Sara Watkins may be best known for her brilliant fiddle work with Nickel Creek, but expect that to change as more critics and fans hear her extraordinary solo release Sun Midnight Sun. Clearly, the fiddle virtuoso is a solo artist with whom to be reckoned.
Watkins credits her time touring with The Decemberists for revving up her creative juices, resulting in the lush 10-track Americana album. Guests include Jackson Brown and Fiona Apple, and songs range from the Everly Brothers‘ “You’re the One I Love,” and Willie Nelson‘s “I’m a Memory,” to iconic songwriter Dan Wilson‘s “If It Pleases You.” But make no mistake, Sun Midnight Sun is all Watkins. Not only did she write or co-write the other songs on the album, but the guests and even the cover songs emerge simply as accents to her own unique songwriting.
“I really couldn’t point to my finger at any one thing,” said Watkins when asked how she honed her songwriting skills, which she’s criticized in the past. “Everyone hopes to get better at their craft and the way to do it is to write, and a lot has to do with listening to other people’s music and admiring their work and trying to get that to rub off on you in some way.”
Watkins credits co-producer and songwriting partner Blake Mills, formerly of Dawes, with providing support as she balanced her music between Nickel Creek’s bluegrass roots and a bit more rock sensibility.
As Williams worked, trying to ensure the fan didn’t fall into the ice, the group began brotherly ribbing about the trip to the DelFest site in Cumberland, Maryland, their music, and their families. Sure, there were almost 10,000 fans lined up to see the McCoury family, Keller Williams, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and other bluegrass royalty play, but an onlooker would never know it from the casual camaraderie of the Williams and the McCoury band. The musicians were clearly as comfortable as if they were going to just jam with friends, which in a way they were.
“Bluegrass has always been a part of my show,” said Williams when asked what led him to record the just-released album Pick”with the Travelin’ McCourys. “There are different types of music that burn in my head”like jazz, electronica”but it circles back.”
Fair enough. There’s a reason that Williams is known as a one man jam band, after all. One has difficulty summoning other musicians who move quite as easily among divergent formats”bluegrass to folk to rock to reggae and beyond”and playing it all with the ease of a multi-instrumental virtuoso with the joy of a fan, both titles that he holds. Indeed, Williams’ sets at DelFest, named after the much-loved and honored bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury, ranged from some of his classic hits to bluegrass tunes to “Hot Stuff” in tribute to the recently-deceased disco queen Donna Summer.
The singer/songwriter who you likely know from his songs that have been featured on such television shows as Dawson’s Creek and Roswell and various films has just released the Western & Atlantic EP. Working with Colin Killilea (Pocketknife), Marwan Kanafani (City Breathing), Erik Olsen (DiLego’s longtime writing partner), and Gregg Williams (Dandy Warhols, Sheryl Crow), the result is a stroll back to the Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell sound that intrigued DiLego as a child. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider Rolling Stone dubbed him “alt-country’s next poster boy.”
“Just this morning I was watching ‘Walk the Line’ [the 2005 biographical drama about] Johnny Cash,” he said when asked about his decision to gather all the players in a studio and record Western & Atlantic live except for minimal overdubs. “It is only in today’s era that having recorded everyone live [while the players are] together means anything. In the history of music, that was just the way you recorded things.”
Not that DiLego is that far away from the roots of country. After all, he and musical partner Bree Sharp have a loyal following for their folk, alt-country duo Beautiful Small Machines. In fact, the duo’s recent cover of a banjo version of MIA’s “Paper Planes” was just selected as a Top 5 Pick of the Week by The Guardian of London. But in order to juggle his hectic musical schedule, DiLego will often use modern recording tools, like most other musicians, to finish a project. Perhaps the back-to-basics recording process for Western & Atlantic is what makes the early buzz around the EP so heartening.
Known individually as Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac, the duo has won an array of awards and has ardent fans throughout their native Canada, in Europe, and beyond. Yet the two are just now making a name for themselves in the U.S. An unexpected illness forced the duo to cancel the last two dates of the U.S. tour behind their latest album The Good in Goodbye, but the pair hope to be back in American clubs soon.
“We haven’t toured in the U.S. very often in the 13 years we have been playing together,” said MacEachern citing work permits and other red tape that has kept them away. “Now we have more of a focus on the States and that’s great. Our music shouldn’t be a struggle in the States; it’s kind of got an Americana feel.”
Although that’s true, the music clearly also has international appeal as underscored by the many fans” especially from Germany”that fly to Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, to catch Madison Violet shows. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider the judges, including Elton John, Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blige, that chose Madison Violet as the 2009 Grand Prize Winners of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The duo are the first Canadians to win the award.
While the prize certainly bolstered the group’s confidence in their own abilities, they still see a long road ahead as they work to establish their names in the States. The joy for them is that fans are fans and seem to have similar responses to their music, wherever they play. If they can just get before a crowd, as they did on Memorial Day weekend at DelFest, chances are they’ll win converts.
Let me note that it’s probably not cool to use myself as an example, but I’m guessing that a lot of folks wonder if the musical joy they experienced as kids can be recaptured. After attending this year’s DelFest during Memorial Day in Cumberland, Md., I have to believe it can.
I had originally intended to let Del McCoury tell you about DelFest, that just wrapped up its fifth season and is busting at the seams with attendees (the area’s local newspaper reports expansion plans are underway). We’ll let you hear from Del, of course, but after reading the non-stop CMA Fest coverage, the Bonnaroo dispatches, and the excellent Kindle single “The Same Coachella Twice” by Sean Howell, I thought some personal perspective might be useful, too.
Let’s start with some background about McCoury, who was a legend before the title was handed out like flyers advertising a tent sale. McCoury was first the banjo player, then lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. We could go on and on about his career, which he put on hold for more than a decade so he could be close to home and help raise his family. Highlights include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment of the Arts, membership in both the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ol’ Opry, and that’s just for starters. You likely get the point.
Or part of it.
The real point is that although he’s a hero to many musicians”Bruce Springsteen, Jon Fishman of Phish, Paul Stanley of KISS”he has never chased musical trends. And from what musicians tell me, McCoury never held those who did in contempt. Instead, he takes enjoyment and inspiration from all music, including that which he wouldn’t play.
Although fans know the story of how Vassar was hard at work on an airplane while traveling between gigs when a conversation with another passenger inspired him to write the song, the just-released video gives the emotional song even more power. Doubt that? Vassar played the song for a friend in radio who insisted”his exact words were something to the effect of “I’m not leaving until you agree to let me play that song on the air” ”he release it as a single sooner rather than later.
I would never, ever have put out a ballad in the spring or summer, but this is a good song and really deserves to come out now,” said Vassar, who is working on a new album to release on his own label. So I had a friend of mine (videographer and director Steve Condon) come on the road with me and my band [to film parts of the video)”.