Friday, April 25, 2008

Tish Hinojosa and Unexpected Favorites from Merle Fest

My husband Jefferson Pepper and two of our friends, Roger and Chris Wilkinson, are down at Merle Fest in Boone, S.C. this weekend, having a great time listening to great music. I know the music is great because it seems like they keep calling every couple minutes to update me about this great band, or this great singer-songwriter. It's all so great!

But if it's that great, (and Merle Fest is always great) why am I not with them? Alas, because after a somewhat lengthy and stable relationship with unemployment, I now have ... a job. And unfortunately, the job's start date was the same week as Merle Fest.

So, I'm curled up on the couch, alone, on a Friday evening, typing away about the great stuff other people are doing, instead of being stretched out drowsily in the sunshine, surreptitiously sipping some sweet rum concoction from a plastic bottle (a drink known as "Becky Juice," named for the good friend who, with an innocent smile as sweet as that rum drink, can get alcohol past any security guard) and letting the tunes of some of Americana music's best musicians wash over me.

Merle Fest is the annual tribute hosted by the legendary Doc Watson for his son and musical partner Eddy Merle Watson, who was killed in 1985 when he rolled his farm tractor down a steep hillside near his home. The first concert was held in Merle's memory three years later as a way to raise funds for the gardens of Wilkes Community College - one of the prettiest community colleges you're ever going to see.

My husband and the Wilkinsons have been calling me to say they saw: Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys; Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives; Sam Bush; Peter Rowan; Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand; the Waybacks ... The list goes on.

Yet, despite the array of well-known and amazing acts, each year at Merle Fest, there is also one band or songwriter, who emerges for us the Unexpected Favorite. The rules for choosing our Unexpected Favorite is that the musicians must be performers we have heard almost nothing about, but who immediately blow us away for one reason or another. One year, it was Nickel Creek. Another time, the Avett Bros. Then another year it was Chris Smither, followed by the Gourds. For my husband this year, the Unexpected Favorite is clearly Tish Hinojosa. Each time he calls, it's Tish Hinojosa this and Tish Hinojosa that. He tells me how great she is and reminds me that we met her daughter at SXSW one year and he just can't believe that I have no memory of meeting somebody related to Tish Hinojosa.

So...I looked up her bio. Merely for research purposes. Not that I'm jealous or lonely or anything and wanted to see what she looks like. (And I have to admit, she's quite pretty.)

Her bio peaked my curiosity. The youngest of 13 children born in San Antonio, Tex., Hinojosa's parents were Mexican immigrants. Born Leticia "Tish" Hinojosa, she records in both Spanish and English, and her CD, she moves casually between the two languages. She credits her musical diversity to the experience she had growing up listening to her parents' music, the area's country sounds and the popular rock and roll played by her brother's friends. She started playing guitar as a teenager, and started singing folk and pop songs in local clubs. But her mother, concerned that the club scene might have a bad influence on her daughter, set Tish up with a job at the local Spanish-language radio station, where she sang commercial jingles and recorded a few Latin pop songs for a local label.

Her story interested me enough to download her 2005 CD A Heart Wide Open onto my I-Pod. And despite being unable to be at Merle Fest, at least I can say that I get to have my own personal Unexpected Favorite this year.

Hinojosa sings songs of childhood memories and war-weary veterans' despair, of a mother's dreams and the lure of taking the back roads. But rather than being straight-up country - although there is nothing on this CD that wouldn't be in line with pop country values - there is something a bit more to her lyrics. Perhaps it's her multi-cultural upbringing, but she seems to bring a sincere empathy to the characters she sings about.

Her lilting soprano is accompanied by lovely restrained playing of various instruments that echo the diversity of Hinojosa's background. On The Poet the Painter, she shares the melody with the haunting strains of a violin. Absolutely terrific accordion rhythms give Blue-Eyed a distant and lonely sound:

Blue-eyed Billy was a veteran; Pumping gasoline when I was young.
Sunken eyes no longer see the ghost that haunts his mother's only son.
Blue-eyed Billy was a veteran, a college boy who learned to shoot and grunt.
No one knows the history of a battle like a soldier and his gun.

But I think my favorite song may be The Kitchen Table:
I'd love to be the kitchen table, from long ago when I was three.
To hold my father's morning coffee. To feel my mother's hand on me.

For more information on Tish Hinojosa, or to purchase A Heart Wide Open, her
web site can be accessed here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

As I said in my previous post, for some reason, I'm drawn to seemingly straightforward religious lyrics of ambiguously subversive intent. Case in point, this Youtube video I've posted here:

At first I thought this rap video had been put out by the creationist crowd satirizing scientists' arrogance for, well, having the facts and truth on their side. "Yeah, he's the Dick to the doc to the Ph.D. He's smarter than you; he's got a science degree."

But on a second listen, I realized that this couldn't be the case. Because the video is clever. And ironic. There are a couple things I've learned in the past couple years: Creationists are rarely clever; And they are never ironic.

The video was originally posted on the science blog Panda's Thumb, which discusses attacks on evolution by proponents of creationism and its bastard son, intelligent design. So, that's another clue.

The video is even funnier for anybody who's been following the recent dust up over the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which stars Ben Stein and purports to show that science academics who believe in intelligent design (the religious and very unscientific notion that life is so complex it needs the guiding hand of the Divine) are being unfairly censored and ostracized for their beliefs.

Last week, two scientists, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, properly registered on line and attended one of the limited screenings. Well, only Dawkins attended. Myers was spotted by a producer and was expelled from the theater. The producers are trying to limit the showing to friendly creationist audiences, no doubt in order to avoid having the movie's many misconceptions from being exposed before the official release.

The video is filled with inside references and mocks the atheism of Myers and Dawkins. But my favorite line is: "If I was dyslexic I’d even hate dog too."

The Ethereal Beauty of the Fine Art of Cat Dancing...

Admittedly, the allure of cat dancing may escape all but an ardent few. Done wrong, and both participants are left scarred for life. But done right, nothing short of transcendent beauty. And a terrific way to start off a weekend. My good friend John Wallingford is the Roger Clemens of cat dancing, a veritable interpretative genius.

So, when the Packway Handle Band sings, "Oh glory, glory, Somebody touched me," I can't help but envision Mr. Wallingford, perhaps on a slow Saturday morning, a strange startled smile crossing his face, reaching for that cat crouched in the corner with the ears laid back, and claws clinging to the carpet. Because the cat knows. He always knows.

For the appeal of Packway Handle Band, a bluegrass music quintet, lies not only in its tight four-part harmonies, its impressive straight-up musical chops, oddball lyrics, nor even its squirrelly interpretation of old traditionals.

Listen for a few minutes, and you're overcome with an urge for silliness. For there remains something ethereal, joyful in this music.
I have to thank Randy Stewart, my husband's mandolin teacher down at the wonderful Campbell's Music Store in Spry, Pa., for turning the Lebo household onto PHB. Apparently, musician Chris Warner, former banjo player for Rhonda Vincent, who repairs instruments at Campbell's, turned Stewart onto them. And so it goes. When I was in the store last week, waiting for Jeff to finish his lesson, it seemed everyone behind the counter was talking about the band.

The Packway Handle Band originated seven years ago in Athens, Ga., a town which has nurtured the indie rock sounds of the B-52s and REM and the jam-band groove of Widespread Panic, but is not exactly known for its bluegrass scene.

The band, which has been a finalist at the Telluride bluegrass competition three times, consists of Josh Erwin on guitar, Tom Baker on banjo, Andrew Heaton on fiddle, Michael Paynter on the mandolin and Zach McCoy on bass.

Some interesting tidbits about the band from their bios: Heaton, also dubbed "the Carolina Heatwave," plays fiddle on a more-than 150-year-old Austrian violin made by the Thier family; Paynter plays the mandolin upside down; In performances, band members play old-style, clustering around two stand-up mics.

Most of the band members cite Bela Fleck as their source of bluegrass inspiration. Like their hero, there is more going on with PHB than just adherence to a traditional sound. For even as their playing belies a love of traditional music, these guys are decidedly nontraditional in their approach.

The band's self-titled latest release, which I haven't yet heard, includes the song Earl the Duck - a tender ode to a man's gay-agenda promoting pet.

You say that some ducks come in disguise.
Some of them are girls.
And some of them are guys.

For some reason, I'm drawn to straightforward religious lyrics of ambiguously subversive intent. The band's self-released 2005 CD (Sinner) You Better Get Ready - a collection of traditional gospel and bluegrass hymns - is exactly what I'm talking about.

PHB's terrific cover of Roy Acuff's This World Can't Stand Long (For it is Too Full of Hate) begins with the sweet strains of a fiddle bouncing over the strings, but the bellicose vocals are downright goofy, estranged from the earnestness of the lyrics.

If we only give our hearts to GOD!
And let him take us by the HAND!
We'd have nothing in the world to FEAR!
He'd lead us beyond the burning SAAAANNDD!

Sure the song's theme is brutal, but it's still fun as hell, leaving you with the impression that the band members aren't really wasting too much time concerning themselves with the approaching Apocalypse.

On the final track, special guest Leah Calvert sings Madonna's Like a Prayer to the accompaniment of some mighty fine fiddle and mandolin playing. And, get this, this version doesn't sound dirty at all.

But my favorite remains the traditional There's Something Going On In the Graveyard. You can practically envision the rotting dirt-covered corpses, celebrating their resurrection, spinning around to the bouncing mandolin and fiddle playing with pissed-off skeleton cats clutched in their arms.

There's something going on in the graveyard like you ain't never
Whoo Whee!
The saints are coming up out of the ground.
Oh can't you hear them sing...

More info and merchandise from the Packway Handle Band can be found here.

UPDATE: Tips for cat dancing. Mr. Wallingford says, "Really, the key is the cat. You gotta have a pliable forgiving cat."

CLARIFICATION: The Roger Clemens comparison to John Wallingford in no way implies that Mr. Wallingford is "the biggest cheater in the competitive world of cat dancing." Indie Twang & Roots Music regrets the confusing analogy.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bitch Slap to the Chief...

James McMurtry's through bein' subtle.

Just in case you missed McMurtry's point in his 2005 CD Childish Things, which included We Can't Make it Here, a brilliant blow-by-blow stinging rebuke to the insane policies of the Bush Administration and what it's done to this nation, McMurtry's gonna try to get it through your thick skull one more time.

Cheney's Toy calls into question - OK, McMurtry doesn't exactly "call into question." He spells it out. This is one little hard-hitting Freudian tale - the size of our president's penis and George Bush's fear that his inadequacies will be, uhhh, exposed.
You're the man, show 'em what you're made of
You're no longer Daddy's Boy
Ain't you grand, with your guns a blazin'
Bring 'em on, Cheney's Toy

A free download of Cheney's Toy is available here.

McMurtry's pissed off and he wants us to show him we're pissed off too. According to the Web site Country Music Time, McMurtry is giving away the song, which will be part of his next CD in April, for free exclusively through eMusic's Daily Download. The song is also on McMurtry's MySpace page and the Lightning Rod Records website.

Fans can use the free mp3 to create their own videos and post them online.
McMurtry will choose the best videos and post them on his official MySpace page
and website.
Creators of each of the top five video creators will receive
t-shirts and autographed copies of McMurtry's new album, "Just Us Kids" (out
April 15). McMurtry's choice for the best overall video will also receive an 8
Gb Apple iPod nano with video capabilities. Fans can send links to their videos

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Your mother knows best...

Girls Guns & Glory - Pretty Little Wrecking Ball

Of all the little details that make up the band Girls Guns & Glory, the one I like best is that drummer Johnny Surprises’ mom made him take percussion lessons from Tito Puente.

It’s like I’ve always told my boys, “Listen to your mother. Sometimes she knows what she’s talking about.”

So listen up.

While a band from Boston evokes images of a certain blue-state philosophy, these guys seem more like they should be jumping around a stage in some red-state backwater where the politics are insane, but the music is terrific.

GGG offers no oh-so-earnest Shawn Colvin-inspired acoustic strumming or tediously crunchy metaphors of flowers and sunshine. The sound is straight-up traditional country and early rock-and-roll with honky-tonk piano and tight Tex-Mex rhythms. And yet, their music, particularly their latest CD Pretty Little Wrecking Ball, remains easily accessible. There is nothing here that is offensive or even particularly thought-provoking. They have the spirit of a bar band, in only the best sense. And you gotta wonder: Why isn’t this considered to be mainstream commercial country? And then, you remember. Mainstream country must suck. In a fair world, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn wouldn’t be able to score a gig at a used-car lot grand opening. There is no justice.

Pretty Little Wrecking Ball is filled with catchy songs, but sometimes slightly twisted lyrics. I can’t tell if Soft Raccoon is a tender but playful ballad about a child’s lost stuffed animal, or the threatening and obsessive rant of a stalker.

And Tennessee Rose is something of an ironic reverse on the typical wayward country boy. Songwriter and lead singer Ward Hayden plays off the tale of a boy overcome by the spirit to wander and now sits alone, most likely in a cold northern city, pining for the bluegrass of his southern home. But instead of that story, Tennessee Rose is about a momma’s boy whose feet are firmly planted in a northern town and is too fearful to jump that train with the beckoning whistle. So he stays where he’s supposed to be, most likely with the reliable job, good health benefits and profitable 401k.

To Hell that train is bound
Hear that whistle blowin' as it rides this town into the ground
A train is not enough for me to turn my back and walk away,
You know I love my momma very much

Awww, see? The boy can’t leave because he loves his momma. I’m so definitely buying my sons this CD.

Anyway, I saw Girls Guns & Glory last fall at Dewey Beach’s annual Americana Festival. I just checked their tour schedule and these boys play pretty much close to home. So it gets me a little misty to know that they drove all the way down to the southern tip of Delaware and played such a terrific show for nothing more than beer money – and the mutual glowing appreciation that you get any time you get a bunch of drunken musicians together in a bar for three days.

Admittedly, I’m a little fuzzy on some of the details from the weekend – I remember something involving shots and banana crème - but here are my recollections on GGG: They were great. And while they played with lots of energy and polished enthusiasm, one never got the feeling that they took themselves too seriously – unlike the guy that took the stage after them and who, in my opinion, has been receiving far more attention than he deserves. Lead singer Hayden looks like Buddy Holly, trills like Dwight Yoakam, and owes inspiration to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and a great number of other country music singers who came along before country music sucked. I also remember thinking Hayden wore great shoes…and had nice lean hips.

The performance was mixed with their catchy originals and some great old standards. Near the end of the show, they played Folsom Prison. Now, there are a few songs that a band can play to make me love ‘em forever. Especially after a few drinks. Folsom Prison is one of those songs. So, admittedly, I’m biased here.

In addition to Hayden, and drummer Johnny Surprise, the band’s other members are: Bruce IV, on bass; Brendan Murphy, percussion; and Colt Thompson, lead guitar.

In December, Girls Guns & Glory signed a management deal with Perriello Productions. And in the Dec. 28th issue of The Boston Globe, Pretty Little Wrecking Ball was listed as one of the top 15 local releases of the year. So hopefully, they’ll be getting more attention in this year.

You can listen and buy 'Pretty little Wrecking Ball' here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kerfuffle Erupts at Carter Family Fold

UPDATE: The Bristol Herald Courier has a guest op-ed piece responding to Dale Jett's forced resignation from the Fold's board of directors. Jett doesn't have much to say about the details, but the writer makes it clear that Jett's loyalty to his family's heritage has never wavered: "I am first, a member of the Carter family."

According to an article in the Richmond Post-Dispatch, the Carter Family Fold board booted the grandson of Sara and A.P. Carter. Ron McConnell, a walking wealth of information on country music, alerted me to the story.

Apparently, the dispute is over a collection of audio recordings that Dale Jett, the country-music legends' grandson and a long-time member of the Carter Family Memorial Music Center's board of directors, gave to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In December Jett was formally voted off the board. The article says:
At the heart of the dispute was an April 2007 agreement that Jett signed
with UNC. Under the deal, Jett sent about 4,000 audiocassettes containing 1,500
hours of live performances from the Carter Fold to the school's Southern
Folklife Collection, (board President Howard) Klein said.

"This began as a project to find the best way to preserve 30 years of tape
recordings from the Fold," Klein said. "I don't know when it changed into giving
the collection away. The board never knew about this."

Klein's account is disputed by Maxine Kenny, former project director for a
grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to preserve the Carter
Fold's audio archives. Kenny, who left the project in response to Jett's
departure, said in a written statement that the board was notified of the
agreement with UNC in April, the month it was signed.

The dear Janette Carter - Jett's late mother - created the fold in 1974 in tribute to her parents A.P. and Sara and her aunt "Mother Maybelle." The threesome's 1927 recordings made in Bristol, Tenn. - along with Jimmie Rodgers - are usually referred to as the "Big Bang" of country music.

For folks who haven't been to the Fold, it's an amazing experience, a place filled with music lovers of all ages and from all around the world. Tucked into a corner of Poor Valley, Va. at the foot of Clinch Mountain, the Fold is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of old-time country and folk music with performances every Saturday night. The music is all acoustic and in the history of the Fold, Miss Janette granted exceptions and permitted plug ins for only two performers: Johnny Cash and Marty Stuart.

While I have never met Jett, I can say his sister Rita Forrester is a lovely, lovely woman. Within minutes of meeting her, I felt as if we'd been friends forever. On one of my visits, she made it possible for me to spend a Sunday afternoon with her mother, not long before Miss Janette passed away. I sat with her in her tiny living room filled with porcelain angels as she talked about her life and the history of her family. It will remain forever one of my most treasured memories.

As Ron McConnell said in an e-mail, "Let's hope (the controversy) gets worked out." I agree. I hate to see such a wonderful place be disrupted by disharmony.

For more information on the Fold and its events, go here.