Since what little expertise I have in the field of music is relegated to my knowledge and affinity for the progressive rock genre it was a bit of a surprise to receive a promo package from Jam Records containing "Hinterland", the 2013 release from the traditional folk band Thirty Steps To Forward.
"Hinterland" is the follow-up to their well received 2009 album "The Bird And The Fool".
Actually the hefty promo package contained seven CDs from a variety of artists, but upon further investigation I discovered four CDs were from one artist with a very familiar name ... Jeremy Morris.
I've spent a little time dissecting the music of Jeremy Morris, having reviewed both "From The Dust To The Stars" and his recent collaboration with Uzbekistan musician Vitaly "Progressor" Menshikov "Searching For The Son". And both were quite enjoyable, and musically closer to my level of expertise. But what threw me off was his two CDs were on the Russian label MALS, so seeing all this material arrive from Jam Records was a bit of a curve ball.
And then it all came back to me.
Michigan based recording artist Jeremy Morris not only has an impressive discography of over 50 albums to his credit but he is the founder of Jam Records. And Thirty Steps To Forward are just one of the talented artists on his label.
Thirty Steps To Forward is the brother and sister acoustic folk duo of Seth (vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo, ukulele, harmonica, electric guitar, drums) and Gretchen Powers (lead vocals, guitar, piano, cello, banjo).
The pair hail from South Haven Michigan, and give generously of their time through charitable work with 'WE Care I.N.C.' and fund raising music events like "Heart Strings", which has helped the less fortunate in the community by re-stocking local food pantries. And this generous spirit of giving is reflected in the words and music of "Hinterland".
The inspiration for their bare bones organic writing style is best reflected by a comment on their website:
"Composing "Hinterland" was an experience that at times led us through honey, briers, and late night sessions in a cozy dimly lit room. The twelve songs have a slight theme to them, on man and nature and how they have more in common than they might think. Along the way we fell in love with these songs, and we know that there are those of you who will see them in the same light we do."
The music has the homespun charm and serenity of a Norman Rockwell painting depicting rural Americana. "Hinterland" is to acoustic folk rock what the late Linda Nelson Stock's artwork was to the many Lang Folk-Art Calendars she illustrated throughout her career; setting her artistic vision of the idyllic America heartland to music.
The music of Thirty Steps To Forward has been compared to similar indie-folk artists like Iron And Wine, Mazzy Star, Trembling Clue Stars, Mumford And Sons, Tri Na Nog, Elliot Smith, and Nick Drake. But for someone like myself, long removed from the folk rock scene, my comparisons lead me to the early acoustic albums of Sandy Denny and The Strawbs.
My limited knowledge of folk rock ended sometime in the mid-70s' with bands like Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, and The Incredible String Band, and I never found myself drawn back to the genre. Yet my wife and I attend a variety of annual autumn festivals in my state of Indiana where bluegrass and folk musicians are the main staple. And I'll readily admit that five minutes into the performance I'm tapping my foot along with the rest of the audience. Smiling broadly.
Gretchen Powers has a beautiful yet haunting quality to her voice - heartfelt, honest, and melancholy. Beauty tempered with pathos.
Seth and Gretchen Powers are old souls inhabiting young bodies, producing the type of timeless music that's easy to imagine coming from either a boxcar heading down the rails or on the front porch of a tattered farmhouse in Kansas during the Dust Bowl of the 30s'. It's the music of an impromptu Hootenanny in a San Francisco coffee house in the 60s'. And just as at home on a makeshift stage in the corner of a contemporary bookstore/coffee shop in Chicago, Illinois.
"Hinterland" is the type of music you'll hear echoing from the speaker of a Primitive Craft Shop selling scented candles with names like "Grandma's Kitchen" or "Hot Apple Dumplings", wooden folk art created by local artisans, and handcrafted sturdy Amish furniture built to last several generations.
Since it's inception folk music has been a platform for storytellers and activists alike. The music speaks of hard times from generations past, and helped shape the political landscape for a future generation.
Woody Guthrie sang of depression era hardship and troubled times, 60s' activists and folk-rock revivalists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jon Baez, and Roger McGuinn and The Byrds protested an unpopular war and corrupt government, but folk rock was also a showcase for sentimental storytellers like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, and Gordon Lightfoot who touched our hearts with a positive message of love, hope, and wonder. Folk rock may not be as musically complex as progressive rock but the subject matter and message can be just as challenging and enlightening.
And in this new Millennium artists like Thirty Steps To Forward keep the genre vibrant.
Music lovers who frequent the Prognaut Review Site for updates on the latest progressive rock release may not find folk rock their cup of tea - but there is no denying the mark folk rock has made on the history of modern music. And Thirty Steps To Forward has successfully tapped into that market with a quality recording in "Hinterland" that does the genre proud.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on December 5th, 2013