A Fish of Earth defies the conventions of today’s music by forgoing traditional genres and embracing the contemplative, even meditative, art of storytelling. Emily Brown, a California-based singer-songwriter, exhibits undeniable talent in her poetic and conversational lyrics that depict realities of womanhood, faith, and individualism. Definitely the most unique album I have listened to, A Fish of Earth opens the gate to a new reality of music that is offbeat and fearless!

Perhaps defined most wholly as indie-folk, the album’s most unique factor is the conversational lyrics that disregard rhyme or reason, but choose instead to follow feeling. Most traditional songs and poems are written in meter – which, for those non-English majors out there, is a rhythmic structure based on syllables. Many of Brown’s songs forgo meter which creates a less formal and more stream-of-consciousness ambience (Listen to Dread and you’ll get a better sense of what I’m talking about). This aspect, on top of Brown’s incredibly impressive vocal range, makes each song sound like a vulnerable and roaming journey. 

Let’s begin with the top of the album: Amen, Amen. In this song, Brown’s smooth, high-pitched voice blends with a sole harmonium, making them nearly indistinguishable. She questions: “Amen, Amen, are you a friend or are you a lover?” Remnants of gospel music permeate the song, which perhaps stem from Brown’s roots in the Mormon church. 

Her angelic voice captivates listeners in the following track, Baby Wanting. This brutally honest song depicts the feeling of yearning for a baby, simultaneously embracing both seriousness and humor. Brown doesn’t shy away from contradictions, as she reflects on a feeling shared by many women: “What am I gonna do with all this baby wanting? Do I think I could go through childbirth? I can’t survive my monthly cramps.” Baby Wanting is one of the most upbeat tracks and is defiant in its conversational tone. This song seems to follow an internal dialogue, yet again forgoing traditional meter and taking listeners on an emotional journey of womanhood and wanting.

Many of the tracks are rooted in intimacy, appreciation, and love for oneself and others. For example, Traipsing is a cheerful yet delicate song about searching for love, only to find it’s been close by all along. Dread, on the other hand, showcases an intimate moment and highlights a child’s innocence and intuition. They all showcase a profound artistic prowess, at times dark and gothic, at others light and frolicking. 

Each song takes listeners on a different and unique journey. A bit daunting upon first listen, if you experience this album with an open mind you will find humor, honesty, and eccentricity that are rare in pop music today. Emily Brown took poetry, infused it with color and authenticity, and turned it into music. She is an artist in every sense of the word: a poet, a storyteller, a musician, a truly talented individual. 

Listen and buy the album here.

Reviewed by: Mae Hunt

For many, 2021 will be spent making up for lost time in an overwhelmingly unproductive 2020. For Matt Cox, however, 2021 will be spent celebrating his recently released album, Bandits, and maybe even performing his new songs at outdoor concerts! Cox, a seasoned musician from Omaha, NE, made use of his quarantine by writing and recording this remarkable country-folk album.

If there’s one thing that strikes me most about this album, it’s the instrumentals. There are moments of delicate fingerpicking contrasted with moments of frenzied strumming, but ultimately it’s amazing that Cox recorded the entire album at home. Each song shows off his versatile voice –  deep and gruff in some songs (Falling Behind) and light and twangy in others (Riverside). Moments of quiet highlight the soul and depth of his voice; for example, in the introductions of Right on Time and You’ve Got Every Right (To Be Wrong), Matt sings with only a quiet hum of guitar in the background.

Complimenting Cox’s husky voice are the instrumentals – perhaps what stands out the most are his harmonica and guitar. He shows off his harmonica skills in most songs, but they really come blazing in Right on Time and Riverside. If you want to get a good listen to what he can do on the strings, I recommend jumping to Polyurethane (2:42). And the final song, Rainwood, is six minutes of entirely instrumentals. Time stopped when listening to this song as my mind followed the intricacies of each instrument coalescing to create a rainforest of music. 

In addition to the instrumentals, the album contains timeless themes of loneliness, love, and overcoming life’s challenges. Cox includes many staples of traditional country music while keeping it relevant and referencing feelings of isolation and quarantine. Falling Behind is an ominous song that seems to be constantly building, striving to reach an impossible peak. Singing about overcoming life’s constant battles, Cox insists: “We must journey onward” followed by the repeated phrase, “We’re falling far behind.” He concludes the song with: “We’re all God’s children, sometimes it’s hard to tell.” I can’t quite determine whether that’s a generic statement or a targeted thought directed at the year 2020, but either way it’s relatable! 

In It’s All the Same, Cox croons about the monotony of daily life, but relishes the freedom and peace his partner has brought him. He reminisces, “I used to ramble ’round, stay out on the town,” but follows it up with, “I’d rather be quarantined with the woman of my dreams than spend another cold night on the road alone.” It’s nostalgic, but sweet as Cox seems to have found peace in a routine life. 

This one is definitely worth hearing! Listen to or buy here.

Reviewed by Mae Hunt

Albums rarely leave me speechless, but this one truly did. Pony Bradshaw’s newest release, Calico Jim, integrates elements of blues, country, and rock music to produce a beautiful Americana album. Every song tells a unique story that, though wildly different, is strung together to create themes of nature, spirituality, and humanity. Bradshaw’s voice – at times soothing and at others booming – is perfectly country. 

Sometimes I dream that one day I’ll wake up and suddenly realize my ability to sing. Sadly for me, my voice is limited to the walls of my car and my shower. For Pony Bradshaw, however, this dream became a reality. Growing up, although he listened to music, he never created it. It wasn’t until he was sitting at an open mic night in his thirties when he discovered his musical abilities. Since then, Bradshaw has produced music that suggests he’s been playing all his life!

Anyways, the album kicks off with Calico Jim, who is actually a character that Bradshaw created. In an interview with American Songwriter, Bradshaw shared: “Calico Jim is just about being a displaced Southerner, but not regretting it and not wanting to leave.” In this bluegrass song, Bradshaw sings: “Calico Jim in a red state, he don’t pick sides, he don’t ever take the bait.” The happy-go-lucky Calico Jim is content despite not fitting in with other small-town Southerners. It’s a perfect kickstart to the album, packed with the banjo, fiddle, guitar, and drums. 

On top of the creative storytelling, Bradshaw’s powerful voice strikes me as uniquely strong and steady, often carrying each song while banjos and fiddles pulse in the background. In the almost-eerie Dope Mountain, Bradshaw’s voice paints the picture of widespread mountainous landscape sprinkled with a starlit night sky. This gentle song, like many others, reflects on moments in history while appreciating fleeting moments. Bradshaw sings about “eating microwaved vanilla moon pies” while sprinkling in some humor by declaring he’s “proud to be a hillbilly, 6th generation. But we ain’t no white trash.” 

In addition to the occasional light-heartedness, Bradshaw’s lyrics continuously strike me as profound (that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that he’s a devoted reader). In Jimmy the Cop, a song about Bradshaw’s lady running off with a cop, he belts, “I was born already dead. Just like you I hang my head to study these dreams for signs of life. Our souls slip loose from body by night.” In this ethereal song, his strong voice carries soft instrumentals in the background. 

In Guru, soft drums spark a musical haze that never quite settles as Bradshaw sings about a mysterious “mennonite woman”. He sings, “we got high as the heavens, washing each others’ feet” and in another stanza, “tweaked out on god and crystal meth.” The lyrics sound a bit chaotic, but create a beautiful song about a spiritual experience. A frequent occurrence throughout the album, Bradshaw mixes religious tropes with images of raw humanity.  

I’ll wrap this up with this simple statement: every time I listen to this album, I discover something new about it. I look forward to not only listening to Calico Jim again, but for whatever else Pony Bradshaw has in store!

Listen here

Buy here

 

Reviewed by Mae Hunt

Chicago Farmer’s Flyover Country has a classic, honky tonk sound that shares relatable stories geared towards our nation’s working class. The album reminds me of the phrase work hard, play hard – so many of the lyrics share stories of folks spending days working and nights letting loose. At first listen, it’s a folk-filled, southern album that will undoubtedly spark a singalong. But each time I listen, I dig up more pockets of cleverness that further convince me of Chicago Farmer’s (AKA Cody Diekhoff) lyrical and poetic ingenuity!

Let’s start with the fun stuff – there is no shortage of creativity and humor in these songs. The album begins with Indiana Line, a twangy narrative about a guy whose road-tripping from Illinois to Indiana to pay off his debts. Diekhoff leads the song on vocals and acoustic, while harmonicas, keys, bass, and drums swing alongside Diekhoff’s confident voice. As the song continues, the character’s swagger diminishes along with the likelihood of him paying off his debts. By the end of the song, he’s being chased by flashing lights, suggesting he won’t reach his destination. A true singalong song, Indiana Line is a great start to the album. 

All in One Place is another upbeat track about someone counting up their money after a long day’s work and blowing it in one place (probably a bar). Despite the light-heartedness, there’s an underlying feeling of frustration from an inability to get ahead financially. It was clearly written with heart and directed towards those who make less than they deserve. If you can’t already tell, a common theme throughout this album is making (and spending) money.

Another standout is $13 Beers, which I imagine will give just about anybody a good laugh. This song tells the story of a man who, after a long week of work, wants to get good and drunk. But, Diekhoff sings: “when I stepped inside I began to shed a tear when I read a sign that said 13 dollar beers.”  This relatable song has a bluegrass country feel paired with a strong distaste for overpriced drinks. 

Despite the obvious humor, $13 Beers (along with others including Collars and Dirtiest Uniform) opens the door for a real conversation on gentrification and comparing white collar America versus blue collar America. The entire album includes frequent but tactful commentary on the economic divide in our nation. Chicago Farmer makes a potentially controversial issue non-divisive because…well, who wants to pay 13 dollars for a beer? 

The album’s versatile, as some songs  (like Indiana Line) are perfect for kicking off the weekend, while others (like Collars) are more reflective. All of them share an underlying appreciation for living and working in the south and all that comes with it.  Ultimately, Chicago Farmer unveils a true appreciation for the flyover country – or the middle states that many Americans (especially wealthy Americans) only see when flying from coast to coast. 

Listen here

Buy here

Los Angeles-based artist Kyle Lalone revealed his musical prowess in his latest album, Somewhere in Between. Released in April 2020, these five songs epitomize classic country music with unmatched lyrical and instrumental cohesion – which is no surprise considering he graduated from Berklee College of Music. Lalone wrote each song based on his personal journey with sobriety, heartbreak, and self-exploration. Though this is the first time I’ve encountered Lalone’s music, I know it won’t be the last!

The short album kicks off with Think Myself to Death, a youthful take on life’s uncertainties. The combination of pedal steel guitar and Lalone’s smooth voice (which was made to sing country music, by the way) creates a classic, upbeat twang. Lalone questions past choices, like moving away from his hometown and choosing to pursue country music. He speaks on the dangers of overthinking – oh, how relatable – and admits: “If I keep doing this, I might think myself to death.” 

The second track, Our Love, is a light-hearted song about falling out of love. Similar to Think Myself to Death, this song has all the key tenets of classic country music, from heavy acoustics to a honky tonk swing. In the uncharacteristically upbeat breakup song, he sings, “Our love ain’t what it used to be, it’s like driving around on a tank that is empty.” Lalone reminisces on “how it used to be” with a charming level of acceptance that he needs to move on. 

The heartbreak theme prevails in Warning Signs, though this song shifts the album from upbeat to melancholy. The slow rush of guitar emulates the aching pain of a breakup while Emily Hulslander’s soft vocals echo in the background. Lalone sings about adjusting to life without his partner, acknowledging that, “You and I rode that train until it came off the tracks, got back on time and time again….Never thought this ride would ever end.” The slowest of the five songs, Warning Signs, depicts a man struggling to balance his lingering affection for a past partner with his awareness that the relationship is over, perhaps for the better.

Lalone continues to share pieces of his past in Always Trying to Quit, a song about battling addiction. He reminisces to the days that he spent getting drunk and high only to wake up the next morning and do it all over again. He sings: “I’ve put down the bottle dozens of times, thrown my bag away…then I start thinking, get lost in my head and be drunk by the end of the day…” Similar to Our Love, this song addresses a somber subject with a level of charm and optimism unique to Lalone.

He leaves us with a truly hopeful song, as the closing track, I’m Not Gonna Drink Over You, is about moving on from his two major struggles: heartbreak and addiction. And he’s right to end the album on a positive note, as the future looks bright for this budding artist! Lalone is currently recording songs that will be released in 2021, so keep your eyes out for his newest music.

Listen and buy Somewhere In Between here

Interviewed by Mae Hunt

In this interview with Girls On Grass lead vocalist and guitarist, Barbara Endes, we discuss her roots in music, the recording process of her new singles, and what we can expect from the band in the near future!

BE: Barb Endes TL: Twangri-La

TL: So let’s start from the very beginning. You’re an extremely talented guitarist and musician. I would love to learn a little bit about your upbringing and what inspired you to become invested in music initially. 

BE: I wouldn’t say I come from a musical family. I come from an artistic family. My dad played accordion growing up and his father played. And my mother’s father was a piano player and a classical music aficionado. And there was always music around, of course. But the formal education in music I had was just in the grade school orchestra. But pretty quickly, I started cheating on that. I don’t know why just reading music didn’t appeal to me as much as memorizing it.

So I just learned what little skill I did pick up, but I was able to learn how to remember things and played by ear on the violin. I stopped focusing on the music reading aspect of it and just learned to play by ear because I think it was easier for me. And that was kind of the beginning of playing the instruments for me, but I didn’t keep doing it. At that time, there was a lot of stuff going on at my house, and I don’t think I could relax and focus on it.

But a few years later, my sister started dating this stoner guitar player guy. And I would hang around with my sister and her friends. Her boyfriend was in a band, and they’re into prog rock and all that stuff. So I started hearing a lot of guitar-oriented prog rock, a lot of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, all that kind of stuff. My sister’s boyfriend was a really sweet, friendly guy. He would come over with his guitar all the time. He had this refinished Strat and he was a really good player. I made a guitar out of a yard stick and a piece of cardboard, which a ton of kids do, right, like playing dress up in front of a mirror, but I played with a fake guitar. Later on, Dave (the boyfriend) gave me a cheap guitar. I had a few lessons with him and then just kept going on my own.

Slowly throughout my teenage years, I picked up some stuff. I was all basically playing by ear. I was pretty young when I played in a band for the first time. I had no idea what I was doing. I was awful. But we played in the middle school talent show. I actually tried to play in the jazz ensemble in my middle school. Again, I was really floundering. I don’t know if I couldn’t get guitar lessons or I just was not focused on it or something. 

I didn’t really get anywhere until I was high school or college in terms of really understanding the instrument at all. And I feel like I still barely do. I feel like I’ve really hunkered down and focused on a few kinds of things. But I’m playing a long time, and it really has been a lifeline for me throughout my life. I don’t really have a lot of technical skill, but it’s like my therapist. Throughout my life, I’ve really depended on playing a lot. 

So I’m really glad that I’m stuck with it because there are a bunch of times in my life, I put it down. But I always picked it back up. And now, I’m writing music, and I have a band and it’s really fun. 

TL: It sounds fun. And on my end, it sounds like you’ve mastered the guitar as a listener. When did you begin to transition into songwriting? Or has that always been a part of playing the guitar for you?

BE: No, I spent pretty much all of my time learning songs of the bands that I loved growing up. I think the first song I learned was a Pink Floyd song. I learned a bunch of prog stuff when I was a teenager, which was fun because it was challenging. And then I got into jangle pop, REM, all kinds of stuff from the Grateful Dead to the Gear Daddies. And then I learned about The Clash. And I got into punk rock a little bit. In college, I learned about the Pixies and a bunch of other post punk stuff. 

But I didn’t really start writing songs until my late twenties. I wrote a bunch of songs for a little EP, I guess you’d call it. I didn’t release it or anything, but it was the first time I assembled a bunch of songs. I recorded them on a four-track cassette deck or a mixer. And a friend of mine, who is a musician, wrote commercial music and mixed it for me. 

After that, I started playing with a series of other bands and didn’t really write again until maybe my mid-thirties really, early thirties. And at that point, I was actually classic country. Here in New York, at a place called The Weal and Woe, I formed this band with my friend, Russell, who is a great country and bluegrass guitar player and harmony singer. And that’s when I started really writing enough songs where I could put together a whole set of my own material. We formed the band with Russell and Jason Cade, this amazing fiddler, and Mark Deffenbaugh, a great lap steel, a guitar player. And that was my first taste of having a band and doing my own material, which was horrifying but really helpful and gave me a lot of confidence.

TL: That’s awesome. I feel like a lot of your songs or the lyrics, at least, are both very personal and very honest. It seems as though you’re not afraid to take a political stance. Is it difficult for you to write about personal events or writing about politics, or does it come naturally?

BE: I think it’s just my personality. I have a hard time writing abstractly or about experiences that aren’t my own. Sometimes, I have a song idea and I won’t know where to take it other than to try to relate it to a personal experience. And I think that’s one of the reasons I love country music. Getting really sucked into the older classic country genre is what made me feel like I could write songs.

I mean, of course, there are examples in other genres of this. But listening to someone singing about an experience that seems really personal and straightforward and honest…it felt like that’s the way that I could express myself and not feel like a phony. So when I was in a classic country band, it really made me want to write songs for the first time. And then I went back to rock music and started Girls on Grass. But I think that that kind of lyrical approach is still the only way that I really feel comfortable writing. 

The only song on Dirty Power that is neither super political or very personal about a specific thing that’s happened to me or a series of things is Friday Night. And I just wrote that song on a whim—it was probably spurred by a movie or a show or something I don’t remember exactly. But that was the only time I’ve ever written something that was completely made up. 

TL: You mentioned this earlier but it sounds like writing is like a release, a space where you can release your energy and thoughts, which is really amazing. And I do want to talk a little bit about your most recent songs. First of all, congratulations. I am sure it feels great to be putting out music in a time where the world feels like we’re in a standstill. Would you mind telling me a little bit about the recording process, where you recorded, how long it took, things like that?

BE: It’s been really nice to be able to put something out during this time because it does feel like we’re at a standstill. The band started to really pick up some momentum finally last year. We went on a couple of short tours and played the Swamp Stomp Festival again. We were applying for festivals and trying to get out of New York more. Recording those songs was intended to build on that so that we could have something new to tour behind because Dirty Power came out in April last year. It seemed like a good way for us to keep that momentum going. 

There’s this group of musicians in New York City. There’s a scene that was around in the ‘80s here, and I guess probably early ‘90s, of all these incredible musicians who are now doing a lot of recording and producing. And mostly because Nancy’s (my drummer’s) social network, I’ve met a lot of these people and we’ve recorded with a bunch of them. 

So Jay Sherman-Godfrey did the first record – he engineered it and helped produce it. And then Eric Ambel did the last record. These guys are like titans of the alt-country scene here. And the third person in that group that we’d been talking to about maybe recording with is Mark Spencer, who’s a phenomenal musician. He’s a touring musician with Sun Volt. And he’s worked with Cheri Knight and all kinds of people. Just so talented. 

He has a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn called Tape Kitchen, and we had considered doing Dirty Power there, and then we thought, let’s just try to do the single there. It’s a really cool, old, light industrial building on the Gowanus Canal. It’s got a recording studio on multiple floors and it’s got this big kitchen. It’s a really cool vibe. We recorded live as a trio and then did a little bit overdubbing. And we had a friend, Glenn Spivack, come in to play harmonica. And he’s just an incredible player. I mean, he basically played all of this stuff on Spill Your Guts off the cuff, right? Just one of those guys. 

It was a good experience, but it’s also really different for us because I threw the songs at the band without much rehearsal time. I just thought, let’s see what happens. Who’s Gonna Cry had a really short rehearsal time. We had two or three weeks with that one. We worked out Spill Your Guts a little longer. It was really fun to see how the band responded to a shorter gestation period for the songs. It made it really fun to record them, if kind of anxiety-inducing. But that kind of energy can be really good in the studio because the last thing I want to do is to go into the studio with the band and have everybody be bored with the songs and know exactly what they’re going to play. It’s just not as exciting. There’s always that possibility that you’re going to regret not doing something on a song because, six months later, you know the song better. It was a good experience and I think I’d like to do it again.

TL: It sounds like it was a fun experience! And it sounds like it speaks to your chemistry to be able to pull it all together without as much rehearsal as songs typically have.

BE: Yeah – they’re both really talented players. Nancy’s a pro. And she puts with up with my….I can be a little control freakish. I think a lot of songwriters might be like that. But we’ve gotten to a good place in collaboration. Again, she’s just super talented and able to lay down all different kinds of things. And Dave, too, they’re really tight as a rhythm section and they love playing together. So it’s pretty awesome place for me to be as a songwriter. 

TL: It definitely, it sounds it. I also wanted to mention the Who’s Gonna Cry music video. I’m curious as to how that idea came about. 

BE: I just love stop animation. I mean, I’ll be honest. The specifics of it were largely left to Wendy Norton, the creator. We had a collaborative connection. She told me about her concept after I pitched the general idea to her and I was into the concept. I think the southwest theme was a response on her part to the kind of spaghetti western music behind it. I just loved how she rendered us in puppets. And I actually have the puppets in my house. Well, I have the Trump puppet and I have my puppet. Nancy and Dave have their own puppets. 

TL: That’s awesome. I love that video. 

BE: Yeah. Nancy and Dave didn’t want the Trump puppet. (laughter) I don’t know what to do with it. I’m thinking of doing various things with it. 

TL: (laughter)

BE: But I’m taking my time.

TL: That’s funny. Yeah. Take your time. Think of something good.

BE: Yeah, I’m glad you like it. I love the animated videos.

TL: It’s a creative way to pair visuals with songs.

BE: Also, it’s also really fun for me to collaborate with visual artists and see what they’ll do with music that we make. I like supporting people doing their art and keeping money flowing directly between artists. I’m really happy about being able to do that.

TL: Yeah. I think that’s great. And it turned out awesome.

BE: Thank you. Yeah, I love it. It’s cute, right? 

TL: Yeah (laughter). It’s definitely cute. Thanks for all of that. I’m just curious, for my last question, what’s next for you? I know you mentioned you have a day job, so I’m sure that’s eating up a lot of your time, but what can we expect from you next music-wise?

BE: That’s a constantly evolving question in my own mind right now. This is a very tenuous time. This isn’t sexy or anything. Honestly, I’m struggling to find my creative flow right now. I’m really distracted by everything that’s happening in the world and in the US. It’s definitely throwing me off my flow. At the same time, the situation we’re in has, out of necessity, forced me to get my home recording situation more squared up. I’ve learned some new skills and done some recording that I’m really excited about. I feel like I needed to get those tools back because the only home recording I did previously was on a cassette-deck type situation.

It’s been a good time for me to work on some other skills. I’m constantly thinking about how to use those to try to adapt to the current situation with the band. So we’re working that out together. As far as playing together and songwriting, it’s [the pandemic has] slowed us down. I’ve got some new songs brewing and we’re hoping to sort out a cold weather situation where we can start playing together again. But our rehearsal space doesn’t really lend itself to being in the same room together. It’s super depressing. 

I have no doubt that if the veil of all of this pandemic is lifted and everything reset, we would just fall back into the pocket and keep going. But I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. I think a lot of the venues certainly are struggling and may close. And the festival—we got into the Waking Windows, and that would have been this spring in Vermont. But who knows.

I think even outdoor festivals might struggle to get back up and running. The only crazy but fairly solid plan we have right now is to start doing outdoor concerts this spring and try to get the gear together to make that happen. Maybe start songwriting with the idea of recording again as a band next year. But it’s just so hard to know what’s going to happen.

TL: Yeah. I think the pandemic has definitely impacted everybody in different ways. I am sure that your anticipated 2020 plan has changed. But it’s also caused a lot of us to cultivate new skills, like producing music inside. So hopefully, that brings along some new material. But whatever you have in store for us, I’m sure it will be great.

BE: You’re very kind. We’ve really received a lot of support this year, like a support for the 7-inch. And it’s really helped us keep going mentally. And so we really appreciate your interest and your willingness to help us get the word out.

TL: Yeah, of course. It’s good music. So it makes it a lot easier when it’s good music. 

BE: Thank you. 

TL: No, thank you! Thank you for taking the time today. I really appreciate it and have really enjoyed speaking with you.

Buy Girls On Grass music and merch here.

Take a Look in the Book by the Legendary Ingramettes is composed of ten electrifying tracks strung together by the voices of three inspiring and talented musicians. Not only that, but this album carries 65 years worth of stories and history led by the incomparable voice of Almeta Ingram-Miller.

The story of the Legendary Ingramettes began in the 1950s when Maggie Ingram performed as a gospel singer amidst the rising popularity of black male gospel quartets. A mother of five, Maggie worked to balance her familial responsibilities with her label as the “Gospel Queen of Richmond”. She performed alongside bands including the Six Trumpets and Silver Stars Quartet until 1961 when she recruited her children to perform as Maggie and the Ingramettes. 

Throughout her tumultuous life, battling a divorce, poverty, and oppression, her reliance on Jesus and gospel music persisted. When Maggie passed away in 2015, her daughter Almeta took over the group and kept the voices of her family alive. Take a Look In the Book is the first album produced with Almeta at the head. 

The first of many memories is that of family prayer time. The Family Prayer, the first song on the album, commences with an electrifying keyboard riff followed by excited anticipation for this sacred time of day. The vocals are intense as a consistent chant, “Come on, come on, come on…,” calls listeners to share their enthusiasm. Almeta recalls that her mother would “call us ’round the table Sunday morning, one by one, name by name.” As the first song on the album, it solidifies the album’s purpose: to uplift humanity through the gospel.

The album then transitions to the title track Take a Look in the Book which maintains the feverous gospel performance. With a chorus echoing behind her, Almeta assures listeners that “You’ve got an answer to all of your problems” if you read the Bible. Other songs that highlight the relentless devotion and powerful voices of these strong women include Rock of Ages and Time Is Winding Up

As the tracks continue, dark images of realities for African Americans’ in the twentieth century pierce the gospel fervor. Grandma’s Hands, originally produced by the late Bill Withers, incorporates memories of her own grandmother who “would pick that cotton until her fingers would bleed” in rural Georgia. Another song that allows us a glimpse into Almeta’s life is When Jesus Comes. This song was written with family hardships in mind, specifically the years that followed Maggie’s husband leaving her with five young children to raise. Despite the difficulties, Maggie’s dependence on Christ assures her that “everything will be alright.” 

Perhaps the most powerful songs are those that speak to resilience and glory. I’ve Endured, originally written by Ola Belle Reed, is an eight-minute ballad that parallels the life of Almeta’s mother, Maggie. I imagine Almeta’s emotional voice is inspired by the gratitude she possesses for her mother. The final song on the album, Until I Die, speaks to the family’s devotion and strength that will persist through the hardships of life. 

Coming from someone who doesn’t consider themselves particularly religious, this album still managed to resonate with me. It exemplifies not only that faith is crucial in enduring, but also that music is a powerful means of story telling. 

Listen and buy the album here

Juanita Stein’s 10-track album Snapshot offers a profound take on grief. Produced alongside Ben Hillier, Snapshot processes Stein’s emotions following the unexpected death of her father in 2019. With her brother Joel on the guitar, Evan Jenkins on drums, and Jimi Wheelwright on bass, the talented group comes together to create a remarkable album. 

The bluesy tracks take many twists and turns as Stein leads her listeners down a psychedelic path bursting with folk, rock, and country music. The unique sound pairs well with the exploration of perhaps unanticipated feelings associated with grief. I say unexpected because grieving artists so often center their music on feelings of anger, despair, and loss. While there is no shortage of those emotions in Stein’s album, she also grapples with curiosity, shock, emptiness, confusion, and many other emotions associated with death. The instrumentals echo in the background of the lonely journey Stein takes as she encounters a new world without her father. 

Stein’s sultry voice kicks off the album in 123456 and continues to play a distinctive role throughout all tracks. Her voice works in combination with guttural electric guitars and resonant percussions to create a dream-like sensation. In the reflective LOFT, Stein ruminates on fond memories of childhood and uncovers feelings of nostalgia. In a bluesy voice she croons, “The endless starry skies, vast coastline, the distance between us and the rest of the world….” Feelings of innocence persist through this song, painting the picture of an angelic time in life.

However, songs like Hey Mama and Snapshot shatter this image of perfection. In Hey Mama, Stein addresses both her parents and expresses concern about how grief may be impacting specifically her mother. She shares, “Hey mother I’ve been thinking about your heart. The weight of this boulder drags you down too far…Hey mother, I’ve been thinking about you.” It appears she is battling not only her own grief but that of her loved ones.

The eeriness remains in the title-track Snapshots where she asks: “You are a snapshot of my mind. All I can do is build a frame, assess the memory yet again. I call your name, no one’s there. There’s no spell to ease the pain, only a photograph remains.” She sings not with anger but with a curiosity as she explores a new life without this person who played such an integral role. These feelings are perpetuated by a pulsing guitar and Stein’s luminous “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing”. 

In Lucky, perhaps my favorite song on the album, Stein questions her ability to overcome challenges. Her voice fluctuates from low and steady to high and honeyed. She begs the question: “Do I have the courage and do I have the strength to do everything I can? Start all over again?” The final song, In The End, is more upbeat and optimistic with hearty guitars strumming in the background. Stein still struggles but seems to find some comfort in the shared human experience of grief and loss. 

Juanita Stein is searching for meaning in a time of deep loss. I give her credit for sharing such a deeply personal and salient experience with the world. 

Listen to Snapshot here.

Buy Snapshot here.

Reviewed by Mae Hunt

Arlo McKinley’s soulful album, Die Midwestern, is chock-full of vulnerability and brutal honesty. Released on August 14th and recorded with Oh Boy Records, the 10-track album contains songs reminiscent of indie folk (We Were Alright) and others that are cut and dry country (She’s Always Around). The album highlights McKinley’s versatility, which is also evident in his Post Malone and Rihanna covers! In all, the album can get just about anyone feeling both sentimental and appreciative of good music. 

In 2014, McKinley released his debut album with his band The Lonesome Sound, which turned into nominations for Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Best Americana Act from the Cincinnati Music Awards. Since then, McKinley has performed alongside musicians including Tyler Childers, John Moreland, and Jason Isbell. The highly anticipated Die Midwestern speaks volumes about McKinley’s talents. I particularly enjoy the intensely personal look McKinley gives us of his life as he often reflects on his experiences living in Ohio and breaking free from ties there.

Let’s start with the title-track, Die Midwestern. The bluegrass song begins with light-hearted instrumentals – a guitar, violin, and keyboard – just the right ingredients to create a classic country cocktail. The lyrics reflect on McKinley’s rocky relationship with his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. He sings: “I’ve been thinking that I should go, ’cause if I don’t leave now I’ll never leave Ohio.” This song is a great segway into the rest of the album as it introduces the physical place where many songs take place.

The raw and emotional Bag of Pills is a frank reflection of the drug abuse plaguing his home town and impacting both his loved ones and himself. He begs, “Hell Jesus, can you save me? Didn’t think so, guess that you’re busy.” The stark contrast between powerful instrumentals and voice-cracking vocals emulates the rockiness and unsteadiness of drug use. The passion and grief McKinley puts forth in his vocals tells me how close to home this song hits.

Similarly, The Hurtin’s Done shares the harsh realities of mental illness (without glamorizing it, might I add). In chilling lyrics, McKinley sings: “Ghosts that still haunt me, I’ll fight one by one, ‘tiIl the hurting is done.” In so many of his songs, including this one, his voice is paired with simply a guitar, emphasizing the loneliness of the lyrics.

Finally, what is a classic country album without a little heartbreak? Songs like Whatever you Want and Once Again detail the different waves of falling in love. In the slow, violin-based, ballad Whatever You Want McKinley shows his romantic side and admits to being so in love he will do whatever she wants, almost giving himself up. Once Again shares that softness and vulnerability by expressing the simultaneous fear and hope that loving again may bring. Mckinley croons: “My heart is rusted I’ve been broken and I’ve been busted. But if you tell me that I can trust it, maybe this heart can love once again. 

Despite overarching themes of grief, McKinley includes glimmers of hope towards the end. In the final track, Walking Shoes, McKinley sings “I don’t wanna get high anymore, I don’t wanna fight anymore, I don’t wanna settle old scores I just wanna come home.” He appears transformed – ready to mend relationships and better himself, moving onto bigger and better things!  

Listen to and buy the album here

Interviewed by Mae Hunt

In Part Two of Wonk’s interview, we talk about her experience releasing an album in the midst of a pandemic and her new life living and working at a yoga studio in Ecuador. Wonk shares some insight into how she chooses to see the positivity in the midst of difficult times. It’s a deep conversation and emphasizes how she isn’t afraid to dance to the beat of her own drum!

WT: Wonky Tonk TL: Twangrila

TL: So the album was released in April, which was right in the midst of the pandemic. That must have been quite an interesting time to release an album.

WT: It was. And you know, I pitched it in a mystical way, of these numbers that just felt right. So, it was April 24th, and all these round numbers, I think they’re feminine and creative to me. And I was in Ecuador. I was supposed to come home. I had a tour lined up, so big, with the biggest people, Charlie Parr, and the now-deceased Justin Townes Earl. I had Wonky Tonk beers being released and distributed on two different occasions, and CD release parties, and all that stuff.

And then, my plane got canceled, COVID happened. I think it’s interesting with this record, because it fought to be alive, and I fought for it to be alive, and everyone in my life who loved the songs so much, even when I wanted to give up, they would keep it alive. And so, it felt a little bit like, it’s okay that it’s coming in COVID. I surrendered to ego and said: “You know what? We worked to give these songs the best life, and they’re going to live a really long life. It’s okay if they don’t take the world by storm and then are forgotten.” 

I feel like it’s a long con or a slow burn, instead. 

TL: Absolutely. In the midst of quarantine, I know many people felt isolated and down. In a way, the album came at the perfect time for many.

WT: Thank you. You’re such a great listener. (laughter) Thank you for understanding. You have no idea.

TL: I think the same of you, so I appreciate it! How about quarantine? I know you’ve been in Ecuador for nine months now. How have you coped with the cancellation of your tour and being stuck in Ecuador?

WT: A multifaceted, beautiful question. Right before I left for Ecuador, I had created with my friend, Rich. We made a music video for “Wonk On” that explores the five stages of grief. And in that, I embody every stage, which was a very strange experience. COVID has created this thing that has made everything that used to work not work, including our coping mechanisms.

So, after this, I go through the grief, and go through all of the stages, the depression, the anger, all of it. I’ve got that music video that’s now floating around, under the radar, which is fine because I truly believe it’ll reach who it needs to reach in these moments. And now I’m in Ecuador. It’s called Shamanic Arts in Tantra Yoga School. I googled the word and I bought a ticket and I showed up, not even knowing that Ecuador was at the equator.

I’m on a mountain and there’s someone here who is a guitar and instrument donor. He has allowed me to borrow this beautiful, handmade guitar for the last nine months. I’ve just been creating and putting a lot of energy into Patreon. Really, really taking music and Wonking it up in a really big, creative way because I truly believe that music and creation is how you heal. How you remember your heart and how you remember yourself.

I’m getting more intimate with music as it is meant to be rather than getting swept up in all of the business-y stuff that really sort of ruins my heart (laughter). That’s why I’m here in Ecuador, remembering my heart. And Ecuador’s great. 

Four of my planes going home have been canceled, so I’ve just been here. We make all kinds of  mantra videos – yesterday I even posted it. We did a goddess mantra for Shakti, this feminine energy. And then, it was like, “Oh, it’s the full moon. That should be the harvest moon. Let me do a cover of Neil Young ‘Harvest Moon.’” And so, to have these Shakti tantric mantras and then Neil Young next to each other (laughter). That’s a good summary.

TL: Thank you for sharing that. It honestly sounds like a brave decision to go down to Ecuador in the first place. I’m so glad to hear that you’re having such a healing experience and you’re able to get in touch with music in a way that you may not have been able to, had this not happened. 

WT: Exactly. It’s beautiful. It’s because I choose it, you know? I couldn’t choose my record, all of that I’ve paid for and fought for, got released and no one cares because it’s COVID, and then my tour. I always say, “How do I turn the shit into gold?” and without being delusional. I could be caught up on—I mean, I see pictures of the Facebook Memories and I’m like, “Oh, live music. Oh, the road. Oh, I miss all of this.” 

But at the same time, it’s just taking this open space and figuring out something new to do with it. 

TL: Absolutely. And you make it sound so easy, but it is an intentional decision to be able to see the bright side of that situation. I’m curious as to, what is it inside of you that allows you to make those intentional decisions and to not get hung up on the turmoil the pandemic has caused?

WT: (laughter) I can’t believe you’re 24 years old, well-spoken, and beautiful. Just everything.

TL: You’re so nice.

WT: (laughter) You’re awesome. Part of the reason I came to Ecuador was that—I have this app called “Active,” and it’s just a joke of a physical activity sort of thing. It’s what’s got me into yoga. It’s this guy that’s going, “You have survived everything up until now.” And truly, to give yourselves compassion for that, but I have gone through some—you know, everyone has those things in their life, but it was pretty tumultuous. 

And especially in the last three years, I had cervical cancer, and a brush with death engaged to a very scary, dangerous person that I didn’t know was any of that. So, coming out, I am now cancer free.

TL: Congratulations. That’s amazing.

WT: Thank you. It is amazing. I think it took that cancer, and it took this person to really rock my world. I feel like those two moments were really a smack in the face and I started listening. I know I’m this sparkles and love, but it’s not this, “Choose love and light, love is so good,” it’s that love is the hardest thing, like our exploring and our love for ourselves. And so, I had to take responsibility for, “Wow, how did I get in these situations? Because I chose them. Yes, people were bad, but I chose to be here whether I knew it or not.”

And so, I needed to learn how to love myself and to trust myself and others, because this trauma had really rocked everything. 

TL:  I’m trying to soak it in, because one of my last questions was just going to be, I know the Wonky Tonk movement is one of love. I wanted to ask what inspired that movement, but I feel like you just answered that. It sounds really like it wasn’t inspired by something external, but it was inspired within yourself. The idea that it’s a movement of self-love is something so powerful.

WT: Amen. Yes, I think just in summation of putting those two things together, that what I’m learning is that we all have a pilot light inside of ourselves, and it just needs an ignition. I think for a lot of my life, I tried to be other people’s light, being their love, being their heart for themselves, trying to save them when they wouldn’t save themselves, and that beat me down. Now, I’m learning here, and within myself, that I am supposed to take care of my own light so I can be light in someone’s lantern on their path to remember theirs.

I know that sounds all woo, but that’s that self-love. I can’t shine bright and illuminate the darkness for someone else to find their own way if my lantern is just dwindled. 

Something bad happens or something great happens. It all comes through me and I have to play guitar. I always played instruments when I was sad, and it needed to be this coping instead of a release. Now, when I’m sitting here playing things, they start in the darkness and then they turn it into this beautiful light. I just wrote a song about, “What do I do with all this pain?” I went down to lay down the guitar and I felt that I had created the darkness around me. 

I picked it up, put it back in my lap and an entire different song came out, and it was, “What do I do with this?” I feel it and I let it go in this beautiful way that’s not trite at all or contrived. I think that’s what it is, that listening, the self-love is listening to that intuition that we forget about. I could have put that guitar down and been like, “No, F it. I’m in a bad mood and I’m in this painful mood. All my friends are dying. Everyone’s sick,” this and that. 

Instead, it was something in me, just this little, tiny voice said, “No, try one more time. That’s not what we were trying to say.” And then, it came out in this beautiful strength. To listen to ourselves is the biggest love. And that’s what Wonky Tonk is, and what it continues to be in this musical world. 

TL: Absolutely.

WT: That’s why I love my Patreon because it’s a space to reinvent what Wonky Tonk is. Not even reinvent, but reestablish in the world, because music people never got it. Again, that’s self-love, trusting ourselves, to just imagine and play and listen and create and dance and sing and cry and scream. (laughter)

TL: It really does sound like there’s a little bit of magic happening in your movement and in your music-making process. I can tell that the process of creating music for you does serve as an outlet. I can assure you that your songs serve as an outlet for many people, including myself. I’m so grateful for everything that you are, and everything that you create and how you are so free-spirited and such an individual in a world that sometimes doesn’t necessarily reward that kind of individualism. 

WT: Yes, girl. (laughter)

TL: (laughter) So, thank you is what I’m trying to get at. Thank you. I appreciate it. 

WT: And thank you, because it really is, it takes one to know one. I know that’s such a phrase, but a lot of people, it takes somebody to be—if it’s not already in your language, you can’t hear what I’m trying to say or what I’m moving through, and you are there, girl. You are a match. I am so grateful that you even just exist, let alone that we get to talk. 

TL: (laughter) I feel the same. I feel the very same, so thank you. It’s been such a pleasure. I’m going to close off with the questions and stop the recording, and then we can sign off after that. Thank you so much.