folk music » Archive

Late 19th/early 20th century American folk music is endlessly fascinating to me and a major source of inspiration for my music, especially in my choice of musical instruments and the sonic nuances I’m always trying to reproduce. When I first listened to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, I felt like I had a glimpse into a vastly important piece of history that was simultaneously fading away and fighting to be remembered.

WFMU shared Dinosaur Disc’s transfer of Folk Music In America earlier today. From what I’ve heard so far, Dinosaur Discs did an awesome job converting this LP series to digital format, including PDFs of the extensive liner notes. Dinosaur Disc also has a great history of recorded American music, technical information on digitizing recordings, and a great selection of downloads. Here’s to keeping American folk music history alive.

2012-2013 has been a pretty amazing time for live music. So amazing, in fact, that I feel it deserves a recap. I haven’t performed live since December but I’ve been fortunate to see five musicians I truly admire. In chronological order: Mount Eerie, Jeff Mangum, Jaymay, Jad Fair, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. A lot of J names, I know, and I don’t know how that came about. What are the odds? Well, if I still lived in Las Vegas I might be able to tell you.

Mount Eerie, The Microphones

Back in October I saw Mount Eerie perform at The Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, AZ and after the show I got to sit with the band and talk with Phil Elverum. Phil was nice and soft-spoken, unaffected by my sad attempt at controlling my fanboyness. I got into The Microphones – a former incarnation of Mount Eerie – around the fall of 2001; they recorded exclusively on reel-to-reel tape, a practice that Mount Eerie still follows, and it suits both the sound and the atmosphere of their music. At the time, I was still recording on four-track cassette tape, some of which would end up on the “bonus songs!” section of the maybe by this time next year / today is boring double disc. Ever since hearing the first song on The Glow Pt. 2 I’ve thought about that sound, the texture, during every recording session I’ve had. I’ve made at least a few obvious attempts to duplicate it, but in general it made me think about how much, or how little, you can add to a song and the organic nature of that process.

Jeff Mangum, Neutral Milk Hotel

Although I thought I’d never be able to say this, I saw Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel perform live; he played two shows in one night and I went to both. Neutral Milk Hotel recorded various songs, an EP and two albums; one of them, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is probably one of the greatest albums ever (ever). Surreal, thought-provoking, beautiful, inspiring, tragic and epic. Years ago Jeff retreated from the spotlight and it seemed like he would never tour again until recently; he still didn’t really talk to anyone and snuck onto (and then off) the stage. Still, seeing him and hearing his unique piercing voice, singing songs that sound like the strangest dreams, waving and half-bowing appreciatively (and shyly) was quite the experience. I’m not one of those crying-at-shows people, but I came close a couple times.


For our first concert as Austin residents, we went to see Jaymay at Lambert’s Downtown Barbeque. Jaymay is absolutely one of my favorite musicians. If you only have two minutes listen to “Long Walk To Never,” but if you have ten minutes listen to “You’d Rather Run” from Autumn Fallin’. She writes and sings with honesty and sincerity, her stories unfolding in minutes with all the quality of a great book or movie, with songs that sound like they have to be true, because the humor, the heartbreak, the love is all right there in front of you. Anyway, her performance was amazing. I talked to her before the show, helped adjust the microphone stand and even got a shout-out. She was as nice as can be.

Jaymay at Lambert's

Jaymay, singin’

Jad Fair, Half Japanese

During my first trip to Waterloo Records as an Austin resident, I noticed a plainly printed letter-size flier announcing that Jad Fair would be performing the next day. Jad Fair! The Jad Fair! Okay, not a household name, but a founding member of Half Japanese, a band I love and a band that helped further inspire me to express myself, even if I had to make some noise or sing not-perfectly to do it. To a certain extent I owe a lot of my noisier feedback-ridden recordings to the Velvet Underground, but I think Half Japanese helped me consider the possibility of making noise for people, not necessarily at them.

Jad Fair and rushmore beekeepers, together at last

Jad Fair and me. Notice the Jaymay shirt? Good job!

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

It seems many places in Austin are legendary, and The Cactus Cafe is one of those places. Townes Van Zandt used to play there, and in my opinion any room he set foot in is legendary. Carrie and I saw folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott play there; it’s a small room, accommodating around 150 people (guessing). I’ve seen some video footage of Ramblin’ Jack, most memorably in Bob Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara, and I’ve heard a fair amount of his live recordings, but seeing this short cowboy walk into the room like he was just some guy – that was something. Well, first some kid pushed past him to get into the room, and the ignorance of that action made me want to grab the kid and sing “Diamond Joe” in his face. (I say kid, but he might’ve been in his early or mid twenties. Shhh.) Ramblin’ Jack lived up to his nickname and spent much of his set telling funny stories. He talked about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, offering hilariously accurate impressions of both of them. A cowboy poet friend of his recited a couple poems while Jack took a break and got coffee. I also got coffee, primarily so I could say I shared a pot of coffee with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott and me

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and me

Another octave mandolin folk song for your listening pleasure!

Although we never really seem to get much fall weather in Las Vegas, I still look forward to this time of year. Even if it’s just the idealized version of it in my head, fall is my favorite season. (Almost fall isn’t too bad, either.)

The octave mandolin and vocals were recorded at the same time (second take) late one night; I came home the next evening and was immediately inspired to add some bass, drums, and harmonica. You can dance, if you want.

why don’t we just drive out to the forest
we won’t stop till we see some different colors
we’ll have lunch down by the creek
it’ll say that big city has nothing on me

why don’t we just walk into the desert
we won’t stop till the car is out of sight
we’ll find a rock, climb it carefully
it’ll say that big city has nothing on me

i don’t care what other people say
there’s nothing like a warm house on a cold day
and i don’t know what other people say
it’s always the right time to pack up and get away

you can fall in love in the middle of the desert
you can be prepared, you might be surprised
you can sing loud or sing it softly
this big old world has nothing on me

A little over one year ago, Carrie and I went to Joshua Tree to stay at the Joshua Tree Inn and see the place that Gram Parsons found so inspirational. While visiting Pioneertown, we met Eric Bevel, who, as it turns out, does some amazing woodworking. Somehow we started talking about musical instruments, and he showed me a really nice bass he had made. I casually talked to him about having him make me an instrument and got a business card, but it took me awhile to email him about making me something.

I’d been wanting to start playing octave mandolin; I’ve always enjoyed the sound, and I often found myself wishing my mandolin had a lower range. Having a fairly uncommon instrument I’d never played custom-made seemed like a great fit, so I contacted Eric about the project. He was excited and willing to take it on, even never having built an octave mandolin before. Since I’d been impressed by his work, I wanted to give him as much freedom with the design as possible. I gave him my feedback on body style, color, some of those things, and even those elements came out strikingly original.

We were in communication throughout the whole project (I got to see a lot of neat in-progress pictures, and since then have seen a bunch more), and we met at Kelso Depot in California for the exchange, in the middle of the desert, old time Vegas style. It was so exciting to play this instrument for the first time. Even being outside it sounded amazing (better than the fancy acoustic rooms in certain bigtime music retailers), and even after seeing all of the pictures I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the instrument, and I’m still marvelling over all of the unique handmade touches. I just can’t believe people can do such amazing things with their hands. Most of my other instruments are factory made, and they still sound nice, but meeting the person who made this instrument, seeing all of this hand-crafted detail, hearing the difference in the sound of the wood, and knowing where pretty much every piece of it came from is something entirely different.

I plan on incorporating a good amount of octave mandolin into my new songs, so stay tuned! (Pun definitely intended.) For now, here is a little song I wrote on the octave mandolin. At different points, this song includes guitar and regular mandolin; I wanted to play around and see how it sounded with these instruments. Expect some more elaborate arrangements in the future. It’s going to be like a hootenanny up in here.

Also, if you think Eric Bevel’s work is absolutely amazing, unique, and beautifully crafted (which you should) and you want to talk to him about making you something, I bet he’d love it if you email him.

Two happy campers.