Category: Josh Ritter

Covered In Folk: John Prine
(21 covers incl. Laura Cantrell, Amos Lee, Josh Ritter & Jeffrey Foucault!)

March 23rd, 2010 — 08:00 pm

Like so many of our Covered in Folk feature subjects, I discovered country-folk singer-songwriter John Prine via coverage – through both his own “original” version of Roly Salley composition Killing the Blues, which Shawn Colvin attributed to Prine himself on her mid-nineties cover album Cover Girl, and Bonnie Raitt’s ubiquitous version of Angel From Montgomery, a sentimental bluesfolk number familiar to anyone who has ever flipped the radio dial to a Contemporary station in the last few decades.

It wasn’t until much later, during a week in attendance at my father’s house while he recovered from back surgery, that I discovered several of Prine’s early albums on my progenitor’s shelves, nestled there among Wainwright, Hartford, and other artists I had rejected in my youth as unfamiliar names with less than melodic voices, and a bit more country than I was ready to take on.

To be fair, my father’s collection was always a bit lighter on the Chicago folk revivalist scene from whence Prine arose, and heavier on the more localized NYC Fast Folk movement which I have touted so often on these pages. But I consider it a stroke of luck that the John Prine canon falls in that gap of my audiophilic development that I have only recently come to fill. In the intervening years, my tastes have matured beyond the direct sentiment and clear vocalists of my youth: these days, I look for nuance, deep social consciousness, and a bit of wry grit in my music. And for a true fan of such elements, John Prine is a diamond, plain and simple.

Though the bulk of John Prine’s greatest and most well-known songs were recorded in his late twenties, from the very first note of his self-titled ’71 debut, both man and music come across as ageless and wise. To listen to those weary recordings is to discover the truly complex combination of gentle wistfulness, perceptive wisdom, and humor which more often graces the best artists’ work only in their last years.

That it comes, in the original, from that broken, ancient voice – a tonality that falls somewhere between Dylan’s nasality and Guy Clark’s dust-croaked twang, only deepened since Prine’s 1998 brush with cancer, which occasioned a removal of no small amount of neck tissue – only underscores that this is a mature listener’s music, though certainly, as the below coverage amply reveals, Prine’s simple, plaintive melodies and direct portrayals of blue-collar drunkards, drifters, addicts, and wise-but-downtrodden everymen are accessible enough to appeal to younger listeners – and cover artists – as well.

It’s certainly possible to go grand and bombastic with a few of Prine’s more humorous tunes – for evidence, we need only turn to the full-blown country-western twang of David Alan Coe’s 1974 hit You Never Even Called Me By My Name, a parody of popular country music co-written by Prine and frequent collaborator Steve Goodman. I’ve skipped a few others “out there” from bona-fide folkies such as Joan Baez, Todd Snider, and John Denver that seemed a bit too pretty for my tastes. And it is true that a few of today’s set – most notably takes from Eddi Reader, Nanci Griffith, and a young Kasey Chambers & family performing as The Dead Ringer Band – filter these songs through the well-produced countrypop sentiment that we have come to expect from these performers, though to say so is by no means an invitation to pass over what turn out to be strong interpretations of well-chosen songs.

But most of today’s covers are gentle and solo acoustic, sung with a heavy heart and a smile that’s wistful and wry, chagrined and sincere all at once – both because we do folk here, and because, more often than not, Prine’s lyrics and melodies demand it that way. Live covers from Amos Lee, Josh Ritter, Jeffrey Foucault, Laura Cantrell, Hayes Carll and others strip these songs to the bone, bringing the same sparse touch to these gems that Prine himself did on his exquisite 2000 album Souvenirs, in which he revisited his own early songbook with the wisdom of years. As such, like the tributes below, Souvenirs – and 2005 follow-up Fair & Square, a “laid-back” acoustic album which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album – come highly recommended for folk fans.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

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1,517 comments » | Amos Lee, Covered in Folk, Jeffrey Foucault, John Prine, Josh Ritter

Birthday Coverfolk, Vol. 3: Tocayos
(17 Coversongs from Rouse, Radin, Ritter, Pyke, James and White)

January 13th, 2010 — 09:41 pm

Tomorrow, January 14th, is my birthday – my third, in fact, since beginning the musical journey we call Cover Lay Down. Two years ago, in celebration, we featured covers of and from musicians who shared my birthday, a list that included Allen Toussaint, Dave Grohl, LL Cool J, and T-Bone Burnett. Last year, we gathered in covers of and from a set of artists born in 1973, and that was fun, too: it’s hard to feel old when you’re the same age as Andrew Bird, Rufus Wainwright, and other luminaries whose careers are still gathering steam.

As a set of bonus party favors, I’ve re-upped the songs on those old entries. But don’t click through just yet. Because this year, in an attempt to continue the trend, I’ve decided to step out of the pseudonym a bit to feature artists who share my name.

Oh, I know: you know me as boyhowdy, a convenient pseudonym whose murky origins involve a series of band rehearsals and my own high tendency towards ADHD distraction. But in the meatworld, I’m known as Joshua: an old testament name, and – according to Wikipedia – “a species of arborescent monocot native to North America”. Due to its biblical origins, it’s a popular name, especially among Jews – until recently one of the top five male names in the US, in fact – and as such, it’s no oddity to find several beloved artists in my collection who share it.

Surprisingly, there’s no English word for “someone who shares the same name as you” – namesake is close, but despite what Wiktionary claims, it technically only means “someone named after”. But though I’m not so self-centered as to believe that fave singer-songwriters Josh Ritter and Josh Radin were named after lil’ ol’ me, and am reasonably confident that I myself was not named after early Piedmont folk-bluesman Josh White, to share a name with someone is to share a special kind of connection. And happily, there’s a lovely word for this coincidental soul-connection in Spanish – tocayo – suggesting that other cultures, at least, recognize this nombrelationship as valid and meaningful.

No matter; we’re happy to take our linguistics where we find them here at Cover Lay Down. Y, convenientemente, mis tocayos se incluido muchos cantautores increíble. Here, then, are some of mis tocayos.

I was lucky enough to see Josh Ritter at the Green River Festival way back in 2003, before he graduated to the festival mainstage and beyond; I even plopped down next to him on the lawn to check out Redbird, with Erin McKeown alongside us both, once his set was finished. Ritter is a few years younger than I am, but he exploded onto the scene young, thanks in part to some attention from Glen Hansard, and a knack for backstory-rich songsmithing which resonated with audiences here and abroad; trivia buffs may also note that Ritter was recently married to Dawn Landes, whose gorgeous voice has been featured in these pages several times before as well, so clearly, the guy’s doin’ alright for himself.

These days, in fact, Ritter is huge; his recent Symphony Hall show was well-blogged, and it’s hard to imagine topping any show where the first Poet Laureate of the United States opens for you. But I’ll always think of him as the kid with the goofy grin, the slow vocal drawl, and a talent for earnest, down-to-earth lyrics and well-crafted love songs that ache with authentic adolescent longing. I’d been holding out for a full feature on the lad, but we dropped his great cover of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel a few months ago, and today’s theme just wouldn’t be complete without a few favorites, so what the hell: here’s five.

I first heard of Aussie singer-songwriter Josh Pyke a few summers ago, thanks to an incredibly well-textured folkpop Kate Bush cover on No Man’s Woman, a collection of male Down Under artists covering their female counterparts’ signature tunes. Since then, Pyke has come out with a sophomore album that seems to have spawned several singles, but to be perfectly honest, I’m cribbing off Wikipedia here. It’s not just me, either: Pyke charts high back home, and he’s won several ARIA industry awards in the adult contemporary category in his native land, but although the streams on his website are deliciously McCartney-esque and soundtrack-ready, and despite regular airplay on “national youth broadcaster” Radio Triple J, which coverlovers know well for its ongoing series of cover challenges to the musicians they host, he seems to be relatively unknown in the States. Perhaps these two vastly different covers will help raise some well-deserved consciousness.

Ohio-based singer-songwriter Joshua Radin is prone to that slow, delicate echo-and-hushfolk that tends to accompany those maudlin Scrubs montages in which Zach Braff’s character stares morosely into the distance; sure enough, he was one of the Grammy-winning Garden State soundtrack compiler and indie music champion’s proudest discoveries, and his list of television and movie soundtrack appearances puts most other, older folksingers to shame. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that: in his element, Radin is one of my favorite indiefolk artists, capturing the inner life of ache and winter longing in a low whisper and soaring, perceptive lyrics.

We featured (okay, buried) Radin’s totally emo pianofolk take on the Sesame Street theme a few months ago, and it seemed pretty popular. He also does a killer eighties cover. Here’s two, to prove it.

I wrote about mid-western alt-folk singer Joshua James recently in passing, and posted a newly-found tradcarol (Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel) from his holiday sampler to boot. But since then, I’ve been slowly falling in love with the empathy he wrings from his strained, half-broken tenor, most especially the way it wraps around the subtle banjo and guitar strains of his recent Daytrotter session. I don’t usually use Dylanesque as a compliment, but it fits perfectly here, especially in his rhythmic sense, and his tough treatment of tragedy; there’s shades of Neil Young’s darkness, too, though the voice is easier on the ears. And Paste loves him, but we’ll let you make your own call.

Josh Rouse‘s new album El Turista is due to drop in a few weeks, so he’s closer to the top of my mind – and my stacks – than most of the other folks on today’s list, if only because I really haven’t spent the time I should have to get into his good works. Partially, that’s because the harder-edged alt-country side of folk tends to get short shrift in my collection anyway, what with my preference for true-blue folk and pop harmonies. But it’s also because his cover work tends almost exclusively towards the slow and maudlin, while the rest of his songstyles range widely – which makes them easy to collect piecemeal, and a bit easier to rummage through outside of the usual old-school full-album format, but ironically, makes them a bit less cohesive as a full playlist altogether.

But what Rouse does, he does exceptionally well: his perfectly radiopop 2005 album Nashville, especially, has had its fair share of play and replay in my collection, both for its dreamy-to-alt-rocking diversity and its catchy guitar hooks; his quiet bedroom cover of The Clash, from a mag sampler released the same year, is a personal favorite. And the man is terribly prolific, with over a dozen albums in as many years, and more if you count the deliciously intimate ongoing self-released Bedroom Classics Closet Archives subscription series he’s been running off his website, which so far have included great live concert recordings, in-studio sets with string quartets, and the below Mother Love Bone cover.

Finally, turning back the clock a bit, my archives reveal a few old tracks from pre-revival folkie and “Singing Christian” Josh White which would have fit in just fine with last Sunday’s Subgenre Coverfolk feature on the Acoustic Blues. White spent the first wave of his career doing the blues gospel circuit, and it shows in his vocal mannerisms: there’s a bit of Nat King Cole or Sam Cooke’s croon here, coupled with the faintest post-transition crack and yodel. Laid over a barely audible laid-back acoustic guitar, it’s the real deal, sad with the fields, ready for the folk-world fame that never truly caught up to him before his 1969 passing, though his early years were thankfully flush.

Thinking it’s time to give something back? Donations are always nice, but all I really want for my birthday is a comment and some good wishes. How ’bout it, folks?

1,781 comments » | Josh Pyke, Josh Ritter, Josh Rouse, Josh White, Joshua james, Joshua Radin