This is the year when your scribing cowgirl returns wholly to the barn — or at least the fabled Cabin-in-the-Ppines where folks used to pick, grin, and get up to no good throughout my father’s youth in southwest Georgia. And sho’nuff the Whispering Pines’ fine, self-released debut, Family Tree (self-released), will be in tow alongside the potbelly stove, vintage Akan gold weights, and patchwork spreads courtesy of my late great-aunt, the hedonistic quilter Kate.
Family Tree served as fitting accompaniment not just to holiday doldrums but also the tail end of sonic voting season — when the results of the Nashville Scene‘s ninth annual Country Music Critics Poll, which I contributed to, heralded the genre’s likely future. While I don’t disagree with anointing Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert for a soon-come twang Mount Rushmore, and would give my right pinky toe to cut a record with the great outlaw heir Jamey Johnson, the psychedelicized wing of cowboy music needs more recognition as its revival reaches its maturity. And it seems we ought not to wait a year or more to claim what’s worthy. So here’s stepping out in Topanga dirt at the ghost site of the ole Corral on behalf of the Whispering Pines’ efforts.
Family Tree, reaching back to twang’s glorious midcentury of pioneering fusions to fetch sounds for envisioning the near-future, is surely as much of an aesthetic atlas for country’s current progression as Brother Johnson’s stunning commingled pathos and mirth on “Mowin’ Down the Roses” or “Women.” Of course, the long-haired and denim-clad quintet of Brian Filosa (bass, vocals), Joe Bourdet (guitar, vocals), Dave Baine (keys, guitar, vocals), Joe Zabielski (drums, percussion), and David Burden (harmonica, percussion, vocals) abide and create in a vastly different space than Music Row or the plains and Rust Belt enclaves of Midwestern alt-country. This is reflected in the sunny clarity of their sound and sometimes mellower lyrical concerns. Silver Lake’s Whispering Pines is part of a loose, freewheeling confederacy of young SoCal-based solo artists and groups who purvey what some used to call “wooden music” and my friend Zach a.k.a. DJ Turquoise Wisdom has taken to terming “bootcut.”
This movement has bubbled under during recent years, yet has seemed to enjoy quite a spike recently. Over the last 18 months, several colleagues released histories of Laurel Canyon; maxi dresses (or “town gowns”) were deemed chic in downtown Manhattan and Los Angeles’ Echo Park; and Kamara Thomas’ Honky Tonk Happy Hour at assorted New York City venues reminded audiences that the East Coast has a rich stake in cosmic country, too. Likewise, Hair‘s ballyhooed Broadway run and Taking Woodstock reacquainted the fickle masses with festivals and freaky-deak; Neil Young dropped volume one of his storied Archives; SoHo sported a vintage store actually called Laurel Canyon, replete with embroidered western shirts, perfectly-scuffed boots, and Gunne Sax; my friend Henry Diltz’ iconic images of CSN and their friends crowned a blockbuster exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum; and Levon Helm just won a Grammy for Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records). This past month, New Jersey’s Wiser Time put out their strongest evidence of a northeastern-minted “Southern rock,” Beggars and Thieves (Wiser Time). A slate of Essra Mohawk reissues is in the wings.
The network for the emerging acts intent upon reinfusing the “western” part of what used to be country and western into their sounds stretches in an illusory but potent line from New York, where Filosa used to hold down the low end for the lovely Maplewood, to Northern California, where assorted Devendra Banhart boys hold sway. Indeed, I first became aware of Whispering Pines via its association with folk-rock magus Jonathan Wilson. Less than six degrees of separation from Wilson tends to yield artists with a deep host of ideas excavated from the lode overseen by beloved Gram Parsons and the Band’s Richard Manuel. Whispering Pines is definitely in the Cosmic Americana camp: deriving its name from Manuel’s fragile beauty; covering the likes of J.J. Cale (“Crazy Mama”); spinning as far out as Les Brers and their San Franciscan soul mates from the Grateful Dead on “Stars Above” and the rollicking boogie of “Grapevine Blues.” The band displays clear affection for Scott Boyer’s lost, lamented Capricorn label gem, Cowboy.
Maybe it’s just because I spent the entire fall in thrall to pre-Sufi Mighty Baby, but I can dig where Whispering Pines is comin’ from; there is a winning light in the chorusing of the four voices. Although neither hillbilly-tooled enough to compete with Trace Adkins nor polemical enough to address the amber waves’ current disarray, Family Tree is still a great record for 2010, militant in its mellow as corrective to the gray of our times. Early adopters and ecstatic praise for Family Tree have typically come from Europe, where they’re unafraid to unfetter their ears.
Back East and down the road from Nashvegas, Valerie June is also pointing a fierce way forward for country by looking even farther back. She harks back to the prewar mountains of the Carter Family and rural blues vainglory of Jessie Mae Hemphill and Elizabeth Cotten. Born in Jackson, Tenn., the Memphis-based Valerie June has been percolating on her local scene, with several forays to busk in California and make connections in the East, independently releasing collections of her “organic moonshine roots music” such as 2006’s The Way of the Weeping Willow and 2009’s Mountain of Rose Quartz along the way. It’s not that we haven’t seen such leanings before from assorted folk revivalists over the past two decades, but they almost never spring from the soul of a black woman in her 20s. Sistagirl’s womanist, unabashedly burlap manifesto “No Draws Blues” delineates these tensions.
While our brothers and sisters of European descent were riding the wave of Woodstock/Altamont’s 40th anniversaries last year, and the country establishment was wrapping its heads and resources around the chart- and Opry-bound breakouts of former Hootie Darius Rucker and Rissi Palmer, alternative black country artists were not really traveling the canyon circuit, even if they popped up at Merlefest or Bonnaroo. During his downtime from the Mayercraft, David Ryan Harris’ solo turns and the Soul of John Black’s great, underrated Black John (Eclecto Groove) showed new fire in the so-called soul-folk vein, even as Still Bill, Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s stirring documentary on the genre’s grand master Bill Withers, made its way from SXSW ’09 to a theatrical run in Manhattan.
Several NYC-area events honoring the late folk titan Odetta provided another necessary spotlight for rising luminaries of the “black banjo movement,” like the legendary Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s son, Guy Davis. Bela Fleck’s Africa project Throw Down Your Heart traces from Western Sudan to the Southeast’s hollers. The sad passing of Jim Dickinson unleashed two cross-cultural celebrations on Memphis International of world boogie and twang reclamation from his elder son, Luther: the dirge catharsis with the Sons of Mudboy, Onward and Upward, and the South Memphis String Band’s deep tread into bluenotes via Home Sweet Home. Even John Legend has surprised with a riveting spin on Richie Havens’ chamber-rock rearrangement of “Motherless Child” at George Clooney’s Haiti telethon.
Considering this, when sister Valerie recently rode into NYC to play Mercury Lounge — with Clyde (her trusty six-string), Mose (her banjo), and them boys from Old Crow Medicine Show in tow — her real pretty renditions of “Wildwood Flower” and original songs all seemed part of an auspicious moment. It only remains for the two strains of independent roots music to truly have a reckoning some time this year. This would likely be even more hallowed if it goes down far from the thronged fields of Manchester, Tenn. in June. I’m scooting my boots now toward that distant point of power-light.