Category: Devon Sproule

Folk Couples, Covered:
Sproule & Curreri, Schmidt & Elkin, and Ritter & Landes

June 27th, 2010 — 11:52 am

There’s a long tradition of singer-songwriter couples in folk music, especially in those pockets of history where you find movements and schools forming. From June Carter and Johnny Cash in the second-generation countryfolk days, Buddy and Julie Miller at the forefront of the modern Americana movement, and Jeffrey Foucault and Kris Delmhorst’s marriage in the wake of their work with folk supergroup Redbird, to the doomed-but-productive pairings of James Taylor and Carly Simon in the singer-songwriter seventies and Maria and Geoff Muldaur in the Greenwich Village and Woodstock jugband era, not to mention the quirky songs of the Wainwright/McGarrigle/Roche dynasty, it seems there’s something about the excitement of new folkforms and foundations being built and nurtured which lends itself to other, more intimate collaborations.

It’s heartening, then, to find a small set of relative newlyweds and young couples in several pockets of the modern folkworld. It validates the vibrancy of the genre, and its various communities, to see rising stars pair off, living together, producing each other’s records, sharing studios and songwriting credits, and backing each other on record and on tour. Today, we take a look at three such post-millennial couples, with best wishes for their continued success.

I’d seen Devon Sproule as an opening act before, and enjoyed her slippery, fragile dustbowl twang; hadn’t heard much of her husband and occasional performing partner Paul Curreri, except his collaborative work with spouse Devon on their once-annual Valentines Duets series, but my initial impression of his work had been generally positive, if peripheral.

But Tuesday’s Paul Curreri and Devon Sproule show at Club Passim was a revelation. Both performers have a presence that belies their shy, fumbling demeanor – Curreri loose and potent, heavy on the roots and americana, with elements of Harry Nilsson’s lyrical playfulness, Sam Beam’s craft and bearded looks, and Jeff Lang’s bluesy, bold guitar style; the waif-thin Sproule as a more southern indiefolk-oriented vocalist and songwriter, with hints of Patty Griffin, Sarah Harmer, Lucinda and Victoria Williams in her voice and her nuanced stringwork. And as a show-ending duo, a third sound emerged, warm, intimate and rich with harmonies and psychic connection, that didn’t so much transcend their solo work as reinforce their prowess as performers and songsmiths, able to make the most of their respective instruments in a variety of settings.

As writers, there’s a vast difference in style: Curreri’s lyrics are concrete and often silly, full of real-world imagery, while Sproule tends more towards the confessional narrative, channeling a wide range of emotion through inner-voiced relationship stories and loving characterizations; both performers have some exquisite solo work on their MySpace pages which speaks well towards their body of recordings. (If you go, be sure to check out Sproule’s Plea For A Goodnight Rest, which is utterly stunning in both live and studio versions.) Put ‘em together, in coverage or in rare collaboration, and the best of both worlds comes forth – for example, the anti-lullaby One Eye Open and the Hank Williams cover below were delicious live, and their work together on reggae classic Sponji Reggae on Sproule’s 2010 release Don’t Hurry For Heaven is amazing.

I’d recommend a show to anyone, but whether you’re on or off the beaten tour track – the couple continues to be a cornerstone of the Charlottesville scene, but they’re on the road plenty these days – for more of Devon and Curreri, definitely pick up their respective new albums via their websites, and then head over to Paul’s site for five years worth of collaborative album-length cover sets.

When Austin-based musician Danny Schmidt – himself a contemporary and one-time collaborator with both Curreri and Sproule, as explored in a recent interview from the UK-based blog Backroads – kicked off our on-again off-again house concert series last fall, I had only heard a few songs, and had never seen him in person: all I knew about him was that the 2007 Kerrville winner was a rising star, well-recommended by a number of folkwatching friends. As I wrote at the time, his gentle grace and gravity were stunning in person, and delving deep into his catalog since, I have found his work rich and soul-touching, full of mystery and melody, a perfect soundtrack to a grateful life.

These days, according to his and hers facebook updates, Danny’s been spending much of his time focusing on production for his partner Carrie Elkin, another Kerrville alum whose newest album is due to drop pretty soon. Carrie’s a sunny, smiling sort in photographs – the fan-fueled microfinance structure she’s been using to raise money for the album’s mixing and production promises daisies, fresh eggs, and home-cooked meals along with the usual CD and house concert to those who help support her – and her voice, while often softly haunting, lyrically raw, and delicate, is ultimately no less optimistic and powerful, making her music a perfect compliment to Danny’s socially conscious, life-affirming introspection.

Elkin recorded a few covers on her 2001 self-released Live at the Front Room, which is sadly out of print; if anyone’s got a copy, I’d aching to hear her take on Angel From Montgomery and Amazing Grace. But the exclusive Townes Van Zandt cover below – a tasty tidbit from an upcoming 20+ track Townes tribute and benefit CD currently being finished across the pond, which will also feature Devon Sproule’s take on Townes rarity Turnstyled, Junkpiled – shows that the pair have little difficulty bringing just the right balance of broken hope and wistful depression to the dustbowl troubadour blues, too.

We’ve written about Josh Ritter here before several times, most recently in this year’s birthday coverfolk post. And as a bigger name than the other artists featured here, Ritter needs little introduction. His spouse Dawn Landes, meanwhile, is slightly lesser known, though not in my house: her 2008 release Fireproof, for example, is a haunting, well-worn journey through quirky singer-songwritery popfolk a la eighties Suzanne Vega, while her recent appearance on last year’s indiefolk Nilsson tribute Songs From The Point reveals a knack for atmospheric nufolk as well.

But Ritter’s 2009 marriage to Dawn Landes is notable, in part, because it may prove a test-case for the ways in which partnership on or off stage can help leverage and focus a deserving artist’s career through appeal to a particular audience. Though Landes’ most recent release, last year’s Sweetheart Rodeo, is an exceptionally strong and critically celebrated work that calls to the modern americana-laden trend, given the size of his audience, if her work garners any new exposure from here on out, it will be as impossible to divorce that success from her association with Ritter as it is her work with indie group Hem, an increasingly vast body of work on television soundtracks, and opening act slots for Vega, Jose Gonzales, Justin Townes Earle, and others.

Which is to say that Ritter is currently on tour with Landes as an opener – a touring strategy that will have inevitable fanbase ramifications, though it also surely allows them some rare time together in the midst of two very successful solo careers. And that’s a good thing, I suspect, given how Landes’ ability to sustain attention and grow her fanbase from album to album has been complicated by diversity – that is, by production strategies and songsmithing that yaw wider than most. Here’s hoping it also grants the consistent elements of her craft – that sweet and aching voice, that ability to find just the right sonic core to best lay out a lyric – the exposure they deserve.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

1,380 comments » | Carrie Elkin, Danny Schmidt, Dawn Landes, Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri

Why Do I Love Hank? Country coverfolk with today’s guest host: Paul

July 25th, 2008 — 10:41 am

My name is Paul and I usually blog over at Setting The Woods On Fire. Boyhowdy has been kind enough to let me say a few words here while he enjoys a vacation. As you might have guessed from the title of my blog, I’m a big fan of Hank Williams. I also love cover songs.

Cover songs are fun because they help you separate the song from the performance. Do I love Hank because of the songs he wrote and poularized? Or do I love Hank because of the way he performed them? I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but listening to covers of Hank is a good way to understand what makes Hank’s records so special.

Except for the Dylan tune, the tracks featured here are new to me. Boyhowdy thought it might be interesting to see how a Hank fan would respond to folky covers of Hank’s work. Some I liked a lot. Some not so much.

I’ll start with Cold Cold Heart by Norah Jones. This one should generate lots of interest, as it’s one of Hank’s best compositions performed by popular singer. While Norah undoubtedly has a great voice, I’m not sold. I hear it more as a musical exercise than as an emotional plea from a frustrated lover. Lesson: I love Hank because he really sells a song.

Norah Jones, Cold Cold Heart (H. Williams)
(from Come Away With Me)

Since I wasn’t so nice with the first one, let’s move on to my favorite song in this batch of Hank covers, a brilliant medley of Wedding Bells and Let’s Turn Back The Years performed by John Prine and Lucinda Williams. I love everything about this recording. Hank did not write Wedding Bells but it sounds just like something he could have written, which is shown by how seemlessly this “medley” fits together. John and Lucinda do a nice job selling the song without over-singing. Not surprising, considering their talents. (Of course, it might just be the peddle steel guitar that so warms my country-loving heart on this piece.)

John Prine & Lucinda Williams, Wedding Bells/Let’s Turn Back The Years (C. Boone/H. Williams)

(from In Spite of Ourselves)

Speaking of over-singing, here’s a rendition of Long Gone Lonesome Blues that’s just a bit too overdone for my taste. Yodeling is OK (in small doses). Quavery yodeling is pushing it.

Red Molly, Long Gone Lonesome Blues (H. Williams)
(from Never Been To Vegas)

Over-singing isn’t always bad, though. I’m not exactly sure why, but Mark Erelli’s spirited version of The Devil’s Train works well despite the singer’s affected “twang”:

Mark Erelli, The Devil’s Train (H. Williams)
(from The Memorial Hall Recordings)

Another one from Boyhowdy’s batch that I really liked was I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Greg Brown. It’s kind of a goofy song (“I was living high until the fatal day a lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched”), and it’s a Hank Williams’ signature tune, so it’s not an easy assignment for a cover artist. But Brown pulls it off with aplomb by playing it straight. Just like Hank, I believe Brown’s exaggerated tale of woe.

Greg Brown, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (F. Rose/H. Williams)
(from Friend of Mine)

Only one of Boyhowdy’s batch of folky Hank covers really bothered me, and this is it. The descending harmony party is cloying. And the re-written lyric about the “gay” dog just does not belong in a Hank Williams song (not that there’s anything wrong with gay dogs). Score one point for Hank’s performance trumping his songs.

Devon Sproule & Paul Curreri, Why Don’t You Love Me? (H. Williams)
(from Valentines Day Duets #3, 2006)

Let’s close this post with a Hank song performed by one of the few artists that I would place on an equally high pedestal, Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan, (I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle (H. Williams/J. Davis)
(outtake from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)

I hope you enjoy these tunes. If I’m wrong about my criticism of any of the few I didn’t like, please let me know. It’s just one Hank fan’s opinion.

Oh yeah, my conclusion from listening to these covers is that I like Hank’s songs, but I love the way he sings them.

Prolific blogger and tastemaster Paul pays regular tribute to country, rock, bluegrass, and jazz over at Setting The Woods On Fire. He is also a founding member of collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine.

1,013 comments » | Bob Dylan, Devon Sproule, Greg Brown, Guest Posts, Hank Williams, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Mark Erelli, Norah Jones, Paul Curreri, Red Molly

Treesongs for Willow: A Set of Traditional Arboreal Coverfolk

July 13th, 2008 — 09:54 am

By the time we finally caught pregnant, we had both been teaching for a decade, and that meant the baby name books were right out. After we discarded the archaic and the merely odd, the names that were left were invariably overfamiliar — we knew “that kid”, and thus the name came with baggage we just could not accept.

So we took a look at ourselves. Liberal folk, to put it politically, with a sense of adventure, and a love of the world for what it was. We wanted something organic, something real, something us.

So we traded in the baby books for field guides and herbal identification charts, and named our children after trees. And we started with Willow, because we liked the sound of it, and because we had lived under one once.

My younger child is too young, really, to understand what being named after a tree really means. But the elder one has been interested in it from the start. She asks me to sing her special song about being a tree almost every night before bed. Spotting “her” tree still brings excitement to a long drive. Being trees is something we share like a secret.

Biology made me a father. But the girl who made me Daddy has my heartwood on a string. Her name is Willow, and she turns six this week. Here’s a small set of traditional treesongs, just for her.

…and previously on Cover Lay Down:

* I know the last pair is kind of morbid, but it’s hard to find upbeat Willowsongs; unfortunately, though in our house we celebrate Willows for their flexibility, strength, and beauty, most pop culture references seem to play off their nominative weepiness. If anyone knows of more Willowsongs which are not murder ballads, please pass ‘em along in the comments; bonus points for any and all Joan Armatrading covers.

675 comments » | Devon Sproule, Gray Sky Girls, Greg Brown, Leon Redbone, Natalie Merchant, Paul Curreri, Tom O'Brien, Tony Furtado