Month: April 2020

Saturday Soundtrack: Teddy Wilson

For the final Saturday Music post of April, I’m going to recognize Jazz Appreciation Month by highlighting my father’s favorite jazz musician: the elegant pianist Teddy Wilson. Wilson was born in 1912 in Austin, Texas, but moved at age six with his parents to the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His father was the head of the English Department while his mother later became the school’s head librarian. Wilson began his musical instruction at Tuskegee, where he studied not only the piano, but also violin, oboe, and clarinet. Around 1930, when playing music in Toledo, Ohio, Wilson met the great Art Tatum and the two played together often during that period. Wilson eventually moved to New York City, with the encouragement of jazz supporter John Hammond, and went on to join Benny Goodman‘s band. It was with Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa that Wilson became the first African American to play in a racially mixed, high profile musical group in the United States. Wilson performed with Goodman, off and on, for many years, including for …

Saturday Soundtrack: Sara Watkins

This Saturday I’m wrapping up my feature on the three members of the roots music trio I’m With Her, with this look at the gifted fiddler, singer, and songwriter Sara Watkins. Watkins is probably the best known of the trio’s members, due to her status as a founder and fiddler with the Grammy-award-winning and highly influential progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek, where she debuted in 1989 along with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. Since 2007, when the band took an indefinite hiatus (broken by 2014’s 25th reunion tour), Watkins has played both solo gigs and in a variety of groups including, of course, I’m With Her. In addition to singing and playing fiddle, she also plays ukulele and guitar, and played percussion while touring with The Decemberists. With her brother Sean, Sara has also hosted the Watkins Family Hour, which has been described as an “oasis from the rigors of the road, a laboratory where they can try out new material, or master beloved cover songs.” The monthly show is held at the Largo …

John Prine

Remembering John Prine

There is no better way to honor the memory of the late John Prine than to pull out an acoustic guitar, play his music, and tell stories about this American Oracle. It is certainly how many who knew John best have been remembering him over the past week. In recent days I’ve been looking through YouTube, print media, television, and blogs to sample the flood of tributes that his musical fans — famous and otherwise — have posted about the songwriter that many called our generation’s Mark Twain. What most of the tributes lack in technical excellence in this time of sheltering at home, they more than make up for in sincere love for the man and his music. The always inventive folks at the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series have pulled together one of the most satisfying remembrances, gathering six singers and songwriters to perform in a “tribute from home” to John Prine. It is among the most touching Tiny Desk concerts ever. Margo Price and husband Jeremy Ivey, begin — appropriately enough in …

Saturday Soundtrack: Holy Week

I was fortunate in my earlier life to sing Baroque and Renaissance music as part of the Shenandoah Valley group Canticum Novum. Custer LaRue, one of the eight-to-twelve singers depending on the gig, was definitely our ringer. I’ve seldom heard such a pure soprano voice. Along with a number of recordings and other highlights in her career, Custer was the “singing voice” of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Vanity Fair. (Custer also sang a solo at our twins’ baptismal service, accompanied by yours truly on guitar. While I doubt it made her musical resume, it was definitely a highlight of my musical career.) The other ringer was Carol Taylor. An award-winning choral director at McGill University, Carol fell in love with the sound of tracker organs and then fell in love with George Taylor, who happens to build world-class tracker organs (with his partner John Boody) in little Staunton, Virginia. I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to sing with Custer, and with Debbie Hunter, Lucy Ivey, Shari Shull, Kay Buchannan, Constance …

John Prine

I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry: R.I.P. John Prine

And now it claims John Prine. Damn. Anyone who ever cared about “a word, after a word, after a word” is grieving today. America lost one of its greatest songwriters to the coronavirus when John Prine died on April 7th at age 73. When I wrote about Prine and his music just a little over three weeks ago, on March 14th — before the world learned he was suffering from the symptoms of COVID-19 — I said it was a good time to recall the work of the man who wrote the classic line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” Now that he’s gone, we’ll have to be content with what is an amazing body of work by any definition. The origin story could come from a classic Prine song. He was a postman who wrote during his breaks. On a dare from friends (and under the influence of a few beers) he stepped up to an open mic and sang Sam Stone, Hello in There, and Paradise, three …

Saturday Soundtrack: Aoife O’Donovan

This Saturday I’m featuring the second of the three members of the roots music trio I’m With Her, the gifted singer and songwriter Aoife O’Donovan. A native of Newton, Massachusetts, O’Donovan grew up spending her summers in Ireland and singing songs with her extended family. She studied contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory of Music, and joined together with another classmate, plus two Berklee College of Music alums, to form the alternative-bluegrass band Crooked Still. That band, and their impressive debut album Hop High, was where I was introduced to O’Donovan.* Fiddler Brittany Haas (sister of Saturday Music musician Natalie Haas) and cellist Tristan Clarridge joined the band in 2008. Their version of When First Unto This Country is a lively tune representative of O’Donovan’s work during this period. The band is now on hiatus as the members pursue other projects. Many people know O’Donovan through her song Lay My Burden Down, which Alison Krauss included on her Paper Airplane album. For several years, the soulful O’Donovan tune Oh Mama, from her debut solo album Fossils and heard in this live version from …