In the upper echelon of today’s singer/songwriters, there’s a handful who could be counted among the literary elite — those whose lyrics are poetry that paints unique, evocative pictures — and Josh Ritter has long been considered near the top of that heap. His latest album is, among many other things, an absolute affirmation of this.
Gathering is Ritter’s ninth full-length studio album, coming off the heels of 2015’s Sermon on the Rocks. The songs were largely written in the aftermath of his highly fruitful collaboration with Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir (which resulted in Blue Mountain, Weir’s acclaimed 2016 album and his first solo studio album since 1978). The resulting creative explosion, according to Ritter, was a way to cut himself off from the expectations of others. “I began with an exciting sense of dissatisfaction,” Ritter explains in the album’s press release. “What emerged, as I began to find my voice, was a record full of storms.”
The storm-like energy is palpable on Gathering, and the creative spring from where he draws has helped create his finest album since 2010’s So Runs the World Away. Backed by his dependable and ever-present Royal City Band — Zachariah Hickman (bass, acoustic guitar, Wurlitzer), Sam Kassirer (piano, organ, synthesizers, percussion), Josh Kaufman (guitar, synthesizer) and Ray Rizzo (drums, percussion) — Ritter seems positively giddy at unleashing his new compositions with a dynamic energy that flows through both the up-tempo numbers as well as the tender ballads.
Kicking off Gathering is the brief, hymn-like “Shaker Love Song (Leah)”, which opens the album in a stately manner and invites comparisons to the aloof, mysterious arrangements of Fleet Foxes. But it’s soon followed by the first single, “Showboat”, which kicks down the doors with a sunnier, more traditional execution. “Every time it rains it pours / I pray it rains just a little more on me,” Ritter belts out at the song’s beginning before the full band falls into place. The upbeat instrumentation masks the anguish in the lyrics, where Ritter struggles to remain brave and stoic in the face of a breakup. “I’m just a showboat,” he sings. “Won’t catch me crying, no / Won’t catch me showing any hurt.”
Typically, Ritter peppers his folky arrangements with rip-roaring, boom-chicka-boom rave-ups like the infectious “Friendamine”, an upbeat barn-burner that’s sure to bring down the house when Ritter and the Royal City Band hit the road later this year. That same Johnny Cash-like gallop continues, in a more subdued fashion, on “Feels Like Lightning”, which evokes an unvarnished “riding the rails” vibe. “Out across the fields are the thunderheads gathering / Clouds all turned to the color of a cavern,” Ritter sings, pairing his nature-rich, rustic imagery with the album’s underlying “storm” themes.
Comparisons to the aforementioned So Runs the World Away are hard to avoid, not just in the quality of the writing and performing, but in the use of brief, scene-setting tracks like “Shaker Love Song” and the gorgeous instrumental “Interlude”. There’s also a folk-noir feel that pervades Gathering, never more apparent than in the epic “Dreams”. Ritter has been accurately compared to Bob Dylan in both his organic musical approach as well as his inimitable gift for hyper-detailed, surreal storytelling, and on “Dreams”, he delivers in spades. The multiple verses are delivered in a rapid-fire, almost spoken-word style, tempered with the mantra-like chorus of “dreams’ll keep coming but the dream done gone”, over and over, like some Blonde on Blondeouttake. Ritter increases the tension with each consecutive verse as the instruments become more unhinged, dissonant, and nightmarish.
More of this dark atmosphere is present in “Myrna Loy”, a whisper-quiet ballad that combines eloquent verses (“Still every now and then sometimes when the night sky gets so bright / And no Bethlehem of stars could match its burning”) with a simple chorus (“In the darkness / In the darkness”). It’s a beautiful, unrushed gem of a recording – although, at just over seven minutes, I could do without at least one verse.
Ritter’s collaboration with Weir spills over into Gathering in the form of “When Will I Be Changed”, a duet with the legendary singer/songwriter. It’s an epic, gospel-flavored ballad infused with rich instrumentation, including wide-open acoustic guitar strumming, soulful horns and vintage organ fills. Weir and Ritter’s vocals are a winning combination — the sturdy legend trading verses with the young folk genius — and is a high point in an album that’s positively stuffed with beautiful moments.
The shift in dynamics between ballads and faster numbers is refreshing and never inappropriately jarring. For every “Myrna Loy”, there’s the careening rush of a song like “Cry Softly”, a rockabilly stomper highlighted by spry guitar leads and a fast, infectious beat. “Cry softly / Real quietly / Your tears are unsightly,” Ritter sings as the band fires on all cylinders behind him.
Josh Ritter’s music is obviously the result of a broad range of influences, which he manages to sprinkle liberally and smartly throughout his work. It’s never derivative and always manages to sound fresh and new. That is a rare gift, and like the artists to whom he’s often compared — Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan being the more obvious ones — his status as a peerless singer/songwriter is unmatched. Gathering proves once again that it’s great to be living in a time when Josh Ritter is making music.
Recommended If You Like: The Head and the Heart, Lumineers, Fleet Foxes, Vance Joy
… And I’m too afraid to be alone
At its core, attraction is a wondrous thing. How many stimuli have that kind of physical and emotional control over the individual? To be moved so vividly by someone else that your behavior changes in their presence; to feel that strongly about another human being; it’s natural, and yet it often feels totally unnatural. Attraction is as powerful as it is beautiful, an overwhelming sensation that Driftwood capture perfectly in their new song “Too Afraid.”
Oh am I falling for your lies again Falling for your lies again
But you look so damn good
If I look into your eyes again Look into your eyes again
Well it feels like going home
Listen: “Too Afraid” – Driftwood
City Lights – Driftwood
.A song about falling uncontrollably hard for someone else, “Too Afraid” focuses on the fatal attraction experience: “Sometimes there are women that strike your fancy to the point where you lose a bit of yourself,” explains Joe Kollar (vocals/banjo).
It’s also easy to lose oneself in Driftwood’s music. The band pulls upon a pastiche of warm American roots and folk influences, landing somewhere in-between The Head and the Heart and The Lumineers in terms of sound, while offering a fresh, if not timeless perspective on the individual experience through harmonious music and lyrics. The group’s instrumental arrangement – which consists of Dan Forsyth on guitar and vocals, Joe Kollar on banjo and vocals, Claire Byrne on fiddle and vocals, and Joey Arcuri on bass – might be considered ‘traditional,’ but they wield their instruments with polished grace. In a music landscape where electric so frequently replaces acoustic instrumentation, Driftwood’s music provides an anchor to a past that is still very much the present.
“Too Afraid” opens with a sweetly seductive interaction between fiddle and bass, where the fiddle plays a hypnotic, repeating arpeggio sequence over punctuated bass hits. The combined effort is light, yet incredibly evocative: In a sense, it’s the perfect backdrop for a personal story. “Oh am I falling for your lies again,” sings Kollar as the verse opens. His words are raw and humble, his demeanor vulnerable as he places this interest over himself. That elevation of another, and the subsequent submission and reduction of oneself, becomes especially resounding in the chorus and second verse:
But I’m too afraid
Yes I’m too afraid to be alone
You talk like you should be my friend Talk like you should be my friend So tell me what it is that you want
Oh am I losing all my lines again I’m losing all my lines again But you look so fucking good
In his explanation of this song, Kollar notes that “Too Afraid” is, for him, about “the power of a beautiful woman,” but the song is obviously so much more than that. “I’m too afraid to be alone,” he sings. Sometimes we know something is bad for us, but we want it anyway. Loneliness is one of the hardest to cope with – so perhaps that special someone isn’t right for you, but at least it’s something. Rather than explore the intricacies of that mess, Driftwood stick to the surface and leave the diving to the listener.
“I think everyone knows someone (close or distant) that makes them weak in the knees and maybe act differently as a result,” says Kollar. Those who have known love, and perhaps more so those who have known a truly fatalattraction, can easily relate to Driftwood’s lilting melodies and uncertain, scrambling lyrics. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how confident you might appear. Every Samson has his Delilah.
As spring flashes in, this album heralds the season with astonishing power. Lisa Knapp has long been a fascinating folk artist: an ex-raver and Radio 2 folk award-winner who makes traditional songs sing, even as she experiments wildly with the sounds and textures around them. On her third album, Knapp takes 12 tracks on dazzling, occasionally frightening journeys. Hooting owls and Radio Ballad-like descriptions of rituals give opener The Night Before May a sinister edge, while Staines Morris’s thundering rhythms are full of lust, earth and glee (aided by a mischievous cameo by Current 93’s David Tibet). A tender, sparse duet with long-time folk-lover Graham Coxon, Searching for Lambs is another highlight, while Knapp’s voice throughout is a relevation, both pure and wild, springing free. Cuckoos, whirring clocks and buzzing flies add extra layers to this fascinating soundworld, on an album overflowing with warmth, light and waywardness.
Lisa Knapp was hailed as one of Brit folk’s brightest new young stars when she appeared as if from nowhere with her stirring, passionate debut album, Wild and Undaunted, in 2007. Yet by then Knapp was already over 30 and married with a small daughter, having discovered folk music relatively late after spending her teenage years going to raves and dancing to hip-hop records. A distant relative of Boris Karloff, she was raised in South London by a single mother, took violin lessons as a child, and played in the school orchestra. She discovered folk music in her early 20s after discovering Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Shirley Collins and the Waterboys through a friend’s parents’ record collection, and started attending the Court Sessions folk club in Balham, South London. She also started trawling second-hand record shops for old folk records, dug out her old violin from the loft, had lessons from Peter Cooper and joined the folk club’s local house band. She became immersed in the London-Irish session scene and, inspired by hearing Irish “sean nos” singers, started singing floor spots in folk clubs. Successful spots at Redditch Folk Festival encouraged her to take her music more seriously. She was contemplating a professional career when diagnosed with a non-functioning pituitary adenoma. After various scans, specialists decided only to operate if the tumor grew. Around the same time, Knapp met Gerry Diver, a versatile Irish musician who’d previously played with the band Sin E. Knapp sang two songs, “The Blacksmith” and “Bonnie at Morn” on Diver’s solo album, Diversions, in 2002. They married and in 2003 their daughter Bonnie was born. The combination of motherhood and health worries put her music career on hold again until producer Youth heard her version of “The Blacksmith” and asked if he could remix it to include a compilation album he was working on called What the Folk.
On the back of it Youth asked her to record an album of contemporary songs, but Knapp had been totally immersed in English traditional music since attending a residential course in Gloucestershire run by Chris Wood and had her own ideas: she wanted to make an album of traditional songs. With Gerry Diver as co-producer, engineer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist, the end result was the Wild and Undaunted album. Predominantly comprising traditional English material, with a couple of original songs of her own, the album had an immediate impact and a series of enthusiastic reviews. Knapp’s unusually charged singing was redolent of old singers like Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs, yet the modern arrangements and subtle use of technology also hit a chord with young audiences. Equally impassioned live performances fronting a trio and switching from fiddle to banjo and autoharp enhanced her reputation further.
When Maria Quiles (vocals and guitar) and Rory Cloud (vocals and guitar) met in 2011, both were adrift. Maria had quit her job, given up her San Francisco apartment, and moved in with her uncle in order to pursue music full-time. Rory had left behind a stable schedule of gigs and music lessons in Southern California to seek a new music community elsewhere. He eventually wound up living out of his Toyota Corolla in San Francisco, where he first heard Maria at an open mic. “As a lead guitar player, I could immediately hear myself in her songs.” Rory remembers.
Several years of touring and spending nearly every day together allowed Quiles & Cloud to develop a unique sound—one that is characterized by soulful melodies, close harmonies, and interweaving guitar lines that owe as much to jazz and classical music as to folk and bluegrass. The addition of Oscar Westesson (upright bass) in 2013 pushed them even further as songwriters, resulting in darker, more complex, and more dissonant arrangements.
Their sound has struck a chord with audiences all over the country. Folk Alley has lauded the group’s “continued ability to combine subtle precision with stark grit and creative exploration.” Acoustic Guitar has called them “a compelling new voice on the Americana scene.” Quiles & Cloud have now played hundreds of shows, won the 2014 FreshGrass Duo Award, and caught the attention of GRAMMY Award-winning banjo player Alison Brown—who produced their third album SHAKE ME NOW, which comes out on Compass Records 3/17/17.
SHAKE ME NOW is stripped-down, yet dense. There are musical and lyrical traces of the blues, bluegrass, folk, rock, soul, and classical music. Their songwriting stands out on the title track, “Shake Me Now” as well as the upbeat and hopeful “One My Way Tonight”. In addition to their original songs, there are reinterpreted versions of the traditional blues number “Deep Ellum Blues”, the traditional folk tune “Worried Man Blues”, and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. One gets the feeling of being on a widescreen road trip through America’s past and present, with multiple eras and traditions folding in upon each other. The result sounds familiar and roadworn, yet completely new—a quality that Quiles & Cloud share with some of American music’s greatest innovators.
Quiles & Cloud have already traveled far. As they see it, though, this is only the beginning of a lifelong journey—one of exploring connection, deepening their partnership, and examining the threads that tie us all together.
Hope Sandoval isn’t the quickest worker, it took Mazzy Star almost 20 years to put out their fourth album, and this record comes seven years after the last one she made with Colm Ó Cíosóig under the Warm Inventions name. Despite the time it took to arrive, Until the Hunter is no great departure for the duo. It features many hushed, lit-by-candlelight ballads, loads of quiet beauty, and Sandoval‘s timelessly beautiful singing. Songs drift by on a wispy cloud of acoustic strumming, lazily twanged slide guitar, and twinkling keys, sometimes gently pushed forward by lightly brushed drums, sometimes left to float along on their own. New to the mix this time is vibraphone, as played by Sandoval, and a couple songs that stretch her horizons just a bit. The duet with Kurt Vile on “Let Me Get There” features the duo getting loose over a slinky Memphis soul groove: Sandoval sounding strangely at home in unfamiliar surroundings, Vile sounding like he wandered in off the street and barely learned the song. It’s too bad he got the gig — there are at least 50 male singers who could have nailed it in his place. The album-opening “Into the Trees” is a very, very slowly unspooling psych folk ballad that doesn’t have much of a tune, but grabs the listener by the throat using its foggy chords, mysterious organ, and Sandoval‘s almost possessed vocals. It lasts for nine minutes, but could have gone on twice as long. The rest of the album is fully up to the standards Sandoval has established over time, with heart-tugging ballads like the very Mazzy Star-sounding “The Peasant” and the lovely “Day Disguise,” languid folk songs (“The Hiking Song,” “A Wonderful Seed”), and even a couple songs of a more sprightly-than-usual nature, the handclap-driven “I Took a Slip” and the almost jaunty “Isn’t it True.” As on previous Warm Inventions records, Sandoval and Ó Cíosóig prove masters of creating atmospheric settings for her luminous vocals. The addition of vibraphone and the slightly more expansive arrangements help make the album a subtle progression from the first two, so do the increased number of catchy songs. The duo have crafted another beautiful album and Sandoval sounds just as bewitching as she did the first time she stepped behind a microphone. Seven years is a long time to wait between albums, but if that’s how long it takes to make the album as good as this is, then the wait was worth it.
Hope Sandoval was born June 24, 1966 and grew up in east L.A. with her Mexican-American family. She started her career together with her friend Sylvia Gomez in a band called “Going Home”, a folk duo formed in 1986.
Hope had admired Kendra Smith as a teen-age Dream Syndicate fan. Sylvia Gomez handed Kendra Smith a demo tape which was comprised of Hope Sandoval on vocals and Sylvia on guitar. David Roback offered to produce some recordings for them and they went into the studio and recorded an album that to this day is yet to be released.
Hope and Sylvia played gigs in California throughout the mid ’80s, and stayed friends with both Kendra and David. During the Opal tour in December ’87, Kendra left the band and disappeared. David called Hope to see if she would be interested to take Kendra’s place in Opal. They found Kendra and had some discussions. They did two more shows together but then she flew home. Keith Mitchell flew home and the next day he flew back with Hope. After that tour Opal became Mazzy Star.
Hope writes almost all the lyrics for Mazzy Star. Hope is a very shy and private person. “For me recording is better,” says Sandoval. “Live, I just get really nervous. Once you’re onstage, you’re expected to perform. I don’t do that. I always feel awkward about just standing there and not speaking to the audience. It’s difficult for me.”
Described as everything from indie-roots to chamber-folk, West My Friend has an acoustic blend of instruments and four-part harmonies that challenges the conventions of popular music. The band features pure and thrillingly elastic vocals with catchy arrangements of bass, guitar, mandolin, and accordion that draw from jazz, classical, folk, and pop influences. Inspired by artists such as Owen Pallett, Joanna Newsom, Bright Eyes, The Decemberists, and the Punch Brothers, and forged from a sonically adventurous acoustic music scene on Canada’s west coast, West My Friend is proving to be a key part of a new generation of grassroots folk music.
The wealth of musical experience and classical training in the group creates an interesting backdrop for their songwriting, allowing for levels of detail, intricacy, and counterpoint balanced with moments of simplicity. Their diversity in taste and influences and a keen interest in both traditional sounds and innovation leads to constant exploration of new sounds that places them as a distinctive voice in the landscape between Canadian folk and indie-pop. West My Friend’s commitment to creating original indie-roots music, and their dedication to giving their audiences a meaningful and memorable experience, is sure to catch hold of listeners as they regularly tour through Canada, the United States, Europe, and beyond.
Quiet Hum, produced by Canadian mainstay David Travers-Smith (Wailin’ Jennys, Pharis & Jason Romero) is the third outing from West My Friend since the band formed at the turn of the decade. Its 2012 debut, Place, garnered several nominations, including “Roots Album of the Year” and “Song of the Year” at the Vancouver Island Music Awards. Its follow-up, 2014’s When The Ink Dries, was nominated for the Oliver Schroer “Pushing The Boundaries” Award at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and received the Readers’ Choice award for “Best New Sound of 2014” at Sleeping Bag Studios. With the release of Quiet Hum, the members of West My Friend build admirably on the body of work coming out of Victoria, Vancouver, and across British Columbia.
Paul and Kris Masson have always known one another. In their early lives, when they felt unfamiliar to themselves, it was the idea of the other that led them forward. And on the night they finally encountered each other, it only took one look. There were no reasons needed, they just obliged what had already been in motion.
In the first years of their relationship they traveled the country in an old ‘82 Mercedes they affectionately named Dolly. Drifting aimlessly but steadfast, they were searching for a place that felt as unifying as the home they felt in one another. They traveled the full expanse of the American landscape. They spent a slow Southern summer in a motel on the rural outskirts of Athens, Georgia. They found refuge on the West Coast, in a small bungalow hidden deep in the hills of West Hollywood. When they would feel the restlessness of LA creeping in, they would drive out to the desert and lose themselves. Their wandering often leading them to the Salton Sea, its stillness a memory that had always existed within them. It was next to its boundlessness that Kris first whispered the melody for the song “Tumbleweed:” From this land you and I will flee, shed what ails us and rest by the sea. It was a quiet reflection, an unintentional act of expression that would eventually define Great American Canyon Band’s early works; two souls interweaved and coming to terms with the vastness of the world surrounding them. There was no intention to the process unfolding, but Great American Canyon Band was becoming the answer to their limitations and the expression of their deepest yearnings.
These early songs wouldn’t take shape until the winter of 2011 when Paul and Kris settled into a weather-beaten home on the outskirts of Chicago. It was only a shell, but they planned to live in it’s skeletal form and bring it back to life. To them, it was as much a journey as their previous years of transience. It was in this space, amidst the stillness and dust that they traced the contours of their recent journey and Great American Canyon Band was incarnated. In relative isolation, they were able to explore and realize without limitation the music that had been writing itself inside them. With not much more than a few old guitars and an aging laptop, they began creating with sonic clarity the fullness and richness of their experiences. The music was dynamic and affecting. It payed homage to the transformative production qualities of Phil Spector and Brian Eno, but remained unique in it’s voice. And by the start of spring 2012, they had completed their first EP. Self-produced but nothing short of stadium sized, it’s reverb rich pleading harmonies, emotive shoegaze guitars, and tapestries of ambience sounded entirely new, yet seemingly timeless. Critical response to the EP was immediate and overwhelming positive. NPR praised the band’s “harmony-rich sound,” attesting to it’s impact as “alternately mellow, sad, wistful, romantic and sweeping.” While WXPN’s The Key hailed the EP as “a gorgeous collection of hypnotic songs that draws on [a] heady mix of dream pop and psychedelia.” The language spoke to Great American Canyon Band’s intent – to create music that is undoubtedly reaching towards whatever lies ahead.
As momentum was building behind the release of the EP, Kris and Paul were called back to their hometown of Baltimore. The band was put on pause as they came to terms with the personal loss of loved ones succumbing to illness and the inevitable toll of saying goodbye. It was during this time that the songs for the band’s debut LP “Only You Remain” began to take shape. Kris says of the time “We were watching the most influential people in our lives, people who we thought to be invincible, become human in the most brutal ways. In the end though we had to embrace the circumstances. So we let go and followed the pain to profound places.” The result is the triumphant debut LP “Only You Remain” to be released on Six Degrees Records on April 8th 2016.
The title track “Only You Remain” brims with declaration, it’s instrumentation thunderous as Paul and Kris decree that time, in all it’s selfishness “will never break us apart!”. It is a concise first statement by a band now fully formed and devoted to their craft. The sonic landscapes are wider, their musical voice stronger and the LP’s breath clearer over the ten tracks. They’ve become one voice, able to incite as much strength and celebration with their whispers as their most impassioned throws. They needed one another to fully express what was inside of them. They are artists out of necessity. It’s their way of tracking time and tracing experiences. Paul explains, “We’ve always worked with what we had, and where we were, to create the sounds in our hearts: songs that could fill a nights sky but still hold you close.”
It is with that embrace that they continue to come to terms with what it means to love fully, and grapple with the dichotomy of how life can be both graceless and so beautiful. “Only You Remain” like their previous works, is theirs through and through; written, recorded and produced at home by Paul & Kris in a small space built off the back of their house. 2016 will be a year of intensive touring. Great American Canyon Band will greet the world as a four piece band anchored by Kris and Paul, two songwriters who find in each other a North Star.
Jenny Gillespie’s new album Cure for Dreaming was recorded in fall 2015 in Los Angeles, CA. Featuring musicians such as Paul Bryan (Aimee Mann,) drummer Jay Bellerose (Robert Plant and Allison Krauss’ Raising Sand), guitarist Chris Bruce (Meshell Ndgeocello,), g uitarist Gerry Leonard (David Bowie) and pedal steel player Greg Leisz (Lucinda Williams, Bon I ver), the album blends an earnest folk sensibility with experimental flavorings of progressive jazz and sunny sixties and seventies R and B flavored pop along the likes of Minnie Riperton, Fairport Convention, and Shuggie Otis.The songs span a variety of landscapes, from the Venice boardwalk with its “chakra hucksters” to a woman’s solitary spiritual rebirth on the banks of an East Coast river in “Dhyana by the River.” Themes of motherhood, marriage, spirituality and dying enter into the music but through the medium of playful and conversational language. Characters weave in and out of the songs, such as the brooding loner drawn to the masculine expressions of his ancestry of “Part Potawatomi”, or the cheerful artist facing death in “Last Mystery Train.” The music is loose, warm, and memorable, yet pulls off an undercurrent of occasional instrumental and melodic wildness not often found in modern day pop.
Previous press about Jenny:
-Chamma, Jenny’s 2014 album named as one of the best 25 records of 2014 by Billboard.
“Jenny Gillespie has been previously labeled neo-folk but she only really nods back in the direction of a tradition. Holi is the closest example, with its beguiling mix of pedal steel and harp. She has also sung duets with Sam Amidon, and here plays with musicians from Bonnie Prince Billy’s band and Califone. Like the latter, she integrates programmed beats, electronics and found sounds with strings, as on Dirty Gold Parasol, with its evocations of rural childhood. Most of Chamma is refreshingly original and beautifully sung by a musician not afraid to take liberties with her own songs.” -MOJO (Review of Chamma, 3 stars)
For 2010’s Kindred and 2012’s Belita, Jenny worked in studios with producers (Belita was recorded in NYC with Shahzad Ismaily and featured guitarist Marc Ribot). For Chamma, released as Jenny Gillespie in spring 2014, she felt compelled to return to her own producing skills which she first exhibited on the delicately wrought chamber-folk 2008 album Light Year. Working mostly in her Lake Michigan home north of Chicago, Jenny wrote music in a whole new way—writing as she was recording. This technique allowed Jenny to feel out the essence of the songs, cutting and pasting parts, in a collage manner similar to Jenny’s mixed media paintings, some of which grace the design of Chamma. She invited guitarist Emmett Kelly (Bonnie Prince Billy, The Cairo Gang) and percussionist Joseph Adamik (Iron and Wine, Califone) to add their own unusual instrumental voices to the proceedings in surprising turns such as Vietnamese horn to “Lift the Collar” and marimba to “Child of the Universe.” Arnulf Lindner contributed stunning horn and string arrangements from his studio in London. Chamma comes from a place of lovingly crafting a sonic world and pushing it into existence bit by bit, from the mind of one artist initially but with the incoming geniuses of other musicians at play.
Sweet is an album of 14 original songs that cover the wide, sweet world of Americana roots music. Mean Mary’s reputation for fast instrumental skill on banjo, violin, and guitar is more than legendary, but her new album shows an added diversity in her playing. On the title track, Sweet, her banjo mimics a ukulele as she plays percussion simultaneously on the banjo head. That song resultantly becomes more island than bluegrass, while the following track, Voice from a Dream, an Asian meets Celtic violin instrumental, speaks of mystery and longing in languid long bow strokes and haunting melody. On the vocal side she flows from husky folk/rock songs, like Born to Be That Woman, to clear bluegrass twang on Trumbull County Antique Tractor Show. Throughout the album her voice dances from lows to highs, from hot to cold, and from sultry to girl-next-door. The songs (some of which she co-wrote with her mom, author, Jean James) are stories of joy and sweetness – with a little bit of “mean” thrown in for good measure.
Gypsy Girl: Mary James, youngest of six children, was born in Geneva, Alabama, though her family lived in Florida, a couple miles below the Alabama line. Her mom (author, Jean James) and dad (WWII veteran, William James) lived a very nomadic lifestyle. On one occasion they packed up the family (Mary was four at the time) and moved from Florida to North Minnesota, near the Canadian border, to rough it in the wilds.
The North Country:
For three months they lived in a tent built from a roll of Visqueen they’d brought with them. During this time, they built a log cabin using only an axe, hand saws, and the trees around them. They cooked their food on a campfire, got their water from a deep hole they’d dug, and read at night by the northern lights shining through the clear walls of their plastic tent. On one occasion their tent was mauled by a large, 7’1” black bear that Mary’s mom, Jean, was forced to shoot.
The tent soon became unbearably cold, and when they finally moved into their almost completed log cabin, winter was upon them. Without electricity or running water, and cold enough to freeze water five feet from the only source of heat (an old wood stove), the family spent many hours reading books by kerosene lamp and enjoying the great outdoors (cutting firewood!).
Mary’s oldest brother, Jim, who’d just joined the Navy, sent the family a guitar and a compilation tape of songs he liked. With a battery-powered tape-player, the family listened to the music of Hank Williams, Jr. and Dolly Parton. It wasn’t long before Mary was singing the songs plus vocalizing all the instrumentation. Seeing her talent, Mom and Dad bought guitar books, and Mom started teaching all the children to play the guitar. Mary and her brother Frank were the two who would turn music into a career.
Mary learned to read music before she could read words and was an official singer/songwriter before she’d started her first day of kindergarten. With the help of her mom, she wrote her theme song “Mean Mary from Alabam’.” The press immediately baptized her with this handle, and she’s been Mean Mary ever since.
Goodness, Snakes Alive:
The James family eventually migrated back to Florida. Mary’s dad (who was sixty when she was born) was now retired, and Mary’s mom searched for ways to help support the family as well as feed Mary’s musical appetite and the varied interests of their other children. She started an organic truck farm, built and sold live-animal traps, collected live reptiles, amphibians, and mammals for wholesale distributors, and collected live venomous snakes for antivenom production. The children joined in all these undertakings and found it great sport.
On the Road Again:
Mary was now playing guitar, banjo and fiddle. She recorded her first album at age six, and spent five hours a day on instrumental and vocal practice along with her live performances. When she upped her music study time to seven hours a day, and her road shows began to multiply, it became impossible for her to attend school. At the end of the second grade, she went into home study and also started appearing daily on the Country Boy Eddie Show, a regional TV program out of Birmingham, Alabama. During this time, she also appeared regularly in Nashville, Tennessee at the Nashville Palace, on the Nashville Network, the Elvis Presley Museum, and on Printer’s Alley.
In spite of her hectic schedule, she found time for her studies and when only nine years old she aced a state required test at a 12th grade equivalency level. This wasn’t surprising to her parents who had witnessed her read the entire Gone with the Wind novel at age seven.
Her guitarist brother, Frank James, who’d now joined her on stage and in the home school program, also excelled in his studies and at age fourteen taught himself trigonometry. He graduated from high school at fifteen.
Back in Time:
At one point, Mary and Frank were booked at a living history event. They immediately fell in love with folk music. They’d grown weary of the commercial, country-music scene and so started a tour of historic folk and Civil War era music. It wasn’t long before they were one of the most sought after historical folk groups in the country, being booked every weekend and having to turn down hundreds of shows a year.
There was only one problem with this new arena of music to Mary’s fourteen-year-old eyes: all those mounted reenactors riding around while she stood in the dust and played music. Mary had always wanted a horse, and being a wise teenager she slyly told her parents that the only reason she’d worked so hard on music was so she could one day afford one! When her brother, Frank, who was equally drawn by equestrian interests, seconded her resolve, Mom and Dad gave in.
Always creative with new ideas to make money for her kids’ dreams, Mom started selling fudge at their live shows. The revenues from this enterprise almost too quickly materialized into horse flesh: an Arabian mix which Frank named Rogue, and a green-broke Thoroughbred mix which Mary named Apache. They promptly added “horse-back music” to their overflowing repertoire and began playing “mounted” music whenever they could book it. This led them from parades to wild-west shows and even a few bank robberies (re-enacted, of course).
Apache was a spirited horse and contstantly got into trouble. He loved to perform, but that didn’t stop his proclivity for accidents. He once reared in a parade and fell over backwards on Mary and her guitar. Another time, when spooked by a deer, he bolted, his saddle broke, Mary fell underneath, and was trampled by his running hooves. He also, at times, liked to roll down hills with Mary astride. But in spite of broken bones, swollen limbs, twisted legs, and multiple bruises, Mary never missed a show, though she did on occasion have to prop herself against a support.
California, Here They Come:
In the meantime, Mary and Frank were eliciting interest from a California music agency, and Mom James had just signed a contract with a California literary agency. The other children were all grown and on their own by this time, so Mom, Dad, Frank, and Mary did the “Beverly Hillbilly” thing. They packed all their belongings into, and onto, their vehicles, hooked up the horse trailer with Rogue and Apache, and drove to LA.
For the next three years, Mary and Frank were involved in almost every TV show and movie produced in the Hollywood area – be it as background actor, stand-in, photo double, stunt double, or day player. Mary found a large, beat-up, slide-in camper for the back of her pickup truck that cost only two hundred dollars, and that became her home. She parked it wherever it was convenient, and sometimes in places not so convenient. There are no doubt still dents on low-hanging limbs all over the LA area, thanks to Mary and her top-heavy home. And then there was the time she took the mirror off a movie executive’s car at Fox studios by trying to squeeze through an impossibly-narrow area. She bought him a new mirror but never got a movie roll out of the happening!
It was exciting, interesting work but it wasn’t furthering her music career, and the horses didn’t like it at all. They longed for the green fields they were used to. Eventually the James Gang migrated back to the South, finding homes in Tennessee.
The Great Setback:
The horses were happy, and Mary’s music career was really taking off, when the most devastating happening of her life occurred. One rainy evening in February she was the front-seat passenger in a small car when the driver lost control, Mary’s head broke the windshield and her neck cracked the hard plastic dashboard. The twisted state of her neck convinced the driver she was gone. He even called her parents and told them she was dead. But a high-speed ambulance ride and quick medical attention at the hospital saved her life – if not her future. It was there she received news that, to her, was worse than death – her right vocal cord was paralyzed.
She brought her battered body home from the hospital and began her fight. Music was her life – had always been her life – and she couldn’t give it up. She purposely set herself to do the hardest of physical tasks, demanding her body to get well. She stacked hay bales, built fences and barns, took winter swims, and constantly worked her vocal cords. The rest of her body soon recovered from the trauma, but her right vocal cord stayed paralyzed. The left side tried to compensate for it, making it possible for her to sing a little, but only for about ten minutes at a time, and her voice was dead next to its former capabilities.
A Bit of Light in the Darkness:
It was one joyous day, six months later, a throat specialist told her there was slight movement in her frozen vocal cord. He said it might not totally recover, might not even improve further, but his news was enough for Mary. That was when her real work began. She booked shows, sang when she could, and when she couldn’t she’d play her instruments.
She started touring again, sometimes alone, sometimes with her brother, and sometimes with her full band. She also got her own Nashville TV show: The Never-Ending Street – a documentary/reality type show depicting the trials and joys of a touring musician.
During this time, she co-wrote novels with her mom. To date, she is the award winnng author of 2 published novels – available now at bookstores: Sparrow Alone on the Housetop, and Wherefore Art Thou, Jane?. Another novel is due for release in 2014.
It was also during this same time that her YouTube videos began to take off. They’d started out with a few daily visits but quickly climbed to over 4000 visits a day. Her bookings increased and her international fan base took a leap of growth. This was all good news, but the greatest thing to happen during this time was the recovery of her vocal cord. She’d worked it back to life!
On the Never-Ending Street:
Today she labors on her TV show, produces music for herself and other artists, produces shows and videos, is co-writing a novel trilogy about the music world, is an endorsing artist for Deering Banjos, and is constantly touring.
There is not room here to tell the whole life story of Mean Mary, but if you’d like to hear more of it, listen to her music—it’s all there.
The first time they ever made music together, Fruition’s three lead singer-songwriters discovered that their voices naturally blended into beautiful three-part harmonies. In the eight years since that impromptu busking session, the Portland, Oregon-based quintet has grown from a rootsy, string-centric outfit to a full-fledged rock band with an easy but powerful grasp of soul, blues, and British Invasion era pop.
On their new album Labor of Love, Fruition shows the complete force of their newly expanded sound, matching their more daring musicality with sophisticated, melody-minded song craft. The album subtly imparts the sense of being swept along on a journey, one reflecting an open-hearted spirit that sets in from the first notes of the dobro, mandolin and electric guitar driven title track, carries on to the sleepy soul of “Santa Fe,” and unfolds into the epic balladry of “The Meaning.”
“A common theme for all three songwriters is trying to embrace being out on the road all the time, but also feeling like you’re missing out on the everyday lifestyle that most people get to have,” says Leonard. Embedded within that tension is a wistful romanticism that imbues many of the album’s songs. “Most of the love songs are very much about those rare moments of getting to be with the people you love,” says Anderson. “And then other songs are about coming back to the people you love, and trying to deal with the strange ways things change because of being apart.”
After releasing their debut EP Hawthorne Hoedown in 2008, Fruition moved from busking on the street, to scraping their way onto the lower levels of festival lineups, to opening tours for bands like ALO and Greensky Bluegrass and onward, to being invited to play bigger festivals with ever bigger billing on those lineups.
Last year saw them appear at Bonnaroo, Northwest String Summit and Telluride Bluegrass where Rolling Stone cited their artful choice of covers and “raucous originals filled with heartfelt lyrics and stadium-worthy energy.” This year will see them share a Red Rocks bill with JJ Grey and Mofro and The Infamous Stringdusters, along with a full headline tour of the United States.
That breadth of touring experience has steadily reshaped the band and ultimately allowed them to achieve a sound they’ve long aspired toward. “We all tend to write on acoustic guitar and let things start in the same stripped-down, folky sort of way that we always did,” says Naja. “So where the songs come from hasn’t really changed much at all. What’s different is where we let them go from there.”