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.


1 comment » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

These Our Hymns Of Grateful Praise:
A Cover Lay Down Thanksgiving Mix





It’s Thanksgiving, and just in time, too: breakneck momentum takes over this time of year, until routines long established begin to fray around the edges; maybe we need a few days off to rethink our priorities.

We’re already grateful as we slowly settle into an unexpected off-day, here at home with our festival feast delayed by weather. Outside, the Christmas radio stations have already kicked into gear, and the world is tense with race and ruin, capitalism and the cold hard stand of conviction, but the snow-blurred landscape blocks everything out. And now the music is low, the lights are soft; children in flannel nightgowns pad barefoot in and out of the kitchen, dropping sleepy kisses in their wake; the pellet stove whirs and warms the neighbor’s borrowed dogs until they fall asleep in our laps.

The Thanksgiving hymnal is sparser than most, but we are quiet, today, and the mixed-marriage Jewnitarian tradition we practice digs deep into all corners of the earth. And oh, we have have so much to be thankful for: the world bright with promise, and ourselves with strength and love enough to work and play in it together. A collection of praise, then, from modern to mostly traditional, that we might skip the tinsel, and stick to the hope and the holy, the gravy and the grace this Thanksgiving season.


These Our Hymns Of Grateful Praise
A Thanksgiving Coverfolk Mix [download!]



Cover Lay Down shares new features and coversets here and on Facebook throughout the year thanks to the support of donors like you. Coming soon: new holiday releases, and our annual guide to shopping local in a digital world!

2 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Mixtapes

Signature Sounds: A Local Label Turns 20 in Style
(with new cover albums and a Chris Smither tribute!)



Cofounder Jim Olsen outside label Signature Sounds in Northampton, MA


After two decades as a go-to source for some of our favorite singer-songwriters, local label Signature Sounds has earned our respect and gratitude a hundred times over even as their catalog of folk, roots, Americana and acoustic indie soulpop has come to the national scene. First conceived as an extension of the Signature Sounds recording studio established by Mark Thayer in the mid-eighties, the label, which released its first album – a holiday sampler – in 1984, also runs our new favorite folk venue (The Parlor Room, a delightfully intimate venue in Northampton where one can browse and purchase from the entire Signature Sounds catalog) and sponsors one of our very favorite roots festivals (the Green River festival, where I first discovered Jeffrey Foucault, Mark Erelli, Josh Ritter, Gillian Welch, and Erin McKeown): all just icing on the anniversary cake, a marker of their homegrown expansion and a harbinger of more to come.

Today, in praise and homage to Signature Sounds and the artists it has introduced and promoted on ever-expanding roster, we swing through a set of 2014 cover and tribute releases from the label, and add a bonus set of favorite tracks from cover albums and tributes released over 20 years in the business. Read on for samples and sentiment, and then, if you’re in the area, stop by to browse the amazing local arts scene at The Parlor Room Makers Market today and tomorrow and pick up 20% off tickets to next weekend’s birthday celebration at the Academy of Music: 4 star-studded concerts over 3 nights with Lake Street Dive, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Chris Smither, Redbird, Mark Erelli, Eilen Jewell, Winterpills, Heather Maloney, and a Crooked Still reunion – all artists featured here on these virtual pages more than once, for good reason.



Since we last wrote about them in a February (Re)Covered post, footstomping fivesome Poor Old Shine has changed their name to Parsonsfield, joined the Signature Sounds roster, and focused their approach in ways that only improve on an already exquisite neotraditional sound. Their newest EP is a playful, eclectic grab-bag of holler and harmonies, with previously YouTubed covers of old tradfolk and Huey Lewis hit The Power Of Love, a lone original (playful romp Anita Loving), and a set of newer studio recordings of tunes from the American school that bring the field to your foyer.




Link Of Chain: A Songwriter’ Tribute to Chris Smither is as much a homage to the Signature Sounds roster and its fans in the music industry as it honors the elder statesman of Northeastern American folk blues, who turned 70 last week. In the hands of Mark Erelli, Jeffrey Foucault, Tim O’Brien, Aoife O’Donovan and other familiar names on the circuit, Smithers’ songs get a masterful treatment with few low points and little sameness, offering apt survey of the label’s sound and cache all at once. Highly recommended tracks include Dave Alvin’s restrained album-opener, a typically smoky, jazz-beautiful version of Waiting On A Train from Patty Larkin, and Mary Gauthier’s chilling take on Smither standard I Feel The Same – a far cry from the funky wah wah pedal swamp blues that Bonnie Raitt used to make the song famous.




Miss Tess and the Talkbacks isn’t folk; Signature Sounds is on an electrified soulpop kick these days, thanks to the success of labelmates Lake Street Dive, whose 2014 Halloween Youtube cover of Love Shack is a poolside screamer not to be missed. But Tess’ late-2013 covers EP The Love I Have For You, which we missed last year, has a rockabilly sentiment and a country core, calling to the rootsy origins even as it frames itself squarely in modern traditions of reinvention and acoustic soul.




Winterpills aren’t folk, either, but the approach to sound on this relatively intimate new duo album hits the mark, as does the concept: totally transformed in an electronic haze by founding bandmembers Flora Reed and Philip Price while their bandmates were busy, lesser-known tracks from the alternative world and beyond specifically chosen for their potential for reinvention shimmer and strain against their original settings. The resulting album is beautiful, with songs sparse and torn, yet equally untethered and etherial.




The Sacred Shakers are a collaborative of Boston musicians, nominally led by country folk artist Eilen Jewell, whose shared love of old-time, country and blues-influenced gospel music lends itself to barn-busting performances. Discovered by Signature Sounds founder and all-around great guy Jim Olsen before they had recorded a lick, their 2014 live album on the label is like a No Depression record played on 45: upbeat, high-energy, spiritually joyful, and eminently danceable.




Signature Sounds has produced some amazing albums over the years; many of their cover and tribute albums are staples of our Cover Lay Down archival stacks. As promised, then: today’s bonus set features a treasure trove sampler from a highly recommended all-covers subsection of one of the best independent catalogs in the modern world. Click through to purchase albums direct from the source, the better to keep Signature Sounds going strong in the decades to come.

    20 Years of Coverage:
    More Cover Albums and Tributes from Signature Sounds






Always ad-free and artist-friendly, Cover Lay Down shares songsets and ethnographic musings throughout the year thanks to the kind support of readers like you. Want to help?


1 comment » | Chris Smither, Parsonsfield, Peter Mulvey, Tributes and Cover Compilations, Winterpills

Phosphorescent Covers
Nick Cave, Lucinda Williams, George Jones, Leonard Cohen & 16 more!


muchachomatt624


When Paste Magazine named alt-folkster Phosphorescent‘s masterful-yet-intimate album Muchaho their 2013 Album of the Year, it was easy to dismiss the long-time pseudonymous solo project as just another inner-circle seat-holder in the bearded indiefolk crowd – and easier, still, when Paste declared the image of cover artist Matthew Hoack in Mexico, where the album was composed, as definitive as Bon Iver in his isolated Wisconsin cabin.

Hoack’s personal history is almost too perfect for the sensitive hipster mythos: born in Alabama, the autobiographical artist began his career in alternative hotbed town Athens, Georgia, and later moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yards; he primarily records for Austin-based label Dead Oceans, alongside a roster including Tallest Man On Earth, John Vanderslice, and Akron/Family. Wolves, which originally appeared on his 2007 opus Pride, has been covered at least twice this decade, in solid, broken versions from similarly bandified solo artists Message To Bears and Strand of Oaks; he’s played Sasquatch and Bonnaroo, toured with The National, and will appear at Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, and San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival. And certainly, his placement cred is sound: though his version of theme song Little Boxes was rejected for use on Weeds, his fragile, sad work has graced several indie film soundtracks, including 2011 Kevin Spacey/Jeremy Irons vehicle Margin Call and this summer’s blockbuster The Amazing Spiderman 2, plus two MOJO Magazine cover compilations.

But his credibility as part of the new wave of folk-tinged crossover artists worth attention from the wider world really is honestly come, whatever the backstory. Musically, Phosphorescent teeters on the imperfect indie edge, with rich atmospheres that drown the listener in layers of sound and creaky sentiment, imperfect and imperfectly performed narration, and introspective first-person lyrics that question and fog, bringing both comfort and the ache of desperation.

Yet where indie compatriot Bon Iver trends towards pop music heartbreakingly undone, Houcke’s cover choices out him as a folk musician first and foremost, almost in spite of the heavily layered, often-electrified production he increasingly favors in the studio. Over a career spanning seven records since 2003, Houck has recorded a set of covers that ground his work strongly in the folkstream, both by practice and by selection: on indie and nufolk compilations such as this year’s Sweethearts Valentine’s Day cover sampler, MOJO tributes to The Beatles and Neil Young, and, most notably, on 2009 album To Willie, an endearing yet straightforward Willie Nelson tribute, once named one of Rhapsody’s favorite cover albums, that pays homage to both the California Country movement and Nelson’s classic Lefty Frizzell tribute album From Willie To Lefty.

So listen, as our featured artist digs deep into his musical forebears, and comes up with a true 20-track survey befitting a true folksman, with versions of songs from Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, John Prine, and the American cowboy canon, plus an utterly gorgeous Leonard Cohen cover that could have come from Springsteen’s darkest hour, a short set of in-studio video covers, and a few surprises along the way. We think you’ll find the argument for Phosphorescent persuasive, and the music as divine, as sad, as beautiful, as comforting, and as soft as any broken angel’s wings.

  • Phosphorescent: If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will) (orig. George Jones) [2013]

  • Phosphorescent: Far From Me (orig. John Prine) [2013]

  • Phosphorescent: Days Of Heaven (orig. Randy Newman) [2012]


  • Phosphorescent: Storms Never Last (orig. Jessi Colter) [2013]


  • Phosphorescent: I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (orig. R.L. Burnside) [2010]

  • Phosphorescent: Any Old Miracle (orig. Vern Gosdin) [2014]
    Warning: loud advert before the track, but it’s worth it…





Looking for an easy way to listen? Download the whole Phosphorescent coverset and snag our two favorite versions of Phosphorescent’s Wolves as bonus tracks!

3 comments » | Featured Artists, Phosphorescent

Lord, Protect My Child:
Songs For Our Children, Covered In Folk




Last October, when I wrote about my struggle to recenter family and fatherhood as my older daughter encountered a newly diagnosed auto-immune disorder (Everybody Hurts: On discovering a child’s illness), many of you wrote in to lend support and solace, and I am grateful for the grace, ever thankful for the voices you bring to this kitchen-table community.

Fast forward one year, though, and the weight has not been lifted so easily. The elderchild still struggles with balance, losing sleep and schooldays to a complex web of pain real and projected. And it’s hard: hard to watch her struggle; hard not to become inured to the stress and strain the constant ache brings to our hearth and home; hard to like her, on the days when she lets the pain get to her better self.

And then there is her sister, who has captured her disease, and our attention.

At nine years old, the wee one is sensitive to others in ways her sister isn’t. And so, where the elderchild complains loudly of her stomach, her little sister is more likely to hide the pain from us so as not to call attention to herself. It took months to diagnose her; it may take years before she is truly comfortable leaving the classroom in pain or need.

Having two sick children is a million miles from having one sick child. Juggling needs is a new stressor, and it is starting to require both parents, keeping us from supporting each other by taking turns.

And two compounds one. They resent the other’s illness, and the attention it brings. Our home is rife and rotten with one-upmanship, jealousy and mistrust growing between the girls, born of pain, and the constant competition to be taken care of. Those last six days in the hospital were an amusement park of chaos, compounded by steroid rage, endless insurance company appeals, the exhaustion of shuttling between two bedsides, and the long agony of waiting for tests and trials.

Driving away from the hospital that evening without them was the hardest thing I have done in a year or more.

Normal isn’t normal anymore.

But there are moments where pride can still be found.

Three weeks ago, on the cusp of diagnosis, the wee one was scheduled for an MRI; I went to work; my wife was planning to take her into Boston after dropping the elderchild off at school. Just before noon, though, things changed, and I got the call: the elderchild was experiencing a sharp and unexplained pain that might be appendicitis; both children needed to go in, but in different directions; we would need both adults there, though both would prefer Mama and could be heard fighting about it in the background, and it would take a good half an hour to arrange sub coverage in my classroom.

The next several hours passed in a whirlwind: the interminably long ninety minute drive, the panicked search for the right room in an unfamiliar wing of a hospital constantly under construction. The pain-hobbled elderchild and I went off to meet with a frazzled specialist already trying to manage tests and find nurses for her sister; my wife stayed with the wee one, who had thrown up every time they tried to get her to drink the fluids for the MRI; one more try, and they were going to put in a feeding tube.

Doctors came in; doctors came out. Mostly, we waited, and wondered what was happening to her sister. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, on our way back from the bathroom, there she was, small and sad beside her mother and the doctor, emerging from a side room, a long yellow tube snaking out of her nose.

Something smashed to pieces in all of us. I could see it in my wife’s eyes, there at the other end of the hall; I could feel it in my heart. But only the elderchild acted, taking her hand out of mine, screaming her sister’s name across the medicine and pain, running to hug and comfort her, crying and broken.

And we pulled them away, because the doctor said “no crying, remember, we talked about this”. And I pulled the elderchild into the same room that they had just left, and her sister and her mother and the Doctor were gone.

And there I was in a tiny room with a broken heart and a child shaking with rage at the injustices of her sister’s treatment, an hour lost to calm words and stories and the slow dampening of the emotional furnace, the Boston skyline the only distraction, our voices our only distractor.

So often at home we see only the worst of them: the jostling for space, the frustration of pain. That Friday she was angry, but it was born of love, fierce and unexpected after a year of push and pull, of distance and shadows. Last week they were cellmates; now they are home, though with a calendar full of medical appointments, too-often shortened days at school, and with all other things tentative, ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice if the pain gets too great.

But last night we went out without them, and it felt safe to leave them home, playing with their new sewing kit quietly on the kitchen table. Today they are at the mall with their mother, chattering excitedly about their Halloween plans while they help each other try on thrift shop costumes. And every once in a while, for no reason at all, the elderchild hugs her sister tight, embarrassing her, and in their interplay I see the crushing love I feel for them as if my children had become a mirror for my most secret and unexplainable self.

How heartbreaking to see such stubborn, violent love emerge in the strangest of places. How powerful to see them learn the things we thought we needed to give.

How fiercely we protect each other. How it hurts to love you so.

Oh, my brave, proud children, may you, too, learn to channel your anger into love.



SONGS FOR OUR CHILDREN: A COVERFOLK MIX [zip!]


9 comments » | Mixtapes

Unity House Concerts presents: Meg Hutchinson
(October 18, 2014 @ UU Society of Greater Springfield)





Cover Lay Down is proud to announce Unity House Concerts, a new folk-and-more music series hosted by yours truly and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield. Concerts will be held roughly two Saturdays a season in our own wooded sanctuary, and will 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.

This year we are excited to present a set of award-winning musicians from the Northeast, including Jean Rohe, Jay Mankita, The Gaslight Tinkers, and our first show of the season with Red House Records recording artist Meg Hutchinson on October 18th.



We originally went to Meg Hutchinson for healing, in the wake of a tornado that ravaged our rural New England town in 2011. Since then, after a great run that featured Mark Erelli, Mike + Ruthy, Danny Schmidt, The Sea The Sea, and more, the converted carriage house in which we hosted Meg has gone dark – but her songbook still resonates, making her an easy choice to kick off our new coffeehouse series in style.

Long lauded by critics and fans, Boston-based, Berkshires-born contemporary acoustic singer-songwriter Meg delivers music as powerful as it is gentle. A master of the introspective ballad, her albums have made the top 10 on US folk radio, and won her numerous songwriting awards in the US, Ireland and UK, including the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, the Billboard Song Contest and prestigious competitions at Merlefest, NewSong, Kerrville, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. And her seasonal tour with Antje Duvekot, Anne Heaton, and Natalia Zukerman as Winterbloom has become a don’t-miss staple of the local scene.

Equally at home on piano or guitar, Meg’s pure alto is a potent carrier for her mood and message. Her influences include poet Mary Oliver, songwriters Greg Brown, Shawn Colvin, and Joni Mitchell, and mood maker David Gray, but her voice is all her own, with songs that yearn for inner peace, at once ecstatic and meditative, crafted around elegant and free-floating melodies that feel both modern and rooted. Her most recent album, Beyond That (2013), practically aches with songs – about coming home, transforming desire, and opening the heart for some greater purpose.

We are thrilled to have Meg Hutchinson opening our newest musical venture, setting the stage for what promises to be a vibrant, new, community-centered program at the UUSGS, and invite you to join us, too, if you’re local to Springfield, MA (just 30-40 minutes from Hartford and Northampton). To tempt and to celebrate, here’s a few favorite covers by Meg – including a gorgeous duet with frequent touring companion Antje Duvekot and a very special Townes Van Zandt cover recorded at her first of two visits to our previous house concert series.


    Antje Duvekot w/ Meg Hutchinson: Gypsy Life (orig. John Gorka)


    Edie Carey and Meg Hutchinson: Falling Slowly (orig. Glen Hansard)


1 comment » | Featured Artists, House Concerts, Meg Hutchinson

Banned Books Week: September 21-27, 2014
(songs by John Denver, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Kris Delmhorst & more!)





Before I discovered music, books were my salvation: a haven from the real world, where stories always resolved and heroes always played to type, except when they didn’t. And I still read voraciously, in long and shortform, genre fiction and non-fiction, though not so much as in middle school, when I would crouch secretive and sly on the carpet of my bedroom, squinting into the spellbound page by the light of the crack in the door.

My relationship with literature has diminished, albeit slightly. But it has also shifted quite a bit. For one thing, the words we read in the 21st century zip through space in memes and moments, making anything more than a skim and dash precious and rare. And although librarians have long held my deepest respect, now they are among my most valuable coworkers: the young guy with the hipster checks and the everpresent Starbucks cup who joined our school last year is my kind of guy, a true friend in a sea of stress, and I trust him intimately as a keeper of the words we cherish, watching as the graphic novel section under his thumb grows to take over the library like kudzu, and the students alongside.

Books are part and parcel of my livelihood, too. I got my start as a media specialist, working hand in hand with the library staff; I’ve weeded entire libraries down to nothing, and served my hours at the reference desk; I even spoke at the New England Association of School Librarians annual conference one year. I teach Communications, and media, and include the printed word as part and parcel of the new media package we explore; I teach English, too, some years, which means literature and language, and delving deep into more than a few of the books on the “perennially banned” list kept by the American Library Association, including 1984, Lord of the Flies, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Sherman Alexi’s magnificent coming-of-age story The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

These titles are on the tip of my tongue today: it’s the last day of Banned Books Week, in which librarians, bookstores, publishers and readers around the world celebrate the printed word, and take a yearly stand for access to all, free from the bars of censorship and obscuration. So here’s a mixtape with a topical theme to honor the week gone by; interested literature buffs are also invited to check out our older Covered in Folk features Songs Inspired By Literature and Songs Inspired By Shakespeare.


I Write The Book: A Cover Lay Down Mixtape[zip!]



Cover Lay Down posts regularly with songs and summations at the intersection of coversongs and the folkways thanks to the generous support of readers like you. Coming soon: new cover EPs and LPs from labels and artists near and far, and a very special feature on a brand new concert series hosted by yours truly!

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