The most satisfying Old-time sounds are the ones that hit you straight as an arrow. It’s the fervently rendered tune that transports you to another time and place, but doesn’t allow you to forget that the players are fashioning a deep groove right here and right now. It’s the honest, uncompromised blending of voices in harmony, never watered down by flashy production or a motivation beyond breathing new life into old stories and songs.
This purity of presence is the bread and butter of straight-shooting stringband The Bucking Mules. On their new full-length album “Smoke Behind the Clouds” (April 2017, Free Dirt Records), the Mules treat 17 mostly traditional tracks with their characteristic throw-down groove. They traverse the traditional musical landscape of the Cumberland Plateau, the Tennessee River Valley, the Blue Ridge, and beyond, weaving together a meditation on the region.
Recorded at an old farmhouse in the rolling hills of Floyd, Virginia, “Smoke Behind the Clouds” was self-produced by The Mules with band member Joseph DeJarnette at the helm in the studio. Recorded live—face-to-face in one room—the album unfolds in real time; listeners can trace each spark and hear the band remap familiar ground. “Smoke Behind the Clouds” serves as a mission statement on the organic collaboration and creative process that The Bucking Mules hold dear in their performance of Old-time songs and tunes.
The Bucking Mules consist of some of the finest players on the Old-time scene today: Joseph Decosimo (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Karen Celia Heil (guitar, vocals), Luke Richardson (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, vocals), and Joseph “Joe Bass” DeJarnette (bass). The band cut their teeth in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, paying their dues with elder master musicians and old 78s. Dedicated to teaching the music, they are in-demand at workshops and music camps around the world. Decosimo, a folklorist, specializes in Old-time music.
The result is a group of well-studied musicians with a deep, scholarly understanding of the region’s musical traditions. Yet they distill this reverence for the past into a driving, heartfelt sound—one tailored for contemporary fans of folk, bluegrass, Americana, and more. The Bucking Mules are a backbone in the Old-time community, known for their joyous force in conveying the spirit of this music, but their powerhouse performances continue to win over audiences far beyond that niche. They know how to bust down on a fiddle tune, belt an old song, and move square dancers just as well as they know historic origins and intricacies.
On “Smoke Behind the Clouds,” the group is in conversation with one another, effortlessly trading fiddle, banjo, and harmonica lines like banter between old friends. After all, The Mules are a band born from sitting knee to knee at traditional music gatherings and sharing music, lives, and laughter together deep into the night. This connectedness–to one another, and from the present to past–makes “Smoke Behind the Clouds” an exuberant listen. Favoring joy and simplicity over pretense, The Bucking Mules remind us why this music should never be cast aside as they carve out their place in making sure that it isn’t.
Rayna Gellert grew up in a musical family, and has spent most of her life immersed in the sounds of rural stringband music, heartfelt gospel songs, and old ballads. After honing her fiddle skills playing at jam sessions and square dances, Rayna fell into a life of traveling and performing. Her fiddle albums are widely celebrated in the old-time music community, and she has recorded with a host of musicians in a variety of styles – including Robyn Hitchcock, Tyler Ramsey, Sara Watkins, Loudon Wainwright III, John Paul Jones, and Abigail Washburn. From 2003 through 2008, Rayna was a member of the acclaimed stringband Uncle Earl, with whom she released two albums on Rounder Records and toured like mad. In 2010, she met songwriter Scott Miller, and they began performing and recording together. In 2012, Rayna released her first vocal album, Old Light: Songs from my Childhood & Other Gone Worlds, on StorySound Records. She lives in Swannanoa, North Carolina.
It’s taken Rayna Gellert some time to follow up on that album, though, but this new seven-tracker, Workin’s Too Hard, has clearly been worth the wait.
While accepting the importance of her role in conserving and protecting the old-time tradition, Rayna didn’t want to fall into the same trap as her father in becoming obsessed with traditional music to the exclusion of finding her own voice. “Eventually I realised that my job is to play music I love, which is bigger than protecting any one concept of tradition. I realised I was an artist, and I wanted to claim that.” The light-bulb moment came with the creation of the Old Light album, where Rayna showed that deep immersion in our musical past can bring a collision between cultural and personal memory, giving rise to a new tradition of her own devising. As evidenced in the disc’s title song, where her imagination is triggered by the memory of lyric snippets from a 1937 Kentucky field recording. One of the disc’s standout tracks for me is the wistful waltzer River Town, where the collision of heartbreaking personal memories is at its most haunting. It’s one of two songs which turn out to be jointly penned by Rayna Gellert and her co-producer Kieran Kane – the other being Grey Bird, which draws additionally on traditional lyrics for its expression of timeless yearning. Strike The Bells poignantly explores old age, and both complements and contrasts with Perry, which simply but powerfully distills the essence of a universal truth.
Perry is the disc’s other major triumph in a whole disc of high points, and, coincidentally, it’s one of only two songs to include the sound of the fiddle in its instrumental backing. Here, it’s joined by just a lone piano in a distinctive departure from the muted, largely guitar-and-soft-keys-based scoring of the rest of the record. Its primitive, yet slightly eerie retro signature sound owes much to the low-key, intensely live real-time feel of the recording (all credit due to engineer Charles Yingling) and the empathic playing of long-time musical friends Kai Welch, Jamie Dick and Kieran Kane. As well as three of Rayna’s own compositions and the two aforementioned co-writes, the album also contains two traditional songs, Oh Lovin’ Babe and I’m Bound For The Promised Land; the former is given a mysterious, almost reverential aura with gentle supporting vocal harmonies, whereas the latter, rather intriguingly, comes across like darkly grungy and surprisingly dirty rockabilly and sports a raw, grinding fiddle solo.
Workin’s Too Hard is a warmly inclusive and rather special record, with a feeling of back porch intimacy that at times recalls (but nowhere apes) Gillian Welch’s landmark Revival sessions. But Rayna’s vision has its own unique perspective and atmosphere. The distinctive and memorable music and songwriting on Workin’s Too Hard sure left me wanting much more, and I do hope Rayna can get it all together again soon.
On “Mount Royal,” their second album together, Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge craft songs that sound familiar but are never easily classified. Percolating with tinges of bluegrass and folk, insinuations of jazz and pop, hints of classical and avant garde composition, the album rarely settles into any one particular category; rather, it dances around the territory between genres, never announcing its innovations and prizing soulfulness above chops at every turn. From first note to last, the duo push themselves to find new ways to play their flat-top steel-string acoustic Martins together.
“Playing with Jules, it feels like anything is possible,” says Eldridge. “You have no constraints. There’s just so much room to move around. It’s like playing in a sandbox, which really opens you up to being more creative.” Adds Lage: “Our rapport is based on the idea that we’re researchers studying this idea of what two acoustic guitars can do together, how you can integrate that into instrumental songwriting and how you can reconcile that with vocal music. Our collaboration is like a big research project that’s been going on for years.”
Lage is a renowned jazz guitarist who has collaborated with a range of musicians—Nels Cline, Gary Burton, and Fred Hersch, to name a few. According to the New Yorker, he belongs “in the highest category of improvising musicians, those who can enact thoughts and impulses as they receive them.” Eldridge is a veteran of the bluegrass world, cutting his teeth in the legendary outfits the Seldom Scene and the Infamous Stringdusters before anchoring Punch Brothers, an acoustic supergroup that combines folk instrumentation with pop and experimental songcraft. When they play together, however, they do not represent the genres or styles with which they have long been identified. “It’s not the United Nations,” laughs Lage. “It’s not like I’m the jazz representative and he’s the bluegrass representative. We could care less about that.” Instead, they make music simply as friends and individuals who happen to have unique ideas and techniques.
After meeting and jamming backstage at a Punch Brothers show, the two became fast friends and eventually started playing shows together. Their chemistry was undeniable, each pulling the other out of his comfort zone. “Bluegrass can be very empirical,” says Eldridge. “Things can be right or wrong. But that’s not the way it works with us. It’s all about ‘yes and…’ which is an improv comedy technique. No matter what someone says, you say, ‘yes and…’ and you build on that. You move forward.” In 2013 they released an EP of original songs, followed quickly by their debut album, Avalon, which was modeled after their live shows. “It’s a sophisticated guitar LP that doesn’t sound sophisticated,” Pitchfork gushed, “an effort that folds its intense erudition deep beneath its lovely surface.”
For “Mount Royal,” they wanted to do something different—something less grounded in their live show, something more exploratory and innovative. “These songs are experiments,” says Lage. “They are things we maybe always wanted to hear but hadn’t heard done yet. So we did them ourselves. We made this record for ourselves.” Those experiments were rooted in the songwriting process, during which they gave each other prompts and exercises. Each would sequester himself alone in a room with maybe an hour to brainstorm a handful of songs, armed only with a pre-war Martin acoustic—Lage’s 1939 000-18 and Eldridge’s 1937 D-18.
“There was a lot of wide-open creativity,” says Eldridge. “We would put ourselves under a lot of pressure, which can really force things out of you that might not emerge if you had time to belabor it.” They would share the results with each other, toying around with good ideas and jettisoning scraps of melody that led nowhere. Says Lage: “We would improvise an idea for thirty minutes, record that, and see how we could intuitively develop the material. Then we would sleep on it and see if it worked the next day. A lot of stuff didn’t work.”
But a lot of stuff did work. Scraps of melody or rhythm blossomed into intricate and disarmingly beautiful songs, leading the duo in directions they never would have gone by themselves. On “Bone Collector” the steadiness of Eldridge’s tight, staccato strumming provides the propulsion for Lage’s pointillist fretwork, while the epic “Everything Must Go” hinges on a rushing fanfare that comes out of nowhere to transform the song. Their guitars sound like pianos on “Lion’s Share,” which Lage describes as an “excuse for us to inhabit a space that’s very constant, very melodic, and a little bit weird.”
Most of “Mount Royal” is instrumental, just two guitars traipsing across new territory, but three vocal tracks—all covers, all sung by Eldridge—made their way onto the album. Their interpretation of the bluegrass chestnut “Things in Life” is spirited and vigorous, as is the duo’s take on the motor-mouthed John Hartford obscurity “Living in the Mississippi Valley.” Perhaps the most surprising cover is “Sleeping By Myself,” which Lage discovered on Eddie Vedder’s 2011 album Ukulele Songs. “We needed something outside of the traditional acoustic vocabulary to feature his voice in a very specific way,” says Lage, “so we looked outside the traditional world.”
Eldridge admits he was initially dubious: “My first thought was, ‘A ukulele record? By Eddie Vedder? Hmm….’ But it’s an amazing record. And that song sounds like something from the Great American Songbook.” As he laments an empty bed and a lonely night, the two guitars collapse into what sounds like only one, reinforcing the romantic seclusion of the lyric and spotlighting Eldridge’s quietly affecting vocals.
Ultimately, every note and every melody, every riff and rhythm on “Mount Royal” serves the song. In that regard the album sounds ascetic yet lush, modest yet incredibly accomplished, experimental but focused on something beyond the players themselves. It’s an approach that has given them a new understanding of their chosen instruments: “A guitar can be like an orchestra,” says Eldridge. “It really is a polyphonic instrument. It can be percussive or lyrical. Exploring those ideas with Jules, it really felt like the opportunity for expression and exploration was infinite.”
Adds Lage: “We came at it with the idea, ‘what skills can these songs teach us that we wouldn’t have learned otherwise?’ To share that experience with someone you love as a friend is a great privilege.”
Gabrielle Louise’s music is anchored deeply in folk and Americana, but undeniably drawn to rich harmonies and melodic adventurism. Her sound has the earthy feel of early Joni Mitchell while also veering into the spirited and versatile delivery of fellow genre-hopping artist Eva Cassidy. Unafraid to take a musical escapade in the name of inspiration, Gabrielle is at one moment folkie and ethereal, the next a smoky jazz chanteuse.
Known for her authenticity and candor on stage, Gabrielle’s performances are notably present and sincere, a professional presentation of her private creative world. Her story-telling and banter envelopes and enchants, gently enticing her listener to release their grip on the status quo. Perhaps because of this quality, Louise has been entrusted to share the stage with greats such as Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Patty Larkin, Eliza Gilkyson, and Guy Clark.
A poet, painter, prose writer and orator, Gabrielle has also presented a talk on autobiographical espression at TEDx, an independently organized TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) event. Her talk, “The Breath of Experience,” stresses the importance of making time to both “inhale” what others tell us and mindfully “exhale” our own creative impressions of those stories.
In the original songwriting realm, Louise has released a handful of records, the most recent of which were Mirror the Branches (2010), The Bird in My Chest (2014), released September 30th, 2016, If the Static Clears.
“Gabrielle Louise is eclectic, eccentric, seductive, flexible, literate and a plethora of other descriptive adjectives that pertain to music and creativity and yet there is no pinning down this woman, no way to sum her up in one word. She manages to blend seemingly disparate styles of music and lyrics into a captivating blend…a homogenous mix of folk, bluegrass, and jazz…Her voice is going to make time stand still in that it is full, rich and has great nuance in it…A beautifully crafted disc in every possible way.” —NO DEPRESSION/Bob Gottlieb
Though all four members of Rabbit Wilde grew up running around wooded areas of the same small town in the farthest Northwest corner of Washington state, brothers Zach and Nathan didn’t meet Miranda, the third founding member, until they had all ended up in New York City. This kind of backyard folk seasoned by the edge, polish and fervor of big-city inclinations is at the root of their high-energy sound and stage presence. The quartet revamps classic string band instrumentation with heavy percussion and the unique integration of electronic sound, six-string ukulele and Jillian Walker on cello. With their widely varying influences, four distinct vocal styles and copious amounts of foot-stomping, they demonstrate a sound and presence that’s at once original and familiar, appealing to audiences of all generations and genres. On their 2016 full length The Heartland, Rabbit Wilde deliver on the promise made by their stellar fall 2015 EP Southern Winters; melding the choicest bits of indie rock, pop, blues, soul, and orchestral arrangement in with their trademark brand of front-porch-shaking Americana. Both albums were recorded at the famed Bear Creek Studio (Fleet Foxes, Vance Joy, The Lumineers)
Jim Pharis is no Spring chicken, that’s for sure. But the miles driven, the late nights gigs with a day job just hours away, and the experience that only comes from living life are evident in the acoustic blues that he plays.
Besides his own compositions in the country blues vein, Jim has also specialized in finding and arranging acoustic blues gems. These are songs by artists like Bo Carter, Big Bill Broonzy and Oscar “Buddy” Woods. Pharis began playing guitar as a 12 year old on a 3/4 second hand Sears and Roebuck guitar that he bought with grass cutting money. After his parents realized how obsessed he was with it, a new, full sized guitar appeared at Christmas time. Thanks to a local guitar teacher who was a devoted Chet Atkins fan, Jim was exposed to the world of fingerstyle guitar. He began delving into the music of Paul Simon, Brownie McGee, Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey.
As a native of Central Louisiana, he was also heavily exposed to the music of the Southern Baptist Church which his family faithfully attended. It was in church that he first began performing in public. After high school and a brief, ill-fated college career, Pharis began working a series of jobs, all while continuing to work on learning to perfect his guitar playing abilities. He worked, among other things, as a riverboat deckhand, waiter, salesman, darkroom technician, and purchasing agent. The only regular factor in all of those years was his passion to learn the guitar. Jim also began to play the electric bass and moved to Austin, TX in the mid-1980’s. There he played in several blues bands, including the original lineup of The Solid Senders. With that band he played clubs and festivals, including the first two South By Southwests. Following his stint as a bass player, Pharis again began to concentrate on the acoustic fingerstyle guitar. While living in Madison, WI, recovering from a major illness, he had an epiphany. This “light bulb” moment was the realization of HOW and WHAT to learn to play to become the musician that he envisioned himself as. While in the Mid West he began working as a solo artist playing coffeehouses, restaurants, resorts and night clubs. In 2002 Jim returned to Louisiana, settling in the Lafayette area where he plays music, publishes a fingerstyle guitar instructional website and teaches fingerstyle guitar.
As for his newest album Sure to Offend it showcases Jims fingerpicking guitar work and proves he is more of a writer than singer when it comes to the singer/songwriter genre but thats not his genre.Jims more of a folk fella who doesnt give you the blues he is definitely indie and his playing has soul,and I get the idea he thinks about whats happening in his country. The songs are full of humour about daily life the instrumentals catch your attention and make you sit up and listen.Highlight are “Gun Rag” and “Chandler’s Century”.On the dreaded scale of 1-10 Sure to Offend gets a well deserved 7.5. No offence meant, you have to take into account I have been listening to a lot of Courtney Marie Andrews the last few weeks so maybe I should have given it a 8.
According to his promotional note with the CD, it was recorded over a period of two days on a single microphone and self-produced with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.It doesnt sound like it.10/10 for effort.He could have gone inside to do it.
The Curst Sons have been playing their powerful stripped back take on early American traditional music since 1998. Performing mainly original material with a few distinctive arrangements of traditional songs they have released five CDs -and one 10” vinyl EP on their own Curst Mountain label. The bands sixth CD THE JUMPING FLEA will be released in February 2016.
Over the years they have played venues ranging from tiny country pubs to festival main stages, appeared on several local radio shows and recorded two live sessions on the much missed Mark Lamarr BBC Radio 2 show.
They were runners up in the 2013 International Song Writing Competition, nominated for Best Alt Country Album in the 10th Independent Music Awards 2011 and for Best Americana Act in the British Country Music Awards 2010.
Tim Dunkerley (slide guitar, mandolin, vocals). Tim’s interest in music was first awakened by his father’s tales of wild living in a harmonica band on the minesweeper HMS Hound. Loath to leave his nautical background Tim coast hopped east from his Portsmouth home and soon washed up on the beach at Brighton. He is also a teacher/ facilitator with Unified Rhythm, a samba/fusion marching band for young adults, including those with learning difficulties.
Willi Kerr (vocals, percussion). Born on Mersea Island on the marshy fringes of Essex, Willi abandoned his agricultural roots and took to the sinful ways of the city. Diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (an incurable cancer of the bone marrow) in 1998 he was given 6 days to live. Being a cantankerous old cuss he decided that this was the perfect time to re-launch his musical career, and The Curst Sons were born. Thanks to the healing power of hillbilly music he is now in the rudest of health.
Dave (Specky) Simner (banjo, lead guitar, vocals). Raised in the Black Country on a diet of heavy metal and motorbikes Dave fled south till he hit the coast. He lost the long hair and leather jacket and soon became entangled in the Brighton music scene. He has played in more bands than he can remember and somehow took up the banjo. He also plays with his own 60’s R&B outfit The Spectones, and in his day job leads music sessions for adults with learning disabilities.
Danielle Miraglia comes armed with a strong steady thumb on an old Gibson, an infectious stomp-box rhythm and harmonica with tunes ranging from heart-felt to socially conscious that will move both your heart and hips. On her latest “Glory Junkies” she’s joined by a killer cast of musicians blending the classic rock vibe of The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin with Danielle’s signature lyrical ability to explore human nature at its best and worst. Danielle was nominated for a 2015 Boston Music Award for Singer-Songwriter of the Year.
“Danielle is a dynamic and captivating musician; her rich soulful voice and blues guitar mastery resonate in a performance both rare and unforgettable.” – Paul Patchel, State Street Blues Festival – Media, PA
“The genius of Glory Junkies is that Miraglia successfully pokes fun at a proverbial “selfie nation,” while also fully owning that tendency. Glory Junkies offers up deeply narrative lyricism and carefully crafted compositions…Glory Junkies boasts a song about reality TV, and one (the title track) that pokes fun at immortalizing one’s own image. Others stray into more personal territory, hitting close to home on Miraglia’s family dynamic, but the concept of the album remains a mainstay throughout.” – Liz Rowley, BestNewBands
Danielle has toured and played major venues across the United States and beyond, shining in both the Folk and Blues circuits including New York State Blues Festival, New Bedford Summerfest, The Narrows Center for the Arts (Fall River, MA), The Birchmere (Alexandria, VA), The Ramshead (Annapolis, MD), Sellersville Theater (Sellersville, PA) and the list goes on….
She has shared the stage with the likes of Johnny Winter, Bettye Lavette, John Hammond Jr., Joan Osborne, John Mayall, Sonny Landreth, John Oates, Colin Hay, Robert Cray, Rodney Crowell and many more.
Raised just outside of Boston in Revere, MA, where its famous beach is better known for girls with big hair than its history as a popular tourist attraction, Danielle was raised on a variety of popular music, from her parent’s Motown records to the classic rock influences like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin that encouraged her to learn to play guitar at thirteen. A passion for the arts and an outstanding gift for writing lead her to Emerson College in Boston’s downtown theater district. After graduating with a degree in Creative Writing, she put her writing skills, originally intended for novels, towards songwriting and began performing at open mike nights in the Boston area. Here she “found her tribe” as she describes it and set out on a full time musical career.
Danielle’s debut full length record “Nothing Romantic” was a breakthrough for Miraglia as a serious songwriting force, who could put into words what so many feel – a true explorer of the complexities of the human condition. Jon Sobel of Blogcritics.com described her song “You Don’t Know Nothin'” as “One of the best new folk songs I’ve heard in years. Its depiction and dissection of human misunderstanding is both sharp and tender. All you need to know about what drives people apart and what draws them together can be witnessed in a few hours spent in a bar. Many of us feel something along those lines, but Danielle Miraglia is that rare songwriter who can put it into words.”
Danielle’s second release “Box of Troubles,” explores the highs and lows that life has to offer with bare bones instrumentation. Alternate Root says “Danielle Miraglia’s guitar work keeps Delta traditions alive. Her steady thumb and playing style trace a direct line to the blues of the field and chicken shacks. Vocally, Danielle’s voice digs in, twisting within the delivery, seeming to break but more likely soaring before the fall. ‘Box of Troubles’ balances good times with the bad, her characters’ roles’ defined and believable.”