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Foothill Blog

Stories in Song

Courtney Kennedy

Jason Isbell's latest album, Something More Than Free, is journey through lives of many characters trying to keep it together in modern day America. As a songwriter, more than anything, Isbell is a storyteller. His songs are perfectly crafted mini-novels. In each one, he sets up a plot with a few broad strokes and then animates it with small, telling details. The songs on this album are populated by people facing desolate circumstances and trying to make it through. They outline a lifetime's worth of injustices, some small, some large. And they show characters trying to live their lives, and make the best of their circumstances. For all that dark material, the album has a buoyancy to it.

The album was produced by Dave Cobb, who is having a banner year. He also produced Chris Stapleton's Traveller, and the Southern Family compilation. These albums, along with Isbell's, all take classic forms and bring something fresh and new to them.

Isbell won two Grammies with the Something More Than Free album- Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song for the track called 24 Frames. The album has also been nominated for the Americana Music Association's Best Album of the Year.

I think the inconsistencies in the Grammy categories are telling. Americana? Roots Music? What's the difference? It seems that artists or albums get put into one category or another somewhat arbitrarily. Throw in the Country and Folk categories, and there is even more confusion. To my ear, Isbell's album sounds like Southern Rock and evokes some of the hit bands of 1970s, while also containing some faint echoes of Springsteen. But none of those comparisons are quite right, and there's nothing derivative about this collection.

24 Frames - Jason Isbell

For the most part, Isbell's band sticks to a simple instrumentation for Something More Than Free, with most tracks employing just electric or acoustic guitar, bass and drums. Isbell's wife, Amanda Shires, harmonizes on many of the tracks, but her violin is absent for much of the album. One exception is my favorite track, Hudson Commodore, where Shires provides a beautiful, spare counterpoint to the vocals on violin.

This was the best recording of Hudson Commodore that I could find on YouTube:

I like that they have added accordion to the live version of the song. It gives it a different color than the album version, though the beautiful harmonies on the chorus don't come through as well in this version.

After spending some time with Something More Than Free, I started listening to some of Isbell's other work. I found a wonderful recording of Traveling Alone, performed by Isbell and Shires.

Traveling Alone - Jason Isbell

Finally, here is a powerful performance of Cover Me Up from Austin City Limits:

Cover Me Up - Jason Isbell

Guy Clark, RIP

Courtney Kennedy

I was very sad to hear that Guy Clark died today. He was a wonderful songwriter, and an influential artist.

This press release announces his death and provides a wonderful overview of his life and the many contributions he made to American music.

Here is Clark performing at the 2012 Americana Awards:

And here he is performing my favorite song of his, The Cape:

If you are unfamiliar with his music, and would like a contemporary introduction, there is a great tribute album that came out a few years ago. It's called This One's For Him, and includes performances by many talented musicians, including Emmylou Harris, Rodney Cowell and Patty Griffin.

Timeless Traditional

Courtney Kennedy

As much as I love modern folk and Americana music, I don't always enjoy historical recordings or very traditional performances of American folk music. Sometimes I find them to be a little airless and inaccessible.

So recently when I heard about Jayme Stone's Lomax Project album, I wasn't sure I would like it. I felt like at minimum I should listen to it for educational purposes. But once I started listening, I was delighted to find that it's a compelling album that I want to hear over and over.

Jayme Stone's Lomax Project is album of folk songs inspired and informed by the recordings of Alan Lomax, a twentieth century folklorist who traveled all over the U.S. and the world recording traditional music. Alan Lomax is a fascinating character, who recorded many iconic American musicians including Muddy Waters and Lead Belly. NPR's Fresh Air Archive has this 1990 interview with him. His entire set of recordings are available online for anyone to access here.

To me, the most striking thing about this album is a sense of timelessness. These songs are performed with influences from many different decades and styles of American music beyond those that were at work when they originated. These seeming anachronisms create a sense of being out of time, and add new layers to the songs. There is almost a disorienting, shimmering property as sounds and styles from different decades of American music come through in the performances of these songs.

To start, the Lomax Project album is recorded and produced beautifully. The entire album has a bright, clean sound that seems both intimate and expansive to my ear.

Next, Jayme Stone has assembled a wonderful group of musicians to collaborate on this project. Throughout the album, they seem to be performing the songs with a sense of fun and affection for the source material. Stone himself plays banjo and sings. In addition, the recordings feature Tim O'Brien, Moira Smiley, Margaret Glaspy, Julian Lage, Greg Garrison, Brittany Haas, Joe Phillips, Nick Fraser, Mollie O'Brien, John Magnie, Martin Gilmore and Alwyn Robinson, among others. I was already familiar with a few of these musicians, but many were new to me.

As one example of the timelessness I hear in this album, there's Sheep, Sheep Don'tcha Know the Road. This song is a work song from Georgia's Sea Island, and on the album it is performed in a traditional style, with call and response, no instruments, just voices and hand claps. Moira Smiley sings the lead on it. But here's the thing that makes the song hold my attention: I hear a strong evocation of mid-twentieth century pop and jazz singers in Smiley's voice on this track. To me, she sounds almost like the Andrews Sisters or maybe Ella Fitzgerald. That seeming incongruity creates a sense of mixing two different periods and styles of American music and makes the performance really interesting to me. It's what causes me to listen over and over.

There are other instances of this sort of effect throughout the album. Though the album uses traditional instruments, including banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, accordion, acoustic bass and drums, there are times where the harmonies or the rhythm used in a particular line seem to come from a different time period and style of music than the original song.

My favorite song on the album is Shenandoah. I first sang Shenandoah in chorus when I was in grade school, and I've loved it ever since. I've always thought of this song as being about that most elemental American experience of leaving home and heading west. Turns out, that not really what the song is about at all! It's a sea shanty that probably originated among fur traders traveling on the Missouri River. The story goes that it's about a white man who was in love with the daughter of a Native American chief named Shenandoah. Regardless of my misperception of it, this song fundamentally expresses longing and unfulfilled love.

The Lomax Project performance fully captures that sense of longing and desolation that is at the heart of this song. Margaret Glaspy sings it, and initially she makes it very sad by elongating the melody and filling it with yearning. The song starts with just bass and fiddle playing long notes, and Glaspy singing over them. But then, the other instruments come in, with a pulsing rhythm underneath the long vocal melody. To me, the instruments contrast with the sadness of the vocals, providing a feeling of adventurousness and hope. The song continues to alternate solos from banjo, fiddle and guitar with vocals, in a format that may be most familiar from jazz performances, but is of course common in bluegrass and folk music too.

Here's a performance of it:

Here's more videos and information from Jayme Stone's site.

The Lomax Project is touring now. They came through Northern California a few weeks ago, but unfortunately I didn't get my act together in time to see them. You can find their upcoming concert schedule here. If you get a chance, go see them, and let me know how the show was!