Emy Phelps & I both grew up in a time when popular music was one of the most important cultural resources that you could experience. In the 60s, the music coming out of New York, Detroit, Memphis, England and California, changed people's lives. New ideas and sounds brought people together and galvanized political movements. Everyone our age has favorite songs that transport them into a place and a time of possibility, romance, danger, social commitment, and altitude. How lucky we were to have time in our lives to experience music that way.
Anyway, we have completed our first collection of Sixties music. Because of the iconic nature of this stuff, and the fact that it has been 50 YEARS since much of this music got written, we now think of it as folk music… even though we’ll be paying lots of well-deserved publishing royalties. Much of that music has shaped most of our generations since then, and that period established a collection of music styles that artists still create in.
We used our unique viewpoints and skills to re-create these songs in the New Acoustic style that has become a huge pillar of what people now call Americana music.
As many of you know, I’m not unfamiliar with projects like this. I’ve done panoramic sonic overviews of fiddling (DIary Of A Fiddler), and released a folk music album of highly arranged material called Heritage featuring Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Bela Fleck, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tim O’Brien, Paul McCandless, David Lindley, Edgar Meyer, Victor Wooten, etc. And my Republic Of Strings project recorded a number of songs from this era.
This project was a process, where we cogitated musically about the essence of the song and our experiences with it. Then we evolved an acoustic arrangement with all that in mind— and we got to work with some of our favorite musicians in this rich wonderful Northeast community. Many of these folks were not alive yet when this music was created! —but they are so brilliant, and contributed so much to these songs.
On every song, we explored & added ideas that expanded the song’s meaning, and we learned more about them… these songs are great art, which continually reveals and opens up new facets.
This entire project was recorded piece by piece in our attic, sometimes with up to three people at once, sometimes with live vocals, but mostly painstakingly built up from a rocking basic track of guitar and octave mandolin with bass. My home recording studio combines legacy gear from 40 years ago with the most recent digital technology, and is quirky; but the best tool is a tool you know how to use, and I have made a dozen albums on this system, gradually upgrading and changing out gear. I know exactly how I want it to sound, and I can make it happen… for not a lot of expense, generally. We did pay the other musicians about twice the going recording rate, which is still not that much. The core of Music of Our People’s sound is Emy’s multi-hued voice, Darol’s unmistakable violin, and their unique guitar & octave mandolin weave that sets up a vast acoustic landscape. This music is built on an incredible collection of musicians: Bridget Kearny (Lake Street Dive), Ethan Jodziewicz (Sierra Hull, Mr Sun), banjo innovator Tony Trischka, Greg Liszt (Bruce Springsteen, Crooked Still) Celtic Jazz Harp virtuoso Maeve Gilchrist, and New Acoustic hotshots Grant Gordy and Dominick Leslie. These artists add tremendous depth to Music of Our People, and contribute to making this CD much more than a series of cover songs.
THE SONGS: Up On The Roof The greatest Pop Urban Rhapsody ever written, by Carol King and Jerry Goffin, the inspiration for countless movie love scenes. Unforgettably sung by Emy Phelps, with muted Trumpet solo by Kai Welch, and Dream-state Octave Mandolin by Darol.
These Boots (Were Made for Walking) More timely than ever in 2018, this track was a huge hit for Nancy Sinatra. Featuring the greatest step-dancer to ever fly across a stage, the amazing Nic Gareiss on Boots. This track veers into Psycho territory, using the original bass lick to send the violins into a big argument (They’re both goin’ to Jackson!) culminatiing in Grant Gordy's electric Screwdriver solo, emergency sirens, and a horror movie stalker's soundtrack bringing up the rear. Just a normal day in America right now.
The Wichita Lineman Some call Jimmy Webb's Masterpiece “the greatest pop song ever written... floating free of time and space.” It certainly put Glen Campbell into the Pop pantheon. Here interpreted by Darol & Emy, evoking the great Open West, anchored by Lake Street Dive’s incredible bassist Bridget Kearney and the pedal steel of young Jam-Grass MVP Charlie Rose. Darol utilizes the unique sound of his beloved Octave Mandolin to nail the Twangy Low Guitar tones of the melody, and adds a stretched-out solo section to make more space.
Stone Soul Picnic Laura Nyro's brilliant semi-abstract poem about a mythical psychedelic picnic in a Hippie Valhalla has set a standard for all ideas about modern music festivals in general. And now it’s legal! Once upon a time, Nyro was as popular as Joni Mitchell, but she has receded into undeserved obscurity. We mean to change that! The imagery in this song is unparalleled, and the musical craft is startlingly sophisticated. We gave it the "Full Disney", with a chamber orchestra of violins, violas, and a harp... Cue the Butterflies!
Killin' The Blues Rowland Salley’s wrenchingly ironic song of lost love has been a hit for many female songstresses recently, but we had to include it here because of the great weave of the Octave Mandolin and guitar, and Emy’s shattering Old-School Country music vocal. She’s the Edith Piaf of New Acoustic Music.
Tattler/I Think it’s Going To Be All Right the great Ry Cooder was an inspiration for both Darol and Emy from the 60s onward to now. We pay tribute to him with this medley of two of his famous adaptations. "Tattler" was rewritten by Ry from a Washington Phillips preachin' song, and we added a beatific version of Ry's adaptation of the soul classic "I Think It's Gonna Be All Right". Nobody can match the sound of Cooder's guitar, but the Octave Mandolin and a Darol's patented string quartet sound (featuring the Baritone Violin) give this song the gravitas that Emy's spunky vocal demands.
You Keep Me Hangin' On Holland & Dozier were 3 of the major songwriting engines of the unforgettable Motown Sound. No urban summer would have a fraction of the vibe without the Motown Sixties soundtrack. And The Supremes reigned supreme for many of those years, with Diana Ross's mysteriously tender vocals in everyone's ears. This song is one of the most intense of breakup songs, with a rising tide of emotion toward the end that is unparallelled in pop music of that era. We went with the pounding near-hysteria that the original conjures, with bass virtuoso Ethan Jodziewicz duplicating James Jamerson's original byzantine electric bass line on the big acoustic... and who can conjure hysteria better than Greg Lizst on the 5-string banjo? Re-imagined as a phone message in response to an inaccessible not-quite-Ex, Emy's vocal showcases her extensive theatrical background.
Stoney End Laura Nyro… so many great, great songs, and many of them were never done that well. This beautiful, song of despair was manhandled by Barbara Streisand and the 5th Dimension in the 60’s, and has been languishing in need of rescue since then. The team of Emy, virtuoso harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and the sympathetic Scot bassist Aidan O’Donnell cut this as the melancholy jazz-inflected meditation it truly is, and we added the Darol Violin Vibe and some accordion colors by the youthful, brilliant Neal Pearlman, a rising Celtic-fusion star.
Ripple What can you say about the Grateful Dead that hasn't been said? They pretty much created the idea of a permanent '60's high culture that only gets stronger with time. Emy was a member of that Southern Oregon community for decades. This great modern spiritual was ripe for re-invention, and we re-imagined Ripple as a Zen Koan from a mountain top somewhere near Windham Hill. With Pacific Northwest natives Grant Gordy on guitar and Terry Longshore on tablas.
Uncle John's Band We continue with the powerful and always-present Grateful Dead covers, wonderfully ripe material for interpretation. Emy has sung this song for years, but Darol never listened much, even though his David Grisman connection got him close to the source. So it was easy to come at this great song with a fresh perspective. We created a Phantasmagorical Blur-grass/Charles Ives Parade-type experience, drawing on our many years attending the Oregon Country Fair (the primal Kesey Farm festival, now exported all over the world). Again harpist supreme Maeve Gilchrist, youthful mandolin prodigy Dominick Leslie, and bass virtuoso Ethan Jodziewicz play and sing with a large chorus including us, Bruce Molsky, and the members of Lula Wiles. A peripatetic winding journey, in the best Dead style.
Bird On A Wire The late beloved Leonard Cohen's much-covered song. Maybe only "Hallelujiah" has been done more. But we couldn't resist, and we took a step away from the other tracks with the instrumentation, moving forward into other forceful colors, making a rock'n'roll waltz. Darol wrestles down the Electric Fuzz-octave Tenor Ukelele as a lead instrument, and we unleash Jacob Ransom on the drums, in a dramatic study in Dynamic Rise. Emy Phelps once again distinguishes herself as a major interpretive force and Grown Woman on these lyrics. Cohen was famous for writing sometimes dozens of additional unused verses for his songs, and we found and used an alternative verse of his which speaks strongly to us as human beings, and sometimes failed lovers.
As music moves farther and farther away from being a physical medium, sort of like back to the REALLY old days of ALL live music, we now can release individual songs on the web- or smaller sets of music, with very little financial investment; but many of us still miss the physicality of holding an object in our hands, of reading the lyrics on paper, of studying the art that may illuminate the music, and vice versa. For the CD cover, we were inspired by the work of Sister Corita Kent. She was a Catholic nun who did wonderful prints with written spiritual meditations inserted into images of commercial products. She was sort of like the Ecumenical Andy Warhol, with more content. Her ideas inspired our cover, We feature a timeline on the inside with the other information, giving dates of birth for both the songs and all the players.