Welcome to the inaugural edition of The SPPS’s Song of the Week.
This being the 20th of April, the urge to pick something, uh, “heady” was tempting. But, unfortunately, this date is also associated with some of the darkest events in our history, and it’s crucial we not forget the past – even the recent past – lest we be doomed to repeat it (although, alas, it often seems we are).
One year ago today, at approximately 9:45pm central time, methane gas from an underwater well shot up and out of the drill column on the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting explosion set off a fire that burned for 36 hours, causing the rig to eventually sink, and, due to a faulty blowout preventer, started an oil leak. Eleven rig workers lost their lives, and, all told, around five million barrels of oil would spill into the Gulf of Mexico before the leak was contained. The oil washed up on the shores of Gulf coast beaches from Texas to Florida, hitting Louisiana’s coastal communities the hardest.
A year after the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States, Congress has not changed a single law on oil and gas drilling. Not one. Meanwhile, Gulf coast residents are still economically struggling and many are sick, living in an ecosystem that may take decades to recover. And that’s just touching on a laundry list of injustices that remain, and most likely will remain for years.
If art can hold a mirror to our experience, channel our anger, and question some of the assumptions that led to this mess – that corporations can police themselves, that our fossil fuel-dependent lifestyle has no consequences – then there is more than enough fodder in the Gulf oil spill to comment upon. There certainly is an outpouring doesn’t seem to be a large artistic response to the disaster, at least not that I’m aware of (although I would love to be proven wrong, and please pardon my ignorance if I am). One of the few songs I’ve heard to address this is The Atomic Duo‘s “Oil (is Choking Louisiana).” Listen below as Mark Rubin and Silas Lowe lay it down. As Lowe wisely asks here, in a song that draws on both the Deepwater Horizon and the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, ”How long until we realize/Company man is not our friend?/Company man is not our friend?” How long indeed.
Take action for a healthy Gulf of Mexico with the Gulf Restoration Network here.
One afternoon during the Folk Alliance International conference this year, I recall sitting in my hotel room, somewhat frantically trying to sift through the jumbled notes from the previous day and night’s highlights and mold them into something readable. Suddenly, I heard a distinctive voice singing in the distance. I thought, “That sounds a lot like Bonnie Paine.” I got up from the desk, threw open the curtains, and looked about ten stories down to the Marriott patio, where, sure enough, I saw Elephant Revival playing to a crowd in the bright sunlight. In the middle of my harried blogging, it was a moment of pause, a happy coincidence that let me know, “Relax dude, and take a moment to appreciate this while you are here.”
It’s habitual to always look ten steps ahead on the journey, but it’s ultimately healthier to simply take the moments as they come. Nederland, Colorado’s Elephant Revival certainly provides an apt soundtrack for those times when you need to breathe, put your mind to the present, and maybe even dig beyond the surface expectations. Although they get labeled as “transcendental folk,” I ultimately find their music to be a grounding listening experience, bringing one back to earth to look at things with a renewed and youthful sense of wonder.
The five members – Paine (vocals, washboard, djembe, musical saw), Sage Cook (electric banjo/guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, viola, vocals), Dango Rose (double-bass, mandolin, banjo, vocals), Daniel Rodriguez (acoustic guitar, electric banjo/guitar vocals) and Bridget Law (fiddle and vocals) – all share songwriting duties. As expected, there are a lot of sonic layers to unravel in their songs, but they all move and weave together with a cohesive purpose, as is evident on their second studio album, A Break in the Clouds (released November 2010 on Ruff Shod). As Rodriguez, who I spoke to on the phone from his home in Nederland, says, “We’re really open with ideas. We’re each very welcoming to the other folks’ perceptions of where songs can rattle off to.”
Although individually the members of Elephant Revival represent a wide-ranging geographical history, they came together in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and now call the musical mountain haven of Nederland, Colorado home. It’s a town that has been home base for Colorado bands like Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, and Yonder Mountain String Band, so Elephant Revival are certainly in good company as they establish themselves amongst these heavy-hitters. I spoke to Rodriguez about the band’s journey so far, songwriting inspiration, mixed feelings about musical labels, and what it’s like to be Vince Herman’s neighbor.
You all have these different musical and geographical backgrounds that converged in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I was curious how that setting influenced you as a band?
It’s where Bonnie Paine (vocals, washboard) is from, and she herself has been a huge influence on us. The landscape and history of Tahlequah goes back to being the last stop on the Trail of Tears, so there’s a lot of history and a lot of the Cherokee nature there, which definitely has an influence on all of us. [There’s also] a fellow Bonnie and her sisters grew up playing with there, Randy Crouch, they call “Hillbilly Hendrix.” He’s a ripping fiddle player, great songwriter, and great Stratocaster player. He’s been a huge influence on all of us too.
You personally point to Chad [Urmston] from Dispatch and State Radio as a mentor. Now Elephant Revival is signed to his record label [Ruff Shod]. I was curious to hear more about that relationship.
I grew up in the southeastern seaboard of New London, Connecticut, and when I was first making those baby steps to becoming someone who would go out and play open mics, joining bands and working at clubs, I was going out and seeing tons and tons of Dispatch shows. I remember this one particular show, about five of my friends and I drove down to Philadelphia and saw Dispatch play at the Electric Factory. I remember being in the crowd, watching and listening to them play, and it felt like time stopped, and I had this epiphany that, “This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, playing music and bringing out that energy.” Chad was, and still is, the main songwriter in that band, and his songwriting has been a huge influence on me. So to be hanging out with him, to be on his record label, to maybe feel like sometimes we inspire him has been a really big accomplishment. It’s certainly a dream come true, and it’s only just begun.
Considering you all had diverse musical backgrounds, what were some of the common threads you found as musicians initially?
The thread that we’ve picked up between all of us is our ear to find that common pathway in each song. To really listen to what each song wants instead of what each musician wants to play. We seek out what the song is looking for. I think all five of us have that sensibility, and I believe that’s why we came together.
Your sound gets labeled as “transcendental folk.” Is that a label you’re comfortable with?
I’m definitely not always comfortable with it. I think, in general, we as humans just like to label things and box them up just so we can understand them. I think the music speaks for itself, and if people want to label it, that’s their deal. I definitely try to stay away from people who say they’re gurus or priests, so one of the things I’m uncomfortable with is going out and saying, “We transcend reality.” That’s definitely one of the things we strive for, but I don’t think we need to label ourselves that way. That seems to be something some journalist labeled us as, and it’s sticking, so in that regards so be it.
It’s always interesting to me, as someone who writes about music, how these labels that get applied to bands early in their careers seem to just stick around.
I know. I mean [on one level] it’s kind of a cool name. I dig the transcendental writers, like Emerson and Thoreau, all those cats. But I feel like that era of writing got named after they were dead and gone and people were reading their works. So to be called “transcendental folk musicians” while we’re still playing – I don’t know, it’s kind of weird. But I’m not going to let that get in the way of what we’re doing.
You have done a lot of cool benefits, like the Buffalo Heart Benefit. I’m curious how that sense of activism plays into your experience as a band.
In general, it feels really good to be able to do things for other people, to raise money for people who don’t really have much. I feel like a lot of times we go out and tour and tour and tour like mad, and a lot of that is to spread the music, but also to create sustenance for ourselves. So to put on events and create wherewithal for folks other than ourselves – I think one of the greatest things humans can do is serve other people. So it feels really good, it feels like you’re on the right path, and that matched up with music is just an incredible combination.
With the current economic downturn, coupled with the changes in the music industry, how do you find yourself making it work as a band?
I think to make it work as a band, despite all the influences that money comes in to play, especially in this downturn, you really just have to stay creative, and to stay open as individuals in the band. Also, connect with folks in the audience, before, during and after [the show]. To just keep creating worthy experiences, every day. The money part of it comes and goes. I can’t really say that I’ve seen too much of an effect as far as that goes, except the music business in general losing itself, and finding itself, and losing itself again. But as far as the financial situation on the whole [nationwide] goes, I think the music actually helps. It helps people feel something that has nothing to do with their purse or their refrigerator.
How did resettling in Nederland, Colorado influence you as band?
It’s been a huge influence on us. Out of a very small population of mountain folks in this incredibly windy town – with 60 mile per hour winds constantly blowing – there’s a wealth of professional musicians who live up there. And there are a lot of younger bands that are cropping up. The [more established] folks provide inspiration in so many ways. You go out to a pick at your local pub and you never know who is going to pop up, like Jeff Austin. To hang around them, to be inspired by their normal lives – it helps shape your own musicality. It’s been a lot of fun. To warm your bones and drink whisky with a lot of these folks has just been a comforting thing. When we go out on the road for long periods of time, to come back to such a small population of mountain folk is just great. It’s a very inspiring place to write songs.
Vince Herman was pretty instrumental in helping you settle there, wasn’t he?
Yeah, Bonnie and Dango met Vince awhile back. He played a hugely inspiring role to them when they were first starting out. Then I met him a few years before the band started. He was encouraging all of us to move up to Ned, and just get it started. He ended up finding Bonnie and I a place to live up there, right next door to him. There was never a dull moment over there. There was constantly music being played, and being recorded. Vince – there’s just no other guy like him. To be able to get to know him and experience these moments with him has just been fantastic.
Speaking of recording, how do you see live taping benefiting you as a band?
I think live taping can help us a band, because for folks who have never heard us live, and potentially only heard our studio albums, they get a really good feel of how we are live. I feel like that’s where a lot of the energy is at. Also, [listeners] get to hear certain songs in different contexts, where different energies come out. It just spreads our presence, farther, wider and deeper across the internet. Although sometimes so much gets put out there, we could be playing a show anywhere and it gets put up. You don’t personally feel like it’s the best representation, maybe it was kind of a bad night, but it ends up being some folks’ favorite show that’s out there. So it’s an interesting dynamic, with all this live taping.
Do you ever listen to recordings of yourself playing live after the show is over, or do you just let it go?
I pretty much just let it go. I’ve tried to listen to it, but I get a song or two in and I start getting skeptical of my playing. I’d just rather not look back. But I’m happy that people do.
I wanted to ask you about a couple songs you wrote on A Break in the Clouds. “What is Time?” – where did the inspiration for that song come from?
The inspiration came from that question [“What is time?”] in general. There is this linear fashion in which humans tend to think – wake up, go to work, come home, make some food, read your book go to bed. You’re born and then roughly 70 to 80 years later you’re dead, and the in-between contains all these things expected of you. That song is inspired by probing deeper into reality, in a fun way. It just skims the surface of the question, and offers an answer that’s not really an answer. It’s inspired by bringing in a slanted perception, rather than the way people tend to think about time.
I wanted to ask about “Black and Silver” as well. What inspired you to write that song?
I was inspired to write that one from a time I was hanging out on the beaches on the east coast with friends. Just the way that the full moon shines in the night and hits the ocean waters – there’s just so much magic that’s present in a night like that. It gives me goose bumps just talking about it. I wrote it probably seven or eight years ago, so it’s kind of far back there. But, if you could, picture the full moon shining in the night sky, and it hitting the ocean water and it glittering across the waves, the movement of the water, and maybe a jug of wine with you and your friends. There are all these epiphanies that can come from a night like that.
David Tiller produced this album, as well as your first [2008 self-titled album]. What do you like about working with him as a producer?
Well, he’s about my height, so he and I are at eye level [laughs]. And there are not too many people who are 6’ 6” and up.
His ear is just great. This is a guy who practices and writes four hours a day. Initially going into recording [the first album] we had asked him to produce because of the records we’d heard that he’d done in the past, with Taarka and ThaMuseMeant. All five of us in Elephant Revival just fell in love with those records. So we asked him to produce. Within the process of recording it, the little suggestions that he [would make], like he might say, “You know I think you need to go home and practice that song for two days.” And hearing it come from him, you’re like, “You know what? You’re right.” It doesn’t so much hurt your feelings as much as you know you [it’s what you] need to get the best out of this performance.
You recorded both records in Lyons, Colorado. What was that recording environment like?
Lyons is an interesting place. It’s really warm there in the winter, even though five miles down the road it could be much, much colder. So we had a lot of days in the winter where someone might be laying down some tracks inside, and the rest of us are outside in the warm sun, drinking mate. So it was really relaxed and beautiful.
I could share with you this awesome experience we had recording “Ring Around the Moon” [from the 2008 self-titled album]. Right before we went in to record it live, we went outside and it was a full moon eclipse. There was actually a huge ring around the moon. All five of us, and David and his wife Enion, we all went outside, and instantly before we recorded the song just soaked in this auspicious happening that was so relevant. We just knew there was a lot of magic and power that was going to go into this recording session.
Elephant Revival is on tour now, check the dates here.
The band will once again be teaming up with the good folks at Conscious Alliance for the Buffalo Heart Concert at the Boulder Theater on April 30th. All funds raised will go directly to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Tickets can be purchased here.
And make sure to check out their set from the SPPS Folk Alliance Showcase! Stream, download as zip, mp3s or flac.
“When the festivals are over and my friends leave, well I cry. Because they’re part of me. They’re part of the festival. You never know when next year that one might not be here. And when the music’s over on Sunday night, you’ll never know how lonely it is. But I sit in the pines and always write a story. I can still hear them singing, oh yeah, I can hear them singing. And then they always come back… the musicians and the people. It’s part of their lives and part of ours. So it hurts me to see them go… it hurts me to see them leave. But I know that most of them enjoyed theirself and the heard the greatest music in the world played by the greatest artists in the world. And that’s bluegrass music. That’s a bluegrass festival.”
- Carlton Haney, Camp Springs, 1971
We were all saddened at the SPPS to learn of the passing of Carlton Haney last Wednesday, due to complications from a stroke. Haney was 82.
Everyone who knew Haney personally describes him as a colorful, larger-than-life character, who inspired his own share of legends and tall tales. As the story goes, it was Haney’s crush on Bill Monroe’s daughter Melissa, who he met while working in Virginia in the mid-1950s, that inspired him to get into bluegrass initially. But from a young man courting a legend’s daughter, Haney rose to be one of the most important figures in bluegrass music (which, incidentally, he always felt should be spelled “blue grass” after Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys). His contributions to the world of bluegrass music are undeniable. He was a manager, booking agent, record producer, promotor and songwriter. He was also the publisher of Muleskinner News, one of the most prominent bluegrass publications of it’s time.
But Haney is perhaps best known for pioneering the idea of the multi-act outdoor bluegrass festival. By the mid-1960s, Haney had established himself as a successful country music promoter. At one point he was promoting around 100 shows a year, in over 30 cities. This allowed him to take a risk and realize his vision of a weekend festival entirely devoted to bluegrass music. On Labor Day Weekend in 1965, the first “Blue Grass Festival” was held at Contrell’s Horse Farm in Fincastle, Virginia. The lineup included Bill Monroe & the Blue Boys, Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys, Clyde Moody, Don Reno & the Tennessee Cut-Ups, Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cut-Ups, the Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson. There was even a special presentation of “The Story of Bluegrass Music,” which was emceed by Haney and featured Monroe joined by a rotating cast of musicians who helped him recreate notable moments in the history of bluegrass.
Besides offering fans a fabulous opportunity to hear several acts in one place, Haney’s festivals truly revitalized the bluegrass music scene. At the time, even established bluegrass acts were often resigned to playing bars and working second jobs to make ends meet. By creating a festival scene, Haney gave the musicians another much needed source of income, and a higher level of exposure.
Bluegrass festivals have obviously proliferated and evolved since Haney’s time. From behemoths like Telluride or Hardly Strictly that draw diverse line-ups outside of the bluegrass world, to smaller homespun affairs that focus on more traditional acts, Haney’s dream has grown, perhaps more than he ever imagined it would.
One of our first tape spotlights featured recordings from his second Blue Grass Festival in Fincastle. You can check it out here. And while you’re making your own festival plans for the summer, think of Haney, the man that made it all possible. He’s certainly a fine example of how the simplest of motivations – love for the music – can inspire a person towards great undertakings.
Bill Powers and Spring Creek with Betse Ellis close it down in 1903. Photo by Bergendorff
Well it’s official – The SPPS team has survived Folk Alliance! Here’s a wrap up of my highlights from the last day of the conference.
The protest music panel led by The Atomic Duo‘s Mark Rubin and Silas Lowe was a lively and inspiring group, drawing a wide range of ages and experiences into the discussion. The topics traveled from people’s personal stories of protest to questions of how you present arguments (for example, the viability of using allegory in a country where our education system has virtually abandoned the encouragement of critical thinking skills). As a writer, personally the most powerful thing I took from the panel was the image of silence, as a woman described how many protest she attends don’t feature music these days. Allowing something to be silenced, not giving it a voice, is one of the most powerful tools of oppression. To paraphrase Rubin, this isn’t the time to fuck around. These stories need to be told.
The Atomic Duo also pulled a strong showing at theirofficial showcase that evening, with folks filling up the chairs and standing in the back. It was a ripping set that evoked both laughter and cheers of approval, the audience hanging on every word. Guy Forsyth loaned Rubin his guitar temporarily when he broke a string, with Forsyth kneeling on the side and restringing Rubin’s guitar while the Duo played. “We don’t really know a lot of songs so we can only take thematic requests,” Lowe explained, giving the audience a choice of Marxist polemics, disasters (natural or man-made), dead relatives (with a specialization in mothers) and the death penalty. Dark humor can be a powerful weapon in the right hands, and they aren’t called The Atomic Duo for nothing. Another killer performance by these cats, who were the must-see band of FAI.
Finnders & Youngberg by Bergendorff
Also giving stellar performances at their official showcases were our host bands Spring Creek and Finnders & Youngberg. Between these two showcases and the Lonesome Traveler showcase the previous night, Colorado’s unique, close-knit music scene was definitively represented to the FAI crowd. Spring Creek really commanded the stage in the Nashville room, playing their classic-sounding and meaty originals. “High Up in the Mountains” might as well be the official state song of Colorado, evoking the thrills that come from living in natural majesty, while “Hold on Me” taps the dark, sweaty desperation and pain of an unsure relationship. There’s a lot of power when this group plays, and this set was turbo.
Finnders & Youngberg used their showcase to highlight Mike Finder’s original songwriting. The band has quite a range, from the gritty tale of booze and murder “Connie” to the humorous, honky tonk-tinged “Back in the Band,” about a flawed but charming musician who tries to beg his way back into his group, to “Sold on You,” a simply exquisite country love song. Erin Youngberg’s sweet harmony singing and jubilant stage presence was positively infectious to watch, while Ryan Drickey‘s chameleonic fiddle playing slipped in and out of the songs with ease. A great showing by a band who thoroughly won my heart by the end of the weekend.
By Saturday night, everyone is pretty much running on fumes at FAI. But the musicians found those last stores of energy at our guerrilla showcases, throwing down into the wee hours. Dehlia Low from Asheville, North Carolina, started the night off. This group boasts some stirring two part harmonies, courtesy of fiddle player Anya Hinkle and guitar player Stacy Claude. Their voices intertwined on two different melody lines at the end of John Hartford-inspired “Baby It Rolls Right On,” a song about the impermanent nature of this life. Dobro player Aaron Ballance was, to quote Silas Lowe, “A stone cold mutha” on his axe, and it was just plain fun to watch bassist Greg ‘Stig’ Stiglets stomp his feet and grin, utterly taken in by the music.
I really have to give props to our three hard-working host bands for flying the Colorado flag so proudly at our showcases. On this last night, we were treated to two sets of Spring Creek, who played a couple of favorite tunes of mine, including the sunny “Cuba Vera Swing,” which spotlights Chris “C-Bob” Elliott’s banjo, and their rollicking cover of Elton John’s “Honky Cats.” Finnders and Youngberg opened up their set with “Roots Run Deep,” which brought up a well of feelings for me. For someone who’s never really had roots anywhere, I’ve always looked for my home in music communities, and after this weekend, I am proud to call Colorado home.
Farewell Drifters by Vigil
Our third host band Lonesome Traveler shined in their last guerrilla set in our room. Jodi Boyce (mando) brings a magnetic stage presence to the band, and between her, Kelly Wells and Betse Ellis (who we’ll get to shortly), I was inspired by these strong female musicians, who aren’t trying to fit into the cutesy box that many of the women I saw at the conference seemed resigned to do. Boyce and her fellow Traveler’s have a sound that packs a lot of natural soul, and a close-knit family vibe that can’t help but utterly charm you. “Howlin’ Harlan Wind” featured some tight guitar picking from Rick Scott, to whom they affectionately refer to as “Camp Daddy.” Plus, they travel in a veggie oil bus – win!
Meanwhile, The Farewell Drifters surprised us with a new sound and look featuring Members Only jackets, ties and skinny jeans. Their sound was hearkening more to The Avett Brothers than their previous newgrass style, and it suited them well. Also taking a decidedly current take on their sound was The Nadas. More stripped down in approach to what we had been presenting, with twin acoustic guitars and a fiddle, their original songwriting hit on contemporary topics and their vocals were spot on. Their updated, raw version of A-Ha’s “Take on Me” definitely had the room jazzed.
Besides the happenings in room 1903, I also caught sets by Betse Ellis and Raina Rose in the Trade Root Room. I am pretty sure if you look in the dictionary, under the definition of “badass,” there is a picture of Ellis. If not, I will contact Webster’s and remedy this situation pronto. She’s a jaw-dropping musician, able to produce tones on the instrument both subtle and in-your-face, moving through mercurial moods strikingly quick. But what she’s got that really sets her apart is a stomping attitude that’s an absolute joy to watch, and more than a little punk rock to boot. A jaw-dropping solo version of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” confirmed this. During “Longtime Traveling,” Ellis ran up to Chad Graves, the HillBenders’ dobro player who was filming her performance on his phone, and leaned straight into the camera sawing away and grinning. Meanwhile, I actually stood up and pumped my fist in excitement at the end of “The Ballad of John Henry.” The Atomic Duo joined her for the last two songs (an Ellis original called “Run!” and a Memphis Minnie tune), which saw Rubin and Lowe bowing down “we’re not worthy” style at the end of her set.
I was happy to catch a few songs of Rose too. I’m not hugely into singer/songwriters, so I’m pretty picky about the ones I like. Rose always stands out from the pack. What I like about her music is that no matter how flat out pretty many of her songs are, they always contain, if not an overt darkness to them, then an earthiness that keeps her music tethered to the ways of this mean old world. Joined by Andrew Pressman on bass, Rose played an intimate set, opening with a cover of The Band’s “Ophelia” that had the right amount of grit, and a few fan favorites such as “Bluebonnets.”
Finally, things came to a close in our room with Bill Powers and Spring Creek, who were joined by Ellis for a couple tunes. As a singer, Powers is naturalistic, with a soft, weathered voice that fits his plain clothes songwriting to a tee. Spring Creek slipped beside him nicely in this set, painting the moods and textures of his tunes, such as apt opener choice “Talk to Me Tennessee.” The set closed down on a raging “Deep Ellum Blues” and a cover of Steve Miller Band’s “Rock ‘N Me.”
The SPPS Team! R to L: Sarah Hagerman, Keith Bergendorff, Garian Vigil, Rich Ostella
In many ways, those two covers summed up what was great about room 1903. The various music traditions that have combined to make us American are vital to keep alive, and performed in a way where the music breathes and isn’t stuffed into a nostalgic museum display. But as the generations roll on, we’ve all picked up pieces from the music we grew up with, whether it was ’70s AM rock and roll, punk rock, or even ’80s metal. The challenge is always to balance the necessary education and respect for deep rooted American cultural traditions while remaining true to yourself. It’s an honest approach, but in the current music environment where it’s hard to make a living, the temptation to play it safe abounds. But what I truly appreciate about most of the artists that played our room was that, working with their various frames of reference, they don’t play it safe, and their art is much better for it. I hope John Hartford would be mighty proud.
Big thanks to our FAI 2010 webcast and blog sponsors!
I began my third day at Folk Alliance with a simple question in mind – “What Would John Do?” This panel discussion featuring Bob Carlin, Chris Sharp, Matt Combs, Mike Compton and Rodney Dillard was a frank and insightful view of Hartford as both a man and an artist. There were a lot of funny and personal stories (including one involving a batman cape, which we’ll tell in our FAI wrapup) but there were also many important lessons to take home. Dillard explained how Hartford, in a wholly positive way, “Tried to fit in with the people of the music he was representing.” Very aware of the tensions between “the real deal” (people who had grown up in the culture of the rural poor South) and “the revisionists” (artists who simply borrowed pieces of that culture, often without understanding the context), Hartford made a conscious effort to immerse himself in the music he was playing. In this sense, he struggled with the fact he himself came from a fairly well-to-do, educated background, and one got the sense that his constant striving for authenticity was as personal as it was artistic. A well-considered example for any artist to follow, especially those working in traditional music.
It was also fascinating to hear about Hartford’s artistic process. He worked hard not only to refine his music, but also his image. For example, he would test out jokes on his bandmates, retelling them until the delivery was perfect. The panelists all had stories about the 3″x5″ cards he carried, organized in the many pockets of his vest. These cards containedeverything from contact information to song ideas, and, if he heard a remark he thought was witty or interesting from a bandmate, he would whip out a card and scribble it down with the date and time (and then of course ask, “Are you going to use that?”).
John Hartford String Band by Vigil
Compton shared a story which I thought was particularly sad. He described one time when he and Hartford walked into an old time jam, and several of the musicians walked out, not wanting to play with Hartford. Crestfallen, Hartford wondered how many of the musicians who rejected him would even be playing old time music if it wasn’t for the work he had done. It spoke to how, as much as many embrace Hartford now, he struggled with being an outsider, a trail blazer ahead of the game. Yet he always maintained that the best way to honor his musical forefathers was to add something original to the conversation. I couldn’t agree more. This was simply a fantastic panel that drove home how perhaps the most important legacy of Hartford’s is that you have to have the courage to be yourself.
Genuineness can be a tricky concept to pin down in words, but it’s something you can just sense when you are watching artists perform. In that spirit, it’s been amazing to see how many genuinely awesome bands we have had up in room 1903. Friday night proved to be no exception. Besides more killer sets from our host bands – Finnders and Youngberg, who played an awesome drinking and murder song called “Connie” that got the room amped up, and Lonesome Traveler, who, fresh off a fabulous official showcase came out swinging strong (and we’ve got two sets of Spring Creek tonight!), I was happy to add three new bands to my must-see list. Namely, The Steel Wheels, The HillBenders, and Two Man Gentlemen Band.
The Steel Wheels by Vigil
The Steel Wheels kicked off what would prove to be an emotional night in room 1903. They draw from obvious gospel influences, and have the pipes to thoroughly own that transcendent sound, especially in a hair-raisingly great version of “Working on a Building.” But what sets them apart is lead singer and primary songwriter Trent Wagler’s songwriting chops. A song entitled “Hymns for the Unsung” was inspired by his grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. As he lost the ability to recognize his own grandson, Wagler would still visit him and play him songs (because songs are often some of the only memories people with Alzheimer’s retain). With a chorus cry of, “Don’t take the music from me,” there was not a dry eye in the house (seriously, I’m getting all choked up even writing about it). It spoke to what we leave behind in this world, the art that survives long after we have faded into memory.
HillBenders simply rocked. They have one of the best and most exciting commands of the single mic style I’ve ever seen, and watching them weave in and out of each other, stomping with fury, was bloody thrilling. Guitarist Jim Rea especially was a firebrand, jumping off the ground and thrusting his guitar ceiling-ward while he picked. Unashamed to be children of the ’80s, their cover of The Romantic’s “Talking in Your Sleep” was totally stadium-worthy. Hot damn!
We were lucky to have a second helping of John Hartford Stringband. Before the show started, Bob Carlin busted out a bottle of some mighty fine single malt, which he served up to the audience. We then raised a toast to Hartford before opener “Madison, Tennessee,” jump starting a set that contained both laughter and tears. Sharp’s vocals fit the sighing “Love Grown Cold” to a tee, while Carlin’s segue out of “Bring Your Clothes Back Home” into “Hey Babe, You Wanna Boogie?” inspired an audience sing-along. But the gorgeous “Delta Queen Waltz” which closed out the set, and saw Combs joined by Geoffrey Sykes on fiddle, had everyone biting their lips. Combs went over to twirl with Eileen Schatz while Compton played a shimmering mando solo, a sweet moment as the two obviously shared an unspoken memory of Hartford. We were truly fortunate to have JHSB in our room, celebrating the man who is the inspiration for our work at SPPS.
The Swells and friends by Vigil
Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells treated us to a wonderful set of old time and country, pulling in Aaron Youngberg on steel, Silas Lowe on mando, Dango Rose on bass, and later Bonnie Paine on washboard and Hubby Jenkins on bones, both of whom made for a mean rhythm section. Spearman can play a badass saw as well as banjo, and watching him and Wells perform can’t help but put a huge grin on your face. Picking on some old time (“Walking in My Sleep”) and country classics (Hank William’s “Weary Blues,” which provided a prime chance to show off both Youngberg and Lowe’s skills), this was a joyful set of music.
Our showcases closed down with The Two Man Gentlemen Band. Andy Bean (tenor guitar) and The Councilman (bass and kazoo) play tight and fast, with an offbeat, at times awesomely loopy, sense of humor. After a night of so many moments of beautiful heartache, they were just the medicine we needed at 2:30am. For one thing, it’s so obvious that they are having a blast up there, that you can’t help but catch that buzz. With songs like “Me, I Get High on Reefer,” “Fancy Beer” (which seemed appropriate for our room stocked with Upslope, Avery and Fort Collins Brewing Company), and “Prescription Drugs,” they made me think this is what Ween may have sounded like if they took an old timey approach. They may keep their tongues in cheek, but their stellar musicianship ain’t fooling around. Big cheers!
Besides our showcases, other notable moments included sneaking across the hall to see Atomic Duo, performing a set of covers from various artists that have influenced them, including a buoyant arrangement of a Scott Joplin piece by Lowe, the heartbreaking “Mother’s Not Dead” (written by Lance Spencer, who recently passed away), and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On the Moon.” The Bob Wills tune, “Got a Letter From a Kid Today” is sadly still relevant today, as we remain entrenched in two absurd wars. Wills actually recorded it twice (during WWII and Korea), and both times it was banned from radio play. They ended their set on a personal favorite cover, “John Deere Tractor” by the late great (and not as well known as he should be) Don Walser. A wide range of influences, that all add up to timeless.
Two Man Gentlemen Band by Bergendorff
And finally, I’ve gotta give props to Taylor Sims, Dan Booth and Alex Johnstone of Spring Creek, plus HillBenders banjo player Mark Cassidy, for moving their jam session into the elevator when we were kicked out of the 19th floor at 5am. That’s the kind of elevator music I can get down to.
Well, our last night of showcases are about to kick off, so I should sign off for now dear readers. I’ll have our day four highlights when I’m back in Denver, but until then make sure to tune into our live stream for our last night of music at Folk Alliance 2011!
Big thanks to our FAI 2010 webcast and blog sponsors!
The SPPS is a non-profit (501c3) electronic library that archives, saves, researches and shares historic Americana recordings. The goal is to promote music through the appreciation of its history and sounds.