Back in 2009 I was blessed to have discovered Clothesline Revival, an enterprise devoted to remixing songs from field recordings in a way that revives and exalts the primitive genius of American folk music. There’s no way to describe the moving, authentic, groundbreaking quality of this sound; you really do have to hear it.
I was even more blessed that Conrad Praetzel, the wizard behind Clothesline Revival, had time for an interview. At the time he was working on his seventh CD, and since then has put out several more, including They Came From Somewhere, and The Greatest Show on Mars.
Praetzel was refreshingly humble, and he manifested the sense of childlike delight in creation that I’d been hoping to see. While explaining how he’d put some of the tracks together on his latest recording, he discussed the rewards of digging though old field recordings for precious bits of sound:
“Finding that first link with the vocal source is one of the most rewarding parts of working from these old field recordings. When it does work you feel like you’ve opened a door into some place no one else has been. The rest of the arrangements just sort of fall into place though they usually take some time.”
High Lonesome Mountain Angel Jubilation
On the 2010 album The Came From Somewhere Praetzel was joined by musicians Robert Powell, Charlie Musselwhite, on Chris Rovetti. The album is a bracing, life-giving thrill ride, marrying the most artful audio crafting with the most intense and authentic American roots sounds. The combination is practically combustible. There’s just something about the melodies, the little bits of accompaniment that add just the right accent, the melodic riffs so evocative they almost talk.
There’s an absurdist theme permeating this package: The album cover art is based on a throwback to an era when everyone was supposed to have been happy, featuring a couple of stilt walkers at the Birmingham Onion Fair, and the album’s title is like a Zen koan, a secret door opening into the cloud of unknowing.
This album manifests a more carefully refined art than that found in previous Clothesline Revival albums but not at the expense of sonic vitality. In spite of the breathtaking originality of this music, nostalgia breaks like waves on the heart’s beach as Praetzel dips into one traditional genre after another.
“Snake Walk,” for example, sounds like ‘60s rockabilly funk, while “Return to Iona” mixes what sound like car factory clankings with a lazy old country slide. “Beautiful Home” is a touching tribute to America’s mountain heritage and the propensity to an intense spirituality.
Unlike earlier Clothesline Revival albums, which leaned heavily on archival vocal and instrumental samples, this album is all original material (and original rhapsodies on traditional material like “John Henry”), much of it written or co-written by Praetzel.
The Dark Man, Little Maggie, The Revenuer, Ghost Riders in the Sky, and The Bible-Thumping Salvation Show Preacher— on Mars
“Never known to have performed before any live audiences on Earth, Clothesline Revival received an exclusive invitation to join an interplanetary circus on a mission to become the first musicians from Earth to entertain Martian colonists.”
~from Clothesline Revival’s official website
The Greatest Show on Mars is a good old-fashioned Barnum and Bailey-type show but with a host of characters from American rural folk and pop culture, like The Dark Man, Little Maggie, Wildwood Flower, The Revenuer, Ghost Riders in the Sky, UFO’s, space aliens, and The Old Time Bible-Thumping Salvation Show Preacher.
This is the premise of 2014’s The Greatest Show on Mars, presenting yet another great set of tracks made up of archived field recordings of traditional tunes (many gathered by the famous Alan Lomax) and interviews interspersed with acoustic instruments in-studio, all composed and arranged by Praetzel.
The circus theme coupled with the outer space mission is a stroke of genius; it underlines the fact that the 1950’s B movie era, which included loads of low budget sci-fi, coincided with a zenith in American folk and pop music.
I’ve listened to enough studio projects like this to know that even with a team of the best technicians and musicians it’s just not easy to layer live studio recordings over field recordings and make it sound all-of-a-piece. Somehow Conrad Praetzel—who selects the traditional archive material, arranges the recordings, and plays most of the live instruments on the tracks—manages to make the blend seamless and somehow enhances the primitive essence of the archive material.
The music of Conrad Praetzel manifests nine of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.
It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.
It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
It’s about attainment of the true self.
It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
It gives me artistic tools.
It makes me want to be a better artist.
It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.