Caitlin Canty and enchanting Three Brothers Farm radiate myriad shades of romance

 

Singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty and pedal steel player and guitarist Eric Heywood perform beside the still-strong sunlight of early evening and below the “field halo” at Three Brothers Farm, outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. 

 As I haven’t done justice to Eric Heywood’s artful moans and whorls on the pedal steel, I relate that a man approached me after Ms. Canty’s performance, having heard I write a blog, and told me the pedal steel player created “3-D musical romanticism.”

The romance of Three Brothers Farm radiated even before the early Saturday evening sun flooded into the rustic barn that serves as a concert space. Chicken and sheep wandered around in their spacious areas. For that matter, romance, such as it is, involves the feathered creatures. The hens have virtually free roam of a pasture, with room for mating privacy with roosters and other well being, which helps produce the quality eggs the farm sells, at its events and in area grocery stores. 1

And by concert time, the sun had burned off the rain from the early morning, and overcast clouds had fled. But sunlight couldn’t chase away the rue of my gal pal, Ann Peterson, who was unable to come to what she describes as “the most romantic place I can think of” for a concert. She was babysitting for her very first grandchild, so I took in the show with my friend Steve Hackbarth, an assistant professor of English at Milwaukee Lutheran College, who lives nearby in Oconomowoc. Besides being a Medieval and Renaissance literature scholar, Steve is an acute appreciator of well-crafted song storytelling lyrics and vernacular-music style which, among its various roots, can be traceable to Medieval plainsong.

A cantor like Caitlin knows how to craft a story, whether in the artful form of a song or a confessional anecdote, clearly inspired by this very special place.

Three Brothers helped facilitated her musical relationship with The Punch Brothers, which includes mandolinist and singer Chris Thile, now the host of the beloved NPR radio program A Prairie Home CompanionThe Punch Brothers were performing at Milwaukee’s Summerfest a few years back, when they got wind of her playing not too far away at Three Brothers, near Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Punch Brother Noam Pickelny found time to come to see her and sat in with her at the enchanted venue.

If he or the Punch Brothers fell under a Three Brothers spell, it has continued and enhanced Canty’s evocative artistic endeavors on her latest album Motel Bouquet. One thing led to the next and Pickelny ended up playing lead guitars and banjo, co-writing several of the songs with Canty, and producing the album. Two fellow Punch Brothers also assist on the album: Paul Kowert plays upright bass and, on two tracks, Gabe Witcher plays fiddle.   

She did share some anecdotes about her life on the road that enhanced the romantic atmosphere. This all unfolded with her wide, beaming Julia Roberts-like smile, which also graces her unassuming, self-deprecating humor. She loved the idea of playing while sunlight could still enhance the atmosphere. Then she related, “Somebody said to me, “you are so pale.’ And I said ‘Well, I lived the life of a vampire, also I’m Irish.”

 These were reasons why this was her favorite place to play, perhaps a romantic exaggeration.

“But I normally play in small, dark clubs that smell like year-old beer on the floor,” she explained, as a gentle breeze, sunlight and rustic aromas filled the barn. She also marveled at what she calls the “field halo,” a large, ingenious circular construction of grain grasses bedecked in festive lights, which hovers over the space in front of the stage. (see photo at top). It felt almost like the golden ghost of a hoary, prehistoric buffalo that might’ve once wandered wild in these parts. Meanwhile, the farm’s pet dog wandered eagerly among the seated guests, sniffing for droppings of the delicious stone oven-fired pizza they sell at concerts. But her primary offering was Motel Bouquet, and this felt like an ideal setting to share the complex aspects of romance entailed in the album’s songs.

A view of the farm fields is as clear as a view of the stage at Three Brothers Farm

“Motel Bouquet” cover courtesy americansongwriter. com. All other photos by Kevin Lynch

Which brings us to the music. Her performance consisted primarily of material from Motel Bouquet, which trafficks in plenty of romance but in no simple or facile terms. The cover image conveys the transitory nature of life on the road for a touring musician, and such a person’s romantic prospects. A photograph of a bouquet of vased roses appears to sit on the table of a moving bus or a train, an unsteady situation in itself. At Three Brothers, a similar bouquet of short-lived roses sat right before her microphone, as Canty performed (see photo below).

With the extremely able backdrop of Eric Heywood’s pedal steel guitar, she meandered through the album, almost inverting the song order in a sort of shuffle sequence, like rose petals blown backwards, falling into a trail of memories. The album’s penultimate song, the country twanger “Basil Gone to Blossom,” a metaphor for short-lived romance, came early. And the album opener, “Take Me for a Ride,” closed her concert’s set list.

Her voice is effectively expressive – especially with the sort of swallow-a-word emotional quaver, and the wistful, high-pitched sigh in a phrase: “You-hoo-hoo take me for a ride,” – that disarms the listener, while arming her against further deceit.

Otherwise, her voice has regular-girl qualities and its straightforwardness helps to frame her lyrics without distraction. As a Vermontian, she says she writes from a “cold weather perspective.” Her north country girl’s sensibility arose quickly in “Time Rolls By” which alludes obliquely to Joni Mitchell’s classic “River”: “Time rolls by, another day washes away/with my heartbeat counting the/ time rolling by slowly/ like a frozen river winding to sea.”
She rightly claims the centerpiece of the album is a remarkably spare, almost existential questioning song, “Who.” She had considered it for the album’s title, although she jokingly noted that it would have implied the question mark: ‘Caitlin Canty Who?”  Here, her voice seems engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty, hanging low like a haunting.

You took the salt from my lips

you took the love from my fingertips

you took the red from my mouth

you put the light out

 

Who put the moon in your cry

Who put the wind in your sigh

Who put the sun in your eyes

Who

Then, with Heywood’s steel pealing in the dark, she picked up the tempo, hardened the edge and toughened the hide on “I’m Onto You.” The vamping Lucinda Williams-like lament also references one of that songwriter’s famous images: You pull up the driveway in the following night/ familiar crunching gravel underneath your tires/ wonder why no one bothered to leave on a light/ fumble with your keys blindly step inside/ feel the cold air rush from an empty room.”  

Perhaps this pregnantly hollow scene left Canty fleeing to Motel Bouquet. But this night the troubadour had found a high, embracing barn roof, blessed with long shafts of sunlight, beneath a room full affectionate and engaged listeners. And to the degree such songwriting may be confessional, we can only give thanks she’s finally found a room in a home with a fiddler who can pluck her strings, and stay right beside the fire in her heart.

Several notable singer-songwriters lingered in the crowd, including Peter Mulvey and Hayward Williams, who came up to sing harmony with Canty on a cover of Neil Young’s “She Rides a Harley Davidson,” a perfect love ode for a Milwaukee-area crowd. 

Totally struck by a night that was so “sparkly and beautiful,” Canty changed her final encore to a waltz. The sauntering 3/4 time of “Tennessee Waltz” allowed sparkle into the tempo and the sadness, as she firmed up her tough romantic’s bonafides. The seminal country refrain provided fuel aplenty to roll on down the road, to a blinking-light in the fog, and a low-slung place in the dark, for her to lay her head.  

I left for home with a copy of Motel Bouquet, enchanted memories, and a dozen of the farm’s pasture-raised eggs.

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1 I wrote about Tree Brothers Farm as a concert venue in an illustrated survey feature of upper Midwest roots music venues in the “Heartland” issue, of ” No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, which included quotes from Caitlin Canty. The article and journal are only available in print form. The coffee-table quality book can be ordered here:

Heartland – Spring 2017

 

No Depression print quarterly investigates and celebrates Heartland music

ndspring2017-cover-1

The full cover of the “Heartland” issue of the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music. Cover painting by Iowan Greta Songe  

 

In Milwaukee at least, spring is in the air, and in the earth and the river. The pathway along the Milwaukee River down below Kern Park is still fairly muddy but leaf padding of decayed brown and faded gold along each side of the path allows fairly brisk negotiation.

Ah, but if you pause to observe nature’s inexorable might, the big river flows swift and strong in it’s fluid, forward tumble. The quirky rhythm of the meandering pathway and the propulsive rhythms of the river are part of the essential music of the heartland which helps, perhaps subconsciously, inspire the rhythms and melodies of human music which emerges from the vast, green, heaving chest of America, The Heartland.

So it is now time to respond to that embrace’s cultural power. There’s no better way to do so in one fell swoop, short of turning on a Jayhawks CD or a rootsy radio station, than the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music, entitled The Heartland.

Full disclosure: the issue includes an article by this writer, a survey of upper Midwest venues that cater to roots music, ranging from a working CSA farm to a poster-bedecked Madison basement house-concert venue.

The 160-page coffee table-sized journal began by defying most digital media trends through reasserting intellectual and aesthetic quality in real print. Editor-in-chief Kim Reuhl has stood on the shoulders of the strong journalistic tradition pioneered by her predecessors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden when they began the original No Depression magazine in 1995, dedicated to the growing movement of roots music that looks forward as much as it reaches back into the past. When the magazine ceased operations it continued as a very strong community-oriented website. Then a new business partnership with The FreshGrass Foundation in 2015 opened the doors to reinvent No Depression as a new kind of print music publication.

Indeed, as you sit with a copy of the journal in your lap, the photography and artwork, often spreading across both pages, has the scale and quality of a wide laptop screen of digital imagery. This graphic sensation reminds us that the experience of roots music rises from the thick, layered and complex texture of American culture, the intersection of our strong ethnic musical traditions which remained the envy and allure of the world over.

Plus, you can sit or carry the journal anywhere and enjoy not only the lush graphics but a serious standard of music writing. I can attest, Reuhl works in much closer collaboration with writers in crafting stories than most editors I’ve ever experienced. Of course, the internet has facilitated that close interactive relationship, which was always more cumbersome for print publications with contributions from writers all over North America, and beyond (The summer edition will be “The International Issue,” defying the stereotype of roots music as provincial, hayseed or American-centric.)

Besides seasoned and skilled journalists, the quarterly features contributions by literate and eloquent musicians including, in the Heartland issue, Minnesota blues man Charlie Parr, Indiana blues man Reverend Payton, Illinois folk-wit Robbie Fulks, and a revealing piece by Alabama-born singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who details her peculiar challenges in penetrating heartland radio, venues and audiences. Yet she persists towards mid-America, and quotes a favorite political maxim: “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”

Sparing more self-service, I’ll let my article “Fill the Room: Peeking in on the Upper Midwest’s Music Venues” speak for itself. I haven’t even read the whole issue yet, but it seems brimming with highlights, including Margaret Daniels’ examination of the Midwest seedlings of Bob Dylan’s voracious scholarly genius. She draws connections to Dylan’s fellow Minnesotan literary lion F. Scott Fitzgerald including, as Dylan put it in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature speech, how the two writers share “inarticulate dreams” which they both honed to gleaming and haunting vividness.

Katherine Turman’s far-reaching re-examination of so-called “heartland rock” reveals it to be a complicated and far-flung musical phenomenon with improbable classical music foundations, melding sophistication with the jagged edge. She also shows how such big-shouldered music has helped sustain the success of the Farm Aid benefit concert series by connecting with stadium-sized crowds, which the more coffeehouse-scale dynamics of much roots music can’t quite reach.

Historically deeper still is Stephen Deusner’s unearthing and reclamation of the seminal Indiana vernacular music “recording laboratory” Gennett. The label gave us, among other things, Charley Patton’s harrowing 1929 country blues hollers, and Louis Armstrong’s dazzling New Orleans-style jazz recordings with King Oliver, from 1923.

I was also impressed with an interview-profile with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, a figure with a street-corner Socrates flair. He annually travels around his native Wisconsin on a bicycle, which allows him to feel the warp and the woof of both cities and rural regions, above all his still-troubled hometown of Milwaukee. The article also reveals Mulvey’s passion and debt to poetry, in his use of concise imagery and artistic “breathing space.” Author Erin Lyndal Martin shows how Mulvey achieves a balance between the philosophical, the political and the poetical, while engaging and challenging with musical storytelling and a palpable openness of spirit.

That’s what much of the best roots music does, but in ways characteristic of each artist or group. When you open the wide pages of this journal, it’s a bit like peeking into that big, defiantly persistent American heart.

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For a preview of the “Heartland” issue and mail ordering and retail outlet information, see below.

The Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, “Heartland,” explores the stories and music that thumps, picks, and breathes between the coasts. While mainstream music critics focus on cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville to learn about rising stars and buzzworthy music, artists in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Iowa City are making some of the purest, most honest roots music around. What’s more, artists from the coasts are increasingly touring the heartland — and some are even moving there — to find inspiration in the region’s big skies, honest people, and rich musical legacies.

Heartland Rock with John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Kansas / The influence of Hee Haw and Branson, Missouri / Native American music in the Dakotas / The unknown story of Indiana’s Gennett Records / The musical pipeline between Chicago and Austin / Why singer-songwriters like Jesse Sykes and Lissie are moving to Iowa

Bob Dylan / The Jayhawks / Conor Oberst / Over the Rhine / Peter Mulvey / Chicago Farmer / Bozeman, Montana / Cleveland, Ohio / Essays by artists like Reverend Peyton and many more