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Steve Earle is an American Icon. As a rock, country and folk singer-songwriter, record producer, author and actor. Earle began his career as a songwriter in Nashville and released his first EP in 1982. His breakthrough album was the 1986 album Guitar Town. Since then Earle has released 15 other studio albums and received three Grammy awards. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Shawn Colvin, Ian Stuart Donaldson and Emmylou Harris. He has appeared in film and television, and has written a novel, a play, and a book of short stories.
"We live in such a fast-paced, hectic environment, I wanted to make a record that would invite people to step back and take their time to listen," Jackie Greene says of Back to Birth, his first album in five years. "I wanted to make a record that would reward people who are willing to sit down and give it a couple of serious listens."
Back to Birth - Greene's seventh album and his Yep Roc Records debut - is more than worthy of some serious attention. The 11-song set showcases the multitalented artist's uncanny knack for synthesizing his deep affinity for American roots styles into timeless, personally-charged music. Armed with a persuasive voice, a vivid songwriting skill and an instinctive mastery of several instruments, Greene has carved out a unique musical niche, and the album marks another creative landmark in his already compelling body of work.
Produced by Los Lobos member and frequent Greene collaborator Steve Berlin, Back to Birth underlines Greene's remarkable evolution as a performer and writer. With such new compositions as "Silver Lining," "Trust Somebody," "Now I Can See For Miles," and the stirring title track, the artist's distinctive melodic sensibility is matched with thoughtful, introspective lyrics that confront some profound philosophical issues with plainspoken eloquence.
"Musically, this album is kind of a return to the simplicity of the records that I started with, although I feel like I have a much better idea of what I'm doing now," Greene observes. "I think the lyrics are the part that have really evolved. A lot of these songs explore the notion of a cyclical existence, and the sense that life goes in a circle. I want the songs to come from a place that's meaningful to me, but I also want to keep them as simple and direct as I can. I look at old blues songs, or Hank Williams songs, and they're so simple and direct but they can convey some pretty deep ideas."
Although Back to Birth is Greene's first new solo release in five years, he's hardly been idle. In fact, he's spent much of the past few years engaging in a series of collaborative musical adventures that have teamed him with several notable veterans.
In 2013, Greene joined the reunited Black Crowes as lead guitarist on their worldwide tour, and the following year released the self-titled debut album of supergroup Trigger Hippy, which Greene is a member of along with Joan Osborne and Crowes drummer Steve Gorman. Greene continues to be a frequent member of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s touring ensemble Phil Lesh & Friends, for which he has contributed lead guitar and vocals since 2007. Greene also toured as part of WRG, an acoustic trio with the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, and he performed with Levon Helm as part of Helm's fabled Midnight Ramble shows.
The same qualities that attracted such legendary figures to work with Greene are prominent throughout Back to Birth, which Greene and producer Berlin cut at Portland's Supernatural Sound with a sympathetic crew of mostly jazz-steeped players, with Greene stretching out on a number of instruments, including guitar, piano, organ and drums.
"This is the third album I've done with Steve," he says. "I've known him for about 12 years, and he's really good at challenging me and getting it out of me. We know each other well enough at this point that we can be blunt with each other, and he'll tell me that I'm full of it if that's what I need to hear."
The musical passion and creative integrity that drive Back to Birth have been constants in Jackie Greene's musical life from the start. While growing up in Northern California, he taught himself to play piano and guitar. His musical reference points shifted radically when, at the age of 14, he ran across a cache of his parents' vintage rock, country, blues and R&B LPs in the family's basement.
Still in his teens and inspired by his discoveries, Greene began writing songs and performing them at a local coffeehouse while recording his compositions in his makeshift garage studio and burning CDRs to sell at his gigs. He saved the money he made selling those discs to fund his debut album, the self-produced, self-released Rusty Nails. Despite being a D.I.Y. release with minimal promotion, the disc received substantial regional attention from fans and press alike.
His popularity led to a deal with a local independent label, which released his second album, Gone Wanderin', in late 2002. The disc won considerable national attention, leading to a series of national tours opening for the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Huey Lewis, Mark Knopfler and Taj Mahal.
Greene continued to win critical acclaim and expand his fan base with 2004's Sweet Somewhere Bound and 2006's American Myth. In 2007, Greene began moonlighting with Phil Lesh and Friends, while continuing his own musical evolution with his own releases Giving Up the Ghost and Till the Light Comes, released in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
"The musicians that I really admire and try to emulate are the ones who have the whole package: they're great songwriters, great singers and great instrumentalists, and they have a vibe about them that's real," he states, adding, "When I go to make a record, I'm not thinking about where I can fit in a bunch of guitar solos. I'm thinking, 'What does this song feel like? What's it saying?' So my goal, when writing a song or making a record, is to find the core of that emotional experience and convey that."
Although he's already racked up a multitude of impressive musical achievements, Greene isn't one to look back. Instead, he continues to look to the future - and looks forward to getting back on the road to bring Back to Birth's soulful songcraft to the loyal, wildly diverse fan base that he's built through talent, vision and hard work.
"I still plan on making a lot of different kinds of records in the future, but I can't tell you what they're going to sound like, because I really have no idea," he asserts. "All I can do is write songs and make music as honestly as I can. That's what I believe people appreciate about what I do. They trust me to be honest with them, and I'd never want to abuse that trust."
Every new album from Dar Williams represents her thoughts and feelings about both her own life and larger forces in the world. But her ninth studio record, Emerald, marks a particularly dramatic confluence between her experiences and broader contemporary culture—and what it means to be a songwriter at this moment in history. In the past few years, Williams has been involved in a wide range of different efforts and projects: teaching a course titled “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy” at her alma mater, Wesleyan University; working with children at several summer camps; leading songwriting workshops; getting involved with the workings of her village; and writing a book about the ways she’s seen towns becoming more independent and prosperous over her twenty years of touring.
In addition, in the face of dramatic transformations in the music industry, she is releasing Emerald on her own after choosing to part ways with Razor & Tie, her label for almost twenty years. “It’s like the record business is a giant building that collapsed,” says Williams, “but when the building is destroyed, you get to see what remains. And this incredible structure of the music and the friendships that I have is all still there. Seeing that led to a decision to record songs with themes about relationships and connections—I wanted to write songs for my friends and about my friends.” A scan of Emerald’s credits reveals the strength of her bonds in the music community. Recorded in Nashville; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Beacon, New York; and Weehawken, New Jersey, the album features a remarkable list of guest musicians and co-writers, including guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson, Jim Lauderdale, Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters, and Suzzy and Lucy Wainwright Roche. Even the song that set the album in motion was the result of a meeting of the minds. As Williams was preparing her Wesleyan course, she played a show at which she shared a bill with Jill Sobule. “I told her about the era I was covering,” says Williams, “and her incredible joy in talking about the ‘70s and the way that we loved music then was the beginning of the song ‘FM Radio.’ When I started to write it, I immediately asked if she wanted to do a co-write. It was a lot of great conversations on the phone, one really fun day in New York City, and one really fun day in the studio.” Where her last album, 2011’s In the Time of Gods, was an ambitious and evocative series of songs that melded the imagery and narratives of classical mythology with modern issues and themes, most of the inspiration on Emerald was concrete and immediate.
She began writing “Mad River” during the Occupy Wall Street actions, based on a real-life example of current economic dysfunction. “I heard about this guy who had a job at a school, lost the job, and then got it back because it had been outsourced—he was stripped of benefits and getting half the pay for the same job, and he kind of went under,” she says. “It was a recognition that we’re not in balance right now. But I also wanted it to have a feeling of brotherhood around this protagonist, so that’s why I wanted Milk Carton Kids to play on it, because they bring that spirit, that brotherly sense of honor, into their music.” A cover of Joe Strummer’s rousing “Johnny Appleseed” reflects Williams’ work planting gardens at summer camps, while “Girl of the World” was the result of a trip to Honduras, where a friend of hers is making a documentary about the lives of some local young women. “I wrote a song for them that was very ballad-y, and that’s on the record, but these girls love Taylor Swift, and I thought, ‘I can’t just do acoustic folk for these teenage girls!,’ “ she says with a laugh. “One great thing about working on my own is that if I want to do my iteration of a Taylor Swift song, then there’s no rule that says I can’t. So I wrote and recorded something in Nashville with Angel Snow, and we all had to figure out where it lived—in folk, in country, in pop—and in the end, we just did what we wanted and it sounds like a Dar song.” The final song she cut for the album is “New York Is a Harbor,” a reflection on the city that looms largest in America’s imagination. ”There is something special about the feeling of a neighborhood, the feeling of things that are built locally. I think we all understand that moment when the local thing is turned into a commercial version of itself,” she says.
“New York is struggling; it’s just so precious that everybody wants it. I’m not blaming one person or another, it’s just too expensive—but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold on to the ideal of the neighborhoods and the people who created them. “A lot of people have not given up on the positive diversity of incomes, mental wavelengths, and dreams in New York. Also, in light of the things going on in my town at the time, I wanted to reinvigorate the sense that people have power as storytellers and active citizens to keep that diversity alive.” If friendship and human connection lie at the heart of Emerald, Williams had to put these ideas to a very real test when she decided to crowd-fund the making of the album through Pledge Music.
While it was an adjustment getting used to sharing as much as possible from the album’s sessions with her fans and followers, she enjoyed the opportunities for interaction. “Pledge for me is like swimming in a pool,” she says. “My fans are smarter than I am, I like being around them, so I said, 'Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.' When we started thinking about, ‘How do you want to fundraise for the album?,’ it was actually a very fun discussion. I heard that people want to know about the recording process. I had kind of forgotten the wonderful Alice in Wonderland feeling of first coming into the studio twenty years ago, and the Pledge campaign reminded me.” It’s a cliché that the personal is the political, but for Dar Williams, there really is no separating her life from her worldview. And in the face of a shifting world, she is more aware than ever of the power this approach can create. “I’m now experiencing the fruits of the alternative culture I was part of in the ‘90s,” she says. “I think I’ve made choices about how I lived my life, outside of the world that was going to fit me among the mainstream norms, and I chose to stay with my friends, to stay with my culture. “That turns out to have been the sturdiest structure I could have built for myself. And that’s in my songs, it’s in my teaching. I’m a believer in what can happen when we make music together.”