You can think outside the box all you like, but the important corollary to that advice is to never fall out of love with the box. Americana and roots music at its best plays and inside-outside game. It’s not a format that routinely embraces the avant-garde, but it’s a lot of fun when there’s a hint of the weird, the obscure or the brave in the mix. Here are six new albums featuring virtuoso musicians mingling the foundational and the free, ready to take you on some unexpected trips.
Jake Blount - Spider Tales - Free Dirt Records
Activism can sometimes compete with the musical clarity of a recording but here all the waves crest in the same place for maximum amplitude. An award-winning banjo player, fiddler, singer and musicologist, Jake is in the vanguard of artists claiming and clearing space for people of color and the LGBTQ community in string band and bluegrass music. His approach, grounded in an inclusive history of American folk music, is imaginatively conceived, curated and executed. Spider Tales are a feature of West African folklore that amplify the guile and resourcefulness of the oppressed. In this context, they take the form of new interpretations of early 20th century blues and folk songs with Black origin stories. “Goodbye, Honey, You Call That Gone” beguiles with a mystical modal melody and the crisp, inspired foot percussion of Nic Gareiss. Fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves joins for a number of tunes, including a sashaying take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Music from the Gullah-Geechee people of the south Atlantic seaboard shines on “Move, Daniel.” And the final song “Mad Mama’s Blues” which hat tips its original singer Josie Miles, is so violent and hard core it was noted by a heavy metal magazine. Even for devoted old-time fans, this music is wildly fresh on the ears. Its provenance is meticulously documented and its overall ethos hits us like the tidal waves of people in the streets right now, affirming that Black Lives Matter.
Libby Rodenbough - Spectacle of Love - Sleepy Cat Records
Rodenbough (a former Nashvillian who worked with Music City Roots) plays fiddle and sings in the crafty Durham, North Carolina quartet Mipso. Somehow, in between shows, across a range of studios including her own home and with only a small gang of collaborators, she’s made a stunner of a modern roots singer-songwriter album with a consistent, refined sound and feel. The musical energy comes from surprising, shifting textures that set off her viola-toned voice. A bass clarinet lopes beautifully into the stately piano groove of opener “How Come You Call Me.” Plucked fiddle and droplet sounding guitars make a mesmerizing soundscape in “Gatekeeper.” And then “Under the U-Bahn” brings Libby’s string skills to the fore with a woozy instrumental that flows seamlessly into the plunky and hard to pin down “Country Jam.” The relentless imagination continues through thirteen tracks, but the whole thing plays with an unbroken flow.
Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn - Smithsonian Folkways
Abigail is an established star of neo-Appalachian folk music and an old-time banjo master who’s recently been touring and recording with her husband, the banjo modernist Béla Fleck. Wu Fei is a Beijing-born, Nashville-based master of Chinese folk and modern experimental music. Washburn’s history in China and her fluency in the language led her to a partnership with Fei, who plays the guzeng, the long wooden zither. They make a swirling symphony of plucked timbres, modal melodies and vocal techniques that bridge two very different languages. This duo has toured and performed for years, so this album has been a long time in the making. It is by turns serene, playful and rattling, and it achieves one of the most imaginative and globally enlightened fusions you’ve ever heard.
The Third Mind - Yep Roc Records
On the list of things I didn’t expect crossing the transom was former Blaster and ace California country rocker Dave Alvin turning in a deeply improvised, largely instrumental electric trip-fest, but hey, 2020’s full of surprises. Inspired by the spontaneity of Miles Davis recording sessions circa 1970, Alvin pulled together bassist Victor Krummenacher, drummer Michael Jerome and guitarist David Immerglück, whose background includes Camper Van Beethoven and John Hiatt. The song-iest song is “The Dolphins” from 60’s Greenwich Village folk singer Fred Neil. The band tackles the Dead’s “Morning Dew” in a version that gets established with warbling intimacy by singer Jesse Sykes and then grows into a twin guitar blazer. The showpiece is a 16-minute take on the Paul Butterfield Band’s “East West.” Americana is a performer’s genre, and in a time when many projects risk too little and polish out too many glitches, it’s joyful to hear some groovy West Coast cats roll tape and let it sound like it sounds.
Nate Lee - Wings of a Jetliner - June 12 on Adverb Records
In 2015, Nashville’s Nate Lee won the Instrumentalist Momentum Award from the IBMA, the bluegrass association’s way to spotlight emerging talent in the field. Now the mandolinist and fiddler, whose main gig is in the Becky Buller Band, offers his first full-length album as a leader. The Buller band is integrally involved, including banjo player Ned Luberecki, bassist Daniel Hardin and multi instrumentalist Dan Boner, who also produces. This is bluegrass as free-ranging and masterful as any you’d be hearing at our currently silent festivals. A classic banjo-driven sound pours forth on the story song “Tobacco,” while “Serenity” calls on flatpicking star Wyatt Rice and Lee’s mandolin to call up the acoustic jazz sound David Grisman made with Wyatt’s brother Tony back in the day. “The More I Pour” pulls out the twin fiddles and swings hard for a dance hall romp. Lee’s songwriting and warm-as-toast voice stand out on the swaying ballad “Somewhere Far Away.” Lee has a gift for themes, the strong melodic hooks that give a tune its architecture and its roadmap for improvisation. The sharp graphics give us a sense that Lee’s truly on his way somewhere exciting and we’re going with him.
Not Our First Goat Rodeo - June 12 on Sony Masterworks
I don’t know when that GOAT acronym first came into use, but you could make a case that when it comes to cello, bass, mandolin and fiddle, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan are indeed the Greatest Of All Time. And their Goat Rodeo neo-acoustic super-group is back with its first new album since 2011. While I haven’t heard the whole thing, the singles released by Sony Masterworks so far reveal all the delicacy, intricacy, vigor and beauty one would expect. “Voila” feels like a polite Baroque era dance time traveling to an Appalachian fiddle contest. “Nebbia” contrasts a slow flow over a heartbeat pulse, leaning on the specific energies of classical minimalism. This airy beauty isn’t roots music per se, but it wouldn’t be possible without it.