“Rex’s Blues”, a Townes Van Zandt cover by Jolie Holland.
5) The Devil Makes Three
From the moment I heard TDMT’s toe-tapping fusion of bluegrass and folk, I was hooked. There’s something inherently charming about the trio’s old-time country sound. Music to raise a barn to, you might say. On songs like “Johnson Family” and “For Good Again”, the band conjures narratives seemingly straight out of the past. Don’t let the fact that the band is comprised solely of New Englanders. What they lack in pedigree, they make up for in sheer enthusiasm – like goth-rockers Rasputina, TDMT has fully embraced the trappings of their chosen genre without a hint of irony. The result is fun, infectiously-spirited tunes that you can listen to guilt-free.
For fans of: The Bowerbirds, The Carter Family
I’d suggest: “Aces and Twos”
4) Will Oldham
One of the hardest artists to keep track of, Oldham changes his performing name every couple of years, going from “Palace Brothers” to “Palace Songs” to “Palace Music” to simply “Palace”, then releasing music under his given name before adopting the moniker “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” which has emblazoned the majority of his work since 1998. Listening to Oldham’s music, it isn’t hard to see why he would want to keep shedding the past. The vulnerable, world-weary ballads characteristic of Oldham’s work offer what is an almost uncomfortable level of insight into a world of heartbreak, rejection and loneliness. By re-inventing himself, Will Oldham keeps his listeners at arm’s length. Even in his cover of Sufjan Steven’s “All The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”, Oldham manages simultaneous to open up to listeners withour giving them any insight into his thoughts and feelings.
For fans of: Neil Young, Nick Drake
I’d suggest: “New Partner”
3) David Dondero
The way I see it, David Dondero’s ditties deserve the label of “country music” more than most of what has come out of Nashville. His firsthand experience of the American landscape comes through loud and clear in songs like “The Living and the Dead”, in which he proclaims himself a student of “highway archaeology” on a ”broken shoestring budget tour”. Yet there is nothing cheap about the five-dollar words that compose Dondero’s lyrics; here is a man clearly unafraid of Merriam-Webster. Sometimes, his approach to Americana seems clumsy, as though there aren’t quite words to encapsulate the experience, but it is never disingenuous. For those turned off by lo-fi sound or quavering vocals, Dondero’s music might not be the best choice, but his unique perspective on America is worth getting to know.
For fans of: Conor Oberst, Leonard Cohen
I’d suggest: “Rothko Chapel”
2) Jolie Holland
Honestly, I think I’ve said enough about Ms. Holland in the last couple of weeks. So I’ll keep this short. “Amen”, the first song of Jolie Holland’s that I ever heard, is a bluesy juke-joint jam. Inspired by the works of Mikhail Bulgakov. If that isn’t Alt-Country, I don’t know what is.
For fans of: Billie Holiday, Townes Van Zandt
I’d suggest: “Palmyra”
1) Sarah Jarosz
Bluegrass wunderkind Sarah Jarosz is a surprising new voice in a genre dominated primarily by old men with beards. (Incidentally, if Jarosz grew a beard, it would only make me love her more.) She manages to remain steeped in the traditions of bluegrass while covering artists like The Decemberists and Radiohead, as well as composing original tunes which straddle the boundaries between tradition and modernity. While her 2009 debut Song Up in Her Head showed off Jarosz’s multi-instrumentalism and clarion voice, it wasn’t until 2011’s Follow Me Down that I truly appreciated her versatility and genre-fluency. Even if Jarosz didn’t play the clawhammer banjo, or compare time to a “mixed up engineer on an endless railroad track“, I would still categorize her as an Alt-Country artist. It’s cliché to call her an old soul, so let me just say that Jarosz demonstrates a deep understanding of her musical forebears while still managing to keep an eye on the future.
For fans of : Béla Fleck, Gillian Welch
I’d suggest:“Here Nor There”
#1 This song is almost perfect. Jolie gets a little shrieky on the high parts, but I love the slick lyricism and intellectual flow that Sage Francis provides and how it mingles and mixes perfectly with the country-blues attitude.
Got Up This Morning - Sage Francis ft. Jolie Holland
Switchin to my good ear and adjusting my position
As she discusses Ginsberg I listened and learned
As she dispersed his words I just resisted the urge to do like he would
Whatever he wanted, if she allowed me to
She dangled that carrot then asked me:
“What would Bukowski do?”
#2 She amazes me. There are so many disparate influences evident in Jolie’s music, yet she somehow manages to blend them convincingly. As far as I know, it’s inspired by Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, and yet it has this unmistakably Americana vibe. Love it!
Amen by Jolie Holland
Lovely listening for an easy summer Sunday afternoon.
#4 She’s a poet!
Mexican Blue by Jolie Holland
No really. Listen and read. This song this song this song….
When the moon is as clear as an opal
And the amethyst river sings a song
I’ll remember all your dreams and the mysteries
You have borne in your crystalline soul
That you sing from your golden throat
That you shine from your sparkling eyes
That you feel from the goddess in your thighs
You’re like a saint’s song to me
I’ll try to sing it pure and easily
You’re like a Mexican blue
So bright and clear and pale in the afternoon
In the afternoon