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Trad Beat: New indie chart in Billboard

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

At last, Billboard magazine has yielded to persistent lobbying for a Top Independent Albums chart, which debuted in its Feb. 5 issue. The list of 50 recordings, all sold via independent distribution, was compiled from a national sample of retail store, mass merchant, and Internet sales reports by SoundScan, the industry standard.

That’s the good news. Albums falling outside major distribution networks will now be formally categorized and recognized in the leading trade magazine for the music industry. Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Music, Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, and other indie-label execs helped persuade Billboard to publish the chart because, in part, indie-label sales represented 16.1 percent of across-the-board album sales last year. And that figure is expected to grow in the wake of consolidations sweeping the mainstream music industry.

The bad news is that the inaugural chart of 50 has precious few folk or traditional releases in it. True, recordings by Ani DiFranco, John Prine (his "In Spite of Ourselves" includes two songs with Galway’s Dolores Keane), Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Dolly Parton (through her all-bluegrass "The Grass Is Blue") are there. But so, too, are three pro-wrestling compilations, including the No. 1 album, Jim Johnston’s "World Wrestling Federation: WWF the Music Volume 4." The sole Irish album listed is McDermott, Kearns, and Tynan’s "The Irish Tenors," which finished No. 3 in the Top World Music Albums chart the week before.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but it may have been better to have lobbied for an expansive folk/traditional category that could serve more artists in oft-overlooked genres. Before Billboard instituted its Top World Music Albums and Top New Age Albums charts, very few albums of Irish traditional music cracked any other chart in the magazine. Major-label artists such as the Chieftains have done so, but they are more the exception than the rule.

Billboard’s charts, of course, are driven by sales, not substance, so my point about the relative dearth of folk and trad albums in the first Top Independent Albums chart may seem moot or niggling. Even so, I wish Billboard could have devised a chart aimed at the heart of serious, fad-free, roots-oriented acoustic music.

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Comparison shopping

In the current issue of Rhythm Music magazine, to which this writer has contributed in the past, an article on English folksinger Kate Rusby asks, "Could the next Edith Piaf be a country girl from Yorkshire?"

Notwithstanding the renewed interest in Piaf after her recording of "Tu Es Partout" was featured in the film "Saving Private Ryan," the answer, frankly, is no. Comparing Rusby, who clearly has talent but not as towering as the British folk fanzines would have you believe, to the "Little Sparrow" is like comparing Mary Black to Judy Garland, Moving Hearts to Miles Davis’s "Bitches Brew" crew, or Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin to Leonard Bernstein. It’s a useless and ultimately stupid analogy, redounding to the advantage of neither artist. Apples to apples, oranges to oranges, please.

On a different front, two trad songs recorded by Karan Casey, "I Wonder What’s Keeping My True Love Tonight" (from 1996’s "Solas") and "The Unquiet Grave" (from Solas’ 1997 album, "Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers"), are also covered by Rusby on her 1999 solo album, "Sleepless." Coincidence? Rusby doesn’t mention where she got the songs.

What sounds like anything but a coincidence is the rendition of Jean Ritchie’s "One, I Love" by Méav Ní Mhaolchatha, former Anúna choir singer and "Riverdance" member, on her U.S. solo debut, "Méav" (Hearts O’Space, 2000). Méav doesn’t mention where she got the song, but I challenge anyone to listen to her version without immediately recalling Casey’s on her 1997 solo album, "Songlines." It’s virtually the same approach, although Casey’s voice and interpretation are vastly superior.

My point? Singers, be upfront with your song sources, recent in particular. Like accidents, duplications do happen. Most vocalists go out of their way to avoid them, especially since they can spark invidious comparisons in the press (such as here) and among listeners. Slyness and shyness about a source are not interchangeable traits.

Danko-‘Dog’ connection

This past Dec. 10, bassist and singer Rick Danko died at age 56. He was a member of one of America’s most influential and revered groups, The Band, a roots-rock quintet inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

What did not appear in the obituaries and remembrances of Danko was his and The Band’s musical relationship with the Irish group Four Men and a Dog. The latter "loved American music," former member Gerry O’Connor told me, and recorded it from the outset, cutting Ola Belle Reed’s song "High on a Mountain," for example, on their "Barking Mad" debut in 1991.

Four Men and a Dog’s last two albums, "Dr. A’s Secret Remedies" (1995) and "Long Roads" (1996), were recorded at the Woodstock, N.Y., studio of Band member Levon Helm. Co-producer was Aaron Hurwitz, who also co-produced the last three albums by The Band, and guest musicians included recent Band members Garth Hudson, Randy Ciarlante, Richard Bell, and Danko, who sang in a call-and-response segment of "Joefy Spokes" on "Long Roads."

When Donegal native and Four Men and a Dog lead singer Kevin Doherty decided last year to record his solo debut, "Strange Weather," he didn’t hesitate in heading back to Woodstock and Helm’s studio, where Danko played bass on Doherty’s "Mary J" song.

"There was a real advantage in doing the songs there with Aaron, the producer, and with Levon, Randy, Garth, and Rick," explained O’Connor, who played fiddle, guitar, and mandolin on the album. "How they approach harmonies, how they judge the speed of a song, the dynamics within a song, and these little nuances — believe me, it was a real education."

Earlier, Doherty returned the favor to Ciarlante, Helm, and Danko by giving them "Don’t Wait," an original song he put on a demo tape and hoped to record on his solo album.

"Levon knew he could fall right on it," Hurwitz recalled, "and we played it with Levon on acoustic guitar, me on accordion, and Randy on drums. We had to ask Kevin if he would let the song go, but he was thrilled to have it become a Band song."

Helm and other Band members reworked some of Doherty’s lyrics and music, then recorded it on their most recent album, "Jubilation" (River North). Along with Danko, Ciarlante, and Marie Spinosa, Doherty sang backup to Helm’s lead vocal.

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