His voice croakier and gummier than ever, sounding as one review put it, like he’s wearing someone else’s teeth, even so Holcombe continues to deliver the goods when it comes to coal dust coated Appalachian blues. Pretty Little Troubles a quick follow-up to last year’s Another Black Hole.
Joined by Dennis Crouch on bass, Jared Tyler on mandolin and dobro, Verlon Thompson on acoustic and Resonator slide with producer Darrell Scott on pretty much everything else save percussion (Kenny Laone/Marco Giovio), as well as contributions by Jelly Roll Johnson on harmonica, Joel Miskulin on accordion, strings-player Jonathan Yudkin (who comes into his own on the stomping ‘The Sky Stood Still’) and Uillean piper Mike McGoldrick, it’s essentially an album about either troubled times or women.
It’s the former that leads off with the bluesy, swampy ‘Crippled Point O’View’ with its clanky junkyard percussion, leading on to ‘Yours No More’, a slide guitar-backed song about America no longer extending its welcome hand to immigrants and refugees, the mood extending to more musically lively banjo picked ‘Good Ole Days’ with its call and response chorus and a reminder that rose coloured reflection often forgets things were not necessarily better back then.
As you might imagine, the pedal steel laced blues ‘Outta Luck’ with its line about how “poison lives in my blood” and talk of hot women, cold cash and drugs doesn’t exactly up the positivism ante. However, the gypsy flavoured ‘South Hampton Street’, a reminiscence of a girl with long black hair and a gypsy concertina busking on the street, has a more upbeat note, though the same cannot be said for another touring memory, ‘Bury, England’, a Dylanesque talking blues with Tyler on dobro about a gig where the venue “smelled like an old folks home inside”, he had “the worst cup o’ coffee” ever and the audience couldn’t give a damn.
The song mentions Guy Clark and there’s a definite echo of him to be heard on ‘Rocky Ground’ while other highlights include the title track’s Waits-like walking blues, the fingerpicked ‘Damn Weeds’, a wry state of the nation comment, and the McGoldrick-featuring Gaelic-hued talking blues ‘The Eyes O’ Josephine’ with its line about having “a pint or two in Belfast” and “an Irish girl forever curls around your heart o’ glass.” Another spin on “the hard times we been going;’ thru”, it’s no huge departure from what he’s been doing for years, but if you liked that, you’ll want a copy of this too. Unless you’re from Bury, of course.
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Emily Smith’s fifth solo album, Echoes, will be released on 24th February followed by a spring tour. While we wait, what else has been going on?
It’s pretty much all about the new album. To start off we have three dates at Celtic Connections and because they are before the album is officially released we’ll be launching an EP with two tracks from the album and two even newer tracks that people can’t get anywhere else. We recorded that at the end of December but I have an eight month old baby boy and he’s taking up most of my time!
The new record is more traditional than Traiveller’s Joy which featured your own song-writing. What prompted that move, if move it is?
We started recording this album in November and December 2012 so it’s been a long time and I just had lots of traditional songs that kept popping into my head – songs that I’d forgotten about – and I was thinking ‘I want to do something with that’. I seemed that my heart was leaning towards making a more traditional album. Traiveller’s Joy and the two before that were a 50:50 split of traditional and newly-written songs – my songs or other people’s songs. I’d written a few songs but I’ve never written every week or every day or every month – if I feel like writing a song it comes and I move on. But when I was starting to think about Echoes I had lots of traditional songs coming to the surface but I didn’t want to follow the stereotypical template in terms of instruments and arrangements. I still wanted to do something new and fresh.
Indeed. The record has a very rich sound produced by relatively few, albeit very talented, musicians. Is that down to the production, the arrangements, the playing?
I think it’s all of those. Jamie [McClennan] and I always start together. I choose the songs and have a rough idea of where we want to go and we’ll work on it a bit and gradually bring in other people. The first person to be brought in on this album was Matheu Watson, who mainly plays guitar but also fiddle and whistle. We took a lot more time to rehearse this album before we went into the studio so we rehearsed a lot with Matheu and also Signy Jakobsdottir, who we’ve worked with for several years, and the bass player Ross Hamilton.
So that’s the core band and we spent a fair bit of time playing together, going through the songs and recording live together as much as we could. In previous years we’ve had to layer things. There is still a bit of that and obviously the folks who have recorded over in the States were added on but the groundwork was done altogether.
Does working through the material before recording make a significant difference?
I think it does. The first album I made was done with a band I’d gigged with quite a lot and that came together quite quickly. You take time to settle into it and it gave time to change things. If you book someone to come in and record on a particular day and then go away that’s the part they’ve laid down. If you’ve played together you’ve got the time to change and adapt and the songs really did change. At the start I was thinking that it was going to be a more stripped-back album – I love the way it’s turned out but it’s so funny to think back to how I thought it was going to be.
There are non-Scottish instruments, like lap steel, on the album but they don’t detract from the essential Scottish feel.
That’s something I really wanted to hold on to. I do listen to a lot of American music and I’m influenced by a lot of American artists and the bluegrass scene – the Transatlantic Sessions guys; Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien and Aoife O’Donovan, who sings on the album – she’s one of my favourite singers – but I certainly didn’t want to make an album that sounded American. I wanted it to be a Scottish album with its own sound.
There is a kinship between Scottish music and some of the music of the Americas, simply because the Scots took their music with them, isn’t there?
Definitely. That’s really apparent in the songs that Aoife used to sing in Crooked Still. I could hear the Scottish versions in them. There’s a strong thread and it’s nice to be able to collaborate and we’re living in an age where you don’t even have to be on the same continent to be able to perform together.
Of the three covers on the album, Archie Fisher’s ‘The Final Trawl’ seems a natural choice but how did you come across Darrell Scott’s song, ‘The Open Door’?
It’s on an album of his called The Crooked Road and we bought that the year it came out. Jamie and I have always been big Darrell Scott fans. We came across him because we knew of Tim O’Brien and they did a duo album. After that Darrell was playing in Glasgow – that must be about seven years ago – we went to see him and were totally blown away by his voice and his songs.
And ‘John O’ Dreams’?
It wasn’t Bill’s version I heard first. It was a young Irish singer called Daoirí Farrell. It was on an album he put out a couple of years ago and it just reached out and touched me – I thought it was a really beautiful song. Then you go on to find other versions. When I come across a song I like to learn it and then go and listen to other people singing it, once I’ve made my own version. Then I don’t feel like I’ve been influenced in the way I sing it.
The covers seem to fit in with the other songs that I was choosing. Jamie and I have been gigging ‘The Open Door’ for a good few years and likewise ‘John O’ Dreams’.
Who will be with you on the tour?
The bulk of the tour will be myself, Jamie and Matheu playing as a trio with the exception of the Queen’s Hall date in Edinburgh and the London show at Cecil Sharp House where we’ll also have Signy and Ross – percussion and bass. At Celtic Connections, the first gig on 28th January will also have Jerry Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan and another backing vocalist, Rory Butler.
With her fifth solo album, Emily Smith has returned to traditional song. I have to say that this pleases me greatly, not because I dislike her songwriting, but because the great canon of Scottish traditional song cries out for her voice to record it.
That may be a trifle ambitious but Echoes is an excellent way to start going about it. The core band of Emily’s producer and husband Jamie McClennan, Matheu Watson, Signy Jakobsdottir and Ross Hamilton is augmented by guests including Kris Drever, Tim Edey and Jerry Douglas bringing a variety of influences to the songs without detracting from their essential Scottishness. Douglas’s slide guitar adds an entirely unexpected texture to the opener, ‘Reres Hill’ and to an inspired ‘King Orfeo’ in which Emily retains the Gaelic refrain. There’s a touch of seventies’ folk-rock in ‘My Darling Boy’ but ‘Twa Sisters’ and ‘Clerk Saunders’ contrive to sound both modern and old simultaneously. The performances are all first class and I should single out the cello of Natalie Haas as being a key element of the arrangements, majestically underlining the songs.
There are three “modern” written songs – written within the last fifty years, that is. Archie Fisher’s ‘The Final Trawl’ has almost attained traditional status but Darrell Scott’s ‘The Open Door’ is essentially a country song that is presented here almost as a tale of Scots emigration to the New World. Finally we have Bill Caddick’s ‘John O’ Dreams’. It’s a song we’ve all heard many times before – because it’s a bloody good song – but Emily manages to bring something fresh to it by not trying to do anything clever. It’s probably my favourite version.
In case I’ve not made myself clear, Echoes is a brilliant album.
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