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Your Country’s Right Here: Sara Watkins Soars Beyond Nickel Creek

Sara Watkins may be best known for her brilliant fiddle work with Nickel Creek, but expect that to change as more critics and fans hear her extraordinary solo release Sun Midnight Sun. Clearly, the fiddle virtuoso is a solo artist with whom to be reckoned.

Watkins credits her time touring with The Decemberists for revving up her creative juices, resulting in the lush 10-track Americana album. Guests include Jackson Brown and Fiona Apple, and songs range from the Everly Brothers‘ “You’re the One I Love,” and Willie Nelson‘s “I’m a Memory,” to iconic songwriter Dan Wilson‘s “If It Pleases You.” But make no mistake, Sun Midnight Sun is all Watkins. Not only did she write or co-write the other songs on the album, but the guests and even the cover songs emerge simply as accents to her own unique songwriting.

“I really couldn’t point to my finger at any one thing,” said Watkins when asked how she honed her songwriting skills, which she’s criticized in the past. “Everyone hopes to get better at their craft and the way to do it is to write, and a lot has to do with listening to other people’s music and admiring their work and trying to get that to rub off on you in some way.”

Watkins credits co-producer and songwriting partner Blake Mills, formerly of Dawes, with providing support as she balanced her music between Nickel Creek’s bluegrass roots and a bit more rock sensibility.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Keller Williams and the McCourys Team up for ‘Pick’

Keller Williams was trying to balance a tabletop fan on an ice chest inside his assigned tent at DelFest during the Memorial Day Weekend when members of the Travelin’ McCourys stopped by to chat.

As Williams worked, trying to ensure the fan didn’t fall into the ice, the group began brotherly ribbing about the trip to the DelFest site in Cumberland, Maryland, their music, and their families. Sure, there were almost 10,000 fans lined up to see the McCoury family, Keller Williams, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and other bluegrass royalty play, but an onlooker would never know it from the casual camaraderie of the Williams and the McCoury band. The musicians were clearly as comfortable as if they were going to just jam with friends, which in a way they were.

“Bluegrass has always been a part of my show,” said Williams when asked what led him to record the just-released album Pick—with the Travelin’ McCourys. “There are different types of music that burn in my head—like jazz, electronica—but it circles back.”

Fair enough. There’s a reason that Williams is known as a one man jam band, after all. One has difficulty summoning other musicians who move quite as easily among divergent formats—bluegrass to folk to rock to reggae and beyond—and playing it all with the ease of a multi-instrumental virtuoso with the joy of a fan, both titles that he holds. Indeed, Williams’ sets at DelFest, named after the much-loved and honored bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury, ranged from some of his classic hits to bluegrass tunes to “Hot Stuff” in tribute to the recently-deceased disco queen Donna Summer.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Don DiLego ‘Walks the Line’ with New Alt Country Release

A funny thing happened when Don DiLego sat down to record a new album—he found he had written two.

The singer/songwriter who you likely know from his songs that have been featured on such television shows as Dawson’s Creek and Roswell and various films has just released  the Western & Atlantic EP. Working with Colin Killilea (Pocketknife), Marwan Kanafani (City Breathing), Erik Olsen (DiLego’s longtime writing partner), and Gregg Williams (Dandy Warhols, Sheryl Crow), the result is a stroll back to the Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell sound that intrigued DiLego as a child. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider Rolling Stone dubbed him “alt-country’s next poster boy.”

“Just this morning I was watching ‘Walk the Line’ [the 2005 biographical drama about] Johnny Cash,” he said when asked about his decision to gather all the players in a studio and record Western & Atlantic live except for minimal overdubs. “It is only in today’s era that having recorded everyone live [while the players are] together means anything. In the history of music, that was just the way you recorded things.”

Not that DiLego is that far away from the roots of country. After all, he and musical partner Bree Sharp have a loyal following for their folk, alt-country duo Beautiful Small Machines. In fact, the duo’s recent cover of a banjo version of MIA’s “Paper Planes” was just selected as a Top 5 Pick of the Week by The Guardian of London. But in order to juggle his hectic musical schedule, DiLego will often use modern recording tools, like most other musicians, to finish a project. Perhaps the back-to-basics recording process for Western & Atlantic is what makes the early buzz around the EP so heartening.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Madison Violet Begin to Blossom in U.S.

For all the heavy-duty bluegrass star power at the most recent DelFest in Cumberland, Md., it was the Canadian folk duo Madison Violet that arguably was the most exciting “find” of the event.

Known individually as Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac, the duo has won an array of awards and has ardent fans throughout their native Canada, in Europe, and beyond. Yet the two are just now making a name for themselves in the U.S. An unexpected illness forced the duo to cancel the last two dates of the U.S. tour behind their latest album The Good in Goodbye, but the pair hope to be back in American clubs soon.

“We haven’t toured in the U.S. very often in the 13 years we have been playing together,” said MacEachern citing work permits and other red tape that has kept them away. “Now we have more of a focus on the States and that’s great. Our music shouldn’t be a struggle in the States; it’s kind of got an Americana feel.”

Although that’s true, the music clearly also has international appeal as underscored by the many fans— especially from Germany—that fly to Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, to catch Madison Violet shows. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider the judges, including Elton John, Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blige, that chose Madison Violet as the 2009 Grand Prize Winners of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The duo are the first Canadians to win the award.

While the prize certainly bolstered the group’s confidence in their own abilities, they still see a long road ahead as they work to establish their names in the States. The joy for them is that fans are fans and seem to have similar responses to their music, wherever they play. If they can just get before a crowd, as they did on Memorial Day weekend at DelFest, chances are they’ll win converts.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Del McCoury Puts the Spirit Back in Country

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury gives me hope that I can be redeemed musically, even if I still have a lot of work to do to reach that state.

Let me note that it’s probably not cool to use myself as an example, but I’m guessing that a lot of folks wonder if the musical joy they experienced as kids can be recaptured. After attending this year’s DelFest during Memorial Day in Cumberland, Md., I have to believe it can.

I had originally intended to let Del McCoury tell you about DelFest, that just wrapped up its fifth season and is busting at the seams with attendees (the area’s local newspaper reports expansion plans are underway). We’ll let you hear from Del, of course, but after reading the non-stop CMA Fest coverage, the Bonnaroo dispatches, and the excellent Kindle single “The Same Coachella Twice” by Sean Howell, I thought some personal perspective might be useful, too.

Let’s start with some background about McCoury, who was a legend before the title was handed out like flyers advertising a tent sale. McCoury was first the banjo player, then lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. We could go on and on about his career, which he put on hold for more than a decade so he could be close to home and help raise his family. Highlights include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment of the Arts, membership in both the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry, and that’s just for starters. You likely get the point.

Or part of it.

The real point is that although he’s a hero to many musicians—Bruce Springsteen, Jon Fishman of Phish, Paul Stanley of KISS—he has never chased musical trends. And from what musicians tell me, McCoury never held those who did in contempt. Instead, he takes enjoyment and inspiration from all music, including that which he wouldn’t play.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Phil Vassar Reminds Fans “Don’t Miss Your Life”

Phil Vassar’s new video for his song “Don’t Miss Your Life” should come with the following warning: Side effects may include a lump in the throat and tears.

Although fans know the story of how Vassar was hard at work on an airplane while traveling between gigs when a conversation with another passenger inspired him to write the song, the just-released video gives the emotional song even more power. Doubt that? Vassar played the song for a friend in radio who insisted—his exact words were something to the effect of “I’m not leaving until you agree to let me play that song on the air” —he release it as a single sooner rather than later.

“I would never, ever have put out a ballad in the spring or summer, but this is a good song and really deserves to come out now,” said Vassar, who is working on a new album to release on his own label. “So I had a friend of mine (videographer and director Steve Condon) come on the road with me and my band [to film parts of the video)”.

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Your Country’s Right Here: “Lung of Love” Tour is Amy Ray’s Labor of Love

Even months after Amy Ray released her latest solo project Lung of Love, it is difficult to listen to it and not hear nuances that weren’t apparent earlier.

Like some of the best movies that need repeated viewings before you begin to grasp the full intent of the filmmakers, Lung of Love is filled with such subtle variegation that repeated listening is a joy. Perhaps some of that variation can be credited to Ray, half of the internationally renowned GRAMMY Award-winning folk duo the Indigo Girls, taking inspiration for the array of artists she enjoys.

“I love all the different kinds of music,” said Ray. “I listen [to] Josh Ritter and Patti Smith and a lot of funky stuff. I always go back to that for inspiration. There is so much good stuff, it’s hard to name it all.”

The same, of course, can be said for Ray’s music both in her Indigo Girls’ partnership with Emily Saliers and as a solo artist. On this album, Ray stepped out of her comfort zone—she and Saliers write alone for the Indigo Girls—and co-wrote four songs on this album with producer Greg Griffith.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Cathy and Marcy Uke It Up

It seems safe to accept it as a given that Cathy Fink and her musical partner Marcy Marxer didn’t win GRAMMY Awards because they played it safe. Their latest album takes the same non-traditional path with songs that owe more to Pete Seeger than Pete Townsend as played on the once lowly uke.

“In the old days, people used to laugh at us because we played for kids,” said Fink recently about the duo’s untraditional musical path that led to the recent release of the thirteen-track recording Rockin’ the Uke. “Now they are trying to play for kids. And we have been sprinkling uke cuts [throughout our albums and shows] for years.”

More like decades, to be exact. Fink carved out her initial musical niche in her hometown of Baltimore during the height of the folk revival before moving on to Montreal and beyond. Multi-instrumentalist Marxer has played folk, Celtic fingerpicking, bluegrass, old time and swing for years as a studio musician, performer and producer. Perhaps it was something akin to destiny that these two virtuosos would work their way to the uke.

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Your Country’s Right Here: Enter the Haggis Make a Splash with ‘Whitelake’

Maybe I’m just a pushover for a band that has both a fiddle player and the more-than-occasional bagpiper, but there’s something about Enter the Haggis—the Canadian-Scottish folk rock band that just knocks me out.

Anyone who has been to a show by the Toronto-based band can likely tell you that I’m in good company. I never really thought the whole “band’s energy igniting a crowd” was more than an overused phrase until I saw Enter the Haggis fire up their audiences especially when playing the aptly named “Gasoline.” Suffice to say, the crowds went wild and, really, the energy was palatable.

“We have a great fan base and they know we won’t do the same thing twice,” said Haggis bass player Mark Abraham from Baltimore, where the band had just finished a gig, about the band’s recently released album Whitelake. “Even people who like our older Celtic songs wouldn’t expect us to do that.”

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Your Country’s Right Here: Fred Eaglesmith’s “6 Volts’ is Electrifying

Listening to Fred Eaglesmith’s latest release, “6 Volts,” makes you feel as if you’re having a cozy midnight chat with a kindred spirit.

Perhaps that’s because each song on this album has spirit – in every sense of the word – whether its offers a well-deserved swipes at Johnny-Cash-come-lately fans such as on the song “Johnny Cash” or tells tales of love gone horribly wrong such as on the song “Katie.” The much-lauded Canadian folk artist is one of the few musicians who is brave, savvy and talented enough to dig beneath the pretext of a subject and expose its true meaning. Not to carry word play too far, but he’s a true artistic spirit — not that he will admit it.

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