Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Covered in Folk: Randy Newman
(Bonnie Raitt, The Duhks, J.J. Cale, Shelby Lynne, and 9 more!)

Though my father hasn't missed it in decades, I haven't been able to attend the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since I started teaching over a decade ago -- something about the way a last gasp of hunker-down-and-teach takes over public education as we approach state testing, and the long downhill slide toward the end of the school year. But every year as we hit the last weekend in April my mind begins to muse upon the great acts I saw down there the few years I made it: Los Lobos, the Indigo Girls, Taj Mahal, Blues Traveler, the Neville Brothers, a holy host of Marsalis siblings, and many, many more.

What stands out strongest after all these years is the time I saw Randy Newman play a whole set of songs about rain in a downpour one year at Jazzfest. We were muddy football fields away from the stage, umbrella-less to boot, but what I remember best is the clarity of his set, just that wry warbly scratchy voice and a barroom piano style, over a substance chock full of extremely unreliable narrators and sarcasm, with a power that I had never really heard in his music before.

The scene was terrible; the view was worse. But Newman's music got burned into my brain. And since then, though I haven't made it to another performance, I've never passed up a chance to listen to his songs, no matter who is singing them.

Randy Newman's original performances aren't folk, quite -- though as a set of produced music that, at its best, focuses and features the simple melodies and heartfelt, story-troped acoustic output of a songwriter and his stringed instrument, much of his songs share the qualities of both traditional folkways and modern singer-songwriter folk. That so many from the folkworld and beyond have managed to take his work and make it beautiful in their own way acknowledges this ground, it is true. But that the songs speak -- as all good folk should -- to a nation and a people and a heart all at once is both a testament to the inherent beauty in the songs themselves, and the inherent and universal beauty in the human condition, even at its most terrible and sodden and rained-upon, of which they speak so effectively.

Today, in honor of my tenth consecutive year missing Jazzfest, we bring you a predominantly southern-tinged set of Randy Newman coversongs. Though I could not resist a song or two from the lighter and less historically-relevant side of the Newman catalog, those younger folks who only know Newman from his recent work scoring Disney soundtracks may be pleasantly surprised to find that in his younger days, Newman was a gifted songwriter, known for his ability to expose the whole range of the human experience, from the poignant to the historical accurate to the absurd, rub it raw, and somehow manage to make it touching all the same. Sometimes, I guess, it takes a little rain to make you really understand.

Today's bonus coversongs come with little fanfare after two megaposts in three days:

  • Randy Newman covers Harry Nilsson's Remember
  • Randy Newman "covers" Every Man A King, bringing his trademark irony to lyrics originally by Huey P. Long just by singing them straight alongside his Good Old Boys

Randy Newman will play this year's Jazzfest on Thursday evening. Can't make it? Check out this related post @ Star Maker Machine: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band covers Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rare Patty Griffin at Star Maker Machine

New collaborative blog Star Maker Machine is only a few weeks old -- previously, it was a well-written solo-author music blog -- but thanks to host Six and a growing team of familiar trustworthies of diverse taste and tight writing, the site has already found its voice, and it's a powerful one. I couldn't hold back any longer; as of today, I've joined the fray.

So head on over for a rarity from Patty Griffin's unreleased third album Silver Bell, plus a growing collection of songs on this week's theme of City Songs, and a long set of Flower Songs from last week. I expect to be back over there regularly, posting originals and practicing my shortform. Membership is open to all; maybe I'll see you there, too.

Want a bonus to whet your whistle? I'm still song-gathering for a future post on Griffin's coverwork, but in the meantime, here's folk chanteuse Maura O'Connell with a rocking version of Long Ride Home, plus a link to an old but still-live post Griffin fans might have missed.

  • Maura O'Connell, Long Ride Home (orig. Patty Griffin)

    Previously: The Dixie Chicks (and others) cover Patty Griffin

  • Sunday, April 27, 2008

    James Taylor Covers:
    Sam Cooke, George Jones, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Foster, Peter Pan, The Drifters, and more!

    A bit woozy today after yesterday's all-day drive up the East Coast from North Carolina. My head still swims with the sights of barbecue joints and crabcake stands, and roadside shacks where one can get smoked ham and sausages, local peanuts, and fireworks to celebrate it all.

    But it's good to be home, where the daffodils are in full blown bloom, even if the lawn still struggles against the moss and hemlock. The American South is a wonderful place to visit; I like seeing the world, and though I've been to more countries than states, the diversity of the US pleases me. But this place feels right, somehow. With a few tiny stints out of bounds, I've been a Massachusetts-based New Englander all my life, and I expect to be one for the remainder of it.

    James Taylor likes it here, too. And I've been promising myself a feature post on good old JT for ages. What better way to celebrate our triumphant return than with an eighteen song megapost on the coversongs of and from this incredible singer-songwriter? Ladies and gentlemen: the coverwork of James Taylor, Massachusetts resident.

    Born in Boston, James Taylor spent his adolescence in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was Dean of the UNC School of Medicine. But the family retained strong ties to Massachusetts, summering in Martha's Vineyard; James attended boarding school at Milton Academy, and when he struggled with depression in his early adulthood, he headed for McLean's Hospital, a stately suburban instititution just outside of Boston where I remember visiting one of my own friends in the last year of high school.

    Though he has since lived in California and London, and though his signature voice retains the barest hint of southern twang under that clear-as-a-bell blueblood bostonian accent, like me, Taylor has always returned to the Massachusetts he loves. Today, he lives about thirty miles west of here, in the Berkshires, just on the other side of the Adirondack ridge. And he retains strong ties to his beloved Martha's Vineyard, performing there each summer, sometimes with Ben and Sally, his children by ex-wife Carly Simon, who is also a Vineyard resident.

    Beyond our shared love of the beaches and woods of Massachusetts, there's something immutably local and authentic about my experience with James Taylor. My childhood understanding of and familiarity with folk music as a genre and a recorded phenomenon was primarily driven by a strong record collection at home, but my experience of acoustic music as folk -- as something singable and sharable and communal -- was peppered with young camp counselors who had learned their guitar licks from the radioplay of the day. For me, Fire and Rain will always be a song for campfire singalongs, one which helps me come to terms with the bittersweet and constant state of being both in good company and away from home.

    Too, James Taylor was my first concert, and you never forget your first. I remember lying on the summer grass at Great Woods (now the Tweeter Center), looking up at the stars and letting the wave of Fire and Rain wash over me. I remember peering at the stage and recognizing the way James smiled at us, at bass player Leland Sklar, at the song itself as a kind of genuine communion, one which flavored the performance with something valid and universal.

    Because of that night, and the organic songs-first-performance-afterwards way I came to it, James Taylor, for me, is the standard by which I measure the authenticity of folk performance. That so many shows have not met that standard since then is a tribute to both Taylor's gentle nature, and his way with song and performance.

    James Taylor's voice is unmistakable, almost too sweet for some, and he doesn't fit my every mood. His loose, white-man's-blues guitar playing is better than most people give him credit for, but it is often downplayed in his produced work. But in the back of my mind his songs are a particular form of homecoming, one intimately tied to summer song and simple times outside of the world as we usually live it. And when I sing Sweet Baby James or You Can Close Your Eyes to my children at night, there's a part of me that's back on that summer lawn, letting the music reach a part of me that cannot speak for itself.

    We'll have a few choice covers of Taylor's most popular in the bonus section of today's megapost. But first, here's a few of the many songs which Taylor has remade in his own gentle way over the years: doo-wop standards, sweet nighttime paeans and lullabies, hopeful protest songs, and others.

    Though James Taylor does have his pop side, this isn't it. You've heard 'em before, so I've skipped the original versions of the covers which Taylor has made his own through radioplay over the years -- including Carole King's Up On The Roof and Marvin Gaye's How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) -- though I did keep a live version of Handy Man in the mix, and thought it worth trying the new version of You've Got A Friend from Taylor's newest release, the stripped-down One Man Band. (I've also skipped his lite pianojazz ballad version of How I Know You, from the Aida soundtrack: it's not folk, and it's not my thing.)

    Instead, by presenting a selection of Taylor's rarer and lesser-known coversong all at once, it is my hope that the diversity of the source material here allows even the most jaded of us to come to what is too-often dismissed as Adult Contemporary pablum with new ears, attuned to more subtle differences of tone and undertone -- to explore and even collapse the distance between bittersweet and tender, longing and acceptance, home and homesickness, which continues to make James Taylor worth listening to, and celebrating.

    James Taylor's works are mainstream, and distributed as such; his website sends us to for purchase. As here at Cover Lay Down we prefer to avoid supporting the corporate middleman in favor of direct artist and label benefit, we recommend that those looking to pursue the songwriting and sound of James Taylor head out to their local record shop for purchase.

    Not sure where to begin? Anything released between 1968 and 1974 provides the best introduction to JT's core sound; I promise it's folkier than you remember. Jaded folkies who stopped listening a while back might take a second look at Taylor's 1977 release JT, or albums from the late eighties and nineties such as Never Die Young, New Moon Shine or Hourglass. I've heard great things about the recent DVD release One Man Band, Taylor's return to a sparser acoustic sound. And coverlovers shouldn't lose sight of James Taylor, either -- rumor has it that he has already recorded tracks for an album of soul covers to be released later this year.

    I had been saving the bulk of my collection of covers of James Taylor originals for a future Folk Family Feature on the Taylor family: James, Livingston, son Ben, and Ben's mother Carly Simon. But I've been leaking them slowly and surely as time goes on, and the floodgates are open today. So here's the backlinks, and a few bonus coversongs to tide you over:

    James Taylor covers previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • Sheryl Crow covers You Can Close Your Eyes
  • Mud Acres covers Carolina in My Mind
  • Cindy Kallet covers New Hymn

    Related posts:
  • Ben Taylor covers The Zombies' Time of the Season
  • Livingston Taylor covers Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely
  • Carly Simon covers the theme to Winnie The Pooh

    PS: I'm also looking for a rumored 2004 recording of James Taylor and Alison Krauss covering the Louvin Brothers' How's the World Treating You. Found! Thanks, Carol!

  • Friday, April 25, 2008

    Carolina Coverfolk, Vol. 3:
    The Traditional Folksongs of Doc Watson

  • Vol. 1: Songs of the South
  • Vol. 2: The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten

    Elizabeth Cotten and Arthel "Doc" Watson share more than just a connection to the state of North Carolina. Both were culturally disadvantaged -- Cotten due to her skin color, and Doc due to a lifelong blindness. Each started performing in childhood, but became truly famous in the great folk revival of the sixties. Both are known for songs which celebrate the hard life and trials of their beloved rural south while addressing universal themes of loss, change, and heartache. And, most importantly, though no one could confuse Cotten's rural bluesfolk for Doc's country swing style, each is ranked among the best acoustic fingerpickers of their generation.

    But the differences between the two are great, as well. In fact, presenting Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten side by side makes for an interesting exercise in folk history, one which allows us to see the great diversity of the strands and influences which came together to make modern folk music in America.

    Unlike Elizabeth Cotton, who came back to folk in the sixties after a long hiatus, Doc Watson (b. 1923) was always a musician, busking with his brother for pennies as a child, supporting himself and his family with his work as a piano tuner to pay the bills when he could not find paid work as a sideman. Though he worked through much of the fifties as an electric guitar player with a country and western swing band, when the modern folk scene began to crystalize in the early sixties, Doc switched over to acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, making a name for himself as one of the best fingerpickers in the business, and finding himself in high demand on the burgeoning folk circuit.

    Where Cotten is primarily known for her original songs and original rhythmic style, Doc Watson's greatest contributions to folk music came from his source material and lightning speed. His ability to blow the socks off every other picker in the room is well known, and his work as a songwriter is honest and respectable. But as folk, his repertoire is most significant for its use of songs from the oral tradition which might otherwise have been lost. We might say that while it was Mike Seeger's recordings of Elizabeth Cotten which saved her authentic voice, Doc Watson's recordings and performance of the mountain ballads from the areas around his home of Deep Gap, North Carolina allow us to consider Doc a Seeger to his own people.

    This is not to say that the tradsongs of Doc Watson sound anything like Cotten's originals, stylistically-speaking. While Cotten's fingerpicking style comes from applying banjo style to the guitar, Watson's quickfingered picking style is the successful result of moving songs that were traditionally fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar. Where Cotton was self-taught, Watson learned his trade through the traditional country songs of the south, and the songs of early country greats like the Louvin and Monroe Brothers.

    Where Cotton ended up finding a style that sounded more like early blues musicians, Watson’s different approach and experience, plus his apprenticeship in the country and western genres, left him with a wail and a sense of rhythm that call to the same acoustic old-timey country sound that you might hear in the rougher, hippier corners of bluegrass and country festivals today.

    Another way of saying this might be to point out that where Cotten shows the blues influence on folk music, Doc Watson shows the country -- an influence which, despite its significance, is often the elephant in the room when it comes to folk music. His style and his "mountain music" sound hark to a time back before country and folk music had truly split off from each other, and long before alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo, newgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, old timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, and modern western swing folk musicians like Eilen Jewell went spelunking in the deep well of potential that lies between true country music and the post-sixties folk (and rock) music scenes.

    Today, both country and folk music claim Doc Watson as one of their own, and rightfully so. Doc holds multiple Grammy awards in both the Traditional Folk and the Country Instrumental categories; Merlefest -- the festival named after Doc's son and long-time musical partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 -- is known for attracting the best music and musicians from the intersection of folk, bluegrass, and country. But no matter what you call it, Doc Watson's sound is instantly recognizable, powerful, and no less potent today, eighty years after it could be heard on the streets of his beloved North Carolina.

    Today's collection is a bit heavier on the tradfolk than cover lovers might ordinarily prefer. But this is no loss. Focusing primarily on the traditional folksongs Watson interpreted allows us to celebrate one of his greatest contributions to American folk music. Though the pickin’s are slim, thanks to some of the great bloggers that have come before me and the luck of a grab-and-go draw before we hit the road last Friday, what follows includes some great and representative tradfolk from a fifty year career, from old live recordings with Merle to Doc's haunting baritone lead vocals on a beautiful back-porch version of Gershwin's faux spiritual Summertime.

    I'm no expert on the works of Doc Watson, and as you can see from the diverse source albums listed above, his catalog is especially prolific. But if you're new to his sound, and want to begin a collection, purists tell me the best place to start is Smithsonian Folkways for the older stuff, and Doc Watson and David Holt's page for his most recent Grammy-winning work. Also recommended, since we missed Record Store Day last Saturday: head to your local record store and, after searching fruitlessly for sections labeled "Traditional Folk" or "Traditional Country", ask for any of the above-mentioned disks by name.

    Cover Lay Down will be heading from North Carolina to Massachusetts on Saturday, and will return Sunday evening with a feature on an artist who made the same transition. Keep pickin' and grinnin', and we'll see you then.

  • Tuesday, April 22, 2008

    Carolina Coverfolk, Vol. 2:
    The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten

    North Carolina is rich in history and broad in geography, stretching from warm beachfront majesty to the base of Appalachia. That it holds a dominant place in the history of folk music is due in part to its cultural diversity, and in part to its situation midway up the coast, along the route that folk strands might have once traveled from North to South and back again. This combination of factors has made it an influential locus and crossroads for several southern folk movements of the last century, including branches of the blues, appalachian music, and strains of bluegrass, and other early rural folk forms.

    Rather than give the musicians and musical forms of this diverse region shorter shrift than they deserve, instead of our typical biweekly megaposts, this week we offer several shorter features on the coversongs of and from a few North Carolinan songwriters who made their mark on folk music long before the sixties transformed American folk from cultural phenomenon to a true genre. It is a tribute to their indelible influence and stellar songwriting that that these songs are still treasured in performance today.

    Today, we begin our journey with the songs of Elizabeth Cotten (1896? - 1987; born Carrboro, North Carolina).

    Like many early folk musicians born at the turn of the century, Elizabeth Cotten had two careers: one in her early years, as a self-taught blues folk prodigy, and one later in life, when the folk revival of the fifties and sixties drove a desperate effort to recover and record the authentic sounds of early American folk forms before they could be lost to the ages. Cotten's story of rediscovery is especially notable for its serendipity: though a few of her songs had taken on a life of their own in the hands of other blues and folk musicians during the forties, Cotten herself had quit making music for twenty five years, only to be rediscovered in the sixties while working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family.

    Cotten's strong songwriting and original upside-down "Cotten picking" guitar style, with its signature banjo-like low-string drone and alternating fingerpicking bass, would eventually result in a star turn on seminal disks and collections from the Smithsonian Folkways label, many culled from home recordings made under the reel-to-reel direction of Mike Seeger in the nineteen fifties. The support of the Seegers and others, and the subsequent success of her first album, the 1957 release Folksongs and Instrumentals, brought her onto the folk circuit, where her unique sound influenced the burgeoning folk movement, and where her songs would be heard, recorded, and passed along by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

    In the end, though only four albums of her original material were ever released, Cotten remained a celebrated member of the folk touring scene into her late eighties, winning a Grammy in 1985 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live! a year after being named a "living treasure" by the Smithsonian. Her music continues to be celebrated today for its timeless and distinctive qualities, and for the way it speaks to a childhood among the simple folkways of the rural North Carolina south. And her influence as a songwriter, a guitarist, and an artist echoes in the work of generations.

    Today, a few covers each of two of Cotten's most familiar songs: two fragile kidfolk versions of Freight Train, which was written when Cotten was eleven, and a full set of folkvariants on the timeless Shake Sugaree, from the hearty tones of folk blues legends Chris Smither and Taj Mahal to the delicate second-wave folk field recordings of indie newcomer Laura Gibson and the previously-featured grunge-folk goddess Mary Lou Lord.

    As always, artist and album links above lead to the most authentic, the most honest, and the most local places to buy music: from the artists and labels themselves. The Elizabeth Cotten originals, especially, are core must-haves for any true tradfolk collector; pick up her three solo albums at Smithsonian Folkways.

    Assuming the weather doesn't keep knocking out the network, stay tuned throughout the week for a short half-feature on Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, and a piece on the work of Doc Watson, yet another North Carolina fingerpicker. Meanwhile, I'l be sitting on the back porch, local brew in hand, watching the sun set over the sound and the North Carolina mainland, while the wild deer and the goslings root for grub in the low grass below. Y'all come back now, y'hear?

    [UPDATE 4/27: Great minds think alike: head on over to For The Sake of the Song for an almost-simultaneous post on Shake Sugaree that includes the seminal Fred Neil cover and the Elizabeth Cotten original!]

    Sunday, April 20, 2008

    Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 1:
    Songs of the South
    (Red Molly, Steve Forbert, Cris Williamson, Mike Seeger)

    It's school vacation, and we really needed a change of scene. So we headed down south to North Carolina's Outer Banks, just me, the wife and kids, and a whole host of other relatives from both sides of the gene pool: my father, my wife's parents, siblings on both sides, even a few great-aunts and grandparent-in-laws. None of us live here, but it's as good a neutral midpoint as any; we've rented two houses down the street from each other just to fit everyone comfortably, and the trip promises to be memorable no matter what transpires.

    So far, other than a long overnight drive down the coast, a quick dip of the toes in the ocean, a wonderful barbecue breakfast and a late-night hamburger cook-out, we've done little besides meet, greet, and settle in. Plans from here include a moment of awe on the beach where the Wright brothers made aviation history, as much rest and relaxation as possible, plenty of late night hot-tubbing and game room pool-playing, and a rare opportunity to spend some time with the wife sans kids.

    But I'm also keeping my eyes open, trying to soak in as much of the culture and folkways as I can. I've driven through North Carolina before on my way north from Florida, and I have vague memories of a very short middle school chorus trip to the Winston-Salem area involving long rehearsals and a midnight sneak-out to a waffle house. But though I was born in Georgia, we moved before my first birthday; I've lived North of Connecticut all my conscious life. I've read plenty, and I know on paper the ways and means of the Southern experience, but other than this hazy history, and a few New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival exceptions, I'm a newbie when it comes to experiencing the American South.

    Still, as regular readers know, I'm a sucker for an excuse to delve deeply into subgenre and theme. So, in honor of the locale, this week will mark our first location-specific set of posts. Wednesday we'll feature some coverwork of and from homegrown old-school tradfolk luminaries Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs; later, as we look towards home again, we'll feature covers of the songs of James Taylor, an artist who was born in North Carolina, but now spends his days up north in Massachusetts, not so far from where we call home. And today, to kick things off, we present some coversongs which celebrate the Carolinas -- a short set heavy on the appalachian instrumentation and southern sound.

    • Red Molly, Oh My Sweet Carolina (orig. Ryan Adams)
      Previously-featured sweet-voiced femme folk trio Red Molly covers this bittersweet tribute from North Carolina native son Ryan Adams with dobro, guitar, and harmony on their sole full-length album, the live Never Been To Vegas.

    • Mud Acres, Carolina in My Mind (orig. James Taylor)
      Another song by a native son, this one reinvented as a ragged hootenanny by Happy Traum, banjoist Bill Keith, bass player Roly Salley (who penned the oft-covered Killin' The Blues) and others from the mid-seventies Woodstock, NY Mud Acres music collective.

    • Cris Williamson and Tret Fure, Carolina Pines (orig. Kate Wolf)
      A languid, mournful country ballad of loss and emptiness from Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf. One of Kate's best, and the harmonica and slide on this powerful cut from Cris Williamson and Tret Fure make it that much better.

    • Mike Seeger and Paul Brown, Way Down in North Carolina (trad.)
      The title cut from Way Down in North Carolina, lovingly gathered and performed by collector of traditional song Mike Seeger and pal Paul Brown, is a fiddle tune at heart, true appalachian music from the old school. Timeless, true, and perfect for the back porch or the back country.

    • Steve Forbert, My Carolina Sunshine Girl (orig. Jimmie Rodgers)
      Singer-songwriter Steve Forbert swings this short but sweet old tune with a wry touch and his signature vocal strangle. Off Any Old Time, Forbert's tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, king of the cowboy yodel.

    Friday, April 18, 2008

    Elsecast at Coverville:
    The Cover Blog Roundtable

    Long before most of us had discovered the blogworld, Brian Ibbott was already setting the standard for astute cover song analysis and archival excellence with Coverville, an award-winning podcast which focuses on cover songs. Today, in celebration of his 450th episode, Brian brings forth The Cover Blog Roundtable -- featuring wise and wizened luminaries Liza of Copy, Right?, Steve of Cover Freak, Kurtis of Covering the Mouse, Jamie of Fong Songs, and yours truly -- and I'm happy to say it came out great.

    So come listen to me make a fool of myself trying to keep up with the rest of the coverblogger panel as we attempt to provide some definitive answers to some age-old questions about coversong. Our discussion included such topics as what makes a good cover, whether musicians can cover their own work, why produced covers generally beat covers in concert, and why American pop culture seems so much less authentic a source for genuine coversong (and music in general) than the rest of the world. I sound like an idiot, but it's an honor to be in such good company.

    Thanks to Brian for inviting me in, for hosting such a fun afternoon of discussion, and for bringing together our small band of coverbloggers as a community, if only for a moment. And congrats to Coverville on reaching its 450th episode without sacrificing one whit of the humor, authenticity, archival prowess, and sheer moxie that has driven the exceptional run of content that Brian has been bringing the show since day one. Check out this week's double-sized podcast, and then stick around to subscribe. You'll be constantly surprised, and never disappointed.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    Mae Robertson Covers:
    Dar Williams, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello, Beth Nielsen Chapman

    Singer-songwriter and folk interpreter Mae Robertson is my kind of person: a lover of cover songs, and a true fan of the environment, who ran a chain of New York natural fiber children's clothing stores for twenty years before returning to Alabama in 2000 to pursue her musical career. Many of her albums to date have been released as part of her Lullaby & Lovesong Collection, which has won numerous awards in the world of parenting. And the brightly-colored, flower-shaped plantable business card she sent along with her newest album, the aptly titled Meet the Sun Halfway, really won me over.

    If this were a blog about cool people, I could have stopped there. But though it was the flower-shaped business card, and the personal note that accompanied it, which caused me to give Mae's work a second listen, it was the music which ultimately won me over. And that's saying something. Because for most of my life, I've dismissed Mae's sort of music. And now I think I owe some people an apology.

    Mae Robertson comes from a school of folk way on the other end of the spectrum from the lo-fi, sparse, acoustic folk which characterizes the current indiefolk movement. This is folk for those who love Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and others in the rich-voiced songstress vein -- strong-voiced women who are primarily singers and interpreters of song, rather than storytellers or songwriters per se.

    It's not generally my favorite branch of the folkworld. And, I'll be honest, at first I didn't think this was going to be my cup of tea. But Mae has a lot going for her. Her organic business sense parallels themes of growth in her song choices and, increasingly, in her own emerging songwriting, which is surprisingly direct and vivid. She has an exquisite taste in folkworld cover songs, and an uncanny ability to pick songs and lyrics which best match her sweet, pure alto voice. The emotional honesty and carefully tuned craft she brings to her work is equal to the greatest of the words she sings, whether they are her own, of those of others. And her warm, bright delivery is like the sun itself.

    Like much of this sort of Adult Contemporary folkpop, the way in which we hear Mae's voice is subject to the whim of the producer, and in this case, the production on some songs is a bit too strong for my own taste. This is a common complaint for many folkfans when faced with this part of the genre, I suspect -- I had the same reaction to much of Shelby Lynne's newest coveralbum. But as with Shelby's work, the songs here run the gamut, from sparser work in the americana folk vein all the way to the jazzpop stuff, and there's plenty of gems.

    Even when it works, the heavy, almost syrupy production Mae Robertson chooses for many of her best covers can take some getting used to. It's startling to hear the likes of Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch covered in such dulcet tones, and with such lush orchestration. But like the seeds that will sprout from her business card, this is music that truly grows on you. It says something that I've continued to listen to these CDs long after I first sampled them. There's a warm, celebratory tone in Robertson's voice, and a genuine love of the songs she sings which shines though to the heart.

    My kids hear it, too. Of all the CDs I've recieved, these are the only ones my older daughter has asked about; when I asked her why, she said "I like this music; it's really pretty, and really nice" -- high praise, from a five year old. It's also the only folk music that both kids will dance to. They twirl and smile, like full-grown music box ballerinas, when I put Mae Robertson on. Believe me, this is music that will stay on the turntable for a while. Why not take it for a spin yourself?

    Meet The Sun Halfway was released in February; it includes more stellar covers, and some sweet and cohesive originals from Mae Robertson herself. Cuts above also come from Mae's two all-cover albums: last year's gorgeous award-winning lullaby collection Dream, and 2002 release Smile, which has the lightest production of the three CDs mentioned here, and features such back-up folk and bluegrass luminaries as Tim O'Brien, Viktor Krauss, and Sloan Wainwright. Pick up these, and sample all of her previous albums, at CD Baby (Mae's preferred source) or via her website.

    Today's bonus coversongs, because Mae Robertson's fondness for Beth Nielsen Chapman sent me to the stacks.

    Monday, April 14, 2008

    Covered in Kidfolk, Part 4: Daddy's Little Girl
    Coversongs for Fathers and Daughters

    My younger daughter turns three tomorrow, and we've spent the weekend celebrating with extended family: a trip to the circus yesterday, brunch and a slightly damp walkaround at 19th century "living museum" Old Sturbridge Village today. It's been exhausting, to be honest -- putting the girls in their spring dresses, driving back and forth the length of Massachusetts, and advocating for the kids sanity among the best intentions of so many family members is a lot of work.

    But I'm grateful for the distraction. Because if I had a chance to really sit and think about how big my little girl is getting, I'd probably just end up crying.

    I remember, from her older sister: three is the turning point, where a child begins to turn from a state of constant parental need to wanting space and freedom, a room of her own. Sure enough, when we asked the wee one what she wanted for her birthday, she asked for a bunk bed -- which was, for her older sister, the moment we could no longer lie in bed together, late at night in the darkness, and do what daddies and their children do: share stories, snuggle close, and, finally, listen for those sweet deep sighs, the ones that mean sleep has finally come to take my child from me one more time.

    The elderchild read her first book all the way through this week -- just us and Sam I Am on the couch past her bedtime, struggling with would nots and could nots until the triumphant end. I was proud, and it seemed right. But my mind and heart play tricks. While milestones seem perfectly natural for the older child, and always have, there's a part of my heart that rails against change when it comes to her younger sister. I want so much for her to be little forever, it hurts like hell.

    She's getting big without me, more than her big sister did. We get so little time, just her and me, and she is still adjusting to Mama as a working girl -- she clings to Mama when she comes home, and will not talk to me for the rest of the evening. This tiny towhead who once insisted on her Daddy, and only her Daddy, in the middle of the crying night is losing her lisp, and gaining her independence, and fighting to hold on to her Mama, and all I can do is watch the clock, and ache to hold her in my arms while they are still strong enough to carry her.

    So it's been a poignant time for me, there on the couch with the elderchild while the wee one snuggles in with her Mama. I've always felt like I give the second child short shrift; it seems like we had so much more time, so much more focus when there was only one. Now so much more of our life together is spent in threes, trying to manage the play between them. Now here I am, running out of time.

    I'm proud of them, and I feel good about the time we spend together, on the whole. But my little girls are growing up, and though there's nothing I can do about it except take the moments as they come, and fight for every one I can, I miss their smaller selves. And my heart breaks when I think how precious, how rare, the moments are about to become.

    There are several popular folksongs about fathers and sons which have been covered within the genre -- stellar versions of Cat Stevens' Father and Son and Paul Simon's St. Judy's Comet jump to mind, though Ben Folds' Still Fighting It remains so definitive it is practically uncoverable. But with the exception of a few sappy countrypop tunes, there aren't so many songs written from fathers to daughters out there.

    One reason the crossgender parent-to-child song may be so rare is that it provides a weaker outlet for the narrator to project their own sense of childhood into the child. Which is to say: The narrative trick which turns a song about fathers into a song about fatherhood, which makes mincemeat of my heart in songs like Harry Chapin's Cat in the Cradle and Mike Rutherford's Living Years, is unavailable to us. No matter how much I love my children, I can never claim to know what it is to be a little girl with a Daddy.

    But though like the moments I have with my own little girls, songs which speak directly and explicitly to our lot as parents with daughters are precious and few, what songs there are tug powerfully at the heartstrings. So today, a short set of songs which speak to my own complicated feelings for my own little girls. I've deliberately left out songs which name sons or mothers, though I've allowed myself a couple of songs which are open enough to come from any parent to any child. But this set of songs is intended first and foremost for daddies to give to their daughters. As such, it runs from sugar and spice, through everything nice. Because whether you listen as a child or as a parent, that's what memories are made of.

    Unlike our previous kidsong posts here on Cover Lay Down, a vast majority of the songs included herein were not originally intended for children. Instead, most teeter on an open line, innocent enough to apply to either a lover or a child, unspecific enough to allow a good interpreter to choose, if they wish. To me, the delivery and intention of the performances below resolves the lyrical vagueness in a way that makes them perfect for sharing between parent and child. But many work well as more general songs of love and affection. You're welcome, as always, to make them your own in any way you need them to. That's the heart of folk, right there.

    • Livingston Taylor, Isn't She Lovely (orig. Stevie Wonder)
      Like brother James, Livingston Taylor specializes in sweet songs delivered in a crisp, light crooning tenor over bright acoustic stringwork. This cover of Stevie Wonder's tribute to female innocence comes from kidlabel Music for Little People, off out-of-print collection That's What Little Girls Are Made Of.

    • Lucy Kaplansky, Goodnight My Angel (orig. Billy Joel)
    • Eliza Gilkyson, Child Of Mine (orig. Carole King)
      A pair from the incredible kidfolk compilation Down at the Sea Hotel: Cover Lay Down fave Lucy Kaplansky with a gorgeous tune originally penned by Billy Joel for his own daughter, and Eliza Gilkyson with a breathy, slow country blues take on a Goffin/King classic which suggests misty-eyed regret even as the lyrics celebrate a child's independance.

    • Shawn Colvin, Say A Little Prayer (orig. Greg Brown)
      So many female coverversions of songs written by fathers for their daughters. This one, which treats the late-night illness of a child with a stoicism and a lightness masking the secret fear all parents have for their sick children, is more poignant than many, more mystical than most. Shawn Colvin is but one of many strong folkwomen on the highly recommended all-female Greg Brown tribute Going Driftless.

    • John Haitt and Loudon Wainwright III, My Girl (orig. Smokey Robinson)
      Languid and dreamy, floated over a majestic piano and guitarstrum, the beauty of this version lies in the distance between Wainwright's melodic voice and Hiatt's rasp. Listen for the high harmony; it's chilling. Originally a B-side, subsequently off out-of-print Demon Records compilation album From Hell to Obscurity.

    • Ani DiFranco w/ Jackie Chan, Unforgettable (orig. Nat King Cole)
      Originally a song with unspecified female subject, this song was transformed when Natalie Cole chose to re-record it with the ghost of her father. Though the end result was a song more from daughter to father than the other way around, I think the sentiment holds, even in Ani DiFranco and Jackie Chan's unusual take. From When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You'd Hear.

    • Ben Lee, In My Life (orig. The Beatles)
    • Chantal Kreviazuk, In My Life (ibid.)
      This song may not have been intended to speak to the way all other loves pale in comparison to the sudden, deep love we feel for our chidren, almost from the moment they are born. But it says it, all the same. Many good versions to choose from here; in the interest of diversity, here's Aussie Ben Lee's tentative, nasal tenor and slow wash of sound off of recent indie tribute album This Bird Has Flown, in sharp contrast with Canadian Chantal Kreviazuk's bright soprano, layered over production suprisingly similar to the original, from the Providence soundtrack.

    • Billy Bragg w/ Cara Tivey, She's Leaving Home (orig. The Beatles)
      All my fears in one song: the parents who never truly understood their child, even as she leaves them behind without a goodbye. Another repost, and more Beatles, gorgeously performed by Billy Bragg; so tender and wistful, it's just right for the occasion.

    • Sheryl Crow, You Can Close Your Eyes (orig. James Taylor)
      One of my very favorite songs to sing to children: a stunningly simple lullaby of eternal parent/child tomorrows from James Taylor, covered in folkpop well enough for a Grammy nomination for Sheryl Crow in the Best Pop Female Vocalist category.

    • Gray Sky Girls, You Are My Sunshine (orig. Jimmie Davis)
      I sing this song to my children, as my parents sung this song to me. Though the Elizabeth Mitchell version I posted in our very first Covered in Kidfolk post sounds more like my parents, the simple, sweet plaintive harmony from local "organic country slowgrass" folkies Gray Sky Girls best parallels that which I hear in my head and heart.

    As always, artist and album links above go to online sources for purchasing genuine plastic circles which offer the best chance of profit for musicians, and the least amount of corporate middleman skim-off. Teach your children well: support the artists you listen to.

    Wednesday, April 9, 2008

    Covered in Folk: Jimi Hendrix
    (Rickie Lee Jones, Fiona Apple, The Corrs, Emmylou Harris, 6 more!)

    Big news in the folkworld yesterday as Bob Dylan received a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize folks for his "profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." In response, For the Sake of the Song turns up a set of stellar live Dylan rarities, and claims Dylan's recognition as a big win for rock and roll, but we know better -- that description has folk written all over it, doesn't it? Kudos, Bob.

    This would be the perfect moment for a set of Dylan covers...if we hadn't already featured singer-songwriter Angel Snow's deep thoughts on Dylan's "profound impact" and "poetic power" this past Sunday, along with her great take on Meet Me in the Morning. Rather than try to top that admittedly premature but no less effective tribute, today, we offer a compromise: a feature on the musician who took a Dylan song and turned it into the seminal soundtrack of every Vietnam movie ever made. Ladies and Gentlemen: the songs of Jimi Hendrix.

    Like so many of our Covered in Folk subjects, Jimi Hendrix isn't folk, but he has a kind of folk credibility that makes him a natural choice for popular cover songs. Woodstock, the drug culture, the sixties -- if that electric wail and trippy, funky, post-blues sensibility wasn't at the very heart of his sound, we'd be remiss not to claim this cultural icon as one of our own.

    But the challenge of covering Jimi Hendrix, of course, is that while plenty of Jimi Hendrix songs have lyrics, most don't have that many words to play with. Take Voodoo Child, which uses a dozen words or so to proclaim repeatedly that the singer/narrator is standing next to a mountain, and is a voodoo child, and still manages to remain seared in our brains. Or the few short lines of hallucination poetics that is Little Wing, so trivial to the song's success that while Sting's cover is too maudlin to share here, Stevie Ray Vaughan's instrumental cover comes across as masterful and complete. It's telling, in fact, that many of the best Hendrix covers out there are by blues musicians, as in many ways, Hendrix lyrics are like the words in the blues -- they might offer some context, but it's not the words we look to when we struggle to find ourselves in the blues experience.

    It's not that Hendrix songs are meaningless. And it's not that his lyrics are useless, really. It's that with a few exceptions, Jimi speaks with his guitar, and uses his voice, even the lyrics themselves, as another instrument, a factor to set the stage, so that the technique and raw emotion of the strings might more effectively convey the subtleties of emotion that the song is intended to "mean".

    As such, a Hendrix song offers several avenues of ownership for a covering performer. It can, for example, be an opportunity to feature the production -- to shape a sound that in toto compensates for the lack of a prodigy at the center. Many artists who perform on or just over the pop edge of the folkworld have done just that. The heavy worldbeat production makes Voodoo Child a pop song in the hands of Beninise singer Angelique Kidjo, but the bounce and cry of the vocals call to the original. Though Cassandra Wilson's cover of The Wind Cries Mary is languid by comparison, it, too, shares a jangly acoustic jazzpop sensibility and an honest delivery which make it authentic, as if played on a jazz bar stage after the audience had gone home, and the mics had been turned off.

    Other related genre covers focus on the instrumentation itself, reminding us that Hendrix was a guitarist first, and a band member and singer only afterwards. The Corrs bring a more traditional folk rock sensibility to their live cover of Little Wing that could pass for a mellow version of the original, were it not for the pipes and fiddle. Bluegrass dobro wizard Jerry Douglas may sing the words to Hey Joe, but as with Hendrix himself, it's the instrument who is the real star here. And if Memphis blues/rock prodigy (and sometimes rapper) Eric Gales sounds little like Hendrix when he sings through his guitar, it is only because here, too, the heavy drums and lyric only lend support to what is ultimately a guitarist's song, played b a guitarist of extraordinary talent.

    If few true "folk" musicians and singer-songwriters take on Hendrix, it is because so few of his songs leave room to build on lyrical meaning. Because of this, to me, the most daring and often the most interesting Jimi Hendrix covers are the ones where the emotional emphasis is shifted to the voice. Emmylou Harris covers everybody, but I think her cover of May This Be Loved is among her more successful attempts, and surprisingly so, in part because of how effective her aging yet still etherial voice applies itself to the sparse, repetitive lyrics -- though the very heavy wash of sound in the production, which features what seems to be an electric guitar played back in reverse throughout, provides an effective, moody underscore.

    Similarly, though Alison Brown's Angel is a true ensemble piece, with rich harmony vocals and a full acoustic band from banjo and guitar to bass and piano, Beth Nielsen Chapman's warbly, honest lead vocals beat Fiona Apple's earnest attempt to bring the blues to her voice, which almost works, if both voice and production didn't teeter on the edge of channeling Cher and Aaron Neville. And most effective of all, the nuanced, impish delivery Rickie Lee Jones brings to Up From the Skies recenters the song on the lyric without losing a whit of the hopeful, playful emotional tone of the original.

    A mixed bag today, then: a few stellar covers, and a couple of flawed gems worth celebrating nonetheless. Heavy on the fringes of the folkword, too, with worldpop, cool jazz, and plenty of blues and bluegrass to choose from. Perhaps, in the end, this is the more honest tribute to a man like Hendrix, who -- for all his wizardry -- was a musician for whom experiment and experience, not perfection, were the ultimate goal.

    Though most tracks on today's list came from compilation albums, the Hendrix estate doesn't really need our cash. On the other hand, today's artists really do deserve your support. As always, clicking on artist names in the post above takes you directly to artist websites for purchase and, in most cases, further tuneage.

    Looking for today's bonus tracks? How about a few versions of that Dylan cover? If you missed it a couple of weeks ago, head on over to last week's Audiography guest post to hear a pair of covers of All Along the Watchtower from Canadian Celtic rockers The Paperboys and old-school American folk rockers Brewer & Shipley, who you may remember as the guys who originally recorded "One Toke Over The Line".

    Sunday, April 6, 2008

    New Artists, Old Songs:
    Angel Snow, Sam Jacobs, and Jon Regen
    Cover Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Journey

    In order for me to cover a song, the melody must strike me as well thought out. I can't just relate to the song personally, it must also involve the artist's emotional detail. I tend to crave a genuine credibility from an artist's voice and lyrics –- songs in which I believe every word. If I'm able to put myself in the situation of a song and play the part, then I know it's for real and I want to share it with others.
    -- Angel Snow, singer-songwriter

    Like many music bloggers, I have mixed feelings about becoming big enough to be noticed by the indie promoters. On the one hand, there's a lot of great folk being produced out there, and I appreciate having it show up at my doorstep. On the other hand, there's a lot of music out there, period. Some days it's hard to find my doorstep.

    Happily, in my case, the potential for being overwhelmed by new music is tempered by our focus on the intersection of two relatively small niches within the music world. Though we define "folk" broadly here, much of the music I recieve is easily rejected as either not folk, or all originals. Winnowing the pile down from there is time-consuming, but it's worth it. For in and among the chaff that comes my way, a few artists have stood out as both worthy of repeated listening, and perfect for my readership.

    This presents a challenge. Though many of our feature series here at Cover Lay Down focus on songs or genre, which provide plenty of opportunity for a single great track to find its way into the mix, until now, we've only done full features on artists who have enough cover songs under their proverbial belts to merit the full Cover Lay Down treatment. But some artists are so impressive right out of the gate, they merit notice even before their body of work has grown to that scale.

    So today, we begin a new occasional series, in which I have the rare privilege of introducing some artists so far under the radar that most of them haven't even hit the rest of the blogosphere, so new that they haven't yet recorded more than a single cover or two, and so incredible I just couldn't wait until their next album to write about them.

    We call this new series New Artists, Old Songs, and though I expect most posts in this series to be short one-shot occasionals, this weekend we kick it off on a high note with three artists to keep your ears on: Americana singer-songwriter Angel Snow, urban alt-country artist Sam Jacobs, and bluesfolk pianist Jon Regen. Someday, when these folks are as famous as they truly deserve, you and I can take some pride in recognizing genius when we first heard it.

    Nashville singer-songwriter Angel Snow has recorded exactly one album, with but a single cover, but I've never been so happy to have finally been discovered by the industry as I was when I stuck Fortune Tellers into my CD player. Angel's promotional materials describe her sound as "classic Americana folk with a modern edge", and that's spot on, but it doesn't begin to capture the incredible emotive power that Angel can wring from spare, ringing guitarwork and a plaintive country vocal style versatile enough to go from the the open tonality of Natalie Merchant to the weary yet hopeful backporch intimacy of Caroline Herring.

    In short, Angel Snow's music is wry and confessional, raw and open, and I've fallen in love with it. I was so eager to hear more that I asked her manager to pass along a few questions. Here's Angel's thoughts on Dylan:

    Bob Dylan is a favorite of mine not only because his music continues to transcend time, but also because it was -- and is still -- so profound. His music left some flabbergasted (I love that word) and others outraged, and yet still he did what he felt he had to do. Maybe it was because he had to get his emotions out. Whatever his reasons for pushing that envelope, he still managed to keep his storytelling talent intact. Dylan's train of thought -– now that's something I'd like to dig into.

    Compared to the rest of Fortune Tellers, Angel's solo Dylan cover is sparse, but no less intimate. Add a bit more open-throated power, a light application of well-produced slow bass, kit drums, and gospel organ, and some vulnerable and introspective songwriting, and you've got a total package that's already on my Best of 2008 list. Download the Dylan, check out a few more tracks at Angel Snow's myspace page, and then pick up Fortune Tellers.

    NYC singer-songwriter Sam Jacobs, who writes and performs under the name Lipstik, works in multiple genres -- in addition to this raggedly stunning folk music, he's also working on "some dance stuff and some noise rock things". But his no-longer-forthcoming 4-song digital EP There Is Only One Thing, which features a cover of Tom Petty's Yer So Bad, is a collection of "sad songs with piano and cello" on the verge of No Depression alt-country, with a sense of song structure and subject aptly described as Leonard Cohen-esque. Full-length work-to-be Pain is a Reliable Signal promises more in the same vein, if a bit more Van Morrison, and that's not bad, either.

    Today's track is an apt example. The aforementioned Tom Petty cover starts ragged and raw, with brushes and guitar and a voice not unlike Petty's, if a bit more melodic. The song transitions smoothly to a full-bore weary beauty once the cello comes bowing in, and the end result is pure alt-folk gold. Download below, and then Check Lipstik out here.

    Pianist and singer-songwriter Jon Regen is already an old hand in the music industry; he accompanied and anchored tour bands for jazzmen Jimmy Scott and Kyle Eastwood for years, and cut two acclaimed albums of pianojazz in the early millenium. He's recently started recording and performing his own work, and like fellow folkblogger and impeccable taste-master Muruch, who posted the title track off Regen's promising new album Let It Go last week, I was struck by Regen's "bluesy acoustic" authenticity from the first listen. Let It Go has high folkpop credibility, with production work from the same guys who work with Teddy Thompson and Ryan Adams, and support from Martha Wainwright on vocals and the distinctive guitarwork of Andy Summers of The Police, but Regen's original songwriting and stellar performance are the real find here, and I'm glad he thought to seek us out.

    Kudos to Regen for knowing his audience; Muruch may have the single, but I got a very nice personal note and an *unreleased* cover of Don't Stop Believin' which he recorded in 2005. It's a great track, soulful and well-produced, reminiscent of the best work of Marc Cohn or Bruce Hornsby, and I'm honored to be the first to bring it to light. Listen, and then stream and buy Let It Go.

    Finally, today's bonus coversong isn't an old song, and it's not new to the blogs, either. But young LA-based "acoustic soul" and jazz-folk crooner and songwriter John West is going places, too -- somewhere just on the soul side of Shawn Mullins, I suspect, with more than a touch of Corinne Bailey Rae. This folky, gorgeously understated take on Rihanna's Grammy-nominated and admittedly over-covered Umbrella is the only acoustic version of this song I've found which manages to retain the oozing sexiness of the original. And, dammit, it's totally stuck in my head, so maybe posting it here will help.

    We'll be back Wednesday with a long-overdue return to our regular Covered in Folk feature, wherein we collect the very best folk covers of a single artist's songs.

    Interested in being considered for the Cover Lay Down treatment? Please gmail for details. All serious submissions taken seriously. Please note, however, that home recordings will only be accepted from Sam Beam.

    Thursday, April 3, 2008

    Cindy Kallet Covers:
    Dylan, Springsteen, Dougie MacLean, James Taylor, and more!

    There's something of the sea in the songs of Cindy Kallet: something of the honesty and intimacy of water and stones and the wild shorebirds, something of the tight-knit communities and strong, silent families of the New England coast she loves so much. It’s there in her lyrics, which speak of the small moments of hope and love and laughter that make life rich and worth celebrating. It’s there in her craft, which combines simple, heartfelt, unadorned elements -- a crisp, pure alto, an almost classical guitar sound, the rich harmonies of friends – in skillful, effective ways. And it’s there in her style, which echoes the older folkways of the sea shanty, the Celtic folk ballad, and post-Puritan shape note singing.

    Cindy Kallet’s music is folk in a traditional sense, unpretentious, unproduced, grounded in place and nature and community, celebrating a simpler life. It is of a particularly New England coastal school of music, of a mind with the work of Gordon Bok and a few select others who spend as much time building boats and serving community as they do performing and crafting songs of simple praise. As a product of and for that place, it contains elements of traditional rural folk ballads and sea shanties, combining them with Appalachian instruments and the trope and formal phrasing of Quaker plainsong. And it sounds older than it is, as if it skipped over the major transformation that folks like Dylan, Guthrie and Seeger brought to the table of American "modern" folk, to pull instead from a strong and uninterrupted tradition of simple music "of the folk" played earnestly and without pretense.

    In a world which considers such rough-edged confessional poets as Dylan and Guthrie the forefathers of modern American folk music, the “classical sensibility” and delicate phrasing Cindy Kallet brings to her craft can seems like an anomaly. But for all its grounding in the folk sounds, imagery, and culture of the northern American coast, there is also something both more intimately familiar and more elusively original about Cindy Kallet.

    Kallet is a truly talented and innovative songwriter and performer, one who brings her own uniquely skilled touch to her craft. Her first album Working on Wings to Fly, released way back in 1981, was named one of the Top 100 Folk Albums of the Millenium by Boston folk radio station WUMB. She has earned high praise and admiration from many folk musicians more typically identified with the “mainstream” singer-songwriter folk movement, such as Christine Lavin, Dar Williams, and Patty Larkin, who cites Kallet’s Dreaming Down a Quiet Line as one of her favorite albums. In turn, Kallet cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell among her influences, and indeed, there is something of James Taylor's finger styling in her own, something of the phrasing of Joni's sparser dulcimer tunes in the way Kallet pushes her pure legato voice soaring over her crisp stringwork. But the way she combines traditional and modern elements is truly her own. And the honest, intelligent eye she brings to bear on these elements is incomparable.

    More than anything else, Cindy Kallet’s music is an overwhelmingly intimate and open experience. But though her music is extraordinarily unadorned, it is anything but simplistic. Kallet’s songs are simultaneously a celebration of the world, and a communion with it. Her way with language, and with emotional delivery, is deliberate and intelligent, carefully wrought to serve what comes across as an almost holy reverence for the small details that make life worth living well.

    This is serious folk music, the core of the genre. It is simple, without being sparse. It is simultaneously delicate and complete. Every note counts, and seems carefully chosen. It feels like home, somewhere by the sea, on a warm Spring afternoon. I have never heard music that makes me want to listen so carefully.

    Kallet’s skillful ability to bring together the elements of modern and traditional folk to revere and recreate a particular place and time is paralleled by an ability to bring together others, both as lyricists and as collaborators, to reach an equally powerful communion. As her own songwriting is celebratory, and rich in gentle purpose, the artists and songs she chooses to cover are equally authentic, in tune with the sea and the joy of life lived simply in every moment. This has often meant reaching towards traditional songs of the Irish and British Isles, as in her most recent album Cross the Water, a collection of originals and Irish reels produced with multi-instrumentalist Grey Larsen; it has also meant covering the work of other contemporary musicians, like Gordon Bok and Dougie MacLean, who share her sense of place. And her collaborative work with compatriots Michael Cicone and Ellen Epstein, which produced two incredible albums over a decade apart and will produce a third in May, ranges farther, finding that same sensibility in the working-class community portrait of Bruce Springsteen's My Hometown, and a gorgeous three-part a capella delivery of Dylan's When The Ship Comes In.

    For all its evident craft, Cindy Kallet’s music comes across as egoless and effortless. Even as her songs celebrate the world she loves, she delivers them as if the point of performance were to invest every bit of her energy into helping each song become that which it is trying to be. This is far rarer than many of us would like to admit. Combine this with that sweet, rich alto, a powerful sense of phrasing in service to praise, and that skilled ability to use not only guitars, but the rarer instruments -- dulcimer, harmonium -- to support her sound, and the end result is an artist who is worthy of the highest praise and celebration.

    So let us celebrate Cindy Kallet, as she helps us to celebrate the simple things. For all of us need more laughter and joy in honest work and play, more sea and spray in our lives. And this, more than anything, is the soundtrack to that life we dream of.

  • Cindy Kallet, Sarah's Song (orig. Joel Zoss)
  • Cindy Kallet, Cherry Tree Carol (trad.)
    (from Dreaming Down a Quiet Line)

  • Cindy Kallet and Friends, New Hymn (orig. James Taylor)
  • Cindy Kallet and Friends, Them Stars (trad./MacArthur)
    (from This Way Home)

  • Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone, My Hometown (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
  • Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone, When the Ship Comes In (orig. Bob Dylan)
  • Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone, The Mhairi Bhan (orig. D. MacLean)
    (from Only Human)

  • Cindy Kallet and Grey Larsen, October Song (orig. Robbie Williamson)
    (from Cross the Water)

    If you're interested in purchasing Cindy Kallet's work, the AllMusic Guide recommends starting with Cindy Kallet 2, and both Patty Larkin and I highly recommend Dreaming Down a Quiet Line, though all three of her early solo albums are worthy additions to any folk collection. Parents may also be interested in Kallet’s wonderful children’s CD Leave the Cake in the Mailbox, which won a Parent Choice Gold Award in 2004.

    Cindy Kallet's collaborative work comes highly recommended, too. Kallet still tours with Grey Larsen in support of their 2007 release Cross The Water, which I have been enjoying very much. And the trio of Kallet, Epstein and Cicone will release their third CD in May; in the meanwhile, their previous two albums, which are chock full of cover songs, come highly recommended.

    Previously on Cover Lay Down: Ann Percival covers Cindy Kallet's Tide and the River Rising