Jayme Stone’s Folklife finds hope and inspiration in creatively arranged traditional tunes
By Bliss Bowen
After performing a Bluegrass Situation-sponsored concert in Santa Monica last spring, Juno-winning banjoist and musical explorer Jayme Stone continued touring with his band, digging deeper into nuggets of American folk that had been uncovered by folklorists such as field recording legend Alan Lomax and Guy and Candie Carawan.
Two months ago they released “Jayme Stone’s Folklife” on the Borealis label, whose promotional tour brings them to the Annenberg Community Beach House Tuesday night.
Once again, Stone & Co. demonstrate how musically malleable and relevant traditional songs remain.
More focused than 2015’s “Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project,” the “Folklife” album’s material likewise originated from the Georgia Sea Islands, the Caribbean, Appalachia and Mississippi. Stone had been developing about half the songs for about a year on tour with cellist Tristan Clarridge, fiddler Sumaia Jackson, and intrepid LA vocalist Moira Smiley, with whom Stone shares a longstanding mutual admiration. As a result, Stone says, the songs had “really kind of found their home” by the time the musicians entered the studio.
“With the Lomax Project, there were so many different musicians coming together from different constellations, and the magic of that record is the chemistry of people coming together for the first time,” he observes. “What I love about this Folklife record is it’s the core band who’ve been touring for the past few years. That deepened our musical bond, so it’s a different kind of magic, [with] more intimacy and more singing.”
The singing is indeed sublime, particularly by Smiley, whose silken tones shift with quicksilver ease from playful children’s songs to Creole dance tunes and impassioned Sacred Harp hymns. She sings most of the leads, joined occasionally by Stone as well as guests Felicity Williams and Dom Flemons.
Stone guides the Folklife quartet’s “collaboratory” approach with his curatorial vision, but individual sensibilities are expressed in the creative arrangements. The sultry, jazzy treatment of “Hey, Lally Lally Lo,” for instance, belies the song’s square dance origins, while Sea Island spiritual “That’s All Right” finds power in hushed simplicity.
Another striking track is “There is More Love Somewhere,” a hearty anthem that originated with Georgia Sea Island Singer Bessie Jones: “There is more love some-
where/ … There is more peace somewhere/ I’m gonna keep on until I find it.” The song spirals and takes off thanks to the honest, blues-rooted simplicity of the lyric, coupled with the pop-worthy uplift of the chorus. It’s also notable because it opens with Stone singing lead.
“I had that in my back pocket for a long time,” he says. “I kept bringing it to different singers, because I’ve only just started singing in the past couple years; this is actually my lead singing debut on this record. I had these amazing singers try it, but it always felt like I was hearing it in a certain way and no one was ever going to be able to do just that. It finally dawned on me that I should just sing.”
Like “That’s All Right,” “Hallelujah” and the rousing “Wait on the Rising Sun,” the song imparts an inspiring message. Stone says the album’s spiritual thread was intentional, after recognizing why he himself listens to music.
“It was like a reckoning,” he explains, “realizing that actually most of the time when I really feel like I need music, I just want something that’s very stirring. I thought, why don’t I just make a whole record where that’s the focus — stuff that feels emotionally transporting.
“It feels like making music is one of the things that we can do to bring people together, and to heal and sort of shake us out of the incessant busy-ness of modern life, and tragedy in the news and our communities. I hope we can provide a little of that. Everybody I know needs it.”
A Canadian native who resides in Colorado with his family, Stone is as polite and precise in his speech as he is specific in his instrumental choices. Musically, he expresses a borderless taste for adventure. Past albums have found him exploring the music of Africa, Europe, India and South America, and the creatively curious banjoist says he’s “experimenting with some kind of radical pop” for his next project.
“It’s rather early, but I’ve been starting to write songs,” he says, “and I’ve been really influenced by some pop and hip-hop artists like Frank Ocean and Bon Iver and Chance the Rapper. I think you’re in for a whole other thing.”
The concert is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 6, at the Annenberg Community Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy., Santa Monica. Admission is free, but RSVP required. Call (310) 458-4904 or visit jaymestone.com and follow the tour link to RSVP.