The best Americana duo in the country may be one you’ve never seen. At least, not yet. The regular podcast, Live at the Ice House with William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up is a living document of the growth of two artists from the streets of L.A. and Orange County to the recording studios of Hollywood where in the latest episode with they are joined by The Blind Boys of Alabama including Jimmy Carter-the oldest touring member of the group. The broadcast also brings together social commentator, writer and activist, Kevin Alexander Graym modern artist-poet, David (Judah 1) Oliver and up and coming singer-songwriter, Josh(Lesedi Lo-Fi) Douglas . Also featured and narrator is Exene Cervenka, a poet, writer, activist and musician. She is one of the founding members of L.A.’s own legendary punk band, X.
The duo, William Pilgrim and The All Grows Up are PM Romero, a seasoned musician and songwriter in his early 40’s and gifted writer & vocalist 28 year-old Ishmael “Ish” Herring. They are no homogenized, postured and blandly calculated folk duo marketed to just the right demographic. No such plan can be detected here. The current Americana scene in Austin and Texas is overrun with them. Rather, like many of the best blues, folk, country and jazz musicians of the last century, the sound that has grown from their partnership comes from the hard ground of personal life experience. As their first release, The Great Recession attests to, their music is not bred in corporate studios and sponsored showcases strategically placed and promoted at music conferences. Instead the music is from the homeless streets of today’s often disenfranchised youth. It is a new gathering, a new vision. They stand in contrast to the angry, cynical punk and rap scenes of the past. William Pilgrim are full of positive energy that carries a clear underlying gospel feel.
The California desert must have been a lonely and desolate place to young Ishmael “Ish” Herring, when he found himself, after years of living in fosters homes in Kansas and the streets of New Orleans, alone again. In Kansas as a young child could sing from the depth of his being, he was groomed for a career in gospel music. If gospel means good news, he must have wondered where that news was as he shook himself off and kept moving. But, as he found his way to Hollywood, Los Angeles and finally to Orange County. Over time, he left the self- limiting religious training of his childhood behind and answered a different kind of call. It was a call to challenge himself to his own higher calling. But the calling wasn’t to an external being, but to his own internal sense of value. “There’s a new person waking up inside me.” He said in a recent interview. “I thought I was called to bring people to Christ. I thought God wanted me to be a preacher. But, I found that what I was looking was found all in humanity.” He smiled and, with an insightful light in his eyes said, “I found I had to put faith in a hu-man(myself) not an invisible man.”
PM Romero was an artist on his own two years ago when he read an odd online add asking if anyone needed a vocalist. Romero had been a songwriter for years. He was deeply rooted in the music of the 60’s, but had his own vision of how to interpret the music from the era today. He found himself identifying most with Americana music. But, in 2011 when the Occupation Movement first emerged , he began writing songs that spoke to the voice of that population. The songs became a vehicle for that voice. When he answered Ishmael Herring’s add, the project took on a higher purpose.
That higher purpose is found in the link between music the duo creates as a positive force for personal transformation and social change. The gospel they sing comes from their own inner-light and permeates every word and note of the songs they are creating in the studio. They shine their considerable musical light on the problem of teen homelessness, like they are out in the street finding the Phonnix in the ashes of what they find there, in their own lives and that of others. If Ish is easily heir apparent to Taj Mahal or Ben Harper, then Romero stands in the direct lineage of great musical visionaries like T-Bone Burnette, Sam Phillips and Rick Rubin. But, add to the mix, two artists with the artistic freedom, imagination and the lyrical ability that calls up the Dylan/Band Basement Tapes, the social consciousness of Gil Scott-Heron and you’ve got a full picture of what William Pilgrim and The All Grows Up is about.
The latest episode of Live at The Ice House, released for viewing on Wednesday, September 3rd, is centered on the day of a recording session with The Blind Boys of Alabama arriving late in the day. After rehearsal and laying down tracks with Romero, Herring sits outside and talks with Kevin Alexander Gray. Gray comes from a background that emphasized education and pioneered integration in the South during the Civil Rights era. For Ish, things are full circle. He is more closely related to Jesse Fuller than to any cultural figure can relate to. Their conversation becomes heated when the subject of Jay Z comes up. Among the most popular and critically successful, Gray says the rapper comes from ‘rape culture,’ and wish he’d go away. For Ish, Jay Z represents the pinnacle of success, not something he’s ready to deny.
As though a ladder descends from heaven, The Blind Boys of Alabama later show up for their session. The begin to sing the Herring/Romero song with the final refrain, “There will be peace, for me.” Within in minutes, on the couch, it sounds like angels are coming up from the couch where they all sit. In studio, their tracks are done quickly, efficiently and without a doubt, inspirationally.
As the episode draws to a close, the gap between young and old and all of the questions raised are never answered. Rather, the questions are accepted. The answer is the living example of four blind singers from Alabama who have been performing since 1939. In the end, its about the music. Specifically for William Pilgrim and All Grows Up it’s about gospel music. Not the church music we’re used to, but that energy of peace and joy that many have found in church, but now it’s outside, in the world, in the streets. The music is what points all of us to healing from within and without. This is the experience of Episode 4, thanks to four blind singers and two skilled and talented artists.