All posts filed under: Bluegrass Music

I grew up with Flatt & Scruggs and WSM’s Martha White show on the radio every morning, but truly went down the rabbit hole the first time I placed the needle on side 1 / track 1 of the “Circle” album

Saturday Music: 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 Music: Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson is the hard-to-classify, but always intriguing singer and songwriter who sounds like Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard (take your choice, as both were great singers); writes about topics not often heard on contemporary country radio; has outspoken progressive politics sure to rub many country music fans the wrong way; and who has a gift for surprise…as you’ll find at the end of this post. (Bluegrass fans who can’t wait should just jump there first!) A native of Kentucky, the son of a secretary and a Kentucky State Trooper, Simpson is the first male on his mother’s side of the family to not work in a strip mine or deep mine. Nonetheless, that blue collar, hard working sensibility comes through with every song he writes and every note he sings. He is a Navy veteran who speaks up in his songs and in interviews about the dangers of the military industrial complex. In a famous Facebook Live post outside the 2017 Country Music Association awards show, Simpson said, “Nobody needs a machine gun. Coming …

Saturday Music: The Old Songs

I’ve found myself drawn to several musical performances online this week during our troubled times. Most are covers — where musicians perform works by other musicians — and while the date of the originals range across centuries, most of the versions that have touched me were recently recorded. While some are instrumentals, knowing the lyrics to the songs has given me a context to hear the music in new ways. I want to share with you a few of my favorites from this music for troubled times. “We’re not doing my original songs,” Rhiannon Giddens says in her recent NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, before she and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, launch into an old spiritual, “’cause with these kinds of emotions, the old songs say it best.” The set list for the 20 minute mini-concert, filmed at Turrisi’s home in Ireland in late May, goes back to “the origins” as Giddens says, and includes Black As Crow, Spiritual, and the tune set Carolina Gals / Last Chance. While all are wonderful, the haunting vocals and …

Saturday Music: Quarantine Essentials

Eleven years ago I posted a short series on More to Come entitled Five Albums for a Desert Island. It was a way to expand on a Facebook challenge at the time to list your five favorite albums. And while the original posts sound slightly dated, they nonetheless stand up pretty well in describing five albums that have shaped my musical interests. I thought about these albums again in this time of global quarantine. If I had to choose only five albums to have on my live-stream for a long period of sheltering-in-place, how would these do? Well, I think I could more than live with these five…I’d still very much enjoy them! Yes, I would miss not having Nickel Creek‘s self-titled 2000 album to enjoy. (Click the link to read the recent NPR article about the album: “How Nickel Creek made Americana the new Indie Rock.”) And I love The Best of John Hiatt. Nonetheless, with the original five I would not only survive, but would thrive. I’ll encourage you to go back and read the …

Saturday Music: Hawktail

Hawktail — composed of fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie — plays some of the most beautiful, complex yet accessible music from the American contemporary acoustic music scene you’ll ever want to hear. After beginning life as a trio, this band’s first album, Unless, was released in 2018, and earlier this year their second offering, entitled Formations, hit the streets. Both are excellent, but in Formations the band really hits its stride. Kowert and Haas are probably the two best-known members of Hawktail, although Tice and Leslie more than carry their musical weight. Kowert is the bassist for The Punch Brothers (with mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher). A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Kowert has also played with David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) alum Mike Marshall and David Rawlings. Haas began touring with DGQ alum Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings at the age of fourteen and at seventeen released her debut, self-titled solo album. Haas continued to tour and record while simultaneously earning …

Saturday Music: 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 …

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 Music: 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 …

Saturday Music: Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz is one-third of the trio I’m With Her, which I featured in last week’s edition of Saturday Music. In addition to their work with the band, each of these very talented young women has a robust solo career. Saturday Music will focus on their music as individuals over the next three weeks, beginning with the gifted singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz. I began hearing Jarosz at venues such as the Red Wing Roots Music Festival when she was in her early twenties and already an established artist. The bio from her website captures Jarosz’s amazing rise from her teenage debut: “With her captivating voice and richly detailed songwriting, Sarah Jarosz has emerged as one of the most compelling musicians of her generation. A three-time Grammy Award-winner at the age of 28, the Texas native started singing as a young girl and became an accomplished multi-instrumentalist by her early teens. After releasing her full-length debut Song Up in Her Head at 18-years-old, she went on to deliver such critically lauded albums as Follow Me Down, Build Me …

Saturday Music: I’m With Her

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.” Those were the words of mandolinist Chris Thile at a Kennedy Center concert in 2016. He was describing I’m With Her, the Grammy-award winning roots music trio composed of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins. These three women bring together lyrical songwriting, sterling instrumental chops, and ethereal harmonies to make beautiful — some would say heavenly — music. The group of singer-songwriters came together in 2014 and have been steadily building a catalog of mesmerizing songs and a loyal following. Yes, that loyal fan base includes me, as they were also involved in my first and only case of celebrity stalking, but that’s another story. I first saw the group live in 2015. Having seen each of them with earlier bands and in solo appearances, I knew that they could forge a distinct and memorable musical partnership. I was not disappointed. There’s so much to highlight here. Nina Simone’s acapella Be My Husband was one of the first songs of …