Featuring… Danny Barnes, Robbie Fulks, Bill Frisell & Robbie Gjersoe
The inspiration for ‘Here on Earth,’ the latest album from violinist and singer/songwriter Jenny Scheinman, had its genesis when she was just a little girl, and she hoped art might save her when she inevitably landed in prison.
The thought first occurred to her during the long weekly drives she’d take with her mother, as they traveled across the winding roads of her rural, coastal California hometown in search of the nearest grocery store. As she endured the bumpy ride in the back seat and tried not to get carsick, her mother would make her memorize poetry — “because someday,” her mom reasoned, “you’re going to find yourself in jail and you’re going to need to entertain the other prisoners.”
Who was Scheinman to argue with that logic? Her mother was like a superhero to her, a larger than life, tough as nails broad who knew how the world worked. Maybe having an arsenal of Tennyson and Yeats really was the key to survival. “Okay Jenny,” her mother would tell her, “one more time, repeat after me…‘He clasps the crag with crooked hands.’”
What does any of that have to do with an album of fiddle tunes? Scheinman says the fiddle has that same raw, outlaw, dirt-on-your-knees spirit of prison poetry. “The fiddle can be played by anyone with rudimentary musical skill,” she says. “They can entertain a crowd. They are the people’s music. And honestly, if I ever end up in prison, I’d much rather have a fiddle on me than a poem.”
Many of the songs on this record were composed for ‘Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait,’ a collaboration with filmmaker Finn Taylor and commissioned by Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances. The movie collects archival footage taken between 1936-42 by H. Lee Waters (1902-1997), a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont—the region that spans between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains—taking short movies of ordinary, small town folks living through the Great Depression.
When Scheinman first watched the raw footage, the faces on screen felt weirdly familiar to her, even though they came from a bygone era. “I grew up in a small town obsessed by ideas of self-reliance, community, and life off the grid,” she says. “The folks that H. Lee Waters filmed display all the characteristics that we aspired to—poor and proud, theatrical, resilient—real toughies.” She was also struck by the guilelessness in their expressions. “It’s the way I want to make art,” she says. “Something that feels real. Real expression.”
Scheinman based her band for these recordings on a specific scene from the movie, where three musicians (fiddle, banjo and guitar) are playing at a dance party. To recreate this dynamic in the studio, she enlisted Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba), Robbie Fulks (guitar, banjo), Bill Frisell (guitar) and Robbie Gjersoe (resonator guitar), not just for their brilliant skills and deep-rooted understanding of fiddle music, but because they brought the barn-stomping, slightly unhinged energy she was trying to capture. Let’s just say if you find yourself in prison with nothing but a banjo, you’d want these boys by your side.
Another source of inspiration came from an unlikely place: in rural California, hundreds of miles away from the Appalachian roots of ‘Kannapolis.’ When Scheinman was seven months pregnant, she and her partner returned to the California of Scheinman’s youth, moving into a house that her mother owned for 30 years. “While my partner worked on the house, I sat in a one-armed rocking chair on the porch and played,” she says. “It felt exotic and luxurious after fifteen years in New York City. Like I’d opened one of those dream doors in my apartment and found a whole new room, except the room wasn’t a room, it was California.”
The baby didn’t arrive on schedule, and during the two weeks before they finally induced, Scheinman hit the jackpot and wrote over 40 fiddle tunes. “There are lots of rules,” she says. “A fiddle tune has to dance, it has to fit within very strict harmonic framework, it is always very short, and even if its good it will probably sound a lot like every other fiddle tune out there.”
Finding the perfect fiddle melody that stands out, that’s truly distinctive and authentic, proved to be a compelling challenge for her, one that presented itself at the right place and right time. How do you compose that a fiddle tune that sounds familiar but fresh, old but still completely new?
‘Here on Earth’ captures this magic-in-a-bottle on songs like “Rowan,” which Scheinman says is about community, unity, and “the right kind of America. We are very connected on this tune – answering each others’ phrases, supporting each other, it’s very utopian.” You’ll also find songs that are a little rougher around the edges, more appropriate for keeping your fellow inmates entertained while in the clink. Like “Don’t Knock Out The Old Dog’s Teeth,” a title borrowed from a friend of Scheinman who “went to jail for 23 years,” she says. “He deserved it.” The rhythmic weave created here is nothing short of intoxicating, the perfect melody for gathering around a burn barrel and hollowing out your demons. Of course, a Jenny Scheinman album would not be complete without a few big signature melodies such as those found on “Annabelle And The Bird” and “Esme.”
‘Here on Earth’ is about the present and the past, a big musical goulash that spans several generations of strangers and family (and strangers becoming family). It’s about our daydreams and poetry and the rituals that keep us sane and human. It’s a collection of songs that are both deeply personal to Scheinman and a tribute to hundreds of ordinary people from another time who just happened to look at a camera and reveal a little of their humanity. Above all, it’s about the frenetic, joyful melody of being alive on this damaged planet.
Royal Potato Family