Thompson, Romero and Watkins: Musical Family Albums

oldtime family

This past Sunday, I took the train and then a subway to the Upper West Side, walked up and down Broadway picking at piles of books sold by street vendors for a mere dollar or two, and found shade in a plaza at Lincoln Center as I watched Iris DeMent perform songs from her new album. I looked around to see if her husband Greg Brown’s daughter Pieta was in the crowd with her spouse, guitarist Bo Ramsey. But if they were there, I missed them.

During the show, and as Iris sang, I pulled out my phone and tapped a message to a mutual friend of ours from Iowa City, photographer Sandy Dyas. Although we’ve never met face to face, we’ve had casual correspondence from time to time, over the years, and I’ve written about her work and featured it in my articles. Along with all of the people I’ve met through my connection with this particular website and music community, I easily consider Sandy a member of my No Depression family.

In life, love, law, politics, society, civilization, art, music, literature, and pretty much everything else in this world, there are threads that bind us together. While a dictionary might tell you that there are only three specific types of families, the American Academy of Pediatrics lists eight and sociologists can quickly rattle off over a dozen. Some folks might tell you that there is only one kind of family, but my own definition is much broader.

Be it a coupling of two or a group of thousands, we seem to have the capacity to create connections that can have the same feel and offer the same support system as what a traditional family does. Sometimes it endures, other times it evaporates as quickly as it came together. But whether bloodlines or lifelines, and despite a high rate of dysfunction, families often and unpredictably can produce some amazing results.

When Teddy Thompson came up with the idea of having his family work together to release an album last year, his sister Kami tried to back out. As quoted in the New York Times Magazine, she asked him “Could I be like that one Osbourne who’s not on the show, whose name no one knows?”

Nonetheless, Thompson’s Family is probably one of the best collections of songs ever created through emails, file sharing, and studio magic. It features music that is just simply beautiful, from divorced parents Linda and Richard, nephew Zak Hobbs, Richard’s son Jack from his second marriage, and the reluctant sister Kami with her husband James Walbourne who perform as the Rails. (If you haven’t heard the Rails’ album Fair Warning, run don’t walk.)

Explaining to the Times reporter how and why this album came about, Teddy says: “It was difficult to make it sound like everyone’s together, because we weren’t – which is exactly the way my family is. If anything, that kind of sums up the whole process. It’s trying to bring everybody from wherever they are, in their own little world. And make it sound like we’re a family.”

At the end of this year, when all of the writers and bloggers and reader polls put together their “best of” lists, if they don’t include Pharis and Jason Romero’s A Wanderer I’ll Stay, they will be sadly mistaken. While I tend to keep my distance from such beauty contests, it isn’t hard at all to point to this collection and scream, “This is why I love music,” at the top of my lungs. While I’ve enjoyed the story of how another married musical couple – Pete and Maura Kennedy – met at the gravesite of Buddy Holly, Pharis comes in a close second because she sent Jason a 1928 recording of Tupelo Blues by Hoyt Ming and His Pinesteppers, and they had a wedding three months after. You can read their whole story here, but you should know they live in Horsefly, British Columbia, he is a custom banjo maker, she was the co-founder of Outlaw Social, they were both in The Haints Old Time Stringband, and as a duo they’ve released three near-perfect albums.

For many years, I lived in a small town north of San Diego and attended services and played music on occasion at a small Unitarian congregation in Vista – the town where Sean and Sara Watkins grew up. While it could be a false memory syndrome thing, I’m pretty sure I saw them play, when they were just little people, at some local events.

Ten years ago, all grown up and based in Los Angeles, they created what I like to think of as an ‘Our Gang’ variety show that features an ever-changing cast of characters. We got to see them at last year’s Newport Folk Festival after-party, and it was the highlight of the weekend, which you can read about here.

When they released an album recently, I made the mistake of sampling some tracks on Spotify and stashing it in the virtual file cabinet. On the way to see Iris DeMent, though, I sat on the train and listened to it end to end, start to finish. Brilliant concept, flawless execution. Coming from a man who dwells in the house of shuffle and prefers my music to pop up unexpectedly like a jack in the box, I have to say: you won’t exactly get the concept of The Watkins Family Hour without putting in the time to go all the way. The only family members by blood in this troupe are Sean and Sara. But what’s so special is that, not only are the other musicians in the cousins’ club, but we – the listeners – are in the family too.

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column at No Depression: The Roots Music Journal.