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The Top 10 Folk Songs Of 2009, From Folk Alley

Compiling a Top 10 list of the year's best songs for Folk Alley is difficult, because the stream offers listeners the chance to wear so many different hats. Overall, the choices were made based on quality of composition, originality, arrangement, performance, use of poetic device and production. But each hour of our stream is built around more than just the typical folksinger. We also include Americana, bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, blues and world music, as well as pure instrumentalists. So, while care was taken to create an all-encompassing list, only so much can fit into a mere 10 songs. With that in mind, songwriters still prevailed -- probably because there are so many of them.

Click here for more entries in our Best Music of 2009 series.

1. Jorma Kaukonen

Musical historians often refer to Jorma Kaukonen's solo album Quah of 30 years ago as his best. Sometimes it's hard to compete with your own press. Kaukonen's latest album is solid and the title track is not only catchy; it's a revelation. He puts his own life in perspective, remembering his parents and grandparents and willingly admitting that he'll be a memory one day, as well. We all realize our own mortality, but seldom do we come to grips with it. Kaukonen's acceptance will get you thinking about it, and you may find yourself admiring him for doing so.

2. Nanci Griffith

In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were married -- or at least they tried to apply for a marriage license. The Commonwealth of Virginia shot them down because Richard was white and Mildred was black. A landmark case ensued (Loving vs. Virginia) in 1967, voiding all laws against interracial marriage. Nanci Griffith's testimony not only raises awareness, but also celebrates one couple's struggle for everyone. June 12 is now "Loving Day." How ironic that the couple's last name says it all.

3. Sarah Jarosz

At the age of 17, while still in high school in Texas, Sarah Jarosz ended up getting a moment on the Telluride Bluegrass Festival stage with all the greats playing behind her. Her debut album shines with memorable songs and a super cast that includes Chris Thile, Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and others. "Song up in Her Head" is a deeply poetic reflection on the time and space that separates people. Producer Tim O'Brien raves about her delivery above all. There's nothing contrived here.

4. Bryan Sutton and Friends

Guitar whiz Bryan Sutton has many high-profile friends on this album, including the remaining members of Hot Rize: Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick and Nick Forester. When Charles Sawtelle died, Sutton was the choice to fill his shoes when the group did the occasional reunion. In this song, Sutton joins them again and carefully takes a backup role, and the memories are likely to jump out of your head as the song jumps out of your CD player. Hot Rize had that John Coltrane style of tension and release, except it played bluegrass.

5. Levon Helm

Producer Larry Campbell really amped up this new album from Levon Helm, with well-chosen songs, a big band (this song has a full horn section) and power harmonies from Amy Helm (Levon's daughter) and Teresa Williams. This song reaches out over the table and slaps you in the face. We are free, aren’t we? Though it's been many years since emancipation, the hard feelings of oppression don't quiet easily. Helm boldly questions whether society is really fair to all. Considering that Helm was told at once point that he'd never talk again, it's great to hear him sing a message like this in full voice.

6. John Gorka

As shy as he is in person, when John Gorka sings, his strong, clear voice bellows out with confidence. His words are always clear and impeccably edited and his messages pointed. In this song, Gorka discusses what many of us are born into in America. Despite our economic struggles, most of us have it pretty good, but most of us have no idea what our ancestors went through so we could have it so nice. Practically poking us with a stick, Gorka raises questions about our blind acceptance of being born into such comfort.

7. Dala

Imagine a little boy who's unable to go outside. Instead, he constantly stands at the window and watches horses in a pasture across the street as they playfully run as fast as they can. He imagines he is one of them. This touching song is not only based on a true story, but it's also beautifully sung by Amada Walther and Sheila Carabine of Dala. The two began singing together in high school in Toronto. They decided to pursue their talents, and you're bound to hear more from them; they began appearing in the U.S. for the first time this year.

8. Elvis Costello

Famed English rocker Elvis Costello re-creates one of his older songs acoustically on an album produced by T Bone Burnett. Costello's earnest crooning style is unchanged, love it or hate it, but the instruments surrounding him are indeed different. Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Mike Compton (mandolin) join Burnett's subtle electric guitar. The song describes standing at the graveside of someone who took the law into his own hands; here, as everywhere, justice is always more complicated than a trigger.

9. Steep Canyon Rangers

This song is a sideways step for Steep Canyon Rangers, a fast-rising, power-driven bluegrass band from Asheville, N.C. It's a beautiful and sparse thank-you to nature, specifically to the high mountains of western North Carolina. Featuring the bluesy Nicky Sanders on fiddle (think Scotty Stoneman), singer Woody Platt confidently beckons the mountains to greet him and offer him the sanctity that's always there when needed. If you already know what Platt is talking about, you'll start making plans for a trip to Appalachia -- or any mountain range, for that matter. Until you leave, just play this song over and over again.

10. Red Stick Ramblers

Folk Alley opens its doors to many different styles and heritages, but in this song, we can offer two for one. This Cajun/old-time combination will draw a wry smile from those familiar with both, and ought to compel you to your feet even if you don't know what you're dancing to. The song offers old-time fiddle and banjo, but set to a Cajun beat, complete with triangle, and is sung in old French. Linzay Young came up with this combination, but the entire band is eclectic, also playing Western swing, honky-tonk and ballads, often with double fiddles and always with flair.

Copyright 2009 WKSU

Jim Blum
Jim Blum has been sharing his love of folk music as a radio host on WKSU-FM for more than 25 years and, since 2003, also on FolkAlley.com. Blum graduated with a B.A. from Kent State University, played bass in a bluegrass and swing band and used to be a landscaper. As host and music programmer for Folk Alley and WKSU's weekend folk music, Blum has nearly three decades of experience broadcasting to a folk community that is now, thanks to the Internet, global in scope. His broadcasts include his own mix of musical influences featuring classic folk heroes, acoustic instrumentals, world rhythms, contemporary singer/songwriters, Americana, bluegrass and other roots-based sounds. He also acts as a valuable resource for area venue owners and concert coordinators as well as holding the position of artistic director for the Kent State Folk Festival, the nation's second oldest folk fest held on a college campus.