Friday, June 24, 2011

The Quiet Man

The first time we laid eyes on Josh Oliver was New Year’s Eve, 2006. The Everybodyfields were about to open for the Avett Brother’s at the Neighborhood Theater in Charlotte. We saw him standing beside the band’s van behind the venue and mistook him for one of the Avetts. He was traveling with the ‘fields. The next time we saw him was at a ‘fields gig at the Map Room in West Ashley, Charleston, SC in February of ’07. We realized then that he was a roadie, sound guy and merch man for the band. We didn’t realize that he was also a musician, quietly working his way into the group.

By the time the Everybodyfields released their acclaimed CD Nothing is Okay Oliver was a full-fledged side man, playing keyboards and electric guitar, and offering occasional background vocals. When the band stopped by our house that summer for lunch we got to know him as the “quiet man,” unassuming, but warm. He demonstrated some licks on the piano to our oldest son.

Not long thereafter the ‘fields disintegrated, the lead songwriting duo of Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews going their separate ways. Josh hung around, playing with both artists in their respective solo acts. We saw him again at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, playing and singing scintillating harmonies in support of Sam’s new album, The Fake that Sunk a Thousand Ships. He took that same lonesome voice, raised at the foot of Chilhowee Mountain in Maryville, TN, and complimented Jill Andrews in her slick new band.

What we didn’t know was that Josh was quietly working on an album of his own. But here it is, entitled Troubles, released on the first day of summer, 2011. The set consists mainly of Oliver, his guitar and occasional piano, with some intermittent help from Brandon Story (upright bass), Megan Gregory (fiddle, bgv’s) and Sam Quinn (bgv’s).

Troubles is a collection of covers old and recent as well as a few originals. The vocal arrangements on “I Will Never Marry” are breath-taking and heartrending, while the cavernous guitar and organ effects on the original “Lonesome Heartbroken Blues” are chilling. We can summarize Oliver’s accomplishment by focusing on two tracks, “Red Rocking Chair” and “Pass Me Not.”

The former – alternately titled “Sugar Babe” (or “Sugar Baby”) – was originally a banjo “rounder” common to the upper South. The first known recording of it was made by Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs in 1926. Two versions of the song appear on the Hammons family recording from the ‘70s. Given that the Hammons’s played mostly 19th century tunes, it is likely that “Sugar Baby/Red Rocking Chair” dates from that time (later versions were made by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco). Oliver’s rendering shares little in common with the others apart from the lyrics. Here, the guitar alternates between sparseness in the verses and restive, jazz-like inflection in the gaps; and Oliver’s tortured, reverberated vocals ring over what feels like an abandoned hollow. Unlike Boggs’ biting work-out, this one is a regret-laden dirge.

Similarly, Oliver takes the familiar hymn “Pass Me Not” and, with the assistance of Sam Quinn on harmonies, turns it into as sorrowful a number as Hank Williams could have mustered. It’s high and lonesome and southern Appalachian, to be sure; but one can almost picture a blind Bartimaeus crying out to the passing Savior, as well.

These tracks show us that Josh Oliver is both a conservator and faithful interpreter of tradition. He is mining the rich seams of American folk and spiritual music, making the nuggets his own and informing his originals. It’s the emergent signature style and the discovery of one’s voice, based on deep reflection and experience, which makes this a satisfying debut to own.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Fed Says Let the Bad Times Keep Rollin'

Bottom line on the economy: we need higher interest rates, more savings, and lower prices. As one who commutes nearly 60 miles round trip per day, a gas price approaching $4.00/gallon had me sweating bullets. The price is now falling as QE2 falters. Thanks be to God. But we need incentives to save, not more stimulus.

A more thorough explanation from Christian economist Shawn Ritenour is here:

Foundations of Economics: The Fed Says Let the Bad Times Keep Rollin': "The Federal Open Market Committee announced yesterday that they will keep up record monetary stimulus after QE2 finishes. They correctly see..."

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Arthur Alligood is an Americana artist who lives in White House, TN, about 30 miles north of Music City. He is married and has three daughters. Originally from Athens, GA, Alligood (pronounced alley-good) has a passion for literature, including Georgia’s own Flannery O’Connor. Like one of O’Connor’s peacocks, Arthur’s music slowly turns and reveals its brilliant golds and greens in its own time. His new album, I Have Not Seen the Wind, is as spacious and intimate as a shady mountain overlook; honest and humble without a trace of existential excess. It has its heartaches, adorned by a whining steel guitar. To quote one of its best songs, it’s a place “where the storm meets the sun.” Arthur has been there, and you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement, wanting to share it with friends near and far.

But don’t take my word for it. Christianity Today thinks this record merits attention.

Listen to the whole thing here.

Arthur just completed a two-week mini-tour, playing every night but one, from Indiana to Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the Carolinas and back to Tennessee. One of his stops was our church, St. Jude’s Mission. I put out a call to the church and to friends on Facebook; we only managed to muster 20 for the show last Saturday evening. But Arthur was unruffled. He would rather play for five people who listen closely – as he did the first night of the tour at a house show – than to a large hall where many aren’t paying attention.

The twenty in attendance were unanimously moved by his songs. He sold several CD’s. He came home with us and played Wii with our 12 year-old son, who decided quickly that Arthur is his favorite among artists that have stayed with us. The next morning we went back to church and our pastor invited him to play a piece for the offertory (“The Master’s Side”). It was deeply moving. Those who hadn’t been there the night before were sorry to have missed it.

Our oldest son had to work Saturday night, so after Sunday lunch Arthur favored him with a mini-session from our big comfy couch.

The impressive thing about Arthur is his integrated life in God. Whether it’s being sad about setbacks and losses, or howling at jokes, or having fun with the chaps around my wife’s taco buffet, all is in God’s hands, in His time. Arthur is nearly two decades my junior, but I have a lot to learn from him. Mainly I need to learn, as apparently he has, to wait for God who, like the peacock, will spread His glory before us in His good time.