All three profiles are worth reading, but I was struck by a passage in Sam McGee’s story. He was born around 1894 in Williamson County, Tennessee, on a farm near the town of Franklin. It was a rural upbringing in the days before recorded music, but there was still plenty of it around. I.
n later years, McGee—half of the McGee brothers, composer of “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and a noted guitar accompanist of the great comic banjo player Uncle Dave Macon—knew hundreds of songs, but one he half remembered dogged at him.
McGee’s early teacher, maybe around 1905 or earlier, was a local man. “Tom Hood taught me a lot, taught me songs, too,” McGee said. “One of his numbers was an old song called ‘Parse Nelson,’ which started out:
Parse Nelson was a bully;
He bullied all his life.
He bullied all over the wide world
With a ten-cent Barlow knife.
I don’t remember any more of it. I can’t even find anyone that knows anything about that song, and I ask everyone about it. It must be about 150 years old.”
OK, so a song that’s now more than 200 years old the (the book was published in 1981, and McGee died in a freak tractor accident in 1975) is hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads. I tried Googling the song “Parse Nelson” and got only the Burton book.
But another U of Tennessee book, Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee by the late Charles K. Wolfe (who also wrote the McGee section of the other volume), opines that “Parse Nelson” could be a version of a song called “Leslie the Gambler” that “may have been reasonably well known in Middle Tennessee around the turn of the century.” If so, the song doesn’t have much of a paper trail now.
But we do have lyrics to “Leslie the Gambler”:
Leslie was a gambler,
And dead up to the times,
‘Twas him that killed Parson Nelson,
And didn’t have to pay no fine.
Told you once, told you twice,
Told you if I told you the third time,
I’d be bound to take your life.
Oh my baby,
Why don’t you come home?
Hmmm, now Parse (obviously short for Parson) Nelson is a murder victim, and no one was too sad about it. Leslie the gambler did him in. Goes with the bullying, don’t you think? It’s impossible to tell where or when this murder occurred, or even if it did. Ample research shows us that many murder ballads, such as “Knoxville Girl,” originated in England and then changed locations once they made it across the Atlantic.
This appears to be about as far as I can go, because I can’t find a record of a long-ago murder of a Parson Nelson. But at least now if you Google “Parse Nelson,” more things will come up! And maybe Sam McGee is resting a little easier in his grave. Here’s Sam and Kirk McGee playing “Buck Dancer’s Choice”:
KATONAH, NEW YORK and GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—When you go to two Americana festivals in two days you hear quite a lot of music. And that was certainly the case for me at the Caramoor American Roots Music Festival in Katonah and Signature Sounds’ Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts. But two performances were so luminous I have to lead with them.
Molly Tuttle has been making a lot of waves, and rightly so. Guitarists lined up to see her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” because the fingerpicking is amazing. More than one million views! But it took until her new album Crooked Tree that the full range of her songwriting, singing and guitar playing came together on disc.
On that new record, Tuttle writes songs in the bluegrass tradition, very suited to her band’s virtuosity. Her biggest influence here is probably Gillian Welch, but that’s not a problem! Songs like “Dooley’s Farm” definitely tap into her well. What’s interesting here is that Tuttle grew up in Palo Alto, far from those bluegrass hills. But that’s true of Gillian Welch (born in New York City!) also.
Crooked Tree is amazing, but it pales in comparison to Tuttle live at Caramoor’s open-air Venetian Theater. The energy level was incredibly high—imagine a metal band plugged into a towering Marshall stack. There wasn’t much room for balladry, but a huge amount of did-they-really-just-play-that wizardry. On “Sleepy-Eyed John” alone I thought the room would levitate, or at least the instruments catch fire. The group deserves to be identified by name: Molly on guitar and lead vocals, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Kyle Tuttle (no relation) on banjo and Shelby Means on bass and occasional vocals.
It’s not enough just to buy the album. This group really needs to be heard live.
Over at Green River, I was eagerly anticipating the Brennen Leigh set on the strength of her last two albums, and she did not disappoint. Just out is Obsessed with the West, which is a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel. Given that group’s predilection and 50-year commitment to the music of Bob Wills, it’s safe to say that the album is country swing. But instead of rehashing the overly familiar—but brilliant!—Wills repertoire, Leigh had the effrontery to write an entire album of songs in that vein.
It would have been wasted effort if the music didn’t measure up, but it does! At Green River, Asleep at the Wheel was also on the bill. Leigh’s own set was backed by Wheel’s rhythm section and one of the two fiddle players, and they did a great job of interpreting mostly songs from Prairie Love Letter, the album before Obsessed.
What’s fascinating is that Tuttle does a great job with a tradition from hills that are a long way from where she grew up, but Leigh revisits her youth in North Dakota farm country with cinematic clarity and great poignancy. “John Deere H” is seen through her father’s eyes, when he was eight year old and got to drive the family’s 1943 tractor for the first time. “He listened to it, and said it sounded like he talked,” Leigh said. “Billy and Beau” is about a chaste same-sex obsession that takes place around a 4-H farm competition.
Later that day, Leigh got on stage with the Wheel and did her “Texas with a Band.” The video is above. Ray Benson, the group’s leader, was in fine form. I’m sure he’d agree with her song “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice was Booze (I’d Stay Drunk All the Time).” Tommy Duncan was the Wills’ vocalist, though many people thought it was Wills himself hootin’ and hollerin’.
Leigh is a powerhouse singer and guitarist, too. Check her out. Asleep on their own were damned good, too. The pedal steel guitarist is from Rome, though you’d never know it. Like jazz, country is a universal language.
These were music festivals, so there were a lot more performers than just those two. Here are a few highlights:
The Black Opry describes itself as “a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music.” The Black Opry Revue came to Caramoor with four of its members doing a concert in the round. I was especially taken with Riki Stevens (from Norwalk, CT, where I was born) and Tae Lewis. The latter played a separate show in the sunken garden, where Lewis unveiled his song “We’ve Got a Lot to Drink About.” It’s a goodtime party song for hard times, and Lewis—with a deeply soulful voice—is a Bill Withers for our time. Stevens has both strongly emotive songs and a really flexible, expressive voice. Roberta Lea did a very warm family song about introducing kids to genius—in the car with fried chicken, “Dinner, Sunset ad Nina Simone.”
The motor-mouthed one-man band Suitcase Junket is always fun to see. He writes darkly quirky and rootsy songs with bluesy guitar grooves. “Just Another Human Disaster” was one. I think I heard him singing about “black holes and overdoses.” He said that band arguments sometimes escalate, and that he was on “the reunion tour.”
Kittel & Co. are a three-piece folk-classical ensemble led by violin player Jeremy Kittel. Their music was inventive and well-crafted, albeit not very emotionally involving. The material ranged from Bach interpretations to a Django/Grappelli-adjacent version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with some Tom Petty thrown in.
Rebecca Haviland and Whiskey Heart didn’t make much of an impression. Her strongest song was “Black Dog,” a Led Zeppelin cover. Over at Green River, the Green Sisters got by on their sibling harmony, and some good covers of Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” Dustbowl Revival was a bit spotty, but the highs were fairly high.
Florida-based Matthew Fowler is new to me, but I liked his voice and songs, and his two female accompanists who doubled as the horn section (clarinet and oboe).
Waxahatchee (a/k/a Katie Crutchfield) was punchy and compelling onstage. Her expressive voice glided over the strong folk-rock arrangements, which featured a killer drummer. My guess is she’d reject the folk-rock tag (in favor of something punkier), but maybe not—she’s a big Lucinda Williams fan, and covered one of her songs (“Fruits of My Labor”) onstage.
Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for Allison Russell. I like her solo albums, and her work with Birds of Chicago. At Green River she seemed to be talking and speechifying as much as singing. Deva Mahal was best when singing covers. She has a powerful voice like Odetta’s, and is Taj Mahal’s daughter.
And then there was the Young@Heart Chorus, who had a prime-time slot. You have to be 75 or older to join. My wife was reduced to tears by their version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” But all their material isn’t so folkie. They do the Ramones’ “I Want to be Sedated.”
Many other festival weekends coming up. Stay tuned.
“Now I’m going to do some old depressing songs to offset the nonstop thrill ride that is life in 2022,” said Jake Blount during the concert he did with the young Nora Brown at Common Ground in Westchester, New York May 14.
He was true to his word. The lyrics of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” include this couplet, “Hard times is here and everywhere you go/Times are harder than ever been before.” Blount was in very good form, and is a unique and intriguing instrumentalist on guitar, fiddle and banjo, exploring songs he said mostly came from African-American and indigenous sources.
But something was clearly bugging him, and it became clear toward the end of his segment. With COVID continuing to rage—a fact brought home by the solid phalanx of masked faces in the audience—Blount said it’s near-impossible for musicians to make a living these days. He blamed irresponsible officials and, presumably, mass disinformation campaigns.
Who can deny the truth of Blount’s words? COVID is a perfect storm for musicians. Right as CD sales plummeted (and weren’t really replaced by LP sales), streaming fed musicians only a trickle of revenue. And then COVID shut down live venues—the only means many musicians have to produce revenue. It’s also been the primary source of CD sales.
Unless supported by touring, CD releases and download availability might as well not exist. The Zoom concerts have been a brave attempt to circumvent COVID realities, but they’re not a long-term or ultimately satisfying alternative to live music.
The bright spot here, however tentative, is that live music has started up again. Blount is leaving for a tour of Great Britain, with nine gigs over there, before coming back for the Philadelphia Folk Festival June 11.
Here’s Blount’s latest single, “The Man Was Burning,” old-time gospel with a modern touch:
Nora Brown has stayed amazingly true to the sound first heard by festival audiences when she was 12. She learns old-time songs not from records, but from the masters themselves—John Cohen, Lee Sexton, Alice Gerrard, Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Sammy Lind, Courtney Hartman, and on and on. She gives them full credit, too. Catch her in duets with Stephanie Coleman and Jackson Lynch.
At the end of the show, Blount and Brown sat down for a luminous duet. It was a brief respite, a shaft of light, in an increasingly demented world.
The sessions take place in the jazz guitarist Greg Packham’s basement in Fairfield, Connecticut, accessed through the dark garage. The Greg Packham Group, formed in 1973, has been rehearsing here every Tuesday evening almost as long, since 1976.
The group has made two albums, Action-Reaction and Into the Flying Pan (with Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones), both recorded at the late Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey.
My radio show on WPKN happens to be at exactly the same time as the rehearsal, so it’s been quite some time since I’d dropped in on a session. But I was off February 15 and so I became a socially distanced fly on the wall.
When I arrived, they were already playing. All the musicians can all sight-read, which is good, because the Packham book numbers 600 original compositions. When I arrived, they were playing “Friday Night at the Club.” The bass player was Jason Frangenes, an eighth-grade science teacher at my alma mater, Staples High School. On keyboards was Mike McGrath, a music teacher at Middlebrook School in Trumbull, Connecticut. Nick Rodriguez was on Latin percussion, and Ray Field on drums.
The personnel shifts due to availability. Players move away, and a few have departed our Earth. Alto sax player Vince Montalli was out of town. While waiting for new tenor sax player Malin (pronounced MAWL-in) Carta to show up, the band ripped through a version of “Mr. Moto,” which is about, well, me. It’s bebop with a lot of stops and starts.
Packham was playing a black 1978 Fender Telecaster with a tray of effects pedals, some of which he’s had since he was a California seventh grader. The band played another song, “Eternity,” on the ballad spectrum but fairly sped up. Everything was being recorded through the 24-track board, direct to CD. The balance in the room was misleading—headphones showed how it was actually going down.
Some 45 minutes in, Carta arrived. She’s by far the youngest (and newest) member of the band, and a recent music performance graduate of Western Connecticut State College in Danbury. She studied with Grammy-nominated saxophonist Jimmy Greene. In the band, she plays tenor and flute, but she’s also a pianist singer and educator.
She opens her sax case, extracts a reed, dampens it, and inserts it into her mouthpiece. In minutes, the tenor is ready to go, but the next tune is “Floating Leaf,” and it needs her flute. Carta has never seen the piece before—none of the members have—but with their eyes fixated on some dense notation they play it without a hitch.
“Floating Leaf” is extremely catchy, and distinctly Asian. Packham says he’s been watching a lot of Japanese movies lately, and recommends Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 Funeral Parade of Roses. Packham has an ear for melody, in whatever style—and the band covers a lot of ground, from reggaeton to funk, bebop, blues, Latin, Cape Verdean and more.
Carta has only been playing flute for about a year, but she sounded strong and assured on the instrument—which can sometimes melt into the background. I recommended she check out another Connecticut flute player, Ali Ryerson, and asked if it is a challenge to record songs on the first take, and she said, “At times it can be a little difficult.”
At that point, bassist Frangenes left, but it didn’t cause a problem. Pianist Martha Lind took over from McGrath, and on the Hammond B3 that’s a perennial in the studio she could play bass lines with one hand. On they went, with “Hard Knocks,” a loping bop tune with Carta back on tenor, exploring the bottom end of that instrument.
Packham is a chameleon, and his own solos reflected the needs of his compositions—some of which still had wet ink on them. But he plays a lot of guitar, no matter the occasion. By next week, he’s very likely to have another four or six songs ready to go. The band is likely to start playing out soon, so stay tuned to that Facebook page linked above.
The Oldtone Roots Music Festival is one of the few summer celebrations that’s fully devoted to old-time country music. “That’s like bluegrass?” people say to me. Not really. Old-time—bedrock weird Americana before Bill Monroe got his hands on it, is produced by musical collectives that exist to serve the song. Monroe, inspired by the jazz that was the basis for popular music in the 1930s and 1940s, introduced the soloist to country, sped it up, made it into a virtuoso display.
Old ballads, murder songs, tales of longing for Appalachian mountains—they lose something when translated into bluegrass. With a few exceptions (Monroe himself being one, Lester Flatt and Roy Acuff two more) they often sound like they’re rushing through the lyrics to get to the fast-fingered mandolin player. That doesn’t really do when the song is a tale of homicidal infamy like “Little Sadie” or “Omie Wise.”
The popularity of bluegrass could have killed off old-time, but it didn’t—just as TV didn’t kill off radio. In fact, we’re in something of a renaissance of the form, and Oldtone 2021—a one-day event instead of the usual weekend—celebrated it with performances mainly by younger practitioners. The organizers are to be commended—they got the pigeon-poop-covered stage up in record time. All was well at Cool Whisper Farm.
Moonshine Holler featured longtime member Paula Bradley with two younger players, Pete Killeen and Marco DePaolis. Bradley’s late husband and bandmate Bill Dillof is much missed, but it’s heartening to hear these young banjo and fiddle players enthusiastically embracing the music that was old in their grandparents’ day. Are some of the songs from the 18th century? Yes indeed, and sometimes translated with new lyrics when they made their way across the Atlantic.
Bradley is an enthusiastic musicologist, as Dillof was, and that’s why instead of “Pretty Polly” we got songs sourced from old 78s like “Chase the Devil Down” and “Tie Hacker’s Number Two.” The latter apparently refers to workers who cut railroad ties by hand. This music is preserved from a very brief period in time, basically 1926 to 1930, when rural workers had money and the industry realized they’d pay for records. If the tunes were more slowly paced than you’re used to, well, that’s what bluegrass did to the music. This ain’t Hee Haw.
Dumpster Debbie is a New England old-time collective featuring Sophie Wellington, Zack Meyer, Andrew Stearns, Dan Bui, Will Seeders Mosheim and Mike Harmon. They play the music with drive, spirit and enthusiasm. Wellington may not be named Debbie, but she’s an ingratiating and outgoing frontperson. Also a keen fiddle player. There’s fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass but no real singer, though Wellington hollered a bit on “Cumberland Gap.” There’s was but one of many versions of the song.
Dumpster Debbie was actually formed at Oldtone in 2019. Where else are you going to find simpatico roots musicians? They have an album out, which they sell at gigs for $20.
The Downhill Strugglers have played Oldtone a number of times, in recent years with John Cohen—a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers. Thus did they connect their New York City-based take on old-time with similar impulses from the Ramblers back in the 1060s. “We played with John at every Brooklyn Folk Festival since the beginning, as well as at every Washington Square Park Folk Festival, many shows here at the Jalopy Theatre and many more all across the country, including at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the Newport Folk Festival and more,” the Strugglers say.Y
Now a trio, the Strugglers are Jackson Lynch on fiddle and vocals, Eli Smith (who also runs the aforementioned Brooklyn Folk Festival, on in November) on banjo and Walker Shepard on a variety of instruments. They’re all musicologists, too, and Lynch unearths some real gems. “I know “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” but “Big Ball’s in Memphis”? He has a penchant for long and mordant ballads, such as (if I got the title right) “The Ballad of Utah Carroll.” There are variants on this story—a cowboy is killed saving a little kid from a raging bull/stampede. In this case she’s the boss’ little daughter.
One song the Strugglers did, “Ain’t Gonna Lay My Armor Down,” is one of just two recorded by the team of McVay and Johnson back in the 20s. Hey, you can look it up. It’s on Columbia, with unknown musicians aplenty, and recorded October 17, 1928 in Johnson City, Tennessee. Finding these old 78s is what the Ramblers did, searching dusty general stores rather than the Internet.
Another song they did, “Wimbush Rag,” by Theo and Gus Clark, was also one of the only two the performers recorded. Here it is:
Cole Quest and the City Pickers are also New York-based. Cole is Woody Guthrie’s grandson, and is definitely carrying on that tradition. Their set was a mix of old-time songs and some new compositions. Quest is aided by a very talented group: on guitar (Christian Apuzzo), banjo (Mike Mulhollan), harmonica (Matheus Verardino), and bass (Larry Cook).
Many of the bands played several times, which was all right with me. I was particularly keen to hear from Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings on three separate occasions. This is a band that, in many ways, prefigures not only bluegrass but also recorded old-time music. The focus is on songs from the very beginning of recorded music, make that 1910 to 1925. Is anyone else reviving Rudy Valee these days? Their only recording is on Edison wax cylinders!
This is accurate: The group turns a “recorded repertoire of antique novelty tunes into a fantastic stage show that puts a capital ‘S’ in showmanship. When you see the Ragtime Shepherd Kings you’ll witness: fancy fiddling, dueling Hawaiian guitars, ukelele wizardry, flashy lap-steel guitar, a menagerie of toy instruments, vocal harmonies that sound as if they were polished by hand, a musical pig ‘porkestra,’ scandalous dancing—and that’s just the intermission!”
The fez-wearing group—Timmy Findlen on ukulele, Lindsay McCaw on fiddle, vocals and the scandalous dancing, Matt Bell and Joel Jackson on guitars and Joy Patterson (little instruments)—is simply unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The show makes me very sad about never having seen vaudeville. It’s a show. No flannel shirts and grim expressions.
And finally there was the Lucky Five. It was getting cold, but I was so glad I stayed. The group features Oldtone organizer Kip Beacco on guitar and smooth vocals, and it’s old-time swing jazz with some French flair. The roots aren’t quite in Django/Grappelli, though—it seemed from a more romantic era.
The musicians are Beacco on guitar/vocals, Jonathan Talbot on violin/vocals, Carolyn Dufraine on vocals/trombone, Matt Downing on bass/vocals, and Tom Parker on drums. Collectively, they’ve been part of the Hunger Mountain Boys, Lauren Ambrose and the Leisure Class, and in performing/recording/trio settings with Neko Case, Iris Dement, Bobby Previte, Del McCoury and Jim Lauderdale.
But what comes out sounds nothing like any of them. Dufraine sings only in French, and the band sounds like what you’d hear in Paris in 1923. Maybe with an expatriate American in the band. Isn’t that what James Reese Europe was all about? They were really swinging, believe me.
I didn’t initially realize that the Rosie Newton who played fiddle on old-time songs and originals with Richie Stearns was the same woman who played accordion and sang Cajun songs and played accordion with Rose and the Bros over on the dance stage. But that’s the way it went at the Rhythm & Roots festival 2021 at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, Rhode Island September 3-5—lots of mix and match. Roots musicians are very versatile. The festival this year admitted only fully vaccinated patrons and staff, a very smart choice.
I missed Friday, and Saturday started with a laid-back accordion workshop on the Roots Stage (my favorite), featuring ace Louisianans Steve Riley, Wilson Savoy, Jeffrey Broussard and Blake Miller. They talked about their challenged state, growing up in musical families, old-time musicians who influenced them (check out the great vocalist Ira “Iry” LeJeune), and varying styles. Riley (a genial host for the proceedings, on his first gig for 18 months) brought his 12 year old son, Burke, who already has a lot of the old man’s chops. And of course, they played, tunes like “Mulberry Waltz,” “Seychelle” and “Back of Town Two-Step.” You can find these musicians in the Pine Leaf Boys, the Revelers, and in Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.
A sublime panel brought together Dirk Powell—one of the greatest living exponents of old-time country—together with Richie Stearns, Powell’s daughter Amelia, and the two principals of Donna the Buffalo, Tara Nevins and Jeb Pruyear. It’s not well known that the latter two were heavily involved in old-time before Donna was formed in the Finger Lakes in 1989. Actually, both Stearns and Powell were in an early lineup, so it was a reunion of sorts. I’d never heard guitarist Puryear play fiddle before, and he sounded just fine.
“Breaking Up Christmas,” an old tune from North Carolina, was a standout, but so was “Sally Ann” and Stearns’ own “Chilly Winds.”
Stearns is an excellent songwriter, and his set with Newton as Richie and Rosie included a bunch of his compositions, including the lovely “Honeybee” and “I Will Be With You Always.” They mixed in nicely with traditional fare like “Waterbound,” “Say Darling Say,” “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “Been All Around This World.” Newton is a first-rate vocalist and fiddler, and Stearns forceful on his main instrument, banjo.
There’s always good zydeco and cajun at Rhythm & Roots, especially in the Dance Tent. I would put the Revelers and Rose and the Bros on the same basic platform—great bands to dance to, superb at the local VFW hall. You can listen also. The Revelers’ top number was “If You Ain’t Got Love”—that should be their single. Hitbound, but only in an era with charts not dominated by hip hop and R&B. Rose surprised me by singing John Martyn “Don’t Want to Know About Evil.” Odd that’s the only song of his anyone else sings—he’s got lots of other good ones.
Newton has many facets. At one point there was a lovely piece by three unaccompanied fiddles, and then the band joined in to create an indelible rave-up.
I’m sorry to have missed Veronica Lewis, a blues shouter and rockin’ pianist who’s all of 17. I’m listening to her album You Ain’t Unlucky right now, and it’s great jump blues stuff—from long before she was born. Fats Domino would approve.
Christine Ohlman, a beehived chanteuse from the New Haven, Connecticut area who got lost on the way to the B52s audition, mines some of the same territory. But on the Roots Stage, with Rebel Montez and the Sin Sisters singing backup, she was all about gospel—with swampy Tony Joe White/Creedence backup. This was a big old revue, with eight pieces on stage. Ohlman has a lot of voice and a large personality suited for “Wade in the Water,” “People Get Ready” and “The Devil Don’t Bother Me.”
I heard a little bit of Ward Hayden and the Outliers, a four-piece classic country band with a leader who looked like he’d just stepped off a FedEx truck. “I Just Can’t Live Like That Anymore” was fine country swing. One song was dedicated to the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, in which Hayden was immersed during the lockdown.
I’ve written extensively about Richard Thompson so no need to go on here, but he was fine with just his guitar and a backup singer. A bunch of new songs that haven’t sunk in yet. No one plays guitar like Thompson, Celtic influenced by every other style in the world. I still swear that “Beeswing” is about the great lost light Anne Briggs, but Thompson claims he met her only twice and both times she was passed-out drunk. Neither Thompson, in his early 70s, nor his guitar playing show much wear.
And then, just before the rain, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. I heard Giddens earlier in the day during another workshop with Dirk Powell et al, and she was in amiable form. But with Turrisi it was on another level. She’s been locked down in Ireland for 18 months, and is busting out of the gates.
Most of the material that night will be familiar to owners of their album together, There Is No Other. But it was all that much better live. Turrisi barely made it into America, but Rhythm & Roots was profoundly glad he did. And Giddens is one of our true American treasures, fully deserving of every accolade she’s gotten.
The Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts was first held in 1986, back when the focus was on hot-air ballooning. When I started going, long ago, the balloons were still there but the music came from at least three stages. The festival kept growing at Greenfield Community College until last year, when COVID shut it down. But in 2021 Green River was back, now at the Franklin County Fairgrounds.
The three stages were scattered in and around the very nostalgic fair buildings, which made a nice change. There wasn’t as much shade as at the college, but quite a bit of atmosphere. Attendees were “strongly encouraged” to come vaccinated, but it wasn’t required.
I made it to Saturday and Sunday. Here’s what I saw, in order. Bella White is a fine Canadian singer-songwriter, signed to Rounder. White’s guitar was accompanied by fiddle and upright bass, a neat trio format. She’s very comfortable on stage, and has material that I wrote in my notes “is very good but looking for that spark of genius.” A standout was “Do You Think of Me at All?” She said the Stanley Brothers were her models for it, and that’s a recipe for classic country. George Jones was another influence, manifest in a real tear-jerker, and weren’t those Guy Clark and Louvin Brothers songs she did?
I loved Appalachian Still, who are local to the Northampton area. They had a guitar/banjo/fiddle front line and favored a breakneck form of bluegrass/old-time. They performed a lot of classics with gusto, including “The Race is On,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Salty Dog,” “Get Up, Jake” (an obscure Band song), and more. Maybe you saw them open for Del McCoury.
The overlap of the sets meant some acts I saw only briefly. I caught a bit of Kris Delmhorst, who was in fine form. A song she did called “I Fly Away” was absolutely killer—it should be a single. Delmhorst is a prolific album artist, check out her latest, Long Day in the Milky Way. A singer named Peter Moore, from Texas, well, I heard only the last few notes of his last song. Sorry, Pete!
Ghost of Paul Revere were very loud, not very melodic, and also swore a lot—which seemed inappropriate given all the children present. Other groups that didn’t ring my bell all that much included Whiskey Treaty Road Show, Ani DiFranco, Cimafunk and the Beau Sasser Trio.
Much, much better was New York-based Underground System, stars in the making. Frontwoman Dominica Fossatti is unbelievably dynamic, a powerful dancer, singer, flute player and songwriter. The music is afrobeat meets Talking Heads, in the best possible way. The horn section was killer.
Zara Bode of the Sweetback Sisters is a big-voiced, standard-loving jazz singer fronting a band that featured venerable sax and trumpet players, plus the great Anna Patton as musical arranger and clarinet artiste. And that was her husband, Sam Amidon’s brother Stefan, on drums. He was in the Sisters, too.
JD McPherson did a solid rockabilly set, backed by standup bass, saxophone and drums. If the form is a bit limiting, well, it’s got three chords and the truth. The Rebirth Brass Band, a group I first saw at least 20 years ago, remain in rude good health. I still love the tuba, and not one but two trombone players.
With just her banjo and guitars (electric and National steel) Valerie June was transcendent. This was one of the best performances I’ve seen by her. She’s intense, funny and cosmic at the same time. And deeply humanistic, wanting us to see the glory of sharing the planet at this unique moment in time. She celebrates “the sun going up and down and the beauty of it all.” As to that unique voice, it’s the product of 18 years in church. “The World’s Not My Home” is from page 356 of the hymnal.
Fiddle player/guitarist/banjo picker/singer/songwriter Rachel Baiman is a national treasure, solo and with 10 String Symphony. I saw her on the main stage performing her own songs with Miss Tess (a transcendent front woman in other contexts) on bass. Her songs are pretty good, but she really excelled on Andy Irvine’s “Never Tire of the Road.” More on her later.
Bonny Light Horseman feature, of course, the playwright Anais Mitchell of Broadway phenomenon Hadestown fame, and her presence is perhaps why the people were packed in by the stage. But the music bore no relation to Broadway, Hamilton or anything like that—it was mostly excellent revivalist folk from the U.S. and Britain. “The Roving,” now that’s a fine song. “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” I think I first heard it by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Bonny Light Horseman” is itself a honey of a song that dates to the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1807–1814). The hymn “Children, Go Where I Send You” never gets old. “Blackwaterside” is via Anne Briggs, and influenced Bert Jansch (and Jimmy Page, too).
What was Mandolin Orange is now Watchhouse, still featuring Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. They’re both strong singers and songwriters, and Marlin is a mandolin wizard. Their set went down easily, and long codas were typical. “Beautiful Flowers,” sung by Frantz, was a standout.
Also Marlin’s “The Wolves.” I’d like to see the two singers sing in unison or duet a bit more. We sat behind the cello player’s mother.
Watchhouse, in fine form, celebrating John Hartford. (Jim Motavalli photo)
As I noted after seeing her at the Red Wing Festival, Sierra Ferrell is headed for great things. At Green River her fine guitar work was combined with a fiddle and mandolin—the poor bass player got left behind. Ferrell has a powerful voice with its own country twists, and is a prolific songwriter and interpreter.
In all the moving around I caught just a bitofRanky Tanky, from the Georgia Sea Islands.Quiana Parler is riveting as the lead vocalist, and Charlton Singleton is both a singer and spirited trumpet player. They looked very happy to be there. This is the kind of group that used to be featured at the Newport Folk Festival in the 50s and 60s.
And then the finale, a tribute to John Hartford, curated by Baiman. What a delight! Artifact Cider was my favorite stage at Green River, though they all had great music on them. Roots! John Hartford was overdue for a salute, and he got a great one here, featuring many of the acts from the show—Baiman’s band, Appalachian Still, Twisted Pine, Ali McGuirk, Watchhouse, Sierra Ferrell.
The versions were all loving, and pointed up the durability of Hartford’s compositions. “Gum Tree Canoe,” “Long Hot Summer Day,” “Tall Buildings,” “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Back in the Goodle Days,” great to hear them all. The next day I had to do a John Hartford marathon through my headphones. That Bonny Light Horseman set sent me back to the originals, too.
Thank you Rachel Baiman, and thank you Jim Olsen for doing this festival for 35 years.
The Caramoor Jazz Festival this year, in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, brought a wealth of young talent to the garden oasis in Katonah, New York.
A case in point: Andromeda Turre wasn’t even on the bill. She turned up to sing an unlikely song, “Old McDonald’s Farm,” during an East Lawn set by Endea Owens and the Cookout. The daughter of trombone player Steve Turre, she came out swinging. In one brief three-minute song she demonstrated via a big, brassy voice every possible nuance of the great jazz singer, including scat. More please!
Owens, a bass player, had just delivered her own strong set. She was Lincoln Center’s emerging artist of 2019, and is quickly building a reputation that could provide competition to Esmerelda Spaulding. I could have done without “Imagine,” but “Idea” was a strong original from a front line that included a very strong Jeffrey Miller on trombone. He was later seen with Charles Turner. It was like Newport, with some musicians appearing multiple times.
Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino is a talent deserving of wider recognition, as Downbeat puts it. She’s a fluent player and writer, and featured an adept quartet. “It’s amazing to play for real humans,” she said. Her mostly original set included Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap.” Strong Tarantino writes, mostly from her new album Firefly (described as “a day in the life of COVID”), were the limpid “Daybreak” and the very bright and busy “Surge Capacity.” I wrote down, “Maybe everybody doesn’t have to solo on every song.”
Brandon Goldberg has been playing since he was 3. Now he’s 15 and a veteran. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Brandon Goldberg is just 15 and (having started playing at 3) is already a jazz veteran. He played a set with a trio that sounded informed by life experiences not usually visited on one so young. Close your eyes and it was Cedar Walton up there. Goldberg’s many originals have frequent changes in tempo. It was windy so his written music sheets went flying, but he didn’t miss a beat. Goldberg’s new album In Good Time, produced by the late drummer Ralph Peterson, is out September 17. Most likely, his originals “Time” and “96” will be on it.
I’ve been fascinated by Nicole Glover since hearing her on a Gene Perla record. She’s now a member of all-female group Artemis (with such old souls as Anat Cohen, Renee Rosnes and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant). At Caramoor, she was heard in duo with bassist Daniel Duke.
Glover, on tenor, played a program of standards with a huge tone and timing reminiscent of the jazz masters. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Charles Turner and Uptown Swing were very polished. Turner is a very, very promising jazz singer, immensely talented and a wonderful host. Bobby McFerrin comes to mind. Miller on trombone added a lot. Turner’s ultra-fast “Honeysuckle Rose” reminded me of Betty Carter’s take on “My Favorite Things.” He brought down the house with his original, “Black Lives Matter”—which was straight out of the gospel choir.
In the Sunken Garden, veteran bassist Larry Grenadier—one of the few players who was on the stand back in the ‘80s—played solo. Grenadier started at 16, and was soon working with Johnny Griffin, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Johnny Coles and Frank Morgan. Solo bass is an acquired taste, but I was totally on board when he took out his bow.
I missed headliner Sean Jones, but I’m sure he was fine. If you want a reason to come get embraced by the loveliness that is Caramoor consider a visit August 20 to see the female folk ensemble Della Mae.
The Caramoor American Roots Music Festival 2021, in collaboration with City Winery, was an in-person event. And that’s a blessing. Caramoor on Zoom is missing a key ingredient—that incredible sylvan glade.
The event, on July 24, was virtually unchanged from its usual format, albeit with a reduced number of bands (and fewer food trucks). But there was plenty of useful variety anyway. Let’s take it chronologically.
The Brooklyn-based RT’s were already playing when we arrived. It was possible to set up in the shade, and still be pretty close to this enhanced singer-songwriter outfit. Enhanced in the sense that they had a horn section—trumpet and baritone saxophone. It was pleasant pop with a brassy oomph. The baritone guy had serious chops. I usually blanche at descriptions of bands that mix “punk rock energy, horn-drenched soul & precise musicianship,” but the RT’s went down easy. Their songs could be more distinctive. They later played an acoustic set.
Female-led Upstate met at SUNY-New Paltz in 2011. I liked their harmonies but, alas, found their generic folk-rock songs on the bland side. Though I agree with the idea of doing a song about friendship. There indeed aren’t enough songs about friends, though didn’t Elton John have a song?
Martha Redbone was solo in the beautiful Sunken Garden—just voice. That didn’t work so well, but she sounded much better on the Friends Stage with a guitar and keyboard behind her. Redbone has a powerful voice, and tells stories that are interesting but go on too long. William Blake songs sound great set to music—why don’t more performers take a crack at it?
Reggie Harris is straight out of Pete Seeger, and none the worse for that. He’s no longer performing in a duo with ex-wife Kim, but manages to make a rousing noise and tell an epic story. In this case, about the path taken by the woman who became Harriet Tubman. He was perfect for the East Lawn, where the audience contained many children. A pair of five-year-olds danced in front of the stage, and I’m sure that was Harris (and Seeger) approved.
A considerable highlight of the day for me was Hubby Jenkins’ solo slot at Friends Field. Formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and then in Rhiannon Giddens’ band, Jenkins is (like Bruce Molsky, Mike Seeger, Jackson Lynch, Taj Mahal, Dom Flemons, Dirk Powell and a few others) excellent solo.
He says he’s going to inform the audience about “black people,” and he does, offering useful history lessons in a cadence so fast his words tend to overlap. And then he shows what he means on his guitar (slide a specialty) and banjo, adding in a strong tenor voice. Jenkins not only did songs form Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but also performed “Little Log Cabin in the Lane,” an old song that he pointed out was written by a white man (William S. Hays, 1871) from the point of view of a former slave who misses slavery.
Jenkins also talked about the deep weirdness necessary for acclaimed African-American performers such as Bert Williams (1874-1922) to perform in black face. As best I can tell, this was to give audiences the comforting illusion that they weren’t actually watching a black performer.
Jenkins needs more recordings. He has one self-titled album and an EP, The Fourth Day, as a solo performer.
I loved Kat Wright, who played both on the big Venetian Theater stage and in the Sunken Garden. On record she uses a larger band, but at Caramoor she brought a tight trio with bass (Josh Weinstein) and guitar (Bob Wagner). Her music is Americana with a bit of horn-led swagger, but more intimate in stripped-down form—especially in the garden setting.
In another era, Wright would be a torch singer, tearing up the Great American Songbook. She has the vocal chops for that. Evidently, Bonnie Raitt was a big influence, and one critic dubbed her “young Bonnie Raitt meets Amy Winehouse,” but the latter only comes from those cats-eye eyeliner flips. Back in the day it might have been Billie Holiday. Did I mention that her songs are darn good? One she identified as having been written by guitarist Wagner, was also fine (if downbeat), and I captured it on video:
The headliners were The War and Treaty, a husband-and-wife modern country act. They both have big voices and strongly commercial songs that place them in the mainstream of country today. It’s interesting that they win folk awards—folk, they ain’t.
Next Saturday, the equally worthwhile Caramoor Jazz Festival, featuring Sean Jones’ Dizzy Spellz, Endea Owens & The Cookout, Charles Turner & Uptown Swing, Alexa Tarantino Quartet, Brandon Goldberg Trio, Godwin Louis & Jonathan Barber; Jeremy Bosch & Friends: Salsa Meets Jazz, Nicole Glover & Daniel Duke, Christina Carminucci & Leonid Morozov-Vintskevich and the Summer Camargo Trio.
“You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you stay in the eye.” That was a lyric from one of the songs Red Wing Roots Festival organizers Steel Wheels sang (with special guests) in their opening set. It was great hearing them, especially with some excited students, as a reintroduction to live music after the one-year-plus of COVID 19.
The festival launched in 2013, and it’s back bigger than ever. After it was over, Steel Wheels emailed, “What an amazing way to return to live music. You all, you who make up the Red Wing and Steel Wheels community, have kept us going through a long two years since we were last able to do this.”
There was pent-up demand. The festival was packed, with campers spread all over Natural Chimneys State Park in Augusta County, Virginia. One of the stages—there were five of them—was in fact right under the awesome chimneys.
The festival is awesomely programmed, and I heard a tremendous amount of good, new music. Here they are, in chronological order. Bill and the Belles I’ve written about extensively, and they were in fine form for two sets at Red Wing. They have a new album called Happy Again (an ironic title; it’s about a divorce—though it sounds upbeat) and songs that showcase their fascinating parade through the back pages of American music. Previous albums logged into Bing Crosby-style crooning, but this one has its ear on the girl groups of the 50s, among other things. We sat next to banjoist Aidan VanSuetendael’s parents—the first time they’d seen her with Bill and the Belles. Fiddle player Kalia Yeagle was also on fire, especially on “Johnson City Rag.”
My big find of the festival was the Chatham Rabbits, Sarah and Austin McCombie, a husband-and-wife duo from North Carolina. They perform original songs about the basic things in life, and get directly to the heart. They’re fine as a duo (Sarah tells funny stories, one about an elderly relative who didn’t like being told she couldn’t collect roadkill when she was over 100). But the two albums I’ve heard add some welcome elements. “My songs are about getting old or stressed out,” Sarah said. Yes, but more than that.
Anna Tivel and Adam Wolcott Smith.
Anna Tivel was wonderful to hear. I’d just gotten her very quiet album as a download. She’s a great lyricist (“…a fusebox sparking in the summer grass”), and she knows that’s not enough—the songs twist the hooks into your gut. At Red Wing, she was hugely aided by guitar support from one Adam Wolcott Smith, a Brooklynite. What he played had a metal edge and shouldn’t have worked—it could have been overwhelming, but instead it was hugely enhancing. His work created audioscapes that made it sound like there was an orchestra behind the curtain.
Tivel is out of the singer-songwriter tradition. Her songs tend to the mordant. “My sister, who knows me best, challenged me to write a love song where nobody dies,” she said.
I caught the tail end of David Wax Museum, also performing as a duo. They’re building a home stage with online funding—a great COVID solution, don’t you think? Hiss Golden Messenger seemed to be chasing the Dead, and why not—there’s a void there.
The one act I saw at the festival that didn’t ring any bells for me was a singer-songwriter named Erin Lunsford. Good singer, not good songs. Her cover of “A Case of You” was the highlight of the set.
Another artist I’ve raved about before is Miss Tess, and she was absolutely sparking at Red Wing with a super band led by Thomas Bryan Eaton on electric guitar and pedal steel. (The pair of them also just made an album called Parlor Sounds). Comparisons to Eilen Jewell and her band would not go amiss. The band channels the best of rockabilly and Americana. Eaton is an excellent guitarist (like Jewell’s Jerry Miller) and Miss Tess is handy on the instrument, too.
The Jacob Joliff Band played fast, virtuoso bluegrass. Joliff is ex-Yonder Mountain String Band, and I kept expecting them to get into the jam band thing, but they fortunately never did. A favorite instrumental was called “Large Garbage Barge.” On flashy guitar and singing a few numbers was “Stash” Wyslouch from Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters band.
I only heard a bit of Sierra Ferrell (five stages, remember?) but she sounded super-competent and crowd-pleasing. The next Allison Krauss or Mary Chapin Carpenter? Her set was mobbed.
Another fond discovery at Red Wing: The Fernandez Sisters from Durham, North Carolina. All three of them are strong players and singers (on guitar, mandolin and fiddle). They’re still very young, but have been playing at Red Wing for years, and as a band since 2011.
Completely unexpected was a band featuring Cheik Hamala Diabaté from Mali on kora, guitar and banjo and Danny Nicely on mandolin (and occasional bass). He’s a first cousin of koramaster Toumani Diabate. The western players in the band have all absorbed the Mali tradition, but applied it to unusual material, such as the trad country tune “Little Satchel.” The guitarist was fabulous, and wouldn’t have been out of place with New York’s 75 Dollar Bill. Bass legend Mark Schatz was, well, on bass (except when he played the banjo).
I enjoyed a brothers act named LA Edwards. The lead brother, Californian Luke Andrew Edwards, has a compelling singing style and is a good songwriter, too. Sarah Jarosz was fine. Her best moments were covering a John Prine song in tribute to him, and essaying a very sweet “Little Satchel” (yes, the same songs the African guys did).
And finally, ending things on a high note for me, was the Tim O’Brien Band. Maybe he’s been cooped up for long, but he was like a horse out of a gate. O’Brien is one of our contemporary masters of old-time music, but he’s an excellent songwriter, too. Much of the material was from his great new album, He Walked On. All the players were standouts, so the band will hopefully stay together. Finally, let me say that the festival was extremely well organized, with water stations, food availability, a shade area, excellent sound, schedules that started on time, and well-coordinated ticketing and parking. There were plenty of volunteers to help out. I can’t think of one criticism, other than that the Hill Stage was, unfortunately, up a very long hill. Maybe only four stages next year? I will be back next year.