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

lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

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 www.ticketmaster.com.

critic’s pick: bruce hornsby, ‘rehab reunion’

bruce hornsbyThe two particulars separating “Rehab Reunion” from most every other record made by Bruce Hornsby is the unexpected absence of one sound and the dominance of another.

What you don’t hear is piano – not one note. That’s quite a shift for a stylist like Hornsby, who has developed not just a virtuosic voice for the instrument within his pop lexicon but an exact and animated compositional sense for where it makes the most vibrant emotional statement. What takes its place? The dulcimer. Seriously, the dulcimer, the stringed agent of rural folk music, an instrument that would seem to be light years away from the wistful and wondrous arrangements Hornsby has long employed as musical playgrounds.

But the most stunning aspect to the highly listenable “Rehab Reunion” is that you really don’t sense a change of stylistic course for Hornsby and his longrunning Noisemakers band, bolstered here by fine guest shots from Justin Vernon and Mavis Staples. Sure, the dulcimer rides along the record’s nine songs primarily as a rhythmic device. But if you suspect there is some gaping void left by the absence of piano, think again. Hornsby’s songs are just as complete in their sense of orchestral and emotive beauty. Some of that comes from co-hort J.T. Thomas on organ, whose runs beautifully flesh out these tunes. His playing especially underscores the sunny wanderlust of “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.” with a cool ingenuity that recalls The Band’s Garth Hudson. Hearing him alongside the string serenades of Hornsby and mandolinist Ross Holmes is a genuine delight as is the song’s playful Floridian storyline of being fatherly knighted as “Don Juan Schula.”

Hornsby’s lineage to the Grateful Dead isn’t ignored, either. Throughout “Rehab Reunion,” the bright, clipped guitar sound of Gibb Droll accents the songs with an air that can’t help but recall the floating melodic drive of Jerry Garcia.

Most of all, though, is how steadfast Hornsby’s pop command remains. He is a clever wordsmith throughout the album, be it through the character studies within the title song to “Rehab Reunion” (the most thematically intriguing tune of its kind since Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion”) or the out-of-nowhere odes to the art of restaurant gratuity (“Tipping”) and a certain European writer not normally celebrated within pop circles (“Hey Kafka”). But it’s the music that grabs you most – a wide open sound that references jazz and folk as much as its does pop and jam band intent.

This isn’t the first time Hornsby has taken to the dulcimer on a record. It began popping up sparingly nearly two decades ago. On “Rehab Reunion,” its role may seem dominant, but Hornsby invites it in as readily as he does all the musical input from the Noisemakers. All are guests at this vibrant pop party and all are made to feel especially welcome.

saturday at forecastle


ruth "mama bear" ward performing this afternoon at forecastle. all photos by rich copley.

ruth “mama bear” ward performing this afternoon at forecastle. all photos by rich copley.

1:42 p.m.: LOUISVILLE – “How are you fine people in Kentuckiana doing this afternoon?”

That was the greeting Pokey LaFarge gave as Forecastle’s main entertainment (on the aptly christened Mast Stage, no less) got cranking this afternoon. With the storm threats of the previous evening at bay and a blast of mid-July sun beating down, the answer from the audience was openly affirmative.

Forecastle’s secondary Boom Stage actually got underway first with the mother-and-son Americana duo of Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear and its brief serving of folk blues infused by son Madisen’s ringing falsetto and matriarch Ruth’s rugged, rootsy harmony. A lean duet version of “Modern Day Mystery” opened the set, but the band quickly grew into a full quartet to incorporate meaty elements of juke joint R&B, blues, ragtime-drenched folk and more.

LaFarge similarly mined vintage sources for a more revue-oriented, dance hall-derived set that allowed his animated tenor singing to serve as ringmaster for the gospel soul swing of ‘Something in the Water’ while the castanet clicking, clarinet moaning stride of “Goodbye, Barcelona” solidified the slow broil of the Waterfront Park environment. But it was the suitably border town feel of the Warren Zevon classic ‘Carmelita’ that best suited Forecastle’s summertime, riverside feel.

sarah jarosz at forecastle.

sarah jarosz at forecastle.

4:08 p.m.: Bridging multiple folk generations was Sarah Jarosz. Her all-too-brief Boom Stage set with guitarist Jedd Hughes and bassist Jeff Picker began with the banjo-led clarity of “Annabelle Lee” and sifted through the years to the fragile, autumnal reflection of “Built Up from Bones’ before reaching the gorgeous, atmospheric glow of the new “Green Lights.” To show she had not forsaken her roots, Jarosz delivered Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” as an affirmation of lovely poetic ambience.

Austin song stylist Shakey Graves placed less emphasis on dynamics and more on course immediacy. While he traveled down an acoustic sideroad early on with “Word of Mouth” (offset by an introductory claim of being “the first person to tell you the wrong thing to do”), Graves specialty was summoning waves of one-man-band electric guitar frenzy delivered with hootenanny style glee. Though appealing thanks to its raggedly spontaneous intent, the set ultimately fell victim to its own senses of weighty static and indulgence.

6:11 p.m.: By the time Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin songster Andrew McMahon (under his newest performance moniker of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness) took the stage around 4:30, the audience sized at Forecastle had doubled. A tireless McMahon responded with the anthemic and chirpy piano based pop of “High Dive” and more. Despite his limitless onstage energy, though, the sheer brightness of McMahon’s melodic drive didn’t offer much variance, making his set’s sea of good vibes sound a touch stagnant.

The Arcs, the psychedelic soul leaning side project of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, delivered a carnival sound anchored by the sharp R&B grooves instigated by the band’s twin guitar/twin drum charge. “Velvet Ditch” started the fun, but by the time the all female Mariachi Flor de Toloache joined in, the sound became a swirling, orchestral mix of soul chants, fuzzy guitar and orchestral might that shifted from the very Black Keys-esque “Pistol Made of Bones” to a fascinating, neo-fusion makeover of the forgotten Motown hit “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” Highlight set of the day so far.

dr. dog bassist and vocalist toby leaman taking a turn on guitar.

dr. dog bassist and vocalist toby leaman taking a turn on guitar.

8:09 p.m.: If The Arcs opened up a psychedelic soul vortex, Dr. Dog took the reins and sent the festival down a psychedelic pop alleyway. The pop element was key here. While all kinds of trippy, proggish turns surfaced in the Philly band’s evening set, there was also a melodic precision where the pop elements took over. Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Toby Leaman led the more spacious, exact and often patient melodies of “Cuckoo” and especially “Bring My Baby Back while the ensemble push behind “Be the Void” settled into fascinating keyboard and percusssion chatter before surrendering to silence and, after a few bewildering moments for the audience, a volcanic coda that affirmed the song’s – and the band’s – panoramic pop vision.

The Los Angeles troupe Local Natives delivered a considering more elemental and yet still appealing pop sound with a decidedly ’80s slant that owed to bands like U2 in its chiming, riff-fortified sound. It was a good natured set with layers of bright, atmospheric harmonies and a few surprises – like the guitar outbursts that erupted out of the new “Past Lives.”

brittany howard and alabama shakes conclude the saturday lineup.

brittany howard and alabama shakes concluded the saturday lineup.

10:36 p.m.: The Boom Stage’s Saturday bill ended rather unceremoniously with the self-described “livetronica” duo Big Gigantic. Playing sax and drums over set-in-stone pop-soul beats, grooves and even vocals, Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken were ringmasters for this party platform. The crowd loved it and danced along fervently. But given the makeup, someone could have hired a rudimentary DJ and produced the same effect.

The headliner, though, did not disappoint. The only act of the day to take the stage in darkness, Alabama Shakes designed an earthshaking kaleidoscope of soul sounds that used the piercing falsetto of Brittany Howard and the resulting “Future People” as its commanding greeting. From there, the set was all atomic testimony, from the locomotive gospel-soul of “Always Alright” to the vocal coo and lurch of “Miss You.” It was nothing for the Shakes to shift from R&B chill to grudge match intensity that let the love and fury of Howard’s singing run loose. But the killer was Heartbreaker, a take-no-prisoners torch song that began with Howard lit alone onstage amid waves of purple and blue. What she summoned from there was churchy in its conviction and full tilt monster soul in its patient, potent delivery.

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 cosmic-charlies.com.

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 etix.com. 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 ticketmaster.com

critic’s pick: sarah jarosz, ‘undercurrent’

sarah jaroszThe curious photograph within the artwork of Sara Jarosz’s fine new Undercurrent album would almost seem a contradiction at first. Open up the CD jacket, and there sits a photograph of the Central Park reservoir, an expanse of serenity within an unwieldy metropolis. But in a way, the shot mirrors at least some of the intent fueling the album’s 11 songs. The product of Jarosz’s recent relocation to New York, the tunes are largely folkish miniatures – stories of intimacy and conversational reflection performed with refreshingly understated candor. While they may be products of big city experience, they sound like stories shared in a parlor room.

The mood of Undercurrent is framed by the two songs that beautifully bookend the album. The first, Early Morning Light, is a portrait of romantic aftermath sung with no accompaniment other than Jarosz’s acoustic guitar. It’s a stark coming-to-terms tale that approaches it sense of loss with wistful expectation (“All my troubles just begun, you and me, the troubled ones”) even though the inevitable breakup is no less traumatic. In contrast is Jacqueline, which is also sung solo but with electric guitar as the lone orchestration. The despondency is just as profound, even as Jarosz seeks to summon an era-defining spirit for solace (“I cried my tears and they fell on down into your dark and misty blue”). Both songs bluntly define their sense of sadness, seek different forms of comfort and employ different shades of stark musicality for expression.

It should also be noted that in an album full of collaborative songwriting – Parker Milsap, Milk Carton Kids’ Joey Ryan and Americana priestess Aoife O’Donovan help out – Early Morning Light and Jacqueline were penned by Jarosz alone.

What sits between the songs is rather splendid, too. Far lighter in tone and intent is Green Lights. Co-written by Luke Reynolds of Guster, the music is more atmospheric with a smidge of reverb accenting Jarosz’s singing to make it more modestly fanciful. The song doesn’t dispense with grimness, but its intrusion is more worldly than personal. Perhaps, the misery-loves-company approach keeps the heavier demons at bay. It certainly seems that way as Green Lights’ more dream-like disposition unfolds (“The song in my head keeps me marching on”).

There are also twists down other paths, as in House of Mercy, a Julie Miller-style blast of antique spiritualism with an incantatory feel, and the accusatory Lost Dog, whose shattered sentiments are reflected in the brittle strains of banjo Jarosz colors the tune with. Collectively, such scrapbook reveries add up to a beautifully unadorned folk attitude, one with an uneasy grace that fuels Undercurrent’s quiet but beautiful urgency.

Sarah Jarosz performs at 3 p.m. July 16 as part of Forecastle at Waterfront Park in Louisville.

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 mastermusiciansfestival.org.

go big ‘blue’: leann rimes at 33

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

LeAnn Rimes has grown up in public, although she is hardly the first celebrity to do so. Still, it seems something of revelation that, at age 33, she is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of her breakthrough hit.

Seriously. Remember Blue, the Patsy Cline-style crooner of a country hit Rimes shook the world with two decades ago this month? It was the kind of worldly tune – both in sentiment and rich, regal vocal design – that even a practiced singer would struggle with when in came to conveying the kind of natural ease Rimes exhibited. The kicker, of course, is that Rimes was 13 when the song was a hit. Turns out, though, she was even younger when it was first recorded.

“I first cut Blue when I was 11 and then I re-recorded it when I was 13,” said the veteran singer who performs this weekend at Renfro Valley. “But the version that you heard, and the one you still hear today, is the recording I did as an 11 year old. The vocals were switched accidentally, and the 11 year old recording was released. So what you’re hearing is me at 11.”

“I haven’t actually listened to the whole album (the same-titled recording that became Rimes’ debut major label album in 1996) in a really long time, but it definitely defines a moment in time. For Blue itself, it really is still such a timeless song.”

With Blue celebrating its 20th birthday, one has to ponder the obvious. How does an artist, even one with the performance authority and vocal chops of a practiced adult, address stardom at the dawn of their teen years?

“I don’t know if anybody knows how to handle that kind of success at that age,” Rimes said. “It was so instant and so big. I was so young that I don’t think I ever really understood how it could be such a pivotal moment. Still, that time really defined my career.”

Unfortunately for Rimes, so did the tabloid-ready adventures that came with stardom in subsequent years. The hits continued to pile up – especially crossover smashes like How Do I Live, I Need You and Can’t Fight the Moonlight. But so did all the offstage turbulence – lawsuits, divorce, family strife – that made Rimes as much of a sensation with the tabloids as her music.

“There are good things and bad aspects to success,” she said. “I want to give myself a little bit of credit here, because I’ve been very honest about the ups and downs in my life and hopefully through a lot of that I’ve been able to help people. Of course, there are a lot of people who think they know something about you when they’re reading something in a magazine in the grocery line. At the same time, that’s given me a real understanding and even sympathy for other human beings and what they go through.”

Today, however, Rimes sees her life and career from calmer turf. She recently signed a recording contract with RCA/UK in Europe and has begun work on a new album. Her current overseas single is a cover of The Story. The song was a single for folk/rock song stylist Brandi Carlile but became a bigger hit when re-cut by actress/singer Sara Ramirez in 2011 for the television drama Grey’s Anatomy (which features Ramirez as a cast member).

“There will be a completely different single in this country in the next few months, but I love The Story. I first heard it on Grey’s Anatomy and thought, ‘What’s that?’ But I’ve been a fan of Brandi for many years, too.”

Rimes said the anniversary of her earliest chart success together with the next chapter of her recording career has proven an invigorating combination.

“I feel very grounded. I’m at a good place right now.”

LeAnn Rimes performs at 8:30 p.m. July 9 at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, 2380 Richmond St. in Mt. Vernon. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 800-765-7464 or got to renfrovalley.com.

critic’s pick: neko case, k.d. lang and laura viers, ‘case/lang/viers’

case-lang-viersThe trouble with most pop vocal trios, especially all-star amalgamations of previously celebrated solo artists, isn’t the singing. If the harmony wasn’t there, the teaming would have never caught fire in the first place. No, the kinks usually surface in the writing. As such collaborations are of often designed as exhibitions of star power, the songs handed to the artists involved are either perfunctory tunes offered to capitalize on the harmonies or pop covers cut to insure the product’s accessibility.

It should comes as little surprise that case/lang/viers, an absolutely sumptuous session of elegant turbulence, quiet provocation and blissful singing doesn’t adhere to any of the expected supergroup prototypes. Formed at the behest of Canadian cross-genre chanteuse k.d. lang, the trio pens 14 tunes of their own, covering everything from tales of rapturous and shattered romance to startling eulogies. The singing? Well, it’s sterling throughout. That’s kind of a given that the remarkable songstresses Neko Case and Laura Viers round out the trio. But it’s the songs on case/lang/viers that really grab you. To say they compliment the harmonies doesn’t begin to cut to the core of the album’s serene glow.

For many, lang is the marquee name here. For anyone who has lost touch with the clarity and emotional potency of her singing as well as the often exquisite longing of her best compositions, look no further than Honey and Smoke, a breathtaking love song of distant unrest that any singer would (or at least ought to) kill for. But pair that with the satin-rich voice that reveals not one iota of a blemish from a career that has railed on for over three decades, along with the hushed girl group vocals Case and Viers supply (an integral component to Trevor Martine’s lustrous production) and the sparks begin to regally fly.

Case, not surprisingly, turns such stately pop tradition on its ear during Delirium with an equal measure of defiance and distance (“I kissed you in the morning, but only in my mind’s eye”) and blurrier, neo-psychedelic backdrops that twist new shapes out of familiar girl-group pop in much the same way R.E.M.’s later records embraced softer, more ambient flavored variations of its earlier elemental sound.

Viers may be – comparatively, at least – the least established of the three trio members (she opened a Decemberists concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts in 2009). But she maintains the most visible songwriting presence on the album, running from the spry, summery requiem for the doomed ‘60s songstress Judee Still (Song for Judee) to the dizzying, orchestral rumination Best Kept Secret.

Throw all that in the same pop neighborhood and you have what may be the most articulate and sonically satisfying pop album of the summer.

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