Monday, July 16, 2012

Family Ties That Bind

Country music has long been a staple in my life.  I grew up listening to it, I grew up reading about it, I grew up watching it on TV.  It's been in my family for many generations and as such, I've recently felt a kinship of sorts to the families that have been making country music for generations, even before it was officially known as "country music."

The Carter Family is widely regarded as the First Family of Country Music.  It was their origninal sound created in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and first recorded on August 2, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee that initiated arguably the most influential music career in history.  Songs such as "Keep on the Sunny Side", "Meet Me in the Moonlight Alone", "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone" and the seminal "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" are cornerstones of the country music, and subsequently, folk and Americana genres.  The writings and recordings of A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter have stood the test of time and have earned them their rightful place in both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame.

The second generation of the Carter Family is perhaps better known in the mainstream.   When the "Original" Carter Family of A.P., Sara and Maybelle ceased recording in the 1940's, Maybelle began recording with her daughters June, Helen and Anita.  It was this incarnation of the Carter Family that toured for many years with Johnny Cash.  It was only until watching a recent episode of Austin City Limits that I realized how important this chain of events has become.

Setting up the performance of her next song, Johnny's daughter from a previous marriage, the incomparable Roseanne Cash was telling a story about touring with her father's show at age 18.  It was during this time that the Carter Family was a staple of the Johnny Cash Show as they toured the world.  Roseanne had mentioned that during this time as she was finding her way as a singer-songwriter, she had the opportunity to learn how to play the guitar from one of the masters, Helen Carter.  It was during this time that seemingly a torch had been passed.  As Roseanne stated, Helen Carter more or less taught her "the entire Carter Family lexicon."  If you think of that statement and realize that there are only a few people left in the world who can say in all honestly that they learned to play guitar from a member of the Carter Family, that becomes an enormous statement.

In recent years, Roseanne Cash has stated that she is now at a place in her life where she is prepared to accept, and indeed accepting, of her musical and family legacy.  She seems to have a new purpose where there is a commitment to ensuring the history of her family and their music is front and centre.  She seems to have a new appreciation for her relationship with her iconic father and the influence he has played in her career.  With her hits at radio behind her (and there were a lot of them), and the long held desire to make the music she believes in making, we are all the better for it.  A new generation will benefit greatly from another legendary extension of the Carter family as she takes us on her journey of musical and family discovery.

Click here to see Roseanne Cash performing "Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow"

Friday, July 13, 2012

Celebrating John Denver -- Little Lake Music Festival, Peterborough, Ontario

On several occasions in this space, I've written about the abundance of musical talent that exists in the Peterborough region of Ontario.  To be quite frank, it's not an understatemetn to call it an embarassment of riches, if you want the honest truth.  Nights like this past Wednesday July 11 at the Little Lake Music Festival was a perfect example of how fertile the music scene is in this region.

This night was set aside to pay homage to an artist that I believe tends to get overlooked when people refer to influential singer/songwriters with respect to modern day country/folk/Americana music.  John Denver was a singer, songwriter, poet, actor, environmentalist, activist and philanthropist who was one of the biggest stars of the 1970's and 1980's.  His legacy is strong and resonates to this day, many years after his sudden death in a plane crash off the California coast.

It was a night for local musicians to take centre stage at Little Lake to pay remind all of us why John Denver was so important to the history of modern music.  Opening with a wonderful rendition of "Sweet Surrender", the band seemlessly moved from one Denver classic to another with an amazing cast of homegrown talent.  Mark Edwards was tasked with performing three of Denvers' biggest and most recognizable hits "Thank God I'm a Country Boy", "Rocky Mountain High", and "Back Home Again", and he did a fantastic job on all three.  The first clap-along of the night came with Warren Chambers' rendition of the fun-favourite "Grandma's Feather Bed", while John Boyco kicked off his three song set with a beautiful version of "Some Days Are Diamonds."

As good as the guys were, perhaps the most beautiful and most telling story about the enduring legacy of John Denver and his music were the three young ladies that were invited to perform.  Recent high school graduate, Cherise Billings, performed at the behest of her music teacher, who also happened to be the piano player in the band.  Cherise opened up her set with "Leaving on a Jet Plane", with her voice bringing a real sense to the poetry that this song really is.  Twelve year old Elizabeth did a fantastic job with her booming voice doing an excellent pseudo-reggae version of "Follow Me."  The final performer of the evening was Mary Kate Bronson, daughter of the band leader, whose angelic voice soared through her set of "Sunshine on my Shoulder", "Annie's Song" and the seminal "Calypso."  Hearing these three young ladies perform Denver's classics brought to mind the poetry and cross-generational appeal of his body of work.  Denver was writing about issues that are still relevant to this day, such as the environment, nature and landscape.  Having three singers ranging in age from pre-teen to early twenties and singing them with passion and conviction, shows the importance of Denver's writing and influence.

A John Denver tribute would not be complete without a grand finale, and what better finale than to have all the artists gather on stage for a stellar rendition of "Country Roads."  Indeed, a fitting end to a wonderful night.   There is no doubt in my mind that the spirit of John Denver is alive and well.  His legacy was served well and served proud by all the artists participating in this show on Wednesday.