Easy tasks tend to lose value. Perhaps this is why the artistic legacy begetting Justin Townes Earle lacks luster among those seeking to place his work—it takes little skill to connect the dots of his lineage. One cannot escape mention of his father Steve Earle, nor his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt. In turn, Van Zandt credited Lightnin’ Hopkins with a definitive influence on his guitar technique, while for Hopkins a chance encounter with Blind Lemon Jefferson forever altered his outlook on the blues. Thus through the output of Justin Townes Earle, listeners embrace a heritage that extends deep into the heart of American expression, spanning an entire century from the earliest blues to contemporary country, tracing the Mississippi River and its tributaries from Houston to Memphis and back again. It was wise then for the Chicago Bluegrass and Blues Festival to place Earle’s performance at the center of their programming. His presence evokes a certain timelessness, his lanky stature replete with stomp-ready boots the perfect echo for his steel-tinged voice, a hoarse timbre that owes as much to tradition as it does to drug use. Read the rest of this entry »
By Dave Cantor
Jason Evans Groth handles a winding road headed out of the West Virginia mountains.
The freeway twists past seemingly endless trees as the guitarist discusses his tenure in Jason Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co., a group as mercurial as its frontman, spurning players and welcoming new voices when its leader felt it a necessity. Evans Groth remembers his friend—Molina died March 16, 2013, reportedly from complications related to alcoholism—as a talker. Someone who was capable of worldwide friendliness, but who was also an intensely emotional guy. People didn’t drift away from Molina; he just had shit to tend to and split. Read the rest of this entry »
Hearing the Wailin’ Jennys stripped of artifice, unadorned by elements dropped in to make the trio sound more like a country rock band than anything else, is probably the best way to encounter these folk-singin’ Canadians. Spawned from a one-off gig at some music shop, the trio started touring and recording soon after. With its 2004 debut, “40 Nights,” ranking as the group’s most acoustic-focused affair, closing standard “The Parting Glass” best serves to explain the band’s talents. Initially a Scotch farewell song, something from about the same time Robert Burns was kicking around, the tune finds the original trio—Cara Luft’s since split-workin’ it out a capella. Read the rest of this entry »
There is some great American music out there, but you just do not hear it on Top 40 stations. It’s a world where Justin Bieber or Katy Perry have zero significance—it is the world of American acoustic music that you can only hear on local stations or maybe on NPR if you are so inclined. This is the music played by folksy types you sometimes hear in coffeehouses, but it really is the roots of what we call “Americana.”
Two new collections from Putumayo explore this often-ignored music, which ranges from folk, bluegrass and country-folk to zydeco. On “Acoustic America,” well-known classics mix with original songs—highlights include Clay Cumbie’s gorgeous “Here’s to The Journey,” an ode to the open road and the joys of traveling and Red Horse’s take on “Wayfaring Stranger.” Also notable are Guy Davis’ downtempo “Everything is Gonna Be All Right,” (whose lyrics actually suggest otherwise) and the Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s acoustic blues “I Was Born With The Blues.” Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 »
“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 »