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Benjamin Dakota Rogers Filters Old Folk Stories Through TikTok on Paint Horse

Benjamin Dakota Rogers lives in a barn apartment on his family’s farm in small town Canada. It’s right nearby his brother’s blacksmith studio. His style of music and the era many of his lyrics take place in sound like they’d be right at home in a barn near a blacksmith. That’s part of why I was shocked to learn that Rogers chose most of the tracks for his album based on how well they did on TikTok. 

“A lot of the songs on the record, as weird as this sounds, I whittled down on TikTok,” said Rogers. “I did this experiment last year where I posted every day on TikTok and it’s been really great for my career and really informative on writing songs. If that one went viral, people want to hear that one or people are connecting with that.”

That’s how he opted to include a cover of “Blackjack County Chain” on his album, a song that was once banned from the radio out of fear that it would encourage violence against police. It’s a well-chosen cover because it fits the theme and era the album strives for and shows just how closely Rogers’ originals resemble folk music of old.

By and large, TikTok got it right. Rogers’ voice sounds like a slightly unhinged Amos Lee and the stories populating his album are often violent, dark, and dramatic. It’s a real throwback to a time when mainstream folk music sounded a lot more like this.

“I think the first folk songs were written in more violent times, so people were writing what they knew,” Rogers said. “I think now people who write those things are influenced by those stories. I think violent stories are easily contained within a three minute song.”

“Charlie Boy” is one of the strongest examples. Charlie murders a groom on his wedding day after being lied to by his bride and despite those around him trying to calm his temper. It’s tragic to see what a little manipulation does to what seems like a relatively simple man. It’s also another example of how Rogers places only men in the crosshairs of his characters.

“The conflict in the stories, especially for the era that I’m writing in, works better with two guys fighting,” Rogers explained, noting that many of his stories take place between 1850 and 1920.

For all the old-time energy Paint Horse gives off, and for all that TikTok contributed to the selection of the music, it’s one song that breaks both those rules that comes out sounding the strongest. “Arlo” tells the story of a widowed truck driver doing his best to stay afloat after his farm went under. The ‘cancerous’ growth of suburban development is something Rogers can relate to.

“I spend a lot of night outside and I was noticing that you could see the glow from lights from subdivisions coming up over the trees on our property,” Rogers said of his farm.

Though TikTok crowds didn’t go wild for the sad tale, Rogers included it because of the way he felt playing it.

“It’s the only song that didn’t have TikTok success, but I think that people who aren’t on TikTok might connect with it,” Rogers said, explaining that songs like Arlo are easier to play live because he feels them in his gut.

I’d have to agree with his gut. Arlo may not fit perfectly with the rest of the album, but a top notch sad song that hopelessly rages against the way things have become is timeless in a way few other songs can be.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Benjamin Dakota Rogers and the songs we discussed, starting with Charlie Boy, which leads to an inevitable tragic ending. The interview begins afterward. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit and for more.

Posted in On Air, Uncategorized

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Gaby Moreno Delivers Hope in Surreal Times on Alegoría

Gaby Moreno sings only three and a half songs in English on her album Alegoría, but I’ve always concerned myself with quality over quantity. What I can understand is brilliant, with a songs capturing the bizarre daydream that the pandemic became, a yearning, apologetic love song, and an intelligent ode to conflict resolution.

Til Waking Light, the song performed half in both English and Spanish, discusses the importance of togetherness during times of uncertainty. As things get worse in the world outside, dreams and love serve as a beautiful place to hide. It’s a standout for its operatic intensity and the incredibly long note Moreno holds out at the end.

“I was trying to hold it as long as I could to get the message across,” Moreno said after I asked her if she knew how long she was able to sing on one breath. “It’s a note that I’m holding because I’m in pain, because I’m just devastated. I not thinking in terms of setting any records, it’s just what I felt in the moment”

On Lost On A Cloud, another track that draws hope out of a dark situation, Moreno directly addresses the pandemic. She employs Chris Thile for mandolin and harmony and uses high, dreamy sounds to capture the feeling of suddenly having nothing but free time. Instead of acknowledging the dread going on outside, Moreno urges her quarantine partner to recapture the freedom of youth and grants permission for them to enjoy themselves while they can’t go anywhere else.

“It’s definitely very surreal, especially when you know the whole world is at a standstill with you,” Moreno reminisced. “It was weird but I think it was also good for someone like me who had been in constant movement and always going on some tour. It felt nice to just be home and try out some new things that I hadn’t before. I think it kept me grounded and was some form of meditation to be in the kitchen cooking.”

Moreno found herself struggling to stay hopeful but found strength in trying to live one day at a time.

“If you tried thinking about the future, I think that made a lot of people insane,” she said. Moreno didn’t have much luck writing new songs, but she worked on producing and writing a score for a film. She also said her constant daydreaming was helpful.

The first track on the album, Nobody’s Wrong, is a plea for compromise and sanity when divisions arise, but Moreno says it strictly applies to some situations, mainly in personal relationships. The song, after all, stresses that ‘sometimes’ nobody’s wrong. 

“It’s not to say that nobody’s wrong always,” Moreno clarified. “There are certain circumstances where both points of view are valid and you need to let it go. I’m definitely not talking about politics. There is definitely a lot of wrong there. But for other things, life is too short for fussing and fighting.”

It’s a key distinction that elevates the song from a typical modern era effort to bridge intractable gaps about whose existence is valid into a measured salve for the little things that seem big. Moreno’s attitude can best be explained by her living in another period of instability in her home country.

“Growing up in a country like Guatemala where there’s so much conflict, politically speaking, it’s something you just have to learn to live with,” she explained. “I basically grew up not being able to go out into the streets or use public transportation. This is something that really affects me- affected me. When I got here to LA, whenever there’s conflict, I just go into my little cocoon.”

Moreno has turned her childhood in Guatemala into something incredibly positive. She became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, literally the first for her country, in February 2020. She attended a ceremony there and visited some rural villages.

“I was really eager to do more things with them and get to work, and then lockdown happened,” Moreno said. But she still found an interesting way to help. “I recorded a song to talk about the importance of staying home and they distributed that video to really remote parts of Guatemala where they don’t even have internet.”

She also went on to record an education children’s album in Spanish to distribute to Guatemalans and to benefit their country. I’ve included a track that features Moreno’s niece on lead vocals in the video section below.

“Anything that I can do to give back to my country, I’m gonna go for it,” Moreno said. “I feel super honored that I was given this title of Goodwill Ambassador, but for me even more important is the actual work. Through me, through my platform, they can reach more people.”

It’s albums like this that make me wish I was better at learning languages. I’ve always been better at searching for the deeper meaning behind words in my native English than memorizing the literal meaning of words I can’t grasp the connotations of. Based on the English lyrics and Moreno’s translation of the end of Til Waking Light, it’s clear I’m missing out on a lot of that deep meaning I seek. Based on the melody and emotion behind the vocals, I’d have to recommend Soñar Otra Vez out of the songs in Spanish. I’m sure that since Moreno wrote it, there has to be something powerful there.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Moreno and the songs we discussed, starting with Lost On A Cloud, which really does sound like I’d imagine a cloud should. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit and for more.

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Violet Bell Deconstructs Myth and Autonomy for the Modern Listener

The Scottish myth of the selkie tells of a people of the sea who dress in seal skins. In one version of that story, a selkie woman is bound by magical forces to go home with a lonely fisherman when he steals her skin, trapping her in human form. On the album Shapeshifter, folk duo Violet Bell decided to examine the myth from a modern perspective. Their endeavor was well timed.

“It just happened to align with a lot of things that are going on in the world,” lead singer Lizzy Ross said. “The day we released (lead single) Fisherman’s Daughter was the day Roe vs. Wade was called back. This whole story is about bodily autonomy and it’s about getting to feel like you can be who you are in your body. It’s the idea of being empowered and having personal agency. And right now, those things are literally about to be on the ballot.”

The selkie and her unfamiliarity with the ways of controlling men make her an excellent stand in for young women in a modern context. Her path to escape or recourse is just as complicated and laden with danger as a human woman’s might be if she were involved with an abusive man. The drastic consequences for her moment of naked carelessness are just as painful and arbitrary as the consequences the Supreme Court majority would have a human woman face for doing the same, regardless of the circumstances. The fisherman, too, is a great representation of the type of man who sees his loneliness as a valid reason to take control of a woman or the type of voter who takes their fear and transforms it into an assault on the rights of those seeking to live by a different set of values. 

“I think this story has been medicine for people who have felt captured in one way or another by a cultural construct,” Ross said.

When the two central characters argue on “I Am A Wolf,” the selkie’s fierce desire for freedom and a return home are on full display. The fisherman comes across as a monster in the song as the selkie sings about the way his gaze affects her and how the kidnapping has made her want to resort to violence.

That’s part of why I found myself struck by how much Ross and Ruiz-Lopez extend their sympathy to the fisherman. His loneliness also merits their concern, even after he’s gone and committed a kidnapping. 

“He’s not just a villain,” Ross said. “To me he’s an expression of this force of fear that makes people feel like they have to steal in order to get what they need. That they have to be in control to be safe. That they could be unlovable. You realize that he’s coming from a place of an impoverished and fear-based existence.”

Personally, I can’t get past his actions. There’s a proper way to go about dealing with loneliness, and then there’s kidnapping. “Mortal Like Me” shows that he’s haunted by his actions, but it seems insufficient. She’s still a captive, her skin is still tied to a rock at the bottom of the sea, and now there’s a daughter involved. That certainly implies sexual assault. 

In a similar way, I struggle to get past the actions of the forces the fisherman stands in for. I could feel for their fear if they were not using it as a weapon against more vulnerable populations. Omar Ruiz-Lopez, the other half of Violet Bell, gave a historical example that was quite relevant to his experience.

“I think of my indigenous ancestors in Latin America who had voices, had a language, and now Spanish is the predominant language, the language of the oppressor,” he said. “What stories have we lost? What knowledge have we lost through control of the other? I think we’re not getting the whole story of humanity and it’s painful to feel and witness”

“We don’t even know what we’ve lost,” Ross added. “The consequences are often quiet. The culture at large may not acknowledge those harms, but we do experience the deeper consequence of that loss.”

“It perpetuates fear and trauma,” Ruiz-Lopez said. “It’s hard to heal when you’re divided.”

Ultimately, the selkie offers to take the fisherman back to the sea with her. While I interpreted it as revenge or drowning, Ross said that mixed in with that threat is a genuine invitation to her world.

“The selkie is saying ‘let me invite you out of this paradigm that is so terrible for you.” Ross explained. ‘Let me invite you into this much richer and deeper world where you may not have as much control  and you may not have the safety and clarity of your containers and categories, but you’re going to be so enriched and fed.”

There may be able to be a happy ending for the selkie and fisherman, at least insofar as the fisherman represents a fearful part of the self and not an actual kidnapper.

“What would it look like if the fisherman was able to find that love inside himself instead of capturing a selkie?” Ross wondered.

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Lizzy and Omar and the songs we discussed, starting with Fish to Catch, which introduces the fisherman character. It’s also worth noting that their music is absolutely gorgeous. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit and for more.

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Andrew Duhon’s Words of Wisdom on Emerald Blue

Andrew Duhon has traveled the world as a folk singer and he’s learned a lot in doing so. He’s learned to trust less in money, that he’s more of a human being/citizen of the world than a person tied to a particular country, and the importance of learning to slow down and enjoy the moment. These aren’t things he’s been taught per se, just some things he’s picked up from experience. Drawing wisdom from experience has always been who Andrew is.

As a child in Catholic school, Duhon learned about the beauty and validity of religious plurality by coloring in a picture of Jesus. No, really. Each child created an image of Christ with different colors and patterns. They all went up on the wall and they were all considered valid. “None of them would be right or wrong, we would just learn from what we interpreted,” Duhon said. “Perhaps that is the most important lesson Catholic school ever taught me. Unintended, likely. Certainly unintended.”

He has since rejected the dogma of religion and decided to focus on what makes people similar. Our differences are important, sure, but it’s more important to focus on unity, Duhon argues. Stories like this give me tremendous hope for the future. No matter what nationalism and intolerance is hurled at children, some of them are going to notice a small detail and learn the right thing anyway. It’s especially beautiful if they’re unlocking truths most adults can’t grasp just by looking at the pages of a coloring book.

Andrew Duhon’s album is called Emerald Blue. The rest of the album features standouts like “Slow Down,” which Duhon quite literally slows down for the final chorus. In taking his own advice, he creates a memorable track and a minute’s worth of a sweet slow jam. “Emerald Blue” and “Down From the Mountain” follow in the great tradition of American roots music in that they use the beauty of the natural world to portray an emotion.

“Down From the Mountain” especially works as reentry to the world following the pandemic lockdown. Duhon, a resident of New Orleans, told me he’s looking to get a cabin in the mountains of the Northeast or Pacific Northwest to escape to during the summer and just sit back and fish. It seems that even for a musician who travels the world, there’s a desire to climb back up the mountain from time to time and ‘slow down.’

Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Andrew Duhon and the songs we discussed, starting with the first half of our interview. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit and for more.

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Sunny Sweeney Hands Country Music Fans a Real Prize with Trophy

Just about every song has multiple layers and meaning on Trophy, the latest from Sunny Sweeney, which turns name calling, regrets, and even gossip into country gems.

Trophy is the fourth record and second independent release for Sweeney, who became a Texas country favorite with 2014’s Provoked. The album’s title comes from a track that turns an attempted insult into an opportunity to brag. Sweeney delivers the lyrics with a taunting swagger: “Yeah, he’s got a trophy now/For putting up with you.”

“I heard that one of my husband’s exes was calling me names and I thought it would be funny to write a song about it instead of getting mad,” Sweeney said in a phone conversation for the March 20th episode of Country Pocket.

Sweeney teamed up with the influential Lori McKenna on that track and three others, including the uncharacteristically sentimental “Grow Old With Me,” which covers Sweeney’s relationship with her second husband.

“I don’t ever have love songs, but I really liked that one for some reason.”

Sweeney is one of the few songwriters who regularly acknowledges in her music that her husband is not her first.

“I think people don’t want to talk about their first relationships failing. They kind of pretend that it didn’t happen, but it did, and you wouldn’t be where you are if it didn’t.”

Sweeney captures the same energy as she did on her Texas radio number one hit “Bad Girl Phase” with “Better Bad Idea,” a rare song made better by a lack of detail. Wine and weed are specifically mentioned, but for the most part, the singer is only playing up her potential to be wild and challenging her companion to come up with the details. It’s as much a statement of rebellion as it is an over the top act of seduction.

“Unsaid” also leaves a few words out for emotional impact, this time while conveying the pain of being on bad terms with someone who unexpectedly passes away. The first three lines mention church bells and headlights in describing a funeral procession. We hear about a name written in stone early on, but the word “heaven” doesn’t appear until after the second refrain. It’s a strong indicator that the singer is struggling to accept the death, just as the decision to end the song by leaving out the third note of a repeated three-note guitar part had the effect of conveying the suddenness of the tragedy. It’s also Sweeney’s strongest vocal to date.

“Pass the Pain” and the Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay penned “Pills” play around with the idea of judgment and self-awareness in satisfying ways. “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” which came from Sweeney’s move to New York City, is most notable for its fiddle work and the impressive rhyme scheme of perspective/respect is/Texas. The Jerry Jeff Walker cover “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” uses the title as a great double entendre.

“I’ve always wanted to record that song. I think it’s one of the greatest country songs ever written.” Sweeney said of the cover song.

“Bottle By My Bed” takes on even more meanings. The risky track is on its face about wanting a child, but also about reaching a new stage of maturity. Underneath is a feeling that perhaps a deeper, more heartbreaking problem exists for the singer. She says she only calls her husband baby “because I like the word” and describes watching the news at night alone with some beers while he suggests waiting to have a child. Her friends are all busy raising kids, so it’s easy to get the sense the singer feels little in the way of support and companionship.

It’s hard to imagine this review isn’t missing at least one layer of meaning on even the songs described in depth. As enjoyable as these songs are to listen to, Trophy is an album best thought about deeply and played repeatedly. Sweeney’s songwriting will undoubtedly hold up to that level of examination.