By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 23rd annual Four Corners Folk Festival is rapidly approaching and, before you know it, the gates will open to campers streaming in from all over the country for the event.
The longstanding Pagosa Springs Labor Day Weekend tradition will take place on Reservoir Hill in Pagosa Springs Aug. 31-Sept. 2.
This year’s world-class musical lineup includes The Dawg Trio (featuring David Grisman, Danny Barnes and Samson Grisman), Sam Bush, We Banjo 3, Amy Helm, The Accidentals, Sam Reider and the Human Hands, Front Country, Darling West, Jon Stickley Trio, The Jacob Jolliff Band, The Western Flyers, Bonnie and the Clydes, Tallgrass, and this week’s featured performers: Nahko and Medicine for the People, and Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton.
Nahko and Medicine
for the People
It sounds like the logline for a classic ‘60s film: An Oregon native leaves home at 18, follows love from Alaska to Louisiana only to learn about heartbreak the hard way, meets his birth mother for the first time, eventually settles in Hawaii and launches a successful band. It isn’t the fulfillment of some loose end in “Easy Rider” or “Five Easy Pieces,” though. It’s the origin story of Nahko captured on his 2017 solo offering, “My Name Is Bear.”
The album predates his rise to mythos among diehard fans of Nahko and Medicine for the People, and it’s an important piece of the puzzle that is Nahko.
Collecting music he penned between the pivotal ages of 18 and 21, the musical maverick appropriately described the 16-track journey as “a prequel.”
“It’s the first chapter,” he elaborated. “I leave home at the beginning. On the back end, I meet my birth mother at 21, everything changes and the Medicine for the People catalog begins. It was about coming of age and shedding that skin. When you’re on your own, those are the first steps to freedom. You have to take care of yourself and survive in a world with the tools you have. For me, those tools were my guitar, my songwriting and my thumb to hitchhike. ”
Artfully merging rustic acoustic guitars, upbeat energy, tribal flavors, fiery percussion and ponderous lyrics, these recordings reflect the soul and spirit fans have come to know and love from his work in Medicine for the People, while venturing into decidedly more “rocking” and “personal” territory, as he puts it.
Along the way, he realized who he was.
“I came from a broken indigenous home, but I was raised in a beautiful, privileged white home by my adoptive parents,” he said. “It was pretty confusing as I began to come of age because I knew I didn’t come from that household, but somehow through my music I was able to garner the attention of many young people going through the same thing and coming to a similar conclusion. My music did not define me at 18-21 the way it does now. It was my comfort zone. I turned to it to get me through all of the transitions. I had no definition of life at the time. Music is my language, that is certain. It is my way to get in, out, over and under. It’s my bridge. I can connect with people and many other things with it.”
Strengthening that connection, Nahko introduces this collection with the lead-off and first single “Dragonfly.” Fingerpicked acoustic guitar builds into an unshakable melody punctuated by an African-style beat and chirping birds as he carries the chant, “To my former dragonfly, I resist and I survive.” The companion video, starring Nahko’s friend, Paris Jackson, brings the narrative to life vividly.
“I wrote that at 18,” he recalls. “It’s a special one about following my heart in relation to a first love. I was very enamored with her. We met in Alaska and she had a similar story to my birth mother. I followed her to Louisiana by way of a very long road trip. We spent four months in a house in the Deep South hanging out. It came from surviving that first year away from home. It was a special piece for me.”
He pays homage to the influence of Ram Dass’ “Be Here Now” with the swaggering electric guitar, groovy bass and bright horns of “Be Here Now”— originally penned upon his arrival in Hawaii. The gorgeous conclusion “Die Like Dinoz” nods to his experience in a Hawaiian treehouse at the base of a volcano as it compares two lost dinosaurs to lovers who lose their way.
As much as “My Name Is Bear” serves as a prequel to Medicine for the People, it can certainly be construed as the foundation for meeting his mom, as well. To rewind even further, Nahko’s birth mom gave him up for adoption as she was just 15 years old. She would be thrust into unthinkable circumstances, but managed to send letters and photos until he turned 5. At 17, his parents handed over the correspondence. In 2007, following his return to Portland from Hawaii, he Googled her name on Aug. 6. Turns out, his birth mother lived 15 minutes away.
“I drove there and there she was, my mom,” he continues. “My two sisters, their kids, my two brothers … everyone. Mom was crying. I was crying. The first thing she asked was ‘What do you do?’ I shrugged and said, ‘I play music.’ It literally happened like that — all by divine intervention. I picked up, left Hawaii and came home to not so randomly discover my mom lived basically down the street from where I grew up.”
Consequentially, this transpired towards the end of the period chronicled on “My Name Is Bear.” He penned “Early February” about it.
“It’s the only song that has anything to do with my birth mother or my family,” he said. “It’s about identity. That link ties to my other records, because they’re full of stories. ‘My Name Is Bear’ celebrates becoming a man.”
Finger-snaps set the stage for a delicate and heartwarming narrative about the birth of his brother’s first child on “Call Him By His Name.” Strings underscore the emotional heft of the soulful ballad “Susanna,” which relays the journey from home towards love. Meanwhile, the shimmering piano of “Alice” echoes with lively and lush melodies.
In the title, he also subconsciously embraces his given moniker, Nahko, which means “bear.”
“I reclaimed the name at this time,” he continued. “I was going by my adopted name of David until I got to Hawaii and a friend encouraged me to go by Nahko. It’s a statement to myself. I’m no longer a little bear. I’ve reached a place where I’ve progressed through this journey of music. I can share these songs from a very specific period today.”
At the end of the day, this prequel sets the stage for a whole lot more from Nahko though.
“To be honest, I decided to make this last year as the world was changing,” he left off. “I know I could go deep on Medicine for the People, but I had to go back in time for myself, clean out the closet a little bit, and give listeners something that feels good, but makes them think. I hope in making them feel good for an hour, it makes them feel better. That’s how I feel.”
Nahko and Medicine for the People will headline the Four Corners main stage on Saturday, Sept. 1, at 8 p.m.
Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton
We tend to think of songs as snapshots in time, but they’re really more like handwritten letters that we carry around for years, their meaning changing each time we read and re-read them. On their quietly stunning debut, “Been on Your Side,” songwriters Hartman and Ashton bring forth songs full of ephemeral charm, created separately and together while living New York City. Each song’s been weathered a bit by time like an old letter, tempered a bit by the honest assessments of a true friendship and imbued with layers of meaning.
“I am fascinated by the life of songs,” Hartman said. “Seeing after they’re written how they continue to change based on your life and what you’re experiencing and what you’ve loved and lost. I guess they’re like frames that you can see life’s seasons or certain relationships through.”
Both Hartman and Ashton are known for their instrumental prowess — Hartman as a subtly virtuosic guitarist and Ashton as a deft clawhammer banjo player — but the focus here is on the songs they’ve made and shared together, their rich, entwining vocal harmonies, and their collaborative method of songwriting and arranging. “Been on Your Side” is a beautifully compelling album of new American roots music coming out at the end of this month.
Ashton and Hartman met in New York City coming off tours with their bands — Ashton with adventurous Canadian roots ensemble Fish and Bird, and Hartman with Grammy-award nominated Della Mae — and both looking to relocate to the city.
As Ashton told it, they met at a secret Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge show.
“It was one of those New York moments,” he said, “where you see this incredible music in a tiny place and you’re inspired to make something. You look around for someone to harness that energy with.”
What they found was a remarkably productive musical friendship that immediately saw the two of them writing and collaborating on songs. “
A writing together process is one of listening,” Hartman said. “You play a new and raw thing for someone with open and objective ears. That’s a gift, you don’t find that in everybody. Sometimes it feels like growing a song together.”
As the songs grew, both Hartman and Ashton continued with other projects, and it took a few years before they were able to find the time to sit down and record.
Retreating to an empty old dance hall in South Dartmouth, Mass., Ashton and Hartman holed up with producer Jacob Blumberg to record the album over one wintry week.
“There was a dark beauty to that space,” Hartman said, “maybe especially in winter.”
With views of the water and a fire in the hearth, the pair recorded into old ribbon mics just a few feet from each other, roughly the same distance they sat writing the songs originally.
Though time passed between conception and recording, Ashton and Hartman kept the songs fresh and deliberately brought unfinished songs to the recording to work on together. The result is an incredibly intimate performance between two master musicians, each attuned to the others slightest musical movements, and both committed to an honesty in music making that is rare. Ashton focused on the rolling waves of his clawhammer banjo playing, an instrument whose rhythm, he said, was always a key part of their work together. Hartman, recently nominated for an Instrumentalist of the Year Award by the Americana Music Association, focused on her acclaimed guitar work.
As Ashton pointed out, “Courtney’s a virtuosic guitarist, but her virtuosity is a virtuosity of sensitivity. She’s able to shred in such a way that you almost don’t notice.”
At times during the recording, you can hear the fire crackling in the background, and though Hartman and Ashton returned to New York and added in additional instrumentation, the beating heart of the music remains their musical partnership.
As Hartman said, “At my core, I love improvising and I love exploring what a piece of music is right now, that it wasn’t yesterday or the day before and the same goes for collaborative relationships.”
Hartman and Ashton will open Sunday morning’s music performances on Sept. 2 with an 11:30 a.m. set on the main stage.
FolkWest is seeking a few more volunteers age 17 and over to help out at the event. Volunteers who work two four-hour shifts earn free three-day admission to the festival and there are shifts scheduled before, during and after the event. Additional information about volunteering can be found at www.folkwest.com/fcff-volunteer or by calling 731-5582.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is a family-friendly event, with free admission for children 12 and under (when accompanied by an adult) and lots of free activities and entertainment at the Kids Tent offered throughout the festival. The festival takes place rain or shine, and a central feature is the 10,000-square-foot tent with general admission seating for 1,300 people, available on a first-come basis. The meadow and trees outside the tent provide ample room for tarps, blankets and low festival chairs.
Additional information about tickets, performers and schedules can be found online at www.folkwest.com. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at (877) 472-4672.
Bio information provided by Nahko, and Hartman and Ashton.