- 14 Feb 11
Spoken-word is the squinty-eyed stepchild of the performance arts. But now one of the discipline’s great practitioners is receiving the recognition she deserves.
Are you feeling romantic? In the mood for love? The crew at Musiclee concerts are old romantics too. They’ve come up with the perfect way for folk obsessives (or plain, old-fashioned romantics of any stripe) to get in the mood for the special night. On Saturday 12th February (because let’s face it, there isn’t much romance on a Monday night), in Caffrey’s Restaurant Batterstown, Co. Meath, you can treat the light of your life to a meal and concert featuring Eleanor Shanley, Frankie Laine and Paul Kelly. If that doesn’t set hearts a-flutter you should dump them and run off with someone with a bit more soul.
In case you think a move out to Meath spells the end of the line for Musiclee concerts in Dublin, fear not. The Cherrytree in Walkinstown continues to host some of the country’s finest folkies. Saturday 19th February finds Ben Sands taking the stage and proving that he can hold his head up with his brothers Colm and Tommy. The following Saturday, 26th February, the venue welcomes Philip Donnelly, whose touring credits include stints with Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Townes Van Zandt and Donovan.
Which isn’t to say Dublin will be getting all the action from here on in. Buoyed by the reaction to his ‘Folk The Recession’ concerts, Paul Lee is actively looking for venues around the country in which to continue the series. If you can think of anywhere that fits the bill let him know at musiclee.ie
It’s not often we go all highbrow round these parts but Minton Sparks (‘the best country singer who doesn’t sing...’) will receive the first Fellowship of Southern Writers Award for Spoken Word this April at the 2011 Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“The new award is given to an artist for a body of original work recognized for unique and powerful performance aspects as well as for intrinsic literary quality,” says novelist Dorothy Allison, a member of the Fellowship and sponsor of the award. “The award recognizes great storytelling and writing as performed by the writer/poet/storyteller. It was also created to honor spoken word artists and to counter the often dismissive approach to performance art.”
Founded in 1987 by 26 renowned Southern writers, The Fellowship of Southern Writers recognizes and encourages literature in the American South with awards and prizes. It’s a major achievement for someone who makes a career as a singer to be taken seriously by a peer group of serious writers. Her lyrics reach way beyond the norm in terms of their ability to capture the atmosphere of the small towns in the Southern United States where she grew up and has made her home. That said, the songs translate easily into any locale. Small town gossip is small town gossip whether it’s in South Georgia or South Kerry and the gentle wit and savage backbiting in her songs are universal.
There was no existing script for what Sparks does, which can’t be said of many artistic ventures nowadays. So she’s written one herself these past 10 years or so and come up with a name for her role to boot: speaker-songwriter.
She writes flesh-and-blood vignettes about smalltown southern family members, teasing out the complexity below the surfaces of people’s lives in ways that tickle the sense of humour, prick the conscience and lodge in the soul. She delivers words in beelines of bluesy rhythm with accompaniment from the acoustic guitar of John Jackson, who’s perhaps best known for having played with Bob Dylan. And she inhabits each character in full-bodied fashion, now buckdancing, now chicken strutting, now delivering gossip with a self-righteous shrug.
The reception Sparks has gotten in the separate spheres of literature, storytelling and music ought to say something about the quality of all three elements in her work. She’s performed in the American Songbook Series at the Lincoln Center, appeared at the venerable Old Towne School of Folk Music, served as teller-in-residence at the Jonesborough National Storytelling Festival, was invited to the prestigious Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. She has in addition shared the stage with the likes of Rodney Crowell, John Prine and Nanci Griffith, gone over like gangbusters at the Tennessee Prison for Women and received some of the highest possible praise for a southern writer — being called the lovechild of Flannery O’Connor and Hank Williams — by Marshall Chapman. These are no insignificant accomplishments.
Along the way, Sparks has documented the evolution of her work with albums (2001’s Middlin’ Sisters, 2003’s This Dress and 2005’s Sin Sick), books (2007’s Desperate Ransom: Setting Her Family Free and 2008’s White Lightning) and a performance film (2006’s Open Casket). The first of those albums boasts the contributions of no less than Waylon Jennings and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, our own Maura O’Connell, bluesman Keb’ Mo’ and Grammy-winning acoustic producer Gary Paczosa. Players include John Jackson, blues pianist Steve Conn, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and clawhammer banjo stylist Abigail Washburn. All of which is to say, musicians of stature from all corners of the roots world dig Sparks’ unorthodox work.