Throughout musical history, those of a tender age have often shown a prolific prowess that outpaces their level of growth and maturity. The examples are evident — Michael Jackson, Sarah Jarosz, Stevie Wonder and Sara & Sean Watkins are among the more obvious examples of musicians who made their mark early on, at an age where many of us are just learning how to tie our shoelaces.
East Tennessee’s Eli Fox is the latest artist to show that remarkable proficiency; at age 18, he’s setting his sites on college and, equally importantly, boasting his full length musical debut, the ironically dubbed Tall Tales. The follow up to an initial EP that came out last year, it finds Fox taking his cue from traditional Americana…
…and, most strikingly, the wit and rapport of early Bob Dylan. That’s particularly true of a song like “Hillbilly” where he states his case and shares his rural roots. The easy amble of “Fine Toothed Comb,“ the aw-shucks sentiment of “Tell Me Why” and the rapid fire delivery that accompanies “What Can I Do” more than affirm his down home demeanor, a dry yet demonstrative sound underscored by his rural regimen and an unassuming singing style that sounds as if it just rolled out of the far hills of Appalachia. He shares an obvious admiration for Woody Guthrie, but his instrumental ability — he plays guitar, banjo, fiddle, piano and harmonica with equal ease — only enhances his reverence for the roots. Indeed, really has a rookie been so quick to establish his credence and creativity.
Released a little over a year after Chris Thile took over as host of the public radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion, Thanks for Listening collects ten Song of the Week features from his inaugural season. Each song was an original written for that week and premiered live on the show. Finding a common theme among personal, societal, and political topics in some of the songs — namely, the art of listening — Thile headed to the studio with producer Thomas Bartlett to record selections for a cohesive album. On these versions, the mandolin virtuoso covers stringed instruments except bass and viola, and sings lead, though he’s joined on some songs by guest vocalists Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Gaby Moreno, all Prairie alumnae under Thile.
One of the album’s flashier mandolin performances can be found on the spare “Balboa,” whose multicultural wanderlust receives intricate and nuanced accompaniment. By and large, though, Thanks for Listening puts a premium on songs over chops, not that there’s any lack of instrumental proficiency here. An atmospheric track like “Feedback Loop,” for instance, uses a slow tempo, keyboards, and echo along with acoustic instruments. After setting an intentionally lethargic tone, lyrics get at our ability to filter unwelcome opinions on social media and elsewhere (“Feedback Loop, I play you to soothe my closed eyes/Closed mind/Open wounds/Open hate for anyone out of the Feedback Loop”). Later, the poppier “Falsetto” grapples with the constant derision, real and imagined, from a post-election Donald Trump, including what he might have to say about an activist musician. Other songs address fatherhood, family gatherings, and friendship in the context of the time’s technology and politics.
Despite its more collaborative origins, Thanks for Listening plays like a singer/songwriter album from Thile, one with moments of humor, poignancy, dread, and playfulness. Particularly “for anyone trying to hear through the din of a boorish year,” it captures the Zeitgeist of the first half of 2017 with a very human touch.
“Her songs show a very real connection and concern with everyday folk.” Lifted from the first paragraph of May Erlewine’s Facebook biography, this is the singular, wholesome truth that sits at the center of the Michigan artist’s entire portfolio. Her music has a heart that connects with others’ hearts. It’s one that has been continuously conscious of the human condition and how it reacts to the ebb and flow of our everchanging world. She’s given a voice to everyday folk in artistically recognizing her place on our planet Earth as one, and we are all elevated together for it.
Her name might be recognized internationally, but any Michigander will tell you that she’s at the top rung of artists that they pride themselves in calling one of their home-state girls. Her latest record, Mother Lion, is reflective in this in the staff she’s brought on to help bring it to life. Members of Ann Arbor outlet Vulfpeck comprise her band (drummer Theo Katzman, bassist Joe Dart, and pianist Woody Goss) while acclaimed producer Tyler Duncan (Michelle Chamuel, Ella Riot) helps bring it all together.
The ending, everlasting result is a refreshingly vibrant addition to Erlewine’s discography. She’s always had an innate knack for speaking to the masses in any way they see fit to process it. Yet, as her relatable voice melds with crisp, modern, and eclectic production, we’ve come to a place where we realize that the artist is still coming up with ways to surprise us while touching our hearts even 10 solo albums in. Utterly empathetic and chockful of heart-tugging imagery, Mother Lion is an empowering hand to guide you headfirst in a bold new direction as much as it is a warm embrace to cry into and be told everything is going to be okay whenever the world gets you down.
Eight months after releasing the best-selling country album of the year, Chris Stapleton is back with a companion piece. From A Room: Volume 2 arrives December 1st, delivering another batch of songs culled from Stapleton’s Library of Congress-sized back catalog. It’s lean and live-sounding, with hands-off production by Dave Cobb – who captures each song with minimal knob-twiddling, shining some honest light on a working band that’s logged countless stage hours since Traveller‘s 2015 release – and plenty of guitar solos from the industry’s most unsung instrumentalist. Stapleton’s voice remains as titanic ever, but on these nine tracks, he packs an equally sized punch as both picker and bandleader. Volume 2 isn’t just about songs in RCA Studio A (the “room” in the title); it’s about the people occupying that studio too, and Stapleton keeps fine company throughout.
1. “Millionaire” (Kevin Welch) Originally recorded by Kevin Welch, “Millionaire” gets a swinging, Heartbreakers-worthy update by Stapleton and company, who turn the tune into a soulful blast of heartland rock. The song’s secret weapon: Morgane Stapleton, whose harmonies trace her husband’s melodies at every twist and turn.
2. “Hard Livin'” (Chris Stapleton, Kendell Marvel) Stapleton summons the ghost of Waylon Jennings with this song’s phase-shifted guitar riff, renewing his outlaw stripes along the way. Before the final solo, he lets a loud, lawless “Wooo!” escape from his throat, proof that recording “Hard Livin'” was easier than its title suggests. File this stomping Southern rocker alongside Traveller‘s “Nobody to Blame.”
3. “Scarecrow in the Garden” (Stapleton, Brice Long, Matt Fleener)
With a Celtic-sounding verse and a haunting, minor-key chorus, “Scarecrow in the Garden” is the album’s first non-anthem, trading the bombast of the first two tracks for something more reminiscent of an old-school murder ballad. During the song’s final moments, Stapleton paints a gripping picture of a farmer at the end of his rope. “I was sitting here all night / With a Bible in my left hand and a pistol in my right,” he sings.
4. “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” (Stapleton, Mike Henderson) Written with ex-SteelDriver Mike Henderson, this low-and-slow soul ballad borrows some of its movements from the Great American Songbook, sounding like something Cole Porter might’ve written after too many drunken nights in the Delta.
5. “Tryin’ to Untangle My Mind” (Stapleton, Jaren Boyer, Marvel) “I’m lonesome and stoned, so far down the Devil’s looking high,” Stapleton sings, embodying one of his most familiar characters: the tortured, heartbroken protagonist who’s looking for relief in all the wrong places. Behind him, the band kicks up plenty of bluesy dust.
6. “A Simple Song” (Stapleton, Darrell Hayes) The title says it all. Unhurried and unplugged, “A Simple Song” sketches its storyline in broad strokes. There’s a factory worker, a broken family and a romance that’s keeping the narrator afloat. Like “Drunkard’s Prayer,” it’s one of the most intimate songs on the album, reminiscent of older tunes like “Whiskey and You.”
7. “Midnight Train to Memphis” (Stapleton, Henderson) A booming, burly rocker, “Midnight Train to Memphis” finds Stapleton in jail, serving a 40-day sentence while a distant train wails its horn outside the prison walls. The whole riff is built upon a monster guitar riff, injecting venom and vitriol into Volume 2‘s final stretch.
8. “Drunkard’s Prayer” (Stapleton, Jameson Clark) “I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees,” Stapleton bellows, playing the part of a broken, boozy man who hopes God will be more forgiving of his sins than the woman who recently left him. The guitar pattern echoes Willie Nelson’s reading of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and like that song, “Drunkard’s Prayer” is delivered entirely alone, a move that drives home the song’s lonely message.
9. “Friendship” (Homer Banks, Lester Snell) Bookending the album with another cover tune, “Friendship” finds Stapleton singing a forgotten country-soul number from the Stax archives. The Staples Singers’ patriarch, Pops Staples, recorded the song shortly before his death, and Stapleton’s version updates the original with deeper groves and gorgeous guitar tremolo.
3x IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year and daughter of bluegrass Dale Ann Bradley celebrates her musical heritage with new original tracks, a classic rock cover and a timeless tribute to Bill Monroe.
“I grew up in a tar and paper covered shack right near Loretta Lynn’s childhood home,” reflects Dale Ann Bradley on her rustic origin in the hills of east Kentucky as a hardscrabble preacher’s daughter. ”It was very different. It was not easy,” she says. And even as a girl, she knew she wanted more. With Somewhere South of Crazy (available August 30th), this three-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year shares what has shaped her life and music, by going deeper—deeper into bluegrass, deeper into her own musical passions, deeper into her own history as a veteran entertainer who spent years singing country music alongside her ‘grass at Kentucky’s venerable Renfro Valley.
The result is a set that ranges from first-generation bluegrass classics through long-cherished favorites to brand new songs from Bradley and her friends—but always, always with her incomparably rich voice and east Kentucky sensibilities right at the center.
The title track provided Bradley with some especially enjoyable moments. “We had the best time writing,” she says of writing—and singing—partner Pam Tillis. “I just love her. We sat down, and she had that title line and the idea, and I came up with the melody and some lines—we had worked on a few different things, but this was the one that we finished, and as soon as we did, I knew it was going to be the title track.” Bill Monroe’s “In Despair” may be more unexpected. “I didn’t plan it as a tribute,” Bradley says with a laugh. “But I hope people will think of it as one. I just wanted to showcase a more traditional side of what I do. But I’m glad it’s coming out on his 100th birthday!” The track “Come Home Good Boy” was more intentional and especially poignant, lending itself to Bradley’s first memory of a funeral, when, at age five, a neighbor boy who served with her uncle in Vietnam returned home in a casket.
A smartly selected crew of singers and players frame Bradley’s tender yet muscular singing to perfection. A couple of her regular bandmembers—harmony singer Kim Fox and banjo man Mike Sumner—make appearances, and so do supple, inventive musicians like the Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall, ace studio fiddler Stuart Duncan, bass stalwart Mike Bub, producer Alison Brown (who doubles on guitar and banjo) and, perhaps most surprisingly yet appropriately, young mandolin phenomena Sierra Hull. All those elements come together in the partnership here with singer, guitarist, songwriter and friend Steve Gulley. “We grew up together,” Bradley notes. “Steve and me—we each know what the other one’s going to do.” Yet as strong as the supporting cast is, the focus is, as always, on Dale Ann and the songs she’s chosen—and as always, they’re a deliciously varied bunch.
To a listener unfamiliar with her unique ability to pull songs from the rock vaults and make them her own, Seals & Crofts’ ‘Summer Breeze,’ will undoubtedly be the biggest surprise, but Bradley sees it as a natural. “I’ve always wanted to do that song,” she says. “I don’t pick out a rock tune just for the sake of having one—it has to be one that I always grew up with, or one that I hear that strikes me as fitting into the mix. Sometimes a melody or lyric will just have that feel, just lend itself to the banjo or something like that—like this one, it almost sounds Celtic to me.”
Some songs, like “I Pressed Through The Crowd” and “Will You Visit Me On Sundays,” have been in Bradley’s repertoire for years, yet were never recorded until now. “I was so tickled when Alison gave the o.k. to ‘Sundays,’” she notes, “because it brings back the traditional country that Steve and I have been singing together for a long, long time. And of course, ‘I Pressed Through The Crowd’—I’ve been doing that one for a long time, and it just keeps getting more and more meaningful to me.” Others are more recent. ‘Leaving Kentucky’ was, ironically enough, started in Nashville, but finished after Bradley moved back to Kentucky.
She grew up in southeastern Kentucky and has lived in the Bluegrass State for most of her life; her father was a coal miner and Baptist minister. Bradley auditioned unsuccessfully for the New Coon Creek Girls in 1988 and then spent the next couple of years working as a solo artist in Renfro Valley. She finally joined New Coon Creek in 1991 and performed on the group’s 1994 Pinecastle Records debut, The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore. Bradley‘s first solo album, East Kentucky Morning, came out in 1997 and largely consisted of compositions by Dale Ann Bradley and New Coon Creek ally Vicki Simmons. The project also featured a celebrated take on U2‘s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which helped the album go Top Ten on both the Gavin Americana and Bluegrass Unlimited charts and earn high critical praise.
In 2004, Bradley released the gospel-themed album Send the Angels via Mountain Home Records. Bradley next signed with the independent label Compass Records, which would bring out her next three albums — 2006’s Catch Tomorrow, 2009’s Don’t Turn Your Back, and 2011’s Somewhere South of Crazy. In 2007, Bradley was named Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards; she would go on to win the award four more times, in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012. Bradley struck a new recording deal in 2015 with the respected bluegrass label Pinecastle Records. Pinecastle would release Pocket Full of Keys in 2015, which went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Bluegrass Album. In 2017, she returned with an album simply titled Dale Ann Bradley.
A staple of the Yep Roc roster since 2005, North Carolina’s Chatham County Line often get labeled as a bluegrass act, though that’s only a small part of what they do. More than anything, they’re an Americana string band focused around the subtle songwriting talents of singer/guitarist Dave Wilson, who also acts as producer on Autumn, the group’s eighth LP. In the album’s press release, Wilson compares his band to both an old bowling alley and a hardware store in that they reliably deliver a familiar experience that keeps customers coming back year after year. It’s self-deprecating, for sure, but Chatham County Line are anything but flashy, and they are certainly reliable in terms of quality and tone. For a string band album titled Autumn, they deliver exactly what you’d want: a nuanced selection of warm, earthy music replete with gentle guitar picking, woody mandolin, muted banjo, occasional piano, and a robust vocal blend to evoke the wistful changing of the season. A rich inner language can be felt between Wilson and his colleagues John Teer (mandolin, fiddle), Chandler Holt (banjo, vocal), and Greg Readling (bass, piano, pedal steel, organ) whose parts all dovetail perfectly in the casual kind of way that comes from years of collaborating together. Instead of coming out of the gate at a sprint, they open with “You Are My Light,” an early highlight with an underpinning of late-year darkness in its slinky midtempo hook. The maritime-themed “Siren Song,” another strong cut, is imbued with a timeless comfort that belies its fine craft. In fact, the band’s amiable delivery often draws attention away from their effortless compositions and arrangements to the point that they can occasionally come across as unassuming. It’s once again the autumnal darkness that pulls them into sharper focus on the standout “Moving Pictures of My Mind,” a haunting ballad whose very essence conjures up the chillier, lonesome side of their album’s title.
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
Never one to take things easy, Sean Watkins quickly followed 2015’s Watkins Family Hour — the first-ever studio record from the loose collective that’s long haunted the stages of L.A.’s The Largo — with What to Fear in the spring of 2016. Where the Watkins Family Hour was joyous and robust, What to Fear is stark and haunted, a reckoning of all the dark undercurrents flowing through America in a particularly tense election year. Watkins occasionally touches on explicit social issues — the title track makes no bones about what should be feared — but he often explores the thin line that separates the personal and the political. Throughout the record he conveys a sense of urgency — even when the tempos turn slow or the melodies are languid, the songs feel lean and purposeful — and when paired with the meditative modulated of Watkins and his cohorts (including bassist Mike Elizondo and drummer Matt Chamberlain), What to Fear turns into something hushed, haunting, and quietly affecting: a protest album as a whisper, not a shout.
Boston native Sean McConnell has been a presence in country and roots music since the early 2000s, releasing a string of highly regarded independent albums and writing songs for major artists like Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride, and Brad Paisley, among others. With his rich, warm tenor and melodic, pop-Americana sound, he’s seemed poised for a breakout for a number of years. A decade-and-a-half after self-releasing his debut (at the age of 15), the life-long independent makes his label debut on Rounder Records. Recorded and produced in Nashville by Ian Fitchuk and Jason Lehning, this self-titled ten-song set offers a sound that is rooted in county, but borrows from the soaring melodic notions of contemporary indie folk. There was always an inward-looking nature to McConnell‘s earlier albums, but here he delves even more deeply into his own past, wielding his nostalgia in autobiographical vignettes that reveal childhood experiences, people he’s loved, street names, and deep-seated emotions. From the haunted reflections of heartland rocker “Ghost Town” to the earnest “guitar kid from Hudson” in lead single “Queen of St. Mary’s Choir,” he paints a vivid picture of his life’s journey from naive teenager to Nashville songsmith and family man. The production is fairly robust, though not so slick that it detracts from McConnell‘s soulful, earthy delivery. He’s not really breaking any new ground musically and there are plenty of singer/songwriters working in this familiar milieu of introspective roots-pop, but McConnell‘s innate earnestness and hard-earned sense of craft ultimately carry him on this solid release.
Widely regarded as one of the most innovative acts to come out of the UK in recent years, the sublime genre-defying sound of the Red Dirt Skinners is created by husband and wife team, Rob and Sarah Skinner.
In 2013 the Red Dirt Skinners became the first band in history to succeed at both the British Blues and the British Country Music awards. Don’t let these accolades pigeonhole the Skinners though; their audiences always describe them as ‘refreshingly different’. Drawing on influences from folk, country, blues, americana, jazz and everything between, the Red Dirt Skinners’ sound is instantly recognisable.
Comfortably blending exceptional, almost telepathic, harmonies with the unique instrumentation of soprano saxophone and acoustic guitar, audiences fall in love with the Skinners sound.
Hailing from the South East of England, Rob and Sarah have both been musicians for the majority of their lives.
Sarah; classically trained on the clarinet from about the age of 6, progressed through the grades before switching to the saxophone. After winning Instrumentalist of the Year at the British Blues Awards in 2014, Sarah became the first female artist to be endorsed by Trevor James Saxophones.
Rob grew up with a father who played bass guitar, and a grandmother who taught piano. As a young teen, he turned to the guitar, but still plays many other instruments. Also having worked in bands since a young age, Rob brings the occasional rocky influence to the band.
Rob and Sarah write all their material together, with Sarah focussing on lyrics and Rob adding his extensive music theory knowledge to create unique chord sequences and stylings.
After a burglary at the home they were renting in 2012, Rob and Sarah decided to take inspiration from the depths of despair and wrote a collection of songs about how they felt about the events of that weekend. The album received such positive press and airplay that sales of ‘Home Sweet Home’ ensured that the Skinners were able to purchase their own property. Advocates for finding the positives in every situation, Rob and Sarah spend much of their off-tour time encouraging new artists into the music scene and finding them performance opportunities.
From small beginnings in small venues, the Red Dirt Skinners swift rise in popularity sees them now commanding theatre audiences across Europe and Canada. A Red Dirt Skinners concert combines captivating storytelling with knowing lyricism and outstanding musicianship.
“Musically set apart from the mass of bands who are just copying what has gone before” Music News 4/5 The space where the vocals of Sarah and Rob Skinner meet features two tones existing as a single note”. The Alternate Root Magazine