Session Americana has matured from a local, informal collective to a polished touring band.
By Ken Bader
Whether at an intimate pub or an outdoor festival, Session Americana turns the stage into a living room. The centerpiece is a small table with a microphone. Surrounding the table are a vintage suitcase that serves as a kick drum, an 82-year-old folding organ, a guitar, a mandolin, a mandocello, an accordion, and another instrument or two (or three). It’s been that way almost since the night in 2003 when the idea for Session Americana was hatched.
Drummer Billy Beard and singer-songwriter-guitarist Ry Cavanaugh had just finished playing together as part of a multiple band night at Toad, a small music club in Cambridge. They were waiting for the last band to show up.
We had already broken down the stage except for some microphones on stands. We were sitting at a little round table in front of the stage, waiting patiently, and we realized the last band was not coming. Ry said, ‘I got an idea.’ He jumped up on stage and pulled the microphones off the stands and duct-taped them to the tabletop. We all sat around the table, and there were other musicians there, and we just started to sing songs. I had a pair of brushes, and I remember tapping on the wall, and we just played whatever anybody could think of. People who were seated at the bar got up, turned around, and sat on the bar. It was the most intimate, powerful, amazing musical experience. We drove home together that night and thought, ‘That was cool. We should do that. We should make a band around that.’
“Before that night,” Cavanaugh recalls, “Irish music sessions, especially the ones at (local pubs) the Burren and the Druid, were already rattling around my brain.” So he contacted a few musicians to help him bring his idea to fruition. Among the first was singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Dinty Child.
I remember getting a CD from Ry, with him saying, ‘Hey, do you want to do this? Here’s a bunch of songs that may inform the thoughts on this: (Bob Dylan & The Band’s) The Basement Tapes, Ry Cooder, and other stuff.’ He said, ‘I think this should be about the sound of the voices and the instruments.’ So rather than plugging stuff in and going through amps, it’s about what do these instruments sound like? What does it sound like when you have a bunch of heads this close together, singing in harmony?
The answer: it sounded as if Cavanaugh, Beard, Child, and singer-songwriter-harmonica player Jim Fitting were born to harmonize. Their musical tastes were also simpatico. “Our shared love was country music,” says Beard. (“What Are Those Things with Big Black Wings”) “There was always a shared appreciation for song structure, lyrical concept, and melodies.”
For the next two years, Session Americana played Sundays at Toad. Child says the shows consisted of him and his bandmates “sitting around the table and singin’ some songs — lots of country stuff, just fun.” Word spread. “There’d be lines around the block at midnight outside Toad, people waiting to get in. So we started doing it more, and we moved to bigger places and more people came.”
Around that time, folksingers Bruno Green (“Shake Me Awake”) and Rose Polenzani (“Song of the Stars”) asked Session Americana to back them up on their respective albums. “That was a turning point,” says Child. “We learned that we could be more musical than we had been giving ourselves credit for and that this band had a whole different facet to it that we weren’t thinking a lot about in the beginning.”
Session Americana moved its home base from Toad to the larger Lizard Lounge where local luminaries from Kris Delmhorst
to Peter Wolf and Duke Levine
Session Americana now performs fewer covers and more original material. Five of the current lineup’s six members, including guitarist Jefferson Hamer and bassist Kimon Kirk, contributed songs to their latest album, Great Shakes. Each has a distinctive approach to writing. For example, Ry Cavanaugh cites a couple of New Englanders as inspirations.
Robert Frost is somebody I look up to. In the music world, Bill Morrissey comes to mind. There’s a kind of writing that people in New England do that sounds like the way we talk, which is what I hope to write like. The plainer the language, the cleaner it is and the less tricky it is, the better for me in terms of the way I think of myself as a writer. (“One Skinner”)
Dinty Child’s songs usually incorporate a pop sensibility, with choruses and memorable hooks (“One Good Rain”). And Jim Fitting’s songs often link to history.
Session Americana has had to adapt as its venues have gotten bigger. For example, says Fitting, “We didn’t use to write set lists. But now we do. When we play a festival, we don’t want to have any downtime. We want to know what’s coming to make sure that everything is ready to roll. So we’ve sort of morphed into that, but we always have an eye toward keeping it fun and fresh.”
That can be a challenge, but Fitting says the little round table helps. “On a big stage, we keep the distances tight and close. It’s us sitting at the table with the one mic as the focal point and everything channeling into that.”
And so Session Americana has matured from a local, informal collective to a polished touring band. As Cavanaugh admits, that evolution has been somewhat random.
This band is sort of like the Affordable Care Act in a sense that what we present now is built on happenstance or, frankly, negligence. Like when Congress and the president got together to build the ACA, they couldn’t just start from scratch. So if we were going to build the perfect Session Americana, what would we do? Well, we probably would’ve had in-ear monitors, lapel mics, and so on. We just got into it being a certain way. But in retrospect, we would go for a single-payer band.
Not that Cavanaugh is second-guessing himself. To the contrary, he believes that Session Americana has succeeded in extending the musical tradition that enthralled him when he started the band in 2003. “The Boston scene was happening,” he recalls. “Every day, you would hear something that would be inspiring. I think that a lot of people who see our group now go home thinking, ‘I want to do something like that.’”
Session Americana will perform at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, ME, on Saturday, February 25.
Ken Bader has been Senior Editor for NPR, WBUR, and WGBH.