The theme of Folk Alliance International in Kansas City, where I’m filing this dispatch, was “Forbidden Folk: Celebrating Activism in Art,” and heaven knows our community, our whole national community, is mobilizing like we’ve not seen in decades. I’ve heard many shades of anthems, declarations, pleas and protests, but it’s not been as confrontational as some might imagine. The overwhelming impulse is not to sing at but to sing with, and a few artists have told me they’re more interested in using music to build bridges and heal ruptures in a polarized land than to express anger or frustration. A large gathering took to the roof of the hotel to sing “We Shall Overcome,” yet an all-star group of artists concluded an episode of Freedom Sings here on Friday with “This Land Is Your Land,” which I hope is something on which we can all agree.
This has been an exceptional event and an opportunity to experience a cross section of what’s going on in North America and the world, and I’ll be posting a full report in a few days. With this as my backdrop, I couldn’t help but notice that this week on Roots we’ve got a band sporting a new album called Love and Protest and a Nashville songwriter whose debut album in 2016 was one of the most subtle and intelligent anti-war albums I’ve ever heard.
The project is called War Surplus, a song cycle conveying scenes and episodes from a relationship (Scott and June) that’s under stress from his PTSD acquired after service in Iraq. The artist, Becky Warren, drew from her own life experience and fated marriage to draw out specific tensions and emotions with rare clarity and effectiveness. Her striking and cutting voice plus the bold country rock textures made for one of my favorite releases of last year.
The Vinyl District was one of many outlets that raved: “Warren emerged on the scene over a decade ago as part of the (Boston based) Great Unknowns but took an extended break from music related to her husband’s PTSD. Warren won the 2014 Merlefest Songwriting Competition for opener “Call Me Sometime,” and her vaguely post-Springsteen-style narrative thrives in a hearty pop Americana zone highlighted by Paul Neihaus’ steel guitar.” I’m also happy to say that I saw Becky here in Kansas City singing powerful songs and collaborating joyfully with co-writers from back in Music City. She’s got a lot more to say than this one well-told story.
As for Love and Protest, it seems that venerable roots rock band Girls Guns & Glory may be aiming for a more personal than political message. Band leader and songwriter Ward Hayden says in the new album’s promo that “its songs explore the emotion of love.” He says “when love is faced with opposition, it’s the protest of that emotion. It’s alpha and omega — love and protest. There’s a lot of ground to cover between those two extremes.”
The band has kept deep core country music and old-school rock and roll alive and humming in its home town of Boston for about ten years, and GG&G has played slots at all the prestigious roots music events. That, if we may say, includes MCR almost exactly one year ago. I posted the next day that we heard “Hayden sounding a bit like Dwight with a yodel crack in his crooning voice and edgy honky tonk surging forth from the band. They offered a vintage rock and roll go-go twister on the whimsical “Shake Like Jello” and told the mournful story of “Centralia, PA” (the abandoned town with the four-decade coal mine fire beneath it). Throughout, the quartet showed country and western panache and great spirits, which they took to the stage of our after-party at Kimbro’s for a rousing Hank Williams sing-along.”
Our night at Roots will be neatly split between this rootsy rock and bluegrass music, which is only known here and there for its protest songs but which certainly is all about guns a blazin’ when it comes to voices and instruments. We are now old besties with The Gibson Brothers, the long-grinding, hard-working, always adapting duo from upstate New York that wound up securing two IBMA Entertainer of the Year prizes in 2012 and 13. They were favorites on the circuit well before then, having joined their voices in close harmony when they were teenagers in the 1990s. Eric and Leigh arrive with a new project on Rounder Records called In The Ground. I’ve not heard it yet so I’m letting it conjure both of its meanings, from planting seeds for the future and laying the dead to rest. Both are potent bluegrass themes. I also must note the exceptional support musicians we’ll see who’ve been with the siblings for a good while, including mandolinist Jesse Brock, bass player Mike Barber and fiddler Clayton Campbell. They’ve all got that family chemistry even if it’s not a blood thing.
And rounding out our night will be first time MCR artists NewTown, a terrific bluegrass band from Lexington, KY that’s fronted by award-winning singer and fiddle-player Kati Penn Williams and her husband who sings and plays banjo. In its eight years touring and recording they’ve shared bills with icons including Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson. They’ve connected with Mountain Home Records outside of Asheville, NC to release Harlan Road, an album that rides that exciting line between traditional and innovation. I’ve been looking for a chance to see these guys for a while, so as always Roots delivers.