There were a lot of terrific CD releases in 2012 in the worlds of folk, Americana, singer-songwriters, Celtic, bluegrass and beyond (that musical terrain we traverse every Sunday on KPR's Trail Mix). Here's my personal Top Ten.
Rayna Gellert, Old Light (self)
Rayna Gellert is best known as an old-time fiddler, notably with the band Uncle Earl, but there's nary a driving fiddle tune on her new album, Old Light: Songs From My Childhood & Other Gone Worlds. Gellert puts her vocals and songwriting front and center on a collection split evenly between traditional folk songs and originals. The album features guest vocal spots from Alice Gerrard, Scott Miller and Uncle Earl bandmate Abigail Washburn, but Gellert's own voice carries the day. There's a timeless quality to it that's perfectly suited to these songs: "Nothing" begins with "This is where I must begin, memory is full of sins" and ends with "Dust to dust, breath to wind, this is where I must begin." From beginning to end, it's an exquisite slice of Americana.
Rose Cousins, We Have Made a Spark (self)
I've been very impressed with Rose Cousins since I first caught her in a showcase at a Folk Alliance conference a few years ago, and this CD finds her reaching new heights. The Halifax, Nova Scotia, based singer recorded this one in Boston, with her many friends in the singer-songwriter and folk music scene there, including Mark Erelli, who joins Cousins for an amazing version of Bruce Springsteen's If I Should Fall Behind. That song, with its powerful sense of surviving through mutual support, follows songs that explore dark and difficult times, as the CD opens with these words: "to take the light into the dark, is to know the dark. To know the dark, go into the dark" from the song The Darkness, where Cousins is backed by vocalists Rose Polenazani, Amy Correia and Ana Egge. Other vocal support on the CD comes from Kris Delmhorst, Jennifer Kimball and Edie Carey, with top notch instrumental work from the likes of Zach Hickman, Sean Staples, Duke Levine, Laura Cortese and many others. The CD is a testament both to Cousins' powerful writing and singing and the terrific Boston music scene. Other highlights include the new version of Rose's older song White Daisies and the yearning All the Stars, which begins with "All the stars through the trees, do you look at these like I look to you to be the one for me."
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ashes and Roses (Zoe)
Mary Chapin Carpenter's finest body of recording has emerged over the last decade; freed from the demands of Nashville and commercial country music, she's made a series of intimate, powerful albums. And none more intimate or powerful than this one, which was shaped by powerful events she has endured in recent years: serious illness, divorce and the death of her father. Carpenter bares her emotions in a very personal collection of songs, but like great writers do, finds the universal in the personal, as in What to Keep and What to Throw Away, which chronicles trying to navigate the wake of a divorce "when grace has left your stranded, when you are lost and wounded, bleeding and abandoned," and in Learning the World where "grief rides quietly on the passenger side, unwanted company on a long, long drive." But all is not darkness, as Carpenter relates in Don't Need Much to Be Happy and in an account of sharing memories and companionship with an old friend in the song New Year's Day which concludes with "We dwell in possibility on New Year's Day."
Kathy Mattea, Calling Me Home (Sugar Hill)
Kathy Mattea, who hails from West Virginia and who grew up in a coal mining family in West Virginia, takes us on a journey to her Appalachian home, backed by a stellar cast of bluegrass and country musicians, including Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan and Byron House, and singing powerful songs by such fine songwriters as Alice Gerrard, Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens, Laurie Lewis, Larry Cordle and Si Kahn. Coal mining, and its terrible price, figure prominently in such songs as Ritchie’s West Virginia Mine Disaster and Black Waters and Cordle's Hello, My Name Is Coal, which notes that "they curse me now for what I am, but not that long ago, they sang my praises everywhere. Hello, my name is coal." There's death and faith together in Gerrard's Calling Me Home. And there's hope in Si Kahn's Gone, Gonna Rise Again: "High on the ridge above the farm, I think of my people who have gone on. Like a tree that grows in the mountain ground, the storms of life have cut them down, but the new wood springs from the roots in the ground. Gone, Gonna Rise Again." And through it all, Mattea's glorious voice, as cool and bracing as a cold mountain stream.
The Infamous Stringdusters, Silver Sky (self)
The Infamous Stringdusters are taking progressive bluegrass to new heights in the style of music they dub "high country," and Silver Sky captures the energy of their wide open live shows, but with terrific audio production (this is one of the best SOUNDING recordings I've heard this year, and I gather much of the credit there should go to producer Billy Hume, best known in the hip-hop world). What do the Stringdusters display here? Well, stellar instrumental prowess on banjo, fiddle, guitar, dobro and bass. Great original songwriting up and down the list of tracks (my favorites include Rockets, The Hitchhiker and The Place That I Call Home with powerful vocal work) and there's a tasty cover of Walking on the Moon. It's music rooted in bluegrass but with folk, jam, and even a bit of reggae and jazz influences (check out the instrumental Heady Festy to see what I mean). I hope you saw this band at the Bottleneck this fall; it was one of the best shows in Lawrence in 2012.
Iris DeMent, Sing the Delta (self)
Iris Dement, who emerged from the open mic scene to record her debut album 20 years ago, had not released a CD of new songs in over 15 years, so Sing the Delta was likely to be well received if only on that score. But, in fact, this new collection may be the most powerful set of songs DeMent has ever written or recorded. DeMent's childhood, rooted in family (with her 13 siblings) and faith (it was not at all unusual for the family to be at Pentecostal services seven days a week), was a powerful influence on her music, as was her Mother, who sang around the house and dreamed of being a professional musician. DeMent's "church" piano blends gospel and country influences with her distinctive voice. DeMent took her Mother, who died last year at age 93, home to Arkansas to be buried last summer, and the theme of going home runs through the album from the opening track Go On Ahead and Go Home to the last words of the last song, Out of the Fire. DeMent, in her song The Night I Learned How Not to Pray, notes that religious doubt came early on, and in two songs, The Kingdom Has Already Come and There's a Whole Lotta Heaven, she takes a distinctly un-Pentecostal view of heaven.
Drew Nelson, Tilt-A-Whirl (Red House)
Drew Nelson's blue collar Michigan roots are more than evident on this Navy vet's new CD, which kicks off with a powerful anthem, Promised Land, that reviewers have likened to Springsteen and Mellencamp, where Nelson's finely honed observations justify the chorus "just getting by is the plan, welcome to the world of the working poor, here in the promised land." Other highlights include Lessons, which looks back at what life once was in an industrial city that has now become an emptied out, near ghost town. "Bottom of the hill, there was a sharp left turn. If you grew up around here, that's something that you learned. Tough as hell, calloused hands, that's just how it was, the measure of a man. there's church on Sunday, don't let your bridges burn, if you grew up around here, that's something that you learned. Hail Mary, now there's nothing here to see, just an old foundation, where a boomtown used to be." In Danny and Maria, teen lovers overcome racial and class prejudice and an unexpected pregnancy. Despite all the well placed anger at what's been done to the common man the last few decades, Nelson can spin a tender love song, as he does on Hallelujah Morning.
The Fretless, Waterbound (self)
As one might gather from the name of the band, there are no guitars, mandolins or banjos. Rather, this is a string quartet, with Trent Freeman, Ivonne Hernandez and Karrnnel Sawitsky all switching back and forth between violin and viola, with cello by Eric Wright. But no formal wear or formal music for these four young folks, though one can easily hear their grounding in classical music, and there's plenty here that would please classical music fans with an interest in folk music. In fact, the first piece, a tune by Irish fiddle great Liz Carroll, starts off with a very classical string quartet feel, but by the end is in full fledge Celtic flight. Both the covers and original tunes are drawn from the Celtic and folk traditions, and there are two excellent guest vocal spots, one for Ruth Moody of the Wailin' Jennys on the title track, and the other from Norah Rendell on Harder to Rock These Days Than Run. I was able to see this band at the Folk Alliance conference last February and was blown away by the high levels of both musicianship and excitement they bring to the stage. Since then, they won the Canadian Folk Music Awards for both ensemble of the year and instrumental group of the year.
Bill Evans, In Good Company (self)
Banjo player Bill Evans is in good company indeed, with an all-star lineup of guests on this CD exploring a range of progressive bluegrass stylings. Make no mistake about it, though, that despite the glittering array of talent on hand, Evans' own banjo playing demonstrates that, while he is not as well-known as many other bluegrass banjo players, his banjo work is unsurpassed. There's a barn burning bluegrass tune in Dakota, with the likes of guitarist David Grier, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and dobro and mandolin from Rob Ickes and Matt Flinner, and an exploratory opening track, The Distance Between Two Points, that builds in intensity after a pastoral opening, with Grier, Mike Marshall on mandolin, Todd Phillips on bass, and three fiddlers (Darol Anger, and Tashina and Tristan Clarridge). Bill is joined by the Infamous Stringdusters on one song and Joy Kills Sorrow on another, and welcomes special guests Tim O'Brien and Laurie Lewis to sing Follow the Drinking Gourd. There's even a Beatles medley, with striking arrangements of four Fab Four tunes.
We Banjo 3, Roots of the Banjo Tree (self)
Three outstanding exponents of the Irish tenor banjo, Enda Scahill and the brothers Martin and David Howley, step out of the purely Irish musical tradition to explore American old-timey and bluegrass music through an Irish perspective. The result is a total delight, as there's nods to the old-timey fiddle legends such as Ed Haley and Tommy Jarrell, and David Hawley sings old timey songs from Ola Belle Reed and Gaither Carlton. One of the best sets starts with bluegrass and old time tunes Bill Cheatum and Kitchen Girl before launching into the Irish jig The Donegal Lass. There's also plenty of Irish tunes, as well as music from Cape Breton and Quebec on this delightful, varied album. Speaking of variety, it's not ALL banjos, as each of the trio play multiple instruments, and there are fine guests, including fiddler Fergus Scahill. I got to see this band at this past summer's Milwaukee Irish Fest and was greatly impressed (and the cheering audience indicated they were, as well!).