This week on Music City Roots, we’ll have another rollicking Americana session as Jim Bianco, The Bankesters, Amy Black, Amy Ray, and The Farewell Drifters play some amazing sets for your listening pleasure. Jim Lauderdale hosts.
About the artists:
Throughout his career, Jim Bianco has drawn inspiration from, what some might consider, untraditional sources. Whether an elevator operator in Tokyo, a stalker in Hollywood, a wedding in Tennessee, or a sinner in church, his songs have twisted their way out of his head and into the hearts of his fans.
“My father is a Brooklyn-born weight-lifting Italian Roman Catholic who wields a pompadour and only drives a Cadillac. My mother is a kind, classic, 1950’s Brooklyn Jew who quit high school to work in a pencil factory. It’s pretty obvious where my obsession with eccentric characters comes from.”
Bianco is a founding member of the Hotel Café scene, the popular venue in Los Angeles credited with the renaissance of the Los Angeles singer/songwriter movement. With antics such as building a catwalk onto his stage and leaping offstage into the crowd to perform from the middle of the room, Bianco’s performances played an integral part in shaping the club’s reputation as it grew in popularity in Hollywood and beyond. With Hotel Café as his jumping-off point, Bianco went on to tour the country and the world with performers such as Squeeze, Shelby Lynne, Loudon Wainwright III and many more.
Though unconventional, his music has garnered the attention and support from the likes of NPR’s Mountain Stage, NBC’s Craig Ferguson, HBO’s True Blood, and the Getty Museum, to name a few.
With his new record “Cookie Cutter”, he has once again focused his attention and inspiration on, what might be, a peculiar subject: YOU.
He wants to know one thing, specifically: is your life song-worthy?
Think about it for a second.
You listen to music every single day. Throughout your life you’ve heard thousands of songs. They provide the soundtrack to your most memorable moments.
But none of them are about you. Not a single one.
They might relate to you, or you might relate to them, but they’re about someone else. Who, exactly, are they about? What makes their life worth singing about? Do they have something special that you don’t?
On “Cookie Cutter”, Bianco sets forth to answer that question for seventeen fans, who gained the opportunity by pledging to a fundraising campaign. For the project, Bianco asked each of them the same 69 questions about their lives, and wrote a song based solely on those answers.
“I gathered information from people who were virtual strangers to me. I felt a responsibility to write a song that was unique to each person, but that could also be appreciated on a universal level. I crafted a questionnaire that required each person to recall events in their life that made a lasting impression: the death of their first pet, how they lost their virginity (and with whom), their most memorable family vacation, their first kiss, and so forth. I also asked lighter questions, like their favorite song, or the color of their eyes. I was setting the bait with the questions and hoped their answers would inspire something worth singing about.”
The result is “Cookie Cutter”, a record that, like life itself, runs the gamut from extremely serious to extremely ridiculous. Themes range from reunited lovers, runaway pets and ballerinas, to brain cancer survivors, Jesus Christ, and, (everyone’s favorite), death. The production of the record is equally dynamic, with everything from boisterous horns that explode across the soundscape to tender moments with bare piano and violin; each sound chosen to match its song’s unique personality.
“When I embarked on this project, I was nervous I would be writing the same song over and over 17 times, struggling to make them each distinct. I was amazed to learn that, in everyone’s life, there is a unique song; in fact, there is most likely an entire album.”
Bianco sees the project as a rebirth of an old model: “Centuries ago it was common for the church or the aristocracy to commission composers to create a piece of work for them. Whether it was for a royal wedding or a religious holiday, composers crafted the music for specific people or events,” he says, “’Cookie Cutter’ is the modern version of that.”
On his website, fans can view all the questions from the project, read the story behind the songs, and even inquire about having a song written about them. So for anyone who has ever imagined the soundtrack to your life: here’s your chance to actually make it happen.
The family band has always possessed a genetic magic, gifting its members with a mysterious psychic connection and powerful vocal blend. AP, Sarah and Maybelle Carter, the founding family of country music, had a profound impact in music through their tight mountain-gospel harmonies and signature sound and that tradition has been carried forward in the bluegrass-country-gospel music of the Cox Family and the Marshall Family Band and followed more recently by The Whites on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Next in line is the Southern Illinois-based bluegrass band The Bankesters.
Sisters Emily, Alysha, and Melissa, joined by brother-in-law Kyle Triplett and parents Phil and Dorene have grown from a family that simply enjoys playing music together into a serious band. On their first internationally distributed album Love Has Wheels (Compass 9/24) they shine as vocalists, instrumentalists and articulate songwriters.
Music has always been a family affair for The Bankesters and as the children grew and matured, so did the band. “As dad, I’d been leading the band, but I’ve been trying over the last 2 to 3 years to step back from running everything,” says Phil Bankester. “Everybody gives their input.” Love Has Wheels is all collaboration – from song choice to arrangements to adding harmonies to each other’s tracks. Though all family members sing and contribute vocals here, they’re also adept instrumentalists in their own right: 2012 IBMA Momentum Vocalist of the Year Emily contributes fiddle and claw hammer banjo, Alysha plays the mandolin and Melissa holds down the upright bass. Kyle Triplett is the multi-instrumentalist of the group, playing banjo, guitar and tenor guitar parts while Phil and Dorene hold down rhythm guitar duties.
With the help of producer Alison Brown, The Bankesters invited a few select players to join them on the album, including Sierra Hull on mandolin and harmony vocals, longtime family friend Josh Williams on vocals and guitar, Rob Ickes on Dobro and Jim Hurst on guitar. Working with Alison helped the band push their talents to the next level. “In a very encouraging way, she just tried to pull things out of people and then help them finesse it,” says Phil. “She could see what was there and helped draw it out, especially with Alysha and Emily – they would say ‘I can’t do that,’ and she said ‘Yeah, you can.”
While the band was responsible for the majority of the song selection, it was Alison that brought “The Cup Song” to the table, and it quickly became a favorite for Emily and Alysha. The song (made famous in the teen movie Pitch Perfect as main character Beca (Anna Kendrick)’s talent show audition piece) goes back to that first generation family band – the original title of the song is “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” and the original copyright belongs to AP Carter. With its playful rhythms (contributed by Kenny Malone), viral melody, and deep roots, the Bankesters quickly brought the song back to bluegrass with their own spirited rendition.
Oldest sister Melissa contributed two new songs to the album, including “Time and Love” written on a sleepless night trying to put her baby to bed, and “Found,” a song written for the organization This Able Veteran, a group that returns hope to injured veterans and their families by providing them with service dogs. The song cleverly juxtaposes the heart-wrenching perspective of the veterans and the rescued dogs: “Even though I’ve walked through the valley of the shadow/ Somehow I’m not laying in the ground/Lonely and abandoned you restored my needy soul/ Taking what was lost and now I’m found.”
The band demonstrates its bluegrass prowess on the album’s opening title track “Love Has Wheels” with Kyle’s driving banjo lines guiding Melissa’s voice until she’s joined by Josh Williams to tell the story of a fiery romance that won’t wait for anything. “Storms” is a quick-paced song about resilience in the face of adversity where Emily, Alysha and Kyle all adding tasteful instrumental touches. The song Phil sings, “She’s A Stranger,” hits so close to home that initially he didn’t know if he’d be able to sing it. “That’s my parents’ story, except that’s my mom that’s got the Alzheimer’s and Dad is the one who’s been there every single day with her.”
The album-closing gospel quartet “Rise Up,” featuring the unique swampy fingerstyle picking of guitarist Jim Hurst, is a breath-taking testament to the power of family harmony. “When the kids were born they were always hearing music and they were singing almost from the time they could speak,” says Phil. “They were singing harmonies with each other without knowing even what they were. If one person started singing a song the others would sing harmonies for them and over time everybody learned to develop their own lead voice and everybody learned how to sing the other harmonies. It was a very organic development.”
There’s a maturity that has come with that organic development; the little girls have grown into gifted young musicians. With their new album Love Has Wheels and the ties of family leading the way, The Bankesters are not only poised to break on the national scene but have also begun writing the next chapter of the book on the legacy of family bands in bluegrass music.
“One listen and you’ll be convinced that she’s a powerful, authentic, talented and above all soulful new entry in the rootsy singer/songwriter ranks.” – American Songwriter Magazine
Amy Black is a Boston-based singer/songwriter with storytelling and Southern tradition in her blood. She grew up singing hymns from the pews in church in Missouri, but it wasn’t until her family moved to Alabama that she got her first dose of real southern gospel.
After making the move to Boston at 15, Amy went to college, got a job in the corporate world, got married, bought a house in the burbs, and was content singing at weddings and at church. But one night, sitting at her kitchen table, “I had this thought that came out of nowhere, that I’d never really done anything of consequence with my voice. I’d never tried. And if I was going to, now was the time.” In the years that followed, Amy discovered her talent for songwriting and in April 2011 released her first album of original music, “One Time.”
She’s been singing, touring and writing ever since, and this year, with the release of her newest album, “This Is Home,” (February 2014), Amy has fully committed herself to a career in music. “I’ve stepped away from corporate life because making music feels like the most natural thing. It’s where I’m supposed to be.”
This Is Home was produced by Lex Price
(Mindy Smith, Peter Bradley Adams) and recorded in Nashville, Tennessee at Ben’s Studio on Music Row (formerly historic RCA STUDIO A).
Joining Amy in the studio for the album was an all-star cast of musicians, including Will Kimbrough (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell) on acoustic and electric guitars, Oliver Wood (Wood Brothers) on electric guitars, Josh Range (KD Lang, Sheryl Crow) on pedal and lap steel and piano, Ian Fitchuk (Caitlin Rose, Amy Grant) on the Hammond B-3 organ, Wurlitzer piano, drums and percussion and Lex Price (KD Lang, Mindy Smith) on electric and acoustic bass and the tenor guitar.
This Is Home features 11 original songs and two covers, plus one hidden track. Together, the songs paint a picture of the different experiences of home — the sweet, the bitter and all things in between.”My family and history are very much a part of this project. This is especially felt in the song ‘Alabama’ a cornerstone on the album. I wrote this for my family, but specifically for my granddad, a very special person in my life who passed away a few years ago. He rarely left his small town in the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama and when he did, he couldn’t wait to get back home. He didn’t feel the need to see the world like his grandchildren did. He couldn’t have been happier than when he was rocking on his back porch drinking a glass of sweet tea. And I felt incredible comfort when I joined him.”
The ballad, “Alabama,” along with the slow burner “I’m Home” make up the “sweet” of the album. In the smoky and sultry, “Old Hurt,” a woman struggles to accept her demons, and in the sleepy retro rocker “Nobody Knows You” a lover reminds her other that the “other side’s in view.” Songs including “Make Me an Angel” told from a child’s perspective, “Hello”, “Stronger” and “We Had a Life” address the more difficult topics of abuse, dementia, suicide and divorce, while “These Walls Are Falling Down” offers a glimmer of hope that a dying relationship could still be revived. And for those who just want to dance, the upbeat and playful, “Cat’s in The Kitchen” is the ticket.
“There’s certainly a mix of emotion going on when you put these songs together. But that’s what life is like. The good stuff and the painful stuff are all mixed in together. Music has always helped me to celebrate as well as connect, express and deal with the difficult things I’m facing. I hope my songs on this album can do the same for others.”
The album also includes Amy’s soulful re-imaginings of John Prine’s classic, “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” as well as Rodney Crowell’s “Still Learning How to Fly,” a favorite of Amy’s. “The first time I heard Rodney sing ‘Still Learning How to Fly’ live was in a little club in Maine. It was just him and his guitar on stage, no band. I was moved. I connected with the idea of being broken, but believing that you can still become something great. On my better days, I like to think the line, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ is true about me.”
What the critics are saying “This Is Home”
“’This Is Home’ coaxes a sultry confidence from Black. She slays you by being sly.”
- The Boston
Four out of Five Stars “Country, torchy blues, swampy rock, folk and a bit of gospel bluegrass in an album closing cover of the traditional “Gospel Ship” combine with Black’s effortlessly emotional singing for a 50 minute, 14 track disc that ends far too quickly.” – American Songwriter Magazine
“Black takes Americana to new places that mix the basics with white southern soul, all of which she comes by naturally. Top loaded with talent that’s major league, Black delivers a bar raising set that we’d been hoping Lucinda Williams would have come up with if she didn’t take so long between albums. It’s killer stuff.” – Chris Spector/Midwest Record Review
“Black hits stride on This Is Home, injecting her songs with a healthy dose of gospel-tinged soul. The real power of the release comes from Black’s voice, which is as enchanting as ever.” – Twangville
Amy Ray’s progression as a singer/songwriter has taken her up and down all of the switchback trails of the South, from the dive bars of Saturday night to church on Sunday morning, with some coffeehouses and arenas along the way, too. Goodnight Tender, her first country album, integrates all of these influences in fresh, surprising ways and testifies to her range and virtuosity as an artist who is always game to follow a thread of melody into new and rugged territory.
“Although Southern Rock was standard fare at my high school in Decatur, Georgia, I didn’t really grow up with the country music I love now,” she says.
Instead, she and her high school friend, Emily Saliers, would sneak into bars with fake I.D.s and play covers until they began writing their own poetically rich folk material that made the Indigo Girls one of the most successful and enduring duos in contemporary music. They continue to grow as collaboraters, writing, recording, and touring together, and critics and listeners still marvel at their generative and resonant eloquence as artists and social activists. Meanwhile, Ray, a self-described “workaholic,” also has established a solo career, initially surprising everyone with her hard-driving songs and defiant, rocker’s growl on Stag, her first solo release in 2001, which she since has followed with Prom, Live from Knoxville, Didn’t It Feel Kinder, MVP Live, and Lung of Love.
Her extracurricular forays, musical curiosity, and jams and late-night conversations with other artists led her to conclude that punk and country are, in fact, kissing cousins.
“The Southern punks I knew listened to and got their swagger from classic country as much as anything else,” she says. “Simple country tunes, mountain songs, and heart-breaking honky-tonk sounds held the same populism and rebellion that I loved about punk rock. Neko Case and Loretta Lynn were cut from the same cloth. The Clash and Hank Williams were the heartbeat of populist songwriting. Danielle Howle and Patsy Cline were long lost blood relations. George Jones and Paul Westerberg had the same demons. There was hillbilly rock running through the veins of The Cramps.”
Similarly, the urgent, plaintive ache that characterizes all of Ray’s powerhouse vocals lends itself beautifully to country music, though her singing is soft and gentle here, suited to back-porches and small campfires.
“In the 90’s, I went out and bought classic country vinyl and fell in love with it,” she says. “I pulled out the old field recording LP’s my grandma gave me and listened to them with a whole different ear. The sounds of an old woman singing Appalachian murder ballads in her kitchen, the chain gangs working the fields, songs from the mountain to the coast reflecting a beauty that was rough and honest. Alan Lomax became a fixture in my life, and I realized a new perspective on singing and songwriting. I moved up to rural North Georgia in 1993, to a town I had gone to church camp in as a kid. The rich Appalachian culture and music started seeping into my life and songs. The first song I wrote that came out of all this was a little mountain ditty I recorded for Stag, a hanging song called ‘Johnny Rottentail.’”
Ray continued to write material in that vein, songs that did not quite fit into the Indigo Girls catalog, or on a rock or punk album. “Goodnight Tender” evokes a loving lullaby from a traveler far from home and also happens to name-check her dog, Tender; “Anyhow” came to her when she watched her dog, Chevron grappling with a copperhead snake in the woods (“I was thinking about half a life left”); and “My Dog” is a ditty she originally wrote on a Bouzouki. “This is a dog-heavy album,” she says with a laugh, which should please good ol’ boys and girls. There are also traveling songs, songs of lost love and regret, (the tunes “More Pills,” “Broken Record” and “Time Zone”) and a couple of gospel numbers, “The Gig That Matters” and “Let the Spirit.” In fact, her spirituality – Ray was a religion and literature major, and always puts those studies to effective use – pervades much of this album, including “Hunter’s Prayer,” which was inspired by her flannel-clad neighbors in north Georgia and her work with Native American causes, along with the meditative “Oyster and Pearl.”
During this time she began approaching other musicians who caught her ear – high-lonesome vocalists and other players who knew their way around a banjo, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel. Some, like her, also claimed punk roots. “I wanted to get just the right mix of musicians together, and stay true to old recording styles, using old microphones and old reverb plates, and the right set-up, like an old-school Nashville studio,” she says. “I knew the music would fall into place then and take on a life of its own.”
As always, she was striving for a certain purity.
“We played together at a songwriters-in-the-round event in Durham,” says Phil Cook of Megafaun fame, “and the next day, she called me and said, ‘I’ve got a feeling here – what do you think about helping with a country project?’”
He ended up playing banjo, electric guitar, Wurlitzer and singing on Goodnight Tender.
“This project felt and sounds so spontaneous because Amy has an uncanny ability to latch on to the energy in a room and encourage its flow,” Cook says. “She recognizes the spark in every situation and every artist and knows exactly how to fan it. I think Amy went back to the land and found she has a country soul. She was singing from her core, as if she were born to this style of music.”
Using her intuitive, organic approach, she assembled two different combinations of players for the album. Jeff Fielder (guitars, dobro, banjo, piano, bass), Jim Brock (drums), Jake Hopping (stand up bass), Matt Smith (pedal steel) and Adrian Carter (fiddle) helped round out the first group. Ray knew the teen-age Carter “walked the line between his high school punk band and Nashville fiddle workshops” and lured him to the studio during the middle of his senior finals. Multi-instrumentalist, Jeff Fielder became a center-piece for the record, and drummer, Jim Brock anchored the songs firmly in southern and country traditions. She brought in Asheville’s Matt Smith for pedal steel, the instrument that defined the original, tear-stained “Nashville Sound.”
For the second combo, she convened Phil Cook (banjo, Wurly, guitar, vocals), Justin Vernon (mandolin, banjo, guitar, vocals), Brad Cook (bass, vocals), Terry Lonergan (drums), and vocalist Heather McEntire. “Heather’s voice is both the call of the banshee and the siren,” Ray says. “She has sung over thrash bands and in alt-country, so I tried to learn from her, how to make that transition and modulate my vocals.” McEntire also wrote and sang lead on the song “When You Come for Me,” the only one not penned by Ray on the album of 12 originals.
Blueswoman Susan Tedeschi contributed vocals to “Duane Allman,” a tribute to one of Ray’s heroes, who left a “god-sized hole,” and belter Hannah Thomas added harmonies to “Hunter’s Prayer.”
Ray enlisted the vocal stylings of “long time friend and vocal icon,” Kelly Hogan for harmonies on the songs “Goodnight Tender” and “Time Zone.”
“The bloodlines and kinships in music feel pretty powerful and infinite to me these days,” Ray says. “I’ve heard some folks say that country is where punks go to die. I don’t know about all that, but I imagine the last mile is the most lonesome, and there’s nothing like the sound of a pedal steel to keep you company.”
With their acoustic instrumentation and the anthemic thrust of their songwriting, the Farewell Drifters find themselves in the midst of what’s bound to go down in the annals of popular music history as an era-defining, youthful folk-rock boom. Although they share significant common ground with their folk-rock brethren the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, the Drifters aren’t content simply to stomp, strum and sing with gusto. They bring a unique Brian Wilson-like sensibility to the movement, with intricately arranged harmonies and atmospheric, string-swathed studio shading that is newly showcased on Tomorrow Forever, the Nashville-based quartet’s fourth album and their first for their new label Compass Records.
When Zach Bevill, brothers Joshua and Clayton Britt and Dean Marold started making music together eight years ago, they aimed for the sweet spot between bluegrass and the Beach Boys’ artfully crafted, ‘60s studio pop. Their crisp, sophisticated arrangements and formidable instrumental prowess quickly made the band a crowd pleaser at multi-generational folk festivals and earned them a presence on Americana radio and Billboard’s bluegrass albums chart. Their 2010 release Yellow Tag Mondays debuted at #10 and 2011’s Echo Boom debuted at #6.
But, with the release of Tomorrow Forever, the Drifters have delivered their most accomplished and fully developed album yet. The twelve songs demonstrate the band’s belief in the value of pop craftsmanship, and that couldn’t be further from the rustic, Depression-era musical styles that drove the Mumfords and Avetts of the world to pick up acoustic instruments. Instead, the authenticity that matters the most to the Drifters has nothing at all to do with eschewing finesse or escaping technology and everything to do with being true to themselves and their musical sensibilities.
“I’ve never felt like a very raw musician, personally,” explains Zach, the band’s formally trained lead singer and rhythm guitarist. “That’s just not who I am. I think my challenge has been figuring out how to let go a little bit; how to do that creative, intricate thing that I love, while at the same time being able to let go more vocally.” Together with band mates Joshua (mandolin and harmony vocals), Clayton (lead guitar) and Dean (jazz-schooled upright bass) the new album reflects the Drifters’ devotion to growth and possibility.
Collaborating with roots pop producer Neilson Hubbard (Matthew Perryman Jones, the Apache Relay, the Drifters’ 2011 Echo Boom) helped solidify the band’s sound, elevating their crystalline harmonies and acoustic foundation with gutsy electric guitar and orchestral-style drums. Clayton contributes Telecaster licks and 12-string acoustic runs, and the lion’s share of the tracks feature a standing approach to playing drum kit that studio ace Evan Hutchings developed in order to compliment the band’s intricate textures. Organ and piano parts played by Neilson and Zach help to fill out the sound, as do the ambient swells of Kris Donegan’s lap steel.
Describing the recording process Zach explains: “We allowed the studio to be more of a creative space than we ever have before, in terms of the way we view arrangements and the value we’ve always placed on them. So, instead of doing all that ahead of time, we thought we could come up with cooler stuff once we were in the studio when we had way more options. That was my favorite part of making the record. After we had cut the main tracks as a band, we took our time figuring out what else the songs needed.”
“I feel like a lot of modern albums have noise just for the sake of noise,” Josh adds. “Ours always had a point.”
Tomorrow Forever launches into that pointedness with stately, tolling chimes, a choir of unison voices and guest violinist Eamon McLoughlin’s handsome string parts amplifying the noble intentions expressed in the album-opening “Modern Age.” During “Bring ‘Em Back Around,” agitated guitar figures and a slow-building wave of distortion stoke the ferventness of the song’s plea to shake off complacency. The opening harmonies of “Brother” are both powerful and lush, and bring to mind modern indie folk bands like the Fleet Foxes. The dynamics of “Neighborhoods Apart” lend both nuance and pathos to a saga of severed friendship. And album closer “Starting Over” boasts an arrangement after Brian Wilson’s own heart; the self-doubting early passages are cocooned in delicate harmonies; later a robust sing-along and sweeping strings add considerable heft to the song’s prophetic ending.
Even as they’ve upped the meticulousness of their music-making, The Drifters have reached the point in their lyric-writing where their chief aim is to translate personal struggle into anthems of communal uplift, to speak beyond the particularity of their experience and give voice to universal hopes, dreams and fears. “As we’ve written and learned over the past few years,” reflects Zach, “the parts of the songs that move us the most and seem the most true and honest, those are usually the parts that resonate with other people the most too.”
Song after song, they strive to acknowledge their coming-of-age disappointment and the specter of failure without allowing themselves to be paralyzed by it. “We’re sort of restless people,” Zach offers. “Maybe everybody’s restless. We’re always aspiring to something. We’re always in pursuit of something. If we don’t believe that whatever that is, is good and true, then we’ve got nothing.”
Josh, a self-described extreme introvert, concurs, “Without hope, I would give up. I would not be in relationships, because they’re hard. I would not go out; I would just stay home. There’s a pursuit of something there that’s powerful enough for me to keep putting myself out there.”
And when you get right down to it, putting themselves out there is exactly how the Farewell Drifters and their earnest kindred spirits throughout the folk-rock scene harness music’s power to unite fans around common desires. The Drifters also have something singular to offer: a sound that’s as richly layered as the emotional landscape it portrays, and catchy besides.
“I feel like we’re on the same trajectory we’ve always been on,” says Zach, “but now it feels like there’s a much larger audience out there that digs the kind of music that we’re making. And that gives me a lot of hope for this album.”