Tag Archives: Americana

Guts Club’s Dark, Violent Country Fantasy

Guts Club

Lindsey Baker grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Altoona is an old railroad town that, to hear Baker tell it, is now “just a big strip mall.” When she moved away to attend art school in New York, her intention was to focus on visual art. But when she left New York, she left as Guts Club, her sparse country-noir band.

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Album of the Day: Dori Freeman, “Letters Never Read”

In the winter of 2016, Dori Freeman released her self-titled debut, a plainspoken 10-song collection of Appalachian-inspired, old-time country and folk that quietly introduced the young singer as one of the most promising new voices in roots music. Less than two years later, the 26-year-old musician is back with Letters Never Read, an ever-so-slightly more polished record that further refines Freeman’s balancing act between strict traditionalism and modern country-folk.

Whereas Dori Freeman strove to merge the traditional and the modern into a seamless whole, Freeman’s second album, produced once again by Teddy Thompson, tends to make its sonic distinctions clearer. On one hand, yearning mid-tempo country weepers like “If I Could Make You My Own” and “Lovers on the Run” display Freeman’s natural knack for pop melodicism, while songs like “Over Thereand “Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” the latter of which was written by her grandfather, display how deeply rooted Freeman’s music is to her hometown of Galax, Virginia, a longtime hotbed of traditional music.

But Freeman never seems constrained by her country roots. Jazz-inflected pop crooning and ’60s R&B all play a part in shaping Freeman’s aching blend of roots and folk. Letters Never Read marks a progression in songwriting for Freeman, who’s become precise in her phrasing and increasingly attuned to the narrative power of a simple piece of imagery. “All the cans, and the bottles too,” she sings on the haunting “That’s All Right,” “they’re piling up, you’re passing out, and I’m turning blue.” On her second album, Freeman updates her influences while fine-tuning her songwriting, and the result is one of the most self-assured singer-songwriter records of the year.

Jonathan Bernstein 

Album of the Day: House and Land, “House and Land”

Even in the year 2017, Appalachia remains a curiosity to most Americans. Despite its rich and fascinating cultural histories, it’s often maligned by those who don’t understand it. But it’s also the home of House and Land, a duo that takes Appalachian music traditions and runs with them in a riveting direction on their debut self-titled LP.

Sally Anne Morgan has lent her fiddle talents to the Black Twig Pickers for several years, while guitarist Sarah Louise Henson has quietly issued a handful of breathtaking solo LPs of fingerpicked, 12-string acoustic guitar since 2015. When the two players combine their talents, the results are an engrossing combination of centuries-old balladeering, pre-war music, and contemporary experimental sounds.

True to old-time form, House and Land’s songs revel in spooky darkness, driven by ghostly, off-kilter notes that raise the hair on the back of your neck. Morgan’s fiddle creaks and moans, while Henson’s hyper-detailed guitar playing alternates among airy flits, glistening cascades, and blooming billows.

Henson and Morgan trade off lead vocal duties, and they harmonize so closely at times, as on the unaccompanied “Johnny,” that their two voices almost sound like one. When Henson sings of the hour of death drawing near and laying garments down, “So time will soon disrobe us all / Of what we now possess,” she sounds as though she’s personally heralding the end of days; her high, fearless delivery makes you inclined to believe her.

But the duo splits from tradition with its addition of shruti box drones, as well as with light touches of percussion from Asheville drummer Thom Nguyen. On “Feather Dove” and “The Day Is Past and Gone,” his soft rumblings and cymbal splashes recall a distant but fierce summer storm, while his clatters in the background of “Unquiet Grave” are a chilling, chaotic foil to the song’s pointed lyrics about pining for a dead lover.

House and Land is an exercise in marrying bygone days with the present—Henson and Morgan assuredly honor the past—but for them, tradition isn’t so much an anchor as it is a springboard toward bold new ideas.

—Allison Hussey

The Muscle Shoals Country-Soul of Emily Duff

Emily Duff

“The place is spooky and full of ghosts,” says Emily Duff of the studio where she cut her new album, Maybe in the Morning. That seems about right, considering that the New York City singer/songwriter came to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record at FAME Studios, the storied soul hub where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and countless others cut classic sides in the R&B golden age of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“If you’re an insane music lover and worshipper of that era like I am,” Duff says, “you walk in the door and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I’m home.’ Every time I walked through that door I got the chills. You’re with people who basically built the whole structure that is your church of music, and you’re in that room. You can’t stop smiling, My face hurt from smiling so much.”

But the path that led Duff to that musical mecca was far from straightforward. She grew up on Long Island, on a steady diet of singer/songwriter and roots music. “Kris Kristofferson, Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, those were the records we listened to,” she remembers. “And then there was The Partridge Family and Sonny & Cher, because I was a child of television. And I was heavily into the whole soul thing—I loved Al Green and Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.”

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Scene Report: Folk and Americana in Baton Rouge


Clay Parker and Jodi James

Any reliable definition of Baton Rouge’s local independent music scene first begins with a discussion of what it is not. Thanks to surrounding cities like New Orleans and Lafayette, whose musical identities have not only been established but fully branded, Baton Rouge musicians often find themselves comparing their scene to the more famous ones that surround it. As Louisiana’s state capital (and home to flagship Louisiana State University), Baton Rouge, with just over 200,000 residents, is primarily a college town given over to football, tailgating, and the kind of rowdy sportsmanship that goes with both. But that hasn’t stopped a growing number of invested community members who love roots music from creating their own world.

Thanks to its wealth of emerging talent, Baton Rouge’s independent music scene has started to truly define itself over the course of the last 10 years. It’s transformed from one rife with cover bands to a place where exciting original music is being made in folk pop, indie rock, Americana, and funk. As Ben Herrington, multi-instrumentalist for chamber folk band Minos the Saint, says, “There’s actually a benefit to having less of a strong identity [than neighboring cities], because it makes it easier for people to start from scratch creatively and sort of do whatever they desire to do.”

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Interstate Love Songs with Emma Ruth Rundle & Jaye Jayle

Emma Ruth Rundle and Jaye Jayle

When Emma Ruth Rundle unveiled her gorgeous, critically-acclaimed album Marked For Death last year, the Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter ended up with some extra songs that wouldn’t physically fit on the vinyl. As luck would have it, the same thing happened to Evan Patterson while he was finishing up his solo project Jaye Jayle’s full-length debut, House Cricks and Other Excuses To Get Out, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Rundle and Patterson had first met on tour in late 2009 when Rundle’s then-band, Red Sparowes, spent a week touring with Russian Circles and Patterson’s other band, Young Widows. Nearly eight years later, the two highly prolific musicians decided to combine Rundle’s atmospheric heartbreak with Jaye Jayle’s dark Americana for the split release The Time Between Us. By merging material that they couldn’t squeeze onto their respective full-lengths, Rundle and Patterson created a fictional interstate love story that stands as its own conceptual work. We recently spoke with both artists about the origin of the record and their upcoming European tour.

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A John Prine Listening Primer

John Prine by Josh Britt

John Prine by Josh Britt

When John Prine began his career in 1969, he was a 23 year-old mailman just home from a stint in the army as a mechanic in West Germany. After he moved back to his suburban Chicago hometown of Maywood, Illinois, he began writing simple three-chord folk songs about lonesome elderly couples (“Hello in There”), morphine-addicted veterans (“Sam Stone”), and the strip mining that destroyed his father’s Kentucky hometown (“Paradise”). Prine began playing open mics in Chicago folk clubs like the Fifth Peg and the Earl of Old Town, eventually earning a weekly residency, before being discovered one night by Kris Kristofferson. Within two years of stepping on a stage, Prine released a debut album for Atlantic Records, and the plainspoken Midwesterner was being hailed as the latest in a long line of “new Dylan”s.

Prine’s stint with Atlantic, however, lasted only four years and as many studio albums. Two years after releasing his final Atlantic album, 1975’s Common Sense, Prine signed a three-album deal with the more singer-songwriter-oriented Asylum Records, which would release his late ’70s masterpiece Bruised Orange in 1978. But Prine soon realized that he was not interested in being in a relationship with any sort of traditional label.

By 1981, immediately following his three Asylum albums, he’d founded his own label, Oh Boy Records, and by 1984 he was self-releasing full-length records by mail order. That way, as Prine explained at the time to Bobby Bare on The Nashville Network, “There ain’t no middleman… no swarthy little character in Cleveland that gets the money from the people that want the music, and then… takes most of it, twirls his mustache, and sends me 12 cents.”

Since founding Oh Boy, Prine has released a total of 14 albums, including some of the most renowned of his career: From his 1991 comeback album The Missing Years, to his 1999 country duets collection In Spite of Ourselves, to his most recent masterpiece, 2005’s Fair & Square. Almost all of Prine’s Oh Boy discography can be found on Bandcamp.

John Prine

Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford

By the time he went out on his own in the ’80s, Prine had developed enough of a dedicated following to directly support his music—primarily, by buying tickets to his regularly sold-out theater shows around the country—without the financial backing of a label. As Prine put it in 1995, “I just didn’t want to continue recording unless it was in a manner that seemed to make more sense to what I actually did, which was pack my suitcase and go on the road for a living.”

Although Prine is still best known for the modern-day country-folk standards on his debut 1971 self-titled album, the latter half of his career is populated with exemplary moments of song craftsmanship every bit as moving and profound as “Angel From Montgomery” or “Sam Stone.”

Here are eight highlights from Prine’s Oh Boy collection.

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Album of the Day: Various Artists, “In Case You Missed It: 15 Years Of Dualtone”

Even if the name Dualtone Records doesn’t ring a bell, chances are you’ve at least heard one of the label’s signees. Artists like The Lumineers, Shakey Graves, Langhorne Slim, and Delta Spirit have all made mainstream inroads, but they represent only a small portion of the impressive roster the label has been quietly but steadily amassing over the course of the last 15 years.

To commemorate all that hard work, Dualtone has released a celebratory compilation to showcase the music that’s made it such a bright beacon in the world of indie labels. Rather than merely cobble together their hits, the label took a different tack, pairing classic tracks like Guy Clark’s “My Favorite Picture of You” with rare and unreleased cuts.

Shakey Graves’ “Tomorrow” is a bootleg from one of the label’s newer signees, an artist who rose to prominence on Bandcamp before joining Dualtone to release his 2014 debut album And the War Came. The song quietly exemplifies what Shakey (aka Alejandro Rose-Garcia) does best. Playing an electric guitar and accompanying himself on a suitcase-turned-kick drum, his lyrics explore the condition of millennial love. In the song, the object of Shakey’s affection feels the questioning pang of FOMO, promising him something substantial, but keeping their options open. “You used to tell me we’d turn into something,” he sings. “Oh, you said life was much better than this/ Yeah, but the closest I come to perfection/ Is when you turn around to steal a kiss.” For anyone who has experienced the pain of a wavering lover, the verse has sharp teeth. The label went back to 2008 for The Deep Vibration’s “Tennessee Rose,” a thorny love song on which lead singer Matt Campbell’s bruised chorus gets an assist from Gillian Welch’s wistful harmony.

Rosco Gordon’s “Cheese & Crackers” is an upbeat blues/jazz number with barrelhouse piano, woozy brass, and Gordon’s soulful voice—a fun number to punctuate the more contemplative songs that comprise the majority of the album. The compilation ends with a version of “Keep on the Sunny Side” by June Carter Cash, with Johnny Cash contributing backing vocals on the chorus. It’s a nod not only to the label’s storied history, but to the ethos that continues informing their roster and mission.

In many ways, In Case You Missed feels like a mural composed of many individual pictures. When the viewer steps back far enough, a single, unified image becomes clear; up close each picture tells its own story.  

Amanda Wicks