The album that kicked started the year here at MusicRiot was “Carnival of Hopes” by Jane Kramer. We loved it at the time and we still love it, so we were delighted when Jane made a contribution to keep the High Fives train a-rollin’ for another day, and give Malcolm Holcombe his third mention in the feature this year. Read about her top five gigs here.

I’m honored to be included in this wonderful list! I’m sharing with you the top 5 live shows that I’ve attended this year that a.) Made me want to keep writing better, deeper, braver songs. b.) Made me glad to be alive and wearing skin and c.) Knocked me on my bum and helped me realize that music is more powerful; it’s bigger than all of us. It’s a language we mustn’t be afraid to speak and share.

Three Women and the Truth at the Altamont Theatre in Asheville, NC

three-women-and-the-truthThis tour consists of…wait for it…Mary Gauthier (a friend and mentor of mine), Eliza Gilkyson AND Gretchen Peters. Three of the most brave, unabashed, TALENTED, accomplished, truth-telling songwriters that live. They are each so passionately authentic and so advanced and graceful in their craft. Besides the fact that each of their songs floor me, they have a wonderful friendship and their shows together are full of hilarious, witty banter and stories. The reverence they have for each other’s art is also very moving and the amount of talent on the one stage is staggering. I loved watching Mary’s face when she was moved by certain lines in her peers’ songs, and I loved the way they would chime in on harmonies for one another off the cuff because they were moved to and didn’t worry if it was polished or perfect. Mary put me on the guest list for the show, and I hung out in the green room with the ladies before they performed. They were just as authentic and warm as their songs. The venue has wonderful sound and only seats 150, so it was nice and intimate. I left so humbled and inspired!

Malcolm Holcombe at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC

malcolm-holcombeMalcolm is the real, raw, gruff yet shiny, deal. I’ve spent almost 20 years now in this little corner of the world; the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and Malcolm (a local fixture here who is also known internationally) and his songs represent home to me. Like, if you could bottle up the wild woods here and the divey bar rooms and the rivers and the hollers and the way the blueish mountains make you yearn, it would look and sound like one of Malcolm’s songs. I remember going to see him at the Town Pump, a serious dive bar, when I was in college. I was floored. I was a young songwriter and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He gave no sh*ts about the audience or social conventions. He smoked his cigarettes and his dentures would fly out of his mouth sometimes while he was singing. His eyes flutter-rolled into the back of his head while he sang and played like he was in some kind of snake-charmer trance. I remember thinking: “This is how it’s supposed to be. He is not playing us his songs, he IS his songs.” It was very formative for me.

I even got to sing a duet with him once and it was a crowning moment in my career. I have loved keeping up with Malcolm over the years and never miss an opportunity to see him play. This show at the Grey Eagle was intimate and perfect. Just Malcolm, his fierce finger picking and beautiful growling vocals and poetry, and he had a great dobro player accompanying him. It was, apparently, a release show for his new album, but you never would have known it from him – he never mentioned it. The only story he told was about a dog. He just kept the songs of life hard-lived and hard-loved rolling and he was authentically himself and the crowd drank him in with reverence. I was so happy to be there. I never want him to stop.

Akira Satake in his pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC

akira-satakeAkira, in my opinion, is one of those humans who got ALL the GREAT genes. He is brilliant. He is a mind-blowing potter. He is an exquisite banjo player. He’s produced records for Tim O’Brien. He grew up in Osaka, Japan and discovered the banjo and mountain music from his brother’s Flatt and Scruggs albums. He’s become a master of shamisen (Japanese banjo) and played all over the world. He has a pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC, and his pieces look just like his banjo playing sounds: earthy, wild, sturdy; a mystical fusion of the sounds of Japan and the sounds of the old-time mountain music of this region. It’s really something. I haven’t made it to a formal Akira concert yet, but I stumbled into his pottery studio on an open-gallery Sunday and there he was,

sitting at a little table in his studio (that also houses an adorable tiny cafe that his wife operates), and he was casually playing his banjo with his Altoid Mints box full of picks open in front of him. I have never in my life heard anything like it. It was effortless and every note showed how dear these two disparate lands: Japan and the NC Mountains, are to him, and filled the gaps between them. Pure magic.

Shovels and Rope at the Reeb Ranch (Hendersonville, NC)

shovels-and-ropeWhat a breath of fresh air these saucy, raspy, young southern rabble-rousers are. How can you even begin to not love a young woman who belts out soulful poetry in harmony with her husband WHILE banging on the drums?! These guys are on the rise for a good reason. They are the whole package: songwriting, musicianship, unique voices and humility. I got to see them in a lovely festival setting, under the stars, cuddled up on a blanket with my honey. Doesn’t get much better than that. They were gracious and funny with the crowd, and gave such fire in their performance. They walked on and off stage holding hands and somehow manage to play and tour and do business together and still be in love. I’m in awe. They closed with the song “Birmingham”, tender and achey and one of my favorites.

Darrell Scott at the Altamont Theatre, Asheville NC

darrellscott32I never miss a chance to hear Darrell perform. I even was so lucky as to be his student in a songwriting intensive workshop a few years back. With the heartbreaking loss of so many of the masters of the songwriting craft over the last few years: Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, to name a few, I believe that songwriters such as Darrell Scott are carrying their torch forward. Not only is he an exquisite songwriter; he is an incredibly accomplished guitar player and an amazing vocalist. The full package. He commands the stage with quiet grace, and seeing him in this intimate venue was beautifully special. His son’s band, ‘A Boy Named Banjo’ opened for him, and it was incredibly sweet to see Darrell swell with pride for his bass-playing son. They did some numbers together and I loved watching Darrell be the band leader in such a paternal (but not patronizing) way. He would gently nod to each boy, trusting them to solo, and nod again as if to say “you got this. Play out!”

Darrell was reflective and well-spoken and performed a staggeringly beautiful version of his dear, departed friend Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. I left with quiet resolve to write a song of my own that I’d be proud to share with Darrell.

Jane Kramer - 'Carnival of Hopes' - cover (300dpi)I’ve got this feeling about 2016; any year that starts with an album as beautiful as Jane Kramer’s “Carnival of Hopes” can’t really go wrong. This is a stunningly good album where every detail is right; the arrangements are varied, the melodies are powerful and Jane’s vocal delivery moves effortlessly from pure and clear to cracking with emotion. As for the songs, they’re raw, honest, self-deprecating and poetic, as Jane explains: ‘“Good Woman” is the song you write when your lover kicks you out of the house and you’re half drunk on cheap box wine in a crappy motel room staring at yourself in the mirror under the fluorescent bathroom light, you can’t help but be honest then.’

The album’s two centrepieces, “Good Woman” and “Carnival of Hopes” are its two longest songs; they’re not long because of any self-indulgence, but because that’s how long they need to be to tell the story. Both titles are deliberately misleading; the opening line of the first is “I’m not a good woman” (we might disagree on that) and the second is about a “busted carnival of hopes”. Throughout the album, Jane Kramer uses a lyrical sleight of hand to almost constantly portray herself in a self-deprecatory and even self-denigrating light. The opener “Halfway Gone” sets the tone with the line ‘I walk like a Clydesdale horse – I cuss and carry on’ and the album’s lyrics continue in the same vein until “Truth Tellin’ Lies” and “My Dusty Wings” finally suggest an attempt at redemption and renewal.

The Appalachian instrumentation of banjo and fiddle features strongly on the album along with Dobro, but the stylings vary immensely across the album from a stripped-back version of Tom Petty’s “Down South” with multi-tracked harmonies and a Celtic feel, to the New Orleans horns meets Rickie Lee Jones vibe of “Why’d I Do That Blues” with its trumpet and trombone solos (you could sell it to me on a good trombone solo alone).

The narrative of the album is one of moving forward, starting with lows and moving steadily along to the positive ending, taking in images of frontier life along the way with animals, fishing, maps, engines (and of course drinking) acting as metaphors throughout the superbly crafted and intensely personal lyrics. It may sound laid-back and almost casual at times, but these are the songs of a very gifted and honest writer.

“Carnival of Hopes” isn’t just a great Americana album, it’s a great album where the quality of the songwriting and performance transcend any concept of genre.

Available now at CD Baby.