Archive for the ‘Richie Stearns’ Category

Tractor Beam

May 25, 2015


Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton. Tractor Beam.
2013. self-released.

I’ve been waiting for this one for a little bit now and it doesn’t disappoint. Rosie Newtown is a truly monster old-time fiddler, and seems to be at the center of a real scene in Ithaca, New York. I first heard her fiddling as part of the New Young Fogies Appalachian compilation album. Not only is she a marvelously dextrous fiddler, pulling a huge variety of syncopated rhythms out of old-time bowing, but she’s also a ferocious fiddler, tearing into a fiddle tune like a lioness tearing into a gazelle.

On Tractor Beam, she’s playing as a duo with songwriter/clawhammer banjo master Richie Stearns. Stearns is justifiably well known for his work with The Horse Flies, an alternative band with strong folk ties that was huge in the 90s. He’s also toured extensively with Natalie MacMaster and Bela Fleck, scored an album for Pete Seeger, and worked with folks as diverse as David Byrne, Tuvan throat singers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Tractor Beam is a blend of original and traditional, from a fiddle tune Rosie wrote (“Take It or Leave It”) to three new songs from Stearns (“Ribbons & Bows”, “I Am With You Always”, “Tractor Beam”), even a Townes Van Zandt cover, which Newton sings in her pure ballad style. Her voice is high and soft, and crackles with the fragility of an ice sheet. It’s beautiful singing! Stearns brings an element of worldliness to the music on this album, with a voice tinged by long experience, and a kind of weariness to his singing that draws in the listener.

The traditional material here is rendered impeccably, from the straight-ahead versions of “Say Darling Say” and “Willow Garden” (oh and listen to their harmonies on those songs…..), to the wonderful Clyde Davenport tune “Lost Goose” and the always classic “Trouble in Mind.” Stand-out track “Shirt Tail Boogie” features the lost art of clawhammer fiddling (inspired by the great Fred Cockerham), and it’s great to hear Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson ripping it up on the last two songs, Ruben’s Train and Hangman’s Reel.

All told, Tractor Beam brings a lot of lift and life to the old traditions.

Richie Stearns

May 25, 2014


Richie Stearns: From the time I was ten, as a child growing up in the early 1970s here in Ithaca, New York, I went to an alternative elementary school. I became friends there with a bunch of kids whose families had roots in Tennessee, and a lot of old-time music in their heritage. I was eleven when they took me to my first old-time festival in 1971 in Union Grove, North Carolina. I just happened to go along with them. I had no intention of doing anything with music beyond that. Once there I saw people who had come to the Fiddlers’ Convention from my own town; Ithaca had an old-time scene going on even then. Some people from my school were there as well and they had even put together a band for one of the competitions. Back home after the festival I started to think I might want to do something in a bigger way with music. I had already built a banjo in fifth grade with my wood shop teacher. Another teacher at my school had been part of the band that had formed for the Fiddlers’ Convention competition, so I asked him to be my music teacher in 1974.

I started to follow and spend time with the local bands. There were two old-time bands in Ithaca: the Correctone String Band and the Highwoods String Band. They began hosting social events. I would go to hang out. There was a lot of music going on. The place was kind of a hippie alternative community even then. We were all kids but there was something about those bands that drew us to them. They were open to showing us how to get started, and they took us under their wings. The Highwoods had these big parties that would go on for a week. We would go camp out and listen and try to play along. We ended up going to Mount Airy [NC] and Galax [VA] for the old-time festivals there every year. Besides listening to the local groups and other old-time musicians we would listen to the Rolling Stones; Lou Reid; Bob Marley, when he came along; the Talking Heads, when they came along. All this music helped inform how we were developing our own music.

At the beginning we had a band called Bubba George, which has played for years in various incarnations at the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival. Then around 1979 came the Tompkins County Horse Flies, as we called the band then. Some of these bands I played with were very open to playing things in a different way—including rock and other influences. We didn’t have any feeling that we had to keep the old-time music pure, although I think we were able to do that when we wanted to. When we would do, say, the conventions at Galax or Mount Airy and play with older fiddlers, I would try to play just what they were doing and not be disrespectful. What they did was so interesting to me. But when we were making up our own stuff and goofing around the other influences crept in very naturally. So I was able to experiment when I was very young without feeling like I was doing something wrong to the music.

“Ayeko, Ayeko”

November 7, 2012

Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton play “Iko, Iko”: 

According to linguist Geoffrey D. Kimball, the lyrics of the song are derived in part from Mobilian Jargon, an extinct Native American trade language consisting mostly of Choctaw and Chickasaw words and once used by Southeastern Indians, African Americans, and European settlers and their descendants in the Gulf Coast Region. In Mobilian Jargon, čokəma fehna (interpreted as “jockomo feeno”) was a commonly used phrase, meaning “very good.”

Louisiana creole lingua specialists believe now that the words originated as:

Ena! Ena!
Akout, Akout an deye
Chaque amoor fi nou wa na né
Chaque amoor fi na né

In English, this equates to:

Hey now! Hey now!
Listen, listen at the back
All the love made our king be born
All the love made it happen.

In a 2009 Offbeat article, however, the Ghanaian social linguist Dr. Evershed Amuzu said the chorus was “definitely West African,” reflecting West African tonal patterns. The article also notes that the phrase ayeko—often doubled as ayeko, ayeko—is a popular chant meaning “well done, or congratulations” among the Akan and Ewe people in modern-day Togo, Ghana, and Benin. 

Both groups were heavily traded during the slave trade, often to Haiti, which served as a way station for Louisiana. (Ewes in particular are credited with bringing West African cultural influences like Voudou rites from West Africa to Haiti and on to New Orleans.)

(edited from