Photo: Jon Sievert
By Dave Cantor
“Is there such a thing as a straight jazz band?” David Grisman wonders.
If there’s an answer—and the mandolin player is correct in making such a query—he’s certainly never performed in one.
Beginning in the wilds of New Jersey, the man who’d become known simply as Dawg came of age during that time in the 1960s when players stopped cordoning off musical genres. But the difference between Bill Monroe and acts like the New Grass Revival pertain more to attitude than song selection and improvisation. Read the rest of this entry »
Two or three great musicians get together after their fame is at its peak and form a supergroup: old story. Three great musicians get together as unknowns, record amazing songs that do not get released, then go on to outstanding solo careers while their early work gradually acquires legendary status: new story. The Flatlanders were formed in Lubbock, Texas back in 1972 by then-unknowns Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. They recorded what twenty years later would come out as “More A Legend Than A Band,” but everything was shelved back then and went unreleased as they went their separate, solo ways. Gilmore took a long hippy trip in an ashram before becoming an Austin legend, Ely somehow hooked up with Joe Strummer and collaborated a bit with The Clash, and Hancock just kept at the progressive country thing, gaining a reputation as one of the premier songwriters of our time. Read the rest of this entry »
credit Ronald Rietman
Carving out a career spanning the nation’s coasts, autochthonous musics and several decades makes Peter Rowan a reasonably unique performer. Coming from the northeast folk scene and counting Eric Von Schmidt among his contemporaries—yeah, the same guy Bob Dylan shouts out on his first album—Rowan gigged in rock and folk groups before winding up in the company of the Bluegrass Boys and Bill Monroe in Nashville. But that was only a situation that would last a few years, and soon enough, the guitarist was immersed in the Bay Area’s developing hippie scene. Performing alongside David Grisman in Muleskinner led to an eventual alliance with Jerry Garcia in Old & In the Way, both early newgrass supergroups. And while each ensemble only issued a handful of songs, one of Rowan’s contributions—“Midnight Moonlight”—has become something of a standard, winding up on assorted albums, including work by New Riders of the Purple Sage (there’s a seven-minute version with Tony Rice on their “Quartet” recording from 2007). Serving for so many years as an adjunct to fascinating musical company, Rowan eventually struck out on his own during the late 1970s. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Meg Bitton
“American Idol” might have brought us talent like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and then-unappreciated Jennifer Hudson, but there were many other promising artists who ended up vanishing even if they did well on the show. While some flamed out soon and wound up playing minor parts in off-Broadway shows, some used the exposure to create a niche audience and build a solid career once the cameras were turned off.
An example of this is Ohio-born Crystal Bowersox, who was runner-up during the show’s ninth season (defeated by Chicago’s Lee DeWyze) in 2010. Signed to Jive Records that year, she released “Farmer’s Daughter,” and despite positive reviews and reasonable sales, she was dropped after RCA disbanded her label. She has since signed with indie label Shanachie Records (which also includes Ruben Studdard—another “Idol” veteran—in its roster) and is in the works to put out her sophomore album “All That For This” under the production of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. Read the rest of this entry »
Pairing Del McCoury and Sam Bush is at once a perfect match and somewhat antithetical. The older guitarist who made a name for himself in bluegrass before Bush had even touched an instrument is completely rooted in the music’s historical resonance—Americans struggling through the depression and then working through the building of this country’s middle class. Bush, on the other hand, is included in the crop of players influenced by that early wave of performers but also sixties counterculture. Musically, the duo share an affinity for the traditional, although Bush and his mandolin have been seen cutting up stages posed as a rock star. McCoury, a guy who’s been around long enough to tour and record with a band comprised of his children, still hedges toward traditional lyrical topics, issuing a 2006 album made up of devotional tunes. Read the rest of this entry »
Shorn of all the art-world hyperbole the Velvet Underground trucked in, the Fugs, another New York City rock band formed during the mid-sixties, were able to say and explore similar ideas in its music. There weren’t as many references to smack, but using Charles Olson as a literary hero in lieu of Delmore Schwartz seems like trading up. Founded by poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, the band took archaic American music, merging it with a willfully lowbrow take on then-modern rock tropes and forged a relationship with Harry Smith, enabling the group to begin recording before the Beatles were able to get too far beyond its hand-holding stage. Instead of the prevailing pop-culture references, the Fugs chose to turn toward a nihilism, channeled through Eastern thought and general beat philosophies. “Nothing,” a track from the group’s 1965 “The Fugs’ First Album,” lists everything from fucking to Ginsberg and Stalin, saying they’re all a buncha nothing. Its droning vocals being backed by hand drums and harmonica only makes the offering more difficult to take even forty-plus years after it was conceived. That was the point, though. Read the rest of this entry »
Listening to “We Can’t Make It Here” from the 2005 album “Childish Things” immediately makes you respect James McMurtry: his lyrics are a direct indictment of the hypocrisies of the right and also of big-box discount stores like Walmart who encourage companies to ship jobs overseas in order to reduce costs to their customers.
The son of novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry, McMurtry has been part of the folk-rock scene since John Mellencamp produced his debut “Too Long in the Wasteland” back in 1989. He has since collaborated with the likes of John Prine and Dwight Yoakam (in the “supergroup” Buzzin’ Cousins) and has regularly recorded and toured with his backing band, the Heartless Bastards—though the band is no longer billed in that manner because of confusion with the Ohio-based band of the same name. Read the rest of this entry »
Whether Old Crow Medicine Show would be an engaging group of players without a blueprint laid out by the best country and string-band players isn’t an easy call. The ensemble has done everything it can to recreate the past, going so far as to pull in producer Don Was for collaboration. But issuing five discs’ worth of high-test tunes in just about a decade is no mean feat. 2008’s “Tennessee Pusher” even reads like an album’s worth of songs lazily telling a story about hawking drugs in the South, using I-65 as its main drag. Read the rest of this entry »
Wherever the Handsome Family are, it seems to be raining. Or something unfortunate’s happening. Digging around in Americana’s attic, folks usually notice all the odd occurrence—fights, unfaithful spouses, murders, inexplicable religious events—but Brett and Rennie Sparks seem to have taken it all in stride and worked to mold a precise update of decades-old music. Read the rest of this entry »
When Columbus’ the Black Swans began recording, New Weird America was in its fetal stage. And while the revolving troupe of players led by Jerry DeCicca weren’t active players in that almost-genre, the band did issue a disc through Pennsylvania’s La Société Expéditionnaire. Apart from the band’s instrumentation, DeCicca’s oddly pitched vocals gliding atop updated country arrangements hint at the ensemble’s intention of reveling in its own brand of American music. Read the rest of this entry »