Saturday, May 9, 2015

2015 National Train Day

Amtrak created National Train Day in 2008. Celebrated on the Saturday closest to May 10th, the made-up holiday is one I've enjoyed nonetheless - certainly more than others such as Groundhog Day, April Fool's Day and the multitude of National [name a food] Day.

So here we are - May 9th - for National Train Day 2015. Right?

Credit: Chad Cochran of Chad Cochran Photography 
Not so fast. For 2015, Amtrak announced:
After seven years of successful National Train Day events, where train enthusiasts would gather to show their support of the trains and train travel in over 300 communities across the nation on the same day, we decided to make it even bigger and better. Amtrak Train Days is kicking off at Chicago Union Station on May 9th, and then will hit the rails, traveling to multiple locations across the country May through November.
Bigger and better? Rather than add an "s" to National Train Day, they rebranded the deal as Amtrak Train Days?? In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny...

As for me, I'll continue to refer to what I believe is the generic yet appropriately-named National Train Day. How about another annual six-pack batch of train songs to help commemorate NTD.

I first heard Boxcars sung by Joe Ely on his album Live Shots. Later I learned the song was written by Butch Hancock. Ely recorded many other songs written by Hancock and collaborated with him in The Flatlanders.

TMC's Great-Granddaddy - far left in shirt & tie
A lonesome yet rhythmic sound - words often used to describe a train - and perhaps the music of the late, great Townes Van Zandt including BW Railroad Blues.

Credit: Chad Cochran
A Man And A Train - Not only am I partial to trains - but also to a good bit of music favored by my dad. Included in the list of performers he has long enjoyed is Marty Robbins.

Perhaps my favorite album from 2014 was the haunting Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth by Otis Gibbs (web | Twitter). Included on the album was the fantastic song It Was A Train.

Source: Ben Tufts
It's a bit hard to believe it's taken me three years to include Georgia On A Fast Train by the legendary Billy Joe Shaver in my NTD compilations. Here is a video of Billy Joe performing his classic with his late son, Eddy Shaver on lead guitar.

Sturgill Simpson hit my radar about a year or so ago, and I'm playing from behind to catch up to his music. But in keeping with the fast pace of Billy Joe's song, here is Simpson's Railroad of Sin.

Well, I said I'd include a six pack. But how 'bout we have one for the road. With the earlier mention of Joe Ely, I'll include Midnight Train sung by him.

So today, hop a train, visit a train, introduce a child to a train, go watch a train, lay awake tonight with a window open to listen to a train, or simply smile peacefully as you enjoy your own favorite train song.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Sharing A Six Pack with Jesse Lafser

As I've mentioned more than once, the annual Couch By Couchwest festival has opened my eyes to many fantastic performers the last few years. (As a reminder, CXCW happens live each March. Unlike other festivals that end after a days, however, CXCW remains available for listening year-round.)

One such artist I've met and grown to enjoy is Jesse Lafser (web | Twitter). Her sophomore record, Raised On The Plains, was released earlier this week on April 28th.

Jesse is an unabashed Dylan / folk song fan and mentions frequently his influence on her songwriting style. Yet she brings her own individuality, insights, musical twists to traditional folk and grace to her approach in writing and performing her songs.

The few times I've seen perform Jesse perform - on CXCW and in Nashville - I've experienced her with a guitar and a microphone. For Plains, she surrounded herself with a full band adding a rich and complementary yet deferential sound to her own guitar and vocals work.

The album's hopping opener, Jack Hat Blues, was her submission to Couch By Couchwest 2015.

Jesse and I recently shared a virtual Six Pack ... of Questions.

TMC: So right from the jump, the world wants to know. How many hats DO you have?
JL: A fair question. Currently, I've got about 5 hats. I get really into one at a time and wear it until it doesn't feel like me anymore and then I switch it up. Recently, I've been on a quest for the perfect black hat...they are surprisingly hard to come by. Hoping I'll find one on the road out west this May!
TMC: You worked with Will Kimbrough on the new album. Were there a couple of "a-ha!" moments - from either of you - as the two of you spent time working through songs, the recording process, etc.?
JL: Will and I agreed before the session that we wouldn't rehearse the songs he played on ahead of time. We tracked them live in the same room which gave the tracks a great energy. 
I think sometimes the most inspired sounds come when you feel slightly unsure, like you're dancing on the edge of a cliff, not sure if you'll fall or not. He never falls though. I trust him. He's one of the greatest players of all time, and it was an honor to have him on the album. 
Darling, It's A Waste of Time is a swinging, tap-your-toe, yet blusey song - one with which you cannot suppress a smile as you listen to it.

The fourth track from the album, The Chores Song, is one of my three favorites from the release. The song also happens to have been Jesse's submission to CXCW in 2014. On the album, the uptempo song is enriched by a prominent fiddling riff and some wonderful harmony vocals from Lindsay Hayes. It also features Jesse's gifted guitar picking.

I don't want you to do the chores
I don't need you to sweep the floors
If you wanted a maid, you made a huge mistake

We could steal away to Barcelona
I'll be Jack, and you'll be Ramona
We could find a place down by the sea
Spend all day at the cafe down the street

Well, I  never minded working hard
Never minded doing my time
Do the dishes, work in the yard
Pay the bills, write a rhythm and a rhyme

TMC: You aren't FROM Nashville - yet you've BECOME part of Nashville's ever growing variety of music. After relocating here a few years ago, what has been the best or maybe easiest thing about living here? And the most challenging aspects? (That's actually 2 questions, but let's pretend it's just happy hour.)
JL: The hot chicken. Also East Nashville itself - I'm not sure I could still live in Nashville if it weren't for this neighborhood - it's amazing how rivers have always forged two very different parts of town with completely different energies. I feel lucky to be able to walk a few blocks and see Todd Snider and other great songwriters like Don Schlitz (he wrote "The Gambler") for happy hour at The 5 Spot. It's really incredible how collaborating with other artists can happen so naturally here. All you have to do is take a few steps out your front door. 
That's not to say living here doesn't come without challenges - there are many of those too. For one thing, there are no mountains. I am the best version of myself when I can see nature all around me in an obvious way - that's what inspires me most. 
I also think that because this town is so saturated with incredible talent. There is this survival mentality and maybe even a sense of fear of being left behind. It can become this 'every man for himself' kind of place where everyone is begging for scraps from the table. It's not easy, but I am learning if you can get past this perspective and try to continue to cultivate a supportive community of artists, it's a much more enjoyable experience. I am also very competitive so this is a good reminder for myself on a daily basis. 
TMC: I understand many of the songs on the new record are based on your travels a year or ago through the southwestern states of the US. (By the way, I dig the subtle accordion on Gone Gone Gone.) Did the songs come to you in those moments - or did you reflect back on those experiences to compose them somewhere down the line?
JL: Thank you! The songs pretty much came out in a flood once I returned home. Whenever I go out on the road, I try to explore and take in as much as I can - it's amazing what you can find in a town if you go on long walks. I end up collecting these sensory experiences and observations of the characters and the cultures I come across. This always finds a way to the page.
TMC: How about songwriting in general. What is your pattern - if you have one - for writing songs? I'm curious if you dedicate time during the week to write, if you frequently write them in a single setting or two, or if you tend to log lyrics or stanzas over time with some of them eventually finding their way together to build a song.
JL: This is a very insightful question because everyone really is different in these three main ways. My best songs are the ones that come out of thin air, I guess you could say from the big creative wellspring, or the muse. This is a strange thing, but my very best songs come two at a time, back to back, in one sitting. This is rare though. And some songs come to me bits at a time and require more work. Either way, I always try to come back and edit them after the 'honey moon' phase has passed. 
Mountain Air is another of my genuinely favorite songs from the album. As recorded, it's thoroughly enjoyable. But heard live, it takes on a different perspective. I've listened to it - outdoors - in East Nashville - sitting with my eyes closed -  a bit of rhythmic head nod - a slight smile on my face - and a cold one on the table untouched as the song unfolds..

TMC: When I've seen you perform, I've sat quietly, listened intently, uttered the occasional "umh" when a particular lyric resonated, and then clapped when you were done with a song. You aren't really a performer who brings out the moshing, screeching or Flick-the-Bic fan bases. How do you measure, interpret, evaluate, or whatever you want to call it your connection with your audience during a show? And do you find you get different responses or engagement depending on what part of the country you tour?
JL: I think I feel a connection with my audience when they are actively listening - pretty much what you just said, you're the perfect audience member! It does depend a little on the song though. I think for the more rollicking blues songs it's nice to look out and see people moving and feeling the music. I have noticed I do really well out west, and I'm not really sure why. If I figure it out, I'll be sure to let you know!
As the album nears its end, my third fave Virginia Morning continues to hold the listener's ear. The title and visualizations don't exactly evoke the U.S. west. Yet I'm glad it was included. The richness of the backing instruments is again featured as is Lafser's spot-on pitch in varying vocal ranges. Plus,one can never have enough mountain - or train - songs.

I took the train from Virginia
With a head full of rain
And I saw my reflection
In that Blue Ridge Mountain range

You are waiting on me, I am waiting for you
Wheels are flying, steel driving, feeling free
As I'm closing the distance between you and me

Raised on the Plains can be purchased at all the normal spots - iTunes, Amazon, Grimey's in Nashville, and perhaps even your local record store - especially upon request.