Category Archives: Work

Review: Mercyland – ‘Hymns for the Rest of Us’

Mercyland Cover - small.jpg

Originally written for

The relationship between music and spirituality has a history about as long as human beings have been capable of giving voice to their beliefs. In fact, there’s reason to believe music has had a place in spiritual practice since before any of the contemporary religions even took root.

Conversely, modern music would likely have little place without the various tenets of faith. But, whether it’s faith in god or love or humankind, music is evidence of the persistence of the human spirit. Maybe that’s why so many predominantly secular artists occasionally perform and record spiritual songs at some point in their career. When an artist sings a song about faith in something larger than themselves, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re looking to make a testimony about their religious beliefs. It’s simply a moment for them to tap into whatever holds the key to their creativity.

And so it is that a handful of today’s finest folk and roots music artists – The Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Buddy Miller, and Emmylou Harris among them – have gathered to record an album titled Mercyland – Hymns for the Rest of Us.

This is not a collection of tent-raising revivalist spirituals, though there are certainly plenty of those in the folk tradition. You’re unlikely to find on this disc a clear and determined statement about Jesus or God or any specific Biblical lessons. (Except for North Mississippi All-Stars’ “If I Was Jesus,” which takes the phrase “What would Jesus do?” in an interesting direction.) Nor, for that matter, will you find lessons from the Torah, the Qu’ran, the Tao Te Ching, etc.

What you will find are existential spiritual explorations about things like life and death, love, struggle, dissent, and peace. In fact, Shawn Mullins may carry the crux of the album’s motivation in his song, “Give God the Blues,” which comes up second on the disc:

God don’t hate the Muslims
God don’ hate the Jews
God don’t hate the Christians
But we all give God the blues.
God don’t hate the atheists
The Buddhists, or the Hindus.
God loves everybody, but we all give God the blues

Like the rest of the album, Mullins’ song neither confirms nor negates anyone’s religious practices.Mercyland acknowledges faith, love, and mercy are not merely features of religious doctrine, but are human compulsions toward which we’re all pulled. Regardless of any community’s relationship with God, there is always common ground in music.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”

Originally written for

There’s a certain haze which gathers below the top of Bays Mountain some mornings after sunrise, some evenings, moments before dusk. It’s like a sheer net someone has dropped on the hay, cascading down the hill toward the barn. In the distance are a few cattle, two donkeys. A pickup truck is usually parked. Birds and crickets sing the truest song of peace. On dark nights, when the sky is clear, lightning bugs flash their fire in visual syncopation across the hill. Their glow always appears to be rising out of the ground. It’s easy, considering where you are, to imagine these are the ancestors of the Highlander Center – the revolutionary spirits who started the movement spinning and have kept turning the wheel toward justice for 80 years.

I sat there one night after hanging up from a phone conversation with my partner. I was feeling sad after learning about the passing of North Carolina Amendment One – a constitutional amendment which would not only write a gay marriage ban into the constitution (it was already written in state law) but would also outlaw civil unions for gay and straight couples alike. For three months, my partner and I had been housing the regional organizer of the Coalition to Protect All NC Families (working against Amendment One). I’d also spent time on the phone talking with people across the state about how this amendment would harm people like me. So, there was a palpable sense that the countless conversations I had with unsure strangers had amounted to defeat.

I was sad, yes, but also could not ignore the pull of hope.

After all, here I was under a tree on a hilltop where, for generations before me, people have come together across color and class lines to forge a way forward, guided by peace and equality. Here I was with 15 artists from across the South (Texas to DC and everywhere below that line) who had agreed to stop their lives for six days so we could figure out together how our work can be used to create a climate of social justice not only in this region, but across the world.

The day had been dedicated to a discussion about nonviolence – a principle tenant of the Highlander ideal and something which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who had been a friend of Highlander founder Myles Horton) championed. It required as much mental paradigm shift as physical practice, and it was a hard day. Early on, one brave woman admitted the culture of violence and oppresion with which she and her family had always struggled made her question whether nonviolence could not only be possible, but worth it. In a room full of people who have made a verbal commitment to peace and respect, it was a ballsy admission, but something many of us could completely understand even if we didn’t have the nerve to admit it.

And so started our day.

This being somewhat of an arts institute, though, we were encouraged to communicate in whatever way was necessary. Some danced it out. Others laid down a beat and led an improvised song. Others grabbed markers and drew in their notebooks. I let melodies run away with my head. Erykah Badu kept singing through my gut reactions, just the refrain over and over “Oh what a day / what a day, what a day.”

When one of our facilitators entered the room singing, “Free free free free / free free free free,” that simple mantra took over.

As the week marched on, this basic sung declaration became my guide. Along with another hymn of sorts with which we’d started our time together: “We are climbing up the mountain / til we reach the top of the hill.”

This last one is sung in two parts, with half the group taking it like a staccato, rhythmic foundation; the other half sings it in higher, longer, legato notes. You stretch out the words “climbing” and “mountain” – those words which represent real things that take time. The singing of the song was a reminder that the climbing and the mountain could not be achieved quickly. That even in this six-day intensive institute about art, culture, and social change, we had only just begun to climb; we had only just approached the mountain.

It was the singing which reminded me of the journey. It internalized the intention (“free free free free…”) and solidified the mission (“we are climbing…”).

On the final day, after breakfast, we gathered in the office at the bottom of the hill and had Skype conversations with activists from around the globe. One man was organizing farm workers in North Carolina – navigating immigration laws to ensure human rights. A woman from El Salvador who had been introduced to violent revolution before puberty was now in the United States dedicating her heart and soul to a peaceful path toward justice for immigrants and others. A woman from South Africa schooled us on “corrective rape” – a practice rampant throughout her country as a response to gay rights, a somewhat institutionalized practice which perpetuates the raping of lesbians particularly. She’s using theater to educate and empower people and, no doubt, to reinforce her extraordinary courage.

At the end of that call, we thanked her by singing “This Little Light of Mine” – an old children’s spiritual which, once upon a time when Highlander was located in Monteagle, Tenn., Zilphia Horton (among others) helped make relevant to adult activists. Now, this woman’s face, which had been very serious as it told of the injustice which still pervades her culture despite what has been written in the law, suddenly leaped into utter joy. She clapped her hands together and smiled an un-erasable smile, powered by the unquenchable light of her heart.

Shine, shine, shine
I’m gonna let it shine

I tell you all this for a few reasons. I’ve been absent for a week or so and wanted to let you know what I’ve been up to. I felt like addressing the passing of Amendment One in North Carolina – something which directly affects me and my family. But, as we learned from the woman from South Africa, the law isn’t everything. I believe the law needs to change, and I believe it will much sooner than many of us – with our culture of pessimism – are capable of imagining. But the law isn’t the whole thing. The law can and will be irrelevant until we live in a culture which embraces human dignity and any expression of love over that of power and control.

We have to change the law, yes, but we also have to change our minds.

I’ve always believed that was one of the most important things music is capable of doing in the world. But, after this past week, it’s become clear to me just how essential it is. Just as you cannot stand still when the fiddle starts sawing and the band is really cooking, you also simply cannot, when surrounded by voices singing the same words about universal truths, disagree.

Whether some indie rock band like the Lumineers are stirring their magic around something secular and aimed at just having fun, or whether Sweet Honey in the Rock are asking you to join in this tune below (as we did on the final day at Highlander), it’s the music which cuts through the bullshit and reminds us why we’re here: to celebrate and appreciate what makes us all human.

We’d be well-advised to guide our laws and lawmakers to do the same. But, until we do, until that haze clears, I’ll be over here informed by those revolutionary spirits, pushing the music.

A winding road to Gerry Mulligan, or Why I love music: A reminder

Originally written for

I don’t especially remember when or why I started piano lessons. I can only imagine I must have been young enough to be pre-memory. But I do clearly recall my first piano teacher, her house, the living room, not being able to reach the pedals. She had a son, who had an Atari. There were four of us – my two sisters, my brother, and I – and we took turns with the lessons. Whoever wasn’t receiving a lesson would be back there playing Q-Bert with the boy whose name I can’t recall for the life of me.

Thinking back, this must have been the most glorious babysitting proposition for my mother – a single mom of four kids who was working full time and putting herself through grad school. She could drop us off, leave us there for hours, and we’d return both chaperoned and cultured.

In our house, the piano was in the center of the living room. It didn’t hold the same allure of private music experience that the violin, flute, and guitar would later possess for me. Those, I could practice in my room, door shut, imagining a rapt audience hanging on my every “Little Brown Jug” note.

No, the piano was central. The siblings had to turn off the television and either disperse or sit and listen to me practice. I hated it. I hated running through my scales and practicing my rhythms. I hated alternating between staccato and legato notes in the “exercises” book. The entirety of music theory seemed so obvious to me, like something I already knew. Practicing sixteenth notes felt redundant. I tried to attack these with as much artistry as possible. First speeding up the scale, my fingers stumbling over each other, then playing the descending notes in a long, painful ritard. Sometimes I would try asserting some dynamics on them. But no amount of decoration could convince me I was really truly playing the instrument. I was just practicing scales. Boring.

It’s a wonder I got anywhere with that instrument. I had such an unwavering desire to be proficient. My inner performer was so determined and self-conscious from a young age that playing scales within undeniable earshot of my siblings was painful. I wanted to give them the exceptional artistry of Debussy; the frantic flailing of Rachmaninoff.

My sister Kristin never practiced, but she could sit down, open to some random page in her Tchaikovsky book, and sight read the hell out of the piece in one sitting, then get up and walk away.

I wanted that skill.

In fourth grade, I started taking violin lessons in addition to piano. I loved the complex sound of the notes played out between the strings and the bow. It sounded to me like waking up in the morning – the first words you use, getting your voice to work right. Of course I was terrible at it, so the squeaking rawness was my poor playing. But there was something authentic and gritty about it. I would have stuck with the instrument beyond elementary school had a friend not indicated to me that people who play in the middle school orchestra are total social rejects. So, instead, I registered for band. Way cooler.

I was noncomittal in choosing an instrument. Secretly, I wanted drums real bad. But there were no other girls on drums, so I talked myself into thinking it was a boys-only instrument. Where I got that idea is anyone’s guess. Trumpet was another thought, but it was too loud. So I landed on the flute. Quiet and subtle, it was only capable of playing one note at a time. Unlike piano and violin, where you could chunk up chord progressions and be your own symphony, the flute was the sonic equivalent of a singular ballerina dancing en pointe across an otherwise empty stage.

I took to the flute with some kind of natural appetite. It wasn’t a mystery to me how to blow into it. Didn’t take too long to figure that one out. The positioning of my fingers on the keys seemed like slipping my hands into a custom glove. I enjoyed how, like with singing, the fever with which the instrument was played depended entirely on my breath. I didn’t particularly like where the flute parts led me in the context of band class, though. Didn’t appreciate the flute arrangement in our Beach Boys medley. That struck me as hokey. Flute is for Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” not silly classic rock tunes. So I developed a disinterest in practicing for band. I don’t believe I made it past seventh grade in that ensemble. Instead, I started taking private lessons, moving on to what I considered “real” flute music: Mozart concertos and the like.

Meanwhile, I was singing in a  choir for children based out of the university in town. We sung in German and French, which felt very serious and heady. By high school, I had convinced my mother I needed to pile private classical voice lessons onto my plate, in addition to piano and flute. The whole time, I was also studying ballet – a fact which has ensured I don’t just experience music aurally – it’s something which must also be experienced bodily.

In college, a friend invited me to participate in a “Battle of the Bands” with him. Most of the other bands were punk rock or hardcore screamy distorted guitar troupes, but we didn’t have time to form such an outfit. It was just the two of us. I played flute and he played guitar. We wrote existential navel-gazing songs and won the battle.

That was the moment when I finally lost interest in classical music. I continued to study it – composition and theory ad nauseum. Took classes in sight singing and all that stuff. But my interest and attention had turned to songwriting. Now that I was performing songs I was writing, listening to any music became an endless source of fascination. The way songwriters navigated around the dominance of the 4 and 5, manipulated a song and its listener(s) by hanging on the 7. The way words asserted their own rhythms and melodies, begged to be sung certain ways, to be emphasized through pauses. I started noticing when parts of songs stood out above the rest, and whether it was because of the point the songwriter was making, or whether it was a clear and lazy mistake.

I became a student of the radio.

Around this time, I met a man in Buffalo named Michael Meldrum who I think liked me because my hair was pink and I clearly had no idea how to play the guitar. After a lifetime of studying music with teachers, I picked up guitar determined to figure it out on my own. I knew enough chords to make songs happen, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Michael was endlessly encouraging. He booked me gigs, he crammed me onto showcase lineups where I’d be there just to play three songs between two much more seasoned and gifted songwriters. He got me onstage as much as he could, and drove me home when it was snowing. All of this, I know now, was part of my education. He knew the more I was around people who were doing it right, for the right reasons, the more it would start to rub off. That’s how he rolled, and what he did for so many budding songwriters in Buffalo.

I started to pick up that the person onstage with the instrument has a responsibility to the people in the room. They’re louder than everyone else, because they’re amplified. And, the world being as it is, they have the opportunity to inject those people with a will and spirit to shake off today and withstand whatever happens tomorrow.

It’s not about you, in other words. It’s about what’s in that box of wood. It’s about what the music can do.

I didn’t fully grasp this until years later.

After years of struggling through coffeehouse gigs for four people (including two friends and one barista), I moved to Manhattan to see how far I could take the music thing. I did okay. I got to play on some legendary stages, met some incredible people, wrote some songs that were actually quite good.

But then 9/11 happened and the world turned upside down. I’ll spare you the details.

One day when I was unemployed and living in Bed-Stuy, I brought the dog into the city to wander with me for the afternoon. It was just about dusk and people were starting to gather in Union Square, as they had been for weeks, with their candles and drums and sidewalk chalk. The fires were still burning at Ground Zero. The need to connect, to remember what life is, what peace is, was palpable. I walked up on the square and could hear a small group of people had begun singing “We Shall Overcome.” Suddenly that lesson Michael had taught me about what music can do, made perfect sense.

Of course I had no clue I would, a decade later, wind up working on a book about the woman who introduced that song to the labor movement and, by extension, civil rights leaders. But that is the moment to which I return when the stack of review CDs piling up in my office gets too high. When I realize I haven’t been to a live music show in “too long,” whatever that means. When I open up Spotify and find myself at a loss.

I tell you all this because I’ve been at odds with music lately, preferring silence more than anything. It’s been a busy year, full of travel and hectic weeks between road trips. I stare at the review CDs and see only the promise of cacophony. It’s bothersome to me because I have loved music my whole life, but I also know it’s only temporary. Like Gillian wrote in this space recently, sometimes you just have to not like music for a bit.

This week, my car radio has been easing me back to myself. I’ve tuned it away from the stations which usually fill my body and brain with the kind of artists we discuss here. Instead, I’ve been listening to classical and jazz music. Specifically, yesterday and today, I’ve been hung up on Gerry Mulligan – a jazz player about whom I’d never heard a thing until now. How I managed to miss him in my eighteenthousand music history classes is a mystery, but he’s bringing me back to what I know too well.

Music, when you close your eyes and let the day fall off, is humanity’s most selfless expression.

Remembering Earl Scruggs – A word about the banjo

Originally written for

Q: How many banjo pickers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: 100. One to screw the lightbulb in, and 99 to complain it’s electric.

Everyone knows a good banjo joke. There’s a reason for that. The banjo can be a pain in the neck. It’s hard to keep the darn thing in tune. That fifth string – the high drone – can be grating to listen to if it’s not employed correctly. The whole setup requires delicate balance.

A good banjo player is a master of restraint. No matter how lightning-fast they can deliver those Scruggs-style three-finger picking rolls, you better believe, if it doesn’t sound awful, they’re holding back more than they’re unleashing.

The strings resonate so hard and naturally against the skin on the instrument’s body, you can easily turn a banjo into a tool of dissonant ire. To make the thing musical, well, that takes darn near genius.

Earl Scruggs made his instrument sing. He developed a picking style so aurally attractive, hardly a banjoist since hasn’t at least tried to emulate it. Some have done a darn good job. Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) picks a good banjo; Bela Fleck has his way; one mustn’t forget the great Tony Trischka, nor underestimate Steve Martin. In fact, Scruggs’ influence on the banjo has been so remarkable, those wishing to break the mold and innovate its sound in new directions are dialing it back to clawhammer style these days (Abigail Washburn comes most readily to mind).

But, I doubt even the clawhammer folks would hesitate to call Scruggs a major influence, even though they’ve chosen a path away from his definitive style.

Borne of the trailblazing troupe Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Earl Scruggs spun off that band with his buddy Lester Flatt before long. Together, Flatt & Scruggs became a benchmark of the bluegrass revolution. Their guitar-and-banjo breakdowns have influenced generations of instrumentalists.

Through it all, Scruggs seemed happy to join any band. He lent his skills to the peace effort, playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in Washington, DC, at a concert aimed at ending the Viet Nam War. He collaborated with everyone from Johnny Cash to Elton John and released somewhere around 30 albums in his lifetime. He earned a Grammy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inducted to just about every Hall of Fame and Honor in Nashville and was given the National Medal of Arts.

Not too shabby for a banjo picker. Indeed, Earl Scruggs proved the banjo can be taken seriously after all. Without a doubt, his physical presence will be missed in this world, but the music he made will never die.

Rest in peace, Earl.

Rose Cousins – ‘We Have Made a Spark’

Rose Cousins - We Have Made a Spark

Originally written for

Let’s start with the community Rose Cousins employed to help her out with her latest album, We Have Made a Spark. The Nova Scotian songwriter has a group of friends and supporters in Boston – Rose Polenzani, Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, and others – who came together to fill out her songs on this beautiful, arresting, emotive disc full of sad songs.

Much has been made of that community, and the impressively successful Kickstarter supporters (another kind of community) who gave their dollars to ensure this project and an accompanying short film came to fruition. So I’ll mention that – it’s definitely worth mentioning – but there’s much to say about the music itself.

The songwriting, for example.

Cousins is one of my very favorite songwriters. Her allegiance to nuance is incredible. Her poetic impulse seems effortless. (Though, I know well, nothing in writing or the creation of art ever happens without great effort.)

The disc comes with an epigram from poet Wendell Berry whose second line is the most telling: “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight.” It’s this concept which has inspired and influenced generations of not only artists but philosophers, theologians, and all sorts of seekers of truth – a deliberation toward exploring life’s less light and comfortable moments. It’s this exploration of darkness, in fact, which makes music in particular – and in general – profound.

Cousins sings right off the bat, “you can’t keep the darkness out.” This is the sort of truth for which we all turn to music – that admission of life’s hardships which reminds us we’re not the only one in the dark. In fact, as Cousins notes in the film accompanying this record, the fact you can’t hide from life’s enveloping darknesses is the foundation of community.

We know from her previous efforts that Cousins is highly capable of making the songs work on her own. Her voice is provocatively focused and clear, her melodies alluring, her lyricism astute. That’s all you need to make a song work. But, the point of this record is not simplicity – it’s gathering. As she sings in a particularly lovely duet with Mark Erelli, “I’ll wait for you. Should I fall behind, wait for me.”

Indeed, when you can’t see around you, for all the apparent darkness, it always helps just to know someone else is there. Someone with whom you can make a spark.

An interview with Amy Ray

Originally written for No Depression

“I don’t really have any clout in the industry,” says Amy Ray, with zero irony or self-deprecation. She’s just being honest, and maybe she’s right.

Who has any clout in the industry anymore?

Still, that’s a funny thing for me – an admitted fan – to swallow. After all, for 25 years, Ray has been one half of the Indigo Girls – a Grammy-winning duo whose intricate counterpoint harmonies have influenced…well, anyone who writes harmonies anymore. They’ve dropped more than a dozen albums, charted a few singles, built a freakishly loyal following around the world, started an environmental and indigenous justice foundation headed by Winona LaDuke, and – no small task – have been one of the most visible and universally respected queer bands in the world.

Next month, Ray will be heading to Austin for South by Southwest, where she’ll play solo for that industry crowd for the first time in almost a decade.

She explains: “If I approach things like I’m trying to have clout and work my way in and network and figure out what I can get in this music career…you’re always a loser when you do that. There’s always someone cooler than you, there’s always someone less cool than you. You’re either being an oppressor or you’re being oppressed.”

She laughs, but we both know it’s true.

“I figure  – let go of the ego and just go as a person; enjoy the music scene and all these people who do really interesting things. That’s a festival where, as crazy as it is and as commercial as it is now, there are a lot of cool people who do really innovative things, who end up there. If you just look at it from that angle, it’s a fun time. You don’t get all depressed because not enough people were at your showcase.”

This year, in addition to going both to play and hear the music, talk to strangers and friends alike, she’ll be appearing on a couple of panels. One will have her and some of her peers judging new technology aimed at helping independent artists.

Helping independent artists is something Ray knows a little bit about. After all, back when the industry was healthy and she and Saliers had started making waves – and money – she dropped some cash to open an indie label called Daemon Records. Since its inception in 1989, Daemon has been especially focused on Southern independent artists whose music Ray personally believes in. Through the years, she’s funded and otherwise given muscle to projects by artists as variant as Girlyman and Danielle Howle. Most recently, she’s taken up with Alabama native Lindsay Fuller who’s now based in Seattle.

Ray’s passion for various subjects is not easily hidden. There’s a fire in her eyes when she talks of indigenous issues, clean energy, queer rights, her music, the work of folks like Fuller. “[Lindsay] doesn’t really need help,” she told me back in December during an interview for another publication. “She’s brilliant, you know.”

Indeed, Ray has sunk a ton of time in recent months into helping spread the word about Fuller’s music. The two (along with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Fielder) did an acoustic song swap-style tour of the South this winter, which they’ll reprise in the spring out West. Once that tour is over, before she rejoins Saliers for a summer of Indigo Girls dates, Ray will come back east to tour further behind her new solo album, Lung of Love, which drops this week (Feb. 28, 2012). That East Coast tour will have her playing these new tunes and probably also some from her previous efforts, backed bythe Butchies (Kaia Wilson, Melissa York, Allison Martlew) plus Jenn Stone (most recently the touring keyboard player for pop star Ke$ha). For that leg of the tour, Wilson will open, playing solo acoustic tunes from her forthcoming solo album.

Lung of Love, meanwhile, is a remarkable record of its own. Recorded in Greensboro, NC, and produced by Greg Griffiths (who has toured with her as a bass player), the disc is easily Ray’s most solid solo statement yet. No longer does it feel like her solo albums are an extension of Indigo Girls music. Fans will surely recognize themes and energies in the music which may strike them as familiar. But, sonically, it’s a whole different beast. For one, the album includes some of Ray’s first ever co-writes (she and Saliers write separately, at least initially). And, in general, it juts a rougher edge than anything the Indigo Girls have ever touched.

There’s a punk rock spirit to it – something more along the lines of Patti Smith or the Clash, as opposed to the Indigos’ quasi-Dylanesque aesthetic. It’s the energy Ray’s work has been hinting at for years, but this time it’s simply more well-pronounced. Somehow it’s both grittier and more exact. It’s also a bit of a community effort, with appearances by folks like Fuller, A Fragile Tomorrow, Brandi Carlile, and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket).

It’s quite a musical feat, dropping just a matter of months after the Indigo Girls’ most recent release, Beauty Queen Sister (another strong disc, of course).

And, because all of this is not enough to jampack into a year, she’s excited to talk about some restructuring taking place at Honor the Earth – an organization she and Saliers helped start in 1993 with “a bunch of Native activists.”

“We needed to streamline because of the economy. We had a few outstanding projects we needed to finish. There’s a wind energy project in Kili on the Pine Ridge Reservation – KILI radio – and then a couple of solar things. We’re working on the tar sands issue . . . ” They’ve also done some work in Chiapas, Colombia, with the Zapatista movement. But this new era of work with Honor the Earth will see a renewed focus on empowering indigenous young people and funding emergent Native projects.

“We’ve always done a  lot of youth initiatives,” she says, “but it’s always hard for the youth leadership to happen without it being forced. The people who need to feel empowered are coming up through the ranks.”

At a time when it’s all so many indie artists can do to just play shows and get their music into the world, that Ray is able to divide her time between so many passions and pursuits is notable in itself. Forget that the music she makes in the process is – all at once – provocative, imaginative, accessible, and catchy.

Maybe that doesn’t translate to music industry clout; but what use is clout in the world, anyway?

Take a look inside the Humming House

Originally written for

Nashville, you know, is a music town.

We’ve heard for decades from artists who have poured out of its ranks, from fancy publishing houses and expensive recording studios. Artists who have been marketed to our demographic as directly and with as much precision as if they were pair of clothes or an all-terrain station wagon.

But, beyond music row, there’s an actual songwriter’s scene – one which defies the sequins of commercial country and pulls together various American music traditions (soul, ragtime, blues, folk) to create music which is as authentic as Music Row is premeditated. One of the latest collectives to burst out of that Nashville is a band adeptly called Humming House, borne of the initial vision of frontman Justin Wade Tam.

With nearly a decade in Nashville under his belt, Tam had tried his hand at other musical pursuits – most recently in a singer-songwriter duo similar to Milk Carton Kids or Gillian and Dave. Bent on pursuing something a little more lush, he scored some studio time with Grammy-winning producer Mitch Dane (Jars of Clay) and pulled some players together to back him on a demo. In one eight-hour day, the newly formed band recorded a single titled “Gypsy Django”, then signed Dane up to produce their debut record.

You can read more about that story below, but rest assured Humming House is likely to prove one of the best debut efforts from the folk and Americana world in 2012.

Though the band attests they didn’t really feel like a band until after they started making the disc, the music therein comes across as the product of a remarkably intuitive and cohesive unit.

As for the band’s name, it calls to mind a house on a quiet street, inside which a righteous party is going down. Even from the sidewalk, you can tell that house is humming. On first look (or listen) you may not know exactly what’s going on in there, you just know you want in.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick look inside . . . an excerpt of my recent interview with Humming House.

What was your first big Nashville moment?

Justin: Probably recording our record was the first thing. Getting to work with two Grammy-winning producers. I’ve never done that before. . .

We started working with Mitch Dane. He’s the guy who recorded that song “Gypsy Django.” We did that as a one-off with him, just to test out working with him. We recorded it all in one day – eight hours. At the end we thought that was really cool . . . we were like, ok we need to figure out how to do a record with him, because this definitely sounds better than anything I’ve ever done before.

He has a bunch of ridiculous gear like an old console and E-47 mics. When your signal train is worth 25 grand things are going to sound better. Not to mention the Grammys…I mean, he’s probably done this 600 times.

Working with Vance was kind of an accident. Literally the day before we went into record the record, Mitch’s father fell and broke his hip. He was 91. They said, “We’re going to have to go into surgery because he’s going to be miserable otherwise.” They didn’t know if he was going to make it out. Mitch decided he had to go – it was his dad.

So we had the studio booked for a week with two interns. We were just going to do it ourselves, but then he made a phone call. His partner is Vance Powell. Vance is Jack White’s house engineer. Buddy Guy, Chris Thile – he built Black Bird with John McBride, Martina McBride.

Ben Jones: I was terrified.

Justin: So we came in that morning having done pre-production and having a plan with Mitch. That all went out the window. Three hours later, Vance Powell walks in – larger than life Vance Powell – and he was like “Alright so we’re making a record. How about I set this up and you guys play a song.”

He’d never heard [us play] anything. We changed the whole way we’d planned on tracking. We ended up doing my vocals, guitar, upright, and mandolin all live at the same time, then coming back and producing it from there. Mitch came in mid-week the next week after being with his family and helped fill it out and finesse it, in the way only Mitch can. Vance is great with working with a live band and capturing things – he’s a killer mixing engineer. We got along so well with him that he wound up wanting to mix the record as well, which is a huge compliment.

Josh Wolak: We really got the best of both worlds there – one, getting to work with both of them; but then we got the live sound to build on with all the toys and stuff. It was really fun.

Justin: They track all their rhythm sections and everything to tape, and I think that’s mostly Vance’s influence. He works at Third Man. They don’t own a computer in that studio. Everything’s to tape and analog. That’s the way our record was mixed too. It’s all outboard analong mixing too. It’s not like you can recall all the mixes on a computer.

What does that do to your live show after two weeks with Vance Powell?

Justin: He’s like, Well you guys are either gonna be playing bluegrass festivals or you’re gonna get yourselves a damn drummer. We haven’t gotten a drummer yet, so I’m not really sure. . .

Josh: We have all the elements of a drummer. Ben plays a hi-hat with his foot. Kristin hits a tom, and I’m the mandolin so I’m like a snare. It’s like having a drum without the drummer.

Justin: We just need a big gong on the stage for big crashes . . . The thing is, we literally only played two shows together before recording the record.

Josh: It was an anchor on which to learn the songs. I think a lot of us didn’t even know the songs when we went to record. We kind of knew the songs but after doing the record it was like, well, now we have something.

Ben: We all came from different musical backgrounds, so the fact that we all had to jump in and spit out whatever we had, building up in our minds . . . it really gave the record an eclectic feel. It came from a lot of different tastes. For the better, of course.

Is it still very much your vision, Justin, or do you all have buy-in now?

Justin: It’s definitely become more of a collaborative thing. Nine out of 10 songs are by me and the other one is a co-write with the guy I was playing with before. All but one of our new songs are co-written within the band . . . it’s been a learning process of how we co-write. What’s a Humming House song? What’s not a HH song? How do you define that? I think it might be becoming more eclectic because of that. When it was just me and my songs, we weren’t sure who was going to be in the band. It’s much more defined now.

Kristin Rogers: It’s funny to listen back to it now that we’ve been playing so much more, evolving. Now that we’re all encouraged to have an individual presence in the band, we go back to listen to the record – we love it, we’re so happy with it – but it’s just funny because the songs on there have changed because of us playing on it, adding to it, working with it. I don’t want to say we’re boundless but we have a lot of directions we can go. In my other gig, I sing soul.

Josh: I came from bluegrass.

Ben: I was a music major, so I did composition.

Justin: Four out of five of us play piano and there’s no songs written on piano yet. Josh plays horns and Mike [Butera] plays banjo. None of that’s on that record because we hadn’t had time to tap those resources in the band. Now we can feature Kristin more on vocals, we can do piano-driven stuff . . . there’s a lot of colors in the palette that we haven’t even touched yet.

Josh: But it all weirdly has the same feel. That’s the most astounding thing I personally like about playing with all of you. No matter who brings the ideas to the table, once we all get a hold of it, it becomes identifiable as Humming House.