Author Archives: William Ward

Digging Deep: Ashley Monroe

Ashley MonroeRecently, 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.

Recommendation: Ashley Monroe’s “Canary,” from This is My America Volume 2.


What hidden gems covering traditional country music subject matter (murder, drinking, ect.) would you recommend? Alternatively, what coal mining songs would you recommend?

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If I Were In New Hampshire, I’d Go To This

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.

Big Suprise Tour

PRESS RELEASE:

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.

Born out of a deep running comradery built on countless tours and ties between a host of excellent musicians, each evening is sure to be a unique experience as they all put their many combined years of musicianship and knowledge of song-craft and American music into play for these performances.

This is gonna be an amazing show, so get your tickets now!

Tour Dates:

8/4 – Hampton Beach, NH @ Casino Ballroom

8/5 – Boston, MA @ House Of Blues

8/6 – New York, NY @ Beacon Theatre

8/7 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory

8/9 – Charlottesville, VA @ Charlottesville Pavilion

8/10 – Cary, NC @ Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre

8/12 – Louisville, KY @ Waterfront Park

8/13 – Nashville, TN @ Riverfront Park

8/14 – Knoxville, TN @ World’s Fair Park

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Sarah Jarosz, Song Up in Her Head

songs-up-in-her-head1Sarah Jarosz
Song Up in Her Head
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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.

Song Up in Her Head opens with its title track, a progressive bluegrass number that will remind listeners (in no small part to Chris Thile’s contribution) of progressive acoustic prodigies of the past. While those influences certainly exist, it would be a mistake to use them to typecast Jarosz, who has as much in common musically with Darrel Scott or Gillian Welch as she does with the progressive acoustic scene.

From the well-written “Tell me True,” which rolls comfortably upon tight lyrics and a repeating chorus, to “Left Home,” and impressive vocal number with the outstanding Aofie O’Donovan singing harmony vocals Jarosz more than establishes her songwriting credentials penning eleven of thirteen tracks on the album. Particularly notable is the balance between youth and maturity that seems to exist throughout these songs. Presenting the experiences of Sarah Jarosz, they only occasionally feel adolescent, always managing to escape the self-importance rampant among pop music acts her age. The finest example of this comes in “Broussard’s Lament,” a challenging song written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that came out of “an interview on the Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press,” with a man named Aaron Broussard. His interview was heart wrenching, and it inspired me to write the tune.”

Inserted neatly between her songs are two well-chosen covers, Tom Waits “Come on Up to the House” and The Decemberists “Shankill Butchers.” While the Tom Waits cover is notable, “Shankill Butchers” excellent production makes it stand out. Using a toy piano along with Sarah’s compelling vocals, its mood ideally fits the modern nursery rhyme to the degree that it outshines the original recording.

Despite being an accomplished singer and mandolin player Sarah Jarosz does not go out of her way to list Bill Monroe as an influence—and the thing is she doesn’t have to. Unlike those pronouncing the influences that they feel they should have, with Song Up in Her Head you can hear influences being explored side by side with the effects of her colleagues close mentoring. Sarah Jarosz’ debut is delightfully distinct; supplementing her own talents with the best just-off-the-radar artists available today she has found a voice that will undoubtedly continue to produce eloquent music for another fifty years.


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Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers, <em>Songs in the Night</em>

samantha-craneSamantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers
Songs in the Night
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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.

Opening with “Rising Sun,” perhaps the most radio friendly tr

ack on the album, we are treated to precisely crafted hook that, if the world was fair, would earn it plenty college radio time. Other noteable songs include “You Never Know,” with its southern rock inspired opening; the rhythmic “Long Division” and “Scissor Tales” with their significant country influence; and the indie-rock “Bullfight,” a song that could help shed the folk label they sometimes chafe against. Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers shine brightest on “Dam Song,” delivering a song that, while lacking the instant gratification of other cuts on the album, adds depth to Songs in the Night and is reminiscent of The Be Good Tanyas.

While none of these songs are purely country, there is a lot to enjoy for those who lean towards country, southern rock, and folk music. Authenticity is a common term thrown around in country and folk music circles, and it is no doubt that Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers have it in spades.


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Oh, Alexis!, "Strugglin'"

oh-alexisA 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.

I admit to being pleasantly shocked when I discovered Oh, Alexis!, a talented unsigned musician and self-described songwriter/printmaker through Myspace. Since it is unlikely most of you to have heard Oh, Alexis! I encourage you to check out their Myspace page, buy the single at iTunes, and enjoy.

Grade: A

Listen to Strugglin’ at Oh, Alexis! on Myspace (second song down)

iTunes: “Strugglin’”

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The Greencards, <em>Fascination</em>

greencardsThe Greencards
Fascination
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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.

With Fascination, The Greencards are held together by adventurousness and fueled by tight musical arrangements and the brilliant cadence of Carol Young’s vocals. It is also notable that Fascination marks the first time the group has worked with a producer, as it appears Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, John Hiatt, The Duhks) has helped solidify a sound that has sometimes been muddled in past

outings.

The Greencards shine on the instrumental “Little Siam,” deliver up some indie-pop immediacy with acoustic rhythms on “Fascination,” delve into world music with “Chico Calling,” and finally flirt with their modern bluegrass roots on “Outskirts of Blue” and “Rivertown.”

This range is more impressive when one considers all but a single song on the album were written or co-written with a member of the Greencards. “Davey Jones,” a hauntingly sung tale of the dangers of the sea, serves as an excellent example of the strengths of Carol Young’s vocals and is the sole outside creation on the album. “Three Four Time” and “Into the Blue” are the only sleepers, somewhat cerebral and inaccessible at first listen.

With Fascination, The Greencards move away from eclectic sampling and into a sound that is intellectually and emotionally theirs. Fascination is an argument for music without borders; a melding of influences held together by fine lead vocals, ethereal instrumentation, and a sense that musicians don’t have to be anyone but themselves.

I’m not sure what section of the store you will find The Greencards new album (most likely bluegrass, Americana, or perhaps even country), but I am sure you should seek it out all the same.


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Join CU @ Twitter

twitter-logoJoin CU @ Twitter if UR looking for updates and recommendations!

Thanks to Lynn, Country Universe is now on Twitter and we’d like to invite all of our readers to join us there for quick and easy updates. You can follow Country Universe at Twitter to learn about what

reviews we are writing, find out what grades our latest single or album reviews received, or just to receive links to our latest blog entries.

If you are fans of the Country Universe mini-feature Recommend a Track, stop by for our Twitter specific content, which will include updates of what Country Universe writers are listening to along with track and album recommendations.

https://twitter.com/CountryUniverse

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Musical Progression

guns-n-rosesAs I stand in for Leeann on her birthday

, I’ve been thinking about how much musical tastes change over time. Musically, it is fair to say that we started pretty far apart, but over five years our musical preferences have both moved and expanded significantly.

Tracing the progression of my musical inclinations even farther, it seems that the expansion of my tastes was much different than others in my family. For instance, my grandparents listened to country music. When my father was born the Grand Ole Opry was a staple in his home and he listened to country music all of his life. As a result, I was exposed to country music by my father, but quickly declared my independence when I purchase the first album my parents considered noise.

The first albums I ever purchased, a little over a week past my thirteenth birthday, were Use Your Illusion I and II. From there the map of my musical “phases” was pretty easy to follow when you look at a chronological list of my favorite albums:

Guns and Roses, Appetite for Destruction
Dr. Dre, The Chronic
Nirvana, Nevermind
Pearl Jam, Ten
Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York
Nickel Creek, This Side
Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
Metallica, S&M
Alice in Chains, Unplugged
Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die

Currently the amount of music I listen to has made it more difficult to pick only a few favorite albums. Even the above list, in reality, started to overlap by the time I was listening to Nickel Creek. In fact, everything listed above (with the exception of Dr. Dre, though he still holds certain nostalgia) is currently on my Ipod, and I would be hard pressed to make a comprehensive list of favorite albums that didn’t include half those albums.

Today I might add to the list (though tomorrow the list might change):

Bjork, Debut
Crooked Still, Shaken by a Low Sound
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Rattlin’ Bones
The Be Good Tanyas, Blue Horse
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger
Neil Young, Greatest Hits
Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul
Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings
White Stripes, Elephant

My father would be happy to see that I’ve come around to country music.

What does your musical progression look like?

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Sara Watkins, Sara Watkins

sara-watkinsSara Watkins
Sara Watkins

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Since the announcement of 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.

Opening with “All this Time,” a rolling country tune driven by pedal steel and the familial blending of Sean Watkins on background vocals, we are treated to a contemporary cut that draws heavily on traditional country sounds. Other successful uses of pedal steel include a smoky rendition of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” and “Any Old Time,” a Jimmie Rodgers song, performed as western swing.

Produced by John Paul Jones, the album continues with a collection, which while grounded in bluegrass and country, is as complex and eclectic as the guests that play on it. Among the artists making appearances are bluegrass artists Rayna Gellert, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and Chris Eldridge; Americana artist Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings; and former Nickel Creek band mates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins.

Through covers and original songs, with the exception of the overly slick “Too Much,” each song easily meshes with the next despite its range. There is the hauntingly elegant “Bygones,” with its genre-bending beauty; the energetic “Long Hot Summer Days,” a melding of blues, folk, and bluegrass; and the subtly presented “Give me Jesus,” a traditional song arranged by Sara and Chris Thile. While Watkins was not a major writing contributor to Nickel Creek, she is the sole writer of six of the fourteen tracks for this project.

The album also includes two instrumental tracks. “Freiderick,” as well as “Jefferson,” the former co-written by the two Watkinses and the latter composed by Sara alone, are capable instrumentals with a heavy Celtic influence. It should be noted that the mandolin on both tracks is played by Ronnie McCoury, avoiding a Nickel Creek reunion that—while intriguing–no doubt would have only distracted from the album.

Sara Watkins’ debut is new and refreshing; it is a blending of retro flavors that remains contemporary, while avoiding the manufactured nostalgia that so often creeps into both Nashville and alt-country music.

 

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