Tag Archives: House and Land

House and Land Want to Make Folk Music Weirder

House and Land

Photos by Katrina Ohstrom

Multi-instrumentalists Sally Anne Morgan and Sarah Louise contend that folk music—often associated with a sense of traditionalism—has always been a more dynamic artform than we’ve been led to believe. With Across the Field, their second album as the duo House and Land, Morgan and Louise once again give us reason to view the folk stylings that emerged from Scotland, Ireland, England, Appalachia, and the Ozarks through a broader lens. Both heavily steeped in these forms, Morgan (Black Twig Pickers, Pelt) and Louise speak engagingly on the history and development of the music over a group phone call.

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A Guide to the Wild Expanse of Cosmic American Music

Cosmic-1244-3

Illustration by Gabriel Alcala

Gram Parsons is generally credited with the invention of “Cosmic American Music”—blues, country, and rock all rolled into one sparkling package. Then again, Gram Parsons also referred to what he’d wrought as a “‘country-rock’ plastic dry-fuck.” Still, it’s fair to situate Parsons somewhere near the head of the reinvigoration of American roots music that began in the mid ’60s, spearheaded by The Band and reaching its commercial peak with a series of country rock acts in the mid-to-late ‘70s. During this time, a good many performers found success combining the clarity of country with funk, blues, and R&B grooves, with the Muscle Shoals house band backing Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers selling out the Fillmore East, and J.J. Cale setting blues to drum machines.

These were artists that drew on a wide variety of American musical traditions and fused them into something vibrant, new, and exciting. At the same time, fingerpickers like Robbie Basho and John Fahey were reinventing vernacular guitar styles into what would later be called American Primitivism, and a good many semi-anonymous acts, immortalized on Light in the Attic’s Country Funk series, took the outlaw credo to its hip-shaking limits. This was American music in the broadest sense of the word, even if not quite all of its performers were American (see: Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie).

We’ve seen many Americana revivals in the time since, whether the roots-rock scene of the ‘80s or the O Brother, Where Art Thou?-inspired traditionalism at the turn of the century. These musicians are less easy to define as part of a movement, but share a common ground nonetheless. They’re mostly individuals, scattered throughout the country, with minimal commercial success. Their music has been collected on a handful of great labels (Scissor Tail in Tulsa, Paradise of Bachelors in Chapel Hill, Drag City in Chicago), each with a slightly different focus. But that glorious, syncretic impulse remains among them all, fusing folklore to funk, raga to R&B, in service all of some grand American musical vision.

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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