Posts Tagged ‘Americana’

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Crooked Still: A Sound All Their Own

29 April 2011

I can’t think of another string band that has a more distinctive sound than Crooked Still.  I recently talked with the group about its musical identity. Was having such an identifiable sound a blessing or a curse? Did they consciously maintain a specific style, or did it just happen organically? Here’s what they told me…

It’s a measure of Crooked Still’s influence that you can no longer simply identify it as “the band with the cello.” Even so, the cello has been and continues to be essential to defining the group’s sound. When he joined the group in 2007, cellist Tristan Clarridge took on a seemingly impossible job: filling the shoes of the group’s original cellist, Rushad Eggleston. Eggleston essentially invented a new technique for his instrument, adapting the crisp chop developed by Richard Greene and Darol Anger to produce a complex and percussive rhythmic foundation. Clarridge had apprenticed with Anger in his Republic of Strings ensemble, so he was uniquely suited to take over for Eggleston. These days, working in concert with bassist Corey DiMario, Clarridge lays down a groove on many up-tempo tunes that will shake the rafters.

Another trademark of Crooked Still is its penchant for rediscovering old songs. The band clearly has spent many an hour listening to field recordings by itinerant folklorists. I assume this in how they came upon the song featured in the video clip above— “Cold Mountains.” Alan Lomax recorded the Appalachian singer Texas Gladdens singing this elegant ballad several decades ago. As is their wont, the band polishes up and adds color to their arrangement while remaining quite faithful to the melody and lyrics.

“Cold Mountains” is included on Crooked Still’s most recent release, Some Strange Country. When I first heard it, I thought it might be an original composition. Over the years, members of the band have written a number of their own tunes, an accomplishment for which they don’t receive sufficient credit. Come to think of it, my confusion could be held up as further proof of the group’s unique musical identity. Whether they are playing an ancient tune, a song by the Rolling Stones or an original number, their sound is always entirely their own.

There’s more from Crooked Still yet to come, but this is an opportune moment to thank the band once again for sitting for their collective portrait. A special tip of the hat to the group’s label as well, which is named— appropriately enough— Signature Sounds.

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Crooked Still: Building Songs Old & New

25 March 2011

Time for another installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the cutting edge string band Crooked Still. Here the band talks about how they approach arranging their songs. Have a look and a listen…

From the outset, Crooked Still’s sound has been largely built on their reworking old tunes. As bassist Corey DiMario points out, at times these arrangements are so radical as to practically constitute an entirely new tune. This is why it’s often hard to discern which songs on a Crooked Still album are original compositions and which are traditional numbers: both bear the marks of the band’s collective style and sundry personalities.

In the case of the tune featured in this video, the band sticks pretty close to the earlier versions I’ve heard. The critical element they add— the “special sauce” that really makes the song come alive for me— is that hammering bass groove. Aoife O’Donovan explains that it was this hook, developed by DiMario and the group’s original cellist Rushad Eggleston, that provided the foundation for their version of the tune.

What’s remarkable to me is how much the resulting arrangement’s very contemporary beat recaptures the “straighter” but equally propulsive rhythm of Brother Claude Ely’s rendition (which you can experience here). Brother Claude was a revival preacher and singer who was especially associated with “Ain’t No Grave”(so much so that it’s also the title of a biography about him). Comparing Crooked Still and Brother Claude’s versions of the song, I’m struck by the fact that, although these artists undoubtedly followed very different paths to arrive at this material, they are united by an unfathomable bond, a common musical essence. That bond sums up the strength and the beauty of traditional music.

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Crooked Still A Decade On

17 February 2011

Hard to believe it, but the Boston-based outfit Crooked Still turns ten this year. Perhaps it’s because they’ve infused new blood into their line-up along the way, or because they’ve maintained a perch on the edge of bluegrass, pop and old-time music, or just because I’m really, really old, but whatever the case, the band still exudes a youthful exuberance onstage and off.

I recently caught up with the band in concert at a one-night bluegrass “festival” at the intimate Town Hall Theatre in Woodstock, Vermont. Before the show, the entire distillation apparatus— that would be Aoife O’Donovan, Greg Liszt, Brittany Haas, Corey DiMario and Tristan Clarridge— consented to sit for a group portrait. I asked them about their beginnings…

The “Casey” that Greg Liszt refers to in describing how he first met Rushad Eggleston, the founding cellist in the band, is the noted fiddler Casey Driessen. Driessen was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston in the late 1990’s. During this period, one of Driessen’s professors at Berklee, Matt Glaser, formed Wayfaring Strangers, a group that pulled together musicians with backgrounds in jazz, bluegrass, swing and folk music to perform bluegrass and old-time tunes. Glaser invited O’Donovan, then a student at New England Conservatory of Music, to join the group as a vocalist. Soon thereafter, O’Donovan banded together with Liszt, Eggleston and NEC classmate Corey DiMario to form Crooked Still.

As this thumbnail history makes clear, Boston in the late 1990’s was a hotbed of musical talent, with everyone connected one way or another to everyone else. The style that emerged from this scene was seemingly oxymoronic: “innovative traditional music,” which is to say music that applied contemporary performance practice to ancient folk tunes and bluegrass. If this hybrid approach is the specialty of the house in Beantown, then Crooked Still certainly remains the house band. A decade on, the group continues to be the chief proponent of a peculiarly Bostonian brand of bohemian bluegrass. Thanks to their heavy tour schedule, their distinctive sound is now familiar to lovers of string band music from Malmö to Melbourne.

We’ll explore the group’s place within the Boston music scene and much more in forthcoming segments of Ye Old Performer’s Showcase, so don’t wander too far.

The tune performed here, “New Railroad,” is quintessential Crooked Still in that it synthesizes ancient and contemporary influences. The bones of the song, which form a dark and fragmentary narrative, are clearly very old, yet such diverse popular figures as The Grateful Dead, Joe Val, Dave Van Ronk and Grandpa Jones have forged their own versions of it. These latter-day renditions have all gone by the title “I’ve Been All Around This World.” Historians trace the original tune variously back to Britain or Kentucky. Hats off to Alex Allan who, with help from Matt Schofield and Jim Nelson, has compiled a fine online summary of what is known about the song.

Thanks to all the members of Crooked Still for sharing so generously their time, thoughts and music. Thanks as well to Flora Reed at Signature Sounds for her help with this profile.

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Cherryholmes Serves Up Sizzlin’ Self-Help

6 January 2011

Dang. Anybody know which way 2010 went? I believe I left some stuff in the back seat…

Cousin Curly’s got whole stocking full of good stuff to share with you in the New Year, but first I’ve got to wrap up our “Cherryholmes Season.” What with the calendar turning over and all, it seems appropriate to close out this brief series with a bit of soul-searching— a Cherryholmes specialty.

For those of you not up on Team Cherryholmes, a quick recap: Since leaping full-blown onto the stage a decade ago, this six-member family band has become one of the most popular acts in bluegrass. I’ve already commented on the band’s technical virtuosity and its puzzling mix of piety and razzle-dazzle. There’s one key ingredient to the group’s music that I have yet to delve into, however, and that’s the way it continually draws on the language of self-improvement in its lyrics.

Take the latest release from the band, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. After listening to that album for a while, I realized that I wouldn’t need to buy a Daily Affirmations calendar for 2011— all I had to do was press “play” on my Cherryholmes playlist every morning and I’d be good to go. True, a number of their compositions mine a millennialist vein— not surprising, given the family’s deep Christian roots, to say nothing of its affiliation with the born-again Ricky Skaggs— but more often than not, the group’s songs take a psychological tack. When working in this mode, the group trades notions of damnation and salvation for an ethic focused on redemption through self-realization.

This self-help theme turns up in songs written by many members of the family, but the expert in the genre would seem to be banjo-slinging daughter Cia. I caught the whole Cherryholmes brood performing Cia’s composition “How Far Will You Go” at last summer’s Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival. Contrary to what the title suggests, the song has nothing to do with the question so often posed by one teenager to another. Rather, it’s an up-tempo ballad about a troubled girl for whom the song’s narrator has plenty of advice. Have a listen:

I hope this video captures a little of the energetic interplay that is a hallmark of the band’s stage presence. As I’ve noted before, this is a group that really knows how to swing. All that good mojo can make you overlook what’s being said. In the midst of all the ruckus, Cia is laying it out for her tormented friend:

Why do you cling so desperately to the hurt that you don’t need

You can’t let go of the fear in your mind, and leave it behind

While I admire the song’s ambition— its attempt to capture a certain inner turmoil in words and music— I confess that I recoil a bit from its artless approach. Cia Cherryholmes is a gifted songwriter, but her work would be stronger if she could find a way to evoke rather than merely address. More often than not, the songs that stand the test of time paint a picture, leaving audiences over the ages to find meaning in the composition. Take this old line about another young woman who is “passing away her troubles:”

Last time I saw little Maggie

She was sittin’ by the banks of the sea

With a forty-four around her

And a banjo on her knee.

In contrast with the concrete imagery of this lyric, songs from the Cherryholmes family are laced with references to a purely inner world (the word “mind” crops up repeatedly). The problem with this on-the-nose approach to addressing psychology is that, ironically enough, it forestalls any attempt to look deeper. When, in another song, Cia sings, “I’m left with anger and annoyance,” well, what more is there to say? The songwriter has already analyzed her mental state, leaving the listener no role beyond “being there for her.”

Perhaps I have a point, or perhaps I “just don’t get it.” It occurs to me that my beef with Cherryholmes’ particular brand of confessional songwriting might be of a piece with a broader disconnect on my part. I’ll spare you the sermon, but let’s just say that contemporary American culture is riddled with values that, from a more traditional perspective at least, seem contradictory. After pondering long and hard about the mixed signals I get from Cherryholmes, it finally dawned on me that the problem is with me, not them. I’m trying to reconcile all these disparate cues the family sends out— the hints of rusticity, the pouting glances, the homespun values, the tattoo fetish— when in fact I just need to let go. Instead of trying to look under the hood of the band’s tour bus to see what makes it run, perhaps I should be more focused on the sleek exterior, because maybe that surface level is all there is— or at least all that matters in this case. When you look at the group’s work this way, it starts to add up: everything you need to know is right out there, at once as glossy and raw as a photo of a steak in a supermarket circular.

Yer Pal— Curly

Pedantic Postscript: Ever since I first heard Cia Cherryholmes sing, I’ve asked myself, “Where have I heard that voice before?” The other day, I had a Union Station song on the iPod and— bingo! In interviews, mother Sandy Cherryholmes has confirmed that the kids listened to Alison Krauss & Union Station early on, and Krauss’ influence on Cia’s singing is unmistakable. It’s interesting to hear influences like this crop up in the work of younger performers; it reminds us that their points of reference are as likely to be current, still-active artists as it is to be the forefathers and mothers of the genre.

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Cherryholmes and Bluegrass Power Chords

18 October 2010

Autumn may be the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but here at Second Cousin Curly, it’s also “Season of Cherryholmes.” I’ve already expounded on the Cherryholmes juggernaut (click here for that entry), but I’ve got lots more music to share from this talented group’s appearance at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival.

Here’s a brand new tune from the ensemble’s latest album, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. The composition— co-written by BJ Cherryholmes and his younger sister Molly— is called “Tattoo of a Smudge.” The title refers to the permanent ink that collects on the sides of musicians’ hands after they have been signing a lot of merchandise at shows. Doesn’t that clear things up? I’ll let the music speak for itself—

Listening to  Cherryholmes going to town on this tune got me to thinking about a musical trope that has become a fixture in contemporary bluegrass, something that I call the “bluegrass power chord.”

Before we go any further, let me anticipate a question that might come up with regard to the following clip, namely, “Was I drunk when I made it?” Friends, in truth, I was stone cold sober, but this doesn’t exactly get me off the hook, since I’ll be the first to admit that the video makes very little sense. After gassing on this summer about the pernicious influence of percussion in bluegrass and other burning issues, I had decided that my proper place was behind the camera. I know I should have staid the course in this regard, but the current topic required a fair number of examples, and once I had settled upon a musical show-and-tell format, I didn’t see how I could avoid putting my ugly mug— Oh, just have a look and see what you think…

I’m less concerned about looking like a lunatic* here than I am about failing to make my point. You see, having committed to treading the boards once more, I was determined at least to get through the whole exercise as quickly as possible. As a result, I raced through the various musical excerpts, making it very hard for even the attentive listener to grasp my point.

Be that as it may, I still believe there is a case to be made here. Watch Sandy Cherryholmes hitting those chords in the first video clip, or turn the dial to the Bluegrass Channel on satellite radio or some other outlet for contemporary bluegrass, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Whereas bluegrass up until around 1970 was marked by a steady backbeat punctuated by the occasional lick or fill from the rhythm guitar, today’s music features surging rhythms that are often quite tightly arranged. That caesura that you hear in Ricky Skagg’s version of “Walls of Time”— the little hiccup where the whole band seems to take a collective breath— is a common stylistic device for contemporary groups like The Steeldrivers and Blue Highway.

As the carol goes, “Do you hear what I hear?” If so, when exactly did bluegrass get that extra rhythmic punch? Where did it come from? Send me your thoughts, and should you try to make one, let me know how that “bluegrass turntable” works out. A word of caution, however: try it out first on your old Bay City Rollers LPs and keep those bluegrass heirlooms on the shelf.

Yer Pal— Curly

*Self-flagellating postscript: Precisely why I was drawn like a moth to immolate myself on the flame of exhibitionism is a matter I’ll be taking up shortly with my bluegrass therapist, Dr. George Dickel.

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Broke Guitar Blues

8 October 2010

We interrupt the regularly scheduled programming to bring you this public service announcement… John Martin Holland has long been a fixture on the streets of Burlington, Vermont, where he bills himself as “The Human Jukebox.”  While at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival this summer, Holland lived through every musician’s worst nightmare when he tripped and busted his prized instrument, a ’72 Martin. Here he recounts the tale— with musical accompaniment, no less…

Again, if you want to contact Holland and offer help or encouragement, he can be reached at johnsmusic@comcast.net

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Cherryholmes: Intelligent Design or Mutation?

29 September 2010

Bluegrass has been a family enterprise from the outset. Bill Monroe honed his craft playing first with his uncle and then his brothers, but well before his Bluegrass Boys first took the stage, there were family minstrel acts traveling the byways. Today, there are still family bands across the spectrum of acoustic string music, from The Whites to the Parkington Sisters and all points in between.

Yet even given this musical legacy, it feels odd simply to lump the group Cherryholmes into the long tradition of bluegrass family bands. Their story is so singular, their ascent in the field so vertiginous and their style so distinctive that parallels with other music acts seem to miss the point. Rather than compare them to Del McCoury & Sons, I’m tempted instead to place them in the company of famed aerialists the Flying Wallendas or pyrotechnic legends the Grucci Family, idiosyncratic clans that have raised the business of grabbing attention to an art form.

I caught up with the Cherryholmes juggernaut last month at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival, a homey event that takes place each year on a farm just a mile from the Canadian border. The band anchored the Saturday evening line-up, and as soon as they took the stage, my narrow little mind started to seize up. The band is a semiotic puzzle, a jumble of cultural references. First there’s mom Sandy, the Amazonian queen girded with a Celtic arm band, then there’s dad Jere, looking like Sean Connery playing a mountain man, and finally there’s the whole gaggle of offspring, all of whom— but for their instruments— would not look amiss backing Justin Timberlake.  Add enough rhinestones and sequins to make Liberace blush and more tattoos than you’ll find in a prison yard and— well, see for yourself…

Jere Cherryholmes likes to call the band’s style “bluegrass on steroids.” The show has an energy that can take away the collective breath of the performers and viewers alike. Before you blink it seems, they’re five songs into their set and you’re thinking, “You know, maybe steroids aren’t so bad…” Still, when it’s all over, you wander away asking yourself, who are these born-again bow-hunting hippies in lip gloss?

It helps to know they’re from that great cultural blender known as California, and that Ma and Pa Cherryholmes met in church. This goes some way towards explaining their “Red Hot Chili Amish” aesthetic and lifestyle. I’m not joking about the Amish part either. The kids were home schooled, and the family code of conduct was not typical of most Southern Californian households: no television, internet, nor even headphones allowed, and no driving or dating until the child had reached eighteen.

Small wonder, then, that a heady mix of Old Testament rigor and hormonal sizzle fairly oozes from the stage at a Cherryholmes show. In truth, in interviews, members of the band seem entirely grounded and reasonable. The professions of faith that turn up frequently in their songs sound like genuine and heartfelt testaments, not bumper sticker slogans. The number in the video above— “Changed in a Moment”— is a gospel-inflected original tune penned and sung by Sandy that summons up both the Holy Spirit and a devilish swing rhythm. It’s remarkable how you can hear the background chatter give way to hoots and hollers as the audience gets swept up in the song.

I can’t help wondering if the transformative moment that Cherryholmes refers to in this composition was the death of the family’s eldest child, a daughter named Shelley who passed away from respiratory failure in 1999. As the oft-told story goes, it was in seeking solace in the wake of this tragedy that the family embraced the idea of playing bluegrass together and began their meteoric trajectory.

Of course, playing connect-the-dots between a songwriter’s biography and his or her art is a dangerous game, and I would resist the temptation were the members of the band not so devoted to keeping this personal loss in their— and our— thoughts. Each album they release bears a dedication to Shelley’s memory, the latest— Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads— being no exception.

I have a small arsenal of Cherryholmes material from Lake Champlain that I’ll fire off in the coming weeks, but it makes sense to start with a number that has an overtly spiritual theme, and not just because band makes no secret of its faith. It’s hard to spend an hour looking at this photogenic ensemble and listening to their impeccable musicianship without pondering some Big Questions. The whole ensemble is so perfect, right down to the name Cherryholmes, which sounds like a brand of some sort— perhaps for a pipe tobacco? Anyway, you take the whole thing in and, depending on your metaphysical inclinations, you either think, “Only the Great TV Producer in the Sky could come up with this,” or “It took nearly seven billion people and all the ages of history, but here they are.” Yer call.

Yer Pal— Curly

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