Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Nothing Better than the Pure Sounds of Fiddle, Mandolin, and Guitar

A Prairie Home Companion has been a staple of public radio for over 40 years. Garrison Keillor & Co. (long time collaborators Sue Scott, Tim Russell, and Fred Newman) have delighted audiences with their tongue-in-cheek radio dramas and news from Lake Wobegon week after week. But why bring this up on a book blog? Well, Keillor is also the author of a number of books including 2014’s The Keillor Reader, a compilation of his work, including monologues, stories, and essays. The man has an incredibly sharp mind, still working at 72 years old without any signs of slowing.

To be honest, I’ve only flipped through The Keillor Reader. While I’m sure it’s wonderful, I have to admit, this isn’t a review of Keillor’s book. What is this then? Well, another feature of A Prairie Home Companion is its musical guests, typically those who play folk, Americana, and traditional music. As it turns out, that is my favorite type of music and recently, I had the opportunity to see A Prairie Home Companion performed live, featuring three incredible musicians that people should know. That’s right – this isn’t a book review – it’s a brief (and completely subjective) survey of modern progressive bluegrass. If you’ve been looking for great music to listen to, here are some tracks that you can’t miss.

I'm With Her
The group that played with Keillor calls themselves I’m With Her, and is made up of Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, and Sara Watkins. Prior to the announcement of their tour, I was actually already familiar with their music and the idea that they would be playing together was almost unfathomable to me. Their first song together, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters,” was even more incredible than I could’ve hoped for.

O’Donovan, Jarosz, and Watkins are three of the most talented musicians working right now, all having success in other ventures. O’Donovan was formerly the lead singer of Crooked Still before releasing her first solo album, Fossils. She’s also featured on the 2011 collaboration between Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile, The Goat Rodeo Sessions. The whole album is great, but “Here and Heavenis a stand out track for O’Donovan. She also caught the attention of Alison Krauss, who recorded O’Donovan’s song “Lay My Burden Down” on her 2011 album, Paper Airplane.

Sarah Jarosz is a rising star in the folk world. The track, “Mansinneedof” from her first album, Song Up in Her Head (2009) scored her a Grammy nomination when she was only 19 years old. That same year, Rolling Stone dubbed her a contemporary bluegrass prodigy. To get a feel for her remarkable musicianship, listen to “Run Away.” 

Nickel Creek
Sara Watkins has been 1/3 of the band Nickel Creek since 1989 (formed when she was only eight years old!). They released their first studio album, produced by none other than Alison Krauss, in 2000. That self-titled record went on to earn them their first two Grammy nominations. To say I am familiar with Watkins’ music is an understatement; I’ve been listening to her for nearly fifteen years, first as a member of Nickel Creek with their albums Nickel Creek (2000), This Side (2002), and Why Should the FireDie? (2005). Nickel Creek took a self-described, “break of indefinite length” in 2007 and Watkins went on to record two solo albums, Sara Watkins (2009) and Sun Midnight Sun (2012). Her bandmates Chris Thile and Sean Watkins also took on new projects. Thile playing with his band Punch Brothers and recording an album of Bach sonatas on a MacArthur Fellowship, while Sean Watkins (Sara’s older brother) has a duo with Switchfoot frontman, Jon Foreman. Unexpectedly, Nickel Creek reunited with a new album, A Dotted Line in 2014, bringing some of their strongest songwriting work yet. 

I’ve seen Sara Watkins perform in various capacities – both with Nickel Creek and solo – seven times over the past ten years in venues from Los Angeles to Chicago to Washington, DC. She never ceases to amaze me, every time her singing and stage presence get more and more confident. Her most recent solo album, Sun Midnight Sun demonstrates an impressive effort on her part. It was easy for her and her brother to be overshadowed by Thile during their Nickel Creek years – he’s quite possibly the best mandolin player alive right now, but Watkins' time on her own has served her well. She’s now belting out tracks like “When It Pleases You.Pretty much all of her work is great, but I’m going to let you in on a secret. One of the best songs she’s performed hasn’t yet been recorded. It’s a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” which she came to by way of a Tim O’Brien album of Dylan covers called Red on Blonde. Do yourself a favor and listen to this track

You really can’t go wrong listening to any of these musicians. Don’t get me wrong, I like Katy Perry and Meghan Trainor as much as the next person, but when it comes down to it, there’s nothing better than the pure sounds of fiddle, mandolin, and guitar.

What Else:
Alison Krauss’ New Favorite (2001)
Bearfoot’s Doors and Windows (2009)
Grace & Tony’s November (2013)
Black Prairie’s Fortune (2014)


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