I've been listening to a little bit of Keb' Mo' recently and a whole lot of the Smithsonian Folkways Classic African-American Songsters collection, thinking about the strange connection I have to African-American storytelling traditions. Strange because I'm a white lady who grew up in a small self-segregated Southern town.
As a student of literature, I gravitated toward African-American stories.…Continue
The butt-shaking harmonica solo and kick drum that give way to an almost Cajun fiddle at the onset of Jonah Tolchin’s new album Clover Lane make perhaps the disc’s most brazen statement: this kid knows his shit. By the time the song hits two and a half minutes, the fiddle arches into Celtic folk territory, before passing the melodic baton to a distorted bass solo. All the while, Tolchin’s raspy vocals romp and drag along like the bluesmen of whom he became enamored as a…Continue
"Everything you need is in your bones." - Mama Nayo
That quote, scrawled on a large sheet of paper, hung from the ceiling in the workshop center at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., two years ago, when I attended a week-long cultural organizing workshop named for Zilphia Horton. I had, two years prior, moved to North Carolina from Washington State to commence researching Horton's life and work for a book I will eventually finish writing.…Continue
One winter evening in 2008, I plopped myself on a barstool for another rainy Seattle night at the Sunset Tavern. The room was pretty much empty and the draw was a Canadian country singer named Corb Lund. I knew nothing about Lund, but a friend invited me. It was her and I, Lund and his opener (and her band), bartenders, maybe five other stragglers. I was tired. I wondered if I should just head home in the persistent drizzle and catch these acts some other time. Then Zoe Muth and…Continue
There’s a saying in the music industry that it takes your whole life to write your debut album, and then you get a few months to write the next one. If the first album is successful in any way, the life of a traveling musician so quickly takes over, it’s almost cliché for a young songwriter to quickly devolve into writing about life on the road, playing to unforgiving crowds, missing the people back home. Looking beyond the end of one’s own nose for inspiration and emotion can seem…Continue
For nearly a decade, Austin-based singer-songwriters Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt have been charming audiences with their collaborative song-swap performances. Two of the most talented and beloved songwriters in that fruitful musical community, Elkin and Schmidt play music that possesses a very different spirit from one another but, as a pair, the music they manage to make is surprisingly cohesive, languid, and easy. Their voices blend together like a breeze in…Continue
The Americana Music Association's annual awards show - and the conference and festival which thereby ensue - is easily one of the most interesting, entertaining, and comprehensive events of the year, shedding light on this indescribable style of music we all love. Though the conference itself is focused on artists and industry types, the awards show and festival are open to the public. Some of the most impressive collaborations and one-off performances I've seen in the last several…Continue
It’s been a little over a year since Holly Williams released her independent debut (two albums preceded it, on Universal Nashville). The Highway is a stirring, captivating disc, about which I’ve written at length in this space before, when I claimed it was one of the finest albums of 2013.
Since it dropped, Williams has been on a whirlwind…Continue
One of the oldest human possessions ever found is a flute. I'm talking somewhere in the area of 50,000 years ago, someone sat or squatted - presumably on the ground - playing a flute. The fact that these old flutes exist indicates the presence of music is much older. It would have to be in order for people to get good enough at flute-making as to fashion an instrument that would be so durable.
But, think about the implications here. You can't run from a predator when you're…Continue
At the end of Nashville's last season, news broke that T Bone Burnett, world class record producer and husband to show creator Callie Khouri, would not be continuing as the music supervisor. I wrote in this space about how that could be a good thing. Though T Bone populated the show with some incredible songs to come out of characters like…Continue
Originally written for the Bluegrass Situation
Greg Brown is what you might call a songwriter’s songwriter. From the blues to old school country, folk and so forth, his music doesn’t fixate on any one style. The songs he writes go where they want to go, say what they want to say so naturally, they start to feel as though they’ve written…Continue
Amy Ray was backstage at the Isis in Asheville, NC, last week, listening to the soundcheck of her opener, a local artist named Lyric. As we got to talking about her new album Goodnight Tender, which dropped on her own Daemon label on Jan. 21, Ray periodically paused mid-sentence to enjoy the muffled funk happening on the other side of the wall.
To most people, it might seem odd to pair a funk and…Continue
Every image of Pete Seeger that's been playing on a reel in my head today - and on videos that seem to be crowding the social media sphere as millions mourn the end of his incredible life - has Pete behind a microphone, looking away, his mouth still shaping the words, but the sound is coming from the dark expanse in front of him. It's a fitting image - the voice of the crowd creating a noise that appears to be emerging from Pete's own mouth. His life's work, after all, was getting…Continue
There are times in the life of a music critic when you see a show or hear an album and all you really want to say is "holy shit." Analysing guitar solos and parsing the energy between people on a stage starts to feel a little like looking for the trapdoor in a magic show. You kind of have to just show up and witness the the part where the guy stands right up on the mic, the force of the melody bending his body back a good ten inches at the top, like his voice is the rock in a big…Continue
I've been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., a lot lately. Which makes sense, in a way. After all, this past August was a half-century since Dr. King made his famous "I Have a Dream Speech", one of many made during a day of demonstration for "Jobs and Freedom." Lately, the mainstream media has been focusing on another anniversary - that which marks President Johnson's declaration of a War on Poverty. This only puts Dr. King in my head further, since it was poverty which was…Continue
Originally written for Folk Alley
Since the spring of 1960, Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, has been welcoming folk singers and musicians onto its stage. Among them have been folks as variant as Tom Paxton and John Gorka, Robin and Linda Williams, Anais Mitchell, Greg Brown, Arlo Guthrie, and Tift Merritt. It's the longest continuously running coffee house in the country, and crowds continue to gather there…Continue
Originally written for the Bluegrass Situation
Songwriting takes many forms. Sure, in the realm of Americana music, “songwriting” typically refers to the thing most people do with an acoustic guitar, a voice, and their sense of poetry. But, in many areas of traditional music – folk, bluegrass, classical, jazz – “songwriting” can be a process by which an…Continue
The internet has been buzzing the past day or two over a folksinger gaffe that, in the grand scope of All Things, let's be perfectly honest here, is not really the end of the world.
A little background.
In 1989, a bald, nose-pierced, hairy pitted teenager from Buffalo, NY, put out a demo on a cassette tape. She had been performing in the Buffalo area for years, and had developed a guitar picking style that was unique, for lack of a better word. Many of her songs -…Continue
It's funny that I should have come across Julie Lee only recently, and only through hearing her sing backup for other artists. First for Robby Hecht on YouTube, then behind Rose Cousins at the AMA festival, Lee delivered backing harmonies that were surprising, creative, and woefully heartbreaking. Grante,d both Hecht and Cousins write songs that aren't exactly a barrel of monkeys, but there was something about what Lee was…Continue
My daddy told me and I believe he told me true
The right thing's always the hardest thing to do
Indeed, it's not easy to change your life. Whether you're changing away from addiction, toward an illness your body can't fight, into the welcoming arms of someone who truly loves you (and, consequently, away from all the forces that just keep you around to validate them), and so on. It's complicated and full of layers. Like turning your head - it's not just your…Continue