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Sara Syms

AMERICANA ARTIST SARA SYMS FINDS HER AUTHENTIC VOICE WITH THE ELEGANTLY ROOTED WAY BACK HOME

“Sara Syms lyrics, melodies & vocals are passionate, compelling, heartfelt & soul stirring.
The result is pure aural beauty.” – Bob Leone (Songwriters Hall of Fame)

Authentic is the word most often used to describe Sara Syms. An artist willing to be intimate and vulnerable with her fans. Debut album Fade to Blue was nominated for IMEA’s Americana Album of the Year and solidified her place on the scene. Following her highly acclaimed debut album, Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sara Syms’ sophomore release, is an artistic and personal breakthrough for the lifelong overachiever. Its 10 songs plumb the limits of her courage and fears to emerge as triumphant proof of Syms journey of musical self-discovery — a route that led her from her Chicago birthplace to the world’s concert stages as a child, into the realm of piano performance, onto championship figure skating and, finally, through the artistic and personal metamorphosis that’s resulted in the balance of beauty, grace, vulnerability and honesty captured in the stories on Way Back Home.

Produced by Chris Cubeta and Nick Africano and recorded at Brooklyn’s GaluminumFoil studio with a who’s who of Americana sidemen including drummer Spencer Cohen (the Lone Bellow), pedal steel player Thad DeBrock (Rosanne Cash, Suzanne Vega), and guitarist Jeff Berner (Caleb Hawley, the Ramblers). But the set’s focus is squarely on Syms’ dark-honey dappled voice and her songwriting. Haunting vocals and beautifully crafted arrangements sweeten 10 tales plucked from the grit and grind of real life.

The album opens with “Way Back Home,” which hangs on the shimmer of Syms’ voice and waves of gently cascading guitars. The blithe vocal melody and warm chorus of “Bright Dreams, Lonely Days” adds sunlight to that number’s lyrics about feeling swept by life’s complex currents. “Hard Work Pay” is an elegant duet for Syms and Africano, who penned the ode to perseverance in the face of personal trials, and “In Time” amplifies that theme. Its message of hope, echoed in Syms’ gently sung line “I’ll find my way in time,” provides a perfect ending for the album. Another notable entry is her take on Delta blues king Robert Johnson’s famed “Cross Road Blues,” fleshed out by Syms’ marvelously dream-like arrangement and a new chorus that she wrote to address the fears she needed to overcome to both leave New York City, where she lived before arriving in Nashville, and to fully commit to her career in music — a business that, like Johnson’s song, has perils and demons.

“Fade To Blue was a very cathartic, healing experience for me,” says Syms, “and it allowed me to get my footing and really stand on my own as a musician. But there were still many things I needed to figure out. How can I up my game as a songwriter? Is there a future for me in this music? Should I move to Nashville?” A place she pondered a move to multiple times over the years.

“Way Back Home helped me answer those questions,” she continues. “I really pushed myself as a writer, and as I did I could feel my grounding in this music solidify. I became more confident. And I came to understand that I have my own real-life stories to tell, and that Nashville is where I need to tell them from. Music is my heart and my lifeline. It makes my soul sing. And I think you can hear all of that in Way Back Home.”

Chris Smither

A profound songwriter, Chris Smither draws deeply from the blues, American folk music, modern poets, and philosophers. Reviewers continue to praise his dazzling guitar work, gravelly voice and songwriting. “Smither is an American original – a product of the musical melting pot and one of the absolute best singer-songwriters in the world.”—Associated Press.

Born in Miami, during World War II, Chris Smither grew up in New Orleans where he first started playing music as a child. The son of a Tulane University professor, he was taught the rudiments of instrumentation by his uncle on his mother’s ukulele. “Uncle Howard,” Smither says, “showed me that if you knew three chords, you could play a lot of the songs you heard on the radio. And if you knew four chords, you could pretty much rule the world.” With that bit of knowledge under his belt, he was hooked. “I’d loved acoustic music – specifically the blues – ever since I first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Blues In My Bottle album. I couldn’t believe the sound Hopkins got. At first I thought it was two guys playing guitar. My style, to a degree, came out of trying to imitate that sound I heard.”

In his early twenties, Smither turned his back on his anthropology studies and headed to Boston at the urging of legendary folk singer Eric von Schmidt. It was the mid-’60s and acoustic music thrived in the streets and coffeehouses there. Smither forged lifelong friendships with many musicians, including Bonnie Raitt who went on to record his songs, “Love You Like A Man” and “I Feel the Same. (Their friendship has endured with Bonnie guest-appearing on Smither’s record Train Home. Over the years she has invited Chris to join her as support on concert dates, and most recently, lent her take on Chris’ “Love You Like A Man” for LINK OF CHAIN, a Chris Smither tribute CD.) What quickly evolved from his New Orleans and Cambridge musical experiences is his enduring, singular guitar sound – a beat-driven finger-picking, strongly influenced by the playing of Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins, layered over the ever-present backbeat of his rhythmic, tapping feet (always mic’d in performance).

Smither’s first albums, I’m A Stranger, Too! (1971) and Don’t It Drag On (1972) were released on Poppy Records, home of kindred spirit Townes Van Zandt. By the time Smither recorded his third album, Honeysuckle Dog with Lowell George and Dr. John helping out, United Artists had absorbed Poppy and ultimately dropped much of their roster, including Smither. Smither made his next record in 1985, when the spare It Ain’t Easy on Adelphi Records marked his return to the studio.

By the early ’90s, Smither’s steady nationwide touring and regular release of consistently acclaimed albums cemented his reputation as one of the finest acoustic musicians in the country. His 1991 album, Another Way to Find You, was recorded live in front of an in-studio audience with no overdubs or second takes. This would be the first of two albums with Flying Fish Records. His next recording, Happier Blue, was embraced by Triple A radio and received the NAIRD (now AFIM) award as Best Folk Recording of 1993. Up On The Lowdown (1995) marked the first of a trio of albums to be recorded with producer Stephen Bruton at The Hit Shack in Austin and his first of five albums with roots label HighTone Records. Up On the Lowdown rode the crest of the newly formed Americana radio format wave and sparked considerable interest abroad. A tour of Australia with Dave Alvin and extensive solo touring in Europe led to an expanding global interest in Smither. His song, “I Am The Ride,” from this album inspired the independent film, The Ride, for which Smither also composed the original score.

In early 1997 Smither released Small Revelations. It climbed the Americana and Triple A radio charts and led to concert dates with B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Nanci Griffith, and the hugely successful, original  Monsters of Folk’ tour with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Alvin and Tom Russell. Small Revelations also generated several film projects for Smither. Emmylou Harris recorded his song, “Slow Surprise,” for the The Horse Whisperer soundtrack on MCA. And his recording of “Hold On” was used in the indie feature film Love From Ground Zero. Smither also shared insight into his guitar style and technique on two instructional DVDs, available from Homespun Video.

His CD, Drive You Home Again (1999), garnered four-stars from Rolling Stone. And with it, Smither continued to tour world-wide. Shortly after, in 2000, Smither released his one-man-tour-de-force, Live As I’ll Ever Be. Recorded in-concert at various clubs and concert halls in California, Dublin, Galway, Boston, and Washington DC, it has proven to be a fan favorite, capturing Smither at what he loves to do: performing in front of an audience.

Train Home (2003) was Smither’s last record for HighTone and his first with producer David Goodrich. Over a six-week period, basic tracks for Train Home were recorded in the relaxed environment of Smither’s home near Boston. Working with new session musicians, the record is simultaneously sparse and assured. Lifelong friend and special guest, Bonnie Raitt, provided backing vocals and slide guitar on Smither’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”

In 2005, jazz great Diana Krall covered “Love Me Like A Man,” introducing what is now a blues standard to a whole world of jazz fans. Shortly after, Smither’s song “Slow Surprise” was included in the independent film, Brother’s Shadow. In addition, Smither narrated a two-CD audio book recording of “Will Rogers’ Greatest Hits.” Continuing to expand his creative horizon, Smither was invited to contribute an essay to Sixty Things to Do When You Turn Sixty, a 2006 collection of essays by American luminaries on reaching that milestone. In 2009, Melville House published Amplified, a book featuring 16 short stories by notable American performing songwriters. Smither’s story Leroy Purcell about a touring musician’s encounter with a Texas State Patrolman leads off the collection.

With the release of his 12th recording Leave The Light On (2006) on his own imprint, Mighty Albert, Smither began a new label relationship with the renowned acoustic and modern folk label, Signature Sounds. For the recording, Smither reunited with producer David Goodrich and session musicians Mike Piehl, Lou Ulrich and Anita Suhanin. As an added treat, Smither invited good friend and Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist, Tim O’Brien, along with rising American roots stars, Ollabelle, to add their distinctive talents on several tracks. The song “Seems So Real” from the CD earned a Folk Alliance Award as “Song of the Year.” Smither followed this with Time Stands Still (2009), his most stripped down recording in some time, working with just two accompanists after the same trio had played a rare band performance – a non-solo setup required in order to play a Netherlands festival.

About the recording Smither says, “We’re the only three guys on this record, and most of the songs only have three parts going on. We had a freewheeling feeling at that festival gig, and we managed to make a lot of that same feeling happen in this record.” And always wanting to treat his fans well, in 2011 Smither put out two fan projects: a collection of live tracks from newly discovered concert recordings from the 1980s-1990s titled Lost and Found and the rollicking EP, What I Learned in School, on which Smither covered six classic rock and roll songs.

Smither followed these fan-projects with Hundred Dollar Valentine (2012), a ««««« (MOJO) studio record of all Smither-penned songs. With longtime producer David “Goody” Goodrich at the helm, this collection sported the unmistakable sound Smither has made his trademark: fingerpicked acoustic guitar and evocative sonic textures meshed with spare, brilliant songs, delivered in a bone-wise, hard-won voice.

The most recent recording project is Still On the Levee (2014) – a double-CD retrospective. Recorded in New Orleans at the Music Shed, this career-spanning project features fresh new takes on 24 iconic songs from his vast career – including Devil Got Your Man, the first song he penned, on up to several of his most recent originals.

Coming out at the same time as Still On the Levee, the book Chris Smither Lyrics 1966-2012 features his complete set of lyrics complemented by select images of Chris and performance memorabilia from his decades-long career. To commemorate his career to-date, Signature Sounds is releasing an all-star tribute record including a stellar list of artists offering their takes on some Smither favorites including Josh Ritter, Bonnie Raitt, Loudon Wainwright III, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Tim O’Brien, Patty Larkin, and many others.

Honing a synthesis of folk and blues for 50 years, Chris Smither is truly an American original. As Acoustic Guitar magazine wrote, Smither sings about “the big things – life, love, loss – in a penetrating and poetic yet unpretentious way.”

Pharis & Jason Romero – A Wanderer I’ll Stay

 

Haunting harmonies, deep truths
From my first ever listen of Pharis and Jason Romero it was evident to me that these were two extremely talented Americana artists. They sound like they could have been performing music literally at any point in the past century. The duo preserve the authenticity of the mountains, the sincerity of the olden days, and a kind of soothing harmony that is rarely found in any music, let alone such a vintage style. A Wanderer I’ll Stay is a fantastic album that avid readers of this blog will be thrilled to have.
The eponymous opener introduces listeners to the haunting harmonies of Pharis and Jason. There are well placed minor chords, creating just the right kind of tension. It’s not the kind of song we’d expect to hear on the top forty and that’s precisely what makes it great. “There’s time, honey.” It’s a song that highlights melancholy and simplicity; it’s about a lifestyle that rejects the ordinary and the hustle. It’s a wonderful way to begin the album.
“Ballad of Old Bill” has some great picking and engaging lyrics. It’s about how the world is “wicked’ when you’re alone. It’s also about trying to endure the difficulties of life by riding on. It has that quintessential Americana theme work about life retrospectives that tell a moral story. The song’s underlying lesson seems to be that life is hard. It’s definitely not uplifting, but it is a good song.
“There’s No Companion” has a different feel to it. Rather than seeming like a throwback, it seems like an update on an old fashioned style. The well-placed fiddle highlights serve to make the track have a bright coloring. The syncopated rhythm gives the listener a gentle sway at minimum and might just get some folks to dancing. In contrast to the preceding song, this one uses a generous sampling of “joy” and harmonies to provide a delightfully hopeful tune.
“New Lonesome Blues” are almost atmospheric in the way they hum along. It’s not a conventional blues song for sure. It looms with the brooding fear of “that judgement day” as one of the lyrics alludes. Sticking with the lonesomeness theme, the following track “Lonesome and I’m Going Back Home” has a totally different feel. It’s much more of classic Americana, with Pharis’s lead vocal absolutely stunning the listener. The harmonies from Jason in the second half of the song are just exquisite. It’s a timeless song about poverty and loss that just might be the best track on a really, really good album.
“Goodbye Old Paint” highlights the banjo from the very start. It’s a wonderfully rolling tune. It almost feels like plodding along on a horse. It’s a travelling song about “leaving Cheyenne.” The song has a genuine western appeal to it. It’s not just about a horse, though. It’s about freedom and love and commitment. What makes it work the most is that the song is old fashioned, but still feels really fresh. It’s definitely new and unique, even if it’s a tradition that is many decades old.
The moral high ground of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” is not all that high. Listeners can tell from the playful melody at the outset. The steel guitar does great work to introduce the gorgeous harmonies about love. “Be sure it’s true when you say I love you. It’s a sin to tell a lie.” It’s quaint. It’s the kind of song you can picture the residents at the old folks home tapping their feet to. I say that with utmost respect to the song itself, too. It sounds like it could be a song straight from the 40s or early 50s… you know the type your grandma thinks you should know too, even though it was decades before you were born. It’s sweet-as-honey Americana.

<a href=”http://pharisjasonromero.bandcamp.com/album/a-wanderer-ill-stay”>A Wanderer I’ll Stay by Pharis & Jason Romero</a>

“Poor Boy” is as rough as some of the other tracks are smooth. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong about the performance, but rather the character of the song has a coarseness to it. It’s about empathy to an extent, but it’s also about hard work and calloused hands. It’s a front porch tune, for sure. “Cocaine Blues” is a bit unexpected on this album. It’s not that country folk don’t do drugs; of course they do. But it’s surprising to have this sort of O’ Brother Where Art Thou timeless charm with lyrics about, essentially, buying drugs.
The final track “The Dying Soldier” is an old classic tune, given phenomenal and vibrant new life here. In fact, it really challenges for the best song on the album. It has this brilliant confluence of love and life intersecting with pending death. Beyond that, the steady banjo and again the incredible harmonies make the song really thoughtful and emotional. It’s an exceptional way to end the album.
This is a must-buy album for fans of Americana. From clever, well-composed originals to a few classic tunes, it’s the kind of album you can easily put on and enjoy without skips. It’s solidly in a musical tradition of Ameriana and roots country music, but it is extremely well polished. It is a product of two exceptional musicians with a real heart and passion for storytelling and breathtaking harmonies.

Elizabeth Cook

biography

weld 1 [weld]

– verb (used with object)

1. to unite or fuse (as pieces of metal) by hammering, compressing, or the like, esp. after rendering soft or pasty by heat, and sometimes with the addition of fusible material like or unlike the pieces to be united.

I’m not a welder, at least not in the typical sense of the trade.  But my daddy is, by way of 2300 hours of training that certified him, courtesy of the Atlanta Federal penitentiary.

I myself couldn’t put a rod in the thingamajig.  And heavy equipment makes me nervous.  But I do tend to fuse things, confuse things, sometimes with sparks, sometimes like a lava melt, sometimes backed by a tank of compressed air ready to blow, sometimes quiet as a slow leak.

The beauty of writing, recording, gigging and the like to me is, when it’s right, it comes together and makes a glow in my soul, so intense it pierces a hot afternoon like a hissing firecracker. “Don’t look at it directly…it’ll burn your eyes!” mama used to yell. I stood bare-footed hanging on the inside of the screen door of our Florida patio. I loved watching the electron-beam of our family business, Cook’s Welding, at work in our tiny dirt yard.  It was so hard not to look.  Couldn’t help but look.  And the rawness of my new album Welder is case and point. Apparently, I still can’t help but look.

One day, Daddy had the fortuitous idea to put his welding machine on the back of his truck making him, in effect, a “mobile” welding unit. He was the only one in central Florida, the part of the Sunshine State that was then chock full of tomato, cantaloupe, strawberry and watermelon fields. Turns out this stroke of temporary genius made our little family a bustling business due to the age-old battle between man and nature – the blistering Florida sun vs. the lifeline of irrigation pipes that permeated the fields.  A farmer could lose a crop in a matter of hours in that heat, less Cook’s Welding could save the day. Daddy would eventually build many cattle guards and gates for the wealthy horse ranchers of Marion County.  And in the early 80’s, all the city of Wildwood’s industrial green dumpsters were custom-made right there in our front yard.  Heatin’ and hammerin’ away…

I’ll never forget going back home there for a class reunion.  Because of poor timing, I had the surreal experience of receiving my first major label recording contract via the fax machine at none other than the Wildwood Ace Hardware.  It was bizarre.  The man behind the counter looked down his glasses at me, completely oblivious to the famous letterhead detailing big dreams and dollars in his hands.  He said “You tell your daddy we ain’t had a welder to beat him since he left.”  God, I can only hope to get that good.  Thankfully, seems my chances are still coming.

In the way my career has come together so far in unforeseen ways, via things like my satellite radio show “Apron Strings” on Sirius’ Outlaw Country, the Grand Ole Opry, great places to play and people to play them with, accomplishments in songwriting, acting gigs, my team of Tigers, this kind of mish mash continues.  The story melts and bends.

Once he quit drinking, Daddy used the overflow of our economy to fund the beginnings of my music career…he bought yards of fringe for cowgirl suits, red boots from The Loretta Lynn gift shop, a public announcement system, including a Peavey mic and two speakers from a music store in Orlando. One time he tried to bribe the house band at Nashville’s Opryland amusement park to let me up on stage to sing a song by flashing a cool twenty.  He scuffled away rejected in his white dress shoes.  Today I humbly state I’ve logged over 300 appearances on the Opry’s sacred stage…that’s up the sidewalk a ways, in the big house.

Mama certainly did her part writing songs, teaching me lyrics she wrote out on poster board, sitting on the bed singing “One Day At A Time Sweet Jesus” after she got the cooler packed and rollers in my hair.  A lot has changed.  And nothing has gone like we thought it would.  But somehow it feels alright.

For my fifth all grown up studio album, I’m enjoying the journey more and I see how welding continues to shape my life.  This record was really tough to make in some ways and really easy in others.  It was a cool breeze and a real high to work with Don Was.  Like Rodney Crowell before him, he helps me continue to break out of jail.  So I bought him a nice key chain.

The eclectic cast of pickers on Welder, not only pros, but friends, united to record at last.  We all hung out and worked oblivious to the red light pressure.  I barely noticed the days of rain while we recorded.  Just a week long party with nice carpet and tiny lights, wires knobs and buttons, a stocked fridge, love and luck all around me, plus one really good coffee pot. I drew in, and struck like lightning.

From a material standpoint, I’ve never had more to write about…didn’t have to dig too deep at all.  For instance, I never thought I’d be singing about my Mama’s funeral.   Just never thought I’d write, much less sing, about that.  But here it is on Welder…alongside other tales of the harshness and delicacies of romantic and familial love (“Not California”, “Heroin Addict Sister”, “Girlfriend Tonight”), occasionally indulging in the rush of being inappropriate (“El Camino”, “Snake In The Bed”, “Yes To Booty”).  As wild a ride as it is, this is the hand the last three years since release of the Balls album has dealt me.  Welder is my way of bringing it all together.  And it’s just the truth.

Though emotional whiplash is a serious condition, as an artist, I’m grateful for experiences that have grown me up a little bit, even if it hurts like hell.   And although I didn’t really want to, the fact that I “couldn’t help but look” is what made Welder possible.  It’s my damnation and my salvation.  And it’s my job.  I have to look.

I hope the musical journey on Welder brings the condolences that come with sharing, through commiserating about life, in laughter and in tears, for the old fans, the newly added, and the all around music loving public, to whom I’m so grateful, each and every one.   Thanks for looking.

– Elizabeth Cook

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell – The Traveling Kind

Maybe it was just a matter of momentum. It took Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell close to four decades to get around to making a duets album after the two first started working together in the mid-’70s, when he became a guitarist and frequent songwriter with her Hot Band. But just two years after releasing 2013’s Old Yellow Moon, Harris and Crowell have the ball rolling again with The Traveling Kind, another album built around their easy but heartfelt creative interplay as both vocalists and songwriters. Harris and Crowell co-wrote six of The Traveling Kind‘s 11 songs, and tunes like “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try” and the title track reflect Harris‘ sweet, firm, very human tone as well as Crowell‘s outwardly cocky but inwardly perceptive voice, and the sweet and sour push and pull complements them both. Harris has been singing Crowell‘s songs for years, but their collaborative efforts have a special sort of gravity when they bring their voices together, as her heavenly tone merges with his earthier instrument. Harris and Crowell also throw a few covers into the mix, and their interpretations of Lucinda Williams‘ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” and Amy Allison‘s “Her Hair Was Red” are sung with the enthusiasm and care of fans who love and respect the material they’re bringing to life. And though several of the cuts reflect the moodier, more atmospheric sound Harris first embraced with Wrecking Ball (the loose, ghostly sound of “The Weight of the World” is one of the album’s most satisfying moments), they still find room for some rough and sweet honky tonk workouts, and “If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now” would be a C&W hit in an earlier, better era. Old Yellow Moon didn’t sound like the event some people were expecting it to be, and the same can be said of The Traveling Kind, but that’s mainly because, good as it is, The Traveling Kind never sounds fussed over. Instead, this is the work of two close friends and trusted collaborators who readily fall into a groove when they work together. They don’t appear to be aiming for a masterpiece; instead, they wanted to write some good songs and let them shine in the studio, and on that level, The Traveling Kind is a rousing success and a deeply satisfying work.