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‘A Little Bit’ More Working to Be a Whole Lot More

“Music is our drug of choice, I guess you could say,” said Jill Hamlin, one half, the other being Reed Fields, of the duo A Little Bit More.

As vices go, there are less expensive ones than music, but to Hamlin and Reed, it’s the one that exists as a lifelong pursuit, as necessary as oxygen.

“It’s kind of just like breathing. If we didn’t have music, I don’t think we’d be able to survive,” said Hamlin.

By day, both Hamlin and Fields work with youth. Hamlin, who has a Master’s in Social Anthropology Ethnomusicality from Queen’s Unversity Belfast in Northern Ireland, is a program director for Sunrise Children’s Services, while Fields applies his Master’s in Teaching at Bath County High School. By night, the pair set out to spin heartrending ballads and straight barroom rockers in joints stretching from the iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville to New England.

What comes through on “Silhouettes,” their debut album, is a back-to-basics approach. The duo seeks to showcase in their influences, ranging from rock to gospel, but they aren’t necessarily interested in deconstructing the country genre in the same vein as fellow eastern Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. They brand their music as Americana, but it often exists more as a strain of purer country, the kind not heard ever since a more modern, pop sound has taken root in the mainstream. Shades of Emmylou Harris shine through, and the compressed finger-picked acoustic on the opening of “I Don’t Lie to You” might be at home on any of Steve Earles seminal albums. Both are cited influences on A Little Bit More’s work, but nothing feels forced.

In fact, authenticity is part of what makes A Little Bit More so familiar and lived-in. When there’s a bit of Eastern Kentucky accent shining through in the lyrics, it’s genuine expression rather than affectation. Hamlin and Fields sing how they talk – they aren’t exaggerating it for effect, and they aren’t toning it down to satisfy contrived mainstream appeal (for more on the complications surrounding an Eastern Kentucky accent, head here: http://www.under-main.com/proper-english-yall/). That sense of place anchors the music, and the lyrics reflect their Owingsville, Kentucky, setting, plumbing both the dark and light sides for depth.

“Music is about celebrating,” said Hamlin. “It’s about bringing to light good things and bad things.”

Reed Fields | Photo by Chrissy Perkins Photography

Jill Hamlin | Photo by Chrissy Perkins Photography

Both the good and the bad abound in the text of A Little Bit More’s music. Hamlin’s plaintive vocals on “Where I Am” are a quiet reflection on the ravages of addiction, speaking to her belief that this scourge has become something almost as devastating as cancer in its expanding reach.

“Everyone knows someone who has been touched by it,” said Hamlin, a condition that seems to her to have only reached this prominence in recent years. “Where is the hope?”

Fields teases an upcoming tune, “Crooked Town,” which looks at small-town corruption that he hints may be less than fiction.

Counteracting the somber notes of these songs are “Beer Bottle” and “Get Up Crowd,” which bring the duo back to a more celebratory mode that makes you want to scoot a boot across the dance floor, complete with just the right amount of twangy guitar.

To record their debut, the duo brought their full band contingent to studio Station West Nashville to work with engineer Kyle Manner (Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson). The experience was surreal for the pair.

“He (Kyle) treated us like we were somebody,” said Hamlin. “We’re used to being a ‘garage band.’”

After a month of preparation and four solid 11- and 12-hour days of recording, the result was “Silhouettes,” a 13-track album of original music, released in March of 2017. That hard work returned an unexpected benefit in the form of a win for “Album of the Year” at the Lexington Music Awards in early 2018. The duo hopes this award will be a boon locally, where they have been building a steady following, which sometimes manifests itself in interesting ways.

“We were playing a writer’s night at Bobby’s Idle Hour [in Nashville] – which is the last actual writer’s night place that they have on Music Row,” said Fields. The place was crowded when Hamlin and Fields made their way in, asking some seated patrons if it would be okay to sit at their table. Fields sat down and began messing with his guitar to get ready to play.

“They tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You don’t recognize us?’,” said Fields. “Four of our fans from Lexington had driven all the way there to watch us play six songs.”

“At 10:45 at night!” interjected Hamlin.

“On a weeknight!” Fields laughed. “So we love the music scene in Lexington.”

A Little Bit More’s fandom has taken on an even more unusual form: a line dance captured in a series of YouTube videos, with one garnering almost 40,000 views. Fields found this out almost by accident when he started searching for the title of his songs and saw a result that seemed to be a match.

“I clicked on it, and there’s these people in China dancing to it,” said Fields.

An Irish choreographer created the dance to the strains of “Save Me Tonight,” and she has been teaching it (and filming it) with groups around the world. That level of audience buy-in spurs Fields and Hamlin onward.

“The final defining moment is when you play a song and you see people reacting,” said Fields, recounting an early moment in the duo’s tenure when an original song moved some audience members to tears.

“That, to me, is the ultimate for music – you can create something that people could relate to that strongly.”

That moment for Hamlin came during a set of covers when audience members started requesting their original tunes.

“It was a humbling experience,” she said.

For A Little Bit More, those experiences are happening more as the hard work begins to pay off. They continue to hone their craft, working their way through the ropes in famous songwriter locales in Nashville, while somewhere on the other side of the world, a new group of line dancers learns the steps to a song from a humble duo from Owingsville, Kentucky.

Newsletter

Scene&Heard: Four Seasons, Many Moods

The first sight that greets you when entering the Lyric Theatre is a wall of local art. Immediately, this wall serves to situate you: you are not here for only a show, or a concert, or an exhibition or a community gathering. Instead, this wall seems to emphasize that every single piece of art that takes place inside this building is part of a larger context of local artistry and engagement between artists and what political theorists call civic society—those people and organizations that go out of their way to build a sense of community.

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra, which performed in a matinee at the Lyric, is exactly that sort of organization, They are, first and foremost, a community ensemble, drawing their onstage talent from the Lexington community. And in return, that community supports them. Though admittance to the Chamber Orchestra’s performances is free, most everyone I entered with donated to support the orchestra.

The program, mostly lighter fare, was titled Four Seasons, and seemed to welcome back audience for the first performance of the New Year. While Jan Pellant, the Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra, had only programmed three pieces, each contained an internal variety that allowed the ensemble to move through a wider range of moods than a quick glance at the program might suggest.

Maestro Jan Pallent | Courtesy Lexington Chamber Orchestra

The concert began with 4 selections from J. S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. Translated, the title simply means ‘The Art of the Fugue,’ and Bach had under this title written an entire course’s worth of demonstration and model of the fugue form.

From a compositional perspective, a proper fugue is a difficult thing to do well—a fugue is a series of rhythmically and harmonically interlocking musical phrases in which each phrase could, in theory, function as a predominant melody. Holding together that level of complexity is a tricky task for any composer, but Bach was the undisputed master of the form. He wrote Die Kunst der Fuge towards the end of his life, and left no indication of what instruments were to perform the piece, how fast or how loudly they were to play it, or even whether he even considered the piece to be properly finished.

All of this ambiguity could be considered a challenging task for any conductor. But, as Pellant points out in his program notes, “these points give the artists opportunities to create uniqueness based on personal creativity” as well.

In performance, Pellant gave the score a respectable shakedown, imbuing variety to the orchestration and performance choices. The first movement, light and quick, was an excellent demonstration that the Chamber Orchestra knows how to balance a technically complicated piece to both demonstrate each individual element and create a unified whole— not an easy thing to accomplish with Bach, who can sometimes feel like a lecture from your math professor on the numerical properties of pi. The second movement elaborated on the technical distinction of the first.

The third movement was a real highlight that emphasized the ensemble’s harmonic balance, and the low voices thrummed away at the base of chords that are passed through the upper three voices in a rhythmically steady pulse that unwinds through the ensemble.

The final movement continued this rhythmic development, rolling through the ensemble like a well-built clock.

The most fascinating aspect of a good Bach performance is that it’s both utterly predictable, in that you can usually make a pretty good guess as to where he’s headed in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony, and the overall structure of the piece, but the craftsmanship of each individual element is such that you don’t find yourself minding it all that much. Often, the best way to enjoy Bach is to let yourself sit back and enjoy the music as it presents yourself to you. This is especially true of his fugues, which unfold with an exacting mathematical precision. The real talent of the Chamber Orchestra lay in the clarity with which Pellant held each part strong to its own voice, maintaining the counterpoint without allowing it to dissolve into a multi-part mush of predictable harmonies.

The second piece was an excerpt of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5; the Chamber Orchestra performed the Adagietto section, which is one of Mahler’s most excerpted pieces. However, the Adagietto was nonetheless an interesting choice for such a tiny ensemble. The rich, almost overdeveloped late romantic chords of Mahler’s symphonies can tax even the large string sections of full-size orchestras, and for a smaller group, especially the intense layering of chords can be a challenge.

Here Pellant had to toss about his hands, one after the other, to each section, making a thousand tiny adjustments on the fly. His long, stentorian frame remained firmly planted in front of his score, but his left hand would flicker and shudder, always coaxing out more vibrato, more emotion, from the scraping bows.

The lights remained up in the audience throughout the performance, giving it a participatory feel for the listeners. The boxy design of the Lyric’s theater, in which the stage sits bluntly in front of the audience,  helped to collapse the distance between orchestra and audience, which diffused a great deal of the stuffiness that often invests classical performances.

The final piece came from the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Taking his inspiration from Vivaldi’s famous (and famously overrated) Four Seasons Suite, Piazzolla wrote a set of four pieces for strings ensemble and solo violin that described the seasons of his native Buenos Aires. Mixing high-minded classicism with the rolling and rumbling rhythms of Latin dance music, Piazzolla wrote incredibly technically complicated pieces for string performers.

For the final piece, the Chamber Orchestra was joined by soloist Kyung Sun Lee, a violinist who has held teaching and performance positions at Oberlin College, the University of Houston, and Seoul National University (all schools with music departments of the highest order).

Kyung Sun Lee | Photo courtesy of the Lexington Chamber Orchestra

That training was pushed to a dramatic degree, as Piazzolla wrote a violin part that approached the technical complexity of Sibelius’ legendary Violin Concerto. Lee played with expressive sensitivity at the very highest end of her violin’s range, and her fingers danced through a score that included double stops, glissandi, and portamento demands far beyond even that normally asked of internationally acclaimed soloists.

The Chamber Orchestra kept up admirably with this furious pace. The rhythmic impulse was, throughout each movement, absolutely wonderful. Pellant kept the orchestra driving, clearly articulating complex syncopations that both held the beat aloft for a moment in midair but nonetheless returned it to the ground with a cadence even more propulsive than before.

The result was a powerful but lighthearted end to a concert that brought a feeling of generosity and welcome to the audience.

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra rang in their new year with a smile and a cheery wave of the hand, and Lexington’s 2018 is the better for it.

Newsletter

Saving Kentucky: Kentucky Natural Lands Trust & The Pine Mountain Collective

We often talk about “saving the world” in a lofty, abstract sense, devoid of any tangible plan of action to actually deter the rapid path of ecological destruction that we’re on. The truth is that only about seven percent of Kentucky’s lands are publicly protected, which is lower than any other state that borders Kentucky. In the face of all of this, since 1995, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT) has been raising awareness of Kentucky’s natural treasures as well as raising money to purchase and protect some of the most endangered and diverse ecosystems in the United States. As of 2018, KNLT has directly purchased 13,000 acres of land and helped financially leverage the purchase of more than 34,000 acres across the state.

Kentucky Natural Lands Trust started as a group of friends who were highly motivated to make a difference and succeeded in saving the largest tract of old-growth forest in the state, Blanton Forest. The state-wide non-profit land trust is working to protect, connect, and restore wildlands throughout Kentucky. It was formed in the mid-90s when Senior Ecologist at the Kentucky State Nature Preserve Commission, Marc Evans, teamed up with former Director of the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Hugh Archer, along with several others, in a communal effort to protect Blanton. The scope of their work quickly expanded from 2000 acres to working towards the preservation of the entire Pine Mountain corridor. Many of KNLT’s purchases have connected critical habitats essential for already marginalized wildlife and some of these lands have already been sold to become part of state-owned preserved Kentucky public lands.

Black-throated green warbler ~ photo by Dan Pancamo (Creative Commons)

“The way that we got here and started working on it [Pine Mountain] was Blanton Forest, this unique, iconic place that we protected back in the nineties, working with the State Nature Preserves Commission. Ultimately, the group realized that they knew, from the work that they had done there, that it was a really unique place and there was an opportunity to work more on the mountain.” – Greg Abernathy, Executive Director of KNLT

The main chunk of KNLT’s work is in the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, which is a 125 mile overthrust fault that starts at the Kentucky-Virginia border at Breaks Interstate Park, “The Grand Canyon of the East”, and extends all the way through Harlan County to Tennessee. It has only a few roads that cross it, a handful of river breaks, and is a major contiguous migratory corridor for wildlife. The geological history is such that it doesn’t have a lot of merchantable coal, so Pine Mountain’s vast number of rare and unique species haven’t been disturbed. Kentucky has 700 rare species and 1/10th of them are found on Pine Mountain. One is the endemic Icebox Cave Beetle, which only lives in  one cave in the Narrows Preserve and nowhere else on Earth.

High Rock, KNLT Artists’ Retreat ~ photo by Greg Abernathy, KNLT

In addition to Pine Mountain, KNLT also works in central Kentucky with Bernheim Forest on the Bernheim-Fort Knox Wildlands Corridor, a vital migratory habitat which ideally will include a protected one mile buffer zone around the Fort Knox army post, leveraged as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Army Compatible Use Buffer Program.

American black bear ~ photo by Marc Evans, KNLT

“When you think about the region that we’re working in in Eastern Kentucky, it’s a region that historically has been taken advantage of by outsiders, so there is a lot of cautious agreement to engage with you because, though we are offering fair market value for what the land will appraise for, at the end of the day, people are wondering if there is some value in this land that you know that they don’t know about. We’re buying and protecting some of the most biologically diverse land in the state for a very reasonable rate.” – Greg Abernathy

Land conservation work is definitely the long game. In 2017, KNLT closed a land deal for 2000 acres in Letcher and Harlan County that took 18 years to complete. These lands fill in the gaps between Kingdom Come State Park and the Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area. Once lands are acquired, KNLT has two stewardship staff members who focus on conservation stewardship objectives to protect their conservation investments, which include eradicating invasive species and preserving Kentucky’s natural heritage. This recently acquired land also ties into the multi-state Great Eastern Trail, which has been unfolding across the eastern U.S. for the last 15 years and covers 1600 miles from southern New York to Alabama.

KNLT pays their staff and funds acquisitions with a combination of private dollars and funds raised through foundations. KNLT is the first Kentucky partner to team up with the Forecastle Foundation, the non-profit wing of Louisville’s Forecastle Festival, and often partners with Louisville’s Snowy Owl Foundation to promote their conservation work and underwrite events.

KNLT’s new Executive Director, Greg Abernathy, is a graduate of the first class of the University of Kentucky’s Natural Resource Conservation major. Abernathy first heard about Blanton Forest off-season on a WYSO radio program in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Years later, Abernathy found out that the preservation of the forest was due to KNLT’s efforts. While working with Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development (MACED) in 2000, Abernathy started working with the KNLT staff on projects and, naturally, they joined forces. He joined KNLT as the fourth staff member about five years ago and they have since added two more employees.

“Through the artists, we hope we can spread that love of place, love of land, and it is really an extension of Wendell Berry’s love of place, and pride of place, and connection to place. We hope through the artists’ retreats that we can create that in the artists and, through their circles, ripple their exposure and understanding of it out to a larger population, to bring people more awareness of it. We’d love to bring you down to the mountain.” – Greg Abernathy

In 2008, KNLT hosted an event in Lexington called the Tsuga Art Show, which featured performances from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Chris Sullivan, and Warren Byrom, all to raise awareness of the invasive Hemlock Woody Adelgid insect. After the event, Abernathy spoke with University of Kentucky English professor, Erik Reece, who reminded him of the writers retreats that Kentuckians For The Commonwealth used to host in the mountains.

KNLT teamed up with Reece and Transylvania University art professor, Zoe Strecker, to organize a series of retreats for artists to come down to Pine Mountain Settlement School for the weekend and have an immersive experience with KNLT in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. 2017 was the third year that KNLT invited a group down and the more than 100 attendees have come to be known as The Pine Mountain Collective. This kinship of artists have already produced extensive work together including collective art shows in Lexington and Louisville and songs about the mountain, many of which have been written and recorded for an upcoming compilation being assembled by Louisville’s Daniel Martin Moore, featuring recordings from Wendell Berry, Warren Byrom, Joan Shelley, Jim James, and a slew of others.

KNLT Artists’ Retreat, Pine Mountain ~ photo by John Lackey

In addition to the retreats and acquisitions, KNLT partners with The Explore Kentucky Initiative to create community hikes around Kentucky’s wild spaces and also hosts Wildlands Social Club events that bounce between 21C Museum Hotels in Lexington and Louisville as well as West Sixth Brewing. The events highlight ten-minute talks about why wild places are important from an art, health, economy, and conservation science perspective. In the spring, 21C Cincinnati will be hosting a Wildlands Social Club event.  If you want to know more, you can visit their website at knlt.org.

Listen to Chuck Clenney’s interview with Greg Abernathy of KNLT.

Newsletter

Breaking: Robert Mueller to be First Falcon Heavy Live Payload

On the heels of the highly successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Vehicle carrying a payload into space of a cherry red Tesla Sportster with a dummy driver, the White House today announced a series of upcoming launches by Elon Musk’s company. The program of launches, dubbed “You’re Out of This World!!”, will include the now-iconic cherry red Tesla Sportster with live humans in the drivers’ seats.

At a press briefing today, White House Press Secretary, Sara Huckabee Sanders identified Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, as the initial human payload. Huckabee Sanders explained that the ability of the SpaceX to accomplish quick turnarounds of launch vehicles made the company a desirable partner in this initiative, approved “at the highest level of government.” She anticipates that the Mueller launch might be “in a matter of weeks, if not days.”

In response to being pressed by Jim Acosta of CNN about the intent of the program, Huckabee Sanders vehemently denied that the program is intended to impede Special Counsel Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia. While admitting, in response to a follow-up question by Katy Tur of NBC News, that, “It is not anticipated that any of the human payloads will return to Earth,” she protested the news media’s propensity to frame administration initiatives in a highly negative manner. “I can’t believe that anyone would see the selection of these human payloads as anything but the highest honor that can be given to an American in this or any world,” Huckabee Sanders stated.

During the briefing, the list of subsequent payloads was distributed. Due up next for launch after Robert Mueller is Deputy Attorney General, Rob Rosenstein. That launch will be followed by one with U.S. Representative and ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, as the payload. Pornstar Stormy Daniels will be launched next because “We wanted someone from the world of entertainment.” In a somewhat surprising development, Devin Nunes, Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was listed provisionally as a launch candidate. Huckabee Sanders stated that his possible inclusion on the payload list is pending “how everything turns out.”

Huckabee Sanders also announced that the individuals launched into space would be honored during the military parade later this year, currently being planned at the highest level of the Pentagon. She stated that bringing up the rear of the parade will be a formation of cherry red driverless Tesla Sportsters, honoring “these brave Americans.” Others under consideration for future honors include Hillary Clinton and James Comey.