Jesus, Transformed: A Coverfolk Mixtape
featuring Norah Jones, The Wood Brothers, U2 and more!





A familiar conversation last night over dinner with the church choir director, in which the old trope of wondering why our choir is so oversensitive to the Catholic liturgy turns quickly to the larger questions of why Unitarian Universalists as a general case are so often afraid of this particular text and source. And there is unusual urgency, this evening, as holy week approaches; tonight, our kids choir takes the stage in an especially non-canonical production of Godspell, the musical, and although we believe strongly that ours is a vision truly realized, there is no way to anticipate whether or not that vision will offend at least a few of the parents and family friends who will attend our production this evening.

My first college major was religious studies, and I attended a liberal high school that required a course in Bible As Literature; to claim ownership of the name and meaning of Jesus in the pure textual sense is honest and easy for me. But as a native Jew, and a convert of sorts to the sort of Unitarian Universalism that holds the gospels at arms length, my lifelong understanding of Jesus has been almost exclusively literary and historical, not spiritual.

There’s some use in this, I think: for years, a combination of iconoclastic playfulness and a coincidental look-alike comparison to the classic image of the Catholic cross – long hair, beaked nose, and reddish beard – let me play Jesus at Halloween for years; I have worn the crown of thorns, and the robe, and even the stigmata, several times, and reveled in the glee and discomfort it produced.

But as I wrote in my director’s note for the program, the Gospels as portrayed in Godspell are daunting, from both religious and theatrical perspectives. I’ve performed it, and found it a risky show by design; I’ve studied it, and know that the character of Jesus is heavy, indeed, in our history, both as Unitarian Universalists, and as denizens of a 21st century world.


And so to frame Godspell in the terms of Unitarian Universalist practice seemed especially challenging, at first. And then I started working with our kids. And suddenly, making this production into a true reflection of their growing vision of what it means to be UU was natural and humbling.

As part of this realization, I decided that being authentic about the communal ownership of text and source was best served by finding a way to cast the character of Jesus as more of a rotating facilitator’s role than a prophetic voice – or at least, an opportunity to give all who are ready to do so the chance to model and find comfort in leadership.

Yes, in our production of Godspell, Jesus is a role, a costume to don, through the seriousness of play. Eight children, my daughter among them, take their turn in the robe as the play progresses, each revealing their own interpretation of leadership as they model the multivocal lay-led facilitation that lies at the heart of our UU practice.

And so, through our exploration of Jesus as man and myth, we enact the larger questions of the culture these twelve to fourteen year olds have inherited. And so, as is so often the case, my thoughts turn to the world of music, and coverage, to find solace and insight in the way others have done so, too.


Love it or hate it, Jesus the character floats troubled above our modern mythology, ripe and ready for transformation and memetic use. For some, he stands for love; for others, hope; for still others, a focus for frustration, a lens into the troubled metrics of the most rigid trappings of the modern world.

And so throughout the past half decade, our everquesting culture and its craftspersons have come to produces artifacts which our forefathers would have considered the worst of heresies. Sacrilegious and strained, the songs we find in our folk and rock genres are neither hymns nor carols, but borrow from the gospels and the cross to criticize and calm, making as they go new ownership of the character of Jesus: as everyman, as savior, as lost boy, as teacher.

Listen, as the robe becomes flesh in song. Listen, as our favorite songsmiths transform the world anew, their treatments tender and caustic in turn. Listen, for he is risen in our hearts and souls.

Listen, and rejoice.


Transforming Jesus: A Coverfolk Mix [zip!]



Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk features and songsets regularly throughout the year, with bonus tracks and streaming coverage on our Facebook page.

Want to help in our continuing mission? Donate now and receive our grateful praise…plus a select mix of over 30 beloved but otherwise-unblogged acoustic, roots, folk and Americana covers from 2014!

4 comments » | Mixtapes

Waiting To Be Restored:
Searching For Home In The Paul Simon Songbook





Daylight savings time notwithstanding, the nearness of Spring makes for a brighter world when I leave my children to their sleep. Most mornings, it is not enough to lift the heaviness I feel, here in the breakneck days of March, when the various components of my life – teaching, directing, serving on the local school board – come to a head all at once, and me with my children continuing to struggle with chronic illness.

But the soundtracks of life are everpresent, and they say music soothes the savage breast. And so I make and listen to my own playlists in the car, trading NPR awareness away for just a few moments to feel each day, before the car stops, and I walk into the confusion and stress of what is increasingly an unsettlingly precarious new normal.

Recently, that’s meant a lot of Paul Simon covers; in both his incarnations – alongside Art Garfunkel, and as a solo act – Paul Simon serves the yearning soul better than most, in these days on the edge of grief. There are many reasons for this, from the continued primacy of Simon’s songbook in the popcult airwaves to the recent televisory reminder that he was a key player on the early days of Saturday Night Life to the constant renewal of his songs through evermore coverage. But mostly, to say that Simon is a better speaker on behalf of my soul is to acknowledge the sheer potency of that particular subset of his canon that speaks directly to the unmoored sense of self which typifies my own uneasy days.

Simon’s everyman, restlessly longing for stability in the storm, is legendary. His descriptors of distance and domain are unparalleled among the chroniclers of the heart. And a full complement of songs serves to prove our case; their diversity – of situation, and of interpretation – validates our dreams.

Simon’s recipe is potent: lead with a crisply envisioned moment, widen the lens to capture the leavetaking of home, end with the setting sun, a question on the horizon. Pilgrims and immigrants, travelers and tour-mates, our narrators search their own stories, looking back on love affairs and road trips, trying to make sense of the lost and found, the detritus that floated them here, finding temporary solace and stillness in wistful memories of seventh avenue whores, store-bought pies, and other simple, concrete pleasures. United in their plight, they stand for all of us, awed by the world that whizzes by from the windows of our trains and cars, humbled by the poignancy and precariousness of love and the gritty imperfections of our broken promises, always, always, grateful for the memories.

Listen as the nirvana of Simon’s searchlight songbook of hope grants grace in gravity. Listen, as like a magician, Simon reveals motion itself to be the human condition, and celebrates it.

Listen, that our hearts and bones remain true, and not come undone.

Listen, and be still in the whirlwind of your life, too.




Looking for more Paul Simon coverage? Check out alternate takes on Homeward Bound and America from Red Molly and First Aid Kit in our Best of 2014 Singles Mix!

3 comments » | Mixtapes, Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel

Perfect, Heavenly, Beautiful Day: A Coverfolk Mixtape
featuring Zee Avi, Warren Zevon, The Onlies, Laura Cortese and more!


christmas-girl-hair-hands-snow-window-favim-com-100584


Back early from a weekend in Boston with my father, where I got to experience firsthand a city besieged as never before, its streets narrowed into a byzantine maze of snow-carved tunnels.

It was tempting to stay. The fireside was warm and welcoming in the Sheraton Tara, home of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival; the hotel’s nooks and crannies buzzed with jams and impromptu sessions; the mainstage shone with talent. But a record amount of snow has fallen in Massachusetts this winter. And so we cut short our annual pilgrimage when the flakes started to fly midday, and good thing, too: by the time I made it home to join my spouse and children by our own Valentine’s Day fire, it was blizzard conditions.

Over five feet of snow in less than three weeks, and it’s still falling – enough to cancel church today; enough to block entire our view of the driveway from couch, chair, and bed. But snow doesn’t scare us out in the woods. After a week of hospital visits and chaos, the girls teeter on the edge of well, with school vacation ahead. And so we’re settling in, watching movies and cuddling into the morning, saving our plans for another day.

It’s a good life. Here’s a celebration of it, from my family to yours – nothing focused, just a loose set of optimism just right for a lazy snowed-in Sunday.

Perfect, Heavenly, Beautiful Day: A Coverfolk Mixtape [zip!]

    Though we often feature kidfolk duo Renee & Jeremy’s equally sweet version of this Queen favorite, The Once‘s warm harmonies and gentle fingerpicking make for a grassy, mellow antidote to February.

    We first wrote about singer-songwriter Mae Robertson six or seven years ago, but her warm kid-friendly covers and originals still delight.

    From Zee Avi’s Nightlight, our 2014 kidfolk pick of the year: a playful, island-percussive head-nodder perfect for sleepytime or morning.

    Interdisciplinary Performance Studies prof Barbara Browning plays the ukelele and sings divinely. Her Soundcloud series is an extension of her lifework, each song as sparse and beautiful as the next.

    An upbeat feel-good number. Sure, Mister Kanish is a wedding band…but that doesn’t keep their hipster-friendly gypsy folk rock from sticking in the ears.

    A classic cover worth revisiting, Zevon’s dying take on Back In The High Life is poignant and triumphant.

    Hello lamppost. From fave kidfolk cover album A Little Love, which offers a lot of it.

    I love this fiddle-driven jam, with its crisp arrangement and heady strings. Laura Cortese can do no wrong in our book.

    A delicate amateur YouTube recital strips down a Patty Griffin gospel number to its intimate essentials.

    More YouTube finds, this one from the international folkrock community; Rusted Root rhythms give Malta-based band RiSE an organic alt-acoustic sound.

    A generation-spanning pair of tradsongs: gently upbeat celebration from high school bluegrass prodigies The Onlies on the one hand; sweet, slow singer-songwriter folk from cowboy countryfolk favorite Kimmie Rhodes on the other.


1 comment » | Mixtapes

New Tributes and Covers Collections, 2015 (Vol. 1)
(Forest Mountain Hymnal, The Lomax Project, and Nettwerk’s 30th!)

Yet another New England snowday grants us the time to sift through a surprisingly rich field of new, pending, and ongoing covers projects recently received by mail from the far reaches of the folkworld. Read on for a set of features and futures that are already setting the house on fire: a pair of ambitious tradfolk projects, and a label-driven covers collection well worth the folkfan’s attention.




It takes dedication and a unique mindset to devote a year to coverage, let alone to a single songbook – and guts, indeed, to commit to such a project in the first decade of performance.

But young husband-and-wife folk duo Jonathan and Rebecca Moody, aka Forest Mountain Hymnal, have proven themselves before, earning our respect and admiration as artists and interpreters. And so we are thrilled to name Dear Balladeer: The Moodys and the Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, a bi-weekly project which will see them taking on 24 previously unrecorded Appalachian folksongs collected by the folk-revival’s own balladeer, a genuine gift, sure to keep giving throughout the year and beyond.

Forest Mountain Hymnal is already a staple at our table and our stereo; any news of novelty from these childhood sweethearts is inherently worthy of our attentive ears. Previous EP-length collections, an exclusive, otherwise-unreleased transformation of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and the self-titled, newly re-collected set that serves as their first official full-length album, explicate our praise: rich, soft, deceptively simple indiefolk in the same haunting-yet-melodic vein as Cover Lay Down favorites Arborea, Sam Amidon, Jose Gonzalez, and Kings of Convenience combine with traditional sensibilities of harmony, melody and instrumentation and a pure, sweet, echoing production dynamic almost ecstatically in the band’s previously recorded versions of well-crafted originals and known songs from Pretty Polly and The Leatherwinged Bat to Burl Ives’ Buckeye Jim and Aussie children’s standard Kookaberra, making Forest Mountain Hymnal as welcome, as essential, and as awesome for year-round fare as their wonderful 2011 Christmas Hymnal EP is for the holiday season.

Meanwhile, Niles, though seminal in his influence on the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties, is a bit of an undersung hero in the modern folkways; his most-covered compositions and reworkings, including I Wonder as I Wander, Black is the Color, and Go ‘Way From My Window, are often cited as traditional, spreading and reinforcing his influence even as the lack of attribution obscures his own contribution to the tradition. Too, as noted in Dear Balladeer’s statement of project intent, the Hollywood machine has co-opted both Niles and the songs he loved and collected, framing them as the product of a denigrated hillbilly culture in ways that deny the true complexity and intelligence of both the songs and their people.

Dear Balladeer’s aim, therefore, is as corrective as it is celebratory, with the Moodys taking on two curated “lost cuts” per month from his published ballad collections, by permission of Niles’ estate – a set which owes enough deliberate debt to the tradition that Niles organized them by Child Ballad equivalence in their original incidence. And, in keeping with the spirit of the project, all recordings for this project are being released free, as “we really feel like this music came from the people and should go back to them.”

The Moodys promise a debt paid in full, and they deliver: after spending a few days steeping in the comfort and craftwork of the first two tracks, it’s easy to crown the project a great success; if the remainder of the songs on Dear Balladeer are even half as good, their efforts should bring Niles’ name – and theirs – back to the forefront of the modern. I certainly expect to see this project again at the end of the year, both on the blogs, and here in our annual Best Of set, ’round the top of the Tradfolk categories. For now, best wishes and kudos to Forest Mountain Hymnal on a kickass start to an ambitious year; may their ways be smooth as they forge ahead, for we are eager, indeed, to hear the rest.





Diana-LP-High-Res-1Of similar ethnographic vein is banjoist, composer, and “instigator” Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, which pursues our chosen genre’s prototypical collector and celebrant with a multigenerational cohort of praiseworthy peers – Tom O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Eli West and more – that serves as high predictor of project success.

Touting the official nineteen-track album, and the deep-delving ethnographer’s dream of a 54 page booklet which accompanies it, is a bit premature, and somewhat of a tease. Though Stone’s Lomax Project has been in place for a while now as a live touring collaborative, playing sets and hosting sessions at all the right festivals and stages, and inviting in the process a continuation of the discovery and sharing process that Alan Lomax himself practically invented, the recorded collection isn’t scheduled to drop until March 3.

But the work of the talented Stone and his crowd of celebrated cronies under this particular umbrella is not unknown to us. Stone’s earlier albums interpreting the canons through originals and airs from Bach to Africa to Appalachia are themselves keystone components of a modern folklorist’s collection; that the names above all signed on to this project alongside Stone’s center shows their mutual respect. The stated goal here is renewal, not preservation, which is always a strong indicator of true craftspersonship. And even as live in-studio and stage takes from the project’s players have already cropped up on YouTube in the last few months, giving us more than a taste of what is to come, we needed little encouragement to share Lazy John, a just-released first listen from the album itself which showed up in our mailbox over the weekend, which simply sings with talent, love, and gleeful energy.

The merits of music, mandate and means make for a powerful trifecta; that the result is nearly perfect is not unexpected, but no less of a delight. The album earns our respect and admiration with hot sets that burn the barn and then some alongside other, more subtle interpretations of the Lomax collection, which themselves range from Appalachian fiddle tunes and Southern work songs to the African-American shanties and chants of the Bahaman and Georgia Sea Island cultures, finding joy and depth in the collections of a driven archivist, interpreter, and, in the case of the first song below, creator in vein, who in his single album in 1963 reworked familiar folk motifs and characters into a series of nominally original works. Listen and fall in love now, so you can say you were one of the first to know.

    Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Lazy John (orig. Alan Lomax)
    (from Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project, 2015)


    Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Goodbye Old Paint (trad.)


    Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project: Maids When You’re Young (trad.)





Way on the other end of the folkworld, where indie and Americana cuts nestle alongside harder-edged alternatives, lies Nettwerk, a large yet still-independent Vancouver-based label and promotional house founded on electronic music that has, over three decades in the industry, provided a host of services for Canadian acts such as Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, and The Be Good Tanyas, international artists from Dido to Sinead O’Connor to Dispatch to Joshua Tillman, and – more recently – radio-ready bands and singer-songwriters like Passenger, Joshua Hyslop, and fun.

Our focus today is From Cover to Cover: 30 Years At Nettwerk, a brand-new anniversary tribute-in-coverage to the label’s own, and it’s a great one, with versions that run the gamut in selective scope and interpretive strategy. Takes on everything from Coldplay to Barenaked Ladies to Ron Sexsmith to The Be Good Tanyas call to the diversity of Nettwerk rosters past and present; the mix is solid and smooth in transition from track to track, and though only half of the album could truly be categorized under folk, the performances are consistently fine, indeed.

Regular readers have already heard from this collection; though we were holding off on celebrating it in full until now, we couldn’t help but sneak label stalwart William Fitzsimmons’ cover of Sarah McLachlan’s Ice Cream into our artist feature a few weeks ago. But we’ve been sitting on other greatness therein, from Great Lake Swimmers to Caroline Pennell, from Lily Kershaw’s strong take on modern standard Wagon Wheel to Joshua Hyslop’s stunning take on Weepies favorite The World Spins Madly On. Now, just a day before it drops officially, here’s the whole shebang. Enjoy.





Always ad-free and artist-centric, Cover Lay Down shares new coverfolk features and songsets regularly here on the blog, with ongoing bonus tracks and streaming coverage on our Facebook page. And you can help! Donate now to support our continuing mission and receive our grateful praise…plus a select mix of over 30 otherwise-unblogged acoustic, roots, and Americana covers from 2014!

Comment » | Alan Lomax, Forest Mountain Hymnal, Jayme Stone, Tributes and Cover Compilations

Single Song Snowday: The Weight
(On Finding Balance with The Band)





We’re fattening up my daughter, by which I mean that a year into her diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease she has trained herself to eat so little that she has grown dangerously thin and bony. The doctor has prescribed a 2500 calorie diet. And so the closet gets filled with sticky and salt, donuts and cookies in small packages, and we spend the day asking if she’s eaten, and can she eat again.

Two months ago, we had the opposite problem. The wee one wasn’t so wee after 6 months of steroids, and unlike her elder sister the stick figure, the nine year old cares about her looks; so much, in fact, that she’s asked me not to go into further detail here. Suffice it to say: so go the trials and tribulations of the immunodeficient, as we learn to balance the world on our shoulders, and live in the moment always.

Last year, before the wee one presented with her sister’s disease, I watched from the window as she tried in vain to apply her smaller form to the sledding hill, and trudged back, forlorn and angry, alone in the midst of a familial refocusing not yet hers to claim. But lifelong illnesses wax and wane, and today is a good day, brought on by too much snow and a rare day at home together. The roads are closed, and the sleds inflated; the girls huddle by their electric fireplace in the everything room, watching TV and preparing their bodies for a foray into the cold together. The weight lifts, and we are at peace with the world.



The Band is hard to collect through coverage; their chosen name is essentially un-googleable, confounding the collector’s usual search strategies. But the ragtag group of Canadian roots rockers that once formed the backbone of Dylan’s fuller sound is worth pursuit: their songbook still sings loud and clear through radioplay; their influence on the modern soundscape is clearly evident in the vast collection of coverage we have featured on these pages, all the way back to our very first post, where we celebrated Richard Shindell’s 2007 cover album with his version of Acadian Driftwood.

While often a delight, then, it’s no surprise to find The Band still covered. Their canon at its best is both electric with energy and highly narrative, its downtrodden everymen and eminently singable verse-chorus-verse structure ripe for interpretation. And although deep cuts covered bring a special and unique opportunity to reconsider their collection, there’s nothing so spiritually uplifting, in my mind, as The Weight.

Although spectacular on its own merits, and recognizably spread in short form in the film Easy Rider and concert footage from Woodstock, like many of our Single Song feature subjects, The Weight settled into the American Songbook after some particularly distinctive cross-genre coverage, including early versions by Aretha Franklin, Jackie DelShannon, and Diana Ross and The Supremes, which blanketed the genre spectrum with the song between 1968 and 1969. But the song, described by PBS as a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters, is clearly one of The Band’s favorite songs to perform, as well. It appears on three separate live albums released in the seventies, and twice in The Band’s seminal concert film The Last Waltz – once in live performance, and once as a coda, in the studio with The Staple Singers.

Today, like greatest hits I Shall Be Released and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight remains a common enough cover in live performance, especially as a sing-along encore; several of our favorites, including a superstar-laden tribute from the 2014 benefit concert Love For Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn, Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show in fine old-timey form, new weird American band The Hollows with hoot and holler, and a beautifully sung version from Dala with Oh Susanna and the Good Lovelies, sport a similar dynamic, with multi-artist cohorts taking the stage for a verse apiece, and joyful voices raised in harmony in the chorus, as they celebrate sets well played.

But in the studio, the song has seen more transformation. Rickie Lee Jones, on her recent deconstruction project The Devil You Know, takes the more extreme path, stripping the song down to a crooning, crying lament. Other sparse acoustic covers delight, as well: YouTubers Connor Pledger and Grace Albritton slide around the melody intimately, for example, while Robin Tesch sticks with solo guitar and a husky voice backed by light harmonies for a comforting, comfortable living room cover that pays apt homage.

The rest lie between, finding their own salvation and solace in the ultimately uplifting lines of first-person narration. Cassandra Wilson croons a soulful, lilting blues; German acoustic soulband Tok Tok Tok jazz it up with sax and a trio sound. Joan Osborne keeps the beat but adds full horn and organ production for funky minor key fare, while Ashes For Trees trend towards sweetness with mando and guitar, and singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter Don Lange breaks the tune down to a troubadour’s walking blues; both Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem and the touring trio of Tony Lucca, Jay Nash and Matt Duke drop the drums and bombast, too, keeping it wholly acoustic in radio performance. Little Feat and guitar wizard Jeff Healy keep it real as we’d expect them to. Bluegrass legend Marty Stuart even brings the Staple Singers back in, for a countrified yet faithful performance that shows just how well the song stretches out into other genres, finding its place in the various forms and fields that comprise the American roots landscape.

Enjoy the song, in every incarnation. And may your weight be lifted, too, wherever you may be.


The Band’s The Weight, Covered In Folk [zip!]


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2 comments » | Single Song Sunday, The Band

William Fitzsimmons covers:
Nirvana, Katy Perry, James Taylor, Kanye West, The Smiths & more!




There’s something fun finding a song that people don’t take to be that serious …
is actually kind of heartbreaking and sweet and poignant. (William Fitzsimmons, 2009)



Pittsburg-bred artist William Fitzsimmons became an easy posterchild of the sensitive indiefolk movement in 2005 with a home-recorded debut that brought him MySpace popularity, early blog recognition from the hushfolk crowd, and tours with fellow social media-driven folkstars Cary Brothers and Ingrid Michaelson. But in many ways, his music was made for the loneliness and disconnectedness of the kitchen-table digital age: his performances are heartbreak incarnate, and a history of coveted soundtrack spots on indiefolk touchstones such as One Tree Hill and Gray’s Anatomy speak to the essence of quiet honesty in his work.

And Fitzsimmons – a gentle giant with a majestic hipster beard and a comfortably self-effacing demeanor on stage – comes by his heartbreak honestly. A multi-instrumentalist born to blind parents whose marriage fell apart in his adolescence, his 2006 sophomore effort explored their divorce, and his 2008 release The Sparrow and the Crow, which was lauded by critics, is an intensely personal exploration of his own.

Fitzsimmons knows emotion by trade, too, having left a budding career as a mental health specialist to pursue his music; if anything, his songs are an extension of the therapeutic urge, healing as they expose the pain. Add in his distinctive husky voice and pulsing, shimmery style, and the result is a constant comfort, reverent and hushed, as he caresses each song, offering little adornment and great reserve.

We’ve shared most of Fitzsimmons’ covers here in one mix or another; most recently, his take on Cat Stevens, recorded for last year’s tribute to the films of Wes Anderson, topped our Best Coverfolk of 2014 list. His take on James Taylor’s lullaby You Can Close Your Eyes is an oft-resurrected addition to our kidfolk compilations. And we highly recommend his original work, most especially 2014 release Lions, and The Sparrow and The Crow, both of which delve deep into introspection, and unsettles the soul.

But while the short arrangements Fitzsimmons prefers in performance makes each song a fleeting moment of quietude and respect, gathering his coverage in together allows for a steeping perfect for the first real snow outside, and the hush of winter. Click through for an EP-length compilation of our favorite studio covers, and then stick around for a trio of live-in-concert video covers, including a sublime take on Wonderwall, and a Tom Petty cover that will have you checking his tour schedule for more.



    William Fitzsimmons: Wonderwall (orig. Oasis)


    William Fitzsimmons ft. Gungor: Wildflowers (orig. Tom Petty)


    William Fitzsimmons, David Bazan, Abby & Noah Gundersen, Chris Carraba: I Shall Be Released (orig. Bob Dylan)



Proudly ad-free and artist-centric since 2007, Cover Lay Down shares artist features, and coverfolk collections regularly here and on our Facebook page. Donate now to help support our continuing mission, and receive an exclusive mix of over thirty otherwise-unblogged folk, roots, and acoustic covers from our 2014 archives as our gift to you!

2 comments » | Featured Artists, William Fitzsimmons

Unity House Concerts Presents: Jean Rohe and Jay Mankita
(January 17, 2015 @ UU Society of Greater Springfield)





Cover Lay Down is proud to present Unity House Concerts, a new folk-and-more music series hosted by yours truly and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield.

Concerts are held in our own wooded sanctuary, and feature a combination of well-beloved musicians and new folk voices committed to the UU Coffeehouse tradition of channeling the spirit of community through song.

Our 2014-2015 season features artists from the Northeast, including Meg Hutchinson (October), The Gaslight Tinkers (March), and our Winter show, a co-bill with Jean Rohe and Jay Mankita, two artists who speak truth to power with beauty, grace, and poise.



My first encounter with the visionary songs of Jean Rohe this summer at a side stage at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival was so stunning, it left me in tears; I had to leave the tent, and so I missed the rest of her tiny in-the-round set.

Approaching Jean again during the festival and asking her to join us at our fledgeling UU Coffeehouse series this year was a no-brainer, especially after her full band wowed the crowd in their Emerging Artist Showcase set the following day on the mainstage. Waiting six months to hear her again has been the hardest part, but pulling the threads of the digital and recorded output has helped fill the void.

“A sure-footed young singer-songwriter” (NY Times) with a “unique musical voice that sounds like a love song for a world imperiled” (Albany Times Union), Jean Rohe captivates audiences with her intelligent well-crafted narrative songs and a unique, multilingual aesthetic fusion of traditional and modern folk, world beat, and jazz that speaks truth to power in equal measures of beauty and mysticism. The Brooklyn-based artist joins us fresh off her first European tour, accompanied by long-time collaborator and producer Liam Robinson on accordion, guitar, and voice, and we’re thrilled to have them both.

Even if you can’t join us, check out Jean’s carefully curated collection of albums and videos, especially 2014 release The End of the World Show, which one fellow musician at Falcon Ridge named their favorite album of the year. The album won three Independent Music Awards, and deservedly so: from its playful multi-stage packaging to the rich, layered, precisely arranged music it contains, the record is a gem, thick with found sound and poetry, international folkrock and world beat melodies, accompanied by crisp bowed strings and a full rhythm section. Similar praise goes to Lead Me Home, a sultry, subtle, potent and playful folk-meets-bossa-nova release from 2008 that includes several covers of popular Brazilian songs from the seventies among its set – and though it’s no cover, I can’t help but include the video of my favorite Jean Rohe original, the powerful National Anthem: Arise! Arise!, in today’s short set.


    Jean Rohe: National Anthem: Arise! Arise!


    Jean Rohe & Rogerio Boccato: O Morro / A Love Supreme (orig. Antonio Jobim / John Coltrane)




Jean is joined by Massachusetts-based American singer-songwriter and guitarist Jay Mankita, an artist well-known and well-lauded on the global stage for his earth-friendly, Grammy-nominated collection of kids albums and songs, and the messages of social justice and environmental consciousness they promote through playful, often hilarious sing-along rhythm and rhyme. (Rohe herself sang Jay’s lyrics as an introduction to her infamous anti-McCain speech at her New School graduation ceremony in 2006, making this a pairing too tempting to pass up.)

But Jay isn’t all kid’s stuff, as evidenced by the universal appeal of such “heart and soul” songs as Bread Alone, and 2004 release They Lied, and its title song, which deftly skewers the political scene of its decade but remains just as apt today. Jay’s songs for adults are equally playful, in their way, as his work for kids – see the video below, of his cover of Bob Blue’s lyric for Scott Joplin’s Pineapple Rag, for evidence of the close connection Jay makes with his audiences – and they retain their messages of social justice, environment, and community. And the breath of sentiment yaws wide, from bitter to wistful, as Jay speaks truth to power in his own accessible, fun way.

In performance, Mankita is “a musical pied piper; quick, nimble, and wonderfully crazy” (Margie Rosenkrantz, Director, The Eighth Step); his children’s show and chapel appearance last year made him a natural choice for return as we dig into our new Saturday series. But Mankita is also as humble as he is gentle. Last week, he touted Jean on his facebook page, noting that Arise, Arise will be appearing in Rise Again, the upcoming next-generation sequel to the seminal sing-along folk bible Rise Up Singing, but failed to note that THREE of his songs will appear in the collection, including From A Dog’s Stance – a delightful, wry parody of the oft-covered Julie Gold song – and Living Planet, which has already been covered by the likes of Emma’s Revolution, Kim and Reggie Harris, and Magpie.

A cover of, and a cover from, then, with our highest recommendations for Jay Mankita’s work, whether you’re a parent or just a fan of the good stuff from the sociopolitical side of the folksinger canon.


    Jay Mankita: Pineapple Rag (orig. Bob Blue / Scott Joplin)





Non-profit and ad-free since 2007, Cover Lay Down posts regular features on artists and songwriters as part of its continuing mission to ply the experience of coverage as a comfortable space for discovery. As always, we hope you’ll consider following the links above to hear more from and about the artists we feature, the better to support and sustain the arts, the artists, and the folkways.

And, if you live within driving distance of Springfield, Massachusetts – just a hop, skip, and jump away from Hartford, Northampton, and the Berkshires – we hope you’ll join us this Saturday, as Jay Mankita’s gentle wit and biting political satire, and Jean Rohe’s beautiful, visionary lyrics and masterful melodies, find full voice in the passionate, potent collection of songs they bring to our Unity House Concert stage. No reservations are necessary; Facebook confirmations greatly appreciated.

Comment » | House Concerts, Jay Mankita, Jean Rohe

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, vol. 2: The Singles (2014)
(b-sides, deep cuts, & more one-shot coverage)





So much of what we have to offer went unblogged this year, though it lived in our hearts. And although those precious songs that remain when the detritus of the year is sifted through are an honest bunch, so are they a needful one, tainted by proximity to the pain of life that drove us to them, and back to them again.

And so there’s blues here, and frivolity, too, for when we needed the escape. Crooners, for holding; achers, for the empathy. Joy, to remind us what to cherish, in our darkest hours, and our brightest.

The songs that lasted, and stayed. The songs that sang in our hearts.

To sift through them again is to live the year over again in music. Words fail us. Better, as always, to let the music speak for itself.

And so we come to this, Cover Lay Down’s annual end-of-year coverfolk mix: not the best of an objective universe, but the songs that mattered, greatly, in our greatest need.

From madcap to maudlin, then. From respectful to irreverent, in their treatment of the songs of the air. From indie to traditional, and all the contemporary singer-songwriter, alt-country, and acoustic poprock genres in between.

This we offer with undying thanks to the labels, the artists, the fans, and you, for holding us up, and in, and close, when the world keeps spinning right round, like a record.

May the music go on forever. May the best of 2014 ring in our ears, and our hearts. May the new year bring comfort, and joy evermore.



The Year’s Best Singles: A 2014 Coverfolk Mix [zip!]





Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive and kicking.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all giftees will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of alternate favorites and rare covers otherwise unblogged. Click here to give – and thanks.

2 comments » | Best of 2014, Mixtapes

The Year’s Best Coverfolk, Vol. 1:
Tribute Albums and Covers Collections (2014)





It’s been a hell of a year here in the Howdyhouse. Our family’s ongoing struggle with chronic illness crowded deeply into our time to listen and create. Even as other, more typical factors, from overwork to mere maintenance, stole our time, the constant threat of hospitalization imbued every moment with a foundational jitter of instability, leaving us largely exhausted, our poetics and prose abandoned, our thoughts too jumbled for paper or screen.

And so if our presence here on the blog has been sparse and sporadic, it’s because too often, in these rare moments of peace, writing lost out to the need for discourse and deep adjustment as our family tried to rebalance.

And if the new, uncertain normal has changed the pace and persistence of our writing, so has it changed our listening, too.

In an uncertain world, humans tend towards comfort; those of us who use music for its cathartic ability to focus and frame our emotion know well the power of the tried-and-true in times of stress and tribulation. And when the familiar solace of the well-played and well-worn is held stalwart against the threat of sinking into the quicksand of the new, with its high potential to run us aground again through its undiscovered poetry and pain, the new and the noteworthy can too easily pass us by.

To come to the table claiming even the most apologetic ownership of any sort of “best of” collection is hubris, indeed, under such circumstances. But all music is a risk, in the end. And we are shielded, too, in a way, by our practice of listening with the critic’s ear. To identify the potential in music is not to play it into the soul just yet; the critic’s task is not so much jaded as it is Heisenbergian, where the observation of music cushions a little distance from the raw core, just enough to decide whether to let it in.

And so, judiciously, carefully, we have listened, in our grief and gratitude. We have have heard the angels singing, and the devils, as they cross our door. We close the year having heard with our hearts, laid bare against the risk that we might fall into something new and sublime, even as we have missed more than we may have found, and chosen to put aside so many.

And if we have fallen, and risen again, it is because there is joyous music being made, and empathy, and pain. And if there is music anew, then it must be revisited, and celebrated, too.

As we wrote last year,

…the larger context makes [our year's end] sets more needful than ever. For as long as music serves as salve and salvation, then we must also accept that the ongoing search for new artists, new collections, and new transformations is part of the human pilgrimage – and that each new discovery serves the soul both spiritually and medicinally.

In this sense, the annual archival sift that prepares us for our end-of-year pursuit is an inherent part of the journey – a recentering, that helps us revisit and recover tribute albums and cover compilations otherwise too easily lost among the detritus of a life lived in chaos. The mere act of listening closely again, and struggling to identify that which transforms the various parameters each song, album, and collection sets for itself to become something new, and wonderful, is worthy, indeed.

We are humbled by the year of solitude and unsteadiness. We are grateful for the songs that came – in the mail, in the air, and by wire – to comfort us in our year of grief and grasping. We are all the better for it, as always and forever, amen.

Our selections are tinged by our lives, of course – as they should be, ever, if we are to be honest with the world, and ourselves. And so, even the final product stands as another testament to the albums and EPs which stayed with us through thick and thin, made all the more glorious for the rocky path we took to get here,

…because it is borne of personal stress and sorrow, the collection that follows comprises not so much of the albums that stuck through us with the year, but a strange combination of the ones we wish we had time to listen to more often, and the ones which we played incessantly, for weeks upon end, when we most needed comfort in the midst of chaos. More than ever, it is incomplete, subjective, and in some ways, accidental; indeed, for the first time, a significant portion of the albums mentioned below went unblogged in the first place – a testament to our corrupted ability to track the release calendars, and attend to the constant mailbag stream.

And so, once again, we begin our yearly two-part series with our annual album and EP-length end-of-year A-side collection, featuring kudos and links to a very subjective set of the very best cover collections and tributes released in 2014 – a pile of strong contenders for future favorites, each one weighed for its ability to outlast the year and to evoke that which we need of our hearts and our minds.

The usual caveats apply: our categories fit the year, as always, and cover the gamut from kidfolk to traditional, with plenty of indiefolk, singer-songwriter fare, and multi-artist tribute albums in the mix. The line between digital release and CD release has faded to invisibility, driving us away from format-specific consideration; the result is a leaner foray into the wilderness, though a glut of tribute albums and a tendency towards genre blur in the mechanism of collection has us dividing several categories in a hopeless attempt to organize our favorites by type. In acknowledgement of our relative radio silence as we shuttled from store to hospital to workplace in the days and weeks since Thanksgiving, and a reluctant nod to the modern trend to treat holiday music as a discrete genre, we’ve even included a favorite Christmas EP on the list, the better to ensure that we remember them dearly next year.

Overall, though, we’re as proud as ever to present Cover Lay Down’s annual compilation of the Year’s Best Coverfolk Collections: over thirty favorite albums and EPs, arranged into categories much like those which we would use were we in the habit of ranking and rating. Enjoy, click links to purchase and pursue, and be sure to come back in the next few days for our B-side collection of the best one-shot singles and deep cut coverage of the year.



COVER LAY DOWN PRESENTS:
THE YEAR’S BEST TRIBUTES AND COVER COLLECTIONS, 2014

[DOWNLOAD HERE]


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (multiple artists, folk/roots):
Dead Man’s Town: a Tribute to Born In The U.S.A.

It was a prolific year for multi-artist tribute albums – a welcome sigh of relief after last year’s relatively light field, and a strong counterweight to the modern tendency towards coverage in singleton and videographic form. In response, we’ve split our usual bread-and-butter category, giving separate consideration to albums targeted towards the folkworld on one hand, and tributes which run a larger gamut, but include ample folk offerings among the mix, on the other.

This divergence serves our purpose; as we’ll see both below and in tomorrow’s list of the best single covers of 2014, some of the best folkiest cuts from tribute albums this year made their presence known alongside grungecovers, alt-rockers, and pop crooners. But with a field this broad, it was also inevitable that we’d encounter a few missteps, and any number of halflings, trying as always to straddle the Adult Contemporary line with a clean mix of folkforms, light pop, and gentle rock, but in the end, leaving us spent and empty.

Sadly, both cases apply to Looking Into You, a long-awaited tribute to Jackson Browne which got a full documentary feature on NPR upon its release early in the year. A sprawling double-disc encompassing a veritable who’s who of artists familiar to the folk-and-more tribute album circuit (among them Marc Cohn, Lyle Lovett, Joan Osborne, and Keb’ Mo’) raised our expectations for this record – and it’s certainly listenable enough, if you like their style. But therein lies our complaint: too many artists on Looking Into You barely check in with a set of easygoing, unhurried coverage that doesn’t so much reinterpret Browne’s potent songbook as merely translate it into the native sounds of these famous artists on a quick and noncommittal dip into the studio. A few exceptions, including a strong country showing from siblings Sean and Sara Watkins and a powerful Great Pretender from Lucinda Williams, keep the record on the shelf – but as is so often the case, we are left waiting for the definitive tribute to a songwriter long overdue for such recognition.

Similar disappointment accompanied the arrival of Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, a Joe Henry produced album which features a set of artists rotating through a shared studio as they revisit Cash’s potent album-length narrative of the Native American people and their plight. The Gillian Welch-led tracks are good, if typical of her slow, syrupy work; the remainder, from Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and the Milk Carton Kids, are a drag; though others, including Cover Me, have included the album high on their own end of year lists, it says what it needs to, I guess, that I haven’t picked up the album again since its initial release.

But there were triumphs closer to the heart of the folkworld, too. Our dark horse pick of the litter is Dead Man’s Town, a Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA; the album made the blogrounds early, thanks to a stunner of a title track from Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, but the deeper cuts are strong, too, with an alt-countryfolk lineup of Blitzen Trapper, Joe Pug, Low, Justin Townes Earle, Nicole Atkins and more putting their hearts on the line. The songs are transformed and deconstructed, as they should be, and more haunting than not, all without losing the everyman despair of the originals; the resulting set is quite diverse, yet consistent and clean, raw and real, driving and driven, and highly recommended for the alt and no depression folkfan.

Although its origin as a kickstarter reward for a film celebrating the life of early folk revivalist and folklorist Shirley Collins gave it a relatively soft release, Collins tribute Shirley Inspired is absolutely worth the pounds, with generally unknown-to-us tradfolk revivalists turning in spare, almost proto-folk covers of the traditional songbook Shirley carried and reshaped into modernity, revealing along the way a thriving new cachet of artists previously under our radar. Recently featured Chris Smither tribute Link Of Chain comes in high on our list after repeated listening, too, thanks to “a masterful treatment with few low points and little sameness” from Mark Erelli, Jeffrey Foucault, Tim O’Brien, Aoife O’Donovan, Loudon Wainwright III, Mary Gauthier, and other names on the circuit.

And although we struggled with it the first few times we listened to it, The Empress Of The Blues, an all-female Bessie Smith tribute from tribute-driven label Reimagine Music that pairs a broad set of indiefolk voices with a songbook that has stood the test of time, comes in close, with kudos for an unsettling ride through an often unsettling canon. Though a few tracks are jarring (skip Haley Bonar’s screeching hard rock foray into Send Me to The ‘Lectric Chair, and Tim & Adam’s Depeche Mode-era Jelly Roll), the vast majority of the songs here are gorgeous and beautifully broken, fragmented and frequently bare, each one bobbing to the surface as the album winds through its sequence; in the hands of Tift Merritt, Dawn Landes, Jesca Hoop, and other folk favorites, the blues have never been so sharp, so strange, or so humbling.


The Year’s Best Mixed Genre Tribute Album (multiple artists):
I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson

Though disappointment accompanied the arrival of the inevitable few – see above, and don’t get me started on this year’s crop of Dylan tributes – happily, a set of other, stronger halfling also-rans lent compensatory coverage to our lives, each one too alternative, grunge, or elsewise to be counted truly folk, each one nonetheless strong across the genres, and inclusive of a number of songs acoustic, broken down, or otherwise folk by our broad definition.

I Saved Latin!, a tribute to the seminal soundtracks of Wes Anderson films, tops our new mixed-genre category this year, adding a solid chapter to a label founded on using coverage and tribute to tout a familiar, predominantly female stable of artists along the spectrum from punk to folk. Covering a curator rather than a musician is unusual, though it’s not the first time American Laundromat Records has dug into the realm of soundtracks for their tribute fodder, but although Anderson’s film soundtracks (The Royal Tennenbaums, Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) pull from a vast set of classic rock and pop, they have a common tonality, and as we’ve seen on previous tributes to Neil Young and The Smiths, the label’s curation and solicitation are among the best in the business. In the end, it works: potent cuts from label stalwarts Juliana Hatfield, Sara Lov, William Fitzsimmons, Matt Pond and Kristin Hersh delve into aural atmospheres that, like Anderson’s trademark cinematography, wrap the world in gauze before poking it into your rib cage.

The two-disc Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell collection is strong and subtle, digging deep into the works of a lesser known avant-garde composer, electronic musician, and cellist as it yaws from uptempo indie music to true-blue indiefolk; the artists come from a similarly experimental and iconoclastic slice of the modern music world, and though most take an appropriately mixed-media approach to his catalog, cuts from Jose Gonzalez, Sam Amidon, Sufjan Stevens, Phosphorescent, Glen Hansard and Devendra Banhart reveal just why Russell is worth revisiting from the folkier side. Posthumous Jason Molina tribute Farewell Transmission comes in right on the line, sprawling and heavy with indie and altcountry submissions, and an inner core of rough-cut players paying due and diligent respect to a lost soul. And though a few lesser-known bands on the collection seem less than confident about their choices, This Is The Town: A Tribute to Nilsson, Vol. 1 pays mostly apt and playful homage to the versatility of the songwriter’s songwriter, kicking off with a barrelhouse from Langhorne Slim and a sweet latin lilt from Dawn Landes, moving on to hybrid coverage from Tracy Bonham, Willy Mason, and more.


The Year’s Best Tribute Album (single artist):
Mark Erelli, Milltowns and Joseph Arthur, Lou (tie)

Choosing favorites in the realm of single-artist tribute albums is a far easier task than culling the herd of producer-curated album and artist tributes; the narrowminded pursuit and focus it takes for a single artist to dedicate an entire album to a single peer or predecessor keeps the field lean.

But if the sheer investment required to record a tribute album on one’s own keeps the pool shallow, the same dedication almost always springs from strong emotion, priming the pump for potency. Milltowns, Mark Erelli’s 2014 kickstarter-driven tribute to Bill Morrissey, proves the rule, and why it matters: originally recorded in-home, and adorned and produced later with his friends in the Boston folk scene, the well-chosen collection pays powerful homage to a beloved hard-living Fast Folk-era staple of the singer-songwriter circuit, evoking both the mentorship that Erelli received from Morrissey himself, and the prescience and intimacy that lives on in his songs.

Lou, Joseph Arthur’s posthumous tribute to Lou Reed, is a friend-to-friend affirmation as understated as its name, with slow upright piano and hoarse vocals evoking Reed’s loss and redemptive vision gorgeously. Similar fire, though with a harder edge that befits the former members of The Blasters, fuels Common Ground, a roots rock tribute to early folkblues master Big Bill Broonzy from siblings Dave and Phil Alvin, which got due recognition from critics upon release but seems to have been forgotten in many end-of-year lists. And way on the other end of the folk tradition, on Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, prolific neo-traditionalist and self-proclaimed “professional whistler” Andrew Bird seems more curious about plumbing and making palatable the weird power of the songbook of husband and wife Americana duo The Handsome Family than anything – and he does so quite adeptly and tenderly, though it’s hard to deny the songs he has chosen for the album have power of their own. Taken together, the quartet of albums comprise a survey in influence that proffers better explanation of the folk process and why it matters than we could ever put into words.


The Year’s Best Covers Album (multiple artists):
Decoration Day, Vol. 3

Label-driven cover sets abound in our survey of multi-artist covers albums, as always, with each clustered around a premise that justifies its existence – for what better way to celebrate the world of coverage than by bringing thematic focus to a single set of coverage from a finite set of well-respected craftspersons. But surprisingly, once we skim out those albums which primarily pay tribute to the tradition (see The Year’s Best Traditional Album below), and put aside the multi-genre Wes Anderson tribute mentioned above, the strongest contenders in this category come with a similar genre drift past folk into bordering territory on the genre map – reminding us, if nothing else, that folk is increasingly seen an attitude and style in the marketplace, not some isolated genre to be held close by discrete folk labels or producers.

Kudos and recommendations for the roots set belong to this year’s 20th anniversary stable-covers-stable 2-disc roundup from barroom punk-slash-roots label Bloodshot Records, with Shakey Graves, Samantha Crain, The Handsome Family, Superchunk, and Hiss Golden Messenger covering their favorite songs from the Bloodshot archives; hipsters might prefer Sweetheart 2014, this year’s especially strong Valentine’s Day sampler from Starbucks, which includes a quirky collection of gems from Blake Mills, Fiona Apple, and Beck, plus a Phosphorescent cover previously blogged. Decoration Day, Vol. 3, just a hair too big at 8 tracks to count as an EP, earns our respect and top honors by a nose with tracks that range from honest folk to all-out rootsy soul from Mason Jar Music, the NYC-based label that brought us 2012′s amazing collection of watershed covers in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. And although some of its artists are a bit too twee for our taste, the vast majority of the tracks on The Cover Up, a collection of acoustic pop transformations of recent Top 40 radio covers from a selection of rising stars and amateurs, make the collection worth savoring into 2015 and beyond.


The Year’s Best Covers Album (single artist):
Couer de Pirate, Trauma

It was a light year here, too, surprisingly – with most favorites barely folk, though several came in folk enough for our year’s end roundup. And so if the gentle, layered folkpop piano and harmonies strains of Trauma, from Cœur de Pirate, the solo project of singer Béatrice Martin, win the day, it’s primarily because Echolalia, the psychedelic duo project from two members of local heroes Winterpills, is a bit too electric to truly top a folkblog’s list.

But Trauma is no also-ran: released way back in January, the fragile collection, recorded as a soundtrack for last season’s run of a Canadian TV show of the same name, is chilled and perfect for a snowy day inside, turning tracks from Bon Iver, Amy Winehouse, The McGarrigle Sisters, and more into something soft and divine. Runners up honors go to Durham singer-songwriter Jon Shain’s Reupholstered, whose diverse set of covers – a “quirky list” of pop tunes from the last 75 years chosen entirely by producer Jackson Hall – has a rugged beauty of its own: raw, frank, earnest and endearing.


The Year’s Best Covers EP:
Holy Moly & The Crackers, Lilly

Although true-blue tribute EPs were scarce as robins in winter this year, several artists continued the trend of releasing tiny EP-length covers collections. Here, again, the theme drives the game: UK-based hoedown-meets-psychedelic folk band Holy Moly and the Crackers mine the tradition in Lilly, a “re-imagining” of three traditional folk/blues songs that “evokes eras of whiskey and guns on modern punk folk steroids” even as they turn up a more brassy, world-beat Americana than most. And Emily Barker and Red Clay Halo, in a delightful coda recorded especially for Record Store Day in April, come through in spades with Songs Beneath The River, a short, sweet coverset paying quite gentle yet eminently loving tribute to four songs that influenced the creation of their most recent full-length.



The Year’s Best Mostly Covers EP:
Parsonsfield, Afterparty

Last year, we had enough traditional EPs to watch a category rise and fall; this year, three separate artists released EP-length discs which featured originals and coverage alike, though covers came in as a bare majority, leaving us with a new category: the “mostly covers” set.

All three of the contenders are worthy of repeated listening. Topping our list is one of our favorite young bands of the last few years, local hoot-and-holler Americana quintet Parsonsfield (formerly Poor Old Shine), with Afterparty, a loose and often raucous exploration of a few traditional numbers, a doo-wop deconstruction on Huey Lewis hit The Power Of Love, and catchy sing-along original Anita Loving that captures the cheerful energy of their live shows.

Close runners-up honors go to Stray Birds, a mostly-covers EP from Halifax fave singer-songwriter and frequent Boston folk-scene cross-the-border sidewoman Rose Cousins, who turns to slow moods, slide guitars, and keyboards to great effect on songs from “heroes and friends” Mark Erelli, Lori McKenna, Gordon Lightfoot, Tina Turner, and a pair of her own. And we’re still enamored of the beautiful vocals and strings on the debut self-titled EP from young bluegrass duo Molly Tuttle and John Mailander, who we blogged about last winter after word of mouth drove us to their amazing side stage set at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.



The Year’s Best Traditional Folk Album:
RUNA, Current Affairs

Sam Amdion is always a strong shower in this category; it goes without saying that this year’s release, Lily O, was well-received, and well worth the wait, not hardly because in both sound and songchoice it hews closer to the old than ever, eschewing his popwanderings of previous years to stick firmly to the long-form tradition, filtered through Amidon’s familiar stew of creaky shapenote and oldtimey forms.

But Amidon had plenty of competition in 2014, from all corners of the traditional world. Our favorites include two irish and celtic influenced folk supergroups, The Alt and RUNA, and of all of them, the self-titled album from The Alt is perhaps the most traditional, too, with an evocative songbook of irish fiddle tunes and ancient numbers played out masterfully by veteran virtuosos John Doyle, Eamon O’Leary, and Nuala Kennedy. Meanwhile, our preference for singer-songwriter fare tips our sails towards RUNA’s Current Affairs, which is heavy on traditional numbers (including several right out of the Child Ballads), but with a few songs pulled from a more modern tradition; their glee and respect are apparent in every track, and their transformation of Amos Lee’s Black River into a joyful irish lullaby is nothing short of a miracle.

On this side of the pond, as we predicted in July, Old Crow Medicine Show bandleader Willie Watson’s solo foray into the American folk tradition matches the field, with its “delicate, spare series of covers and traditional songs, stripped down to the raw and intimate essentials of one man, one instrument, and a voice that evokes a hundred years of source material from the blues and folk canons.” And finally, although they’re still an opening act in our favorite folk clubs, we’re quite proud to recommend uber-local tradfolk trio The Ephemeral Stringband, whose sidewalk shows in Amherst and Northampton had my kids enthralled, and whose new 2014 album Land of Rest with fiddler Tatiana Heargraves is a tight, restrained collection of true-blue old-time banjo, guitar, and mando-driven country music and shapenote gospel tunes so true, you can hear the front porch swing in the breeze.


The Year’s Best Kidfolk Album:
Zee Avi, Nightlight

Now that our kids are nine and twelve, respectively, we see less of the kidfolk canon than ever. But two early releases in 2014 nonetheless stick in our memory, justifying the continuation of a longstanding Cover Lay Down tradition that honors the softer sets, recorded with the smaller listener in mind.

Of these, Nightlight, from Zee Avi, is jazzy and dear, a tiny nine-track gem driven by uke and sweet voice, with inspired song choices from Disney to Lou Reed bringing a smoky sound to the darkened room. And although its purity as a covers album narrowly justifies Nightlight’s top-tier status, let us not forget ‘Til The Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort from singer-songwriter mothers Edie Carey and Sarah Sample: the album, which includes a short set of originals alongside soft, duly comforting takes on Wilco’s Guthrie, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, and Peggy Lee, plus a small handful of traditional lullabies, won our hearts, and the Gold Medal from this year’s Parent’s Choice Awards.



The Year’s Best Holiday EP:
Robinson & Rohe, The Longest Winter

Sure, the holidays are over; the new year impends; indeed, we come to you much later than usual this year, with but hours before the calendar turns. But our absence on these pages over the last month gave us little time to celebrate two amazing Christmas releases that may well linger long past the thaw – both of them harbingers of upcoming projects that we dare not forget.

And so we close our look back at the best of the year with a reminiscence of December, and two very special EP-length sets: a five-piece Wintery Songs In Eleventy Part Harmony EP from songwriter/singers and string players Jennifer Kimball, Laura Cortese, Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins, Valerie Thompson, Jenna Moynihan, and more of our favorite Boston folkscenesters, put forth in a hand-crafted small batch to fund a holiday full-length to come in 2015, and The Longest Winter, a stunner of a set from new discoveries Robinson & Rohe, who we’re proud to announce will grace our own intimate Unity House Concerts stage in Springfield, MA on January 17.

There’s nothing to sample from the first of these, since the CD is truly a fundraiser ($25 nets you both the EP and a guarantee of the future full-length), and most folks won’t buy holiday music after the holiday; as such, I’ve left these off the download, since I know how weird it is to hit Christmas music in the middle of a mix. But with a week to go before the twelfth day of Christmas, and beauty in every carefully arranged note, there’s ample time for one more glass of nog.


(from The Longest Winter, 2014)




Cover Lay Down thrives throughout the year thanks to the support of artists, labels, promoters, and YOU. So do your part: listen, love, spread the word, and above all, purchase the music, the better to keep it alive.

And if, in the end, you’ve got goodwill to spare, and want to help keep the music flowing? Please, consider a year’s end contribution to Cover Lay Down. All gifts will go directly to bandwidth and server costs; all donors will receive undying praise, and an exclusive download code for a special gift set of favorite 2014 covers otherwise unblogged.

3 comments » | Best of 2014

Small Business Saturday: On Buying Local in a Global World
(A Cover Lay Down Holiday Gift Guide)





Over the river, through the woods, and down the mountain this morning for our tiny rural New England Town’s annual crafts fair: four churches and the House of Art stuffed to their wooden rafters with the very best from local artists and craftspersons, from homespun alpaca yarn and family farm lavender salves to an endless array of jewelry, scarves and woodcarving, all made lovingly by friends and neighbors, familiar faces amidst a sea of comfort and joy.

Lunch afterwards, homemade bread and meat pies at the roadside breakfast joint near the equine rescue center, while horses and sleighs paraded past our window. And now home, with half the holiday shopping done, and nary a shopping mall in sight, while the fire burns bright and the family settles into our respective seats.

It’s days like this I love the local life the most: the four of us on the back roads, singing along to our favorite carols on the radio as we wander through an already-white winter, tires crunching over the roadside snow as yet unsullied by soot and salt. And we’re gladdened to hear the storms of society turn around us, as the annual irritant antithesis of Buy Nothing Day turns to Small Business Saturday.

But as last year, and the year before, Black Friday and its aftermath still top our cultural discourse; the expression of the spirit of commerce in its myriad forms remains great and everpresent, and its antithesis few and far between.

This is not a political blog. Since our inception in 2007, however, we have done our part at Cover Lay Down to fight back against the subtle tyrannies of the consumptive society. We insist on offering links to purchase music from sources closest to the hearts and wallets of the artists themselves; we refuse to provide ads on this space, preferring to “walk the walk” of ethical consumption.

And because a blog is dialogic, so do we also, from time to time, step up onto the soapbox to speak out specifically on why, and how, to better support the local and the intimate – an articulation befitting a blog whose ethnomusical mandate explores the coincidence of sharing and the communal purposefulness of folk.

Today, then, for the third year in a row, we offer our own antithesis to the buy-everything-now message that seems to typify the ever-lengthening holiday season in the Western world with our anti-commercialist, pro-artist gift giving guide for the 2014 holidays. Read on for our annual Small Business Saturday treatise, an updated list of methods and mechanisms for supporting the local and the soul-serving this giving season…and, of course, a few songs to get you into the spirit.



Screen shot 2013-11-29 at 12.41.05 PMBlack Friday is duly noted for causing havoc and stress in the mass marketplace. But if we greet its well-intentioned antithesis Buy Nothing Day with suspicion here at Cover Lay Down, it is because there is nothing inherently anti-commercial about merely deferring product-purchase if we still plan to make it to the mall eventually.

Concerns about the way big business undermines and eats away at the profitability of direct creator-to-consumer relationships are real and valid, of course. But to see consumption as all or nothing is problematic: those who quite literally refuse to buy things unwittingly undermine their own communities, for example, by cutting into taxes for schools and roads, and by destroying the ability of neighborhood artists and local community retailers to survive doing what they love.

Happily, however, there’s a whole spectrum of opportunity outside of the false dichotomy of Black Friday and Buy Nothing Day. And the answer isn’t buying nothing – it’s buying local.

We’ve long championed buying local here at Cover Lay Down. We frequent local farmer’s markets and crafts fairs; we buy apples from orchards, and beer from the brewery; we keep maple syrup and honey that was harvested by friends. In our musical purchases, we try to buy at shows, as this tends to provide the most money for artists, and helps support local venues; we’ve posted about library finds several times, too, and celebrate regional labels and artists wherever possible.

But in the digital age, buying local means not only supporting your local shops, producers, and buskers – it also means supporting the small, the immediate, the independent, and the community-minded. As such, wherever possible, the links which we offer alongside our downloadables and streams go directly to artist websites and other artist-recommended sources, the better to respect the rights and ongoing careers of creators and craftspersons everywhere.

Which is to say: we’re about authenticity and sustainability here, a set of concepts deeply entwined with the organic and acoustic music we celebrate. With that in mind, here’s some suggestions for how to honor the community sentiment which stands at the foundation of folk music, even as you look for ways to show your appreciation and love this holiday season.


1. Give the gift of recorded music. Though streaming models made it more and more challenging every day, music sales remain the bread and butter of the starving artist. And Cover Lay Down stands behind every artist we blog: many of our regular features, such as our New Artists, Old Songs series, focus on new and newly-reconsidered music and musicians worth sharing with friends. So browse our archives and your own, and then buy CDs and downloads for friends and family direct from artist websites. Or check out independent artist-friendly labels like the recently-featured Signature Sounds, Waterbug, Bloodshot, Red House, and Sugar Hill Records, promotional houses like Hearth Music and Mishara Music, and small artist collaboratives and fan-fueled microlabels like Mason Jar Music, Yer Bird, Rarebird, Northplatte, and Asthmatic Kitty. Or, if you prefer to centralize your shopping, skip the chain stores and internet behemoths that undermine local mom-and-pops and pay mere pennies on the dollar, and shop instead at your local struggling music shop, Bandcamp, or even Etsy.

2. Give the gift of time and presence. It’s good to get out with friends, and shared experiences make the best kinds of gifts. So check out tour schedules and local venue listings in your area, and support your local coffeehouse or small venue by booking a table or row for you and your loved ones. Take a child to their first concert, and open up their world to the immediacy and intimacy of live performance. Take a friend, or a group, and open them up to a new artist’s work. Or host a successful house concert, and invite friends, the better to share the artists and music you love.

3. Give the gift of access. If you can’t always get out to a show, spring for a gift subscription to Daytrotter ($32/year) for the music lover in your life, and let them download years worth of studio sessions and stream exclusive live sessions from a broad set of musicians. Or sign them up for Concert Window, a free-for-trial service which offers live concerts almost every night from some of our favorite folk clubs, concert halls and living rooms, and where two-thirds of profits go to musicians and venues. The live-on-screen performances and sessions can be viewed alone, shared over distance through skype and chat, or shared with a friend over a beer on the couch – and the virtual concert is an especially apt gift for friends housebound by physical limitation, geographical isolation, or preference.

4. Give the gift of artistic sustainability. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Pledge Music help artists make art, and donations in someone else’s name are always a nice gift – it shows you’re thinking of them, and it honors the connection you share through music. As a bonus, just as donating to your local radio station can net you a free mug, crowdfunding comes with the promise of product – a reward you can redirect, if you give in someone else’s name.

So browse the folk categories on each site, or skim facebook pages for links to projects in the works that need your support. Examples we’re excited to recommend this year include this cover-laden campaign from singer-songwriter Dawn Landes, who is promoting a package deal including a tour and a covers EP, and Denver-based singer-songwriter John Statz, who is currently raising funds for the release of Tulsa, the album he recorded with Jeffrey Foucault back in January when we caught him at fave local venue The Parlor Room; funding levels for the latter include the usual preorder of what promises to be a strong and soulful Americana album, and an option for backstage and schmooze passes for two that seems to be going fast. And we’re really looking forward to Amy Black’s upcoming project The Muscle Shoals Sessions, an expansion of her previously recorded 4-track EP into “a full-length album of classic Muscle Shoals soul music” backed by Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famer Spooner Oldham, Will Kimbrough, The McCrary Sisters, and more, sure to feature some great Alabama soul classics.

5. Give the gift of promotion. This one is mostly about giving the artists themselves some of your hard-earned time and energy, but artists need gifts, too. So like artists’ Facebook pages, and show others in your feed what you are listening to, the better to spread the word. Join a street team, and volunteer (by yourself or with a friend, as a fun gift date) to help sell CDs, hang posters, or man the door at local coffeehouses and clubs, thus freeing artists to spend their time playing, meeting the crowd, and sustaining their own fan base. Start a blog, for you or a friend, or donate to support one in their name.

6. Stay tuned. Looking for something a little more concrete in the way of coverfolk recommendations? Willing to wait for a few more weeks to decide which albums to purchase for your loved ones and friends? Just as we did last year, Cover Lay Down will be sharing our “best of 2014″ by mid-December; the items on those lists constitute our highest recommendations, and function as a concise gift guide for the coverfolk lover in your life.

And if it’s holiday music you’re looking for, just wait until next week, when we kick off our coverage of this year’s seasonal releases…

Until then, here’s a repost from last year: a short set of relevant covers to get you in the gift-giving spirit.


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