THROUGH THE LENS: Seven Roots Music Artists on the Verge
Emma Swift - AmericanaFest - Photo by Amos Perrine
At first blush it might seem odd to say that any artist is on the verge given that the coronavirus has put a halt to their ability to display their talents by playing to live audiences, which has been how musicians break through (and how they make a living to sustain that) for quite some time. But the music goes on, and these seven artists, many with recent or soon-to-be-released albums, are worth your attention even if it’s not in person.
As noted below, five ND photographers — Kirk Stauffer, Chris Griffy, Carol Graham, Mary Andrews, and Boom Baker — contributed their picks to this week’s column, along with their photos. Here are their lively and thoughtful insights, along with a couple of mine.
I first saw Swift at AmericanaFest in 2015, after the release of her self-titled debut album. She was one of several fresh Aussie talents that had relocated to Nashville. For that all important second album, Blonde on the Tracks (out Aug. 14), she had the chutzpah to tackle the myth called Bob Dylan — not just a song or two, but an entire album.
One would think that her slightly breathy, recessed voice would be crushed by those heady, obscure lyrics. But no. Where Swift astoundingly succeeds, where other, more weathered folks have faltered, is in her phrasing. She approaches the songs as a cabaret artist, using inflection, or by holding, shaping a note in a way that sheds a different light on a line, or a single word, in navigating the intimacies of a song’s other subtexts. You could subtitle this superb album, From the Meticulous to the Sublime. — Amos Perrine
Fronted by Hillary Grace Fretland, with Jake Haber, Luke Francis, and Kenny Bates, this talented Americana band from Snohomish, Washington, has a bright future ahead of it. Notable tracks from its self-titled debut album, released in May, include “Long Haul,” “Black & Gold,” “Have Another Beer,” and “Garden.” Although the tour in support of the album was put on hold due to the pandemic, Fretland’s music is still getting considerable attention. — Kirk Stauffer
Son of the late country music chanteuse Sammi Smith, Payne has been performing publicly since he was 3. While he’s had the advantage of being in the company of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson during his upbringing, it’s been his immense talent that has played the biggest role in his success.
Payne’s songs consist of observational pieces based on flawed characters that speak the truth. He has written Grammy-nominated songs for Lee Ann Womack, and Miranda Lambert, Aaron Lewis, Ashley Monroe, and Pat Green have also recorded his songs.
Payne’s second album of original songs, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, will be released in September. Filled with sweet nuggets of lost love, desperation, and life lived on the edge, it is obvious that he is well-versed in the ups and downs of life’s realities. Payne is poised to be a major star. — Mary Andrews
The Barefoot Movement
I first saw The Barefoot Movement during AmericanaFest 2013, and even though they received IBMA’s Momentum Award the following year and have been pounding the bluegrass circuit ever since, I still don’t think they’ve gotten their due. Live, I’ve heard them take tunes from Jimi Hendrix to the Beach Boys and make them seem part of the tradition.
On their most recent release, an EP titled Rise & Fly, which landed in February, they hone their already considerable skills and stay knee-deep in the new wave of bluegrass. With the down-home songwriting of Noah Wall, whose vocals shine like a brighter Alison Krauss, and one of the most inventive bass players going, Katie Blomarz, they are nothing short of magical. Catch one of their virtual shows and you’ll immediately see what I mean. — Amos Perrine
With only his voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, Okeefe’s music manages to be both simple and complex, authentic folk music at its very best. Songs from his new album, Bloomin’, released in May, hit hard with passionate protests against current issues of injustice.
In addition to a raw and world-weary voice that belies his young age, Okeefe also brings English humor and dialect to many of his songs. When I first heard his music a few years ago, I was reminded of Dylan, Guthrie, and Bragg. But Okeefe is no copycat. He is original and topical, and definitely an artist to watch for. Until you can see him live, catch his regular “Quaranstreams” on social media. — Carol Graham
Every year at AmericanaFest, there’s always at least one band that’s my happy accidental discovery. Last year, it was Rainbow Girls. Gathered around a single mic, the trio impressed me with their tight harmonies and instrumental skills, but more so with their banter.
You can always tell when a group has a well-rehearsed set of jokes, calculated to land at the right time. Not so with this trio as their banter had a natural, often awkward, lived-in feel — think Smothers Brothers meets Paula Poundstone. They’re that group of friends no one wants to see get together because you just know there’s going to be trouble, but you tag along anyway because it’s bound to be a great adventure. These friends are going places, and I’m happy to go with them. — Chris Griffy
Emily Scott Robinson
While last year Rolling Stone named Robinson one of “10 New Country and Americana Artists You Need to Know,” she has already become a must-hear for many in the wake of her 2019 album Traveling Mercies. Her performances on the Cayamo cruise earlier this year were captivating, and she continued to win over audiences up until the pandemic hit. Had it not been for that, she would not be on the verge, she would have fully arrived. — Boom Baker
Now, enjoy their photos, plus those of Todd Gunsher, Larry John Fowler, Brenda Rosser, Peter Dervin, and Kim Reed.