Category: Sam Amidon

Martha Scanlan: The West Was Burning (Covers of Bob Dylan and Tradfolk)

July 8th, 2008 — 11:01 pm

I was going to write about something else tonight. But sifting through some older downloads looking for inspiration, I got stuck in the rich, lush americana sound of singer-songwriter Martha Scanlan‘s 2007 debut The West Was Burning, and I just couldn’t move on. It’s been a while since we featured a single release here on Cover Lay Down, but it’s also been a while since music struck me as powerfully as this. And so a post is born.

A few years ago I managed to make it to the upper Hudson Valley for Clearwater, a folk and enviro-political action festival which leans towards the old-school stringfolk music of festival founder Pete Seeger and his modern inheritors. I saw plenty of great acts that year, from Natalie Merchant and Jeff Lang to Donna The Buffalo and Toshi Reagon, and loved them all. But my favorite act was a string band, a small group of very young old-timey performers I discovered quite by accident as I rounded a corner past the workshop stage. They were called the Reeltime Travelers, and they were new on the scene; their music was pretty traditional, but done so well and with such high energy, I walked away from the festival with their album.

Since I last saw her in the early days of the Reeltime Travelers, Martha Scanlan has undergone a transformation. Her work with the Travelers and as a songwriter on the Cold Mountain soundtrack was marvelous; subsequently, she won both first and second prizes in the bluegrass and country division of the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at Merlefest in 2003 for two songs on the Reeltime Travelers’ second and final album Livin’ Reeltime. That success gave her the strength and credibility to leave Reeltime Travelers behind and make a solid name for herself as a solo artist. And though I’m a little late to the table in finding it, her debut release The West Was Burning, released last February on Sugar Hill, is absolutely stunning.

Scanlan’s sound is wonderful, delicate folk in the pure americana vein, a stripped-down version of Lucinda Williams or Kathleen Edwards, light where it should be but with great, lush production in turn, full of fiddles and mandolin and slow country bass. The old-timey sound is still there, but it’s been slowed down and fleshed out into something much richer, and eminently more powerful. Martha writes Montana so well, its as if someone came down out of the hills with a dozen newly-discovered, fully-fleshed traditional songs, pre-boiled down to their essential elements, with every lick and lyric perfect after years of evolution. Her voice is endearing, and suits the music well: delicate and pure, innocent and wise all at once. Add Levon Helm and his daughter Amy on drums, and the stellar production of americana master Dirk Powell, and you can’t help but have a success on your hands.

You’ll have to buy The West Is Burning for transformative originals like the delicate Seeds of the Pine, and the driving americana rock beat and full-band jangle and twang of Isabella – though you can hear a few more tracks, including a great live version of tradsong Old Rocking Chair, at Martha’s Myspace page, and if you’re in Manitoba this weekend, you can catch her at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. But don’t miss this sweet No Depression-flavored piano-tinged Dylan slowdance, and a perfect mountain ballad transformation of one of my favorite old hymns. I’ve even included a parallel set of covertunes from that self-titled Reeltime Travelers debut album, for comparison’s sake, so you can hear the evolution of Martha’s sound and sensibility.

Just for fun, today’s bonus coversongs provide an exercise in comparative listening:

688 comments » | Martha Scanlan, Reeltime Travelers, Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, Wayfaring Strangers

Looking Back, Looking Forward: On Half a Year of CLD plus more covers of and from your favorites and mine

March 30th, 2008 — 01:40 am

Image copyright Adam Pesch, 2003

Six months ago today I jumped into the world of music blogging with both feet and no expectations. Since then, Cover Lay Down has become many things to many people.

To me, Cover Lay Down is sometimes a haven, often a playspace, always a way to try to put into words why I love what I love. But even though it is work, it is never a burden. And it is a place I am proud to call my home on the web.

But as a home is nothing without a constant stream of dinner companions, houseguests and couchcrashers, a blog is nothing without its readership. Though I only hear from a tiny percentage of the thousand or so of you who visit on an average day, it is clear from those who do share thoughts and songs that Cover Lay Down has served you well. The outpouring of interest, support, and kind words has been validating. I treasure every comment and email, and consider many of you friends.

More surprising has been the relatively recent recognition by promoters, labels, and artists themselves. It has always been my aim to support artists first and foremost, as organically as possible, but as a cover blogger, I never expected to hit the radar. Thanks to every promoter that reaches out to me, to every small label that works with me to keep the focus on artists and songs, and especially, to every artist who has not only shared their gifts, but more and more often, their words of encouragement.

It is a rare privilege to serve as a bridge between the music I love and the community I cherish. Thank you, all, for your trust, your recommendations, and your encouragement. Together, we really are making a difference.

For those who are curious about what this place looks like behind the scenes, it’s worth noting that careful hit-tracking shows a steady rise in readership pushed by periodic blips of discovery from the blogosphere and web-based press. It is neat to be noticed, and I really appreciate recent mentions from the likes of Muruch, Berkeley Place, Copy, Right via WFMU’s Beware the Blog, and many others I truly respect. I owe these folks, too, and am proud to consider them mentors and peers.

But even if not all posts make The Houston Chronicle, Weblog Wannabe, or what appears to be the German version of MTV, or garner notice on those carefully selected linklists of incredible folk and coverblogs you see to the right, I am proud that such recognition keeps driving the average size of our readership ever upwards. I may be wrong, but I’d like to think our growth after each blip underscores the fact that so many who find this place come back on their own — which in turn validates the continued good balance we’ve managed to create between featuring songs and songwriters, and the performers that cover them.

I enjoy writing them all, though I am proudest of the continued work trying to define the myriad ways and means of folk itself — a thread that wends its way through every post, whether it explores the possibility of a single subgenre or song, or focuses on a given singer or songwriter. And, now that labels and artists have begun sending me their work, I am increasingly excited about the unique opportunity to use cover songs as a vehicle for audiences like yourselves to find new artists.

But today is as much about looking back as looking ahead, and we meet here for the music more than anything. So enough about us — let’s get to the coversongs, shall we? Today, a very special installment of our (Re)Covered series, wherein we revisit the past, and add new value to older posts. After all, isn’t building bridges between the past and the now, too, what folk is all about?

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I was so blown away by South of Delia, the new cover album by singer-songwriter Richard Shindell, that I needed to share it with the world. Since then, I keep coming back to that amazing album, and to the artist who recorded it, who recently released the first in what promises to be a wonderful series of live concert recordings. It seems especially fitting to look back to that first post today, for a deeper look at Richard Shindell, plus young folk group We’re About 9 with an a capella cover of one of his most poignant songs.

  • Richard Shindell, Lawrence, KS (orig. Josh Ritter)
  • Richard Shindell, Fourth of July, Asbury Park (orig. Bruce Springsteen)
  • Richard Shindell, Darkness, Darkness (orig. Jesse Colin Young)
  • We’re About 9, Money For Floods (orig. Richard Shindell)

    Most of our first few months we were seriously under the radar. Though my early look at Britney Spears — a post originally intended as a Halloween “mask” — brought some recognition, it says something that even as family friend Sam Amidon garners mention in Rolling Stone and Spin, and even though my look at him was more exhaustive than any I have read, no one seems to remember that we, too, did a feature on Sam Amidon way back in November of last year, before many of the big guns spotted him. Here’s a trifecta of Amidon covers I originally posted way back when, one each from his new work and his two previous albums; pick up a bunch more of his cuts at that original post.

  • Sam Amidon, Head Over Heels (orig. Tears for Fears)
  • Sam Amidon, Louis Collins (orig. Mississippi John Hurt)
  • Sam Amidon, Little Johnny Brown (trad./ arr. Ella Jenkins)

    Just before the momentum really started to build, I put up a gigantic but generally unnoticed post about local folkfaves Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, and mentioned I hadn’t yet heard their newest album Big Old Life. Since then, I’ve made friends with the folks at Signature Sounds, a wonderful label/studio who first produced the work of Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna, and currently work with folkblog fave Eilen Jewell and previously-covered Jeffrey Foucault and Caroline Herring; they sent me a copy of Big Old Life, and I’m happy to report it was all I had hoped for: fun, quirky, and full of surprises. Rani deserves a real shot at my current audience, so here’s two of my favorite tracks; the Dylan, especially, is both wonderful and awesomely odd.

  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Farewell, Angelina (orig. Bob Dylan)
  • Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Heart with No Compassion (orig. Leonard Cohen)

    Speaking of Leonard Cohen: if email responses were the best measure of success, our Single Song Sundays would hands down be counted as our most popular entries. In almost every case, from features on tradfolk songs like House Carpenter and Amazing Grace to heavily covered singer-songwriter cuts like Joni Mitchell’s River and Dylan’s Girl of the North Country, posting multiple versions of a song has brought in choice submissions from fans and artists alike. I truly appreciate these emails, and love learning about new artists this way. Here’s the best of what came in after my most recent post on Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, with much thanks to two new e-friends for introducing me to Antje Duvekot and Karen Jo Fields, two singer-songwriters I’ll be listening to over the next few months.

  • Antje Duvekot, Famous Blue Raincoat (orig. Leonard Cohen)
  • Karen Jo Fields, Famous Blue Raincoat (ibid.)

    What’s next on Cover Lay Down? Plenty. I’m working with several artists I love to bring forward some great covers they’ve done over the years, and anxiously awaiting word on a few “in the works” cover projects from folksters new and old. With the folk festival season soon upon us, I expect to be more in tune with what’s new in the folkworld, and hope, as well, to be able to renew and strengthen connections with artists, fans, and promoters.

    In other words, much of what you’ll continue to see here is that which we do best, only deeper. But even that is not static. Folk is culture, so as culture changes, folk changes, too. As long as new gems and rising stars shine among the new and unheard CDs that clutter my desktop, it is my hope to add more short features on newer artists still below the radar. I’ll have an experiment of sorts in that vein coming along later this week. But to the extent that we can say so, I think the model we’ve created together is largely a success. Expect more of the same as we go forward.

    One last word before I go. In the end, the purpose of this blog truly is to best support folk music, and the artists who make it. Regular visitors may have noticed that we disdain mass market commercial sources for music here wherever possible. My recent connections with artists and labels has only strengthened my belief that the best way to support the music we love is not just to buy it, it is to buy it through the artists themselves, at shows, on artist websites, and through distribution centers like CD Baby — sources which genuinely send the bulk of the profit back to the artist herself.

    Please, folks: if you like what you hear, buy, and buy local. Else one day, there might be nothing left for us to talk about except the oldies. And if I could ask for anything back from all of you, it would not be words. It would be that this community, this scene, this sound is still vibrant a hundred years from now, for our children and theirs.

    Thanks for staying with me for so long, both tonight and since you found this place. We’ll be back Wednesday, and again on Sunday, ad infinitum. But come back any time you like. For you, the door is always open.

  • 1,250 comments » | (Re)Covered, Antje Duvekot, Karen Jo Fields, Leonard Cohen, metapost, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, richard shindell, Sam Amidon, We're About 9

    (Re)Covered IV: More Covers of and from Sam Amidon, Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson, and House Carpenter

    February 8th, 2008 — 02:54 pm

    Thanks to email submissions, new releases and discoveries, and a newly-purchased CD repair kit, it’s time for yet another edition of (Re)Covered, a monthly feature here on Cover Lay Down in which we recover a few songs that dropped through the cracks just a little too late to make it into the posts where they belonged.

    I saw Lucy Kaplansky last month at the UnCommon Coffeehouse with my father; as always, she turned in a wonderful, intimate set, including great covers of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, Robin Batteau’s Guinevere, Ron Sexsmith’s Speaking with the Angel, and my own request: Cowboy Singer, a Dave Carter tune which she seemed genuinely pleased to play. If you ever get a chance to see Lucy, drop everything and go.

    We covered the works of Lucy Kaplansky in our first month here at Cover Lay Down, and posted Cowboy Singer last week in our feature on folk covers of cowboy songs. But I just can’t get enough of this sweet-voiced urbanite. So here’s Guinevere, which Lucy cites as her most requested song, plus a gorgeous Billy Joel lullaby from 2007 release Down at the Sea Hotel, a mostly-stellar album of dreamy kidsong covers from the Red House Records stable.

  • Lucy Kaplansky, Goodnight, My Angel (orig. Billy Joel)
  • Lucy Kaplansky, Guinevere (orig. Robin Batteau)

    Oh, and a bonus cover of Nanci Griffith’s Midnight in Missoula, one of two great Eliza Gilkyson cuts from that same kids album. We did a feature on Eliza Gilkyson’s coverwork a long while back, too. Worth revisiting.

  • Eliza Gilkyson, Midnight in Missoula (orig. Nanci Griffith)

    Since our Single Song Sunday megapost on House Carpenter, a couple of especially solid folkversions came in from the ether. Thanks to my readers for Dylan and live Aussie slidemaster Jeff Lang takes on this truly traditional English country ballad. The Pentangle version, off 1969 release Basket of Light, holds truer to the “original” lyrics than most modern covers but layers those lyrics over a truly psychadelic sixties instrumentation; the CD is out of print, so this cut comes to us courtesy of our local library system.

  • Bob Dylan, House Carpenter (trad.)
  • Jeff Lang, House Carpenter (ibid.)
  • Pentangle, House Carpenter (ibid.)

    And speaking of tradfolk: Sam Amidon‘s incredible new album All Is Well, which I wrote about several months ago in our post on Sam Amidon’s coversong career, finally dropped earlier this week. Here’s hoping the slight blogbuzz that accompanied the original hint of this moody all-tradsong indiefolk release turns into a mighty roar as it finally comes to the air. These two further cuts off the upcoming album, plus Sam’s own video for Saro, should whet your appetite enough to get in on ordering All Is Well.

  • Sam Amidon, Wild Bill Jones (trad.)
  • Sam Amidon, Wedding Dress (trad.)

  • VIDEO: Sam Amidon, Saro

    As always, links above and in the original posts whisk you off to label- and musician-preferred purchase sites. Support artists best by buying direct: it’s just that simple.

  • 750 comments » | (Re)Covered, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Eliza Gilkyson, Jeff Lang, Lucy Kaplansky, Nanci Griffith, Pentangle, Robin Batteau, Sam Amidon

    Sam Amidon Covers: Tears for Fears, Mississippi John Hurt, Ella Jenkins

    November 18th, 2007 — 09:26 am

    The Amidon Family is about as local as a folkband can get. Stars of the artistically self-sustaining Brattleboro, Vermont music scene for decades, parents Peter and Mary Alice were carrying their love for Shaker plainsongs and traditional folkmusic from local farmer’s markets to a roadmap of traditional folkfans long before I moved to the area in the early nineties. Boys Stefan (drums) and Sam Amidon (fiddle, banjo, guitar) have been accompanying their parents since childhood; they formed Assembly (then called Popcorn Behavior) and set out on the contradance circuit before puberty, wowing audiences with their young virtuosity and bringing a faster pace than their parents had to the traditional folkreel set.

    True, contradance and localfolk occupy a small niche even within the larger realm of folk music. But today, though both brothers support the increasingly avant-folk Assembly and The Amidon Family, neither Sam Amidon nor his music are local anymore. And the result — so far — has been a revelation.

    Just four years after recording an entire album of overly-traditional solo fiddle tunes, Sam Amidon has begun to stretch the boundaries of traditional folk, bringing his banjo to support such Brooklyn experimentalists Doveman and Stars Like Fleas, and his interpretive style to a series of increasingly vivid recordings with a diversity of artists. Now, just a year after releasing an album of sparse, drum-machine-rich reinterpretations of traditional appalachian songs, Sam has been signed to tiny Icelandic indie superlabel Bedroom Community, where he’s poised to take the indiefolk world by storm with the full sound and moody, practically Bjork-like production of his upcoming solo release All Is Well.

    Bloggers who know — including stereogum, Motel de Moka, and Said the Gramophone — use words like amazing and haunting and pretty fucking special to describe Sam’s recent work, both as a solo artist and as Samamidon (with Popcorn Behavior cofounder Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett). They’re not wrong: Amidon should be on the cusp of indie greatness. Though Sam’s love of traditional folk tunes has not faded — every song in his forthcoming work is in the public domain — his approach to them is unique and experimental, favoring the kind of moody piano-and-strings wash-of-sound production which fills the indie airwaves these days. There’s something of the careful, rich strumsounds and organmoods (and trumpets) of Sufjan Stevens and Jose Gonzales and Damien Jurado in here, and it’s as stellar in in the young Sam as it is in his forefathers.

    How nice to find another take on the banjo- and guitarstrings so rich, so powerful, so respectful of tradition. While we wait with baited breath for February, here’s a few gorgeous covertunes from Sam, from the sparse to the orchestral: three from 2007 Samamidon release But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted, and three from the upcoming All Is Well. Plus a couple of pretty coversongs from his Mother’s recent release Keys to the Kingdom, which Sam produced in between gigs.

    Update: Stats show no one’s downloading anything but the Tears For Fears cover below. I know it’s tempting to just snag the song you’re familiar with…but try at least one of the other Amidon covers, eh? Your ears will thank you.

    Get Sam Amidon’s But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted while you wait for All Is Well to come out.

    To support Sam in all his incarnations, plus a full breadth of young folkartists from alt-indie to rural country dancemusic, check out Assembly‘s new jazz-influenced January EP, too, which features Sam on Irish fiddle and Stefan on percussion, and the myspace pages of NYC indiefolker Doveman and experimental indiekids Stars Like Fleas.

    Tradfolk fans will also enjoy Peter and Mary Alice’s work, available via their website.

    And see the Contra Corners map for the contradance nearest you — you never know when one or more Amidons will show up to play the dance.

    Today’s bonus contradance coversongs:

    (Full disclosure: the Amidons were my wife’s music teachers in elementary school; most of her immediate family has sung under Peter Amidon’s direction. Nice folks, all around.)

    835 comments » | Contradance, Fromseier Rose, Iris Dement, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Amidon, Tears for Fears