Archive for the ‘Canadian Folk Music’ Tag
Ralph Boyd Johnson 1723 9 St SW http://www.RalphBoydJohnson.com
For those unaware of its significance, 1723 9 St SW may be the worst album title since 461 Ocean Boulevard. Ralph Boyd Johnson most obviously believed that this Calgary address had to be the title of his sophomore album.
You see, and as most anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the Alberta roots music scene will tell you, 1723 9 St SW was the home for a period of time of Billy Cowsill. Until his death in 2006, Cowsill was the (mostly) undisputed prince of the Calgary alt.country community, and his influence on RBJ and others has been apparent and lasting.
A decade ago- back when all things seemed possible and No Depression unified disparate singers and songwriters under a semi-cohesive banner- Ralph Boyd Johnson emerged with Dyin’ to Go, still one of the strongest roots music albums the province has witnessed. For a while Johnson worked the circuit, playing the festivals and the occasional club date, chasing a dream that seemed elusive.
His dream wasn’t Son Volt (or even Hayseed)-level success. Johnson always appeared to simply want the next gig to be better than the last, the next song to resonate with another listener. While I’m not familiar with details of his life since Dyin’ to Go received widespread praise, I’ve kept my ears and eyes open.
In the middle of the last decade, Johnson was a driving force behind Rivers and Rails, A Tribute to Alberta, a strong and diverse collection of original material celebrating the province’s centennial. I would occasionally see his name mentioned in the various free Calgary street papers, and once was very pleasantly surprised to catch him opening a show at the Ironwood. Still, considering the quality of Dyin’ to Go, and the promise it revealed, it was disappointing that few outside southern Alberta heard his name, let alone his music. RBJ was surpassed, at least commercially and familiarity wise, by a slew sowing similar ground- Corb Lund, Tim Hus, JR Shore, Leeroy Stagger, and others.
This past winter saw the release of 1723 9 St SW, and what an appearance it was.
[Insert long-winded and only semi-coherent, but almost relevant diatribe.] Some time ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly disenchanted with the abundance of pointless covers being released. I probably have more albums of cover songs than most people do, and obviously enjoy an inspired interpretation of both a standard and unfamiliar tune. I’m not sure when it happened, but it may have been around the time Doc Watson passed away. I’m not sure why.
I do know this. A few years ago, Steve Earle released his album Townes. In one of the interviews I read at that time, Earle- and bless him for his honesty- stated words to the effect that, as he was writing the novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive he knew he needed an album on the marketplace and decided to record the Townes Van Zandt album. (From a New York Times Anthony DeCurtis article, 2009: ”…The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years,led indirectly to the Townes project. ‘I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,’ [Earle] said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, ‘and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”) While that album is a pretty good- if unnecessary- one, it doesn’t touch the emotional impact of Earle’s own “Ft. Worth Blues,” written following Van Zandt’s death. The mercenary-like execution of the album tarnished it a bit for me, leading, in some large way, to my increasing dissatisfaction with ‘the tribute album.’ Too often, they appear to be the commercial stop-gap that Earle at least is bold enough to acknowledge.
Make no mistake, there have been some good tribute albums- the Guy Clark This One’s For Him, for example. Far more often, I’ve found ‘tributes’ to be less than satisfying. The recording that brought this to a head was Ricky Skaggs’ ‘tribute’ to Doc Watson. Now, Skaggs can cover any song he likes, and his version of “Tennessee Stud” is no better or worse than any other version I’ve encountered- they all pale next to Doc’s. So, when Skaggs released “Tennessee Stud” soon after Watson’s death, as well-meaning as it may have been, its inclusion on Music to My Ears left me cold and a little bothered. (Contrast that with a video of Elizabeth Cook covering “Columbus Stockade Blues” at Kansas City’s Knuckleheads, a bar I hope to visit this coming week to catch Amy LaVere, but I ramble, yet again.)
And, as others died and the requisite recordings emerged, I started thinking that a true and meaningful tribute needs to be something more than a ‘by the numbers’ cover of a favourite song.
A cover is a cover, and more often than not, I can find something appealing in covers of even my favourite songs; Hollie Cook’s interpretation of Rachel Sweet’s “It’s So Different Here” being a not so recent example. What I have tired of is the ‘tribute’ cover where someone or several someones pay ‘tribute’ to an artist by covering their music; I love Nick Lowe’s music, but Lowe Country mostly left me wanting. It wasn’t terribly interesting to hear others interpret Lowe’s music, simply because most of them couldn’t hold a candle to the original (not to mention, but I will, that I already own a couple different Lowe tribute albums.)
If an artist is going to ‘pay tribute’ to someone they admire, why don’t they take the time to actually write, to create, a true tribute to that artist? Ralph Boyd Johnson’s album (and you thought I had forgotten what I was supposed to be writing about today) is a perfect example of this. RBJ wanted to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Billy Cowsill. Rather than just covering a few of his songs- which he could easily have done- he took the time to craft something memorable, including the title track to his new album.
I’d love it if more artists went to the effort of pouring their admiration and appreciation for those who influenced them into an original creation, songs like Eric Burton’s “Guy Clark,” Jill Sobule’s “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry,” The Steel Town Project’s “Leather and Bass (The Night Suzi Quatro Rocked Out ‘Can the Can’)” and Steve Forbert’s heartfelt ode to Rick Danko, “Wild As the Wind.”
Even songs that serve as indirect homage to artists, “John R and Me” (Radney Foster) or “Willie’s Guitar” from John Anderson, and “White Cadillac” by The Band, raise the ‘tribute’ bar. This is the reason Tom Russell’s “The Death of Jimmy Martin” resonates more than the many covers of his music (and some of them were great, including A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass with Audie Blaylock, JD Crowe, Paul Williams, and Kenny Ingram) that were released following his passing.
Again, I love cover songs. To belabour my point, I’m just tired of them being labeled as ‘tributes.’ A tribute should be more, and I think a good place to start would be to create a song that captures the emotional and artistic impact the work of another has had on an individual. Take it to the next level, and then call it a ‘tribute’ as Old Man Luedecke does with “Song for Ian Tyson” and Mike Plume recently did with his ode “So Long Stompin’ Tom.”
Which is a long way around to stating, Ralph Boyd Johnson gets it right with his homage to Billy Cowsill.
Within the album, no fewer than four songs contain reference to Billy Cowsill. (And if you don’t know who Billy Cowsill was, Google him and purchase a Blue Shadows album. While you’re at it, consider Dustin Bentall’s “Ballad of Billy Cowsill.”)
Cowsill, who co-produced Dyin to Go and with whom Johnson wrote “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” from The Blue Shadows’ On The Floor of Heaven, was flawed: his troubles got the best of him. The genuine affection and honest regard Johnson held for him is apparent in every note and clever phrase contained within the fictional narrative “The Legend of Wild Billy C” and the reflective, more realistic “1723 9th St SW.” “Bill’s Pills,” despite its plea of “O, darlin’ don’t cry,” is simply sad.
Elsewhere, the themes are universal. “Holes in His Shoes” captures the intensity of a challenging friendship. Johnson displays his ability to drop gems worthy of Guy Clark singing, “I’ve got a friend threadbare button loose, through the eye of a needle found a hole in the noose…makes Keith Richards look like he just joined the band…” “Free of the flesh, and scared of our deeds, at the foot of the throne, we shall all be received,” Johnson sings in a song written with Cowsill (“Foot of the Throne”), in which they also manage to recognize TVZ.
The snappy “Cleaning House” has all the elements one looks for in a classic country-blues: an action-oriented woman and a no account fella; the clarinet fill is unexpected. While the Cowsill-oriented tracks are each meaningful, heartfelt and more than memorable, Johnson is at his best on “Adios Santa Rosa,” another song co-written with Cowsill, as well as ubiquitous Tim Leacock (whose The Wandering V’s I need to explore.) I never thought I would type ‘calypso’ in a RBJ review, but the lively “Blue Bird” fits that bill. Continuing the ‘feather’ theme, Johnson revisits “Ol’ Black Crow,” reworking and likely improving upon the spoken word, rap-influenced tale from his debut.
In an unexplained twist, a live rendition of Cowsill presenting his classic “Vagabond”- the first song of his I recall hearing, back in ’84 as he opened for John Anderson at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton- is appended to the disc. Culled from The Co-Dependents’ initial album, the track seems a fitting way to conclude an album over which his (blue) shadow is so prevalent: with Cowsill himself.
Ralph Boyd Johnson is his own man. Yes, he was fortunate to be ‘schooled’ by Billy Cowsill, but the path he has followed has always been his own. 1723 9 St SW is an album of which I am certain Cowsill would approve, and of which Johnson can be proud.
If you read all of that…I apologize. I worked on this piece for a long time, and I don’t know if I near got it right. I do know it is long, and I’m plumb certain it isn’t perfect. But, it’s done and I mean it all. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
When I saw the headline, I felt something in my chest: that sinking feeling of momentary shock, that pit of surprise you descend into for a few seconds. Canada has lost its biggest supporter. I am serious when I write that I learned as much about Canada from listening two or three Stompin’ Tom albums, as I retained from two different university Canadian history courses. Added: Link to an hour and a half of classic STC. Gettin’ stinko, more recent. And Canadian polititians. How could I forget “Margo’s Cargo“?
Stephen Fearing Between Hurricanes Lowden Proud
Getting most of his notice as a third of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Stephen Fearing has been slowly (very slowly) increasing his profile on the Canadian folk scene for the past twenty-five years. While BARK has brought regular attention to Fearing since the release of High & Hurtin’ in 1996, Fearing has remained more under-the-populist-radar than his partners Colin Linden (who has become familiar to some with his sideman appearances on Nashville) and Tom Wilson (Lee Harvey Osmond).
When it comes to making music, Fearing has consistently, if infrequently, released albums of substance and growing appeal; Between Hurricanes, like Yellowjacket and That’s How I Walk before it, simply becomes more interesting and enthralling the more one listens.
Opening with clean picking and an immediately appealing groove, “As the Crow Flies” sets the course for an album of constant delight. “Rising from the ash and the dust, you turn the key from hope to trust…look ahead,” signals that Fearing has perhaps turned to a new chapter. “As my car flew off the road, images and memories were running through my head; promises I never kept, lies and pretty faces in my bed…” he sings in “Don’t You Wish Your Bread Was Dough,” touching on those regrets we all own.
“Cold Dawn” is staggering, as are “These Golden Days” and his reading of “Early Morning Rain,” and each in different ways and for a variety of reasons.”Keep Your Mouth Shut” is a raucously BARKy, while “The Fool” is as acute as the finest ballads ever sung by Marty Robbins or written by Kris Kristofferson. In many ways, Between Hurricanes reminds one most frequently of an album The Band (whom I have been listening to quite steadily recently) might have made had they been born and raised thirty years later.
I suggest that from my perspective, Fearing has never sounded in better voice, but that seems a bit much as he has always had a pleasing one; still, things seem a bit more focused, more mature even, if such makes any sense. Let it stand, then, that he sounds wonderful throughout the album.
Inhabiting a space somewhere between John Hiatt’s muddy Americana waters and Bruce Cockburn’s warm, comfort folk, Between Hurricanes is a bit minimalist in places, but never feels unduly spare. Co-producer with Fearing, John Whynot, serves as Fearing’s musical foil, contributing everything from piano and organ to percussion, bass, and autoharp.
Stephen Fearing is on a western swing, appearing in Saskatchewan and Alberta this week and next including at Red Deer’s Elks Lodge on March 7; all details at his website.
Annie Lou- formerly and still Anne Louise Genest- released Grandma’s Rules For Drinking this past autumn, and while it took its time finding me, I am certainly glad HearthPR helped it make its way east from the coast. My review has been posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. The album has been featured fairly frequently on CKUA.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Just doing some housekeeping to help out the search engines. My review of Old Man Luedecke’s Tender is the Night is at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass here.
As always, I appreciate your interest in Fervor Coulee. Donald
Tonight I am quite excited. This evening was my school’s Christmas concert, one of my favourite evenings of the school year. Being in a new community, everything was new this time out and it was wonderful to meet so many people. And the kids did an amazing job. I love being part of such a celebration of the arts and youthful talent.
I am also excited because I get to write about Maria Dunn. My Roots Music Song of the Day is a double-sided (if it was ever released as a 45, which it wasn’t) wonder from Maria’s amazing For a Song album.
I’ve written about Maria many times in the past, including here and here, not to mention here. For a Song was one of my favourite roots albums of the aughts, coming in at number three. When writing about Maria Dunn, I always feel that I am going overboard, but I’m not- she is that good. As I wrote in 2009: “I can’t say much more about Maria Dunn than I already have. She is a tremendous writer, one who bridges old world charm with modern trials and situations. I have seen her live more times than I can count, and she always sparkles. …For a Song remains my favourite album although it may not be her best. The songs just wash over me, and her voice- with just a hint of the Old Country punctuating each phrase- is beautiful. Defying classification as adeptly as Van Morrison and Sinead O’Conner, Dunn produced a compelling album of ballads that entwined her influences within a lush, invigorating tapestry. Find her music.”
I love everything she does, and two songs from For a Song have become among my favourite Christmas songs, even though only one of them is actually aChristmas song.
The first is the song that closes the disc, “God Bless Us Everyone.” The Christmas Carol Project is a long-running Edmonton-based production and “God Bless Us Everyone” is Maria’s standout contribution. Maria’s accordion, Andy Illig’s guitar, and especially Shannon Johnson’s violin create a slightly mystical soundtrack for her lyrics. Let us not become cynical and jaded:
“When the world is feeling cold and the sky more grey than blue,
and the snow it seems to fall heavy heartedly on you.
Time to count your blessings though seemingly but few-
time to take a look at what’s within and without you.
For health is more than walking,
and wealth much more than gold.
But kindness overwhelming as a gentle hand to hold.”
Take that, you foul-hearted, arrogant souls!
For me, the song nicely packages all that Christmas should be and seldom is- a time for remembrance and appreciation for blessings held and given. I’ve never seen The Christmas Carol Project and wouldn’t you know it- the year I move from Red Deer, they show up in town for a performance December 20, which is Thursday. There is a video clip on the Christmas Carol Project website, with Bill Bourne as Scrooge and Maria as Tiny Tim. “God Bless Us Everyone” can be heard at Maria’s CBC Radio page; just scroll down the playlist.
The second song from For A Song I wish to mention is the gorgeous “Whiskey Evening.” Now, that is Christmas…albeit in a bit of a different way- compansionship, even when separated, a lovely drink, and a sense of contentment and security; that we should all feel this way at Christmas. “Whiskey Evening” is also on the CBC Radio Playlist, which is a place to explore when you’ve got ten or thirty hours to spare. All kinds of things to discover.
My non-roots Christmas song of the day is “Christmas Time is Here,” the instrumental version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio from A harlie Brown Christmas. This has grown on my over the years, as has jazz in general.
Many thanks for visiting me at Fervor Coulee. Donald
http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2012/10/14/rough-edge-ragged-hearts-by-linda-mcrae/ will get you to my review of Linda McRae’s latest. After all these years, still one of my favourite singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists. You may know of her work from a long time ago with Spirit of the West or more recently with Audrey Auld. However you come to Linda, it is good that you do.
Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts was just nominated as Contemporary Album of the Year by the Canadian Folk Music Awards, a group that has previously recognized Bruce Cockburn, John Wort Hannam, Joel Plaskett, Luke Doucet, The Duhks, Penny Lang, and Nathan in this category. Also nominated this year are Whitehorse, The Deep Dark Woods, Old Man Luedecke, and Rose Cousins.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
I few weeks back I got an email from a musician with whom I was unfamiliar. His name is Grant Davidson, and he is becoming a favourite. I love that I have the opportunity to listen to so many artists, if albeit sometimes in a delayed manner, that I would otherwise have missed. Grant is from Winnipeg, a town south of Selkirk.
His most recent album is called Dust and Violets, and is nothing short of stunning. Concisely written songs that spare nothing in creating vivid images and heartfelt connections within a true sense of Canadian place, even when he has Vermont on his mind. He’s one of those guys, like Gordie Tentrees, Kevin Welch, and heck, John Wort Hannam that straddles the intersecting lines of folk and country to create something that is of both and yet neither. He reminds me a little of Bon Iver, except I want to play Grant’s music more than twice.
He is on tour,
but the only date he provided me with was
Oct. 3 – Inspire Cafe – Medicine Hat
Oct. 5 – Palomino – Calgary: a great place for food and a beer
Oct. 8 – Owl Acoustic Lounge – Lethbridge
Oct. 10 – Wunderbar – Edmonton
Oct. 11 – Velvet Olive – Red Deer
highlighted by his October 11 gig at Red Deer’s Velvet Olive, a venue I never visited in all of my 21 years in the city. Something I’ve regretted many times, especially now that I’ve moved from there.
Don’t make my mistake- visit the Velvet Olive and be introduced to Grant Davidson- you’ll be impressed, I’m confident.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
A very poor quality snap of John Wort Hannam in Leduc Saturday evening.
The John Wort Hannam Trio did a “pretty good” show in Leduc, Alberta this past evening, Sept. 29, 2012. The Fort MacLeod-based singer and songwriter featured a number of songs from the new Brambles and Thorns album (due October 2 from Borealis Records). Among the songs featured were “Pretty Good,” the clever “Great Lakes,” Lee Roy Stagger’s “Radiant Land,” the humourous “Damn Tattoo,” as well as the Alberta-proud “Out Here” and “Ain’t Lonesome Enough,” a song that was inspired by a recent sojourn into country music listening. (And I trust JWH knows “I Fall to Pieces” was written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard!)
The evening’s most impactful song was the one written for John’s life-long friend, the apt and well-constructed “Beautiful Friend.” As well, John dusted off “Dickson’s Slough,” a song from Dynamite and ‘Dozers that has been resurrected for Brambles and Thorns.
John was in as good of voice as ever, and positively presented himself and his music to an appreciative audience, the majority of which didn’t appear to have been familiar with his music before the concert. His increasing resemblance to both Raffi and Fred Penner was only slightly off-putting.
I don’t recall any songs from Two-Bit Suit being performed, a bit of an oddity as the title song, Damn It Gwenivere, and Infantryman are always appreciated. Requiem for a Small Town, Come Back to Me, Church of the Long Grass, Gypsies Grove, and a song in tribute of Fort MacLeod’s Empress Theatre were also performed. It was especially good to hear “Scotsman’s Bluff” and “We’re Gettin’ By” again. No “Pier 21,” though.
The sound was excellent, a nice change from the Red Deer venue I’ve heard John at the last few times I’ve seen him.
All in all, a pretty darn good night that was well worth the 45-minute drive home.
Six or seven October shows are listed at http://www.johnworthannam.com/John_Wort_Hannam_Website/HOME.html
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Alberta’s Arts Days, while a bit of a fabrication on the part of the government, has its benefits including a performance this Saturday evening by Alberta’s answer to Guy Clark, John Wort Hannam. John is playing in Leduc, and I plan on driving up to the McLab Theatre housed within the high school from which I graduated. Hmm, just occured to me: the first band I attempted to write about- and whose lead singer was the first I interviewed- were Edmonton’s The Models, and the gig and interview occured at Leduc Composite. Thirty-three years later…
Information about the gig and John Wort Hannam, who has a new album coming out October 2 (his first for Borealis) available at http://www.johnworthannam.com/John_Wort_Hannam_Website/HOME.html If he has copies for sale in Leduc, I’ll be purchasing one and will let you know what I think. I’m anticipating that it will be as good as Maria Dunn’s recently released Piece by Piece.
As always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald