Women in Charge
As I began looking though the photos from our outstanding photographers, for this week’s column, I noticed a dominance of women artists. That got me to thinking about how every couple of years the music media likes to name a “year of the woman.” I have always found that patronizing and patently untrue.
After all, why set aside a year for them? Outstanding women artists are always producing great work. They’ve been doing so for a very long time — from Bessie Smith to Margo Price — though many have made great albums that have not gotten their just due.
I am not here to right any wrongs, or go on a diatribe about oversights, but rather to assist the rest of the world in catching up with what’s been going on, what’s been hiding in plain sight. This week’s series of noteworthy photographs serves us well in that and other regards.
Is there any roots artist more popular right now than Margo Price? Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is one of the two or three best of the year, and she’s been touring like all get out. Her breakout performances at SXSW, Newport Folk Festival, and AmericanaFest leave no doubt of her talent, her enthusiasm, her eloquence and humility. I am looking forward with great anticipation to seeing her again next week with John Prine.
Speaking of Prine, one of my highlights of AmericanaFest was Amanda Shires‘ duets with him at the Station Inn. On My Piece of Land she paints Rothko-like images, both physical and emotional. Her lyrics evokes the writings of Rilke, where the ephemeral turns to haunting novels of desire. I first saw Shires six or so years ago, and have seen her perform many times since. I captured two photos during her recent Mountain Stage appearance. One of those were during soundcheck, and while I do not often publish soundcheck photos, the one below captures her essence so beautifully. Her responsibility is to make great music, and she does not hinder others in fulfilling their responsibilities — in this case, she was patiently waiting for the stage and sound crews … then she turned to me and smiled.
I also caught Brandy Clark recently. She exclusively did songs from her second album, Big Day in a Small Town, plus one she did with Dwight Yoakum. Firmly grounded in the country tradition, yet also shaking it up and expanding it’s boundaries, Clark’s album is a prime example of the fact that it is harder to make a fine second album than the first. Why? The first album contains the best you’ve got — and unless it’s good, there may not be a second — and you’ve had a long time to write the songs. The second album may have some holdovers and new ones written during a time when you have been heavily touring and promoting the first. While Big Day may not have the surprising bite of 12 Stories, it’s every bit as good on its own terms.
Speaking of shaking things up, I cannot think of anyone who has been so instrumental on so many fronts as Ani DiFranco. From her activism to staring her own record label, to her invigorating music, both live and recorded, she has been on many front lines. I have seen her quite a lot, from her days as both a diva and symbol to her more recent contemplative ones, and I have never been less than thrilled by her performances. She has a new single out, “Play God,” and premiered another new one, “Binary,” on a Folk Alley session released in August. I expect both will be on her new album that’s due early next year, tentatively titled Binary. If these songs are any indication, it’s going to be one whale of a record.
Elizabeth Cook has taken a couple of weeks off from her Exodus of Venus tour that began in June, and is set to resume for a half-dozen dates next week. Not only has the album — which has a substantially harder edge than her previous efforts — received excellent reviews, she and her new band pull that new sound together even more completely in their live shows. She’s been faithful to her older songs while refreshing them at the same time. She’s also gotten nice spreads in many publications, most notably ND’s Summer issue and Jewly Hight’s great interview in the East Nashvillian.
Speaking of East Nashville, there is hardly anyone who epitomizes the new music scene in Nashville better than Nikki Lane. Not just her music alone, but she’s also got a clothing shop, High Class Hillbilly, which puts on some shows. She just seems to be everywhere. Last year at AmericanaFest’s Saturday night when she was on the same bill with the heavy hitters, Loretta Lynn and Gillian Welch. She played DylanFest at the Ryman in May, when she stole the show with “I Threw It All Away.” She picked up her tour again last week in Boston, and while I cannot confirm it, my contacts among the lumberjacks tell me she’s got a new album coming out early in 2017.
I caught Aoife O’Donovan’s last two shows of her most recent tour, and she was a sight for sore ears. Beginning with her stint in Crooked Still (which I caught numerous times) to the start of a solo career, she also always followed her route in fulfilling that sound that she hears in her head. She takes chords, tunings, and vocal phrasing most often heard in jazz and successfully and intriguingly slips them into Americana forms. It’s a dazzling feat, as if she’s performing without a net. This year she’s released two outstanding albums: a studio recording called In the Magic Hour and a live one, The Man in the Neon Coat, which her fans have been awaiting for some time. She recorded the latter on a single night in April in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with just guitars and drums. It has an organic feel that’s absent from stitched-together performances. I also had the opportunity to chat with her, and she’s as gracious off stage as she is on.
On September 29, Sierra Hull did what no woman before had done: she took home the IMBA award for Mandolin Player of the Year. This places her in the distinguished company of other fabulous mandolin players such as Sam Bush, Darol Anger, Chris Thile, and Mike Marshall, who have not just expanded the genre of bluegrass but has also shown what else the mandolin can do. Her video of practicing her chops while doing the laundry with the washer supplying the backbeat is quite cool, too.
Jaime Wyatt only has one solo album to her credit — last year’s From Outer Space — but that’s about to change, because she has one coming out next year. She’s been compared to Neko Case and referred to as a female Tom Petty. Heart’s Ann Wilson is often quoted as saying she likes Wyatt’s “punk rock attitude.” You may, as well.
Speaking of punk rock, even though I lived just a few minutes from CBGB’s, I liked the L.A. punk scene much better than the New York’s. So imagine my utter delight when I saw C. Elliott’s photos of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, with Howe Gelb sitting in. What a night that must have been. I think that by mixing X, the Knitters, and Giant Sand together, you may get not just a great history of alternative music over the past 30 years or so, but also some new sounds to take you into the future. That works for me; I wish I’d been there.
I’ll wrap up by saying that the Mavericks, Jim Lauderdale, Calexico, and David Bromberg are personal favorites who have also released excellent albums this year, so it will be tough for me to narrow my focus down to ten when it’s time to submit my best of the year list.
Finally, it is hard not to take a great photo of LeE HARVeY OsMOND, who’s just wrapping up a tour in the next couple of weeks. In some circles he’s perhaps better known as a member of the super roots-rock group Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, but his solo work, both as a musician and painter, is substantial. Many thanks to Peter Dervin for capturing this one. There must be something in the water, as I hear they’ll have a new album next year as well.
In addition to Peter Dervin and C. Elliott, many thanks to Kirk Stauffer, Todd Gunsher, and Mark J. Smith for making this week’s column a joy to put together.