It’s hard to imagine much good coming out of this year, but despite all odds it was lovely to get to work with powerful music and outspoken artists. Here’s a few reminders of the albums we worked with that I thought were real highlights from the year.
IAN FISHER - American Standards
It's been more than a decade since Ian Fisher left his home state of Missouri and moved to Europe, forever changing his life and his music. With songs that combine an international lyrical perspective and a world-traveler’s musical influences with Americana roots, Fisher has remained on the road ever since. For his new record, American Standards, these songs have broken the mold of the solo-singer-songwriter world and grown into a socially-conscious and diverse record that veers between acoustic, stripped-down songs and full-band performances.
CHRIS PIERCE - American Silence
Internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter Chris Pierce stands by the notion that music can cut through the isolated and static feelings for those of us worn down by the chaos of everyday life. He calls out to unite us under one sonic roof to speak up, sing out, rise up and resist with the offering of his new 21st century Americana freedom and justice album titled American Silence, released on February 26, 2021.
VIVIAN LEVA & RILEY CALCAGNO
Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno’s self-titled record is old-soul roots music to its core. Produced by GRAMMY-winning Cajun roots heavyweight Joel Savoy at his Louisiana studio, Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno (out March 12, 2021 on Free Dirt Records) is not some soulless collection of songs imitating previous masters of American music. Rather, the pair has responded to one of the darkest eras in American history with an album of stunning breadth and originality.
SUNNY WAR - Simple Syrup
Sunny War’s new album Simple Syrup has a vibrant, loose feel, more focused on the interplay with the musicians than before. Sunny’s new songs touch on everything from romance to politics, jumping easily between larger concepts and smaller ideas. Watching so many friends fall apart under the pressures of COVID–losing jobs, being left behind–motivated Sunny to do more, to make change. The pandemic has been a crucible for Sunny, burning away the parts of the old world that didn’t truly matter and leaving her with a new purpose.
ELI WEST - Tapered Point of Stone
It’s always illuminating to ask an artist how they understand music, but Eli West’s perspective is nothing short of ground-breaking. A trained designer, he sees music architecturally, visualizing his compositions spatially. It’s a highly unusual way to think about music, tied to his home in the verdant natural world of the Pacific Northwest. On his new album, Tapered Point of Stone, released April 23, 2021, West lays out original songs and tunes like houses built by hand, weaving their melodies into the setting of acoustic roots music that first inspired him.
TURNER CODY and The Soldiers of Love - Friends in High Places
Turner Cody is a kaleidoscopic songwriter. His poetry has always come first—whether spun into the raw, sparse bedroom-style tapes of his early lo-fi, anti-folk days in New York, or the more groove-based French indie-minimalist sound of his new recordings with backing band The Soldiers of Love. Released June 4, 2021 on Belgian label and music collective Capitane Records, Friends in High Places is as much a country-folk record as it is an ode to French indie-pop chanson, by way of Serge Gainsbourg.
K.C. JONES - Queen of the In Between
K.C. Jones moves so effortlessly between genres, traditions, and musical concepts that it’s clear she was born with an insatiable artistic curiosity. On her debut solo record, Queen of the In Between, released June 18, 2021, she seamlessly references everything from classic country to psychedelic rock to contemporary indie roots singer-songwriters. She’s roaming the halls of 20th century Americana synthesizing a century’s worth of music with ease.
JP HARRIS' DREADFUL WIND & RAIN - Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man
With Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man, JP Harris’ debut recording of traditional Appalachian stringband music under the moniker JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain, he’s coming out of the shadows to celebrate this arcane and truly American musical repertoire. Together with long time friend and ace fiddler Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), the duo feature ten tracks spanning the breadth of American old-time repertoire. Harris wades between ancient ballads that traveled from the British Isles to Appalachia to droning banjo ditties played on one of Harris’ coveted homemade banjos.
JOSEPH SPENCE - Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is proud to release new, never-before-heard recordings from the great Bahamian guitar legend and otherworldly talent Joseph Spence (1910-1984). Recorded by renowned recording engineer, documentarian, and producer Peter Siegel in 1965 in New York City and the Bahamas, Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing offers a look at a grandmaster at work, at the height of his powers and recorded with expert equipment.
RIC ROBERTSON - Carolina Child
Hearing Ric Robertson for the first time, you’ll be forgiven if John Prine is the first name that comes to mind. Robertson’s voice has the same soft Southern burr as Prine’s, the same Zen acceptance of humanity’s failings, and, most importantly, the same sense of playfulness in the music. There’s a bit of Willie Nelson in there too, not just from all the smoke in the air, but from the colliding elements of jazz, funk, and country. Robertson’s an American original, pulling influences from the greats that came before, but wholly responsible for creating his own creative universe.
JOE TROOP - Borrowed Time
With a new president, vaccines rolling out, and massive cultural changes underway, most of us are looking for a moment just to breathe. But not Joe Troop. As the GRAMMY-nominated bandleader for Che Apalache, Troop didn’t stop even for a second as COVID ravaged a whole year’s worth of performance dates. Instead he took to the rural roads of North Carolina and the American South, pushing to get out the vote among rural progressives and interviewing those most affected by Trump’s horrific policies. Now he’s channeling that energy into his first proper solo album, Borrowed Time, out August 20 on Free Dirt Records.
LAUREL PREMO - Golden Loam
Michigan-based multi-instrumentalist Laurel Premo’s latest solo album, Golden Loam, released October 8, 2021, presents original and traditional music voiced on finger-style electric guitar and lap steel. Perhaps by its most honest classification “roots guitar,” the sonic vocabulary of Golden Loam is informed by guitar’s antecedents in American traditions. Glowing, droning, tugging, scraping, revolving, Premo bears renewed electric dirt, the golden loam layered by centuries of folk.
NORMAN BLAKE - Day by Day
American guitarist Norman Blake is one of the great unsung heroes of 20th century folk music. Over the course of his long career, he’s been at the forefront of multiple revivals of American roots music. Even with the glitz, glamor, and prestige, including nine Grammy nominations, Blake has held steadfast to the idea that the music should remain as humble as his own aspirations. And though he’s recently undergone a kind of personal renaissance–releasing five albums in the last ten years for the same label, Plectrafone Records–he’s done this work entirely by hand, recording in and around his rural home in the hinterlands of Georgia.
BILL AND THE BELLES - Happy Again
Happy Again isn’t exactly happy. But the delightfully deadpan new album from roots mainstays Bill and the Belles is full of life, humor, and tongue-in-cheek explorations of love and loss. Released May 21, 2021 on Ditty Boom Records, Happy Again marks a new chapter for the group by featuring eleven all-original songs penned by founding member Kris Truelsen. This raw songcraft, along with the deft production touch of Teddy Thompson, gives Happy Again an emotional punch that deepens with each listen.
Photo Credits: (1) Hearth Music, (2) Sunny War & Chris Pierce, (3) Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno, (4) Eli West, (5) Joe Troop, (6) JP Harris (unknown/website).