STORY SONGS WITH ERNIE HILL
While thinking about events for the 2015 John Hartford Memorial Festival, I came up with this concept purely out of curiosity. What if I selected three or so songwriters out of the lineup who specialize in story songs, and host a presentation/panel discussion consisting of original story songs and individual processes? The idea being, give the audience (and me) an idea about the individual creative process. I have an idea how mine works and I am curious to the extreme that I wrote a book about it.
I presented the idea to the committee and got the green light. They decided to call it a Story Songs Workshop. I explain in the program that is not a "hands on" workshop. The first year was a hit and each year since has grown in popularity as folks who love stories are given a look inside the heads of folks who "make them up". Now we are on our 4th JHMF Story Songs Workshop and in2017, I presented Story Songs at the Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield Kansas. My concept is being considered at some other festivals and events. Participants have included Chicago Farmer, Ryan Spearman, Juni Fisher, Wil Maring, Colin O’Brien, Old Man Luedecke, Ginger Boatwright, Nathan Blake Lynn, Giri and Uma Peters, Micahlan Boney, Kenny Cornell, and this year will introduce Mike Oberst.
How does it work? I start the set with an original story song and then open up a discussion. We pass it on down the line and in the time allotted we each perform original story songs with enlightening discussion.
Aren't all songs Story Songs? Well, no. A large percentage of top 40 mainstream songs are "feeling" songs. Songs that express love or the opposite. A story song is just that- it tells a story, sometimes taking you to a different environment. It's that simple, but where do they come from? How does a songwriter "get" their story? That's what these sets are all about. It really is different with each songwriter. I've written a book, a short introspective look inside my own mind, the minds of a few others, and some research opinions. It's called "The Cosmic Path to Melody and Lyric". Click here to read more about it. This little mind journey is illustrated by the artist Jon Griffin. Please check it out and consider talking with me about presenting this concept at your event.
I’m way beyond excited to have the opportunity to share the stage at JHMF8 with Micahlan Boney, Chicago Farmer and Mike Oberst and a special closing guest appearance by Giri and Uma Peters. Read on to learn a little more about them, and me.
Micahlan Boney- I met Micahlan through our John Hartford Songwriter’s Challenge contest. Micahlan made the top 15 at age 13, she made the top ten the next two years, and last year, won the contest with her soulful song about John Hartford, “Gone Too Soon”. At 17, Micahlan is an old soul. Proficient on any instrument she chooses to play, her lyrics are deep and thoughtful and her knack for melody is fresh. I quoted her in my book, “The Cosmic Path to Melody and Lyric”.
Micahlan, from Claxton, GA, began performing on fiddle and writing songs at the age of eight. She added the guitar, mandolin and banjo in the following years. Micahlan's songs simmer with ingredients from old-time, country, blues, and rock traditions with revealing relatable messages about heartbreak, hope, love, longing and her ongoing evolution as an artist and young lady. She has performed in 10 states and solo and as part of various bands . She has been a member of 2 Americana bands playing first with banjo master and a musical mentor, James McKinney in his band, The Night Travelers. She also played with Grammy award winning songwriter Louisa Branscomb in her band, Louisa Branscomb and Friends of Distinction. Micahlan won the Savannah Country Music Showdown in 2017. Also, in 2017 she won the John Hartford Memorial Songwriting Contest in Bean Blossom, Indiana. In Sept of 2017, her show and abilities as a fiddler attracted the attention of The Kentucky Head Hunters who asked her to join them on stage at the Gram Parson's Memorial Festival in Waycross, Ga. Micahlan joined in for last year’s JHMF Story Songs set at a last minute invitation. I’m looking forward to introducing the JHMF8 audience to Micahlan’s take on creativity and her original story songs.
Chicago Farmer -Folk hero Todd Snider says, "I love Chicago Farmer's singing and playing and songs, but it's the intention behind the whole of his work that moves me to consider him the genuine heir to Arlo Guthrie or Ramblin' Jack Elliott. He knows the shell game that goes on under folk music… which is sacred to me. Chicago Farmer is my brother; if you like me, you'll love him."
Cody Diekoff, known across the globe as Chicago Farmer, participated in the first ever Story Songs set, along with St. Louis musician/songwriter, Ryan Spearman. Cody reminds me of what would happen if Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and John Prine were cloned into one entity. Cody writes as if he’s lived forever, from the blue- collar angle. He is a natural story teller. I’m really tickled that he’s back at JHMF and particularly, sitting in with Micahlan, Mike and myself. Lyrically driven, Chicago Farmer delves into the social and political issues of today’s world, taking it all in and putting it back out through music as a commentary on modern times in the Midwest. With his unfeigned and relatable approach, Chicago Farmer has earned a place in the heart of this generation’s rise of protest songs. He composes music written and sung by and for the working man, the "regular person", bringing to mind modern day folk tales. He writes music for “the kind of people that come to my shows. Whether in Chicago or Delavan, everyone has a story, and everyone puts in a long day and works hard the same way,” he says. “My generation may have been labeled as slackers, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t work hard - many people I know put in 50-60 hours a week and 12 hour days. That’s what keeps me playing. I don’t like anyone to be left out; my music is for everyone in big and very small towns.” He listened to punk rock and grunge as a kid before discovering a friend’s dad playing Hank Williams, and it was a revelation. Prine and Guthrie quickly followed. The name Chicago Farmer was originally for a band, but the utilitarian life of driving alone from bar to bar, city to city - to make a direct connection to his audience and listener, took a deeper hold.
Mike Oberst- Folks, I could easily do the whole 90 minutes with any of these three songwriters, and Mike Oberst, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, musician, and songwriter best known as a co-founder of the Cincinnati, Ohio string band, The Tillers, could do the whole day just telling stories and singing story songs.
Mike was born and raised in the Sayler Park neighborhood of Cincinnati, a stone’s throw from the historic US Route 50 as it winds down the banks of the Ohio River. He was introduced to music at a very early age, starting Suzuki piano lessons at the age of four. At the age of 13, Mike’s father showed him some chords on the guitar, and within a year, he began forming punk rock bands with his friends. Mike’s interest in traditional music began with his membership in the Cincinnati Caledonian Bagpipe and Drum Corps from the ages of 17 to 22. At age 23, Mike became a part of “The Blue Rock Boys”, an Irish Traditional Folk band, which gave Mike his first taste of the life of a touring musician.
When Mike began performing solo shows around town, he became consumed with a love of clawhammer-style banjo playing and an interest in American folk music in the vein of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, and other Depression-era performers. He soon chanced upon a like-minded musical compatriot in the form of guitarist Sean Geil, with whom Mike formed the band “The Tillers”.
The Tillers’ rise to prominence in the local and regional folk scene was a rapid one, bolstered by a stroke of good fortune in the summer of 2009, when The Tillers’ recording of Mike’s song “There is a Road (Route 50)” was featured on veteran NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s USA Network television documentary on the history and significance of US Route 50.
In 2011, Mike released his first solo album, “Mike Oberst and His Five-String Banjo”, which featured collaborations with a number of Mike’s musician friends from Cincinnati and beyond.
Also that year, Mike was the driving force behind “To Sing with You Once More”, a benefit concert to raise money and awareness to fight multiple myeloma cancer, the disease which claimed both Mike’s mother Lori and one of his musical heroes, Mike Seeger. The concert, which featured rare appearances by folk giants like John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz, was a rousing success.
Mike continues to play and tour, both solo and with The Tillers. He was recently bestowed with the Ohio Arts Council Traditional Arts Apprenticeship for clawhammer banjo in 2011-12, and again in 2013-14. He also teaches clawhammer banjo lessons from his home to a number of students both locally and regionally.
Mike’s appreciation and gratitude to the tradition of Field Recording for its preservation of rapidly-disappearing musical styles and traditions has led him to attempt some of his own. In 2016 he produced and co-recorded an album of original music by North Carolina songwriter Jean Dowell. He is currently in the early stages of recording and compiling the music of legendary Kentucky fiddler Tommy Taylor.
Mike is also interested in American folk art, history, and methods of sustainable city living. He enjoys gardening, farming, and raising chickens at his home.
Giri and Uma Peters- JHMF7’s Story Songs set introduced the audience to the songwriting of Giri and Uma Peters, along with Micahlan Boney, as a kids set. All three are very wise beyond their years, old souls. Uma stole my heart with her timely, important, soulful “How to Help The World”. This song has become a “hit” in the folk world and I am honored that Giri and Uma will take a few minutes out of their busy JHMF schedule to perform this song and close out the JHMF8 Story Songs Set.
Giri (age 13) and Uma (age 10) Peters are an Indian-American brother/sister duo from Nashville, TN. These award-winning multi-instrumentalists - Giri on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar, and Uma on clawhammer banjo - have been electrifying audiences with their refreshing, soulful blend of old-time, folk, and roots music. Although young in age, their musicianship and vocal harmonies showcase a level of creativity and originality well beyond their years. They have attracted the attention of Dobro master Jerry Douglas, IBMA guitar player of the year Molly Tuttle, and blues harmonica great Phil Wiggins and have jammed with practically everybody who is anybody in acoustic music! MacArthur Genius Grant awardee and former Carolina Chocolate Drop, Rhiannon Giddens,who has befriended and taken a deep interest in these two, recently recorded with them on their soulful, deep collaboration, “How to Help the World” This song, pinned by Uma and melodically arranged by Giri, was released as a digital single and published on the Folk Alliance International Conference CD for 2018. These gifted and very busy young folks continue to perform at festivals and venues all over the country while maintaining a school presence and continuing to “just be kids”.
Ernie Hill- If you are a JHMF veteran, you’ve probably seen Ernie and wife/co-writer Patti, scurrying about the grounds here and there, and on stage. Ernie created, manages and hosts the John Hartford Songwriter’s Challenge and Showcase, created and hosts/participates the Story Songs Workshop, and sometimes plays a set which in he usually involves guest musicians and the audience. Ernie is also a JHMF Staff writer among other JHMF duties and currently writes the newsletter for the John Hartford Office, johnhartford.org. Ernie is an inadvertent story teller. He calls himself a “cosmic muser”, meaning that he does not plan to write or tell a story. In his words, “They just fly through.” Ernie’s curiosity about the Muse has led him on a journey to interpret what this Muse is to different songwriters and himself, leading to the birth of the Story Songs Workshop concept. It’s led him to publish a little mind journey on the subject, “The Cosmic Path to Melody and Lyric”, illustrated by cosmic muse artist, Jon Griffin. In keeping with the changing times, Ernie’s story songs can be downloaded from his website, wordsofernest.com. His only CD to date, The Highway That Runs Through the Graveyard, is available from the site or directly from him. Ernie loves to interact with an audience and his natural curiosity lends itself well to hosting a panel of highly creative songwriters.