There's always something on the roots music horizon. This week, I'm featuring personal favorites who have either just released an album or have something coming up, including a film. This covers a wide range, from Dolly Parton to William Burroughs, from a New York cult duo to a roots legend, from newly recorded roots music staples to new music by younger artists that could easily be some of the best of the year.
So, sit back, relax and see what's coming down the pike.
On Top of Old Smoky: New Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music
This is one of several National Park Service Centennial-recognition projects this year, and it's a labor of love by Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University.
Many of the album's 23 tracks were recorded at the University and include new recordings of traditional songs, ballads, and tunes by notable roots music luminaries, including Dolly Parton, Norman Blake, Bryan Sutton, Alice Gerrard, Tony Trischka, John Lilly, Martin Simpson, Dom Flemons, and David Holt.
This album really began in 1937, when Joseph S. Hall was commissioned by the National Park Service to document the songs and culture of the people living in Cades Cove, who were to be displaced by the park’s creation. Hall’s recordings went unheard until 2010, when Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music was released — and nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy award.
This album features new recordings of those songs, many of which are well-known, including "Man of Constant Sorrow," "John Hardy," "Muleskinner Blues," "Bonaparte's Retreat," and “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home.” Now we get to learn the origins of all those songs we grew up hearing. But this is no mere nostalgia trip, as Olson said in a note, "The musicians on this album respect older performing styles and older repertoire and are culture-bearers, much like the musicians that Hall recorded way back when.”
Finally, included in this set is Dolly Parton's touching "Little Rosewood Casket." While Parton has traveled far from her Tennessee mountain home, you can hear its echoes in her voice. The album comes out on August 21.
William S. Burroughs
Twenty years ago, right before his passing, Burroughs recorded audio versions of his favorite sections from his book, Naked Lunch. Longtime associates and producers Hal Willner and James Grauerholz produced the sessions, bringing in, among others, Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, and Eyvind Kang. The recordings were released, but quickly faded, as forgotten as a piece of rancid ectoplasm on a peepshow floor.
Last year, Willner revisted the project and asked King Khan to add his gris-gris to this perverted gumbo. Khan recruited M Lamar, the creator of the "Negrogothic" movement and the identical twin brother of actress Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black). He also brought in the Frowning Clouds from Australia.
The resulting album, Let Me Hang You, is a collection straight from the Godfather of Punk's very own mouth. If chills and thrills are what you seek, then look no further -- here is the bible of freakdom, recited by the pope of the underground.
As I write this, I am listening Burroughs' other masterpiece, 1990's Dead City Radio, also produced by Willner and Grauerholz. As an aside, Gus Van Sant took "A Thanksgiving Prayer" from that album and made an arresting film to go with the poem. Get hung on July 15.
Amy LaVere and Motel Mirrors
Motel Mirrors was a duo -- Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith (both from Memphis). But as LeVere has built a life and music partnership with singer-songwriter Will Sexton (Austin), the duo has become a trio. Their new, as-yet-untitled album was an Indiegogo-funded recording that will be released early this fall, hopefully before their showcase at the AMA Festival in Nashville, in mid-September. I am looking forward to it. If you have followed my annual year-end reviews, you'll note that LaVere's last three recordings, including the first Mirrors album, have been in my Best of the Year lists, with her and Sexton's duo album of last year being my Album of the Year.
I caught up with LaVere and Sexton recently at a house concert in Lexington, Kentucky, and was apprised of several other projects she's been involved with. She's part of a Sun Records tribute record, which also includes Jimbo Mathus, Valerie June, and Chuck Mead, with Luther Dickinson producing. The song LaVere chose was the Millers' Sisters' rockabilly "Ten Cats Down." She says making that record was like a homecoming, as LaVere once worked as a tour guide at Sun Records.
Immediately after that, LaVere and Sexton traveled to the Zebra Ranch Studio in Coldwater, Mississippi, to record what she calls "a total experiment, felt like just a bunch of teenagers in a clubhouse." The recording is a collective of talented folks sharing a few songs each and allowing the whole group to contribute to the recording. It was an inspired collaboration with Amy Helm, Luther Dickinson, the Como Mammas, Birds of Chicago, and Sharde Thomas.
While it's sort like The Wandering, Part 2, the album's working title, The Songbird Sisters of the Strawberry Moon - Summer Solstice Session, had them all in giggles. For a quick listen check out this group via Soundcloud, including a live session of the revamped Mirrors.
Anna & Elizabeth
Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle have made a name for themselves around the world, bringing bright new light to Appalachian old-time story and song. Originally released in 2012 and out of print until now, Sun to Sun -- the duo's debut -- includes 13 ballads, lullabies, and dance tunes via Southwestern Virginia tradition.
Inspired by the richness of traditional music, Anna & Elizabeth have gathered songs and stories from folks who have lived that tradition. I can attest to that authenticity, as I did something similar over 40 years ago.
The songs on this album feature sparse, atmospheric arrangements using guitar, banjo, fiddle, and an eerie harmony. The visual component of their live shows features an old, scrolling picture show, called “crankies” — intricate picture-scrolls illustrating the old stories they sing, which they create from papercuts, shadow puppets, prints, and embroidered fabric. If you have never experienced one of those, you are in for a special treat as the re-release also includes a video of "The Lost Gander."
As you may recall, Anna & Elizabeth have been featured in ND and I selected their self titled 2015 album as one of the year's best. Their sun rises on August 5.
Purdy's latest, Who Will Be Next?, is his 14th(!) release in the past 15 years. However, his proficiency has not resulted in the acclaim he is certainly due. Perhaps that's becasue he is a folksinger in the best way possible, not courting current trends or seeking favors.
Purdy embraces the folk music idiom even though it is out of fashion. He has a sound reminiscent of a young Dylan, looking around and commenting in song on his country and the state of the world. Not that it's a downer, but it's more contemplative in manner and thought.
Nowhere is this more evident than in "Children of Privilege," in which he cautions us to have compassion and not give in to anger against those who were not born into money or who don't have white skin. He implores us to find understanding, and ultimately, not to give in to blaming others. It's a simple, direct statement on one level -- all too obvious, it would seem -- but Purdy does it in a way that makes you feel for all humanity, including himself.
By the way, most of us are the children of privilege, of whom he sings.
On "Who Will Be Next" he features Dylan's one-time violinist Scarlett Rivera to great effect. The album is out now.
The Stray Birds
When it came time to record Magic Fire, the Stray Birds took an ambitious step. They retreated to a small town outside of Woodstock and teamed up with Grammy Award-winning producer Larry Campbell. It was not only the first time they worked with an outside producer, but it also marks the first time they've recorded with guest musicians.
As with most folks these days, the Stray Birds have spent countless nights on the road across both the US and Europe. which makes or breaks many bands. This trio have definitely sharpened their senses and honed their already keen understanding of what they want to achieve.
As for the album's songs, "Third Day in a Row" is a laid-back slice of Americana that showcases the band's rich harmonies, while "Hands Of Man" is a dark, Appalachian-influenced tune. "Where You Come From" marks bassist Charles Muench's first complete songwriting contribution to one of their albums. "Shining in the Distance" (which debuted on NPR Music) is a collaboration with fellow songwriter Lindsay Lou (of the Flatbellys) that grew out of Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven's move to Nashville from Pennsylvania.
Magic Fire marks a new, more open approach yet remains as focused and incisive as ever. "All The News" is a reminder of just how lucky so many of us are to live in relative comfort and safety, while the feelin'-groovy "Sunday Morning" is a call to action. In it, Craven sings, "You can shout for change and worry about the state of the world / But it's gonna take a little more than praying on a Sunday morning."
This no smoke and mirrors, folks, and it comes out of the hat, like a rabbit, on August 19.
Tommy Womack is lucky to be alive, let alone releasing a new album. He had a devastating automobile accident last year, but returns on Namaste with stories to tell through his balance of humor, pathos, and forthright optimism. Death and religion seem to be recurring themes. Not that he embraces any particular one, but rather what he calls a "fuzzy Buddhist Methodist” belief system stemming from his upbringing in Kentucky as the child of a preacher.
Womack's songs seem to be a cross between Todd Snider and John Lennon, with a touch of John Prine. His songs have titles like “Comb-over Blues,” “Hot Flash Woman,” “When Country Singers Were Ugly,” and “Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood.” You can easily make the connection.
Anyone who can turn the Beatles into this lyric about Nashville -- “Plasticine porters with looking glass bolo ties” -- is all right with me. Namaste has just been released.
Hymn for Her
Hymn for Her is another fantastic duo -- a psychedelic, bluegrass, rock and roll one, flying under most people's radar. Their fourth album, Drive Til You Die, is aptly titled as they and their young daughter spend seven months a year on the road in an old Ford van and a 1961 Bambi Airstream. You can tell from the song titles that many reflect their time and experiences on the road.
Much like the first track on Sugarcane Jane's latest, this album's opening track, "Devil's Train" is about the road itself. Their Facebook page “genre” definition reads, “punksy folksy airstreamy country bluesy grassy waynesy lucy take you on a hayride to hellsy.” Kinda catchy, don't you think? I've also seen them described them as "hillbillies with electronics."
Indeed, armed with a cigar box guitar, banjo, and kick drum they have a backwoods country-bluesy sound that mixes rockers with sourwood honey-sweetened ballads that would make Tara Nevins proud. My favorite features Wayne’s delicate finger-picking and harmonies that underscore Lucy’s angelic soprano, as they sing, “Everybody misses somebody/The whole world has one big achin’ heart,” (“One Big Achin' Heart”).
The album also features the Lone Ranger from my childhood Saturday mornings, cult band Mazzy Star, and ends with the James McMurtry-like "The Road Song." Not that this album, or the duo who made it, is at all derivative -- far from it. The pair's influences come together in a big, frothy stew whose flavors linger long after the meal is over. That Airstream pulls into your driveway on August 12.
I have been a fan of this downtown noir-ish New York duo ever since I picked up one of their early albums in a cut-out bin in 2004, simply because it looked intriguing and I liked its title: Dreams that Breathe Your Name. It is hard to believe that Ghosts of No is their 11th album in 20 years, and they remain mostly a cult band in the US. Like most art bands, they're also more popular in Europe.
Elysian Fields has a dreamy sound fleshed out with a jazzy undercurrent. Singer/keyboardist Jennifer Charles is not tied to popular music as she was featured in the opera Angel's Bone, which premiered in New York this past winter. She had only one solo, about her martyrdom at the hands of men who “like it rough.” The New York Times described her as "Singing in a bloodcurdling wail of raw despair. She made a singular case for opening opera’s doors to untrained and untamed voices." I think that writer was referring to the fact that she is untrained, classically, as Charles' vocals -- and Oren Bloedow's guitar -- result in sensual, surreal lullabies for adults. The album is out now.
There is a special connection between American folk music and the railroad that has no parallel elsewhere in the world. Rail lines stitch together the sprawling fabric of American song from Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly to Johnny Cash.
Rattle the Hocks, a short documentary directed by Cody Dickinson, captures the Grahams’ relentless journey to explore the relationship between train travel and roots music. However, what the film inadvertently captured was also a husband and wife living their American dream.
I've seen a preview of the picture and Dickinson aptly captures the rhythms and energies of the transport system. Together for months, the Grahams ride Amtrak lines such as the Adirondack, the Texas Eagle, the Heartland Flyer, the Sunset Limited, and the famed City of New Orleans, criss-crossing the country as the land that informs their songs whizzes by.
Additional music is provided by the Dickinson brothers, John Fullbright, and the Turnpike Troubadours.
The film will be available in digital format on July 8 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will host a concert and screening on July 9.
Kristofferson just turned 80. As with most elder statesmen, he was quite troublesome in his day. He was also invariably the handsomest guy in the room. I had a good friend who would tell her husband, "Honey, you know I love you. But if Kris ever shows up, I'm out the door."
For you folks who were not around then, take it from me that he was big.
Coming out of seemingly nowhere in 1970 with those enigmatic, fantastic songs, Kristofferson took the world by storm. He was a key figure in the "Outlaw" movement. Don Was told the Austin-American Statesman in 2009, “Forty years ago, Kris single-handedly changed the way people write songs. He combined the simplicity and directness of Hank Williams with the emotional intelligence of a Rhodes Scholar. There isn’t a songwriter out there today who hasn’t been influenced by Kris. He’s a giant.”
He was also quite the actor, not just his big movies, but lesser-known ones like Blume in Love and John Sayles' Limbo, and the unnecessarily maligned Heaven's Gate.
He didn't need to do anything more, but in June 2014, Kristofferson hosted a three-day impromptu jam session at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin, Texas. It had been a while since he had recorded and here was a chance to lay down some of his favorite compositions with a live band. With Shawn Camp on lead guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, Michael Ramos on keyboard, and Mike Meadows on drums, the group ran through 25 of Kristofferson’s best-loved songs. On the final day, Sheryl Crow came in to sing a duet of “The Loving Gift,” a song made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash that Kristofferson had never recorded.
The Cedar Creek Sessions is out now. Coincidentally, last month also saw the release of all of Kristofferson's other albums in a whopping 16-CD box set and a feature article in ND.
Following last year's Live in Berlin, 2016 features another live album by Patti Smith. This one was also recorded in Germany, but in 1996. It was broadcast in Europe at the time and later in the US, on a few FM stations. I cannot tell whether this is from the master tapes or just an excellent broadcast copy, but any Patti Smith recording is a cause for celebration. Like last year's EU-only release was, at least I think, a semi-official one, this one may be as well.
On it, Smith covers Prince's "When Doves Cry," the Doors' "Crystal Ship," Dylan's "Wicked Messenger," and the album's biggest hit, her collaboration with the Boss on "Because the Night."
Wicked Messenger delivers its powerful message on July 8.
Thanks for reading. Please note that the Hymn For Her photo is by Eric Reed and Joe Purdy is by Roger Lurie.