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.
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.
This summer, Nine Inch Nails released Bad Witch, originally billed as the final EP in a three-EP trilogy. Only Trent Reznor said upon release that, even though it only contains six songs, it wasn’t an EP after all. “Want to know why it’s being labelled an LP instead of an EP?” he wrote in response to a fan questioning the change. “EPs show up with singles in Spotify and other streaming services = they get lost easier. EPs feel less important in today’s music-isn’t-as-important-as-it-once-was world. Why make it easier to ignore?”
In the digital-music era, the boundaries between an LP and an EP are porous at best. Bands can mostly decide for themselves what to label a release. Some artists have begun calling their EPs “mini-albums” (which is not a thing). Kanye West produced a series of seven-song projects this summer, few topping 25 minutes. None were labeled EPs. In the physical media era, there were concrete differences between an album, EP, and single: size, price, etc. Now it’s a free-for-all.
Reid Parsons wasn’t nervous by the time she stepped on to the competition stage. Sure, she was nervous before her slot in the (deep breath) 2017 Advance Music Acoustic Singer/Songwriter Contest Finals. Her solo performing experience was pretty sporadic, the occasional gig for tips here and there. Few knew her songs, since she couldn’t afford to record them. Then, on top of that, contest organizers told her minutes before that she’d have to fill fifteen minutes instead of the five she’d prepared. But she regained her confidence and sang some of the songs she’d been carrying with her for years.
“I knew I’d slayed it,” she says in an email. “That’s not being conceited or proud; that’s knowing what a good performance is. I have my fair share of poor performances, but I love performing under pressure and rising to the competition, and I did that night. I wanted that prize so bad.”
She won it, and, if the songs she performed then sound anything like they do now, I can’t imagine anyone else was even close. And without her victory that evening, we might not have one of the most fully-formed debuts of the year. The prize included two free days at a local Vermont studio, and the Reid Parsons EP she recorded there sounds like someone preparing half their life for this moment – which this 25-year old has, writing songs since age 13.
Though she hadn’t recorded before, Reid Parsons hardly sounds like the work of a first-timer. One song (“Charlie,” which I’ve already raved about elsewhere) features Faulkner-esque shifts of narrative perspective. Another (“Not Ready to Return”) switches genres halfway through, beginning folk and ending somewhere close to gospel.
Parsons cites some standard influences for a singer-songwriter, artists like Jason Isbell and fellow Vermonter Grace Potter. But a more unusual influence seems equally informative: slam poetry. Through high school and college, Parsons competed in slam competitions on a national level before growing disillusioned with the scene. So if the songwriting chops on Reid Parsons bely her professional inexperience, she has deeper wells to draw from. Just listen to the opening lines of “Not Ready to Return”:
One by one, all my bones break Ashes start rising up like hell’s snowflakes Somehow I’m not reborn Just standing in the wreckage of this unnatural storm
Three original endings got discarded before she landed on that song’s cathartic finish: a repeating gospel chorus that may be the single best moment on the EP. “I hate strong resolutions in songs, because they’re so final,” she writes, “so [producer] Yasmin Tayeby and I worked really really hard on the ending to come up with something that was powerful but didn’t have all the instruments/voices resolving simultaneously.”
Having been amassing songs in notebooks since she was barely a teenager, the EP her contest prize enabled her to record show only the beginnings of her promise (and one of the songs she performed at the contest still awaits a proper recording). She’ll surely be playing bigger stages, and winning bigger prizes, soon.
When I first wrote about Vermont folk singer Dave Richardson’s new album Carry Me Along, I highlighted his wonderful song about squids. His latest single, just in time for Halloween, tackles a darker subject. Richardson covers “The Unquiet Grave,” an English folk song hundreds of years old narrated by a woman in her grave. It’s kind of a murder ballad for someone already dead, a man metaphorically killing a ghost by mourning so relentlessly her soul can’t finding peace.
“The first version I heard of this song was a recording by Jean Ritchie,” Richardson says. “The ghostly imagery of the woman speaking from within her grave, her ‘earthly strong’ breath, hooked me. It is an achingly beautiful and sad depiction of grief and loss. That combination of graphic imagery and devastating grief got into me and stayed with me. But both of those things are big in my life. I love scary stories, horror, and spooky ballads. And I really, really love sad songs that penetrate down to the deepest fibers of your being. I relate to the idea of being so deep in depression that it becomes consuming and habitual and really needing someone to say ‘hey, you have a life to live, get to it while you can.'”Continue reading »
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.Continue reading »
Great little details abound in the final song off Abby Sherman’s debut album: “The callused fingers fumble over the strings. / Do you only find me beautiful when I sing? / In a dark bar where the lights are kept low. / Nothing better to do and no where better to go.”
Baby Brush – Dinos
I feel I wasted a good Frank Zappa comparison in last month’s list. Vermont expats Baby Brush – Christopher Davis, Peter Housekeeper, Theodore Housekeeper, and Ryan Kochalka (James‘ nephew) – sounds far closer to Zappa than anything I’ve encountered so far, twisting and warping just about every genre in popular music on their debut album. Opening track “A Tribute to Foot” turns doo-wop on its head, with the only lyrics being “foot foot.” Then “Dinos” alternates wild guitar with wonked-out synthesizers over lyrics about nipple tassels, sounding like five song ideas crammed into one. Like Zappa himself, it’s a delicate balance that occasionally falls off the edge of insanity – but succeeds far more often than it should.Continue reading »
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.”Continue reading »
Many prominent artists are recording “political” albums these days. But almost inevitably, the lyrics tend to paint a blurry picture. Musicians have over-learned the lessons of 1960s protest singers, who wrote songs so timely that they became dated within days. Is anyone’s favorite Dylan song really “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”? Today’s overcorrection leads to broad generalities about “the fight” and “resistance,” without speaking to the times in any direct way.
Emma Back’s fantastic new album Little World is a political album too, but Back has something specific to say. No, she’s not chronicling the Iran deal’s dissolution. There’s no “Talkin’ Bob Mueller Blues,” and the word “Trump” does not come up once. Little World succeeds where others have failed because, rather than attempting a sweeping statement about “our times,” Back drills into one specific subject: war in the Middle East.Continue reading »