Recently, while listening to Kathy Mattea’s Coal, I realized that, perhaps, the most important aspect to creating a themed play list was the ability to find some obscure songs to include with all those well-known classics. While Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon” as performed at Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” as performed by Patty Loveless are two of my personal favorite coal miner songs—they are already in heavy rotation on several of my play lists and are drawn from albums I listen to regularly.
Ashley Monroe’s “Canary,” which can be unearthed on This is My America Volume 2, is the kind of hidden gem that often can be missed even by those paying close attention to the movements of country music. Similar in tone to classic coal mining songs but delivered with modern sensibilities “Canary” most closely resembles what I wish “radio friendly” country sounded like—it isn’t traditional but it feels like country music. Plus, it fits well between my more traditional favorites, providing some variety for myself and perhaps a surprise to anyone listening along.
With the gracious permission of Tom Spurgeon, the creator of this feature at The Comics Reporter, I would like to introduce the Country Universe version of “If I Were In _________, I’d Go To This.” With interesting events around the country it is hard to know about everything, so starting with “If I Were In New Hampshire, I’d Go To This” we will present you with our picks of unique or particularly interesting upcoming shows or events.
The Big Surprise Tour – featuring Old Crow Medicine Show, Dave Rawlings Machine (w/ Gillian Welch), The Felice Brothers and Justin Townes Earle – kicks off in Hampton, NH on Tuesday Aug. 4.
Interview emerging country music stars today and it may surprise you—especially if you listen to the radio—that they are all influenced by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and (if they play mandolin) Bill Monroe. When you find that they also claim to emulate artists such as Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson or whoever else has recently gone platinum (with the exception of the Dixie Chicks), it can be almost discouraging to consider that few are even that traditional.
This brings us to Sarah Jarosz, whose debut with Sugar Hill Records, Song Up in Her Head, presents a very different view of influences and a noticeably different performer in its eighteen year old co-producer.
Seven years ago, while requesting an autograph from Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz, not yet a teenager, expressed interest in, someday, playing music with Chris Thile. Since then, she has added Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Aofie O’Donavan, and Abigail Washburn—all who appear on her album—to her most often quoted list of influences. As a result, we are presented with an impressive, but much less calculated list than one might expect from a newcomer. Given that these are some of my favorite artists, it also sets a high bar with this particular reviewer. Fortunately for this recent high school graduate who plays mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, piano, and toy piano (we will get to that) on her debut album, these lofty expectations are not beyond her ability.
Samantha Crain hails from Shawnee, Oklahoma, and along with the Midnight Shivers, performs a variety of folk-esque rock that seems to have, by osmosis, absorbed the roots, Americana, and country flavors associated with her small town upbringing. However, listen to them in interviews and you are as likely to hear talk of Radiohead as you are Woody Guthrie, which is perhaps a sign that geography is not as influential as it once was. With so many traditional (i.e. alt) country artists coming out of California, one certainly can’t deny Oklahoma its indie-rock influences.
With Songs in the Night, the full-length debut following last year’s The Confiscation EP, Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers recorded eleven tracks in five days with producer Danny Kadar. It is a debut that feels comfortable. In fact, while the potential obviously lurking around the corner can leave one wanting, its natural sound speaks to endless nights on the road honing their craft.
Particularly appealing throughout Songs in the Night is Samantha Crain’s delivery, which makes one imagine a Neil Young/Bjork lovechild. The album bursts with heartfelt songwriting, natural charisma, and elusive enunciation. This effect is no doubt a byproduct of the group recording live in studio, a choice that really captures their energy. Flanked strongly by the Midnight Shivers’ ideal infusion of electric guitar Crain presents a first-rate follow-up, one that should invite new fans but still satisfy followers of the group.
A native of Puxsutawney, PA, Alexis Thompson, who currently resides in the Nashville area, boldly claims on her website that her “style (for those who need comparison) is Judy Garland meets Johnny Cash.” This somewhat tongue-in-cheek reference immediately shows she does not believe in artists simply being boiled down to comparisons. Yet, spend some time listening to Oh, Alexis!, and the comparison, while wild, starts to make a peculiar type of sense.
Oh, Alexis’ first single “Strugglin’,” self-released through Itunes, opens with a heavy traditional influence, supplemented by the velvet voice of Alexis Thompson. Delivering on familiar themes, Alexis, with an almost detached vocal interpretation open the song singing, “It was as if you waited 25 years / To taste the Jack and coke and beer / That had settled on my breath as it slowly left my lips.” Given that two decades is long time to burst with emotion, this appropriate delivery, along with production that manages to invoke tradition without sounding imitative or tired, makes this first release stand out even among more recognizable contemporaries.
The Greencards are a trio consisting of Australians Carol Young and Kym Warner along with U.K. native Eamon McLoughlin. Up-and-comers with talent to spare and an eclectic range of influences, they have earned spots opening for both Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. They were awarded an Austin Music Award in 2003, an Americana Music Award in 2006, and, in 2008, earned a “Best Country Instrumental Performance” Grammy nomination. Their albums have incorporated blues, world music, and jazz, and have been labeled roots music, modern bluegrass, and Americana.
This brings us to their Sugar Hill debut, and the question, what is Fascination?
Fascination integrates elements of folk, country, modern bluegrass and Americana, and often draws upon elements of blues and world music one would expect only to find on National Public Radio. Yet, apply any of these labels to their latest album and they seem not only to fall short, but to feel completely inaccurate. Some will make comparisons to Nickel Creek or The Duhks, but The Greencards, while also technically breathtaking and acoustically driven, inspire comparison primarily because they have consistently moved towards a sound of their own.
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Since the “indefinite hiatus” of progressive acoustic darlings Nickel Creek, despite a history of diverging solo work, releases from Chris Thile and Sean Watkins have been shackled by expectations of a Creek-like sound. Much like releases from her former band mates, Sara Watkins self-titled debut is not a surrogate Nickel creek album. Instead, it is an album that is purely individual, combining the talent that we have already witnessed with more than a few surprises.