Aissa "AJ" Lee made her bluegrass debut in a pizza place when she was just four years old. "They had to hold me up to the microphone because I was too small," she recalls. "I was so nervous. But then at the end I heard the applause, and it was just kind of magical." She's been performing ever since.
Now 13, AJ plays regularly at bluegrass festivals and with her two bands, the Tuttles With AJ Lee and OMGG (which stands for Obviously Minor Guys and a Girl). She's also traveled from her home in Tracy, California, to perform at the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual concert in Nashville, where she's played alongside other rising young bluegrass stars like Sierra Hull and Sarah Jarosz. AJ plays mandolin, fiddle, and guitar, but what sets her apart from other musical whiz kids is her surprisingly sophisticated voice: The Northern California Bluegrass Society has named her best female vocalist for two years running. AJ and I talked about stage jitters, the evolution of bluegrass, and her fallback aspiration—to be an Air Force pilot.
Here's AJ performing Gram Parson's "Hickory Wind."Even if you don't have time to read the whole interview, scroll to the end to check out her bluegrass take on Kesha's "Tik Tok."
Mother Jones: How did you get into bluegrass music?
AL: My mom and her sisters and her brothers would play music of all sorts of genres. My mom wanted to get me playing music. So she met up with some people at a pizzeria, and they had this music going on. She was like, "What's that kind of music? I've never heard that before." And she got involved in it. It turned out that I really liked that kind of music, too. It's fast and upbeat. I've just stuck with it my whole life.
Liner notes: Over a pulsing groove punctuated by synthesizers and shimmering guitars, Dominique Durand sighs, "We've got to find some time to get together/How's never?" It's one of many expressions of modern anomie on this quietly seductive album.
Behind the music: Ivy began in the mid-'90s in New York when Andy Chase (now Durand's husband) and Fountains of Wayne co-leader Adam Schlesinger persuaded the recent Parisian émigré to sing on a demo. All Hours, the trio's first album in six years, downplays their '60s pop influences to spotlight dance-friendly tunes with an '80s ambience.
Liner notes: Seemingly possessed by wild-eyed delirium, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, fashions an unstable compound of wistful synths, jittery rhythms, and woozy voices as the mood escalates from serenity to hysteria on this unsettling track.
"That was one of the craziest shows we've ever played," guffawed The Be Good Tanyas' Frazey Ford. Guitarist and lead vocalist Ford was referring to the band's recent show at the Independent in San Francisco, part of a reunion tour by the otherwise defunct Canadian neo-folk trio. On stage, one of the ladies had let slip that the band had a dirty counterpart to every song. "I didn’t know it was going to turn into a riot," added banjo/guitar player Trish Klein. "It was a fan riot. They were really, like, rabid."
The group was commemorating Blue Horse, its first album—a collection of hobo anthems and playful reflections inspired by the members' wanderlust and attraction to 1920s and 1930s American folk music. "It's like a carry-forward of history," explained Ford. "For me, it was my mom's history. I think music is energy and it kind of reappears energetically in different generations almost like ghosts."
Those ghosts left a haunted timbre on The Be Good Tanyas' music, though fans have told Klein that the show has gained a new energy since the band split up three years ago. Ford is known for eerie vocals that traipse through the air with an exaggerated vibrato. Her lyrics are often indecipherable, but a lot of people at their sold-out show knew all the words. Klein's guitar exuded the energy of a locomotive gaining speed—a bold complement to Sam Parton's mandolin and whispery vocals, which softened the effect.
As the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks arrives, we will rightfully hear much from the families of the victims and others whose lives were directly affected by the events of that day. But it's also important to reflect on the stories of those whose lives were changed by the attacks in the days, months, and years that followed. Patriot Acts, compiled and edited by Alia Malek, a civil rights lawyer and advocate for American Muslims, contains a series of particularly moving reflections. Published by Voice of Witness, a non-profit human rights organization founded by author Dave Eggers, Patriot Acts translates a collection of oral histories into a cohesive and digestible book.
Malek, a former lawyer for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, writes in the introduction, "What I saw happen in this country after 9/11, initially from my perch as a lawyer, made quite clear for me that our ignorance of the American lives and experiences of certain groups had facilitated a backlash and a slide into xenophobic and nativist behavior that betrayed the very values I had joined the DOJ to protect."
Malek included the story of Adama Bah, a Muslim woman who had immigrated to New York City from New Guinea as a child. In 2003, the federal government arrested Bah on suspicions that she was a suicide bomber and initiated deportation proceedings. The government has yet to explain or give evidence as to why they suspected that Bah was a terrorist. The day of her arrest, Bah had an epiphany: "I didn't know I wasn't American until I was sixteen and in handcuffs." During her incarceration, Bah experienced a particularly invasive check for weapons that left her devastated. "I sat at the corner of the shower and held myself and cried. I was thinking, I cannot believe what I just went through." She spent six weeks locked up at a New York area juvenile detention center before being released. At her release, Bah says that an officer at the detention center shouted at her, "Arrest that fucking nigger terrorist." Bah spent another three years under house arrest before eventually receiving asylum, allowing her to stay in America because of the likelihood of her suffering genital mutilation in her home country.
It's been a rough slog of a decade since 9/11. Hard to look back at that day and all the icky, gloomy things that followed without feeling really, really tired. May we recommend a puppy break? The somber eulogies and ponderous reflections will still be going when you get back, we promise.
There, now, doesn't that feel better? basykes/Flickr
Mel Gibson, whose been dogged by an aura of anti-Semitism since he made an anti-Semitic movie about Jesus and then made anti-Semitic remarks at a Jewish cop during a DUI arrest, is making a movie about the Maccabees, whose defeat of the Greeks is the occasion celebrated by the Jewish holiday of Hannukah.
Jeffrey Goldberg, interviewing Gibson, reveals something I didn't know about the Maccabees:
JG: The interesting thing about Judah Maccabee is that he sweeps down from the hills and he takes boys, the children of hellenized Jews, boys who aren't circumcised, and he circumcises them.
MG: Yeah, I didn't even remember all the moves he took.
Yeah, I don't remember that from Hebrew School either.
It may not seem like it can get more awkward than Gibson directing a movie about Jews, but consider this: The story of Hannukah is about a small group of determined religious fanatics defeating the occupying force of a modern, wealthy empire. It turns out the Maccabees also behaved like a Jewish version of the kind of "morality police" we see in Islamist theocracies. The Taliban are against movies of course, but if I'm not sure how you make this movie in a way that they wouldn't love otherwise.
In the 18th century, the storied British conservative Edmund Burke observed that "nine parts in ten of the whole race of mankind drudge through life." Nasar, an economist herself, profiles a long list of notables—from novelist Charles Dickens to Nobelist Amartya Sen—who have applied their prodigious intellectual talents to improving the lot of that lower 90 percent. The result is less a cohesive history than an amusing pastiche of her characters' insecurities and caprices, like Karl Marx's bastard child and Friedrich Hayek's lifelong crush on a cousin. Ultimately, she savages socialism and celebrates capitalism. Yet, like A Beautiful Mind, her best-selling bio of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, this is a lively, instructive tome. "Before 1870 economics was mostly about what you couldn't do," Nasar writes. "After 1870, it was mostly about what you could."
Revisiting the Black Power movement of the '60s and '70s through the lens of the era's Swedish journalists? It's a strange premise for a doc, but filmmaker Göran Hugo Olsson has dug up tons of old 16 mm footage, adding commentary from civil rights icons (Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte) and contemporary hip-hop artists (Erykah Badu, Questlove, Talib Kweli). Despite some great scenes—children of Black Panthers singing "pick up your guns" and Davis' moving prison interview about the Birmingham church bombing—Olsson's depiction of the struggle comes off as something you'd grudgingly watch in a high-school history class. As Badu says, "It's about the story." And this version, while informative, is rarely moving.