A Chat About Zilphia

I can’t believe I haven’t posted in this space in four years! It’s been a busy time, I guess, bringing the Zilphia book close to publishing. (We’re in the editing process now, and it’s due in 2020 from University of Texas Press.) I’ll try to do a better job of posting in this space as the project comes to fruition at last.

At any rate, a couple of weeks ago, I got to sit down with Highlander’s librarian and archivist, Susan Williams, to talk about Zilphia’s role — her work and her legacy there.

This video is part of an effort around a new Septima Clark Learning Center that the folks at Highlander will be building soon. In preparation, they’re doing some videos about the history of the school, starting here with Zilphia.

If you’re interested in tossing them some cash to make sure that the Septima building is fully accessible, you can learn more about that project and donate here.

Today, in Folk Music Books

Dylan: Disc by Disc, by Jon Bream (Voyageur Press)

If you see this on the shelf somewhere, grab yourself one. In its pages, you’ll find my discussion with Bream and Dylan expert Geoffrey Green about whether or not Self Portrait is one of Bob Dylan’s greatest accomplishments or biggest head-scratchers. I think we decided it was somewhere in the middle.

Regardless, the volume is loaded with great spoken criticism and analysis from some of the finest folks in my field. Among them are artists like Rodney Crowell, Suzanne Vega, Ric Ocasek, Nicole Atkins, ?uestlove, and Joe Henry; and writers like Anthony DeCurtis, Holly George-Warren, Robert Christgau, Geoffrey Himes, and many, many more.

The archival photos are also pretty fantastic, to boot. I’m happy to have been some small part of this project.

On Ancient History, Nickel Creek, and the Sometimes Necessary Genrefication of Music

Nickel CreekOriginally written for No Depression

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 playing a flute. You can’t even be scared for very long. The instrument requires the employment of both hands; it requires the very careful control of breath. Playing the flute means you’re sitting or standing in one place, vulnerable, on purpose.

Ancient humans may have used these instruments to communicate beyond the reach of the human voice – a way in which we still employ music. Or, they may have simply been entertaining each other. Regardless, this thing we do with both our hands and all of our breath, where we organize our sloppiest, most unweildy emotions into something that feels beautiful to other people, is something we’ve been doing in order to keep our communities intact, calm and collected, for at least tens of thousands of years.

Here in America, there are songs that people have sung for two hundred years. We posture about no clear American culture, but the earliest Americans – voluntary and forced immigrants from Europe and Africa, mostly – created songs that they taught to one person at a time, face to face, for decades, and we now have these songs ingrained in our culture. When we started making recordings for sale and profit, we started calling those old songs “folk music”. Some practitioners started making new songs that used the same musical forms and rhyme schemes, borrowed some melodies and even some lyrics. What those people did was called “folk music” too. And so on, all the way up to today, where “folk music” refers to both of those things, and pretty much everything in between. (Despite what some hard-core traditionalist enthusiasts insist.)

Other styles of music emerged, first organically – people who play instruments got together in a room somewhere and just improvised for shits and giggles. Then they wrote one song in the style of another and so on, until people started craving that certain rhythm or sound, seeking out bands that employ trumpets or saxophones, electric guitars or pedal steel, or hard-hitting drummers. That’s how jazz happened, and rock and roll, country, and metal.

Speaking of which, have you heard the new Nickel Creek album? It’s streaming at NPR this week. It’s a doozy, packed with all the exceptional musicality for which that trio became famous in the first place. There are galloping mandolin arpeggios from Chris Thile – inarguably one of the most talented mandolinists on the planet. There are three-part harmonies – supported by that magical siblings-singing-together quality – that feel like waves just begun in the middle of a vast ocean. The songs follow those waves all the way to shore, where onlookers finally see the full force of what began far away, as it breaks on an eager bed of sand. There are quiet and delicate moments, balanced on the whisper-tinged, deceptive softness of Sara Watkin’s adept voice. And, there are moments when you wonder how hard rock ever got away with leaning on the crutch of electric instruments – clearly that style was meant to be physicaly pounded out, against the forgiving wood of an acoustic guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

What’s more, there are lyrics that hint at everything from bottled-up anger to resignation and hope. For a trio of 30-somethings who have been performing together since they were eight and eleven years old, A Dotted Linerepresents – as its title suggests – a humanly broken but always persistent, ongoing journey in some unspecified direction. It’s life. It’s stirring and profound. And, for the 37 minutes and 48 seconds that this album spins, if I just close my eyes, I could care less into what category it fits. The music is there and I am there, and it’s amazing that complete strangers can have such a deep conversation as this, understanding each other’s crippling fear and uncompromising hope, without even looking into each other’s eyes, just through the magic of modern technology and recorded sound. I know, because of the music, that my heartbreak and hope and uncertainty and mortality are shared by everyone else listening to this same record. I am relieved. I am energized.

There’s a reason for this – a reason I reckon Thile and the Watkins siblings understand.

There have been studies with sound waves and water, how the sound of an instrument or even a human voice, amplified, can literally create waves. It can move the water, make the water dance. An adult human being is more than 50 percent water. It doesn’t take a genius to put those two facts together and determine what music does to us. It moves us, literally.

In that moment, listening to the Nickel Creek record on speakers or headphones, in the moment, as a listener, I don’t care from what tradition this all comes. I’m moved. I don’t care what category it fits into at the record store. I forget that iTunes has it listed as “Country & Western” (really?) and that the band came from bluegrass and dabbled in folk, jazz, and classical; that its members have publicly espoused the absurdity of musical genres altogether, claiming they don’t matter in the least. It’s true that listening to music is often more about hearing and feeling, then moving on, ever-so-slightly changed.

But, in the practice of writing about music, thinking about music, coming to understand who we are as humans and why we need this – the making music and the listening to it – I have to talk about things like categories. Yes, our old friends with the ancient flutes weren’t concerned about categories. But 50,000 years of history have transpired in the meantime, and we humans could stand to learn a thing or two by discussing it when we can.

From where I sit in my living room typing this, the view beyond my computer looks out at a set of woods. A collection of trees. An array of evergreens and flowering woody species. I have no idea what to call any of them, so I don’t. I don’t need to know what they’re called in order to admire the way, at this point in the spring, some have abundant green needles while others are completely bare. One or two have tiny leaf buds. It’s pretty. This view of the woods brings me calm and a quiet head. They say there’s something healing about living among – and walking between – trees. This healing quality happens, also, regardless of whether or not you know what kind of trees you’re walking between.

Yet, in this intentional community where I live, we have people who could tell you the genus and species of each one of those trees, as well as the common names. They can tell you what the vines are called that so beautifully (and, I’m told, life-suckingly) wrap a branch or two. They can identify the scat on the ground and know what the proper balance is between soil, mulch, and brush. Or something. I don’t honestly know enough about the natural world to continue this exhaustive metaphor beyond these two paragraphs. But I know it’s important, I want people who know more than me to spend their knowledge and expertise protecting and preserving it. We all have our passions and skills. I hope those with tree-related skill sets do their thing to ensure this beautiful small woods remains.

We all know that beauty defies definition. It happens whether you know what to call it or not. But, knowing what to call it helps us preserve it and ensure that it thrives. My tree-loving friends know what all those trees are because they’re committed to preserving our natural habitat. They have to know what’s out there in order to know how to pitch in, to maintain nature’s balance after humans came in and affected that balance with their various developments.

The same is true in music.

As much as people who listen to music and many of those who make it (in other words, all of us) would like to believe that style and category don’t matter, the stories of these things are a testament to the creative power of human vulnerability and connection. If we know the name of a category and the story of why we call it what we do, we are giving ourselves power to make better things, more long-lasting things, things that – like those ancient flutes – will raise questions and influence the ideas of people long after we’re gone. Knowledge is power, words are power, and all that jazz. (And, by “jazz,” I do mean jazz.)

Songwriters on Songwriting: Darrell Scott

Darrell ScottOriginally published in The Bluegrass Situation

There are many reasons to write music. Some songwriters work alone, others are at their best in collaboration. Sometimes lyrics pop into one’s head like a rhythmic mantra, other times the song floats in on a seemingly familiar melody. The place where songs come from is elusive and subjective. Like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement, it can be a different space each time you enter. What’s more, it’s not always the space the songwriter thought they were seeking when they set out.

The same way a joke stops being funny when a comedian is asked to justify it, something about a song is lost as soon as a reporter asks the artist for an explanation. Granted, I’m a recovering songwriter, but to me there’s always something innately frustrating about an artist interview aimed at pushing an album or product more than it is at discovering how the artist approaches the music-making itself. Everything you need to know about the album should be on the album. But how does the artist experience the music, and its creation?

To that end, I’ve decided to talk with some great songwriters about the experience of songwriting itself. When I designated this column, I thought it would be a discussion about craft. But, as my first subject – Darrell Scott – pointed out, craft is an entirely different thing than artistry. Before we could get very far into the discussion, he pointed out that there’s something far more deliberate about craftsmanship, as opposed to the mysterious and inspirational pull of art:

Kim Ruehl: That makes sense, certainly in terms of Nashville songwriting, where people are writing songs toward profit…

Darrell Scott: Yeah, toward the marketplace. They hear somebody’s making a new record so they try to write for that record, in that vernacular, that style. Craft is more like that. [Meanwhile,] you have someone else writing, across the same town. They’re just open and the opening shows up in a song. Do you see what I mean?

KR: Yes. Well, I’d much rather talk about the art of songwriting, in that case.

DS: [laughs] Yeah, me too.

KR: So what do you think is a song – of all the music you’ve ever heard – that gets everything right?

DS: John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a perfect song. “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” by Kristofferson, is a perfect song. “That Old Time Feeling,” by Guy Clark, is a perfect song.

KR: Why?

DS: Why are they perfect? They just exemplify what they set out to do as a song. I don’t know a better song than “Imagine,” for example. I know other songs that work at something else, to get across [the same thing], but sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on why one song works that way and another one doesn’t. It’s more that you feel it rather than it being a cognitive, brain exploration. It’s more of a feeling. The difference between art and craft [is that] song craft has the brain attached to the process. The art part, it’s not that it doesn’t have the brain, but it’s more led by the spirit or inspiration, or heart, or emotion.

When I hear “Imagine,” it feels like a very simple, almost childlike song, except with a message that is childlike but [it’s] also red letter edition New Testament Jesus… or Buddha. It feels like a different place – an old place, an ancient place, and a future place all at one time. Timeless is a word I’d use for a great song. Timeless. They don’t have one single place in time that they stand in. “Blowing in the Wind” was perfect for Dylan in the time it was written, but it’s also perfect today or [it would have been perfect] during the Civil War. There’s a timeless quality to great songs.

KR: Yes, but you can’t really sit down to write a song and intend for it to be timeless, can you?

DS: That’s right. If you try to do a song about anything, you [get into] the craft side. You don’t sit down to write a timeless song. The timeless song comes along and sits you down. It takes you to its place, as opposed to the songwriter sitting down and saying, “I’m gonna write me a song today.” That’s… the craft.

KR: Is it possible to only write songs when, as you said, they “sit you down”? Or do you have to maintain the ability to write songs by making yourself write and hoping the timeless songs come?

DS: I think actually more of us are capable of timeless stuff than we might think that we are. The ability to write the timeless song… we have what it takes anywhere along the line. For example, that’s not the only timeless song that Lennon wrote. That’s not the only timeless song Kris Kristofferson wrote. So they can do it again. Kristofferson is a good example – the last couple of his records have been really strong, regular, great Kristofferson songwriting that have some of the same quality he had in the 1960s. So, to me, that says it can happen again. If it can happen at all, it can happen more than once.

KR: How is the experience of a song different in a studio versus a live setting?

DS: Sometimes it can be similar. Some aspects of recording that I like the best are when there’s a live aspect to the recording. By “live,” I mean that in addition to playing at the same time, in some cases, the musicians are leaking the sound of their instrument or their voice into the next musician’s mic. Something’s wafting into each other’s recording, [and] you aren’t able to “fix it later.” Me and Tim O’Brien’s work together is exactly that. Then there’s recording where you sequester each musician away from each other and build it up one track at a time. That’s a certain kind of production, a certain kind of sound and vibe. But I think the things that happen live with musicians, are the things that are worth capturing in a recording. That’s what I’m looking for. Even though I’m in a studio, there’s still something about recording live… [the music is] at its best.

KR: A lot of your songs, the really great ones, there’s nothing you could add or take away that would make it better. It’s something a lot of newer songwriters have a hard time with – knowing when to stop and knowing when to back off. Why is restraint in songwriting so difficult? Is it difficult for you?

DS: I don’t know, in terms of songwriting. I think that’s one of those things – on one level you’re talking about songs and on another you’re talking about recording. I’m hearing two different things [in the question], but as far as restraint… I think maybe to cut to the chase of what I think you’re asking, [the song] only needs to work in its essentials, so that’s guitar and voice or piano and voice. How was it when the person wrote the song? What was the general essence that was going on when it worked, when it did what it was supposed to do? That element, whatever it is, needs to be there even if there’s a full orchestra, a full rock band, a blues band, electric or acoustic, live or in the studio. If you’re getting the essence that was there when you wrote the song, then it’s working. It’s working because you drew from the essence of the song, up.

Some songs don’t need much production. “Imagine” is basically John Lennon on the piano, and it’s an upright piano. It doesn’t need to sound like a grand piano. It’s a simple upright piano. Then there’s a light rhythm section that comes to support it. You just get out of the way of the song. Anything more than that would be producing a song, as opposed to playing a song, supporting a song.

KR: I guess it was more of a performance question, then, maybe. I think it happens more with guitar solos, where people go too far. Do you know what I’m saying?

DS: I think I do, yeah. But sometimes guitar solos that go on can be a great carrier of the song, too. You can be the jam section of a song, or [mark] passage of time. If there’s a song that just goes on for a couple of verses and then there’s a guitar solo, you can let the listener know that was a passage of time so that, after the solo, [they’ll know] you needed to have that time passage.

Solos themselves aren’t a detriment; it’s how they support that song. I’m guilty of playing plenty of guitar solos in my songs, especially live. But what I’m hopefully doing is carrying the essence of the song through the solo, so that it’s not like I slipped out the back door for a while and now I’ve come back to the song, and I hope you’re all with me. I think it’s one of those [paths] that the song was supposed to take in the first place.

KR: How is co-writing different from writing solo, for you?

DS: You get the input of someone else whose work you respect, if that’s who you’re writing with. If I’m co-writing with someone whose work I respect, when they say we should do something different with the second verse, I’m all ears because I know their work, I trust their work, and we’re both working toward the same thing. Also, the other writer might hear something I don’t. Sometimes I’ve been stuck in songs I started on my own and I don’t know how to get out of it. I’ll take it to another songwriter that I respect and they’ll have an inkling of how to get out of this thing. They’ll break it open when I’m stuck. The reverse is true too. I’ve done that for folks, on their songs.

The other good thing about co-writing is that you can come out of it with the song neither of you would have written on your own. That can be stylistically, it can be language, or subject matter. Co-writing is not a curse word. I know for some people it can be and, at times in my life, it has been, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s nothing of the idea of working with somebody on a piece of music that says “this is going to suck”. As a matter of fact, it can be better than if you’d done it on your own, but you have to choose your co-writer carefully.

KR: In light of that, what have you learned from Tim O’Brien?

DS: Tim has a real familiarity with the Appalachian roots and, for that matter, Irish roots, mountain roots. He’s been a part of that all along, whether it was with bluegrass or some of his albums that went into old timey stuff or even some that were just singer-songwriter [albums]. He’s very familiar with his Appalachian roots. I’ve spent time in my life where I was trying to run from my Appalachian roots, hiding the fact that I’m from Kentucky. When you’re in your 20s, you’re more prone to run from where you’ve been and where you come from. But Tim has always been embracing of his West Virginia everything. When I’m around Tim in that way, writing or singing harmony, playing solos, bluegrass, mountain music… he makes it very easy for me to bring my roots right up there next to his.

KR: When you write, are you thinking about tradition? Or does that just come out naturally because it’s in your bones?

DS: Well, it’s in there. It is in the bones, it’s in the genes. A better way to say that is that I follow the song wherever it wants to go. So if the song is a roots or mountain or Appalachian song, then that’s absolutely where I’m going. If it’s a blues song, I bring all the blues I know, stylistically, to it. If it’s a gospel song, a confessional song, if it’s a piano ballad…whatever the song is trying to be, I’m trying to be in support of that. Sometimes it’s the mountains, sometimes its pop sensibility, sometimes it’s a jazzy chord. It’d be stupid to bring a jazzy chord into a Carter Family-style mountain ballad. The song tells me what tricks to bring to it, what sensibility. I don’t tell the song what to do, it tells me what to do.

KR: Is there anything else you want to say about songwriting? Any advice for other songwriters?

DS: I think it’s what Guy Clark says, which is: “Write what scares you.” You know you’re onto something when you’re frightened by it. You’re frightened by how it feels to you, when you’re alone in the room with it. So I guess I’ll just copy Guy and say write what scares you.

Interview with Billy Bragg

Originally written for No Depression

The punk kid inside Billy Bragg must have been amused (in some weird way) by the buzzing whirl of  Taylor Swift superfans, who dotted the lobby of his Nashville hotel the weekend of this year’s Americana Music Association Festival and Conference. He’d come to Nashville to play some music, catch up with old friends, and answer questions in front of a live audience during the conference. He chose a different hotel, no doubt for the peace and quiet of being a few blocks from the AMA’s center. What he got was a pop-nado of tweens in matching t-shirts, giggling in girl-clusters.

Needless to say, none of them so much as glanced over as I and one of the most talented artists to have ever gleaned influence from American folk music, sat in the corner and geeked out about the folksinger tradition.

The night before our interview, Bragg joined Rosanne Cash and Richard Thompson for one of the most talked-about sets of the AMA festival. He was fresh off the release of his latest album, Tooth and Nail, a disc he recorded at Joe Henry’s place, with an all-American backing band.

He had also just published an article in the Guardian claiming the British invented Americana music. He cited several examples, connecting traditional American folk and blues with skiffle, the Beatles, and ultimately the things Americans did with the Beatles’ influence, in order to develop their interpretation of country and rock and roll into what has since become Americana music. Being a big nerd about American folk music myself, and having followed Bragg’s career as both British folk-punk troubadour and a natural inheriter of Woody Guthrie’s legacy, that article seemed like a good place to begin our interview. After all, I already wanted to talk to Bragg about the difference between how Americans relate to folk music traditions, versus how the Brits do.

Kim Ruehl: In America, the mainstream [idea is that] folk music started in the 1960s with Bob Dylan – which it didn’t – but the English seem to have a better grasp on what folk music is.

Billy Bragg: I’m not sure they do. They’re embarrassed about folk music, the British. It’s something the Scots and Irish do when they’re drunk.

The key thing for me is skiffle. Skiffle is a really weird period that doesn’t really have a corollary in the United States of America. It’s almost like a cult in the 50s. For kids, candy was rationed until the mid-50s. Clothes were rationed. The music on the radio was sort of like [makes a face], and anything American was brilliant. Anything that came from America was exciting – the cowboy programs were fascinating. Davy Crockett was massive in the 50s. Skiffle kind of somehow snuck into that, almost like the craze of hula hoops. It’s more like that than a cultural movement. I know, it’s weird. But with 15 year old boys, there weren’t blues fans. Literally Paul McCartney is 15 when he meets John, who’s 17, and they start a skiffle band. These kids use skiffle music to escape austerity, which is all they’ve ever known. The Beatles were born in the war; the Stones were born in the war. All those bands didn’t really know anything else other than austerity.

Playing music allows you to transcend your surroundings momentarily. What I mean is, my son, who sits in his bedroom and plays his guitar, he’s not really in an upstairs flat in England, he’s at CBGBs in 1977. Skiffle was a way for kids to pull themselves out of a world they thought was boring and drab and fixated on the past.

England was trying to work out what was left of the empire and clinging to the Queen. Skiffle became a way of escaping from that.

Every salient boy in the UK knew the three chords necessary to play Chuck Berry’s entire repertoire. When that happened, they were kind of ready, like a bunch of crazy paratroopers who were just waiting for the red light. When the red light came, they started to buy electric guitars, go to Hamburg… Obviously American kids were doing the same thing. Bob Dylan was…but something else was going on [in America]. There was a frantic energy to escape, in the Brits, that very easily matches up [to skiffle].

It’s almost as if they were trying to plug into rock and roll, they had an American plug trying to plug into a British [wall]. They’ve got the American type plug and they punched it into rock and roll.

I mentioned in the article the way the Kingston trio played Tom Dooley, as a funeral song, whereas Donovan plays it [claps his hands in rapid succession, singing] “Lay down your head Tom Dooley”. He’s already…it’s got velocity. It’s not far from that to Hamburg. It’s not a long way to go. I think for American kids, culture in the 60s, you’d not turn up to your local church fair and play Muddy Waters or Little Richard. It wasn’t conceivable. It just wasn’t done. Whereas, in the church fairs where Lennon and McCartney went, they were playing Leadbelly, they were playing Little Richard, and it’s totally acceptable. That ability to consume American culture without [the baggage]… it’s a strength of the British to take where it came from, even someone yodeling, and make it acceptable.

They took it, interpreted it, and gave it right back to Americans.

Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know how or why that happened. All I know is they got ahead of the curve. They were inspired by American roots music, blues, country, gospel, doo wop. I think Americana is where it comes home. Robert Hunter, Mavis Staples, Steven Stills, me, [Richard] Thompson… we all came back from where Woody and everybody else always were. It’s about listening to music and adapting it.

Woody talks about it in Mermaid Avenue, one of the songs… [he talks] about learning it from a black guy who was playing it outside a barbershop in Texas. He got two verses that he could remember from the guy. But it was too good to ignore, so he write a few more verses, and there she is. The great thing is that it’s 1935, and he calls this guy Spiderfinger, because he has very long fingers that walk up and down the guitar like a spider. That’s what he says. As soon as I read that, I saw that famous photograph of Robert Johnson sitting with his guitar and he’s got very long fingers, you know. Well, Robert Johnson was in Texas in 1935 and so was Woody. I’m not saying… it just puts Woody in that context. But if you listen to Jimmie Rodgers, all that yodel stuff, it’s straight out of the blues, just feeding off each other. And Americana is where that all comes back again. It’s our common heritage.

How do you think folk music came to be thought of as political music? All of that stuff – and even a lot of what Woody did – was not really overtly political music…

Right. My understanding of it in the United States of America anyway, was that the Communist Party of the United States thought that music was the best way to spread the word, and they encouraged artists to go out and write political songs, and sing political songs. Woody came from the opposite way to that – he was already doing it. He was like the hillbilly Shakespeare. I know other people have been called that, but if you want to put Woody somewhere in the Americana pantheon, he has to be surely midway between Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan.

It was a conscious way to reach the proletariat, writing songs. If you look at early on in the career of the Almanac Singers, they’re clearly being guided by an outside political ideal. Before America enters the war, they’re anti-war, and that’s quite common on the left because Stalin has done a pact with Hitler. Then, when America joins the war in 1941, they have to turn around and become pro-war.

Woody Guthrie couldn’t work under that kind of ridiculous control. But, when you’re part of a cause or a campaign, you’ll go out and write the songs. Like with the miners’ strike, I wrote songs that fit into that. I wasn’t being controlled by a third party but it was clear that music was playing an important role, not only in spreading the word, but also on focusing people’s solidarity. I think folk music articulates the idea that you’re joining a tradition. Struggle is a part of the tradition. You’re not the first person to have fought these battles, and you take strength from that – other people have fought this before. That’s the role of folk music.

Do you think that…well, here [in the States and in the Americana music scene], there are a lot of strong feelings about Mumford and Sons, and the British “folkies”.

Well, how “folky” are the Mumfords? Is Taylor Swift really country music? Is she?


No, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately the only thing that matters is: Do people enjoy the music? But, by rehabilitating the banjo, the Mumfords have done a great service to the genre. Unfortunately they’ve made it impossible for any one of us to wear a waistcoat, which is a shame, really, isn’t it? The banjo players have got work now, though.

Your new record, Tooth and Nail, is not super political, although you did get that Woody Guthrie tune in there.

I did. What I’ve been doing the last five years, I’ve written half a dozen topical songs and put them straight on the internet for free download, which you can do now. In the old days, I would have to wait until I had a new album out to make a comment on the scandal we had in the UK with Rupert Murdoch. Instead, I write it on Friday, debut it live on Saturday, someone films it in the dressing room that night, and it’s on the internet the next day. It’s out there. So when I come to make an album, instead of having a lot of political songs and a few relationship songs, I have more relationship songs, and I’m cool with that.

It seems more effective for the political songs to respond to the world in real time, anyway.

Yeah, that’s what topical songs are all about. That’s what Woody did, that’s what they did in the really old days. They were writing these songs and putting them on broadsheets and distributing the broadsheets in the 18thcentury. If there was a murder trial, they’d write about it on the broadsheet, and they’d be selling them. Or if there was a disaster, they’d write a news song and sell it to raise money for the victims. I think that’s the real power – the immediacy of the topical songs.

When I wrote “Between the Wars” during the mining strike, by the time it came out the strike had ended. “Power in the Union,” which I also wrote during the strike… for political songs now, you can hear it – Bang! As soon as it’s ready to go, you upload, they download.

It’s like what Pete Seeger was doing with People’s Songs, where they were churning out songs and information about what was going on…

Yeah. I think one of the things that’s challenging, since the 20th century… the young people back then, there was only one social medium and that was music. It was how we spoke to each other, it was how we spoke to our parents’ generation. It was how we communicated who we were, by carrying an album around. You were broadcasting to other people the kind of music fans you were at school. That was the only real badge that we had, that belonged to us, that was easily acceptable. There were other ways to do it, like how we dressed. But to be in our culture and speak our language, it was basically a musical language. It identified who you were at school and where you belonged.

For me, if I wanted to talk to the world and express my anger about things, nobody was going to print my article in the New Music Express or the Times website, or whatever. The only medium I had available was to play the guitar and write songs. Now, if you’re concerned about something, there’s a number of media open to you. You can make a cheap film and put it on YouTube, you can tweet, do your Facebook page. I think the power of music to be our news broadcast as well as complain about our relationships and other things music does very well, that’s been diminished by social media.

I can’t complain about it, really. It’s a pretty high bar to ask a kid to learn how to play, write and perform. Not everyone can do that. So it’s more successful, more people can engage. But, nobody’s ever going to invite you to Nashville to read out your Facebook posts, if you get my drift. If you want to see the world, meet interesting people, do what I did last night [performing with Rosanne Cash and Richard Thompson] in a dark room, getting that amazing feeling, then you do need to learn to play something and learn to write. That’s what this generation may miss.

Is making records a necessary evil at this point?

Yes. Which is why it’s great to hook up with Joe Henry. We can make an album in a week, in five days. It was very enticing to me, both artistically and monetarily, in terms of funding my records. When we got to Wednesday and we had ten tracks down, I was like wow. This is working. If I write two more tracks, we have an album, so I wrote a couple more tracks and got an album. I appreciate the necessity to make records. It allows you to plug into something like this [AMA festival]. It anchors something you’re doing to a campaign, rather than just drifting through. But I consider myself as working in the music industry, not the record industry. The record industry is a weird place I don’t quite understand. And the fact that Taylor Swift is also in the record industry is a bit weird to me.

Do you look at an album like this as a cohesive theme, or is it just an opportunity to capture a moment?

Capture a moment. I was quite reflective. My mom had passed away the year before. I had those songs about the struggle to maintain a long-term relationship. It came together in the right place at the right time. I really needed to do something to move on from my mom passing away and that ended up being the album. Not that the album’s about that, but my commitment to it was – let’s go to the next thing now. Let’s move on. I think that brought something to the sessions.

Is that why you chose [to cover Woody Guthrie’s] “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore”?

Well, no, that just seemed really pertinent. Woody was writing about the banks, millionaires making huge amounts of money off the stock market while working people couldn’t make ends meet. People were dying without healthcare, and you have this big debate about Obamacare… here’s a song that could have been written any time in the last five years, but it’s actually 70 years old. It’s nice to touch base with Woody’s actual catalog that he wrote.

It was kind of a gateway song to the album, too. It was one of the first songs I started singing. My voice has dropped the last couple of years, so I have to write songs in that ballpark. “I Ain’t Got No Home” was the first song I could sing that low. As it’s gotten lower, my voice has become more manageable. I know I wasn’t technically a great singer. Nobody comes to see me sing. But over the last couple of years, it’s become more [amenable]. The guitar is tuned down a ton to give me more room to get in there. “I Ain’t Got No Home” was the first song that I worked out how to do that, so it has a lot to do with how Tooth and Nail sounds.

What do you think a song can do for people?

It can do a lot of things: make them laugh, make them cry, make them dance. I think it gives them a sense of solidarity, it makes them feel like they’re not alone. Like they’re not the only person to be in this place that they’re in. they might feel a little bit conflicted and then they hear a song on the radio that just touches a nerve.

With political songs, you feel like you’re not the first person who’s done this. I think a song is more capable of doing that than a conversation. There’s something about music that soothes the pain. You think of a song like “Wichita Lineman” that’s 18 lines, but it just does something. It takes you to a certain place, you know. Listening to Holly Williams at the Ryman the other night, singing her grandfather’s line: “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky”…it just takes you somewhere.

Are you very deliberate about writing songs, or do you follow a melody wherever it takes you? Do you feel like you know exactly what you’re doing when you’re writing a song?

No. I’m just open to ideas. I know exactly what I’m doing when I’m singing it and finally putting it out there, I feel confident this is what I want to say. But it’s complicated, you put some bits in that don’t quite marry up. You sing it out and you’re like, oh, that ain’t quite working. You have to pull a few bits out.

Generally, most of the songs we recorded, I’d written them for the record so I hadn’t really played them much before. Joe’s musicians that he called together were very sympathetic to my songs so they sound great even though there wasn’t a huge amount of time we spent. They made them smooth.

Anything else you want to talk about?

We also invented baseball. Did you know that?

Yeah, but I think you call it cricket.

No, it’s called rounders. The girls can’t play cricket at school, they play netball, which is like basketball but you can’t move when you have the ball. You have to stand still.

Anyway, rounders, is on a diamond with a small bat. A one-handed bat that you can hit out to the outfield.

And that pre-dates American baseball?

Yeah, there’s a drawing of people playing a game with the two words: base ball. And a drawing of a diamond with people standing there with a bat, from 1770, before your country was even invented. We invented a lot of sports: soccer, rugby, tennis, swimming…


No. The Scottish invented golf. We invented basketball.

Now that T Bone’s gone – Considering the music on ‘Nashville’

originally written for NoDepression

Nashville castWhen the TV show Nashville left us last season, Juliette Barnes (played swimmingly by Hayden “Save the cheerleader, save the world” Panettiere) was burying her mother and, apparently, swallowing her first welcome dose of reality. Meanwhile, Rayna James (the incredible Connie Britton) was faced with her own reality check in the least cliffhangery of all television cliffhangers.

I mean, come on. They’re not going to kill off – or even “maim off,” if that’s a thing – the Queen of Country Music and Deacon the Well-Intentioned.

Jaymes’ daughters Maddie and Maisy James (played by real-life sisters Lennon and Maisy Stella, who really are that good) were tugging on their own pathway to fame. And Gunnar (Sam Palladio) was proposing to Scarlett (Clare Bowen) as she was starting to rethink her failed relationship with Avery (Jonathan Jackson).

I hammer out these plotlines because, remarkably, show creator Callie Khouri has imagined a soap opera around Nashville’s music scene which is almost believable. Any of us who have tried out the whole move-to-a-music-town-to-try-to-make-it thing have known people like Gunnar, Scarlett, and Avery. We even know the Juliettes and Raynas and, lord knows, dozens upon dozens of ex-alcoholic sidemen with razor-sharp bullshit detectors, who deserve a shot of their own at a solo career. We’ve seen them at open mic nights, places like the Bluebird, and witnessed the occasional newcomer waitress who’s coaxed onstage by some boy and winds up stealing everyone’s hearts.

It’s exaggerated and sensationalized, sure, but this is the music industry in all its far-reaching scenarios – the real humanity behind the mega-hits, the bad decisions, the socially awkward behavior, the sycophants, the money men, the over-sensitive acting out and misunderstanding and jealousy, and the way it all becomes the songs people cling to when they’re going through something.

Then again, it’s not surprising. Khouri has seen a bit of the music industry, being married to one of Nashville’s most talented producers-of-discriminating-taste. She’s made a career of building soap operas rooted deeply in real life, following the sensationalization of working class people out to the most natural imaginable conclusions. So the story of Nashville hasn’t surprised me one bit.

What has surprised me is the music.

Now, let me take a moment to recognize that Connie Britton is not a singer. She’s an extraordinary actress who never really sang until she got this role. I read an article about her a while back where she was telling an interviewer that T Bone’s attitude was ostensibly “all women can sing”, that he trusted her to rise to the role, and she did. Frankly, half the artists with major radio hits are not great singers, anyway. Unless you’re P!nk or Kelly Clarkson or Beyonce, it’s not really your job to be an artful and imaginative vocalist. Your job as a major pop star is to have boundless energy, be attractive, be relatable, and entertain people. Connie Britton plays that version of the Queen of Country Music beautifully. Masterfully, you might even say.

Panettiere, meanwhile, actually possesses real-world musical skill. She’s a trained singer who has recorded a number of songs for Disney and released a (corny pop) album back in 2008. It’s not surprising that Burnett, as the guy in charge of the show’s music in Season One, chose songs for Juliette Barnes which were catchy, fun and accessible, and not necessarily easy to sing.

It’s a shame, though, that the songs Rayna James sang were not at all believable as major radio hits. Some of the songs were so bad, I started to wonder if they were chosen on purpose to underscore the fact that Rayna James is supposed to be struggling with her recording career, while someone more catchy and accessible to mainstream audiences (Barnes) runs away with all the big hits.

But, that doesn’t really hold up when you consider the “old songs” she and Deacon wrote together back when they were on the top of the charts. Those were bad too, hardly the stuff of star-making radio hits. So bad, in fact, I found myself wanting to fast-forward through them. The only song that really connected as a believable monster radio hit was “Wrong Song,” a tune Rayna supposedly co-wrote with Juliette, to stage her comeback. Of course, the secret is that Juliette really wrote most of that one herself, with Rayna contributing only the bridge.

T Bone Burnett is a master of Americana music, so it’s easy to imagine him reaching into that familiar bag of tricks for Rayna James’ songs, where plenty of songwriters exist who write for not-masterful vocalists. Lyric-centric songs with small-range melodies are easy to find in the Americana world. Nashville – and, for that matter,  the greater singer-songwriter circuit – is teeming with writers who can create compelling music that almost any emotionally-committed person could sing well. These songs have non-traditional melody structures, which often doesn’t matter for the singer-songwriters for whom they are bread and butter. Those folks aren’t trying to be major radio stars, so their songs can be more about what kinds of emotion and humanity the singer can bring, rather than what kind of artistic vocal prowess s/he can unleash. In other words, they’re perfect songs for bad singers who are incredible actors.

But, you can’t become the Queen of Country Music with those songs. Those songs exist in contrast to the very existence of a Queen of Country Music, and the fact that this show was asking me to believe Rayna James became a megastar on the strength of those songs, just struck me as frustratingly incongruous.

I recently blathered about all this to my partner during a long-ish road trip until she chimed in to remind me this was a television show, by which I was so bothered. But, Britton’s such a remarkable actress, her character is so likable, so believable as a major radio star. The show has gone to such lengths to place her and Barnes within the context of the real Nashville, working in local bars and restaurants, the importance of the Opry and Music Row, and even major players in real-life Nashville (Lauderdale has made a few cameos, and Gunnar and Scarlett are always competing with actual up-and-comers like Lindi Ortega for gigs). It’s the best thing we here in the Americana/roots world have when it comes to mainstream America’s awareness of our existence, unless you count Mumford & Sons (which I simply can’t). Or, maybe I’m just disappointed that the unbelievability of James’ radio hits puts a chink in both Khouri and Burnett’s apparently unchinkable armor. Regardless, it won’t stop me from tuning into Season Two when it starts on Sep. 25, with hope. Maybe Buddy Miller, who is replacing T Bone as the show’s Head Honcho of Song Selection, will make everything right again.

Conversations with… Buddy Miller

Buddy MillerOriginally written for The Bluegrass Situation

“I don’t work on things that don’t mean something to me,” Buddy Miller says, and you know he means it. After all, you can’t fake that kind of dedication. You can hear it in the music and see it on the stage, in the way he bends a note or how he attacks a mic. Here’s a guy for whom music is the main thing – not the image or the lifestyle, but the songs. To know what I’m talking about, you wouldn’t have to look much further than Miller’s own music collection. Indeed, in Americana circles, it’s somewhat legendary.  Talk to anyone who’s worked with him and they’re bound to bring up his exhaustive library.

He claims it started when he was a kid, glued to the radio, back when they played the Beatles followed by Skeeter Davis, followed by whatever else was there. “They played the Grateful Dead on the radio from time to time!” he tells me, like the very notion still blows his mind.

Once you get Buddy talking, though, you realize there’s a lot about music which blows his mind. For example, the Strange Creek Singers once performed an assembly at his junior high school. “It was basically Hazel & Alice with Mike Seeger,” he says, “which was, you know, sick.” You can hear that 12-year-old boy still impressed by what a person can do with two hands, a voice, and a noisemaker. “[It was] a school assembly – not a big school – and Hazel sang ‘Black Lung’, and they did things I hadn’t heard of before…”

Long story short, from that point on, Miller became a feverish collector of music, and a rather influential performer of it. These days, for whatever reason, his iTunes collection is “down to about 126,000 songs.” A mere 126,000. By the way, that’s about as many songs as there are people in Charleston, S.C.

“I had a bottle of wine and a screwdriver one night in the back of the tour bus,” he tells me. “I took out the CD drive [from my laptop] and put in a terabyte drive… I go on groove hunts, I call it – looking for old songs.”

It’s the old songs which are his specialty, not because he’s aiming to be hip or ironic, no. The closer to the roots of the music he can get, the better will be whatever he’s working on. Lately, that includes music for the TV show Nashville, and beginning to think about maybe, possibly – sometime in the next year or two – considering a new solo album.

“My wife is a real writer,” he says of the remarkably gifted Julie Miller. “It just flows out of her, when it does happen. Me? Once in a while I might have something but I don’t usually just sit around and play. I’d love to. I’m sure I will soon. I’m sure after this year’s over nobody will be calling me anymore. But at this point, it’s been nonstop project to project, no time to breathe … I was actually thinking this morning, gosh I should make a record sometime.”

It may have been five years since he dropped what could be considered a solo album, but that hardly means Miller’s work hasn’t been swirling around the world. From Robert Plant’s Band of Joy to any of the assortment of albums he produced last year, to his work on Richard Thompson’s new disc Electric, his mark on the evolution of Americana music is pervasive.

As a songwriter, Miller hangs in the sweet space between classic country and soul. His solo albums – and the three he’s made with his wife – are exactly Americana. No frills, no spectacle, just great songwriting performed by freakishly talented players. As a producer, he’s worked with everyone from jugbands to contemporary songwriters and beyond, preferring a “less is more” approach to the lush sound so dominant in the pop music frequently passing for Americana. Listen to something Buddy produced and you get the sense he trusts music more than anything else in the world. He’d just as soon move out of the way and let the song do its thing. It’s no wonder, then, that he spends his spare time hunting grooves.

In fact, he pulled from his groove hunts when the time came to make a collaborative disc with his old friend Jim Lauderdale (Buddy & Jim, out Dec. 2012 on New West Records). In addition to the tune his wife Julie wrote, and those Buddy and Jim wrote themselves, they populated the disc with some well-considered cover tunes. Originally, he wanted it to be an album full of Johnny & Jack covers, but that didn’t quite work out.

“[There used to be] albums called something like Buddy & Jim Sing Johnny &  Jack,” he says, “which is what I wanted this to be called. You’d get it home and there’d be one to three Johnny and Jack songs on there, and the rest was whatever they wanted. I thought, let’s just do one Johnny & Jack song and call [the album] Buddy & Jim Sing Johnny & Jack. I thought it was a good name for a record. Plus, I’m a Johnny & Jack nut.”

And with that, he’s back to being a fan –in a way which gives you the sense Buddy Miller makes music because of his reverence for it. If he ever got into the rock and roll business to meet girls or look cool, he’s long since crossed a line to where the songs are the thing. “I just like to play music,” he says at last. “I’m happy to be making music and making what, I feel, is really good music.”

Where I go on and on about Zilphia Horton during a webcast from Echo Mountain Studio

Video streaming by Ustream

Pharis & Jason Romero – ‘Long Gone Out West Blues’

Pharis and Jason RomeroOriginally written for Folk Alley

Let’s just get the Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings comparison out of the way.

Good, now we can listen more deeply. After all, Pharis & Jason Romero are artists unto themselves – instrument makers, songwriters, pickers extraordinaire. These two clearly have as much adoration and natural talent for the traditions of American folk music as they do for the intrinsic musicality of their two voices.

Fresh from a win at the Canadian Folk Music Awards (they won New/Emerging Artist of the Year), they’ve got a sophomore album ready (Long Gone Out West Blues), which wanders deeper into their craft. Like a path through the woods, you think you know where you’re headed until you to hear the running water. Then come the lonely songs.

There can be a desperation in singing lonely songs – something quiet, sad, and seething. But, when the Romeros sing, there’s more of a letting go. You’re not peering into the mind of a songwriter; you’re witnessing the release of some long-clenched story or emotion. Though these are all beautifully composed, well-considered songs, there’s a sense that the music is coming more from the spur of the moment – the newness of the emotion – than from the channeling spirit you might witness with Welch & Rawlings. For example, when Pharis comes in on “Wild Bill Jones,” it’s like she was listening to this confession then joined in out of urgent solidarity.

Besides, as the album progresses, the influence of Joni Mitchell surfaces on “The Little Things Are Hardest in the End” – possibly the album’s hardest hitting tune – followed by hints of Dylan and Baez, and other more elusive influences. A spirit emerges, clearly plucked from deep within obscure field recordings. From Pharis’ thoughtful, creative originals to classics like “Sally Goodin”, you might be hard pressed to determine what’s old and what’s new.

This is music made on a timeless continuum, where yesterday’s troubles contribute to today’s lonesome songs. Listen in, and see where it takes you.

A few of my favorite things about 2012: A somewhat musical review

Anais MitchellOriginally written for No Depression

I rang in 2012 at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, South Carolina, at an Avett Brothers concert. It was one of two or three times that I’d see the Avetts in 2012. Another memorable moment came at the Austin City Limits Festival. Completely exhausted and overwhelmed with the absurd crowds, the downpours, the horrendous sound systems and football-on-big-screens interludes, my partner and I bailed a couple songs into the Avetts’ set. On our way back to the car, though, we discovered we could hear the band crystal clear from the park across the street, where the competing stages and crowd noise were strangely filtered away. (By what? All the bicycles? The three or four trees?) We sat on the lawn – we could even see through the fence – and enjoyed the rest of their show from afar.

In a way, it was a good metaphor for my year in the music business. It was a year when I took a break from the absurd overcrowding of music festivals and industry events, focused in on my home and family, a book I’m trying to write, the couple of day jobs I hold down, and finding space in my heart and mind to truly, completely enjoy music again. Not just because I have to; not because it’s my job to enjoy music; but because I was once a five-year-old child craving more than anything a seat at a piano, where I dreamed I might plunk keys with so much creative energy as to play entire landscapes into being.

Music is in my blood and, at times, I’ve found being a critic is like donating platelets. It’s not a perfect existence, but it allows me to deeply, richly analyse the thing with which I have fueled my world. After six years of doing what I thought others expected of a critic, 2012 was the year where I did what I expected of myself. As a result, I found music from across the street, away from the maddening crowd, among the trees and the fields, where the sound could dance on its own, with plenty of space, without competing for anything or trying to fit into any particular scene.

I sat on a hill in Tennessee, just about halfway through 2012. It was a hill on which others have sat for 80 years. A hill at theHighlander Center, which has been borrowed from the mountains along the Tennesee-Carolina border for the purpose of figuring out how to make the world a better place. The others who have sat there have, for generations, had hard conversations, have cried and sweat and slept in fear. They’ve been raided and threatened. They’ve had incredible meals and celebrated, and danced, and dreamed. They’ve stretched and wandered and tried to come up with plans. They have challenged each other – as I was challenged that week. At the beginning and end of every day, they have sung songs which were sung by others before them, who faced other questions and struggled with larger and different injustices, and have overcome. There, I remembered music is something we have not only to entertain us, but to carry us, to help us carry each other. The history of music – specifically folk music, roots music, the stuff we call Americana – is a rope over the mountain, onto which we can grab for strength, for direction, or just when we need to rest, when we need to connect.

If you listen to the ten albums I collected into a list of some of my favorites of the year, you’ll hear all these things. You’ll hear the hand of history reaching out to pull us through. You’ll hear the struggles of everyday people, coming to terms with the cacophony of life. You’ll hear melodies which defy the din of me-me-me – the status updates and news headlines and sensationalism of political debate. Anais Mitchell, John Fullbright, Rodney Crowell, Rose Cousins, Black Prairie, the Avetts…everyone listed – these are artists who have crossed the street to sit in the empty spaces, away from everything. They’ve stepped back from the canvas and taken a look at the bigger picture, back far enough to filter out the bullshit and hone in on the parts of it which serve us. The parts which sing. Which swing us, carry us forward.

2012 was the year I lost all interest in music which does none of those things. I appreciate entertainment for entertainment’s sake, but with the world being as it is, I feel the need to hear music which pulls us forward, through, beyond the polarized madness and fear and confusion. These albums have pointed out the beautiful nature of all of us. I can’t wait to see how we all move with artists like this poised to carry us forward.

My favorite albums of 2012:

  1. Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
  2. Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta
  3. Rose Cousins – We Have Made a Spark
  4. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
  5. Rodney Crowell & Mary Karr – Kin
  6. Various Artists Mercyland – Hymns for the Rest of Us
  7. John Fullbright – From the Ground Up
  8. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change
  9. Black Prairie – A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart
  10. Avett Brothers – The Carpenter