Walter Trout’s We’re All In This Together marks the newest addition in what has already been a prolific career as a recording artist. One could view this recording as a celebration of sorts since Trout underwent a liver transplant in 2014. While this isn’t his first release since the transplant, it certainly has a much more upbeat feel overall when compared to his 2015 release, Battle Scars, which dealt with his battle with liver disease.
Helping Trout celebrate on this recording are a number of notable guest artists. With each track featuring a collaboration with a different artist, this album stands out for its stylistic variety. The various formidable guitarists should interest any guitar aficionado, although not every guest artist is a guitarist. Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica on “The Other Side of the Pillow” stands out as one of the best performances on the album. However, make no mistake about it: this is a guitar album!
Trout’s history playing with major names in the blues world such as John Lee Hooker, Canned Heat, and John Mayall—just to name a few—must have contributed to his ability to lure so many great guest artists to this project. His ability to blend well with each of the guests and play complementary to their style was undoubtedly a factor. With 14 different guests, there is likely an artist to suit almost any taste. Trout is joined by his former bandleader John Mayall on “Blues for Jimmy T.” Other standouts include performances by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Joe Louis Walker, and Joe Bonamassa.
Bonamassa might be the most recognizable name in today’s guitar world, and his performance on the title track is a knockout. Nevertheless, it is the playing of Eric Gales, who recently released his Middle of the Road on the same label, that reminds the listener why Joe Bonamassa himself has described Gales as “one of the best, if not the best guitarists in the world.” “Somebody Goin’ Down,” which features Gales and begins with an intro reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, ultimately manifests itself as a medium-tempo rock track that becomes a vehicle for some brilliant improvising by both Trout and Gales, who end up trading guitar licks during the outro solo.
Another standout track is “Crash and Burn,” an upbeat blues with a Chicago feel featuring Joe Louis Walker on vocals and guitar. Like many tracks, this one also features guitar playing suitable for in-depth study, but Walker’s vocals are also worth mentioning. His voice would not be out of place on a Stax recording from its heyday, and at times it is akin to Albert King, who recorded at Stax in the late 1960s.
We’re All In This Together is a welcome addition to any blues fan’s collection. It is an even more welcome addition to the collection of someone who loves guitar playing. Walter Trout is at the top of his game on this record, and his selection of guests perhaps inspired him to new heights. Whether the catalyst for this performance was newfound inspiration from great players or a new lease on life, the final product is a solid recording that will hopefully introduce Walter Trout to a new generation of listeners.
This remarkable release is the first for Sherman Holmes since the passing in 2015 of both his brother and bandmate, Wendell Holmes and Popsy Dixon of the Holmes Brothers. Despite these somber circumstances, this uplifting project is a dedication to both the Holmes Brothers and the Americana music that brought the band together and sustained their career for over 50 years. Produced by Jon Lohman of the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and recorded at Montrose Studios in Richmond, The Richmond Sessions is a collection of bluegrass, gospel, blues, and traditional songs that represent the roots of Holmes’ extensive musical career.
Originally from Christchurch, Virginia, the Holmes Brothers formed as a trio after years of performing the Chitlin’ Circuit. They are known for their eclectic blend of southern American genres supported by Wendell Holmes’ effortless electric guitar playing, Popsy Dixon’s drum work and falsetto voice, and Sherman Holmes’s deep resounding bass. In 2014, they were honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship after working with the Maryland Traditions Apprenticeship Program, and from 2014-2015, they participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program where they mentored a new generation of musicians, passing on cultural knowledge and musical techniques. The Sherman Holmes Project took shape shortly after Holmes performed “I Want Jesus” at the Virginia Apprenticeship showcase in memory of the Holmes Brothers, a beautiful blues traditional song featured on this album.
Several accomplished artists are featured on the Richmond Sessions including the Ingramettes singing backup vocals, Dobro player Rob Ickes, banjoist Sammy Shelor, and multi-instrumentalist DJ Harrison. Special guest Joan Osborne sings alongside Holmes on “Dark End of the Street” while “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” brings the studio band together for a three-minute instrumental jam. Many of the recorded songs are favorites of Holmes, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” and Vince Gill’s “Little Liza Jane.” Other tracks feature songs the Holmes Brothers once performed together, such as “Homeless Child” and “Rock of Ages.”
Produced by the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities, The Richmond Sessions genuinely represents a public appreciation for the music and memory of the Holmes Brothers as Sherman continues to perform and record music. Sherman Holmes will be performing at various festivals this summer and fall; check his website for tour dates/locations.
First broadcast as a 3-part, 3.5-hour documentary on PBS, “American Epic” explores the beginning of regional commercial recording in the U.S. The program’s premise and logo is these early recording field trips resulted in “the first time American heard itself,” a somewhat grandiose claim. Along with the TV mini-series, Sony released a 100 song, 5-CD box set of newly-transferred/newly-restored vintage recordings, organized by recording locations, plus a single-CD soundtrack album, covering only recordings used in the TV programs. And, taking advantage of a fully-restored vintage recording system, the films’ producers teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and musician/producer/entrepreneur Jack White to stage a series of recording sessions in a Los Angeles studio with performances by a wide assortment of contemporary musicians. Those recordings, transferred from the lacquer discs on which they were inscribed, are collected in “The American Epic Sessions” 2CD set. A two-hour documentary, covering some of these recording sessions and detailing the vintage recording equipment, was also broadcast on PBS.
In 1926, Western Electric developed an electrical recording system, which quickly replaced the acoustic (“screaming into a horn”) systems that had used sound-pressure energy to cut grooves into cylinders and discs up to that point. With Western Electric’s system, sound waves hitting a microphone created an electrical current, which was then amplified by a 6-foot rack of tube electronics, and used to drive an electro-magnetic cutting stylus, which cut grooves onto wax blanks. The system used in “The American Epic Sessions,” lovingly restored and expertly operated by engineer Nicholas Bergh, cuts onto lacquer discs.
The key take-aways relevant to this project: the Western Electric recording system was portable, and at the time it was developed, radio was killing the commercial record business. During the acoustic era, record companies had concentrated on urban-centric popular “dance band” music and formal classical recordings. But the U.S. was a regional and tribal country at the time, and local music genres and styles remained local. Desperate for new record-buying customers, the record companies sent electrical recording systems and crews out into the land, searching for new musicians and musical styles in hopes of “the next big thing” that radio didn’t offer.
A typical recording trip would include a blitz of advertising in local newspapers and word-of-mouth announcements at general stores and post offices, offering local musicians a chance to make a record. The musicians would flock to a central location, such as a disused hat factory in Memphis or a hotel in San Antonio, for recording sessions. Through this process, the genres of country/hillbilly, Delta blues, Tejano, and Hawaiian music gained national distribution and influence. Some big stars emerged, like country music legends The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Tejano pioneer Lydia Mendoza. Many other recordings, by artists such as Dock Boggs, Willie Brown and especially Robert Johnson, didn’t sell well in their day but were incredibly influential on later musicians and musical genres. Other artists such as Charley Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, and even Hopi Indian Chanters, enjoyed regional success and years of fruitful recording sessions.
The “American Epic” documentary and the 5-CD set concentrate the regional styles and genres. The documentary is divided into 3 parts, with each focusing on a handful of artists and songs. Herculean efforts were made to track down descendants or first-person associates of the original artists, and their stories bring life to the people behind the old records. The filmmakers concentrated on the music, and avoided the dull academic tone that slows down too many PBS programs. There is a nerdy hip-ness to the whole project, and the technical details of the early recording process are explained enough for a casual music-oriented viewer to understand by not descending too far in the weeds. Above all, these stories tie together music, people and places.
Recording location rather than music type or artist divides the 5-CD set. This makes for more interesting listening, because each of the CDs is its own “mix tape” of genres and artists, alike only in that they were recorded in a particular region of the U.S., and even then not in a single location or studio. That said, the sequencing choice makes more difficult comparisons of artists within a single genre.
Engineer Nicholas Bergh, using a system he developed based on his understanding of the original recording process, transferred all of the recordings used in the CD box. A quick comparison of previous reissues of a handful of tunes indicates that Bergh was able to squeeze more fidelity and musical content from the discs, varying from a shade better to much better. It’s worth noting that there is a good bit of overlap between the “American Epic” box set and the classic “Anthology of American Folk Music,” so one can compare the transfer technology and aesthetic evolution over the past 50+ years. There is also some overlap with various Yazoo collections, not surprising since Yazoo owner Richard Nevins contributed rare records from his collections and is thanked in the liner notes.
For a person interested in the true roots of what today is called “roots” music, as well as the original Delta style of blues, and the history of what became country music, this set is invaluable. In some cases, this is the first opportunity to clearly hear the musical subtleties and even decipher the lyrics, since the day the discs were cut. The amply illustrated booklet includes printed lyrics and as close to a first-person description of each artist as the producers were able to find.
“The American Epic Sessions” is a bit more of a creative-license undertaking. The documentary producers were clearly enamored with Bergh’s restored recording system, so the logical thing to do, with music-industry bigwigs like Burnett and White involved and a documentary crew in tow, was bring some modern musicians in and cut some 78s. The results are mixed, musically, and the listener must accept the somewhat low-fidelity sound quality captured in the lacquers, but the exercise was net-net successful. I recommend the video documentary over the 2CD music-only set, because it’s interesting to watch modern musicians, accustomed as they are to endless re-takes and overdubs, adjust to the antique one-mic/one-take recording process. Suffice to say, some adapt better than others, but all were able to wax a successful side or two.
Overall, the “American Epic” project was an important undertaking, introducing some seminal music to a new audience in a sound quality not heard before, and bringing life to the musical and recording pioneers who first spread the American musical vernaculars out of their local wellsprings. The “Sessions” video and audio aptly demonstrates the conditions and limitations of the early electrical recordings.
Editor’s note: There is also a separate hardcover book, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice, written by series producer Allison McGourty and director Bernard MacMahon, with Elijah Wald (Touchstone, 288 pages). According to colleague Steve Ramm, there is little crossover in terms of illustrations and content between this book and the one accompanying the Sony box set. Please note that the book’s title is listed variously on other sites as American Epic: The First Time America Heard Itself and American Epic: Companion to the TV Series. Also, there have been hints from some quarters that a director’s cut of the PBS series will be issued on Blu-ray later this year, so you may wish to hold off on your purchase of the version covered here. For various compilations associated with the series (but NOT remastered) see our June 2017 Releases of Note.
After eight albums recorded on Blue Corn Music, Ruthie Foster has released Joy Comes Back, a truly heartwarming collection of gospel, soulful rock, and blues songs. Joining Foster on this album are talented instrumentalists Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks Band, Willie Weeks, Joe Vitale, and Warren Hood. The inspiration for this album draws from Foster’s deep emotional struggle of claiming custody of her five-year old daughter and transforming her family life for the better.
Foster worked with Austin producer Daniel Barrett to record ten tracks of mostly reimagined cover songs. The album opens with two songs presenting Foster as a sensitive, yet strong and relatable woman—the smooth and easy “What Are You Listening To?” followed by the much harder rock song “Working Woman.” On the gospel title track, “Joy Comes Back,” Trucks complements Foster’s richly spirited vocals with masterful electric slide guitar.
The core of Foster’s music, particularly on her only original song “Open Sky,” reflect the strength, insight, and even uncertainty about love that arises when prolonged emotional battery comes to an end. The chorus of “Good Sailor” is especially expressive of her experience:
I’ve been tossed around the deepest blue / I almost drowned a time or two Easy living never did me no favors / smooth seas never made a good sailor
Other eclectic, yet surprisingly fitting songs covered on this album include “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” written by Stevie Wonder and Ivy Jo Hunter, and “Richland Woman Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt. Joy Comes Back concludes with two emotionally powerful songs, “Abraham” and “Forgiven.” For Foster, music is therapeutic and gives her the strength to overcome challenges in her life, to embrace her family, and to celebrate happiness in both its hidden and exposed forms.
Rhiannon Giddens maintains a heightened level of excellence as a musician and activist songwriter throughout Freedom Highway, her second full album since Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015). Co-produced by Dirk Powell, Giddens presents nine original songs and three reimagined arrangements of civil-rights era and traditional music featuring guest performances by Bhi Bhiman, Lalenja Harrington and Leyla McCalla.
Giddens opens the album with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” sung in the first person about a woman facing the physical, mental, and spiritual magnitude of enslavement:
The album creatively and poetically addresses historical and contemporary forms of racial oppression in the United States. In “Julie,” Giddens sings a fearful ballad about the imminent separation between a maid and her white mistress by Union soldiers. The story reveals complex emotions as the maid reminds the mistress of how she sold away the maid’s children in order to produce the money the mistress re-gifts to her. The slow and sweet duet “Baby Boy” is a both somber lullaby and loving tribute to mothers who raise and protect the future “saviors” and leaders of mankind:
Baby Boy, young man, beloved
Don’t you weep, I will watch over you, I will stand by you
You will be, You will be, a savior
But until then
Go to sleep
From the darker themes of the electrically blue “Come Love Come,” to the funky precision of “The Love We Almost Had,” Giddens exhibits her eclectic and perfectionist talent down to the fine detail as a vocalist, banjo player, and bandleader. In “Better Get It Right the First Time,” she sings a soulful chorus of multi-harmonies as her band mate, Justin Harrington, performs a rap verse enhancing the traditional American roots music style. “Hey Bébé” differs significantly midway during the album, drawing on Cajun rhythmic and instrumental patterns.
“Birmingham Sunday” may perhaps be the most emotionally compelling song on the album. Originally written by Richard Fariña and performed by Joan Baez on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Giddens suitably infuses the ballad of the Birmingham bombing of 1963 with a gospel style. She concludes with an instrumental banjo and bones duet on “Following the North Star” that leads into “Freedom Highway,” a soulful celebration of the fight for civil rights reminiscent of Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Think.”
Rhiannon Giddens’ expertly produced Freedom Highway traverses the historical roots of racial unrest in the United States. Her work possesses an unwavering determination as she strives for accuracy connecting musical traditions with related contemporary genres to illustrate the deeply embedded patterns of racial oppression and resilience.
Multi-instrumentalist folk music enthusiasts Martin Simpson, an English singer and songwriter, and Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, were commission in 2014 by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) to explore the musical exchange between their respective folk song traditions. The duo combed the Cecil Sharp House archives, where they discovered many of the traditional songs they chose to revive. The result of their collaboration is Ever Popular Favourites, a collection of English and American folk music recorded live during the duo’s 2015 tour.
The album liner notes, written by Flemons and Simpson, provide first-hand impressions as well as their descriptions of the music. On the opening track, “My Money Never Runs Out,” Flemons sings and plays plectrum banjo while Simpson provides rhythm on acoustic guitar. Originally recorded by Gus Cannon, aka Banjo Joe, and ragtime guitarist Blind Blake in 1927, this “coon” song was released on Paramount Records. Flemons explains in the liner notes that raucous “coon” songs brought mainstream attention to Black entertainers in the U.S. at the time.
“John Hardy,” a song made famous by Leadbelly’s recording, has been arranged by Simpson to highlight his mastery of fingerpicking technique on the acoustic guitar. “If I Lose” follows with Flemons singing a falsetto blues melody along to a duet of mellow slide guitar vibratos. “Little Sadie,” a ballad that’s been performed by Hedy West, Doc Watson, the Grateful Dead, and many other folk musicians, picks up the pace with an arrangement featuring a bones rhythm and 5-string banjo.
According to Simpson, “Short Time Come Again No More” (track 6) is an English parody of Stephen Foster’s classic American song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” though its origin remains a mystery in his explanation. Simpson discusses how his early guitar playing was heavily influenced by Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day,” a song arranged on this album for slide guitar featuring a steady fingerpicking style resembling that of Hurt. This stylistic inspiration can be heard again on “Too Long (I’ve Been Gone),” the only original song on the album, written by Flemons about the life of a touring musician.
“Bulldoze Blues” and “Coalman Blues” both incorporate dark lyrical themes into otherwise joyful instrumental tunes, especially since they feature Flemons playing the quills, a traditional African American pan flute. Talented on a variety of instruments, Flemons plays bones on “Buckeye Jim” and “Champagne Charlie,” and further demonstrates his innovative creativity by performing electric kettle instead of using a traditional jug on the recording of “Stealin’.”
Hopefully Simpson and Flemons will share more selections from their expansive repertoire of traditional English and American folk music in the near future as a follow up to this thoroughly entertaining album.
The goal of multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla’s project is to link the musical heritages of three areas: Haiti, Southern Louisiana, and the larger United States. On her second album, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey, McCalla draws from each of these traditions, as well as her own compositions, for an album that navigates between haunting reflections and carefree charm.
A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is inspired by a book of the same title, written by ethnomusicologist Gage Averill. The work explores popular music, power, and politics in Haiti. Keeping with this theme, McCalla’s covers “Manman,” by Haitian singer-songwriter and political activist Manno Charlemagne, in a lilting political statement. On “Manman,” McCalla is joined by Rhiannon Giddens, her former bandmate from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their experience sharing harmonies translates beautifully to this new context.
McCalla’s focus on folklore and politics moves to a darker place with a cover of “Vietnam”—Abner Jay’s haunting reflection on going to war. “Salangadou”—a creole song about a distraught mother seeking her child—finds McCalla and vocalist Sarah Quintana reflecting the song’s helplessness with a sorrowful interpretation: Their voices weave in and out of key, much like a mother’s emotions at the thought of losing their loved one. The title track is an ominous performance, exhibiting the beautiful insecurity of McCalla’s voice. This aesthetic adds an urgency throughout the album.
The entirety of McCalla’s album, however, does not focus on life’s heavy tribulations. The light-hearted “Bluerunner” shows off a rollicking good time between fiddler Louis Michot, ti fer (triangle) player Daniel Tremblay, and McCalla on cello. McCalla’s cello is a constant presence throughout the disc, moving between solid accompaniment and a subtle lyricism.
Watch the music video for A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey:
While A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is an ambitious, transnational, and well-performed project, McCalla has yet to construct a focused bridge between the heritages she represents. As such, the album can feel disconnected amidst its individual tracks. Despite this shortcoming, A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey is a sound contribution to the musical map of hopes, fears, and history that link the Afro-Atlantic.
Not many musicians make their solo debuts at the age of 71, but Jerry Lawson is no ordinary artist. The former lead singer of the legendary vocal harmony group The Persuasions, Lawson has been performing for over 40 years and recorded 22 albums with the group. But singing a cappella all of those years left Lawson with a burning desire to perform and record with lush instrumentations, and to choose his own songs “with lyrics that really matter to me.” His wish has been realized with Just a Mortal Man, the title likely a comment on his near death experience prior to the album’s completion. Working closely with singer-songwriter Eric Brace, who produced the album, they assembled some of Nashville’s finest musicians including Brace on acoustic and baritone guitar, Joe Pisapia on electric guitar and pedal steel, Jen Gunderman on keyboards and accordion, Duane Blevins on drums and percussion, and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals.
Lawson opens with Paul Simon’s ethereal “Peace Like a River,” closely following the original arrangement until the chorus, which becomes the deeply personal spoken proclamation, “You can beat us with wires, You can beat us with chains / You can run out your rules, But you know you can’t dream the history train.” Two of the tracks were selected as tributes to Lawson’s favorite singers: the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the late blues singer Bobby “Blue” Bland. Lawson retains the ‘70s vibe and orchestration on the title track “I’m Just a Mortal Man” (from Ruffin’s 1973 solo album), while Bland’s “Members Only,” about “a party for the broken hearted,” is a bit smoother around the edges with the McCrary Sisters taking over the chorus.
Other album highlights include the country song “Woman in White” written by Lawson and Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead), Eric Brace’s “In the Dark,” and my favorite track—“Down on My Knees” by the artist Ayọ (2006), which retains the original reggae rhythms but in Lawson’s hands becomes an emotional, deeply soulful song with the pleading chorus, “Down on my knees, I’m begging you / Please, please don’t leave me.”
Featuring a mix of classic and contemporary songs, Just a Mortal Man has broad appeal, effortlessly crossing genres but with a definite Nashville sound. The album is a fine showcase for Lawson’s vocal abilities, which after 40 years are still above and beyond the range of most mortal men.
Darius Rucker’s newest album, Southern Style, follows a formulated approach in contemporary country music. The record uses slick Nashville production and songs that speak to a white middle-class audience, while romanticizing the Southern United States and the experience shared by some—certainly not all—who call it home. Where Rucker differs from other contemporary country musicians is in his focus on South Carolina as the object of his romanticism. Born in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, Rucker is well-positioned to have the state as his topical focus. However, the lyrics and iconography on Southern Style speak to a particular South Carolina experience Rucker wants to romanticize.
The lyrics of “Lowcountry” praise the natural beauty of the state’s coastal area and “You Can Have Charleston” laments his separation from the city due to a romantic breakup. The album’s photos place Rucker in a rocking chair on a front porch, presumably at the beach, wearing a conspicuous belt buckle of the South Carolina state flag. The protagonists of his songs are men attracted to the innocent aspects of women, rebels without a cause or much conviction, and those attracted to the “freedom” of a rural get-away. The result of Rucker’s album is the reinforcement of a South Carolina, masculine nationalism: one whose anti-intellectualism reinforces faith, family, and the way things are.
What appears to be missing from Southern Style is any critical stance on the racial and cultural politics of the region; but at second glance this is not absent from the album. Rucker’s nationalism is naturalized, just like the oak trees and sandy beaches, to form a banal nationalism, which reinforces Southern white identity and a blindness (or ignorance) to the problems faced in the state. As Rucker is African American, it begs the question: is Darius Rucker the Tim Scott of country music? To be fair, Rucker’s intent rests far away from tackling these issues. However, the romanticizing of the South always comes at a cost—one that contemporary country music repeatedly overlooks in favor of commercial success.
Musically, the performances on Southern Style are impressive. Rucker has hired some of the top Nashville session “cats”—such as Brent Mason, Michael Rhodes, and Shannon Forrest—for this recording. These musicians sound if as they have played together for years—and perhaps they have: their arrangements are confident and tasteful, creating a sound comfortable in honky-tonk, indie, and rock, while never losing its familiarity as country music. Rucker’s voice remains strong, yet unvaried, with this accompaniment behind him. The melodies on Southern Style are catchy and it is notable that Rucker is listed as a songwriter on each of the albums’ thirteen songs.
If you are eager for Southern stereotypes, Rucker’s album deserves a listen. If more accurate representations are your fancy, Southern Style will help you understand why race remains such a contested issue in the region: comforts, and not critical dialog, carry the day.
Carnival of Miracles (2015) is the latest album from Seattle’s Paula Boggs Band. At its core, the album serves as an emotional outlet for Boggs as she confronts the loss of loved ones and as she experiences the transition from a professional career to a full-time musician—Boggs quit her job as an attorney and as an executive for Starbucks to follow her passion. Carnival of Miracles is introspective and somber in its reflection of the pain. Yet, underlying the pain is an uplifting message of hope and perseverance. At the forefront of these complex emotions are Boggs’s intelligent and poetic lyrics. By featuring the claw-hammer banjo, lap-steel guitar, accordion, and haunting melodies, the album is rooted in an eclectic Americana sound.
Carnival of Miracles opens with “Grateful,” a country-styled song intended as an ode to Boggs’s lover. As the song progresses, the delicate melodies of the banjo and accordion tenderly wrap around each other creating a musical metaphor for the song’s characters. As the words “You have saved me” are repeated in the chorus, it becomes clear that Boggs is not only singing about the joys of love but the pain that love allowed her to leave behind.
The album’s title track is also gentle and introspective. Here, Boggs sings of her own struggles to find happiness in the wake of personal tragedy. Her voice, deep and dark, conveys both the anguish she currently feels and the solace she hopes to find. She sings, “We dance to mask our mourning and lift our souls” before adding the encouraging proclamation that “together we make the most of this great land.” Again, the accordion and the banjo are highlights of the song.
For track five, “Look Straight Ahead,” driving solos on the electric guitar replace the soft melodies of the claw-hammer banjo and accordion found in previous tracks. The change in instrumentation makes this the grittiest, most rock-oriented song on the album. “Look Straight Ahead” is also the most empowering of the album, as Boggs casts off the role of victim and takes up the mantle of the fearless fighter.
“Lenny’s in the House,” the seventh track, is a fun-filled and quick-tempo country song honoring the great songwriter and musician Leonard Cohen. While the song stands in stark-contrast to the somber tone of the album’s earlier tracks, it is no less introspective and personal. Boggs is clearly inspired by Cohen and her debt to him is one she does not take lightly. Although “Lenny’s in the House” fills Boggs’s audience with the desire to dance, it also encourages reflection on and celebration of similarly inspirational people in our own lives.
Carnival of Miracles closes with a cover of Neil Young’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love” from his 1970 album After the Goldrush. Again, it is the banjo, accordion, and lap-steel guitar that are at center of the song. Although Boggs and her band perform this classic rock song as a modern country song, the transition of style feels appropriate. A highlight of the song is the use of a large “choir” at the end of the song. This “choir,” which is formed by layering Boggs’s voice on top of itself, not only increases the emotional impact of the song but shows off Boggs’s talent as a vocalist.
Carnival of Miracles is produced by Grammy award winner Trina Shoemaker and is the follow-up to Paula Boggs Band’s 2010 debut album, A Buddha State of Mind. The Paula Boggs Band is currently on tour across America.
Tomorrow is My Turn, the first full-length solo album from Rhiannon Giddens, perhaps best known as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, showcases the folk singer doing what she does best—providing stirring interpretations of others’ songs. This project, produced by T-Bone Burnett, showcases Giddens’ voice in rich arrangements of material from a variety of sources, including traditional folk melodies, classic country hits, and one original song.
Perhaps the most potent feature of this album is its arrangements, carefully crafted by Giddens and Burnett. Many of the songs included here are likely familiar to roots music listeners, but Giddens’ interpretations cast them in a new light, challenging listeners with fresh approaches to well-known songs. Her interpretation of the traditional “Black is the Color” is a prime example of this—beginning with just her voice and vocal percussionist Adam Matta on beatbox, the arrangement gradually builds, adding upright bass, piano, and harmonica, providing a groove that is influenced by the folk song’s roots in the oral tradition but that simultaneously has a feel pleasing to fans of pop music. Giddens also incorporates more conventional approaches to her interpretations, paying tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s guitar-driven gospel style on “Up Above My Head,” featuring a stomping rhythm and Tharpe-influenced electric guitar.
In addition to pulling consciously from roots music, Giddens also pays homage to popular musical icons of yesteryear, including a stirring rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind,” an R&B influenced treatment of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” complete with a growling sax section and 6/8 feel, and a cover of Odetta’s “Waterboy” in which the band’s hushed intensity is matched by Giddens’ belting vocals. The album’s title track, a translation of a Charles Aznavour song, continues this stylistic mélange, featuring a lilting, almost soundtrack-esque feel that would not be out of place in a film montage. Giddens finishes the album with her own original composition, “Angel City,” which fits well with the other classic material that she has chosen on this album, with introspective lyrics situated in a bed of beautiful strings and acoustic guitars.
Fans of Giddens’ previous projects no doubt have high expectations for the songstress’ debut solo offering, and they will not be disappointed by Tomorrow is My Turn. In terms of sheer listening pleasure, this album deserves repeated spins for Giddens’ careful vocal treatment of each of these songs alone. If one adds the delicately structured arrangements that pervade this album to the mix, it is nearly impossible to not discover something new upon each listen.
Leyla McCalla’s debut album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, is an ambitious setting of Langston Hughes’s poetry to old-time and blues arrangements. Released in February and funded via Kickstarter, this collection of songs speaks to multiple diasporas within the Black Atlantic. McCalla has been inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes since her youth, and also deeply moved by her own Haitian heritage. In addition to the Langston Hughes poems set to music, this album also contains several traditional Haitian songs arranged and sung in Haitian Creole by McCalla, such as “Mesi Bondye.”
McCalla wears many hats on Vari-Colored Songs, playing banjo, cello, guitar, and providing vocals. She showcases her arrangement and composition skills as well. Several tracks also feature members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with whom McCalla previously toured and recorded. Hubby Jenkins plays bones on “Latibonit,” and Rhiannon Giddens contributes vocals and shaker on several songs, including “Rose Marie” and “Manman Mwen.”
The strength of this album lies in the textural transparency of its arrangements combined with McCalla’s clear vocals, which allow the words of Langston Hughes to shine through. Be it the sorrowful “Song for a Dark Girl” or the contemplative “Heart of Gold,” McCalla’s treatments of Hughes’s poems are remarkable. The Haitian songs are similarly arranged, featuring a layering of banjo, steel pedal, and vocals. The liner notes include translations and, when applicable, histories of some songs, such as “Kamèn S W Fè?,” which is based on an arrangement by Ago Fixè recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax.
Although this album is subtitled “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” it is much more. Simple yet complex, Leyla McCalla’s combination of old-time, blues, and Haitian folk music makes for an impressive debut.
In August of 1969, Linda Martell (born Thelma Bynem) made history when she became the first African-American woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry. However, she didn’t begin her career singing country music. Instead, she made her recording debut as a member of the group The Anglos in 1962 with R&B songs “A Little Tear (Was Falling From My Eyes)” and “The Things I Do For You.” The group also recorded for Vee-Jay records and Vee-Jay’s subsidiary Tollie Records. When the group disbanded, Martell continued solo as an R&B artist until a single performance thrust her into the world of country music.
After Martell was asked to sing a country song at the Charleston Air Force Base, she was discovered by Nashville agent Duke Rayner, who then worked to secure demos and eventually a deal with Plantation Records. In 1969, she released her first single, the top-25 hit “Color Him Father,” and in 1970 made appearances on Hee Haw and The Bill Anderson Show. That same year she released her second single, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” which also landed in the Country & Western Top 40, followed by her one and only album Color Me Country on Plantation Records. This album has finally been re-released in its entirety by Real Gone Music, with liner notes by Bill Dahl.
Color Me Country is a body of work that makes it clear that Linda Martell was a talent that needed to be heard. This collection includes her first single, “Color Him Father,” a dynamic cover of The Winstons’ original song about accepting your stepfather. Martell’s immense vocal ability is undeniable on tracks like “San Francisco Is a Lonely Town,” and “Then I’ll Be Over You.” And on tracks like “Bad Case of the Blues,” “The Wedding Cake,” and “There Never Was a Time,” she is masterfully rooted in the country& western vocal and musical styling.
This re-release of Color Me Country gives further credence to Linda Martell’s importance in country music and the talent she offered as a country music artist.
Though Ruthie Foster has received many accolades over the past decade as a blues singer, on her latest release, Promise of a Brand New Day, she draws a bit more from the folk-rock style popularized in the ‘60s, including a commitment to socially conscious message songs. But this is no sentimental journey of covers. Producer Meshell Ndegeocello, who plays bass on the album, encouraged Foster to stretch her composition skills, resulting in seven new songs delivered in a wide range of styles. Ndegeocello was also given free reign regarding the selection of accompanying musicians, adding her regular guitarist Chris Bruce to the lineup along with keyboardist Jebin Bruni, drummer Ivan Edwards, and backing vocalist Nayanna Holley. The result is a fairly sparse but cohesive instrumental mix that never overpowers.
On the opening track, “Singing the Blues,” Foster takes an autobiographical approach by recounting her recent songwriting experience “trying to find a new home / trying to write a new song / trying to find a rhythm that will help me get through it.” The following track, “Let Me Know,” is one of the highlights of the album. Featuring special guest guitarist and fellow Austin, Texas native Doyle Bramhall II (Eric Clapton), Foster showcases a church-honed voice that reflects her early influence from “the sisters in the amen corner” at her grandmother’s house of worship. Foster’s gospel roots resurface to great effect on her cover of the Staple Singers’ classic “The Ghetto,” where she croons a soulful prayer in the lower register, then unleashes with Mahalia-style intensity on the high notes. Another cover, the civil-rights protest song “Second Coming” penned by the late Alabama blues guitarist Willie King, is reinterpreted as a handclapping, guitar strumming folk song that’s no less riveting than King’s hard-driving version.
One of the most effective of Foster’s original songs is the a capella title track “Brand New Day.” Sung in the rhythmic call and response style of an early work song, she offers encouragement to the downtrodden in the chorus “‘cause love heals / and love lives / and time will rebuild a brand new day.” But the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly “It Might Not Be Right.” Co-written with legendary Stax songwriter William Bell, the song gives a “musical nod to the late soul-stirrer O.V. Wright” while addressing a more contemporary topic— gay marriage—in the lyrics “it might not be right for the world, but it’s all right with this girl.” Closing the album is “New,” written by and featuring another special guest, Toshi Reagon. This gorgeous, contemplative song accompanied by acoustic guitar continues the life-affirming theme of the album.
In the American sense, songsters are keepers of musical tradition while at the very same time challenging and reimagining the concept. Traveling from city to city, state to state, songsters prided themselves on the ability to play music for any variety of occasion or audience. But with this nomadic lifestyle, the same attention paid to recognizing and learning traditional music was applied to more popular musics, leading to a veritable melting pot of change and reinterpretation of modern and classic standards. While for many the first and main example of this phenomenon would no doubt be the blues, Smithsonian Folkways’ Classic African American Songsters seeks to show a more complex side, full of invention and creativity beyond the music of the Delta. Featuring the likes of Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Big Bill Broonzy, among others, the 23rd album in Smithsonian Folkways’ “Classic” series adds further insight into an often forgotten period in African American music.
Detroit jazz violinist Regina Carter has never failed to delight us in the past with her wide-ranging explorations of genres. On her latest album, Southern Comfort, she continues this tradition, effortlessly slipping into the realm of folk and bluegrass music as she traces her father’s roots. Based on research into music collected by the Lomax family and John Wesley Work III, Carter strives to replicate the raw beauty and emotional impact conveyed by these field recordings. Her arrangers have done an excellent job, providing Carter and her band with a cohesive set of tracks, primarily based on traditional tunes but also including a few of country charmers of recent vintage such as “Honky Tonkin’” by Hank Williams and Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind.”
Delving into the pathos of Appalachia, the album begins with “Miner’s Child,” a traditional fiddle tune that calls to mind John Sayles’ film Matewon. Other highlights include the hoedown “Shoo-Rye,” the Cajun instrumental “Blues de Basile” (originally recorded by Dennis McGee with African American accordionist Amédé Ardoin), the bittersweet “I’m Going Home,” and the only track with vocals, “I Moaned and I Moaned” which takes us to church complete with fervent handclapping before seguing into a rock guitar and violin duet between Carter and Marvin Sewell. Other musicians include Jesse Murphy on bass, Will Holshouser on accordion, and Alvester Garnett on drums.
Fans of Carter as well as those who enjoy the music of groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops will appreciate Southern Comfort and the contemporary renditions of these traditional gems.
Kandia Crazy Horse is well-known for her music journalism. Her writing has been featured in the Village Voice, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Creative Loafing and she also served as the editor of Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock & Roll. With Stampede, the esteemed music journalist steps out from behind the pen and in front of the microphone for the first time. This debut album is a collection of eight original and two cover songs that showcase Kandia’s raw, strong and rich vocals as well as her talent as a songwriter. With Stampede she has begun to make her mark as not only a music critic, but also a country music artist.
Of the original songs in the album, there are three in particular that stand out, propelled by knock out performances. “California,” the album’s lead single and the first to be written for the album, is Kandia Crazy Horse’s nod to her California rock country love, written after an extended stay in Sunset Beach. From the very beginning, the song screams of wide open spaces and breezy road trips with the top down through the barren west as the sun sets:
The following track, “Congo Square,” definitely ups the ante on the energy scale, but reads as a tribute to her late mother’s humanitarian lifestyle. “Cabin in the Pines” is her father’s song. Originally, Kandia conceived of this album as a tribute to her late mother, but this song is in recognition of her father and particularly references stories he would tell of his boyhood in Southwest, Georgia which included visits to one of the town’s jookhouses.
The two covers on the album include Kandia’s version of “A New Kid in Town,” a piano-driven version of the Eagles’ hit from 1976. Stripping the song of its original, open, but very present instrumental arrangement and the plush harmonic bed of the Eagles, Kandia inserts her raw, soul-filled solo vocals that gently pierce the space around the piano’s accompaniment. A personal favorite of mine is her cover of Neal Casal’s “So Many Enemies.” Her slightly slower rendition retains the energy and life of the original song, but her vocals add a different edge to the performance.
Overall, this album is a colossal step into the artist world and a statement that all should take notice.
Philadelphia singer-songwriter Amos Lee burst on the scene in 2005 with his self-titled debut album that established him as a 21st century folk rock singer with a soulful edge. Since then he’s released three more critically acclaimed albums that have gradually tilted towards a more countrified version of folk. On Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song he goes the whole nine yards, recording in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce and supplementing his touring band with well-known studio musicians including Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Mickey Raphael on bass harmonica, Jedd Hughes on mandolin, and Tony Joe White on guitar. Proving he’s much more than a singer-songwriter, Lee also picks up the banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, mandocello, and ukulele, while keyboardist Jaron Olevsky performs on an impressive range of instruments including accordion, bass, marimbula, omnichord, piano and toy piano, pump organ, Hammond B3, and vibraphone.
This variegated sound palette never overwhelms Lee’s heartfelt vocals, and offers plenty of variety between tracks. “Stranger,” “Plain View,” and “Tricksters, Hucksters, and Scamps” are pure country finger picking frolics while “The Man Who Wants You” gets down with some bluesy rock. The biggest hit off the album, the haunting “Chill in the Air,” features vocal harmonies by Alison Krauss and earned Lee his first appearance at the Grand Old Opry:
Other songs that stand out from the pack are “High Water” with its distorted rock guitar and vocals and the title track duet with Patty Griffin. While the musicianship is superb, the album is more commercial than Lee’s previous efforts and some of his songs lack the lyrical depth we’ve come to associate with his work. But if you’re a fan of roots music, folk and bluegrass, there is certainly much to enjoy.
The number of African American singers who’ve broken into country music is minimal, and black female country singers are practically unheard of. Though Linda Martell was the first black woman to sing at the Opry and released Color Me Country back in 1969, forty years later you can still count on one hand the number of black women who’ve received any significant recognition in the genre.* Fast forward to 2013, and a new country singer is trying to break down these barriers.
Adrianna Freeman, a native of Tallahassee, Florida, is the daughter of a sharecropper who, like many African Americans of his generation, grew up listening to country music. Adrianna took her father’s dream to become a country singer and made it her own. She first gained notoriety playing in small bars across Nashville, where she now resides. After getting the attention of Teddy Gentry (of the super-group Alabama) and finding herself the subject of rave reviews for her track on his “Teddy Gentry’s Best New Nashville” compilation album, Freeman was able to secure Gentry to produce her debut, Either You Do Or You Don’t. The album has been well-received around the globe, gaining airplay on radio stations from the United Kingdom to Australia, and for good reason. Freeman’s winsome voice may just take her down the road to country stardom. Some of the strongest tracks on the album include “Leavin’”, “Think of You,” and “There’s Gonna Be a Rainbow.”
Adrianna’s single, “Just a Girl,” was recently selected as the official theme song of the National Network for Youth (NN4Y), an organization that helps homeless and runaway youth:
This track will appear on her new EP scheduled for release in early 2014.
Reviewed by Ian Hallagan
*For more history check out the new book Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Duke University Press, July 2013), an excellent compendium edited by country music scholar Diane Pecknold that “examines how country music became “white,” how that fictive racialization has been maintained, and how African American artists and fans have used country music to elaborate their own identities.” NPR has a review of the book here.
Harry Belafonte was not only one of the most popular entertainers of his era, he also had an integral role in the Civil Rights Movements and led many other humanitarian efforts over the course of his career. These are detailed in three products released in 2011-2012.
The subtitle of the 2012 paperback edition aptly sums up Harry Belafonte’s autobiography: a memoir of art, race, and defiance. Over the past few years, Belafonte, who is now 85, has worked tirelessly to cement his considerable legacy—one that goes far beyond his “King of Calypso” moniker. Though this may sound somewhat self-serving, readers will benefit greatly from Belafonte’s first-hand account as told to Michael Shnayerson through a series of in-depth interviews. Of course ample space is given to Belafonte’s early years in the Caribbean and New York, as well as his acting career and musical triumphs. His work as a political activist, however, is the most captivating aspect of the memoir. After a number of humiliating episodes on the entertainment circuit, particularly in Las Vegas, Belafonte dedicated his life to fighting racism, both in the U.S. and abroad. This led to a close friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., who turned to Belafonte to marshall the forces of the entertainment industry in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did Belafonte bankroll much of King’s work, but he was also a key negotiator with both Robert Kennedy during his term as U.S. Attorney General, and with John F. Kennedy, in efforts to move the civil rights bill forward. Episodes related during this period will certainly enlighten and inspire many readers, as will those related to his later efforts to battle apartheid in South Africa and free Nelson Mandela.
Overall, this is a thoroughly engaging book with a great deal more substance than the typical entertainer biography—but then Belafonte was no typical entertainer. He’s led an extraordinary life that few can equal.
Belafonte worked with his production company, Belafonte Enterprises, and director Susanne Rostock on this biopic companion to his autobiography. Though something of a “Cliff Notes” version of the book, the DVD does capture the key biographical elements, frequently making use of the same first-person interviews with Belafonte that were transcribed in My Song. These interviews often come across as a bit stilted, but there are plenty of other commentators that weigh in and add gravitas. What’s really captivating, however, is the archival footage from Belafonte’s ground- breaking television shows from the late 1950s-1960s and from various concerts speeches as shown in the following trailer:
Many will be seeing this footage for the first time, and it’s definitely worth the price of the DVD just to have access to Belafonte’s early television specials. Educators at all levels should also find the documentary to be an extremely useful and engaging device for teaching various facets of Black history.
Released on the same day as Sing Your Song, this short 14-track compilation offers a brief overview of Belafonte’s recording career, including the calypso “Matilda” and two other folk songs from his groundbreaking album Belafonte (1956), “Jamaica Farewell” from Calypso (1956), “Man Smart (Woman Smarter), “Mama Look a Boo Boo” and (of course) “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” from Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959), the “My Angel” duet with Miriam Makeba from An Evening with Befonte/Makeba, and several additional songs, primarily drawn from the 1950s-1960s. If you’re looking for a single disc overview of Belafonte’s career, this is a start. Let’s hope that Legacy will soon devote a complete box set to Harry Belafonte.
The prolific Eric Bibb released two projects in 2012, bringing his total discography to around 35 albums over a career spanning four decades. Bibb was recently named Acoustic Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, and the following albums prove he deserves this honor.
Eric Bibb continually digs deeper into the wellspring of American music for inspiration and never fails to delight his audience. For Deeper in the Well, he took his “satchel of new songs” down to Breaux, Louisiana, where he assembled an all-star group of roots musicians including Dirk Powell (of the Cajun group Balfa Toujours) on banjos, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, and upright bass; Cedric Watson (of Bijou Creole) on fiddle and backing vocals; Danny Devillier on drums and tambourine; Christine Balfa on Cajun triangle; and Grant Dermody on harmonica. Additional guests include Michel Pepin and Michael Jerome Browne playing guitar, fretless gourd banjo and mandolin on a cover of Taj Mahal’s “Every Wind in the River,” and Jerry Douglas playing Dobro on “In My Time.”
The opening track “Bayou Belle” sets the scene, with Watson weaving his Cajun fiddle through the melody:
This is followed by a cover of Harrison Kennedy’s blues classic “Could Be You, Could Be Me,” which segues into a rousing string band arrangement of “Dig a Little Deeper in the Well,” which Bibb first heard on a Doc Watson recording. Other highlights are an arrangement of the traditional song “Boll Weevil” by Dirk Powell and Grant Dermody, and Bibb’s “Sinner Man” which allows all of the instrumentalists to shine.
As with many of Bibb’s albums, he sets a modest pace, content to let his music flow from one track to the next. This creates a very cohesive blend, yet it’s far from monotonous. His approach to the music tends to focus listeners’ attention on the subtleties of the performance and the ensemble, without resorting to any overt displays of virtuosity. One would think that the group has been playing together for years, and let’s hope they reunite on future projects! The album is accompanied by a 20-page booklet with song lyrics and liner notes by Bibb.
Habib Koité and Eric Bibb are both products of musical families, and brothers in their commitment to pass on their legacies. In Bibb’s case, his earliest influences were his father, folk musician Leon Bibb, and godfather Paul Robeson. Likewise, Malian musician Habib Koité grew up watching his parents perform and their music “rubbed off on me.” The two first collaborated 10 years ago while recording the Putomayo album Mali to Memphis. Recently, Bibb made his first trip to West Africa to record with Koité in Bamako. Together, they explore roots music from two continents.
The album initially alternates between songs composed and performed by each musician, but by the third track, “Needed Time,” the brotherhood solidifies and a true partnership is formed, with the two creating and performing four songs together in a mix of French and English:
An attempt is also made to match sounds and timbres. Bibb performs on a variety of acoustic instruments: 6 & 7 string guitars, 6-string banjo, baritone guitar, and baritone, soprano and B-string ukuleles. Koité plays an acoustic nylon string guitar, 6-string banjo, and 8-string ukulele. Percussion is added by Mamadou Kone, while Olli Haavisto contributes pedal steel guitar on a cover of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The result is an intimate coffee house style performance, with the two musicians blending in a way that denotes a general sense of bluesy folk music, but with an underpinning of rhythms and harmonies that are unmistakably West African. Even though Koité performs on banjo and guitar, his use of the pentatonic scale and plucking style are more suggestive of the Malian four-stringed kamale n’goni.
Brothers in Bamako will be enjoyed by anyone interested in world or roots music, especially those who enjoy acoustic string instruments. The album is accompanied by a handsome booklet with song lyrics, photographs, and liner notes by Etienne Bous.
Throughout much of the 1970s, Charley Pride garnered hit after hit for RCA Records, earning several number one spots and becoming only the second African American country artist to be inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His first full-length gospel album, Did You Think to Pray, led to Grammy Awards for Best Gospel Performance as well as Best Sacred Performance in 1972. Now, Music City Records has finally released this Charley Pride classic on CD, completely remastered and with the bonus track “Wings of a Dove,” produced by Chet Atkins.
Did You Think to Pray mixes traditional Southern gospel songs with contemporary fare. Some of the great classics include “Angel Band” (composed 1862), “Did You Think to Pray” (composed 1876) and the 1930s hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” while songs like “This Highway Leads To Glory” and “Let Me Live” are more recent creations. But whether from the mid-19th century to the late 20th, each song is brilliantly arranged and sung by Charley Pride. Another bonus for country and roots music fans is the participation of The Jordanaires, who provide the vocal accompaniment on “Angel Band” and “This Highway Leads to Glory.”
If you’re a fan of Charley Pride, or if you’re interested in learning more about African Americans in country music, or if you simply wish to hear more recent renditions of Southern gospel classics, Did You Think to Pray is highly recommended.
Formats: DVD; online rental via Netflix, Youtube, Amazon, etc.
Release date: June 6, 2012
A documentary claiming to encompass the history of the banjo is setting a high standard. The banjo, called “America’s quintessential instrument” by the filmmakers, developed from African stringed instruments brought over by slaves. It became part of the full American musical vernacular by the mid-1800s. When this movie isn’t trying to make vague political statements about racial politics as related to a musical instrument, it’s relatively interesting. However, its scattered focus and meandering pace results in a mediocre and incomplete telling of what should be a fascinating tale.
For instance, we’re never told or shown exactly what the precursors to the banjo looked or sounded like, or where in Africa they originated. Also left out are any details about how the banjo spread from the slave quarters to the whole of American folk music. It would also be nice to see how a banjo is put together, and what different types are used today (apparently the producers behind The Banjo Project originally conceived of a 3-part series, which unfortunately had to be distilled into one episode).
However, all is not lost. There is a huge redeeming feature to this film—plenty of great music featuring the banjo. The story is at its best when it centers on banjo players past and present (Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Taj Mahal, Carolina Chocolate Drops, etc.). Since the banjo is used in almost every form of American folk music, the film can spotlight a diverse array of players and styles. The filmmakers should have let the music and musicians do all of the talking, and they would have ended up with a more direct and powerful story. Narrator Steve Martin, who’s technically adept with a banjo but a rather dull musical entertainer, gets too much screen time.
The pros and cons are aptly illustrated in the official trailer:
If you like the sound of a well-played banjo and are curious about American folk music, then this movie is worth viewing. It premiered on PBS last year, so it might air again on your local PBS station. However, given the lax focus and sluggish pacing, plus the inappropriate attempts to score political-correctness points, it’s not recommended for purchase. One caveat: the for-sale package includes an insert listing all the old and new musical sources heard in the film, and that is worth owning by a true banjo aficionado.
Imani Uzuri has performed with artists as varied as John Legend, Talib Kweli, Sly & Robbie, The Roots, and Bill Laswell. The North Carolina singer/songwriter has also traversed the world, soaking up melodies from Eastern Europe, Brazil, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Asia, and allowing them to coalesce with her own rural traditions. The result of these cross-pollinations is a uniquely personal style of roots music presented on her sophomore album The GypsyDiaries.
A significant departure from her 2008 release, Her Holy Water: A Black Girl’s Rock Opera, which as the title suggests was more rock than roots, Uzuri has hit on a winning formula with her new album―one that is sure to propel her career forward. Based on the theme of travel, including worldwide journeys as well as internal explorations of self, GypsyDiaries is lyrical yet moody. According to Uzuri, the songs reflect the joy of new experiences and connecting with people, but also the accompanying loneliness and angst.
An acoustically driven album, Uzuri is accompanied variously by cello, violin, sitar, guitar, flute, and a variety of percussion in a mix that is rhythmic yet fluid. Her vocal stylings range from what might be called a Middle Eastern influenced R&B on “Soul Still Sings” (a bittersweet tribute to her grandmother) to the jazzy lilt of “I Sing the Blues” to “Raga For My Lovers,” accompanied by Kaoru Watanabe on Japanese Shinobue flute.
Following is a live performance of “Beautiful,” the album’s opening track, featuring Stef Vanes on acoustic guitar (the album version features Christian Ver Halen on guitar):
Anyone with an affinity for acoustic folk and world music is sure to enjoy The GypsyDiaries.
This is the second album from “roots collective” or “roots super-group” South Memphis String Band. Original members Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tri-State Coalition), Alvin Youngblood Hart (Muscle Theory) and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All Stars) are joined by Justin Showah (Knockdown South, Hill Country Records). The album mines the deep traditions of blues and “hill music,” but also proudly delves into the corny and politically-incorrect dustbins of novelty and medicine-show songs from the times before rural electrification.
Those who get offended by corn-pone and somewhat racist humor of yore, avoid this album. Those who can take it in the spirit it’s intended will enjoy the skill of the band’s playing and will probably enjoy hearing faithful reproductions, in relatively high fidelity, of tunes resurrected from obscure and scratchy old 78-rpm records.
Here’s the band covering Charley Patton’s “Some Of These Days,” one of the tracks on the album:
Far from a serious-minded “curation” of these old songs, the South Memphis String Band’s approach is to wade in and have fun, with all seriousness focused on pitch-perfect and rock-solid playing and singing. According to the record company’s website, “The album was recorded traditionally using four old-fashioned ribbon microphones and as quickly as possible in deference to the organic/natural approach that one observer called ‘the pure sound of fingers, strings, wood and throats.'” That’s a fancy way of saying, these guys delivered the music together, self-balanced, and probably in complete takes. Just like in the olden days when these songs were being recorded new.
Cutting to the chase, this is an excellent album, probably the best new recording I’ve encountered so far this year. It is fresh, original, imaginative and expertly played. But it also harkens from a long tradition of Southern string bands, particularly the black string bands of the Carolinas and Georgia. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are rare birds in that they can successfully take an old tradition and make it sound new, with a strong imprint of their own voices and minds.
After the Drops’ last album, Genuine Negro Jig, founding member Justin Robinson left the group and was replaced by Hubby Jenkins. Robinson was a fiddle ace and singer, Jenkins is a master of the banjo, guitar and mandolin. So the group’s sound has become less fiddle-centric (founding member Rhiannon Giddens is also masterful with the bow). This album also presents a more relaxed sound, with most vocals handled by Giddens and/or founding member Dom Flemons (he’s the dude with the suspenders and cool hats in most of the group’s videos).
Production of Leaving Eden is also more laid-back. The album was recorded at producer Buddy Miller’s Tennessee home studio, some tunes on a back porch as the sounds of a southern night roll on in the background. It’s not a low-fi production—as a matter of fact, the band’s vocals and instruments sound clearer and more natural than any previous recording—but it’s closer to what the group probably sounds like when they pick tunes for pure enjoyment in their own homes or rehearsal space.
On several tunes, Adam Matta augments the band, on beatbox and/or vocals. Matta is also currently touring with the Drops. Also, Flemons sings more on this album than past efforts, and that’s for the better. He has a strong and interesting voice, and his preferred songs are often from the less-remembered repertoire of times past.
Both Flemons and Giddens are students of their tradition, and have found gems in old songbooks and instrument-instruction books. On Leaving Eden, the second track, “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” comes from a circa 1875 songbook. And, next to last is a compilation of two ditties from Tom Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855: “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig / Camptown Hornpipe.” Finally, the band borrows a vocal-harmony shout, “Read ‘Em John” from Alan Lomax’s recordings of the Georgia Sea Islands Singers.
Following is a video of “Boodle De Bum Bum” from a live performance on WYNC’s Soundcheck:
As in the case with their cover of “Hit ‘Em Up Style” on the previous album, the Drops try out a tune leaning toward modern hip-hop stylings. In this case, it’s Giddens’ “Country Girl,” which is a country/hip-hop crossover. It will work on the radio, but it’s a bit out of style with the rest of the album. The sentiments expressed are nice—after traveling all over the world, there’s not better place than home —but the feel is overly commercial.
But that’s a minor quibble. This is a great album that will likely find very frequent rotation in your music queue, long after you’ve paid the Amazon bill.
Good albums are easy to review. Picking out positive qualities and delving out a little praise isn’t really that difficult. But when an album is great, things get tough, and there’s something about Bones for Tinder that makes it especially challenging to review. Accredit this to what you will—the eclectic mish-mashing of genres, the group’s collective abilities—but that something is remarkable.
Here, the oft-ignored tradition of African American old-time music wanders in a new direction. Lead by Justin Robinson (formerly of the heavily praised Carolina Chocolate Drops), the Mary Annettes (comprised of North Carolina musicians ElizabethMarshall, KyraMoore, SallyMullikin, and JoshStohl) take what’s already familiar to fans of the Drops and filter it through their own tastes. For a band whose members credit Erykah Badu, Loretta Lynn, and “ossified remains of mammals” for inspiration, the process yields something we haven’t heard a whole lot of. Bones is unabashedly rooted in traditional music, but those aforementioned influences come out loud and clear.
The album’s opening track, “Neptune,” along with the later appearing “Bright Diamonds,” “Thank You Mr. Wright” and “Nemesis or Me,” stick to the relative basics. Here, Robinson and his cohorts adopt a kind of singer-songwriter mentality, applying their old-time roots to a format that embraces atypical instrumentation and song structure, often backing Robinson’s vocals with a loosely-formed string trio, hand claps, percussive banjo and autoharp. Later, “Ships and Verses” and the haunting “Kissin’ and Cussin’” (which previously appeared on the Chocolate Drops’ Geniune Negro Jig) rely on—here comes the Erykah Badu influence—spoken word and rap traditions as much as folk and old-time. “The Phil Spectors” and “Gypsy Death and You,” tinged with subtle electric guitar and surprisingly contemporary drums, are a strong end to the album.
Following is a live performance of “Devil’s Teeth,” recorded August 2011 at the Cat’s Cradle in
That’s not to say, though, that there was ever really a weak point. Where Robinson and the Mary Annettes could have gone wrong, they went very, very right. Bones for Tinder is spot-on, an inspired and well-wrought album that appeals to fans of the Chocolate Drops’ brand of old-time without being an old-time album. It’s simultaneously of the moment and incredibly traditional, not trying too hard to be on either end of the spectrum. In the easy, unforced kind of way that can only be created by someone who really knows what they’re doing, Bones for Tinder is an extremely likable album, and for that alone (whether you can put your finger on what else makes it so good or not), it deserves some praise.
A joint production of reggae label VP Records and country label Warner Music Nashville, Reggae’s Gone Country is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of country music classics stripped down to their roots, infused with reggae aesthetics and instrumentation, and given to some of the Jamaican popular music industry’s hottest stars to interpret for a contemporary audience. If the idea seems a tad gimmicky, the first listen might not do much to help the situation; it can be a conceptual challenge to come to grips with the album’s outlandish combination of driving reggae drum, bass, and skank guitar rhythms overlaid with twangy country pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo ornamentations. Once the listener has acclimatized to this fascinating juxtaposition of musical elements, however, Reggae’s Gone Country is actually a wonderful album through and through, with several beautiful and innovative renditions of expected and unexpected country favorites by an all-star cast of reggae luminaries (like Beres Hammond and Freddie McGregor), current kings and queens of the Jamaican popular music industry (like Tarrus Riley and Etana), and brand-new up-and-coming stars such as 21 year-old Romain Virgo, whose collaboration with country legend Larry Gatlin on the Gatlin Brothers’ song “California” is the album’s lead single:
To truly appreciate Reggae’s Gone Country, however, one must know the story behind it. According to the liner notes and an informative YouTube mini-documentary, VP Records vice president Cristy Barber dreamt up the concept for the album as a way of uniting her two loves (reggae and country music), and she assembled a crack team of Nashville and Kingston producers and musicians to help put the project together. But what many reggae and country fans alike may not realize is that country is, and historically has been immensely popular in Jamaica, and it actually shares much in common with reggae—both are musics of marginalized working class populations, both sing of love, criminals, and spirituality, and both relish a good story. Thus, the songs chosen for the album were not simply U.S. country favorites foisted upon a group of Jamaican reggae stars largely unacquainted with them, but rather some of the most popular and beloved country tunes in Jamaica itself.
While the album’s story might be an inspiring account of cross-cultural collaboration and mutual appreciation, however, the logistics of its production may have stifled some of its potential for true genre-bending creativity. Indeed, if the record sounds like a collection of reggae rhythm tracks recorded by session musicians in Jamaica, sent to Nashville for leads and ornamentation by American country string players, and then shipped off to the singers to add their vocal contributions, that’s largely because it is; the liner notes state this in no uncertain terms. While the quality of the musicians is extremely high—collaborators include reggae drum luminary Sly Dunbar and pedal steel legend Mike Johnson—the music itself is therefore fairly ‘safe,’ with each instrument playing a clear, compartmentalized, genre-defined role and straying little from it. There are, for example, occasional incidences of the backing musicians from one idiom toying with elements of the other (as when the lead banjo plays the trademark reggae guitar ‘skank’ pattern on L.U.S.T.’s rendition of The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers On the Wall”), but I think there was definitely fertile ground for more musical experimentation of this kind, and that a closer collaboration between the various groups of musicians themselves might have better facilitated it.
Overall, though, this is certainly an album worth checking out; there is not a song on here that I haven’t grown to love, though some certainly stand out more than others. Tarrus Riley’s version of “The Chair” by George Strait and Duane Stephenson’s interpretation of “Suspicions” by Eddie Rabbit are personal favorites, and even dancehall DJ Busy Signal’s autotuned vocals on his rendition of Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” somehow seem to work in the context of the project as a whole. In the liner notes, Cristy Barber explains that “with the music industry where it is now, we need more people at the reggae party and I am really hoping this album will give more exposure to the genre.” I, on the other hand, am inclined to believe that it will do more to expose reggae fans to country classics than it will to inspire country aficionados to develop a taste for reggae’s contemporary trendsetters. Either way, Reggae’s Gone Country is undoubtedly a unique and thoroughly enjoyable first step in what may very well become a long series of collaborations between Nashville and Kingston, and I for one am quite interested to find out what directions these relationships may take in the future.
The Blind Boys of Alabama are a world renowned gospel quartet group that has graced churches and stages across the globe. In 2010, they were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. During the induction ceremony, they performed a number with up-and-coming country music star Jamey Johnson, which was such a success they were motivated to release an entire album of country music. The result is Take the High Road, a pleasant fusion of the BBA’s classic gospel quartet sounds with those more closely associated with country music. Whether one is a fan of quartet, gospel, or country music, this album is sure to offer something to that will both delight and inspire.
This sacred music project draws on country music influences from several sources; through the musical content itself, the production capabilities of Jamey Johnson and also through the notable guest country artists that are featured. The title track, “Take the High Road,” features the voices of fellow quartet The Oak Ridge Boys. This pairing occurs seamlessly as the voices of both groups create a powerful ensemble. In true tag-team fashion, members of both groups alternate leading this up-tempo piece. “Take the High Road” truly sets the tone for this album as a jubilant admonishment to keep the faith and persevere. More somber subjects are also explored, as seen in the selection “I Was Burden.” Featuring Lee Ann Womack, this piece discusses the redemptive power of a spiritual encounter stating, “I was a burden ‘til the Lord laid His hands on me.”
Following is the official music video for “Take the High Road”:
The collection of songs covered in this album range from classic country and gospel tunes to popular hymns. One memorable selection is a song penned by popular bluesman McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters, titled “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You.” Its simplicity and straightforward message has made for easy adaptation to many church services over the years. Another notable selection is the hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” featuring Jamey Johnson. Notions of country music are immediately invoked in the introduction of the song with the inclusion of steady acoustic guitar strum. Likewise, Johnson’s mellow, soothing “drawl” provides a distinct yet pleasant contrast to BBA’s harmonization of the chorus.
Take the High Road serves as the ultimate reminder of the connectedness of musical expressions of the United States. The manner in which quartet gospel, country, and blues influences are fused throughout this album showcase not only the talents of these musicians but is also indicative of their common ancestry. I would suggest that one would be hard-pressed to strictly delineate where the “country” begins and the “gospel” ends as they share similar roots in early African American expressions. These sonic and expressive ties are highlighted and crafted throughout the album, which makes this musical collaboration a most excellent listening experience.
Tompkins Square recently launched its “Long Gone Sound” series with Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin, 1929-1934. This reissue project was obviously a labor of love for producer Christopher King, who also penned the liner notes and remastered directly from the original 78s, many from his own collection. The goal was to “represent, for the first time, every surviving recorded instance of Ardoin’s singing and playing.”
Amédé Ardoin, a rural black French-speaking Creole, became one of the most revered Cajun musicians in Louisiana. Rising to fame in the 1920s, he performed at dances and house parties for both black and white audiences throughout the bayou region and west into Texas. His syncopated Afro-Creole accordion style and spirited vocals influenced everyone from first cousin Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin to later musicians such as Conray Fontenot and Iry LeJeune (who re-interpreted and popularized many of Ardoin’s songs in the1950s). Ardoin frequently partnered with Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee, and the pair made some of the earliest recordings of Cajun and Creole songs, ranging from one-steps, two-steps, waltzes, blues narratives, and love songs.
Though the majority of Ardoin’s output was previously released by Arhoolie on the CD I’m Never Comin’ Back (1995), the two-disc Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone offers eight additional tracks featuring Ardoin and McGee. These include rare recordings from their very first sessions in 1929: “Taunt Aline,” “La Valse Ah Abe,” “Madam Atchen,” “Two Step De Mama,” “Two Step de Eunice,” and “Two Step de Prairie Solieau”—plus two tracks from their final 1934 session: “Sunset” and “Tout Que Rest C’est Mon Linge.”
Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone is highly recommended. Anyone interested in Cajun music, the roots of Zydeco, or early fiddle and accordion styles will greatly appreciate this compilation.