Welcome to the 2019 Folking Awards and thank you again to everyone who participated this year. The nominations, were in eight categories, and came from our ever-expanding team of writers and were collated into shape by the Folkmeister and the Editor over a pint or two, which also involved, a few arm-wrestles and a spot of beer-mat aerobics, in a convenient local watering hole.
There were five nominees in each category, all of whom have impressed our writers during 2018.
As we said last year, all are winners in our eyes, as are quite a few who didn’t make the short list. However, it’s not just about what we think, so once more, it was down to you, our ever-growing readership, to make the final call.
We will now compile the results and announce the winners of each category at some point next week.
*The Public Vote for each category closed at 9.00pm on Sunday 31st March (GMT+1).
Soloist Of The Year
Gilmore & Roberts
Daria Kulesh and Jonny Dyer
Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar
The Men They Couldn’t Hang
Trials Of Cato
Best Live Act
The Men They Couldn’t Hang
Martin Stephenson & The Daintees
A Problem Of Our Kind – Gilmore & Roberts The Well Worn Path – Seth Lakeman The Joy Of Living – Jackie Oates Queer As Folk – Grace Petrie Hide And Hair – Trials Of Cato
Smith & Brewer
Best International Artist(s)
Founded by Darden Smith some five years ago, SongwritingWith: Soldiers is a charitable organisation that brings together musicians and often wounded (physically, spiritually and mentally) veterans, those still in active service and their families in a short retreat to write songs of an Americana persuasion together in an attempt to come to terms with and, hopefully, ease and heal their pain. Results have often been life-changing, even life-saving, and Amy Speace, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Radney Foster have all been involved while songs that have emerged from the process have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.
To that list you can now add Mary Gauthier, no stranger to either psychological and emotional troubles or finding salvation through confessional songwriting, these 11 numbers here are the result of a series of soul-baring sessions, all co-written with soldiers and the first she’s recorded not directly connected to her own life and experiences.
It begins with the deliberately ambiguously titled ‘Soldiering On’, written in collaboration with Jennifer Marino, a Marine veteran, and addresses the difficulty in fitting back into life at home after the experiences of combat where the attitudes and behaviours that kept you alive can be destructive in a civilian or domestic setting as, set to a simple acoustic strum that morphs to include electric guitar, strings and resonant drums as it builds to a climax, she sings “what saves you in the battle can kill you at home.”
Marino also co-penned ‘Morphine 1-2’, a simple country jog built on steady one-two drum beat from Neilson Hubbard and accompanied by Danny Mitchell’s piano and horns that, laden with poignancy, unfolds the story of the titular medical helicopter’s female pilot who, along with the six members of her crew, died during a “desert blood drop” mission on her last scheduled flight before returning home
The fraught nature of post-combat life is understandably a recurring theme, potently surfacing again on ‘The War After The War’, which, set to slow march rhythm shaded by Michele Gazich’s violin, was co-written with Chapman (who, along with Odessa Settles, provides the album’s background vocals) and the assorted wives of service members and concerns the pressures and pains of living with a wounded veteran, their husbands honoured while they and the problems they face in being strong are consigned to the shadows, invisible. “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?” she asks as they daily have to deal with “landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor”.
The same concern is seen from the soldier’s perspective on the slow waltzing ‘It’s Her Love’, co-written with another Marine, James Dooley, a haunting finger-picked number, gradually embellished by piano and violin, about how his wife’s love keeps him together even “when I am broken and push her away” and “the dead and the dying are all I can see”.
PTSD and the inability to shake the memories of what was seen and done is a prime cause for the estimated 7,400 suicides of current and former members of the armed services in America every year, and it’s the foundation of the sparse slow waltz acoustic title track which, written with Joe Costello and underscored by mournful harmonica, violin and piano, tells of the memories of “bombed out schools and homes” return to haunt and not recognising the man you see in the mirror, “a stranger with blood on his hands”, turning to Vicodin, morphine and prayer in an attempt to escape the living nightmares.
The album also looks at the bonds forged on the battlefield in two songs written with young army veterans Megan Counighan and Britney Pfad. Built on a tribal drum beat ‘Got Your Six’ is about watching your fellow soldier’s back, at home as much as under fire, while the more uptempo ‘Brothers’ is about both a naïve new recruit, a young mother, trying to “prove that I’m a brother too” and, in the final verse, the way the women who served are forgotten when the flags are raised in salute.
It’s a gender-related theme that also extends to ‘Iraq’, a slow sway written by former army mechanic Brandy Davidson about the sexual harrassment and patronising attitudes she encountered (“a salute and a wink, a little pat on the back”) as, accompanying herself on harmonica, Gauthier sings “it was so hard to see ‘til it attacked but my enemy wasn’t Iraq”.
The three remaining numbers are all about the aftermath, the loss and the ambivalence. Again featuring harmonica, co-written with Josh Geartz, ‘Still On The Ride’ is from the perspective of a wounded veteran (“got holes in my eardrums, bruised and clots, double vision..I wake up feeling like I’m 90 years old”) that touches on survivor guilt (“I shouldn’t be here you shouldn’t be gone”) but also how the spirit of his dead comrade is the guardian angel that keeps him going.
It’s pointedly followed by the stunning ‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’, a haunting piano-backed ballad written with Desert Storm Navy veteran Jamie Trent and set against a Nashville Veterans Day backdrop and the mixed emotions of pride and sorrow it evokes (“They thank me for my service and wave their little flags. They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back”), pivoting around the striking chorus imagery of “I believe in God and country and in the angels up on high and in heaven shining down on us through bullet holes in the sky”.
It ends with a return to the women left behind as loved ones go to war or return psychologically scarred with ‘Stronger Together’, on a gentle drum rhythm-led collaboration with a group of army wives married to Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldiers about their solidarity in dealing with the prospect of loss (“EOD wives don’t sit by the phone. No news is good news back at home”) and caring for their broken husbands (“we’re there when they fall apart”) as, with soulful harmonies from Civil Rights music gospel Settle (the daughter of former Fairfield Four member Walter), Gauthier yearningly hymns the chorus refrain of “sisters forever”.
In the condemnation of war, it’s often easy to blur the line between the fighters and the fight, the former often as much a casualty as any. While directed at Americans, and with a timely resonance in the light of the NFL national anthem protests, the album’s humanistic themes and sentiments embrace the experiences of the military and their families on a global scale, up there with Gauthier’s finest work and not just one of the best album’s you’ll hear in 2018, but one of the most important.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier will release her most important work to date with Rifles & Rosary Beads on January 26th, 2018 via Proper Records. Co-written with U.S. veterans and their families, the eleven deeply personal songs on this album reveal the untold stories, and powerful struggles that these veterans and their spouses deal with abroad and after returning home.
Each year it is estimated that over 7400 current and former members of the United States Armed Services take their own lives. While these songs were written with US Veterans, Soldiers in the UK are dealing with the exact same problems. The songs featured on Rifles & Rosary Beads were all co-written as part of Songwriting With Soldiers, a non-profit programme that facilitates retreats bringing professional songwriters together with wounded veterans and active duty military. Participants have shared that the experience of songwriting was life-changing for them, some even said life-saving.
No stranger to pain or demons herself, Gauthier has used songwriting to work through addiction and childhood abandonment as an orphan. This is the first album where she has focused solely on experiences other than her own. The songs on Rifles & Rosary Beads tackle a variety of viewpoints. “The War After The War” deals with the strain put on a relationship while living with someone who has returned from serving, while “Iraq” depicts the helpless horror of a female military mechanic being dehumanized and sexually harassed by fellow soldiers. The gorgeous album highlight “Bullet Holes In The Sky” is a bittersweet reflection on the mixed emotions of being a veteran.
Mary Gauthier is helping veterans share experiences that only they can understand, in a way that we as listeners can relate to. This process not only has the power to touch others but also to help soldiers take a step towards healing, while at the same time creating beautiful art.
Mary Gauthier has received countless critical accolades over the last decade and a half for her seven studio albums and captivating live performances. Her previous album Trouble & Love was praised by the press, including glowing coverage from outlets including Mojo, Uncut, Financial Times, Sun, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, NPR Music, Huffington Post, American Songwriter and many more.
Having released twenty-four studio albums, starting with his self-titled 1970 debut, at almost yearly intervals, the acclaimed Canadian singers-songwriter found himself hitting a creative block following 2011’s Small Source of Comfort, partly from the distraction of becoming a father again and partly because he’d poured all his energy into penning his memoir, Rumoursof Glory.
But then he was approached to contribute a song to a documentary about seminal Canadian poet Al Purdy, and the spark returned. The result of that commission can be heard on the rhythmically chugging ‘3 Al Purdys’, which, featuring trumpet maestro Ron Miles on cornet and Julie Wolf on accordion, is a song written and sung in the gravelly voice of a homeless man who recites Purdy’s poems in the street in return for money and features spoken extracts from Purdy’s works, but extends beyond that as a typical Cockburn social commentary.
The album opens with the smoulderingly taut ‘States I’m In’, which he describes as literally a ‘dark night of the soul’ song about illusion and self-delusion and the tricks you play on yourself as it moves from sunset to dawn with imagery such as that of a drunk shinnying up a greased pole and “the mayor and his uniformed monkeys.”
‘Stab At Matter’ features his signature bluesy fingerpicked style, producer Colin Linden providing slide with gospel call and response vocals from Ruby Amanfu and The San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus, the latter a group of singers from Cockburn’s church who also feature on the subsequent folksier ‘Forty Years In The Wilderness’, this time joined by Mary Gauthier on a song about faith and moving forward.
It’s back to the blues with ‘Café Society’, a drivealong almost rockabilly boogie with treated vocals about the folk who collect at his local coffee shop to chew over the state of the world, slowing the blues groove down for the circling riff of ‘Looking and Waiting’, one of his faith and frustration religious-themed numbers (“scanning the skies for beacon from you”) that sees him on 12 string and mbira, joined by nephew John on accordion and sansula, Linden on slide and the Lighthouse Chorus, this time with Brandon Robert Young.
Cockburn’s name is too often absent when lists of guitar greats are bandied about, but, featuring just his picking and bones the intricate instrumental ‘Bone On Bone’ shows just why it should be mentioned alongside the likes of Clapton, Thompson, Gregson et al.
Its back to vocals for ‘Mon Chemin’ (aka ‘The Road’), accompanying himself on charango and dulcimer and singing (and swearing) in French for a meditation on a physical and existential life on the road that sees Miles providing some striking cornet cork. Bringing back nephew, Linden, Young and the Chorus, ‘False River’ started out as another commission, this time from Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Bloomer who wanted him to pen a spoken word piece about the Kinder Morgan Mountain Pipeline, the controversial pipeline which, built in 1953, carries crude oil from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia and is the reported source of considerable environmental damage. The final form, however, is a complex rhythmically itchy fingerpicked brooding number with lines about tanker carcasses the planet’s pierced bones and even “a diamond-crusted pendant in the shape of Bart Simpson” in what emerges as a potent environmental warning that “on our own heads be our doom.”
As the title suggests, ‘Jesus Train’ is very much in Cockburn’s gospel mode, a relentless wheels turning chugger about heading for the city of God and marking another spirited turn for Amanfu and the Chorus. Continuing with the spiritual and mysticism themes given a sense of greater urgency in the Trump era, they also line up for ‘Twelve Gates To The City’, a 12 string fingerpicked gospel blues that sees Miles adding New Orleansy jazzed brass flourishes as drummer Gary Craig pins down the persistent rhythmic drive that sees the album out in fine style. The creative drought has given way to a virtual monsoon, so perhaps, following his long overdue induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, we can look forward to a follow up in the not too distant future.
Few recording artists are as creative and prolific as Bruce Cockburn. Since his self-titled debut in 1970, the Canadian singer-songwriter has issued a steady stream of acclaimed albums every couple of years. But that output suddenly ran dry in 2011 following the release of Small Source Of Comfort. There were good reasons for the drought. For one thing, Cockburn became a father again with the birth of his daughter Iona. Then there was the publication of his 2014 memoir Rumours Of Glory.
“I didn’t write any songs until after the book was published because all my creative energy had gone into three years of writing it”, Cockburn explains, from his home in San Francisco. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with. As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”
Such doubt was new to the man who’s rarely been at a loss for words as he’s distilled political views, spiritual revelations and personal experiences into some of popular music’s most compelling songs. What spurred Cockburn back into songwriting was an invitation to contribute a song to a documentary film about the late, seminal Canadian poet Al Purdy and he was off to the races.
Bone On Bone, Cockburn’s 33rd album, arrives with eleven new songs, including ‘3 Al Purdys’, a brilliant, six-minute epic that pays tribute to Purdy’s poetry. Cockburn explains its genesis: “I went out and got Purdy’s collected works, which is an incredible book. Then I had this vision of a homeless guy who is obsessed with Purdy’s poetry, and he’s ranting it on the street. The song is written in the voice of that character. The chorus goes, “I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a twenty dollar bill.” Here’s this grey-haired dude, coat tails flapping in the wind, being mistaken for the sort of addled ranters you run into on the street – except he’s not really ranting, he’s reciting Al Purdy. The spoken word parts of the track are excerpts from Purdy’s poems. After that, once the ice was broken, the songs just started coming.”
Cockburn’s rugged fingerpicking style on the Dobro perfectly matches Purdy’s plainspoken words and the grizzled voice of his street character. A similar guitar style can be heard on two of the next songs Cockburn wrote, the gospel-like ‘Jesus Train’, and ‘Café Society’, a bluesy number about people who gather at his local coffee shop to sip their java and talk about the state of the world.
There’s a prevalent urgency and anxious tone to much of the album, which Cockburn attributes to living in America during the Trump era. But, more than anything, Bone On Bone amounts to the deepest expression of Cockburn’s spiritual concerns to date. The 12-time Juno winner and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee turned away from traditional Christianity in the mid-1970s toward a quest for the more all-inclusive mysticism he documents in his memoir. And it’s that kind of spirituality that figures prominently in ‘Jesus Train’ and ‘Twelve Gates To The City’. In ‘Looking And Waiting’, Cockburn sings of “scanning the skies for a beacon” from the divine.
“It’s a song of faith and frustration”, says Cockburn of the latter. “…Tired of looking in from the outside. My MO has always been to be aware of the divine…that dimension…always dealing with being stuck in a kind of observer’s position with respect to all that. I know it’s there. I don’t really see as faith so much as knowledge.
Others may have different ideas about those things, but for me, I don’t have to struggle to believe in God, or the notion that God cares what happens to me. But I do have to struggle with being in a conscious, intentional relationship. That underlies a lot of these songs.”
‘Forty Years In The Wilderness’ ranks alongside ‘Pacing The Cage’ or ‘All The Diamonds’ as one of Cockburn’s most starkly beautiful folk songs. “There have been so many times in my life when an invitation has come from somewhere…the cosmos…the divine…to step out of the familiar into something new. I’ve found it’s best to listen for, and follow these promptings. The song is really about that. You can stay with what you know or you can pack your bag and go where you’re called, even if it seems weird…even if you can’t see why or where you’ll end up.”
‘Forty Years In The Wilderness’ is one of several songs that feature a number of singers from the church Cockburn frequents, for the sake of convenience referred to in the album credits as the San Francisco Lighthouse “Chorus”. “The music was one of the enticements that drew me to SF Lighthouse. As I found myself becoming one of the regulars there, and got to know the people, I felt that I really wanted all these great singers, who were now becoming friends, to be on the album. They were kind enough to say yes!” Among other songs, they contribute call-and-response vocals to the stirring ‘Stab At Matter’. Other guests on the album include singer-songwriters Ruby Amanfu, Mary Gauthier, and Brandon Robert Young, along with bassist Roberto Occhipinti, and Julie Wolf, who plays accordion on ‘3 Al Purdys’ and sings with the folks from Lighthouse, together with LA songwriter Tamara Silvera.
Produced by Colin Linden, Cockburn’s longtime collaborator, the album is built around the musicianship of Cockburn on guitar and the core accompaniment of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig. Also very much part of the sound is the accordion playing of Cockburn’s nephew John Aaron Cockburn and the solos of noted fluegelhorn player Ron Miles (check out his stunning work on the cascading ‘Mon Chemin’, for example).
Two other songs should be noted. The environmental warning ‘False River’ came about at the invitation of Yvonne Bloomer, the poet laureate of Victoria, British Columbia. Bloomer was seeking a poem about the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline. “Pipelines have their own perils that we’re all aware of”, says Cockburn, “so I started writing what was meant to be a spoken-word piece with a rhythm to it. But it evolved very quickly into a song.”
‘States I’m In’, which opens the album, conjures up feelings of mystery and dread. “It’s literally a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of song”, Cockburn explains, “as it starts with sunset and ends with dawn. It passes through the night. The song is about illusion and self-delusion, looking at the tricks you play on yourself.” He adds: “Maybe it’s also a play on words about me living in the States.”
Cockburn, who won the inaugural People’s Voice Award at the Folk Alliance International conference in February and will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in September, continues to find inspiration in the world around him and channel those ideas into songs. “My job is to try and trap the spirits of things in the scratches of pen on paper and the pulling of notes out of metal”, he once noted. More than forty years after embarking on his singer-songwriting career, Cockburn keeps kicking at the darkness so that it might bleed daylight.
Gauthier’s seventh studio album, her first in four years, finds her stepping outside of the major label model to take control of the business on her own terms. As such, she declares that taking back and reclaiming her power is an underlying theme to both the album and her life, a significant statement given that it also comes on the back of the collapse of a two year relationship.
To which end, the album opens on an unambiguous note with the swampy blues ‘When A Woman Goes Cold’, a lyric about love’s dying embers with Gauthier drawling out the lines “She’d curse my name like she did before, but she looks through me like I’m not there.” with all the pain that being scorned can inflict. The theme continues on the more countrified weariness of ‘False From True’, a co-write with Beth Nielsen Chapman (who also provides harmonies) where she sings “a stranger showed up in your eyes, hard as steel, cold as ice, I tried and tried but I could not break through.”, a track you could hear Willie Nelson performing.
The album’s six minute title track follows on, a melancholic road song full of “rumble strips, red lights…lonely travellers and cheap motel art”, a blizzard blowing though both the air and her heart, albeit to the sound of a gorgeous guitar break by Guthrie Trapp.
If there’s a feel of being in the moment to the album, it’s likely down to the fact that it was, essentially, recorded on the hoof, the singers and musicians recording at Ricky Skaggs’ Studio, without benefit of leads sheet, advance demos or headphones, everything cut live with the back-up vocals totally impromptu. The immediacy really pulls you inside the hurt.
The call for redemption may be overcast with black clouds, but the musical mood shifts somewhat with the fingerpicking arrival of the gospel tinted ‘Oh Soul’, featuring harmony by Darren Scott and, fittingly for a song about selling your soul, a reference to Robert Johnson’s grave. It may not have the most optimistic of lyrics, but the musical tenor is certainly a little more uplifting. Although it features some tasty slide, the lyrically lacerating, ironic country slow sway ‘Worthy’ (“wondered all my life why I felt so alone”) is probably the weakest track, teetering slightly on the edge of a self-pity not found elsewhere.
It’s followed, however, by one of the strongest cuts, the slow waltzing ‘Walking Each Other Home’, the first of two Gretchen Peters co-writes (with a hint of John Prine’s ‘Hello In There’ in the melody) where acceptance and healing start to be felt as she sings “somewhere between Cain and Able is where we live, it’s only human to take more than we give.” The second Peters co-write, ‘How You Learn To Live Alone’, haltingly continues the process, a resigned, bitterly sad heartbreaker (“it’s been years since your house has felt like home”) that features lovely understated twangy guitar courtesy Duane Eddy that eventually flows into a solo snatch of ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’.
As befits an album about survival, the album closes on a note of hope with the plangent ‘Another Train’ finding her “moving on, through the pain”, bluesy keyboard swelling behind the guitars and Lynn Williams’ steady drum beat.
It’s not the most uplifting of albums, but, as she always does, Gauthier has taken personal experience and rendered it universal, an ability possessed by only the most truly gifted of songwriters and performers.