The stunning, self-titled fourth album from the Kentucky singer, songwriter, and guitarist Joan Shelley began, surprisingly, with a fiddle.
In the summer of 2014, Shelley fell for “Hog of the Forsaken,” a bowed rollick at the end of Michael Hurley’s wayward folk circus, Long Journey, then nearly forty years old. Hurley’s voice, it seemed to Shelley, clung to the fiddle’s melody, dipping where it dipped and climbing where it climbed. This was a small, significant revelation, prompting the guitarist to trade temporarily six strings for four and, as she puts it, “try to play like Michael.” That is, she wanted to sing what she played, to play what she sang. She tried it, for a spell, with the fiddle.
“Turns out, I wasn’t very good at fiddle,” remembers Shelley, chuckling. “But I took that idea back to the guitar and tried that same method. I did it as a game to make these songs, a way to find another access point.”
But that wasn’t the end of the trials. After collaborating and touring with ace guitarist Nathan Salsburg for so many years, Shelley decided to put her entire guitar approach to the test, too. Each day, she would twist and turn into a different tuning, letting her fingers fumble along the strings until the start of a tune began to emerge. After playing the songs of her phenomenal third album, the acclaimed Over and Even, so many nights during so many shows, the trick pushed her hands out of her habits and into a short, productive span that yielded most of Joan Shelley.
It’s fitting that the set is self-titled. These are, after all, Shelley’s most assured and complete thoughts to date, with lyrics as subtle and sensitive as her peerless voice and a band that offers support through restraint and nuance. In eleven songs, this is the sound of Joan Shelley emerging as one of music’s most expressive emotional syndicates.
To get there, Shelley had a little more help than usual. In December 2016, she headed a few hours north to Chicago, where she and Salsburg joined Jeff Tweedy in Wilco’s Loft studio for five days. Spencer Tweedy, home from college, joined on drums, while James Elkington (a collaborator to both Tweedy and Salsburg) shifted between piano and resonator guitar. Jeff added electric accents and some bass, but mostly, he helped the band stay out of its own way. “He was protecting the songs. He was stopping us before we went too far.” she says.
The Loft proved essential for that approach, as it was wired to capture every musical moment, so no take was lost. If, for instance, some magic happened while Spencer Tweedy added drums to a tune he’d never heard, or while Elkington tinkered behind a piano, the tape was rolling. Indeed, half of these songs are first takes.
“The first time is always the best. That’s when everyone’s on the edge of their seats, listening to not mess it up,” Shelley says. “They’re depending on each other to get through it.”
Shelley’s music has never been experimental, at least in some bleeding- edge sense of the word. And she’s comfortable with that, proud of the fact that her simple songs are attempts to express complex emotion and address difficult question about life, love, lust, and existence itself. During “The Push and Pull,” for instance, she precisely captures the emotional tug of war as two people struggle to codify a relationship, her voice perking up and slinking down to illustrate the idea. For “Go Wild,” she wrestles with principles of independence and dependence, forgiveness and freedom, her tone luxuriating inside the waltz as though this were a permanent state of being. These are classic ideas, rendered brilliantly anew.
But in their own personal way, these songs are experimental and risky, built with methods that pushed Shelley out of the comfort zone she’s established on a string of records defined by a mesmerizing sort of grace and clarity. The shifts are not so much major as they are marked, suggestive of the same steady curiosity and rumination that you find in the pastoral pining of “If the Storms Never Came” or the subtle romance of “Even Though.” From genesis through gestation and on to execution, then, these songs document transitions to destinations unknown.
“I don’t have a concept, and I don’t know the meaning until much later. Whatever I am soaking up or absorbing from the world, there will be songs that reflect all those thoughts,” Shelley says. “I keep my songwriting alive and sustainable by trying to be honest about how it came out—these are all its jagged edges, and that’s what it is to be human.”
A professed Southern Gothic songster based in Johnson City, TN, Amythyst Kiah’s commanding stage presence is only matched by her raw and powerful vocals—a deeply moving, hypnotic sound that stirs echoes of a distant and restless past. A graduate of East Tennessee State University, she studied old time music and music performance, and it proved to be a pivotal moment in her life as she transformed from a long-time closet musician into a well-rounded, captivating performer.
Accoutered interchangeably with banjo, acoustic guitar, or a full band (Her Chest of Glass), Amythyst’s toolbox is augmented by her scholarship of African-American roots music. Her eclectic influences span decades, drawing heavily on old time music (Mississippi Sheiks, Son House, Jimmie Rodgers, Olla Belle Reed, Carter Family), inspired by strong R&B and country music vocalists from the '50s-'70s (Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn) and influenced by contemporary artists with powerful vocal integrity (Adele, Florence and the Machine, Megan Jean and the KFB, Janelle Monae).
Provocative and coolly fierce, Amythyst Kiah’s ability to cross the boundaries of blues and old-time through reinterpretation is groundbreaking and simply unforgettable.
With Wolvering, their third album, they demonstrate a unity of sound that seems to come from beyond those six years. Pulling from an ever-deepening exploration of traditional Kentucky and Appalachian music, the trio aims at shining a light on some of the more dark and lovely early-American songs that have survived through the years, re-arranged andsung in three part harmony. While showing a clear reverence and love for the great singers of the past, their music is timeless and beautiful and their original compositions are indistinguishable from the tunes people have been listening to for ages and ages.
One of the most treasured and revered traditional Appalachian musicians of our time, Lee Sexton still continues to pick the banjo and regularly tour when not at home with his wife Opal and his beloved garden.
June Appal issued an LP of Lee playing traditional material–Whoa Mule–in 1988, and an expanded CD version of the album was released in 2004, featuring an additional 40 minutes of music. In 1999, he was presented with the Kentucky Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. Also known (by some) as “Mr. Seedtime,” we’re delighted to welcome Lee back to the Seedtime stage; we’re not sure where we’d be without him.
Senora May is a Kentucky-based singer-songwriter.
The Local Honeys are a charming duo, born and raised in Central and Eastern Kentucky. The pairing is comprised of Montana Hobbs and Linda Jean Stokley. Montana and Linda Jean are the first women to graduate with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Traditional Music from Morehead State University. They are multi-instrumentalists, vocalists, and songwriters who pay homage to the their rich Kentucky heritage.
Brett Ratliff's homeplace is Van Lear, Kentucky, the historic coal camp that gave birth to Loretta Lynn. Having been mentored by the masters of the area--George Gibson, Rich Kirby, Paul David Smith, Lee Sexton, and Jamie Wells among them--Ratliff is often the traditionally trained musician on stage with country, acid honk-a-tonk, and cow punk. He has toured the region and the world with groups such as Clack Mountain String Band, Dirk Powell Band, Giant Rooster Sideshow, and Rich & the Po’ Folk and has played alongside the likes of Woody Pines, Foghorn Stringband, Jean Ritchie, Mike Seeger, and Art Stamper. Today Ratliff teaches traditional Kentucky repertoire at The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington; Swannanoa Gathering in Swannanoa, North Carolina; Sore Fingers Week in Oxfordshire, England; Augusta Heritage's Early Country Music Week in Elkins, WV; Cowan Creek Mountain Music School in Letcher County, KY and elsewhere. His first solo release was the 2008 June Appal recording Cold Icy Mountain.
Brett said of his 2017 release Gone Boy, "With the help of friends, I've tried with all my heart to make this record in a way that says something true about my East Kentucky. Turns out, it might be a salve to these days, hearing something felt, something true. It is my prayer that it gives you both a real lift and real challenge."
Tyler Hughes and Sam Gleaves are an old time country music duo, performing songs old and new with close harmony singing and accompaniment on clawhammer banjo, guitar, fiddle and autoharp.
Tyler and Sam’s programs feature fiddle and banjo hoedowns, close mountain harmonies, stories of all kinds, Carter Family-inspired autoharp and guitar, country gospel songs, lonesome ballads & flatfoot dancing. In 2015, Tyler and Sam performed on West Virginia Public Radio's Mountain Stage, Lexington, Kentucky's Red Barn Radio, broadcast on Kentucky Educational Television, and at many other venues throughout the Appalachian region.
The music of Sarah Morgan embodies her respect and joy of folk music and her creative approach to arranging. Backing traditional Appalachian melodies and haunting old time tunes with fresh harmonies and a progressive drive, she lends a new feel to seemingly "old" tunes, while accompanying pure and heartfelt vocals with the unpretentious sound of the Appalachian dulcimer. Folk, Americana, and Old-Time roots are brought to the forefront at live shows, where only Sarah and her dulcimer can be found behind the microphone, creating a subtle yet powerful sound that brings the relevant music of the past to todays audience.
Sarah Morgan started her musical journey at 7 years old and has fallen in love with traditional and folk music through the years. A native of East Tennessee, Sarah has incorporated the rich musical heritage of the area into her music. At 18, Sarah placed 1st at the 2012 National Mountain Dulcimer Championships held in Winfield, KS. A year later she went on to become a finalist in the 2013 International Acoustic Music Awards. She has also won other titles, including Mid-Eastern Region Mountain Dulcimer Champion, Kentucky State Mountain Dulcimer Champion, and Southern Region Mountain Dulcimer Champion. She currently studying Traditional Music and Appalachian Studies at Morehead State University.
The New Beckham County Ramblers are a diverse group of musicians who play the old-time string band tunes of generations past and make it just as enjoyable.
Ginny's Kitchen began playing together in an overheated Manhattan kitchen in the winter of 2017. Members Libby Weitnauer, Erin Lobb, Sarah Chadwick Gibson, and A’yen Tran, find their inspiration in the vibrant tradition of women in American stringband and traditional music. Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, The Coon Creek Girls, and Ginny Hawker, are among their greatest inspirations. With roots reaching from East Tennessee and Kentucky all the way up the coast to Vermont and New York City, the four women bring a unique approach to the music of their forebears. Ginny is the name of Erin’s grandmother, and her kitchen in Kentucky is where she learned her good manners.
Pierceton Hobbs is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and devotee to Appalachian Mountain-Music and Traditions. Born in Wise County, VA and raised in his native Dickenson County, VA, the historic coalfield county that gave rise to Dr. Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter, Hobbs is no stranger to the mountains that shaped their repertoire. His songwriting has been described as like peering into a two-way mirror, taking a hard look at yourself as well as the dark reality on the other side and coming to a real, more complex conclusion on life.
We are Zane Thompson and Eli Bedel, two aspiring old-time musicians whose passion for the songs and tunes of a different era set us apart from most of our fellow millennials. Drawing heavily from the traditional music of Appalachia and other folk styles, we do our best to bring people joy, put a pep in their step, and remind us all of those who came before. Eli hails from the Edge of Appalachia nature preserve in rural Adams County, Ohio and Zane splits his time between the West Side of Cincinnati and the farmland around Dillsboro, Indiana. Together, we bring our experiences to the music and hope that all who listen can join in the time-honored tradition of celebrating life.
The Passing the Pick and Bow Program is a low- to no-cost after school music education program that teaches local youth Appalachian old-time music in Letcher County, Kentucky. Pick and Bow was developed as a response to the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, a project that Appalshop, WMMT’s parent non-profit, began in 2001. The program begins each semester with an assembly performance by our instructors in schools where the program operates. Our assemblies allow new students to see and hear Appalachian old-time music performed live, and they are a way to inform returning students about our teaching schedule. Our instructors teach after-school for five days per week, at four elementary/middle schools and the local high school, for the duration of the school year. The students are given the choice between guitar, fiddle, banjo, or mandolin. Pick and Bow also hosts annual student concerts, at the conclusion of each semester, in the Appalshop Theater. These concerts are open to the public and are a great way for the students to show off their developing talents to friends and family. Students can also be heard live on WMMT when they take the stage during Appalshop’s annual Seedtime on the Cumberland music and arts festival every June. In late summer of 2015, Pick and Bow expanded into Letcher County Central High School and Knott County Schools via The Hindman Settlement School. Students perform a Spring and Christmas concert in the Appalshop Theater in addition to kicking off Saturday on the Seedtime Main Stage.