Archive for profiles

amanda shires embraces home

amanda shires. photo by josh wool.

amanda shires. photo by josh wool.

When Amanda Shires played a June 2015 performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts, she was in the company of three individuals who, to put it mildly, figure prominently in her personal and professional lives.

The first was her husband, Jason Isbell. That night, the immensely popular Americana songsmith was an unannounced guest but served strictly as Shires’ lone accompanist, a placement she had to re-iterate when an eager audience member shouted out to hear “Cover Me Up,” one Isbell’s more popular tunes. “If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires replied. “In Chicago.”

The second was the evening’s headliner, John Prine. As a folk elder with a massive fan following that includes Shires and Isbell, Prine likes camaraderie. He invited Shires back to the stage during his set to sing “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title tune to a 1999 album of duets with female artists. Prine just released a sequel of sorts, “For Better, or Worse,” and enlisted Shires again to sing on “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music,” a barroom swing staple that, curiously, was never designed to be a duet.

Finally, there was her daughter Mercy Rose Isbell, who may have been in the house but had yet to make a formal entrance. Shires was still pregnant with her at the time. In fact, the Singletary show would be among her last before taking a sabbatical from the road to become a mom. It was during the interim period at home – along with the changes, thrills and worries that come with adding “parent” to one’s job description – that songs began to brew for her new “My Piece of Land” album.

“I was about 33 weeks pregnant and started having to go to more doctors’ appointments,” said Shires, who performs Saturday at The Burl. “Being on the road wasn’t the safest or healthiest thing to do in the late part of pregnancy, so I took some time off and stayed at home. While I was there, Jason was still touring, so I did all the things that kind of go along with the hormones and the pregnancy. I did so much cleaning and nesting, as they call it – everything from cleaning out the drawers to hanging up art in the garage, because the baby needs to see that when she comes home.

“I finished everything I could think of to do. I was left to face myself and face the real situation of bringing a child into the world with all the hopes and anticipation and, at the same time, all of the doubt and wondering about what kind of childhood she would have. All of a sudden, I started thinking about home and what that meant to me. Through that, I discovered, for me, how home isn’t at all my address. For me, home is with my friends and family. It doesn’t have to be defined by the four walls that I live in. While those walls are nice and I love them and I love to be at home, for me it’s about being together, sharing things together and making awesome memories together.”

That sentiment soars to the forefront on the closing tune to “My Piece of Land,” an atmospheric meditation called “You Are My Home,” a song of both solace and longing that moves along with slow, fervent solemnity. Then, roughly half way through, Shires picks up her favored musical weapon of choices, the violin, and tears into a solo that matches the jagged, electric intensity Isbell offers alongside her on guitar.

Unlike Shires’ last show here, Isbell’s presence will be his absence this weekend. He will be at home tending to parental duties while Shires digs into a three week tour that marks her longest time away from her daughter.

“I’m lucky to have Jason, who is just the ideal co-parent. But, honestly, I feel today a little bit like I’ve shot myself in the foot because I didn’t know what my limits would be in how long I could go without seeing Mercy. To be gone about 21 days without seeing her – that is a lot, and I’m just now internalizing that. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. I’m just pretty much praying I can get through it and set my limits and boundaries a little better next time. I’m not trying to go down a dark road or anything. She’s going to be fine, but she can’t ride in a van for a million hours a day. It’s barely bearable for adults, but it’s for the end goal. I want to work as hard as I can now so I can set her up better for the future.

“But, really, everything is going wonderfully. I feel super lucky and grateful that I get to do this for my job. I mean, I’m really a crappy waitress.”

Amanda Shires and Lilly Hiatt performs at 9 p.m. Oct. 15 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $15, $18. Call 859-447-8166 or go to

a magic hour with aoife o’donovan

aoife o'donovan.

aoife o’donovan.

This time last fall, Aoife O’Donovan already had a pretty good idea of how 2016 would play out. She would release her second solo album, “In the Magic Hour,” in January. The rest of the year would be spent touring, promoting and, eventually, reinventing the record.

First up was the winter release of “In the Magic Hour,” a record that retraced the childhood remembrances of the Massachusetts born and New England Conservatory of Music schooled songstress. Much of the inspiration came from the summers she spent in Ireland, often with her grandfather, who had recently passed away at the age of 93. While O’Donovan’s initial music with the Boston band Crooked Still borrowed heavily from American folk and bluegrass, “In the Magic Hour” also incorporated the inherent influences of her family’s Irish heritage.

“My father is from Ireland and is a great lover of Irish art and of literature. There are even references on my record to a children’s book that was one of my dad’s favorites, an old Irish children’s book called ‘The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.’

“I think the culture in Ireland, the culture of family, of music, of people getting together and singing – that was such a huge part of how I grew up, of my musical personality. It’s the community and camaraderie you get from playing music. I think putting that into original songs, into a singer-songwriter mold, kind of becomes its own thing. It can feel really trite if you’re not careful, so I really try to access some deeper emotions that other people can relate to in that way.”

With “In the Magic Hour” done, O’Donovan began plotting out a subsequent tour that would reposition the performance spotlight on her own music. Throughout her young career, O’Donovan has been a high profile collaborator with such disparate artists and acts as The Goat Rodeo Sessions (the genre-busting string group with Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile), I’m With Her (an all-star trio featuring Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins), Garrison Keillor and, in what she called “my most favorite project,” jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. But for her 2016 tour, O’Donovan wanted a sound altogether different yet still her own, so she enlisted guitarist/bassist/vocalist Anthony da Costa and drummer Steve Nistor and hit the road as a trio.

“I really wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and just play with some new people, if for no other reason than to just change things up. So I called Steve and asked if we wanted to do this tour with me. But I also wanted to really strip the music down and just have a trio. Then I ended up running into Anthony at a festival in Arkansas. I asked if wanted learn some stuff from my record to see if it worked for the stage. He showed up at my house a couple of weeks later having learned every single thing in my entire catalog – all the harmony parts, all the guitar parts.’ So that happened.

“We got together in December, made our TV debut on “CBS This Morning (Saturday)” after, like, one day of rehearsal and then went on tour. There was kind of an immediate musical history and it’s only improved. These guys have become such close friends of mine.”

The chemistry clicked so rapidly that O’Donovan has already released a concert album of from the tour titled “Man In A Neon Coat: Live From Cambridge.” Placing her in front of what was essentially a hometown audience, O’Donovan retooled the atmospheric Americana and folk from “In the Magic Hour” and her 2013 solo debut album “Fossils” along with covers of Emmylou Harris’ famed Gram Parsons eulogy “Boulder to Birmingham” and Joni Mitchell’s 1972 hit “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” to fit the lean but spacious sound of her trio.

“I was so impressed with how this trio was working to recreate the songs from the albums in a very different, new way, especially with Anthony’s singing and guitar playing, that I decided I wanted to make a live album. We recorded at the Sinclair in Cambridge because I grew up in the Boston area. I knew it would be a packed show with really great energy in a really great room. Then I called up Dave Sinko, who is an incredible engineer. For anybody who has seen a Punch Brothers show, he’s the guy who makes it sound great. He’s the best sound engineer ever. He flew up to meet us at the show, brought his recording rig and that was that. It could not have worked out better.”

Aoife O’Donovan and Willie Watson perform at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 13 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $38, $49. Call 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692 or go to

bela fleck and chris thile dig into ‘big talk’

bela fleck and chris thile. photo by devin pedde.

bela fleck and chris thile. photo by devin pedde.

Among the inviting aspects to the numerous musical duos Bela Fleck has engaged in over the years has been the balance of play and challenge. He could be duking it out on banjo with jazz piano giant Chick Corea, longtime bassist pal Edgar Meyer, banjo mentor Tony Trischka or, in his most favored setting of recent years, banjoist wife Abigail Washburn. The results, though stylistically different in each configuration, have always led to music as rich in its sense of play as it is in stylistic innovation.

For one-time Lexingtonian Fleck, though, there is something else he looks for, an attribute he found in his newest duo with mandolin maverick, Punch Brothers founder and soon-to-be Prairie Home Companion host Chris Thile.

“It was so long from when I became a professional before anyone younger than me could kick my ass,” Fleck, 58, said. “Chris was the first one to show up that was young, that I saw from a beginning musician who turned into a phenomenon, that was stronger than me in many areas. That is what makes me want to work with somebody, by the way. They have to be better than me at stuff.

“Chick has seen that with me. I was a big fan of his since I was a kid. I sent him a recording of my first album, which had ‘Spain’ on it, one of his tunes. I let him know I was a big fan, that he had helped shape me as a musician. At a certain point, we got together when I was in my 30s and did ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ (Fleck’s 1995 return to acoustic music after a string of progressively minded albums with his fusion band The Flecktones). He found a collaborator who knew his music inside out so much that it came out in my playing. That made it very easy us to play together, but it also inspired some new, fresh ideas. That is what Chris is doing for me.”

For Thile, one of the most heralded acoustic musicians of his generation, Fleck provides the same source of elder inspiration that Fleck received from Corea.

“As a musician, you are what you eat and I ate a whole lot of Bela Feck music,” said Thile, 35. “So that manifested itself as a component of my overall musical picture. Obviously that component is incredibly familiar to Bela, so as we play together I think we can cut straight to the chase in a way that maybe that two musicians are seldom able to.

“Bela has been one of my biggest heroes. Just his ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ record alone … I mean, he was a hero even before that. I was seven or eight years old when ‘Drive’ (Fleck’s acclaimed 1988 solo album) came out. That record was so big for me and so big for so many acoustic musicians. But when ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ came out, I wore it out. I learned every note. It had a profound impact on me as a musician, as has just about everything Bela has ever done. So this duo project is a true thrill.”

While the duo performances Fleck and Thile have undertaken represent a new project for both players, their alliance is an established one. Thile played on Fleck’s classically inclined 2001 album “Perpetual Motion” and guested on the 2003 Flecktones’ multi-disc opus “Little Worlds.” But the collaboration essentially began when the banjoist and several of his string music contemporaries (Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, among others) performed on Thile’s “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” a 2001 record that embraced the jazz-like innovations on bluegrass instrumentation that Fleck had helped pioneer decades earlier.

“It used to be I would see folks, like a bunch of people that loved Punch Brothers, that didn’t know where some of the roots of that music came from,” Fleck said. “That would bother me a little bit. But now I’m kind of thrilled. The idea that I could be part of a great American music like bluegrass that was growing, expanding and finding a way into the modern world is a wonderful thing.

“There have been times, especially times connected to when I lived in Lexington (during the late ‘70s) where I wasn’t sure what I was doing was such a great thing. There were things about the traditional side of bluegrass that were being lost and I felt some shame about that. I was one of those people on the edge of the music pushing it out into other areas, although that was my natural bend. I was just being truthful to myself. But then seeing people like Punch Brothers and all the wonderful new musicians coming around nowadays makes me feel like they’re still getting the essence of what the thing is about and how the music needs to move forward and thrive.”

Added Thile: “We speak a very similar dialect because Bela had such a strong impact on me. There is a lot of understanding. It’s like, ‘I hear you. I got you. I know exactly what you mean. Here, let me comment on that. Allow me to interject.’ It can be one of those easy, free flowing conversations like when you meet someone with whom you have a lot in common. The conversation just goes to a deep place really quickly because small talk isn’t necessary. It’s already understood.

“I think musicians work the same way. Oftentimes, there is a lot of musical small talk you’ve got to get through before you can get deep with someone. Because of the music Bela has made and its position in my life, we can dispense with the small talk. We get right into the big talk.”

Bela Fleck and Chris Thile perform at 7 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $55, $75. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to

southern musings from an american band

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

It began pretty much the way any Drive-By Truckers album did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley – the Georgia-born band’s frontmen, singers, guitarists and writers – composed a set of songs independently of each other, then discovered ahead of recording sessions how like minded their work was.

“I think ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (the troupe’s 2001 double disc opus that defined a rock ‘n’ roll vision almost defiantly removed from what had been considered Southern rock) was the only one that we actually had conversations about as far as what that album was going to be beforehand,” Cooley remarked. “Every time since then, I’m writing some stuff, Patterson is writing some stuff and we come together and wind up pretty much on the same wavelength without actually having had a conversation about it.

The Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album (due out Sept. 30) was no different in that sense. But what separated it from 10 preceding studio recordings was how pointedly it viewed the world outside of the South. If the band had ever created what could be called a topical record, “American Band” would claim the title.

“So much of what we have seen, not just in recent years, but over the last 20 or 30 years, the whole time we’ve been playing together, are these things that just keep happening and keep happening and nobody seems to be able to get a grip on just why or what a solution looks like. So we couldn’t help but comment on it and examine it from our own perspective and maybe try to carve out some vision of what a solution looks like, of what ‘better’ actually looks like. I don’t know if we found it or not. But it was more about trying to learn for ourselves than it was saying anything to anybody else.”

Hood’s song “What It Means” has already made selected rounds online with an easygoing musical stride but a volatile storyline torn from headlines of police killings across the country and the racial divisiveness uprooted in their wake. “We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.”

Cooley’s songs are not no less confrontational. On “Ramon Casiano,” the national view moves to immigration-fueled paranoia and militia groups that subsist on it. Unlike “What It Means,” the music on “Ramon Casiano” is all rocking, Neil Young-like guitar grit.

“I was examining what seemed to be a whole phenomenon with these right wing militia type guys,” Cooley said. “They seem to be obsessed with the Mexican border, and that’s not just a new thing. One Saturday morning, I turned on the TV and they’re doing a story on these guys who go down to the border and take all their guns and basically pretend to be patrolling the border because the government isn’t doing it.

“It seems every time you turn around, what everybody is afraid of is coming across the Mexican border – Ebola, ISIS, you name it. I found out about this militia group in Southern California in the early 1960s that claimed to have knowledge of Chinese troops amassing on the Mexican border. So there is a long, long history of people with that mentality.”

Hood and Cooley have never been shy when speaking their minds in song, just as the Truckers have long embraced a wide-open Southern view that differs altogether from the more conservative stance adopted by many country and rock artists of the region. It’s just that on “American Band,” the songs have stated the Truckers’ attitude in a succinct and often blunt manner.

“We always do this,” Cooley said. “This is not really new territory for us, but it’s the first time that it’s been this obvious. It’s the first time it’s been on the surface. But I could go back and almost go song by song and point out what some of the same political undercurrents were in all this music from our past. It just wasn’t right out there in plain view.

But what do the Truckers’ Southern fans (and, more exactly, non-fans) think of such a stance?

“Right now the only gauge you have to go on is what people are doing on social media,” Cooley replied. “I don’t do that. I’ve never even used Twitter or Facebook. I just stay away from it. Mainly, I don’t trust myself to not be overcome in a moment of passion with a little tequila behind it and make a fool out of myself.”

Drive-By Truckers perform at 8:40 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to

new voices from manchester orchestra

Robert McDowell (left) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Robert McDowell (left) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Andy Hull was looking forward to some down time. He had spent over a decade establishing Manchester Orchestra as a formidably intense indie rock presence that knew how to surprise an audience – like re-imagining the band’s unrelentingly angst ridden “Cope” album from spring 2014 as a lean, largely acoustic session (“sort of a skeletal, angelic twin brother,” as Hull called it) titled “Hope” that was released that fall. What was to follow was supposed to be a break.

Then Hull was contacted by Daniels – namely, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The team was familiar with Manchester Orchestra, having directed a video for the title tune from the latter’s 2011 album “Simple Math.” This time, Daniels wanted Hull to be part of its team by scoring the recent offbeat movie “Swiss Army Man.” But there was a catch. The duo didn’t want Hull to use conventional instrumentation. That immediately struck the song stylist as ample reason to take a break from his break.

“I was pretty thrilled at the challenge,” Hull said. “We were going to be on our fifth album, Manchester was. At a certain point, it can be tough to find inspiration and tough to find something new without really looking for it. So I saw this score as a way to totally expand my brain and the way I looked at music. It really felt like that. I mean, it ended up being like a school with the stuff we were learning.

“A really fascinating thing it taught me was how songs don’t have to traditional in structure in order to be moving or emotional. It was a little scary and overwhelming, but in the middle of all that we found inspiration that allowed us to keep pushing forward.”

What Hull and his longtime Manchester co-hort (and brother-in-law) Robert McDowell did was emphasize computerized treatments of Hull’s voice peppered by vocal help from “Swiss Army Man” stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. The result is a wildly ambient quilt that alternately recalls Brian Wilson, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno along with heavily reimagined stabs at “Cotton Eyed Joe” and the “Jurassic Park” theme.

“It’s so cool to be able to create in a totally different environment without any real instruments. It was mostly voices and effects creating a piece of work that, when it’s played by itself, is something I’m proud of and would put up with any record I’ve put out. It’s something I’m proud to have in my discography.

“Robert and I certainly had to re-learn how to talk to each other about our music. There were no longer chords or verses where we could say, ‘Go back to that.’ It was more like, ‘Go back to the ‘ba-ba-ba.’ We would get frustrated learning all that stuff. Ultimately, it really influenced us heading into our next Manchester record. It became like, ‘How far can we experiment with sound?’”

There sits the big question. Hull, McDowell and the rest of Manchester Orchestra will begin recording the band’s next album the day after its Lexington performance this weekend at the Moontower Music Festival. Have the adventures and innovations of “Swiss Army Man” influenced the way Hull will approach that new music?

“I can think of a big way it has. I don’t know if the next record will be of a certain temperament, but the soundtrack certainly struck an ambitious nerve. We want to make a really live record, something that we’ve never really sounded like before, and sort of dive deeper into the intent without having to be super, super loud.

“The soundtrack was a great advancement. It was like, ‘We can really convey the emotions we want to with just our voices.’ So certainly if we add instruments in the correct way, we can experiment and sort of open songs to put some soul into them.”

Even though the soundtrack is credited to Hull and McDowell, the former said the project has only served to strengthen the band spirit within the entire Manchester Orchestra lineup.

“We feel really excited. All the guys have been super supportive of all the soundtrack stuff, realizing this is best for everything with the band. But I know everyone is excited to start this album. We’re super confident in this material. We want to make something really, really great and we’re going to work really, really hard until we have the best possible record we can. That’s the goal for everyone involved.”

Manchester Orchestra performs at 10 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to

revitalizing the flatt and scruggs legacy

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Jeff White and Johnny Warren. Photo by Anthony Scarlati

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Jeff White and Johnny Warren. Photo by Anthony Scarlati

The Earls of Leicester initially intended on a short reign. Assembled by one of bluegrass music’s most respected journeymen, Jerry Douglas, the band was organized as a performing tribute to the string music tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Then Douglas was going to return to the other multitude of artistic commitments vying for his time.

“I thought we would put out a record, everybody would be amused and we would have gotten it out of our systems,” Douglas said. “It would be, ‘Okay. We’ve done it. We’ve done our part to re-educate the audience, our audience, to what Flatt & Scruggs meant to the genre. Then we’ll let it go.’ But it just caught fire. I mean, I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

To begin with, the Earls’ self-titled 2015 album won a Grammy Award, bringing Douglas’ total trophy count to 14 over a 32 year period. Eight have come from his ongoing role as dobroist for Alison Krauss and Union Station. But what Douglas experienced was a complete audience reawakening to the harmony singing and instrumental innovations of the Flatt & Scruggs band.

Several ties to those sounds within the Earls proved unavoidable. Earls fiddler Johnny Warren is the son of Paul Warren, who played fiddle with Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys for 15 years. Similarly, dobro innovator Josh Graves (also a key Flatt & Scruggs collaborator) was a major formative influence and longtime friend of Douglas. But the vintage inspirations went far beyond the musicians currently channeling them.

“Young kids come up to me and go, ‘We’ve never heard anything like this before. What is this?’ They don’t recognize it. They don’t hear that. Even Alison. Her start with this was J.D. Crowe and the New South, and I was in that band (during the group’s storied mid’70s residency in Lexington and the recording of its heralded, self-titled 1975 album). But Flatt & Scruggs was what I came up on.

“They kind of disappeared after that. I mean, I even got away from it just by following the path of becoming a musician and then having all these other influences come into my playing. I saw that sound leaving bluegrass music, too. That was really the reason for doing the Earls in the first place. Then everybody just loved it so much, there was such a demand for it, that there was no way we could stop. We’re still the only band out there doing just that. That’s all we do when we play. We do Flatt & Scruggs tunes as close to the way they did them as possible.”

The Earls’ newly released second album, “Rattle & Roar,” deepens the exploration into the Flatts & Scruggs catalog. While there are several chestnuts, like the Scruggs banjo classic “Flint Hill Special,” there are also obscurities, like Roy Acuff’s “Steel Guitar Blues” that became a major discovery for Douglas.

“Flatt & Scruggs never recorded it,” he said. “I got it off of a live show at the Ashgrove in Los Angeles. Josh played it out there – he encored with it, actually – and the crowd just went nuts. Then he had to play it again. It was like his ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ (the famed instrumental Scruggs wrote and cut with Bill Monroe in 1949). The first time Earl played on the (Grand Ole) Opry, he had to play that song five times. But ‘Steel Guitar Blues’ was one of those songs that they never recorded. It was something they had laying around, an extra arrow in their quiver. We just listened to it, copied it and recorded it. I took it on out a little farther than Josh did and embellished it a bit. We do that. We embellish a little, but not enough to go out of character, really.

“For me, it is like an out of body experience to stand up there and hear what these guys do. I’ve had great, exhilarating moments with wonderful musicians, but this is something that goes way deep inside of me, to where I came from. To hear it manifest itself every night is so wonderful. There is no feeling like it.”

The Earls of Leicester perform at 6:45 p.m. July 25 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio. Tickets: $20. Call 859-280-2218 or go to

the duo purpose of colvin & earle

Colvin & Earle: Shawn Colvin (left) and Steve Earle. Photo by Alexandra Valenti.

Colvin & Earle: Steve Earle (left) and Shawn Colvin. Photo by Alexandra Valenti.

Pinpointing how Colvin & Earle became a formal artistic enterprise is tricky. The veteran songwriters have been admirers of each other’s music for decades, even to the point of Shawn Colvin recording a version of Steve Earle’s forlorn “Someday” on her “Cover Girl” album in 1994. But the comparatively recent decision to tour as a duo, which resulted in the June release of the aptly named “Colvin & Earle” album, was, as Colvin outlines, a two-fold process.

“It was my idea to put some shows together and do a little tour with Steve,” she said. “I was enjoying putting packages together where you would get together with an artist and no one would open or close. The show would be together. We would be together onstage the entire show, swapping songs, singing and playing on each other’s songs, telling stories and so on. It just sounded like something fun. Audiences really like that kind of thing, too. We would have kind of a package deal, two for the price of one.

“Then once we got into it, Steve felt that there was something really special going on and that we ought to make a record. So that was Steve’s idea, where it was my idea to pair us in the first place and do some concerts.”

To say “Colvin & Earle” is a collection of duets homogenizes what the two have intended. Duets, in today’s modern music context, usually translates into a cut-and-paste manner of recording with artists in different studios in different cities at different times. “Colvin & Earle” offers nine of its ten songs as full collaborations with both artists singing in unison throughout. Only one song, “The Way That We Do,” separates them within verses.

“We thought we could pull it off,” Colvin said of the approach. “We loved the way our voices blended and just thought, ‘Let’s don’t have it where you sing most of the verses and I’ll sing on the choruses, then we’ll switch it up.’ That was deliberate and it worked.”

Similarly, five out of the six original tunes on the album were jointly written. The other, the finale song “You’re Still Gone,” began with an idea passed along years ago by fellow songsmith Julie Miller that Colvin, and later Earle, added to.

“The approach was kind of similar for all the songs. It nearly always started with a musical idea from one of the two of us and the lyrics would develop from there. We just sat in a room and pounded them out.”

The remaining tunes were covers. Colvin suggested the blues/soul warhorse “Tobacco Road” and Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead.” Earle brought in the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday” and the 1964 Ian & Sylvia folk nugget (and 1965 pop hit by We Five) “You Were On My Mind.”

“They were just fun to sing,” Colvin remarked. “That was it. Steve’s term for it was ‘fantasy camp.’ I mean, who doesn’t want to sing ‘Ruby Tuesday?’ It’s not really a duet, but that was one of the things that was fun about doing these covers. We knew we wanted to sing together throughout the entirety of the songs, so I think that makes them a little bit different.”

While “Colvin & Earle” was recorded with a rustic ensemble immediacy courtesy of ace producer and guitarist Buddy Miller, the duo’s current shows jettison band support altogether. That allows Colvin & Earle to be strictly the product of Colvin and Earle.

“We go into our own catalogs a little bit so we can give the people what they want to hear. But we do stay onstage together the whole time and play everything on each other’s stuff that isn’t on the record. We perform the whole record as well, so it’s just the two of us.

“You know, we wrote and even recorded with the idea, with the feeling of necessity, that we could pull this off with just two instruments and two voices. That was really important to us, because that’s how we started when we did the shows together that jump started this whole thing. I feel like we accomplished that.”

Colvin & Earle perform at 7:30 p.m. July 26 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $55.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to

the fleeting mortality of freakwater

FReakwater: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. Photo by Edward Neary.

Freakwater: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. Photo by Edward Neary.

Within an Americana-leaning indie community, Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have been charter members. Collectively known, along with longtime bass cohort Dave Gay, as Freakwater, the two songsmiths have a mastered a country tradition ripe with brittle purity. We’re not talking country in any radio-friendly sense of the term, but a rarified yet flexible form that prides in itself in unassuming, harmony-rich folk foundations and occasional variations that shoot down dark electric sideroads.

Since 1989, Freakwater has been a basement dweller of sorts with alt-country contingencies. Bean, from Chicago, and Irwin, from Louisville, often play with other bands (Bean, most prominently, with Eleventh Dream Day) and as solo acts. When the mood strikes, Freakwater performs. But the mood hits far more seldom these days when it comes to making records. Hence, the February release of Scheherazade, the first new Freakwater studio album in over a decade and its debut for the heralded Chicago label Bloodshot. So what took so long for the fires of Freakwater to light up in the recording studio again?

“I don’t know,” Irwin said. “Our fleeting mortality, maybe? It just seemed like the right thing to do. I know the people in Louisville that I keep playing with, played shows and have done solo things with are really incredible musicians. It just seems like a really great time in Louisville. I don’t know what’s going on in Lexington. But right now there’s just a ton of talented younger musicians here that are really cooperative. They want to work hard on other people’s records even if they don’t get paid for it. I get a real community feel for it right now.”

So with members of Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer (which opens Freakwater’s concert tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s), Murder By Death and Louisville’s Jaye Jayle helping out, Scheherazade became a new entry in the Freakwater catalogue that varies little from the rustic country roots-sound Irwin and Bean have championed for over 25 years.

“Growing up in Kentucky, you’re naturally exposed to a lot of bluegrass music and a lot of country music – especially Top 40 country music from the ‘70s and ‘80s that we either liked or hated,” Irwin said. “Growing up, my parents listened to Pete Seeger records and the Clancy Brothers and just the kind of folk music that was always going on around us. My father always used to torture the family with bagpipe records, especially by the Royal Scots Dragoons. That was one of the only common musical elements my dad and I shared. But I was really loving Woody Guthrie records and classic country music.”

Along with a love of folk of vintage folk and country came fascination with punk aesthetics. You hear it especially on Scheherazade in the ragged, Neil Young-esque Falls of Sleep. Mostly, though, Freakwater embraces the renegade sentiments within the songs of country forefathers as much as any sonic trait.

“There are obvious connections between Hank Williams and Johnny Rotten,” Irwin said. “The great thing to me about punk rock – and I think what made it so great for people in my age group – was you could just go ahead and play it and sing it. You didn’t come from a time where you had to particularly know how to play an instrument or anything. That didn’t really matter because you weren’t really inhibited. Maybe everybody is like that. Maybe they’re all like a little bit delusional about what they’re actually doing.”

One thing Irwin is certain about, though, is the timetable Freakwater has chosen to make music. If it takes a decade between albums to maintain the band’s love of harmony and songcraft, so be it. Irwin and Bean are in no hurry. They never have been.

“We don’t really have a plan,” Irwin said. “If we had a plan, we wouldn’t still be playing together. That’s one of the things Janet and I are pretty confident about. If we actually had a goal, we would have failed to achieve it and we would have stopped playing.

“When we started playing together, if we said, ‘We have to be on the Grand Ole Opry by spring of next year,’ that never would have happened. If we had a plan like that, we would have been really disappointed and bitter. So we’re just enjoying what we’re doing. We’re always playing. Even when we’re not putting out records, we’re playing live shows. That’s just a more vital element to what we do than making a record.”

Freakwater and Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer perform at 10 p.m. July 15 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Admission: $10, $12. Call: 859-309-9499 or go to

dr. dog days

Dr. Dog. From left: Dimitri Manos, Scott McMicken, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy, Toby Leaman, Zach Miller.

Dr. Dog. From left: Dimitri Manos, Scott McMicken, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy, Toby Leaman, Zach Miller.

Pennsylvania may be the land Dr. Dog hails from, but seldom does the longstanding psychedelic pop-and-more troupe stay away long from Louisville. Bassist, guitarist and co-vocalist Toby Leaman, in fact, figures the band plays Derbytown once every 16 months or so. The relationship was cemented in 2007 with a visit to Louisville Slugger Field.

“I remember that show,” Leaman recalled. “I think we sang the national anthem that night. The impetus for that was that the Phillies had asked us to sing the national anthem back home the next week. So, we were like, ‘Let’s practice. Nobody ever gets to practice the national anthem at a baseball field.’ And we just happened to be at a baseball field.”

The band’s ongoing fondness for Louisville will be displayed twice this weekend, courtesy of the Forecastle festival. Dr. Dog performs a midnight show tonight at Headliners Music Hall then heads to the main Forecastle digs in Waterfront Park on Saturday as part of a hearty day-long bill that includes Alabama Shakes, The Arcs, Sarah Jarosz and Pokey LaFarge, among others.

For Leaman and his bandmates – guitarists Scott McMicken and Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick and percussionist Dimitri Manos – the Forecastle engagement isn’t just a way of deepening an already solid Louisville fanbase. It will also help introduce Dr. Dog’s refreshingly animated pop to prospective fans, especially on Saturday, that journeyed to the festival to hear a different act.

“We’ve always been kind of a slow burn of a band,” Leaman said. “The good thing is we’ve never really taken a step back. Not a lot of bands can say that. For the past 12 years of being on the road, we’ve just gotten bigger. But we’ve never gotten big, so there’s that. If I knew how to crack into the next bracket without feeling like we were losing a piece of ourselves, that would be valuable information to have. But we’ve always had a pretty humble mentality about our band. We’ve never really chased trends or anything like that. We’ve never been cool on any level whatsoever.

“That probably speaks to the fact that we’ve never had a hit single, a big video, placement in a movie or something that really pushes the ball forward really quickly. But when you’ve been doing it for as long as we have, you’re just happy you’re still around and that you’re still growing. That, in and off itself, is a minor miracle.”

The charm of Dr. Dog’s music is on display throughout The Psychedelic Swamp, the band’s newest album – a record comprised, oddly enough, of some of its oldest songs.

The first version of the sci-fi friendly concept album was cut with demo-like sensibility in 2001. But when Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company inquired about creating a stage project with Dr. Dog, the album was recut and essentially reborn with sounds that recall everyone from The Beach Boys to My Morning Jacket.

“They almost felt like cover songs in a lot of ways,” Leaman said of retooling the music from The Psychedelic Swamp. “The idea was, ‘Okay, this is what the song sounded like then but it doesn’t have to sound anything like that now.’ I don’t think any of the lyrics really changed, but some of the songs changed completely along with the instrumentation.”

“The original recordings were just done on a little keyboard, a drum machine, a delay pedal and an acoustic guitar. They didn’t have a full band or anything like that. So that part was kind of fun. We’re just covering ourselves with songs we’ve been detached from for so long that they felt more or less like other people’s songs.”

Summing up all the sounds and details that go into those songs is another matter. A preview story by Donna Cope on the Sloss Festival in Birmingham, Ala., which Dr. Dog will play after Forecastle on Sunday, tagged the band as a “label-defying, multi-hyphenated, indie-psychedelic-rock-folk-basement-Americana-touring band.” Just trying looking for that bin at Wal-Mart.

“We don’t really think about labels too much. I mean, sometimes they can be helpful, like when you look at a band and think, ‘Okay, here’s a band that plays ska music.’ That’s helpful. But when I read a little descriptor of what a band is in a handbill at a festival and it’s all a bunch of hyphens, well…. If that’s actually helpful, I’m all for it. But if it’s just laziness, a way of thinking about something that isn’t necessarily accurate, it’s not helping at all.”

Dr. Dog performs at 11:59 p.m. July 15 as part of Forecastle Late Night at Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Rd. in Louisville. Tickets are $30. Call 502-584-8088 or go to The band then plat 6:30 p.m. July 16 as part of Forecastle on the Boom Stage at Waterfront Park, 300 East River Rd. in Louisville. Tickets: $79.50, $189.50. Call 800-745-3000 or go to

josh ritter leaves the beast behind

josh ritter.

josh ritter.

Most contemporary artists shy away from labels designed to market and promote their music, viewing them as stylistically restrictive. Josh Ritter is not among them. It’s just that he has come up with his own label, and it’s rather specific – messianic oracular honky-tonk.

Come again?

To comprehend that tag and Ritter’s need for it, one had to start with other labels. After 2013’s stripped down, primarily acoustic The Beast In Its Tracks, a record written in the aftermath of his divorce from songsmith Dawn Landes, Ritter decided to return to the outside world of inspiration that gave his early recordings comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan for their removal from direct, auto-biographical lyrics. But Ritter also amped up the groove along with the scope of his songs. When he was done, he was surprised at the amount of religious imagery the resulting music contained. Hence, a genre of his devising was born.

“When you’re writing, you never really get a chance to think about the themes of the record, and I think that’s good,” said Ritter, one of the featured artists at this weekend’s Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. “It’s always good to be writing in the dark because I never want to write towards a goal.

“As I was wrapping up the record, I started to notice all this strange American imagery –  kind of mystical but very earthy, very feet-of-clay stuff about how people we know match up against the expectations we’re supposed to live up to in religion and just about how those things cause friction. For that reason, I thought the rambunctiousness of the music and the rambunctiousness of the statements needed a real flesh-and-blood term. Messianic oracular honky tonk just sounded like such a fun way of thinking about music.”

More than the label itself, Ritter said, came a need. With The Beast In Its Tracks drawing the emotional intent of his music unexpectedly inward, he felt a need for expansion. Being autobiographical, it seemed, did not suit him.

“One of my pet peeves has always been autobiographic information. I don’t care for it. I don’t care for songs that are just about me, me, me. I’ve always stayed away from that. The Beast In Its Tracks was an impossibility. I was writing about a divorce. I was cataloging it and dissecting it myself. It felt like it was an important thing to get down. It was a huge life experience that was important for me to look at from all angles to see what it was. The Beast In Its Tracks was about divorce and everything that came after.

“That having been done, I definitely felt like now was the time for me to get back to my outward looking writing, about writing that isn’t necessarily about me. It’s about other things. It was about a girl in a small town who is trying to make an awful decision or a tent preacher working his way across Ohio. These songs are definitely outward looking just because I felt like I had already allowed myself a pass to do a record about myself.”

Ritter’s writing hasn’t been limited to music, either. The Idaho native’s 2011 novel Bright’s Passage became a New York Times best-seller. It also renewed his appreciation for concise narrative storytelling that is essential to songwriting.

“It gave me respect for all forms of writing as well as a deeper respect for my own songwriting. I’ve always been a voracious editor. Nothing doesn’t get polished down. I believe in the idea being good enough for getting all you can get out it. When you’re writing a book, it’s still about being concise, about saying exactly what you want to say and saying no more.

“That’s also what is so attractive about songwriting, although the performance isn’t there when a person sits with a book and reads in a room. That’s a much lonelier life, I feel.

At the end of the day, the difference between the two is that with songwriting, I can go onstage and get a bunch of applause.”

Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform at 8 p.m. July 9 for the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. Tickets are $65 for weekend admission. Call 888-810-2063 or go to

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