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MIXTAPE: Growing Up Hardly Strictly with ISMAY

Feb 26, 2024

MIXTAPE: Growing Up Hardly Strictly with ISMAY

I consider myself to be amongst the luckiest of music lovers. Growing up, I saw some of the most incredible roots artists from backstage while holding my Jack Russell terrier and playing with my cousins. When I was 8 years old, my grandfather Warren started a free bluegrass festival in San Francisco called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. These artists shaped me since they were the first ones I watched perform, but the connection went on to become even deeper. When my grandfather passed away in 2011 I started performing music, and the larger community of Hardly Strictly was where I found my encouragers and mentors.

This is a compilation of the artists who I heard from and listened to as a child, and those whose songs I learned when I first became a musician. – ISMAY (AKA Avery Hellman)

“Dark Turn of Mind” – Gillian Welch

Just after high school I spent time working on some small homesteads with a farm labor trade for room and board. This was the same time that The Harrow & the Harvest by Gillian Welch came out – a literary masterpiece. Every time I listen to this record it reminds me of those homesteads and my borrowed car with a faulty battery. It brings me back to the day I arrived late to a new farm in West Virginia while my roommate was still sleeping and how odd it felt to be in a house with a stranger. I got up in the morning to make sourdough toast with an egg wondering what that person who was asleep in the loft of that ’80s wood cabin would think of me.

“Concrete And Barbed Wire” – Lucinda Williams

In the ’90s I was fortunate that my mom had great music taste. She took us around in a magenta suburban car and played Lucinda Williams. She said us kids used to sing along with silly accents to the words “concrete and barbed wire.” It took me another 20 years to fully appreciate Lucinda Williams and the masterful lyricist she is. Over the last four years, I’ve been working on a documentary about her, and it’s been so rewarding, because Lucinda’s music is the kind that gets better the more you know it.

“Dallas” – The Flatlanders

My grandfather was not a professional musician for most of his life, but in the final years he played in a bluegrass band with his friend Jimmie Dale Gilmore. What a kind man Jimmie is, with a voice that reminds me of a dove fluttering away. Because of this relationship he had with my grandfather, I heard about this record Jimmie made with his band The Flatlanders that was lost for 40 years. It was raw and made me feel like I was under a tin roof in Texas. It’s said that this tape helped mark the birth of alt-country.

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” – Odetta

A few years ago I was asked to perform at an event that compared and contrasted Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I’m more of a Cohen person, so I had more trouble finding a Dylan song that felt like it would fit my feel. That was when I came upon this remarkable Odetta cover and I was inspired. She changed the whole feel of the song to make it her own. In 2008, she performed at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass just two months before she passed away, it was one of the final times she ever performed.

“St. James Hospital” – Doc Watson

I know that most people know Doc for his flatpicking, but I’ve always been much more drawn to the fingerpicking style of guitar in general. “St. James Hospital” feels like a fascinating departure from the more well known Doc Watson performances, and I love hearing him playing in a less linear fashion. This shows he can do it all. In the music that I’ve recorded I sometimes feel a bit out-of-the-norm and nowhere-to-belong, but this song feels similar to one I recorded called “A Song in Praise of Sonoma Mountain.” Hearing “St. James Hospital” makes me feel less out-on-a-limb in roots music.

“Permanent” – Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan (The Milk Carton Kids)

As I started playing music I found this record by The Milk Carton Kids before they had that name, and played under Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan. Listening to this song now, it is still unreal that it was all recorded live at a concert. It was deeply inspiring to see artists like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings generating a new live sound that was somehow very modern and yet felt like a continuation of original folk music. As if the ’80s and ’90s had never happened! What a gift. Then, seeing The Milk Carton Kids take that torch and carry it on was so exciting for me as a 19 year old.

“Boulder to Birmingham” – Emmylou Harris

I listen to Emmylou every year on Sunday night at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Her silver hair and steadiness feel beyond time. I can’t believe she is still here, with that same strong presence since I was just 8 years old. As a performer she has a strong sense of worthiness to the audience, a sense of mutual respect for the relationship between listener and performer. I hope that I can hold just a bit of her steadiness within myself.

“Restless” – Alison Krauss & Union Station

I was in 6th grade and didn’t much enjoy recess out on the playground. I brought my CDs over to an empty classroom, and sat in the back listening to Alison Krauss & Union Station. Sometimes I’d show these CDs to my friends. This was before I figured out that it was cooler to be listening to rock music. But I loved that music, and the songs were amongst the first I tried to learn in singing lessons.

“The Silver Dagger” – Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show was playing at Hardly Strictly as they rose up in mainstream culture. I appreciate the edge that this recording preserves. There’s even a moment where it sounds like someone might have dropped something or hit their instrument on another (01:35). I wish more recordings kept imperfections preserved within them.

“Pretty Bird” – Hazel Dickens

Part of the reason that my grandfather started Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was because of his love of Hazel Dickens. They were from very different backgrounds, but they became friends and saw the common humanity in one another through music. She played every year until she died. This is my favorite song of hers. What is beautiful to me about Hazel’s take on bluegrass is the imperfections and raw emotion. She brought her whole self to the song.

“Harlem River Blues” – Justin Townes Earle 

I can still picture Justin on the stage with his impeccably curated suits. Back around 2018, I opened a show for him in Santa Cruz, California. He drove up to the venue in a red convertible, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. Just a guy and his ride. He was very kind to me and I wish I had more chances to see him play again. May his music never fade away.

“Tiniest Lights” – Angel Olsen 

When I was 20, I went into a record shop in Ohio. The guy there said they only really carry more obscure records. No problem, I thought, I was here for Captain Beefheart and PJ Harvey. But when I asked, he said those artists were too well known. He pointed me towards Angel Olsen and I heard something in songwriting I had never heard before. My world opened up, and I knew there was so much more that was possible after listening to “Tiniest Lights.” She performed at Hardly Strictly in 2015 and her voice was as real and penetrating as the recordings.

“If I Needed You” – Lyle Lovett

What’s better than Lyle Lovett playing a Townes Van Zandt song?? We listened to Lyle a bunch when I was a kid. No, I’m not from Texas, but I do love those Texas songwriters.

“Long Ride Home” – Patty Griffin

The first time I performed at Hardly Strictly (although somewhat tangentially) was at an artist after party. I chose this song, because it had a fun fancy guitar line I could play with my beginner fingers. Someone who was performing came up and said they thought I was talented. I think that might have changed my life right there. It was the first time anyone had come up to me and said I was good enough to do this as a job, not to mention amongst professional musicians.

“Are You Sure” – Willie Nelson

Willie played Hardly Strictly in 2003 and I remember that big black bus sitting behind the main stage. I can’t even imagine the thrill of the audience members, his fans are as dedicated as they come. I heard this song at a recently released film that is fantastic called To Leslie.

“Little Bird of Heaven” – Reeltime Travellers

This band was part of that wave of old-time style artists that came at the same time as Hardly Strictly. The vocals are so unexpected, but real and honest. One of their band members became a mentor of mine and helped me get my start in the music business and I am forever grateful.

“Essay Man” and “The Golden Palomino” – ISMAY

These are two songs from my latest release, Desert Pavement, that would never have happened if it weren’t for Hardly Strictly. I am trying to find my way with my own version of folk, and can’t help but be inspired at what a rich trove of artists I have to draw from.

Photo Credit: Aubrey Trinnaman

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MIXTAPE: Growing Up Hardly Strictly with ISMAY
MIXTAPE: Growing Up Hardly Strictly with ISMAY