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Folk country and folk opera artists introduce hypnotizing tones and rustic influences

February 26, 2014

The band Hurray for the Riff Raff was one of the big hits at last summer’s Newport Folk Festival. The group makes it semi-major label debut with the album “Small Town Heroes.” Simply put, it’s a record well worth seeking out and it’s in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week along with the soundtrack to a folk opera set during the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Let’s take a look.

Hurray for the Riff Raff
“Small Town Heroes”
ATO Records

The Bronx and New Orleans are two very different worlds. Of Puerto Rican descent, Alynda Lee Segarra, who fronts the band Hurray for the Riff Raff, spent the first 17 years of her life growing up in the Bronx. Initially it was the sounds of doo wop and Motown that cast a spell on her. That was until she began making treks to New York’s Lower East Side to indulge in Saturday matinee punk shows at an art and activism center called ABC No Rio. It was there that she would meet a mix of locals and travelers and hear their stories. It inspired her to stick her thumb out and hitchhike across the country. While she’d make her way to the West Coast, Segarra would eventually migrate South finally landing in New Orleans where she’d fall under the spell of entirely different kinds of music than those Bronx days. She’d also fall in with a band of fellow travelers, playing washboard and singing before eventually learning to play a banjo she’d been given in North Carolina. She’d hone her chops busking away on the streets of the Crescent City. She’d also begin writing songs. In the mid-aughts, Segarra would form the folk/country collective Hurray for the Riff Raff who would self-release three recordings from 2007 to 2010 followed by a self-titled album of favorites tunes released in 2011 for a British label and a subsequent album of original tunes called “Look Out Below” in 2012. The latter would lead to features for NPR and The New York Times and culminate last summer with a standout performance at the Newport Folk Festival. It would all lead to the band signing to Dave Matthews’ ATO Records and its newly released debut recording called “Small Town Heroes.” Front woman Segarra’s voice has a hypnotizing effect, a slow and easy instrument of deep soul beauty that sucks you right into her song world. The album is an understated affair that draws from many genres from old-timey styled music like opening track, “Blue Ridge Mountain,” to bare-bones blues (standout tracks “Good Time Blues,” “The New SF Bay Blues” and “St. Roch Blues”) to New Orleans and the Crescent City bump of “No One Else,” to folk balladry, “The Body Electric,” and the title track, to even a whiff of honky tonk, “I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright).” Segarra and company nail each and every one of the dozen songs on a record that is nothing short of highly recommended. Visit

Eric Brace & Karl Straub
“Hangtown Dancehall”
Red Beet Records

Nashville-based indie Red Beet Records is the collaborative endeavor of Eric Brace of roots rock band Last Train Home fame and writer-turned-singer/songwriter Peter Cooper who was the music scribe for Nashville newspaper The Tennessean for a number of years. The label was started as an outlet primarily for Brace and Cooper to release both their solo material, as well as Brace’s band Last Train Home. It has since released duo albums by Brace and Cooper as well as releases from Nashville artist Fayssoux and various compilations showcasing Music City’s “underground” Americana scene. Quality over quantity best describes the label’s M.O. The latest offering from Red Beet Records called Hangtown Dancehall is a “story” album of sorts. The backdrop is the California Gold Rush of the late 1800s. The music is a rustic batch of hillbilly country tunes featuring Brace and musical compadre Karl Straus along with many special guests. They include Austin songstress Kelly Willis, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Jason Ringenberg (of Jasons & the Scorchers fame), singer Andrea Zonn, and John Wesley Harding. Described as a folk opera, the musical production of “Hangtown Dancehall” made its debut at a live music venue in Nashville in November featuring many of the same artists who guest star on the record. Based on a story by Brace, “Hangtown Dancehall” is a musical retelling of the folk tale “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” The original Gold Rush-era song with circa-1850s lyrics by John A. Stone tells the story of a pioneer named Betsy who with her lover migrated from Pike County in Missouri to cross the prairie and mountains for the promise of Gold Rush-era California in the middle 1800s. Burl Ives was the first to put the tale to song in 1941 in the contemporary era and no less notables than Johnny Cash, Eddy Arnold, and Tom Paxton followed in later years with their own respective spins on the tale. Now it’s the turn or Brace, Straub and friends and they do the tale musical justice. Visit

Get a jump on Fat Tuesday on Saturday evening at the 22nd annual Cajun & Zydeco Mardi Gras Ball. It all goes down once at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet in Cranston (60 Rhodes Place). Featured performers are all no strangers to these parts and include Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, C.J. Chenier & Red Hot Louisiana Band, and Leroy Thomas & the Zydeco Roadrunners. Music runs from 6 p.m. to midnight.
Weather has not been kind to the Music at Lilypads in Peace Dale (Unitarian Universalist Church, 27 North Road) this winter. Here’s hoping Mother Nature cools her jets on Saturday night as the venue features what promises to be a fine evening of music from a collection of young talents. In the Lilypads spotlight will be Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert, and Jordan Tice with Nick Smith and Susan Moreland for an evening of music that begins at 7:30 p.m.

Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.


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