I’ve written about quite a lot of new albums for Folk Alley’s monthly Bandcamp Friday roundups and I’ve run through quite a lot of genres of music, but I’ve been hesitant to focus on one of the most key aspects to great musicianship: songwriting. It’s just that songwriting can be so subjective. A lyric that means the world to me, might blow right by others, and vice versa. Still, the point of music writing for me is to get excited about music that makes me think differently or that transforms my idea of a genre, and I’ve found that in each of the artists reviewed here. They all break from the boring norms of songwriting, creating new rhymes and ideas and rhythms around their original thoughts, and they all have something powerful to say. So pull up a chair and have a listen and don’t forget to support artists in need today on October’s Bandcamp Friday!
Adeem the Artist’s debut album Cast Iron Pansexual is a delicious slice of queer country music, with songs like “Honeysuckle Hipbilly Homo-Erotica”, and while you might expect some tongue-in-cheek satirization of country tropes, what’s really unexpected about this album is how heartfelt and beautiful Adeem’s songs are on the inside. Country music has turned inward these past few years, looking at the long history of artists and traditions that fueled the fire but have been shut out of the church of country. Along with this reckoning has come a flood of great queer country artists (the truly excellent website Country Queer has been the epicenter and the first place to go to find folks). Some artists use country songwriting to subvert the genre’s simplistic tropes of men & women, home & country, farm & family, but then some just write great country songs from a queer perspective. Adeem does both, sometimes in the course of one song. In “I Never Came Out,” they sing first that “boys in tight blue jeans are driving me crazy, legs that go on for days,” then spin around to sing about the struggles of coming out “I didn’t have language for the way I felt, been taught since I was born to other everybody else.” A seventh-generation Carolinian, there’s a soft burr to Adeem’s Southern accent, an ease to bringing the banjo into the music, and a sense of fun and play behind the songs. When Adeem sings “I’m a daughter of feminine wisdom, son of the American dream,” you’ll start to see how country music hits different from a non-binary perspective. “Queerness is Family Friendly,” they say in a powerful essay about their experience being cut off at a local festival because parents were uncomfortable with queer country music in front of their kids. It’s sad that an artist (and parent) like Adeem can be censored just for being their authentic selves in their community. What’s even sadder is that those people that didn’t want their families to hear Adeem’s music won’t get a chance to see that country music was built by all of us, for all of us and uncommonly great songwriters like Adeem just serve to make it stronger. On “Reclaim My Name” they sing “I’m trying to create a machine that can convert shame into celebration.” If Guthrie saw folk music as a machine to kill fascists, then surely Adeem’s machine can bring us together in celebration.
BONUS: Dana Sipos – The Astral Plane
Another album of personal exploration, Canadian songwriter Dana Sipos has a new album, The Astral Plane, that came out a few months back. Dana’s an uncommonly thoughtful songwriter, her songs tied to the natural world but imbued with her own personality.
I might be a bit biased when speaking of Virginia songwriter Dori Freeman, since I did run PR for her early albums. But I’ve been a fan of her for years and her new album has some of the best standout songs of any artist I’ve heard this year. Dori comes from a family steeped in Appalachian music in Galax, Virginia, the heartland of old-time fiddle and banjo. She grew up in jam sessions at Galax’s fabled fiddle competition, and comes from a family of songwriters who used the Appalachian experience to speak to everyone. Those Appalachian roots will never leave her, you can hear them in every note she sings, but Dori’s wide ranging tastes and interests have helped her create a sound that feels refreshingly different, a bit of mid-century modern, a pinch of diva country, an edge of the jilted lover, all of it tied together with a soaring voice so spectacular that I still remember the first time I heard it. Dori’s said her new album, Ten Thousand Roses, is more “grunge-country” than the previous albums which were more solidly centered in Americana. There’s certainly more of an electric edge to her music than before, but again it’s her insightful lyricism that stands out beyond anything else. She’s always spoken for the women of Appalachia, channeling her own heartbreak early on, and now that she’s happily married, looking to others for stories to share. On my favorite track on the album, “The Storm,” she exhorts a woman to look at the warning signs in her relationship, singing “When you gonna let him go, listen to the rain and the rolling thunder / Honey don’t you know, that he’s waiting on the flood to pull you under / Don’t you let the storm hit.” On “Appalachian,” she speaks directly to those seeking to discount her region’s contributions, “I’m an Appalachian, I’m a Cripple Creek girl / I’m a can to ash in, for the rest of the world.” As frustrated as the rest of us at the state of the world, Dori doesn’t hold back, mapping out a populist, progressive vision of Appalachia that us left-coasters rarely get to see. As usual, Dori’s a breath of fresh air from a part of the country too long sidelined from the American mainstream.
Speaking of channeling voices, emerging Nashville songwriter Angela Autumn’s new album does just that, tapping bluegrass veins and Southern twang to deliver a set of songs journaling the perspective of a new transplant to a big city (she came to Nashville from Pittsburgh). “Sowin’ Seeds” is a delightful take on the old Appalachian hymn “Working on a Building” and a standout song from a new talent.
Rounder Records has been on quite the buying spree recently, picking up some great underground Americana artists on the rise like Sierra Ferrell and Bella White. West Virginia songwriter John R. Miller though was the one that completely floored me. He taps into the same kind of bitter country sadness as a songwriter that we’ve heard from Tyler Childers or Colter Wall, but his new album is all his own, a sweet ode to a hard life. In a sense, he’s got the timeliest album of 2021 here, as Depreciated could only have come from the mind of a road-weary artist. As every artist we know was grounded this year, Miller’s the one who had the album that best encapsulated that sad nostalgia for the road, coupled with the paradoxic fear that each artist held that they’d have to go back out on it again soon. Like other great Southern poets and literary figures, Miller sees the landscape as a living force, pressing down on the poor wanderers traveling through. There’s a Biblical feeling to the album, a sense of a higher power looking down in disapproval. In my favorite song on the album, “Shenandoah Shakedown,” Miller opens with the lyrics “There’s a crack in the alter, pale light through the break, like crooked teeth / And I couldn’t fault her, knowing what was at stake, nothing of underneath / And the hills move like lungs, the river speaks in tongues, and I am not alone.” Elsewhere he quotes old mountain songs at will, riffing on the old-time music he came up playing in Appalachia and around the US. “Borrowed time, it wasn’t God gave Noah the rainbow sign, borrowed time borrowed time, listen to that eternal engine whine” he sings in “Borrowed Time.” Miller’s an obvious heir to the literate songwriting of Americana legends like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, or JJ Cale, but the real fit is that Miller manages to paint his own world in this album. Each song springs clearly from his life and experiences, hardwon moments of peace among long periods of travel, and the world building that he’s undertaking is so compelling that you’ll feel like you’re on the trip with him too.
Speaking of songwriters with a great sense of place, Texas’ Brennen Leigh put out a beautiful concept album late last year that’s a love letter (hence the album title) to the Western Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota region where she grew up, channeling the small town heroes of America’s heartland.
First Nations singer Fawn Wood is a legend in the world of powwow and round dance songs, a star on TikTok for her hilarious videos embodying Indigenous memes and capturing powwow moments for her audience. She’s also a great songwriter, beloved for songs that seem to capture Indigenous experiences within the tradition of round dance songwriting. I worked with her on a livestream recently and could see folks all across Canada and the US singing along with their favorite songs of hers, like the very funny takedown “Mr. Wrong,” and especially the dear ode to motherhood, “Mommy’s Little Guy.” Round dance songs come out of the Native American powwow scene, but wove lyrics in English into the vocables of powwow singing. Round dance songs can be funny or poignant, personal or universal, I heard one about Spongebob Squarepants that was pretty great! In Fawn’s hands, round dance songs are catchy, singable anthems meant to uplift and cause reflection. “Hopelessly Devoted” from her new album Kakike on Buffalo Jump Records, doesn’t have a lot of lyrics, but her gorgeous vocals and the stepped nature of First Nations song traditions brings a deep power to the song. Wood grew up going to powwows with her father who was an original member of the seminal powwow drum group Northern Cree (her uncle Randy Wood is also a great round dance singer and songwriter on Canyon Records), but she also learned the Coast Salish music of her mother’s side of the family, from around Chilliwack, British Columbia. She brings some of these traditional songs to her new album, but for me, the star of Fawn’s music is always her original songs. She excels at capturing a deeply feminine perspective (“Lullaby for Ambrose” is a beautiful mother’s lullaby on the new album), something that she’s worked hard to develop, but she’s also naturally able to fuse the beautiful melodies of powwow songs with lyrics that match the rhythm of the vocables. It will sound a bit different to folks used to more mainstream songwriting, but Fawn’s a master of her craft and well loved for it in Indian Country.
Another artist moving between tradition and original songwriting, New York songwriter Queen Esther brings together disparate but related concepts, from Black cowgirls to a haunting version of Blind Willie Johnson’s Biblical “John The Revelator,” to an absolutely pitch-perfect and heartbreaking country ballad “The Whiskey Wouldn’t Let Me Pray.”
OK again maybe I’m a bit biased since I ran PR for Cahalen Morrison’s music for years, first with his duo with Eli West and then with his country band Western Centuries, but his late 2020 solo album took me by surprise. Recorded in the echoes of an old New Mexican adobe chapel, the album is sparse, raw, but also endearingly intimate. It’s just Cahalen and his guitar and banjo (also a wood stove and the wind outside), so the songs take center stage. Cahalen’s easily one of my favorite songwriters in roots music; I’ve always felt he managed to tap into the visceral lyricism of writers like Cormac McCarthy. His music’s tied to the back canyons and dusty landscapes of New Mexico where he grew up, but also tied to the poetry of his great-grandfather Murdo Morrison, a Scottish poet. In fact, Cahalen’s been spending some of his COVID time abroad in Scotland, and when I saw him last he was raving about the obscure Scottish poet and songwriter Ivor Cutler, who he’d just gotten a tattoo of on his arm. There are Scottish elements to this album too despite the New Mexico setting. He covers Scottish singer Sheila Stewart’s ballad “Young Jaime Foyers” and memorializes the tragic sinking of the HM Yacht Iolaire in 1919 off the Isle of Lewis as the Scottish soldiers returned from WWI. Written by Cahalen, the song is a masterclass in writing a ballad about a historic event, rife with beautifully written verses like “The foaming shores of France all churned and lay there washed in red /
The mauled the mamed on a namely ship instead.” The final verse will stay with you: “All the island mothers walked, and combed the windy shores / Sons washed up one by one in twos and threes and fours / Below the waves all sleeping still, for nowhere did they roam.” Of course Cahalen’s native New Mexico plays into the album heavily as well. He opens “Down in the Valley” with a great riff on the Western tropes – “With my feet in my boots and my boots in the stirrups swinging down / I sit in the saddle pointed just the other way from town / I don’t know when I’ll get there but it’ll ease all the hard times that I’ve found.” In “The Month of May” over rolling clawhammer banjo he sings “Does my heart echo in this dark and lonely room / is that the music of a song that ends too soon?” It’s a hard question, the kind of question you ask post breakup, wondering where you’re heading. I’ve said before that Cahalen Morrison is a songwriter’s songwriter, a poet in verse whose songs are so well crafted that other songwriters gather around taking notes. Hopefully he’ll be bringing us more music soon!
Speaking of Cahalen in Scotland, while he was over there he also produced this interesting EP from Scottish songwriter Kim Oehme. “The Moonshadow Song” especially is a fascinating blend of Scottish folk and American country, a new-to-me sound that had me wanting to hear much more from this artist.
California songwriter Caitlin Jemma has two of the best genre descriptors I’ve heard in a while for her music on her new album, True Meaning, out now on American Standard Time Records: disco folk and cosmic country cowgirl. They’re not wrong either, she’s crafted a folk album built for dancing around your house with flashing lights and a disco ball, and she’s got a psychedelic element to her songwriting that meshes with her upbringing in rural Nevada listening to country music. But ultimately, she’s just a great songwriter, and not just in the sense that her songs are well written. More that they manage to translate her ebullient personality and worldview. That’s what I love about great songwriters, you feel you understand the world they see a little bit more and it inspires you. Tackling the trauma of 2020 is hard for any songwriter, but I love Jemma’s line in her song “One Little Feeling:” “Some years pass easy, but this one painted me blue / You walk further from something, you get closer to something new.” “Tell me what I have to do,” she continues, “to have one little feeling that feels like the truth.” It hits because we’ve all felt like we’re wandering lost and alone since COVID began, and we’re all starting to feel numb to everything around us. “While the Earth spins,” she sings on “Constellation in the Sky,” “hold me till the end / I know this dream was real, because our souls came back again.” Maybe it’s the crack band behind her, blasting horns, swelling strings, or rolling out soothing piano lines, but I feel like Jemma channels a bit of the old school soul singer in her songs. But where soul artists sang about romantic love, it seems that Caitlin’s singing more of universal love, love for your fellow person. Her label calls her songs “cosmic spirituals” and there’s certainly a sense of this in each song, in the uplifting of the relationships and family she’s built over the course of her travels and touring. It’s all tied together by the uncommon kind of songwriter who can put her whole self in her songs and leave you wanting to know more. Maybe this is the self-care album we didn’t know we needed this year, certainly when she sings “One part of being human is suffering, and the other is knowing when to say yes to something good for me,” well that line made me feel better!
New Orleans songwriter Lilli Lewis’ new album comes along with the title of “folk n soul,” and I like that! Certainly, she’s remarkably deft at fusing folk songwriting with huge soul vocals and deep blues inflections. This album is a tour de force, and recently at AmericanaFest in Nashville Lewis got something of her due after delivering a rousing reading of Radiohead’s “Creep” intended for anyone who ever felt left out or out of place. Lewis’ goal is very much to create a more inclusive and diverse music industry; she’s VP of a Big Easy record label (Louisiana Red Hot Records) and has been a powerful organizing voice in creating more equity and involvement in Americana for artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists. It’s no wonder she named her new album Americana; she envisions a different genre under that name, a genre that admits its long debt to Black artists and does everything in its power to bring Black artists and music industry folks into the fold, and she’s working hard to make that a reality. She’s a Folk Rock Diva, but only in the very best meaning of the word, as a person who builds community, spearheads movements, and leads bands like a force of nature. With Americana, she proves she’s a great songwriter too. On songs like “Copper John,” she taps into a compelling mysticism, singing about a “city of unseen prophets” and an “army of vagabond watchmen” where the “wind is a whispered wisdom,” but her chorus ties these mystic images to something more concrete, love. “If you’re waiting for sunrise, and you meet at the dawn / Take your fill of the loving and pass it on.” Other songs like “Wrecking Ball” and “A Healing Inside” tap into the power of the gospel music she grew up with to put out a message of justice and healing. On “If It Were You,” she turns in a lovely country/folk song, and even crafts a cool funk song (with a side of jazz scatting) in “One Shoe.” It’s hard enough for an artist to work through so many genres, but Lewis feels at home in each of them, because she is. She’s made a place for herself in each one and found herself in each one, and she’s found a way to bring them all together in her home, an impressive feat. Note that Lilli’s album is available for pre-order and releases October 29, 2021.
Speaking of gospel, there’s a great debut album coming the 83 years old gospel singer Elder Jack Ward. Ward came up in Memphis’ gospel and soul world and wrote every song on his album. Gospel songwriting’s a beautiful tradition of hope and love and it’s past time Ward gets his own album after all these years!