Musical Gateways: American Routes

tree, country, landscape united state

Scenes that go by quickly on the roadway, the slower pace or country roads, the different perspective that comes from walking along the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest, or down the street; accents and cadences of speech and what they serve for breakfast that change from Maine to Mississippi to Montana; angles of light that shift from mountain to sea to prairie; all of these are part of language and story that make up the United States. All of this finds its way into the stories musicians tell. Come walk in some of these places and take a listen.

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and The Revelers both draw on the bayous and swamps and French and Cajun culture of south Louisiana for their stories. Riley and friends, with new band member and old friend Kevin Wimmer adding his fiddle and compositions to the strengths of Riley’s accordion, Brazos Huval’s bass, Sam Brousaard’s guitar and Kevin Dugas on drums and triangle offer a lively gathering of original music and pieces from a tradition that hold stories of travels from from one culture to another: it’s no accident that they chose to call their album Voyageurs. Songs and tunes to take note of include Au revoir Grande Mamou, ‘Tite fille de la campagne, and Malcolm’s Reel.

The Revelers, made up of former members of top Cajun groups The Red Stick Ramblers and The Pine Leaf Boys, apply the energy and style that mark Cajun, zydeco, and swamp pop to a collection of original songs, some in French, many in English. On Get Ready they offer a tight knit band sound with accordion, bass, guitar, fiddle, drums and saxophone underpinning vocal harmonies. Listen out for Ayou on va danser? and Just When I Thought I Was Dreaming.

Hungrytown, who are the duo Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson, base their travels in Vermont and in common with most musicians spend a good bit of time on the road. which is the place that focuses their song selection and creation for their album Further West. Hall has written the lyrics for most on the songs. Telling stories framed in journey and character, Hall and Anderson offer engaging duo harmony with often intriguing arrangements from Anderson and contributions from Hall on guitar, cellist Suzanne Mueller, and fiddler Lissa Schneckenburger. Notable tracks include the waltz time title track; Hard Way to Learn, about, as the title might suggest, a journey that does not live up to expectations; and Hall and Anderson’s fine a cappella harmony on Woody Guthrie’s Pastures of Plenty, certainly a traveling song of sorts if ever there was one.

Amy Black loved to sing in church as a child and joined bands in college, but she didn’t think of making music a career — until, in her mid thirties with a successful career in the business world, she felt a calling to explore her musical talents again. Black has lived in New England since she was fifteen, but the call of music eventually led her back to north Alabama where both her parents come from and where she wanted record the song Alabama, which she’d written in honor and memory of her grandfather, who lived in Muscle Shoals. So she booked time at the historic FAME Studios to record one single song — and found herself discovering and rediscovering music that spoke to her musical soul. The album The Muscle Shoals Sessions came out of that: it proves to be a collection of that spans R&B, gospel, soul, and Americana, and shows Black has the voice the musical intelligence and the songwriting chops to write and interpret this Deep South and deep soul music with the best of them. Listen out especially for her take on Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home, her original Please Don’t Give Up On Me, and Bob Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody. Supporting musicians include Muscle Shoals studio veteran Spooner Oldham on organ, gospel singers Ann and Regina McCrary on backing vocals, and top Nashville guitarist Will KImbrough.

You might know Rhiannon Giddens as founding member and banjo player, fiddler, and singer with the Grammy winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, or perhaps from her performances with her husband Irish musician Michael Laffan as the duo Black Irish. When producer T Bone Burnett suggest to her it was time to make a solo album it wasn’t something she’d exactly been planning on, but Giddens soon decided that what she wanted to do with opportunity was honor women, both songwriters and singers, who had inspired and in many ways paved the way for her own career. Giddens, who grew up in North Carolina, studied opera at Oberlin, has been a mainstay of the Chocolate Drops take on African American string band music in blues, jazz, bluegrass, and old time styles and has for several years based herself in Ireland, brought a wealth of musical ideas, influences, and imagination to the project, which she chose to call Tomorrow Is My Turn. It finds her taking on blues songs, American folk, the Charles Aznavour by way of Nina Simone title track, gospel, and a few other things along the way. As well as reworking the lyrics to some of the folk songs (notably Black is the Color) she also chose to include one song she’d written, Angel City. It is a recording which will repay your experiencing it track by track as it is sequenced, but you might pay especial attention to the first four tracks, Last Kind Words, Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind, Waterboy, and Up Above My Head, coming respectively from blues, country, folk, and gospel traditions and inspired respectively by Geeshie Wiley (blues singer whose name you may not know), Dolly Parton, Odetta, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Check out the liner notes too: they are as interesting as the song choices.

Angela Easterling knows about telling story and creating character through word and melody: all twelve of the songs on Common Law Wife are originals, the next step in a career that has seen her earlier albums and songs from them honored in a range of best of and top choice lists. No doubt this one will be so chosen too, as the South Carolina native tells stories which reach from the jaunty, celebratory title track to a murder ballad that’s certainly in the tradition of such songs but seen from a bit of different point in the story. There’s also a piece about letting go of an old love which offers fresh and poetic imagery, a meditation on generations past and present and yet to come, a story of baseball, mill towns, and the small town south, a tale from the Civil Rights Era, and the opening track, Hammer, which among other things is a powerful yet understated thought about the strength of songs. Easterling knows how to fashion these varied songs while keeping her own steady point of view and identity; she knows how to sing them too. If you have not heard Angela Easterling yet, you should: she’ll give you a lot to think about.

Tiffany Huggins Grant offers things to think about on her album Jonquil Child too. On this recording she works mostly in the vein of classic country, with a hints now and again of the soul and R n B she took in growing up near Atlanta, in Smyrna, which is known as the jonquil city. Most of the songs on Jonquil Child are penned by Huggins Grant, alone or with co-writers, and while many of them deal with struggle and change and the darker times in life, it is not a grim album at all. In part that is because of Huggins Grant’s voice: honey and crystal, it’s been called, and that’s an apt description, with a flicker of fire and firelight through the crystal added. Notable cuts include When It Rains, Ain’t Nobody Leaves This Place, and the title track Jonquil Child.

You could call Jorma Kaukonen the elder statesman of this group: founding member of the iconic American bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, talented teacher of guitar, gifted songwriter, member of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy winner, DC native, Ohio based musician, world traveler — but you have no need to know about any of this to appreciate and enjoy the music Kaukonen offers on the album Ain’t in No Hurry. The eleven songs include takes on two classics you can likely sing along with, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and and Out and Brother Can You Spare a Dime? the completion of an unfinished song begun by Woody Guthrie, a tune from A.P. Carter and one from Thomas Dorsey, and a handful of engaging original Kaukonen songs and tunes dealing with, among other things, love, time, and change. Kaukonen’s been making a living in music for more than five decades now, so you could expect he might have a few thoughts on those things. “The songs you hear in this album cover a lot of ground for me,” he says. “ Some are old, some are quite new. Where I came from to where I am today…it is all here.” It is a journey well worth the taking with him.

All of these artists offer journeys worth the sharing, worth the listening, opening up new American routes, recalling old ones, setting the familiar in new perspectives perhaps. Take a listen. You will be well rewarded.

country road, United States, sunset

Photographs courtesy of Jasper Boer and John Mark Arnold.
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