Monday, May 26, 2008

Playing with tradition: new music by Crooked Still and the Biscuit Burners

Two new CDs by Crooked Still, Still Crooked, and the Biscuit Burners, Take Me Home, show how creative the “new folk revival” (as its been dubbed by folks much more widely read than this humble scribe) truly is.

There are similarities between these two young bands. Both are fronted by extraordinary musicians who could run as stars in their own right, but forgo flashy instrumental spotlights in favor of an organic, ensemble sound. Sure, there are dazzling solos, but within the context of a group performance. In the instance of Crooked Still, they’re led by banjomeister Gregory Liszt, who sports an innovative four-fingered picking style. The Burners’ frontman is dobro player Billy Cardine, who has been praised by dobro deity Jerry Douglas for his expansion of the dobro’s possibilities. (Photos: that's the Biscuit Burners above, and Crooked Still below- see photo credits below.)

Each band has recently expanded or changed their instrumentation, in both cases by adding fiddle to their basic lineup. In Crooked Still's case, Brittany Haas has joined the band on 5 string fiddle, expanding the group to a quintet. For the Burners, Shannon Whitworth's departure on banjo and guitar resulted in the addition of fiddler Odessa Jorgensen to the band, who adds an equally distinctive second and harmony voice to the vocal mix. Each band is working from a bluegrass/traditional wellspring, with the Burners employing dobro, bass, fiddle, and guitar, and Crooked Still using their unique low-end lineup that includes cello and bass, along with guitar, fiddle, and Liszt's banjo.

The distinctive sound of each band starts with the talents of their remarkable lead vocalists. The Biscuit Burners' bassist/singer Mary Lucey adds a mesmerizing tone and delivery, one that’s repeatedly dubbed “hypnotic” by the bluegrass press. Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan’s vocals have been characterized as somewhere between the intense earthiness of Appalachian icon Hazel Dickens and the lightness of pop star Karen Carpenter. Oddly, that's not a bad description.

What characterizes the "new folk revival" is how a new generation is approaching traditional folk material, and these two bands have been honing and developing their individualistic approach to the folk canon over several distinctive CDs.

A quick glance at the songwriting credits shows that, on these new CDs, the Biscuit Burners play a setlist that’s mostly original material and songs by contemporaries, crafted with a strong sense of tradition. Crooked Still adds some older material, including songs by Olla Belle Reed, Mississippi John Hurt, several 19th century American ballads, but also includes a few originals.

This is the “folk revival” sense that Bob Dylan embodies so perfectly: writing original songs rooted in traditional lyrical and musical forms. According to Benjamin Filene, author of the essential study Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music, there's something to be said about this creative element and the "folk process itself," one that many folk purists have never come to terms with:
Some contemporary revival practitioners have managed to sidestep the strictures of authenticity and ally themselves not with a certain canon or a particular sound but to the folk process itself—the process of digging for vernacular roots, creatively combining them into new forms, and giving them fresh life through personally meaningful art. ("Oh Brother, What Next? Making Sense of the Folk Fad". Southern Cultures, 10.2 (2004), 50-69)
Both bands breathe fresh life into the musical forms they embrace. The Burners, for instance, embed Bengali song forms into one tune, while evoking traditional Appalachian imagery on tunes like "Sweet Red Wine" and "Drunk Up All The Whiskey." They pen a few original ballads, one about Annie Oakley, as well as a tribute to the environmental activist heroes of Edward Abbey's novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Crooked Still's use of deep, plucked cello and bass runs sound unlike anything in the traditional canon, but their picking and interplay has a strong old-time and bluegrass feel. In this way, each digs deeply into their roots, creates new forms, and gives them fresh life. As Ben Filene points out, this is what the "folk process" is all about.

Photo credits: Crooked Still from the Signature Records website, Biscuit Burners from their own website.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Extolling Spring: Wildflowers

One of the great delights of living in Appalachia is the myriad of spring and summer wildflowers. Oftentimes our hikes turn into a series of slow, eagerly sidetracked observations of trailside foliage. Soon we're strolling off the trail to gaze at trillium, eagerly comparing notes about the various types we see. A real treat is spotting the shy Jack-in-the-pulpits, quietly pontificating to the sylvan floor.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Falls Ridge Preserve
Wildflowers provide an immersion in beauty, a tangible reminder that the world's a good place to be. Annie Dillard heralds the season and its pleasant perils in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key; it is the mute cipher, the cryptogram, the uncracked, unbroken code....It is spring. I plan to try to control myself this year, to watch the progress of the season in a calm and orderly fashion. In spring I am prone to wretched excess. I abandon myself to flights and compulsions; I veer into various states of physical disarray.
These photos were taken at the Nature Conservancy's Falls Ridge Preserve, a short drive from Blacksburg.

Trillium, Falls Ridge Preserve

May-apple, Falls Ridge Preserve
Next, a portfolio of wildflowers from a recent trip to the North Carolina Blue Ridge. These were taken along the Green Knob Trail, an old favorite near the Blue Ridge Parkway that wanders through streamside rhododendron, up through a beautiful field, finally cresting a ridge with a view of Grandfather Mountain.

A pair of trillium, showing off their various colors

Bluets springing up by crossed logs
Bloodroot, basking in the sun
A small, shy Jack
Yellow violet

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Balsams & Middle Prong Wilderness

During an afternoon interlude on a research trip to western North Carolina, I hiked a section of the Mountains to the Sea trail through the Middle Prong Wilderness. Climbing up an old railroad bed built a century ago to extract timber from the extensive mountainside groves of virgin red spruce, Fraser fir, hemlocks and hardwoods, the trail leads to a series of beautiful fields on a high ridge that's over 6000 in elevation.

Much of the trail wanders through fields, lush firs and balsams, and rhododendron groves. The path itself is deeply worn in places. Here's a few quick digital snapshots from my Fuji point-and -shoot:

The views at the top of the trail were remarkable, overlooking the Middle Prong Wilderness and the adjoining Shining Rock Wilderness. Here's a sample of the panorama: