Archive for October 2010

Nanci Griffith Covers:
Sonny Curtis, Tom Russell, Ralph McTell, Kate Wolf, Shel Silverstein & more!

October 30th, 2010 — 10:13 pm

Austinite singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith has long teetered on the line between country and folk, successfully selling out mid-size concert halls and finding radioplay on both Country and Folk stations nationwide. She’s well-covered in both arenas, most especially by other crossover artists, her songs finding voice in the hands and mouths of Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Red Molly, Eliza Gilkyson and others.

But it’s telling that Griffith’s own albums and singles have never truly topped the charts in either category. The complicated web of factors which have led to a successful career that nonetheless hides just under the radar of her shooting-star peers includes both personal and professional elements. For fans and newcomers alike, then, today we offer a short overview of Griffith’s life and career, culminating in a well-deserved celebration in song.

Nanci Griffith got her start early, with a professional debut at 14 practically synchronistic with Tom Russell’s “discovery” of her at a Kerrville Folk Fest campfire. But hers was a slow rise to fame. The death of her high school boyfriend just after their high school prom surely took its toll on her early work, even as it inspired an early set of deep and wistful songs of love lost. For a short while, until her career blossomed, she taught kindergarten during the day, and hit the coffeehouses at night, biding her time until the world caught on to her talent and craft.

The national release of Once In A Very Blue Moon on Rounder Records in ’85, and her Grammy nomination for her subsequent release Last of the True Believers, seemed an indicator of star power, and an assurance that the shy, often startlingly powerful singer-songwriter was on the cusp of a life in the spotlight. But the path to fame and fortune is never straight, and life is full of curveballs. Though she finally won her first and only Grammy in 1994, Griffith’s career was slowed again in the late nineties, with two bouts of cancer keeping her off the touring trail for much of the latter part of the decade. And a notorious five-year case of writer’s block in the mid-to-late 2000s prompted no other output than a lush, overly orchestrated album of her father’s favorite torch songs which made hardly a ripple in critical circles.

Today, at 57, Griffith remains well known for several classic folk-radio staples, most especially Love at the Five and Dime, a 1986 signature song that country listeners know best as a #3 hit for Mattea, and From A Distance, a Julie Gold tune which hit #1 in the UK, and would go on to make millions for Bette Midler three years later. But even if she has never truly made more than a short-lived splash for her own performance of her own songs, she continues to merit well-deserved praise, both as a songwriter’s songwriter and interpreter of the songs of others.

Our featured artist’s voice is distinctive, a girlish alto with a gentle twang and strong vibrato that can come off as nasal and pinched even as it gains open-throated force in performance. Because of this, she often gets overlooked in my own listening habits, a lone female voice cast into in the wilderness of Dylan, Richard Thompson, and other artists whose catalogs I’m still coming to late in life as my tastes for vocal deliveries mature past sweetness and light.

And though she has a knack for subtlety when it’s warranted – my most favorite track of hers, in fact, is a solo acoustic version of Love at the Five & Dime recorded live on folk radio towards the end of the millennium – most of her catalog trends towards full-band performance, with her Blue Moon Orchestra ever at her side. It’s high-concept, high-production music, rich with contemporary country instrumentation, occasionally syrupy and poppish – a far cry from the sparse acoustic music we so often favor here – and as such, though we’ve shared a few of her songs here and there throughout our three years on the web, she’s not yet in my top twenty.

But there’s much to recommend deeper reconsideration of Griffith’s music, both to old-timers and to newcomers to the folkworld. Her ability to portray the full range of sad and weary existence just below the poverty line, especially through sweet second-person narratives of love and longing, is well worth celebrating. She is a well-known champion of collaboration, whose albums are peppered with co-write credits and studio sit-ins that show a diversity of influences and a keen eye for talent wherever she might find it, from Darius Rucker, Adam Duritz, Willie Nelson, The Chieftains, and Matthew Ryan to Nashville songwriter-to-the-stars Fred Koller and Country Music Hall of Famer Harlan Howard.

And as Wikipedia notes, she is well known for her ability to interpret the songs of others, especially her peers from both sides of the genre divide. Indeed, more than one artist owes no small part of her fame and fortune to Griffith’s coverage, a list that includes Julie Gold, Pat Alger, and ex-husband Eric Taylor among others. And notably, Griffith’s sole Grammy win, the abovementioned 1994 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, was for Other Voices, Other Rooms, her first of two major cover compilations in tribute to her influences as a songwriter, and a folk staple that deserves prominent placement in any cover lover’s collection.

The more I listen to Griffith’s albums, especially those of the mid to late eighties period, the more I find to like, both in her originals and in her interpretation of the songs of other artists. As this is a coverblog, I’ll leave it to you to follow the thread to her own best work as an undersung singer-songwriter – but before you go off on the winding path, here’s a few favorite coversongs to whet the proverbial whistle.

Like her frequent collaborator, the much more famous Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith is in high demand as a back-up vocalist. Her distinctive vocals have appeared behind and alongside pop, country, and rock “greats” such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Don McLean, Jimmy Buffett, and The Crickets, with folk greats from John Gorka and Cliff Eberhardt to Maura O’Connell, Tom Russell, The Kennedys, and Guy Clarke, and with more countryfolk artists than you or I could count on our hands and feet. Today’s bonus tracks acknowledge her work sharing coverage credits out and about in the singer-songwriter community; for a complete list of her work with other musicians, check out this comprehensive discography.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

1,484 comments » | Nanci Griffith

Covered In Kidfolk: Halloween, Redux
Ghostly Ghouls and Spooky Tunes For Cool Moms and Dads

October 29th, 2010 — 08:56 pm

It’s Halloween weekend, and the convenience stores are already crawling with costumed partiers, weaving to and fro in the aisles with their masks askew. Back at school, the kids are having a Halloween black-light dance; here at home, we’re gearing up for a Wonka Weekend – I’ll be the Candyman, the better to hand out treats; the wee ones are a Oompa Loompa and a squirrel, respectively; and won’t we look grand, in bright costumes and borrowed wigs, at the local children’s museum tomorrow evening, then up and down the streets of smalltown America on Sunday proper.

It’s hard to keep the momentum going, what with the show itself coming up fast and furious, midterms upon us already, and a long conference down the Cape towards the end of next week. But it’s important to keep the spirits up and about, the better to parent you, my dear. Here’s last year’s entry, then, a soundtrack for the wee ones in your lives and hearts.

Halloween in our tiny township is a community affair: most homes are too remote to manage, so we trick or treat downtown at storefronts and darkened sidestreet porches as the skies darken, making our way to the edge of town just after twilight’s end. There, we line up for our annual parade down Main Street, and – at the signal from a guy dressed as a traffic cone, or a phalanx of Roman gladiators from the high school football team – march onward to glory, and a costume contest and cider and popcorn balls to follow in the majestic granite edifice that serves us as town hall.

It is, to be honest, the quintessential, defining night of small scale life here in New England, this parade with no spectators through the middle of town, and I often cite the occasion by way of explaining our idyllic existence: how it feels to find yourself in the streets, alight and vibrant against the cold, good folks and friends and families marching to the left and right of you, their faces shared wonder under masks and makeup.

And so Halloween in my house is about costumes, plain and simple; my sweetheart is a creative soul, a locavore Paganesque Martha Stewart, and we’ve won prizes in past years for the caterpillar, and the flamingo beak she perched upon my head. This year, for the first time, the girls have not chosen a paired set of costumes: elderchild will go as a gothic vampire in crushed velvet cape and ruffles; the wee one will be “Sleeping Beauty but I’m awake now Daddy”, complete with pull-me cart transformed into a resting place fit for a tiny pink princess’ hundred year nap. I’ll be a house; if you knock on my door and yell “trick or treat”, I’m offering miniature board games, their pressed sugar game pieces lovingly ensconced in tiny cardboard game boards.

That their thoughts are full of candy and dress-up play, rather than considering what lurks in the dark spaces as the leaves fall and the world grows ever-cold, is as much a function of our own modern lifestyle as it is the bland commercialism which tames all holidays in our electric-light culture. They’re neither superstitious nor scared of the dark, this grounded post-media generation, and so there’s nothing to be scared of here: no monsters under my childrens’ beds, no devils in our spiritual framework. Our ghosts are characters in stories, no more and no less supernatural than talking mice, stepmothers, running gingerbread men and princesses.

Perhaps because coverage follows culture, there’s nothing terribly frightening in tonight’s pre-Halloween kidmix: no nightmare-inducing songs, nothing lurking in the shadows which cannot be explained away with a kiss and a smile. But there are zombies, wolves, and a myriad of other creeps and crawlies, and heck, the Monster Mash isn’t scary, either, when you get down to it. From reincarnated cats to grim grinning ghosts, then, here’s a double-digit set of the lighthearted best for the young set on Halloween.

  • The Duhks: Death Came a Knockin’ (trad.)
    Nominally an optimistic song of spiritual acceptance in the face of death. But the close harmonies of The Duhks lend just the right touch of ghoulishness and discomfort for smaller ears.
  • Maria Muldaur: Heck, I’d Go (orig. Dan Hicks)
    Aliens stretch the limits of fearful creatures of the night, I suppose, but I’ve yet to hear of a UFO sighting in full daylight. Call ‘em the spooks of a starwatching scifi culture. From Muldaur’s Swingin’ In The Rain.
  • Noah and the Whale: Devil Town (orig. Daniel Johnston)
    A surprising number of Daniel Johnston tunes translate well for kids. Must be Johnston’s innocence. Though Noah and the Whale‘s ragged, slightly spooky take doesn’t hurt, either.
  • Pete Seeger: John Brown’s Body (trad.)
    Even before its melody was borrowed for something a bit more patriotic, this traditional tune was a song of glory. But any lyric that begins with a body mouldering in a grave fits right in here. From Dangerous Songs!?

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and sets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday.

1,317 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Kidfolk

Darkness, Darkness: Coverfolk for Our Shorter Days

October 27th, 2010 — 10:15 pm

The days grow short enough to burn at both ends; it’s dark when I wake, still dark when I leave for work, and dusk when I return. In today’s rain, it was darker still: hard to find the school building in the thick, clouded air; dismal on the return trip, wind whipping wet leaves across my path as I crested the hill into the mist towards home.

I’m hardly home, of course. Play rehearsals in the looming darkness of the local town hall take their toll, as do late afternoons helping students catch up as the term turns towards testing. I drive by headlight through streets that fade fast into nothing as we pull past them. Morning and night alike, I kiss my children without seeing them, finding their faces by feel and the smell of their nightbreath.

It doesn’t help that my classroom has no windows, that the lack of sleep has me napping on the couch before supper each night, eyes closed against the last few hours of sunlight. But the net result is the same: I live in the darkness more often than not, finding artificiality – the midnight glow of the computer screen, humming fluorescents at noon – a wan substitute for life-giving sun.

Back in March, when the world was getting everlighter, we compiled a set of songs about light, and the theme seemed popular. This time we turn to the dark, finding ample fodder and apt metaphors: so many artists, after all, use the theme of light and darkness to reflect the soul’s rise and fall.

The recesses of our sins and sacrifices call from the deepest depths of our mental images of us. The shadows of our days and nights fall upon the inner self. My heart is lonely, mostly, and heavy with fatigue. Darkness falls, and with it, our souls.

Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly.

1,152 comments » | Theme Posts

Covered in Indiefolk: Subterranean Homesick Blues
…with an EXCLUSIVE track from the newest Dylan tribute!

October 24th, 2010 — 09:54 am

You may not recognize the name Jim Sampas, but true-blue coverfans know his work: as the guiding light behind two of the decade’s strongest album-centered tribute albums – turn-of-the-century alt-country-to-popfolk Springsteen tribute Badlands and 2005 indie Beatles tribute This Bird Has Flown – the producer has made an unparalleled mark on the evolving world of coverage. Recently, Sampas started new label ReImagine Music as a vehicle for his ongoing pursuit of all things coverage, and his first solo project, Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, hit the ground running a few weeks ago with a bang, netting well-deserved, highly positive coverage in major print and web outlets from Rolling Stone and Paste to The Boston Globe and NPR.

Thanks to Jim, I managed to get my paws on the album a few weeks before its release, and though I’ve noted it in passing here, I haven’t really given it its due. Instead, I’ve been biding my time, working with Jim behind the scenes to net permission to post an exclusive track for our readership, and – not incidentally – forging a mutual appreciation society along the way, built on our common tastes, a shared love of coverage, and our strong support for indiefolk and alt-country artists.

Today, we present the fruits of that effort, and I think you’ll find that it’s been worth the wait. Because now, with both Jim and the Dylan folks fully on board, Cover Lay Down is proud as punch to present a close look at this stunning tribute and the artists it features, along with a track you’ll find nowhere else on the web.

Covering Dylan well enough to spark a coverlover’s interest is tougher than it looks. Truly, I have more Dylan covers than any other; to stand out in the crowd, any album which attempts to take on the works of this generation’s most defining musical poet is going to have to hit hard, and stay long.

Where the I’m Not There soundtrack – the second-most recent Dylan tribute on the market – aims for melodic success, the artists chosen for this October’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” take risks, pushing the original tunes farther, exploring their potential in new and nuanced ways, and the strategy pays off handsomely. The resulting collection yaws wider than most tributes, but it also delves deeper, making for an exceptional album worthy of every name involved.

The collection starts dark, with Peter Moren of Peter Bjorn and John taking on the tribute’s title track as a creaky, almost terrifying jaunt through dark Halloween streets. From there, it trends fluidly from technodreamy (The Castanets’ Maggie’s Farm; Asobi Sesku’s Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream) to majestic stripped-down singer-songwriter alt-country and indiefolk (Helio Sequence’s Mr. Tambourine Man, Sholi’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue), covering a full range of sunny-but-ragged retropop (Julie Doiron’s On The Road Again, DM Stith’s mariachi-tinged Gates of Eden), frantic alt-countrypunk (Franz Nicholay’s busy banjo-driven It’s Alright Ma), and more haunting, atmospheric songcraft (Mirah’s Love Minus Zero, Ane Brun’s slow, oddly synthesized She Belongs To Me, the etherial harmonies of The Morning Benders’ Outlaw Blues) along the way.

But although the 11 songs which Dylan originally selected for his seminal album make for a fine ride, as others have noted, it’s the bonus tracks here which will most effectively tempt the average folkfan. Five songs, from J. Tillman’s heartbreakingly slow alt-country ballad If You Gotta Go, Go Now to stunning treatments from Laura Viers and William Fitzsimmons, cap off the sequence; taken as an EP extra, the short set is quite possibly the best tribute album to come down the pike all year. And if you purchase from iTunes, you’ll find it followed by another trio of tunes, an iTunes exclusive set featuring tracks from Matthew Ryan, Graham Parker, and Bill Janovitz, which bring gravitas and grace to Forever Young, License To Kill, and Boots of Spanish Leather – making nineteen in all, and nary a dud among them.

The winding path makes for an exquisite journey, chock full of potent musicianship and transformative revisioning. These are artists I love, many of them at the top of their form as both interpreters and performers. And though I recognize the strong temptation to pick and choose from digital albums, the ebb and flow sequence is strong enough to recommend picking up the whole set.

And the track order is inspired, though it’s less important in a digital release; being a folkfan, I especially like the run in the middle of the album from Mirah to Doiron, and then at the end from Witmer to Fitzsimmons. But notably – and exceptionally rare, for a tribute album of this scope – even the songs I like least are worth listening to more than once. There’s an interesting urgency in Mr. Tamborine Man that I’ve never heard tried before – it’s quite evocative. And the way the Ane Brun cover slowly coalesces out of the disparate organ and tape hiss beat atmosphere is beautiful, though it’s not her best work by a long shot.

Sampas let me pick from the lot to feature here, and it speaks to the overall success of the set that selecting just one was an agonizing choice. The Morning Benders leaked Outlaw Blues early in October, free to download in return for the usual email address; I had high hopes to share the Fitzsimmons hushed version of Farewell Angelina, but it’s selling well, as it should, and I have no desire to undermine sales for this album. I almost went for the Viers at the last minute, too, and highly recommend the Mirah and J. Tillman tracks, especially, for those whose tastes trend towards the acoustic.

But truly, though there’s so many sensational tracks on this tribute, I’m thrilled to be given the choice to present the album’s sweet take on I’ll Keep It With Mine, one of my favorite Dylan compositions. Denison Witmer’s ringing, maudlin tones are transformative – perhaps in a more subtle manner than some others on the album, but subtle is an easily overlooked virtue in the world of coverage. And Cover Lay Down shares a special bond with Witmer, continuing to serve as the only artist-authorized place on the web where you can find his five-song set of lo-fi folk covers produced to help promote 2008 release Carry The Weight.

So here’s our exclusive teaser, plus that free download of Outlaw Blues, in hopes that you, too, will follow its path to both album and artists. Enjoy, and remember: you heard it here first.

Looking for more? I was tempted to follow this week’s exclusive track with a set of more Dylan coverage, but truly, this album is as much about the artists, and the producer and label-owner, who have come to the table with vision as it is about the songs themselves. So here’s a split list: some earlier covers from more artists featured on Subterranean Homesick Blues, followed by a bonus triplet of tasteful and tasty favorites from Sampas’ previous projects.

Bonus Jim Sampas-produced tracks:

Cover Lay Down presents new coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly. So bookmark us, or add us to your feedreader, to keep tabs on the world of coverfolk – what’s new, what’s worth revisiting, and what’s coming down the pike – including future notice of ReImagine Music’s next project, an alt-country tribute to the Rolling Stones starring Great Lake Swimmers, Cowboy Junkies, Handsome Family and more!

1,300 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Denison Witmer, Tribute Albums

Covered in Folk: Stevie Wonder
(Livingston Taylor, Matt Ryd, Madeleine Peyroux, Petra Haden & more!)

October 20th, 2010 — 11:01 pm

After 25 Grammy Awards and just about as many albums, Stevie Wonder needs little introduction. Signed to Motown Records at the tender age of 11 after being discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, the blind-from-infancy multi-instrumentalist’s first two albums didn’t make much of a splash – his sophomore outing, a tribute to the songs of Ray Charles, is notorious for the poor match it makes between “Uncle Ray’s” world-weary lyricism and “Little” Stevie Wonder’s sunny, high-pitched innocence – but his subsequent work as a composer, singer-songwriter, and arranger is legendary.

Fifty years later, his sweet soulful voice permeates our musical map like only a rarified few. And though most of us can’t sing ‘em too well, I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find even the most amateur audiophile who could not identify at least a half-dozen of his numerous greatest hits from the first few funky notes or sweet synthesizer strains.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, collecting Wonder’s works through coverage is another matter altogether. I’ve been trying to put together this post for a few months now, but despite the fact that the Stevie Wonder songbook is thick in the cultural consciousness, his songs seem to be sorely undercovered, especially in the folkworld. Much of this may be related to the notorious difficulty others have found in interpreting his vocals – as his Wikipedia entry rightfully notes, Wonder’s highly developed sense of harmony, his tendency towards complex chord extensions, the unpredictable changes in many of his melodies, and his unusual preference for sustaining syllables over several notes, make his songs a challenge to own, and even more of a challenge to cover effectively without sounding like a poor imitation of the real thing.

Still, love songs are ever-attractive to the acoustic interpreter, and Wonder’s got more than a few direct, plaintive gems in his catalog. And certainly, an artist of Wonder’s stature and output provides no small temptation to those hoping to make their mark through reclamation of those familiar tunes.

Which is to say: though the man’s presence and prowess make him long overdue for a strong, well-crafted acoustic tribute album, it is ever our position at Cover Lay Down that no song is uncoverable, and – as if to prove it – in the past fifteen years, a few brave and hardy souls have not only chosen to try, but have managed to recraft the Stevie Wonder songbook successfully. Here’s a few folk and/or folkified favorites I’ve found along the way that make me smile.

Cover Lay Down posts your favorite new and newly-rediscovered coversong collections twice weekly, sometimes more.

1,731 comments » | Covered in Folk, Stevie Wonder

An Intimate Evening with We’re About 9
(Saturday, October 23 @ Monson, MA)

October 18th, 2010 — 05:24 am

If we ever had doubts about the potential success of running a house concert series in a town of 8,000 people, this season’s offerings have put them firmly to rest. After two years, A Tree Falls Productions has moved on to bigger pastures, thanks to the nice guys who run the B&B at the top of our local food chain, and the cascade effect has been miraculous: our guest list has grown larger, our draw is bigger, and the local building inspector has started sniffing around, trying to decide if our little private occasionals are worth his while.

It doesn’t hurt that we’ve been blessed with not one, but two strong performers in the past few weeks alone. I never truly pushed our late September Chuck E Costa show here on the blog, mostly because his utterly gorgeous performance of Chris Smithers’ No Love Today that evening was the first cover he had performed in a long, long while, and we’d already posted his single studio cover – a take on Mark Erelli’s political folksong Hollow Man – way back when we first discovered him last Spring. But this coming Saturday’s visitors have recorded several covers, and I’ve got a bootleg of another from last year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Fest which the band probably doesn’t know exists. Without any further ado, then: here’s a total teaser, with hopes that, once you hear ‘em, a few of you out there might be willing to join us for an intimate evening with We’re About 9.

Formed in a Maryland parking lot at the turn of the 21st century, contemporary folk trio We’re About 9 have built a vast and dedicated fan base through down-to-earth charm, an engaging stage presence, and an approach to music that the band describes as “short format fiction, large format harmony”. Their quirky, literate writing, catchy, hook-laden songcraft and robust harmonies have brought them strong critical recognition from the most trusted voices in folk radio, and acclaim in mainstage sets at Clearwater’s Hudson River Fest, Philadelphia Folk Fest, Mountain Stage, and countless clubs and coffeehouses nationwide.

Their newest album, a collection of 14 previously released fan favorites aptly titled Amalgam, was released this summer at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, where they were voted “Most Wanted” in 2002, and where I’ve seen them numerous times: on the mainstage, at the workshop stage, wandering the vendor tents like minstrels. But my favorite sets have been the latenight ones, up on the hill in the wee hours. Brian, Katie, and Pat are truly at their best in an intimate setting, up close and personal, where their voices reach out to you and you alone in the dark, and the stories they craft start to crackle like the diary entries of an inner child, scared and joyful and wide-eyed with wonder at the world in all its raw detail.

Which it makes me that much more excited to be presenting them in our friends’ carriage house this coming Saturday. And yes, you’re invited, too, if you can make it.

Most folks in-state have never heard of our tiny town, but Monson is less than an hour from Hartford, Worcester, and Northampton; we’re just minutes from Springfield, and right off I 84. 40 seats are already spoken for, but we’ve got room for a few more, with or without a hot dish for the pre-show potluck, which will once again feature gourmet appetizers, seasonal salads, savory crockpot delights, and the best pies in Monson. And Brian’s even promised a whole mess of new and revived coverage just for us.

So if you’re within driving distance, and free the night of October 23rd, let me know ASAP via email, won’t you? Here’s a taste of what’s to come:

We’re About 9: Northern Cross (orig. Leslie Smith; pop. Cry Cry Cry)

1,017 comments » | House Concerts, We're About 9

New Artists, (Re)Covered: Still-Rising Stars
Ruth Notman, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Fort DeClare & more!

October 16th, 2010 — 01:55 pm

The mailbox is stuffed to the gills with sweet sounds from artists we first noted as new and rising stars – a validating turn of events, proving that the young songwriters we feature in our New Artists, Old Songs series and elsewhere really are the next generation of folk music. Today, we celebrate our prescience with a look at the newest output from some increasingly familiar under-thirty voices, each well worth keeping on the radar screen.

Though we featured her famous families early in our incarnation as a folk coverblog, we first noted the emergence of Lucy Wainwright Roche when she appeared at Falcon Ridge Folk Fest in the summer of 2009. Back then, Lucy was newly committed to the music world, having hit the road in ’07 as a backup singer for brother Rufus after finishing a Masters in Ed., then going on to record a sweet pair of 8 song EPs; since then, she’s cropped up at least once more, thanks to an etherial duet with her father on his double-disc tribute to Charlie Poole. And now, with the release of her debut album Lucy, the youngest member of the Roche/Wainwright clan comes fully into her own.

But those who love her work with father Loudon, half-sibling Rufus, mother Suzzy of The Roches and others need not be dismayed: all appear on the aptly-titled album, along with the Indigo Girls and fellow Falcon Ridge Most Wanted showcase alums Girlyman. Lucy, which also includes a surprising hidden-track cover of Elliot Smith’s Say Yes recorded with nasal NPR stalwart Ira Glass, is a tour de force of wry, concrete songwriting, mixing her parent’s observational prowess with her own innocent voice and youthful optimism. See if you can identify the harmonies in this gorgeous new album-closing cover, then head over to Signature Sounds to sample and purchase Lucy for yourself.

Bonus tracks:

Previously on Cover Lay Down:
Lucy Wainwright Roche duets with her father on classic tune Beautiful

Like fellow new britfolk sensation Kate Rusby, Ruth Notman came to me through my own blog, via a Brit Femfolk guest post three summers ago while I was away at my annual folk festival journey; though our guest poster Divinyl, once a stalwart of collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine, has long gone absent from the web, Notman herself remains a voice to listen for, cranking out more and more sweet and tender music as she approaches her early twenties.

In the past year, in fact, Notman has recorded not one but two wonderful coversongs: a truly great recapture of Fairport Convention’s 40 year old french version of Dylan’s If You’ve Gotta Go, Go Now released last fall on her newest album The Life Of Lilly, and an even more recent take on the well-covered theme song to Weeds, recorded for a Pete Seeger tribute on BBC Radio 2.

Bonus tracks:

Recently on Cover Lay Down:
Ruth Notman covers Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia

Teenage sensation Sam Ramos, a.k.a. Fort deClare, made a splash here on Cover Lay Down just a few months ago with an exclusive look at his first recorded coverage tryptych; now he’s back with more of the delightful lo-fi indie electrofolk which won our hearts the first time around. Still delicate, but increasingly well-balanced in production and tenor, the new songs only reinforce our fandom, and their selection speaks loudly and clearly of Sam’s influences. With its thick, layered atmosphere and gentle repetitive elements, fans of Vashti Bunyan, Bon Iver, Sam Amidon, Iron and Wine, and that early Morning Benders covers album will find this an especially vibrant set – and Elise Krepcho’s vocal turn on Train Song beats Feist’s, too.

Meanwhile, with Christmas just around the corner, it’s great news indeed to find our favorite Sufjan-meets-Denison Witmer singer-songwriter Joel Rakes gearing up for another holiday coverage sampler. This time, however, he’s looking for our input, letting fans vote to influence his yearly selection. And I’m thrilled to have a chance to advocate for both songwriter and song selection in one fell swoop.

We’ve featured the Philly-bred artist for several years running, thanks to his fun yearly takes on the classic hymns of the season; he’s sure to revisit some oldies this time around, too, but I’m gunning for some stripped-down coverage of more modern songs, like Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You. Won’t you help this coverblogger’s Christmas dreams come true? Head over to Joel’s blog to vote now, and pick up his newest full-band EP The Philadelphia Sessions, recorded just before his move to Nashville late last year, while you’re there. Here’s a pair of older Xmas covers to whet your whistle:

Finally, word of new work from local alt-country folkrockers Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers is always good news, and though they’ve already finished their swing through the lower half of the country, I’m happy to note that their Fall tour will soon bring them back to my own neighborhood as they continue to promote their newest record The Bear, which comes highly recommended. Kellogg himself is an over-thirty, and there’s nary a cover on The Bear, but the addition of fave young folkpop-slash-bluegrass sensation Sara Watkins on this very recent, somewhat raw live Townes Van Zandt* Rolling Stones cover, recorded from the crowd just last week in Pittsburgh, bring it into our under-thirty mix today.

*This version of Dead Flowers was sent along to Kellogg’s mailing list labeled as a Townes cover; it’s certainly derivative, but we know better, don’t we…

1,631 comments » | (Re)Covered, Joel Rakes, Lucy Wainwright Roche, New Artists Old Songs, Ruth Notman

REPOST: Cindy Kallet Covers
Dylan, Springsteen, Dougie MacLean, James Taylor, Judy Collins & more!

October 13th, 2010 — 10:15 pm

We’re running tight against deadline this week, thanks to an increasingly hectic fall schedule; it’s ten pm and I’m still wearing a tie, if that’s any indication of how my day has gone. So although the mailbox is full to the brim of delicious new folk coverage, we’re pushing new content to Sunday, choosing instead to revive a first-year golden oldie featuring a favorite artist whose gentle way with song always soothes me when the world starts blurring by.

There’s something of the sea in the songs of Cindy Kallet: something of the honesty and intimacy of water and stones and the wild shorebirds, something of the tight-knit communities and strong, silent families of the New England coast she loves so much. It’s there in her lyrics, which speak of the small moments of hope and love and laughter that make life rich and worth celebrating. It’s there in her craft, which combines simple, heartfelt, unadorned elements — a crisp, pure alto, an almost classical guitar sound, the rich harmonies of friends – in skillful, effective ways. And it’s there in her style, which echoes the older folkways of the sea shanty, the Celtic folk ballad, and post-Puritan shape note singing.

Cindy Kallet’s music is folk in a traditional sense, unpretentious, unproduced, grounded in place and nature and community, celebrating a simpler life. It is of a particularly New England coastal school of music, of a mind with the work of Gordon Bok and a few select others who spend as much time building boats and serving community as they do performing and crafting songs of simple praise. As a product of and for that place, it contains elements of traditional rural folk ballads and sea shanties, combining them with Appalachian instruments and the trope and formal phrasing of Quaker plainsong. And it sounds older than it is, as if it skipped over the major transformation that folks like Dylan, Guthrie and Seeger brought to the table of American “modern” folk, to pull instead from a strong and uninterrupted tradition of simple music “of the folk” played earnestly and without pretense.

In a world which considers such rough-edged confessional poets as Dylan and Guthrie the forefathers of modern American folk music, the “classical sensibility” and delicate phrasing Cindy Kallet brings to her craft can seems like an anomaly. But for all its grounding in the folk sounds, imagery, and culture of the northern American coast, there is also something both more intimately familiar and more elusively original about Cindy Kallet.

Kallet is a truly talented and innovative songwriter and performer, one who brings her own uniquely skilled touch to her craft. Her first album Working on Wings to Fly, released way back in 1981, was named one of the Top 100 Folk Albums of the Millenium by Boston folk radio station WUMB. She has earned high praise and admiration from many folk musicians more typically identified with the “mainstream” singer-songwriter folk movement, such as Christine Lavin, Dar Williams, and Patty Larkin, who cites Kallet’s Dreaming Down a Quiet Line as one of her favorite albums.

In turn, Kallet cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell among her influences, and indeed, there is something of James Taylor’s finger styling in her own, something of the phrasing of Joni’s sparser dulcimer tunes in the way Kallet pushes her pure legato voice soaring over her crisp stringwork. But the way she combines traditional and modern elements is truly her own. And the honest, intelligent eye she brings to bear on these elements is incomparable.

More than anything else, Cindy Kallet’s music is an overwhelmingly intimate and open experience. But though her music is extraordinarily unadorned, it is anything but simplistic. Kallet’s songs are simultaneously a celebration of the world, and a communion with it. Her way with language, and with emotional delivery, is deliberate and intelligent, carefully wrought to serve what comes across as an almost holy reverence for the small details that make life worth living well.

This is serious folk music, the core of the genre. It is simple, without being sparse. It is simultaneously delicate and complete. Every note counts, and seems carefully chosen. It feels like home, somewhere by the sea, on a warm Spring afternoon. I have never heard music that makes me want to listen so carefully.

Kallet’s skillful ability to bring together the elements of modern and traditional folk to revere and recreate a particular place and time is paralleled by an ability to bring together others, both as lyricists and as collaborators, to reach an equally powerful communion. As her own songwriting is celebratory, and rich in gentle purpose, the artists and songs she chooses to cover are equally authentic, in tune with the sea and the joy of life lived simply in every moment.

This has often meant reaching towards traditional songs of the Irish and British Isles, as in her most recent album Cross the Water, a collection of originals and Irish reels produced with multi-instrumentalist Grey Larsen; it has also meant covering the work of other contemporary musicians, like Gordon Bok and Dougie MacLean, who share her sense of place. And her collaborative work with compatriots Michael Cicone and Ellen Epstein, which produced two incredible albums over a decade apart and then another in the last few years, ranges farther, finding that same sensibility in the working-class community portrait of Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown, and a gorgeous three-part a capella delivery of Dylan’s When The Ship Comes In.

For all its evident craft, Cindy Kallet’s music comes across as egoless and effortless. Even as her songs celebrate the world she loves, she delivers them as if the point of performance were to invest every bit of her energy into helping each song become that which it is trying to be. This is far rarer than many of us would like to admit. Combine this with that sweet, rich alto, a powerful sense of phrasing in service to praise, and that skilled ability to use not only guitars, but the rarer instruments — dulcimer, harmonium — to support her sound, and the end result is an artist who is worthy of the highest praise and celebration.

So let us celebrate Cindy Kallet, as she helps us to celebrate the simple things. For all of us need more laughter and joy in honest work and play, more sea and spray in our lives. And this, more than anything, is the soundtrack to that life we dream of.

If you’re interested in purchasing Cindy Kallet’s work, the AllMusic Guide recommends starting with Cindy Kallet 2, and both Patty Larkin and I highly recommend Dreaming Down a Quiet Line, though all three of her early solo albums are worthy additions to any folk collection. Parents may also be interested in Kallet’s wonderful children’s CD Leave the Cake in the Mailbox, which won a Parent Choice Gold Award in 2004.

Cindy Kallet’s collaborative work comes highly recommended, too. Kallet still tours with Grey Larsen in support of their 2007 release Cross The Water, which I have been enjoying very much. And the trio of Kallet, Epstein and Cicone released Heart Walk, their third CD, in May of 2008, which prompted the following (Re)Covered report:

…as expected, it’s a beautiful work, full of robust harmony and sincere emotion, primarily comprised of coversongs of underappreciated folk artists who share the same social and ecological sensibilities of Kallet and co. Like the trio’s previous two albums, Heart Walk is both an especially powerful musical experience, and a great and loving introduction to the work of other folk musicians you may not have heard of, but should. Kudos, all around.

Honestly, all three of the albums from the trio of Kallet, Epstein, and Cicone are chock full of coversongs, and each comes highly recommended, of course. But these two bonus covertracks from the newer album — a cover of an old Judy Collins tune, and an absolutely stunning cover of Peter Mayer’s Holy Now featuring Michael’s warm, clear lead vocals — are a great way to whet the appetite.

REPOST BONUS: Ann Percival covers Cindy Kallet’s Tide and the River Rising

Cover Lay Down posts features and coverfolk twice weekly without fail or falter. Coming soon: new work from young artists still on the rise, songs of the coming frost, and a tribute to a soulful singer-songwriter not often covered in the folkworld.

1,373 comments » | Cindy Kallet, reposts

Columbus Day, Regained:
Native American artists cover The Smiths, The Cure, The Church, & more

October 9th, 2010 — 04:04 pm

Though I recognize that old-school-style celebration of Christopher Columbus’ journey and “discovery” is fatally flawed, ethnocentric, even racist, I was never comfortable with those who would use Columbus Day to one-sidedly revile the paleface conquest of American lands.

It’s too dismissive of the good stuff in the story, for one thing: of the context in which Columbus lived and sailed, and of the spirit of adventure which I struggle to instill in my own children. And ultimately, I find this approach highly hypocritical, dripping with self-loathing and a desire to remove oneself from responsibility to and of our ancestral past, given how many of those who speak out against white conquest are White Americans, their own freedom to protest and thrive rooted however distantly in that same migration which, for centuries, would follow in the oceanic pathways forged by Columbus’ fearless voyage.

Which is to say: though I’m cautious in my own treatment of Columbus, as man and as symbol, I’ve previously tried to distance myself from the anti-Columbus Day crowd, preferring to save celebration and recognition of the native American plight to other, less reactionary times of year. Though the mindset from which Columbus acted is suspect, and the death and destruction which followed truly terrible, there’s something worth celebrating in discovery – as long as we are ever mindful that outside of the scientific realm, the vast majority of discovery is both purely subjective, and subject to the natural law that the mere act of observation changes things, and that change is never without its consequences.

The ways we approach music shows us that we know this already, of course. Both in and out of the folkworld, especially when we’re talking about coversong, when we speak of and share musicians and song, we acknowledge that our rich and varied world is there to be found, was there all along. Last week’s Discovery theme over at Star Maker Machine, for example, showed that discovery need not be political: our celebrations were personal and life-changing, and nothing of what we found was ours alone. And my recent musings on the life and source of the coverblogging urge speak to this, as well.

That these songs are and were not ours until we made them so does not make our own joys moot: quite the contrary, our journeys are no less vital for their subjectivity. And acknowledging our respect to those who received us is a natural part of that celebration. To mistake it as antithetical, instead, is to miss the point. And as it is in music, so should it be in the other layers of our lives.

You won’t find us using Columbus Day as a vehicle for anger and confrontation, then; our stance as folklorists and ethnographic soundstalkers is inconsistent with that particular critical stance. Still, now that so much of our culture has moved past and subsumed the reactionary, politically correct protest of my youth, commodifying the anger to find a better balance, it’s high time to shift my own position towards the middle ground, as well, seizing the day to celebrate those who Columbus found first upon these shores.

Because although it’s neither impossible nor inappropriate to teach discovery when and where we find it, respecting those who were there first should ever be on our lips and tongues. In a world of “music as culture”, paying our dues to the artists themselves is fundamental to our mandate. The world is full of firsts, but to believe that we were there first is to get it wrong, indeed.

In celebration, then, of a still-struggling people ever teetering on the knife-edge false dichotomy of marginalization or absorption, today we present a short set of coversongs from performers and interpreters of Native American and First Nation ancestry – each and every one of whom I’ve found or come to appreciate more deeply through cooption and coverage, mostly through the songs and/or performances of white people.

Whether your nativity goes back for thousands of years or merely to the last generation of immigrants, we all come from the conquerors and the conquered, born to carry the weight of both search and struggle in our blood. May we celebrate both, for both are of our origin. And whether or not you, too, live in a culture that will honor Columbus tomorrow, may your Mondays be ever thoughtful, tuneful, and full of adventure.

Want more? Native Americans and First Nations members have made their way into the world of popular song on occasion, too; many folks never make the connection, but notably, Steven Tyler, Jimi Hendrix, and Robbie Robertson of The Band, among others, share the common bond of indigenous ancestry. Here’s a few favorite covers of songs originally penned and performed by these truly American artists.

1,403 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk

Covered In Folk: John Lennon, Solo
(12 songs, 17 covers, one inimitable legacy)

October 6th, 2010 — 12:40 pm

The blogs are abuzz with the impending anniversary of John Lennon‘s birth; the man would have turned 70 this Saturday, and in keeping with the digital world’s everpresent bent towards relevance and immediacy, the faux-urgency of the date seems to have started an avalanche of tribute. And though we’re not usually the bandwagon types, it’s hard to ignore the way the Lennon story has come to define both the end of a social era, and the sad coda to the Beatles’ breakup – and the impact his songs and spirit have had on music, both in and out of the folkworld.

It’s a familiar story, but it bears repeating: post-breakup, Lennon was known as a deliberate songwriter, who turned to using song as a voice and vehicle for his political and social activism, thanks in no small part to Yoko’s influence. Though his first few albums with Yoko are essentially ambient noise – lyricless and abstract, in keeping with the Dada-inspired, Fluxus-grounded artistic vision which she brought to the table – his solo catalog from those final years is chock full of singable hymns and ballads, thick with cultural criticism, heavy with idealism and hope, grounded in a modern working man’s burden.

It’s always hard to predict what would have been, especially in cases of gunmanship. What we do know is that Lennon’s death at the hands of Mark Chapman canonized the man and his catalog, even as he teetered on the cusp of a potentially legacy-changing comeback after five years on hiatus as a musician, making for a legacy practically unparalleled in modern memory.

Imagine lies at the core, of course, and the song is sure to saturate the cultural surroundsound as we approach the 30th anniversary of his assassination this December. Preemptively, we’ve selected a diverse four of our subjective best from over 70 covers on the books to close out today’s set, but it wasn’t an easy choice; there’s easily enough greatness out there for a Single Song Sunday.

But a tribute to death ill-befits the man who bared his soul in the name of love and living; there’s much, much more to Lennon the solo artist than this single, simple peace-movement anthem. And happily, folksingers and singer-songwriters of all stripes seem to have noticed, coming back to his songbook again and again, as the world ever teeters on the brink of war and disaster.

Here’s a few favorites – from Willoughby‘s gentle grunge to Shelby Lynne‘s countrypop, from Rosie Thomas‘ layered lightness to The Dimes‘ soft indie-americana harmonies to The Peptides‘ cough syrup echo, from the produced roots-folk of Keb’ Mo’ and Richie Havens to Acoustic Philosophy‘s live organic jamfolk, and from the emotive pianofolk of Regina Spektor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jackson Browne and Allison Crowe to the subtle guitars and simple voices of Julia Francis, Thomas Meny, Marissa Nadler, Jack Johnson, and Damien Rice – in well-deserved tribute to a life that leveraged fame into as much peace and justice as he could muster.

As always, we’re all about the artists here at Cover Lay Down – so if you enjoy the songs you find and hear here, don’t forget to go back and click on the artist names above, the better to pursue, support, and help keep the love alive and growing for all involved.

That said: though we’re happy to share the love we know, we can’t cover everything – we claim neither omniscience nor completism in our role as tastemasters and promoters – and neither can we give it all away. If you’ve got a great Lennon cover to add to the mix, feel free to share it in the comments with our blessing!

2,255 comments » | Covered in Folk, John Lennon

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