A Week in Vermont with Anais Mitchell

On Monday, the 8th of February, I rode a chinatown bus from New York City to Boston. Anais Mitchell picked me up, and after a brief detour to Laura Cortese’s apartment to pick up my fiddle and some dirty laundry from our tour the previous week, Anais and I drove north to her house in central Vermont. I had two guitars, a fiddle, and a backpack full of recording gear with me. Our intention was to arrange and record a bunch of folk songs from the Francis James Child “English and Scottish Popular Ballads” collection.

For the record, the recording itself won’t be finished until next fall, and we’re going to do it right in a real studio, not in a cozy living room, although the crackling fire was a nice touch and I grew quite fond of Thomas the Mouse and Wolfgang, Anais’ sweet-tempered housecats. Here’s some thoughts on the week, in recap:

I. The Ballads (i caught a case of)

We’re striving to rework the lyrics just enough for audiences outside the folk-up-to-the-knee, Beowulf circuit to care and enjoy the songs without destroying their rarity of language and exoticism. There’s a push and pull between Anais and I in this regard. I seem to tend towards modernizing grammar and syntax, and she’s more inclined toward preservation, but we work and compromise well together. Our productivity has been impressive in spite of all the delicious home-cooked meals and slurps of Laphroaig. We’re rewriting and arranging a good batch of songs, including Bonnie George Campbell, Clyde Water, Geordie, King Willie’s Lady, Annachie Gordon, Captain Glen, Famous Flower of Serving Men, Courting is a Pleasure, and a few others. We definitely owe a large debt to Martin Carthy and Nic Jones for the work we’ve done so far. Their melodies and interpretations have been a starting point, as well as a benchmark for the quality of evocative singing, fierce guitar playing, and detailed attention to arrangement we’re striving for. Anais is a wonderful female vocalist, and puts a highly-personal, virtuosic stamp on these oft-recorded songs from across the Atlantic. She also helps me and my country-addled tenor find some claim on fertile territory the broad-voiced legends of British, Scottish, and Irish folk music have already settled. There’s room for well-crafted harmonies on all of these loquacious ballads, and we’re doing our best to make tuneful duets a signature of our interpretational style.

II. The Guitar (not for nerds only, although they’ll proabably find it more interesting)

When my Collings D2H got cracked up on a JetBlue redeye last fall- Calton flight case notwithstanding- I lost touch with the acoustic guitar for a while, both physically and metaphysically. Even after the repair, an miracle of cellulosic restoration performed by Pat Diburro from Exeter, NH, I was in the routine of playing mostly electric guitar. It had been years since I felt inspired by the percussive, melody-driven British acoustic sound that I fell in love with in my early 20’s. This week has been a reawakening of sorts, and i have blisters on the second and third fingers of my right hand to prove it. I’ve been working out the guitar accompaniment to these songs in a hybrid pick-and-fingers style, heavily influenced by Richard Thompson, but I’m trying to simulate the bare-finger thumb pulse that makes both Martin Carthy and Nic Jones’ guitar lines march forward with stately, austere authority. I play with a heavy, 140mm Wegen pick, and it’s always ready to strum a full chord when I want power, but resisting the urge to bash chords helps the finger-plucked notes ring with a volume that doesn’t sound wimpy in comparison. I’m learning to play in C-modal tuning (CGCGCD), which gives that harmonically ambiguous (i.e. no major or minor third) ringing-9th sound, a bit like DADGAD, but allows for a super-slack string tension that suits fingerstyle techniques on my large-bodied guitar strung with medium-gauge strings. C-modal also lets me sing in, you guessed it, C– a fine high key for my voice- without any high on the neck capo acrobatics. It’s exhilarating to get out of standard and drop-D tuning, and remember how satisfying it can be to play melody-driven guitar lines over slack, voice-like, nearly rattling drones.

III. The Meals (i’d call this section “the joy of cooking” but i’m not interested in a PBS lawsuit)

What a joy it must be to own a nice house in the country. What a joy it is to go visit a good friend who already owns one. I’m in Anais’ kitchen, looking out a double glass window into the backyard, and then deeper into 600 acres of Vermont conservation land. Three days ago I strutted into the forest on cross-country skis and nearly vomited out my calcifying heart, lungs, and liver. Most of our breaks from working on the music have either put us here in the kitchen or en-route to and from the Plainfield co-op, stocking up on more organic, locally-sourced ways to make the house smell like simmering garlic and herbs. Ahh, Vermont. Since arriving a week ago, I’ve cooked homemade beef enchiladas, wild-mushroom linguine with creme fraiche and parsley, pan roasted chicken with thyme and butter sauce, pasta puttanesca, smoked salmon with dill, fresh cream cheese, and capers, not to mention a bunch of snacks and lighter dishes. I love cooking, especially for women who like to eat and are occasionally (even often) willing to do the dishes.

IV. The Clothes (is that mud, or is it henna?)

On the drive to Vermont, I complained to Anais about my outdated, outsized, deteriorating wardrobe. My crotches needed mending, my denims were all blown out in the back and still sized for days when I ate well and exercised, my once crisp and starched shirts were flaccid, unironable, missing buttons, and the whites had faded to cloudy grey from too many warm-water combinings of the whites and colors. Back when I lived in Colorado and played guitar full-time in Great American Taxi, the favorable winds of a good-paying touring gig and low rent afforded me lots of disposable income to spend on my vices: musical instruments and gear, eating out, top-shelf liquor, skiing, and sweet clothes. When I moved to New York City two years ago, my rent shot through the roof and I didn’t have a steady gig. I had to rely on Citibank to put pizza and beer on the table, and my credit card ceased to be a one-way portal to a blissful sartorial fantasy kingdom. People in New York have a lot of money to spend on clothes, and I just can’t keep up. “I don’t even know how to dress anymore,” I lamented to Anais, and actually heard myself say aloud, “I think I need a pair of leather pants.” The opportunity was afforded to me two days later at Old Gold in Burlington, where a helpful and enthusiastic store clerk smelled my calfskin inclinations from a mile away. An hour later I was walking out of his store with a set of hand-sewn, Pakistani stretch leather trousers, waist size 28. I’m usually a 32, but “they’ll stretch, and there’s nothing worse than baggy leather,” he told me. Amen. He also got me to buy a plum-colored pair of stretch unisex cotton skinny pants, and by the end of my spree I also had some black Frye metallic-finish low cut shoes, some wax-coated Japanese-denim black and brown Postage jeans, and a threadbare T-shirt that says “I love country” with little flags, houses, and mailboxes arranged around a red-white-and-blue heart in the center. I love shopping when I travel. Store clerks in far-flung places like Burlington, Boulder, and Victoria, BC always seem to wonder why I get so excited about their merchandise. After all, I do live in Brooklyn. The truth is, I never shop in New York. It’s too huge and I’m not actually home enough to even know where to go. It’s also bloody hell expensive. I bet my leather pants would have cost double in the city. So that’s it. I manifested myself a new bought-in-Vermont wardrobe with the help of some plastic and a promotional APR. I guess I’m gonna be that guy who sings archaic songs about witches and cruel mothers and ladies who cut off their hair and pass for stout seamen and poor peasent farmboys who died for love, all while wearing the tightest, lowest-cut leather stretch pants anyone has seen since White Lion’sWhen the Children Cry” hit number one on MTV’s video countdown. I hope these ballads (and pants) start generating some serious income soon, because the 0% interest rate on my credit card is set to expire on June 1st.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top