More than a few folk stars are redefining what it means to be a traditional musician. Young acts from Grammy-nominated bluegrassers Nickel Creek to Celtic superstars Solas to English folk phenoms Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy know their folk chops chapter and verse, but there is nothing old about the music they make.
Now, that neotraditional current is starting to be felt among
the ranks of New England songwriters as well. Among the hottest are New Hampshire
fiddler-singer Joyce Andersen, and Boston fiddle-mandolin-guitar whiz Jake Armerding.
Both are steeped in tradition, but their songs are as fresh as tomorrow's newspaper.
Andersen, 34, who just released her sophomore CD, ''Right
Where I Should Be'' (Joyscream), loves to play with traditional song forms
to create music that feels instantly familiar, yet shimmers with modern sensibility.
A classically trained violinist, she did not discover traditional music until
she was 18, when she stumbled upon a Portsmouth Irish music session, in which
all are welcome to play tunes in unison.
''I'm drawn to the humility of traditional music,'' she says,
''how it brings everyone together. You feel like you're connecting not only
to the people around you, but to generations before you; people who have always
risen up out of their sorrow and hard times by getting together to play music.''
In the song ''Strange Elation,'' she takes the dark, windswept
feel of an Appalachian hymn to present a modern quest for spiritual balance
that equally embraces life's joy and sorrow. In the back-stiffening anthem ''Saddle
Up the Storm,'' she urges a victim of domestic abuse not merely to ride out
the storm in her life, but to use it to power a self-determined life.
''I'm usually moved by songs that are painful and sad, but there's
a beauty in them,'' she says. ''There's a love of life inherent in them, and
that's what makes the sadness so moving. But I enjoy songs that aren't just
me, me, me. I love to write songs where it's not clear I have written them.
It's like traditional songs; it doesn't matter who wrote them. When I get the
spirit of a song, a fragment of melody or lyric, I think my job is to make it
say something of value to people.''
Armerding, meanwhile, is getting the I's dotted on a multirecord
contract with hip Nashville indie Compass Records and hopes to have his new
CD out in April. At first listen, the 24-year-old's smart ballads do not seem
the least tradition-based. They are both urban and urbane, with sophisticated
lyrics wafting lightly over buoyant alt-pop melodies. He was a bluegrass brat
from birth, the son of Taylor Armerding, leader of the popular local band Northern
Lights. ''By the time you get to middle school and learn that traditional music
is lame,'' Boston-based Armerding says, ''I already liked it, and I couldn't
stop. I got involved before I knew what was cool and what wasn't, so I was able
to come to the music from a very innocent place, and see it for what it really
is, which is amazing stuff.''
He feels the traditional influence most in his rhythms, a captivating
use of space and motion that he says he picked up listening to how the melodic
instruments in bluegrass intermingle to create a fluid groove without the pa-poom
of a standard pop rhythm section.
He shares Andersen's disdain for the introspective angst so fashionable
among urban songwriters; and her desire to write songs that can be of real use
to people. His images are as everyday as cutoff jeans and car keys slipped in
a pocket, so we tend to fill even his most personal songs with pictures from
our own lives. Who hasn't experienced fading love this way: ''I should have
noticed/On the day she ceased to ask me for the answers?''
''One thing I've learned from traditional songs,'' he says, ''is
that nouns and verbs are made of gold; adjectives are made of brass. The whole
idea of songwriting is to show people things they've already seen, that they
already know but haven't thought about in quite the way you're singing about
them. It's seeing things everybody takes for granted, and shining a different
light on them.''
Just as Andersen rejects the notion that traditional means old
music, she rejects folk purists who want the music to remain in some fixed and
''Some people try to be clones of Bill Monroe, to freeze the music and play it just like it used to be played,'' she says. ''That spirit seems detrimental to this music. What drew me was that it was alive, very alive, something everyone could come in and share.''
Armerding says: ''When I hear people say that traditional music
is old, my first reaction is to say, `What's wrong with old?' Pieces of the
old are always necessary to create something new.''