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.
There was nothing we really could say The river had swept us away Like a present hereafter, the warm sound of laughter As we danced to the Delta Queen Waltz
On Wednesday, after stepping off the elevators at the 19th floor of the Marriott in downtown Memphis, I simply stood for a moment and took in the view of the Mississippi River. It shimmered in the sunlight, awesomely wide, as I drank in that moment of delicious silence. I knew this was like going to be a rare moment of peace before the insanity began, and Folk Alliance would definitely prove to be glorious insanity at times. For four days one is more or less captive in a pitching ark of musicians and industry professionals, all working in various corners of the world of folk music. Days begin with panel discussions, and after a long night of hotel room showcases, that second expensive cup of coffee from the lobby coffee shop becomes necessary medicine to rev the brain cells. The elevators resemble the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera” as everyone crams into a small space, only to tumble out in a pile when the doors open.
But eventually that umpteenth-wind took over as the collective energy of several thousand people, each on similarly little sleep, and each on their own trips through the wilds of the Marriott, buoyed me along. I was reminded, as always, that best laid plans are meaningless at these things, and once I let myself go with the current I got to the heart of Folk Alliance mighty quick.
The heart of FAI was ultimately about building community. To be sure, relentless self-promotion is expected at music conferences, and we all know the music industry at large is adept at building pseudo-fellowships while simultaneously cannibalizing artists as soon as they’ve outlived their fiduciary usefulness. But this conference clearly had a different goal. It was gratifying to see the camaraderie between most attendees, whether musicians or other industry folks. The collaborations and friendships that grew over the conference were built on not only a mutual admiration of talent, but often on a common mission. These are trying times, and it’s positively vital to know we aren’t alone in our fears, frustrations, and hopes. And truth be told, no one in this thing, with a few exceptions, is making much money, so there is a sense of shared survival. There’s strength in that support, and, at a time when so many are facing absurd attacks by vicious political rhetoric, lord knows the community needs its artistic voices to be supported – and broadcast loudly.
If I can be frank, I don’t consider myself much of a cultural critic. I’m just a hopeless, unrepentant geek. The only unifying factor I can find in why I dig some things and don’t connect with others boils down to intent and passion. Watching someone show you something real is soul-feeding. Watching the opposite is crushing. I do however strongly feel American folk music should be, at its best, music that not only comes from that genuine place, but also serves a real purpose in its community. Certainly not every act at FAI ticked that box, but I felt fortunate that most of the bands that played in our own SPPS room did, in a variety of ways.
So, in a spirit of celebration, our rock star taper Keith Bergendorff and myself have put together a digital mix tape, which you’ll find on page three. All of our SPPS showcase sets are represented. On page two, we have reflections from a handful of the truly awesome artists we were fortunate enough to spend time with in Memphis. Hopefully we’ll see y’all at Folk Alliance 2012, but if not you can guarantee the SPPS will be there on site, bringing the sounds straight to your ears and preserving them for the future. Because, to paraphrase John Hartford, that river rolls on, long after we are gone.
Continue reading for reflections from some of the Folk Alliance artists…
Want to know why the room was so crowded? Start downloading!
Has it really been over a week since we all traveled back from Memphis? My, how the time does fly!
We’re pleased to announce that all of the SPPS showcases from Folk Alliance 2011 are now available for download, in mp3, zip, streaming and flac. That’s how we do at SPPS!
Our rock star taper Keith and yours truly will be bringing you a mix of our personal favorite songs, culled from all these fabulous showcase performances, later this week as part of our final FAI wrap-up. But in the meantime, you can find setlists and download links to all the sets below, or, simply go our music page, and look for all the performances listed as “FAI 2011.”
Steam Powered Preservation Society Showcase Folk Alliance International 2011 Room 1903, Memphis Marriott Hotel Memphis, TN WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 2011 Atomic Duo mp3/zip/stream/flac Texas City, Mississippi Delta Blues
The Swells (Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells, with Aaron Youngberg, Silas Lowe, Dango Rose, Bonnie Paine and Hubby Jenkins) mp3/zip/stream/flac intro, Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm, Just When I Needed You, We Can’t Live With ‘Em, Walkin’ In My Sleep, Weary Blues from Waitin’, Shout Lulu
Two Man Gentlemen Band mp3/zip/stream/flac My Baby’s Off the Market, Me, I Get High on Reefer, I Like to Party with Girls, Darktown Strutters Ball, Chocolate Milk, Fancy Beer, Prescription Drugs, William Howard Taft, The Gentle Stomp
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 19, 2011
Dehlia Low mp3/zip/stream/flac Spoon (A part), Spoon (B part), Peep Hide, Windy Mountain, Thunder, Rolls Right On, Reuben Train, Change Up, Going Down
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.