Listen to tracks from my new album, May
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A Heart This Lonely0:00
Pre-order the new album from Cindy Woolf and Mark Bilyeu HERE.
Cindy Woolf and Mark Bilyeu are very pleased to announce the forthcoming release of their debut CD Wolf Hunter.
Cindy Woolf and Mark Bilyeu have been playing together for twelve years, and have been married for the last two of them. Their collaboration began when Bilyeu produced and played on Woolf’s 2005 debut CD, “Simple and Few.” He was also at the helm for Woolf’s third and most recent album, 2013’s “May.” Although they have been playing and recording together for more than a decade, Wolf Hunter marks their first recorded output as a musical duo. It will also serve as Bilyeu’s first release since Big Smith’s final album, “Kin,” released in 2011. Bilyeu was a founding member of the popular Ozarks family band, which was active from 1996 to 2012.
Wolf Hunter is a concept album, of sorts. Primarily it is a collection of traditional Ozarks folk songs, newly interpreted and arranged by Woolf and Bilyeu. The songs were chosen from the collections of two notable folklorists; that of John Quincy Wolf of Batesville, Arkansas, where Cindy grew up; and Max Hunter of Springfield, Missouri, Mark’s hometown. Wolf and Hunter’s collections share the distinction of being readily accessible to the public through websites built by dedicated individuals at Lyon College in Batesville and Missouri State University in Springfield, respectively. Here the original recordings of the contributing singers can be heard as they performed for the collectors’ reel-to-reel tape recorders, covering a time span from 1952 to 1976. Some of Woolf and Bilyeu’s sources were well-known musicians of their time, including country recording artist Jimmy Driftwood and Springfield songwriter Johnny Mullins. Others were people who sang only for their own enjoyment and for those in their community, whose voices would be forgotten if not for the work of Wolf and Hunter.
The combination of the two collectors’ last names provided a ready-made album title for Wolf Hunter; with the added benefit that the subject matter of its 16 songs includes wolves (“Can’t You Hear Them Wolves A-Howlin’”) and hunting (“Possum Song,” “Groundhog”). Although Woolf and Bilyeu’s primary criteria for choosing material was entirely aesthetic – they only chose songs and singers that they took a personal liking to – the resulting track list covers a broad range of styles and sub-genres of Ozarks folk music, including English ballads (“Old Bangum”), shape-note hymns (“French Broad), sentimental songs (“Zelma Lee”), comical songs (“Where’d You Get That Hat?), and gospel music (“Waters Roll”). Rounding out the album are two songs that are not from the Wolf or Hunter collections, but are particularly Ozarkian in their own ways – “Little Rock Rock,” a rare rockabilly gem commercially recorded in Branson, Missouri in 1961; and “Tie Hacker’s Joy,” a guitar instrumental ostensibly written by Mark’s great-great grandfather J.W. Keithley of Taney County, Missouri and passed down through his family.
Wolf Hunter was recorded at The Studio in downtown Springfield, a facility founded in 1994 by roots-rock legend Lou Whitney, bassist for The Morells and The Skeletons. Whitney passed away in October of 2014 after a brief battle with cancer, but The Studio remained open under the watch of Eric Schuchmann, Whitney’s right-hand man of eleven years. Bilyeu began working as an assistant engineer at The Studio in December, and Wolf Hunter was conceived partly as a means to insure The Studio would stay busy at a crucial time after Whitney’s passing. So Woolf and Bilyeu launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to fund the album and pay for the studio time, which with its 161 contributors exceeded the financial goal and with time to spare. The Kickstarter funds allowed Woolf and Bilyeu to afford a few luxuries, including tracking to The Studio’s two-inch analog tape machine and mixing to its vintage half-inch tape deck, techniques that have largely been abandoned since the advent of digital audio. These methods, along with the vintage microphones, compressors, and plate and spring reverbs in The Studio’s arsenal helped Schuchmann capture a recognizably warm, classic fidelity. Ultimately Wolf Hunter will be released on vinyl LPs.
Musically, the arrangements on Wolf Hunter are lean and sparse, featuring Woolf’s five-string Vega banjo (a hand me-down from her late father, George Woolf), Bilyeu’s 1946 D-18 Martin acoustic guitar (originally owned by Mark’s great-uncle Chester Bilyeu), and the upright bass playing of Jason Chapman of The Chapmans bluegrass band. The trio recorded all the basic tracks together “live” in the studio, including lead vocals, handled mostly by Woolf. Overdubs were reserved for backing vocals and an assortment of auxiliary instruments, including the mouthbow, a one-stringed folk instrument; a hunting horn fashioned by Mark’s great-grandpa Jimmy Bilyeu; and a cheerleader’s megaphone that belonged to Cindy’s grandmother. Jay Williamson, Mark’s first cousin and the percussionist for Big Smith, was brought in to add washboard to a handful of songs, bringing the final tally to four musicians appearing on the album.
Bilyeu savored the opportunity to record an album of exclusively traditional material. While Big Smith, comprised of members of one branch of one generation of the extended Bilyeu family, who are one of the better-known musical clans in the area, drew from their antecedents’ gospel harmonies and traditional fiddle music to inform a repertoire of mostly original songs, “this album is as close to something purely Ozarkian as I’ve been able to achieve,” Mark says.” Bilyeu employs alternate tunings to achieve an authentic sound. “On several songs I use an open tuning, DADF#AD for you guitar players, that my father Bob Bilyeu taught me how to use. According to him, this tuning was standard for the guitar players in the Bull Creek region of Christian and Taney counties, used by them to accompany the fiddle players of the area.” While Bilyeu has made ventures into rock and roll music in the latter days of Big Smith and in the final lineup of The Skeletons, “this album definitely marks a return to hillbilly music for me.” Likewise, Woolf’s banjo playing in these sessions brings a novel approach to these traditional songs. A relative newcomer to the banjo, Woolf trained with Bill Chapman at the Acoustic Shoppe in Springfield for about a year, who taught her the basics of the Scruggs three-finger method familiar to bluegrass players. But during the process of selecting songs for the album, “I had to adapt the three-finger style in order to be able to play the unique, sometimes modal melodies of these wild songs from the Ozarks,” Woolf says. The result is a style all her own. “A friend of mine suggested that my playing is reminiscent of Dock Boggs, the old-timey musician from the twenties. Not being familiar with his playing, I looked him up, and there are definitely similarities to the way I play. Although separated by nearly 100 years, we arrived on familiar ground somehow.” Such is the fluidity of the common language of American folk music. Living together as husband and wife has provided Bilyeu and Woolf a unique opportunity to meld their individual styles. “It required a lot of trial and error to learn the nuances of each other’s playing and find a way to make it all lock in. Luckily we live under the same roof, which gave us the luxury of time to really make the music work,” Bilyeu says. “And a lot of patience – which Cindy has in abundance – more than me. But I’m working on that.” The addition of bassist Jason Chapman rounded out the trio. “Jason is one of the smartest players I know,” Bilyeu says. “He somehow has found a way to anchor and stabilize our sometimes wily duo. Based on his twenty-plus years’ experience playing with his dad and brothers in the Chapmans, he knows just when to play behind the beat, or when to move the groove forward, and does some pretty adventurous stuff while he’s at it. His playing is the secret weapon of this album.”