All posts filed under: Acoustic Music

Few things are better than the sound of acoustic instruments

Steel Wheels 2015

Saturday Soundtrack: The Steel Wheels

I first became aware of The Steel Wheels somewhere around 2008. I had picked up a CD of the Shenandoah Valley-based band on one of our Thanksgiving trips to Staunton and was introduced to and intrigued by the unique voice and careful songcraft of lead singer and songwriter Trent Wagler. But it was at Merlefest in 2012 that the band pushed their way into the front part of my brain, and, I suspect, the brains of thousands of other music fans as well. After one of the main acts wrapped up their show, as I wrote at the time, a number of attendees were exiting the main stage area on the first night of the festival. Suddenly, The Steel Wheels began singing their powerful Rain in the Valley on a small side stage. And like bees flowing to honey, those leaving stopped, turned around, and were glued to their seats through a spirited 30-minute set. As expected, later TSW shows throughout the weekend were packed, as word spread fast. And just like that, they quickly …

Recovered songs, recovered stories

Folk songs often bring us to the intersection of place, history, and memory. In certain cases, digging into those songs gives us a chance to recover the true stories, long-hidden, from our past, bringing a reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining for our collective future. Recently, The Bitter Southerner posted a thoughtful article which examines how the popular folk tune Swannanoa Tunnel was taken from the wrongfully convicted black community in Western North Carolina. Forced to build the railroad tunnel as convict labor during the Jim Crow era, those convicts originally wrote the tune in the “hammer song” tradition of John Henry. Somebody Died, Babe: A Musical Cover-up of Racism, Violence, and Greed shows how the song was reshaped and romanticized into an English-based folk tune in the 1920s – 1960s to appeal to white audiences. As the site notes, “Beneath the popular folk song…and beneath the railroad tracks that run through Western North Carolina, is a story of blood, greed, and obfuscation. As our nation reckons with systematic racial violence, …

Saturday Soundtrack: Mark O’Connor

The 15th anniversary issue of Fretboard Journal* landed in my mailbox this week, just in time to reacquaint me with an old friend: Mark O’Connor. It was a welcome reunion. First, because I discovered that O’Connor — one of the most inventive string musicians of this era — has returned to playing guitar, after a twenty year break that was required by the pain of bursitis and tendonitis. Then I also found his Improvising Toward Democracy solo fiddle pieces on the internet. As he tell his listeners, “I am recording an improvisation on my violin each day, until our country is safe from the clutches of Trumpism, Cultism, Conspiratorialism, Racism and Authoritarianism. I will record a new violin improvisation each day as a form of a sincere musical prayer until Biden/Harris are voted in to the White House ensuring that Americans will retain our hard-fought democracy. I have been given a musical gift, so I will use this in service to my country and our Republic each day now. When I improvise in this manner …

Saturday Soundtrack: Matt Flinner

Matt Flinner is the top-shelf mandolinist and composer not enough people know. At least not in the way that music fans know that force of nature Chris Thile, or the Energizer Bunny clone Sam Bush, or the genre-bending trail-blazer David Grisman. But musicians have long been aware of this quiet master, who, in the words of the Associated Press, “blurs the lines between jazz and bluegrass, traditional and avant-garde” with the best of them. Flinner’s website bio showcases just how in-demand he is as a musician. “Multi-instrumentalist Matt Flinner has made a career out of playing acoustic music in new ways. Starting out as a banjo prodigy who was playing bluegrass festivals before he entered his teens, Flinner later took up the mandolin, won the National Banjo Contest at Winfield Kansas in 1990, and took the mandolin award there the following year. Since then, he has become recognized as one of the premiere mandolinists as well as one of the finest new acoustic/roots music composers today. He has toured and recorded with a wide variety …

Saturday Soundtrack: Mandolin Orange

I first heard the North Carolina folk duo Mandolin Orange at the 2014 Red Wing Roots Music Festival and was instantly smitten. I wrote then that singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz “crafted songs that were  simple yet compelling.” Over the years the band has continued to produce warm, intimate music even as they became more widely known and played larger venues such as Red Rocks in Colorado and The Ryman in Nashville. Their most recent studio project, Tides of a Teardrop, debuted at #1 on four different Billboard charts ( Heatseekers, Folk / Americana, Current Country Albums and Bluegrass) with Top 10 entries on 5 additional charts. Clearly, Mandolin Orange has a passionate following. When asked about the band’s unusual name, Emily told an interviewer in 2015, “It’s basically a play on Mandarin Orange, but when we first started playing, Andrew had this little beater, a mandolin that was orange, and I think one day we just sort of thought of that and it stuck.” Let’s begin our look at their music from those earlier years with the …

Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Saturday Soundtrack: The acoustic side of Chris Stapleton

Readers who follow country music know the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Chris Stapleton. But I enjoy seeing those from other genres hearing his “brown liquor” voice for the first time and recognizing both a unique talent and a kindred spirit with whatever type of music they love.* Born into a Kentucky coal-mining family, Stapleton absorbed a variety of musical influences growing up, including from the incomparable Aretha Franklin who he described as “the greatest singer that ever lived.” That tells you right from the beginning that his tastes are excellent and his standards high. Stapleton toiled in the Nashville song-writing business for more than a decade while also fronting one of my favorite bluegrass bands, The SteelDrivers, from 2007 to 2010. In 2015 he broke through as a solo performer with the award-winning album Traveller, was featured at the 2015 CMA Awards show in a breakout live performance with Justin Timberlake, and hasn’t looked back. Stapleton’s voice is a treasure, but his songwriting and guitar playing are also top notch. In this edition of the …

Saturday Soundtrack: Duets

I love a good country or folk duet, so when several came up yesterday on my Pandora station, I just assumed that it was a Saturday Soundtrack sign from God…and I decided to listen to her. Living in Tennessee in the 1960s and 70s, it was easy to hear some of the classic country duet acts on the radio and see them on Nashville’s numerous country music television shows. George and Tammy singing Golden Ring was perfect, because it was a song that matched their tumultuous relationship. Dolly and Porter were big during those years, before Dolly left the partnership some forty-six years ago to become a force of nature all on her own. And of course, at the top of the heap was that duet of country royalty, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. So let’s dive in, beginning with the Johnny Cash tune I Still Miss Someone which I’ve always enjoyed. It is a classic “I’m lonely and miss you” song that Emmylou Harris has recorded in both solo and duet versions. Emmylou …

Saturday Soundtrack: Songs for social distancing

I was listening to Oscar Peterson recently when he began the familiar Duke Ellington tune Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. I quipped, “Well, that could be my theme song for sheltering-in-place.” Here we are, still pretty much stuck in our own bubbles for the foreseeable future, and not getting around much at all. While musing on our situation, the thought came to me that it could be fun — or at least distracting — to have a look here on Saturday Music at this testimonial to social distancing. We’ll begin our exploration of this beautiful “I miss you” song with the version that put me on this quest — the Oscar Peterson arrangement, which I believe features Peterson on piano, the incomparable Ray Brown on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums.* Then we’ll turn to Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald — jazz royalty — for their take on the standard. This out-of-focus clip is from the NBC telecast the Ella Fitzgerald Show, from April 1968. According to some online commentators, in the same show they …

Saturday Soundtrack: Billy Strings

Billy Strings was born William Apostol on October 3, 1992, and grew up listening to his stepfather’s bluegrass music as well as the more broadly popular rock and metal genres. As he started playing music, all those influences come tumbling out of his guitar in ways surprising and often refreshing. His aunt gave him the moniker Billy Strings after recognizing his talent as a multi-instrumentalist. I’d say she hit the nail on the head. In 2016’s Meet Me At the Creek, Strings and his band head off on an extended jam that sounds like bluegrass meeting indie rock. One of the funniest online comments (apropos of nothing) makes the observation: “Forest Gump 3 months into his run on the upright bass…” but the music is great. With this 2017 version of Turmoil and Tinfoil, Strings and his band head off down a path of bluegrass metal music. Two of the best next generation bluegrass guitar players — Strings and Molly Tuttle — play the old chestnut Sittin’ On Top of the World at the 2019 …

Saturday Soundtrack: This Land is Your Land

Happy July 4th! In the spirit of the day, let’s celebrate the Woody Guthrie 1940 classic This Land is Your Land. Many of us believe, for a variety of reasons, that it should be the national anthem. No less an authority than Bruce Springsteen has said, it is “one of the most beautiful songs ever written about America.” Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land during the Great Depression in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. There’s a wonderful book by John Shaw entitled This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems. As Shaw describes it, Guthrie was hitchhiking his way to New York City when he became upset over hearing the Kate Smith version of Berlin’s song over and over again during the trip. Guthrie sat down and wrote a song in anger, but his revisions over time turned it into one of the most shared and beloved songs in our nation’s history. Here’s the unvarnished recording from Woody, with the bonus of a picture …