hallowell

When the first Bifrost Arts record came out (Come O’ Spirit), one of its contributors, Joseph Pensak, released a B-side to the record called “Come Unto Me You Weary”.  As with the other Bifrost tunes, the simple hymn stood in vivid contrast to much of the “worship” music of its day.  It had a quiet melody, an unpredictable arrangement, and vocal performances that ache.

Some 10 years later, Pensak has enlisted a number of Vermont (and beyond) musicians, to help him expand on those initial Bifrost outpourings on his new record, Hallowell.  He draws inspiration both far and wide, from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, to ancient hymns, to REM and the Breeders.  These eccentricities fit well with the output of Great Comfort Records, founded by Lenny Smith and family (Danielson).  The Smiths have been recording and releasing gospel music that doesn’t fit the rigid framework of conventional worship music, looking instead to songs that emphasize melody and poetry over structure.  Hallowell fits nicely in this unique catalogue, as Pensak and his friends grapple with faith, with the unknown, with the weight of glory across 10 beautiful tunes.

Hallowell will be released on March 22.  You can purchase the album here and here.

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como

They are Angelia Taylor, Della Daniels and Ester Mae Smith, two sisters and a childhood friend from Como, Mississippi.  It was in that small Southern town that these Como Mamas learned the old songs, their voices harmonizing and shouting through the warm air drifting through Mount Moriah Baptist Church. From Como to Brooklyn, they were discovered by Daptone Records, and after a powerful a cappella debut, they’re now backed by Daptone’s Glorifiers band for their second full length, Move Upstairs.  “Oh yeah!”, their voices call and respond. They are voices heavy like the blues, but triumphant and holy.  “Get ready! Get ready!” The Mamas are counting their blessings, one rocking, grooving gospel song at a time. They’re singing along to a bluesy organ, a righteous drum beat, a fiery electric guitar.  They’re shouting. They’re celebrating. They’re giving it their all. 99 and a half just won’t do.

Move Upstairs will be released on May 19 by Daptone Records. You can purchase the record here.

Hello dear readers. I’m taking a few short paragraphs out of my regularly scheduled music reviews and write-ups to point you toward a few of my own music projects. I recently released two very different albums that you can listen to or purchase at the links below.

The first is a 70s-style rock and roll project we call “Killbuck”. The album was mostly recorded live onto a Goodwill-purchased tape recorder, at the end of a gravel back road, in a cabin in Killbuck, Ohio.   Matt Kurtz, John Finley, John King, Joe Farr and I collaborated over a love of dark sunglasses, Tom Petty and 3-chord rock songs. The result is our self-titled debut: 11 “heartland-soaked tunes full of Americana angst and Rust Belt blues”.

The second project is a new volume of hymns my friends and I recorded over the past year. Each of us took a different hymn to reinterpret and explore through our individual styles. All profits from the Harp Family Hymnbook: Vol. II will go to Mennonite Central Committee.

You can find Killbuck here , and the Harp Family Hymnbook Vol. II here.

 

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I realized a few days ago, after listening to Lenny Smith’s new record amid the hurricane of a new election season, that the last time Lenny Smith released an album was during an election as well—and a tumultuous one at that. Harsh words were thrown back and forth. Brother turned on brother. And the world was all set to end.

Yet here we are, 4 years later, and the world’s still spinning. The rhetoric feels particularly brutal this time around, but maybe that’s because time really does heal all wounds—even political ones—and we fail to see history repeating itself as time spills out before us. All of this to say that Lenny Smith’s record, “You Are My Hiding Place”, has arrived from Great Comfort Records. It is full of life and love and celebration, and it serves as a nice antidote to the hate and fear that abounds. Once again, Lenny dives deep into scripture, looking to the poetry of the psalmists, of Ruth, of Jesus himself, to gives words to his worship. His family and friends sing and clap and shout along. Really, I think the world could use a little Lenny Smith right now.

You can listen to and purchase the recording at Lenny’s bandcamp page here, or explore more at Great Comfort Records.

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I dreamed about Ralph Stanley the day after he died. I was feeling ill. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. Over the years, I had visited his hometown a few times, circling to and fro across the caustic back roads of Clinch Mountain. I had once stopped at his house and knocked on his front door, hoping to shake the good doctor’s hand. No one came to the porch but a wandering dog. I read his book, bought his records. And I had stood before his brother’s grave, atop a mountain in the afternoon hours.

I saw Dr. Ralph on stage a number of times in those final years as well. He needed a chair to sit through those sets. His grandson and his band would do most of the work. But every so often he would stand up, he would approach the microphone, and he would drown the audience in that chilling mountain voice.

The dream was short. I found myself in some ghostly façade of the Appalachian south. My family was there. We rode bikes on roads that were too wide and too straight. I don’t remember if Dr. Ralph had even showed up in the dream—only that his essence hovered around it all. I parked my bike at the foot of the Ralph Stanley Museum. It was not the great Victorian house that sits on a hill in Clintwood, Virginia, but a lonely cabin on the side of a highway.

The dream came and the dream went.

I think I experience Dr. Ralph’s music a little differently than most of his fans. I admire the union of voices that the Stanley Brothers created when they sang, the craftsmanship of those bluegrass melodies, but really, I’ve never been much for bluegrass. And as important as his claw hammer banjo is to American roots music, it doesn’t give me pause, or hit me on the head like John Henry’s hammer. With Stanley, it has always been the cold hard lonesomeness that speaks to me. It is that voice, full of Primitive Baptist severity that I won’t forget.

Everything I love about Dr. Ralph comes to a crescendo of Appalachian simplicity on the traditional gospel ballad “Two Coats”. On the closing song from 1972’s Cry from the Cross, a lonesome fiddle floats along on a minor rhythm. Stanley’s voice is as serious as ever. He sings of salvation, of throwing off the old coat of worldly degradation and putting on a new, holy one. He pulls no punches. He adds no flourish or poetry. It’s the aesthetic by which he lived his life. What choice do we have but to believe every word of it?

The dream has since faded. The mountain and the road and the cabin on the hill are gone. Dr. Ralph is gone.

I hope that someday I will knock on a front door and someone will answer. I hope that someday, some light can be shed upon the fractured dream that we all walk around in. And I hope that Dr. Ralph has thrown off the old coat, and that the man of constant sorrow will sorrow no more.

 

Information gathered from Stanley’s autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”.