I’ve had to take a hiatus from Apsara for several months, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview folk artist Kelli Rae Powell, whose latest album has taught me more than a thing or two about the versatility and beauty of the ukulele.

Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)
Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)

Think you know the ukulele? Meet folk singer-songwriter Kelli Rae Powell, who since 2003 has made this much misunderstood “baby guitar” her instrument of choice.

Cradling it in her arms, Powell knows how to bring out the best in her ukulele. Its gentle tones nimbly carry the melody for her sweet, yet powerful voice on solos, and adeptly serves as lead instrument in an ensemble of blues harp, upright bass, and mandolin.

Powell, an Iowa-native now living in New York, draws inspiration from Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday for the musical poems about life that she weaves. Her latest album Live at Jalopy, is a flawless offering of wit and sensitivity, which also captures a special evening in Powell’s life at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

In a recent interview, Powell describes her love of the ukulele and her favorite music venue, and shares about the exciting next chapter of her life.

The ukulele is perhaps one of the more misunderstood, and underappreciated instruments. When did you first encounter the ukulele, and what about this instrument led you to make it a focus of your music?

In 2003, I acted in a play and the director wanted my character to play ukulele. I loved performing with the uke so much that I just couldn’t stop. The ukulele fits in my arms perfectly. I love its small size, its portability, and the beauty of its sound. No one expects the poignant tones a ukulele can make.

In my angry twenties I would go to open mics wielding my little uke and the guitar boys would always make fun of me, saying: “What a cute baby guitar!” They all shut their traps when it was my turn to perform, though. That was fun.

There seems to be strains of jazz, blues, and folk influences in your music—who are the musicians who most inspire you?

When I was very young, I used to listen to Dolly Parton on my record player. Then I would tape myself singing her songs and play them back—I was listening to myself and trying to sound just like her. In high school I had a CD of Billie Holiday’s Verve recordings. I listened to that album every day for probably three years. Those women shaped my taste in music more than any other artists I can think of. They are storytellers of the highest order.

Kelli Rae Powell's Live at JalopyHow did you come to record a live album at Jalopy, and what about this venue provided the right backdrop for it?

My first performance at Jalopy was in the midst of a huge blizzard. I opened for songwriters Al Duvall and Bliss Blood. We all trudged through the snow towards Red Hook [Brooklyn] fairly certain there wouldn’t be anyone at our show. Jalopy didn’t have a liquor license at that time, so we brought bottles of red wine. We basically played for each other all night and drank as the snow piled up around us. It was magical. The owners Lynette and Geoff Wiley never seem to care about how many people you can draw. They like my songs, so they let me book shows there.

The audience at Jalopy is extremely respectful—they come for the music. They sit in the old church pews and listen to your stories. There isn’t any other venue for me in the world. When I gathered the courage to record a live album, there was no question that I would record it at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

Your songs range from beautiful, simple descriptions of the first moments of falling in love, to more humorous reflections on living and loving. Are you drawing on your own experiences, or more generally on the stories of others?

These are my stories. Some of the details will be slightly altered for dramatic effect or to protect the innocent, but, even if the details aren’t necessarily true, the stories are. The songs on this live album are the songs I wrote about losing my grandmother and finding my husband Jim (my husband Jim McNamara is the upright bass player on this recording and on my previous album New Words For Old Lullabies).

The experience of recording this album was an absolute celebration for Jim and me. Our favorite musicians joined us on stage that night: Shaky Dave Pollack on blues harp and Joe Brent on mandolin and violin. The occasion was made doubly special, because just days before the live recording we learned we were pregnant. We were giddy that we captured that special night.

What project are you planning next?

My next album will probably be full of lullabies written for my little girl. I’ve already written a bundle for her.

“Some Bridges are Good to Burn”


Somewhere between electro-acoustic and folk, and between forest and ocean, emerges the music of Arborea, a husband-and-wife duo from Maine.

Arborea: Shanti and Buck Curran (courtesy the artists)

Since releasing their first album Wayfaring Summer in 2006, Buck and Shanti Curran have toured regularly across the United States and Europe, absorbing sounds and experiences along the way that filter into their music.

Red Planet (Strange Attractors Audio House, 2011), Arborea’s most recent album, conjures images of barren landscapes and misty forests; of sunny afternoons and contemplative hours; and the happy, although swift, passage of time.

The minor key and atmospheric electric guitar of tracks like “Phantasmagoria in Two” and “Wolves” lends a touch of mystery to the album, which is balanced by the lighter sounds of “Spain” and “A Little Time.”

Buck and Shanti both skillfully play a large number of instruments—guitar, banjo, and harmonium to name only a few—and Red Planet features a handful of instrumental tracks, such as “Fossil Sea.” Shanti sings on most of the songs though, in a warm, sweet-sounding voice at times tinged with plaintiveness.

Arborea’s music is captivating and unconventional in a way that keeps you wanting to experience more, and it’s well worth setting aside some time to listen to one of their albums.

Already this spring, the duo has performed at SXSW and on NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert. They took time out of their busy schedule, which includes touring and homeschooling their two children, to catch up with Apsara in an e-mail interview.

Arborea’s music has been dubbed as “psych folk,” “indie folk,” etc. How would you describe it?

We’ve been called “avant folk,” “indie folk,” “psych folk,” “dream folk,” “free folk,” “folk rock”…but it’s not strictly folk. With elements of rock, blues, and Eastern modal music, you might describe it more as “soundscapes.” More often than not, our music is created as if it were a soundtrack for the landscapes and environments we’re moving through or interacting with, so it’s really impossible to say it’s just one thing. A lot of people associate us with forests and mountains, but we’re equally inspired by the power of the ocean and the rugged coast of Maine, as well as countries we often visit: Ireland and Wales, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Your first album Wayfaring Summer came out in 2006, and you recently released your fourth album Red Planet. In what ways has your music evolved over this span of time?

Our music has evolved quite a bit over the past seven years. We’ve gotten so much stronger and intuitive as a duo because we’ve dedicated everything we have to playing music and spend most of our time each year touring throughout the US, UK, and Europe. We heard a term recently in an old interview with Marc Bolan (T. Rex), in which he talked about the reality of life as an artist and touring, and how you don’t make a lot of money. But you do it because you “live your environment”—and that’s exactly what we do.

Red Planet features renditions of “Black is the Colour” and “Careless Love” alongside your own compositions. How did you approach interpreting these traditional songs, which have been performed by musicians from many different genres?

“Careless Love” is actually two distinct traditional songs. One version is a folk song about pregnancy, and the other is a blues song about frivolous love (Bessie Smith recorded a notable version in 1925). It’s origin though is an anonymous poem. Shanti randomly discovered the short poem in an old literature book and at the time we didn’t know about the other versions. We took words from the poem, then composed the song with our own rhythm, melody, and song structure. Our song is linked closer to the folk song, with the references to young love and pregnancy, and wearing the apron high and low.

“Black is the Colour” is our own arrangement of a version that’s on the 1987 Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe album True Dare or Promise. That song was passed down to Jessica from her mother, and most likely the source of the version that’s best known comes from the American composer and collector of traditional ballads John Jacob Niles. It’s a song with Scottish origins, brought to the Appalachians by immigrants from Scotland. The River Clyde in Glasgow is referenced in the lyrics and shows direct lineage to Scotland. We also have a version of “This Little Light of Mine” that we recorded for an Odetta tribute. Interpreting traditional songs can be a really fluid process and a lot of fun, because you have a solid reference point from which to start. Our approach is quite simple because the framework of the song is established. We can then improvise with all the existing parts: varying the melody, removing words, and adding new ones. One thing that’s of great importance to us is making sure that there’s plenty of space in the recording so the melody can shine through. That’s how we try to produce all of our music though, not just traditional songs.

This month, you performed a lovely, three-song Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR headquarters. What was this experience like?

We had such a great time! Bob Boilen and all of the crew at NPR are really down to earth and professional, so it made for a relaxing, fun experience. We homeschool our kids, and they were on tour with us and also got to see the NPR headquarters. After our session, NPR let us keep our van in their garage, so we took an amazing family walk around Washington, DC, and eventually ended up at the Air and Space Museum.

Arborea on NPR Music


Appalachian Mountain dulcimer doesn’t always take center stage in American folk music, let alone in a rock band. But in the band Twang Darkly, it gets the spotlight.

The Sound of Secret Names (Mar. 2012), the first studio album by Shreveport-based rock trio Twang Darkly, breaks out of the standard mountain dulcimer folk repertoire with songs that could just change the way we view this unassuming Appalachian string instrument.

Twang Darkly founder Michael Futreal, a North Carolina native and multi-instrumentalist who Apsara featured last August, bought his first dulcimer in college and hasn’t looked back since. After experimenting with “Appalachian rock” on several of his own albums, The Sound of Secret Names firmly establishes Futreal as an innovator of this genre, and especially of the dulcimer.

Futreal and bandmates Troy Messina (percussion) and Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and electric guitar) have released an all-instrumental album of beautiful folk rock, gritty roadhouse rockabilly, and harmonica-fueled blues. Twang Darkly specializes in improvisation, and although the album was recorded in Futreal’s home studio, several of the songs are first-takes.

The Sound of Secret Names features acoustic and electric dulcimer, harmonica, flute, and banjo. It draws inspiration from Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Jethro Tull, and Tom Waits, as well as surf rock, spaghetti western and 1970s television soundtracks, and a whole host of other musical influences.

But this isn’t a crazy quilt of sounds. Futreal, Messina, and Boultinghouse have created something that’s both entirely original and rooted in musical traditions from Appalachia and the American southeast. We look forward to future releases from Twang Darkly, and hope to see them at SXSW next year.

Apsara spoke to Futreal recently to get the story behind this intriguingly named album.

Twang Darkly: Troy Messina (L), Joel Boultinghouse, and Michael Futreal (courtesy the artist)

How has Twang Darkly evolved as a band since Live from Wire Mountain (Feb. 2011), your first set of recordings?

In one simple respect, on a technical level, I’ve built a recording setup that is appropriate to capturing a band live in multiple tracks, allowing for a proper studio mixing approach without diminishing our live mojo. My previous studio setup, as employed on Devil’s Stomping Ground for instance, was entirely geared towards me working alone to layer together different instruments. I did some overdubs on this album working in that way, but the primary essence of each track was born from a live take on which we played together in some combination.

Our primary power as a band is the resonance that allows us to improvise together upon a loosely structured “song” idea. Though I’m the primary “writer” of our material, what happens when we perform together is emergent and it’s always beyond what I imagine for any particular piece.

We’ve played a lot of shows together since we captured Live from Wire Mountain as a kind of field recording, and the accumulation of that experience puts us all very much more on the same wavelength. We have a feel for how to work together that lets us do things that surprise us all and approach new ideas very fluidly and rapidly. We took advantage of that in the recording process to capture some stuff that was very fresh. For instance, two of the songs, “From Flatlands Starlings Rise” and “The Beautiful Years Roll,” were first-takes on the same day that I introduced those pieces to the band. Similarly, Joel doesn’t even remember recording “Pastime with Good Company.” But if I start a song, he just starts playing along and we ride it where it leads—that’s what happened with that one.

What’s behind the name: The Sound of Secret Names?

The idea of “secret names” appeals to me primarily through the folkloric notion of something’s true name holding a magical power over that thing—a power to conjure or to hold, for instance. A good literary exploration of this idea is found very prominently in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, of which I’m very fond, but it’s an idea I’ve run across many times from a wide variety of sources ranging from Tolkien to Springsteen.

The given titles to instrumental pieces hold a power of suggestion over how people experience listening, but I also like to think that these pieces all have other secret names that will vary from listener to listener. For example, what to me paints an impression of how it felt to behold a particular desert landscape at a certain point in my emotional history will, for another, call upon other scenes and feelings appropriate to their own imagination and memory. The song they hear will have a different secret name than the song I hear. They may not even know the name they would choose, as they may not be accustomed to navigating such impressions or making such choices. But if they feel the music, then that name is there, if perhaps just out of their grasp.

Two songs on the album feature very beautiful, very organic-sounding flute—what type were you playing?

On “Her Secret Name,” I’m playing a bamboo renaissance flute that my parents gave me back in my college days. I actually learned to play that thing in a place at North Carolina State University called the “Free Expression Tunnel,” a pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks that bisect the campus. I used to go down there at nights and play as people painted (it was the place on campus where graffiti was officially sanctioned), enjoying the wonderful echoes that made even the simplest bits of music into magic.

On “Spirit Defenders of Nikwasi,” I’m playing a Native American-style double flute. It actually has two pipes, one of which serves as a drone as you play through the divided mouthpiece. That flute, which is made of aromatic cedar, was built by a fellow named Odell Borg out in Arizona. I adore that flute—the drone set against the other pipe’s scale makes it the wind equivalent of a dulcimer to my way of thinking, so it’s a natural fit to my particular musical brain. I’d only had it a short time when we recorded that song, but that conceptual mapping makes it a natural instrument for me.


Today, just five days before Christmas, U.S. President Barack Obama held a ceremony to conclude the Iraq War. But battles sometimes come to a standstill even without official sanction, as John McCutcheon sang about on his 1984 album Winter Solstice.

German soldiers celebrate Christmas during World War I

Christmas 1914: Groups of German and British soldiers living in cold, muddy trenches in France struck up an unofficial armistice. Lonely and far away from home, these young men met spontaneously in the “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to sing carols, play football, and toast the holiday together.

American folk musician John McCutcheon captured this event on his album Winter Solstice, released on Rounder Records in 1984. Listening to McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” the beautiful simplicity of the 1914 truce still hits home a century later.

‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Full lyrics

McCutcheon says that he first heard the armistice story from an unassuming janitor backstage at a concert decades ago. “Christmas in the Trenches” has become a beloved holiday classic, and it’s one of McCutcheon’s most well-known songs.

The entire album deserves being listened to each holiday season, and it’s no wonder after three decades that it still appears on “must listen” Christmas music lists.

McCutcheon’s delicate hammer dulcimer both kindles the warmth of being inside on a late December afternoon as well as conjures the crisp chill of the days leading up to the solstice. He was joined on the recording by members of the Washington Bach Consort and of Paul Reisler’s folk ensemble Trapezoid.

Winter Solstice features songs as diverse as “Willie’s Waltz,” a melody written for McCutcheon’s oldest son, and the popular Hebrew love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Lilies).

As our own war concludes and we move into the holiday season, the lessons of the 1914 Christmas armistice are well worth remembering: peace can be spontaneous and the truest kind is often unofficial.

As McCutcheon sang on Winter Solstice: “The walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.”

Full Winter Solstice track list

1. Christmas Day Ida Moarnin/Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella

2. Erev Shel Shoshanim

3. Willie’s Waltz

4. Christmas In The Trenches

5. Star In The East

6. Old Christmas Morning/Breaking Up Christmas

7. Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

8. For Unto Us A Child Is Born

9. Huron Carol

10. Detroit, December

11. Down In Yon Forest/New Year’s Eve


Looking out a rain-spotted window at Seattle’s Capitol Hill. (Flickr/sea turtle)

We just celebrated Diwali (the Hindu new year) in our household, kicking off a season of new beginnings while winding down the current year. My birthday is also around the corner, so lately I’ve found myself thinking not only about the current year but also about years past.

Like many people, music strongly calls to mind for me a specific time and place in my memories—all of which connect to where I’m at, the music I listen to, and the person who I am now.  From now until the end of December, Apsara will feature a number of artists and albums who represent important influences on the road leading up to its creation in April 2011.

And along the way, we’ll also showcase some of your picks for the music that comprises the soundtrack to your life. We welcome you to e-mail us at apsaramusicblog [at] with the name of an artist and album that reminds you of a significant moment or era in your life, with a few sentences about the place that it takes you back to.

I’ll go first, with an artist and album that I only “discovered” just this weekend, but whose music reminds me both of my years in Seattle and of my life in California now.

Robert Deeble is not exactly a household name, but this understated indie folk artist has been garnering critical praise with his albums and performances since the late 1990s. He only releases recordings every few years. The gap between his last album and his forthcoming November release spans six years, for example.

There’s a languid pace to his music that reminds me of life on the California coast, so I was not surprised to discover that Deeble hails from Long Beach. But he’s also spent several years in Seattle, and to my ears that sound comes through in the mellow guitar chords and quiet lyrics. Listening to “Blue,” I’m at once standing on the cliff overlooking Steamer Lane and sitting in the bus to Capitol Hill watching raindrops roll down the window.

you make me smile
when your mood
lies down
here for awhile
could you afford a major chord
to make us all smile?

shine down
let your blue light hue
touch the ground
do you mind keeping time
here with my sound? 

Now that I live in California, I feel that I’m “home.” But I’m also a little wistful for the rainy days of dreaming in coffee shops, and I’m grateful for the many friends and amazing musical experiences that I had in Seattle that continue to influence and make my life fulfilling today.


The Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), an annual five-day celebration of folk music and performance traditions from around the globe, just wrapped up this past Sunday in Jodhpur, India. Famous for its royal history and its traditional arts, Rajasthan is a major international travel destination. Tourism means more business for the state, but how do Rajasthan’s artists fare?

A bird’s-eye view of Jodhpur. (Sarah Lin Bhatia)

During a folk performance in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert a few weeks ago, I found myself pulled from my comfortable cushion at the edge of the stage and made to dance in front of a large, cheering crowd. I soon realized that I was tripping over my feet not to a Rajasthani folk song but to a familiar Bollywood tune played on dholak and harmonium!

Rajasthan abounds with artistic talent and its famed handicraft markets overflow with colorful wares ranging from hand-printed bedspreads to exquisite silverwork. Such abundance and the availability of cheaper, factory-made goods begs the question: How can artists make a living in Rajasthan?

Roughly the size of New Mexico, Rajasthan is a large state in northwestern India with vast stretches of desert. The “Land of Kings,” it consisted of approximately 20 small kingdoms before India’s independence and partition in 1947. This, in part, accounts for the almost overwhelming variety of musicians, dancers, and artists in Rajasthan today.

Meharuddin Langa, a “living legend,” playing the algoza during an RIFF performance.

Outside of Jodhpur, we visited a family of weavers long renowned for the quality of their carpets, and in Jaisalmer we met an uncle-nephew puppet troupe carrying on a five-generations-old tradition. Every artist we met seemed to have a similar story of inherited skills.

Thousands of people from India and abroad visit the state each year looking to experience traditional Rajasthani culture. Palace-themed hotels, camel safaris, and “folk” music and dance performances such as we attended appear to be flourishing. Tourism is unquestionably vital to Rajasthan’s economy, but after a few days of travel I found myself wondering if it benefits everyone in the same way.

Surviving as an artist in Rajasthan is definitely as challenging as it is the world over, and the downside to tourism is that it can reduce artistry to mere “lite fare.” Perhaps the more important question then is: How can Rajasthan sustain its vibrant artistic traditions in a way that both honors the past and helps its artists grow and thrive?

Several visionary individuals and organizations in Rajasthan have already taken up the call to achieve this goal, including encouraging collaboration between Rajasthani and international artists. The Jaipur Virasat Foundation (JVF), a nonprofit trust founded by John and Faith Singh in 2002, is at the forefront of this movement.

“Virasat” means “heritage” in Hindi—a fitting designation for an organization dedicated to promoting Rajathan’s traditional arts as well as to creating new opportunities. The folk festival is one of JVF’s many initiatives, and the trust has conducted searches throughout remote parts of Rajasthan for the state’s most talented artists.

A few years ago, JVF brought UK artists Jason Singh and Bex Mather to Rajasthan to conduct workshops and perform with folk musicians. The result? Dharohar: A sensitive and successful merging of artists from different cultural and social backgrounds who toured and performed together throughout India. During the performances, Singh joined forces with morchang (mouth harp)-player Raies Khan for a jugalbandhi (duet) such as the world has never seen before.

Arrangements for traditional instruments go awry very quickly when sounds and instruments are senselessly thrown together—particularly so in the vague genre of “fusion” music. But Singh and Khan’s musical duo works because it’s an innovatively simple pairing of musical techniques and artists who are perfectly attuned to one another.

Are projects like Dharohar and RIFF sustainable and will they benefit artists in the long run? Optimistically, I would say “yes,” because such types of well-organized performances and recording projects provide Rajasthani artists with access to the growing number of people with globally oriented, non-commercial music interests. And for listeners, it is now easier to discover such music thanks in great part to the internet.

Of course, nonprofit projects are susceptible to the ebb and flow of funding, and there’s also commercially oriented competition in Rajasthan…which brings me back to the subject of tourism. If not specifically visiting to attend RIFF or another festival, what can a tourist possibly do to help Rajasthani artists?

  • Take a little time to research before you go. (I write this tongue-in-cheek having attended a Bollywood-themed performance.) Cruise the internet a bit and reach out to a local non-profit organization, which may be able to recommend lesser-known performances and artist collectives. We found a lot of handicraft collectives, both in the city and in the countryside.
  • Don’t be afraid to explore and ask around once you’re there. In our case, this led to a private puppet show and a dance performance in the courtyard of a lakeside haveli.

Again, tourism is essential to Rajasthan’s economic vitality and even the commercial ventures provide opportunities for artists. But options do exist that more fully showcase the individuals who are helping to keep the state’s amazing artistic traditions alive, so why not choose one of those instead? You’ll have a more meaningful and memorable experience—and if you aren’t careful, you might also find yourself onstage.


Musician playing the ravanhatta at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. (Sarah Lin Bhatia)
Musician playing the ravanhatta at Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort. (Sarah Lin Bhatia)

After an exhausting and incredible month, I’m back from my travels. Work requires a bit of extra attention right now, so I’ll publish Apsara‘s first fall feature next week.

India stays with you long after you’ve left. I’ve been thinking a lot about the performances that my husband and I were lucky enough to catch in Rajasthan, and especially about the marketing of Rajasthani “folk” music as a genre. I’ll be discussing this in next week’s feature.

In the meantime, here’s “Rajputana Road,” a well-produced song by Gaurav Venkateswar that he created from an iPhone recording of Rajasthani folk musicians. It conveys the musical conundrum of “tradition” and “technology” and where these two fit together.


The dulcimer a traditional instrument? Not so, says Michael Futreal, a multi-instrumentalist who pushes the boundaries of how people typically view this Appalachian folk instrument. Futreal speaks about growing up as a self-taught musician in North Carolina, his free-spirited approach to the dulcimer, and about his band Twang Darkly.

Michael Futreal performs on electric dulcimer. (Sherry Heflin)

In a few sentences, how would you define your music?

Picture this recurring scene from Twang Darkly shows: someone who has been listening to us for over an hour will come up to us during a set break and ask, “So…what kind of music do y’all play?” I’m always struck dumb by the question. I usually manage to answer something along the lines of “cinematic Appalachian roots rock” or “new-fangled mountain music.”

Here’s the real deal though: in attempting to create new music that I would like to hear, I try to keep myself open to discovering other related music that I want to play. And it really does feel more like discovery than a purely willful act of creation. The Muses are broadcasting on all frequencies, and I can tune into a few of their stations on the broken radio of my rambling Truckaluck. When I stay with the signal long enough, sometimes something magical remains to me through all the rain and rust. These days, I record that stuff as soon as I can, or I just play it for the band and we take it wherever we can.


Who do you consider to be your earliest musical influences? How did growing up in North Carolina and in a musically inclined family shape your first experiences with music? What is the biggest impact of your earlier influences and experiences on your music today?

My brother Andy taught himself to play guitar over the course of my childhood. There weren’t lessons and there were few, if any, how-to books—there was just a guitar. He had an acoustic, but he was primarily playing electric rock like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Jethro Tull, and that seemed perfectly acceptable to him. I remember him playing Mike Post’s TV stuff like the theme from Magnum PI…he’d create complete arrangements on the acoustic guitar for some of those TV themes. So as I grew up, he was demonstrating that music was something that you could do, not just purchase.

We grew up in Warsaw, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina…the 1970s and 80s for me. Taking charge of our own experiences was paramount because, well, there wasn’t much to do otherwise. We had no cable TV; we had books, records, a basketball goal, some lawn mowers, and four TV channels. Our parents would take us to Raleigh and we’d hit the giant flea market (comics and records!), the mall, and maybe a movie. I wanted to recreate everything that was important and enjoyable out of those excursions. I made silly movies with our 8mm camera. I created comics. It was inevitable that I’d eventually want to start making music too, and that wish took hold as I started to notice how much Dire Straits and Springsteen were speaking to me as I transitioned into those angst-filled teenage years. Love, desire, romance, blues, mojo…you name it, and I could have all those things through music in a way that I couldn’t pull off any other way.

As it happens, Springsteen and [Mark] Knopfler were very self-consciously experimenting with American folk music traditions, and this dovetailed nicely with the increased time we were spending in the North Carolina mountains. We’d traveled there nearly every summer as I grew up, but we started going a lot more as I got older. As we’d haunt folklife museums, craft guild shows, and any odd store we’d come across, I’d encounter a lot of Appalachian dulcimers (though not nearly enough actual music).  By the end of my senior year in high school, we’d actually moved to Asheville. Before starting college that fall, I got my first dulcimer with some money my grandmother had left for me. As I was already playing guitar and harmonica, I set up a crude, bounce-based recording system using two cassette recorders, hoping to do stuff along the lines of what Springsteen had accomplished with Nebraska.


Music by Twang Darkly, Futreal’s band, accompanies video footage from his family’s early vacations to the North Carolina mountains. 

Another piece of the puzzle, I think, comes from my oldest brother, Bill. Knowing I was interested in blues and folk stuff, he wisely told me to seek Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Wolf’s the Real Folk Blues was a revelation to me. And Hooker N Heat…oh my god! How could anything so completely off-the-hook…so clearly performed without any plan…be so fabulously dead-on kick-ass? As usual, I wanted to be able to do that sort of thing too! It turns out to be a lifelong project, of course.

You started out playing harmonica, and would sometimes practice in the woods. What was this experience like? Do you still try out new instruments in this type of setting?

I used to take a Walkman into the woods and play along with Springsteen and Howling Wolf cassettes, because: a) you really can’t play harmonica so quietly, and b) when you first start, you really can’t play so well. So this was simply my best option for letting loose without driving everyone else crazy, and not the more enlightened communing-with-nature that it might seem. That said, I love the woods, and love to hike. I generally enjoy the birds and rustling leaves more than my own sound though, so I try to keep the mojo down low!

I really don’t do this sort of thing now, as the new instruments I’m inclined to try are often variations on instruments I already play to some degree. My wife is pretty used to strange sounds emanating from my side of the house, in any case, and she mostly doesn’t mind. I do wait for her to leave before I give that lamentable bamboo saxophone the business though.

“Crossing Thistledown”

Futreal on harmonica (his first instrument), dulcimer, and electric guitar.

When did you shift to the dulcimer as your primary instrument? What is it about the dulcimer that led you to make the switch?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a primary instrument, but I’ve certainly decided to allow myself to focus more on the mountain dulcimer without regret. My older habit had been always to move on to something out of my comfort zone. For instance, if I was feeling pretty good about my dulcimer playing, Iâ’d try to focus on recording more banjo or what have you. I like to learn, and I like where coping with uncertainty pushes you.

The thing I love most about the dulcimer is the way you can surf the tension between the open droning strings and the limited notes available on the diatonic fret board (the dulcimer is missing frets, such that only a major scale plus a flat seven can be played on a given string). The interplay of those patterns across the strings shapes your expression similarly to the way a rule-set applied to poetry (e.g., writing in sonnet form) fosters an altered state of creativity.

“Devil’s Stompin’ Ground”

Demonstrating the range of what a dulcimer can do.

Even better, because of the weird fretboard, when you re-tune, capo, or re-string the dulcimer (I play with at least six different tunings across two different string arrangements), you get dramatically different musical possibilities. Suddenly, it’s not just sonnets, but villanelles and sestinas.

The dulcimer has also shaped the way I hear and play other instruments. When I’m playing guitar, banjo, or even gourdtar, I often employ very similar kinds of approaches, allowing some strings to drone while I pursue modal melodies and chords that work against the drones. I use a lot of dulcimer-inspired “alternate tunings.”

Sailing in the Junkyard Sea, an album you released with your brother Andy, features the oud. How did you decide to pair a North African/Middle Eastern instrument with Appalachian folk instruments like dulcimer and banjo?

I wish I could tell a good story about the epiphany that put these things together, but in this specific case it has more to do with what instruments were on hand and what happened that particular day…our only plan was to play and record whatever happened. So most of the tracks on that album, including the title track, began life as pure improvisations recorded live during two days in Cambridge, UK. Andy usually has a simple stereo recorder set up in his den, right next to a bunch of acoustic instruments, including laud, oud, and several guitars. He keeps each of his guitars in a different tuning (which I started doing myself after that session), so they really are effectively different instruments. The title track “Sailing the Junkyard Sea” happened when I randomly picked up a guitar and started playing along with something he happened to be doing on the oud at that moment. As soon as there are two of us playing, we’re drawn into some flow…and something beyond either of us emerges.

“Sailing the Junkyard Sea”

Title track from Michael and Andy Futreal’s album.

At some point, I’ll probably reconstruct the essence of my part in that recording and then unleash it within a Twang Darkly session to see where it goes. Bassist/guitarist Joel Boultinghouse and I work together in a substantially similar way, just riding the resonances that happen when we start playing.

More broadly, though, I just really enjoy unexpected combinations of instruments. From my point of view, getting too hung up on tradition and what “goes together” risks comfortably reproducing expectation at the expense of creativity. It’s not that traditional musical forms and instrument matchups can’t be creative tools, but more that I simply enjoy going sideways.

You first started playing dulcimer in an unusual style at a medieval-themed dinner in college. Since that time, in what other ways have you pushed the boundaries of how people normally think a dulcimer should be played?

Well, some folks would be quick to point out that I play electric dulcimer with free use of distortion, neither of which is “traditional.” I think the electricity brings a new layer of expressiveness to the instrument. It is easier to work with electrics in a live setup, which is part of why I do it, but I’d be needlessly limiting myself if I ignored the additional musical possibilities that the electric dulcimer offers.

I think another aspect that puts me in a minority has to do with the way I maneuver outside one of the supposedly important division within our ranks. That is, the dulcimer-playing community seems to be concerned over the distinction between traditional “drone and noter” playing and modern “chord style” playing. I’m certainly willing to play chords and chord fragments, but drones figure prominently in what I do, and I’ll often use these chord fragments as a way to play harmonized modal melodies.

“Greensleeves in Blue”

Twang Darkly’s rendition of a famous English folk song.

I’ve encountered folks who talk about the dulcimer as a “traditional” instrument and get rather defensive about how it should be handled, what repertoire it should play, etc. According to dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, though, the dulcimer tradition only seems to date back into the early 19th century, maybe 1818 or so. Before that, there were no mountain dulcimers, but rather some folks migrating south from Pennsylvania with a different instrument, the scheitholt (a Germanic zither). Once these folks got among the Scotch/Irish people down in the Virginia Appalachians, someone broke with tradition and created something entirely new. I’ll bet that probably tweaked some of the scheitholt players. Traditions arise from change, so I figure it’s fine to be willing to try new things with “old” instruments.

The bottom line here is that I’m not too keen on arbitrary limitations based on supposed tradition. I make choices, yes, but I don’t find it too useful to believe that my choices in one circumstance mean that I’m obligated to make similar choices across the board. And I certainly don’t believe that someone else having made a choice a long time ago warrants any special consideration simply because a lot of folks followed suit so as not to “do it wrong.” Tradition is valuable, but never more so than when it provides building blocks for “new” ideas.

The members of Twang Darkly jamming together. (Courtesy Michael Futreal)

Of all of your musical projects over the years, what is your favorite to date? What is your latest Twang Darkly project?

I’d have to say that the band Twang Darkly itself is my favorite musical project to date. We’re building an extensive repertoire, both from our ongoing re-imagining of my older material, as well as from the outpouring of new material that our collaboration has prompted. We’re feeling out how we can perform and what our music can be.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and guitar) and Troy Messina (drums). They’re gifted musicians with an almost supernatural ability to ride a groove wherever it leads. I have a very loose improvisational approach with most of our material, elaborating on the structure and melodies in whatever ways seem right on a given night. Joel and Troy are always right there with me: we’re listening to each other and feeling our way. Being part of that is like an out-of-body experience sometimes. I think, “How are we doing this?” But this is the best part of music, being in a non-verbal resonance with your musical partners. It’s a powerful and fine intimacy to share.

I’m very excited that we’e about to embark on recording a new album. Our first collection, Live from Wire Mountain, was recorded very simply with a recorder out in front of our PA at rehearsals. For the new stuff, I’ve invested our Twang earnings into a new studio setup that can better accommodate a band. We’ll likely still record the core of the songs live, because that’s what we do best, but we’ll also be willing to do a bit of the fleshing out that a studio approach affords…things like adding a bass line to a tune where Joel and I are both playing guitar for the live version. Maybe I’ll explore more flute and such too.  Who knows? We’re making it all up as we go! I hope somebody listens to this new album and wonders, â”What kind of music is that?”


Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)
Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)

Given that many of the seeds of American folk music traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with the country’s early European immigrants, it is not entirely out of the question then that some of the techniques and sounds that evolved over the past couple of centuries should eventually double back. On Remember, an album originally released in 2009 by guitarist Yair Yona, American folk music has traveled through the Straits of Gibraltar and found its way to Israel.

Reissued last year, Remember boasts 10 masterful (and musically witty) fingerstyle guitar melodies embodied with the spirit of American and British masters of the genre and, of course, Yona’s own wonderful creativity. The tracks consist largely of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, with a variety of other instruments and different styles of music joining in on some of the songs.

“Russian Dance”

On the track “Russian Dance,” for example, Yona conjures up the sound of a Russian folk dance. The instruments—12-string guitar, banjo, accordion, and mandolin (sounding like a balalaika)—blend perfectly here, with the banjo carrying much of the tune. Through the changes in tempo and intensity, it is not difficult to imagine the dance steps that would accompany the song.

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through (As It Carries the Passenger Fahey On It)”

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through” pays homage to late guitarist John Fahey, and is another song in which Yona’s talent for sonic imagery displays itself. Electric guitar builds the crescendo behind six-string acoustic guitar, signifying the floodgate opening and the passage of a large ship through it. As the melody winds down, the heavy gate closes and the ship continues on its path downriver.

Remember is by far one of the most original and enjoyable albums that I have discovered this summer. Listen to it for just a few minutes, and you will find yourself unconsciously tapping your feet and swaying your head in time to the rhythm of its pleasingly twangy melodies. Be sure to check it out, as well as Yona’s site, which contains samples of his forthcoming album due out later this year.


California's Mojave Desert (photo by Besdos)
California’s Mojave Desert (photo by Besdos)

Canadian musicians Béatrice Martin and Jay Malinowski offer up five tracks of vintage-sounding pop evocative of 1950s and 60s western music on their February 2011 release Armistice.

Through their instrumentization and lyrics, the songs on this album are filled with nostalgia for driving through the lonely desert, stopping at remote diners and gas stations. Song titles like “Jeb Rand” and “Neon Love” hint at what the album offers. Los Angeles-based punk band the Bronx—in the guise of “Mariachi El Bronx”—provides the instrumental backing to Martin and Malinowski’s low-fi vocals.

Short and sweet, “Armistice” is fun but definitely not kitsch. It brings a smile and a warm feeling, like listening to Patsy Cline on AM radio or catching the closing credits of Rawhide.