All posts tagged: Roots Music

Saturday Soundtrack: Leyla McCalla

New York-born Haitian-American multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is the fifth and final featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then celebrated throughout February the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed by Dom Flemons, Otis Taylor, and last week’s artist, Keb’ Mo’. McCalla grew up in the cultural mix of New York City but relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years while a teenager. She returned to the States to study cello performance and chamber music at NYU. Taking that knowledge—and “armed with Bach’s Cello Suites”—she left to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. There she sang in French, Haitian Creole, and English, and played cello, tenor banjo and guitar. McCalla spent two years and gained greater fame as cellist of the Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, alongside bandmates Giddens and Flemons. She …

Saturday Soundtrack: Keb’ Mo’

Keb’ Mo’ has been playing traditional blues and roots music for more than three decades. So he seemed a natural to be included in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest the last three weeks; first with a celebration of the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed by Dom Flemons and then Otis Taylor. Kevin Roosevelt Moore (rechristened Keb’ Mo’ around 1994) has been at the work of reclaiming disappeared African American musical contributions for his entire career. His inaugural album included two Robert Johnson covers and he has a well-earned reputation for his mastery of multiple blues styles. But it is his ability to combine traditional approaches with a contemporary attitude, while working with a wide variety of artists, that generates such enthusiasm for his work. Keb’ Mo’ is more than just a highly skilled retro act. As Nashville …

Saturday Soundtrack: Otis Taylor

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor is the next featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest the last two weeks; first with a celebration of the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed last week by Dom Flemons. Otis Taylor was born in Chicago but moved to Denver early in life with his family. Taylor’s parents were jazz music fans. “My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people,” notes Taylor, while his mother “had a penchant for Etta James and Pat Boone.” Their house in Colorado was near the Denver Folklore Center, where he bought his first instrument, a banjo. During a NPR Music Tiny Desk concert, Taylor tells how he broke a string on his mother’s ukulele and went to the Center to get it fixed. While there, he became entranced …

Saturday Soundtrack: Dom Flemons

Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical historian Dom Flemons is the next featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series a little early with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest last week with a celebration of Rhiannon Giddens. This week we’ll look at “The American Songster,” a name Flemons has earned with a repertoire that covers over 100 years of American folklore, ballads, and tunes. Along with Giddens and fiddle player Justin Robinson, Flemons was one of the co-founders of the influential African American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing with the group from 2005 until 2014 when he left to begin a solo career. He has performed at a wide variety of venues with a range of collaborators, including English folk legend Martin Simpson and Old Crow Medicine Show. (He has a cameo in the latter’s hilarious official video for their song Brushy …

Saturday Soundtrack: Rhiannon Giddens

Black History Month is the perfect time to use the five Saturdays in February 2020 to highlight five different musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I was so excited about this project that, naturally, I jumped the gun with this special themed edition of  Saturday Music posts. Providing readers with a taste of what was to come, I celebrated the music of Amythyst Kiah—the self-described “Southern Gothic” singer of “alt-country blues”—at the beginning of the year. So let’s officially begin this project with the founder of the band Our Native Daughters, one of Kiah’s collaborators, and the woman who has one of the most visible roles in leading, in Rolling Stone’s words, the “movement of 21st-century singers, artists, songwriters and instrumentalists of color who have been reclaiming the racially heterogeneous lineages of folk, country and American roots music.” That musician, Rhiannon Giddens, is a force of nature, and one of the best things to happen, not just to African American roots music, but …

Saturday Soundtrack: Amythyst Kiah

Amythyst Kiah has burst on the roots music scene in recent years with her powerful vocals and insightful songwriting. The native Tennessean is a self-described “Southern Gothic” singer of “alt-country blues” who has been receiving rave reviews and is nominated for a 2020 Grammy in the Best American Roots Song category for her spell-binding “Black Myself.” Our Native Daughters is the name of Kiah’s recent collaboration with 2017 MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell (from Birds of Chicago). Early last year the supergroup delivered a full-length album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, produced by Giddens and Dirk Powell. “Polly Ann’s Hammer” is a Kiah/Allison Russell song that reimagines the old John Henry tune from the point of view of his wife, and it certainly is one of the album’s standouts. “Black Myself,” the opening track, grabs the listener right from the beginning and is described by NPR as “the simmering defiance of self-respect in the face of racism.” In the liner notes to the album, Kiah writes about “Black Myself” in saying, …

Saturday Soundtrack: Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas

Last Monday evening, Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas brought their extraordinary musical partnership to Washington for a large and appreciative crowd at the Institute of Musical Traditions. This is the 20th year Fraser and Haas have played together, and the anniversary gave the duo the excuse to return to their back catalog. And it is a masterful body of work, beginning with the album where I first heard them—their inaugural CD Fire & Grace, a project that turned heads worldwide with its exquisite musicianship and clear sense of joy. Steeped in different backgrounds— Alasdair from the roots world of Scottish fiddle and Natalie from the classical halls of Julliard—these amazing musicians responded to each other and to each intricate twist and turn of the music for a delightful two hours. It was art as a life-giving force. And they clearly had fun, recognizing the unique nature of the evening’s setting when they played the “appropriate for Washington” reel Little Donald in the Pigpen. Haas’s percussive use of the cello underpinned the magnificent …

Macon musical history

Not my average radio interview

Folks in Macon, Georgia, take their musical roots seriously.  (Think Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, Little Richard.)  So on Friday morning when I was booked for an interview on WNEX, The Creek — a new Macon radio station featuring Southern roots music and local issues — I assumed it would be different from the local NPR stations where I normally find myself talking about preservation. I was right.  And (with the possible exception of my time on the Honolulu public radio station), it turned out to be much more fun than my average NPR radio interview! We were in town to launch our National Treasures campaign for the Ocmulgee National Monument.  Lands affiliated with the Ocmulgee National Monument have been home to Native Americans for more than 17,000 years.  However, over recent decades the places with ties to the site have been threatened by urban sprawl, the subdivision of forested tracts, and ownership fragmentation. The National Trust and our partners are seeking to re-designate the monument as a historical park, expand the current boundaries, and …

Favorite roots music albums of 2015

I’m not going to pretend that this is a “best of” list for roots music in 2015.  With so many things thrown on my plate this year, I  haven’t had the time to sample as widely as I would like.  (Come to think of it, the last time I felt comfortable enough to publish a “best of list” was 2013!) But I’m very comfortable with a favorites list that just says, “Hey, I like these and I hope you will too.” So with that caveat, let’s see what’s made the cut. The Steeldrivers:  The Muscle Shoals Recordings – I’ve loved this Nashville-based bluegrass band for years, even as they have moved through personnel changes that included their lead singer and main songwriter.  (More on that later.)  The Muscle Shoals Recordings is really the first album where Gary Nichols stepped out on his own as the lead voice for The Steeldrivers – no longer in Chris Stapelton’s shadow. Singer-songwriter Peter Cooper describes it this way: “Right there, at two minutes and ten seconds into the first …

Follow Your Passions

On the Friday following Thanksgiving, we decided to spend the day in Los Angeles.  We were on the west coast to holiday with our daughter Claire. Candice, Andrew, and I had flown cross country so we could be together. The Los Angeles portion of the trip was one of those decisions made after discussing options that would appeal to the entire family.  In the end, we toured a place that had something for everyone…but the family was kind enough to also allow me to indulge in a bit of roots music fantasy along the way. The Getty Center was the place on everyone’s list. I was the only one of the four who had previously visited Richard Meier’s masterpiece of modern architecture set in the hills above LA, but we had enthusiasm on all fronts.  Claire wanted to see the buildings and gardens, and instantly found the photographic exhibit on display as well. Andrew and Candice wanted to wander the campus and soak in Meier’s vision. I was eager to savor the passions everyone brought …