Category: Red Molly

(Re)Covered, Vol XXI: the Back On The Grid edition
(covers of and from Vic Chesnutt, Big Star, Folk Uke, Red Molly, & In My Life)

November 7th, 2011 — 04:54 pm

It’s been a weird year here in tiny rural Monson, MA, and it keeps getting weirder: after a devastating tornado in June, and a hurricane and flood in August, last week’s freak snowstorm hit us hard indeed, felling thousands of trees across the vast landscape, and knocking out power and phone lines for the vast majority of residents. To help out, once again, I’ll be re-gifting 40% of all donations to Cover Lay Down from now until the end of the month to support local rebuilding efforts – a gift sorely needed, with winter nigh upon us, and scores of local families still living in trailers while they rebuild their homes and lives after this unprecedented trifecta of natural disasters.

As for me: after 8 days without heat, running water, stereo system and internet, I’m itching to get back into the fold, and this towering backlog of albums and singles is here to help. So let’s get right back to the music after a week of radio silence with a long-overdue nod to those feature subjects which just keep coming back – a return to our regular (Re)Covered feature series, in which we take on new releases and discoveries which add value to previously-posted explorations of the artists and songs we love.

A new release from local fave acoustic folkroots trio Red Molly is always welcome, especially given how effectively their sound has matured with the addition of new member Molly Venter’s achingly adept voice. But I’m kicking myself for not making the connection to last month’s feature subject sooner, given that their new record Light in the Sky, released at the beginning of October and still receiving strong support from the Americana and folk charts, has not one but two Mark Erelli covers, each one a delight of harmonies and folkgrass stringplay, with the banjo, dobro, and guitar eminently equal to the heavenly three-part vocals which have so typified the Red Molly sound since their original inception around the folk festival campfire.

As always, the album offers a predominance of coverage, with a small handful of originals from the ladies interspersed into the mix; as always, the whole run is smooth and heartful, channeling the full range of countryfolk emotion, from angst and anger to hope and heaven, with equal aplomb. But if you’re a regular reader of Cover Lay Down, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir. And if you’re not yet a fan of these ladies after all our past coverage – from our original 2007 feature to this summer’s amazing take on Jack Hardy’s songbook – this pair of covers from the new release should make it clear: you’re long overdue for your own date with heaven.

This month’s charity tribute to Vic Chesnutt from Minnesota-based nonprofit Rock The Cause marks the second such tribute since his December 2009 passing, and at least his third overall, if we count the Sweet Relief album recorded live for his benefit over a decade before his passage. But while Cowboy Junkies’ recent full-album tribute Demons recasts the works of this crippled singer-songwriter in fairly predictable (albeit no less successful) washes of alt-country sound, Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt, which drops tomorrow, is diverse and sweet and surprisingly consistent in its success, running the gamut from alt to indie to rock-solid rock, while retaining throughout the tender-yet-grounded lyrical sensibility of Chesnutt’s originals.

Featuring 17 tracks from a host of name-brand players – among them Haley Bonar’s amazingly gentle take on Chesnutt’s patriarchal-viewed Pinocchio story, and an utterly stunning, aptly broken solo take on Rabbit Box from Charlie Parr which I’m holding back to tempt purchase, the better to benefit the music-related causes which Rock The Cause supports – the album is sure to please both fans and newcomers; the below singles have both been heard elsewhere, but they’re well worth repeating.

Our Folk Family Friday Feature on the Guthrie clan, posted last November, cited Arlo’s daughter Cathy and her performing partner Amy Nelson (daughter of Willie) as key members of the newest generation of performing family members, noting that “the duo, who call themselves Folk Uke, are a bit more punk and a lot more obscene than the rest of their kin, but the music is fine indeed, and firmly grounded in the folk tradition.” Now, six years after their self-titled debut dropped, Folk Uke arrives again with their sophomore release, entitled Reincarnation, on November 22, and we’re happy to call it a tour de force of folk, with special guest appearances from both famous fathers, from producer and multi-instrumentalist Abe Guthrie, and from second-gen singer-songwriter Shooter Jennings to boot.

All family connections aside, the duo are excellent singer-songwriters, and indeed, it’s Cathy and Amy who make this record special, grounding it in their signature gentle, airy strum styles and light, whimsical vocals, providing a delicacy that belies their raw, earthy, almost anti-folk sensibility and lyrical truth. There’s love in here, for sure, but it’s a love rich in secular realism, making for an apt addition to the Guthrie/Nelson family legacies, and – from their sparse opening cover of a Harry Nilsson song originally performed by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in the 1980 film Popeye, to the palette of uke, bass, and guitar which tinkle and strum under the clear vocals throughout – a strong, sweet, eminently listenable album in its own right.

It was hard to justify running down the power on the iPad while the lights were out, but I made an exception for this amazing Beatles cover several times over. Here’s why: while Brooklynite Bess Rogers, whose new album Out Of The Ocean is buzzworthy enough to have made her the featured ‘Single Of The Week’ artist on iTunes/Japan last week, generally goes for indiepop production with organic, acoustic undertones – much like Ingrid Michaelson, for whom Bess tours as lead guitarist and back-up singer – her take on In My Life, which was originally released as a single this August to little fanfare, is positively etherial, stark and lovely in all the right places, with the uke and harpsichord keys, the layered vocals, and a delightfully clicking beat counterpoint containing all the warmth of the perfect late summer evening.

Interesting, how a song we featured this summer in multiple versions as part of our commemorative post-tornado series came back to haunt me once again in the midst of yet another weather-related disaster. Even in the freezing dark, this one kept me warm and smiling.

For bonus points, a quick search of the universe reveals several strong albums already under Bess’ belt, plus an equally delicate, warm take on The Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick from a 2010 all-covers NYC artists’ benefit for the nonprofit urban kids writing collaborative organization 826NYC – our very first Christmas cover of the season – that shimmers with firelight, setting the bar high, indeed.

Finally: I only watch one TV show regularly, and I watch it on Hulu, giving me an eight day delay for discovery on this amazingly atmospheric take on Big Star classic The Ballad of El Goodo from up and coming guy/girl folkpop duo The Wellspring. The poignancy may not characterize all their work – the stream on their page which touts their newest EP runs up to full throttle, as befits a band being produced by the same folks that brought you other indie folkpop icons (like Ingrid Michaelson, again, et. al.) – but it certainly brought just the right tone to the final moments of yet another heartbreaking episode of the best damn hospital drama around. And the ringing fullness of its sound pairs perfectly with Evan Dando’s ragged, sparse alternate cover, which we last shared way back in March 2010, when Big Star founder and patron saint Alex Chilton passed on into the big band in the sky.

Like what you hear? Then stay tuned, ’cause Cover Lay Down is back in business with more to come! We’ll return later this week and next for more new releases and folk features, including a look at the life and songs of cowboy countryfolk outlaw Guy Clark.

2 comments » | (Re)Covered, Red Molly, Tribute Albums

Festival Coverfolk, 2010: The Aftermath
Red Molly, Berklee Bluegrass, and more changes afoot in the folkworld

July 28th, 2010 — 11:18 am

As you can see above – yes, that’s me with my hands to the sky, dancing sidestage in full-on last-day-of-the-festival mode – this year’s annual excursion into the folkfields was a grand success. So good, in fact, that I’m writing this on the porch, reluctant to come inside lest the residual joy of the previous 11 days leech off in the presence of real toilets and showers, refrigerated food, and electric lighting.

But in the end, it was also a study in contrast, with Grey Fox bigger than ever, and Falcon Ridge smaller by far. Even as Grey Fox lost a press and volunteer parking lot to camping space, one uphill look at the Dodd’s farmland and you could see the empty spaces where campers and tents had filled the land, a field once fertile gone over to bald patches. Sure, the Beatles Coversongs Workshop was as populated as ever, and the sight of a packed parking lot waiting for dry-road entry on Saturday morning after Friday’s downpour day was heartening. But vendor lines were short, and seating sparse: long before people began to leave Falcon Ridge early Sunday afternoon, it was clear that the rush would be slight this year.

It’s tempting to frame this change in balance between festivals as a reflection of the larger ebb and flow of the two genres in the public imagination. The pop-and-country radio mainstreaming of folk artists such as Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna, the increase in bluegrass and newgrass sounds coming from acts and artists previously considered indie, rock, or pop, the continued rise and spread of bluegrass acts onto the country and folk radar, and a hundred other factors, many of which we’ve discussed here before, provide ample evidence for bluegrass’ upsurgence, even as folk blurs lines and fragments, moving back towards the small-scale house concert model, its most vocal longtime followers burying themselves in infighting about the true nature of folk in a modern world as the number of “pure” folk radio stations and programs dwindle down to a handful.

Too, Grey Fox seems to have benefitted from a growing core of second generation campers who come to party, drink, and revel, and don’t seem to care much whether the music goes on as scheduled. Though I was only present for Saturday, several sets started quite late due to performer frustrations with sound, and the largely empty seats which surrounded me didn’t seem to notice or care. To be fair, Thursday and Friday’s lineups were incredible, and it’s certainly possible that my fellow festivalgoers were just plumb tuckered out by the weekend. But several new additions to Grey Fox, including the funding of a well-attended movie night for kids down in the lower camping area, point to a continued effort to expand and enrich the experience for all ages, for which the organizers should be rightfully acclaimed.

But fundamental changes in the way lineups are booked at most festivals still nominally considered “folk” are also at the core of the choices being made “out there” which influence influence. As folk-and-more festivals from Newport to Green River to Clearwater have expanded their rosters to include a much broader genre range, and enjoyed corresponding success, Falcon Ridge has chosen to hew close to its roots, sticking with fan-favorite singer-songwriters and acoustic folk acts, which may explain some of its shrinkage. And though it’s hard to be critical of the place that I truly consider home, there’s no doubt in my mind that the corresponding dip in both camping and day ticket sales will make for some difficult choices in the year ahead.

It’s also true that Falcon Ridge took a gamble this year, whittling the roster down and scaling down the hours on stagetime in a desperate attempt to stay in the black after a number of lean years. The weather, too, was iffy, with black clouds ubiquitous on the horizon, and rain and blue sky battling it out over the weekend, so volatile in their ongoing struggle that one memorable mid-afternoon set started in sun, went over to rain twice, and ended in sun again, albeit with a smaller audience. But whatever the source, whatever the reason, it’s going to be a close one, folks – so stay tuned for more Falcon Ridge updates as the year progresses.

That said: from a subjective point of view, both halves of my annual festival pilgrimage were a wonderful success. As predicted, Kathy Mattea, who we saw at last year’s Falcon Ridge Fest, was in fine voice at Grey Fox; her duet work with Tim O’Brien in workshop and mainstage sets was hilarious and tender in turns, and made a full-fledged fan out of me despite my reluctance to lean that far country. Sarah Jarosz turned in a solid mainstage set, too, with a few especially lovely softer ballads, though a tendency to push her voice too hard on the upbeat numbers speaks to her continuing education as an evolving young artist. And seeing a grinning, mellow Sam Bush cover Bob Marley up close and personal in the workshop tent – part of an explanation of his unique “chop” style – was a delight, indeed.

I was especially interested in the morning workshop with the folks from Berklee’s new American Roots Program, both as a follow-up to a similar presentation-slash-conversation at this past winter’s Joe Val Fest and because the several musicians who tend to tour with Berklee improv prof and banjoist Dave Hollender have already begun to win my heart and ears. Though making the Saturday a.m. wake-up call was clearly a challenge for the younger set involved, those who did show – mando prodigy Sierra Hull and flatpicking guitarist Courtney Hartman of the talented multi-sibling Hartman Family Band among them – put on an impressive display of talent as improvisers and instrumentalists, one which speaks highly of the “push, expose, support and nurture” approach which Berklee offers, and promises as much for their own future successes as it does for the success of the American Roots program overall.

Overall, then, Grey Fox 2010 was a fine, fine outing, despite heat and a short but violent mid-afternoon torrential downpour that drove even the hardiest of us from our seats by the end. Here’s a few bonus tracks from a quartet of the abovementioned to keep the grassy field lingering.

Meanwhile, at Falcon Ridge, the replacement of a day of mainstage music with a free day of campground informality led to much higher prominence for the unofficial “hilltop” stages, many of which I heard about secondhand from new convert and campmate Darius of Oliver di Place and Star Maker Machine, whose constant tentside updates throughout the fest helped me see the joy of the place through rejuvenated eyes.

Which is not to say that this year’s official performances were anything to sneeze at, of course. Though my work running the festival’s crew of teen volunteers kept me busy, I managed to catch a number of delightful sets, from informal to formal. Dala were amazing and sweet, as predicted, winning hearts wherever they turned up. The Brilliant Inventions were in fine form, drawing crowds and breaking hearts with their perfect acoustic pop performances, well-honed songcraft, and dreamy Everly Brothers harmonies, most especially with my new favorite original Black-Eyed Susan, which can and should be seen on YouTube here and here and is bound to be the centerpiece of their upcoming album. And fellow Showcase winner Chuck E Costa held his own nobly in a workshop set alongside Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy LaFave, and Tracy Grammer, wowing fans and peers alike, and we’re proud to announce that the sweet-voiced singer and poignant lyricist has agreed to help inaugurate our 2010-2011 House Concert series this fall, with a date TBA.

Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams were amazing as ever this year, pulling a huge crowd for their Land of 1000 Dances set at the Dance Stage on Friday, pulling the young folks down from the hill to storm the stage by midset Saturday evening, and keeping the crowd moving at Sunday’s annual Gospel Wake-Up. And though new bluegrass quartet Chester River Runoff‘s mainstage set was cut short by the ubiquitous rain, I was lucky enough to be privy to their under-the-radar warm-up under the Site Crew tent beforehand, a sweet set of John Hartford covers, originals and tradtunes which made me a fan for life.

As in previous years, I’m proud to announce that I was able to record a number of covers at these performances, from Jimmy LaFave‘s Guthrie to Dala taking on Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now – and I snagged a few at Grey Fox, too, including the aforementioned Bob Marley cover from Sam Bush himself. The sound came out great on most of ‘em, and there was no official recording on the hill this year, so these may be the only copies of these covers in existence, making them rare indeed. I’m still hoping to unearth my camera’s connector cables to upload the Sat/Sun round of recording, but in the meantime, I’ve included the abovementioned as a single pair of teasers – with the promise of more to come as the weeks move forward.

The biggest buzz at this year’s Falcon Ridge festival, of course, was the impending change-over in the lineup for Red Molly, a folk trio that first formed in the FRFF campgrounds and rose to mainstage prominence through the Emerging Artist Showcase. As announced on their webpage a few weeks back, Carolann Solebello has decided to leave the group to focus on family and solo work, and Falcon Ridge was her last hurrah, with exquisite turns from the three ladies on every stage throughout the weekend marking a fitting farewell to a fine festival’s favorite daughter. The fall season will find Austin singer-songwriter Molly Venter joining Laurie MacAllister and Abbie Gardner to keep the glory going, and if Carolann’s last turn with the group – this season’s James, an exceptional album of familiar covers, peer tributes, and originals – is any indication, there’s high potential for all four women to remain on the radar for a good long while yet.

My personal fest highlight, in fact, was a long leisurely campsite visit with Laurie of Red Molly and the boys from The Brilliant Inventions, who I lured into our shaded den of iniquity with the promise of beer in an otherwise dry festival. To my delight, we hit it off, and as the lazy afternoon continued, what had started as casual conversation turned into a brainstorm session for potential coversongs for the coming re-incarnation of Red Molly. Out of respect for the artistic decision-making process I won’t spill the beans on the long list of possibles which resulted, but it was a coverlover’s dream to be treated as an equal in such rarified discourse, and I’m looking forward more than ever to new releases from Red Molly and TBI.

But I would note in passing that it was wonderful to find two people who appreciate Marc Cohn’s highly underrated second album as much as I do, especially the Crosby-and-Nash-backed She’s Becoming Gold. And that same pair – Eliot and Josh of The Brilliant Inventions – recommended I seek out their YouTube take on Sound of Silence, which they report as having been a rediscovery of Simon’s songwriting and arranging talents. So here it is, drowned a bit in audience noise but audibly genius nonetheless, along with another solid performance from 500 Songs For Kids, and two wonderful new covers from Red Molly’s strongest album yet, to close out today’s festival aftermath set.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk sets and features twice weekly on Wednesdays and Sundays. Coming soon: a trip to California prompts a plethora of features related to the banana-shaped state. And don’t forget to stay tuned for the announcement that we’ve finished compiling this year’s bootleg festival recordings into a single zip file, to be available exclusively to those who support Cover Lay Down.

1,491 comments » | Dala, Festival Coverfolk, Jimmy LaFave, Red Molly, Sam Bush, Sierra Hull

Susan Werner, Classics:
Covers of Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel and more!

February 21st, 2009 — 09:13 pm

Pianist, guitarist, and singer-songwriter Susan Werner has built a career on performing a particularly potent form of contemporary folk — one which balances a fluid and nuanced sense of delivery with an unusually loose, almost jazzy sense of time in which every moment counts, and can be stretched out to maximum effect. I’ve seen Werner several times throughout her career, in large venues and small, and I’ve always been impressed by her ability to connect with the audience through song, and connect the song to our hearts.

But though the power of her classical training is evident in her masterful range of emotion and expert technique as a vocalist and keyboardist, and though the few covers she has performed over the years have certainly benefitted from her ability to perform, Werner is no mere interpreter of song. Her songwriting is wry and intelligent, infusing the everyday with poignancy; her everywoman’s eye gets to the heart of the matter, regardless of whether the subject is personal or political.

Her intimate, deliberate delivery, coupled with an eye for ennobling the ordinary, has long made her a darling of the coffeehouse set, where she stands out against so many syncopated strummers as someone who gets a genuine thrill out of giving every moment the meaning it deserves, and who has the precisely honed talent to deliver on that promise. And though her brand new album Classics, released just this month, represents a departure from her usual folk style, it was the promise of this talent, as applied to cover song, which was my entry point for the album.

The songs on Classics come from the pop canon of the sixties and seventies; cover fans will find familiar source material here, from Simon and Garfunkel to Marvin Gaye to Bob Marley, and as expected, each song is treated with the vocal power and nuance to make it sparkle and shine. But what makes Classics both unique and noteworthy is the way it doubles up on the usual source material, framing each cover in the instruments and genre settings of chamber and classical music, as performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops. The chamber music arrangements add a second layer of coverage, setting popular lyrics and melody in familiar classical styles and motifs just as familiar to the average listener as the pop songs themselves.

It’s a daring approach, both as folk and as a sort of mash-up. Pairing Cat Stevens with a Bach string quartet seems like a stretch on paper. Putting Stevie Wonder up against a Chopin piano-and-strings setting sounds less like a productive collaboration than a parlor trick, an intelligent sort of froth doomed to be no more than nifty, and to be fair, until the familiar Chopin refrain kicks in at the end, it’s more parlour jazz than folk. But whether you call this folk or just a product of the folk process from a musician with the credibility of a master’s degree in theory and a decade or more of praxis, in the end, there’s no denying that with the release of Classics, Werner reveals a talent for arrangement which rivals her abilities as a chronicler and performer, pairing the two familiar genres so adeptly, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the way these songs had always existed, if only in potential.

Indeed, Werner is in rare form here, bringing all her various strengths to bear on the project, and revealing new ones in the process. And if, in the process, she reclaims classical chamber music as a real material for the folkprocess, it only demonstrates just how much wonder and power there is left to construct and discover from that process, when tackled by someone with the talent, training, and sheer ability, and a single, startlingly new concept.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a few streams from Classics, shared with permission…followed by a collection of older covers, and the usual bonus coverfolk. Head over to Susan Werner’s website for a few more streams from the album, and then pick up your own copy of Classics.

  • STREAM: Susan Werner: A Hazy Shade of Winter (orig. Simon and Garfunkel)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Maybe I’m Amazed (orig. Paul McCartney)
  • STREAM: Susan Werner: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (orig. Marvin Gaye)

…some older covers, from diverse sources:

  • Susan Werner: Vincent (orig. Don McLean)
    (from Time Between Trains, 1998; includes original hidden track)

…and today’s bonus coverfolk, which features two lovely covers of Susan Werner originals by folk trio and festival darlings Red Molly, who formed around an afterhours campfire after a late-night mainstage session that included Werner herself.

Special thanks to fellow fan and Star Maker Machine contributor Susan for helping me out with so many of the covers posted today. Serendipitously, Susan even posted one of my favorite Susan Werner originals over at SMM to close out our week of train songs — those interested in following the thread should definitely head on over.

1,046 comments » | Classical, Red Molly, Susan Werner

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

Carolina Coverfolk, Volume 1: Songs of the South (Red Molly, Steve Forbert, Cris Williamson, Mike Seeger)

April 20th, 2008 — 12:56 am

It’s school vacation, and we really needed a change of scene. So we headed down south to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, just me, the wife and kids, and a whole host of other relatives from both sides of the gene pool: my father, my wife’s parents, siblings on both sides, even a few great-aunts and grandparent-in-laws. None of us live here, but it’s as good a neutral midpoint as any; we’ve rented two houses down the street from each other just to fit everyone comfortably, and the trip promises to be memorable no matter what transpires.

So far, other than a long overnight drive down the coast, a quick dip of the toes in the ocean, a wonderful barbecue breakfast and a late-night hamburger cook-out, we’ve done little besides meet, greet, and settle in. Plans from here include a moment of awe on the beach where the Wright brothers made aviation history, as much rest and relaxation as possible, plenty of late night hot-tubbing and game room pool-playing, and a rare opportunity to spend some time with the wife sans kids.

But I’m also keeping my eyes open, trying to soak in as much of the culture and folkways as I can. I’ve driven through North Carolina before on my way north from Florida, and I have vague memories of a very short middle school chorus trip to the Winston-Salem area involving long rehearsals and a midnight sneak-out to a waffle house. But though I was born in Georgia, we moved before my first birthday; I’ve lived North of Connecticut all my conscious life. I’ve read plenty, and I know on paper the ways and means of the Southern experience, but other than this hazy history, and a few New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival exceptions, I’m a newbie when it comes to experiencing the American South.

Still, as regular readers know, I’m a sucker for an excuse to delve deeply into subgenre and theme. So, in honor of the locale, this week will mark our first location-specific set of posts. Wednesday we’ll feature some coverwork of and from homegrown old-school tradfolk luminaries Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs; later, as we look towards home again, we’ll feature covers of the songs of James Taylor, an artist who was born in North Carolina, but now spends his days up north in Massachusetts, not so far from where we call home. And today, to kick things off, we present some coversongs which celebrate the Carolinas — a short set heavy on the appalachian instrumentation and southern sound.

  • Red Molly, Oh My Sweet Carolina (orig. Ryan Adams)
    Previously-featured sweet-voiced femme folk trio Red Molly covers this bittersweet tribute from North Carolina native son Ryan Adams with dobro, guitar, and harmony on their sole full-length album, the live Never Been To Vegas.
  • Mud Acres, Carolina in My Mind (orig. James Taylor)
    Another song by a native son, this one reinvented as a ragged hootenanny by Happy Traum, banjoist Bill Keith, bass player Roly Salley (who penned the oft-covered Killin’ The Blues) and others from the mid-seventies Woodstock, NY Mud Acres music collective.

  • Cris Williamson and Tret Fure, Carolina Pines (orig. Kate Wolf)
    A languid, mournful country ballad of loss and emptiness from Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf. One of Kate’s best, and the harmonica and slide on this powerful cut from Cris Williamson and Tret Fure make it that much better.
  • Mike Seeger and Paul Brown, Way Down in North Carolina (trad.)
    The title cut from Way Down in North Carolina, lovingly gathered and performed by collector of traditional song Mike Seeger and pal Paul Brown, is a fiddle tune at heart, true appalachian music from the old school. Timeless, true, and perfect for the back porch or the back country.
  • Steve Forbert, My Carolina Sunshine Girl (orig. Jimmie Rodgers)
    Singer-songwriter Steve Forbert swings this short but sweet old tune with a wry touch and his signature vocal strangle. Off Any Old Time, Forbert’s tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, king of the cowboy yodel.

176 comments » | Cris Williamson, Mud Acres, Red Molly, Steve Forbert, Tret Fure

Covered In Folk: Gillian Welch (Glen Phillips, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss, Crooked Still)

January 19th, 2008 — 06:45 pm

Hope no one minds an early “Sunday” post this week; my brother and his wife are on their way in from Brooklyn for the long weekend, and I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like. I’ll have a short post up for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, if I can; in the meantime, enjoy today’s feature on “American Primitive” folkartist Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, the tenth post in our popular Covered in Folk series, where we pay tribute to the songwriting talents of a single artist.

I saw Gillian Welch at the Green River Festival a while back, and it was a revelation. From ten rows back, her summer dress blowing in the hot breeze, her twanged voice, the doubled guitars, her narratives of Southern poverty and pain, all conspired to bring the hot scent of jasmine and Southern dust on the breeze even as we lounged on the New England grass. The crowd swelled. The rest of the afternoon passed in a haze.

Though it was her vocal talents in O Brother, Where Art Thou which put her on a mass-marketable par with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, it was clear to anyone watching that, as a musical phenomenon, Gillian Welch was a force to be reckoned with in the growing americana folk movement.

More often than not, Gillian Welch is the performing name for two musicians, Welch herself and her ubiquitous partner David Rawlings; when they work with others each gets billing, but in performance as a duo, the pronoun “she” is the standard convention. Welch appears as frontwoman, and can certainly stand her own as a powerful force in a particular subgenre of american folk music, but they share writing credit on many songs, and their harmonies — vocal and guitar — are notable and recognizable.

And what is the Gillian Welch sound? Welch’s voice is well-suited for the raw, backporch paces she puts it through; together, as songwriters and performers, these two musicians build on this vocal base to create an americana sound Welch calls “American Primitive”, something simultanously sparer and more richly nuanced than anything a solo artist could do with guitar or voice. Call it old-timey folk — unproduced and jangly, sparse and stripped down from the more traditional old-timey sound of groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, Welch and Rawlings’ musical compatriots and touring partners.

There are times when Gillian Welch sounds like an old Alan Lomax field recording, something timeless, raw and elegant in its simplicity and honest rough presentation. The lyrics, too, tend towards the trope and narrative themes — rural life, loss and hardship — of early American southern field folk. Given all that, it’s no wonder that over the last decade or so, since even before the release of debut album Revival in 1996, the folk end of the americana movement has begun to pick up her songs and give them the traditional treatment.

Today, some select covers from the increasingly vast spectrum of sound that pays tribute to this weathered, shy, still-young matriarch of the new americana folk set. Interesting, how many retain the original Welch/Rawlings close harmonies, as if the tenor echo were as much a part of the original text to be covered as the powerful words, melody, and chord. Perhaps it is.

Crooked Still hops with cello, banjo and bass; Emmylou Harris fills out the sound in her inimitable style; newcomers Dakota Blonde mourn a life alone with accordian and guitar and drumthunder. The infinite possibility of nuance and power keeps this oft-covered, well-worn tune fresh, despite its weary lyric.

Two electrified covers which take this heavy tune to its natural folk rock conclusion. Alt-country rocker Ryan Adams‘ shortened version, off the Destroyer Sessions, is full-on Neil Young, guitars and vocals tangled up in angst. Singer-songwriter and ex-Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips‘ version is darker, more pensive, more beautiful.

At first listen, Peter Mulvey‘s classically-fingerpicked version teeters on the overly maudlin, and previously-posted girlgroup Red Molly‘s three-voiced approach seems to cost them emotive potential. But listen again — these grow on you.

Fellow Gillian Welch O Brother, Where Are Thou muse Alison Krauss and her star-studded band Union Station make a sweet live bluegrass ballad of an old-timey wallflower’s love song.

Kidfolk queen Elizabeth Mitchell brings us a light-hearted tale well-suited for the bedtime ears of the next generation of traditional folk fans.

This sultry gospel-jazz take from the Elan Mehler Quartet is sweet with breathy sax and slow-rolling piano. It isn’t folk, but it makes the perfect capstone to any set of Gillian Welch covers.

Don’t forget to click on artist names above to purchase the best of the modern folk world from bluegrass to bluesfolk direct from the source. And, if you don’t already have them, buy Gillian Welch’s four incredible albums direct from her website.

Today’s bonus coversongs hold back a bit, that we might eventually bring you a full post of Gillian Welch covering other artists. But here’s two collaborative efforts that give Rawlings and Welch their own billing, to tide you over until then:

863 comments » | Alison Krauss, Crooked Still, Dakota Blonde, David Rawlings, Elan Mehler Quartet, Elizabeth Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Glen Phillips, Peter Mulvey, Red Molly, Ryan Adams

Red Molly: Never Been To Vegas (Gillian Welch, Susan Werner, Elvis and more)

November 7th, 2007 — 11:42 am

Though I spend plenty of time at the foot of the stage, I don’t usually care much for live recordings: I prefer the perfection of the studio to the roar of the imaginary crowd, and poor sound quality bothers my ears. But every once in a while, when there’s a good engineer at the sound board, something truly special results. Such is the case with Red Molly‘s strong first full-length album Never Been To Vegas — which, when added to their four-song in-studio EP, is the sum total of their recordings.

And, with the exception of a few previously-sung notables by Red Molly dobro player Abbie Gardner, every single song on these albums is a coversong.

The three folksingers that comprise Red Molly — Gardner, bass player/mandolinist Carolann Solobelo, and banjo/guitarist Laurie MacAllister — met around covers, so it’s no surprise that their entire recorded output consists of them. Formed from the early morning remnants of a latenight songcircle high above the darkened mainstage of Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, the trio returned to the festival two years later to win the highly-competitive FRFF Emerging Artist showcase. (Full disclosure: I’m crew chief for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival teen crew).

Since then, the girls of Red Molly have toured with the other 2006 showcase winners, opened for such luminaries as Jonathan Edwards and John Hammond, and come back to Falcon Ridge as featured performers, wowing crowds and winning admiration from fellow musicians with their sweet harmonies and full acoustic sound. Throughout, they’ve been playing covers — banking admiration for such time as they might return to either their own solo work, or a fuller existence as the rarest of American folk creatures: the folk group.

Mostly, Red Molly’s interpretations lean towards the Americana end of folk music — coverchoices include Gillian Welch, Hank Williams, and old traditional folk/gospel songs such as Darlin’ Corey and When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder. But regardless of subject, their tight crystal-clear harmonies and brightstringed musicianship bring each song forward as a gift to be shared, a glittering gospel.

Today we feature a trio of songs from the folktrio’s Never Been To Vegas, with kudos to engineer Dae Bennett for changing my mind about live recordings, even if this one turns out to have been recorded in a studio, not a coffeehouse. Don’t forget to check out the bonus songs below for a sweet pair of covers from their self-titled EP, and a wonderful version of You Gotta Move by Abbie and fellow 2006 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Showcase winner Pat Wictor.

  • Red Molly, Caleb Meyer (orig. Gillian Welch)
  • Red Molly, Coal Tattoo (orig. Billy Edd Wheeler)
  • Red Molly, Blue Night (orig. Kirk McGee)

Support these fast-rising, red-wearin’ women by buying Red Molly, plus solo albums from Abbie, Laurie, and Carolann, from CD Baby via the Red Molly website. While you’re there, follow the link to pick up this year’s Naked Folk Calendar (the girls of Red Molly were the November 2006 pin-up); all calendar profits go towards health insurance for struggling folk musicians.

Today’s bonus coversongs:

  • Red Molly wrings new life from old Elvis-covered chestnut Are You Lonesome Tonight…
  • …and jams through Susan Werner’s Yellow House
  • Abbie Gardner and Pat Wictor wail the doublesteel blues on You Gotta Move (orig. Mississippi Fred McDowell)
  • Previously posted: Red Molly covers Patty Griffin

34 comments » | Abbie Gardner, Billy Edd Wheeler, Elvis, Gillian Welch, Kirk McGee, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Red Molly, Susan Werner

Covered in Folk: The Dixie Chicks do Patty Griffin

October 7th, 2007 — 08:10 pm

You may not have heard of Patty Griffin. But if you’ve had your ear to the radio over the past decade, you’ve heard her songwriting: Griffin is one of those rare singer-songwriters whose songs are bigger than she is, and in her case, it’s a shame and a blessing. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the bittersweet lot of the oft-covered and not-yet-famous. We call it Covered in Folk.

According to legend, the production on Patty Griffin‘s first album obscured her authentic sound so much that her label buried the studio tracks, remastered her demo, and released it pretty much as-is. The result, 1996 release Living With Ghosts, is a comprehensive masterpiece of raw folk power. The siren sounds of the city through her open apartment window only reinforce the realism inherent in the languid grit of her hard-driving guitar, and her hallmark seen-it-all wail.

But we’re not here today to talk about Patty’s breathy voice, or her rough, busker’s streetcorner sound. We’re here to talk about her songs.

Those who have seen Patty in concert agree: there’s nothing quite like the powerhouse Maine woods twang-and-wail to lay bare the bones of her earlier, darker lyrics of battered women and lost rural souls. But I’d rather have her songs channeled through other voices than let them languish in the A&M vault. And luckily, Griffin’s songs are so powerful as written, it’s a genuine joy to hear them handled well by others.

No performer in today’s market has benefitted more from Griffin’s songwriting than country sensations and anti-Bush badgirls the Dixie Chicks, whose three-part harmony and careful handling make the songs their own while retaining all the original power of lyric and melody. Today we offer three Patty Griffin covers, one from each of three different Chicks albums.

  • Let Him Fly, off Dixie Chicks Fly
  • Truth No. 2, off the Dixie Chicks Home
  • Top Of The World, off the Dixie Chicks live album of the same name

The Dixie Chicks are great musicians in their own right, but now that you know the pen behind the music, put your credit where credit is due: pick up Patty Griffin’s Living with Ghosts, her stellar opus of smalltown loners 1000 Kisses, and the rest of the Griffin catalog at ecotunes, her preferred sales source.

Today’s bonus coversong bonanza:

  • New folkfemme combo Red Molly covers Griffin’s Long Ride Home
  • Alt-countrified Emmylou Harris covers Griffin’s One Big Love
  • Covergirl chanteuse Maura O’Connell covers Griffins Poor Man’s House
  • Patty Griffin covers Springsteen’s Stolen Car
  • Patty Griffin covers John Hiatt’s Take It Down

340 comments » | Covered in Folk, Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Maura O'Connell, Patty Griffin, Red Molly, Springsteen