Green Light on the Southern
[Plectrafone Records (2011)]
Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy
[Stony Plain (2009)]
Norman Blake’s new album, Green Light on the Southern, is a stripped-down, almost solo recording with a homemade feel. But it feels tired, almost exhausted, and reading the liner notes, it’s clear that Blake is burned out on the music industry. As he says in the notes, he retired from touring three years ago to get away from what has become “The Great American Theme Park mentality.” Not sure what that means, but he follows this with a staggering statement:
“I have seen the rural music I loved from childhood grow fainter and farther away in a commercial and urbanized society that seems to care little for the charm of old fashioned Southern string music and its long gone practitioners.”
The one-sided, dismissive nature of this quote inspired me to write this review and to take Blake to task.
A new generation (some would argue two new generations) have whole-heartedly embraced Southern old-time traditions with a fervor not seen since the early days of the folk revival. Banjo-slinging hipsters these days often know more about Southern roots music than many old folkies, and crusty street punks have taken up the traveling folk musician life of old medicine show artists like Uncle Dave Macon. Square dance scenes have sprung up all over the United States; every city has an old-time stringband; and true Appalachian musicians, like Riley Baugus or Dirk Powell, play folk festivals and Hollywood soundtracks alike. Not only are we deep in the middle of a nationwide (perhaps world-wide) renaissance in American old-time music, but rarely before has the American mainstream so embraced the sounds of true old-time music. Obviously, O Brother Where Art Thou was the starting point for this renaissance, but subsequent movies with T-Bone Burnett, like Cold Mountain, have taken the music even further into the mainstream. Major country stars, like Willie Nelson, have returned to their roots, cutting acoustic albums thick with banjos, fiddles, and old-time songs. Even the indie music scene has gotten behind folk music recently. The Decemberists nailed the #1 Billboard spot with their Americana roots album, and their off-shoot group, Black Prairie, lit up the blogosphere with their arrangements of folk-themed melodies. Frank Fairfield won the hearts of indie audiences with his 100% unvarnished old-time singing and playing, and long-gone practitioners of Southern old-time music, like Charlie Poole or Dock Boggs, have seen award-winning box sets that brought their music back to the mainstream. It’s the height of folly to claim that old-time music traditions are dying out in America today, and it’s unfortunate that Blake has argued himself out of this renaissance.
Many artists get burned out by the ebb-and-flow of their own careers, and the solution to this is usually to go back to their roots to remember why they love this music. Cut an album of your favorite songs, invite a few friends, ignore the advice of your label, and just have fun with the music. I wish Blake had done that with his album. But instead, he retreated further into his inner circle (he and his wife are the only musicians on the album), and released an album that seeks to prove the importance of the old songs he loves. But the love isn’t there. He draws forth some great old songs for this album, but there’s little emotion in the music. The songs don’t stand out, and they just don’t seem to have much life in them. He argues that the songs have enough poetry to sustain us, but without a spark of creativity or joy, the music falls flat. If you want to give up on the industry, that’s fine, but it doesn’t help to release an album that’s so out of step with the times. We’re all tired of the folk superstar treatment, and even superstars like Chris Thile are looking for new ideas and new ways to have fun, as seen with his genuinely entertaining duet album with bluegrass renegade Michael Daves. As Bob Dylan said,
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
The times have been changing for a while now, and we’ve all been having a helluva lot of fun with these old songs and tunes. Let’s hope Norman Blake will join us soon!
To balance this somewhat grouchy review, here’s an excellent example of a late-life folk album that’s bursting with new energy and ideas. Maria Muldaur, an icon of the 1960s/1970s folk revival, released the album Maria Muldaur & Her Garden of Joy in 2009. It’s a wonderful romp through her jugband past, bringing on old friends like Taj Mahal, David Grisman, and Dan Hicks, but it’s got a fresh vibrancy brought by her “sensational new discovery” Kit Stovepipe. Kit’s a ragtime guitar genius, an old soul trapped in a young body. He started off in the crust punk movement, but moved to jugbands while living in Eugene, Oregon. He collects 78 recordings, loves old B&W cartoons, and always performs with a stovepipe hat and a giant septum piercing. He’s literally one of the best ragtime guitarists of his generation. On a par with the greats of the folk revival. Muldaur saw his promise and snapped him up for her album, featuring him throughout. He lends a raging energy to the album that elevates the music and propels the whole album. Kit’s an eccentric character who’s completely outside of the folk music mainstream. Until recently, the only way to buy his albums was from him personally (no internet allowed!), and they’re all packaged in recycled paper bags. It’s a huge credit to Muldaur that she recognized Kit’s talent and brought him in to the folk mainstream. This is the kind of collaboration we should see more of; this is the kind of collaboration that keeps the music fresh and alive.
—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)