Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Covering The Working Life:
Songs About Day Jobs (From Those Who Don't Have Them)

Ever since I chose teaching as a career, Labor Day has been doubly relevant for me: an annual return to the classroom-as-job-site marked by a national holiday in celebration of the organized workplace.

This year, however, after leaving a teaching position that just wasn't working out, and subsequently spending the summer carrying hope from one interview to the next, I find myself in a bit of limbo. Which is to say: for the first time in over a decade, Labor Day looms, and I don't have plans to be anywhere the day after.

The game's not over yet -- I've got two interviews tomorrow, in fact, and both seem promising. But the joy that I should have been feeling as we put my daughter on the bus for her first day of first grade today was tempered by uncertainty, and it's been hard to put it aside to take on the next few drafts down the line.

In the name of killing the jinx, then, and because I really should get to bed sooner than usual in order to be prepared, today's coversongs channel our complex package of cultural conceits about work: having it, hating it, needing it, loving it, and leaving it.

Don't let the size of today's list scare you, folks: huge and topically sprawling, it is nonetheless a carefully-selected and winnowed-down set of my favorites, from the crazed old-timey house party of Springsteen's take on Pay Me My Money Down to the driving, countrified folk rock production Melissa McClelland brings to Springsteen's own Factory, and from the delicate, precious indie retropop of Ephemera's Manic Monday to Richie Havens' surprisingly powerful treatment of John Lennon's Working Class Hero.

There's something for everyone today; after all, we all have to pay the bills somehow. So whether you prefer the slow barrelhouse bluegrass of Alison Krauss covering Dolly Parton's 9 to 5 or the radio-ready bluesfolk of Mark Knopfler's unfortunately named side project The Notting Hillbillies, Joshua James' quiet solo acoustic Modest Mouse cover or Jeb Loy Nichol's atmospheric hi-hat driven electro reggaefolk, the pulsing popfolk of Leslie King's Pink Floyd cover, the twangfolk of Peter Case doing Merle Haggard, or the true blue bluegrass of Salamander Crossing and Tim O'Brien, enjoy them all, and wish me luck at the interview table.

Of course, today's list would be sorely incomplete without my favorite John Hartford song. If you missed 'em the first time around, head back in time for a look at two great takes on In Tall Buildings, a perfect, bittersweet song of white collar life and lost summer, from Gillian Welch and The Jones Street Boys.

Oh, and as always: if you like what you hear here on Cover Lay Down, please consider purchasing CDs and other merch from the artists we feature. After all, if it weren't for our patronage, the music makers would be out of a job, too.

ADDENDUM 10:05 pm: Seems the jinx-breaking worked -- after a whirlwind day, I have accepted a teaching gig for next year! Thanks to all for the good thoughts and crossed fingers...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jim Henry Covers:
Richard Thompson, Robert Johnson, Doc Watson, etc.

If you're a younger folkfan like myself, and you know Jim Henry at all, it's probably for his work with others – whether it's as a session musician for the likes of The Weepies, Mark Erelli, or Cliff Eberhardt, a guitar and mando collaborator with fellow stringwizard Brooks Williams a la Grisman and Garcia, or, most recently, as a David Rawlings to Tracy Grammer, whose career performing the songs of her late partner Dave Carter is much enriched by Jim's direct, honest string work, harmonies, and production. In fact, Jim's work as a highly versatile sideman and producer over the last few years is legendary within the northeastern folkscene, at least among those of us who read liner notes to see who else is playing on the better tracks; he is greatly respected by critics and label-hounds, even if his name is only vaguely familiar to the average folk listener.

But Jim Henry gets around. He made his name as a member of the Sundogs, a "swamp boogie" band popular on the New England circuit twenty years ago. His solo work in the late nineties, before he shifted to sideman work as a primary outlet for his musicianship, won broad recognition on a national scale, finding its way to folk radio everywhere, and topping the Gavin Americana charts. And though he spends more time supporting the projects of other musicians these days, over the past decade, guitar and mando master Jim Henry has quietly released a few solo “seven song six-packs” on his own personal in-house label, and they're surprisingly good, honest, melodic folk music, played masterfully but understated, without ego or fanfare, as befits his down-to-earth style.

In concert and in press photos, Henry comes across as a guy who is genuinely happy, almost ecstatically so, to be where he is right at that moment, pickin' and grinning and making good noise. I was struck by this cheerful ease when I saw him with Tracy Grammer this summer, and think it comes across in these recordings, too -- both in his lyrics, and his easy approach to songcraft and production.

But don't take my word for it. Check out these genuinely nice, lighthearted renditions of a few familiar folk standards, and then head on over to Jim Henry's website for full streams of his more recent works, including his brand new EP King of Hearts, which features a very simple, very beautiful rendition of Home on the Range in addition to the below Richard Thompson cover and five sweet originals, and the similarly intimate 2005 EP One-Horse Town, which features Henry and Grammer on a previously unrecorded Dave Carter tune. Buy 'em while you're there, 'cause you're going to want to keep these EPs in the car - they're the perfect thing for long drives on those bright, sunny fall days ahead.

These days, Jim plays most gigs with Tracy, and that's good honest folk music, too. Hence today's bonus coversong: two covers released under Tracy's name, and an irresistible pair from a previous collaboration.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

(Re)Covered VII: More covers of
Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Britney Spears

We're in an indiefolk mood today, thanks to an increasingly large pile of new material flowing in from fan recommendations, the labels, and the blogosphere at large. As such, there's nothing particularly rare here today, just a bunch of great web-scavenged covers, most of which had their coming out party long after we originally featured the songwriters that first made them famous -- making them a perfect fit for yet another long-awaited edition of our longstanding (Re)Covered series here on Cover Lay Down.

At the height of her popularity, Cyndi Lauper's strength was in powerful yet simply-stated melody and lyric; in simplicity, however, a song's flexibility is limited, so it was a nice surprise to find not one but two great new covers coming out over the past few months, especially after finding so many covers of so few different tunes for our May feature on the songs of Cyndi Lauper.

This cover from Canadian indiefolkers The Acorn has been making the blogrounds since at least June, most recently ending up on This Morning I Am Born Again, but it bears repeating for the way it transforms what was once a bouncy throw-away theme for the kid-friendly underground pirate adventure flick The Goonies, turning a cinematic bit of eighties cheese into something lo-fi and fragile, full of string undertones and indie half-tension, the post-millenium's high-culture equivalent of the exotic comfort of a warm goat-cheese brie.

Meanwhile, alt-folk trio Girlyman gives a chilling, harmony-rich rendition of Lauper ballad All Through the Night, proving once again that good songwriting will out, even through the worst sappiest power ballad production (see also: Supertramp covers). I posted Girlyman's wonderful version of George Harrison's My Sweet Lord last year as part of a megapost on the solo work of the post-Beatles Fab Four; I certainly would have shared this perfect live cut when we featured Cyndi Lauper songs last month if I had known about it, but the hype for their gigantic live album Somewhere Different Now, also released in May, seems to have gotten lost in the sea of late spring releases and a recent label change-over for the intrepid and outed members of Girlyman. Special thanks, then, to the anonymous tipster who prompted me to track this song down, which in turn led me to an album which perfectly captures the sweet harmonies and raw yet intimate presence that typifies a small-venue Girlyman show.

Our original exploration of the Paul Simon songbook was large enough to separate into two posts: one on his solo work, and one on his work with that Art guy. But, as I mentioned back then, Simon's influence on music is immense; as such, as musicians new and rising continue to mine the cultural jetsam for songs that have some personal resonance, coverage of Paul Simon's vast catalogue remains vast and evergrowing.

From the recently "released" Bedroom Covers album from The Morning Benders, with its wonderfully hushed and lo-fi versions of many favorite and respectable pop tunes, comes an echoey take on Mother and Child Reunion with shades of Iron and Wine, only played out at a tenor's 45 rpm; Bedroom Covers is a total freebie, and it rocks: we'll surely come back to it down the road for upcoming Covered in Folk features (we're way overdue for a Fleetwood Mac set). Plus two versions of what may well be my favorite Paul Simon composition of all time: a pensive yet hopeful bedroom cover from the recently-featured Mark Erelli, and -- for those who lean that way -- a great countrygrass cover from Darrell Scott's very promising all-covers "acoustic folk" album Modern Hymns, released just yesterday on the highly credible folklabel Appleseed Recordings, via blazing newcomer blog A Fifty Cent Lighter & A Whiskey Buzz, who also offers up Scott's solid take on oft-covered Joni Mitchell favorite Urge for Going.

Finally: the "Britney Spears takes over culture" thing is pretty much over, but even after both an All Folked Up feature and a (Re)Covered revisit, her songs continue to crop up everywhere that indie hipsters crave irony. Today's evidence comes from The Portland Cello Project, which finally hit stores this week after months of slow-burning hype. I'm by no means the first to notice The Portland Cello Project, and technically, they're not folk, either -- critics are calling the guest-vocalist-with-multiple-cello sound chamber pop; their myspace page lists them as indie/classical/rock. Listen through their whole self-titled debut, though, and you may think you've discovered yet another new folk, akin to the experimentation of, say, Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet project (which also features cellist Ben Sollee).

The album tracks each feature collaboration from the Pacific Northwest indiefolk crowd, including star turns from Loch Lomond's Ritchie Young and indiefolk darling Laura Gibson; I especially like the delicate indietune Under Glass, and Stay, a wonderful, plucked-sting acoustic waltz with guest Anna Fritz. Captain Obvious gets cred for picking the Gibson and Under Glass for sampling. And PCP gets TOTAL bonus points here for a secret, hidden covertrack, which sets the Mario Brothers theme song to a classical ensemble sound, and then slowly buries it in a faux-military drumroll -- that no other blogger has mentioned that says what it needs to about how most critics listen to label freebies, sadly.

Whatever you call it, this is surprisingly solid, listenable music, covering a huge range of pleasurable soundscape; though it's among the more upbeat and fun songs on the album, their version of Toxic still comes across as authentic, not just some marching band cover. And since the Britney covers always bring a smile, and given the increasing prevalence of cello in folk music, I'll allow it just this once. With a few other recent Britney covers scavenged from the webs that fall on the edge of folk: Sia's delicate acoustic version of Gimmie More, and French-Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim's ubiquitous pop-folktronic Toxic, just in case you haven't heard it. And so the trend continues.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Covered in Folk: Supertramp
(Joe Crookston, Ian Ball, Drew Emmitt, Lili Haydn, and Me!)

Given how familiar their greatest hits are, it's startling to find so few Supertramp covers out there. Perhaps it's the lack of authenticity afforded a band which was, after all, formed not out of some sense of artistic urgency, but on a millionaire patron's whim, which fueled then-unknown singer-songwriter Rick Davies' classified ad in popular industry mag Melody Maker. Perhaps it's the prog-rock era itself, its orchestral, larger-than-life poses shunned as anathema to the modern post-slacker indie generation and their hushed, lo-fi alt-folk bedroom output. Maybe it's just the hair.

But redemption can be found in the songs laid bare; it turns out that Supertramp can be done well. To prove it, here's some above-average Supertramp covers that fit the format here on Cover Lay Down.

Our set today provides a fairly complete look at a small but recognizable group of catchy radio hits, from singer-songwriter violinist Lili Haydn's jazzy torchsong take on Goodbye Stranger to Leftover Salmon mandolinist Drew Emmitt with a catchy acoustic jamgrass version of Take the Long Way Home. I couldn't choose, so you get both the grungy alt-folk album original and a stunning acoustic outtake of Gomez frontman Ian Ball's delicate, broken Breakfast in America; don't miss the wonderful lo-fi indiefolk german cabaret version of the same, complete with ragged horn and a perfect, klezmeresque clarinet bridge, from an artist who performs under the ungoogle-able name of Me.

I especially like singer-songwriter Joe Crookston's pensive, political, almost mystical version of The Logical Song -- thanks to Joe for allowing us both a stream from his new and highly-recommended folkchart-topping album Able Baker Charlie & Dog, and a take-away live version recorded by yours truly at this year's Falcon Ridge Folk Fest. On the other hand, though the cover of Give A Little Bit by German acoustic coverband Huntcase is a bit kitschy, it will have to do until someone else does a better acoustic version of that classic rock radio favorite.

Enjoy them all, folks, and mind the links, which -- as always here on Cover Lay Down -- go straight to artist-preferred stores and sources wherever possible. And do consider snagging a CD or two, or at least purchasing a download, if you like what you hear. After all, artists who have to work day jobs have no time to come to your town, either.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features on Sundays, Wednesdays, and the occasional Friday and holiday. Coming Soon: Summer's End, Bluesfolk, and a new 7-song EP from Jim Henry.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

RIP, Erik Darling 1933-2008
(Arranger of folksong, member of The Weavers)

Guitarist, banjo player, and well-respected arranger of folksong Erik Darling, who passed away last week at the age of 74, tended towards the leeward side of fame: he was the guy who replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers, if that rings a bell among any of the oldguard folkies who remember a time before Dylan. He was also an Ayn Rand libertarian in the midst of a solidarity-minded social revolution, which caused friction in the midst of the pro-labor, liberal folk revival of the fifties and sixties, and probably contributed to the fact that you have no idea who he was.

But significantly, despite his political incompatibility with much of his audience, Darling had a gifted sense of how to reframe and update older, more traditional folksongs in ways which made them more atractive and fun for the predominantly young, white urban and suburban audiences that were discovering folk music in the fifties and sixties.

The impact of this on folk, writ large, cannot be underestimated.

Though Darling was well known within the folkworld for his virtuoso stringwork, which graced early recording sessions of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Jean Ritchie, and others before becoming part of the core sound of such early folk groups as the Folksay Trio, The Tarriers, The Weavers, and later, the Rooftop Singers, it is no accident that his peers and fans, in their obituary quotes and radioplay tributes, have primarily celebrated him for his talents as an arranger. Darling's deliberate approach to building song structure and song performance to maximize a given song's power was a revelation; the half century of folk groups and folksingers who followed in his footsteps owe him a huge debt of gratitude. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Darling's short exposition on the Anatomy of an Arrangement is a tight treatise that should be required reading for all songwriters.

In tribute, then, to Darling and other group members and early folkies who have faded out of our consciousness, while their work lives on as part of the folk tradition: roots folksman Dave Alvin with a swinging barrelhouse take on Erik's arrangement of old folksong Walk Right In, which was one of the early folkworld's biggest hits, and the beginning of the twelve-string craze; The Tarriers with their "original" version of what would become one of Harry Belafonte's longest-lasting chart-toppers, though the song, which was actually created by fusing two Jamaican folksongs, was a #4 hit for the Tarriers themselves; and the Grateful Dead with a very ragged but more traditional take on old Kingston Trio standard Tom Dooley, which turns out to have been based on Darling's arrangement from his early days with the Folksay Trio.

Bonus points: actor Alan Arkin was a member of the Tarriers, too. Yeah, that Alan Arkin. Really.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

New and Noteworthy Coverfolk:
Carrie Rodriguez, Mark Erelli, The Sacred Shakers (w/ Eilen Jewell)

Now that my email inbox is finally back to ground zero, it's time to take a look at the best of the recent crop of shiny plastic that has once again begun to pile up beside the alumni mags and kitchen counter catalogues. Here's the top tier, some new releases and a handful of exclusive, previously unblogged covers from three well-respected singer-songwriters still on the cusp of full-blown fame: Mark Erelli, Carrie Rodriguez, and Eilen Jewell's new country gospel project The Sacred Shakers. Regular reader of the usual folkblog suspects have already heard about some of these, but good news, like good music, bears repeating.

Mark Erelli is an old favorite of mine, ever since the high-folk production of 2001 sophomore release Compass and Companion started getting radioplay back in the mid nineties; since then, he's gone deeper into honky tonk and bluesfolk, and spent a good deal of time on the road as a guitar man, supporting the fast-rising career of old friend and coffeehouse circuit peer Lori McKenna. But his new disk Delivered, on long-time label Signature Sounds, is a triumphant return to his singer-songwriter roots, with a polished sound made even more mature and powerful by the faint hints of explorative influence from his last few outings, and it's a wonderful place to find him.

Erelli, whose local-boy-made-good backstory and aw-shucks manner only compliment a distinctive raspy tenor with a New England twang and a fine sense of how to write an ageless political folksong, hasn't included any covers on this newest. But like his early albums, Delivered contains a great set of well-crafted tunes with strong vocal arrangements, solid atmosphere and open, confessional lyrics, grounded in common themes of spiritualism, hope, political desire, atonement and authenticity. Alternately hushed and driving, at their best, the collection of first-rate songs that comprise Delivered rival the best and most pensive of Paul Simon's midcareer, the most yearningly hopeful of Springsteen, or the downtrodden post-folk of Dylan's most recent.

I've previously posted a few choice gems from Erelli's vast collection of covers (see below for links). And there's bound to be more to come, as long as Erelli continues to post a new unreleased track on his blog every month; this month's freebie, for example, is a great bedroom cover of Greg Brown's If I Had Known well worth the download. Here's a few more I've been holding back until just the right moment, all of them well worth repeat listening; his slow, sultry campfire versions of Joni Mitchell classic Case of You and Roy Orbison classic Crying are personal favorites, both among my top covers of all time. Enjoy 'em while you wait to buy Delivered, which is available on tour only right now, and hits the streets at Signature Sounds on September 16.

Speaking of the always-excellent Signature Sounds: though Eilen Jewell, whose chipper Texas swingfolk wowed the blogworld last year, still has just the two albums to her name as a solo artist, this month marks the release of a selftitled collection of public domain tunes and a few country classics from new group The Sacred Shakers, which builds a core of male vocals and old-timey alt-country instrumentalists around Jewell's sweet voice and girlish energy.

Though the premise here is old-timey bible-belt country gospel, played out in a surprisingly full spectrum of settings from slow waltz to driving alt-country, the sound is not so far off from Eilen's big splash, last year's Letters from Sinners & Strangers. Not that this is a bad thing: just a peg looser than a classic country gospel album, The Sacred Shakers album has touches of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and even the Stray Cats, but -- as songs:illinois noted while I was away -- has more in common with early Sun Records era Johnny Cash and Elvis than anything.

Which is to say: mostly, The Sacred Shakers is just plumb great swingin' countryfolk with a hint of alt-country, full of fiddle and banjo licks, country rock guitar, thumping stand-up bass and the distinctive clicketyclack of the honkytonk drumkit in its more upbeat moments, and sweet and honest-voiced when Jewell steps forward for the slower sets, like Hank Williams cover Ready to Go Home, or obscure tradtune Twelve Gates to the City (which you can hear over at songs:illinois).

Here's an *exclusive* label-approved pair from the new release, and a fave Eilen Jewell solo cover from last year. Especially startling: Greg Glassman, in duet with Jewell on the slow, ragged waltz that transforms album closer and country gospel classic Green Pastures, sounds eerily like Ryan Adams.

Finally, for the last few years, Brooklynite fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez has been slowly working her way out from the shadow of Chip Taylor, who first discovered her a few years back. She first appeared as a Tracy Grammer-esque partner, lending her duet voice and fiddle to Taylor's own tunes; more recently, with last year's Seven Angels on a Bicycle, she's come forward as frontwoman and titular performer, albeit with Taylor on board as producer and co-writer. Now, with She Ain't Me, out just last week on EMI imprint Manhattan Records, Rodriguez finally comes into her own, trading the rough-hewn look for a shiny cover art glamour, delivering a solid set of surprisingly poppy, diverse originals that run the range from Carole King to Louisiana Swing to full-blown poprock; Twangville hears Lucinda Williams, too, and I think I agree.

Rag Doll, the album's sole cover and another rep-approved Cover Lay Down web exclusive, is a lovely, atmospheric folkpop piece with sublime vocals, a great showcase for both Rodriguez' increasingly confident voice and mononymic indie-folkster Sandrine's underrated songwriting; but my favorite track on the new album is the driving countryfolk neo-fiddletune Absence, co-written with Mary Gauthier and guest-starring fellow new folk revival vocalist Aoife O'Donovan of Crooked Still (who also lends vocals to Mark Erelli's release, come to think of it). Check out Muruch's review for Absence, and then pick up She Ain't Me for even more gorgeous high-production folk originals.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

As always, all new and as-yet-unreleased tracks shared on Cover Lay Down are posted with full permission from labels and artist representatives. For review consideration, please send CDs and sundries to the address listed on the sidebar.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Elseblog: Springsteen and Guthrie Covers
+3 more covers of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

It's been a relatively quiet week over at collaborative themeblog Star Maker Machine, but I'm particularly proud of two coverheavy sets I put up earlier this week: a trio of Springsteen carsong covers from Ani DiFranco, Patty Griffin, and Townes Van Zandt, and a short set of tiny Woody Guthrie sillysong Riding in my Car, with covers by Springsteen and Cover Lay Down kidsong fave Elizabeth Mitchell.

Some good guest posts over there this week, too, from a few of my favorite new americana and alt-bloggers; I'm especially glad to see newcomers Payton (of This Mornin' I Am Born Again) and Nelson (of A Fifty Cent Lighter & A Whiskey Buzz) aboard as regular contributors. Worth checking it all out.

But first, the coverfolk: When I first started sifting through the playlists to see what came up for a car theme, the field was rich; heck, we could probably have done a whole week on Cadillacs, if the current postset is any indication. But passing over all those trainsongs, bus and truckstories, and cycledreams was a good exercise, too: plenty of good music running through the brain at skim speed, plenty of future theme ideas. I've already posted versions of Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by The Mammals (here) and Del McCoury (here); here's three more live but well-recorded covers of my favorite motorcycle song.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gender Gaps: Laura Cantrell covers
New Order, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, John Prine et. al.

Photo by Ted Barron, stellar photographer and bloghost

Let Us Now Praise Famous Women, countryfolk artist and long-time WFMU radio host Laura Cantrell's guest post over at Boogie Woogie Flu decrying the dearth of female artists in the Country Music Hall of Fame, is a masterstroke on many levels: a good read, an earnest critique of gender bias in country world, and a great dissolution of the usual dichotomy between blogger and performer which can only lend further blogcred to the big and well-deserved buzz that Cantrell enjoyed for her most recent release, the digital-only covers EP Trains and Boats and Planes, a fine, well crafted country/folk/pop album with solid nods to a wide variety of songwriting greats, and undertones of Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, and even a touch of Kathleen Edwards in performance.

In the folkworld, the issue of gender difference is actually much more subtle, and it drifts as generations go on. For example, musician and folk chronicler Scott Alarik, in his seminal exploration of the modern folkworld Deep Community, makes a good case for an anti-male bias in the crossover potential of that particular section of the singer-songwriter folkworld which has long been his focal point; as evidence, he notes how metorically the female Fast Folk artists of the eighties rose to pop prominence, while their male contemporaries, such as John Gorka, Bill Morrissey, Greg Brown, and Cliff Eberhardt, seem to have hit a wooden ceiling that keeps them on coffeehouse and festival stages at the peak of their career.

But it also true that, in order to rise to such prominence, artists from Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega to, more recently, pop-folker Kathleen Edwards and on-the-cusp country star Lori McKenna had to crank up the pop production value -- a move that some have decried as leaving the folkworld behind for the trappings of top 40 radio. Alarik's premise is muddied by the easy target: crossover appeal is no confirmation of core values within a genre.

And what Scott sees in his generation may not be true of all iterations of folk, either. If you ask the average passerby to name ten folk artists, they'll tend to start with Dylan and Guthrie, but from there, the common fan's history of sixties folk is full of names of both genders, from Judy Collins to Joni Mitchell. As I mentioned in the comments to Laura's entry, the rich crop of name-brand women performing on the countryfolk line over the last few decades -- Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, even Allison Krauss -- gives hope to a new generation even as it decries the easy, central categorization that best provides potential entry to a Hall of Fame. The newest folk movements seem heavy with female singer-songwriters, but it remains to be seen what fame and fortune will bring to their careers. And, of course, folk has no equivalent hall of fame -- which means no gatekeepers, and thus a much less easily identifiable pattern of bias.

Laura's insider report is highly credible as a condemnation of the Country world, though -- and it is only lent credence by her early career as a guide to those same hallowed halls where the portraits of Country music's Hall of Fame line the walls. But it also stands as a more general statement about bias in singer-songwriter forms, inviting us to look more deeply into our own responsibility, as fans and flamekeepers, for the way we frame the relationships between our musical icons, and ourselves. Laura deserves props for reminding us that, as long as the past continues to matter to how we define the present, which portraits hang in the halls of our memory palaces and institutions matters greatly. Here's the songs of a few artists both living and long-gone which Laura herself has paid tribute to over a decent decade or more of increasingly confident, dynamic, and adept countryfolk.

Laura Cantrell's new album Trains and Boats and Planes, which includes covers of artists from Burt Bacharach to John Hartford, is available at the usual digital download sources. Head to Laura's homepage, for some sweet downloads; link from there to the EP, and Laura's excellent past recordings as well.

You can hear Laura's radio show The Radio Thrift Shop most Wednesday mornings live on NYC institution WFMU from 6-9; archived streams are available at the link above. And, if you're in or around the Big Apple --a surprisingly significant hotbed for countryfolk these days -- Laura will also be presenting a special "Let Us Now Praise Famous Women" revue at The Spiegeltent in NYC on Tuesday, August 19, featuring guest artists Jenny Scheinman, Megan Hickey (Last Town Chorus), Fiona McBain (Ollabelle), Theresa Andersson and a special performance by Rodney Crowell. Let me know, if you go.

Today's bonus coversongs have major street cred:

  • Billy Bragg and Wilco arranged When The Roses Bloom Again for their first Mermaid Avenue album, thinking it was a Guthrie original

  • Iron and Wine's treatment of New Order's Love Vigilantes is thick and full of atmosphere, but we'd expect nothing less

  • (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding songwriter Nick Lowe covers Elvis Costello's Indoor Fireworks

    Thanks to Boogie Woogie Flu for soliciting Laura's thought-provoking piece, and Setting the Woods on Fire for calling it to my attention. Head on over to the former for choice cuts from some classic undersung female country artists, and the latter for a few great originals from Cantrell herself.

  • Sunday, August 3, 2008

    Goodbye Bill Monroe, Hello Blondie:
    Kristin Andreassen and the new tradfolk revival

    When a knowledgeable folkfriend suggested I interview singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and percussive dancer Kristin Andreassen at Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest this year, I jumped at the chance. Kristin's background as a folk dancer and her varied work in organic musical collaborative Sometymes Why, an impromptu trio formed with Aoife O'Donovan (Crooked Still) and Ruth Ungar Merenda (The Mammals) in a parking lot a few years ago, seemed promising; I like her solo work a lot, and I'd already fallen in love with her work through the old-timey fiddle music of neo-bluegrass girl group Uncle Earl at previous visits to Grey Fox.

    But when my introduction to Kristin backstage after her first set of the day is delayed by two little girls, who appear out of nowhere, square off for a schoolyard patty-cake, and proceed to perform Kristin's entire award-winning composition Crayola Doesn't Make A Color For Your Eyes right in front of us, I know I'm on to something big. It's a great thing when your fellow struggling singer-songwriters pluck your songs out of the collaborative and put them on their own records, and I'm eager to talk to Kristin about how that happens, and how it feels. But when ordinary people - a pair of adorable children, entire special education classrooms, 200-member community choruses from New Hampshire - want to sing your songs in public, then you're talking about the very core of what it means to be folk music: of the people, for the people, and by the people.

    I've gone long today, folks, and I make no apologies: both Kristin herself, and the new school of folk which she represents, are something special, and they're worth addressing carefully. For those interested in good folk source material, I've included my partial field recording of those kids in the usual batch of coversong at the tail of today's entry; it's cute, and worth the moment. Read on for the good stuff.

    By the time I catch up with her late Friday afternoon at the back of the Dance Tent, it's six o'clock, and Kristin Andreassen has been on stage for a cumulative total of almost five hours straight since her midday appearance in the songwriter's workshop. We share a laugh at the thought of our earlier encounter, and talk covers for a while -- how it feels to be covered by others, and what process brings that about -- before turning more generally to first traditional music, and then the state of bluegrass, two generations after Bill Monroe invented the genre. Though she's surely exhausted, Kristin seems happy to chat; she turns out to be even more thoughtful and charming in person, and she's got a lot to say.

    Kristin's solo work isn't bluegrass; her entry to Grey Fox is via Uncle Earl, which plays a form of old-timey yet singer-songwritery fiddlefolk that is often cited alongside the work of Crooked Still, The Mammals, the Duhks, and the Infamous Stringdusters as part of a new wave of young "neo-bluegrass" bands and musicians pushing the boundaries of bluegrass and other folk genres. But the welcome reception Kristin herself receives at this festival, both as a songwriter and a performer, speaks to the crossover appeal of a small group of musicians, in these bands and others, who find themselves playing music which feels consistently authentic to themselves, but which -- because of a particular openness to influence from other forms of music, and a focus on collaborative, earnest, and generally be-stringed musicianship -- is fluid enough to sound "right" at multiple venues, from singer-songwriter coffeehouses to bluegrass festivals, from Bonnaroo to irish pubs.

    Of course, boundary-pushing diversity is nothing new in modern folk. There are many corners and stages on which one can hear folk-influenced music which is new and familiar and anything but derivative all at once. As this year's hotly debated post-folk lineups at such classically "folk" festivals as Newport suggests, such fluidity has already permeated the folkworld, threatening to make moot the very nature of folk as a recognizable pop culture phenomenon by blurring it with an already commodified indie and alternative culture and credibility.

    From the outside, then, the vast shift in musical modality which exists between, say, the solo output of a Ruth Ungar or Kristin herself and their work in their respective bands and small groups can sound like a major shift in sensibility, an illustration of the vast gap that exists between "traditional" and singer-songwriter folk. What's different here is that Kristin, who has only recently started thinking of herself as a songwriter, sees this work as all part of the same process, rather than a set of discrete "projects".

    And having a group of musicians collected around each other, committed to openness to both the roots of american music, as well as an ear to what the community is producing, is what makes a folk movement. Consider the touring and mutual admiration society that was the Greenwich Village folk troubadors of the fifities and sixties, the upstate New York Mud Acres collaboratives of the seventies, the fast folk community of the eighties, as folk's most obvious examples.

    In Kristin's case, a loose set of peers, including her fellow Uncle Earl g'earls, members of Crooked Still, post-Mammals members Ruth and Michael Merenda, fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger, singer-songwriter Laura Cortese, and Sam Amidon -- all indie artists with strong roots in traditional folk but training in and generational familiarity with a variety of musical forms from classical to pop to, well, clogging -- seem to be forging their new ground together. And though their output is often vastly different in terms of sound, the common sensibility of pushing the boundaries of traditional folk music, and the friendships that create community around this urge, feed back into the constant evolution of an increasingly identifiable neo-trad folk sound.

    This is not to say that this is necessarily unique, in folk at large: there are certainly many, many other pocket collaboratives out there, both musically and in stylistic terms -- see the Naturalismo/Freak Folk "family", for example, or the new old-timey americana of the Be Good Tanyas and Po' Girl. But today, it is clear that something exciting is happening right here, among Kristin and her friends. It goes deep into the roots of folk, and seems to be about as inclusive and organic as it can be.

    And though today it's coming from Bluegrass, or at least from a field of it, more than anything, in the moment, this particular loosely-affiliated group of musicians comes across like the missing link between traditional and modern folk music -- young, vibrant, and ready to collapse the distance singlehandedly.

    And of these performers, though Crooked Still and the Infamous Stringdusters have more buzz, and Sam Amidon more blog cred, Kristin Andreassen's work, both a solo performer and as a contributing member of two organically formed groups, the Bluegrass quartet Uncle Earl and the experimental neo-trad trio Sometymes Why, is among the more flexible -- and thus one of the most central -- of this small but growing scene.

    Her melodies are sparse and fluid, old-timey and modern all at once, with their full set of diverse influences right up front. Her subjects are universal, and treated in plain language which exposes the poetry of everyday life while poking at commonly recognized cultural phenomena and their effect on us, from cell phone realities to Crayola's commodification of color. Her background in folk dance forms gives her a sense of rhythm which long pre-dates Bluegrass itself, resulting in sweet, singable song which calls back instead to the earliest folk sound of Ella Jenkins and others. Her songwriting, and her performance -- which can include vocal work, string playing, handclaps, and cheerful percussive clogging -- share a refreshing innocence and honesty; one of her songs has been misidentified as a traditional field holler by no less an authority than the NY Times. It's no wonder that Kristin's music, like Jenkins', appeals so deeply to the very young, and the young at heart.

    The organic, fluid relationship between community ownership, songsharing and creation, and musical performance that Kristin both describes and personifies is not new to folk, of course. It was highly visible in the Fast Folk movement, and in the Seeger collaborative which drove so much traditional and labor folk movement as the singer-songwriter set were emerging from the troubador tradition in the sixties. It exists in the collaboratives of older musicians who still work the circuit, like the crowd which surrounds Gordon Bok, Cindy Kallet, and other members of the New England oldsongs generation, for example.

    What is new is who is playing, and where, and what that community seems to take for granted. As Kristin and I discussed, until very recently, bluegrass was still about Bill Monroe -- first in imitation, and then, as a second generation grew up steeped in bluegrass as a form of music, in reaction, forming newgrass, country-grass, and other forms. Certainly, some folks who made their name in traditional folk music, such as Grisman and Doc Watson, could not help but bring folk sensibilities to this process. But even as Kristin notes that, at least in its pure form, "all of bluegrass is one big coversong, because everyone learns from the same Bill Monroe records", Kristin's is the first generation for which bluegrass is simply part of the water, taken for granted, like older folk forms have been for more mainstream folk music since the American folk form was redefined in the sixties.

    As such, when I point out that many younger artists in her part of the bluegrass world -- like Uncle Earl, for example -- play primarily a mix of their own compositions and older, more traditional folk music, rather than Bill Monroe tunes, Kristin is able to place herself and her peers in a different school altogether:

    It's really true that the younger bands are putting a little bit more of an emphasis on new material, and...morphing out into the pop influences that are all there for all of I feel like all of us are developing a sound that's not purely one thing. There were a few generations before us that were defining the territory of bluegrass, but I'm not sure there's anybody that's doing that right now. Now we're experimenting with the borders of bluegrass.

    From a traditional bluegrass perspective, then, Kristin's work is eccentric and experimental: clogging and old-timey, instead of core or countrified, but at least categorizable, if not mainstream. But from a folk perspective, Kristin's success in what previously were considered different modes of folk output -- singer-songwriter solo work, her bluegrass work with Uncle Earl, her old-timey trio work with Ruth and Aoife, the increased coverage of her songs as both standard singer-songwriter fodder and as children's song and choral music, even her continued self-identification as a folk dancer -- seems cohesive and consistent; part of a trend, perhaps even a revival.

    Moreover, having this conversation here at Grey Fox, while the Infamous Stringdusters begin to play their original compositions on stage behind us, says everything it needs to about bluegrass' emergence, finally, as a full form of and locus for folk music, coming back to the fold after two generations of refinement, ripe for the picking, and looking for new ways to spin song.

    It's no wonder, then, that bluegrass has recently begun to resonate deeply with those -- including Craig of Songs:Illinois, Kat of Keep the Coffee Coming, and myself -- who have long aligned themselves with folk music. For this may just be where bluegrass, both as a whole form and as a series of musical elements, truly becomes a "folk" music, of and from an entire culture -- in the water and air, as it were, as part of the landscape of American sound. If so, it makes perfect sense to find original and innovative songwriters like Kristin Andreassen here, writing not just lyrics and melodies, but crafting new sounds out of American culture, and their hearts and souls, wherever they find them. And if that's not folk, what is?

    Previous features on Sam Amidon, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, and Ruth Ungar Merenda are still live; for more about the members of this new movement in trad/blue/folk/grass, it's worth going back to those entries for a refresher. But Kristen's songwriting is something special, and her voice is sweet and earnest and happy and lovely to listen to, in conversation and on the record. I've made sure to include her own voice in the bonus section below, so you, too, can fall in love with her singer-songwriter side, and you should absolutely head over to myspace to listen to Kristin's catchy version of Crayola Doesn't Make a Color For Your Eyes, and then over to her her website to purchase her solo 2006 release Kiss Me Hello. But first, here's a few sweet covers of Kristin's songs, "written for the party", as Kristin tells it, and in good hands.

    In our post-interview discussion, Kristin mentioned that she's always wanted to cover Blondie's Heart of Glass; I think it's an excellent choice for her, and hope to hear it someday. While we wait, here's a short set of bonus coversongs featuring Kristin as performer: her sole recorded solo cover, and a few cuts from Uncle Earl, including a great if slightly fuzzy live version of Police obscurity Canary in a Coalmine which has been roaming the blogosphere for a while now, originally prepped, says Kristin, as a sort of joke just in case they met Sting in the green room at Bonnaroo last year. Plus fellow new-school member and fellow fiddler Laura Cortese with a cover of Just Like Heaven -- an oft-covered song done exceptionally well, eminently resonant of this same school of earnest, honest string-based music, planted in the roots of folk, reaching towards the future.