Cristina Vane Reclaims American Identity on Debut LP Nowhere Sounds Lovely

Photo Credit: Oceana Colgan

A nomad since birth, crossing borders from France, Italy, England and finally overseas to America, home was not so easy to define for Cristina Vane. On her debut LP Nowhere Sounds Lovely, released April 2nd, the Nashville singer-songwriter documents her experiences on a road tripacross the United States, rediscovering her roots and exploring her own questions of identity, both personally and musically. A wholly unique venture from her typical realm of folk rock, Vane fleshes out picturesque and anecdotal ballads with added doses ofthe Western styles of music she stumbled upon and came to love on her journey.

Born to a Sicilian-American father and Guatemalan mother, the family’s constant migration around Europe paved the way for the singer’s unique style, owing to a diverse exposure of manifold international music markets. In her adolescence, Vane resonated with the sounds of electronica, ‘90s British indie bands and classic rock ‘n’ roll groups predominant in the eclectic European music scene of the time. Influenced by artists like Alanis Morissette, The Cranberries, Dire Straits and Depeche Mode, Vane felt compelled to siphon her disposition into angsty tones of folk and blues rock. Belting out full-bodied vocals and intimate guitar vibrations on her previously released tracks and EPs was only the beginning of an evolutionary road for her musical career.

After moving to the U.S. at the age of 18, Vane chewed over matters of identity and her position in the world as a musician as well as the physical and emotional idea of home. Drawn to the music scene and sense of community in LA, she migrated to the West Coast, employing her passion and knowledge of music by working in a folk guitar shop. While attempting to settle in a city she had hoped to call home, Vane felt lost in the overwhelming crowd of other locals. On “Will I Ever Be Satisfied”the musician ardently expresses her longing in a beautifully sung melody on top of an old hymn-like tune: “I have asked too many questions/Andonly echo no reply/Into these voices I have listened/They cannot know me or my strife.”

With pondering thoughts and a desire to pursue music more seriously, the artist packed up her instruments, gave up her apartment and set out on a five-month tour across the U.S. arranged entirely on her own. “Traveling Blues” sets the scene of what the trek was like on the road – sleeping in tents at campsites and on strangers’ couches, playing gigs in tiny bars and backyards, aimlessly moving along without knowing the road ahead. It wasn’t all glitz and glamour. “Sometimes you’ve got to get lost to get your feet back on the ground,” she sings, followed by, “This path leads to nowhere/Nowhere sounds lovely/Well I’d sure like to go there.” Craving the thrill of adventure rather than a fancy vacation, the musician rolled along an unfamiliar path that would change her life forever.

Encountering the great American sights from Utah to Texas to Louisiana, Vane had the chance to reclaim her identity as an American in a country she had roots in, but never fully explored. “Badlands” and “Dreaming of Utah” gives listeners insight into the awe of experiencing the wonders of these sights for the first time. Embroidered with grungy electric guitar riffs and gliding notes, “Blueberry Hill” provides a snapshot of the Western desert landscapes, “high on that mountain” in Taos, New Mexico, a spot frequented by the musician on her route.

Visually satiated with the picturesque landscapes of the American plains, Vane also had a chance to develop an infatuation with the historical music of the South. By then, the idea that she had to leave LA for Tennessee had crystalized in Vane’s mind. “[The trip] was totally inspiring,” she tells Audiofemme. “I came back and realized that I needed to move to the South to get closer to the history that’s still alive.” Vane set off for Nashville, picking up the banjo, pedal steel guitar and even a little fiddle along the way, with the intention of writing an album more reflective of her cherished memories of the American South.

The musician soon began piecing together songs blended with elements of Appalachian mountain, old-time and bluegrass music. “Over my journey I started to learn more about Hank Williams, The Carter Family and [other] country music,” she explains. “When I got into the studio five months laterI had some songs I had written from last summer; in my head I was referencing a country waltz, and I said ‘let’s put pedal steel on it.’ I never played with those things in my life, but I knew that was the vibe I wanted for that song.” With the guidance of Cactus Moser, a Grammy Award-winning producer known for his work with Wynonna Judd, Vane crafted a well-rounded album packed with lush melodies, heartfelt lyrics and musical memories she acquired on her trip.

As a foreigner for most of her life, Vane was moved by the culture of community in the South, deeply rooted in its music. “Family is important,” she says. “It’s Southern culture. If you think of some of the roots of its musical genres, family has a really deep meaning for a lot of people.”

With her travel stories, her experiences, and the Southern music she unearthed, Vane was able to satisfy her thirst for community and belonging, confidently calling Tennessee home. Embellished with the slow wails of the electric guitar intertwined with the fiddle, “Satisfied Soul” encapsulates the delightful afterglow of her travels and the comforting bliss of finding home.

A vibrant compilation of documented travel stories, Nowhere Sounds Lovely commands attention with its impressive mash-up of blues, rock, bluegrass and old-time music. With each song telling a different story (as Vane puts it, like “an ice cream cabinet where you can choose any of the flavors,”) the album evokes the wonder and exhilaration of being lost in unfamiliar places and in the search for a deeper meaning of belonging. Through her album, Cristina Vane hopes to promote acceptance between those with deep cultural roots and those lost wanderers or nomads, like herself, without any roots at all. “There’s nothing wrong with being proud of where you’re from, but there is something wrong with alienating people because they’re not born and raised somewhere,” she says. “Some of us don’t have that luxury.”

Follow Cristina Vane on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

VIDEO PREMIERE: New Single From Kristen Grainger and True North Lauds Women as Leaders

Oregon State’s motto, “She Flies with her Own Wings,” was first adopted in 1854 as a nod to the “independent spirit” of the state’s first pioneers. In her new single by the same name, Kristen Grainger and True North spins the phrase into a modern feminist anthem.

An Oregon resident who for many years worked in state politics alongside her music career, Grainger says “She Flies with her Own Wings” is particularly inspired by her time working for Oregon Governor Kate Brown, who was swiftly ushered into office in 2015 after the sitting governor, John Kitzhaber, resigned amid a criminal investigation. During her time on the team, Grainger said she was dumbfounded by the amount of misogyny she saw directed at Governor Brown, and simultaneously inspired by her persistence and collaborative style of leadership. It got Grainger thinking about the generally sexist reception of women in leadership in this country, particularly during the era of Trump, who the song characterizes as a “bully with the megaphone/who threatens and annoys.”

“If she doesn’t immediately have an answer [they say] she’s a failure, she’s weak, you know, but she’s absolutely not. Kate Brown is cautious, she’s mature, she’s consultative, and she is collaborative, and these are not characteristics that are not necessarily associated with male leaders, and are often associated with female leaders,” said Grainger. 

Grainger says she’s “done” with the misogyny, especially because she believes a consultative style of leadership could be transformative for the country. She channels her frustration, this call for change, and the myriad of positive experiences she’s had working with women leaders like Brown, into this new single with her band True North. This spirit lends a real fierceness and assertiveness to what is otherwise a pretty melody with simple acoustic accompaniment, as she sings—”She flies with her own wings/She’s on the look out for better things/She’s got her eyes on that western horizon.”

“This perception study from Pew Charitable Trust said the perception people have—it actually creates the double standard and it can make professional and economic mobility more challenging for women,” Grainger points out. “For men, being ambitious, decisive, that’s viewed as desirable, but it’s not necessarily viewed as desirable in women. You have to be approachable and likable in ways that men with similar aspirations need not be. Also, being physically attractive plays a larger role in being successful as a woman than being successful as a man, as does a woman’s age.”

“She Flies With Her Own Wings” appears on Kristen Grainger and True North’s new album, Ghost Tattoo, released in June. The album is one in a long line of vibrant bluegrass releases from the band, which was founded in 2003 by Grainger and her husband, guitarist Dan Wetzel. What’s fresh about Ghost Tattoo is the new personnel—in their tenure, True North has undergone several lineup changes, but they currently boast the talents of multi-instrumentalist Martin Stevens and bassist vocalist Josh Adkins, who lend the album an upbeat energy.  Plus, Grainger says the more political focus is new for her. Beyond “She Flies with her Own Wings,” another song on the album, “Ghost of Abuelito,” explores child detention centers at the Mexican border, while “Light by Light,” tackles the topic of violence against women.

I don’t know that I’ve had an album with three songs on it that could be considered political, and frankly I don’t consider myself an activist, per se – I think of myself as a person observing,” Grainger says. “I’m seeing these things around me and I’m moved by them.”

As for “She Flies with her Own Wings,”—and its video, recorded by Robert Richter of Local Roots Northwest in Portland—Grainger hopes the song will reach the ears of the gatekeepers in the music industry and create more parity for women on festival stages, as a wealth of talented women musicians, particularly in the bluegrass and country world, continue to emerge. Grainger said she’s played plenty of festivals – even a kids’ bluegrass festival, where she saw just how far the industry has to go.

I’ll see the entire lineup has got 8-10 bands, 30-40 musicians total that are performing throughout the weekend, and one woman, or zero women, or two women, and they’re not necessarily a head of the band, they’re basically a fiddle player or whatever,” Grainger says. “I always nicely – because women have to be nice – write and say it would be great if you worked for greater gender parity on stage so that all kids, little boys and little girls, could see women performing.”

Follow Kristen Grainger and True North on Facebook for ongoing updates, and visit their website for more info.

Larkin Poe Tell Empowered Stories on New Album ‘Self Made Man’

Photo Credit: Bree Marie Fish

Contemporary blues duo Larkin Poe channel stories of self-empowerment and community into their fierce new album, Self Made Man.

Describing themselves as “first generation music makers” of their family, the sister duo of Rebecca and Megan Lovell were originally part of the acoustic family band The Lovell Sisters in 2003 alongside younger sister Jessica. The group disbanded in 2010, leading Rebecca and Megan to join forces as duo Larkin Poe, built on a foundation of blues and soul with gritty melodies and slick harmonies.

Though their parents worked in the medical field, they instilled a love of music into their daughters by encouraging them to play instruments like classical violin and piano. But it wasn’t long before the Atlanta-raised siblings discovered a passion for bluegrass music. Becoming enamored with the “power” and “energy” of roots Americana in their early teens, they picked up instruments fundamental to the genre, like guitar, banjo and mandolin. Rebecca became the youngest and first female to win the MerleFest mandolin contest in 2006 at the age of 15, while Megan mastered the lap steel guitar, referring to it as her “real voice.”

Their Georgia roots come to life on Self Made Man. The album takes their stories from the road and turns them into 11 bold and brash songs, including the fiery “Keep Diggin’,” inspired by the people of their hometown who made a habit out of feeding the rumor mill. “We have a collection of really eccentric, strong-willed gossiping Southern women in our family, and if there’s one thing that Southern women know how to do, it is stick their nose precisely where it doesn’t belong,” Rebecca tells Audiofemme. “But they stick it in such a fashion that it’s very polite and they’re blessing your heart the entire time.” The track is filled with foot stomps and hand claps while the lyrics advise listeners to believe actions over words, exemplifying the duo’s ability to wrap the truth around clever phrasing.

This sense of humor is also reflected in the album’s title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the outdated stereotype that the key to success is being a white male. The Nashville-based duo defied this suppressive norm by founding their own record label, Tricki-Woo Records, in 2017, and self-producing their own albums, including Self Made Man. “We’re real do it yourself-ers,” Megan professes. “It felt like the right title for now, considering how much control we’ve taken into our own hands and that we’re feeling very empowered as artists and as producers.”

Part of this empowerment comes from the years Larkin Poe spent touring. Their 2019 trek took them across Europe and Canada, in addition to opening for a range of acts including Bob Seger and Keith Urban throughout the U.S. in 2018. Their appreciation for cultures around the world has instilled the artists with a profound sense of community that they manifested into their fifth studio project. “We’ve felt a huge groundswell underneath us,” Megan proclaims. “I think that’s why this record, even more than our previous projects, has a feeling of positivity and optimism and empowerment.” While writing for Self Made Man, the sisters aimed to encapsulate the deep connection they felt performing for global audiences, discovering the commonality that exists between the artist and fans during live shows. “While we are incredibly different, from place to place, there are so many more similarities about humans than there are differences,” Rebecca observes. “There really was this overwhelming sense of unity. That sense of human connection was really pure and unadulterated.”

Writing for Self Made Man also held a mirror up to how the sisters have evolved as songwriters, making a conscious effort to pivot from writing from a solely personal state to an all-encompassing perspective. “When you’re writing as a young person, you tend to write very introspective. I think the older we’ve gotten, the more important it’s been to think about us as a community,” Rebecca explains. “At a certain point, you do have this shift where empathy can play a larger part in your songwriting, this widening of focus where you’re able to think about other people’s perspective and what might we need as a group, what’s going to feel good for us to share together.”

The sisters hope that fans take away the feeling of self-empowerment and unity that they poured into the record and carry it to their own journeys as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. “This album was really meant for this time. There are a handful of songs that really do seem to apply and the sense of coming together in spite of being worlds apart,” Rebecca says. “Hopefully these songs will be good companions to people in this uncertain time.”

Follow Larkin Poe on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING DETROIT: New Band Alert: Foster Muldoon

It started as simple bluegrass jam session and turned into something the band is calling “Michigan Downgrass.” Call it whatever you like, but folk trio Foster Muldoon is just getting started. Although they don’t have any music released, their recent performance at the Hamtramck Music Festival ignited a curiosity that only a twangy, tangy and sweet combo like Foster Muldoon can muster. Making Mumford & Sons seem like a carbon copy of a carbon copy (and a trite one at that), Cameron Lollio (guitar/vocals), Ryan McKeon (banjo), and Abigail Grace (violin) embrace their collective offbeat shrug of traditionalism by infusing R&B tendencies with their melodic wheat-field swagger.

Stay tuned for more from this charismatic, dynamic trio and check out this toe-tapping performance of “Songwriter’s Song” below:



You’re probably wondering why I’m so happy today. I’ll tell you. It’s because Brooklyn Folk Fest is this weekend at The Bell House and I CANNOT WAIT. I am so excited and I just can’t hide it.

Six years ago, Eli Smith of the Down Home Radio Show partnered with The Jalopy Theatre, a Brooklyn-based venue and music school, to create the Brooklyn Folk Festival. With its rigorous schedule of live performances and music classes, the Jalopy has long been a beacon of folk music within New York City, particularly folk music played live, and the festival quickly became a way to expand and showcase the scene in New York. This weekend, the annual three-day event returns for its sixth year with an exciting lineup of string music and Americana as well as traditional music from other parts of the world–Balken traditional singer Eva Salina, for instance, is a returning performer who will join the festival again in 2014.

This year, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has also boldly scheduled itself to coincide not only with Easter but also with Record Store Day. That makes this weekend the BEST WEEKEND EVER–after you’ve picked up your rare, new, or limited edition vinyl, come down to The Bell House and settle in for one of the most spectacular offerings of the city’s live folk music scene. Attend a mandolin workshop! See a screening of John Cohen’s films! And hey–you might even win a free banjo.

I’ll be hanging out there all this weekend, trying not to suck at square dancing. The full schedule is listed down at the bottom of this page, but before I get there, here’s a list of the things I’m most excited to check out this year. They range from performances I’m anticipating in particular to promising reading and talks to festival traditions, because Brooklyn Folk Fest is more than a three-day hootenanny–it’s a celebration of where folk music is today, in New York City as well as out of it, in all its incarnations.

Okay, here goes:

1.  The Pete Seeger Tribute Singalong at 6:30 PM on Sunday, April 20th.

Pete Seeger was not only among the most beloved musicians and song collectors of the folk revival, he was also an environmental activist who made a special impact on New York state by helping clean up the Hudson River and founding the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization. It’s difficult to imagine the folk scene in New York without Seeger, who died this January. I can’t imagine a better way to pay tribute to him, though–every time I saw Seeger play, the best parts of the show, and the parts of the show that he seemed to enjoy playing the most, were singalongs. Seeger may be gone, but the momentum he created for community folk singing is alive and well.

There’s Pete Seeger leading a sold-out arena in “Amazing Grace” on his 90th birthday. Yeah, just try to stay dry-eyed.

2. Tahuantinsuyo

This pioneering Andean folk music group emphasizes preservation of their roots, using regional instruments and costumes in their performances. Tahuantinsuyo performs on guitars, flutes and panpipes, deliberately keeping the sound and rhythms authentic to their origins. While it’s a rare treat to have the chance to hear music from the Andes performed in New York at all, I’m especially excited to see these guys in the context of this festival–with so many traditions and cultures operating side by side, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a spontaneous jam session or two. Check them out here

3. The Downhill Strugglers with John Cohen

The ass-kicking, rip-roaring Downhill Strugglers come straight out of the old-time string band tradition, but they’re very much in the business of bringing old music into the present day. They’re based out of Brooklyn and contributed to the ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ soundtrack, and their live shows are way too much fun for anyone watching to call them preservationists. On Saturday they’re playing with John Cohen, founding New Lost City Rambler and folk music collector.

4. The Banjo Toss

What is the Banjo Toss? This is the Banjo Toss. It’s a time-honored Brooklyn Folk Fest tradition, and it’s an excellent opportunity to throw a musical instrument into the Gowanus Canal while a riled up crowd of folk fans cheers you on. If you throw the banjo farther than anyone else, this happens:

5. Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton

Known for his intimate performance style (so intimate, apparently, that he won’t mind if you call him Blind Boy), Jerron Paxton is a versatile blues songster who flips easily between the guitar and the banjo and plays a slew of different styles: hokum, old-time, and cajun tunes, to name a few. Though Paxton’s only in his mid-twenties, he speaks and acts like an old-timer, with a baldly honest approach to the music he plays. “Old music is the least sucky thing of any type of music you can run across,” he told festival organizer and radio host Eli Smith on Down Home Radio in 2010. Paxton’s playing doesn’t suck, either, and neither does his broad-smiling energy on stage.

Those are the acts and activities that I’m anticipating most about this weekend’s festival, but they are MERELY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. Check out the full schedule here.  All this weekends’ events will take place at The Bell House in Brooklyn, between Friday, April 18th and Sunday, April 20th, and you can still pick up tickets here (a three-day pass is $75, and a one-day pass is a steal at $20). And while you’re dusting off your overalls and warming up your banjo-chucking arm, tell me what you’re most excited for at Brooklyn Folk Fest! The party kicks off this Friday, April 18th, with Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues at 8 PM.


YEAR END LIST: Notes From The Road – Top 5 Musical Destinations of 2013

I took several road trips this year. At the beginning of 2013, adventure felt overdue—something about going to new places, with no routine or expectations, opens you up to hear music you’d never think to listen to otherwise. Below are the five biggest, best surprises from the road—hopefully, you’ll feel inspired to go looking for some adventure of your own.

5. Layla’s Bluegrass Inn—Nashville: This september I went to Nashville, TN for the first time in my life. Walking down Broadway felt like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy lands in Oz and suddenly everything is in technicolor. Oh my God, I thought. Everything was lit up with neon! Everyone was wearing cowboy gear and drinking before noon! Every bar sold cheeseburgers! Wafting out of every single venue was the bass line of a country song so infectious that, had I heard it while walking down the street in New York City, I would have dropped whatever I was on my way to doing to go watch whomever was playing it.

Layla’s is a fashionably divey and slightly over-touristed honky tonk, brimming with down-home vibes and energy, and with a band to match: The Jones were on stage, fronted by the energetic and angular Memiss Jones, who looked too small for her upright bass but slapped its wood uproariously on the downbeat anyway. They played originals and covers with equal skill, always trending towards rowdier interpretations of Southern spirituals like “I’ll Fly Away.” They captivated the crowd: a band of what looked to be retirees on a country tour began square dancing on the floor, and behind the table where I was sitting, a misty-eyed cowboy nipped stoically at his drink, lips trembling during ballads.

Memiss Jones plays at Layla’s every Thursday, from “11:30 AM ta 2:00 PM” according to her website. I bought The Jones’ CD,and predictably, it wasn’t as irresistible as the live show had been. Honky tonk music works best in the rough, playful realm of spontaneity, and Memiss Jones worked the stage with an energy that could never be duplicated on recording.

4. Willie’s Locally Known—Lexington: There are better bars in Lexington, Kentucky. Really, there are. This one is located in kind of a strip mall parking lot area, with a dust-caked neon lit-up sign floating in the window and terrible food and bikers who play Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox. One night, wedged amidst “Born In The USA,” in the back room where they keep the football fans trolling for a quiet place to watch games, a bunch of banjos and mandolins lay piled on top of the pool table.

The state of Kentucky, in general, is not hurting for live musicians, but here they seemed to happen almost by accident, coming out of the woodwork without ceremony or audience. Six or seven men sat in a circle and unassumingly began to play. The word hootenanny came to mind. Dating back to the Civil War, when a hootenanny referred to a “meeting of the minds” between strategists. Hootenannies differ from shows in that they’re played for the process—for that complicated, invisible knot that ties people playing improvised music together—more than for the product: a show to entertain an audience. Though the venue also functions as a performance space, that evening did not involve a stage, only a collection of people sitting in chairs. Banjos dominated the impromptu stage plot, with about four for every two mandolins, plus a fiddle and a guitar. The very rough-edgedness of the performance contributed to its special magic, as if music could, under the right conditions, spring fully-formed from the beer-sticky dingy surfaces of a dive downtown, listless in the boredom of a Wednesday night.


3. Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival—Oak Hill: Set at the top of a hill of one of the most gorgeous sections of New York’s already gorgeous Hudson Valley, Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival has been an annual institution since 1976. The atmosphere of the event feels like homecoming—all the performers seem to be friends with each other, and with festival producer Mary Tyler Doub.

While not much of a road trip from New York City—the festival takes place about a two hour drive north of Manhattan—the difference in scenery couldn’t be vaster, with the Catskills looming in the background and cowboy hats rampant in the crowd. Old and young bluegrass fans turned out in equal measure, and to that end, the spectrum of the acts varied widely from traditional bluegrass bands like the Travelin’ McCourys to newer and more hybridized roots outfits. One of these, I Draw Slow, hailed from Ireland and brought a very light Celtic touch to their style, which mostly focused on expressive storytelling without compromising catchiness. Another, a cellist from California by the name of Rushad Eggleston, adopted a stage persona that originated from the made-up planet of Snee, and performed a blend of metal, bluegrass, classical, and frankly unclassifiable cello music. These two bands, while still relatively unknown compared to many of Grey Fox’s acts that weekend, garnered a lot of attention and sizable crowds for each of their performances throughout the duration of the festival.

Though Grey Fox has long represented a kind of home, a family reunion—and this was true for me, too; I used to live in the Hudson Valley—this year, the memorable acts were the ones that no one had heard of before, and who didn’t stick within the grooves of pure bluegrass. While still in keeping with the spirit endemic to the festival, they expanded and improvised on it, providing reassurance to the concertgoers, it seemed to me, that the bluegrass genre is not yet finished evolving.


2. Maryland Deathfest XI—Baltimore: Baltimore, MD, burial site and sometimes-home of Edgar Allan Poe, held up the Poe-ish legacy of the grotesque and absurd, of sublime revelation as discovered through darkness and extremes, with the eleventh iteration of the festival billed as “America’s most extreme annual metal party.” Highlights included acts like Sacred Reich, Sleep, Pentagram and black metal founding fathers Venom. Before their set even began, an audience that stretched backward from the stage about the equivalent of three full New York City blocks had appeared, packed tightly together onto the lawns, streets and parking lots that had been sectioned off as concert grounds for the outdoor festival.

Equally compelling were the concert-goers themselves, who descended upon Baltimore on Memorial Day weekend. On Sunday, the last day of the festival, downtown residents had cleared out, and the run down office buildings, streets and parks served as a veritable playground for metalheads. As I walked around the city, everyone I passed looked terrifying: clad in black and leather, heavy metal t shirts and metal chains, the festival goers seemingly changed Baltimore’s topography altogether. Just before heading into the festival, I saw a rare non-concert-goer—a homeless man, nearly disfiguringly withered and old, with a shopping cart in front of him and long hair that had coagulated into a single massive dreadlock—do a fantastically scandalized double take as an extremely tall and thin man walked by dressed in head to toe leather, combat boots, and extensive facial tattoos.

Venom appeared hulkingly on stage, with shoulders and thighs so huge that they often couldn’t  dance or thrash, and instead just stood still and made menacing faces. Although the theatricality of metal shows has grown tamer since the nineties, the aesthetic of the performance was impressive: strobe lights pulsed, a yawning, doom-heralding bass line shook the framework of the stage, and a deep bass came over the loudspeakers: Ladies and gentlemen, from the depths of hell…VENOM!

Venom spit abuse at the front row and demanded a bigger mosh pit, reverberating—I’m sure—into the rest of Baltimore. One weekend every year, the city turns into Metal Central, so inescapably that walking around downtown feels like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone. The world abruptly became colored in a spectrum of things that were not metal to things that were very, very metal (24 hour Wendy’s, metal; getting lost on the way to the 24 hour Wendy’s, not metal.) Cars booming on the overpass above the road where I parked my car were nothing more than heavy doom bass writ small, and, for about a day, all other rock and roll sounded wimpy—and as if it were playing from about fifty miles away—by comparison.


1. Happy Home Old Regular Baptist Church—Amburgey

Lined-out hymnody, a style of church singing once prevalent in seventeenth-century British churches, gradually lost favor in religious communities once psalm books and greater general literacy became the norm. This a capella style of call-and-response singing, in which a group leader would sing one line which would then be slowly repeated by the rest of the congregation. The singing, which resembles shapenote or Sacred Harp songs, sounds ragged and ploddingly slow, as the singers were often unfamiliar with the tune and the words of the song they sang. But the often-dissonant vocal chorus created a particular kind of singing which today is more or less unique to the rural churches of Appalachia, including, notably, the Old Regular Baptist churches of eastern Kentucky.

I went to one such church this fall, in a small out-of-the-way building about an hour from the Virginia border. The Old Regular Baptists don’t allow music in church, nor do they encourage music in the secular lives of their members. This belief essentially stems from the thought that God cannot be worshipped by man’s hands, and that a pretension to beauty, or godliness, with the aid of a musical instrument disrespects God. I’m not religious, and I told the pastor of Happy Home as much before the service started, but I was interested in the music. It would be just fine for me to come to the service, he assured me. The Old Regulars are a small community, growing ever smaller, and their shrinking singing tradition represents a part of life in the mountains of Appalachia that may soon disappear.

Singing starts every Sunday at nine. Before the service, those who arrive early to church begin a song, usually led by a preacher, and others join in as they enter the church, shaking hands with everyone—and I do mean everyone—already gathered in the building. In good weather, the preacher throws open the windows of the church, casting the sound of the slow, swelling hymns up the mountains and echoing into the small towns of the valleys. Even the preaching in the church had a rhythmic, incantation-like quality to it, as sung as it was spoken, and marked with cadences and crescendos that felt downright bluesy.

Many people living in the area—religious and not—grew up with the sounds of these songs, so particular and evocative that they have a meaning to anyone who hears them. People often say the lined-out singing style sounds mournful. Most of the people who sing it disagree, instead thinking of the style as a joyful expression of praise.


FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Cross-Genre Covers

Glastonbury Festival 2008

In 2005, Ben Folds recorded an indie-rock cover of Dr. Dre’s 1992 gangsta rap song “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” Although the recording was a half-joke, Folds’ introspective take on the gruff, expletive-riddled track was such a massive success that he eventually got tired of playing the song and retired it from his set list, ceremonially performing “Bitches”‘s swan song at Glastonbury Festival in 2008. Interestingly enough, that very same year, Jay Z had originally been turned away by the festival–Glastonbury, its representatives claimed, focused on guitar-based music, and didn’t include hip hop acts in their line up–but wound up performing due to overwhelming demand. Unaccustomed to have festivals turn him down, the rapper retaliated. He began his set with a farcical Oasis cover, holding an electric guitar in his hands, fumbling chords, and butchering the lyrics to “Wonderwall.” When the song was finished, he looked out into the audience with a spectacular poker face. Glastonbury’s booking agents may have felt Jay Z was the wrong performer for the festival; his audience disagreed. An oceanically huge crowd went nuts at the end of the “Oasis” spoof, and screamed even louder as he launched into “99 Problems.”

All of which gets me to thinking about cross-genre covers. Both Glastonbury songs–a hip hop song played as a rock song, and a rock song played as a hip hop song–garnered a massive and positive response and poked fun–to varying extent–at the genre they emulated. They were novelties; that is, when the songs changed genre, they assumed bizarre new meaning, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes just for the more hilarious. Without further ado, here are five more bizarre cross-genre covers of songs you’ve heard before, and now may never hear the same way again.

1. “99 Problems” by Hugo: An artist who is himself a cross-genre mash-up of sorts, Hugo Chakrabongse Levy is a half-Thai, half-British bluegrass musician who covered Jay Z’s classic song on his 2011 debut album Old Tyme Religion. Hugo’s vocals on this song sound live, with a very slight Memphis-style slapback-like sound to them, and are accompanied by a strong bass line and knee-slapping percussion and banjo. It works, channeling a slightly more sinister aspect of the song as opposed to Jay Z’s liberated, powerful original.


2. “My Humps” by Alanis Morissette: This song is simply bizarre. The original is bizarre, and the cover is bizarre in an entirely different way. Sorrowful and pretty, closely backed by a piano, Morissette’s clear and unironic enunciation of the lyrics in Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 release makes the song hilarious, even though the vocals and piano melody are quite lovely.


3. “Enter Sandman” by Iron Horse: Here’s my theory as to why bluegrass covers both metal and hip hop so well: though they’re all very different genres instrumentally, all three lend themselves to minor mode and dark thematic matter. Since 2001, Iron Horse has released eleven whole albums full of tribute material, several of which covered Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and, as here, Metallica.


4.  “Believe” by Dollar Store: As much as I love Cher, “Believe” is not my favorite–all I got out of the 1998 original was that someone in the studio was really excited about using a vocoder that day. What the track really needed was some loud-ass slide guitar. No, seriously: really unabashed, powerhouse country is the genre that “Believe” should have been recorded in all along. It just matches the song so well. There, I said it.


5. “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are)” by Pras featuring Maya & Ol’ Dirty Bastard: Released in 1998, this hip hip cover of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “Islands In The Stream” replaced the duo’s close-harmony pop verses with rap lyrics and kept the chorus similar to the original rendition. As it happens, though, this song is kind of a super-cover, because although Parton and Rogers recorded the song in 1983 and have since been considered its performers, “Islands” was originally written by the Bee Gees, and was named after an Ernest Hemingway novel by the same name.