Sunday Music Interlude — Brandi Carlile performing “The Eye” and Josh Ritter performing “The Stone”

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.”


Saturday Music Interlude — Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Every once in awhile in music, amidst the complexly produced and orchestrated (for which, in their own right, there are also pleasures to be found), comes something so authentic and real that it takes you in.  Such is the case with Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear.  They were the WXPN Artist to Watch last month and appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert which, if you’ve never checked it out, is the place to go on-line to see live some of the best up-and-coming acts and talent.  Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear’s performance on that program comprises the music video to follow.  Rolling Stone probably made the call early, listing them at the top of their “20 Best Things We Saw at Americana Music Fest 2014”.

This family duo, mother Ruth “the Mama Bear” Ward and son Madisen Ward, are out of the Kansas City, Missouri area.  Among most sources this is the totality of the bio they decide to publish, but thanks to we have a better feel for their roots and influences.  Ruth Ward, who was born in Gary, Indiana, back in 1952, has been into music for quite some time, leaving home at the age of 19 and kicking around coffee houses with her guitar while traveling the American Southwest and Midwest, and managed to make two independent albums along the way.  She met Kenneth Ward, her husband, and they settled down in Independence, Missouri, where they raised a family with Ruth putting her musical dreams on the back burner.  Madisen, who was born in 1988, shared the love of music that animated his mother.  Just like her, he began performing at the age of 19 at coffee houses and small clubs in St. Louis and Independence.  By 2013 they were performing together in and around Kansas City and their infectious music began to draw attention.  Since the Rolling Stone article I’ve run by some odd and sundry live performances of their work but now they have their first album out entitled Skeleton Crew.


Sunday Early Morning Music — Ryley Walker performing “Primrose Green”

Designated the March Artist to Watch by WXPN in Philadelphia, Ryley Walker is a guitar virtuoso and folk/singer-songwriter out of Chicago.  His first CD, which was released last year, was the well-received All Kinds of You.  His talent is extraordinary and his musical interests span traditional folk, Celtic, jazz-folk, British late ’60s era folk-rock, country blues, and psychedelica.  His new full-length CD is entitled Primrose Green.  The title song is what follows and it is very reminiscent of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and Donovan.