Milk Carton Kids

The Milk Carton Kids’ ‘Monterey’ out this week

TheMilkCartonKidsThis record doesn’t have a lot of direct Joe Henry associations (though he does contribute an essay to the liner notes), but The Milk Carton Kids have been championed by JH pretty much from the get-go (in fact, he contributed vocals to Pattengale’s solo record pre-dating The Kids).  The duo’s popularity has exploded since the release of their last album, The Ash & The Clay, but fans will not be disappointed in the follow-up, Monterey, which is out on Anti- Records just this week.

Monterey is a brisk listen and, in my opinion, by far their most cohesive.  It’s more than the sum of its excellent songs, and the flow from one track to the next contains an urgency you wouldn’t expect from such a low-key record.  Recorded on the road and self-produced, this album represents a perfecting of the format they’ve adopted for themselves.

I recall not too long ago that they had said that they definitely had one more pure acoustic duo album ahead of them, but beyond Monterey, I wonder if we should expect them to branch out musically.  Pattengale is a rather accomplished multi-instrumentalist, but they’ve been so successful at their craft, it should be interested to see where The Milk Carton Kids go from here.

That is, after they wrap up their extensive tour, which carries them through to the end of 2015.  In the meantime, by all means check out Monterey, as well as this performance of the title track from the studios of World Café:

Joe Henry update (late, late summer edition)

Just a few odds and ends out of the Joe Henry universe (and nearby galaxies)…

  • First, JH and Levon should be wrapping up their brief Australian tour, which has been accompanied by some favorable press (a particularly nice article and interview in the Sydney Morning Herald).
  • JH will be returning stateside to appear very shortly thereafter at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville.  Joe’s official showcase will be at City Winery on September 18, but I’m sure he’ll be seen around the festival elsewhere.
  • JH recently participated in a social media fundraising campaign for MusicCares.  Various artists challenged three friends to post a picture of themselves with an album “that has made your life better” (along with a $5 donation to MusicCares).  Stefan has the low-down over at his blog.
  • A few notes from some friends and associates…
    • Over The Rhine will be releasing yet another Christmas album.  Blood Oranges in the Snow will be released on Nov. 4 and is described by Karin and Linford as “reality Christmas.”  (I don’t believe that JH had any hand in its production, but well worth your attention nonetheless.)
    • The Milk Carton Kids will be touring this fall again with Sarah Jarosz, featuring “collaborative performances” between the artists.  Full schedule here.
    • Some of you may know that I’m a shameless and die-hard Lucinda Williams fan.  Her new record (the double-album Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone) will be released on her own label on September 30.  At one time, JH was the rumored producer on this project.  However, in his place, frequent JH accomplice and all-around string master Greg Leisz became the co-producer (along with Williams and manager Tom Overby) and also contributes his guitar wizardry to nearly every track.  Bill Frisell, who collaborated with both JH and Leisz most notably on Civilians, lends his distinctive guitar work to two tracks (and is rumored to be featured on more tracks on yet another Lucinda record due sometime next year).  Several tracks have made their way online through various outlets, but if you want to hear what magic Frisell and Leisz can conjure, feast your ears on the album’s closing track, a cover of JJ Cale’s “Magnolia” (nine-plus minutes long!).  In my book, a Joe Henry album and Lucinda Williams album in the same year is pretty much all I could ask for.
  • And last but not least, this fall will see the release of two Bob Dylan projects.  First, the long wished-for Complete Basement Tapes will be released on Nov. 4.  A semi-related companion called Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes will be released on Nov. 11.  That record will feature Dylan lyrics from the period written into songs and performed by a talented group comprised of Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Jim James and Marcus Mumford.  JH mentor T-Bone Burnett oversaw and produced the whole thing.  No doubt, Joe Henry is smiling.

Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited (out today)

{Ed. note:  Today marks the release of Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, produced by Joe Henry.  It’s a tremendous record.  Below you’ll find my thoughts on the album, as well as a related book by Antonio D’Ambrosio.}

Bitter_TearsIt’s hard to remember a time when Johnny Cash wasn’t considered a Country Music icon.  Though it’s widely acknowledged that Cash’s influence can be felt across all genres of popular music, he is most closely associated with and embraced by the Nashville establishment.  However, when Columbia Records first signed Cash, freeing him from the controlling hands of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, the artist was known primarily as a rockabilly artist and had aspirations well beyond his established sound.  Columbia at first seemed supportive of Cash’s vision for his work, but like so many labels before and since, became impatient for hits, regardless of which chart they would land.

In the early 60’s, Cash released a string of albums that favored compositions by songwriters like Merle Travis and Tompall Glaser but strove for a sound that blended country with folk and blues (what we would today call “Americana” for lack of any better description).  Those early records produced hits but also left label execs – and, no doubt, fans – often confounded (Ride This Train featured lengthy spoken word introductions, and The Lure of the Grand Canyon featured only Cash’s narration performed over Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite).  Cash’s restless spirit and creativity was kicking with full force in the early 1960’s and would lead him down many interesting paths throughout his recording career.

It was during this time that Johnny Cash would find his way to the New York folk scene and, in particular, to the work of songwriter Peter La Farge.  La Farge is not a household name by any means, but it is safe to say that his work is remembered largely thanks to Cash.  While the civil rights movement gained steam in 1963 and ’64, Native American issues began to emerge due to problematic government policies and land grabs that continued the United States’ historic mistreatment of Indians and thievery of their land.  Peter La Farge gave a voice to these issues with a string of protest songs that emerged in parallel with the folk movement’s wholehearted embrace of African Americans’ civil rights movement.  As Johnny Cash (along with several other celebrities) found himself increasingly aware and committed to Native American issues – with demands and circumstances quite different from those of African Americans – the idea formed for yet another concept album, this one sure to cause further tension between Cash and his label.  The seeds of Bitter Tears were sown from a unique set of circumstances, both social and personal, and the record proved to be polarizing and often forgotten among Cash’s body of work.

Heartbeat_Guitar The social, political and musical context surrounding Bitter Tears is wonderfully captured in Antonio D’Ambrosio’s 2009 book, A Heartbeat and A Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears.  D’Ambrosio devotes only a few pages to the actual recording of Bitter Tears (notably, the only time Cash and La Farge spent any significant time together) and instead traces the events and experiences that would lead Peter La Farge to write his songs and Johnny Cash to record them.

Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited was no doubt inspired by D’Ambrosio’s book (he is credited as Executive Producer on the new album), and a forthcoming documentary directed by D’Ambrosio will cover both the original Bitter Tears as well as the tribute album.  However, it was producer Joe Henry who assembled the players and produced Look Again to the Wind, which, in equal measure, is a testament to the talents of both La Farge and Cash (who contributed two originals, “Apache Tears” and “The Talking Leaves,” to Bitter Tears).  Musically, Look Again shares as much (if not more) with La Farge’s original interpretations, which in some cases were nothing more than solo acoustic performances.  As you might expect, Henry did not recruit big-name country stars for the project but rather marquee names from the world of Americana, the genre of music most indebted to Johnny Cash these days.  As Bitter Tears has its roots in the folk scene of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, it’s only fitting that some of today’s leading lights in folk music – Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and The Milk Carton Kids – provide the musical backbone of most of the tracks here.  Norman Blake, the only living veteran of the original sessions, fittingly contributes a track (as does his wife, Nancy Blake).  Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle represent the generation who most directly inherited the torch from stars like Johnny Cash.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens puts here signature on “The Vanishing Race” (the lone tune penned by neither La Farge nor Cash, but Johnny Horton), and Native American artist Bill Miller casts a spell on the title track (a La Farge composition that did not appear on Bitter Tears).  Kris Kristofferson tackles the indelible “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” still the standout song here (and easily the most widely recognized, as it became a staple of Cash’s live repertoire).

Johnny-Cash-Bitter-TearsThere are many angles from which to view Look Again to the Wind:  a social document, a forgotten gem, a tribute to two singular songwriters or simply a beautiful recording of great songs.  It is, of course, a wonderful tribute to the legacy of Johnny Cash, but by no means is it a “Johnny Cash Tribute Album.”  In fact, the gentle acoustic arrangements will most likely transport the listener to those Greenwich Village coffeehouses where Cash first developed a kinship with New York’s folk scene.  Cash’s next record, Orange Blossom Special, became a big hit (after Bitter Tears was largely ignored by country music radio) but continued the thread with three Bob Dylan tunes.  Johnny Cash was never simply a “folk artist” any more than he was ever just a country, blues or rockabilly artist.  Today, we simply remember him as Johnny Cash, an artist and person who defied easy categorization and transcended comfortable boundaries.  Whether you’re listening to Bitter Tears or Look Again to the Wind, you’ll be reminded why.

(One further personal note:  As an avid reader of music biographies and histories, it’s a rare treat to find a book that also transcends easy categorization.  Antonio D’Ambrosio’s book has found a place on my shortlist of essential music-related reading, thanks in large part to its focus on so much of the social and political environment of the day.  Bitter Tears certainly stands on its own achievements, but D’Ambrosio’s book provides a rich backstory that certainly deepened my appreciation of it. -DK)

Emmylou Harris & Milk Carton Kids track premieres at The Bluegrass Situation

You can hear yet another stunning track (“Apache Tears” by Emmylou Harris & The Milk Carton Kids) from Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited over at the website The Bluegrass Situation.  The post also features some comments from the Kids on working with Emmylou and Steve Earle.

Don’t forget – the record comes out next Tuesday, Aug. 19.

Joe Henry’s Bitter Tears project due Aug. 19 (updated)

Bitter_Tears

UPDATE 7/11:  Full press release at Sony’s website.

UPDATE 7/9:  You can pre-order the record at the iTunes store and download “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” featuring Kris Kristofferson with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings (or you can download the track individually).

UPDATE 7/8:  USA Today has a few more details, all of which make this sound like a uniquely collaborative effort between the artists.

{Original post…}

As you may recall, Joe Henry spent the first months of 2014 producing a very unique project, a re-imagining of Johnny Cash’s equally unique record Bitter Tears.

The record features performances by Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Rhiannon Giddens and The Milk Carton Kids.  The album will mark the 50th anniversary and be accompanied by the release of a documentary directed by Antonio D’Ambrosio, who also wrote the very excellent book about the original album, A Heartbeat and A Guitar.

The album is reportedly due August 19 from Sony Masterworks, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing a whole lot more about it in the coming weeks.  Press notes below:

Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited

50th Anniversary of Cash’s Landmark Album

Produced by Joe Henry, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller and more

Of all the dozens of albums released by Johnny Cash during his nearly half-century career, 1964’s “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian” is among the closest to the artist s heart. A concept album focusing on the mistreatment and marginalization of the Native American people throughout the history of the United States, its eight songs among them “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a #3 hit single for Cash on the Billboard country chart spoke in frank and poetic language of the hardships and intolerance they endured.

Now, 50 years after it was recorded, a collective of top Americana artists has come together to re-imagine and update these songs that meant so much to Cash, who died in 2003. For “Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited,” creative leader and album producer Joe Henry (Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville) realized that the “Bitter Tears” album held a special place in Cash’s canon, and that in many ways the issues it raised still resonate today. This had to be apparent in the new versions he was recording for “Look Again to the Wind.” The album features American music giants Kris Kirstofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Norman Blake (the guitarist and only surviving member from the original recording sessions) as well as up-and-comers The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens, interpreting the music of “Bitter Tears” for a new generation. As the original album was for Cash, this new collection is a labor of love with a strong sense of purpose fueling its creation. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, Nashville and at Johnny Cash’s personal recording studio, Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN.

As a companion piece to the album, the documentary, “We’re Still Here: Johnny Cash s Bitter Tears Revisited,” traces the history of “Bitter Tears” and the making of “Look Again to the Wind.” The film is directed by Antonio D Ambrosio, author of “A Heartbeat and a Guitar,” a book about the making of “Bitter Tears.”

Wild Edges: A Recap

(Apologies for the relative lateness of this post, but as you know – since you are reading this post at the new site – I’ve been a little busy with the move of the blog.  Thanks for your patience and thanks for checking out the new blog location. – DK)

Wild_EdgesJosh Hurst – a friend and occasional contributor to this blog – joked this past weekend about how he personally “willed into existence” last year’s collaboration between Elvis Costello and The Roots, two acts for whom he is very passionate.  One could make a similar observation that Wild Edges – a commissioned performance of original songs from Joe Henry, Over The Rhine and The Milk Carton Kids – might have likewise been the result of subconscious prayer and wishful thinking from Josh, myself or any number of fans of these intertwined talents.

Setting aside the complete uniqueness of the event (over two nights at Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center), one could conceivably worry that the endeavor would look better on paper than it would sound in execution.  It is, after all, a tall order for artists to compose and perform original music, never heard in public in any format, and connect it to the ears of an expectant audience.  If anticipation was already high, the stunning and intimate setting of the Hayti certainly raised the stakes.

All that said, however, it will surprise few readers of this blog that I and – judging from their exuberant reaction – nearly everyone in attendance walked away from the two nights with all expectations met and exceeded, not to mention souls and spirits nourished and renewed.  The premise was to connect selections from the Great American Songbook – which in this context was represented by inspirations such as “Delia’s Gone”, “The Needle and The Damage Done”, “Spring Can Hang You Up The Most” and many others – to the new songs.  Those connections were occasionally explicit but mostly provided springboards for the compositions, which, according to Henry, would have to “fight it out in the streets,” just like any other songs.

And fight they did; though in these capable hands, they mostly floated like butterflies while occasionally stinging like bees.  Almost every song had something unique to offer.  Henry’s “The Glorious Dead” certainly sounded like something lifted directly from his own songbook, but, as Linford Detweiler pointed out, sounded like “an unearthed hymn.”  “Dangerous Love” was a swinging tune on its own merits, but Levon Henry’s wicked saxophone solo that capped off the performance wrenched it off its foundations.  Both evenings opened with “Los Lunas,” which was as perfect a song as I’ve heard Karin Bergquist sing, underpinned by Kenneth Pattengale’s lilting pedal steel.  Joey Ryan had several standout performances, and his voice proved to be a key ingredient on many of the evening’s songs.  Ryan reliably provided dry comic relief in between more than a few of the songs.

The cast was superbly accompanied by Henry regulars Jennifer Condos (bass) and Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion and assorted noise), along with Levon on clarinet and saxophone.  The performances were packed with musical highlights but certainly his contributions were among the most indelible.  Likewise, Pattengale no doubt shocked the audience with his vast reserves of instrumental talent, which included impressive work on pedal steel, dobro, electric guitar, accordion and piano.  The number of participants ranged from two (when Pattengale accompanied Bergquist with his soulful piano on a tune only played during the second evening) to all participants, with all points in between as various cast members left the stage briefly.  Unsurprisingly, with this batch of talent, the arrangements never threatened to overshadow or suffocate the songs themselves.

The proceedings were recorded by engineer Ryan Freeland for possible future release, and after two nearly flawless presentations, one should anticipate that little will prevent that from happening.

Followers of these acts are most likely the type of music fans who hold dear the notion that music is more than mere entertainment and can occasionally achieve transcendence.  My guess is that all who bore witness to these miraculous two nights of music walked away with that assumption both intact and fortified.

Here are a couple of reviews from the local North Carolina press:

Wild Edges anticipation builds

Duke University's Independent Daily has a little more backstory on this week's Wild Edges performance at the Hayti Center in Durham, as well as some information on what may happen with the live recordings.

Also, check out Karin and Linford's photo feed for some behind-the-scenes pictures of this week's rehearsals.