as part of the famed Hi Records/Stax Rhythm Section. AJ Ghent—pedal and slide steel guitarist from Fort Pierce, Florida, brought his mastery of the “Sacred Steel” tradition, founded by his grandfather. Background vocalist Raina Sokolov from New York brings a singular jazz and soul sound, and her mother, Lisa Sokolov, performed with Alice Coltrane. Art Edmaiston—tenor and baritone saxophones—has played with Bobby “Blue” Bland and William Bell, and Marc Franklin has played trumpet for Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy. Packed into the Zebra Ranch Studios, it was Rev. Sekou’s voice that soared above all of these amazing artists, drawing them into his undercurrents of soul, gospel, and blues, with the voice of a preacher cresting the wave of this powerful music.
In Times Like These is an intense blend of late North Mississippi Hill Country Music, Arkansas Delta Blues, 1960s Rock and Roll, Memphis Soul, Chuck Berry St Louis vibes, and Pentecostal steel guitar. Written in the shadow of the divisive 2016 election, the album is testament to the enduring power of protest music and a call-to-arms for a new generation looking to resist.
In the olden days of American music, before radios, television, highways, and the internet homogenized everything, regional styles and traditions reigned. And yet, the rich regionalism of America continues today, fighting against the Walmart-ization of American culture. Columbia, MO trio The Hooten Hallers are out front of this charge, reclaiming the heritage of their Missouri roots. With their new self-titled album (to be released April 21, 2017 on Big Muddy Records), they continue their decade-long search for these roots, drawing from the surrounding agricultural lifestyles, the river communities, the college kids and the tweakers that roam Columbia, Missouri, all in the looming foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Other bands would have jumped ship for a metropolitan city long ago, but there’s a sense of pride in these stubborn personalities that tie The Hooten Hallers inextricably to their place. Their regional foundation inspires their music, from pre-war blues to New York Dolls-inspired punk rock to Legendary Shack Shakers-esque Americana Gothic, all of it tying them to the Missouri river and the new regional traditions being made every day. As they say in Missouri, it’s not quite the Midwest and it’s not quite the South. In the same vein, the Hooten Hallers’ music isn’t quite Americana and it’s not quite punk, but a bit of both, fused together in a drunken tangle.
The Hooten Hallers are known for hard-traveling and for busting tour vans–four since January of 2016– with their huge touring schedule, playing blurry back-room bars and rural dancehalls across the US. They’ve injected their new album with the stories and characters they’ve been meeting on the road all this time. The album opener “Charla” sets the scene in the oppressive summer heat of Lupus, MO (population 29) at the infamous annual chili festival. Sweet old hippy Charla hands you a mason jar full of moonshine before you pass out in the shed behind her house. It’s made even more palpable when you find out Lupus’ citizens, when the town flooded severely in the 90s, were offered a government grant to move but instead chose to put their houses on stilts. This kind of scrappy hometown pride is key to The Hooten Hallers’ ability to ride the line between DIY punk and American country roots music. It’s not uncommon to walk into one of their shows to see outlaw bikers dancing next to some college kids, dancing next to an aging hippy, dancing next to a couple parents with kids at home with the babysitter.
The Hooten Hallers’ new self-titled album, was a family affair, drawing from the band’s extended community in St. Louis, MO. Ryan Koenig, of Pokey Lafarge’s South City Three, came on to produce, Chris Baricevic, the heart and soul behind Big Muddy Records, picked the album up for his label, and it was all recorded by Johnny Walker of the Soledad Brothers. The trio set themselves up in a former Masonic lodge turned art collective over two weeks to fine-tune the music. New member Kellie Everett brought the deep rumble of her baritone and bass saxophone, pushing the trio towards the kind of rollicking street busking music that first inspired them. John Randall’s demonically-tinged vocals and blues-inspired, manic guitar, and Andy Rehms steady, pounding drum beat kept the band focused on their trademark blend of deep blues and country punk. With the amount of sound these three musicians put out, it’ll likely be a surprise to listeners to find out that they’re not a full band! When The Hooten Hallers come to town, you know it’s gonna be a party. Now, ten years later and with nothing to prove, they’re back on the road again with a new fire burning in their bellies.