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 us...so 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.

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