So much of the Junos is about hype. Hype about Drake, hype about The Biebs, or hype about what outfit so-and-so is going to wear and whether it’ll be featured on eTalk the next day. Now I’m not about to say that these things don’t deserve hype, and if you care about them - that’s cool, I’m no snob and I totally get it. Different strokes and all that. But behind all that Juno glitz and glamour are some categories that don’t get as much attention, but are full of some of the most honest, truest, sweetest...and in some cases greatest music to have come out of the country in some time. I’m here to talk about one of them - Roots/Traditional Group and Solo artist of the year.
Given my gig as host of Deep Roots, I’ve spent a serious amount of time with the following releases and I thought I’d give my two cents on an oft-ignored list of nominees:
Roots/Traditional Album of the Year - Solo Artist
Bruce Cockburn - Small Source of Comfort
This could very well be an easy win for Cockburn. He’s the only real star in the bunch, and this album demonstrates why he’s remained such a force in folk music in this country for so long. Unflinching, unapologetically socially conscious lyrics, all-star production from Colin Linden (of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), and if you didn’t know, Bruce can play a guitar like it owes him money. If the membership votes based on name-recognition, Bruce’ll pick this up.
Craig Cardiff - Floods and Fires
Craig Cardiff is (and I hate using a cliche like this) one of the hardest working men in show business. Every festival and folk conference I attend, Cardiff is there - meeting new fans, making connections, making sure people hear his music, and generally being a kind soul to everyone he meets. Now mind you there’s a lot of people like that - professional networkers whose social skills trump their actual output. Craig Cardiff isn’t one of those folks. His music is honest, sweet, and carefully crafted and while he’s a dark horse in terms of name-recognition, he deserves the Juno based on gumption alone.
Dave Gunning - A Tribute to John Allen Cameron
John Allen Cameron (or J’nallen as it was pronounced in Cape Breton), was one of the finest guitarists ever to have come out of the East Coast. Which, to be truthful, is a place known for breeding exceptionally great guitarists. He was one of the first to attempt to pick out celtic melodies on the guitar instead of just using the instrument as accompaniment. On this record, Nova Scotia’s folk sweetheart Dave Gunning does pretty damn good job at taking on the sometimes exhausting catalogue that J’nallen left behind. Fans of guitar playing, things from the East and those who smile when they think of ‘days gone b’y will dig this one.
David Francey - Late Edition
Remember earlier in this article when I talked about glitz, glamour, fame, fortune and hype? Well David Francey could be the antithesis of all of that. He didn’t start a professional music career till well into middle age, before that he was a carpenter, millwright and general labourer. Well the attention to detail he had in a life of carpentry certainly carried over to his songwriting. Francey's music is as well thought out as the most ornate cabinet or table - and just as sturdy. Plus Francey’s working-class background allows him to write relatable, honest songs about everyday people. David Francey is a cult favourite, and if he wins it will be his 3rd Juno in this category.
Lindi Ortega - Little Red Boots
About time a woman showed up on this list. Ortega is not your typical folk singer — sorry Roots/Traditional Singer. Before embarking on a solo career, she spent some time as a backup singer for the Killers’ Brandon Flowers. That new-wave, rock sensibility creeps into her own music, making her a very atypical folksinger and nominee in this category. This album owes as much to Tom Waits as it does Emmylou Harris. However if the membership is into pushing the boundaries (something that’s very hard to predict), Lindi Ortega stands a good chance at taking home a trophy.
Roots/Traditional Album of the Year - Group
The Good Lovelies - Let the Rain Fall
The Lovelies have been described as “The Andrews Sisters if they sang Bluegrass” - and I don’t think that does justice to just how important and good this group is. The Lovelies may look like an old-timey vocal group singing in the mess halls "for the boys," but when you dig into their music there is a maturity both lyrically and harmonically that’s quite staggering. The music is sunny for sure, but it has dark clouds around it as well, and at times the music can get uncomfortably personal. The Good Lovelies picked up this Juno for their last record, and there’s a good chance they could repeat that feat.
The Once - Row Upon Row (Of the People They Know)
Full disclaimer: I’m on this record. Sure it’s a bit part, but The Once are very good friends of mine and they asked me and some friends to come in and sing on the last track on this record. So if you think that clouds my judgment too much, I get it. I’ll even take a line break for you to move on to the next nominee (or get yourself a cup of tea or whatever).
Still here? Good. The Once are fantastic. They started out as a kind of folky cover band - doing rarely heard, but still other people’s arrangements of traditional folk songs, as well as taking on the odd tune from Leonard Cohen that a dog could howl and it’d still be impactful. On this record, they showed off what they’re really made of. This is one of the most progressive folk albums to have come out of this country in some time - progressive meaning that it doesn’t just make weird noises for the sake of them, and it has one foot firmly planted in the past as well as one in the future. It takes courage to make a record like this, full of harmonies ‘thick enough to stand on’, arrangements and original songs (!) that will instantly convert you into a fan. If the award goes to a new group this year, it’s probably going to be these guys.
The Deep Dark Woods - Place I Left Behind
Sometimes I wonder about alt.country in Canada. I go to a certain bar in Toronto and everyone’s wearing cowboy shirts, cowboy boots, talking about Buck Owens and I can tell it’s all they can do to stop themselves from slipping into a southern drawl. Now while I do think that conversations about authenticity are overall fruitless, The Deep Dark Woods somehow play alt.country (or Americana) like it was forged from the mines of Saskatchewan. There’s simple nothing disingenuous, archetypical or derivative in their style of country music...which I tell you is tough. The band can be dark, can be light, can be fun and can be stone serious - plus the album is worth it for the harmonies alone. Depending on how navel grazing the membership is, the DDW’s could take this one.
The Wailin Jennys - Bright Morning Stars
The Jennys have been up-and-comers for so long now, they’re practically veterans. The success of the Jennys paved the way for bands like The Once and the Good Lovelies to think about trying to make a living as a folk music vocal trio - and here they are again. While Bright Morning Stars lacks some of the urgency of their landmark album Firecracker, it’s still a collection of soothing harmonies, traditional instruments, and heartfelt lyrics about things getting better. And what’s folkier than that? Again, name-recognition could be the key factor in the awarding.
Twilight Hotel - When the Wolves Go Blind
Twilight Hotel are a band from Winnipeg that now make their home in the hub of new-folk, alt.country and tragic cowboy-booted acoustic guitar wielding songwriters. While personally I think the whole thing down in Austin is a little 1996, Twilight Hotel aren’t from there; so they sound like a fresh take on what can sometimes be a hackneyed genre - country-folk-songwriter. While the lyrics are certainly strong, what stands out here is the blend between Brandy Zdan & Dave Quanbury. You get the feeling when you listen to this, that this is not just a duet, but a real partnership. You can almost hear the stake they have in eachothers lives and careers - occasionally you can even hear a lip bend upwards on a particularly positive lyrics. This is a honest to goodness record, and it’s definitely a contender.
So there you have it - a little bit about each of the records nominated. Note that I didn’t make any predictions, because really while there are albums I don’t think are going to win, there are a lot that I do. A reminder you can follow along with the awarding by going to cbcmusic.ca on Saturday.
Visit cbcmusic.ca/Junos for complete coverage of the 2012 Juno Awards