GRETCHEN PETERS – Dancing With The Beast (Scarlet Letter/Proper PRPCD148P)

Dancing With The BeastHaving enjoyed her biggest success to date with the Ben Glover co-penned southern gothic ‘Blackbirds’, it is, perhaps, not too surprising to find echoes in Dancing With The Beast. In terms of narrative, the slightly swampy ‘Wichita’, which Glover also co-wrote and which features Jerry Douglas on Dobro, is another murder ballad, this time round a mentally handicapped 12-year-old girl taking a gun to protect herself, her dysfunctional divorced mother and little sister from an abusive man as she sings “I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita”.

More specifically, the politically pointed ‘Lowlands’ traces a similar melody to the Grammy winner’s refrain on a song written in response to the 2016 election with lyrics reflecting the sense of disquiet about a man who “lies just for the sake of lying.. sell you kerosene and call it hope.” This one’s not written with Ben Glover, but he does have three co-write credits, the first up being the album’s opening number, a three-way split with Matraca Berg, a melancholically, world weary reflective song about growing old and times changing as she sings “I get lost in my hometown, since they tore the Drive-In down”, perhaps carrying with it hints of incipient Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the album, she’s backed by Doug Lancio on guitar and synths, guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboard player Barry Walsh, bassist and John Gardner on drums, the songs populated with a variety of female characters and driven by a feminist perspective. The moods vary. On the dreamy, piano-backed ‘The Boy From Rye’, steeped in the insecurities of female adolescence, it’s one of wistful reflection on a summer romance with a boy from out of town who, “His smile knowing and ironic” divided friendships as “One by one he broke our virgin hearts/And set us one against the other”. In contrast, the more musically muscular but equally poignant ‘Life Is A Disappearing Act’ turns its gaze on a middle-aged woman who, widowed after fifty years of marriage, having lost two babies at birth and a son to the Iraq war, mentally and emotionally rather than physically, now finds herself alone, lonely and isolated, trapped in a “dark cocoon” and “crying at the kitchen sink” , “if Jesus is comin’ soon And if he is, he better make it quick”.

She turns the mirror on herself, and any touring musician, for the whisperingly sung ‘The Show’, which, accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and piano, reflects on life on the road, “somewhere between Bend and Birmingham”, drinking hotel coffee that “tastes like kerosene”, saving up the energy for “Nineteen songs and one more night to go”.

Clearly, it can take its toll (“I clutch this guitar to my chest and wonder just what I’ll have left/When all of this hard traveling’s finally done”), especially on sustaining a relationship, and she reprises the theme on ‘Lay Low’, where, “a good three hours to Aberdeen”, she sings how “Tonight I’ll call to say hello, but your phone’s just gonna ring I know” and of the need to take some time out to recharge.

The other two Glover co-writes play back to back. Like ‘Blackbirds’, they’ve both recorded their own versions, the title track here to be found on his current Shorebound album, both swelling towards the end and featuring a nervy acoustic guitar line, but her’s without the prominent strings and the drums held back until towards the end and Kim Richey on background vocals. A song about that voice that whispers in your ear that you’re no good or you can’t do it, be it depression, a sense of insecurity or whatever, and how the best way to deal with it is to “circle round the room together /Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss.” However, lyrics like “It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me/If anything it’s that he cares too much /It’s only that he wants the best for me /It’s only that I don’t try hard enough” also lend themselves to an interpretation of an abusive relationship that chimes with the #MeToo movement, especially given the confessional and emotionally bruised way Peters’ delivers the lines.

The second, underpinned by Walsh’s piano and again echoing Blackbirds’ melody line, is ‘Truckstop Angel’, a variation on ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ that addresses prostitution and self-respect as the character sings of being unsure if she’s predator or prey, but that “One day I’m gonna leave here /Gonna hit my lucky streak, Gonna spread my gorgeous wings and fly/Above all this concrete”.

At the end of the day, this is an album about rising above the weight and the burdens, imposed by both others and yourself, a simple humanity and moving epiphany found in the gorgeous ‘Say Grace’, Douglas on dobro and Richey on backing, taking refuge in faith or friends as the lost, the despairing, the bruised and the broken are welcomed to share in prayer at shelter by the bus station depot, the lesson of the day being “Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes You can start all over if that’s what it takes… You are not a loser, you are not a hopeless case” .

It ends with just her and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar for ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’, a song that, born of a dream about her late mother in which “she held my hand and she said, ‘You know, honey, there is love that makes a cup of tea’.” In many ways an echo of the blessing in ‘Kindness’ on Glover’s album, it’s a celebration of how, for all the big dramatic moments, of “love that moves a mountain” or “love that fights for justice knowing justice won’t be done”, sometimes the smallest, simplest human moment can be the most profound. There is sadness, there is weariness, there is trepidation, but, as the conclusion to Lowlands notes, at the end of the day there is also hope, because “We get a lot of clouds here in the lowlands /But now and then a little light gets through.” This is a beacon.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s: website: www.gretchenpeters.com

‘Disappearing Act’ – official video:

Martin Harley – new album

Martin Harley

Static In The Wires is the new album from blues-Americana singer-songwriter Martin Harley and bass player extraordinaire Daniel Kimbro (Jerry Douglas, Larkin Poe).

Martin Harley is a supremely talented acoustic roots and blues guitarist, singer and songwriter with a burgeoning global reputation. Static in the Wires is his seventh album and the second with Daniel. The two first met through mutual friend, Sam Lewis, at Hippie Jack’s music festival in Crawford Tennessee. After a brief backstage rehearsal the two took to the stage for an hour of largely improvised music. A few weeks later they were cutting a record at Zac Brown’s iconic Southern Ground studios. Their live shows bring aspects of blues, Americana and folk to the table; Martin playing a 100 year Weissenborn (Hawaiian acoustic lap guitar), while Daniel beats scratches and bows a double bass to create an unexpected array of textures and sounds.

Static In The Wires was tracked live at Wow & Flutter Studios in East Nashville over four days. Engineered and mixed by analogue guru Joe V. McMahan making use of every corner of the space. The drums sounded great in the kitchen and if you listen carefully you can hear the freight trains rolling past. At one point heavily armed police sealed off the area to conduct a manhunt.

Mixing elements of Santo & Johnny, JJ Cale and Taj Mahal, Static in the Wires follows 2015’s Live at Southern Ground, glowingly described by The Observer as “A spellbinding 50 minutes”.

Guests on Static In The Wires include multiple Grammy Award-winner Jerry Douglas (Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, Dolly Parton), Derek Mixon (Chris Stapleton, Sam Lewis), and Micah Hulsher (Alabama Shakes).

Martin has headlined Music City Roots in Nashville, performed on the Cayamo Cruise with Chris Stapleton, toured coast to coast with ZZ Ward and Delta Rae and opened for Iron & Wine, Bruce Hornsby, Five for Fighting, World Party, Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa amongst others. His music has featured on hit TV shows The Vampire Diaries and Banshee among others. In summer 2016 Martin and Daniel played Winnipeg, Vancouver, Canmore and Calgary Folk Music Festival as well as shows in the Caribbean, the US and Europe.

Daniel has played the Ryman Auditorium, The Grand Ole Opry, the Tennessee Theatre, Bonnaroo, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, MerleFest, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Stordfest, The Kate Wolf Folk Festival, The Edmonton Folk Festival, New Orleans Jazz Fest, The Blue Note Tokyo, Chateau St. Michelle, Jammin at Hippie Jack’s and  many more.

Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/martinharleymusic/

‘One For The Road’ live:

New album from French Celtic band Doolin’

Doolin'

Doolin’ is France’s premiere Celtic band and their self-titled debut for Compass Records is one of the freshest and most exciting Celtic records in years. Natives of Toulouse, Doolin’ worked with legendary Irish guitarist John Doyle in the producer’s chair to achieve a sound uniquely their own—deeply rooted in traditional Celtic music but wonderfully flavored with French chanson, American roots music and even hip hop straight from the streets of Paris.

The band traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to record the album and worked in the legacy studio now owned by Compass Records where the Outlaw Movement in country music took root in the late 1960s. The resulting experience infused Doolin’ with an infectious energy. The musical essence of the band is captured on the fiery ‘The Road to Gleanntan’, the gorgeous reflective character of ‘Le Dernier Kouign Amann’, the beautifully rendered Jacques Brel classic ‘Amsterdam’, with its evocative strains of accordion and French lyric, and culminates with the bold integration of rap and John Doyle’s percussive guitar style on Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Famine’. Collaborations with special guests Jerry Douglas (Dobro), John Doyle (guitar, bouzouki), Alison Brown (banjo), and Kenny Malone (percussion) brought stellar results on stand out tracks that include a reworking of the Steve Earle classic ‘Galway Girl’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’.

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‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown’ live:

GRETCHEN PETERS – Blackbirds (Scarlet Letter Records/Proper PRPCD124P)

BlackbirdsOne of last year’s finest albums was Ben Glover’s ‘Atlantic’, and one the finest tracks on that was ‘Blackbirds’, a southern gothic tale of an unfaithful heart murder he co-wrote with Peters and on which she duetted. It resurfaces now for her own version, providing both the album’s title and, with stripped bleak, ominously swelling bonus track reprise, its bookends. Where Glover’s was a brooding acoustic number, Peters, who delivers it solo, colours her first version with a sparse, throaty electric guitar fuzz, restrained organ fills, a fuller chorus and a swelling instrumental break. It’s a different approach, but no less electrifying in its dark power, setting the thematic and emotive scene for the contemplations of death that follow.

It’s one of three numbers she co-penned with Glover, second up being the next track, ‘Pretty Things’, an achingly wearied, musically understated number built around guitar arpeggios that disarmingly harbours a lyric about numbing the pain, the cruel vagaries of fate and life’s “slow parade of losses.” The third, ‘When You Coming Home Baby?’,  sees her duetting with Jimmy LeFave on another downbeat number about separation and desperation as, backed by banjo and Jerry Douglas on dobro, she sings “Cause you got a bottle, don’t mean you have to drink.”

There’s one other co-write, reuniting her with her Wine, Women and Song tour collaborators Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, who also provide backing vocals, for ‘Black Ribbons’, the heady brew of baritone guitars, accordion, banjo, charango and mandola underpinning the sense of anger and helplessness in a tale woven around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a fisherman lays his wife to rest. There’s also a single non-original, David Mead’s ‘Nashville’, a gently rolling leaving and coming home love song to the city that, with its twilight skies ambiance, brings a rare note of optimism and light to the otherwise overcast proceedings.

The pull between the need to escape and the desire to stay are evident too on the piano-backed, strings-painted ballad ‘Jubilee’, a nod to her New York childhood that conjures the gospel hues of Randy Newman in its musings of mortality and familial bonds that give a poignant but celebratory tug to the lines “I’m an orphan thirty years on how I miss my father’s voice and my mother’s arms. I was you once, and now you’re me. It’s in this circle that we make a family.” Piano and strings again accompany another song about death on ‘Everything Falls Away’, the sea and the tide serving as the metaphors for loss as she recalls “a voice on the phone saying I’m sorry” and going to down to the sea to remember happier times.

Dreamy yet haunted by an overwhelming hurt, ‘The House on Auburn Street’ again takes her back to those New York days and uses a late 60s childhood memory of a neighbours’ house burning as a metaphor for the end of innocence and suburbia’s underbelly, foreshadowing tragedy in the line “I found you on the roof shooting sparks into your veins and staring vacantly across the green suburban plains.”

Peters says the album is about “lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their way out of it”, and that finds its strongest expression in ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’, a blues underpinned number about injustice, with surly baritone guitar, charango, dobro and Jason Isbell on harmonies, as Peters sketches a powerful portrait of a soldier who “came home from the desert with a medal on his chest”, ill-equipped to fit back in, suffering post traumatic stress, left to fend for himself and unable to “feed his own damn children on the money that he brings home.” Peters superbly catches that sense of impotency and rage in the memorable line “when all you got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A hospital provides the setting for the despairing ‘The Cure For The Pain’, the final cut before the ‘Blackbirds’ reprise, as with a simple delicate electric guitar and melancholic strings arrangement, the protagonist begins by damning the hell, the “sorry waste”, he’s come to where waiting for death doesn’t come with movie violins, just “machines and medicine”, and ends by blessing the pills, the sheets, the food that you can’t eat and “the damned who walk these halls”, hauntingly recognising that, in a line loaded with both nihilism and empathy, “the cure for the pain is the pain.”

It is not, perhaps, the sort of thing you might put on to lift you from the depths of depression or the contemplation of the inevitable, but such are the glimmers of light shining through these wonderful songs and magnificent performances, that, even at the darkest, Peters’ compassion, anger and sense of the preciousness of the moments we have lead you to not go gentle into that good night, but to rage and say “Goddamn this losing fight.”

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

It’s not on the album, but you gotta love this. Gretchen, Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen PetersFresh off her induction into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Gretchen Peters has confirmed the 9th February release of her new album Blackbirds. Co-produced with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh and recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make Blackbirds the most poignant and moving album of the GRAMMY-nominee’s storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto them.

The eleven tracks on Blackbirds face down death with a dark grit and delicate beauty.

“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for Blackbirds, there was one week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus somehow more moving.”

She found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe), but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective. “As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak about it,” says Peters, whose incredible catalogue of songs—including ‘Independence Day’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ — have been recorded by everyone from Martina McBride and Neil Diamond to Etta James and Trisha Yearwood. “Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and sexuality. I want to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be talking about it.”

In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent tour-mate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew up on, albeit with a more haunted, country-noir vibe simmering just below the surface.

Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending stops in southern Louisiana at the scene of a crime (‘Blackbirds’), Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy suburbia in which she grew up (‘The House On Auburn Street’), and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill (‘Black Ribbons’). ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ is the story of a veteran struggling to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while ‘The Cure For The Pain’ takes place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and ‘Nashville’ brings us back to Peters’ adopted hometown.

Despite the varied locations, the songs on Blackbirds are all inextricably tied together through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid detail. Blackbirds follows Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World, which NPR called “the album of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda Williams.” If anything, though, Blackbirds truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.

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Blackbirds Tracklisting:

1. Blackbirds
2. Pretty Things
3. When All You Got Is A Hammer
4. Everything Falls Away
5. The House on Auburn Street
6. When You Comin’ Home
7. Jubilee
8. Black Ribbons
9. Nashville
10. The Cure For The Pain
11. Blackbirds (reprise)

Artist’s website: www.gretchenpeters.com

Q&A. Dai Jeffries talks to Emily Smith

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.

Emily’s tour opens in Inverness on March 6th. For more details visit http://emilysmith.org/

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Artist’s website: www.emilysmith.org