Brandi Carlile is a neo-folk and country singer-songwriter with a great sense of time and place. According to her Allmusic biography, she grew up in the small and isolated town of Ravensdale, Washington, which is about 50 miles outside of Seattle. There she lived the life of imagination and didn’t find formal schooling to her liking. She joined the Seattle music scene at a very young age, and eventually formed a local band. Her style started out within the rock & roll tradition, especially focused on the classic rock of the 1970s, but then she began to find her own voice and music. That voice, powerful and clear, breaks into the emotive style reminiscent of the folk, bluegrass, and country traditions. Here she is performing a song from her latest album. The song is “The Eye” and the album is The Firewatcher’s Daughter, which was released this past March. It is an album, according to the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, where her life is embedded in her music. That is a high praise for a songwriter documenting her times and the human condition.
Josh Ritter is also from the Northwestern United States. According to his bio, he hails from the town of Moscow (pronounced with a long ‘o’ at the end in lieu of the ‘ow’), Idaho, best known as the home of the University of Idaho, a place to which I have an ersatz connection. He studied neuroscience at Oberlin College for a while, but dropped out to pursue a music career, with Dylan and Johnny Cash among his biggest influences. Attracted to contemporary folk, he sought gigs on the east coast that supported the genre, and found a means of self-financing his tours for a few years before finally being picked up by a major label. Since 2001 he is considered one of the leading lights in contemporary folk, though his music has, at times, at least for me–and particularly over the last couple of years–has swerved into verbosity, fractured prose, navel gazing, and parody. A recent divorce seemed to magnify these negative traits, lacking the emotional strength, subtlety, and compassion of confessional musical predecessors like the Thompsons’ Shoot Out the Lights, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Roseanne Cash’s The Wheel.
To a certain extent comparing any artist’s work to these classic works is somewhat unfair, but given the high esteem and standard to which Ritter is held, it is useful to point out that he did not attain the same level of connection to himself and the world at large in the wake of what one would view as personal pain and tragedy. Earlier in his career he confused addressing big subjects with the a connection to the world at large. Such a path in music is not an intellectual or literary discourse–it is an emotive one. Hipsters and intellectuals may like his music, but folk is and was always intended to be the music of the people. It is the humanizing palliative in a world where people are too tired, too overworked, and too frustrated to listen to a lecture, otherwise the power of the dehumanizing elements win out. If you want to connect with people you have to do it on their terms. Ritter seems to have learned this lesson in his latest album, Sermon on the Rocks. Here he is performing the song “The Stone.”