Red Tail Ring Fall Away Blues www.RedTailRing.com
It was a wonderful summer of beautiful music. So much to hear, and I’m certain it wasn’t only my experience that there was an abundance of quality.
Blue Highway’s Original Traditional and Kristin Scott Benson’s Stringworks. Anna Egge & the Sentimentals’ Say That Now. Terrific blues albums from Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl. Blue Moon Marquee’s unconventional Gypsy Blues. Bryan Sutton’s outstanding The More I Hear, The Earls of Leicester’s Rattle & Roar, and Sam Bush’s Storyman. Unbridled folk from Vincent Cross and Craig Morgan, and BD Harrington’s game changing The Diver’s Curse. Maria Dunn’s epic Gathering. Then there was the music I didn’t write about, but still enjoyed and found something within—Karl Blau, Chip Taylor, Kieran Kane, and Chelle Rose. Hell, The Monkees put out maybe the best album of the summer, dammit: I will not listen to contrary arguments on that.
Roots music isn’t a competition, of course—except on awards night, then all bets are off—but the album I have listened to more often than any other these past few months? Red Tail Ring’s Fall Away Blues.
I’m not sure why other than it just connected with me. I don’t have a previous relationship with the group, and had never heard of them before the disc appeared in my mailbox. I am more than a bit ‘over’ male-female pairings performing laments inspired by too many listenings of Time (The Relevator) and the Harry Smith box set. I have more than enough clawhammer banjo sets of folk and mountain tunes on my shelves. And, you may already know how I feel about ‘evocative’ duo monikers that go beyond birth names.
How did this relatively unheralded set have such a significant impact on me that it took about two months to (barely) uncover the words to attempt a review?
It is danged freakin’ good.
This Michigan duo of Laurel Premo and Michael Beauchamp is incredible. They have the very rare ability to inhabit songs, removing the barrier of time, place, and reality between their performance of ancient tunes “Yarrow” and “Come All Ye Fair & Tender Ladies, their own timely compositions, the recorded medium, and the audience. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry do similarly on their recent Shine A Light, albeit without the original songs: you are transported into the recording, watching the pair lean into their songs as they maintain eye contact to communicate chords and progressions.
Premo’s “The New Homeplace” bridges the passion, energy, and fear of new experiences, and evokes the sounds of generations. The duo bravely examines their still fresh Kalamazoo hometown murders in “Gibson Town,” utilizing a blues foundation to attempt comprehension of the inexplicable: like many folk songs, details are left in the shadows with emotion on full display. Beauchamp’s “A Ghost Whispers” evokes the mystery of inspiration within a poetic assemblage of images and notes. His “For the Love of the City” is more linear, but no less stirring.
Throughout Fall Away Blues, Red Tail Ring elevate their music from the past. As troubadours must, Premo and Beauchamp confront that which challenges them. They face the environmental and social impacts of “Shale Town.” The past and perhaps self are left behind as memory in “Visiting,” a song that makes me think of Hazel Dickens and her journey from rural poverty to urban factory hope: “I never find you when I go home, I remember you there, but now I’m alone.”
Within the album’s monumental title track, Premo lays out the heart of every roots musician worthy of the name: “If I should lose most everything, I tell you what I would do; I’d pull some bow across the string…If you broke that fiddle bow, I tell you what I would do: I’d start singing another tune…”
And so it goes.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I hope your time has been well spent. Buy some roots music—if you think it is worth listening to, it had better be worth buying! Donald
Matthew Skoller Blues Immigrant Tongue ‘N Groove Records
Veteran Chicago harp player and bandleader Matthew Skoller has released an engaging, passionate collection of tasteful, groove-laden blues.
There is so much going on in these songs that one may be tempted to over-think things. Better to just relax into the propulsive rhythms and absorb their medicine. Most of the tracks are co-written by Skoller and producer Vincent Bucher.
“My Get It Done Woman” is about what you expect—nasty and base, just as we like it. A hard-trodden man faces his future in “Tear Collector” and the “Greyhound runs too slow” for the woman moving on in “747.” Skoller rails against the industry’s self-serving nature in “Only In the Blues,” a tune that some enterprising band will arrange as “Only in Bluegrass.” “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music” is like going to church—there’s a message there, if only it is heard.
One suspects Skoller is most proud of his “Blues Immigrant,” a wide-ranging opus of social (in)justice and circumstance. Over a foundation of guitar (Giles Corey,) bass (Felton Crews,) and drums (Marc Wilson) Skoller laments the obstacles that are placed in the way of those motivated to move forward. It’s a gentle number, one that belies the frustrations expressed.
Inexplicably, the album kicks off with its weakest song. “Big Box Store Blues” rails against the corporate monoliths that have destroyed local businesses, but sounds about a decade late. Similar ground is covered more successfully in the “Story of Greed.” Skoller connects everything nicely, closing the album with Luther Johnson’s “Down to the Nitty Gritty” and Papa Lightfoot’s down-trodden “Blue Lights.”
Blues immigrant is a terrific album from a fella who gets it!
I am really missing the IBMA live stream: all the asides and quips, and especially the various “thanks” that are offered—you can learn a lot about a person by the way they accept an award. The ‘in memory’ segment is something for which I have great respect. Also, I regret not being able to hear the Rounder folks receive their Hall of Fame honours; I am certain Ken Irwin had fine words. Finally, the live performances are almost always memorable.
I can’t imagine why there is no live stream this year beyond a lack of sponsorship, which is too bad. I wonder why the IBMA can’t just ‘do it’ on their own…even if only on Periscope!
Mountain Faith, a band that made their name on a reality series, was just awarded Emerging Artist of the Year. Sigh. The less I say…
Song of the Year just went to a song originally released in 1990. I called it. I wouldn’t have voted for it. “You’re the One,” by Flatt Lonesome, giving them two awards tonight, and I predict they will get the hat trick later on. I believe it is the weakest performance on their (quite enjoyable) album; what the hell do I know?!
Again, the less I say…
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen were awarded Instrumental Group of the Year…my prediction percentage is falling—barely over 50% now. I heard The Earls of Leicester and Dirty Kitchen side-by-side this summer. No offense…to these ears and when it comes to ‘bluegrass,’ it ain’t close.
That is after self-revision/editing.
Penny Parsons, author of Foggy Mountain Troubadour, was named Bluegrass Media Person of the Year. I had placed her bio of Curly Seckler on my ‘to buy’ list, but then forgot about it…need to correct that.
It is hard for the bluegrass industry to receive true, critical coverage when folks are eligible (vying?) for recognition from the professional industry. No? Looking at the list of very fine past winners, perhaps Bluegrass Media Promoter of the Year would be a better name for the award.
Other Special Awards presented earlier went to the IBMA’s new chairperson, Joe Mullins, as Broadcaster of the Year, and his son Daniel for Best Liner notes for a Traditional Grass compilation…a band featuring Joe Mullins. Yes, the industry is a bit incestuous…
Flatt Lonesome won Album of the Year, an album much, much stronger than their previous and one I positively reviewed. Still, Runaway Train wouldn’t have been in my top 25 bluegrass albums of the year, and where I predicted the ‘hat trick’ above, I thought they would get Entertainer of the Year. The SteelDrivers got themselves robbed.
The evening’s final award—Entertainer of the Year—rightfully goes to The Earls of Leicester! As it should be. (I predicted Flatt Lonesome, but hoped for the Earls.) I believe that puts me below 50% for the night on the predications, probably better than I have ever done before…not exactly pleased about that, but glad about many of them.
I wonder what I missed? Hopefully next year the video live stream is back…or at least someone in the audience decides to Periscope the event.
Most years I live blog about the awards as they occur, but this year I am having to rely on Twitter, and specifically @StacyChandler for information as they are not streaming the awards this year. I am sure there is a reason for this, a good one, but it is disappointing.
Therefore, I will only post a couple times tonight and leave the instantaneous reactions to those present.
I posted my thoughts and predictions over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass earlier this week, if you care.
The first award of the evening goes to The Special Consensus for Instrumental Performance of the Year, “Fireball.” I’m one-for-one…it won’t last.
I am not surprised that Recorded Event of the Year was awarded to “Longneck Blues” from the popular Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman despite my belief that it isn’t a terribly strong song. No longer batting 1.000.
Banjo player of the year: Charlie Cushman of The Earls of Leicester. I didn’t call this one because I (for some reason) felt the noodlers would have their way, but I couldn’t be happier. Cushman knows how to play bluegrass. Beautiful.
Dobro player of the year: Jerry Douglas, the true Earl of Leicester, for the tenth time and second year in a row. Called that one. I also believe it will be cold this winter.
Bass player of the year: Barry Bales, making the E of L three-for-three. My mistake in not going with BB: with Rob McCoury ‘finally’ winning as Banjo player of the year last year, I thought maybe this time the organization would get behind the Del McCoury Band/Travellin’ McCoury’s other member that has never been crowned by the IBMA, Alan Bartrum. I was wrong.
Getting all the instrumental awards out of the way, apparently. Next, Mandolin player of the year, and a first time winner- Sierra Hull. I hedged on this one, backing both Adam Steffey and Sierra Hull: not my kind of music—barely in the big tent last time I listened—but not surprised that the powerbrokers of the industry went with her.
Fiddle player of the year: Wow! I got another one—Becky Buller.
Guitar player of the year is Bryan Sutton, for the tenth time—well deserved. He is one heck of a player, and released an excellent album. And, I called it. Let’s see…that makes me four-and-a-half for eight, which is spooky.
Now, onto the vocalists…I’m surprised that Becky Buller has just been named Female Vocalist of the Year. She didn’t release a new album, but I guess her increased presence in the industry has been rewarded. Deserving. Not as deserving as Dale Ann Bradley, but…
Gospel recorded performance of the year, “All Dressed Up” by Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, a song I thought was pretty good initially, but which in retrospect is too ‘by the books’ for my tastes. Still, a fine performance, I just happened to enjoy what Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands did more. My prediction that she wouldn’t win was correct, so I’m counting this one!
Male vocalist of the year, Danny Paisley. Some would say, “About time!” I’m one of them as I predicted this one. Again, I would have voted differently, but—again—deserving.
I called another one, which is frightening…Flatt Lonesome is Vocal group of the year. Again, not to my taste, but I take some satisfaction in at least being able to predict the direction the wind is blowing…even from a distance.
Trevor Alguire Perish in the Light
For those who have been paying attention, and I have admittedly not paid enough, Trevor Alguire has carved out a little niche for himself on the Canadian singer-songwriter circuit. His song “Thirty Year Run” was a realistic portrayal of life, all the more impressive for its wisdom beyond years, “I’m Going Crazy (Out of Your Mind)” was a country hit waiting for radio, and “Cold Words” plumbed emotional depths as starkly as John Hiatt often does.
On Perish in the Light Alguire again looks into the darkness of relationships and the vitality of lives, exploring the inner-most thoughts of folks brave enough to ponder their circumstance. There is an echo of Billy Bragg in his voice (“The Ghost of Him,” “I’ll Be Who I Am,”) which is really strange as I also hear Corb Lund coming through in places (“Long Way Home,” “Flash Flood.”)
The cinematic “My Sweet Rosetta” sketches an everlasting love, and features the strong vocal presence of Catherine MacLellan and the wonderfully poetic image of “my bullet-proof sweater.” Like Mark Erelli, Alguire sketches life’s complexities of turmoil and wonder in just a few lines, coalescing a lifetime of challenge, doubt, and absurdity into a relatable couplet.
“I’d rather hold her memory tight than waste my days with you,” from “Out of Sight Out of Mind” doesn’t even require a second line to nail things down, placing punctuation on enduring love. Man, that is one excellent song. “Wasting My Time With You” explores the opposite, cutting a relationship to the quick. “Long Way Home” is a song of promise and assurance. “If I Had Stayed in School” is a songwriter’s manifesto.
Production choices deserve mention as instruments are placed to the front of the mix, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the recording. Beautifully balanced, Alguire’s vocals rise through and above in these brilliant little songs; give a listen to the first minute of “My Sweet Rosetta” to hear an audio visionary to full effect. Bob Egan contributes pedal steel with Miranda Mulholland’s fiddle serving as additional connection to the country sound.
Perish in the Light is a great album, one I will be nominating for the Polaris Prize. It won’t win, but it deserves a conversation.
Always, thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Support your local roots musicians.
Midwest Side Stories
First impression: this guy can sing.
You wouldn’t think such a statement should warrant significant mention in a review of a new album, and maybe it doesn’t. Given my experiences the last (many) years listening to independent artists of the Americana roots variety, I feel it does because I hear a lot of emerging (and established) artists and damn it, some of them can’t.
They can mumble. They can emote. They can speak melodically with some rhythm, even. And many pull it off even with less of a voice than I might have.
Chicago Farmer, despite the moniker, can flippin’ sing. He has a style that reminds me of the country/folk pop singers of the early 70s—the R. Dean Taylors, John Denvers, and Ray Matericks of the day. Earnest. Bold. Honest.
Cody Diekhoff (nothing wrong with that name—wish he used it! For those who don’t know, I have a bit of an aversion to [the increasing number of] singers/duos who go under a name other than that which their mother gave ’em…fully realizing my mom never called me Fervor Coulee) has been releasing music for more than a decade, and by my count I have six albums to ‘catch up on’ having now been exposed to his straightforward, insightful, and darned groovy interpretation of modern life and vision. Not as cleverly obvious as John Prine, Diekhoff most reminds me of the former postman who happens to share similar small(er) town Illinois roots.
Diekhoff—okay, Chicago Farmer doesn’t set out to do anything fancy on Midwest Side Stories. He has insight into the experiences and internal dialogues of contemporary working class folks, and has the artistic ability to convert these into songs of substance and interest. “Skateboard Song” touches on a whole lot of stuff—youthful disenchantment, small-mindedness, finger-pointing, and police harassment, just to start—over a hard-beaten melody that would do both Weezer and Dan Bern proud.
“Two Sides of the Story” similarly looks at community, the push/pull pride/hate we have with our small town upbringings—we may not like ourselves, but you damn well better not put us down, especially if you live on the other side of town! “Umbrella” delves into the troubadour’s lot, “these songs and stories began unfolding like an umbrella in the rain” balancing melancholy and attempts toward local fame with a compulsion to connect with a single person while remaining true.
Chicago Farmer’s mid-western insights do not limit these songs: they appeal whether you are rural or urban, upstate or down, blue- or white- collar, Canadian or American. “Rocco N’ Susie” are our neighbours, the ones we don’t really know, but are more like us than we care to admit—a couple pay cheques away from foreclosure, a few months from desolation, several bad decisions from remand. The gradual journey from independence to dependence is identified in “Farms & Factories,” suspicion thrives in “Revolving Door,” and the night shift margins are explored on “9 pm to 5.”
Brian Henneman’s approach to songwriting comes to mind mid-set. Only late in the album deos Chicago Farmer rock as much as do The Bottle Rockets, but there are more commonalities in subject manner and tone than not. One can imagine Chicago Farmer finding inspiration through a cracked windshield, identifying vigour where others might encounter pathos. The full band of folks I’ve never heard of—Ernie Hendrickson, Darren Garvey, Matt Ulery, and many more—create a substantial background for Chicago Farmer, never infringing on his words while providing a weighty dynamic for these songs.
The set closes with an up tempo—almost bombastic—interpretation of John Hartford’s anthem to survival, “I’m Still Here.” It is an ideal song to close a set that has at its heart the theme of the daily grind: get up, work your ass off, enjoy a bit of the benefit of your labour, and repeat tomorrow, next month, and for the next forty years.
Chicago Farmer comes with a Todd Snider seal of approval. That’s cool. But you’ll like him just for being himself and delivering music that resonates no matter the circumstance.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I appreciate it, and hope you will support roots music in all its forms.
Jenny Whiteley The Original Jenny Whiteley Black Hen Music
I first encountered Ontario’s Jenny Whiteley as a member of Heartbreak Hill, a bluegrass band featuring Dottie Cormier, Christopher Quinn, Victor Bateman, and Danny Whiteley. I don’t recall too much about their performance at that Blueberry Bluegrass fest appearance outside the impact of a single Whiteley song: “John Tyrone” remains one of the finest bluegrass songs that have come out of Canada, and from the first time I heard the song I knew Whiteley was someone I wanted to learn more about.
I didn’t get the opportunity at the time, but months later Whiteley found me at Wintergrass and offered me a copy of her debut self-titled album. That independently released disc displayed Whiteley’s remarkable ability for creating characters within a few well-crafted lines, and earned comparison to Emmylou Harris’ recent Red Dirt Girl. Whiteley was revealed as a major talent, and was rewarded with the first of two Juno Awards for best solo roots/traditional recording. With sultry vocal sophistication, Whiteley has previously released four albums (Hopetown, Dear, and Forgive or Forget followed the debut, with Hopetown also picking up a Juno) filled with love, loss, and regret.
In 2010, I wrote of Forgive or Forget that is was more universally palatable than her rootsy initial offering, but one missed the narrative intensity and youthful fragility of songs such as “Gloria” and “Train Goin’ West.” As one who frequently better enjoys musicians early, developing years than their fully-realized artistic selves (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jack Ingram, Dolly Parton, and many others fit into that frame) while still appreciating what they do, The Original Jenny Whiteley appears designed expressly for me.
On this recording, Whiteley seemingly satisfies a desire to more fully explore the music that provided the foundation for her development—old-time folk sounds that have existed and thrived for generations. She even goes back to a song previously recorded on Dear, “Banjo Girl.” A recognition of her rich and diverse Americana/Canadiana upbringing within the venerable Whiteley clan, this fifth recording is a rootsy masterpiece. In a lesser artist’s hands such a multi-dimensional homage might sound disjointed; The Original Jenny Whiteley is united in its eccentric melding of the rich traditional and roots tapestry—folk, jugband, bluegrass, early jazz and ragtime, Francophone, Dylan, and the blues.
Singing “Groundhog” accompanied by producer Sam Allison’s old-time banjo and Teillard Frost’s percussion (harp, bones, etc.,) Whiteley isn’t striving for cultural appropriation or cornpone authenticity. Rather, she is singing of rural experiences that are as genuine as the acoustic sounds comprising the song. For “Stealin’ Stealin'” Whiteley goes back to the Memphis Jug Band, but doesn’t stay there infusing the timeless tune with nine decades of patina via The Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and her own danged self.
Whiteley explores the school of hard knocks in “Higher Learning” while acknowledging (via Chris Coole) the thousands of fools on stools eking out a living (of sorts) playing for “$100” a night. “In the Pines” (Bill Monroe, not Huddie Ledbetter or Nirvana) provides a welcome old-time (not bluegrass) connection to Heartbreak Hill, while The Incredible String Band’s “Log Cabin in the Sky” (perhaps) serves as a connection to the generation of players surrounding father Chris and his brother Ken.
The Original Jenny Whiteley is beautiful. By going to her past and rooting around in her trunk of influences, Jenny Whiteley has found the inspiration to create an uncompromising, uncluttered representation of what (mostly) acoustic folk music is all about. In this case, you can judge an album by its cover, a lovely, unadorned sketch by Stewart Jones.
As she sings in “Things Are Coming My Way”—”O me, How good I feel.” After spending thirty minutes listening to this album, you will be singing the same. It is early, of course, but I can’t see a way this album doesn’t make my Polaris Music Prize ballot.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. I hope you are inspired to purchase the music of the artists featured because they deserve it!