Roots Music Roundup: Jayme Stone – Stearns/Newton – Abramson Singers – Nell Robinson
The albums are piling up here at Hearth Music HQ, so it’s time to do a rundown of some of the great American roots music coming out recently. Check out some of our favorites and read more about each release. Have a listen yourself to be sure we’re not blowin’ smoke, and if you’ve got some money, kick it towards the artist to support them!
Jayme Stone – The Other Side of the Air
Banjo master Jayme Stone is the very definition of an eclecticist (assuming that’s actually a word). A far-traveling, passionately curious artist, his musical focus is like the light of a lighthouse: constantly roaming the landscape. In the liner notes for The Other Side of the Air, Stone talks about how this music is “a travelogue. A sonic chronicle of sounds I’ve discovered over the last two years.” Most of Stone’s music is a travelogue anyways, but what’s interesting is that the new album feels like a real departure from the last album. Whereas the last album, Room of Wonders, was a romp through the wide world of folk dance music, The Other Side of the Air is a much more considered album, and ultimately it’s an album of modern classical music, albeit for banjo.
Opening track “Radio Wassoulou” plays with familiar riffs from Malian music, passing the riff around like a joint. In “Soundiata,” Stone’s banjo ripples with the kind of beautiful ornaments found in West African stringed music, ornaments he no doubt learned while performing and touring with Malian griot and kora player Mansa Sissoko. The melodies on both these tracks are drawn from fieldwork trips to Mali that Stone undertook in 2007. “The Cinnamon Route” reminds me of today’s work with banjos in jazz, but most of the material on this album seems more closely tied to classical compositions. The largest part of the album is given over to a four part Concerto for Banjo and Symphony from his longtime friend Andrew Downing.
This is a listener’s album, no doubt. The tone and composition here is lush and beautiful and the production work by David Travers-Smith (he also did Ruth Moody’s album) really stands out. Slip on this album with a nice glass of wine and plan to expand your brain a bit. That’s my recommendation.
Jayme Stone: Radio Wassoulou
Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton – Tractor Beam
I’ve been waiting for this one for a little bit now and it doesn’t disappoint. Rosie Newtown is a truly monster old-time fiddler, and seems to be at the center of a real scene in Ithaca, New York. I first heard her fiddling as part of the New Young Fogies Appalachian compilation album. Not only is she a marvelously dextrous fiddler, pulling a huge variety of syncopated rhythms out of old-time bowing, but she’s also a ferocious fiddler, tearing into a fiddle tune like a lioness tearing into a gazelle. On Tractor Beam, she’s playing as a duo with songwriter/clawhammer banjo master Richie Stearns. Stearns is justifiably well known for his work with The Horse Flies, an alternative band with strong folk ties that was huge in the 90s. He’s also toured extensively with Natalie MacMaster and Bela Fleck, scored an album for Pete Seeger, and worked with folks as diverse as David Byrne, Tuvan throat singers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Tractor Beam is a blend of original and traditional, from a fiddle tune Rosie wrote (“Take It or Leave It”) to three new songs from Stearns (“Ribbons & Bows”, “I Am With You Always”, “Tractor Beam”), even a Townes Van Zandt cover, which Newton sings in her pure ballad style. Her voice is high and soft, and crackles with the fragility of an ice sheet. It’s beautiful singing! Stearns brings an element of worldliness to the music on this album, with a voice tinged by long experience, and a kind of weariness to his singing that draws in the listener. The traditional material here is rendered impeccably, from the straight-ahead versions of “Say Darling Say” and “Willow Garden” (oh and listen to their harmonies on those songs…..), to the wonderful Clyde Davenport tune “Lost Goose” and the always classic “Trouble in Mind.” Stand-out track “Shirt Tail Boogie” features the lost art of clawhammer fiddling (inspired by the great Fred Cockerham), and it’s great to hear Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson ripping it up on the last two songs, Ruben’s Train and Hangman’s Reel.
All told, Tractor Beam brings a lot of lift and life to the old traditions.
Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton: I Am With You Always (Stearns)
The Abramson Singers – Late Riser
2013. Copperspine Records.
Following up her stunning debut album, Vancouver, BC singer Leah Abramson (aka The Abramson Singers) has crafted another intricate puzzlebox of an album, weaving vocal harmonies into a dense shroud that hangs over each song. There’s a larger ensemble sound with the new album, and guest artists include Rayna Gellert, Jesse Zubot, and Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas. Used to be that Vancouver, BC was the lightning rod folk scene of the West Coast, bringing us groups like the Tanyas, Zubot and Dawson, The Paperboys, Outlaw Social (Pharis Romero’s old band) and The Gruff. I haven’t seen as many groups coming out of Vancouver these days as I used to, but from this album it’s clear that there’s still a great scene in the city. Look also to the album from Abramson’s friend, Jenny Ritter, and you can learn more about Vancouver’s roots scene.
On Late Riser, the songs whisper and twirl across a cracked wintery landscape. Vocal harmonies tense and resolve, and it’s clear that Abramson loves to play with the timbre of the human voice. She arranges voices to hocket back and forth, and pairs a deeper voice with a high, almost falsetto voice. She’s a sound poet first and a songwriting poet second. It’s a great combination that lifts this album way above the herd of other singer-songwriters. Standout tracks include “Jack of Diamonds,” which updates the old folk song trope of the gambling rounder, “Deja Vu,” which is a gorgeous bit of songcraft,and “Liftoff Canon,” which best shows off Abramson’s vocal arrangements. Leah Abramson is one of the most eclectic and visioned artists in West Coast roots music and a name you should know.
The Abramson Singers: Liftoff Canon
Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally – House & Garden
2013. Nell Robinson Music.
I’ve worked with Nell Robinson before, and she’s one of the most positive artists I know in the music industry. That’s because she comes to music late in the game, having started performing only in later life after growing up singing informally, so she brings an optimism and a fresh perspective to her work as a roots music singer and songwriter. There’s something joyful about going along with someone as they discover and begin to truly develop their talents, and you can hear this magic in Nell’s singing and in her songs. Teaming up here with ace bluegrass guitarist and singer Jim Nunally (of John Reischman’s band, The Jaybirds), Nell delivers an album that feels like an effortless evening of singing in her home. And though her original home is rural Red Level, Alabama, her current home is near Berkeley and her current songs reflect the sunshine of a California garden. Besides the title of the album, House & Garden, Nell also includes an extra download card in each CD that can be planted in your own garden to grow some wildflowers. Of course, it’s now our rainy season here in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m a bit late writing about this album and I seem to have missed the actual planting season. But 10 winters in Seattle have taught me the importance of thinking back on sunshine-y memories when the clouds roll in, and that’s what this album excels at. As Nell and Jim sing in “Life in the Garden:”
“Life is full of many wand’ring pathways
Sometimes you know not where to go
Forget-me-nots in your garden
Will remind you of the places you have known”
Most of the songs on House & Garden are written by both Nell and Jim (with choice covers of Dolly Parton and George Jones), and they make a great songwriting team. “April Fool,” “House,” and “The Gardener” are both remarkably well-written, intriguing love songs, an all-too-rare thing today in a world drowning in lovesick songwriters.
Nell and Jim have a rare thing indeed, a lovely duet sound that pulls from both of their strengths. Turns out that when you tend your own garden, you can grow some lovely things.
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