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Favorite Americana Artists of 2016
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Grew up in Maine. Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Makes records. Travels around. Tries to be good.
Slaid Cleaves lives with his wife of 21 years, Karen Cleaves, in the Hill Country outside Austin, Texas. While Karen books the shows, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars; designs, orders and sells the CDs and T-shirts, pays the band, updates the web site, answers fan questions, does the taxes and makes dinner, Slaid writes his little songs (and fixes things around the house). They travel around the world together while Slaid plays for fans far and wide and gets all the glory. If it wasn’t for Karen, Slaid would be carrying all he owned in a shoe box, scrounging around for a happy hour gig.
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We’re excited to be working with Charlie Whitten, whose new EP Playwright is coming out The whole thing is phenomenal, a quick 4-song EP showcasing a moment in time for the young songwriter. The songwriting on each of these tracks is wonderful and points to Whitten’s budding brilliance but the up-tempo, jaunty, pining of “Since She’s Gone”, with it’s duality of heart-break and acceptance is really impressive. .
Whitten grew up in Charlotte, NC and was born in Charleston, WV. He’s released a few pieces under his own name but says he “enjoys being sideman just as much as a singer-songwriter.” Pretty obvious that he enjoys it when you can catch Charlie playing guitar for Jake McMullen and Becca Mancari, and while he just returned from touring for two months with Andrew Combs as his bass player. He’s also played and sang with Molly Parden, Erin Rae McKaskle, Caleb Groh, Chrome Pony, and his current side project, Stationwagon; a band of tall songwriters and friends featuring Mark Fredson, Pete Lindberg, Andrew Hunt, Brett Resnick. You can hear bits a pieces from his heroes Jim Croce, Don McLean and Harry Nilsson in his songs. There’s a bit of Rayland Baxter in his arrangements as well.
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Album release: ‘Gold Rush’ by Hannah Aldridge
Release date: 16 June 2017
Label: Rootsy Music
More info: Artist website
In literature and in songwriting, the American South is where writers go to face their fears. Hannah Aldridge doesn’t just dip her pen into the well of the South, the Muscle Shoals native embodies it. With every song, she’s facing down demons of a life once lived from substance abuse to failed relationships and scars from the lashes of the bible belt.
‘Gold Rush’ is Hannah Aldridge’s second album, a follow up to her 2014 debut ‘Razor Wire’. While that album launched her career, drew the attention of music writers and sent her touring across the world, ‘Gold Rush’ shows a more mature and introspective artist with more life experience – and music experience – under her belt.
The honesty Hannah Aldridge crafts into each track is off-set by her stubborn, maybe defiant, nature, which gives her music a hopeful silver lining.
“I start writing with ‘this is how I’m feeling and I need to talk about it.’ Doing that helps me sort out my own thoughts on it. My music is an introspective look at the things that happened in my life. It’s me trying to sort through and put feelings into words,” she said.
Hannah Aldridge is the daughter of Muscle Shoals legend Walt Aldridge. An Alabama Music Hall of Famer, Walt Aldridge is a prolific and decorated songwriter of countless Number One and Top Ten hits recorded by the likes of Lou Reed, Reba McEntire, Travis Tritt, Earl Thomas Conley, Ricky Van Shelton, Ronnie Milsap, and Conway Twitty.
Mixing her personal life and the sounds of her hometown, Hannah Aldridge’s new album also draws in influences from across the rock genre. Working with people with one foot in country music and one foot in rock, Hannah Aldridge makes a fresh kind of Southern Rock styled by Southern Gothic storytelling. You can hear it in ‘Gold Rush’’s ode to burning out, or in the yearning of ‘Burning Down Birmingham’, and anthem-for-the-lonely ‘No Heart Left Behind’ – a track that is shot-through with wild riffs.
Recorded at Creative Workshop in Nashville, Hannah Aldridge worked with Muscle Shoals writers such as Mark Naramore, Tosha Hill, Matt Johnson and Brad Crisler and artists such as Andrew Combs, Ashley McBryde, Don Gallardo, Ryan Beaver, and Sadler Vaden on “Gold Rush.” She teamed up with Jordan Dean and M. Allen Parker, who were instrumental in working on her new album, and finally finishing by calling on her Dad, Walt Aldridge, to master the record. In total, Hannah Aldridge compiled a team of distinct talents to work with her. With their help, Hannah Aldridge has put together a progressive, creative and memorable body of work.
“It’s about being self-destructive,” Aldridge said of her new album. “That is the underlying tone. The album goes back to when I was younger, and after touching on that, to now. In ‘Aftermath,’ the very first line is: ‘I was born in a crossfire.’ It starts from day one.”
Hannah Aldridge will tour the UK in summer 2017 – details announcing soon.
PRESS REACTION TO DATE
“Listening to Aldridge’s music is a sonic treat” – Billboard
“Aldridge’s songs are deep, intelligent, and very powerful” – No Depression
“In the running for best Americana debut this year” – American Songwriter
“An important album” – Americana UK
From the first notes, I was hooked” – Suze Uttal, No Depression
“Sometimes a band can just appear out of nowhere and make a sound so agreeable and enticing it almost seems like they’re the product of some divine destiny. Driftwood offers an ideal example of that phenomenon” – Country Standard Time
When most people think of upstate New York, they either imagine bucolic landscapes or working-class towns. As natives of Binghamton, the members of Driftwood hail from a working town, but play music rooted in the land, leaning alternately into folk, old-time, country, punk, and rock, depending on their personal moods and their songs’ needs.
“It’s sometimes tough to keep any sort of focus on style or sound when you have three different songwriters,” guitarist Dan Forsyth concedes. “But it also allows us to branch out and explore in ways other bands don’t. Also, I think it’s important, as a band, to ask ourselves ‘Is this a good next step?” Describing the Driftwood sound, banjo player Joe Kollar offers, “I consider our sound to be more of an attitude and an approach – the result of all of our influences in a completely open musical forum where the only stipulation is to use bluegrass instruments and create it from the heart.”
That’s as close to being pinned down as Driftwood ever gets. Such has always been the case for artists blurring and blending genre lines in order to innovate. Yes, they wield old-time instruments, but they do so with a punk-rock ethos. “I do not know much about punk music, but I do know that it gives me a feeling of tearing into something without inhibition,” violinist Claire Byrne says, adding, “Old-time music has the same feeling for me. The music was a release for people living extremely hard lives in harsh conditions. In this way, the two styles of music are very similar: It’s digging in and making a statement. It’s rocking out and feeling totally reborn through the song.”
Driftwood has been digging in and rocking out since their 2005 formation, playing an average of 150 shows a year. “In the beginning, we hit the road constantly with an all-or-nothing attitude,” Forsyth confides. “We were doing it with a lot of passion, but had no thoughts about long-term sustainability. Life outside of the band was minimal. One thing that I think we started to notice was, when you’re always in it, you have no perspective and you start to lose yourself in a weird way.”
As such, gigging and traveling that much can’t help but influence and inform the band, individually and collectively. In the past, they used the stage to work out arrangements of new songs. For City Lights, they used the studio. “Keeping this kind of touring schedule, we have thought of recording albums as a sort of secondary thing and considered ourselves a ‘live’ band. We learn so much on the road and this kind of work has always felt productive,” Forsyth explains. “It wasn’t until this last album that we took some time off to learn more about being in the studio. We wanted to take our time and record on our own terms.”
According to Byrne, their own terms included “taking a step forward with the production and the arrangements.” Kollar tacks “learning” on, for good measure, while Forsyth adds “good songs and bigger arrangements, and sounds than we had not previously achieved.”
Even though they come from different directions, the three founding members – along with bassist Joey Arcuri – tend to end up at the same place. That unity, as well as the joy derived from playing together, can be heard throughout City Lights.
As further evidence of their compatibility, both Forsyth and Byrne tag “Skin and Bone” as the head of the album. It’s a Kollar composition that he says “came from a reflection I had of myself and life on the road, in general. It touches on trying to keep perspective, forging ahead, and embracing the future.” Clearly, that’s a state of mind they can all relate to.
The heart of the album, though, is a toss up with Forsyth choosing the romance of “Too Afraid,” Byrne picking the nostalgia of “The Waves,” and Kollar tapping the excitement of the title track. That disparity may be because, in their decade together, the musicians have all undergone monumental life changes. They have come into their own… together. Forsyth is now a husband and father; Byrne is now a recorded songwriter. “Generally speaking, there’s a maturity to us now,” Kollar explains. “We have a bit of experience doing what we do and the music reflects that point of view. The song subjects, our playing/singing abilities, our recording abilities, and our relationships have all matured.”
Forsyth picks up the thread, “We have all learned an unbelievable amount of patience and teamwork strategy. Our band is close: Everyone knows a lot about each other. We travel in very tight quarters constantly and are always up on what’s happening in each others’ lives. I think this has really enabled us to express ourselves, individually and as a group, but also to understand each other and others in so many ways.”
Having joined Driftwood when she was 21, Byrne has spent her whole adult life in the band “learning to play and sing in a group, learning the art of performance, and, of course, learning who I am and what my purpose(s) in life are. I think you can hear those changes from the first record to the last one.” Because City Lights marks her songwriting debut, she feels like her personal growth is on full display. “Rather than just listening to my harmonies and fiddle playing, you now have lyrics, as well. I think the songs I have on this record reflect a woman going through a great shift in her life, settling down a bit, and reflecting on the many different ways that affects me and my relationships with others.”
As the sole woman of the band, Byrne puts a clearly different spin on things. “Sometimes, instead of thinking about adding a feminine perspective, I actually spend time thinking about how to make myself fit in with the guys and, therefore, dumbing down my femininity a bit,” she says. “With my songwriting, though, there is no hiding it. I’m talking about things from a woman’s perspective that many other women will be able to relate to easier than they would if a man was writing and singing about the same topics.”
One topic the three songwriters all agree on is home. In their own ways, they each love and reflect their hard-scrabble hometown. “Growing up in the Chenango Bridge/Binghamton area, I never really thought about it being an economically depressed town. To me, it was a perfect balance of rivers, woods, campfires, street signs, factories, and city lights,” Kollar says, referencing the new album’s title. “Now, I know a little more about it being a post-industrial town, but still I see it as a diamond in the rough. I relate to the sort of underdog/uphill feel of the town.”
Byrne adds, “I think coming from a place such as Binghamton makes us very raw. We are a reflection of where we grew up. There isn’t really anything fancy about us – we aren’t the ‘hippest’ group out there, as far as fashion goes – but we are certainly very real. What you see is what you get.”
ANTI-Release: 19 May 2017
Within seconds after a guitar plays the intro to her song “Aden,” Jade Jackson’s voice, illuminated by experience, sings: “I grew up my father’s daughter. He said don’t take no shit from no one. You’ll never see me cry …”
And it’s with that voice and those lyrics that imply a thousand stories, this singer/songwriter hints at what she is capable of crafting, of how many tears she can stir in recounting her rambles to the far corners of her imagination, further even than she has actually travelled.
For Jackson has spent much of her time in a small California town, working in her parents’ restaurant, jotting down verses and picking out chords during breaks, then venturing eventually to more formal music studies in college before coming back home and startling listeners with the depth and intensity of her music.
Scheduled to release in May on Anti- Records, Gilded introduces her preternatural writing and raw, roots-rough sound. Surrounded by the close friends and gifted musicians that constitute her band, Jackson finds the perfect twist of phrase again and again, to express regret (“Let me walk over the bridges I’ve burned,” on the mournful “Bridges”), foreboding (“He kept his shiny blue gun underneath his dash/Deep inside she knew their lives were gonna crash,” a doomsday premonition set a galloping beat and spaghetti-Western guitar on “Troubled End”) and freedom (“I feel my boot heels sink in quicksand, baby, every time we kiss,” she tells her baffled lover on “Motorcycle.” “Ah, understand, boy, it’s been fun, but my motorcycle only seats one.”)
How did Jackson develop this command so young? First, of course, she was born with talent, which her home life nurtured. Though neither parent was a musician, both of them — especially her father — listened constantly to a range of artists, from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to The Smiths, The Cure and assorted punk outfits.
“There was always music at home,” Jackson remembers. “In fact, it weirded me out when I’d go to a friend’s house and we were supposed to be quiet.”
Just as important, she had a compelling reason to develop her talent from an early age. “I was just bored!” she insists. “That’s why I started playing guitar. I’d grown up in a really small house in a small town. I shared a room with my brother and sister until I was 12. Then when I was 13 we moved about 30 miles away to Santa Margarita because my parents wanted to open a restaurant there. So there were more people around but I didn’t know anybody. That summer it was 118 degrees and we didn’t have air conditioning. I didn’t have any friends. My parents were kind of anti-technology, so I grew up without the Internet.”
So she found escape on her own. “Even before I picked up the guitar, my favorite thing was to tell stories. I was so in love with poetry: I would watch how people reacted when I read something I wrote … and then I’d put myself in their shoes and try to imagine how it felt to be them because I was kind of sheltered.” She wrote prolifically — still does, in fact. “I couldn’t stop,” she admits. “I would write on whatever I could grab. If I was in the car, I’d write on a piece of trash. If there was no trash, I’d write on cardboard. In my junior year of high school, the local newspaper did a story that said ‘Jade Jackson writes a song every day!’ They had me count all the songs I’d written by then and I think I was up to 375.”
The numbers grew. Through hard work and a willingness to challenge herself with each new effort, the quality of the music grew too. At the same time, Jackson began thinking about music as possibly something more than a private escape. This epiphany dates back to the night she went to a concert for the first time without her parents. The headliner that night was one of her favorites, Social Distortion.
“When I watched Mike Ness walk onstage and felt the energy from the crowd, it ignited something in me,” Jackson says. “I wanted to be on that stage too. I never knew I wanted to perform until that day. That shifted all the gears in my life.”
She began by playing every Sunday at a coffee shop in Santa Margarita. “They had a guitar hanging on the wall, so I’d take it down, spread all my lyrics out on the floor, sit on the couch and read them from there,” she says, with a laugh. “But then this musician named Don Lampson saw me playing. He asked if I wanted to open for him. So I memorized four or five of my songs and for the first time in my life, sang through a microphone. I connected with that energy of performing. I loved it when I could make people feel emotions through my songs.”
Her following, like her catalog, grew steadily. By the time she’d completed high school, Jackson’s work had become impressive enough to persuade Cal Arts to accept her into its music program. There, she had her first formal music instruction as well as some more personal struggles and applied both to finessing her craft even further.
“When I was little and listening to Johnny Cash, his songs were so sad, kind of slow and melancholy,” she says. “I didn’t understand what the words meant but I understood how they made me feel. In college, when I had my first taste of real depression, all of a sudden his songs and Hank Williams’s stories came true. I was like, ‘Holy shit! Now I actually know what those words meant!’ It was like a circle completing itself.”
One more circle led Jackson to her most critical step forward, when she and Mike Ness began working together. Their mothers had been friends in high school, which brought the two artists together. A short while after hearing her perform, he offered to mentor her. They assembled the band that’s been by her side since they came together. He agreed to produce Gilded as well.
“He gave me homework,” she points out. “He made me listen to Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and told me to listen only to that album for the next three or so months. That was the template of the album he wanted to create with me, so I picked from songs of mine that had a similar feel. If I didn’t have him, Gilded would have been a lot more scattered.”
That’s the key, right there. Gilded is a closed circuit, a masterwork of emotional honesty, of epic tales and intimate confessions. What’s scattered beyond, in songs long completed and many more yet to come, is a promise of more circles, more unique perspectives on hard lessons learned and too soon forgotten.
This is just the first you’ve heard from Jade Jackson. So much more lies ahead, for her and for us.