This week on Music City Roots, we are coming to you from The Factory with sets by Irene Kelley, The Vespers, American Aquarium, and Songs of Water.
About the artists:
We call a collection of songs an “album,” and never has the term been more apt than in Irene Kelley’s new bluegrass powerhouse, Pennsylvania Coal. It’s like leafing through the generations of a family photo album, while Kelley lovingly fills in the details and fleshes out the characters.
One photo is literal. On the back cover is a 100-year-old shot taken at the mouth of the Crabtree, Pennsylvania coalmine, and among the miners is Kelley’s grandfather. Her title song is both centerpiece and fountainhead for the stories that follow. From this first-generation American tale of hardship and struggle comes the strength, hope and humility shown in the lives of succeeding generations.
Kelley goes “back to her (‘grass) roots” on this project. A bluegrass album with top bluegrass players has been on her “bucket list” since her days singing at the Bean Blossom and Clinch Mountain festivals in the 1980s. With seven-time Grammy winner (and longtime Ricky Skaggs bassist) Mark Fain producing, legendary pickers such as Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, and a cast of singers including Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch and Trisha Yearwood, that dream has come true in a very big way.
Not all the contributors are big names, though. Not yet anyway. Kelley’s talented daughters Justyna and Sara Jean are all over Pennsylvania Coal as singers and co-writers, reinforcing family ties in songs where they are often enough part of the story.
Kelley herself had an early start. At 19 she took offense to fellow ‘grassers singing the praises of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, etc. and took it on herself to write a song defending the rural beauty of her native state. Pennsylvania Is My Home opened many doors, from a PBS documentary to a grassroots campaign for a Pennsylvania State Song senate bill, and eventually to Nashville, where she lives today.
Things happened fast following that 1983 move — demos for CBS Records, a staff writing deal with music publisher Polygram, Carl Jackson’s cut of “You Are a Rock (and I’m a Rolling Stone),” and a CMA Award-winning single for Ricky Skaggs & Sharon White, “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This.”
Kelley’s abilities as a singer and writer led MCA Records to cut an album on her in 1989. Despite a chart single of her own on “You Are a Rock,” the album was never released. Kelley swallowed her disappointment and focused on the songwriting that had become her bread-and-butter, with a host of country and bluegrass artists (Loretta Lynn, Trisha Yearwood, Rhonda Vincent, The Whites, etc.) taking her songs out for a spin.
Singers sing, though, and in 1999 Kelley co-produced and self-released her album Simple Path to critical raves. Alan Jackson heard her sing “A Little Bluer Than That” on the Opry and included it (with Kelley adding harmonies) in his 5-time platinum Album of the Year, Drive. Four years later Kelley issued the album Thunderbird, a well-received chronicle of personal struggle.
Pennsylvania Coal follows in those footsteps, taking dead aim at the truth, not some audience demographic. “I’ve gone back to my story,” says Kelley. “There’s no pressure about what’s going on in the market, but at the same time, I think that sort of thing captures an audience. It’s like Loretta Lynn – she never strayed from her story.”
And so it is with this coal miner’s granddaughter. Irene Kelley’s story – and her family’s – resonate and reward in this exhilarating new collection. From the teenaged enthusiasm of Pennsylvania Is My Home to the mature wisdom of Pennsylvania Coal, Kelley’s life comes full circle. Musically and spiritually, the new songs connect past and present, exploring themes of home, love, love lost and more, in a line from the title song, “leaning on the backbone” of past generations.
The Vespers are one of those lucky young bands that have built an extensive underground following simply through word of mouth and heavy touring. The band is uniquely made up of two sibling duos; the Cryar sisters, and the Jones brothers. The four have distinguished their sound with an arsenal of acoustic instruments and harmonies only siblings can create. Their showmanship generates a roller coaster of sight, sound, and emotion and their inherent chemistry and instrumental versatility continues to set them apart.
The band has independently released two full-length records and left a reputable impression on both Americana and Christian audiences. They have toured over 30 states in their short 3 years, playing all different environments from colleges and festivals to listening rooms and theaters. The Vespers will make their first venture to the west coast this fall.
“The Vespers are on the verge of breaking through” -Huffington Post
“The Vespers are the band to watch” – AOL The Boot
Raleigh, NC – In the business of music, many are called and many may try, but few cross the threshold of being able to say they are truly committed for the long haul. With the release of their latest studio album, Burn.Flickr.Die., American Aquarium is proving that they have graduated to that class of professional musicians that have made an undeniable commitment to their music and their fans.
American Aquarium’s six years as a band have been a fast-moving blur of rubber on road, touring coast to coast through the states and Europe. Most nights of the year are spent far from their Raleigh homes, squinting out from bright stages at a growing legion of passionate fans who’ve followed them through the release of six albums that reflect a whirlwind of too many whiskey soaked nights, nameless women in smoky bars and fast living while your youth is in full bloom. But what happens when it all stops feeling good?
Burn.Flicker.Die. is what has emerged from that scenario for this group of hard working players. After two years of writing, they journeyed to the legendary recording hub which gave birth to some of the greatest blues, country and rock records of all time: Muscle Shoals/Sheffield, AL. Recorded in eight days under the precise hand of friend/tour buddy Jason Isbell, the record is an aptly named milestone for the band, and their most painstaking effort to date. As a long-time Southern rock artisan, Isbell provided a weathered know-how in producing the record American Aquarium is proudest of. Described as a “consequence record” by vocalist BJ Barham, the band spent that week pushing out everything that’s been haunting them: working for six years, watching buzz bands peak and die, and pining for their own payoff.
“I wish my addictions didn’t mean so much/but we all can’t be born with that kind of luck,” Barham sings on the title track, capturing the fast lifestyle with images of subtle barroom horrors: Finding a high in a dingy bathroom stall, a pretty barfly from somewhere down south you won’t see again, free shots you can’t say no to. “Casualties” is a soaring, chorus-less ode to death by rock that confronts age and the band’s great fear of having made the wrong choice. They’ve watched artists ride the hype train right off the track. But that can’t be American Aquarium – they’ve been laying low too long, finding their way to the most poignant album of their careers through hard touring and waking up to realize that it’s not Saturday night anymore.
Some of the record hurts to hear, like the quiet, fine-spun “Harmless Sparks.” It sounds like the flicker of a solitary cigarette burning to its filter in the blue-black glow of a bar. Keys plink like shot glasses in the background, and you’re the last to go home. American Aquarium has been there before. But the record also looks to the end of a hard road, where there might be validation for good music, and even love. In “Jacksonville,” Barham promises someone a call if he “makes it out alive.” Taking a cue from Ryan Adams, he draws romance out of shame in “Northern Lights.” And in “Saturday Nights” and “Saint Mary’s,” he makes a subtle mockery of the dives they know too well – slick with spilled whiskey and crawling with restless women who all look the same.
Every grizzled image of Burn.Flicker.Die is real, which comes from the band’s profound understanding of small southern town debauchery and six years of pushing their careers off the bottom rung. Like many of their musical heroes that have paved the way before them, American Aquarium can wrap the ugliest feelings in the most spirited soundscape. Sonically uplifting instrumentation and vivid, wrenching lyrics illuminate the dark side of hanging out in rock ‘n’ roll limbo, but also how the band has clawed their way out of it. Through their struggle to sustain their career and resist the temptation of fire, American Aquarium’s demons have hung around. But so have they.
Songs of Water’s distinct and evocative sound carries roots from the most ancient of cultures. This seven-piece ensemble delicately blends instrumentation from across the globe in a uniquely American context. The uncommon use of the hammered dulcimer melodically leads many of the group’s instrumental pieces, followed by the resonance of various acoustic instruments and a brooding foundation of heavy percussion. Layers of orchestral strings and sparse vocals create a cinematic appeal to the otherwise raw expression of musical composition.
Songs of Water has independently released two full-length albums to date which have been met with considerable praise. The band has been featured on NPR’s “The State of Things”, Fiona Richie’s “Thistle & Shamrock”, and WNCW’s Music Mix with Martin Anderson. Reaching across the ocean, music from the band’s sophomore release, The Sea Has Spoken, has been aired on the U.K. radio show “Reach On Air”.
Songs of Water was named “The Best Independent Band of 2012″ by Indie Music Reviewer Magazine.
Currently the band is recording their third full-length album and video documentary, anticipated for a fall 2013 release.
Songs of Water is Elisa Rose, Michael Pritchard, Stephen Price, Greg Willette, Jon Kliegle, Luke Skaggs and Stephen Roach.