It's almost a cliche within folk music circles to try to argue about what constitutes a folk song. For Baby Boomers, folk music has a social conscience and is often political, always acoustic, and sees its forbears as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. For milennials - the people who are making sure "folk music," whatever that is, remains relevant - a "folk song" tells a story and is made with a kind of grassroots spirit, regardless of if it's electric or acoustic, religious or political, or about completely vague ideas (being young, having ideas, searching). Who's right?
I would argue everyone's right. Folk music is people-centered. Like culture and society, religion, politics, and all the other things that have been topics of folk songs through the years, folk music is what you make of it. It's as useful as you want it to be. It speaks for you and on your behalf, so a culture that's focused on large-scale, dramatic social change (such as what was happening in the U.S. during the 1950s and '60s folk revival) would naturally identify mostly with political folk songs. A culture that's focused on finding its way through a tough economy and unclear expectations (such as is true of many milennials), may identify more with folk songs about uncertainty. So, with many folksingers "crossing over", garnering attention from mainstream critics and audiences, who never seem quite so sure about how to define "folk songs," I thought it was a good time to amend my definition of the phrase. Check out "What Is a Folk Song?" and see what you think.
A couple of weeks ago, when I shared my picks for artists you need to watch from this year's Folk Alliance International schedule in Kansas City, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West were one of the first outfits that came to mind. Their remarkable dexterity on their instruments and close, intuitive harmonies straddle the line between contemporary and traditional issues. More Louvin Brothers than Welch & Rawlings, their pairing is deceptively simple and remarkably haunting. If you've yet to hear Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, perhaps now is the time to become acquainted. The Seattle-based duo just dropped their third full-length album, I'll Swing My Hammer with Both My Hands, which was produced by folk and bluegrass darling Tim O'Brien. Check out this full profile for more info on that effort and more.
image: promo photo
Full disclosure: I'm a big fan of Jolie Holland. From her time with the Be Good Tanyas to her various solo albums, pulled from her early demos. She's an exquisite multi-instrumentalist, able to leap from guitar to violin to piano with equal proficiency. Her melodies are catchy, her lyrics are heavily nuanced and poetic, and her arrangements are surprising, complex, and haunting.
In 2003, Holland signed a deal with Anti- Records - one of the most versatile and remarkably reliable indie labels on the scene, who have backed efforts by everyone from the Milk Carton Kids to Ramblin' Jack and Neko Case. Their overarching genre-defiance is a perfect fit for Holland's impossible-to-pigeonhole songwriting. So, it is with great excitement that I share the news that she will be releasing a new album on Anti- this May 20, titled Dark Wine Sea.
According to a press release:
The album features symphonic swaths of noisy electric guitars and percolating polyrhythms supporting some of the most powerful vocal performances of HOLLAND's career. This combined with some of her most direct and memorable songs make Wine Dark Sea her most joyful and fully realized work to date.
The first single from the disc, "Waiting for the Sun" can be heard via a video on the AV Club website. Check it out, see what you think, and then mark your calendar.
photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have joined the 2014 lineup for DelFest, which takes place Memorial Day Weekend in Cumberland Maryland. They've joined a lineup that includes String Cheese Incident, Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby with Kentucky Thunder, Yonder Mountain String Band, Hot Rize, Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, and more.
Fleck and Washburn are, of course, married, but have mostly led separate careers. They collaborated on the Sparrow Quartet with Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen, but have only just begun touring together again since the birth of their child. No doubt their collaboration will be well-received during this festival. Tickets and other information are available on the DelFest website.
image courtesy BelaFleck.com
If you're in Kansas City this weekend (or, even if you're not), chances are you could use a little help nailing down a small handful of showcase performances you absolutely have to see at this year's Folk Alliance International Conference. After all, there are literally hundreds of folksingers and bands wandering around the conference for official and unofficial showcase dates alike. If you're at home, you can follow along with the lucky people in the epicenter of folk music happenings, by visiting these folks' websites and downloading their music. You don't have to be in Kansas City to enjoy these remarkable up-and-comers.
From old-time duos like Cahalen Morrison & Eli West (pictured here) to contemporary envelope pushers like Parker Millsap and The Sea The Sea, there is plenty all across the folk music spectrum to enjoy in Kansas City and beyond this weekend. Here are five folksingers you don't want to miss.
image: Cahalen & Eli promo photo
It's been a few years since Alison Krauss and her band Union Station dropped their latest Grammy-winning effort Paper Airplane, but the band has announced a string of US tour dates that indicate perhaps some new music might be waiting in the wings. To boot, they'll be sharing these dates with the inimitable Willie Nelson.
If you've never caught Alison and the band in concert before, you're missing out. Union Station is easily one of the finest groups on the bluegrass and roots music circuit, as evidenced by their countless awards (Grammys, sure, but also plenty from the International Bluegrass Music Association among others). Krauss's angelic vocals and monster fiddle skills are only the beginning of this great band, which has become one of the most celebrated outfits on the scene. (Check out these essential Alison Krauss songs, in case you're unfamiliar.) So, with that in mind, here's a look at Krauss's summer tour dates, which were announced this week:
May 1 - Murray, KY
MAY 2 - Atlanta, GA
MAY 3 - Nashville, TN
MAY 4 - Cary, NC
May 6 - St. Augustine, FL
May 8 - Daniel Island, SC
May 9 - Simpsonville, SC
May 10 - Greensboro, NC
May 11 - Huntington, WV
May 13 - Roanoke, VA
May 14 - Columbus, OH
May 16 - Nashville, TN
May 17 - Birmingham, AL
May 18 - Augusta, GA
June 5 - Southaven, MS
June 6 - Louisville, KY
June 7 - Lewiston, NY
June 8 - Bethel, NY
June 10 - New York, NY
June 13 - Philadelphia, PA
June 14 - Columbia, MD
June 15 - Simsbury, CT
June 17 - Boston, MA
June 19 - Bangor, ME
June 20 - Gilford, NH
June 21 - Canandaigua, NY
July 6 - Kansas City, MO
July 7 - Rogers, AR
July 9 - Oklahoma City, OK
July 11 - Council Bluffs, IA
July 12 - Chicago, IL
July 13 - Detroit, MI
July 15 - Rama, ON
July 17 - Interlochen, MI
July 18 - Toledo, OH
photo: Getty Images
Though the annual folk and bluegrass festival in Wilkesboro, NC, doesn't take its name from the inimitable Merle Haggard, it is a bit of a coup that they've scored his presence for a Sunday night headlining spot in 2014. (The festival was so named for Merle Watson, son of the late Doc Watson, an impeccable guitarist who died in a tragic tractor accident.)
The folks at MerleFest are still releasing the names of performers for their 2014 festival, set to take place at the Wilkes Community College in Western North Carolina on the weekend of April 24-27. (Many are hoping Nickel Creek will be announced as the Saturday night headliner, but we'll have to all just cross our fingers for that one.) But, the lineup is so far already impressive enough to warrant the ticket price. Artists all over the folk, bluegrass, and Americana spectrum are on tap this year, including Holly Williams, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Darrell Scott, Mandolin Orange, Old Crow Medicine Show, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, the Duhks (full original lineup), and more.
Keep your eyes on the MerleFest website (or right here) for further lineup announcements. MerleFest is easily one of the finest folk music festivals in the Southeast, with a family-friendly atmosphere and plenty of lovely nearby camping, even some not-so-uncomfortable chairs in front of the mainstage for those who don't want to or can't sit on the ground. If you haven't ever been, 2014 might just be the best year yet to break that fast.
image: promo photo
Recognizing and celebrating Black History Month is important for innumerable reasons. One reason I appreciate particularly is the comparatively fewer black faces and voices we tend to see and hear in many circles when it comes to discussing traditional American music. Meanwhile, the banjo - one of the cornerstone instruments of American folk music - is traditionally an African instrument. Artists like Leadbelly and Sweet Honey in the Rock have moved audiences and artists for generations, plus the fact that newer folks like Toshi Reagon, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and even more recently Leyla McCalla (whose album Vari-Colored Songs is one of the best new releases so far in 2014) continue to lend their incredible, imaginative voices to the mix.
So, in the interest of celebrating Black History Month, here's a look at some of the most important African-American folksingers of all time, from Elizabeth Cotten to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and beyond. Did I miss anyone? Add their name in the comments.
image: Richie Havens promo photo
It's not every day that we here in the folk music world hear about a 20-year-old who can write songs that rival those of people two and three times his (or her, in the case of Sarah Jarosz) age. But, now meet Parker Millsap - a young guy from Oklahoma, of all places, whose insight, with, and empathy belie his two short decades. Millsap's songs are intricate stories that capture the heart and soul of authentically American charactors. It's clear he's learned quite a bit from his musical heroes, among whom he counts Tom Waits, John Prine, and John Hiatt.
His debut self-titled full-length album dropped this week and it's easy to imagine it'll wind up being one of the best debuts of the year, if not among the best albums of the year. (It's early, I know. I'm not supposed to call those things in February.) Learn more about Parker Millsap's surprisingly fantastic debut with this full review. Or mosey on to his website and listen to some tracks from it.
image © Okrahoma Records
Nickel Creek - the freakishly talented trio of Chris Thile, Sean Watkins, and Sara Watkins - announced an indefinite hiatus back in 2006, much to the chagrin of their many fans. Then again, it also wasn't incredibly surprising. All three members had pursued various avenues beyond the band - Thile and Sean Watkins with solo albums, Sara Watkins lending her fiddle to various other projects, though she's long since launched an impressive solo career. It was kind of only a matter of time. After all, barely out of their 20s, the trio had already been playing together for two decades.
But now they're back, with a new album due out in April and, as indicated by various tweets last night, a tour to go right along with it. So far, only a half-dozen dates of their own (plus a spin at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival) are on the list. But, Sara Watkins tweeted indicating this was just the "first batch" of dates for the tour. Telluride Bluegrass Festival is already sold out. The other dates go on sale this morning, at 10 a.m. local time in each of the cities listed below:
April 18 & 19 - Ryman Auditorium - Nashville, TN
April 29 - Beacon Theater - New York, NY
May 1 - House of Blues - Boston, MA
May 3 - 9:30 Club - Washington, DC
May 9 - Riviera Theater - Chicago, IL
May 19 - Fox Theater - Oakland, CA
June 19-22 - Telluride Bluegrass Festival - Telluride, CO
image: promo photo