Archive for January 2011
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was released just over ten years ago. The movie- and more so, the soundtrack recording- gave bluegrass music a possibly unprecedented ‘bump’- arguably more than even Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance did a generation previously. This despite the lack of ‘true’ bluegrass on the album: excepting the Soggy Bottom Boy and Ralph Stanley/Stanley Brothers tracks, most of the music has only a passing resemblance to bluegrass and would perhaps be better described as old-time country music, or as I prefer to call it within its context, acoustiblue.
For those of us who listen to, write about, and present bluegrass music, the O Brother impact was obvious and immediate. All of a sudden, bluegrass was hip. People were interested in the music, seeking it out in record numbers. Every magazine ran a feature on Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, or Gillian Welch- more often, all three. Ralph Stanley was everywhere. Copycat compilations popped up- some terrific, most rather dodgy. Down from the Mountain hit the road, and in general, bluegrass concert and festival attendance appeared to climb- at least in my part of the world. Everything was pretty darn good for a while there.
Of course, the O Brother bubble only lasted until the next media cycle started. Other fads took its place and we here in Red Deer started to notice declining concert attendance even as the quality of the presented performances remained strong and even improved. We anticipated it happening, and despite concerted efforts, couldn’t find a way to combat it.
Like those who squander the riches of an oil boom or a high-flying economy, we crossed our fingers, hoping for the next O Brother to come along, promising all the while to be better prepared this time. For a few weeks there was hope that the Cold Mountain soundtrack might help things out a bit, continue the momentum, but that didn’t happen. The film and accompanying soundtrack failed to provide a similar bump, notwithstanding the great talent that it gathered- Tim O’Brien, Riley Baugus, Alison Krauss, Dirk Powell and such- but in the end the album just wasn’t that interesting, paling in comparison to the album Songs from the Mountain, previously released by O’Brien, Powell, and John Herrmann.
Which brings me to Winter’s Bone. For the most part, it is unanimous- it is a great movie with wonderful performances that capture the character and people of the modern Ozarks. It is well deserving of one of ten (really, ten?!) best picture Oscar nominations, as is the lead actress Jennifer Lawrence and the down-right scary John Hawkes as Teardrop.
I heard of the movie when the ‘pre-release’ buzz started this past summer. I searched out the Daniel Woodrell novel and found it entirely engrossing, and rented the movie the first time I saw it on a local shelf. I watched the movie the one time more than a month ago- and wasn’t taking notes- but thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t really notice the music in the movie until the scene where Ree interrupts a kitchen picking party- the voice I now know as Marideth Sisco’s sliced through me- am I remembering correctly that she was singing “High on a Mountain”?- and I started paying a little closer attention to the soundtrack. Later that evening, I downloaded Winter’s Bone’s soundtrack.
The album has followed me from home to truck to highway to office for the past month, and I’ve enjoyed its less-than-polished music as much- and probably more than- as I did the O Brother soundtrack. Where that album- masterful creation that it was with terrific and timeless performances by favourite Americana artists- in retrospect seems contrived (and how could it not be, given the cinematic thread?) and polished bringing together those that, in most cases, wouldn’t otherwise perform together in the studio, Winter’s Bone sounds more natural, more organic. The soundtrack’s compilers obviously worked just as intently as T. Bone’s crew did with O Brother. But the resulting atmosphere is as different as the movies are. Winter’s Bone is a brutal movie, although not quite as hard-hitting as Woodrell’s novel, and deserves a soundtrack just as sparse and honest.
Little is to be found about the Winter’s Bone soundtrack. Outside of Stephen M. Deusner’s discussion with Marideth Sisco on The 9513 Blog (http://tinyurl.com/4nr8rf8) I haven’t encountered much that is giving the soundtrack its due. While one wouldn’t expect the soundtrack to an art-house movie to give the same boost to bluegrass and traditional music as O Brother did, it would have been nice. This is a wonderful album, more tied to the music bluegrass lovers would appreciate than even the O Brother soundtrack was.
In Deusner’s piece, the point is clearly made by Sisco that the Ozarks are a tough place to live, and the music of the area reflects that through sad ballads, songs that have been ‘tinkered’ with by singers such as Sisco through the centuries. Blackberry Winter, a regional Ozark band according to Sisco, turn in brilliant performances, as does Sisco- in her words, “that old lady singing songs.” Traditional songs including “Rain and Snow” and “Fair and Tender Ladies” are revised to fit the plot of the movie, allowing the soundtrack recording to delve into places- such as the motivations of Jessup Dolly- that the movie doesn’t fully explore. Billy Ward’s “Man on the Run” and John Hawkes’ “Bred and Buttered” (utilizing one of Ree’s favoured expressions) provide additional narrative through song. White River Music Co.’s “Out of Sight” provides a timely honky-tonk interlude that stands on its own as a darn good trucking song.
In my opinion, it is a brilliant soundtrack, one that adds to the memory of film it accompanies. When I listen to it, select scenes from the movie flicker back to me and I appreciate it- the book, the movie, and the soundtrack- all the more with every listen. Again, like O Brother, the music isn’t exactly bluegrass. But, it is close enough to be appreciated by those who love the music. Unfortunately, for those of us waiting for the next O Brother bluegrass bump, we’ll have to find it elsewhere. I’ve read about an upcoming Bill Monroe film that might do it. Again, fingers are crossed.
But- until then- do yourself a favour and seek out Winter’s Bone: Music from the Motion Picture and take a read of the piece on the 9513 as it will add to your appreciation of the process undertaken to make this music so real, so tied to the images and story captured in the movie.
Welcome back to Fervor Coulee. In today’s Roots Music column in the Red Deer Advocate I feature the relatively new album from The Honey Dewdrops, These Old Roots. As was their previous release, it is a darn good listen- sure to become a favourite.
Roots music column, originally published January 21, 2011 in the Red Deer Advocate
The Honey Dewdrops These Old Roots www.thehoneydewdrops.com
In the absence of new Gillian Welch recordings, this Virginia-based duo is becoming a favourite.
On their previous album If the Sun Will Shine, Kagey Parrish and Laura Wortman established an ideal balance of slo-fi folk and bluegrass, creating one of 2009’s finest acoustiblue releases.
Still sounding fresh and bright, The Honey Dewdrops have similarly captured magic with These Old Roots. The acclaim is increasingly universal; according to folk radio airplay, this charming couple received more spins last year than the likes of John Prine, Crooked Still, and even Johnny Cash.
Wortman’s voice has musical purity and in Parrish she has a pleasing harmony and instrumental foil. Similar to Welch in almost all ways excepting that Wortman tends to sing with a bit more zip, this ten-song collection breezes by in a flash.
With a wandering eye Wortman sings, “So goodbye and farewell, I’m going away, there are words my tongue can’t say,” and in the best of folk traditions also sings the spurned lover’s response, “If your mind don’t sway, your life I’ll take right here.” Their fate is left open-ended, but one expects things didn’t work out as initially planned. Similar in theme, Waiting on You allows she who betrayed to exit with her dignity- and soul- intact.
Not to be missed are Parrish’s guitar and mandolin performances. He achieves a nice tone from his instruments, and his flat-picked breaks are truly impressive without detracting from the vocals. Examples are aplenty with his playing on Goodbye and Farewell and Way Back When standing out. It is on this latter song that Gillian Welch-Dave Rawlings comparisons are most apt.
The lyrical lament Amaranth, an animistic ode to a plant whose blossoms never fade, sets the tone for These Old Roots. Nobody in this World follows a blues structure while their rendition of Can’t Get a Letter from Home brings us back to the mountain folk tradition.
Music with roots in Appalachia frequently contains religious themes and imagery, and That Good Old Way and Sweet Heaven are stellar.
Traditional music sometimes feels like it was made for another time. Instead, These Old Roots simply sounds timeless.
Thanks, as always, for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Today’s Red Deer Advocate has a nice interview with Chris Jones advancing the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society’s concert presentation of January 29. http://tinyurl.com/4aekfa7 An interesting read that reveals- not for the first time, but quite clearly- the possibilities technology and creativity allow for bluegrass professionals.
My reviews of recent Rebel Records digital downloads have been posted at http://lonesomeroadreview.com/.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.
Chicago-Nashville bluegrass band The Special Consensus return to Red Deer March 26. Let’s hope their journey to western Canada goes better than their recent first day in Ireland: http://www.thebluegrassblog.com/special-c-back-in-the-emerald-isle/.
Now that I think about it, the band had a traveling misadventure on their way to Alberta last year. Hmmm…perhaps there is a pattern developing.
Greg- hope things get better- Donald
Garth Hudson & Various Artists A Canadian Celebration of The Band Curve Music
I bought this one at Chapters on impulse, having not seen very much- if any- press on it. I’m glad I trusted my gut.
One doesn’t need to describe the impact The Band had on roots and rock music. The influence is obvious with each listen to an album from The Sadies, Blue Rodeo, and even the Cowboy Junkies.
Those artists and more than a dozen others contribute renditions of (largely) less familiar songs from The Band’s vast catalogue: therefore, no “The Weight,” no “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” no “Rag Mama Rag,” or “Up On Cripple Creek” here.
Instead, Mary Margaret O’Hara and The Sadies deliver a devastating and beautiful “Out of the Blue” and Great Big Sea take on “Knockin’ Lost John.” Songs from Moondog Matinee, Cahoots, The Basement Tapes, and Jericho are alongside more familiar cuts such as “King Harvest” (Blue Rodeo) and “Acadian Driftwood” (Peter Katz & The Curious.) A raucous and bluesy take of “Forbidden Fruit” from Danny Brooks & the Rockin’ Revelators kicks off things off, setting the bar high for all that follow.
With the exception of select performances, this tribute album is successful. The Sadies’ performance of “The Shape I’m In” is beautifully balanced by Raine Maida’s “The Moon Struck One” and Chantal Kreviazuk’s “Tears of Rage.”
Everything hinges on Garth Hudson holding things together, and it is his distinctive approach to each song that is the thread that weaves the project into a solid creation. From his signature introduction to “Chest Fever” (done here by Ian Thornley with guitar accompaniment from Bruce Cockburn)- “Genetic Method”- to the waves of organ colouring Neil Young and The Sadies’ ragged but right take of “This Wheel’s on Fire,” Hudson’s sound remains true.
While personal taste will dictate if one enjoys the contributions of folks such as Suzi McNeil or The Roadhammers, those immersed in roots/Canadiana should find the album purchase worthy.
While nothing can compare to The Bands’ original recordings, this energetic and enjoyable 75-minute celebration of their songs has much to recommend it.
Big Country Bluegrass The Boys in Hats & Ties Rebel Records
For most of the last decade, bluegrass was dominated by a handful of familiar names: McCoury, Vincent, Skaggs, Stanley, and Lawson to name some of the most successful.
A changing of the guard appears underway as time catches up to some, as the impact of others fade, allowing previously less-heard artists to garner attention. Big Country Bluegrass would be one of the groups seemingly ready to take advantage of the opportunities presented.
A well-experienced band, the Virginia band’s debut release for Rebel Records is destined to become a favourite of those who love mountain-inspired, hard-driving and fairly traditional bluegrass.
The title cut- an homage to those who defined the bluegrass sound and tradition- has hit the top of the bluegrass charts and is only one of many memorable songs on an album that is consistently impressive. Vocalist Jeff Michaels, who also handles the fiddle chores, has a voice that evokes both the charming country, nasal elements of Lester Flatt and the piercing, lonesome sound of Del McCoury.
Much of the material is of the under-heard variety, recorded previously by bluegrass masters including Bill Harrell, Roy McMillan, and Jimmy Martin. Other songs are less familiar but sound instantly comfortable, including two from Tom T. and Dixie Hall. Of note is their interpretation of Tut Taylor’s “Prodigal 5.” A pair of Michaels originals close the set on up-tempo instrumental and gospel notes.
Lynwood Lunsford contributes some powerful banjo while guitarist Johnny Williams does a nice job singing a trio of songs. Band founders Tommy (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar and vocals) round out the strong lineup that also features bassist Alan Mastin who passed away before the album’s release. With lively instrumental kick-offs along with arrangements that allow each band member opportunities to display their talents and distinctive vocal harmonies, the album has much to recommend it.
Nothing fancy from Big Country Bluegrass; they’re just a band that lives up to their name.
My review of the latest from The Grascals has been posted at the Lonesome Road Review site: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=4591
Following a pattern established by other bluegrass artists, most notably Vincent & Dailey with Sing the Statler Brothers, the sextet join forces with Cracker Barrel to showcase countrified bluegrass. With V & D moving somewhere plus of 40K copies of their bluegrass-infused versions of country classics, Rounder labelmates The Grascals attempt to capture similar retail magic.
Interesting note: three of the songs on Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin were previously featured on Heights of Grass’s 1978 album Louisiana Saturday Night.
One confusing element is The Grascals’ ongoing efforts toward rehabilitating Hank Jr.’s cred with the “Born to Boogie/All My Rowdy Friends” medley; Hank Jr. circa 1985 was bad enough- covers of his windbaggy, urban cowboy-era hits is entirely baffling, to me.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I’ve been listening to Chris Jones & the Night Drivers quite frequently the past two weeks.
Chris Jones is a bluegrass and Americana artist who should be better known than he is, in my opinion. For a number of reasons, he doesn’t maintain the profile of more acclaimed bluegrass performers. However, having recorded numerous albums and appeared as a member of a number of significant bluegrass bands- The Special Consensus, The Weary Hearts, The Lynn Morris Band- Jones has established himself as an upper echelon songwriter and vocalist. Of course, he is also well known from his daily hosting duties on SiriusXM.
While always worthy of a listen, the reason I have been delving into Jones’s catalog recently is because the Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society- an Alberta club I’ve been a member of since its inception more than a decade ago- is presenting Jones & the Night Drivers January 29. By habit, I tend to listen to artists we’re presenting just before I book them and then again just before they appear. Therefore, as the year turned, I found myself again pulling all of the Chris Jones albums off the bluegrass shelf.
From Blinded by the Rose, (which, for some reason, I haven’t been able to lay hands on this month…where is it?) Jones’s debut release featuring the Union Station line-up of the day through to his non-bluegrass album of a couple years back (Too Far Down the Road), Jones hasn’t taken a wrong step. The albums are solid, interesting, and enjoyable collections of superior bluegrass songwriting and performance. Whether revisiting a folk standard such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” or a county standard like “My Baby’s Just Like Money,” Jones is able to interpret the words and music of others with rare intensity. Similarly, he brings a formidable vision to more recent songs from the likes of John Pennell and most notably, Tom T. and Dixie Hall: his rendition of “The Man on the Side of the Road” was one of the most played bluegrass songs of 2001.
But what has always identified Jones more than his interpretations of others is the power of his own compositions. One only needs to hear a song like “Just a Town” (co-written with his wife Sally) once to understand that they are listening to someone who is a master of words and melody. When he sings, “But somehow it brings me down, now it’s just a town,” anyone who has ever returned to a place of significance only to find the allure- the connection- missing can relate to that which Jones writes about. And when he sings of the café on the corner being “full of strangers, nobody knows my name,” a piece of one’s own heart aches for the remembrance of the time a place, a people, moved on without him.
His version of “Fork in the Road”- a song on which he shared IBMA song of the year honors with John Pennell when The Infamous Stringdusters released it in 2007- is as stunning a bluegrass performance as is contained on the compilation disc A Few Words.
His most recent album, Cloud of Dust, came out more than a year ago and is the first to feature the current Night Drivers line-up. The album includes a re-recording of a song that Jones previously recorded- “The Last Nail”- as well as the bonus inclusion of a couple songs from Just A Drifter – but the vast majority of the music is new. The material is uniformly of an unusually high standard, and Jones is in great voice throughout. Recently I’ve noticed the phrase “low lonesome sound” associated with Jones, and I understand this usage. He has a gentle, deep voice that one doesn’t necessarily associate with great bluegrass vocalists. But there is no mistaking the intensity and focus with which Jones relates his tales of misery and woe. It is a very strong album, one of the most enjoyable I’ve heard in the past several weeks.
Further endearing him, Jones provides the album liner notes on his website for those of us who purchase his music via download.
One of the reasons I was so eager to book Jones for the WBMS this winter was that Jones spends his winters in Northern Alberta, near his wife’s family and her work at a regional college. With such a talent spending so much time in the province, it is near criminal that we haven’t previously featured Jones in our concert season.
As I repeatedly listen to Cloud of Dust this month, I have found something as appealing about the album as Jones’ voice, songwriting, and approach to bluegrass and that is the bass-playing of long-time Night Driver Jon Weisberger.
Weisberger is well-known as a features writer for publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, No Depression, and Nashville Scene. He has also become a presence in the bluegrass songwriting world with cuts having appeared on albums from Blue Highway, Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson, The Chapmans and others, and serves on the IBMA’s Board of Directors. Weisberger has a pair of co-writes on Cloud of Dust: “Cold Lonesome Night” and “ Silent Goodbye.”
As I listen to the album, I find myself unconsciously playing air-bass along with Weisberger. Now, those who are most familiar with my lack of rhythm and musical intellect realize I don’t hardly know a I from a V when it comes to bass playing, and I only have a nagging suspicion that there is a IV floating around those other notes. My air-bass playing is only slightly more advanced than the air-guitar I previously played listening to Born to Run or Who’s Next. What is different is the musical maturity I bring to my bluegrass listening today, a clarity developed by years of focused concentration. And what I hear holding down the bottom end on Cloud of Dust is terribly impressive.
Playing bass is frequently viewed as the easiest way into bluegrass jamming: master a couple notes and have a decent sense of time, and one is on their way. Of course, in bluegrass nothing- harmony singing, rhythm guitar, the mandolin chop- is as simple as it seems on first impression and bluegrass bass is no exception. While not as immediately noticeable as other bluegrass elements, bluegrass bass isn’t exactly easy to do right. And throughout Cloud of Dust, Weisberger demonstrates his art in admirable fashion.
My music vocabulary isn’t developed enough to identify exactly what it is Weisberger does on Cloud of Dust to make his playing stand out so markedly to me. Part of what is apparent to me is that the album is presented to allow all musicians their space within the arrangements. No one appears to be stepping into another’s aural space. While Ned Luberecki’s banjo in may shine for a lead break on the title cut, one feels the throbbing rhythm of Weisberger’s contributions maintaining the balance of the tune.
Elsewhere, on the reflective “What You Do,” Weisberger’s playing adds atmosphere to Jones’s matter-of-fact lyrics. A very different mood is captured within “Cold Lonesome Night,” and again the fingers start strumming an imaginary upright bass, so starkly do the notes Weisberger lays down appear within the well-constructed instrumentation. And don’t get me started on “One Door Man,” the mid-album cut on which I first noticed my fingers moving in rhythm to Weisberger’s playing.
I always find it interesting to realize what ‘grabs’ me about an album. Sometimes the packaging is what draws me in, an appreciation for the care that was put into making a purchase worthwhile. Once in a while, it will be a tone of an instrument or a vocal inflection that I’ll notice. More often it is the use of words that draws me in. I’m pretty certain that I’ve never consciously been pulled into a bluegrass album because of the sound a bass player has achieved, although I am aware of particular songs that have impacted me as a result of the bass.
I’m fairly certain Chris Jones didn’t design Cloud of Dust around Weisberger’s bass-playing. Similarly, I doubt the Night Drivers felt they had captured anything more special on this recording than other times they had recorded- either together or apart- tracks for an album. But for some reason, while listening to Cloud of Dust this past week, my fingers wouldn’t stay still- moving in and out, up and down- a four-stringed fingerboard only I could feel.
And I have an additional reason to look forward to an evening of bluegrass in Red Deer on January 29.
Chris Jones & the Night Drivers appear in Blythe, CA January 14-15 and Edmonton, Red Deer, and Calgary, AB January 28-30.
As always, buy some music! And if you’re up to it, share your thoughts about Cloud of Dust.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Allow me to be the last to wish you a Happy New Year. In my first newspaper column of 2011, I reflect on the past by highlighting the 5 Alberta Roots Albums I most appreciated through 2010; maybe you’ll discover something you missed. Good stuff, all.
Roots music column, originally published January 7, 2011 in the Red Deer Advocate
This week, I look back on 2010 from an Alberta roots perspective; I hope you’ll be inspired to seek out music you may not have heard.
From Three Hills, Ruth Purves Smith and the 581’s Out in the Storm is that rare album revealing greater richness and depth with each listening. Every song is a little different from the next, and Purves Smith’s vocal dynamic is such that she inhabits each song. Ruth Purves Smith is not a new voice within the Alberta roots community, but many of us discovered her this year. Out in the Storm is a masterful album.
Ghostkeeper’s self-titled album took time to grow on me, but once it imbedded itself under my skin, it didn’t let go. Now Calgary-based, Shane Ghostkeeper and Sarah Houle experienced their adolescent music explorations within more the isolated confines of Northern Alberta, and their intense interest in folk and blues music melded with the discovery of noisier sounds. These influences come together on Ghostkeeper, a staggering half-hour of abstract sounds seemingly collected from the bottom of the basement stairs. Is it folk? Is it electronic? Is it rock? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps Alberta’s answer to The White Stripes, free-form music surges from Ghostkeeper.
J. R. Shore’s Talkin’ On A Bus is a more conventional singer-songwriter collection, but is no less challenging. From the album’s opening New Orleans-inspired horns and banjo, Shore and Jan McKittrick take listeners on intense musical journeys. Much of their imagery and references are American in origin, but the songs apply equally well to Alberta circumstances. Shore frames his songs as frequently with boogie-woogie vibes as he does with barroom blues and coffeehouse intensity. Talkin’ On A Bus is the kind of album we’ve come to expect from southern Alberta songwriters of the John Wort Hannam, Dave McCann, and Steve Coffey ilk.
Will White’s Rise Above is an excellent acoustiblue album from another Calgary songwriter. White has great original material with southern- Virginia and North Carolina- roots. His cinematic writing works because White doesn’t force things, and allows his words to flow toward a fully-realized conclusion. Similarly, his voice seems born to sing songs of the past. White’s debut album sparkles with Byron Myhre’s fiddling, and this balances White’s love of language. At turns light-hearted and intensely dark, Rise Above is thick with the very best elements of modern, acoustic roots music.
Donna Durand’s The Road Back may have been among the more surprising successes of the past year as it rivaled the best Canadian, acoustic music released this year. A quiet little album from a local singer-songwriter, Durand writes and sings rootsy country-folk with a voice just imperfect enough to be interesting. Whether Durand’s characters are brothers hauling coal in an “ice blue storm” during The Winter of 1943 or a prairie girl fretting inevitable heartbreak among the Wild Roses, Durand captures intimate relationships. Donna Durand’s music is steadfastly assured within this gleaming album, capturing both the geographic openness and the solid humanity of our province.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- Donald