Bluegrass

People Love Their Nickel Creek

Photo by Brantley Gutierrez
Nickel Creek. Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

The last time I listened to Nickel Creek was to analyze their adaptation of Robert Burns’ poem, “Sweet Afton,” in my English literature class in college three years ago. Indeed, the waters of Nickel Creek flow gently, a trait reflected in “Sweet Afton” and many other Nickel Creek staples. And that general lack of bite, paired with an almost robotic mastery of each band members’ respective instrument, pushed me away from the band.

So it was strange that, with no expectations and an arbitrarily negative perception of the classic folk band, I really enjoyed seeing Nickel Creek reunite in Washington, D.C. after a six-year hiatus. The show, in sum, was really, really good.

ICYMI: Andrew Bird's 'Hands of Glory'

Courtesy of Andrew Bird's Facebook page.
'Hands of Glory' sees the indie star engage with stripped down blues and country tunes. Courtesy of Andrew Bird's Facebook page.

If you were overwhelmed by all that election business, you might have forgotten that October just happened, and with it came a new release from one of my personal favorite musicians, Andrew Bird.

Hands of Glory, Andrew Bird’s latest record and companion to March’s Break it Yourself, is the product of a pair of recording sessions prompted by an immense response to Bird’s “old-time” sets on recent tours.

Reinterpreting songs from Break It Yourself and featuring covers of classic country tunes, these “old-time” performances find Bird and his full band playing to a single microphone with an entirely acoustic setup.

Drawing inspiration from these sets, Hands of Glory features two brand new original tracks, a new interpretation of “Orpheo Looks Back” from Break It Yourself and covers of Van Zandt, the Handsome Family, Alpha Consumer and others.

The results are fantastic.

New Old-Time Country Music

The wave of young people playing old-time string band music continues to grow, with no sign of having reached a crest. In the process, the phenomenon is becoming more interesting and diverse, and, to these old ears, the whole thing is starting to make sense.

On its 2006 album Big Iron World, the Old Crow Medicine Show (featured in the January 2006 issue of Sojourners) solidified its reputation for funky old-time tub-thumpers with timeless spiritual and erotic concerns. This past summer I caught a live show by Adrienne Young, a clawhammer banjo-playing singer-songwriter from rural Florida who has begun to attract a wide audience playing country music and promoting sustainable community-based agriculture. Her newest album, Room to Grow, is more “adult alternative” than old-time, but her live show was still as rootsy as cornbread and turnip greens.

This trend took its most interesting turn recently with the advent of the Carolina Choco­late Drops, a North Carolina Piedmont-based trio of young African-American musicians. Their name harkens back to the “race records” of the 1920s, but they play banjo- and fiddle-based music that could have been heard on almost any Southern plantation at almost any time in the 19th century.

American popular music as we know it began with the emergence of the recording industry. In the 1920s, hillbilly and blues artists were recorded and heard by audiences beyond the South. One day in Bristol, Virginia, both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family cut their first discs. Around the same time, field recorders further south were capturing the ur-blues of Charley Patton and black string bands such as the Mississippi Sheiks. And the whole world loved it. The country music industry, the market for jazz and rhythm and blues, and finally rock and roll itself grew inexorably and inevitably from those original roots.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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Bluegrass Gospel

Offering listeners more impassioned spiritual music in four hours than they might hear in a lifetime of Sunday morning services, "Stained Glass Bluegrass" is a wonderful—and wonderfully named—Sunday morning public radio show in Washington, D.C. Hosted by Red Shipley, this church of the air waves plays traditional and contemporary bluegrass songs that are both testaments to faith and to the musical form itself.

For those unable to listen to Shipley's show, however, two fine new releases on the Rounder Records label provide the sort of down-home spiritual fare that often finds its way on to his venerable play list. The first, Blue Highway's Wondrous Love, is a remarkable journey through the history of religious bluegrass and country music. The group's versions of such traditional songs as the stirring title track and the haunting instrumental "The Rugged Old Cross" feel both old-timey and timeless. They speak to a new generation of listeners like a knowing voice of yore coming straight down from the Appalachian hills.

Artfully reworked covers of Bill Monroe's "Wicked Path of Sin" and the Carter Family's "Live on Down the Line" are bristling, high-energy tales of the redemptive spirit at work. But on this album, it's the luminescent harmonies of the group's five members—Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, Rob Ickes, and Jason Burleson—that sound most like a divine gift. Clear-toned and keening, their singing brings alive the message and emotion of songs like "Ahead of the Storm" and "The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Cross." Lane's soulful tenor on the prayerful and lovely "I'm Asking You" is a thing of melancholy beauty, revealing a vulnerability that has evolved into belief. It's the truthfulness and strength in these performances that makes these songs so compelling, and it is why this album is such a vivid and moving contribution to the bluegrass gospel genre.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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