I’ve updated my 2009 review of Sam Bush’s Circles Around Me as the latest installment of my (infrequent) Gold…in a way series of archival reviews. It is posted over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.
Tunes from the North-Songs From the South
This has been a great summer for roots music.
Whether the folk and alt-folk (whatever the frick that is) sounds of Norma MacDonald and Nick Ferrio, troubling, dark, and challenging sounds from the likes of Rodney DeCroo, Brock Zeman, and Gordie Tentrees, or breezy, fresh bluegrass from Dale Ann Bradley, the Slocan Ramblers, and Shotgun Holler, there has been no shortage of new roots music for the adventurous listener. Sometimes great things have been missed on first (and fifth) listen, such as the swirling, swampy, harp-based blues of Grant Dermody, the sweet and elemental music of The Honey Dewdrops, and the Appalachian honky tonk of the Honeycutters. Eventually, like most elements of quality, what you need to hear eventually makes itself known.
More than anything else though, this summer has been marked by the number of exceptional old-time sounding albums coming my way. Whether a traditional, mountain-based banjo release from Kaia Kater, a mid-western song cycle celebrating and anthologizing the plains from Jami Lynn, or a ‘grassopolitain set from the Lonesome Trio, old-time has been well represented these past several weeks.
Just to be clear, I had never heard of Kaia Kater or Jami Lynn a month ago, but now I can’t imagine them not being part of my musical soundtrack. Another amazing album released this summer comes from the equally (to me) unfamiliar Canadian duo, Karrnnel Sawitsky and Daniel Koulack. And yet again I am left wondering, How did I go this long without hearing for these folks?
Recording as Fiddle & Banjo, this duo is remarkable. Karrnnel Sawitsky plays the fiddle, and having been raised on the vibrant music found within the celebratory environs of Saskatchewan (barn dances, weddings, community hall performances, and the like), plays in a range of styles depending on the needs of the tune or song. Daniel Koulack is a clawhammer banjo performer from Winnipeg, and coaxes evocative phrases from his 5-string.
With an album title of Tunes from the North-Songs From the South providing the framework, the expectations from the resulting album are fairly clear. Fiddle & Banjo doesn’t disappoint with tunes that capture the Métis, Quebecois, and mid-eastern Canadian fiddling traditions of our country while embracing southern influences throughout including on a few original compositions.
The sounds can be pensive and calming (“Waltz of Life,” a Sawitsky tune), soothing (“Lullabye,” from Koulack”), and lively and festive (“The Old French Set,” a trio of traditional pieces including the “Red River Jig.”) From the playing of Saskatchewan Métis fiddling legend John Arcand comes “The Woodchuck Set” featuring “Indian At the Woodchuck,” “Old Reel of 8,” and “The Arkansas Traveller”: I’m not sure old-time, traditional sounds get better than this four-minute festival of fiddling and frailing.
Pushing Tunes from the North-Songs From the South over the top are five songs featuring the voice of Joey Landreth of the Juno-winning The Bros. Landreth. “Red Rocking Chair” is lonesome and mournful, buoyed by the lively instrumentation, with “How Does a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” and “Killin’ Floor” suitably dark and bluesy. The highlight for me may be the spritely rendition of “Little Birdie,” although “Groundhog” comes a close second.
Kaia Kater, The Slocan Ramblers, and now Fiddle & Banjo have moved Canadian old-time music making to the fore this summer. Hopefully we’re ready for this explosion of artful, contemporary talents.
Sincere thanks for tracking down Fervor Coulee. Donald
Over at the Lonesome Road Review, we did something different a couple weeks ago by reviewing three excellent albums in one piece. The latest albums from singer-songwriters Brock Zeman, Gordie Tentrees, and Rodney DeCroo are the focus, and all I can say is, Wow! What a slate of discs- personal, introspective, and poetically charming. Yup, we have great singers and writers up this way, no doubt.
My review of the debut album from the rather high-profile The Lonesome Trio is posted at Country Standard Time. I quite like what they do although some may think the songs sound a little too similar to each other. Rather, I think they have a real nice bluegrass groove going. Another excellent recording out of Asheville! For the first time ever, I’m writing a post just when the artist-in this case 1/3 of the Trio, Ed Helms-pops up on my television screen. Momentarily jarring.
The music isn’t.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
The Honeycutters Me Oh My Organic Records
The exception appears to be that of The Honeycutters because “Appalachian Honky Tonk” fair nails the head.
The Asheville, NC quintet released their third long player this spring, and as happens it took a while to percolate to the top of the Fervor Coulee desk. I did listen to it a couple or three times upon receipt, but must have been distracted by something shiny elsewhere since I didn’t give Me Oh My its due.
Thank goodness for lazy afternoons on the deck, because this is an exceptional album that I have grown to appreciate.
While there is much to consider within, I think what finally got me were lines from “All You Ever”: “And now it’s just the same damn thing/You fail like you’ve been practicing/Everything you ever tried to be was just a fantasy/King of all the hypocrites/Every day the same old thing/Well ain’t you getting sick of it.”
Now there’s a frog on the table for ya to consider. (The online lyric sheet inserts a rhyming expletive in place of the final ‘thing’ in that exchange.)
Largely acoustic, The Honeycutters utilize instruments to construct an aggressive honky tonk country sound that is quite miraculous. Tal Taylor (mandolin), Matt Smith (pedal steel and reso), Rick Cooper (bass), and Josh Milligan (drums, percussion, and most of the vocal harmony) provide the group’s formidable instrumental backbone, while powerful vocalist Amanda Anne Platt fronts the group.
Basically, this is unapologetic hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll. In the hands of others, a song like “Edge of the Frame” would be a FM radio staple, but The Honeycutters place a wistfulness within their songs that can only emanate from country roots: had it been released in 1995, “Jukebox” might have been a CMT hit. Free of the navel-gazing moodiness and egocentrism permeating much of contemporary Americana, Platt’s songs ring with the authenticity of lived truths. This is commercial country twenty years too late to be mainstream.
Songs like “Not that Simple” and “Ain’t it the Truth” speak to the crux of infidelity and settling, whereas “Wedding Song” flips the plot, giving hope to those trapped in misery: “When you found me I was broken clear in two/My heart was split wide open, tired of hoping, tired of playing the fool./But you did what I thought nobody could do/You pieced me back together/kissed the hurting parts, made me new.”
The album’s strongest song, if not most accessible, is one Fred Eaglesmith and Greg Trooper might be proud to own. “Hearts of Men” artfully captures the troubled darkness that seeps through one’s mind during long, lonely drives. Here Platt constructs a short story in song, a sketch that is impactful in description and significant in emotional heft, punctuated by an atmosphere created of pedal steel and Telecaster.
Elsewhere, the truths jabs in the dark, quick fatal stabs of poetic insight. “I’m tired of the truth, I’m tired of pretending” is sung in “I’ll Be Loving You” while the title track offers, “I had a baby but the good Lord took her/She was an angel but her wings were crooked/I guess he figured he could love her better than me.”
Me Oh My is an album that should have immediately appealed to me, rich as it is in the rural roots of country, folk, and ‘grass. That it didn’t is entirely on me. I’m grateful it was patient with me, holding off the others until I could feel its soul.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Jami Lynn Fall is a Good Time to Die Self-released www.JamiLynnMusic.com
As I’ve written before, one of the great benefits about writing about roots music is the opportunity to discover new, exciting talent that speaks directly to my heart.
Such does South Dakota’s Jami Lynn that I am downloading her previous recording Sodbusters as I type and without previewing a single track.
With nature and exploration winding its way through most of Fall is a Good Time to Die’s ten songs, Lynn has creating a pure, genuine collection of music. Inspired by her travels across the Great Plains of the American mid-west, Lynn has woven herself into her subjects, crafting gentle songs that capture the wild instincts of the animals and people who inhabit the less-populated landscapes of her world. Singing and writing about her South Dakota environ, Lynn breathes life and connections to areas we may not have yet experienced, much like John Wort Hannam does with Alberta, Jason Tyler Burton has with Utah and Wyoming, and Jay Clark has done with eastern Tennessee.
Jami Lynn, youthful in her mid-twenties, perhaps…safe to say, she’s a talented youngster…. handles banjo and guitar throughout the recording. Dalton Coffey takes care of the Dobro and mandolin as well as the guitar parts Lynn doesn’t, while Andew Reinartz lays things out on the upright bass. A tangential bluegrass connection is made through Eddie Faris’ editing and mixing at the Skaggs Place; he also adds mandolin to one track, creating a mysterious little atmosphere within “Red Fox.”
A trilogy of canine troubadours provide Lynn with three of her strongest songs. “Red Fox,” “Wolf,” and “Coyote, Why Ya Been Lookin So Thin?” are bound together by subject manner, but Lynn takes differing approaches and perspectives within their individual explorations. “Wolf” opens with a soothing vocal imitation of howls, augmented by (I believe) bowed bass before giving way to more substantive, icy Dobro flourishes. Lynn reveals her jazz background here, playing with her voice while sharing the inner thoughts of her lupine hero. Frailing punctuates “Coyote,” a song that takes me back to when Michelle Shocked seemed to have more fun.
The melding of concise, personal imagery with gentle instrumentation gives “The North Wind” an appealing if slightly chilling atmosphere. “Sturm and Drang” is suitably titled as the guitar-based song exudes anxious intensity. Things are more freewheeling within “God Out on the Plains,” as Lynn captures the majesty of the familiar. The title track is stunning, a beauty of an elegy for my favourite season.
Jami Lynn had something special to start with—a great sense of herself and from where she comes, songs that capture the nuance of experience—but she found a way to make these songs even more impressive through the contributions of Coffey and Reinartz. The Dobro has to be a challenging instrument to duet with as a vocalist, but Fall is a Good Time to Die is a stronger album because of this brave choice. She and Coffey might have had a different album without the Dobro, and it may have been just as good (depending on where they went) but there is no doubt that this recording is made that much more impressive because of the manner in which it has been included. (And there is a sentence I never thought I would right about the hub-cap guitar!)
It took me a while to find Jami Lynn. I’m going to be paying attention from now on.
This is the type of album, and the type of talent, that makes me long to book a folk festival. Yeah, I’m selfish, but the folk world needs to hear Jami Lynn.
Thanks for taking time to visit Fervor Coulee. Donald
As a result of the quality of their previous three releases, The Honey Dewdrops have become a personal favourite. Songs like “How We Used to Be,” “One Kind Word,” “Goodbye and Farewell,” “Hills of my Home,” “Way Back When,” and “Amaranth” have been appreciated on many a journey, and on more than a few late nights.
For whatever reason, Tangled Country, the duo of Kagey Parrish (guitar and mandolin) and Laura Wortman (banjo, guitar, harmonica) fourth recording, took longer to work its way in. Whether because I’ve been overwhelmed with projects to review, because it is a bit more elaborately presented than their previous recordings, or some other reason now lost, I regretfully dismissed Tangled Country after a couple listens.
I am certainly glad I worked my way back to it this weekend.
While it is true that this recording features musicians in addition to the husband-wife pairing of Parris and Wortman, Tangled Country is still a pretty bare bones, homey effort. Producer Nicholas Sjostrom contributes bass and piano, both of which are unobtrusive to the duet’s insular, connected sound. Dave Hadley’s pedal steel and E.J. Shaull-Thompson’s minimal percussion similarly work in conjunction with Wortman’s light, but ever-spirited voice and Parrish’s rolling, swooning tenor.
It is different, but not so different to be an entirely unfamiliar groove. As is suggested in Tangled Country’s lead track, “Same old me, same old you.”
Now based in Baltimore, The Honey Dewdrops sing and perform pensive songs that gently demand the listener’s engagement. Frequently compared to David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, the duo does a little on this album to discourage this (perhaps) too easy assessment. On songs like the completely enjoyable “Loneliest Songs” the similarities are apparent. Elsewhere, as on the forlorn, descriptive “Lowlands” and the instrumentally deep “Hold Love,” their approach is entirely their own. “Numb” provides Wortman with an opportunity to sing in a broader and richer voice, less constrained by the structures of a folky, male-female vocal duo.
Paying homage to their contemporaries and influences within “Guitars,” Wortman sings, “We breathe songs.” Other images are as evocative. Parrish, singing of friends settling into mortgages and renovations, “we don’t light up the late nights like we did;” where the song’s character has been left behind, it is apparent that Wortman and Parrish are more comfortable setting roots and maturing, and are confident their fellow within “Young” will get there, too.
“Fair Share Blues” may prove to be the album’s lasting contribution to the crowded Americana rootsfest that is modern folk. Over a clip-clopping rhythm of banjo and guitar, changes—changing times, changing ways of thinking, changing circumstances— are again considered: “They were born long before I came, they’ll outlive my weary old, wrinkled brain.”
The gentle “Remington” closes the set on pensive instrumental notes, perhaps providing accompaniment to the closing credits had Tangled Country been a cinematic journey.
And, in many ways, it is— each song providing a brief vignette of mood, emotion, and narrative which, taken together, embroider the current state of The Honey Dewdrops.
Thanks for finding Fervor Coulee. Donald