Peter Karp’s The Arson’s Match, is a new live release by Americana/Blues artist Peter Karp. It was originally broadcast live on Sirius Satellite Radio during a 2004 performance at the historic Bottom Line in New York City to a sold out audience. The masters, lost for many years turned up in a storage facility garbage bin. The Arson’s Match puts the considerable talents of guitarist-singer-songwriter Peter Karp on full display. Backed by a glowing ensemble of consummate talent, Karp, a masterful slide guitarist and exhilarating vocalist, teams up with guitarist Mick Taylor of the legendary Rolling Stones. Together, Karp and his Roadshow Band put forth a solid performance of Karp’s finest original songs to a packed house at NYC’s historic Bottom Line Cabaret.
Considered one of the finest contemporary Americana and blues artists around, singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist Peter Karp has carved out his own unique niche. At once funny, poignant, irreverent, romantic and always true to life, Karp’s compositions reflect his own intriguing backstory. Raised both in the swamps of New Jersey and rural trailer parks in southern Alabama, Karp masterfully crafts music fueled with a Yankee-Rebel juxtaposition by infusing genuine emotion, humor and candor in a setting of exquisitely performed rhythms and compelling vocalization. As a songwriter Karp first garnered national attention and critical acclaim through his collaboration with guitarist Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones who recorded and toured with Karp on his first label release, The Turning Point. His next national release on Blind Pig Records, Shadows and Cracks, has Karp sharing the main stage with the venerable Delbert McClinton,New Orleans-based roots rock band, TheSubdudes, and three-time Grammy winner, blues great Keb Mo. Karp’s unmistakable lyrical style, consummate handling of the slide guitar and his propensity for dynamic performances have made him a remarkably rare talent in American roots music.
“Karp is his own man, an artist who blends roots music styles into something that transcends blues, country, R&B and swamp. John Prine’s wordplay, Joe Ely’s rocking instincts, Billy Joe Shaver’s fatalistic outlook.” J. Poet AllMusic.com
When Warren Haynes released the rocking soul and gospel set Man in Motion in 2011, it was the fulfillment of a dream, to write and record songs that reflected the early influence of those sounds on his musical development with an all-star band. Ashes & Dust is another side of his story. Growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, Haynes was equally exposed to bluegrass, mountain folk music, and country gospel. Their influence is plentiful here, on originals and covers alike. He’s chosen New Jersey’s endlessly inventive roots music ensemble Railroad Earth this time out. Haynes uses electric guitars here; they are part and parcel of a largely acoustic tapestry that can loosely be called Americana. He wrote or co-wrote eight of these 13 tunes. Among the highlights is “Company Man,” a song that’s been around for more than a decade in his own shows. It was inspired by his father’s hard-wrought life and work experiences; though it is ultimately triumphant, the song’s narrative poignantly details struggle. John Skehan‘s mandolin, Andy Goessling‘s banjo and strummed acoustic, and Tim Carbone‘s fiddle swirl around Haynes‘ stinging electric break, which adds drama to his lyric. The cover of Billy Edd Wheeler‘s classic “Coal Tattoo” (he’s the songwriter and visual artist who wrote “Jackson” for Johnny Cash) weds Appalachian mountain music to the electric blues with Haynes slide cutting through the banjo and mandolin. Shawn Colvin and Mickey Raphael assist on the road-weary country-rock of “Wanderlust.” “Stranded in Self-Pity” is a jazzy rag blues with a honky tonk piano underscoring Haynes‘ wily electric guitar, Carbone‘s fiddle, and Skehan‘s clarinet solo. One can hear the influences of Levon Helm and T-Bone Wolk on the track, which is only fitting. He planned this record seven years ago and they were both supposed to play on it. The only misstep here is the cover of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Gold Dust Woman,” with Grace Potter almost mimicking songwriter Stevie Nicks‘ role. It’s such a straight arrangement that it adds virtually nothing. “Spots of Time” is the set’s longest cut at over eight minutes, co-written with Phil Lesh. It is one of two tracks here to feature drums and percussion by Marc Quiñones. It’s a loping, breezy rocker with a gorgeous extended jazz guitar solo; it would have been right at home in the Grateful Dead‘s catalog. Closer “Word on the Wind” is an excellent update — even reinvention — of Southern rock; it exists in a space where Marshall Tucker, Crazy Horse, and the (Joe Walsh era) James Gang all melt into one another. While Ashes & Dust doesn’t really add anything “new” to Haynes‘ musical profile — fans already knew this was here — there are some fine benchmarks: his singing has never used such a range of dynamics before; for once he lets the song dictate his expression. Others are tight songwriting and arranging craft — especially when fleshed out by the almost limitless creativity of Railroad Earth. Ashes & Dust is a worthy and welcome addition to Haynes‘ catalog.
A roots man of integrity with a predilection for truly vintage vibes, Minnesota’s Charlie Parr has made his career hollering, picking, and stomping his way through the Midwest and beyond, leaving a trail of fine records that feel just a shade away from the great rural folk and blues songs of Harry Smith‘s epic Anthology of American Folk Music. Eschewing proper studios whenever possible, his lo-fi releases have been captured in storefronts, warehouses, and garages or live on-stage in several cases. Now 13 years into his recording career and with more than a dozen albums either self-released or scattered across the globe on tiny indies, Parr has settled in with St. Paul’s Grammy-winning folk label Red House Records (Greg Brown, Loudon Wainwright III), just a couple of hours away from his Duluth home. While signing with Red House might feel like a sort of Midwestern homecoming, Stumpjumper, his debut for the label, is a bit of a departure. Recorded in North Carolina with producer Phil Cook of the psych-folk group Megafaun, the album is Parr‘s first solo effort to feature a full backing band. A sort of hybrid of his previous production styles, Stumpjumper (the title is a Jeep culture reference to off-roading), is as live and red-blooded as anything in his catalog, but the added thump of drums, electric bass, fiddle, and additional guitars gives songs like the excellent “Falcon” and “Frank Miller Blues” a vibrancy that suits his woolly, homespun style. The wild buzz of loose strings, the ramshackle percussion, the occasional fuzzed-out guitar, and Parr‘s own National steel, banjo, and 12-string playing create a joyful noise that can just as quickly turn dark, as on the haunting “Resurrection” or the wistful “Over the Red Cedar,” a lovely ode to the unwavering passage of time. Parr has only gotten better as a songwriter, and his spirited performances here are augmented well by this strong group effort.
In a career that has already spanned a half-century, Jorma Kaukonen has been one of the most highly respected interpreters of American roots music, blues, and Americana, and at the forefront of popular rock-and-roll. A member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy nominee, he is a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna. Jorma Kaukonen’s repertoire goes far beyond his involvement creating psychedelic rock; he is a music lehttps://youtu.be/WDi0NwdpFOYgend and one of the finest singer-songwriters in music. Jorma currently, as he has for many years, tours the world bringing his unique styling to old blues tunes while presenting new songs of weight and dimension. Jorma is releasing his next solo album, Ainʼt in No Hurry, early in 2015 on Red House Records.
The son of a State Department official, Jorma Kaukonen, Jr. was born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, with occasional extended trips outside the United States. He was a devotee of rock-and-roll in the Buddy Holly era but soon developed a love for the blues and bluegrass that were profuse in the clubs and
concerts in the nation’s capitol. He wanted to take up guitar and make that kind of music himself. Soon he met Jack Casady, the younger brother of a friend and a guitar player in his own right. Though they could not have known it, they were beginning a musical partnership that has continued for over 50 years. Jorma graduated from high school and headed off for Antioch College in Ohio, where he met Ian Buchanan, who introduced him to the elaborate fingerstyle fretwork of the Rev. Gary Davis. A work-study program in New York introduced the increasingly skilled guitarist to that city’s burgeoning folk-blues-bluegrass scene and many of its players. After a break from college and travel overseas, Jorma moved to California, where he returned to classes at Santa Clara University and earned money by teaching guitar. It was at this time, that he met Paul Kantner and was asked to join a new band. Although Jorma’s true passion was roots music, he decided to join. That band was the Jefferson Airplane.
Jorma invited his old musical partner Jack Casady to come out to San Francisco and play electric bass for Jefferson Airplane, and together they created much of Jefferson Airplane’s signature sound. A pioneer of counterculture-era psychedelic rock, the group was the first band from the San Francisco scene to achieve international mainstream success. They performed at the three most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s— Monterey (1967), Woodstock(1969) and Altamont (1969)—as well as headlining the first Isle of Wight Festival (1968). Their 1967 record Surrealistic Pillow is regarded as one of the key recordings of the “Summer of Love”. Two hits from that album, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, are listed in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Jorma and Jack would jam whenever they could and would sometimes perform sets within sets at Airplane concerts. The two would often play clubs following Airplane performances. Making a name for themselves as a duo, they struck a record deal, and Hot Tuna was born. Jorma left Jefferson Airplane after the band’s most productive five years, pursuing his full-time job with Hot Tuna. Over the next three and a half decades Hot Tuna would perform thousands of concerts and release more than two-dozen records. The musicians who performed with them were many and widely varied, as were their styles—from acoustic to long and loud electric jams but never straying far from their musical roots. What is remarkable is that they have never coasted. Hot Tuna today sounds better than ever.
In addition to his work with Hot Tuna, Jorma has recorded more than a dozen solo albums on major labels beginning with 1974’s Quah and continuing with his recent acoustic releases on Red House Records—2007’s Stars in My Crown and River of Time, produced by Larry Campbell and featuring Levon Helm. But performance and recording are only part of the story. As the leading practitioner and teacher of fingerstyle guitar, Jorma and his wife Vanessa Lillian operate one of the world’s most unique centers for the study of guitar and other instruments. Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp is located on 125 acres of fields, woods, hills, and streams in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Since it opened in 1998, thousands of musicians whose skills range from basic to highly accomplished gather for weekends of master instruction offered by Jorma and other instructors who are leaders in their musical fields. A multitude of renowned performers make the trek to Ohio to teach at Fur Peace Ranch and play at the performance hall, Fur Peace Station. It has become an important stop on the touring circuit for artists who do not normally play intimate 200-seat venues, bringing such artists as David Bromberg, Roger McGuinn, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Alvin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Warren Haynes, Lee Roy Parnell, Chris Hillman and more. Students, instructors, and visiting artists alike welcome the peace and tranquility — as well as the great music and great instruction — that Fur Peace Ranch offers. There they have opened the Psylodelic Gallery, a museum in a silo, which celebrates the music, art, culture, and literature of the 1960’s, tracing important events and movements of the psychedelic era.
Jorma Kaukonen is constantly looking to take his musical horizons further still, always moving forward and he is quick to say that teaching is among the most rewarding aspects of his career. “You just can’t go backward. The arrow of time only goes in one direction.”
Grant Dermody (DER-muh-dee) is a harmonica player, singer, songwriter, and teacher from Seattle, Washington. Described as “an understated harmonica virtuoso and a vocalist of subtlety and warmth” by Don McLeese of No Depression magazine, Grant is a highly versatile musician.
A lifelong student of the harmonica and acoustic blues, Grant’s latest release is the masterful Lay Down My Burden. The album’s 16 tracks hear him and a phenomenal lineup of 26 guest stars – including many of the blues’ elder statesmen — intertwining original songs and timeless covers, a set that displays his pioneering approach alongside of his commitment to the timeless traditions of the blues.
Grant’s musical travels have seen him playing with many of America’s most beloved acoustic musicians. In 2010, he embarked on a successful international tour with guitarist Eric Bibb. Previous explorations saw him performing in a trio with Orville Johnson and John Miller, live and on their 2006 release Deceiving Blues. In addition, Dermody has performed with blues legends Leon Bib, Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lowery, Big Joe Duskin, John Dee Holeman, and Cephas & Wiggins. Guitar maestro Frank Fotusky is also a touring co-conspirator.
Beyond the blues, Grant is passionate about old-time music. As a member of The Improbabillies, whose 1998 self-titled CD made a serious splash in the old-time world, Grant brought a unique blues sensibility and an innovative harmonica style to that genre.
An excellent accompanist, Grant uses his instrument to add just the right shade, feel or energy to a player, piece or project. He has played on several of Seattle based singer/songwriter Jim Page’s recordings, and was a guest artist on Dan Crary’s, Rennaissance of the Steel String Guitar. Dan described Grant’s playing on “Reedy’s Blues,” as “powerful and beautiful,” and referred to him as, “One of the best studio musicians I have ever worked with.”
Ask other harmonica players about Grant’s style, and they all point to his big, warm, wide-open tone, his ability to bring his own voice to a wide variety of musical styles, and his subtle, un-hurried approach. Though Grant spends most of his musical time playing acoustic music, he never hesitates to plug in and lay down some Chicago Blues.
A dedicated mentor of the instrument, Grant has taught harmonica for many years in both private and group settings nationwide to students of all ages. Teaching venues have included Blues Week at The Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins West Virginia, The Country Blues Workshop in Port Townsend, Washington, and the Telluride Acoustic Blues Camp in Telluride, Colorado, and Blues Week at The University of Northhampton in the United Kingdom. Grant has taught hundreds of kids in elementary schools throughout the Seattle area how to play the harmonica.
In performances, recordings, and teaching engagements, Grant’s soulful sound shines through, inspiring listeners and fellow musicians. As Don McLeese put it, Grant “not only renews an acoustic legacy, but extends it.”
Grant Dermody is one of those journeyman musicians whose time-tested style makes him the ideal practitioner of backwoods blues. With Sun Might Shine on Me he applies his harmonica skills in a variety of settings, from the hills of Appalachia to the Crescent City and its Creole confines. The fact that he’s able to shift environs so seamlessly gives credence to his versatility, but it’s equally impressive to find him assembling such a sympathetic ensemble in support of his endeavors, among the players, multi-faceted musician Dirk Powell. Dermody’s ramshackle technique adds some homespun appeal, particularly when it comes to the unassuming approach evidenced on “Boll Weevil”, “Just a Little While” and “Tree of Life”. Both spirited and spiritual, Sun Might Shine on Me carries with it a warm embrace.
Many people play roots music, but few modern musicians live those roots like Minnesota’s Charlie Parr. Recording since the earliest days of the 21st century, Parr’s heartfelt and plaintive original folk blues and traditional spirituals don’t strive for authenticity: They are authentic. It’s the music of a self-taught guitarist and banjo player who grew up without a TV but with his dad’s recordings of America’s musical founding fathers, including Charley Patton and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. With his long scraggly hair, father- time beard, thrift-store workingman’s flannel and jeans, and emphatic, throaty voice, Parr looks and sounds like he would have fit right into Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”
Parr uses three instruments, not including his own stomping foot. He got an 1890 banjo the first time he heard Dock Boggs. “I don’t do claw hammer, I don’t do Scruggs-style, it’s just a version of me trying to play like Dock Boggs, I guess,” Parr says. He has two Nationals, a 12-string and a Resonator, which became an obsession when Parr saw a picture of Son House playing it. “The first time I got my paws on one, I went into debt to buy it,” he says. “Nationals are fun because they are as much mechanical as instrumental, you can take them apart and put them back together again.” On an overseas tour, the neck of the Resonator broke in baggage: he played the guitar by shimming the neck inside the body with popsicle sticks. “It solidifies your relationship with the instrument so much: It’s as much part of you as anything else.”
Most of his recordings, including Roustabout (2008), Jubilee (2007), Rooster (2005), King Earl (2004), 1922 (2002) and Criminals and Sinners (2001) eschew typical studio settings. He has recorded in warehouses, garages, basements and storefronts, usually on vintage equipment, which gives his work the historic feel of field recordings. It’s not because he wants to sound like he was discovered 75 years ago by Alan Lomax; it’s because most modern recording studios make the reticent and self-effacing Parr feel uncomfortable. He often works with engineer and mastering master Tom Herbers of Third Ear Studios in Minneapolis to give his recordings true fidelity no matter what the format, from mp3 to 180 gram vinyl to whatever is in between. Yet his music sounds so timeless that you half wonder if there’s not a scratchy Paramount 78 of Charlie Parr singing and strumming somewhere. His inspiration is drawn from the alternately fertile and frozen soil of Minnesota. Parr grew up in the Hormel company city of Austin, Minnesota (population 25,000) where most of the world’s favorite tinned meat, Spam, is still manufactured. And he hasn’t moved far, drawing sustenance from the surprisingly large, thriving and mutually supportive music scene of Duluth: Parr’s 2011 album of traditional songs, Keep Your Hands on the Plow features locals including Charlie’s wife, Emily Parr; old-timey banjo/fiddle band Four Mile Portage; and Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of the renowned alternative rock band Low.
The combination of industrial meat factory where both of his parents worked proud union jobs, set in a largely rural environment, had a broad impact on Parr. “Every morning you’d hear the [factory] whistles blow, when I was a kid they had the stockyards andanimals there, so you were surrounded by this atmosphere,” Parr says. “My mom and dad would come home from work, their smocks would be covered by paprika and gore.” But out the back door were soybean fields, as far as they eye could see. “As a kid I thought it was kind of boring, but now I go and visit my mom and I think it’s the most beautiful landscape there is.” What leisure time was available was spent at an uncle’s farm a few miles away in Hollandale, where Charlie would pick the potatoes and other crops that would feed their families. Charlie’s father and uncle would buy whole cows from a local cattle farm. The family rarely ate Spam. Parr shows the same resourcefulness on the road, averaging 3 or 4 shows a week, year round. To stay in traveling shape, he eats home-prepared meals such as spicy lentil curry, black bean chili and mix vegetables that cook on the manifold of his van while he drives. “It’s a good heat source and it’s handy—25 miles on the manifold will cook about anything you want.”
To many, Parr is considered a regional artist, which is another way of saying he doesn’t like to travel far from his family’s Depression era roots. “From Cleveland to Seattle and down to San Francisco and back is my area,” he says, though the focus is unquestionably Minnesota and the Northern Plains. Yet he’s built a big enough audience in both Ireland and Australia to tour both regularly. He’s had especially good fortune Down Under, where his “1922 Blues” was used as the counterintuitive music behind a Vodafone mobile commercial and became a viral and radio success. Three of his songs added atmospheric resonance to the 2010 Australian western “Red Hill.” On his last tour, his fourth of that continent, he was a guest DJ for three hours on a Melbourne roots music radio station, on which he played songs from his own mix CD. “The newest thing on it was some Bukka White recordings from the 1940s,” Parr says with some incredulity. “People were calling all morning to say how much they like the music.”
Quiet, thoughtful and humble, Parr has made two albums of spirituals, and a few traditional songs of the hard life and the hereafter are always in his live sets. Such music isn’t necessarily rooted in the Methodist church in which he grew up: “It was more like, let’s get the service over quick so we can get downstairs and drink coffee and have pie!” But faith, though undefined, underlines all of Charlie’s music, both in the listening, the covering, the writing and performing. “When you listen to Charley Patton playing something like ‘Prayer of Death,’ way over and above it just being a ‘Charley Patton’ song, or a ‘spiritual’ song, it’s one of the most beautiful and haunting pieces of music you’ll ever hear in your life. You can’t quite put your thumb on it, you just want to do something like that so much…I don’t think I ever have, but it’s a weird, visceral thing. Any time I get a song like that right, I get kind of that weird feeling, you know?”
—Wayne Robins, April 2012 Wayne Robins has been writing about music since the 1960s, and lives in New York.
John Cowan, also known as the Voice of Newgrass, has been singing his heart out for thirty-five years now, and his soaring vocals have only improved with time. A true innovator, John applies his powerful pipes to genres from country, bluegrass, and gospel to soul, jazz, and rock-and-roll – often within the space of a single concert. His ability to move fluidly through multiple styles, and carry mesmerized audiences on the journey with him, has set him apart as one of the most loved and admired vocal artists of his generation, not just by fans and critics but among fellow musicians as well.
John Cowan was born on August 24, 1953, in Minerva, Ohio, and got his musical start in Louisville, Kentucky, where he played in various rock outfits like Everyday People and Louisville Sound Department in the early 1970s. But his rise to fame began in earnest in 1974 when he auditioned to play bass for the then up-and-coming New Grass Revival. The audition went well, and John was offered the gig. It wasn’t until he’d accepted the job that the shy 22-year-old casually mentioned, “By the way, I can sing too.”
With his distinctive, rock-tinged tenor vocal and heart-thumping electric bass, John, along with fellow New Grass Revival band mates Sam Bush, Courtney Johnson, and Curtis Burch, and later Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn, introduced a new generation of music fans to an explosive, experimental and ultimately, eponymous brand of bluegrass. The “newgrass” sound spawned popular jam bands such as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band in addition to shaping the sensibilities of country megastars Garth Brooks, the Dixie Chicks, the Zac Brown Band, and Darius Rucker.
After New Grass Revival disbanded in 1990, John went on to record a series of critically acclaimed solo albums including Soul’d Out (Sugar Hill, 1986), the self-titled John Cowan (Sugar Hill, 2000), Always Take Me Back (Sugar Hill, 2002), New Tattoo (Pinecastle, 2006), 8,745 Feet, Live at Telluride (2005, re-released by E-1 Entertainment, 2009), Comfort & Joy (E-1 Entertainment, 2009), and The Massenburg Sessions (E-1 Entertainment, 2010).
Over the years, he also has been in high demand as a session musician and boasts vocal and/or bass credits on some 120 recordings, including albums by Garth Brooks, Glen Campbell, Rosanne Cash, Ashley Cleveland, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Hootie and the Blowfish, Janis Ian, Hal Ketchum, Alison Krauss, Delbert McClinton, Reba McEntire, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Poco, John Prine, Kenny Rogers, Darius Rucker, Leon Russell, Darrell Scott, Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt, Hank Williams Jr., Jesse Winchester, Wynonna, and the Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums.
In the early 1990s, John teamed up with Rusty Young of Poco, Bill Lloyd of Foster & Lloyd, and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers in a country rock band called The Sky Kings. Despite the successful run of their CMT video “Picture Perfect,” the band’s recordings went unreleased due to a series of personnel changes first at RCA Records and then Warner Brothers, and the group was forced to call it quits in 1997. Shelved for years, The Sky Kings unreleased album, along with 14 additional tracks from the Warner Brothers archives, was finally published in 2000 by Rhino Handmade Records. Meanwhile, John’s alliance with Pat Simmons gained him a slot as bassist for the Doobie Brothers from 1992 through 1995 as well as a songwriting credit for “Can’t Stand to Lose” on the Doobie Brothers 2000 release Sibling Rivalry.
bioNot content to remain a sideman, however, John left the Doobie Brothers to follow his creative muse in pursuit of a solo career that, at the dawn of the 21st century, found him circling back to his acoustic “newgrass” roots.
“What we did back in the New Grass Revival days was unique,” he says. “Our vision was to take acoustic music somewhere new. What I’ve done with the John Cowan Band is try to recapture the magic of that ground-breaking experimentation and take it to the next level.”
The John Cowan Band, in various incarnations that inevitably feature some of acoustic music’s finest players, has been a force to be reckoned with these fifteen years – and counting. John is a fixture and a favorite at major festivals like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado and Wilkesboro, North Carolina’s “traditional-plus” MerleFest, and he routinely sells out performing arts theaters and distinguished music clubs and listening rooms around the country. Stints in his band have helped launch the careers of Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers), Luke Bulla (Lyle Lovett), and Scott Vestal, among others. The band’s current lineup most often features long-time collaborator and outstanding flatpick guitarist Jeff Autry, renowned and in-demand fiddler Shad Cobb, and mandolinist extraordinaire John Frazier.
John also is known for mixing it up; his creative collaborations range from his 2012 MerleFest performance alongside Darrell Scott and Pat Simmons to appearances with Nashville favorites The Long Players and Grooveyard. On his 2010 recording, The Massenburg Sessions, John joined forces with legendary producer George Massenburg (Little Feat, Randy Newman, Linda Ronstadt and others) to craft a collection that has the warm, intimate feel of a living room jam. It features duets with Maura O’Connell and Del McCoury. Longtime friend and co-writer Darrell Scott composed the haunting melody for John’s autobiographical ballad “Drown” (New Tattoo), a harrowing and graphic tale of childhood sexual abuse. The song led to John becoming the 2006 national spokesperson for Safe Place, an organization that provides and promotes safety and healing for individuals and families affected by sexual and domestic violence. “Drown” was also used in a video featuring John and others telling their stories to promote Nashville-based Our Kids, which provides medical evaluations and crisis counseling in response to concerns of child sexual abuse. It’s an issue close to his heart and one about which he remains vocal.
These days, John Cowan fans have to wait a little longer between shows and possibly travel a little farther to get to them. That’s because he’s working his own performances into and around another very busy schedule. In 2010, the Doobie Brothers found themselves once again in need of a bass player, and John Cowan was the first person they called. He took the job, and now he travels the world with the Doobies, laying down the low notes and singing the high ones as they perform hits such as “Black Water,” “China Grove,” “Taking it to the Streets,” and “Listen to the Music” as well as new songs that showcase the relevancy of this iconic classic rock band.
“I love my ‘job’,” Cowan says. “I love these guys. I love being in a band – a great band – and I love playing music for people every night. I’m also very grateful for every opportunity I have to play my music with my own band for the fans that have been so loyal to me over the years. I don’t ever want to stop sharing my music with them.”
And as if two touring gigs didn’t keep him busy enough, in March of 2012, WSM Radio – home of The Grand Ole Opry – launched John Cowan – I Believe To My Soul, an hour-long radio program that airs monthly and features John interviewing and playing the music of some of the giants and legends of contemporary music. For example, his first guest was Leon Russell, whose catalog of songs includes timeless classics like “Masquerade” and “A Song For You,” and whom Elton John names among his biggest influences. Season One of I Believe To My Soul features John’s former New Grass Revival band mate and world-renowned banjo innovator Bela Fleck; beloved singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell; Justin Hayward, lead singer and songwriter of Moody Blues fame; Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires; and many more.
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.”
A quick search for the “top Americana albums of 2005” reminds us of some fine records from that year by the likes of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, Okkervil River, My Morning Jacket, and the ever-interesting Bobby Bare. One that didn’t get much attention back then was this excellent set of music from Grayson Capps, If You Knew My Mind, released a decade ago by the small-yet-mighty Nashville/L.A. outpost called Hyena Records. One of the songs on the album, “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” was the title track to a movie of the same name, based on a book by Capps’ father and starring none other than John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. One would think that would’ve generated some considerable buzz, but the film was met with mixed reviews that tended toward the negative. The soundtrack (though it was an interesting mix of Los Lobos and Helen Humes) was generally disregarded, and Capps’ album flew, most unfairly, under the radar. Thanks to the tasteful folks at Royal Potato Family — who are behind the excellent new set from 6 String Drag — this record’s getting a well-deserved second chance with Americana music fans. And rightly so. It’s an album that’s beautifully grand in its poetry and charmingly disheveled in its presentation. The opening line of the opening song, “Get Back Up,” says it all. “Yesterday was a very fine day, indeed,” he growls over a dirty harp-driven blues. “I got a bottle of beer, went outside, and brushed my teeth.” He puts on dirty clothes, goes back to work because he’s “got to make the money to give the money away at the rich man’s store.” There are too many great lines in the Resonator-rich title cut to pick just one but this slice of humor — “I know you’re 22 and I ruined your life. But please, pretty baby, put down that kitchen knife” — is a good place to start. “Slidell” starts out as a story about “five people who got murdered by a drunk woman talking on her cell phone,” but is ultimately about the narrator’s own Slidell story, which includes being drunk at every turn and for every miniscule event. After the slow R&B groove of “I Can’t Hear You,” we get to witness the aforementioned “Love Song to Bobby Long,” the heart-wrenching Dylanesque story of a former football hero — a dispassionate dreamer gone drunk, an anti-hero of Bruton, AL. “Eliza’s in the ground. Thunder is her moan,” recites Capps in the Faulknerian stream of consciousness that is “Graveyard.” Halfway through the record, Capps tears open a can of Texas blues on “Mercy,” the modern day equivalent to “Sympathy for the Devil” (and just as spine-chillingly soulful). “Yesterday I had a dream. I could fly through the sky. Then I woke up in a sweat, not dead yet, but on the ground,” Capps sings over the subtle Rhodes and Resonator arrangement of “Lorraine’s Song.” “Here comes,” he says as he counts off the lovely ballad “Washboard Lisa,” a tune as tender as the best ballads from the pens of Crowell or Clark. “Buckshot” is a blood red fuzzy guitar rock tune that bridges the space between “Washboard Lisa” and the funky rhythm and blues of “How’s I To Know.” The original recording ends with the ballad “I See You” before the RPF people tacked on a live version of the blues classic “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning” — a clever tune about how his woman ran off with an “Australian banjo player with a fake Southern accent” — and a sweet outtake of “Washboard Lisa.” Indeed, this is a record most grand in its poetry, even though they are simple lines about simple people living simple lives. The tracks are exceptionally well-played examples of the great Southern music tradition, loosely approached but tightly delivered. This 10-year-old record is as good as anything being made today. Props to the Royal Potato people for bringing it back to light.