Weekly Roundup: January 5 – 12, 2020 (or, “What is Folk?”)

Aptly titled the ‘Redemption Roundup’, our last Weekly Roundup blog promptly vowed to “resume our curation of actually weekly [sic] Weekly Roundups.” That was on November 30th.

To my credit, one hollow excuse I can offer here for the sake of some hackneyed validity is that December just wasn’t a very busy time for writing! PopMatters and For Folk’s Sake alike were rounding out the last of 2019 with some end-of-year and end-of-decade reflections before opting to recycle some big feature pieces from throughout the year until resuming publication in mid-January. As for freelance stuff, you could forget about print publications entertaining pitches when their offices were just as well packing up and heading home for the holidays.

The meantime offered ample room for reflection. Just how much can change over the course of a year, let alone a decade, is positively confounding. To steal the final paragraph from my private Facebook post on New Year’s Eve… “Moving forward, I’m feeling more sure of myself and who I am than I did at the start of the 2010s. I’m feeling more sure of myself and who I am than I ever have. I’m excited for all of what the next set of ten have to muster. As for resolutions, there are plenty, though I’d rather show it with actions over words. That said, let’s all endeavor to be better, to love more, and to find the beauty and the bright side in everything; and to be present in the moment and lives of our loved ones and more aware, critical, and open-minded of and towards what surrounds us.”

Touching, right?

Moving on…

We did have some cool stuff come out before calling it lights out, especially over at PopMatters. In particular, I’d like to highlight Elisabeth Woronzoff and I’s ‘Best Folk Albums of 2019’ feature list. I have plenty of feelings about year-end lists in general and where they fit in the limitless void of music and entertainment publications that are churning them out now. That said, PopMatters has always put out discerning features and I’m glad to have been working with them for five solid years now.

Well, I can’t speak for every last 2019 music listicle out there, but I can speak to the intent of Elisabeth and I going into developing our list. We aimed to acknowledge mainstream and left-field, indie choices alike, so there’s some you’ll see shared with writers at major publications and others that are uniquely ours. At no point will I personally claim that this list is definitive or anything other than a list of albums that we thought of at the time to be deemed worthy of being regarded as some of our most personal favorites. Someone asked us why Mandolin Orange wasn’t on the list moments after it was blasted to socials, to which I say… I don’t know! We didn’t think of it at the time, even though I love all of their stuff. Keep in mind that we’re two people. Even when you do the most stringent of research, some of this is bound to fall through the cracks.

Speaking of research, the piece stoked a big ol’ classic American folk community-wide debate on if our list even represented folk (prompting some to ask Elisabeth and I if we’d done our research lol, hooray)! No surprise to those of us who’ve been in the thick of it for at least a handful of years, though; “What is Folk?” is one of the most commonplace questions posed in our 21st century ranks. It’s one of the major themes posed in the branding of the 35th annual Tucson Folk Festival put on by the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association.

To paraphrase an email exchange that I’d shared with a publicist/musician friend, Devon Leger of Hearth PR, lists like these will only become all the more divisive as the universal definition of folk changes. Big Thief might have produced two albums in 2019 that musically veer more into indie rock or grunge if anything else, but there’s still plenty of introspective territory, posing abstract theories and questions, telling intimate stories, that keeps them at the base of folk roots. It’s why Elisabeth and I dared to include both U.F.O.F. and Two Hands on our list, alongside other picks like the Accidentals’ self-titled live album or Better Oblivion Community Center’s also-self-titled studio debut. That, and each of these acts have historically veered into musically folksier avenues prior to further establish this spoken-of backbone.

Having these conversations, though, can be like talking to a brick wall. Like embattled country purists fighting over what should represent their genre on the charts, there are plenty of folk purists who enjoy traditional folk music because the relation that it holds to music outside of the bubble is close to none. Newfound innovators be damned when our old cat-skin banjoist LPs are still spry enough to play.

To a point, I get it, even though Elisabeth, PopMatters, and I represent the other side of the coin. I’m a fan of traditional folk, too, and it’s why, conversely, it was such a joy for me to be able to include the likes of Willard Gayheart and Kelly Hunt on our lists. The two of them play wonderful original music in traditional styles but aren’t known as well as any Rhiannon Giddens or Leyla McCalla. (Coincidentally, Hunt is playing at SAACA’s Catalyst on Thursday, February 13th. Tucson, take note and buy your tickets accordingly.)

A question as nebulous as “What is folk?” is going to have a different answer from everyone you ask, too. Nothing will quite be straight with it, and I think so long as we are stoking genuine, scintillating discussions from out of it and not shutting one another down, it can make for an interesting set piece conversation.

Flash forward to 2020 and we have our first published article of the year in the form of a premiere of a DiFranco cover. Rachael Sage is a lovely folk-pop singer-songwriter who I’ve had the pleasure of covering in the past and this piece was a fun one to stretch out the ol’ writer’s muscles after some time without use. Within, Rachael reflects on her cancer diagnosis and the strength that Ani’s song, “Both Hands”, gave her throughout treatment, explaining its inclusion as one of the songs present on her upcoming album, Character. You can check out a live video performance complete with string quartet below, though I insist you also visit PopMatters and check out our moving full piece.

Lister and I recorded a few episodes of Super Cast Bros. over the holiday season, although with said season in tow, I haven’t been getting the last couple out quite on schedule. (Thank goodness the podcast isn’t presently any more popular than it is, or else I’d actually be in trouble for that. That said, listen to our podcast. The more people that do will hold me accountable to the standard of being an actual organized adult.)

Two such episodes are new guest features. One is possibly my favorite Smashtopia to date, featuring our friend Trevor. In it, we dive into making a moveset for EarthBound and Mother 3 villain, Porky Minch. It’s Trevor’s favorite series of games and one of the characters that has helped to arguably shape his entire worldview, so it was a no-brainer to make our first full-blown podcast collaboration out of it. He did appear on an earlier episode with our pal, Jake, but this allows him ample time to shine as he analyses and presents information pertaining to something he’s passionate about. Lister and I become all the better for it. It’s good stuff.

The next is a Smash or Dash piece where we have good friend and soft rock/AC singer-songwriter, Jamie Alimorad, hit the Cast Bros. hot seat to assist us in choosing the victor in two match-ups: Toad vs. Captain Toad, and Shadow vs. Zero. Toad vs. Toad! Antihero vs. antihero! It was a really fun time and we hope to have Jamie on again in the future. For the thousand sum-odd of you who follow me exclusively for music coverage, this is your chance. We have a musician on our gaming show. Take the plunge and help us get more than two views on a piece for once.

There’s one last Super Cast Bros. episode due out NOW that hasn’t quite gotten finished processing, because it’s a behemoth. Look forward to our first two-parter this week, featuring Lister and I racking each other’s minds on where we think the Smash series will take us next, in a post-Ultimate world.

Super Cast Bros. is available on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, and anywhere else you enjoy listening to your podcasts.

2020 is rife with opportunity, friends. Let us seize the moment and move with our best foot forward. I can feel the magic in the air. This one will be different.

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