Place, Story, and Music: Seven Albums to Explore

by Kerry Dexter /
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Jul 19, 2016 / 0 comments

Well traveled roads, new horizons, unexpected bridges connecting across cultures and places: connection, whether new or old, to place, person, or idea is a thread that runs through the work of musicians on seven very different albums. 

One draws on blues and country from the American heartland, another connects Americana, bluegrass, and newgrass songs new and old, and another sees things thorough the lens of cowboy culture. There's music from a group that hews to the traditions of Ireland while playing that music in ways you may not have heard. Another musician finds stories of hope and inspiration in her western Canada home, while a fellow Canadian artist offers songs on the idea of freedom. There's a group of musicians from across the world who form an ensemble exploring what may happen when artists from China, the United States, Africa, Galicia, and other nations-- and many traditions -- commit to thinking about and making musical connections.

Ivas John grew up in Chicago, the son of Lithuanian immigrants who loved the folk and roots music of their new country. He rambled through several musical styles and parts of the American midwest and now makes his home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a town along the Mississippi River south of Saint Louis and north of Memphis. These landscapes and influences make a rich background for the music John creates, whether he is writing songs by himself, collaborating with his father, or covering music by Tom Paxton, Merle Travis, and others. The edge of grit in his voice and the fluency in his guitar work marry well with the stories he tells on his album Good Days a Comin. Especially keep an ear out for the father and son co write Keep Your Train Movin', John's solo composition Goin' Back to Arkansas, and his covers of Wrong Road Again by Allen Reynolds and the James Jett song Greenville Trestle High.


Ken Whiteley has a rich musical background, as well. Since he began performing as a teenager in the 1960s, his work has taken him from his home in eastern Canada all across North America playing blues, folk, and gospel, producing albums for fellow artists, and performing and recording with the likes of Tom Paxton and Guy Davis. 

Whiteley's most recent album finds him thinking about freedom. On it, there are original songs both topical and philosophical along with covers of contemporary and traditional songs. It is a thought provoking playlist both musically and in idea. Bring It All Right Down offers a straight ahead comment on clearing the way to look at what is needed, set to a driving melody. Throw Me Anywhere is a gospel song of resilience and hope from the Gullah and Geechee tradition of the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. That Other Shore is a story drawn from the life of Whiteley's great great grandfather and his journey to Canada. The dozen songs, all well chosen and well paced, come to a close with a fine version of Bob Dylan's song I Shall Be Released, with backing vocals from Kim and Reggie Harris, who add their voices to other songs as well, as do the Levy Sisters. The album is called Freedom.


Michael Martin Murphey has been thinking about freedom, too. In his case, this is framed by ideas of cowboy culture. You'll have heard Murphey's music: he's the writer of Carolina in the Pines, Wildfire, and many other songs that have become part of the fabric of Americana music. Murphey is also a rancher, a cowboy, and a man who loves and lives in the American west. On the album High Stakes, he tells stories of a man who used to travel the drover road, of the high stakes and hard life of the modern day rancher and cowboy, of the unexpected things you might think about when you inherit your family's guns. There are fast paced songs, narrative ballads, and one quiet thoughtful piece from Australian cowboy life set in reflections around a campfire on the road. It's all good stuff, the next right step in Michael Martin Murphey's musical explorations of the west and those who live there.


Sam Bush is a storyteller, too -- in fact, his most recent album is called Storyman. Whether he's playing as a sideman to country and bluegrass artists, writing music for them to play and sing, or fronting his own band, Sam Bush is always telling stories with the words he sings and the notes he plays on his mandolin.

There's plenty of all that on Storyman. There are songs which hold a bit of sadness, others that are enigmatic, some that show Bush's wry and dry sense of humor, love songs, a bluegrass barnburner or two, a road song (that one's called Transcendental Meditation Blues). There are co writes with John Randall Stewart, Emmylou Harris, and Guy Clark, among others. Bush offers a fine and lively journey, filled with new songs which fit well into country, Americana, folk, and bluegrass ideas. Listen out for that Transcendental Meditation Blues song, the classic country with a twist of Hand Mics Killed Country Music, the instrumental Greenbrier, and the title speaks for itself song Play by Your Own Rules.


Playing music from the traditions of Ireland in ways that speak from and to twenty first century life: the men who make up The Gloaming are masters at this. Indeed Martin Hayes, who plays fiddle, Thomas Bartlett on piano, Dennis Cahill on guitar, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh on hardanger fiddle, and Iarla O Lionaird on voice each have active careers on their own. In this collaboration, it is clear they have both listened to and challenged each other.

You will find jigs and reels on The Gloaming/2, but you find them played in slow time and with piano and hardanger fiddle weaving in new ways to frame older sounds. The collection comprises music they write, pieces they source from Irish tradition, and work they create fitting pieces and fragments of those elements together. This is music handed down through generations and played in its own time, which happens to be now. Played by people who love and understand it, too. Listen up especially for The Pilgrim's Song, Slan le Maighe, and Oisin's Song.


Maria Dunn knows more than a bit about telling stories, building bridges, and fitting history and music together, too. Nominated many times for just about every music award Canada offers, the Alberta resident loves taking on the challenge of stories drawn from history and bringing out facets that inspire, educate, and intrigue listeners today. 

On her album Gathering, among the music she offers are three vivid portraits drawn from a project inspired by photographs of people living in Edmonton's inner city rooming houses in the 1980s. Not the happiest of subjects, you may be thinking. Through Dunn's creativity, each song becomes portrait of a life lived with a kernel of resilience at the heart. There's also a song about the Athabasca River and a First Nations woman who fought to keep it flowing clear. There's the lovely, lively, and thought provoking song When the Grandmothers Meet and an uplifting reminder of the beauty and solace of nature to be found in the Rocky Mountains not far from Dunn's home on Music in the Meadow. Well told stories all, given presence and place by Dunn's clear voice and thoughtful support from the McDades, among others.


"Silk Road is a place where we return to explore new artistic languages...and to find joy in unexpected connections," Yo Yo Ma writes in the liner notes for the recording Sing Me Home. It's likely no accident that the cover design of this album from the Silk Road Ensemble features many very different sorts of doors: opening doors and making connections, seeing what happens when musicians think about ways their very different traditions might connect, is the business of Silk Road. It is a group Ma, a world renowned cellist, founded more than a decade ago, and the subject of the recent film The Music of Strangers

Players of traditional instruments from China and a piper from Galicia in northern Spain meet up with artists from backgrounds in Persia, Brooklyn, Israel, and India among other places -- and that's just the regular ensemble. For Sing Me Home, they have invited along a number of guests. Odds are you will not have heard the chestnut Heart and Soul played and sung quite the way Silk Road does it, with guest singers Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter along with viola, cello, gaita, pipa, and other instruments. Martin Hayes (you met him above as member of The Gloaming) brings his violin along to O'Neill's Cavalry March in which he's joined not only by violin and cello but by kamancheh, gaita, and shakuhachi. Rhiannon Giddens sings with blues and soul of the Carolina Piedmont on Saint James Infirmary Blues, where she meets up with a Romanian inspired arrangement and a gathering of instruments from across traditions.  Abigail Washburn and WuTong join up in singing -- in English and Chinese -- Going Home, which has lyrics by William Ames Fisher and music by Antonin Dvorak, arranged for this project by Jeremy Kittel. All of that is just a taste of what happens on this album. 


Building bridges indeed. Music continues to offer ways for people to learn, to share, to connect across time, space, and culture.

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Place, Story, and Music: Seven Albums to Explore



Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road.