The Barefoot Movement Tap Into Traditional Songs

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One of the highlights of the Barefoot Movement’s summer was playing the old bluegrass chestnut “Rocky Island” with African drums. In July, the Tennessee quartet traveled to Burkina Faso, a small country in western Africa, where they performed with national stars like kora virtuoso Diko and vocalist Rovane.

“Traditional music and dance are a huge part of their daily lives,” says fiddler/singer Noah Wall. “They have pop music just like we do, but everybody over there is in tune with traditional music. We were definitely immersed in the culture and the music.”

Immersion is crucial to the Barefoot Movement, whose members studied bluegrass in college and who have developed a deep knowledge of American traditional music. Their latest EP, The High Road, collects new covers of old tunes, ranging from the 19th-century game song “Jim Along Josie” to the 20th-century spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

“We’ve been playing these songs for a long time,” says Wall. “They’re songs we researched and put our own spin on, and we were getting all these requests at the merch table. We wanted to make this stuff available to fans.”

CMT Edge: Where did you discover the songs you cover on The High Road?

Wall: We’ve been collecting them for a couple of years now. We found “Bowling Green” through the Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard version, and I think they got it from Cousin Emmy. We thought it would be fun with two girls singing it instead of a guy and a girl. I found “Lawdy Papa” through the Oxford American, which does a Southern music issue every year. “Wade in the Water” I heard years ago by Eva Cassidy, a really wonderful singer who died of cancer in the ‘90s. I love her version, which is really jazzy.

There’s some blues and there’s some jazz, but what draws all the songs together is that they’re all traditional songs. People know when they come see us that we draw from a lot of different traditional styles. We like to explore the different veins of that word.

Three of the four band members take lead on the album. How do you decide who sings what?

It just depends on who brings the song to the band or who fits the best. I heard “Jim Along Josie” on YouTube, of all places, and thought it would be a good fit for [bass player/singer] Hasee [Ciaccio]. It just suited her voice better than it did mine. I like the bluesier stuff. I always like bands like Fleetwood Mac that have a bunch of different singers because it gives the audience a break from hearing me sing all the time. Maybe they want a male voice or a different stack of harmonies. It gives you more possibilities.

You also have classic rock covers in your set. How do those songs mix with the traditional ones?

On our last album, we covered “No Rain” by Blind Melon, and we’re working up another one right now that we’re excited about — “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix. Rock ‘n’ roll has been my favorite kind of music my whole life because it’s what I first fell in love with. The traditional stuff came later. If I like a band, I’ll get into their backstory and their lesser-known albums. I started getting into Crosby Stills & Nash, which got me into Graham Nash and Stephen Stills’ solo albums.

One of my favorite albums is Neil Young’s Comes a Time because there’s a good deal of fiddle on the record. It’s all connected — rock and traditional music. A good song is going to be timeless, and that’s why these old songs that we’ve recorded are still relevant. We don’t always know who wrote them, but they still make sense to play in a modern capacity.

How do these traditional songs inform your own songwriting?

Hearing different styles is so important. That’s true with singing or songwriting or anything. If you hear more singers, you have more ideas of how to form your own voice. I would never write a song like “Bowling Green” just off the top of my head. It’s not really linear. It doesn’t tell a story. But it’s fun. I would love to be able to write like that.

The old songs definitely have a different perspective. Maybe they’re not quite as personal in that they’re not related to the singer’s specific experience. Which is mostly what I do. I write specifically about myself and the way I see the world.

Having played these songs so often on tour, did that make the recording sessions easier?

I wouldn’t say it was an easy process. We did this thing entirely by ourselves. We rented gear from Guitar Center and recorded in [guitarist] Alex [Conerly]’s bedroom. So that side of it was not easy. Plus, we were in the middle of preparing for our summer tour, so we were recording on our days off. There was some pressure — most of it from ourselves. And we were also battling sickness at the time. If we had known the songs any less, it would have made things much worse.

Are you working on a new album, and will we hear any African instruments on it?

We’re hoping to get some time off in September and November to work on new songs. We have a couple that are up and running. There will definitely be more originals on the next one. In the meantime, we are hoping to do a Christmas tour in November. We’ve done Christmas shows in Johnson City [Tennessee] with some other bands, and it was so much fun. So that’s something we’re going to work toward.

[Mandolin player] Tommy [Norris] bought a kora on our trip, although he had to take the bridge off just to get it home. He’s an instrument collector, and I’m sure he’ll learn to play it. But if we were going to feature it on the album, we would need to get Diko to play it. Nobody could do it better than him.