Musical reminders of when the heartland still had a heart


One thing the Twin Cities scene doesn’t get enough of is original folk music. Not the saccharine strains of, say, Peter, Paul, and Mary, but the unvarnished, gut-felt voice of America’s heartland circa when the land still had a heart. Accordingly, bluegrass-Delta blues artists Nikki Matteson and Rich Rue, and the Woody-Guthrie-inspired James Curry, are welcome as water in the desert.

Nikki Matteson plays guitar and sings lead vocal, and Rich Rue plays guitar and slide guitar as well as contributing backup vocals. There’s no denying their chops. What Matteson and Rue do with them, though, is hit-and-miss. Thankfully, it’s more hit than miss. Their album American Idle opens with “Twilight Mystique,” which can’t decide who it wants to mimic more, Bonnie Raitt or Janis Joplin. Right behind it, “Trouble In Mind”—despite liberally borrowing from the old staple “Know You Rider”—is funky-fine, putting you on the porch sure as God made eyes to gaze across green grass and rest on the setting sun. If “Hidden Path”—salty, passionate, and airtight—doesn’t get to you, well, you just can’t be got to. Even with a few filler tracks, the album is a damned good find.

This ain’t your daddy’s folk music—it’s your granddaddy’s.

When the singer-songsmith duo James Curry started out several years ago, Brian Charles (formerly Brian Tischleder) told me one night at the Terminal Bar, people would look at him and his partner and Casey Fearing and ask, “Which one of you guys is Curry?” After two albums, Brand New Suit and 13, James Curry have developed a concrete following and nobody makes that mistake anymore. “Well, almost nobody,” he said. “But we’re getting better known, so fewer people are confused when they show up and it’s two guys instead of just one.”

Also in the Daily Planet, read Dwight Hobbes’s interview with James Curry.

Charles (vocals, guitar) and Fearing (lead guitar, vocals) have been known to expand, in fact, to a full band—which they’ve done on both albums. Generally, though, it’s the two of them singing and playing raw, rural folk blues, at which they’re damned good (and no, I don’t say this in hopes that they’ll invite me back as an opening act; I’ve sung their praises since long before we ever gigged together). “Back Roads,” from Brand New Suit, is an excellent example of what you can expect from them: stark vocals, tight lyrics, and sparse music in a very effective package. “There’s a dream in my pocket/it’s a knocking, but I can’t go home/all alone/There’s a whisper in my ear/I hear when I’m all alone/A cold wind blows/Meet me on the back roads.” 13 takes things a little further. The duo’s sound remains authentic, old-school folk; while the album brings their affinity with Native American culture a bit more to the fore. For example, there’s “Hear Me Cry (Mary Thunder’s Song).” This ain’t your daddy’s folk music—it’s your granddaddy’s. Be glad of it.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.