A guest post from longtime B. B. King fan, James Green.
Someone once said that getting old was like crossing a frozen lake on thin ice. You look around you and see your contemporaries one by one falling through. And you know there’s no turning back. I was having such maudlin thoughts yesterday as I listened to B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland singing “Ain’t it Funny How Time Slips Away” on B’s album 80. Two old bluesmen, reminiscing, “and it seems like only yesterday,” and it did. Bobby’s gone now, and now B.
Two years ago I sat outside in the sultry Virginia twilight, me and a couple of thousand others, waiting for B to take the stage. It was the usual concert crowd, the true believers mixed in with the rowdier, louder “here to be seen”. But when B walked on, everybody settled down. I couldn’t see him at first, but there was no mistaking that Lucille was there just as procacious and just as timeless as she ever was. B sounded tired, and he didn’t last long, and it was sad. So sad I even left early, B and Lucille closing out the set with “You Are My Sunshine.”
It’s one of those things we put up with as we see the world we’re accustomed to erode away bit by bit only to be replaced with a new one that we only marginally understand. B and Bobby are gone, along with the Wolf, Muddy, and Jimmy Reed. Ain’t it funny how time slips away.
Not all music comes from instruments of wood, wire, metal, or even the human voice. A quick walk at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden reminded me of the layers of music available in “silence.”
I’ve been a fan of The Carolina Chocolate Drops for years. A band that focuses on “americana music,” the music that came from small towns and mostly untrained musicians that covers bluegrass, blues, gospel, and has a lineage from mountain people to slaves on plantations. The Chocolate Drops have been especially known for highlighting the African American influence on bluegrass and country music. I’m sure Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, two of the founding members, could teach a class on the history of music in the US from Colonial Times to the present on the spot, with instrumental and dance demonstrations sprinkled throughout. Their music often blends old and new, country and blues, farm and city–with an easy mixing of forms that a casual listener might not find intuitive, but would probably enjoy. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is a cover of a song by R&B singer Blu Cantrell, but run through the Chocolate Drops, sounds like an update to an old blues song.
I’m no music expert, but I am not bad at making connections. It seems an easy progression reuniting bluegrass with its African American influences. There are strains of it in the old Delta blues, before electric guitars roared in, and the improvisational nature of jazz is right at home with any group of pickers. A less intuitive mix is rap and banjoes. But it was just a matter of time, and a quick internet search of “rap and bluegrass” pulls up one group immediately: Gangstagrass.
I’m a little late in discovering Gangstagrass. Thanks to Hen for recommending the TV series Justified, with its great theme song by the group. The idea sounds like a gimmick, but the reality is sublime. The group hits the exact mix that fully honors both traditions. Their sound is simple–a true mix of bluegrass and rap, with a full complements of steel guitar, banjoes, bass and themes of living from the earth and dealing with violence and oppression. “Bound to Ride” is a good example of their style (language alert).
Musicians today are eclectic–they probably always have been, but with the internet allowing a group to market itself, it is harder to pigeonhole a group into a clean definition of its sound. So classical musicians like YoYo Ma play bluegrass, Loretta Lynn and Jack White do a duet, Lady Gaga sings with Tony Bennett. Run-DMC covering Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” in 1986 was perhaps the closest to the mix Gangstagrass brings, with one difference: Gangstagrass uses original songs that are fully rap and fully bluegrass, not a borrowing from one style into the other. As the internet allows greater collaboration between independent musicians unwilling to accept labels for their style, expect to hear more interesting, imaginative collaborations pulling from all styles of music.
Since I started writing for That Green Hen, I’ve been amazed at how much quality music I’ve missed as a “radio girl.” My internet cohort, Hen, has been part of the local music scene on the West Coast for years, so he should have told me what I was missing, but NOOOOO, he kept it all to himself.
Now I love discovering new music, and one of these days I’m going to shed my inner Emily Dickinson and go off and visit some of these groups in person. The Will Overman Band is one of the great groups I’ve never heard until now. Here are my thoughts on their latest album, Die Where I Began.
The album is a nice mix of bluegrass-tinged americana and folk, expected themes and interesting twists. I especially love the cultural references worked into the songs, and the unusual topics handled creatively. There are not many songs about sitting in a hospital room, or being the one to break someone’s heart. And not many homages to a place that compare a street singer to Kurt Vonnegut. Will Overman Band goes to all these places, and does them with a touching skill that will send me searching for all their previous work.
A quick run-through of songs:
Whipporwill: True to bluegrass tradition, “Whipporwill” gives you all the banjos and fiddles you could want. The image of “licking my pen and writing these words about you” puts you back in time. The references to the natural world harken to any number of old songs that have come down out of the mountains. Songs where love is best expressed as “the wind that cools you down when I’m not around” in a “song as long as the song of a whipporwill”.
Fix My Girl: A song about waiting in the hospital room of a loved one. It catches the desperate tenderness you feel in a sterile hospital. “White wristband turning, strumming my new song. . .” while being willing to take her place if there was any way to trade places. If you’ve ever spent time sitting by a bed in a “hospital with its poker faced rooms,” this song will resonate with you. And probably make you cry. My favorite song on the album.
Minnesota I Was Wrong: For me, this song is made by the line: “the moon’s eerie beckoning is a broken-hearted dusk.” It’s just one of the great lines the pop up in this album.
Take Me Back to Virginia: I’m morally obligated to like this song, since I’m from Richmond. The band hits everything you’d expect about Virginia, and touches on our great education tradition, too, with references to Kurt Vonnegut, comparing him to a street performer who smells like “mustard gas and rose.” They hit the blue sky, the James River, dogwoods, freshly-turned fields, hills, and of course, in that Southern Gothic tradition made famous by Edgar Allen Poe, death gets a mention, too.
Falling In and Out: It’s not that often you find a song from the heartbreaker’s viewpoint. “Falling In and Out” is for those who spoke first, then reconsidered. The music is tender and sad, and Overman gets just the right amount of wistful tears into his voice to make you feel sorry for the one who walks away.
I Miss You: It’s appropriate that this song should follow Falling In and Out. “My lady done left me, but I pushed her along” explains where things stand. “I miss you, my dear,” with a sightly manic banjo accompaniment captures the feeling of sending someone away, knowing they need to go–in this case on a mind-opening travel tour “across this vast world”, yet wanting them back so very very badly. It has the same feel as “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
I have listened to Pretty Gritty on YouTube and talked about two of their videos on this blog. So when I got their 2012 self-titled album, I thought I knew what to expect. Clean, lushly-instrumented, sweet songs that feel like ice cold lemonade on a southern summer day. Well, think again.
Pretty Gritty the album is more whisky sour than lemonade, but it is wonderful. This is a sassier album, hitting the jazzy country side harder than americana/folk. “Hey You” is a girl’s anthem with that never-ending attempt to get a man to play serious instead of just playing.
“I Don’t Know Why” goes with “Hey You” in my mind. Why oh why oh why has the one who “used to kiss me proudly in the daylight” suddenly grown cold? But since the melody is more honky-tonk swing and less weeping folk, you smile while you sing “now you’re always cold and I don’t know why.”
“Highway” is a driving song. For an interstate, not a curvy country road–because you’re going to want to push the pedal down and go fast.
You can find a little americana in the album. “This Heart of Mine” has the sweetness I have associated with PG. It is a declaration of love, and a plea for gentleness. “Don’t go breaking this heart of mine. . .I am putting it on the line, won’t you take it?” It is as tender as a high school sweetheart, and a feeling everyone has had when love is new and scary.
For something completely different, try “Hellhound Blues.” It fits into what I think of as Gothic Country, mysterious music with a hint of Stephen King-style horror. It’s like stories around a campfire in the middle of the night–you feel a small thrill of adrenaline, but no one’s really scared. But I bet you’ll want to sing along.
“Stay” is another of the deeper-than-they-sound sweet songs that went on to become a PG trademark. A song about the gentle healing of a broken heart, and the tentative steps someone takes back toward love when they’ve been hurt and are confronted with new love. “I hold my breath and hold on hope, each time I hear your voice ask if I’m ok as if I had a choice. Oh it always cuts so deep watching as you go.” A touching song that expresses the tricky combination of hope, fear, and longing perfectly.
My absolute favorite song on this album is “Good Man.” It’s one of those great “nothing’s going to crush me” songs, the kind of thing they play in a movie when the hero has been beaten and goes into training to go get the bad guys. A great song when you feel overwhelmed, but know you have a lot more in you than you’ve shown so far.
Train songs are fun. Especially when they have a hobo feel. And songs about musicians striking out to seek their fortune are staples in country music. “Ol Train Whistle” steps right into this tradition. The song is upbeat and gives you no doubt that Pretty Gritty is well on their way to musical success.
The group has moved from their Maryland home just up the highway from me in Virgina. Now they’re in Portland, a little further up another highway from Hen. The move has moved them to a more roots music than country, which is not a bad thing. But I hope they will circle back sometime and take a step or two towards the rocking country of this album. Either way, I’ll be listening.
Just saw Pretty Gritty‘s video for “Cliche,” and can only say color me impressed. The song is sweet and catchy, using instruments ranging from a guitar to spoons to the top of a washing machine. The lyrics are fun, including lines like “I can’t ever seem to wake up on time.”
It is filmed in an apartment laundry room, and includes someone coming in mid-video to do laundry, which sparks a good-natured whistle from the duet’s Blaine Heinonen when he sees lingerie is included. Sarah Wolff plays on through being edged aside for loading laundry.
The music is foot-tapping, the idea for the video is clever, and the song is pure whimsy.
“I Never Knew” is crying set to music. It has a mournful feel, but retains the sweetness of first love lost. The lyrics are simple: “But you don’t want to walk with me, you just watch me as I leave.” The simple ending, “I. . .miss. . .you” captures the feel of the song perfectly.
Simple and direct, both songs showcase the charming harmonies that make Pretty Gritty’s sound. Their homey instruments are comforting, like the deceptively simple music itself.
Pretty Gritty’s members are from Maryland and are currently based in the Portland, OR area. They describe themselves as “Soulful Americana” and the description fits perfectly. You can see their show schedule here.
I discovered David Wilcox with my husband on the way to our honeymoon in Asheville, NC. We heard “Johnny’s Camaro” on a local radio station. My husband, who usually takes a long time to warm to new music, instantly loved it. To this day, when we see a sports car or hyped-up truck taking more than its fair share of a strip mall, we call out in unison, “It takes TWO PARKING SPACES!”
David’s new album is called blaze, and we’ll be reviewing it here sometime soon. Here’s the video for “Ocean Soul” from the album:
David is known for his touching and sometimes hilarious lyrics. I know him as one of the musicians of my honeymoon. You can buy blaze here.
Chamomile and Whiskey describe themselves as “an eclectic blend of raucous-folk, hard-Irish, drunk-americana, and mountain-funk…best served with whiskey… and plenty of it.” Which is as good an explanation as I could create. You definitely smell the whiskey on their latest album, Wandering Boots. Their music has a wild-speed-down-a-dirt-road-without-brakes feeling. But the chamomile is there, too. The bluegrass influence in their music is as homey as rain on a tin roof, and fiddlers and pickers from centuries past would feel a kinship with these mountain folk. Wandering Boots is a mix of wild, drunk, grabbing-at-life while turning to traditional storytelling and age-old sounds to soothe the mind when life turns down one of its frequent rough roads.
The album keeps a joie de vivre while singing of regrets, depression, and lost loves, remembered in the still dark of night with plenty of alcohol to ease the pain. My family is from southwest Virginia, probably near founding band members Marie Borgman and Koda Kerl’s stomping grounds in the Blue Ridge mountains. The “let’s have fun while life has its way with us” vibe throughout the album resonates deeply in my hillbilly DNA. The long history of hard-scrabble living in that part of the country means we take our pleasures where we can, whether it’s in dance, love, or the beauty of the world around us. And when it all falls apart, we shrug, but don’t crumple for long–because we expected nothing less. That sentiment is rounded out by the Irish influence of bandmember Ryan Lavin, whose contribution is obvious throughout the album. The lyrics are word paintings, evoking emotion and imagery that is beautiful, touching, and often completely unexpected.
“Blue Ridge Girl” reminds me of “Rocky Top,” with its story of a girl that’s “half-bear, other half cat.” Songs about a special girl are a staple of music, and this one is as good as any that have gone before. It catches the feel of a Saturday night around a fire in the woods, making music with the special person in your life.
“Dirty Sea” feels like an ancient Irish folk melody you’d hear in a pub while drinking a Guinness. It’s almost impossible to sit still while it’s playing. I may or may not have spent a few moments bouncing up and down in my seat, waving my head around like I’m at a rave. And discovering I’m a little old and lacking in inner ear equilibrium to do that. Plenty of down-home Southern yells in the mix lend credence to their description of “hard-Irish, raucous-folk.” I’m hoping the Chieftains will hear this song and want to do a collaboration.
My favorite song on the album is “Impressions.” The upbeat tempo re-iterates the idea that sadness and the need for comfort give us our ability to connect and appreciate the beauty of life. There are worse life philosophies than “Baby, don’t hold back the tears you cry. ‘Cause the world is a Monet with tears in your eyes.” It is probably the best expression of the album’s theme that life has to be lived without missing any of the pain or exhilarating joy it holds.
A song about inevitable loss and never-ending love, “Long Day” reminds you to grab every success, feel every regret, and live life to its marrow. But that when hurts come, they last a long, long time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a lyric catch the pain of wanting something that’s gone as perfectly as “your stare will always leave me weak, and every time I try to speak, my words just fall like autumn leaves leaving me exposed like a winter tree. . . And I can’t hide behind a mysterious song. Cause life is too short, this day is too long.” This song is more chamomile that whiskey, soft and soothing in spite of the bitter truth it shares.
“Buckfast Tuesday” is laid back, and one of the songs that suggest the band may have channeled a little Creedence Clearwater Revival while borrowing Tom Waits’ ability to perfectly paint a scene. How else do you explain a line like “. . .went in the attic and liberated a slot machine”?
“Wandering Boots”: Now that’s some screaming rockabilly! It has a manifesto feeling. “A place to lay my head, and a drink to do me right. I am just a vagabond staying here tonight.” The wailing and whispering background vocals lend perfect run-screeching-through-the-woods-because-that’s-what-life-requires feeling.
Full of gorgeous and quirky images, “Sara Beth” is a different take on an old-style ballad. Southerners have an instinctive pull towards the Gothic and death. Chamomile and Whiskey indulge this attraction. The undying love evidently goes very wrong, but you have a feeling that his last thought was “My love for you is an Alaskan summer night. . .it ain’t never gonna grow dark, no matter where I am.”
“Inverness” is the second song with a CCR feel, and it has a strong feeling of rock from the ’60’s. It is also full of Chamomile and Whiskey’s signature gorgeous lyrics: “Like an actress in a silent play, she can live her life beneath a muted gaze.” The cacophony of the instrumentation adds to the feeling of chaos and desperation in life that sometimes requires dramatic responses.
“Second Lullaby” doesn’t seem like it will put anyone to sleep, but with “bourbon by the bed” I guess there’s always hope. “Her dress soaking wet, dripping with regret” is yet another line from the album I will repeat to myself because it is perfect.
Wandering Boots has a tenderness toward pain while encouraging listeners to grab life by the unmentionables and live like tomorrow is not promised–and don’t sit still, because the music is in you and it must be expressed.
You can get the album at Country Wide Music. Their latest work is the single “Thousand Sleepless Nights” on the Countrywide compilation album Make It Be. You can see their tour dates on their website.
If Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, and Lucinda Williams decided to pool their musical DNA, their creation wouldn’t be far from Mary Gauthier. Bluesy melancholy and dramatic imagery are throughout her songs, with a downhome delivery that Hank Williams would be proud to claim. Her album Trouble and Love covers heartbreak, loneliness, and survival with twang, resignation, empathy, and hope.
The album starts with “When a Woman Goes Cold” with a theme that will become familiar. The aching feeling of knowing too late that love has gone, and the loneliness of the aftermath. Who has not felt the pang when you realize “you’re no longer her concern” and that the one you built a world around simply does not care anymore?
“False From True” backtracks to the disintegrating relationship, to the moment when “a stranger showed up in your eyes.” The music is heartbreaking in its simplicity, reminiscent of some of John Prine’s best work. The quiet gentle sound eases into your heart and mind, and the lines “I tried, I tried, but I could not break through/There’s two of you and one don’t feel” hit you right in your heart.
“Trouble and Love,” which shares the album’s name, has the same simple writing. “Friends say walk on; it’s more trouble than it’s worth/But my will is gone and my head hangs low/It ain’t the leaving, it’s the way you go” show a person broken, in the middle of the worst of a breakup.
Things can only go up from here, and Gauthier reflects on that in “Oh Soul.” Referencing Robert Johnson’s famous deal with the devil in exchange for musical talent, she says on her website “If anyone would understand the sorrow of selling one’s soul, it would be Robert Johnson. So a visit to his grave, searching for redemption, in solidarity and prayer, in hopes of connecting with the spirit of a fellow traveller during a hard time, a time of deep questioning, well, it just makes sense…” Her tempo goes up ever so slightly, and a soft optimism whispers into the music even while the lyrics reflect her fear of having lost herself in her destroyed relationship. But while the previous songs dwelt on her lost love, here she’s going inward, thinking about what she’s lost, and her desire to reclaim herself, crying “Redemption, redemption/Have mercy on me”.
“What is the process by which deep and mighty blows deepen us, open us, make us better people? How does calamity and deep pain create deep empathy?” So Gauthier muses on her blog post about “Worthy.” The music is quiet, and a touching humility runs together with a growing triumph as the song progresses. She touches on the part of loss that gives strength, and how the process of grieving opens a new view of herself: “Left stumbling in the dark, I had to go within/So I traced my scars, back to where I’d been/A diamond in the dirt, perfectly concealed.”
In a break-up, or any loss for that matter, once you let yourself feel your pain and begin to grow through it, you are able to look around at the people who have hurt you and give them release as well. Gauthier perfectly catches that feeling in “Walking Each Other Home.” Looking back at her hurt, she’s able to be kindly resigned. “Ain’t for me to say what’s bad or good/In the end/I know we did the best we could. . .[and] we’re all just walking each other home.” This song is my favorite of the album.
If she had ended the album here, she would have had a great progression of a breakup. But as anyone who has experienced a painful loss knows too well, accepting the loss is only the beginning. You have to learn to live without the person you loved, with the changed situation–and that lesson is sometimes slow and painful. In “How You Learn to Live Alone” she unflinchingly describes the numbness of living past loss. “You’re not here, but you’re still there/The sun goes up, the sun goes down/And you’re not sure you care” is one of the best descriptions of the long days putting one foot in front of the other, surviving until your life is something you want again. It’s part of the process, and “It don’t feel right, but it’s not wrong.”
And one day you want to live again. Sadder, wiser, you still want to reach out one more time. Your steps may be hesitant, your view may not be as sunny as before, but you find yourself “Moving on through the pain. . ./Waiting on/Another train.”