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Rachel Baiman On The String: A Fiddler Emerges As A Songwriter Investigating ‘Cycles’

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Ed Rode
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The late John Hartford is probably the most influential figure on the contemporary bluegrass and string band scene. The fiddler, songwriter and collaborator drew the traditional and the avant-garde together with more imagination and credibility than anyone from the 1960s until his death in 2003, creating the template and permission structure for newgrass music. His legacy looms large in the home of Rachel Baiman.

The house Baiman shares with her husband George Jackson, himself an acclaimed old-time fiddle player, is two doors down from Hartford’s long-time home in Madison, TN. A WWII-era cabin perched on a bluff 50 feet above the Cumberland River, it may have an even better view of Hadley Bend than Hartford’s place. And as we settle in on Baiman’s window-wrapped sun porch to talk, her dog Hartford naps at our feet. 

“I was thinking about what a turning point it was in my artistic intentions, when I discovered (Hartford’s) music and really fell in love with it,” she told me. “Because it kind of made me realize the power of imperfection and the way that you need to prioritize character, emotion, groove, feel and vibe in the creation of art, over some things that maybe I had spent too much time worrying about.” 

That’s not the only turning point for Baiman, who has evolved over her decade-plus in Nashville from a neo-traditional fiddler and side musician to a contemporary singer-songwriter much admired for her bold and vulnerable takes on loss, longing and social ills and injustice. Her long-running duo 10 String Symphony with Christian Sedelmyer has been her main touring vehicle for a decade, but with two albums and a self-produced EP in the past five years, Baiman has re-defined herself at an auspicious time to sing about our frayed trust and her generation’s 21st century aspirations.

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Baiman’s record label debut and opening gambit as a social songwriter was Shame, a 2017 disc that earned praise on national platforms from NPR to Vice. Her newest, out last Friday, is Cycles, a plush and provocative collection of ten songs recorded in Melbourne, Australia. Not only has her Australian husband lived there, she sought out an esthetic and feeling in that city’s music scene through a production partnership with Olivia Hally of the imaginative folk-pop band Oh Pep!. 

The record evokes cycles of life and death as it processes family trials, including her sister losing a pregnancy and her grandmother dying. It also touches on cycles of hope and disappointment when we engage with the world. Baiman told me that since Shame was written and released around the time of the 2017 inauguration of President Trump, it couldn’t help but meet the politically charged moment. On Cycles, she says, she wanted to turn to narratives that were more personal.

“I have been examining my relationship to art as activism, because I always want to be asking myself what is a positive way to communicate, and what is just making the problem worse? I think we've seen through the country's whole relationship with social media that we need to examine the way that we are communicating with each other,” Baiman says. She took some insights away from training in door-to-door campaign volunteering to refrain from argument or confrontation that might motivate opposing voters. “It's not about not making the point. It's just about making the point in a way that's humanizing. And so I felt like my goal with this new collection of material was to really dive deep into people and emotions and people's stories.”

In Part Two of Episode 172 of The String, we talk about Baiman’s upbringing on the west side of Chicago with leftist activist parents, about her youthful fascination with fiddle music, about forming 10 String Symphony and about the wider horizons and prospects she found in the songwriting hotbed of Nashville. 

“I definitely grew up as an instrumentalist, and I didn't really sing much as a teenager. I was really focused on playing the fiddle and learning that instrument to its fullest degree, and I idolized really great fiddle players,” she says. “But I think it was a lot of that activism and spirit that was instilled in me from my family that drove me to begin to pursue songwriting, and maybe a combination of that and moving to Nashville and being around so many amazing songwriters and falling in love with that craft...And then having these things I felt like I needed to say, and the times being so crazy was just a real driving force for me.” 

Rachel’s segment on The String starts at 31:15.

The video for "Jokes On Me" from Cycles.