When you can do something as well as Kaki King can play a guitar, it can take you almost anywhere. King has been playing guitar, and has been widely admired for the way she does, for quite a while, and since her first release in 2002, Everybody Loves You, she's never really stopped discovering new ways to discover the instrument she calls "a shapeshifter". With her latest album, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, she's dreamed up a completely new set of ways to do what she always does, to find great music in a guitar and then play it like nobody else can.
If Ruthie Collins turned out to be one of your favorite artists, which is entirely possible, there are probably two different ways that it could end up happening. How likely is it? Well, that depends. If you already like musical artists who are brightly imaginative, truly gifted singers, Country Music, or maybe all of the above, it could definitely happen. In any case, it could happen a couple of different ways.
The first way, of course, would be if you just heard some of her music. Because it's the first single from her debut Ruthie Collins EP, and since it's already being played a lot of places, the first thing you might hear would most likely be "Ramblin' Man", her unusually creative rework of Hank Williams Sr.'s 1953 classic. If you did, it might not take long before you got the idea that you'd like to hear a lot more of Ruthie Collins, even if you didn't know the rather amazing back story about how they made that recording. That's the story about how a very traditionalist Country Artist (Ruthie) on a respected Country Label (Sidewalk / Curb) ended up making a rework of a decades-old classic by one of traditional Country's most revered legends (Hank Sr.) that blends very traditional instrumentation (practically bluegrass) with cutting edge, EDM inspired production techniques. What?
There's an art to being an independent label, but the heart of the art isn't exactly what most people might think. It's not so much the ability to discover, produce and promote that makes a great independent record label. It's more a talent for appreciation. When you find an indie label that you want to follow, that you would want to hear more from, it's often because the people there not only appreciate the music they bring you, they also appreciate how good it is for for everybody who loves that music when that music can be heard.
There's a new label like that just outside of D.C. They call themselves Soul Stew Records, and they started releasing music last year, bringing a promising new touch to an old idea: find great music, and bring it to the people who love it. "We deliver blues, soul, roots, jazz, gospel, Americana and any other genre that is real and moves us," is the way they describe themselves, and Soul Stew's first two releases (both of them what most people would call the Blues) deliver a lot.
On a warm summer weekend last August, something happened in Cincinnati that you would have to call a remarkable accomplishment; in complete defiance of anything you would ever realistically expect, thirty-five thousand people went to see the Symphony.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, with their widely admired new Music Director Louis Langrée conducting, performed outdoors on Saturday and Sunday in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, while historic Music Hall was illuminated behind them in a dazzling display of synchronized light. It's an astonishing accomplishment for a Symphony Orchestra to attract crowds like a rock concert, but as you learn more about music in Cincinnati, and about the way the city supports its music, you begin to realize that it's more than just a single accomplishment. It's actually a lot of very different accomplishments, by a lot of different people, and an event like the LumenoCity concerts last summer is what happens when all of those people put all of those accomplishments together, somehow sharing an understanding of how to make things turn out right.
Of course, an accomplishment like the success of LumenoCity has to begin with the music, and Louis Langrée brings with him to Cincinnati an understanding of what music can be that is as precise and informed as his conducting. He speaks convincingly about the importance of preparation ("You have to know a piece the way you would know a road that you've driven many, many times, because then you can move more smoothly, more freely; you can really anticipate the curves"), and of thorough technical mastery ("The performance has to include all of the elements of harmony, of rhythm, of melody; everything is important"), but he is also vividly aware of how much more music can be than that. "Even when something is very impressive technically, that's not the beauty and the truth and the depth of music," he says. "It's that it makes you feel different, because it relates directly to you."
There's a lot of different kinds of music in this big wide world, so many different kinds of music that nobody could even name them all. Everybody could name a few though, and two kinds of music that almost everybody can name are Rock and Country. Each of them is its own wide world, and although they do share some history, they don't share a lot of artists, or a lot of audiences.
There's plenty of music in America, and a lot of it's out on the road, rolling down interstates, sea to shining sea. The tour buses carrying Rock acts look a lot like the ones carrying Country acts, but even if they do pass each other on the interstate, they'll always be in two very different worlds. It's true that Rock and Country have a few things in common, and the more acoustic, lyrical kinds of Rock aren't all that different from some Country music. Still, the louder and heavier Rock gets, the less it sounds anything like the handcrafted story songs from a Nashville session, where most of the guitars are played undistorted, and the pedal steel might answer every careful line of a clear, melodic vocal.
That makes Aaron Lewis a very unusual story, because after sixteen years in a band called Staind (who've sold fifteen million very heavy rock albums), he recorded five country songs and put them together on an independent country EP. It had a picture on the cover of a sign by the side of the road that said "Entering Nashville", and he called it Town Line. If that doesn't sound all that astonishing, it's because that's not the really unusual part. When Town Line was released in March, 2011 it became the No. 1 Country album, and that's not only way past unusual, it may be unprecedented.
Watching the sun rise can be such a fusion of promise and inspiration that thinking about it, let alone actually seeing it, can brighten a whole day. It's remarkable that it happens every morning, all around the world, but that doesn't make it any less inspiring; it just makes it more difficult to keep up with. It's a lot like trying to keep up with the many achievements of Chicago Children's Choir, who only recently completed an impressive and successful undertaking with their performance in Sita Ram, and who are already following it up with another. They're off to perform in India, on a multi-city tour that will bring audiences there a chance to hear what talent and dedication sound like set to music.