Listening booth: ‘Floodplain’ by Sara Groves

floodplainOnly two musicians are left who compel me to have their new music as soon as it is available. One is Brian Wilson, Beach Boy and iconic composer. The other is singer-songwriter Sara Groves. It’s been a great year, first with the release of Wilson’s No Pier Pressure and now with the oncoming release of Groves’ Floodplain, “officially” due Nov. 6 but available now for download and pre-order.

Derrick Jensen is attributed with the quote, “Writing is really very easy. Tap a vein and bleed onto the page. Everything else is just technical.” That’s how Sara Groves writes. She pours her soul into intimate lyrics and melodies that expose her heart, her spiritual struggles, her doubts and anxieties and triumphs over herself, tapping into something universal, providing the comfort that someone else has gone through all this, too.

It has been four years since Sara Groves produced an all-new album (She put out a collection of past beauties with four new songs a couple of years ago), so Floodplain arrives like a friend offering a tall, cool drink from a spring after a long, long walk in the desert. Yes, I teared up during the opening notes of “This Cup,” the album’s first song, when her soft and crystal-clear voice returned.

How many hours have I spent, watching this shining TV,

Living adventure in proxy in another person’s dream?

How many miles have I traveled looking at far-away light,

Listening for trains in the distance in some brilliant other life?

This cup, this cup, I want to drink it up,

To be right here in the middle of it,

Right here, right here, this challenging reality’s

Better than fear or fantasy.

The story of how this album was made, told in a note that accompanies the pre-release package, is as touching as the dozen heartfelt and lovely songs: Paralyzed creatively by “depression and serious inertia,” Sara was approached by a couple of friends (Steve Brewster and Matt Pierson) who said they’d been offered free use of Jon Phelps’ Northern California studio, and they proposed getting together for a “band camp.”

“The whole premise was What if … what if we just played, without any expectations or pressure. No record labels, no deadlines, we could just take our time without being on the clock. If something came of it, good, but if not, it would just be a great experience.” To make it work, they asked Sara to bring along some new songs, unfinished songs, covers, whatever.

A couple of days in, it became clear that her friends had come together to help her “get unstuck enough to make a new record.” And it worked, brilliantly. It’s been a long time since Sara has sounded this free and fresh and her songs sounded so pure.

“We’re going on an expedition, looking for lost time,” she sings on a key early tune, tapping her veins and sharing all those struggles and triumphs as she always has, but in the quiet of that Northern California studio, the songs shine with the love of friendship, her colleagues’ generosity, and a gently rediscovered confidence,

In “Second Guess Girl,” she visits the uncertainty behind the front we all put up and all we encounter in the world: “Is this time for a speech or for silence? Are you calling for peace or defiance?” In the title song she writes about how “some hearts are built on the floodplain,” always risking the stormy waters of hurt but willing to take that risk.

In the midst of the storm, she recalls Moses and his people’s journey through the desert, when food is said to have appeared every morning: “There’s enough for today; there’ll be enough tomorrow.” And she recalls “I’ve Been Here Before” and made it through to the other side, an encouraging thought when the whirlwind strikes again.

It wouldn’t feel like a complete Sara Groves album without a musical update on her now 20-year marriage to her husband, Troy (“I Feel the Love Between Us”) and the joy of being a mom (“Signal,” in which she is amazed by the young man who is her older son).

Sara Groves shares so much through her music that she feels like a friend, even though I’ve only been privileged to meet and talk with her for barely a half-hour through my work as a journalist. It’s always reassuring that her journey has the same ebbs and flows, doubts and fears, triumphs and tribulations, that we all experience. I find myself rooting for her and heartened that she made it through the storm to produce another collection of gems. I pray that she feels comfort in the knowledge that she gives such beauty to us, her fans, supporters, cheerleaders and, yes, friends.

In the first few days of discovering cherished new music, it’s hard to make a judgment, but my first exposure to Floodplain feels like the burst of awe and delight and insight that I felt on first hearing Conversations and Add to the Beauty, Sara’s earlier works that I count among the albums I would take with me to the proverbial desert island. I love all 11 records, but those two and now Floodplain are probably my favorites.


The little devil

IMG_3911Hey, little devil, you’re always running around (hey, little devil)
It’s time that someone started bringing you down (hey, little devil)
There’ll be (there’ll be) some changes made
Your roving days are through
Hey, little devil, I’m gonna make an angel out of you …

They say beware
But I don’t care
I love you just the same
You’re an old heartbreaker and a mischief maker
But I’m wise to your game

The power and glory of “Ripplin’ Water”

ripplin waterSomehow I had missed that for more than 25 years the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has had in its arsenal an epic-length version of “Ripplin’ Waters,” this despite the fact that there’s an 11-minute rendition on the band’s Live Two Five 25th anniversary live album.

But even if I had remembered, I’m not sure it would have prepared me for the performance I was privileged to hear on Sept. 14, 2015, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Or maybe I had heard it or heard about it and forgot. That’s fine; that meant I heard it with new ears that Monday night – and was totally blown away.

To describe the performance is easy enough. The four base members of the NGDB – Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Bob Carpenter and Jimmie Fadden – were joined for a 50th (!) anniversary concert by Sam Bush (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Jerry Douglas (slide resonator guitar) and Byron House (bass) and a procession of old friends who joined them for a couple of tunes each (John Prine, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Jerry Jeff Walker).

The last friend was Jimmy Ibbotson, who spent 30-35 years and the last six songs of the night as a part of the band and wrote “Ripplin’ Waters,” one of the most melodic and charming songs ever. The song is lilting, gentle, sweet, and in its live version provides a platform for the musicians that builds and builds and builds and soars into bluegrass heaven.

This arrangement starts with a now long-familiar (it was first recorded in 1975) twittering of the guitar and mandolin that recalls, well, rippling water. Ibbotson sings the 4-5 verses of the song and then the fireworks begin, as each player in turn takes a few bars – quite a few bars each, actually – to play a solo (harmonica, mandolin, guitar, slide resonator, banjo) and weave melodies together in glorious plain dirt fashion.

At what I thought was the climax of the song, Hanna and McEuen and Bush were together in the middle of the stage in a transcendent blending of their instruments that reached a crescendo and stopped, fulfillingly.

But as the audience (including me, converted into a maniac) screamed its approval of what had been an awesome 6-7-8 minutes of gorgeous sound, Carpenter began to noodle on the piano. At first I thought it was a seamless transition to the next song, but as it progressed and grew, I realized he was advancing “Ripplin’ Waters” to a higher level – even more melodic and transcendent, the notes cascading over us now like a waterfall.

One by one the other players rejoined the fray for more solos, more blending, until it built to a second, even more triumphant conclusion. This was the “Stairway to Heaven” of Americana music, and we yelled and stomped and hooted our delight.

How long was it? Listening to the 11-minute 1991 version only gives a hint, a whisper, an echo of all that occurred on the Ryman stage last week. We were suspended in time anyway – it could have been hours because it felt like it, a testimony to music’s ability to lift the spirits and fill the soul with a peace and joy that can’t be described with mere words.

I hope the recording – the whole show was chronicled for a PBS-TV special next spring – captured the magic in that big room that moment. I’m not sure I have ever been swept away like I was that night and especially that song.

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I hesitate to share this video from January 2015 because it doesn’t match the Ryman performance, but it is essentially the same arrangement and gives a hint of what the world will hear when the PBS video is released, especially when the solos start about 4:00 in …