Maria Dunn’s Piece By Piece- an analysis   Leave a comment

This past winter I took a writing course, and for one of my final projects I wrote an analysis of Maria Dunn’s Piece By Piece. I was to write about a piece of art that had impacted me, and certainly Piece By Piece fit the bill. I submitted an initial draft to Dunn for consideration, and she was able to correct several errors and oversights; any remaining are purely my fault. I updated the second to last paragraph to represent the recent political upheaval our province has experienced; when I wrote the original paragraph, I had no idea such a sweeping change was possible, let alone right around the corner. It is a bit too long (maybe a lot too long), but… Donald

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When I use the term “folk music” in social situations, I frequently get blank stares. Despite its apparent popularity—the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is one of the largest summer celebrations “festival city” annually offers—many people think of folk music and heritage festivals interchangeably. There may well be good reason: traditional folk music is often defined as the music of a land—songs of the people. Therefore, whether played on Peruvian pan pipes, expressed through the chants and songs of eastern Europeans, or in the mournful ballads of the Scots-Irish-English lands, these are all folk music.

Sometime in the middle of the last century—scholars disagree exactly when—the modern folk revival (or folk scare, depending on perspective) occurred, giving rise to performers including Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, and Odetta, as well as Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, and their contemporaries. Prior to this, Woody Guthrie had used folk music structures to create dust bowl ballads of migration, pacifism, democracy, and social (in)justice. All of this was influenced by John and Alan Lomax who, in the early parts of the 20th century, travelled America and the world making “field recordings” of the music made by the people of an area—the folks.

At its core, folk music must be connected to the experience of the people, “of the folk,” according to Mark D. Moss of Sing Out! magazine. Folk music must be tangibly—not tangentially—connected to the context in which the music “existed, thrived, and changed,” quoting Moss within Walters and Manfield’s very heavy Music Hound Folk: The Essential Guide. It is a music not only sung and played by people on their porches, in their churches, at work in the fields and while labouring on chain gangs, but also it is a way of communicating and recording their experiences and those of their forbearers.

Folk music informs the populace and is informed by it. It isn’t just protest songs, although there is that. These are songs of the labour movement, of the peace movement, songs of love, death and tragedy, the twining of raven black hair with roses and the mingling of the briar, Joe Hill, Little Maggie, and Tom Dula, and let us not forget to include fine jigs and reels. They are songs of five hundred years ago, and songs of last week.

When I think of contemporary folk music, these are the traditions I embrace. Lyrically-driven folk music provides me with the opportunity to experience and consider events I would otherwise not. When listening to Bill Morrissey, I am exposed to the impacts of factory closings on mill towns and their inhabitants. Eliza Gilkyson allows me to travel to the heart of a lost son as he contemplates killing his classmates. Ralph Stanley expresses the majesty of a spiritual great high mountain, while his son transports me to the West Virginia hills of Bluefield and the murder of a county sheriff by his deputy. John McCutcheon takes me from the trenches of the western front to New York sweatshop fires and the closing of the bookstores. At its best, contemporary folk music holds a mirror to society and allows us to more carefully consider events outside of ourselves.

Fast forward a century or so from song collector John Lomax, and one might encounter Maria Dunn.

Maria Dunn is one of Alberta’s most highly regarded folk music artists of the singer-songwriter fold. Since 1998, she has released accessible albums of tremendous quality. She has been nominated for Juno, Canadian Folk Music, and Polaris Awards. Her music and her words come from the hearts and souls of the lives she imagines. Using the British Isles folk tradition as foundation, Maria Dunn has most recently created a thoughtful, illuminating examination of the struggles of female garment workers; while focused upon the experiences of those at the Edmonton Great Western Garment (GWG) factory through the 1900s, the songs are universal.

As she did with a previous album We Were Good People, in which she looked at the early labour movement and history of Alberta and western Canada, for Piece By Piece Dunn immersed herself within her subject matter to find inspiration. Through interviews with the women who worked in the factory (which closed in 2004 after 93 years) as well as examination of archival footage and documentation, Dunn has captured the lives, the hardship, and the pride of women who completed ‘piece work’ for the jeans and work wear company.

Dunn’s ability to connect the reminiscences and phrases of the interviewed women who worked in the factory into a cohesive narrative is nothing short of impressive. As within We Were Good People, Dunn has illuminated the continuing history of Alberta, informing us of a story we didn’t know to appreciate. This is one of the important roles of folk music—allowing generations to connect across time, social strata, language, and gender.

Dunn has spent time as Artist in Residence with the Edmonton and District Labour Council and has participated in a variety of labour-centric programs via the Alberta Foundation of Labour, Public Interest Alberta, and the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. Maria Dunn is, then, bona fide.

On her fifth album of original material, Dunn ties the hardships faced by the female factory workers—often the family’s breadwinner in difficult times, as often an example of the sacrifice made by the newly arrived as they built a life in Canada—to the dignity they achieved for themselves in performing labour that many other Alberta workers would never have considered for themselves. The plant provided a relatively good income and stable employment, whether doing ‘piece work’ in the earliest days or on wage with benefits as the years progressed.

In her recording, Dunn documents the experiences of these women—the positive and the negative—in a non-didactic manner, giving voice to a labour force whose stories were largely unknown until she and her collaborators developed the multi-media presentation entitled GWG: Piece by Piece. Using still pictures, video, audio interviews, song, story, and live performance, GWG: Piece by Piece was performed on stage throughout Alberta between 2008 and 2013. The focus—and the availability of interview subjects may have dictated this—is from the experiences in the factory from the Second World War through to the plant’s closing in 2004. From GWG: Piece by Piece came Catherine Cole’s book of the same name, and much of the archival material and video interviews and transcripts can be found online as part of the Royal Alberta Museum and The Virtual Museum of Canada’s collections.

As specific as the connections are to the Edmonton GWG factory, the album Piece By Piece—standing independent of the multi-media production—has universal appeal. In the album’s eight songs, Dunn captures the voices and spirits of these women, giving relevance to their stories through her lyrics and instrumentation. Dunn’s singing voice is beautiful, and quite indescribable—I’ve been attempting to do so for a decade and always fail. Joining Dunn is long-time collaborator and producer Shannon Johnson whose fiddling adds atmosphere and verve to the songs. The music reflects the changes that occurred over the decades; while the earliest work force had European roots, as the 1960s gave way to the 70s and later, the employees reflected the burgeoning southeast Asian population of our province—in Dunn’s songs, sitar now complements violin and accordion. “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story)” may be the story of one Vietnamese woman coming to Canada to find a greater life than her homeland will allow, but the phrases and experiences captured mirror those who left eastern Europe for Canada decades before.

Parallels to the art of a previous generation of songwriters, especially Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard are apparent. Over the course of a handful of recordings made during the 60s, Dicken and Gerrard gave power to the female perspective, especially the working female. In songs like “Working Girl Blues,” “My Better Years,” and “Custom Made Woman Blues,” Hazel & Alice provide a model—through their songs and their interpretations of others’—that seem to have influenced Dunn. Within Piece By Piece, Dunn continues this tradition.

Several themes emerge, none more apparent than the struggles of the labour force. Piece By Piece isn’t all about solidarity and workers’ rights, although there is a fair bit of that. Piece By Piece captures the full range of the workers’ lives. The workforce of the factory after World War II was always largely immigrant in nature, and Dunn captures this diversity in the music. Instrumentally, “Assunta’s Song” is fiddle and guitar-based reminiscent of rural Italian folk songs, while tabla and sitar provide additional texture and sounds of southeast Asia to songs including “Farewell” and “I Cannot Tell You (The Whole Story.)”

The GWG factory in Edmonton was a union shop. Still, the largely female workforce frequently felt marginalized by management. In the song “Shareholder’s Reel,” Dunn explores this experience using Local 120 President Anne Ozipko’s voice. As a standard contract negotiation practice, eastern-Canada based management would threaten to close the plant should demands not be met. Dunn writes and sings of Ozipko’s clever subterfuge—as a shareholder in the company, she travels to San Francisco shareholder’s meeting to hear of the great profits being made, and the importance of the Edmonton plant and workforce:

Bigwig coming from Toronto, sees a farm girl from Ukraine

Thinks he can intimidate me, well he’ll have to think again…

Miles away from women working, lining pockets with machines,

Pleated pants, pinstriped suits, deciding what the numbers mean.

Hearty handshakes in the boardroom, dividends—just divine,

Another year of tidy profits with a healthy bottom line.

Dunn writes that with a clear understanding of the company’s circumstance, Ozipko’s next bargaining session is well-informed when management comes to the table:

Bigwig crying from Toronto, ‘we are stretched beyond our means

We must tighten all your belts or come apart at the seams.

Take the cut, sign the contract, otherwise you’re out of work,

Up ’til now you’ve had a say, up ’til now you’ve had it good.

We must shrink our costs while making more pants,

To raise your wages means dropping our plants.’

Ozipko, the small town Ukrainian girl, has her argument at the ready:

Bigwig bluster doesn’t fool me, heard it from the horse’s mouth,

We’re the best the company’s got, there’s no plan to sell us south.

I threw his contract on the table, ‘take your junk, go on home

‘Til you make a decent offer, worthy of the skill we’ve shown.

Years and years to win the wage we have,

There’s no way we’ll let you drag us back.’

The GWG workers got their favourable deal. To close this song, Dunn writes: “I’ve faced the bullies in the board room…I’d like to see them tread one hour in a factory woman’s shoes.”

This spirit, born of necessity, is brought to life throughout this compact collection of songs.

“Speed Up” is a snappy song that shares the spirit of Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” a connection to other labourers. Its rhythm mimics the sounds of the cutting, sewing, and pressing machines of the work floor. As a worker gained skill, her assigned quota would increase: “Now that I’ve gotten good and fast, they’ve upped the ante for my task.” This practice pitted the women against each other as “with a bit of guile” they would race to select smaller sized garments before their workmates; fewer inches meant fewer stitches with a better chance to meet their ‘piece work’ targets.

While the women were not above manipulation, they also banded together. In “Assunta’s Song” Dunn shares the story of wartime service where the women were expected to sacrifice even more as they produced garments using thicker material for the war effort. Increasingly frustrated with long hours, unreasonable demands, and dropping pay—piece work required one to produce product, something the new material made impossible—Dunn sings of a work stoppage:

I’m not asking much, I’m not asking the moon,

All I’m asking is a living wage, for the work I do.

I know that there’s a war on, I would never just complain,

But this new army cloth has only added to our strain.

The fabric so unwieldy has forced our pace to slow

We cannot even earn enough to cover room and board.

The company is deaf to us, somehow our loss unseen,

In desperation, we resolve we will not sew another seam.

So we return from lunch, hearts pounding, each at our machines,

Now we’ve shut the power down, they’re finally listening.

While the workers usually received fair remuneration, later including health care and other benefits, their long-term safety was not an obvious priority. The album’s most affecting song captures Dunn’s interpretation of the words and thoughts of Lillian Wasylynchuk, a worker who died of lung disease. Perhaps a sign of the time, “Blue Lung” looks at the health concerns of the women working within an environment filled with the blue dust from the jeans material. Not understanding the possible long-term consequences, Wasylynchuk didn’t consider questioning her work environment:

Where I come from, we work hard, we don’t make a fuss

So I can’t be afraid of a bit of blue dust…

But ours were the days when you did what you’re told,

You could only be so bold…

Making a comparison to the fate of coalminers who have long suffered from a condition called black lung, Dunn writes in Wasylynchuk’s voice:

Now if I had toiled in a coal mine

Where the earth itself compresses your time

Then maybe I’d think of lung disease

But a clothing factory?

Our fingers, our air, tainted blue

And someone joked our blood must be too

But when the dust settled, I’m sad to say

It took my breath away.

For many of the female workers, the job at GWG was more than a supplement to the family income. These women were sometimes the sole wage earner. With language a barrier, the immigrant women were able to work when their husbands were unable to find a suitable position. Again, from “Speed Up”: “Each pocket, seam, and bottom hem, I’ve sewn for my children.” In “Blue Lung,” a worker sings, “When my family needs me to pay the bills…” and in “Immigrant Dreams,” “and while you’ve been keeping your family afloat…” Writing these phrases garnered from the women themselves and incorporating them into memorable songs, Dunn acknowledges the sacrifices made within the downtown Edmonton plant.

As the factory closes, Dunn once again weaves her lyrical magic to embrace the workers’ pride for their labour-intensive jobs and the camaraderie that developed. In “Farewell” she sings:

Farewell my sister on the line, we worked for many years,

And who’d have thought a factory job would bring us all to tears.

But day by day and side by side, our common ground ensured

That piece by piece, we stitched together more than just the work…

Facing uncertain futures, the women were resilient with an understanding of their reality:

Our work’s gone to a country where they’ll pay the women less,

We’ll move on, take our strengths and try to make the best…

As the album closes Dunn, always the creative wordsmith, cannot resist an opportunity for a final bit of word play: “for in our hearts, we know a woman’s worth is never done.”

The songs of Piece By Piece work both as a cohesive portrait of shared experience and as stand-alone slices of contemporary folk art. The dreams of immigrants, the impact of World War II, passionate labour negotiations, lullabies sung after days of toil, and the associated challenges fill each of Dunn’s songs. As richly, they are populated by the realities of strong women.

I would know nothing about this slice of Edmonton history had I not encountered Dunn’s participation in the GWG: Piece by Piece project. Dunn’s insightful method with lyrics, her judicious use of international musical textures, engaging melodies, and attractive instrumentation revealed to me a part of my world I never knew existed. As she has numerous times, Dunn has allowed me the opportunity to consider the importance and the vitality of life experiences far different from my own. In doing so, she has again brought folk music to life.

As Alberta entered a period of economic uncertainty this winter,  the government again  pitted white-collar against blue-collar, taxpayer against public servant, rural against urban, and set conservative beliefs in opposition to liberal values, we needed to be mindful of the hard-won achievements of those who laboured before us. We remembered the impact of social injustice on people who can least afford five percent rollbacks and who feel the full impact of not receiving cost-of-living increases. It is through a lens of sensitivity toward the unfamiliar plight of others that I attempt to view political and social issues, and as a chesterfield liberal, I am not always successful. Albums like Piece By Piece give me faith that even if I cannot (or will not) fight for justice, through my actions and donations I can support those who do. Fortunately, Albertans voted with their conscience and hearts this spring, not only with their wallets and in consideration of their self-interests.

In sharing the stories and insights of these women–who traveled from rural areas to find work in the city, immigrants and refugees from Italy, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and elsewhere—Maria Dunn has created a memorable, dynamic collection of songs. She has achieved, through her meticulous use of source material and her talents as a songwriter, musician, and performer, an ideal balance of life and song. With Piece By Piece, she crafted an album truly “of the folk.”

Polaris Music Prize 2015- My Ballot and the Long List   Leave a comment

This year, as I have been for the past many, I am proud to be a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury. “The Polaris Music Prize is a not-for-profit organization that annually honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music by recognizing, then marketing the albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected music critics.” The tenth Polaris Music Prize will be awarded this September. The winning artist receives $50 000 while those making the ten title short list receive $3000.

Each participating juror submits their own ballot of five eligible titles, and is free to argue the merits of those albums to their colleagues. My initial ballot featured five albums I felt quite strongly about, all with a roots bent.

untitled​1. Various Artists- Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966–1985 
An absolutely stunning collection of music. I paid significant dollars for the finely packaged vinyl version; when I invest those kind of dollars in anything, well, ’nuff said. I don’t buy the argument that there is a reason not to vote for this set by comparing it to the volume of other archival, culture specific compilations that have been released over the last number of years- this one is ‘ours’ even if we are not of First Nations, Metis, or Inuit heritage. What matters to me is the heft of the music, the manner in which it was complied, and the value of the compilation considering how under-heard, under-known, and under-appreciated the vast majority of the music included has been within the wider Canadian listening public. This is an album that could only come from our country. Well, via Seattle and Light in the Attic. The music is incredibly listenable across the board. It isn’t often my number one choice makes the Long List: this one did.
2. Craig Moreau- The Daredevil Kid. This amazing album was on repeat for weeks; holds up to, as one colleague suggested, ‘the congruent ones from other countries in the same genre’ (in reference to albums in general) and surpasses most of those. If Ray Wylie Hubbard had released this album, no one would have been surprised; it is actually a step and a half ahead of RWH’s latest, in my opinion. It received a lot of airplay on Stingray Folk Roots. It was a long shot to make the Long List and didn’t. Dang. I wrote about it here.
3. Pharis and Jason Romero – A Wanderer I’ll Stay That music this good is coming from rural British Columbia isn’t as surprising as the fact that it didn’t make the long list. I thought it would sneak onto the list, but…We need more folkies on the jury, me thinks. I wrote about it here.
4. Jon Brooks – The Smiling & Beautiful Countryside Now, here is another songwriter from our country who-given half a chance- would stand with the finest from any damn where. I thought it was a really strong album, but didn’t stand a chance against the commercial onslaught the majority of the Long List represents. Drake? Alvvays? C’mon. The great thing about the Polaris Music Prize is it is entirely democratic, and everyone’s vote is equal; that means I’m not always (ever?) going to be in the majority.
5. Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean After the Craig Moreau album, the disc that spent most time in my Top 5. It almost slipped out a couple times, but I kept coming back to it. Ford has an approach like no one else and, with Amy Black and The SteelDrivers, is keeping the spirit of Muscle Shoals moving forward.
The entire Long List is available here. There are still a few roots albums I can comfortably vote for in addition to my #1 and #5 picks: Steph Cameron’s Sad-Eyed Lonesome Lady was in my Top 7, and is worthy of attention within this group of 40 albums. Lee Harvey Osmond is always worth a listen, and while  Beautiful Scars hasn’t hit me like previous albums, it will receive several listens in the weeks ahead. The Buffy Sainte-Marie album Power in The Blood is, I think, a favourite for the Prize, and it will most likely be on my final ballot. There are several others I will give serious consideration to, and some of those aren’t close to anyone’s definition of roots.
There is no shortage of great music on the 2015 Polaris Music Prize Long List. I just wish some of my underdogs had received more votes.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Tellico- Relics and Roses review   Leave a comment

untitledhttp://www.TellicoBand.com

Unless members tell you directly, one sometimes never knows what happens to bands that simply fade from view. One day they are playing dates and releasing albums, and next thing you know three or more years have gone by, and you think to yourself one day, Whatever happened to…?

Dehlia Low released a few independent albums before Rebel Records picked up what would be their final recording, the very strong Ravens & Crows. Tellico is 3/5 of Dehlia Low along with new mandolin and banjo player Jed Willis. Holdovers from Dehlia Low are beautifully-voiced fiddler and guitarist Anya Hinkle, bassist and singer Greg Stiglets, and Aaron Ballance, a Dobro player of considerable talent- I really like what he does on this recording.

By the time of Ravens & Crow’s 2011 release, Dehlia Low was not a traditionally sounding bluegrass band, although their sound was well-rooted in traditional acoustic music. I wrote then that, “with roots in bluegrass and mountain music, this smooth-sounding outfit doesn’t just sing about little cabins, faithlessness, and Glory; their approach blends acoustic country and bluegrass into a fresh-sounding, banjo-less amalgam that is bright and firm, revealing a mettle that is as impressive as it is non-traditional.”

Relics and Roses finds the group having purposefully drifted further afield from bluegrass, firmly into the boundless genre that is Americana while retaining their strong affinity for  the sounds of Appalachia. Based in Asheville, NC, Tellico presents a very clean sound that isn’t muddled by contemporary pop influence. My previous description of the group remains apt, except they have added clawhammer-style banjo to select tracks.

This album is comprised of ten originals, evenly split between Hinkle and Stiglets, along with a take on Neil Young’s 1970s song, “White Line-River of Pride.” There are no shortage of highlights.

The album starts off with three terrific songs, “Backstep Blues,” “Calamity,” and “Can’t Go Home Again,” each of which should find favour with those who appreciate songs that come with a bit of story. Stiglets’ “I Want to Know” is another fabulous number, with Hinkle singing his slightly mysterious lyrics in a manner that makes this lover’s refrain tangible. “Lean into It” has a similar mood if entirely different feel, a bit of hopeless love strengthened by resolve borne of less than ideal circumstances.

“Mexico 1995″ is a travelogue of fading naiveté, while “Hawkeye Pierce and Honeycutt Blues” is less linear than I might like, but entirely enjoyable. With its clawhammer overtones, my favourite track is likely “Ever What They Say,” a lonely, even melancholy, song. I absolutely love Hinkle’s voice- it is low and a bit husky, but still light and lively.

“Foresaken Winds” is one that sneaks up on you, and it is here that one really appreciates Hinkle’s unusual voice: it sounds like she is holding a marble in her mouth—which reads poorly I know, but isn’t meant to—causing her to sing around the obstruction, resulting in a unique, fuller presentation of her words. I realize that makes next to no sense, but I can’t describe it otherwise.

Tellico won’t appeal to those who are looking only for straight-ahead bluegrass. But, if you are able to wander the ditches a little and appreciate the grasses rubbing against your calves, Tellico might just be a group that will settle in and become a favourite. Relics and Roses is a mighty interesting Americana recording.

Thanks for continuing to visit and support Fervor Coulee.

Donald

Posted 2015 June 14 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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The Hillbenders- Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry review   Leave a comment

untitledI’ve been entertaining myself (and few others) for years imagining Pete Townshend using his last bits of credibility in bringing Tommy to the bluegrass world.

Others beat him to it, namely The Hillbenders.

The second or third cassette I purchased back in grade 8 was Who Are You. I subscribed to The Who’s fanzine, posters of the band and their albums covered my walls, and I took advantage of every offer of ‘swopping’ live tapes that I came across. I analyzed the lyrics in high school English class, and created the world’s worst collage- shaped as Townshend’s head- in art class. Hell, I wrote Townshend letters…and he even wrote back! I spent so much time searching out the band’s old 45s on my honeymoon while in Montreal and Toronto, I almost didn’t make it through the vacation.

While I was a huge fan of The Who- still am, although with less verve than I once contained- all through high school, university, and well into adulthood, I always joked that bluegrass would self-destruct the day Tommy went bluegrass.

It hasn’t. In fact, it makes quite a swell album.

How serious should we take it? Likely not as seriously as we took Tommy in the first place. It is a reminder though, that maybe we shouldn’t have placed such gravity on the story of a pinball messiah in the first place.

My review has been published over at Country Standard Time.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Barnstar!- Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out! review   Leave a comment

W169I like me some Barnstar!

Had I not fallen under Mark Erelli’s spell seven or eight years ago, I might never have heard of this part-time bluegrass outfit. Based out of the Boston area (kinda), they don’t garner airplay of Sirius and Bluegrass Junction (as far as I know,) they haven’t found themselves on the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited, and they don’t show up on the Bluegrass Today chart.

But, if I was still in a position to do so, I would be trying to convince my Alberta bluegrass compadres that we should be bringing the group north for some shows.

This is their second album and is filled with songs, both original and covers, that will move you, shake you, and kick you out when they are done with you. The album is so good, my favourite song on it, “Trouble,” only gets a passing mention in the review! Lonesome Road Review published it. Thanks, Aaron.

Give them a listen on the YouTube. “Stay With Me,” indeed! Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.

John Anderson- Goldmine review   Leave a comment

andersonIt wasn’t until I was 19 that I started to listen, really listen, to country music. Unavoidably, I had ‘heard’ country music before then, even liked the occasional story song (usually of the sentimental variety) like “Teddy Bear” and “Coward of the County,” which wasn’t sentimental in any way. It was only when I was working my first record store job that I started to really hear what country music-circa 1983-offered. Before that, I was all rock ‘n’ roll, new wave, and off-centre 45s…David Dundas, anyone?

I’m not sure where the start was- maybe a record label sampler, maybe by sampling 45s in the store-but the likes of Deborah Allen (“Baby, I Lied”), Shelly West (“Jose Cuervo,”) and George Jones came to my attention. It wasn’t many weeks later that I cracked open a copy of an Emmylou Harris album (Last Date, I think) quickly followed by Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter, and Rodney Crowell, and I was sliding down the rabbit hole.

I left town for university and continued my journey. My music horizons just kept expanding as I worked in one of Edmonton’s largest record stores in West Edmonton Mall. I listened to just about everything over the next four years, from The Smiths, Los Lobos, and Katrina and the Waves, to The Judds, Laura Vinson, and Dwight Yoakam.

During that initial year of university, I was given a ticket-through the record store-to a country music concert at the Jubilee Auditorium featuring a singer I had never heard of, but whom the label rep suggested I might like. Since I lived just next door in campus housing, it was an easy night out. If I didn’t like it, it was a five minute walk back to Lister.

I don’t know if that night changed my life- every decision we make does that, after all- but it was significant. First up, Billy Cowsill opened the show, and I had never heard of him either. Now a departed, Alberta music legend, Cowsill performed as fine a song as I’ve heard that evening, “Vagabond.” In those days, music wasn’t available at the click of a mouse and neither was information. It was only a few years later that I found the excellent Blue Northern album containing the song, and later still that Cowsill had his next success with The Blue Shadows and eventually becoming the toast of Calgary, but man, did he put on a show in that opening slot. I don’t recall the details, but I remember “Vagabond” and I remember being impressed.

Eventually, the main attraction hit the stage, and I heard John Anderson for the first time. I was stunned. The only similar experience I can recollect now is when I heard The Osborne Brothers live for the first time in 2001. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. That voice!

Late 1983, so Anderson was promoting All the People Are Talkin’. The audience knew his songs, obviously, or they wouldn’t have bought the tickets, and folks were singing along with everything, it seemed to me. Before too long, so was I. “Black Sheep.” “I Just Came Home to Count the Memories.” “Swingin’.” “Wild and Blue.” “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs.”

When he sang “I’m Just An Old Chuck of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)”, it was likely the first time I head a Billy Joe Shaver song, though I didn’t know that then. “1959” became my favourite song for a few weeks.

He had a voice like no one else, of course. I had a real good seat, just a few words back, and I was spellbound for the full set. What a singer, and I was sure I was seeing the next country legend.

In some ways, I was, although Anderson has never achieved the status of Jones, Haggard, or Jennings. But, dang- can he still sing.

My review of his very strong album Goldmine is up at Country Standard Time. I’m sure he has released weak albums in his career-admittedly, I haven’t heard them all, but I recall being disappointed with Countrified upon release- but for me this one ranks up there with his finest.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

Amy Black- The Muscle Shoals Sessions review   Leave a comment

Amy Black The Muscle Shoals Sessions Reuben Records www.amyblack.com

2377162Amy Black first came to my attention with the release of her second album, One Time. It was a remarkable, unheralded collection of largely original music. Back then I wrote that, in her songs “connections to the past—through instrumentation, mood, and especially straightforward emotional honesty—are evident. But this is no relic of a glorified, sepia-toned time when everything was better than it is today.” [Some days, I can’t write a cognizant thought: apparently, that wasn’t one of those days!]

I went back an explored an earlier album recorded with the Red Clay Rascals, and was again thoroughly enchanted by Black. On that recording, she explored the music of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine, among others, and revealed herself to be a very capable interpreter of familiar music. The freshness of Black’s voice elevated her into that category that I hold dear, singers to whom who I knew I would always return.

Amy Black became someone I could count on to provide balanced and lively collections of contemporary Americana, a blend of her considerable influences: folk, country, blues, troubadours of all variety, and—way deep down—hints of southern-flavoured soul. I wrote that Black reminded me of Kate Campbell and that she had a singing voice “as natural and welcome as lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day, with an amiable tartness lingering within its sweetness.”

Her next album This Is Home provided additional evidence of her developing style, her increasing originality even as she continued to expand on the music that formed her musical core. I started to hear shades of Melissa Etheridge in her lower register, a burgeoning soulfulness that had previously only been apparent in passing moments.

Southern-raised and Boston-based, Black has Muscle Shoals on her mind and in her soul, and I don’t mean that figuratively; on This Is Home, she tells a story of her Muscle Shoals-born grandfather’s influence.  “Hello” addressed family connections lost to time, “Stronger” is a glorious country song where accusation and recrimination is replaced by growth and challenge, while that song for her grandfather, “Alabama,” sums up her history with her homeland.

With Lex Price producing, a change in direction was noticeable. Will Kimbrough came on board, providing guitar rhythm and licks of the highest quality. A steamy, languid quality was afforded prominence in Black’s music. This was no affectation, but a natural quality permeating from her very character, and which she wisely chose to highlight throughout This Is Home.

On these songs, it was all about emotion, evoking a sense of place and time, and making a connection through Black to the listener’s emotionally connected times and places. Much like Lucinda Williams, Black has the maturity of experience colouring her writing, her singing—she may not have lived every event she sings about, but she has experienced the emotions that brings them to fruition. Nothing is fake when it comes to Amy Black. An e.p. recorded in Muscle Shoals followed last year, giving a taste of what was to come.

Two years ago then, gone was the unexpected surprise of discovering a previously unheard talent. In its place became certainty that Black was remarkable, one that had everything required to become a mainstay within the Americana genre. For whatever reason, despite glowing reviews, it doesn’t appear to have happened yet. Amy Black remains relatively unknown to the broader music industry, a capable and consistent performer with a loyal fan base.

Once again, I found myself lost in the thought, “If only the rest of the world could experience this music, they would get it, too.”

Maybe it will happen with The Muscle Shoals Sessions, Amy Black’s new album. I know ‘everyone’ is recording in Muscle Shoals these days, and with excellent results. But man, The Muscle Shoals Sessions might be my favourite so far.

It has that absolutely infectious deep soul groove permeating every song. Spooner Oldham brings emotional and historical depth to the proceedings, laying out funky Wurlitzer and organ. Will Kimbrough is back. Vocal certainty is provided by the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina. Notable horn players are also present, with Charlie Rose taking the lead and playing trombone, while Steve Herrman (trumpet) and Jim Hoke (saxophone) are featured.

Recorded in the legendary FAME studios, Black compositions like “Get To Me” and “Woman On Fire” sizzle with energy, while “You Gotta Move” and “Bring It On Home” are more passionate and controlled. Classics abound with “You Left Your Water Running” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move” closing the disc with wisdom found only in the finest of songs.

When she laments, “I know I hurt you deep down inside,  I know you’re angry I understand why,” one could be forgiven for believing Black to be interpreting a long forgotten Otis Redding gem. She isn’t, of course—the song is a new one, and is as strong as anything else on the album. Black’s performance here proves all the evidence necessary, should one require it, that she is legitimately a country soul singer of the most significant variety. She smolders without seduction—there is nothing here but genuine, aching need—while the band explores rhythms of the finest order.

Black pays tribute to Don Covey and Etta James with a blistering rendition of “Watch Dog,” while her interpretation of “Gotta Serve Somebody” further elevates the album by exploring the more spiritual side of soul music.

Amy Black ‘gets it’ and hopefully some of you will, too. The Muscle Shoals Sessions is released June 9 and deserves to be heard by all who appreciate the funkier, soulful side of roots music. Amy Black just keeps getting better.

I’ve been playing this album weekly and sometimes daily for the last month; it will continue to get play all summer long. Beautiful.

Thanks, as always, for making time for Fervor Coulee; I may not be much, but I am passionate!

Donald

Posted 2015 May 31 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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