Vermont multi-instrumentalist Katie Trautz has been recording other people’s music for a decade. But, until now, never her own.
She plays fiddle in a host of of local bands, from country music group Wooden Dinosaur to Cajun duo Chaque Fois. She sang in vocal choir The Bright Wings Chorus, and wrote a book a couple years ago teaching harmony singing to kids. She co-founded the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture in Montpelier, and teaches violin in her spare time.
I only stepped foot in Vermont once this year.
That’s the dirty little secret of this blog (well, not that secret; it says it right on the About page): I don’t live there. Haven’t since I started doing this last year.
That’s going to change when I move back in the spring, but the aim of the site won’t. I conceived of County Tracks as helping to expose the best music created in Vermont to non-Vermonters. In the digital era, it’s easy for an expat dedicated enough to follow any local scene from afar. What’s trickier is getting great local music heard by people who have no reason to care about the category of “Vermont music.”
This ties into a broader problem. The glut of choice of streaming, rather than leveling the playing field, has mostly helped the famous get more famous. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a Billboard staffer claiming Drake was “bigger than the Beatles” because all 25 tracks on Drake’s new album appeared on the Hot 100 simultaneously. I won’t even get into the “bigger than the Beatles” nonsense (come on). The more important point is that, overwhelmed by choice, listeners are gravitating towards what they know. No matter how many times a digital music CEO says the word “discovery,” actual music discovery seems harder than ever.
I don’t know if any of the artists below are blowing up Spotify playlists, or whether any computer algorithm is pushing them on users. But they deserve attention. Great music happens beyond the big cities and big labels; it just needs exposure. In my small way, I hope these lists help a little. There’a lot of great music being made in Vermont. More people outside Vermont – people like me – need to hear it.
I tried to discern some overarching theme with this year’s Best Songs list. One has to write something in these intros, after all. I never came up with one (other than that the songs are all, you know, good). But maybe that diversity itself offers a narrative thread.
The only thing many outsiders seem to associate with Vermont music is jam bands. Mostly one jam band, really. Now, I’m sure learning that Vermont has other genres wouldn’t surprise any outsider. But learning that the music being created in those genres is equally vibrant – and equally supported by the local music scene – might.
Adam Rabin – Trains That Never Come
Is progressive rock due for a comeback? The Washington Post‘s David Weigel released a well-reviewed book on the subject last year (I still gotta read that thing), which seems like it might auger a renaissance. But other than that… let’s just say Pitchfork hasn’t started reviewing Rush reissues. Adam Rabin, of proggers Elephants of Scotland, makes his own argument for the genre on new album The Badger Flies at Dawn. He brings in pop and orchestral melodies in sweeping arrangements that nod toward Genesis and… I suppose I’m part of the problem, as I have few other points of reference. If, like me, you need a genre introduction, “Trains That Never Come” offers an easily accessible place to start. No 7/5 time signatures required.
A Box of Stars – Cornfields
Never before have I Googled a mixing engineer’s name, but Josh Druckman’s work feels as vital to building such a pristine, delicate beauty of a record as the actual musicians (who, for the record, are Macaulay Lerman on guitar and vocals; Claire Londagin on vocals; Jens Hybertson on violin; Eben Schumacher on bass, piano, and guitar; and Tim Halteman on drums). Take “Cornfields.” Enigmatic lyrics swirl around minimalist instrumentation, subtle percussion delicately balancing with windy violin. It’s not flashy music, and folky slowcore of this sort often lands in the background-music category. But the band’s just-so playing, presented perfectly, demands attention.
“A Better Version of the Truth was the toughest record I have ever made,” Bow Thayer writes on Bandcamp – and that’s saying something from a man who once battled an ice storm with Levon Helm to record.
But that can’t be compared with the tragedy Thayer encountered during the three-year journey towards his latest album. First, his drummer suffered multiple strokes, rendering him unable to play during two years of physical therapy. Sadder still: This past March, his bassist Alex Abraham took his own life at just 28 years old. (Read his obituary at the Vermont Standard, which includes details about how to donate to the Alex Abraham Musical Excellence Scholarship at Woodstock High School).
Thayer writes about the tragedy quite movingly in the album’s liner notes. My paraphrase won’t do his words justice, so I’ll quote that part in full:
The Big Sip – Two Hips / One Night
When an album features the credit “Tenor Sax (Track 5),” you know I’m starting with Track 5. And the sax doesn’t disappoint when it finally arrives on this arty-jam-funk journey, but there is so much going on beforehand you forget it’s coming. Crazy keyboard sound effects, off-kilter Phish rhythms, and some insistent melodies that push through the chaos. It’s off the band’s debut EP Sip Responsibly.
The pictures say it all. Xenia Dunford’s press photos for her last album featured all manner of her posing with a jaunty fedora, leaning on brick walls, sitting on train tracks. Five years later, she’s done joking around. In her new press photo, she stares straight into the lens, unsmiling in black and white.
It’s a more serious, mature look befitting a more serious, mature sound. A lot has changed in the five years since one of Vermont’s most promising young songwriters disappeared just as her career was getting going. The ensuing period, she writes, was “marked by depression, self loathing and the destruction of people and ideas I held very dear yet were completely out of my control.”
The Rear Defrosters’ “Gentleman Farmer” sounds like an old-time country hoedown, the sort of thing that Hank Williams might have written, or that Levon Helm might have goofed around with in the Woodstock barn. It’s not, but the similarity is no accident. The Rear Defrosters is a country covers band that plays Jimmie Rodgers and Dwight Yoakam tunes for beer-drinkers. It features an array of acclaimed southern Vermont players and associates honkytonking it up, including a ringer on guitar: the great songwriter and finger-picker Sam Moss, who I’ve written about before.
But leader Michael Roberts is primarily a songwriter, and a good one – I’ve written both about his band Wooden Dinosaur and his solo work before – so he challenged himself to write a few original songs they could slip into live sets so seamlessly the crowds wouldn’t notice. “It seemed like a good challenge to try and write songs that could fit alongside the canon of classic country music covers we usually play,” Roberts says.