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FOLK MUSIC, CONTRA, AND NOT-ALWAYS-SO-SCENIC VIEWS FROM ON TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

Shovels & Rope: Honky-Tonk & Hardware

Since the rise of acts such as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, a tremendous number of nu-folk and Americana artists have come out of the small town woodwork and onto the popular stage.  However, along with this prominence comes great responsibility.  A folk musician must learn to tactfully draw the line between tradition and innovation.  Some nu-folk groups recycle old-style ballads with an added edge of electric guitar or synthesized undertones.  Others simply take the currently most predictable path, incorporating twanging banjo riffs into catchy confectionaries without any sincere nod to Americana’s roots.  It is rare to find a group that doesn’t simply hodge-podge fragments of the folk tradition in order to market themselves.  It is even rarer to find a group whose innovative tinkering is used to build upon and market the tradition itself.  However, the Charleston-based duo, Shovels and Rope, appear to have done just that.

In 2008, singer-songwriters, Mary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, released a pre-cursory album, Shovels & Rope, before the duo was dubbed with the same quirky moniker.  Within two years, they traded solo careers for a wedding band, “making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hoe/Two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”  The narrative inspired by this union, “Birmingham”, won the hearts of judges at the Americana Music Honors in 2013 and landed the duo an Emerging Artist of the Year and Song of the Year award.

Like most folk-rock groups, Hearst and Trent rely upon crooning harmonies.  At times, this can be warm and evocative, but more often achingly raw and raucous as Hearst’s brash yawp jostles for position with Trent’s mellow drawl.  Unlike most folk-rock groups, their musical background can be difficult to define by set genre blueprints, as Shovels & Rope regularly dips into a diverse toolbox of honky tonk, blues, jazz, punk, and alt-country.  A good number of their tracks feature the clinking syncopation of piano keys, rousing percussion, and the growl of an electric guitar with interludes of a harmonica or saxaphone (as on the  O’ Be Joyful (2012) cuts, “Hail, Hail” and “Keeper”).  The couple’s upbeat, uncompromising energy certainly befits their contemporary ballads, but even more thoroughly brings to life the stories and imagery of the past.  Feel-good shanties (“Mary Ann & One-Eyed Dan”), retellings of 18th century slave rebellions (“Stono River Blues”), and a moving tribute to a fateful 1963 submarine accident (“Thresher”) lends a sense of anachronisticy to Shovel and Rope’s repertoire.  These three cuts are from the couple’s latest record, Swimmin’ Time (2014), an album that perhaps lacks the novelty of O’Be Joyful, but takes on a fiery life of its own with gems such as “The Devil is All Around” and “Coping Mechanism.”

For those who hail from the American south, listening to Shovels & Rope is a visit home, with histories, place names, and low-country twang nailed into the couple’s acoustical carpentry.  Frequent—albeit tongue-in-cheek— allusions to life in the Bible belt frequently pop up in their lyrics, and the personas inhabiting their songs could certainly be your neighbor down the street.  All this said, Shovels & Rope is coming down the street to those in Chattanooga, TN, with an upcoming show at Track 29 on February the 3rd.  Tickets are available in advance at $16 and $18 at the door.   The opportunity to hear this up-and-coming duo shake the timbers is well-worth the price or, at the very least, a listen.

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First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold: Dead Ends and Silver Linings

With the release of a sylvan-set cover of Fleet Foxes’s “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”, the Swedish sister duo, First Aid Kit, carved a distinctive niche in the chamber folk world and filled it with dreamy lyrics and soaring harmonies reminiscent of 70s folk-rock. The sisters’ first record, Drunken Trees (2008), was produced during their teenage years and featured an earthy lyricism further developed in the next two albums.

Featured in the album were melodies driven by the strum of an acoustic guitar or autoharp and underscored with the haunting swells of a keyboard, conjuring up landscapes from the American West in “Emmylou” to Scandinavian snows in “The Lion’s Roar.” However, with Stay Gold, their first record on the Columbia label, First Aid Kit is no longer handing out band-aids. The tone of this album is one of questioning, longing, and unfulfillment in light of the wide-eyed idealism of the band’s past. Departing somewhat from former folk-derived simplicity, lush orchestrations define Stay Gold and make the Söderberg sisters’ sound appropriate for their experienced lyrics.

The title track invokes Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” along with its theme of temporality, but as the album progresses it turns a shade greyer and implores if anything is as it’s cracked up to be: “What if our hard work ends in despair? What if the road won’t take me there? I wish for once we could stay gold.” There is certainly a sense of finality in the lyrics that belies their youthful faces and the album’s lilting rhythms.

One could easily envision phrases such as, “Our lives are a story told, coming to an ending” and “My work is just a web out spun; my life is a setting sun,” spoken from someone standing at the brink of their days. Perhaps these words simply expect what is to come and accept it with dignity. Many of the tracks reference past relationships in order to grapple with the consequence of time and dead ends. Drawing from the sisters’ experience with the rootlessness of touring, these cuts constantly reference stark hotel rooms, endless highways, and the sacrifices made for a nomadic existence.

While listening to this album, one quickly learns that the escapism romanticized by our footloose culture, as well as First Aid Kit’s last record, The Lion’s Roar, has its downfalls. In an escalating country-esque ballad, “Cedar Lane”, the sisters lament the loss of their home and a relationship discarded for new horizons. World-weary, they warble that “Coast after coast, cities and states; my world’s an empty map, nothing remains. The place we belong was quietly gone, while we were making plans, it drifted away.”

“Shattered and Hollow” echoes a similar frame of mind with spine-tingling resonance as it traces the path that leads to disappointment, invoking the memories of a time when, “we stood here looking out at this city, with minds so bold and thoughts so clear. We said we’re gonna get out of here…run from all our fears.” Despite the assumption that traveling allows one to escape the banal and familiar, “The Bell” proclaims between triumphant piano bridges that “The world is an empty frame, and you are just a name.”

These musicians even daydream about having an everyday, anonymous existence in the buoyant “Waitress Song.” However, even after expressing their disappointments, it’s agreed that, “I’d rather be striving than settled. Oh I’d rather be moving then static.”

The beautifully tragic paradoxes handled with care in Stay Gold are not trite enough for the duo to provide any immediate answers, but this monumental album does not wallow in hopelessness. As the first shimmering cut claims, even when “these shackles were made in attempt to be free…a song’s never just sad, there’s a silver lining.”

Grandfather Mountain: The TRUE Seven Nation Army and the Scotch-American Woodstock

Scot Games

As far as Scottish Games on this side of the pond go, Grandfather Mountain is patriarchal not just in name only. While in recent years, young upstarts such as the Greenville Scottish Games, have shared the spotlight with visits from Prince Edward and regional bagpiping competitions, over 30,000 of the nation’s stoic and not-so-stoic clansmen, telephone-pole tossing athletes, sheepherders, possible Game of Thrones extras, New Age Druids, Irish/Scottish musicians and music aficionados like myself pilgrimage every year to set up camp on the Mountain for the weekend. It is as close as I’ve ever been to the old country. For one, where else could one find so many people happily trudging through ankle deep mud under a steady downpour or being welcomed in out of the rain by a 50th cousin while he uses a Mel Gibson-worthy claymore to toss puddles off the tent roof?

This year held a particularly appeal, as now that the staff has actually begun to pay musicians who perform in the so-called “Celtic Groves”, a few of the greats of the Celtic music world descended on Grandfather this year along with some other up-and-coming bands.

One of these being the headline Irish folk guitarist and singer-songwriter, John Doyle. It has been quite a few years since he was the acoustic powerhouse of the innovative Irish-American group, Solas, but since then he has collaborated with everyone from Chieftans’ Mick Maloney and bluegrass demi-god, Tim O’Brien to folk singer-songwriters, Kate Rusby and Joan Baez. Two albums that have always been near and dear to me are John and Karan Casey’s “Exile’s Return” (2010) and the Grammy nominated “Double Play” (2009) with fiddler Liz Carroll. Please give these records a listen if you get the chance! “Exile’s Return”, particularly with its trad ballad title track and “Sailing Off To Yankee’s Land” gives one an honest perspective of the American immigrant, something that could be quite appropriate with current events concerning immigrants from another border. Casey leads most of the vocals, except on a few tracks such as “Madam I’m A Darlin’”, but the harmony Doyle creates with her on others is achingly poignant. As for “Double Play”, most tracks are splendid guitar-fiddle dance tunes, where, unlike most Irish guitar players, Doyle goes above and beyond simply providing a steady accompaniment for the fiddle melody but races along with her-improvising, providing a jazzy riff here and a driving chord-variation there. “A Pound A Week Rise” is one of the few vocal tracks, a brilliant “cover” (if one can say that a folksinger does “covers”) of the trad-sounding Dick Gaughan ballad concerning the English-Scottish coal strike of 1984.

Ironically, he was the leading musician of Grandfather’s Celtic Rock Concert…even though I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him play anything electric in my life. I was absolutely heart-broken to miss his concert on Saturday night, but it seems as though he will in the Carolina area for a while as he is teaching at Swannanoa this summer for Celtic music week. My fingers are crossed that he will have a few more concerts in the area.

As for the other headlining act-sharing almost the same name as Jack White’s hit- Seven Nations is another particular favorite of mine, but seeing that this is supposedly a blog about folk music and they would be a much better line-up for the Celtic rock genre, I’ll be brief. For those who haven’t heard Seven Nations, it is one of the few major Celtic Rock groups that strays from that catchy yet cheap barroom anthem (no offense to be taken, I get caught up with the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly just as much as anyone) or drum-pounding tribal sound. Instead, they seem to create a much more successful fusion of both the Celtic and rock genres, with much more of an alt rock background- supplemented by dance tune instrumentals between verses and traditional Scottish instruments-than other bands of the genre. The purpose of their songs is less of an inspiration to have another glass and pillage a village, but to tell a honest-to-God story- whether it is of a girl and her “Big Yellow Bus” or a newsflash that appeared in the paper last week. Other than lead vocal/guitar/bagpipe/keyboardist, Kirk MacLeod and bass player, Jim Struble, the band has seen a change of face over the past couple years with the addition of fiddler Victor Gagnon and piper Will MacMorran. First hand, I can say it’s been a good one.

Other musicians including the Clandestine off-shoot- The Good Set, Scottish racatour-Ed Miller, and a local band formed from Asheville Irish sessions-The Red Wellies also performed in the Groves.

Sushi Rhetoric and Resisting the Thumb Wars

nagoyaaa

If you ponder over conversations you’ve had over the past week, can you remember each individual you spoke with and what you spoke about?

Perhaps, you might find this quite easy to do if you are a hermit and WordPress is the only form of human socialization you have encountered within a monthly time span.

However, the rest of us might find this question to be a wee bit more difficult to answer. This is quite understandable, when most of these conversations are three-ringed circuses of emoticons, pocket-sized earthquakes, and a Charlie Brownesque voice of so-and-so who just had to speak with you in person as he drones on through the white noise.

We are the multi-taskers, and we simply aren’t obligated to know what we were talking about five tweets ago. Nobody is expected to remember the dialogue of dinosaurs are they? Why on earth would one glance up, eyes as glazed as a Krispy Kreme donut, and waste the time to give someone your full attention? That would simply be un-American. Absolutely inefficient.

Perhaps that explains why I almost had to have cataract surgery after battling the iGlare emitted from my local fast food sushi joint.

Admittedly, I am usually not terribly observant of my surroundings a lá takeout, but keeping one’s half-nourished brain from hallucinating about California Rolls can bring about all means of unconventional behavior. Every booth, table, or teetering stool was filled with customers lacking any such impending concern. Most had plates of hibachi steaming in front of their unseeing faces. Others were shoulder to shoulder with at least some body they were minutely familiar with. A few dinner parties even appeared to be made up of friends. However, these distractions were invisible to the eyes fixated on the glowing tablets super-glued to their palms. Legions of thumbs scrolled screens, building up strength for upcoming wrestling tournaments. They were proud to be the redeeming body part that differentiates us from the majority of the animal kingdom. I’m glad to know they’re being used for something important.

Almost no one in the entire restaurant could go without stealing a glint of their neighbor’s Snapchat before it disappeared into cyber oblivion for the ten minutes I waited by the cash register.
It was quite eerie, and I almost reached for the instant conversation awaiting me in my pocket, the best solution to avoid being an abstracted, anti-social oddball. However, I wasn’t the only one. Sitting next to me in line was a middle-aged African-American woman sporting a Southpole sweatshirt and carefully curly-Qed hair. Her own phone sat expectantly on her lap, but her gaze politely roamed above the heads of the screen-watchers. Every now and again, her itching fingers would reach out to the keyboard, but she would violently wrench them back to a death grip on the side of her chair. Clearly, she was at war, as I was. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too strange if we made an alliance and actually spoke to each other.
“I think we are about the only ones not glued to our iPhones around here.”

“Oh, honey, I was just thinking about that! Everyone is just getting too dad-gum attached to those things. Creepy!” She reiterated this last statement with a zealous shiver.
“I so agree. It’s incredible how many people are even with their friends.”
A raccoon-eyed high schooler represented a specimen of face-to-face contact by shoving her Pinterest account over the screen of the girl beside her: “Don’t you think that dress is sooo cute! Why can’t we pull that off?” Her audience barely blinked an eye: “Who’s this we?”

“It’s not even just people your age either, honey. I don’t think anybody learns how to have a decent conversation anymore; maybe I’m just too old. My daughter set up some Facebook account for me on the internet, but I just don’t see how people have the time! I barely touch it myself, not that I would know too much about how to navigate around on there. It’s just not the same. You see, I just moved here and just about everybody back home expects me to keep up with them on this Facebook and don’t even bother callin’ and talkin’ to me.”
“Oh, where are you from…”, and then, this conversation took about as many rabbit trails possible before my sushi was un-cooked and ready. With as many times as the plastic doggie bag wished me HAVE A GOOD DAY, I wished it was sincere.

“Well, it was nice talking to ya! Good luck at college.”

“Same here. Good luck on starting your hair salon! I’m sure when your friends back home hear about it, they’ll want to commute here!”

“Oh honey, I hope so.”

Adventures in Contra-diction: Men in Skirts and Geneological Studies at F-Mart

F-Mart

Over the past couple months, I have somehow found my way into the fascinating world that is Contra.

Unfortunately, as this particular Narnia is found much further away than the wardrobe (my gas meter says it is really light years), my visits have been fairly sporadic. However, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go every week if I could. At least the last escapade will provide me (and hopefully any intelligent individual who has taken the time to read this) enough entertainment until the next time.

To those who have not been acquainted with Contra, by conventional definition, it’s a type of New England folk dance, a 3rd-crazy-cousin-twice removed to the more popularized square dance. Think less of that traumatic childhood camp experience of overcoming the cootie barrier and chinzy cowboy boots and more of the genuine…refined hootenanny. Depending on what scrap of country the dance is held in, there might be a string band throwing out any variety of Old-time, Celtic, French-Canadian, or even Cajun tunes. Beyond this and a few semi-repetitive steps, contra dancing is defined by the undefinable. In some communities, contra is a pastime of past times, but in others, I have heard it been called “an underground society” (by the most inconspicuous and discreet members of course). As Contra and a weekender’s tour of the local moonshiner distilleries are just about the only things to do on the Marietta scene come Saturday nights, Falling River Dance Hall is alive and kicking. I have never seen a place where more generations willingly gather under one roof. Not only do college kids show up, eager to find a date, but also individuals who were present when God created Contra on the 8th day. The hippies, the hipsters, the hillbillies…the Mormons tripping in ankle-length dresses and the wanna-be belly dancers snaking around in midriff tops…the starving actor from New York and the organic farmer from across the hallow…the purists with kilts and patriarchal beards. They are all there. No joke, no exaggeration.

Hiking is another alternative for a Saturday afternoon in Marietta. Falling River is quite suitably nestled beneath Jonah’s Gorge, a state forest laced with its fair amount of trickling water. One of these cataracts, the originally named Rainbow Falls, was a bargaining token to bamboozle two of my not-so-tree hugging friends into a pre-Contra trek up the mountain. Unfortunately, however, up is not a very beneficial direction and a pixelated google image map is not a very valuable tool when navigating a new trail. Almost immediately upon leaving the parking lot, we summoned up the humility to ask directions of the nearest fellow trudger.

It so happened that this particular wooly-faced man was sporting a kilt.

He engaged us in a conversation far beyond where-the-heck-we-were-headed-to, encompassing everything from the threatening clouds above us to the price hike in state park parking, but any mention of unusual outdoor attire was strangely absent from the conversation. We parted ways, but I felt sure we would see him again within the next couple hours.

The best refresher between two fairly strenuous activities in the furnace of a southern summer would have to be a visit to F-mart. This particular landmark is the Grand Central Station of Marietta tourism and is noted in these here parts for serving up hotdogs of absolutely peerless reputation. Peach Ne-His were our preferred poison, but it was difficult enough to restrain our hunger when tripping over mildewed cat food artifacts along the path to the front door. The newpaper articles decoupaging the walls with titles such as, “50 Copperheads Found in Log” and “Rattlesnake Holes Up with Marietta Resident” made the patty sizzling behind the cigarette counter even more appetizing. Obviously, the young couple sitting in a corner (and only) booth picking half-heartedly at their fries thought so too (We would see them again later that night as well). The multi-talented chef/cashier of the establishment at least felt it was appetizing enough to distract three waiting customers while she made sure at least the outside was browned for consumption. It gave us time to inspect the old family photos posted above the cash register, along with a printout of her ancestry.com portfolio. A busty woman perched on the porch of the 1800s homestead looked to be an exact replica of the descendent busy ignoring us behind the counter.

Cough…cough.

No response.

“Excuse me…”

“Just wait a minute, honey, while I finish this burger.”

A couple hours later, she turns around and hustles over to the counter, leaving the still pink burger to its business. Close-up, she still appears exactly like the woman in the photo, except that, unlike her predecessor, she has found it unnecessary to button the bottom half of her shirt. We slide the Ne-His into view and she punches in the price.

“So is this your family? I’m into genealogy and stuff like that…”

“No mam. That’s my husband’s. That’s his great-great granny right…there.” She pointed to her 19th century self.

“Oh.”

Well, one does hear that, “you better like your mother because you’ll marry someone like her one day.” I suppose it goes for great-great grandmothers too.

Thankfully, Falling River offers shower facilities, albeit with water pumped in directly from Alaskan ice flows. Right on the other side of the thin oak walls, the band had arrived early and was warming up with a few jumbled jig bits.

I can never say I’ve sung in the shower to live music before.

About 7:30, the greenhorns stumble in for the beginner lessons beneath an inviting plaque with the “MORGUE” spelled out in antique lettering.

The inside of the Lincoln Log structure is just as eclectic with plastic dinosaurs monitoring the announcement table and anthropomorphic moons dangling above the stage between Christmas lights. A Buddha peers down from the rafters beside a rusty plow, and a reminder of Dia De Los Muertos 2012 hangs above the dancers’ heads.

We all joined a wide circle, gripping the palm of our partner and proceed not to sing Kumbaya. Instead, we listened as the caller translated the language of “Left-Hand Stars” and “Gypsies” to something at least a little more understandable. After coming to contra several times, I knew the words, but it was putting them into practice that proved to be a more daunting task.

At 8:00, the regulars began to pour through the door and magnetically drift into two lines down the hall, two couples per square. Others slouch on the ottoman and survey the action as though they were watching their favorite sitcom. The couples in each square introduce themselves, and the more talkative ones, like myself, miss the instructions completely as the reel starts up. While many of the steps are repetitive, the way in which they are placed throughout the dance are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes callers created some dances right on the spot. Usually, the more experienced dancers are a fairly forgiving of the beginners and hold off on the kalidascoping spins and dips expected of the veterans. Some, however, are so talented they can pull a newbie into a dip without them even realizing it. As each square moves on down the line of people, new faces prop up, some that are familiar and some that arn’t. Do-Si-Do with your neighbor! Some are little to close for comfort as they try to stare a hole into your soul and others even more awkwardly fix a vacant gaze over your shoulder (because a glance at your face would apparently scald them). However, we’re all in this together and grin like there’s no tomorrow.

Balance and Swing! There swings the couple from F-mart. They should not be well enough to dance after that meal. Ladies Chain! Here promenades not only one wooly hiker bedecked in plaid pleats, but three in similar attire and yet another guy in a genuine skirt. Circle to the left three times!

Suddenly, a dancer passes out from the heat, the music screeches to a halt, and the caller makes use of his microphone to summon a first responder. The guitarist confesses that he is also a doctor from Atlanta and comes to the girl’s assistance. She’s finally resurrected, and a relative swarm aids her to the courtyard. The fiddle starts back up again, and isn’t interrupted, even when the full fury of a monsoon unleashes outside. If we don’t leave soon, we will surely be marooned at Falling River for the night. However, contra isn’t just something you can fold up and quit before it’s over.

*Some place names have been slightly altered for “anonyminity.”