This is about country and folk. Both genres have a wealth of idioms for a writer or performer to draw from, and draw they do. Their canon of traditional structures and deceptive simplicity of form mean they seem pretty easy to get a handle on. It’s an achievement to make your voice heard among so many imitators, especially, I imagine, for a woman.
Old Hat, yesterday.
Dull or derivative artists use this kind of treasure and tradition as a shortcut – to get something pretty ordinary to sound like a song or a performance, by invoking a particular set of conventions.
The finest artists use these same tools as a short-cut to your heart.
With a lot of this kind of music, it does what it says on the packet, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for surprise. It’s not about perceptions of authenticity in the connection between music and performer either. Maybe it’s sincerity. Simon Frith says “’sincerity’ […] cannot be measured by searching for what lies behind the performance; if we are moved by a performer we are moved by what we immediately hear and see” (Performing Rites 1996:215)
I really like country, bluegrass and folk music: I’m omnivorous, to the extent that I even enjoy cliches and amateur attempts. Of course it’s a matter of taste, but I always return to the finest I can find. Here’s a selection of songs from contemporary female artists I like, from Americana to English folk. Music’s hard to capture live on film. By definition, once it’s recorded, it isn’t live anymore, but these clips are, wherever possible, as alive as can be.
Gillian Welch (and David Rawlings) Dear Someone
Recorded mainly live in RCA Studio B in Nashville, Welch’s Time (The Revelator) is a great record. Welch has said “As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they’re really tiny rock songs. They’re just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments.” There’s not much there except two voices and two guitars; most importantly, songs like these, who needs more? Apparently two guys with hats. I think they wandered in off the street.
Alison Krauss and Union Station: New Favorite
This is a Gillian Welch song, performed by mainstream country/bluegrass act Union Station; fronted by Alison Krauss, this must be one of the saddest songs ever written: This performance is a master-class in minimalism. The catch in her breath says as much as the refrain it fuels.
Wailin’ Jennys Bird Song
I stumbled across the Wailin Jennys by accident, finding their song One Voice
when I needed a song about singing. I couldn’t find a good live version of that so there’s this: I love the musicianship and the close harmony that’s this Canadian act’s trademark.
Hem Betting on Trains
For a while there, overpriced music magazines aimed at middle-aged men had a CD stuck on the front. Mostly these compiled songs that you’d never want to listen to again, and as collections of music, made pretty good drink coasters. The most dreary genre seemed to be Americana (what even is that? Imagine a music genre called Australiana). The label gave a some very ordinary songwriters and performers a genre to hoist their flag upon. There were master impressionists like Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne and The Jayhawks who I liked (alongside some minor songwriters who got lost in the flood) but mostly it was like gospel music played by atheists. Very much a “…no, thankyou” proposition.
This song, by Brooklyn outfit Hem stood out from the dross on these CD’s for its quality musicianship and simplicity: Sally Ellyson’s pure vocals stand out because she’s not doing a vocal impression of someone pretending to be tired or a 10 year old with a sore throat. Hem’s first two albums Rabbit Songs and Eveningland are well worth chasing up.
Kate Rusby: Who Will Sing Me Lullabies
Shifting to contemporary folk now. Kate Rusby is from Yorkshire: her album Little Lights played a lot while my son was in utero, so I’ve got an emotional attachment to the music that’s beyond any critical assessment. That album’s a beautifully played, seamless mix of Rusby’s re-tooling of traditional tunes combined with her own compositions, of which this one’s a favourite. There’s quite a lovely documentary about her here
Julie Fowlis Hùg air a Bhonnaid Mhor
As I get on a roll with good celtic music, especially as played by women, there’s a lot of stuff I’d like to include: mainstream things like like Sinead O’Connor’s version of The Foggy Dew
or more off the beaten path, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s rendition of An Mhaighdean Mhara
. A search on Sean-nós
singing will unearth some treasures
too, if you’re that way inclined. A recent artist I keep coming back to works in language as well (Scottish Gaelic this time) is Julie Fowlis. Undistracted by what the lyrics might mean, I just enjoy the pure flow of the voice as an instrument, part of the ensemble. This song, (a puirt a beul
or mouth music tune) might drive you nuts. If it does, try her cover of the Beatles Blackbird.