Posted in Uncategorized on April 25, 2015 by midliferocker


The one and only Reverend Peyton and his Big Damn Band find a delicious balance.

By Steve Houk

It’s been kinda the “thing” for a while now for young bands to make music that sounds old. Well, not really old per se, but music that has that true sense of authenticity and history and the magic of those musical spirits of yore that hover in the air. Bands like Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers, the North Mississippi All Stars, even others like the Black Keys and Kings of Leon before they got too arena-ish, or true retro acts like Carolina Chocolate Drops, all have tried to create moods using simple instruments and sounds that elicit thoughts of front porches, campfires, and sitting on tree stumps playing your ass off while the jug with the three xxx’s is passed around.

But the key is to not only evoke the vibe of the front porch, but to try and carry it forward, not just be a Smithsonian Folk Archive rehash, but to bring the feel of this exceptional indigenous music to the modern day, while putting a personal spin on it. That’s the prime goal of Reverend “Sean” Peyton, to a tee. He wants people to feel when they hear him and his amazing Big Damn Band, that they get not only a shining glimmer of the past, but also a big flash pot of the present.

“That’s the hope. At the end of the day, if you can make music after people have been playing guitar, recorded guitar, for a hundred years, if you can make things sound original, then I mean, that’s one of the toughest things to do, and something we literally work on every day. I’m always trying to take finger style guitar to new places. That’s the idea, to keep making music so it does go forward. In the right way. From the heart. Made by hand.”

There isn’t really another act out there like Brown County Indiana’s Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band. They’re a rousing, unabashed, highly animated trio that delivers a truly unique mix of blues, ragtime, folk, country and do-it-yourself, homespun, even some say punk fueled rock. Led by Peyton’s large carnivalesque bearded look, astounding finger style guitar playing and extremely unique vocals, the Big Damn Band is rounded out by Peyton’s buxom wife Breezy with her gloved thimbled hands pickin’ on a mean washboard, and drummer Ben “Bird Dog” Russell, who augments his small drum kit with a five gallon plastic bucket fitted with drum hardware. They would feel at home on the album cover of The Doors’ “Strange Days” for sure.


But rest assured, you have never seen anything like the Big Damn Band before. And after a dozen or so year run exhaustively playing over 250 dates a year and churning out more than half a dozen records, it may all have finally come together with their latest country blues fueled romp, “So Delicious.” Peyton’s intended delivery of retro meets the modern day with a twist all their own has finally jelled just the way the Reverend was hoping it would.

“I’m really proud of (the new record), I felt like when it was done, I was just like, you know, if people don’t like this, I think they just don’t like me,” said Peyton during a break out on the road. “That’s all there is to it, I just don’t what else I can do. This is the most me of any record we’ve ever done, I’m just really proud of the songs, I’m proud of what it’s about, I’m proud of the innovation on the finger style, I’m proud of the way the band sings the background vocals, I’m proud of it all, just top to bottom. At this point during a record I’m usually kinda like ehh, wish we’d done this, wish we’d done that. I really just don’t have anything like that with this record. I just feel like we finally did one just like we should. I also feel like there’s a little bit of somethin’ for everybody on this record, that’s somethin’ I’m kinda proud of too, ya know.”

And that’s key to Peyton, that he and his band don’t come off like a retread act, but combine the charms of the old with the dynamics of the new and appeal to a bit wider audience.  “My whole goal whenever I do anything is timelessness. I don’t want it to sound necessarily like there was an era. I want it like maybe you could have come out of any decade. That’s my goal, is to make timeless music. Make it feel timeless.”

Peyton is a finger style player, a rare breed of guitarist that uses the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking or picking individual notes with a single pick. He has worked hard to perfect the style and has reached a point where he is proud of what he’s able to do, and sometimes, even who he is able to fool.

“The guitar playing might not sound overly difficult, but it is,” the good-humored Peyton told me. “It’s alot harder than it sounds. It’s one of those things where I’ve never heard anybody else finger pick in quite that same way before. It’s all one guitar, the whole record. i Tunes editors, they gave the record five stars, but they talked about the interweaving guitars. And it made me laugh, because there is no interweaving guitars, it’s one guitar. I love that. I was able to literally trick music reviewers into thinking that it was two guitars, or maybe three! To me that’s part of the idea, is to take finger style to places that people can’t believe. But also write songs that are accessible, that aren’t just songs for musicians to listen to and go, oh man, this guy’s cool. Listen to him play guitar. I want to make songs that are accessible, that you don’t have to be a music nerd to be into it.”


After playing guitar as young boy, Peyton’s hands betrayed him in his late teens, and his guitar playing future looked like it was in real jeopardy. “I was lost for a while, almost two years, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. It was cysts that grew on my tendons. Why, we don’t know. Both hands. And on my left hand which was the worst, they were almost miscroscopic and they caused all this scar tissue to grow. And once they were cut away, man, I was fine. It was all after I’d been playing guitar for years. I started giving lessons when I was 13, and this happened when I was 18. But I met Breezy one week after my hand surgery. Things were looking up.”

Peyton has a stable of heroes that he has modeled his unique sound after that reads like a who’s who of country blues. But for him, it always comes back to not letting yourself get mired in reproducing the same ol’ music. It’s cool to pay homage, but it’s critical to put your own exciting and individual, contemporary spin on it.

“When we say country blues, they don’t know what that is,” Peyton continued. “It means rural blues, really, it starts with people like Charlie Patton, John Hurt, Furry Lewis and Fred McDowell, Bukka White. But over the years, I don’t want to just be like a museum piece throwback to that. I’m never one to be that. I want to be next in line. I work really hard to take the concept, those styles, the finger style country blues guitar, and really try to take it to places it has never been, with new melodies, new fresh stuff, not just the same old regurgitated stuff.”

And as for Peyton’s very distinctive, idiosyncratic vocals, well, just play the song below and you’ll see what I mean. And it leads this wonderfully energized, fun loving band right down the path the Reverend wants them to go.

“I just sorta sing from real deep in my gut. It’s wild, that’s just the voice I got. I think some people they think that’s it’s like affected or something. It’s the just the voice that I got. I was told one time by someone who was trained and they said that I actually sing in a similar way to an opera singer. A beat down like an operatic singer does. And I think some musicians as they get older, they get tired, or they get burned out. I feel like I’m just gettin’ warmed up, you know. I’m figuring myself out.”


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 17, 2015 by midliferocker
(photo courtesy Shane McCauley)

(photo courtesy Shane McCauley)

Folk rock legend James McMurtry weaves magical tales from out on the road.

By Steve Houk

It used to be that you could spend a buncha straight time doing a record, a few weeks or even months at least. Stay camped in the studio, work the tunes, get ’em just right, and then once you’d honed it and fine tuned it, you could head out on the road for some dates when you could, the record in the rear view.

But times have changed, and touring is more important than ever. People aren’t buying albums like they used to, the masses download songs to their devices and maybe if they like what they hear, they’ll grab the whole record. Maybe.

James McMurtry gets that. So that’s why for his brilliant new album Complicated Game, the latest of several critically acclaimed, masterfully written records he’s done over the years, he’d record a little and then head out on a long stretch of shows, and then pop back into New Orleans to record some more. And his studio guys might even snag a top player to do some fills, all while McMurtry is out making the bread.

“Nowadays, you have to tour alot more than we used to, ‘cuz that’s where all the money is,” McMurtry told me from Austin during a break at this year’s South by Southwest Festival. “The new record was piecemeal, it took a year to make. We can’t afford to just stop for six weeks and just go in and make a record. I’d lay down some tracks and then go away, and Charles and Matthew would try to figure out what to do with them. I guess Benmont Tench was in town at some point, so they cornered him and got him in the studio, I wasn’t there for that session. I was there for one of Ivan Neville’s vocal sessions, which was great. Harmony sessions can really be painful, trying to get a guy to match your phrasing and hit the notes at the same time. And he just walked in there and nailed it.”

After almost 30 years making music, that’s the way it seems to work for this truly gifted mainstay of the Americana/folk rock scene. A unique character with dashes of Prine, Zevon and Cockburn sprinkled about but with beautifully crafted songs that are all his own, James McMurtry sounds like a guy who’s spent alot of time on the road. His slow, steady, weathered way a’ talkin’ and his seemingly laid back demeanor would lead you to believe he really is just ambling along, making music, nary a care. But listening to the sharp wisdom, inherent beauty and savvy insight of his songs reveals a guy who really gets what a compelling musical tale is all about.

McMurtry was raised not far from D.C. in Waterford, Virginia, out in the Catoctin Valley of Loudon County. It was an area steeped in indigenous music that he sapped up as he began to gather the paint for his musical pallette.

“Being around Waterford was actually really good,” McMurtry said. “I got exposed to a little bit of bluegrass, which I never learned to play all that well, but I got to hear bluegrass played by the people who’d actually done the things that were described in the song. Like plowing the field and this, that and the other. There’s a one room schoolhouse in Lucketts, which is over the hill from us on Route 15, between Leesburg and Point of Rocks, they’d have bluegrass every Saturday night. They had a local house band and they usually had a road act, the Potomac Valley Boys or Country Gentlemen, something like that.”


Alot of McMurty’s songs are largely small stories, which makes sense given what he listened to early on, and as he began to write his own songs. “Started from records really, I was a Johnny Cash fan as a child, and then somebody turned me on to Kris Kristofferson. Later on I got into Dylan, I didn’t like him at first, I thought he sang funny.  It came pretty easily to me once I started writing.”

McMurtry’s father Larry is one of America’s most well known authors, penning novels many of which were made into memorable films, like “Hud,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Did having an accomplished author for a father help him as he learned how to write songs?

“It was more listening to songwriters, I think. I listened to Kristofferson, I listened to Prine, it comes more from listening than from reading. I get a couple of lines and a melody and try to imagine who would have said those lines and then make it a character from that, and then I can get the rest of the song from the character.”

James McMurtry performs Monday April 20th at The Hamilton, 600 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, click here.  

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for and his own blog at He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band  Second Wind  plus other local rock ensembles.



Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 13, 2015 by midliferocker

Johnette Napolitano, a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor, keeps making music amidst her busy life. 

By Steve Houk

Johnette Napolitano plays Gypsy Sally's on April 19th (photo courtesy Catherine Copenhaver)

Johnette Napolitano plays Gypsy Sally’s on April 19th (photo courtesy Catherine Copenhaver)

Johnette Napolitano, the lead singer, bassist and co-founder of 80’s alt rock band Concrete Blonde, is not one to sit still, even 30 plus years after her career began.

At 57, she is still very active musically, even embarking on a short solo tour soon on the heels of her new three song EP “Naked.” But in her jam packed career, she has also worked for Leon Russell and at the famed Gold Star Studios, written a book, still dabbles in art including getting her work shown in galleries, occasionally contributes music to TV and film, and has collaborated with some of music’s biggest names. Yep, this is one busy hard rockin’ tattooed lady. 

Oh, and she rides horses too. Early in the morning, before the day gets going too fast.

“This is the first horse I’ve had of my own, she’s got blue eyes, is pure white and a real brat,” said the high-energy, highly engaging Napolitano from her home out west. “I have an inflatable unicorn horn I put on her sometimes, and she really likes that. I’m about to go out and give her breakfast in a little while, but I’m usually up at about 5 and get a couple (riding) hours in, and then by the time I do that, it’s all cool and it’s all fun and it’s all fresh and nice, and then you know, phones start ringing and things start happening.”

Clearly, Johnette Napolitano is a true force of nature. Or perhaps better yet, is still a force of nature, given when you watch videos of or listen to Concrete Blonde’s songs, or even with her solo work, you see the raw, honest power of her delivery and the compelling nature of her songwriting that has been evident from day one. But with Concrete Blonde in the rear view after their triumphant last reunion tour in 2012, Napolitano continues to write her brand of emotionally enrobed music, it’s simply part of her DNA. And her fans tell her whenever she’s out on the road that they want more music, it’s just about finding the time to do it.

“People have been asking for music, but I haven’t really had time because I’ve been touring a week out of every month, that’s the pace that’s doable for me right now,” Napolitano says in her frenetic yet appealing style of speaking. “I’ve been touring alot the past year or year and a half solo, which has been really challenging. But that’s what’s been great about it. I’ve worked out this show that has a really fun and good flow, emotionally it has peaks and valleys, and it’s funny in places, and then I do songs that people know of course, and then I do new ones, so I found myself more and more with a guitar in my hands, just by the default, you know, if I’m in a hotel room, sitting there with a TV on the night before the show and I’ve got a guitar in my hand, I’m gonna come up with something. Being on the road is always kind of kicked me in the ass as far as writing because I’m fidgety and I’ve got to play constantly because I get real nervous and I feel like I need to practice alot. And in between there’s alot of other shit to do, so I haven’t really had a chance to actually kick back and be in the space that I need to be to dissapear down the rabbit hole to make a real actual full-length record. But I knew I was going out in the spring and I knew I had to come up with something, and so I (did) “Naked.”

Napolitano got a pungent taste of the backchannels of the music business even before she began her own career, working at Leon Russell’s L.A. studio in the early 80’s. It was an experience that prepared her well for what would come next, and one she wouldn’t trade for the world.

“You go through a special initiation in life when you work for Leon Russell,” she says with a clear fondness for the quirky rock legend and the opportunity working for him provided. “We called it Leon boot camp. When you work for Leon, you do everything, you’re on call 24 hours a day. If you had to stay up for three days in the mobile unit on camera 3 because Leon and Willie Nelson feel like staying up for three days making a record, then that’s exactly what you do. And then JJ Cale drops by, and if George Harrison drops by for a burger with Leon, and Leon wants you to find something in the tape library, then you go to the tape library, and come back and ask Leon, why don’t you just let me redo the whole tape library? I opened the 1/4″ box for the master of ‘Will O’ The Wisp’ and it’s got pot seeds in it, but no tape! But really, Leon surrounded himself with the top tech people, the top creative minds. He was very forward minded, and open-minded in everything he did. It woulda been stupid to be around all those people and not watch and learn what was going on. It was an education, is what I like to call it. To be around genius is really great.”

Life circumstances eventually caused Russell to move to Nashville, and although she was invited to come along, Napolitano stayed behind in the familiar surroundings of L.A. to begin to carve out her own path. “Working for him, you’re a satellite in Leon’s universe, but at the end of the day if you’re any kind of person that’s got your own thing to say and do, then you have to say and do it, you know? So we stayed in L.A. and that was the right thing to do.”

Napolitano next worked at L.A’s famed Gold Star Studios, where some of rock’s greatest albums and songs were recorded, including parts of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP, much of Phil Spector‘s Wall of Sound recordings, as well as songs and albums by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and countless other legendary acts. “I worked there about three years too and was really into that place, it was just amazing, I mean, the stuff that was recorded there? Phil Spector used to send us a copy of John and Yoko’s Christmas song on white vinyl every Christmas. He would call every Christmas with that little voice, ‘Is so and so there?’ It’s pretty cool, man.”

After her two life-altering studio jobs, Napolitano decided it was her turn, and formed Dream 6 which morphed into Concrete Blonde, a name suggested by REM’s Michael Stipe, who noted the contrast between their hard sound and deep lyrics. And for a period from the early 80’s to the mid 90’s, Concrete Blonde became one of the most talked about bands around. They would break up and reunite a few times over the next 25 years or so, culminating with their 2012 “farewell” tour which included headlining a festival in China, one of the pinnacles of their career. To Napolitano, Concrete Blonde was an unforgettable experience, with all the agony and ecstasy that comes with a successful band.

“In any incarnation, I think we were one of the best bands on the planet,” she said. “But this band has an incredibly tumultuous history, and alot of it’s really difficult to shake. There’s just some damage that you can’t repair. I’m still wrestling emotionally with some of the songs we played, and because I wrote them, I play them when I tour, of course. And just to keep an arm’s length from not actually reliving that emotion again, because there were alot of unhappy times in my life, and now I’m just grateful I made it through and I am where I’m at. But it’s done, everybody’s lives are in different places right now, and musically the guys want to do a certain thing and I think I want to do other stuff. But I feel very fortunate.”

(photo courtesy Amber Rodgers)

(photo courtesy Amber Rodgers)

As Concrete Blonde was beginning to wane, Napolitano did some memorable collaborating, including a killer duet with Paul Westerberg for the song “My Little Problem” that appeared on The Replacements’ “All Shook Down” record. But the most memorable may have been her almost becoming the new singer for Talking Heads after David Byrne left the band.  She recorded a song for an album the remaining band members did with a host of lead singers, “No Talking, Just Head,” and then toured and recorded with them in 1996. But legal problems killed the effort.

“The story was that Jerry (Harrison, Heads’ keyboardist and guitarist) had come to alot of Concrete Blonde gigs,” she recalls, “and after David Byrne left, they were working on a record with a whole bunch of different singers and they asked me to be on it. And so I’m like sure, cool, I’d love to be on it, so they sent me a track, “Damage I’ve Done” and I threw the guitar down and the vocal down and sent it back to them and they loved it. The problem with the Heads since David Byrne left was their identity, to keep going they needed somebody there to prove that they had some focus. So we had a plan to record the new record and try and cement the new identity. But when we were recording, we were in the middle of a lawsuit the whole time because David Byrne wouldn’t let them call themselves the Talking Heads. So all that hostile shit is flying back and forth the whole time we’re making the new record. It was brutal, I’m getting death threats from people. And the record never saw the light of day.”

Amidst her various art projects, her horse riding and just living her super busy life, Napolitano’s heart remains in her music. And her latest effort and impending tour is another powerful emotional expression that is her trademark, with a title that symbolizes her typical MO of putting it out there for all to see.

“I thought of ‘Naked’ which just indicates how you feel when you’re on stage with nothing but you and a guitar, pretty much. That’s exactly how you feel. I do anyway.”


Posted in Uncategorized on April 7, 2015 by midliferocker
Joan Armatrading plays the Birchmere on April 15th (photo courtesy Andrew Catlin)

Joan Armatrading plays the Birchmere on April 15th (photo courtesy Andrew Catlin)

A world class musician gets closer to her audience in the twilight of her career.

by Steve Houk

Joan Armatrading has done just about everything she wanted to do when she set out on her illustrious musical journey over 40 years ago. And if you ask her devoted fan base, the world is a much better place because of it.

For decades, Armatrading has traveled the globe with her exceptional canon of timeless songs, tirelessly touring, endlessly writing, gloriously singing, and ultimately, generously sharing some of the most emotionally transforming popular music ever written. She’s even received an MBE from the Queen. So as she embarks on what she is calling her “last major world tour,” what would she like people to take away from experiencing her music?

“I want them to feel connected to the music,” she told me from the Isle of Man where she was playing a show that night. “I want them to fall in love with it. I want them to use it as a communication tool, which people tell me they do, they use my music to communicate with each other. I did an interview with a chap in Europe a couple of years back, and he said after the interview he was going to propose to his girlfriend, and he was going to use my music. You can’t get better.”

Armatrading, 64, is quick to point out that this not her final tour ever, just the last time she will undertake one that will take her away from home for extended periods. And she is doing it solo, just her, without a backup band, because, well, it was simply the right time to do that kind of presentation.

“I was 64 when I played Australia in 2014, and by the time the tour ends I’ll be 65,” the personable and gracious Armatrading said. “I don’t want to be on the road eighteen months non-stop after I’m 65, so that’s why I’m saying this is my last major world tour. But I’m not retiring. I will be writing until the day I die.”

Armatrading has carefully chosen where she will play on this special tour, picking venues that will enable her to get a little more up close and personal to her audience.

“I wanted to create this kind of intimacy and a special memory for me,” she said, “and I wanted to feel for myself and for the audience a kind of a closeness, where we can kind of feel involved with each other. So I deliberately chose some places that I’ve never played before, and some smaller places.”

Another very “Joan-like” thing she is doing this go-round is picking local talent from the places she plays to warm her up each night, something she has done before but not to this extent. Armatrading has always been cognizant of giving other musicians the exposure they strive so hard to find, and seems to share in their excitement and growth.

“To watch them grow, from their first time of coming on stage, some of them,” she said, “I mean, the most people they played to is 10, maybe 50 at the most, and the next thing they’re playing in a hall of 2000 people. It’s wonderful, and I have people say it’s their hometown and they’ve been to that theater however many times to see whichever artist, and never dreamt that they would actually be on the stage, that stage, performing for their loved ones. Something like that, it’s fantastic, it’s absolutely fantastic, it’s wonderful, to watch that confidence grow as well. And just to watch them kind of have a little bit more hope that things will work out as well. It’s a nice thing.”

And when her warm up act is onstage, where will you find Joan? Right there watching them, sometimes to the performer’s surprise.

“I like to see the people and I like to see how the audience reacts to them. I had one person who was on the stage and they were doing absolutely fine, everything was wonderful, and then they happened to look across the stage and they saw me, and they went “Ahhhh!” and froze for a second. (laughs) I shouldn’t laugh, but it was funny.”

The sheer magnitude and global reach of Armatrading’s music is stunningly revealed in a story she very cautiously tells so as not to sound arrogant, a word you would never associate with Joan Armatrading in any way, or in any scenario. But it deserves telling. She has played before for Nelson Mandela, but while performing recently in South Africa, she met Ahmed Kathrada, a political prisoner who was jailed alongside Mandela. He told her that as they went through their suffering and struggles in a South African prison, her music helped see them through their ordeal, an admission that greatly humbles and deeply moves Armatrading.

“I said to myself, hang on a minute, get this into perspective. For him to be saying to me, your music was very important to us during that immensely stressful time, that was absolutely wonderful. It was a complete and utter privilege, and a pleasure and an honor to have met them.”


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 7, 2015 by midliferocker
Rhiannon Giddens appears at the Lincoln Theater Sunday April 12th (photo courtesy)

Rhiannon Giddens appears at the Lincoln Theater Sunday April 12th (photo courtesy Dan Winters)

Rhiannon Giddens is always looking back, as she looks gloriously forward.

By Steve Houk

In music, who came before does matter.

The heritage, the beginnings, those risk takers and visionaries, is how music came to be. I mean, no Robert Johnson, maybe no Eric Clapton. No Bessie Smith, perhaps no Billie Holiday. No Louis Armstrong, maybe no Wynton. No Chuck Berry or Elvis, maybe no Beatles. The influencers, the pioneers, the groundbreakers of music, are what give it its heart and soul.

Rhiannon Giddens passionately understands that without those who came before her, she wouldn’t be where she is right now, an immense talent on the precipice of true greatness.

“We don’t come to any of this alone,” Giddens said as her first solo tour, which brings her to the Lincoln Theater on April 12th, begins. “We come with not only people helping us now, but the people who came before, and it’s always just this continuum that we’re on. We don’t come outta nowhere. There’s always something going on before that makes it possible for us to do what we do.”

Rhiannon Giddens gets it, and “it” comes out profoundly in her exceptional music. In the liner notes of her astounding debut solo record “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” Giddens pays devoted homage to a who’s who of roots and blues and popular music pioneers, and as it should be, they all seep beautifully into her sound. Whether it’s Odetta, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline or Nina Simone, or her own powerful voice, Giddens has crafted a glorious and rare tapestry, influenced by others but all very much her own. The result is the emergence of one of the most memorable artists in recent years.

Before a solo career beckoned, Giddens, a North Carolina native and opera trained singer, was (and remains) the face of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, a rockin-on-the-front-porch old time string band that conjures up a foot tappin’ hip shakin’ old school vibe replete with banjos, fiddles (both played by Giddens), washboards and singalongs, with Giddens leading the way with her soaring vocals on mostly traditional songs and arrangements. Speaking of paying homage, the Drops were steeped in it.

Things were going just fine when in 2013 Giddens was asked to sing solo at a one-off show, Another Day, Another Time at NYC’s Town Hall, a star studded event celebrating the folk music awash in the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Giddens’ stunning version of Odetta’s “Water Boy” was the talk of the evening, and event organizer and respected producer T-Bone Burnett literally found her backstage and offered her a solo record opportunity. She jumped at it, and the result is her tremendous solo debut.

“It kind of just snowballed, I mean, this was the first show I’d done on my own,” Giddens says, “there was never any intention to do a solo career, for me, it was just like, a show. It was definitely in my book of things to do, I was thinking about it a little bit, but more sort of maybe in the next couple of years kinda thing. We were working on the next Chocolate Drops record and was just like super stoked about the direction that we were going in. But you know when the universe presents an opportunity to do solo records where (T-Bone) goes,”What do you wanna do?” so do you go hey, can you come back in a couple years? Like, you just don’t do that. Yeah, I’m gonna take this opportunity and see what happens.”

But was the somewhat jarring emergence of her solo career a tough sell to her family in the Drops? On the contrary, it seemed like a sweet twist of fate, and her mates has been incredibly supportive of Giddens’ move.

“I talked with the Chocolate Drops and I was just like, look guys, I’d really love for you to come with me  on this journey, because A, it would keep us together and keep working on the material, and B, that’s what I want, you know, for my band, I’d like you guys to be part of it. And they’re really really supportive, and have done such a great job on the material, and it just feels really wonderful. It’s kind of like, the universe is doing things for me, I wouldn’t have ever stepped out like this, but it happened. I’ll follow the music, you know? And I think it’s just elevated us all. And I think whatever the next Chocolate Drop project will be will be better because of it. We’re all kind of lifted by all the stuff that’s happening. But it’s pretty astonishing, the course my life has taken in the last year and a half.”

Rhiannon Giddens (Photo courtesy Dan Winters)

Rhiannon Giddens (Photo courtesy Dan Winters)

And the word astonishing certainly fits “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” where the listener is transported into a swirling and sublime potpourri of sounds amidst a bevy of genres, all anchored by Gidden’s majestic vocals. You hear a dash of Judy Collins, even Joan Baez, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, but it’s all essentially Rhiannon Giddens. And the result is a masterful combination of a burgeoning world class artist and a nurturing veteran producer working together in each of their wheelhouses to make utterly memorable music.

“T Bone is such a great producer, and we worked really hard on it,” Giddens said. “When you have a labor of love like T-Bone and I did, that’s the jackpot for me. I feel like we were a really good match for this material. I brought the majority of it, and he has such a deep knowledge of Americana and the roots of American music, and we put together this amazing band, and it was kinda one of those moments in time, and something I’m really proud of.”

In 2014, in the midst of her solo transition, Giddens was asked to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being a part of Burnett’s Bob Dylan-lost lyrics project “Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes.” Giddens jumped at the chance, who wouldn’t, to collaborate with Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith on this treasure trove of a project. It was a soul-searching, challenging yet transcendent experience for her, and one that would ultimately even better prepare her for her next journey.

“When I was in the middle of it,” Giddens confided,”I was like, oh my God, I’m gonna die, I’m so overwhelmed right now but I have to keep going, I just have to. At the end of it, it was like, oh my God this is amazing, it’s incredible. I think these things really test you as an artist, I mean, that’s where it’s at. When you really have to rise to the occasion, you have to push yourself, you kind of have to push through barriers within yourself. There were no barriers at that studio other than the ones that were in my own heart and my head. I felt so grateful to have that experience because I learned so much about myself as an artist, and I’m so proud of the music that came out of that. The whole thing was amazing. There’s very few things in my life that have been that incredible, and like, changed my life. That’s definitely one. The whole thing, the recording, just kind of battin’ with those guys, it was just a really great experience. And all the hard stuff that’s wrapped up in it is just as important as the stuff that’s so fun. It’s still really important to have the moments where I just wanted to go stick myself in the eye with an ice pick or something, you know? It’s important for the artistic process.”

Late on the final night of the Dylan project, Giddens wrote a song, “Angel City.” She sang it for the group the next day, encompassimg her deep emotions about the experience, all part of her amazing journey.

“I stayed up all night the last night, and this (song) was my experience. I felt like I learned from and was able to apply the things that I learned. I just kind of realized that all at once and kind of had this epiphany, and I wrote the song. It’s such a story, I usually don’t write music that way. And when T-Bone suggested we put it on the record, it seemed to fit.”

For Rhiannon Giddens, the sky is the limit. Her talent and conviction are all she needs to soar to new heights, as well as reinforcing that important deeply held belief to remember those before her, all as she soars mightily ahead.

“That’s what makes my life sort of meaningful is being connected to the past and knowing where I stand on that continuum,” Giddens said. “The whole theme of honoring and paying homage to women who’ve come before me, who had paved the way, and who had much harder lives than I did for the most part. If I don’t have that meaning, then my music has no meaning. It really kind of makes what I do make sense and that’s how I like to go about it.”


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 30, 2015 by midliferocker

A folk music legend is still at it because, well, he writes great songs.

By Steve Houk


He came up at a time when the songs that were being written by him and his friends were altering the face of music. They were often story songs that spoke of change and wonder and possibility and were being woven into the fabric of people’s lives. Whether it was a person’s plight, or calling out the establishment, or just having a singalong, whether it was about work, politics, laughing or crying, when folk music was new and you played your song, people listened hard and took things away from it that were profound and real.

Tom Paxton was there, right at the true beginning of the folk music movement. So does he do things any different today than he did, say, fifty years ago when it all began?

“Same ol’ songwriter workin’,” Paxton told me. “I’m like a farmer going out to same field every year, plows it and plants it, and here comes the crop, you know? I think I’m pretty much the same songwriter I always was. And I hope that I’ve grown, but I don’t think I’ve changed.”

If you asked some of his old folkster cronies, it was Tom Paxton who essentially started the folk movement back in the sixties, and others came after. Since then, Paxton, 77, has recorded sixty one albums, his latest being this year’s “Redemption Road,” has had his music reverently covered by legends of all genres over and over, is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and remains a founding pillar of the folk music community. It’s the scope and breadth of Paxton’s songs, from deeply political to light and comical, from a song about John and Lorena Bobbitt to a song about the Holocaust, from children’s singalongs to scathing anthems, that have given and continue to give Tom Paxton his widespread appeal.

So just what was it like as this new form of musical expression was taking shape in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village?

“It was exciting, it was stimulating,” said the affable Paxton from his home in Alexandria. “There were a bunch of us all learning to perform, crazy about this literature, these songs, and I was the first one to be writing in the genre. But we were all excited about learning to perform, and about possibly being able to do this for a living, none of us were sure we could even do that, it was too much to hope for. But there were all these different coffeehouses where we could get up in front of a paying audience and sing, and hope to succeed at it. We were always together, laughing our asses off, and learning from each other, teaching one another guitar licks and being turned on by one another. It was a great place to be young.”

Paxton’s dear friend, the late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, always said it was Paxton who was the first to write the kinds of memorable folk songs that friends like Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen and others would follow suit with. And since those days at the Gaslight and other Village folk haunts, Paxton has gained a worldwide reputation in the genre, playing thousands of shows across the world and entertaining and educating millions of people about folk music.

Yet there was that other folkie that came around, the Zimmerman kid from Minnesota, who is regarded as the real legend, or at least one of a certain uber-reverential magnitude. So was there ever any resentment that this kid grabbed the lead? The gracious Paxton tips his hat in reverence.

“It struck me as the way it oughta be,” Paxton said. “Dylan’s talent was incandescent. Right from the start he was writing songs that people were fascinated by. He wrote some early topical songs like ‘I Will Not Go Under The Ground’ or ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’ These were exciting songs to hear. So it didn’t surprise me at all that Bob became such a focal point and that he put together such an audience right from the beginning.”

Tom Paxton didn’t set out to become a legendary folk musician, acting was his thing, but hearing the music of Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, and of course Woody Guthrie and his future friend Pete Seeger would steer him away from the acting stage, and onto a musical one.

“I started out wanting to be an actor, but I settled for the security of folk music,” said Paxton, laughing. “I have a degree in drama from the University of Oklahoma, and I took it very seriously. But all that time, I was deepening my interest in folk music, and then in songwriting. I began to see how music had played a part in working people’s lives in this country, and reflected how life was. And reflected the politics. which I intended to share. That added a whole new dimension to my appreciation of folk music.”

And it was one seminal folk record that was the final impetus for Paxton, a kind of epiphany that truly helped him find his calling.

“When I began to write songs, right from the start I wrote all kinds of songs because I had listened to The Weavers and their Christmas Eve recording, ‘The Weavers At Carnegie Hall,’ certainly one of the most influential albums of the folk revival, and there’s all kinds of songs on it, from ‘Rock Island Line’ to ‘Hush Little Baby Don’t Say A Word’ to ‘Weema Weh,’ it’s just an incredible breadth of vision in that album, the spectrum is just so broad, and that kind of informed me, that there was no real limit on the songs one could write. It’s possible to write a children’s song and follow it up with a political song. Whatever ideas came to me I tended to treat them equally, and try to finish the song that was there to begin with.”

Paxton's new record, his 61st album release

Paxton’s new record, his 61st album release

Paxton looks at today’s folk musicians as a group who might want to wait out the lure of quick fame, and be more patient as they find their songwriting voice.

“It’s easy for people to make recordings now because technology is so available, so user-friendly, that lots of people are making albums before they’re ready to make albums. We would have done the same, I don’t ascribe any moral superiority to my generation. But you didn’t record until a record company signed you to a contract. I was in New York for four years working professionally before I recorded my first album for Elektra. I had alot of songs built up and ready to go. That’s not very true now, you get alot of half baked efforts, and I have no answer for that. The only suggestion I would have to them today is restrict yourself to three of your own songs per set, and the rest, go out and find these great great songs that are out there and cover them. There’s no shame in covering great songs. People in audience don’t care if you wrote ’em or not, they just want to be entertained, and you can do that with all these great songs, and I think you’ll do better that way. That’s the way I did it. Whatever I heard I thought was terrific, I’d sing. And gradually, my songs began to predominate.”

And what did he think of the Coen Brothers folk music film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which had a character modeled after Paxton?

“I thought it was a terrific movie,” said Paxton. “They made it like it was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, yet Llewyn Davis was nothing like Dave Van Ronk, but he was a fascinating fictitious character, one of those geniuses who was so good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Sure I had my quibbles, as Dave’s first wife pointed out, the notion of an abortion clinic in 1961 in the Village is ludicrous. And as for the guy who was supposedly me, I would have drunk paint from a can before I’d wear my [Army] uniform in the Village. The more serious quibble is nobody was laughing, and we laughed all the time. Everything was funny to us. But those are quibbles, I thought the movie was an excellent, excellent movie.”

Tom Paxton has written folk songs of every genre that have spanned five decades, and he continues to, mainly because, well, he’s darn good at it, and just as important, loves every minute of it.

“I don’t know what inspired me to write the first song. But every song since then I’ve written because I found I could write. When I found I could do something, I was like a dog on a bone, I was like, alright I finally found something I can do and this is it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2015 by midliferocker

Mary Gauthier and Allison Moorer_2

By Steve Houk

It’s hard to believe a concert that addresses squirmy topics like homelessness, autism, divorce, alcoholism, suicide and other human struggles could be considered revelatory, elating and ultimately positive for both musician and listener.

But you put Mary Gauthier and Allison Moorer on a stage together, and well, that’s exactly what you get. The “Really Depressed Tour” was what I think Gauthier jokingly referred to it as, saying at the show’s outset amidst laughs from both the musicians and the packed crowd,”If you came here to feel better, you came to the wrong place.” But, by show’s end, somehow, some way, we felt a helluva lot better.

On the first date of their short co-headlining stint, two of Americana/folk/country music’s most open and emotional songwriters laid it all out there on the stage and then some, as will most likely be the norm throughout their heralded run. And what they seemed to do for both themselves and their audience was both unusual and miraculous. As they alternated between their own songs on a sparse stage at Jammin Java in Vienna VA, they keenly and clearly illustrated the power of music as a healing force, not only for themselves, but also for their audience.

Allison Moorer (L) and Mary Gauthier at Jammin Java 3-19-15

Allison Moorer (L) and Mary Gauthier at Jammin Java 3-19-15

Both Gauthier and Moorer have had their share of hard times over the years, I mean really hard times, and that’s what has drawn them to one another and kept them close. And it was plain to see that the cathartically powerful nature of their songwriting has been a warm and supporting hand for each of them as they have dealt with their demons and bigtime challenges. But their music also provides us, the consumers of their music, with a method by which we hear how others express their emotions about some damn hard things, and then helps us get some context and often even some comfort in dealing with those things ourselves. It’s a rare gift, and both of these amazing women have it in spades.


Moorer, 42, has been at her craft about as long as Gauthier, 53, has, even though she’s 11 years younger. Music has been her passion from early on, and her exceptional songwriting and vocal skills have provided her with a solid and substantive if not superstar career. Nominated for an Oscar for best song when she was 26 (“A Soft Place To Fall” from The Horse Whisperer), the clearly weathered but still stunningly beautiful Moorer has endured childhood trauma beyond measure that surely fueled her emotional palette early on, as well as that of her sister, revered singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne. But more recently, a second divorce (this one from Americana legend Steve Earle) and a devastating diagnosis of autism for her five year-old son John Henry have been the catalysts for her own musical exegisis.

And Moorer brought those struggles stunningly to the stage last night, most notably when delivering a heartwrenching rendition of “Mama Let The Wolf In” off her stunning new record Down To Believin’, which describes both her agony and protective instincts surrounding her son’s autism diagnosis. To intro the song, she described in detail the moment the doctor told her what she and her son would be facing, largely alone, which made the song spill out of her and into our laps in all its excruciating glory. She also piercingly and poignantly addressed her recent divorce from Earle with the new album’s title track, a beautiful tune made even more so with an acoustic delivery. It’s a song where you can just taste her sorrow at the end of a marriage, yet with the possibility of her own personal salvation still hanging in the air. And we’ve all been there, so yes, we can feel her pain while doing some healing of our own at the same time. On a less harrowing but no less emotional level, she played a gorgeous version of “Blood”, an ode to her sister off the new record that she has been quoted as describing as “about loving someone unconditionally, and always having your arms open to them no matter what.” Given what the two sisters have been through, it’s more exceptional than ever that they have been able to so eloquently convey their emotions for so long while also keeping it together.


Gauthier also deals searingly and passionately with pain, suffering and redemption with her quite different, gloriously deep and powerful storytelling, and tonight was no exception. Her style and demeanor is androgynistic and direct yet also beautifully caring and compassionate, with her lilting Louisiana drawl accompanied by poetic and descriptive lyrics. Her latest record Trouble and Love addresses a painful breakup with a partner on nearly every song, and on this night she played three, first it was “False Or True” with the opening words, “Jagged edges/broken parts/where you end/and where I start.” Later, she returned to the ache of moving on without a love on “Another Train”: “I’m moving on through the pain, through the pain, waiting on another train, another train.” The hurt resonated further as she goes on by herself on “How You Learn To Live Alone”, a song covered on an upcoming episode of ABC’s Nashville. “It don’t feel right, but it’s not wrong/It’s just hard to start again this far along/Brick by brick, the letting go, as you walk away from everything you know.”

Gauthier has the innate and rare ability to take pain and her own healing and convey it onto her audience, so they can feel her pain and yes, perhaps heal as well. She also rolled one of her most powerful story songs, “The Last of the Hobo Kings” which makes you think about the pain of others and that one can find true glory out of the dregs. Makes you think. Again.

The pair ended the evening with Gauthier’s tender yet bracing “Mercy Now” which asks for mercy for a swath of characters in the songwriter’s life. Her father, brother, church and country and are pleaded for, but in the spirit of the open arms of healing and salvation that pervades both artists’ work, the song concludes with this oh-so inclusive verse: “We all could use a little mercy now/I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow/We hang in the balance, dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground/And every single one of us could use some mercy now.”

Thanks to the brilliant music of Mary Gauthier and Allison Moorer, we had an arm around us tonight, telling us, “Hey guys, it’s gonna be alright, I mean, look at US, we’re still standing.”


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