Daniel Donato Conceives Cosmic Country On Debut LP

“Guitar is the great lighthouse of my life,” says Daniel Donato. The musician speaks with gusto about his work ─ and for good reason. On his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, he invites the listener into what it must be like for his live shows, and he dazzles not only with his thoughtful songwriting but his guitar work. Many of the songs, including “Always Been a Lover” and “Broke Down,” hinge on his ability to tell compelling stories with only his guitar. Strings crash along the melody lines with shocking electricity, and his choices are so rash and unexpected, you never know where he’ll lead next. Guitar solos range from seconds to several minutes, highlighting the album’s entrancing ambiance.

“With this record, I have a love letter proving that I am finding my own style,” he tells Audiofemme. Donato has gone on record citing such guitar legends as Brent Mason, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix as direct playing touchpoints, but across eleven songs, it appears he has finally unlocked his very own high-energy aesthetic. “I don’t think style is something arrived at, something found,” he says. “It is in a constant ebb and flow of change. That is, if you’re working on it diligently with truthful intention.”

A Nashville native, Donato’s musical interests were sparked early on by Guitar Hero, but he quickly left the video game behind and spent his teenage years leaving his imprint all over town. He gigged a number of years as lead guitarist for the Don Kelly Band, busked along lower Broadway, played every honky-tonk he could (including Robert’s Western World), and even wrote a revolutionary book called The New Master of the Telecaster when he was 18. Now 25, the accomplished musician has more than proven himself.

In a 2015 interview with TC Electronic, he expressed deep desires to tour and be his own artist, eyeing a slew of records. Well, life had other things in store, and time got away from him. But he doesn’t mind that it’s taken five years for a proper debut. “Time is a fascinating plastic energy that changes and morphs all of the time, especially during these times,” he muses, “but I’ve been dedicating my life to music for eleven years, every day, so five years is just the start of it for me.”

Donato dropped two EPs in 2019: Modern Machine and Starlight, two pieces to a much larger puzzle. Most of those songs fit onto the new record, but in a different sequence, the listener is called into an exuberant, lively, and free-spirited world fashioned with curiosity and freedom. It exists to showcase his gifts, of course, but also functions as existential exhibit.

“[This album is] about accepting the fact that you won’t be young forever. Mortality is the first fact of any matter,” he explains. “So, while I am young, I am going to play that way. I’ll have decades of being able to tone it down and apply less is more. So many people in Nashville are about this, but what has always inspired me are the people who play like their life depends on it. That’s what Jerry Garcia did every night. The first waving of the Cosmic Country flag into the world had to be as pungent and unique as possible. It is the way I am, as Merle Haggard had said, simply.”

A Young Man’s Country still bears marks of an artist still finding his groove. “I work out loud. I am not a perfectionist. I work, put it out, and listen to the people, and other life signs, on where to go next,” Donato says. “That honesty is what we owe listeners today. The masterpiece desire is not my bullseye, right now. I just want to bring value to people by figuring out my potential in real time, out loud, as often as possible.”

That philosophy comes full circle on “Diamond in the Rough,” a co-write with Paul Cauthen that takes a pair of jumper cables to the eardrums. “If I must confess, I’ve been running on no rest/Crazy just a touch, as of late, I have a hunch/That I’m blind/So I shine in the darkest night, my love/A diamond in the rough” he sings, before launching into one of the set’s most electric guitar solos. “The Cosmic Country style jam on the outro came from hours on the stage playing it live,” he says. “[Paul and I] did over 150 shows in one year; that song came from a slew of tunes written from that time in my career.”

Album closer “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” a Waylon Jennings cover, tips its hat to the original but picks up the speed with a horizon-bound gallop. Drums throb in the background and the bass line acts as a jackhammer to keep it barreling along. Many of Donato’s guitar solos ring similarly, always stimulating and ferocious, but each one stands on its own even as the record pools into a cohesive whole. He writes “from song to song,” he says, so it’s only natural the record would feel threaded together. “If I finish one, I let that song tell me where to start for the next one. That verticality is crucial to me. I want every song to feel like a Cosmic Country song. Just like how a J.R. Tolkien novel, or a Bukowski poem, clearly reads and feels like it came from that writer’s own gravitational pull.”

“I don’t know if I’m looking for a lot of contrast within this record from song to song, as much as I notice that this record as a whole sits in contrast to other records in the marketplace. If you listen to Tyler Childers, Grateful Dead, John Prine — their records sound like them for every second. Buck Owens — so many of his songs were similar that he’d play five hits by simply going from chorus to chorus, all in the same key,” Donato points out. “It’s a country music-ism, the similarity in the exoskeleton of a song.”

A Young Man’s Country (produced by Robben Ford) is composed of mostly whipping, heavily-rhythmic moments. But “Meet Me in Dallas” is one of only a few more somber performances, alongside a version of John Prine’s “Angel in Montgomery” and “Sweet Tasting Tennessee.” “I know how to be alone sometimes,” he sings on “Dallas.” Another Paul Cauthen co-write, the song literally hit him after driving 23 and a half hours from Wisconsin to Dallas while on the road.

“The second we arrived at The Belmont in Dallas, I took my guitar to Room 41 (the name of [Paul’s] most recent full length release), and I wrote it in 10 minutes,” he says. “I was in a relationship that was coming to an end at the time. That room has magic to it. So does heartbreak. So does insomnia combined with a melody in your head.”

Daniel Donato more than plants his flag in the industry. A Young Man’s Country cements him as a force to be reckoned with; its bold, sizzling guitar work sets him on a path to be one of the greats he so admires. All he needs is a bit more time. And he has plenty of that these days. In addition to his music, he interviews other musicians, songwriters, visual artists, and business people on a podcast called Lost Highway.

In reflecting on lessons learned, Donato offers this particularly sage bit of wisdom. “I’d say this philosophy can summarize a good strategy for success in life. Repeat this mantra 1,000 days in a row: Patience. Persistence. Positivity. In that order. Life starts to make a bit more sense with these parameters.”

Follow Daniel Donato on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PLAYING SEATTLE: Simon Henneman Explores “Non-idiomatic Shred Guitar” with Cantrip

Cantrip plays the release show for Authentic Luxury at River Dan’s on May 4th.

Seattle has a vibrant community for free improvisation, and guitarist Simon Henneman is a veteran member. Since the early 2000s, Henneman has been playing at Cafe Racer, a local hang known for its weekly free Racer Sessions jam, and eventually he began curating other jam sessions in the city and collaborating with several other legendary Seattle musicinas, like drummer like Greg Keplinger, who toured as a drum tech with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

For his part, Henneman plays in a variety of different groups, from his group with Keplinger called WA, to Diminished Men, a local favorite since 2007. And though he’s interested in a variety of different styles, Henneman’s musical voice is defined by angular melodies and sound-play, and is bolstered by his loyalty to a variety of local jam sessions.

He defines his most recent release, Authentic Luxury, as a work of “post-modern shred guitar,” which rapidly moves between different time-feels, melodies, and moods. Released with improvisational trio Cantrip in May, the LP really captures Henneman’s exploratory and “non-idiomatic” guitar work as well as his creative bond with other local musicians, highlighting why his relationship to the Seattle’s scene is so supportive and progressive.

AF: What was the impetus for this new album? Is there an underlying theme that drives it?

SH: I was mostly just trying to make a non-idiomatic shred guitar record or a shred guitar record that didn’t seem like a shred guitar record. It’s really just a way to sum up what I’ve been working on the last few years, but in a rock trio kind of format. I think a lot of it is really funny and deadly serious at the same time. I hope that comes across.

AF: What got you into the guitar? When did you start playing?

SH: I was a really nerdy kid into computer programming and Dungeons and Dragons – I didn’t really know anything about or listen to music, though I had some piano lessons when I was younger. I couldn’t get into the basic electronics class that I really wanted to get into and a friend told me guitar was cool so I took that class and became totally obsessed with the guitar. It was a really badly structured class; after roll call the music teacher just hung out in his office doing paperwork while the guitar class all hung out learning from each other. [It was] a lot of people asking each other, “What was that you just did? Can you show me how you did that?” which was actually really great. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, so thirty something years now.

AF: How long have you played music in Seattle? What bands/groups have you been a part of?

SH: I was born in Seattle but grew up in Arlington, a former logging town, about an hour north of Seattle. I’ve lived here off and on my whole life. I was really into free improv and free jazz when I first started hanging out in Seattle and there is a great community for that here. There are always free improv jam sessions happening, right now and for quite a few years the Racer Sessions at Cafe Racer, before that was the Mt. Non Fiction sessions at the Blue Moon on Sunday nights that I curated for a couple of years, and before that was a great session called Sound of the Brush which was curated by Tom Swafford and Gust Burns. Right around the same time as Sound of the Brush Monktail, I was really active with their Coffee Messiah improv session series.

I got to know a lot of the free players through these sessions. I started playing with my band Diminished Men in 2007. I have a group called WA with Seattle drum legend Gregg Keplinger. I play in a country band called Contraband Countryband. I have a fifteen-piece big band that occasionally plays my music called Meridian Big Band. I play in a band called Shitty Person which is kind of a downer rock thing. I have a band called UbuludU that started as a version of Cantrip, but is now a really loud stoner rock power fusion kind of thing. I do a dual guitar instrumental rock thing with the Dave Webb Band (which is also sometimes called the Simon Henneman Band). We’re doing a tribute to ’70s fusion music at the Royal Room on May 16th. The last few years I’ve been doing a ton of tribute gigs to Marc Ribot’s Cubanos Postizos, Black Sabbath, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, metal versions of Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, and others. I really just like all kinds of different music and playing whatever I like. I don’t really subscribe to any strict genres.

AF: Aside from a guitar focus, what influences do you bring to Cantrip? I hear psychedelia and certain world music styles—is it reflective of your most current listening?

SH: Cantrip came about initially as a way to return to some of the music I had maybe only done once at a tribute or other gig. It then became a way to sum up what I’ve been up to the last few years and the chance to play some [of my] material, like “Zeno’s Klaxon” or “Machingo” that I never thought I’d be able to play with people.

I’ve really gotten into the guitar in a big way in the last few years, so it’s definitely a guitar record. There’s a lot of improvisation on the record—I don’t like to write out guitar solos, I think it’s way more exciting to improvise them. In that way, the group is always related to current listening because what I’m listening to comes out in [the improvisation], but some of the tunes are a decade old and some are a year old.

As far as what actual direct influences, I’d say Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Diminished Men, Hermeto Pascoal, Steve Vai’s Flex-Able record, and the guitar playing of Shawn Lane, Ruth Crawford, Kaija Saariaho, and probably a lot more. Right now, I’m listening to a lot of technical death metal like Obscura, Necrophagist, Viraemia, as well as 20th and 21st century classical and Western art music, and stuff like Billie Eilish and JLin.

AF: Haha, right on! The particular group on this album—tell me about them. Do you play with this group a lot?

SH: It was originally a trio with me on guitar and a different rhythm section for each gig until I played with Chris Icasiano and Mike Murphy. The way they played the material was really close to how I was hearing it in my head so it solidified this line-up. I’ve known Chris for years through the improv sessions at the Blue Moon initially and then through the Racer Sessions and [label] Table and Chairs. Mike and I just met about a year and a half ago through a friend that was in a great theatrical prog rock band called Moon Letters. We don’t have a lot of gigs in town lined up right now, but I’m booking a West Coast tour for us this summer.

AF: What does Cantrip mean?

SH: Cantrip is a Scottish word that means either a short spell, incantation or a witch’s trick.

AF: What parts of Seattle’s music scene inspire you?

SH: There’s a lot of different people doing different things. There are so many amazing and unique drummers here. The folks that I’ve met through the Racer Sessions are really inspiring. I feel like I can do just about anything musically here that I’d want to – there’s people to work with for almost anything a person would want to do. That being said I’d still like to find a twenty-something shredding metal drummer that’s down to rehearse three times a week and can improvise like a champion so I can do some of the technical death metal stuff I’ve been working on live, ha.

AF: You’ve been making music here in Seattle for a while,- what are your future goals for your music?

SH: I’d like to have more people hear it, or at least have the people that are out there that would be into it in other places be able to find it. As great as the internet is, there’s still a parsing problem when it comes to finding new things. I’ll bet there’s all kinds of amazing music I can’t find yet. I’d like to continue to grow and learn as much as I can.

AF: How would you define the kind of music maker you are?

SH: Curious. Rigorous. I enjoy the work.

LIVE REVIEW: Albert Hammond, Jr. @ Bowery Ballroom

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Ysabella Monton for AudioFemme.
Ysabella Monton for AudioFemme.

Any fans of The Strokes can recognize early on that Albert Hammond, Jr.‘s rhythm guitar was a heavy influence on driving the band’s distinct garage rock sound, so it’s great to see him have room to shine on his own.  Since he last performed in New York City two years ago at Webster Hall, he’s back with another fantastic full album under his belt that showcase his evolved sound and personal growth.

After flawlessly belting “Cooker Ship” towards the beginning of the set, some sound issues with the bass allowed for a toned down, impromptu performance of “Blue Skies,” just Albert with his guitar (which wasn’t on the setlist).

Many of the new songs from Momentary Masters are far more energetic than his other work, so it was fun to see Albert and his band get into the groove of songs like “Touché” and “Caught By My Shadow.” It being my second time seeing him perform, I was happy to hear old favorites, like “Everyone Gets A Star” sounding just as beautiful as ever, and “Rocket,” a surprise at the end.  And witnessing the entire crowd sing along, not missing a beat, to “In Transit” shows just how loyal his fans are.

As he’s known primarily for his guitar prowess, it’s easy to overlook that his voice packs some real power behind it as well. With the backup band doing most of the guitar work, his vocals take center stage, and he impresses the crowd with a great range and the facial expressions to match.

That isn’t to say, however, that his guitar skills don’t shine as well.  The crowd stilled for the instrumental “Spooky Couch,” an old favorite from his second album, which highlighted his incredible showmanship and attention to detail.  Another detail important to note was the fantastic light design, red to counter the band’s all black outfits, which is all done by his wife, Justyna.

And he couldn’t have thought of a better way to close out the show:  after the encore, he takes a letter from a fan in the front row. When it doesn’t fit in his vest pocket, he shoves it right down the front of his pants, and walks off the stage like nothing happened.


ALBUM REVIEW: Ajay Mathur “9 to 3”

9 to 3

Dig the new dirt on Swiss psych-rocker’s Ajay Mathur latest album, 9 to 3. Released this Spring, on May 1st 2015, 9 to 3 is a heady take on Americana, blending psychedelic rock with an international take on folk, for fans of everything from Dead Meadow to George Harrison. Mathur has an eclectic background, which sets the stage for the tone of his music.

Born in India, Mathur’s roots dig deepest with the inclusion of the sitar bleeding with guitars and straightforward vocals. Each one of his songs is autiobiographical in nature and written from the heart. He’s an artist for fans of Tom Petty who have been looking for a new voice with an edge. 9 to 3 is a 15-track cohesive album that’s the perfect introduction to the artist. 9 to 3 follows Ajay Mathur’s previous releases of A Matter of Time (2011) and Come See Conquer (2013). The title track “9 to 3” demonstrates Mathur’s heartfelt and relatable lyrics, perfect to go with the after work drink you need when getting home from a long day, ready to transition into the relaxation of evening. Sitars make for a meditative opener on “I Song,” that leads into whirling vocals and more elaborate guitars. “All up to Vanity” shows Mathur’s comedic writing chops and dabbles in jazz, and things get political with “My World (SOS to the Universe).” The album exhibits an impressive range of emotions and style while never straying from it’s cohesive mood of alt-Americana. The one you’ll want to slow dance to is “Tell Me Why,” where Mathur gets romantic with a song fit for a wedding and lyrics of yearning. We see his take on the classic rock anthem with “View from the Top.” The album shines brightest as it comes to a close as use of harp and sitar truly step up Mathur’s game on the fore-mentioned “I Song,” one stop before the grand finale. Perhaps the track most evocative of the energy of Mathur is the closing number “I Mantra,” an enchanting and comforting song that appropriately closes out the album. In its entirety, 9 to 3 is immersive, relaxing, and comfortable – all the while remaining unique and wholly Mathur. As artists continually try to out weird one another, or make waves by being different, 9 to 3 is a solid listen for a road trip, dinner music, or best for unwinding when you want to tap into the space that Jackson Browne left behind and expand your view on what Americana music means.

Listen to “I MANTRA” below. To stream the album in its entirety, head over to Soundcloud. For even more Mathur check out his FacebookBandcamp page, and website.

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VIDEO OF THE WEEK: The Bulls “Come Unwound”

The Bulls - photo by Josh Giroux

Happy day after Thanksgiving. Let’s fade away from sweaters and forced family relations and return to head-in-the-blogosphere normalcy with a viewing of Los Angeles duo The Bulls “Come Unwound.” Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll is a cliché for a reason, the trio go together like turkey, stuffing, with a dollop of gravy. Stick with weed and red wine for this one, as far as this video is concerned sex and rock ‘n’ roll are a delicacy to be savored rather than substance to be abused. Yet speaking of abuse, the bondage-themed video uses shibari (the ancient Japanese form of rope bondage) to illustrate the ethereal sounds of Anna’s voice paired with Marc’s strumming. An anonymous woman dressed in a ghostly white body suit and dominatrix black heels sways to the lovely music as beautifully intrinsic knots tie across her body with bold red rope. Laced through the bondage scenery is Anna, singer and multi-instrumentalist and Marc the guitarist in leather jackets in an empty warehouse that just as easily could have been used for a Kink.com shoot. Like that time I wrote about group sex while wearing a gingham sundress and my hair up in a bun, the video uses (my favorite) artistic technique of meshing the traditionally beautiful with the perversely taboo. In The Bull’s case, it’s a blonde playing the violin with arms tied in scarlet bondage ropes. The soft shoegaze yings as BDSM imagery yangs. Take a break from Black Friday online shopping and watch the video below (then talk dirty in French).

TRACK REVIEW: Steve Gunn “Milly’s Garden”

Steve Gunn Constance Mensh

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Steve Gunn Constance Mensh
Steve Gunn. Photo by Constance Mensh

Despite his fifteen-year career and numerous collaborations, including work with Kurt Vile’s group The Violators, Steve Gunn always seems reluctant to advertise himself. I’m not just talking about advertising in a buy-my-records sense, although there is that — last year, the brilliantly nuanced Time Off slid right under the radar — but even on a riff by riff level, Gunn’s albums showcase his guitar work without bragging about it. Each phrase falls with decisiveness, but very little fanfare.

Not unlike its creator, Gunn’s new single “Milly’s Garden,” from the forthcoming full-length Way Out Weather, gives off an aura of understated good nature. Gunn’s music has always had a special sensitivity to physical environs, but whereas his more folky (and nomadic) records seemed to amble through a backdrop of wild Americana, “Milly’s Garden” sits still in and revels in one place, letting its thoughts turn inward instead of focusing on the passing scenery. Gunn’s virtuosity on the guitar isn’t flashy, but here, on a track that isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, his skill shines through.

The song leans more towards instrumental long-form rock music than Gunn’s music has done in the past, and there is SO VERY MUCH to be said for a jam musician who isn’t blindly in love with the sound of his own guitar. Listening to this, it occurred to me that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a blues-based long jam played humbly before, but here it is: and it’s just a way to isolate guitar lines and dress them up with intricacy and variation. When Gunn lets his ingenuity on the guitar be more important than structure or vocals or songwriting, the resulting music actually feels pared down. “Milly’s Garden” is catchier and more concentrated than most of the songs on Time Off, but doesn’t sacrifice any of the intimacy of that album.

Way Out Weather doesn’t drop until October 7th, but you can pre-order it now and check out “Milly’s Garden” below via Soundcloud:


VIDEO REVIEW: Cass McCombs “Unearthed”

The contents of Cass McCombs‘ long and winding double album Big Wheel and Others fall into one of two categories. About half are capital-s Songs, with verses and choruses, beginnings, middles, and ends. The rest of the collection expands, with mesmerizing slowness, to fill less rigidly constructed boundaries. These are not tracks, they’re drive-by moments that feel like scenes instead of performances, as if their gently cycling vocals and accompanying acoustic guitar lines had always been going on, and snippets of it happened to be recorded and tossed together into a collection. “Unearthed” falls into the second category

The video for the song consists of just two images–a wintery mountain scene and a climber crouching on his stomach in the snow–and for much of the song the shots stay so still that they could easily be pictures instead of film. Like the song, the video focuses on the small changes that take place in a mostly-empty environment, drawing focus to little shifts like the soft billowing of a cloud or small changes in the mountaineer’s gaze up the mountain.

Cass McCombs will bring his stark brand of musical hypnosis to the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight, with Endless Boogie. Check back for my coverage of the show, but don’t stop there–you can still grab your tickets by going here. Watch the video for “Unearthed” below!

Unearthed by Cass McCombs from Eric Fensler on Vimeo.

INTERVIEW: Willie Watson

Willie Watson recorded his debut solo effort, the straightforwardly-titled Folk Singer Vol. 1, over the course of two days at Woodland Sound Studios, the studio owned by Gillian Welch in Nashville, TN. In those sessions, he played whichever songs came to mind: the collection features some well-known numbers like “Midnight Special,” along with rarer inclusions such as “Kitty Puss” and “Mexican Cowboy.” The track list has sprawling origins, spanning blues, folk, and rock and roll as well as decades. Collaged together by producer David RawlingsFolk Singer ambles through its ten tracks with the lowlight unadornedness of a late-night impromptu performance.

And in a way, it is. When Watson split from Old Crow Medicine Show, which he’d co-founded and been part of for a decade and a half, he wasn’t sure where he would end up next. Though he didn’t start out with the goal of making a record of traditional songs, it does seem like kind of a neat return to basics: after a long run with a band that helped define contemporary folk music, Watson’s solo career so far has been an opportunity to revel in the old songs that made him love old-time folk music in the first place.

A couple weeks ago, I got a chance to chat with Watson about his new album, the traditional songs on it, and how he came to love old-time music. Read on for more:

AF: What made you decide to put out a solo album after you left Old Crow, as opposed to forming another band?

WW: You know, it just sort of happened that way. I’ve been singing old songs–folk songs, traditional songs, whatever you wanna call them–for years. Once I was on my own, I wasn’t sure what my next move was–if I was going to have another band, or try to write a bunch of songs. At first, I did start writing songs, but I don’t think I was satisfied with what I was writing. I was starting to do some solo shows, and I had a few songs I’d written, and I would do a mix of those with old traditional songs, at those early shows. I was a lot happier doing those old folk songs, and I think the crowd was a lot happier, too. I thought those were great songs that people should be hearing, and that I wanted to be singing.

AF: You’re in a position to introduce listeners to those old songs for the first time, in many cases. How cool is that?

WW: Totally cool, and I’m happy if I can be that guy. Alternately, if they heard where they came from, they might not want to listen to me anymore. I would much rather put on Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special” than listen to me. It’s surprising, a lot of people might not even realize that these are old songs. I think if they have the record, Folk Singer, and they read the reviews and write-ups, they’ll get it–but I’ve played shows and had people think I wrote all those songs.

AF: You grew up in upstate New York, right? What was the musical community like there?

WW: Around Ithaca and Tompkins County–which is right next to Schuyler County, where I’m from–there’s a lot of old-time fiddle music. There was a banjo player named Richie Stearns and all those guys from Donna The Buffalo, they’re old-time players. There would be a weekly old-time jam every week up there. So I was exposed to that first hand, being around the scene and the music every week. Richie Stearns had a band called The Horse Flies, and they were a mix of old-time fiddle music with eighties pop. They had a drum set and they all plugged in, and Richie Stearns was playing clawhammer banjo. Judy Hyman played the fiddle and would dance around the stage, doing this headbang-y thing with her eyes rolling back in her head. I was about thirteen, and I would see this stuff and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It was dance music, and it really moved me in a big way. That was my introduction to old-time music. I knew it wasn’t bluegrass, this old-timey thing The Horse Flies were doing. It was something a little bit different, and it really stood out. I was already listening to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Of course, at the same time I was also listening to Nirvana, too. They did that Unplugged thing, where he sings the Leadbelly song [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][“In The Pines/Where Did You Sleep Last Night”]. I knew my dad had a Leadbelly record in the basement, and I went and got it out. Really, that changed everything for me right there. It was all coming together at the same time.

AF: Were there other kids excited by old-time and interested in playing it?

WW: Yeah. I started a band pretty quick. A lot of the old-time players had kids my age, so they all had guitars. We started a band called The Funnest Game that was kind of the same thing–clawhammer banjo, electric guitar, drums. People liked that we were young and we were playing this stuff, so we started playing shows at clubs when we were about fifteen or sixteen. And they’d pay us. Which was nice! It was like, “Holy cow! This could be a job?!” So I quickly dropped out of high school when I was sixteen.

AF: Did you meet up with Old Crow Medicine Show pretty quickly after that?

WW: It was a few years. I had that first band, and then Ketch [Secor] moved to Ithaca when…I must’ve been seventeen or eighteen. Richie Stearns knew Ketch from the festival scene and he introduced us. Ketch moved up [to Ithaca] and then Critter [Fuqua] moved up a bit later. When The Funnest Game was about to break up, Ketch and Critter’s band had just broken up. They opened together for The Funnest Game and sang together, harmonized, did their duo thing. I was floored. As soon as they started singing, I immediately really badly wanted to sing with them. And so we made that happen.

AF: Looking back on it now, how do you feel about having been a part of that band?

WW: What can I say? It was everything to me, to us. That band was my whole life for almost fifteen years. I wouldn’t change anything. We just kind of grew apart. In the early days we played a lot of old music and not as many songs, although we were always writing. I don’t have any regrets, but I’m really happy that I’m where I’m at now. I’m playing the music I want to play, and it’s real simple, and I don’t have a big light show–I’m in a good place with that.

AF: Let’s talk about how Folk Singer became the collection that it is. Can you tell me the story of how one or two of the songs came to be included on the album?

WW: Anything in particular?

AF: How about ‘James Alley Blues?’

WW: Okay, yeah. That’s a Richard “Rabbit”  Brown song, and I don’t know too much of what he’s done, I just know that song, and also he does this great version of the Titanic story. He definitely plays ‘James Alley Blues’ different [than I do], it’s more bluesy, and he’s got all that finger picking guitar stuff. I heard it and I knew my voice would be right for it, but I had to find a different way to play guitar, because I don’t really play blues like that. That open-tuning blues stuff. I knew I really wanted to do that song because it really reached out to me. I related to what he was saying, and what the song was about really hit home for me. So I just had to find a different way to play guitar, you know, find a way that the song could come out of me.

AF: Were there any notable exclusions? Songs you were sure you wanted on the album, but that ultimately didn’t wind up making it?

WW: We recorded over twenty five songs for this album. There’s still a whole bunch of stuff in the can. That’s where Dave [Rawlings] comes in. The idea was just to get in there and sing whatever was rolling around in my head. I had a little list of songs. Then Dave would say, “Okay, that’s great, but do you have anything in the key of C?” Some songs were totally off the cuff, and yeah, some songs didn’t make the cut. Like “Kitty Puss,” that song wasn’t supposed to be on there. When I flew to Nashville to record the sessions, I was listening to that on the plane before I landed. I’d never played it before. I got into the studio and they were adjusting the sound, and the guy was like, “play something,” so I just played “Kitty Puss.” That was the first time I played the song, so I remembered what words I could. I kinda rearranged the words, I think, just because I didn’t know exactly how the guy did it on the record. He recorded in the early twenties, before there were electronic microphones. Back then they were literally singing into a funnel. It was just him and a banjo, and he’d sing a lot of children’s songs and novelty songs. I’d been listening to it for a while. I didn’t expect it to be on the record, it just came out really good.


A great big thank you to Willie Watson for talking to us! Folk Singer Vol. 1 will be out on May 6th, and you can pre-order your digital or physical copy here. Watch Watson perform the first track, the classic “Midnight Special,” below:

ALBUM REVIEW: Barzin “To Live Alone In That Long Summer”

Barzin, 2008

Though his songwriting dwells in intimately confessional territory, Canadian singer/songwriter Barzin Hosseini himself is a pretty enigmatic figure. Publicly, he appears as Barzin or Barzin H, with little biographical detail apart from what’s in in his songs. His presence as a songwriter, though, displays a poetics-heavy musical sensibility, with spotlight awarded to lyrical rhythms and manipulations. Instrumental lines—melancholic and cyclical—take their cues from the themes the words set in motion. “In this place, I’m loyal to memory,” Barzin sings in the fourth, and most urgent, track on his new album, To Live Alone In That Long Summer, “Stealing Beauty.” “You look inside houses to see how others live/ and you make the same mistakes, the knowledge comes too late.” Guitars dust pretty arpeggios over the track, always in support of the vocals.

If Barzin’s last release, 2009’s Notes To An Absent Lover, was a breakup album, To Live Alone deals with the reorganization of life after that breakup. The song collection plods through the process of re-learning how to live alone, and to that end, Barzin first envisioned an instrumentally minimalist album. That idea adapted, as his project took shape, to include input from a slew of musician friends. Bolstered by backup vocals from Tony Dekker, Daniela Gesundheit, and Tamara Lindeman, To Live Alone—while circling lyrical themes of isolation and loneliness—is Barzin’s most inclusive record.

Since its inception as Hosseini’s solo act in 1995, the project has regularly expanded to incorporate an array of musicians. Despite all those additions, alterations, and guest appearances, the group’s musical foundation hasn’t changed much. Although additional musicians make for a more filled-out record, you can hear the minimalist impulses behind Hosseini’s voice no matter how many people he’s playing alongside, and the melancholic lyrics and matching sad music that are the new record’s signature have been key to Barzin’s work from the beginning. It’s no surprise that, by now, Hosseini has mastered the turf. He’s able to more or less eschew over-sentimentality on this record, which is a feat considering how introspective and nostalgic the songs unfailingly are. That’s because, as much as To Live Alone becomes engrossed in remembrance, the album details an obsession with deliberate forward motion. Like stacking building blocks, the tracks take us through the work of building (or re-building) a life, and the anxiety of not being able to figure out how other people have successfully done so.

The record shows growth for Barzin in a few different categories—instrumentally, there’s a bit more dynamic range than on previous releases—but not as much as you might imagine, given that the outfit’s been around for almost twenty years, and that their last album came out way back in 2009. The guitar lines, though clean, are extremely repetitive—sometimes frustratingly so—and the songs’ build-ups come very subtly, with faint pay-off. The forward momentum of To Live Alone‘s moving-on idea is its most interesting component, and the biggest source of progression over the duration of the album.

To Live Alone In That Long Summer is out February 25th via Monotreme Records. Pre-order it here. Or, for a taste of the new album, listen to the first track “All The While” below via Soundcloud:



Karen Dalton’s mystique, largely a product of her personal misfortunate, makes her an easy candidate for legend: it’s fun to imagine her, half Irish, half Cherokee, in a wooly, bohemian large-pocketed coat, Dalton had thick dark bangs and two missing bottom teeth knocked out when she got between two fighting boyfriends, and spent the sixties wandering Greenwich Village, palling around with Bob Dylan and enchanting tiny apartments full of literati with her banjo and her incomparable voice.

Most often liked to a folksy Billy Holday, Dalton’s voice is bluesy and husky, perfectly timed, but especially haunting for the sadness behind it. Dalton was criminally overlooked during her lifetime, and barely recorded, both because of her inconsistencies with the kind of pop music that got signed at the time and because of her own stubbornness and famous refusal to perform. The story of how her debut album, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, was made has become a legend unto itself:a friend tricked her into playing the songs, and secretly recorded the performance. Dalton released that album and one other, In My Own Time, and then disappeared off the scene. She struggled with drug use until her death from AIDS in 1993.

In My Own Time, released initially in 1971 and then again in 2006, epitomizes something of the intimacy and romance that had haunted her voice on It’s So Hard. The record was undoubtedly more comfortable, and Dalton’s experiments into the bluesier aspects of her voice (“When A Man Loves A Woman”), which even switches some of the lyrics of that song around to fit a female protagonist, feel natural alongside the beautifully archaic banjo-based tune “Katie Cruel.” Then there’s “Take Me,” a simple, heart-shattering song built around fermatas and soul, that hits a new peak of earnestness in Dalton’s career. However, the most memorable track on this album, for me, is the first one, “Something On Your Mind.”

The mythologizing of Karen Dalton, as much as it skews the life it imagines, lets you take the music for your own, and so it is with this song. “Something On Your Mind,” honest and comforting, utilizes a set of lyrics just vague enough to apply to anything—Yesterday, anyway you made it was just fine/So you turned your days into nighttime/Didn’t you know you can’t make it without ever even trying? And something’s on your mind, isn’t it—and cutting enough to feel like a conversation. More than thirty years after the song was recorded, “Something On Your Mind” is balm for the wounds of the lonely two thirty AM subway rider, the recently dumped or the recently unemployed, the weary traveler, or the woolen-jacketed wanderer through a snowy Greenwich village. Her voice, an acute blend of lonely weariness and deep strength, sounds like nothing to come out before or since.

Take a listen to “Something On Your Mind,” off In My Own Time, below:

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: Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John HurtFlash way, way back to February 14th, 1928: John Hurt, soon to be better known as Mississippi John Hurt, recorded a two-track 78 rpm in Memphis. The songs, the first two Hurt ever recorded, were “Frankie” and “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” and they won Hurt an invitation to come record in New York City. Hurt was a sharecropper who’d taught himself to play guitar when he was nine years old, and played for barn dances in his neighborhood, though he’d never made money off the instrument.

Hurt had opinions about the way the guitar should be played—his melody-heavy, understated method and sparse vocals resembled no other blues musician playing at the time. “Frankie,” side A of his 1928 release, was a subdued and uncommonly mournful take on the classic New Orleans murder ballad “Frankie and Johnny.” “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” side B, had been recorded for the first time only about ten years prior, by Bert Williams. Hurt changed the lyrics, once again downplaying the rambling, gambling, wheeling and dealing party music that often accompanied popular songs. Hurt’s versions tended to be more somber and introspective, though the guitar line stayed danceable and syncopated—Hurt played the blues, after all.

The recordings Hurt put out in the twenties and thirties were largely commercial failures, and he returned to his labor job. Forty years later, after “Frankie” was included on a collection of old-time Americana songs put out by Smithsonian Folkways in 1962. Around the same time, a Virginian ethnomusicologist by the name of Tom Hoskins decided to make it his mission to find Mississippi John Hurt, whose old recordings were enjoying a renaissance after the Smithsonian Folkways release. Allegedly, Hoskins found Hurt’s hometown by chancing a trip to Avalon, Mississippi after Hurt’s “Avalon Blues.”

Hurt died four years later, in 1966, but the last era of his life saw dramatic change. Hoskins arranged for Hurt to record and perform voraciously, and his career rose rapidly to extraordinary acclaim. The blues movement was making a comeback, and Mississippi John Hurt was its forerunner.

Like Lomax, like the Seegers, like John Cohen, Hoskins assumed the role of cultivating and editing Mississippi John Hurt’s work. Even the term “rediscovery,” commonly applied to Hurt’s rise to fame, implies ownership and—albeit well-intentioned—bigotry. Hurt’s image remains a mystery, co-opted and shaped by a curator. Without Hoskins, though, Hurt would certainly have died lost to listeners outside of Mississippi.

Listen to “Nobody’s Dirty Business” below: