Interview with Dori Freeman

I have fond memories of a showcase gig performed by Dori Freeman at Cannery Row during Americana Fest in 2016. Allocated a graveyard slot, directly before Rodney Crowell and his band were due to perform, the then 24-year-old came on stage accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, a lone figure in the centre of what - excluding The Ryman – must be the largest podium at the festival. Challenged by an annoyingly talkative audience, many who only paused their conversations to clap when she finished each song, she finally silenced them mid set by bravely singing Ain’t Nobody a cappella, which took some nerve. I thought ‘thumbs ups and well done to you’. I wondered just how difficult she found it to engage audiences most particularly when she’s not the headline act. "Developing good stage presence is still very much an ongoing process for me. I find talking and engaging the audience in between songs infinitely harder than just performing. Playing and singing comes naturally to me; being the focus of a large crowd does not. I have a very dry and sometimes dark sense of humour which doesn’t always easily convey on stage."

It doesn’t get any more authentic country than Freeman. Born and reared in Galax Virginia (famous for its annual fiddling convention), she is very much a home bird and follows the musical traditions of both her grandfather and father, whose Front Porch Gallery and Frame Shop forms part of the Crooked Road music trail in Virginia. Even though she was surrounded by music from childhood it was not until 2014 that she plucked up the courage to send some music to Teddy Thompson – whom she had been a huge fan of - by way of a Facebook message, that has resulted in them working together on both her self-titled album released in 2016 and its successor Letters Never Read, which followed last year. The connection with Thompson was a meeting of minds by two people from families steeped in musical traditions and I enquired of Freeman what he brought to the recordings that particularly made an impression on her. "Teddy always has a clear idea of what things should sound like and is very frank and precise in his directions and suggestions without being pushy or mean. He knows how to get a good performance out of someone which is exactly what you want in a producer. And of course, any time Teddy sings on one of my tunes I’m thrilled. Having that calibre of singer on any song elevates the recording."

Powerful and soul bearing lyrics are a feature on both albums, giving the listener the impression of a writer using her art to deal with the often-difficult realities of modern day life. Cold Waves on Letters Never Sent is a typical example of her ‘bear it all’ style lyrics. ("And in the evenin' when I lay my baby down, I listen to her breathe the single sweetest sound, I pray she'll never lose the tenderness she's found, and that she'll never know the pain to which I'm bound")."Without song writing I don’t know how I’d cope with all the very human struggles of life. It’s the easiest way for me to communicate my feelings and the process that brings me the most resolution and perspective. There is something about putting words and melodies together that brings me great relief and joy."

Her vocals and song writing are timeless, self-assured and unbelievably natural. Life’s tales and struggles beautifully yet simply articulated without any gimmickry, as if a conscious decision that the material. "Yes, on both records we wanted to keep the instrumentation and production simple to feature the vocals and lyrics. This is something Teddy and I have always agreed on and I think it’s just a good rule of thumb for any recording session."

Light-hearted material also features in her anthology, with the hilarious Ern and Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog, written by her grandfather Williard Gayheart back in the day and sung unaccompanied by Freeman on the current album.The imagery generated by the lyrics are so simple yet credible as the young country lover boy navigates, after an encounter with his female flame, every pot hole, ditch and fence, skipping his way home in the black of night, only to be attacked by a neighbours ‘rascal pup’!  "I’ve known the song since childhood, but only started performing it about 3 years ago. It’s a song that often gets the most attention and interest from the audience. I think people respond and connect in a deeper way to true stories, whether they are sad, dark, or in this case silly and sweet." Continuing on the nostalgic theme is the inclusion of Jim Reeves Yonder Comes A Sucker, a versionless faithful to the original, with a disciplined drum beat and vocals dominating, breathing new life into the song. "Yonder Comes A Sucker was a song I just happened to stumble upon when I was listening to some of my dad’s records at his house. My husband and I were just jamming one night in New Orleans when he still lived there and that’s (appropriately) where we came up with, the whole second-line kind of sound and beat."

The mention of her husband, fellow musician Nick Falk who plays drums and claw hammer banjo, brings to mind witnessing him play with her on stage at The City Winery in Nashville last year, a feature which presumably makesthe logistics of touring more feasible. "Performing and traveling with your spouse make things so much easier logistically and financially and just more fun. I’m so fortunate to be in that position."

Male artists combining marriage, parenting, song writing and touring is a difficult enough challenge but it must be considerably more stressful being an artist, mother and wife. I queried if she set aside dedicated periods to write and if attempting to keep all the balls in the air at once generated subject matter for material. "I just write when I can. Usually at night or when my daughter is a preschool or my husband is on the road. I’ve never been the kind of songwriter who can appoint a specific time to write. If I do that, nothing good will come. It will sound forced because it is. I just have to wait ‘til an idea comes along and then try and run with it."

Kacy (Anderson) and Clayton (Linthicum) are second cousins and a young musical duo from a rural landscape outside Saskatchewan and not unalike Freeman have been similarly recording a stripped back blend of country and folk music with both local and U.K. influences. It’s interesting that they feature on Freeman’s cover of Richard Thompson’s (Teddy’s father) Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.The combined vocals between Freeman and Anderson are wonderful. It’s a noteworthy collaboration given their collective appreciation for Brit Folk, enriched with the introduction of an element of ‘country’ into the song. "I saw Kacy and Clayton perform at Folk Alliance a few years ago and they were by far my favourite performance of the whole conference. They don’t put on airs or try to be anything or anyone they’re not, which is something I’m always drawn to in performers. So many musicians now rely on gimmicks, wardrobe, theatrics, etc. so to see a duo like Kacy and Clayton who are downright amazing well-rounded musicians without all that is inspiring."

The quality of albums being recorded by female artists like Dori Freeman at present is at an all-time high, yet the opportunities for radio play and exposure for females seems to be a constant struggle. Two years and two albums into her career I asked if she found this a frustration and how positive is she going forward."It is definitely more difficult in most respects for female musicians. The struggle to be taken seriously as not just a musician, but a band leader/frontwoman/songwriter, and the general criticisms, mostly physical, that women are subject to that men aren’t. Fortunately, I have a lot of really supportive and uplifting men in my life from my husband, my manager, Teddy, my father, and I think times are changing given what we’ve seen with the Me Too movement and others like it. I feel like I’m in a good and positive place with my career and its growth over the last few years."

Freeman, both in her music and interviews is enormously proud - and rightly so - about the rural Appalachian environment she was raised in, together with its musical traditions and indeed those of her families. She’s certainly not one to uproot to Nashville or elsewhere, as others have done, to further your career."I’ve never seen moving to a big city as a necessary step to better my career. I know so many musicians who do live in cities all over and we all travel the same amount. Having my home here in the mountains to share with my family and raise my daughter is much more important to me, and honestly improves the quality of my songs and makes me a better performer."

Followers of this talented young lady will be heartened to learn that she is writing and gathering material for another album and as a final question I explored whether her tried and trusted formula, which worked spectacularly well on her two recent albums, would prevail to which she replied."Yes, and yes. Wink wink."

Interview by Declan Culliton


Interview with Jason James


Genuine young classic country artists are as difficult to uncover in recent years as hen’s teeth with ‘country’ music continuing its wretched decline into the dreaded pop crossover so much beloved by the music industry movers and shakers. Artists embracing the ‘outlaw’ country tag thankfully continue to emerge with young ones Colter Wall and Tyler Childers the latest pair to join that club that includes some wonderful ‘I’ll do it my own way’ acts such as Whitey Morgan, Dallas Moore and the commercially successful Chris Stapleton, all representing the male sex.

Not to suggest that female artists aren’t every bit as worthy of the outlaw tag, to do so would be an insult to Elizabeth Cook, Nikki Lane and Lydia Loveless to mention but a few. Unfortunately, breakthrough classic country artists are not emerging in the same numbers, so the discovery a few years back of the young Texan Jason James was a joy to behold to the champions of that genre among us Lonesome Highway purists. 

His 2015 self-titled release was uncompromising and no-frills honky tonk, groomed, polished and perfected by years of performing at dance halls and clubs across his home state. It’s more than likely that he would have continued to travel around Texas making a living as a live performer had his mother not taken the bull by the horns and unknown to him sent some demos of his songs to New West Records. Studio sessions were arranged by the label in both Austin and Houston with some crack session players and the results impressed label president John Allen to the extent that he lined up additional studio time in Nashville, to finalise the recording.  Three years later and we wondered had James joined the gang of musicians that deliver a once off classic and disappear off the face of the world, until the news filtered through that he was, in fact, about to start work on another album.Lonesome Highway tracked down James to get the lowdown.

We’ve been loving your self-titled album at Lonesome Highway since its release.  The whole package unapologetically captures what we consider to be classic country – with two capital C’s -  across the twelve tracks. It’s ironic that an album with so much in common with decades past sounds so refreshing! How satisfied were you with the final product?

Ha-ha well, thank you so much! Means a lot. Sonically speaking I had a pretty good vision of what I wanted. That being said it can really be tough to find the right producers that can help manifest your vision into a product. Both John Evans and Keith Gattis knew exactly where to steer the ship when it came time to record.  I am happy with the record very much ... considering the length of time in between sessions and all ... I'd say it flows real well. I can tell some things but that's because I was there! But, when I have listened to the record at times it is very fluid. Gattis did a great job in that respect. Not venturing from the overall feel of the record that John Evans had it going in. There was no real ego on the record, it was for the sake of the songs.

You’re beginning working on a follow album. What timescale can we expect?

Pre-production is already under way. We should have the record done by the end of July and a release date is scheduled for late this year or early next.

The last album was recorded in Austin, Houston and Nashville with an impressive line-up off players to say the least.  Where will you record this time around?

It was all over the place last time. And yes, I was blown away sitting in the studio with those cats. I've stayed close with most of them too. As honoured as I was to play with those guys I'd hear them shouting after a take "now that's country music!" For as serious as the situation was for me professionally, I've never laughed as much as we did in the studio. It was incredibly light hearted. I think we're going to record in Austin this time with John Evans again. 

Will you be using players from your band for the album? 

I'm not sure. We may. Depends on scheduling and all. When I'm not on the road with my guys they are making a living playing constantly. 

You included a co-write with Jim Lauderdale (Walk Through My Heart) on the album. How comfortable are you writing with others as opposed to working alone?

I wrote that with Lauderdale and Odie Blackmon and it was my first ever co-write with anyone else. Ever. I had no idea what would happen but at least I'd get to hang with those two fellas. Glad we got a song as good as that out of it Lol. I prefer to write myself though. Prolific doesn't always mean great but ... I have a lot to say. I feel possessed at times like I have some deadline to say everything I can say. But, I'm also open to work with others. I've had to learn to not hold my songs so tight to my chest. Other input can be great. 

A small number of artists like yourself, Joshua Hedley, Dallas Moore, Zephaniah O’Hora and J.P. Harris are leading the charge in keeping classic country very much alive and kicking. Do you feel that the industry in general is helping or hindering your progress? 

I only know Dallas and J.P. personally. But, I will say that those two guys are some of the most talented and hard working men I've ever known. Anything credited to their success has less to do with the industry but, rather them putting their boots on the ground and grinding and putting out the best material they can routinely.

The larger labels are taking note with Atlantic signing Sturgill Simpson and Third Man giving Margo Price and Joshua Hedley deserved support. Does seeing artists like these getting a break keep you enthused? 

Uh, it's hard to answer that for me personally. I'll be honest- I have no illusions of ever wanting or really caring to be famous. If that happens and there is a "musical movement" then great! I just enjoy singing and writing and touring and doing things I like to do. Fame comes and goes. That being said- I'm happy for them for sure. And from what I've heard of them and about them they are in it to win it. Score one for the good guys and girls! 

Diversities between Texas country and Nashville country have been debated for decades. Do you feel that Texas still recognises and supports ‘real’ country more so than its neighbours?

Yea, that comes up quite a bit. Texas definitely has a lot of dancehalls and county festivals that seem like Mayberry where I play on a trailer and it feels so country. But, I also feel like I haven't been threatened by anyone outside of Texas when I play. I think it's all in your attitude and the way you approach people. We played Chicago recently and everyone loved it. Country music comes from the heart. Not everyone will like it but that's ok. Sometimes I like to stick in Texas because it's my comfort zone. I always feel like someone will make fun of me for being country. That's my own personal issues though (laughs).

Is there much radio support locally for you and your peers?

Oh yea!! I'm played in Texas a lot. In fact, I released just recently a song from the record. "Here Comes The Heartache" it was just put into rotation and it's already climbing the chart. My friends are all on there too.

Like so many younger artists we encounter that are travelling the traditional country path your earlier years involved playing punk and rock. What encouraged you to move towards country?

Lord - I'll be honest. I was so lost for a long time. I was in trouble with the law growing up. Music saved me. I think I liked expressing myself and it just came out in the way of punk. I only played it for such a short time. People have come up to me and I've used the old demos as a frisbee lol. I would cover Hank Williams in the old band(s). When I heard Hank Williams again I realized what my path would be. It directed me here. I owe my life to country music. I love it more than anything and I'll never stray from it.

You’re on the record noting how people at shows tell you they don’t like country music but like what you’re playing, which pretty much sums up the what most people perceive to be country today. Are you finding a younger audience buying into what you’re doing?

Young people all the time come up and tell me they've been a fan for their whole life. I always smile and chuckle. I try to keep the songs simple and catchy so I can see why kids like it. The songs are kinda like nursery rhymes. 20 and 30 something's have also gravitated towards my sound. Young adults who are just now getting a dose of real life and the ups and downs that it throws at them. My music documents loss and the overall struggle. But the melody I try and keep pretty. So, it's a dance in between light and dark. I get people who've had a bit too much to drink and cry at the edge of the stage to "sing their life to em". Of course, my life has been everything but squeaky clean... so maybe they find it comforting to have someone else that has been through it too. We're all on this trip together I suppose. Country music is the misfit. The unwanted, the forgotten but, it's also about salvation. It's real life. Don't try and be a phony son (laughs).

Is the market in Texas big enough for you to survive as an artist like or do you need to establish yourself outside the State?

Oh, this state is huge. Unless you've travelled every bit of it it's hard to fathom at times. I make a living here. But, I'd love to travel and see America and the world. The label I was on kinda tried to keep me only in Texas. I'm not sure why ... but, I got the feeling they didn't see how much people wanted to hear this type of music.

And the European market. There is a hard core following for classic country in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and Holland. Do you expect to tour over here? 

Yes Sir! I had a 3-week tour scheduled there and I got no help for tour support and had to back out last minute.  After this record is out though I will most definitely be there! I'll start making announcements soon. 

Interview by Declan Culliton


SUSTO - Justin Osborne Interview

A refreshing and original crossover of Americana & indie rock, Susto’s 2017 release & I’m Fine Today featured in Lonesome Highway’s most loved albums of 2017. The vehicle for songwriter Justin Osbourne, the band have grown from relative obscurity to sharing the stage with Band of Horses and a stadium tour with The Lumineers over the past few years. They made their European debut at Celtic Connections in Glasgow earlier this year with a dazzling performance at The Mackintosh Church, Osbourne also played a solo gig at the festival. The band embark on an extensive touring schedule over the coming months in The States, followed by some solo shows by Osbourne in Germany, Holland and Belgium. A hectic schedule for the recently married Osbourne but one that he appears to be revelling in at present as the band go from strength to strength. 

All of a sudden, the word is out on SUSTO! So many crack bands and artists remain undetected and under the radar simply because of lack of exposure. What got you noticed?

Man, to be honest I really don’t know. I guess it’s been a mixture of luck and hard work. We've been very lucky that since the beginning, people have really latched on to the music and supported us. Everyone we work with came to the band as a fan of what we are doing and has worked really hard to get the word out. Also, we’ve found a lot of incredible fans all over the place who have been spreading the word and supporting us. It’s an incredible experience, we are having a great time and it’s been cool to see the fan base grow from our home town, to towns and cities all over the world.

You’re pushing out musical boundaries in different directions from Americana to Psychedelic Indie, which can catch a very wide market both in age profiles of audiences and their listening preferences. Is this a musical path you intend to follow?

I think the creative process for this band has just been one of fearlessness. We try to be ourselves and also let ourselves grow. Americana, Psychedelic, Punk Rock, Gospel … I could name tons of genres that I think are some piece of what we are, and I think as long as we continue to stay true to ourselves and allow ourselves to be brave, we’ll be on the right path and all these different types of influences will continue to come out.

The album title & I’M Fine Today and much of the material suggests an artist in a good place at present. Was that a personal disposition or a reflection of the band in general?

That was definitely more of a personal reflection, but the title is really meant as more of a personal mantra I've had, just to keep myself going. I think lots of people deal with hard shit in this life, we all do in various degrees, and even just being alive can be such a struggle sometimes. "Jah works and I’m fine today” is something I have been saying for years now, to myself to keep myself going when the going is tuff, and also to remind myself to appreciate the moments when things are really good. It’s sort of a tool for living, which is why I would describe it as a mantra.

Drawing down from topics such as homosexuality, religion, drug use and mental illness appear to be somewhat more taboo in the Southern States of America than they would be in Europe. Has that been your experience? 

Yes, you know I guess I kind of knew that would be the case because I was aware of Europe being more post religious than parts of the US, but I definitely noticed in a more up close and personal way when I met people and told them stories of how I grew up … people were just really shocked, it was hard for them to comprehend. But, I think regardless of whether or not talking about these things is more taboo in one place or the other, they are still relevant issues that people everywhere are aware of. The American South isn’t the only place where people have ridiculous ideas about religion and politics, and I think a lot of people in a lot of places are interested in talking about these things

Hallucinogens implications repeat on the album. Do they enhance the creative writing process? 

Sometimes, during the making of & I’m Fine Today, we were micro dosing LSD. This is an experience that I wouldn’t describe as hallucinogenic, it’s more of an overall mental boost. You are taking a trace amount of LSD so it’s a very lite experience and you are just having a great day. You hardly notice you have this boost until after its completely gone and you look back and realize how productive and creative you were. So, some of us did this several times over an 18-month recording period, just to keep things moving. I will say, although we don’t take enough psychedelics in the studio to trip, some of us do like to have a larger dose periodically. It resets your psyche and keeps the mind fresh. So yes, I think Psychedelics enhance the creative process, and life in general…but they should be used with caution and respect.

The cover artwork on the album is stunning and very much in keeping with the musical content. Tell me about it?

The cover artwork is by Pablo Amaringo, who was a renowned South American artist and conservationist. His paintings depict visions he experienced from drinking Ayahuasca. The name of our band, “susto” is a Latin American term for fright, but also its a spiritual illness that literally translates as “soul loss”; when someone is experiencing on going trauma, depression, anxiety, etc. all these things can be attributed to susto. Ayahuasca is used to combat susto, and this painting really spoke to us. The snake gods are symbols of rebirth and cyclical power, the snake is our symbol also and appears on a lot of our designs for T-shirts and posters. Pablo’s painting seems like the perfect reflection of what we are trying to describe to the world with & I’m Fine Today and I’m really glad we were able to use it as our album cover.

Do you consider yourself as a ‘journal’ writer, where your output generally reflects where you are personally at a given time?

Yes, I would consider myself a confessional writer. I’ve always used song writing as a way of processing my emotions and because of that, my songs are personal and confessional. When I look back on albums that I’ve released with Susto, solo albums, and records with my old bands - all of them are reflective of certain time periods in my life. My dad keeps a journal everyday so he has books and books of notes from every day for the past few decades, I just have albums that come out every few years.

The members of your band vary in age profile, musical background and indeed gender, in many ways the perfect mix. How did the current line up come about?

Yes, everyone has a bit of a different story in our band, which I think can be helpful. When I released the first self-titled album it got popular in Charleston pretty quickly and I was able to meet other musicians and creative people in town that I’d never been introduced to before, suddenly people knew who I was and got familiar with Susto. Once that happened, I started meeting people who were interested in being a permanent part of the band. Corey was first, he joined around June 2014, only a few months after the release. The friends I had recorded the album with were all busy doing their own projects so I was doing a long solo tour of the US & Canada, but I had a big kick off show in Charleston + a couple shows opening for Band of Horses where I wanted to perform with a full band. Corey was a part of that line up and then as we started doing more stuff as a band he remained part of the line up, then Marshall our drummer came in early in 2015 when we did SXSW (it was also around this time that my friend Johnny Delaware re-joined the band. He had a part in making the album). We had people filtering in and out playing bass until late 2015 when Jenna joined as our permanent bass player. After a long year of touring in 2016, Johnny decided it was time for him to go back to pursuing his own songs, so he left and started The Artisanals, who are great and I highly recommend checking out! When Johnny left, we asked Dries to join the band. It was an easy choice for us because he had already been touring with us as our videographer so we were all very comfortable with each other, and he happens to also be a great guitar player. So that’s the short version of the story of our line up ha-ha. Everyone kind of ended up in Charleston at different times and for different reasons, but it’s a small tight knit musical community so we all found each other gradually, and it’s been great traveling and getting to be like a family these last few years. 

I can’t start to imagine what’s on the SUSTO playlist in the touring vans to cater for all tastes. Are there musical common denominators or do you feed off each other’s tastes?

Everyone definitely has their own tastes in our band. Some folks lean more towards pop or R&B, while others have a draw to heavier or folkier things. We do have some common denominators though. There are a few records that we can put on in the van and everyone will listen. We all really enjoyed the latest War On Drugs Album, we all like Bob Marley and we are all huge fans and followers of JPKS’s album Constant Stranger. We also learn a lot of new and old music from each other, which is very nice and keeps things interesting.

The opportunity to support The Lumineers on tour gave you exposure to larger audiences which can be beneficial but also damaging. Did the experience pay off and how did the experiences of playing in arenas work for you?

We honestly had an incredible time on that tour. We made a lot of new fans and got to play in some really incredible places. Playing arena’s is such a cool experience, you really have to rise to the occasion and play to a room of thousands, this can be daunting but for us it was a scenario we loved and learned a lot from. The whole crew on that tour was so good to us, everyone was so nice and excited about us, it felt really good to be appreciated. We would roll into the venue with our van and trailer, meanwhile there were like 12 buses on that tour plus 8 or so semi-trucks, so we felt very small at first but we learned to love that role as the little siblings, we learned a lot and I think we became better performers because of that tour.

Your showcase at Celtic Connections in Glasgow took place in The Mackintosh Church, possibly not the ideal venue for a live band! The previous night you played a solo slot at The Oren Mor. You put your heart and soul into both performances. Do you see Europe as a significant target market for you?

Yes, Europe is important to us and we plan to continue touring in Europe regularly as long as the band is active. This past tour was our first in Europe as a full band, so we were playing all sorts of places, Celtic Connections was definitely a highlight. I was glad I got to do a solo show at Oran Mor, and also that we got to perform full band at The Mackintosh Church. For that second show, we definitely had to lean into the setting, so we played a bit more reserved and curated our set list to fit the church, which is fine and definitely allows a certain side of our band to shine through. I hope when we come back to Scotland we can play a show where we can let the rock shine through as well, it’s a big part of our live show that we weren’t really able to show everyone at any of the 2 shows at Celtic Connections. Regardless, we had a wonderful time at the festival and were treated really well. I was happy with both of our performances. I think at The Mackintosh Church especially, we played a very clean “Nashville” type of set, and I remember that being really fun for us.

You’re doing some solo dates in over here in the summer. Will you be performing all SUSTO material or have you a Justin Osborne solo album in mind in the future?

Yes! I’m excited to be getting back to Europe so soon. It’s funny to think about a solo album, because that’s really what SUSTO was supposed to be in the first place, a solo project after I left my old band. But yes, it has definitely become more of a band experience over the last few years. I will be playing SUSTO songs on this tour. I have a couple solo albums I released on band camp back in 2014, but I don’t really perform those tunes much. I get to have a lot of freedom and control over the song writing and production of SUSTO, so I don’t really feel the need to do solo stuff. Who knows, maybe one day, but for this tour you can expect to hear SUSTO songs, possibly some new ones.

You’ve been quoted explaining how touring previously led to burnout. Does your current profile and the attention you been generating make the stress of the endless tours more bearable?

This is definitely a different experience than I had before, because now I believe in the music more and also I’m making a living doing this now, which feels nice and helps me keep good spirits. Touring does take a toll though, and I’m trying to be careful not to let myself get burnt out. During a long tour, it can feel overwhelming but I’m currently home for a while with only a few shows a month, and it feels like a nice break. It’s a balance, I know I’m going to be doing this for a while now because I’m enjoying it and its working pretty well, so I’m just going to try to be careful about how much I take on, because I really don’t want to feel burnt out again. I think we’ll keep touring pretty hard for another few years, another couple albums then maybe I’ll step away for a bit and try some other things. I don’t know, just trying to keep things open ended and interesting. I don’t want to find myself chained to the cycle of recording and touring, there are other things I want out of life too and I’m going to pursue those things at some point. For now, I’m enjoying the ride, and really enjoying working on our next album which I’m very excited for.

I look forward to seeing you in Europe in July!

Thanks for the questions! Looking forward to being back, hope to see you all at Static Roots.

Interview by Declan Culliton


Interview: Dietmar Leibecke / Static Roots Festival

With the summer festival season looming and given the quality of events on offer, it’s time to make those difficult decisions of which ones to consider. Unfortunately, with the exception of Kilkenny Roots, there are not too many choices at home for festivals catering for the Americana, Roots and Hardcore Country followers, resulting in the prospect of trips to the U.K. and further afield to seek out the kind of acts that hit the Lonesome Highway sweet spot. Oberhausen in Germany is the location for the Static Roots Festival, one that we will most certainly be returning to after attending the festival last year for the first time.

Germany is becoming a target market for many Irish acts with John Blek & The Rats, Anna Mitchell Band, The Midnight Union Band, Malojian, Luan Parle, Shane Joyce and Clive Barnes all having toured there in recent years, often playing to sell out venues. Static Roots is a festival that is attracting increasing numbers of punters from Ireland and the U.K, given the simple travel options available. It is also very much a punters festival, not overcrowded, impressive venue and surroundings, allowing easy access to the performers on stage and indeed off stage, as they mingle with the attendees between sets. Accurately described as a boutique festival, this year’s line-up includes Hannah Aldridge, The Cordovas, Anthony Da Costa, Charlie Whitten, Bennett Wilson Poole, The Stephen Stanley Band, Donald Byron Wheatley, Terra Lightfoot, Prinz Grizzley, Susto and our own Midnight Union Band. Lonesome Highway caught up with promoter Dietmar Leibecke, a passionate music follower and regular visitor to Ireland, to discuss the history of the festival, his motivation for staging the event and his ambitions for the festival going forward.

What was your inspiration to launch the festival two years ago?

I always loved the folk/americana festival scene in Canada, Ireland and the UK. Even in the Netherlands there are a few Americana festivals (e. g. “Take Root” or “Roots In The Park” and the newly founded “Down By The River”). But there is no such thing in Germany. The only two that come close are the label-dominated “Orange Blossom Special Festival” by Glitterhouse Records and the occasionally happening “Blue Rose Records Christmas Party”. Since my wife and I had a couple of anniversaries in 2016 - like our silver wedding, my 50th birthday, the 20th birthday of our daughter, the fifth anniversary of a kidney transplantation surgery (my wife donated one of her kidneys to me!) - we decided to organize a festival on our own after then ten years of promoting shows (another anniversary), booking tours, and having an Americana house concert series called “Raumfahrtzentrum Saarner Kuppe” in Mülheim an der Ruhr.

Since the Static Roots Festival 2016 was a (mostly) invite-only event, my wife and I sponsored the event (fees, food, drink, accommodation, venue etc). And at the same time we set up a funding campaign for Doctors Without Borders which ended with a phenomenal 9.500 EUR. We had the best of times – and all for a good cause!

Another big inspiration for the Static Roots Festival was the Kilkenny Roots Festival. It’s got such a great quality of acts, the most passionate, attentive and friendly audience you could wish for, and it has become a legend of its own in the European folk festival scene. When I first attended the Kilkenny Roots Festival I instantly felt like being part of a big family. For our Static Roots Festival the idea was to make something like the Kilkenny Roots Festival happen in Germany, too. That’s how the subtitle for our festival emerged: “peace, love, rock’n’roll” and I think it perfectly captures the great atmosphere we were able to create at the first two Static Roots Festivals.

While preparing for the Static Roots Festivals 2016 and 2017 I’ve been in touch with Willie Meighan quite often, asked for advice, discussed acts with him, and he’s been a great mentor. Willie recommended to book the Kilkenny-based The Midnight Union Band for the SRF 2016 and, man, he’s been so right! When Willie Meighan died after a long battle with cancer at the end of 2017, we decided to have a permanent festival slot in remembrance of and to celebrate the late great Willie Meighan and for 2018 there was no other choice than inviting over The Midnight Union Band again.

It’s very much a boutique festival, perfectly sized, well-chosen acts and a particularly social atmosphere. Is it your intention to expand the festival or are you content to keep it at the present size?

Actually, I am completely excited about how the festival developed. In 2016 there was actually just one festival day with six acts (well, five when considering Daniel Romano took the wrong turn on the Autobahn and ended up about 700km away from the venue). In 2017 there were two days and nine acts, this year we’ll have eleven acts on two days. We’ve been discussing other ideas with the venue (Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen) e. g. an outdoor acoustic stage but then again I think it’s very charming to have the lovely outside beer garden for a chat, some lovely food, and a German beer (of course) while people pay attention to the music in the stage room. 

The room itself has a capacity of 300 and the venue has another room with a capacity of 500 people. So there are options to grow from the number of attendees, too. But we’ll just see how things develop. I think it is important to keep the atmosphere of “peace, love, rock’n’roll” and it all might be just perfect the way it is.

As a smaller promoter how difficult is it to get your preferred acts to commit?

A big advantage of the Static Roots Festival: it’s the only pure Americana festival in Germany. The Americana scene is still a niche while it’s certainly growing these last few years. So we can offer a platform for acts that try to get a foot in the door of the German Americana market. We’ve had excellent press and radio coverage these last two years so the Static Roots Festival is indeed a great opportunity. And the acts I’m negotiating with usually recognize the chances. Except some managers who sometimes ask for unreasonable fees (“You’ve got to send a bus load of money to sign xxx!” – true story). All in all it’s not too hard to get my preferred acts to commit. It takes a while and I need to be persistent but my enthusiasm for great music is unbreakable and my optimism keeps me going. Even when an acts cancels, the disappointment doesn’t keep me distracted for more than fifteen minutes. Because it’s the opportunity to book another great act – and there are quite a few of them. As you sure know.

You appear to be as excited as the punters when you confirm acts that have been booked. Have you some set criteria for selecting the range of acts?

First of all, I am a fan. I don’t want to see the Static Roots Festival as some kind of business. I want to enjoy great music, I want to enjoy the people, the craic, the love that’s almost tangible at the Static Roots Festival. I’ve met so many amazing people through music, made tons of friends all over the world – it’s what I want our guests to experience as well. If music touches me in some way, it qualifies to be chosen for the line-up of the Static Roots Festival. That’s it. And I hope the music touches the audience as well – and mostly it does. Sometimes I feel like a little kid unwrapping presents on Christmas eve when an act confirms. Thinking about the lineup of the Static Roots Festival 2018 and the people that will attend makes me happy as a pig in mud. One thing is for sure: we’ll have a blast. 

You engage a dedicated MC to introduce the acts. What motivated this?

At the first Static Roots Festival in 2016 we had six dedicated folks announcing the six acts. One of them was my good friend Jeff Robson (radio host for Tell The Band To Go Home on, a Canadian community radio station from Winnipeg, Manitoba). He introduced Leeroy Stagger and the way he did it was just phenomenal. He has a great sense of humour, an endless knowledge of music, he knows how to make the punters pay attention, he sends them to the merch table in a very charming way and he is totally perfect for the job as an MC. In 2017 we invited him over to be the MC for the whole festival and he was simply BRILLIANT! You don’t find good MCs too often and most festivals don’t even have an MC. I myself hate being the centre of attention, I like working in the background, I don’t want to stand in the light, I am much better at other things. So Jeff is actually doing me a big favour too. And then I think Jeff has become the face of the festival – which is totally great! He is such a great person, his radio show is my Sunday night tradition for at least ten years, I love him and he totally deserves it. And I think he loves being the MC, too. Which makes it even better. 

How much local knowledge is there for Americana in Germany?

As mentioned before, Americana music is still some kind of niche over here in mainland Europe. While the UK has some smashing success (from my point of view) since setting up their Americana-UK committee, there is not much going on in Germany. There are no particular Americana-related print or online magazines (except for maybe But there are a few German radio shows which are flying the flag of Americana music such as:

HappySad, Christine Heise (radio eins, RBB), which in my handsome opinion is the most important one

Songs to play, Markus Bäcker (

Blue Rose Records Radio Show, Edgar Heckmann (

Hillbilly Rockhouse, Gerd Stassen (

What acts particularly excite you at this year’s festival?

Once again, I’m a total fan of Americana music. Each and every act at the Static Roots Festival has at least a couple of songs that touch me in some way or the other, some songs will make me shed a tear (e.g. when thinking of Stephen Stanley’s Troubadour’s Song which to me has become some kind of farewell song to our friend Willie Meighan), some songs will make me jump for joy, a ton of songs will give me goosebumps, I will have the best of times and will be wearing a big fat smile in my face all weekend long! The last act that hasn’t confirmed yet (we’re close to confirming though) will let me stand in the audience with both hands up, rooting for them after each song. There will be mesmerizing singer/songwriters, country acts, acts with a blues rock touch, indie-rock Americana, 70s guitar-and-harmony-driven music, soulful Americana… To me it’s such a great line-up, it wouldn’t be fair to name just one particular act. I see excitement all over the two days of the festival!

Your dream act, in realistic terms, to perform at the festival?

Dream act? Hm, my first thought was “I’ve booked all my dream acts already!”. But then again, there is one particular act I want to book for the festival at some point in time. And I think it would close a (very personal) circle.

I’ve got to go back in time to tell the story because somehow it’s the foundation to all I do in music (I took this text mainly from my invitation to our latest house concert with the legendary Steve Wynn from New York, USA):

Spring 1983: the 16 year old Dietmar is sitting in his tiny room and puts on a new album, “The Days Of Wine And Roses” by The Dream Syndicate. First song, Tell Me When It’s Over, 30 seconds in, completely blown away, knowing that this music was made for him, the album a total cracker. The next decade was musically shaped by The Dream Syndicate and its frontman, Steve Wynn. The album is still one of his all-time-favourites.

Spring 2004: never really having partied any of his birthdays, 38 year old Dietmar thinks about something special for celebrating his 40th birthday. And starts bothering Steve Wynn, the guy who  had the biggest impact on the development of Dietmar’s musical taste, about playing his 40th birthday party. 18 months later finally the confirmation: Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3 will be playing at the party!

June 2006: Dietmar’s 40th birthday party is big fun and Steve Wynn and his band play a blinder of a show. After the show Steve Wynn comes up and says: “Dietmar, have you ever heard of the concept of house concerts? I think you’d be the right guy to do it.” House concerts? WTH is that?

November 2007: the idea of house concerts has been growing big time on Dietmar and in November 2007, the Canadian folk rocker Leeroy Stagger plays the first ever show at Raumfahrtzentrum Saarner Kuppe. The beginning of a series of about 60 shows until today.

Finally the Static Roots Festival is some kind of natural development from the house concert series, from booking tours for my favourite acts, promoting public shows etc. So it all goes back to Steve Wynn and his band, The Dream Syndicate.

At some point in time I want The (reunited) Dream Syndicate to play a slot at the Static Roots Festival. This will finally close the circle from where it all began about 35 years ago. And then I might go and see what is the next step I can take.

Interview by Declan Culliton


Birds of Chicago Interview

Husband and wife duo Birds of Chicago - JT Nero and Allison Russell - make a welcomed return to Ireland in May, playing two sold out dates at the Kilkenny Roots Festival. The shows take place on the weekend of the official release of their eagerly awaited new album Love In Wartime, a fitting title reflecting the more than ever requirement for empathy in disturbingly uncertain times, both in The States and Europe. Among other things Lonesome Highway spoke with Allison about the new album, their gruelling touring schedule and the prospect of a return to Kilkenny where she performed with Po’Girl back in 2007.

The song writing on Real Midnight, released in 2016, often reads as a reminder of appreciating the present and living in the moment as much darker places may lurk on the horizon. Is that a reflection of JT (Nero) and your own ideology or simply a theme you adopted for the album?

I think we try to live that way… in the moment, in the present. But we don’t always succeed. We became parents 4 years ago - having our daughter, Ida Maeve - intensified everything. The greatest love we’ve ever experienced and also the deepest fear, terror and uncertainty. We were (are) wrestling with the profound heaviness of being responsible for another’s life. The fear of the vagaries and cruelties of the world - the desire to keep her safe always and the pain of knowing that’s impossible. We’re trying everyday to be our best selves for her, seeing the wonder of the world through her eyes. I think the writing on Real Midnight reflects the beginning of that journey.

Engaging Joe Henry as producer on Real Midnight seemed the perfect fit for that particular album. What drew you towards him?

We’ve been admirers of both the albums he makes himself and those he makes with others for many years. Joe brings out the best in everyone he works with. He knows a little something about shadows and light - love and revelation…He was our dream producer really- and like a dream - we didn’t think it could ever happen in reality. But our friend Rhiannon Giddens stepped in and brought us together. It was a transcendent experience working with Joe. There’s a warning about meeting your heroes - but he is better than we could have imagined. And we’re proud to call him a friend now.

I believe the album was the final album recorded at his legendary Garfield House Studio?

It was indeed, and a bittersweet happenstance it was. Joe, and his wife Melanie, and their children Levon, and Lulu had spent a decade in that house. They rebuilt and beautified it and filled it with music, life, love, and goodness in a most palpable way. Everyone from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams to Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint recorded there...I got to sing into the same mic Bonnie used.  Joe called it his decade long masters class. The “For Sale” sign went up as we were beginning the Real Midnight Sessions and it sold shortly thereafter. Jay Bellerose had a kit that had lived there for over seven years. Ryan Freeland (Joe’s go to engineer- he is a genius and a fantastic producer in his own right- he produced the Barr Brothers Sleeping Operator album and their latest) and Joe knew every acoustic nook and cranny of that house and used them to best effect for each project. The walls radiated history, creativity, and song... We feel very, very fortunate to have been blessed by that mojo…

Rhiannon Giddens, a regular visitor to Ireland, features on the album and in many ways the album has a gorgeous bluesy spiritual thread similar to that of her solo work. How did that connection come about?

I met Rhiannon when she was playing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Vancouver Folk Fest in 2006. I was playing with Po’Girl at the time. My bandmate Awna Teixeira and I wound up in shared a dorm with CCD in the artist residence (literally a dorm at the University of British Columbia - which is where the Fest put up the artists in those days) - and epic jams and hangs ensued. I remember Rhiannon showed me Skype for the first time - which seemed so Sci-Fi to me - she was skyping with her then fiancé, now husband,  Michael Laffan, who was in (and is from) Limerick, Ireland…And she helped me track down a recording put out by the Library of Congress called Sweet Petunias - a compilation of rare early “race records” of African American women blues songwriter/singers. We stayed in touch and in 2011 she invited me to be part of a production that she and the Drops were spearheading at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It was an exploration of the Great Migration of the African American diaspora from the South to the North and Vaudeville called Keep a Song in Your Soul - telling the story of the Black experience in America through Archetypal Vaudeville characters and music and dance from the period. Rhiannon played the protagonist “Country Girl” - and I played a bit of a villain- “City Girl”. There was a dance off involved - ha! JT and I formed Birds of Chicago in 2012 and Rhiannon invited us to open for the Drops on a tour and then had us open for some of the dates of her solo debut Tomorrow is my Turn tour in 2015.  She introduced us to Joe Henry, and now we rent her house in Nashville. And in her role as guest Artist Curator she’s presenting us at the Cambridge Folk Festival this August alongside Yola Carter, Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater, and Peggy Seeger. I’m also working on a project that she’s spearheading for Smithsonian Folkways. She’s a dear friend and a kindred spirit and has been a generous champion of ours.

We await the release of your new album Love In Wartime. Very interesting title. How will the material compare with Real Midnight?

Thematically there’s definitely a through line. Musically though - it’s a bit more of rock n’ roll record than Real Midnight. It’s more urgent. It’s been a fraught and divisive time in America, as I know it has in Europe as well…As a Canadian, who can’t vote in the country I’ve married into.. the last election was particularly destabilizing. If we only ever listened to the 24-hr news cycle or the current administration and didn’t have the privilege of traveling the length and breadth of the US - we wouldn’t know the deep kindness and goodness of the vast majority of Americans. We receive so much kindness and generosity from strangers in our touring life. Red State and Blue State alike. In the US, and Canada, and Ireland, and the UK, and the Netherlands - everywhere we’ve had the joy of touring. Strangers welcome us into their communities and become friends...  Friends who have all sorts of different beliefs, views, backgrounds, experiences, ethnicities, orientations, hurts - but who ultimately have more in common than not… We felt an urgency about reaffirming the ties that bind us and our shared human experience-  strength and vulnerability, fear and anger, hope and love- music… rather than buying into the specious rhetoric of  “us” and “them”...

The songs on Love in Wartime were born on the road - through two years of intensive touring and bonding with our 5 piece road band- Chris Merrill on bass, Nick Chambers on drums, Joel Schwartz on electric guitars, and JT and I of course, and Ida Maeve and our magical tour manager/ Ida whisperer Suzi Boelter... It marks the first time that JT and I have co-written songs (in the past we’ve written individually and then brought the songs to the band to arrange and elevate) - and the first time that Chris Merrill and JT have co-written, and the first time that Drew Lindsay (JT’s younger brother and our keys man on all our records) and I have co-written. We were also joined on the record by Dan Abu-Absi (Radio Free Honduras), who is a long-time member of our extended musical clan and a JT and The Clouds (JT’s previous band) alumnus - he plays second guitar. And we were joined by Javier Saumee Mazzee on percussion, and Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor (The Decembrists, Neko Case, The Flat Five) on additional harmony vocals.  We were joined by the marvellous Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) in the role of co- producer along with JT. He made sure that we never played a song more than 3 times. We were all together at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studio A (great warm sound, high ceilings, fantastic sight lines, and more music history mojo) with Alex Hall on the board (The Flat Five) - playing live and in real time pushing back the shadows in our hearts and minds and revelling in the communion that is a whole becoming more than the sum of its parts.

Is the album’s theme based in the present day or a retrospective on bygone times?

Both I’d say - and with a hope that our children or their children’s children may see an end of war in all its guises...

JT gets the writing credits for the majority of the songs on Real Midnight. Is this also the case with Love In Wartime and does he seek your input to ensure that the songs suit your vocal?

It’s always collaborative arrangement and shaping wise - but Love in Wartime is specifically more collaborative in terms of co-writing, though he still takes the lion’s share - not in a selfish way - JT is simply a much more prolific writer than I - he tends to churn out finished songs faster that I do. I have a slower arc to my writing- I have to fight the crippling inner critic more fiercely - particularly since becoming a mother. I’ve tended to write more in fits and starts.  But that’s starting to shift now that Ida is older and doesn’t get enraged anymore every time I pick up a banjo, or work on a tune- ha! JT is my biggest cheerleader. And he has been one of my all-time favourite writers since before I met him in person. So, I do particularly love when he taps into his inner feminine and merges with my voice/perspective. It’s a deeply intimate, open heart process. And I shape and bend the melodies as I see fit. Trust and connection and intuition like that with another writer/musician who also happens to be my life partner and one and only love is a gift I don’t take for granted.

You’re certainly working with some of the best with Steve Dawson co-producing the American Flowers EP released last year and Luther Dickinson on board for Love In Wartime. What factors dictate your choice of producers?

Joe, Steve, and Luther are all kindred spirits. They all have the same disregard for false/ superficial genre divisions that we do. They all have a bracing lack of preciousness or perfectionism in their approach as producers and musicians. They are all three musicians first - extra-ordinary ones - which I didn’t really think of consciously before you asked me this question. They are all ego-less - it’s not about them slapping some sort of brand upon the other artists they journey with/guide. It’s about keeping the conduits open, and the music flowing as naturally, and honestly as possible. It’s about helping the artists they work with get out of their own way. And that resonates deeply with us. They are also all three supremely good, wise, gentlemen and long-term husbands (of truly brilliant, amazing, creative, strong wives Melanie, Alice, and Necha) and fathers of equally brilliant, amazing, creative strong daughters (Joe also has a son - extremely creatively gifted too) - another commonality I never really thought of before...None of them supports flogging a song into the ground. Flow masters one and all...All of them tend to make a record in 6 days or less. In our case 4 days for Real Midnight, 1 day for American Flowers, 4 days for Love in Wartime.

Does Luther also contribute on the new album given his vast instrumental talents?

He doesn’t - this was such a band record - Luther didn’t feel the need to play since Joel and Dan were already shredding so hard- ha! Again Luther, like Joe and Steve isn’t coming from an ego-based place with his producing or playing. We will definitely do some recording together in future. I had the joy of doing some singing, and playing some clarinet, on Luther’s upcoming children’s record… He was initially slated to come and do some playing on the American Flowers session - but his schedule got too crazy ... he’s one of the hardest working musicians I know.

Has your relocation to Nashville changed your musical direction in any way?

Maybe in the sense of being more open to co-writes. And perhaps feeling more validated as a writer. There’s something so freeing and empowering for an artist and a writer to be in a town that has literally been built on songs. It is a “real” job!

You seem to be constantly touring, playing up to 200 shows a year. Is this a labour of love for you or a necessary industry evil?

Both I’d say … in a perfect world we’d tour 6 months out of the year and not 10-  Ida is getting older and needing more social time with peers…That’s been part of our move to Nashville - trying to shift things enough - to have a little more home time. She’s started (pre)school three days a week at a lovely gentle school here -they are used to musician’s children and nomadic schedules - and are flexible about it.  JT and Steve Dawson have started a production/engineering team together called Dim Stars. They just produced an album for Raina Rose (she is wonderful) - which I’m very excited about. I recently had a song of mine recorded by another artist for the first time - the luminous Lizz Wright (Concord Records) recorded a version of my song Barley to start off her latest Joe Henry produced album Grace. So, baby steps towards diversifying our music industry portfolio so to speak...I’ve always wanted to do voice overs- just putting that out there. 

You’re embarking on an intensive four-week tour in Europe commencing in April. How challenging is that both logistically and financially for Birds of Chicago?

We’re bringing over our five-piece band (with Andy Stack filling in for Joel Schwartz on electric guitar) for the first time - so it’s definitely a bigger risk/leap that we’re taking financially this time around. We wanted to do justice to the record and play our full band show in Europe- so hopefully people come along...I heard our Kilkenny Roots Fest shows are already sold out - so that’s encouraging! Logistically we are in very capable hands with the debonair Will Waghorn covering tour management duties. Our dear friend Pam is coming to watch Ida. We love how short the drives are in Europe as compared to touring in North America - especially my Canadian homeland … JT and I are very much looking forward to exploring the parks and museums of Europe with Ida before soundcheck everyday. 

Are both your previous projects, JT & The Clouds and Po’Girl, history at this stage or just in a self-induced coma?

Ha, I like that - self- induced coma ... Not history -Po’Girl has been on an extended hiatus whilst I worked on BoC and nation building, and whilst my beloved bandmate and sister from another mister - Awna Teixeira worked on 3 gorgeous solo records, we are the last two Po’s left standing. Trish Klein is managing other artists and running her own cafe/small venue/record store/label in Vancouver, BC called Hidden City Records. Diona teaches fiddle on a small island in BC. Most of the Clouds are also Birds. And Awna has also just relocated to Nashville - she and I are working on writing a new Po’Girl record (which is going to be produced by JT and Steve Dawson AKA Dim Stars) - that we’ll start recording sometime in the autumn. It’s a big extended family.

You played the Kilkenny Roots Festival in 2007 as part of Po’Girl. What are your memories of that visit?  

We had so much fun - hard to reckon that that is over a decade ago now! I remember we got there in time to dance with wild abandon to the Sadies set, I remember staying up till all hours in the hotel bar with all the other musicians- I remember playing in some beautiful underground ancient stone place- for some of the sponsors maybe with some of the other artists - I remember being mesmerized by Patrician Vonne’s castanet dance. Hearing Sarah Borges for the first time ... I remember being too shy to go up and talk to Amy Helm who was playing with Ollabelle at the time- she has since become a dear friend. I remember Paul Brainerd from Richmond Fontaine leaping up onstage to play a ripping trumpet solo with us … I remember feeling so welcome and at home and our whole band plotting how we could move to Ireland - in fact Trish Klein took steps to get her Irish citizenship soon after that - and met some long-lost relatives of hers while we were there … We were very young and we all drank too much and didn’t sleep enough and it was glorious.

I’ve no doubt you’ll receive a very warm welcome on your return to Kilkenny Roots in May and we very much look forward to your shows!

Thank you so much Declan- I’m thrilled that I get to come back with my new band! And with my family - peace, love, music - See you in May: xo Alli and the BoC family.

Interview by Declan Culliton