Will Call Episode #57: Western Centuries
(from supplied release)
HANCOCK, Mass.—Blend a country band with early R&B, throw in a hefty amount of vocal harmonies and witty one-liners, and rock out like The Band. That’s what you’ll get Thursday, July 13, when roots music maverick Western Centuries takes the 1910 hayloft stage at Hancock Shaker Village. With upbeat, bar room dance numbers, lilting, soulful tunes of heartbreak, and everything in between, the band is as tight as cleavage in a push-up bra two sizes too small.
Comprised of Seattle-based country musician Cahalen Morrison, jam band veteran Jim Miller (co-founder of Donna the Buffalo), R&B and bluegrass-by-the-way-of-punk rock songwriter Ethan Lawton, pedal steel player Rusty Blake, and bassist Dan Lowinger, Western Centuries is clearly a diverse bunch. The band is collaborative in nature, but they are – albeit subtly – helmed by Morrison. After years of performing in prominent roots duo Cahalen Morrison & Eli West (whose music made fans of Tim O’Brien, Jim Lauderdale, Dirk Powell, and BBC Radio’s Bob Harris along the way), Morrison formed and led the band Country Hammer, made up of members who have mostly crossed over into Western Centuries.
“If you enjoy country, honky-tonk music with hard floor dancing with scuffed boots on a Friday night, corn liquor, hand-rolled cigars with barbeque pork and beans on tin plates – take a deep breath – Western Centuries is salvation,” says No Depression.
Hancock Shaker Village is committed to highlighting national acts and local talent. Opening the evening is Pittsfield, MA, native and regional favorite Wes Buckley, a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose seven releases speak of love, quests, and sometimes even the economy. His grandfather snuck on stage to perform tenor sax with Stan Kenton and his father was momentarily a guitarist in Jefferson Starship – talk about shoes to fill.
The concert is in a barn…literally. Until June, it stored hay. At last weekend’s performance, guests lolling around the fence waiting for Woodie Guthrie’s granddaughter to take the stage were startled to see a fox sneak into the barnyard nearby where chickens were ignoring the warm-up band and apparently the fox. The fox won.
Everyone knows the Round Stone Barn, built in 1826 with stones quarried from the site and now an icon on the National Historic Register, but few know the 1910 barn tucked behind. On a knoll overlooking the hills of Richmond, the post-and-beam structure was the site of a cow barn that burned in 1879. The Shakers rebuilt immediately – the barn where the music takes place was built in 1880 with a commodious root cellar and an expansive loft. On August 2, 1910 the barn was struck by lightning, and burned down. It was full of hay and wagons, and the loss was estimated at $6,000. Fortunately (and amazing for 1910) the building was insured, and the Shakers built a new barn immediately – the 1910 Barn, which still uses the stone foundations laid in 1880. Its architecture has close ties to a church, with the points of visual affinity being the lofty peak, which happens to provide ideal acoustics. Come hear for yourself.
Shaker Barn Music series, which runs through September (when we need the barn to store hay again), features American roots music that incorporates elements of various styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it draws. The series is curated by Karl Mullen who has run legendary music venues for 30+ years including World Cafe Live in Philadelphia and Club Cafe, Rosebud, and Metropol in Pittsburgh.
All performances in the Shaker Barn Music series take place in the hayloft of the 1910 Barn. The July 13 concert begins at 7pm. Doors and the Barn Bar open at 6pm. Seeds Market Cafe at Hancock Shaker Village serves dinner before every show. The cafe’s fresh-picked menu items celebrate Shaker-inspired, neighborhood-sourced food, prepared by regional farm-to-table chef Brian Alberg. His menu highlights produce from the museum’s gardens just steps away, which have been continuously cultivated using practices of the original Shakers, including an all-natural approach to fertilizing and pestcontrol. Enjoy your supper in Seeds or grab a picnic and dine on the ample lawn space of Hancock Shaker Village.
Tickets are $15 ($20 day of). For tickets or information call 413.443.0188 x115 orhttps://shop.hancockshakervillage.org/product-category/experiences/concerts/
The worn floor of an old honkytonk is not usually a place you’d think of as welcoming to bold new experimentation. If you’ve got something new to say, you’d better say it in the form of a brisk twostep that keeps the dancers moving. So it’s doubly impressive that Seattle country band Western Centuries is able to meld wildly disparate influences into an original honkytonk sound that won’t make dancers miss a step. Formed originally under the name Country Hammer by Americana songwriter Cahalen Morrison, known for his innovative work as an acoustic duo with Eli West, Western Centuries revolves around three principal songwriters–Morrison, Ethan Lawton, and Jim Miller–each with a totally different perspective. Here, Cahalen Morrison channels his New Mexico roots–he grew up exploring lost arroyos and playing drums in a conjunto band–into a kind of bloodred Western drawl. His songs are as influenced by cowboy poetry or his greatgrandfather’s Scottish Gaelic poetry as much as his love of George Jones. Ethan Lawton came out of the rough, workingclass streets of Seattle’s South end, working in hiphop and punk before losing his heart to bluegrass. His bonedry vocals meld intensely with the rocksteady backbeat of his country songs, born from his love of old Jamaican 45s mixed with early bluegrass. Jim Miller comes from the jamband circuit, where he ruled for decades as a founding member of the muchloved band Donna The Buffalo. Throughout, the dancefloor was his temple, and he cribbed ideas from Louisiana Zydeco all the way to the The Band. Western Centuries’ debut album, Weight of the World, released by Free Dirt Records on June 3, 2016, introduces a band of roots music mavericks bringing refreshingly new ideas to their country roots.
Produced by Bill Reynolds (Band of Horses) and recorded in his Nashville studio, Weight of the World features powerful musicianship from all members, including special guests Rusty Blake (pedal steel), Rosie Newton (fiddle), and Dan Lowinger (bass). With songs that have been road-tested on actual dance floors throughout the Pacific Northwest, the bedrock of American honky-tonk on this album was hardearned. The progressive, almost psychedelic nature of Weight of the World’s lyrics, however, infuses the 12 track record with a distinctly modern sensibility. Sure, there’s plenty of country telecaster twang, but Western Centuries elevate these neotraditional twostepping tunes into transcendental, rootsy rock‘nrolldoused thinkpieces. With each songwriter’s distinct approach, and the strict dictums of the dancefloor ruling the sound, Western Centuries deconstructs the world of country dance. But it’s also marked with a profound ingenuity – the type that feels instinctual rather than intentionally labored for, the kind that continues to flourish and snake into new realms as time wears on. This is just the beginning for Western Centuries, and it’s not likely their creative well is going to dry up any time soon.