Category Archives: Work

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.

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.

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

Pete Seeger: “You Stick Together ’Til It’s Won”

Pete SeegerOriginally written for Yes! magazine

When a pair of writers expressed interest in publishing Pete Seeger: In His Own Words, one of Seeger’s first requests was “Don’t make me out to be a saint.”

Banjo in hand, Seeger has championed causes from labor to civil rights to the environment, revived our oldest folk songs, and co-authored new folk classics like “If I Had a Hammer,” so the impulse to portray him as saintly is understandable. But to do so would be a misunderstanding of his message: It doesn’t take a saint to make the world a better place. Real, flawed people do it all the time.

“When I sing [‘Amazing Grace’],” he writes, “I usually remind audiences that the words were written by a man who had for ten years been captain of a slave ship, but in his thirties he quit and … started the antislavery movement in England. He turned his life around and gave us hope that we can turn our country around.”

Seeger is no more a superman than he is a saint. As his letters attest, he has long battled fear, loneliness, and the fear of failure that stems from an overwhelming sense of duty—to his family, his community, his country. He has considered, at every turn, what it means to sing out in a world where the din of injustice is often deafening. But his songs assert that to sing is to recognize the power of one’s own voice, to declare and defend its worth.

In His Own Words is a collection gleaned from Seeger’s letters, essays, and articles. (Some previously unpublished writing in this collection is from the ephemera of decades that Seeger kept stored in his barn.) It begins with a letter from 13-year-old Pete to his mother, asking for funds so that he can purchase a “big banjo and play in the very little jazz band,” then proceeds through his involvement in the labor movement, World War II, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, and onward to the present day.

We see Seeger’s development over distinct phases of life: as a young man distraught at the world’s injustice, and as a young soldier frustrated at being kept stateside during the war. As a musician impressed by friends and mentors Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Lee Hays. As a new father delighted by his children, a mature activist worrying for his grandchildrens’ future, and as an older man committed to a legacy of clean water for every living soul along a 315-mile river.

To consider Seeger’s life is to learn a lesson in citizenship. His personal story unfolded during the century when America came into its own as a superpower. Even as Seeger worked to keep traditional music alive, he was unable to sit still while history sped forward.

In His Own Words displays how Seeger’s unique blend of practicality, optimism, and humanism shaped his life of engagement with social responsibility. When he and his family were attacked during the Peekskill Riots in 1949, Seeger took home the stones that had broken his car windows—and cemented them into his fireplace. When he and a crowd marched singing to Columbus Circle amid the thick of the Occupy movement last year, Seeger stopped to pick up a piece of trash from the sidewalk. And, when he found himself cited for contempt of Congress during the McCarthy era, Seeger sat down to write a time capsule letter to his grandchildren. “Communism,” he wrote, “has urged me on, to continually learn, to continually better myself in every way, to always give more for the common good of the working people of America and the world.”

Seeger wrote that letter at a time when he was blacklisted for his political beliefs. Two generations later, at the age of 89, he sang “This Land Is Your Land” at the inauguration concert for America’s first black president.

The pragmatism and hope that carried him to that moment is expressed in words he wrote in 1965, during the civil rights struggle and the war in Vietnam, that ring just as true today: “If the world survives these dangerous times, the folk process will go on, and music and poetry can help us teach love and common sense to foolish people who think that money and power are the important things in life.”

Best Albums of 2012 Closeup: The Avett Brothers – ‘The Carpenter’

The Avett BrothersOriginally written for No Depression

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

This provocative quote came from Maggie Kuhn. If you’re unfamiliar, she was an activist and member of the Silver Panthers – a radical organization which organizes to seek justice for older Americans. It’s a popular quote, sure, but placed in the context of the woman who was speaking, it packs a real powerful punch. This is an intelligent, strong, dignified older woman who was speaking to an audience of older people who have already powered through life’s greatest uncertainties with their heads high. The beginning of the quote talks about looking the people you fear in the face.

The point is that fear never gets easier. And, even more than that, the truth is never easy to tell. But telling it is, indeed, important.

The Avett Brothers have built their whole career on telling the truth, with all its imperfections and unglowing, wart-strewn poky points. Somehow so magical that I can’t even begin to articulate, they’ve found a way to do this that makes you stomp and jump and twirl around like a hula-hooping hippy. Yes, their songs are downright catchy and packed with emotional urgency. So much so that, for the past couple of years, bands have been picking up banjos and guitars and cellos, trying to pour their own fluid into the mold cast by the Avetts and their band. The result has been an emergent sound that’s young and optimistic and emotional and raw.

Look more closely at most of those bands, though, and the rawness you’re staring at is about the artistic equivalent of a freshly opened box of macaroni and cheese. It’s the stuff you consume on the way to something better to do. The Avetts, meanwhile, are serving all the ingredients for something homecooked and slaved-over – something to nourish themselves as much as you, something to carry us through.

What’s more, when they sing, their voices often shake.

Though there are moments on The Carpenter where the vocals soar with utter smoothness – giving me the impression they did a number of takes to nail that element – producer Rick Rubin was right to leave in the stuttering parts. Those where their voices are less sure-footed amid difficult emotional declarations. Indeed, some of what they’re unloading here are feelings you would slave over before you mustered the will to whisper them to your most intimate friend. The uncertainty with which they share those feelings openly with all of us strangers reminds us what it is to muster courage.

To follow the metaphor set forth by their album title – it’s the dirt and sweat and trust of building something tangible from a mere idea.

There’s this other band who released one of the highest selling albums of the year doing something that struck me as a predictable facsimile of all the exquisitely honest, raw emotion the Avetts exude from their pinky nails. I think Mumford has so much more in them, so I’ll remain optimistic and wait for their next album, even as I wonder why they enjoyed so much success this time around.

Then again…

Once upon a time, I decided to learn how to play the trumpet. I’d been playing musical instruments for something like 25 years at that point – all of them with strings or keyboards. So, the trumpet seemed like a fun diversionary task for me. Something new to spark some inspiration. One of the first things my trumpet teacher had me do was to hold long tones, to get a hang of my embouchure. (For you non-woodwinds people, that’s French for “how you hold your mouth.”) I was supposed to move through all the various scales and arpeggios via whole notes. But, there was this impulse when I landed smack-dab on, say, a middle-C, to just keep doing long tones of the middle-C. I was so happy to have hit the right note, I just wanted to hear and feel the note coming out of me again and again. Of course that would not have served my development on trumpet at all, so I resisted the urge and moved along up the scale.

I tell you this little story because there is an impulse in music to repeat yourself. Once you’ve landed on the thing that strikes the chord, that gets the audience responding the way you want them to, that gets the energy in the room to a certain level, and so on – you kind of just want to recreate that. But, while there is a certain part of art which requires recreation on some level, making the same album again and again in hopes that it’ll hit people just as hard, is kind of boring if you ask me.

Yet, we hear from critics and fans all the time who complain that an artist has tried something new or gone down a different path. When, if we allow artists to be artists, we have to admit that creativity and consistency are not always friends. Consistency is for Starbucks lattes and McDonalds fries. We should leave the predictability to fast food and WalMart and let the artists lunge in whatever directions entice them. It’s those among us who run in new and different ways, who turn us on to the existence of other possibilities beyond what we can see in our immediate view.

We need them telling us the truth, even when their voices shake.

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Best Albums of 2012: Iris DeMent – ‘Sing the Delta’

originally written for No Depression

I’ve been doing this writing-about-music thing for about eight years, so I guess I can now safely admit (without fear of completely derailing my career) that I really don’t enjoy reviewing albums. Climbing behind a bullyhorn to praise or damn the work of an artist is not my cup of tea. I have very strong and emotionally entangled responses to music – I know what I like – but I have no idea what might resonate with any single other individual on the planet.

It’s important to resonate with people. With someone. Most music resonates with someone.

Besides, people should listen to the music which moves them. I don’t want to deter anyone from listening to any music. Something which strikes me as pretentious copycat crap – because of the mood I’m in or the stage of life I’m in, what else has come through my review stack, or any other reason – might contain a single phrase which cuts straight to the core of someone else’s emotional tumult, exposing them to some kind of sense that they’re not alone and there’s light in the world after all. It’s not my place to tell anyone the way they express themselves is any more valid or important or beautiful than what someone else did. Anything anyone does to communicate from a place of truth and beauty is important if we want to progress toward a more peaceful and equitable world.

I believe music is one of the most important things we can do as human beings. Everyone should do it, or something like it, whenever they need to.

So, don’t get me wrong. I have a great affection – and somewhat obsession – for writing stories about people who make extraordinary music. I love highlighting the ways in which music’s creation intersects with the way we change the world every day – in large and infinitely tiny ways. But criticism? Not so much, usually.

That said, I do criticism now and then when I’m asked, or when I’m told. And, because I’m a sucker for tradition and the celebration of individual effort, at the end of each year, I fall in line and come up with a list of albums which struck me as the most remarkable, effective, creative, provocative, et cetera, albums of the year.

Because I almost never actually review music on this site, I thought I’d take a moment to delve deeply into some of the albums which have made my list this year, so I can hopefully serve my choices more than is possible by simply listing them and adding a video of one of the songs on the album (which is the way I usually deliver my year-end lists).

I’ll be posting in the coming weeks with closeups on these albums – one at a time. Let’s begin, shall we, with Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta. 

The song after which this album was titled is a song about longing for a certain time and place. The grass is greener, the water’s bluer, the heartache more haunting, the love much truer in some place other than here. So, DeMent sings, “Sing the delta a love song for me.” It’s a song which encapsulates all the backward glances of having moved on from a place which was once home – a place which lives now in soft focus, in the rearview. But it’s also a song about marriage and wanting what’s best for another person, in spite of yourself. The woman who’s singing is sending her lover off to pursue what he needs to pursue. She’s recognizing that this wandering pursuit has been present in her whole life, from the Delta to wherever she sits when she’s singing.

It’s a tribute. An ode. It’s a beautiful, arresting song in itself.

But the fact that she used the title of that song to stand for the rest of the album, puts a different spin on things. These dozen songs, she seems to be declaring, are songs which have come from the Delta in one way or another. Stories of truth from a certain part of the country. It’s probably the most folky album title of the year, but it also indicates an intimacy which is at once studious and intensely personal.

If the Delta were to sing, it would sing songs about faith and doubt, love and loss, fire and darkness, dirt and sweat, and a “river of tears.” Like the image on the cover of the disc indicates, these are songs which unfold behind screen doors in working class communities, where people are tired and strong and loving and linked with long, deep family roots.

They’re informed by memory – not so much nostalgia as just the haunting, unforgettable truths which once upon a time rocked our worlds. These songs can be taken on their own – and if DeMent spliced them into a set list next to “Our Town” and “Let the Mystery Be”, they would make some kind of sense – but, in the context of an album aimed at the Delta, they tell a more complex story.

Her chunky piano, slow and stumbling drums, a voice like clothes blowing on a line, like the dripping hot breeze itself…everything that happens sonically on this disc is leaning toward the southern Delta. It’s not just a study of Delta music or traditional stories and ideas. It’s literally the closest estimation humanly possible to how the Delta would make music if it could sing in a human voice.

What makes this album stand out from so many of the other singer-songwriter albums released this year is that DeMent inhabits not just the songs or the stories or the lyrics, but the complete foundational image of the album. I hear artists who write honest songs that spill the beans or recall stories of their past, or explore the sounds of life around them. But they take those tasks one at a time, hoping the effort pulls together in the end for some estimation of continuity. DeMent crawls into the body of the music and looks out through the eyes of the songs, speaks with the language and inflection of the landscape. The difference is embodiment.

DeMent has been singing from this spirit for her whole career, but I got the feeling she had been eyeing and circling that skin for years; on this album, she discovered the way to crawl inside it. A less developed artist might “Sing the Songs of the Delta” or “Sing About the Delta.” DeMent cuts the crap and just sings the delta. An exceptional effort. Listen to it now if you haven’t yet, or turn it on again and hear the food cooking on the stove, the children yelling, and beyond all that, the river’s persistent flow.

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Black Prairie – ‘A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart’

Originally written for Folk Alley

For all the buzz that’s been made about members of Black Prairie having performed for years as the Decemberists, one truth has stuck through their releases. This is a separate band built on a foundation of folk and bluegrass, and is by no means intended to be anything Decemberists-like. Sure, there’s bleed-over – these same instrumentalists with these same minds have contributed to Decemberists projects. But they’ve done so pulling on their long history and affection for traditional music.

At the end of the day, these folks can pick a guitar and banjo and saw the hell out of a fiddle – nothing ironic about it. They proved it on their self-titled debut two years ago, and they’re solidifying it here on their new album A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart (due Sept. 18 on Sugar Hill Records).

Granted, they’re taking more liberty with the form this time around.

Black Prairie PR vert.jpg“Nowhere Massachusetts” has a little Jessica Lea Mayfield energy in it. You might hear a smattering of a PJ Harvey-meets-Sara-Watkins vibe here and there. Nonetheless, this is back porch music – from the twilight-and-fireflies of “Rock of Ages” to the fiddle-and-clog of “For the Love of John Hartford,” to the swig-and-swagger instrumentalism of “Evil Leaves” and “Taraf”.

It’s an album which speaks for the ever-evolving face of the Portland, Oregon, music scene. In addition to the rawness of the bluegrass influence, the disc is heavy on piano, accordion, dobro, and percussion. There are Vaudeville moments and others which transport you straight to the heart of Appalachia.

It’s also a long disc, capping out at sixteen tracks, but every single one is a keeper. Sure, hardcore bluegrass fans may be disappointed about the diversions toward something more imaginative and dreamy and outside tradition’s box, but these are clothes Black Prairie wears well. Try them on for yourself.

Where Pussy Riot, Riot Grrls, and Katy Perry meet -or- I enjoy being a girl

Originally written for No Depression

The Cinebarre is a movie theater attached to an old mall on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina. It shares a highway exit ramp with hotels and chain restaurants. One way is the farmer’s market, the other is the arboretum. I’ve never known anyone to shop at the mall there. I’ve never been inside but, from what I can tell, it’s still at least somewhat functional. There’s a larger mall across town anchored to Barnes and Noble and a couple large department stores. In this town, every shop and bar has a sign up that says “Put your money where your heart is. Buy local.” So it stands to reason the mall is a destination most folks only ever approach if they need to buy a gift card for a family member in another state, where a Malaprop’s or Top’s Shoe Store doesn’t exist. (Buy online? Why would anyone do that in Asheville?)

I’ve come to Cinebarre one grumpy Sunday afternoon to kill some time watching that Katy Perry movie. Next to me, a young mother sits with a glass of wine (there’s waiter service and a full bar at this place) and two young girls. The girl sitting closest to her grips a pair of dolls that look somewhere between Bratz dolls and American Girls. Her shoes are covered in glitter. Her clothes don’t necessarily match, but the outfit works. Her friend is dressed much the same, but without the dolls. They’re both probably seven.

The movie is good, tugging you into a world of Perry’s creation, built on  music and dancing and, more than anything else, a desire to create a space where people can find joy and connection in a less-than-perfect world.

I like Katy Perry. In a parallel universe, I may have become her largest detractor – considering songs like the one where she asks her alien man to abduct her – had I never seen her live. But, a couple years ago, during a lull in the schedule of Americana bands at Bumbershoot in Seattle, I climbed to the top of the stadium seats and took in about half of her mainstage set. It was something like 2 in the afternoon. She worked her ass off up there – proving she has a voice that need never be touched by the auspices of autotune; proving she’s backed by a band of remarkably gifted indie rock instrumentalists; showing the kind of presence and command of a midday festival crowd in the City that Grunge Built…the kind of presence which can only be formed by years of playing for nobody in bars with no backup dancers or band. Indeed, as the film attests with plenty of footage, Perry cut her teeth playing solo acoustic – songs which would be applauded on this site and could just as well have been written by someone like Amos Lee or Ray LaMontagne. Before that, influenced by her traveling Pentecostal preacher parents, she tried her way in the world of contemporary acoustic Christian music.

The Katy Perry we see now with the spinning boobs and silly string backdrops emerged in response to a bullshit music industry that wanted to make her sound like Alanis and then Avril and then whatever other “girl power” singer came along. Fuck it, she finally said, and flew the coop to another label that would let her write her songs by herself, for herself, etc., etc.

I understand the impulse.

When I was at about the age that Katy Perry told her label to get lost, I had somehow found my way to Riot Grrls. From my small town in Florida, where people self-segregated (still do, mostly) and the white kids drove big-wheeled trucks covered in mud and packed with CB radios, without the benefit of the internet, I found my way to the gritty, chunky guitar riffs of bands with names like Bikini Kill, L7, Babes in Toyland, Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney, Hole. I wasn’t an angry kid. I was kind of popular, I think, and just didn’t feel in-step with my peers. I wanted out. Big time.

I had zero appreciation for the high school way of life – that which prized appearances over ideas – and made sure my feelings about that were clear when I cut my hair into a boyish bowl senior year and started wearing the shirts of alt-rock bands in place of my Keyette jersey. I had a sneaking suspicion life beyond the high school walls wasn’t all that different, especially not for girls, and I had a craving for the intersection of all my interests – music, dancing, ideas, connections, imagination, questioning the way of things, defiance. Everything but the dancing could be found in the universe run by Riot Grrls.

From Riot Grrls, I learned about integrity and empowerment. I learned that a world which valued the contributions of women might not be perfect, but it could be just as legitimate (to coin a term, ahem) as the one in which we were already living. From listening to singers like Donita Sparks and Kat Bjelland and dykecore vocalists like Kaia Wilson and Donna Dresch, I learned that you don’t have to scream to be heard. There is power in every corner of your voice as long as you use it. Whispering, grunting, mumbling, caterwauling…no matter how a woman speaks, they seemed to be saying, she deserves to be heard. We deserve to be heard. Listen, for the love of god.

These are the same ideas behind everything Woody Guthrie ever wrote, and a couple of years later – following the long rusty, dusty road introduced to me by Ani DiFranco – I discovered the Riot Grrls’ message was nothing new. It had been passed down and repeated and amplified and poeticized throughought the entirety of human history. One big, long, musical game of telephone to which more and more people were bound to be listening all the time. The more of us joined that particular chain of justice and peace and equality for all, I discovered, the more the chain started to look like one big field of thriving flowers overpowering the din of concrete just by existing, by standing with all its color and warmth.

Pete Seeger tells a story about history being like a big unbalanced scale. On one side is a giant bucket full of rocks, the size of a planet. On the other is a basket of sand. The sand is always leaking out of the basket and all we have to fill it back up with is a bunch of teaspoons. We’re always scooping up sand with our teaspoons and putting it back in the basket. People say, “You’re crazy. Don’t you see the sand is always going to fall out of that basket? You can’t possibly balance that scale using tea spoons.” But we’re getting more people with tea spoons all the time, and if we all keep at it – only if we keep at it – the scale will tip. You can wait and see, or you can join us.

I say all of this – this whole convoluted twistingly circuitous statement about stuff – because there are three women in prison in Russia. Three members of a ten-or-so-person band who were arrested because they climbed over a railing to stand – and sing and dance – in a part of a church where only men are supposed to stand. They were charged with “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in jail.

We humans have a problem with perspective. We wage a war on drugs when, if we step back for a moment, we can realize drugs aren’t the problem. People take drugs for reasons which will continue to persist whenever every addictive substance is erased from the planet (which will never happen because human beings do not control the whims of nature). We wage a war on terrorism as if that’ll ever eliminate the human impulse to convert others to our way of thinking through any means possible. And we lock up prisoners of conscience – artists and defiant activists – as if we can so destroy the spirit of oppressed people on the verge of empowerment, that ruling forces can once and for all  convert others to their way of thinking through any means possible.

Locking up Pussy Riot – like attacking cocaine and Chick-fil-a and guns and abortion and gay families and black skin and Islam – is not going to fix anything at all. A giant conglomerate record label could not turn Katy Perry into Alanis Morrisette despite all the money they could possibly throw at her. Outlawing cocaine and guns will not stop people suffering from mental illness, from self-medicating or lashing out. Millions of people buying waffle fries are not going to make me walk away from my partner and the family we’re working on making. Passing laws that ban women from wearing religious garments is not going to erase the message of Muhammad from the hearts of those who have dedicated their spirit to his teachings. And redefining the word “rape” will neither stop men from attacking women and boys, nor will it save any clusters of multiplying cells from having their growth spurts interrupted by women incapable of taking care of the baby which could one day result.

And so, once again I find myself here on a music website trying to shed light on where all these things connect. I guess at least partly because I’m here on this site all day every day and I see people trying to make sense of why a song stirred their soul, or why it didn’t. There’s a great deal of discussion about the dexterity of guitar skills or the poetic allusion of a half-verse which leads into a chorus. People argue about whose words and melodies are more pertinent in a world of impertinence. And what I take away from all of it is a need to connect with strangers. A need to find joy and understanding away from the political vitriol of graphic memes splattered across Facebook. A need to step away from all the injustice and remember we all have so much in common, and so we owe each other at least an embrace if not a pledge to protect one another from harm.

And suddenly Katy Perry on the screen outside of this small mountain town, asking why we reject the fairy tale, talking about how the only thing that really matters to her when she gets onstage is that everyone in the room can find a smile on their face, even if it’s just for two hours…suddenly the gulf between this California girl with her spinning boobs is not so markedly separated from Kaia Wilson, Donita Sparks, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Woody Guthrie.

And me, I’m sitting here in the South, outside of the city, with the smallest part of me worried that the woman sitting next to me with her two girls might be concerned that she’s sitting next to a pair of lesbians holding hands in the dark theater. It doesn’t stop me, of course, because I pose no threat to them. But society and my upbringing tells me to feel sheepish about these things, so the thought enters my head. I quickly knock it away by life experience, which has taught me whenever people gather in a room around music, the things which divide them fall away.

At the end of the movie, the young mother leans over to me and my partner and says, “Isn’t she so cool? I’m so glad there’s someone in mainstream pop telling kids to stop trying to fit in. Just be who you are and that’s the most important. Be different. Know what you have to give the world. What a  relief to have someone making music little girls can love that tells them different is beautiful. Because I have a different one.”

I push myself against my chair to give them room to walk by, and out march the two little girls with their glitter shoes and dolls and daringly mismatched outfits. Boom, boom, boom. Even brighter than the moon…even on the outskirts of town.