This morning on Music City Roots, be prepared for yet another great, rockin’ start to your weekend with the sounds of Susan Werner, Kristi Rose & Fats Kaplin, Randall Bramblett, James Wallace & The Naked Light, and Strung Like A Horse. Jim Lauderdale hosts.
About the featured artists:
Dubbed by NPR as the “Empress of the Unexpected,” singer/songwriter Susan Werner confirms her reputation as an artist changeable as the weather with her newest recording Hayseed. Paying tribute to American agriculture and to her Iowa farm roots, Werner again keeps her audiences guessing and laughing simultaneously, lending her wry humor and passionate voice to subjects such as farmer’s markets, agrochemicals, climate change, drought, longing for a sense of place, and the movement towards sustainable agriculture. The characters and perspectives are varied and colorful, the lyrics are sharp as thistles, the music is handmade and hoppin’, and with Hayseed Werner continues her reign as one of the most bold and creative forces on the acoustic music scene today.
Listeners will recognize Werner’s Americana roots, first heard on 2011’s country/blues tinged Kicking the Beehive; however, the collection of originals that appear on Hayseed hits even closer to home. “Everything was mandolin and banjo and upright bass and fiddle,” she says. “A sound that’s as – forgive the term, but it finally applies – organic as a sound can get.” Released on Sleeve Dog Records and distributed via Thirty Tigers, the album itself was commissioned by the University of Nebraska’s Lied Center For The Performing Arts and the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the entire project began with seed money from fans during a successful PledgeMusic campaign. Werner incentivized fans with unusual rewards like signed ears of corn from her folks’ farm, and a percentage of the money raised was donated to three farming charities; Practical Farmers of Iowa in Ames, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) of Spring Valley, Wisconsin, and The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Known for her engaging and energetic live show, Werner will be adding another homegrown aspect to her Hayseed tour schedule—making special appearances at local farmers markets throughout the nation.
Hayseed was produced by Boston-based songwriter and producer Crit Harmon (Martin Sexton, Lori McKenna, Mary Gauthier, Ed Romanoff). “I chose Crit to produce because he’s a songwriter himself, and that was hugely important to me,” Werner says. “And also because he grew up on a farm in the Midwest and knows the business end of a honey wagon. I knew he’d get the spirit of the songs, the sense of humor and the sense of place in these songs. I also knew he’d assemble a great cast of musicians, and this is the A-list of the A-list of the Boston area players.” That cast includes legendary guitarist Duke Levine, upright bassist Marty Ballou, dobro genius Steve Sadler, and Red Molly’s Laurie MacAllister on backing vocals. “Crit totally got it when I said this should sound like it’s being played on the front porch of a farmhouse,” Werner continues. “I wanted this thing just about as unplugged as anybody could stand it. I mean, Dubuque was the big city where I grew up, and that’s about as urban as the sound on this album could get and still be true to Delaware County, Prairie Township, Section 14.”
On Hayseed, Werner employs her signature songcraft and wit to deliver an assortment of tunes as hilarious as they are insightful. “There’s a certain sense of humor that goes along with farming because things don’t always turn out the way you expected,” she states. “If you can’t laugh about it, you might be in the wrong line of work.”
Opener “City Kids” sets the tone for the record with a wry commentary on what Werner refers to as “the Revenge of the Nerds.” “Truth is that if you grew up on a farm, you always did feel a little square, a little behind,” she explains. “But times change and tables turn. And who’s paying twentyfive dollars a pound for organic pork these days? It’s not the farmers, people.” To a banjo and upright bass accompaniment, Werner practically spits out the title phrase: “All the city kids, they had fluffy little dogs, a dog that sits and begs, a dog with all four legs, didn’t smell like hogs.”
The wacky, folky “Herbicides” is an instant campfire classic. “Agrochemicals are a fact of farm life, but I didn’t know quite how to address it. This seemed like a novel approach,” she laughs. The reflective, tender “Something to Be Said” is at the heart of the record – which turns out to be a tender heart, indeed. “I did a series of shows in rural Nebraska, and this little girl sent me a note that said, ‘Thank you for coming to this waste of cornfields,’” Werner says. “It struck me – it took the wind out of me, really – that this little girl felt that way about where she was growing up. I had to find a way to say, kid, listen, you’re overlooking something. It may have taken me years to see it, but I really do see it now.” A slinky melodic motif introduces “Egg Money,” a tune that charts the tale of a crafty farm wife’s revenge. Other Hayseed highlights include the rollicking, sexy fun of “Bumper Crop,” the hushed and silvery “Plant the Stars,” dedicated to Werner’s father, and the dobro-tinged heartbreak of “While You Wait For The Rain.” The album closes with “Ode to Aldo Leopold,” a song written in tribute to a man now recognized as one of the founding fathers of sustainable agriculture. The song closes the album with these lyrics: “The land will outlive us all, however long we all shall live, and when the future comes to find the legacy we leave behind, may they say of us that we’ve been kind; we left the land with more to give, for the land will outlive us all.”
Werner is a farmer’s daughter herself and well acquainted with the trials and tribulations of American farm life. Her keen perspective led to the creation of the varied cast of characters that populate the album. “I wanted to show that farmers are just like everyone else,” she says with a laugh, “Honest, hardworking, kind, generous, resentful, and murderous.” Underneath its glib, satirical wash, Hayseed is tender and benevolent, an homage to her upbringing. “Growing up on a farm is part poetry and part child labor,” she jokes – “but it’s the landscape, the land itself, your love for that that stays with you – the fields, the fences, the creek. And I’ve found you can love a place as much as you can love a human being.” After all, it seems a pastoral childhood is what drove Werner to music in the first place. “I started playing guitar when I was little, and everyone in my family can play and sing. Maybe its part genetic – I suspect my family is wired for it. But if you’re alone out there on the prairie – well, playing music is a pretty good way to spend a couple hours. And, if you hit a few wrong notes – well, nobody’s gonna hear you.”
At age five, Werner made her debut, playing guitar and singing at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manchester, Iowa; she learned both piano and guitar by ear. After earning a degree in voice from the University of Iowa, she attended Temple University in Philadelphia, performing in numerous recitals and operas while completing her graduate studies. On occasion Werner, who calls Chicago home now, still closes any one of the 125 club dates she plays annually throughout the US and Canada with “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly or “Habanera” from Carmen, but ultimately, she opted to forgo a career as an opera singer, dedicating herself to songwriting instead, building a reputation at jazz clubs, coffeehouses, and folk festivals along the Eastern Seaboard.
After launching her career with the self-released Midwestern Saturday Night in 1993, her second recording Live at Tin Angel impressed executives at Private Music/BMG, which released her critically acclaimed major label debut Last of the Good Straight Girls in 1995. She also received critical accolades for her subsequent recordings Time Between Trains (VelVel, 1998) and New Non-Fiction (Indie, 2001). She has toured the nation with acts such as Richard Thompson, Keb Mo, and Joan Armatrading, and was featured in a 1998 Peter, Paul, and Mary PBS special as one of the best of the next generation of folk songwriters.
Hayseed is the fourth in a series of concept albums, beginning with 2004’s I Can’t Be New, which features original songs in the style of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, followed by The Gospel Truth in 2007 and Classics in 2009 (2011’s country-blues flavored Kicking The Beehive hinted at this turn towards the rural). “I like concept albums because they give the audience and the artist a place to meet, something in common to talk about, right from the word ‘go,’” Werner says. “And it seems everybody – from the First Lady to Dodge Trucks – has something to say about food, farms and farmers these days.”
“There’s a changing of the guard taking place in American agriculture,” Werner explains. “Farmers like my father and mother are retiring, and new farmers are starting out. I wanted to honor my parents and their way of life, and I want to be part of the conversation about what happens next, what farming looks like this year, next year, ten years from now.
Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin return to Music City Roots for a double celebration. The recent release of Fatsʼ new 2 CD retrospective instrumental album AND the upcoming autumn release of their new duo album “How Many Chances”.
Kristi Rose & Fats Kaplin, have long been recognized as artists of distinctive note. The husband and wife duo have each achieved acclaim seperately, Fats as a composer and master multiinstrumentalist, who, has been called upon to tour and record with hundreds of artists—Jack White, Beck, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale, Paul Burch, The Tractors, and countless others. Kristi Rose as a powerful and evocative singer and writer, who is known for her work as the favored muse and interpreter of numerous eclectic composers and lyricists.
Together they are mesmerizing performers who have created a highly eclectic musical genre, (and a way of life) known as Pulp Country. It is a world where traditional and modern meet, where desperation and joy comingle and where life “can turn on a dime” taking unending twists and turns down highways that lead to the intoxicating promise of realms unknown.
A jewel of Southern music, Randall Bramblett shines on his latest release, The Bright Spots, due out May 14 on New West Records. Fresh off the inclusion of one of his songs on Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning album Slipstream, he has put together a masterful recording soaked with the soulful feel that has defined his music and that of his Southern contemporaries like Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes. From Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and “dark Motown” influences, sitar samples, gospel strains and even a snippet of water-splashing pygmies, The Bright Spots mixes diverse elements that dovetail into Randall’s finest album yet.
Although sometimes associated with the Southern rock scene built around the ’70s-’80s Capricorn label’s core, Randall has never identified with that sound. “Black music is what I grew up loving and the folk scene really hit me too,” he says. “So it’s a combination of Dylan and Ray Charles.”
Elements of pop, soul, blues, and the sounds of the church combine with Randall’s often wistful, beautifully conceived lyrics on these dozen ruminative, roots-based tunes. “Some of the words come from dreams. I do meditations in the morning and write in a journal,” he says. His lyrical strength is mixing unusual thematic concepts with dry humor. That helps explain the album’s upbeat title. “In almost every song there is darkness, yet some thread of humor. The irony of the bright spots is that there is a lot of hurt in these songs and there are the bright spots too. It’s pain and joy simultaneously. There are gifts of desperation.”
That takes the form of the lowdown “Whatever That Is,” his most overtly blues composition, and the sing-along gospel of “Shine,” which sports an anthemic chorus different from anything Bramblett has previously written. “I’ve tried to push the boundaries, but we always follow the song and see what it needs. If the song doesn’t like something, it will tell you.”
With five songs recorded in Nashville and seven more tracked with his long time touring band on his home turf in Athens, GA, the multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keyboards, woodwinds) says his ninth studio release was the easiest and most organic to record. “It felt good and went quickly,” he explains. “It just fell together easily compared to my other records. We did not obsess about this one. A lot of it is live in the studio; we didn’t do a lot of takes or overdubs either.”
Perhaps that’s because the songs come from the experiences accumulated during his extensive career, starting in the ’70s as a member of the jazzy Southern band Sea Level. Add to that a far-reaching resume of work with artists such as Steve Winwood (for 16 years), Gregg Allman, Chuck Leavell, Levon Helm, Widespread Panic, and Gov’t Mule, and the touchstones of Randall’s music emerge. “All these songs came from my life, just feeling that I’m getting a little older and trying to squeeze out a little more time or creativity before it’s too late.”
Having a surfeit of original material to choose from, and highly creative, imaginative musicians in both Nashville and Athens to flesh out the tracks and mold them into bold, soulful statements also helped. “I had 18-20 songs and chose the best 12. As you start recording, you get a feel for where the record is going and it starts to have a life of its own. I have a lot of different styles I can do . . . I like variety but it shouldn’t sound like it’s arbitrary.” As in the past, Bramblett’s dusky, soulful voice and sympathetic backing is unified by the sharp production of veteran shotgun-riding drummer Gerry Hansen. He effortlessly ties the somewhat disparate elements that include short bits of African pygmy children splashing water, and the occasional R&B horn section, together into a cohesive set.
It helps to have high profile fans too. The multi-Grammy winning Raitt has been a Bramblett devotee since the late Stephen Bruton gave her a copy of 2001’s No More Mr. Lucky. She invited Bramblett’s band on the road to open shows and recorded his compositions “God Was in the Water” which appears on the album Souls Alike, and the gutsy “Used To Rule the World” (which has become a focus track) on Slipstream, which in addition to winning Grammy gold has sold more than 300,000 units to date.
The self-effacing artist downplays his previous sideman status, yet is grateful for valuable lessons gained from his work with Gregg Allman (“I learned about organ, vocals and drama through the bluesiness and dynamics of his playing”), watching The Band’s Levon Helm (“his joy of playing freed me up”) and Steve Winwood (“he taught me a lot about organ and melody, working out details and how to create the background beds he was so good at”).
The challenge of composing moving, often emotionally driven songs with words that aim to stir the listener’s feelings has always motivated Bramblett and creates this inspired album. Writing a song is “like playing with the pieces of a puzzle or playing in the sand until you start seeing something,” he asserts.
Despite Bramblett’s antecedents in Americana and specifically Southern music, this is no stroll down the red clay back roads of his youth. The album bridges the past and the present in the loop-driven rhythms of “John the Baptist,” “Trying To Steal a Minute” and the upbeat groove funk of “’Til the Party’s All Gone” as well as the more meditative keyboard based ballad “Detox Bracelet.” Overall The Bright Spots is steeped in soul with a modern edge. “I didn’t want to make a retro record. I like doing something different every time,” he says.
Randall Bramblett continues to push the envelope of his Southern soul into areas that further illuminate his past, while expanding and nudging his roots into the future. The music reflects “a lot of angst, salvation and redemption but it all comes from my experiences,” he concludes. “It’s an honest album that has heart.”
It was once said that James Wallace is the kind of guy you’d want on your side if you ever got into a music fight in prison. He’d probably tell you that too, just to clarify his position on not getting into a real fight in prison. That said, his penchant for dark and clever wordplay above eerily-cheery melodies, begs there may be a few twisted stories from his past that we’ve yet to hear.
Similar to what has often been said of Belle and Sebastian’s earlier works, More Strange News From Another Star captures a distinct vintage quality channeled from some non-existent folk music period of decades past. Often referenced to Paul Simon in vocal range and use of textured percussion, Wallace’s writing showcases a similar love of African music and Gospel harmonies. But more often than not, his band heads into the more ramshackle, go-for-broke qualities of the early Kinks. A kind of Rock and Roll bred with cacaphony that balances eerily well beneath Wallace’s falsetto.
As for the influences in his stories, that is quite the rabbit hole to explore. Whether they be citied from one of his many wandering trips to China, his short residency as a piano player for a small Black Mennonite Church in Appalachia, or an oft mentioned tale about a mysterious box of letters found in an abandoned storehouse concerning aliens and the end of the world, Wallace seems to have a lot to draw on, and that well dosen’t seem to be running dry anytime soon.
So far, this the only description that nearly fits Strung Like A Horse. Their acoustic driven sound fires people off to the darker areas of this strange universe. These unique individuals and their music is like a hellbender found under a rock; not hard to find, but damn hard to get a grasp on.
Built in a garage two years ago, these fellas resemble a psychobilly diesel pick-up. There’s BJ Hitower’s manic bass work providing the suspension of the band; bouncing, at times weird, but always reliable. Ben Crawford and his “s-s-s-s-string drum”. Slothimus Prime and Bertha, his chairdrumset, ping-ding-crack-and-rumble like a pieced together yet functional engine. “Spooky Chicklets” exists as an otherwordly force surrounding the truck; his violin sings the sounds of night-woods on the sides of the highway. Clay Maselle with his guitar in the shotgun steers the band into the depths of the wood with lyrics to narrate the adventure.
To bring it down to a point, these junkyard dogs bring “honest, playful, head-bangingly interactive fun” to any venue their rocket crashes.