On the bright side

Though they’ve graced the main stages of such prestigious venues as the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the four members of Eddie From Ohio project a dizzying enthusiasm that often froths way beyond the borders of traditional folk music.

“[It’s] contemporary folk-on-steroids,” was Sing Out!! magazine’s stab at capturing EFO’s singular energy. An apt observation — and yet the band’s sound is not quite the macho ear-punch this image suggests. Rather, their music evokes the charming optimism aimed for in children’s songs: engaging and giddy, with an easy, bubbling wit and resolute innocence.

Listening to their latest release, the double-disc Portable EFO Show (Virginia Soul Records, 1998), it’s hard not to pine for “Puff the Magic Dragon.” And indeed, the band has inspired comparisons to Peter, Paul, & Mary. However, their satiny four-part harmonies (led by Julie Murphy’s celebrated soprano) have also prompted such descriptions as “Crosby, Stills & Nash meets the Indigo Girls.”

And how do the bandmembers feel about being gelled with famous folkies? For bassist Michael Clem, at least, it’s all good. “We’re not bothered when we’re pigeonholed, because folk is a mixture of so many different types of music,” he relates. “It pulls from Celtic, African, [and] Native American music. It’s a hybrid. We’re just glad when people get our name right … no pet peeves here,” he says with a laugh, before further observing, “Folk is a four-letter word in some circles, because of the connections you have with it being mellow, heavy-handed, [like] the protest songs of the ’60s, that antidisestablishmentarianism [thing]. But we just got back from Folk Alliance in Albuquerque, where there’s a pretty good sampling of folk from around the country. I’ve found that the [contemporary-folk] scene has a pretty good mix of everything: It’s lyrically based, more than other genres. You can have a serious angle, or one more tongue-in-cheek.

“[The genre] is like a Steven Spielberg movie,” he concludes brightly: “You want to laugh, you want to cry.”

Not even unrequited love draws tears from this crew, it seems. “Thirty Second Love Affair” chronicles the hopeless relationship between an overly imaginative man and a pretty blonde he sees while idling at a traffic light. As the love-struck motorist pictures their ensuing life together, he apologizes for his naivete, pleading: “It was a 30-second one-light stand/Don’t tell my girlfriend, she would never understand.”

“Very Fine Funeral” is another of the record’s many story-songs. But this is no misery-laden dirge; the deceased protagonist is one gruesome Aunt Sarah, over whose corpse it is duly noted: “You want to know about Sarah?/Where do I begin?/She had this growth to the left of her chin/Let’s all be honest, she was ugly as sin/Nobody could recall having kissed her.”

EFO’s determined lightheartedness notwithstanding, Clem believes that any lyric-based music also contains intellectual appeal.

“There’s always going to be a market for folk, like there’s a market for baseball cards,” he posits. “Although the sonic [aspect] of folk songwriting doesn’t challenge ears, the lyrics do, and while folk doesn’t [currently] dominate the charts, people will always gravitate toward more cerebral music.”

And what does the band’s cryptic name signify? Strangely, nothing (the group is actually from Virginia). Allegedly a college nickname for drummer Eddie Hartness — bequeathed to him by an ex-girlfriend, for unclear reasons — the silly title was retained by the group , says Clem, simply because of “a lack of anything better.”

Don’t be fooled, though: Churning behind this group’s sparkling curtain is a steady game plan. Clem calls the band’s songs-in-progress “blueprints,” explaining, “Me and [guitarist] Robbie [Schaefer] are the architects of the original songs; we bring the [first drafts] to the band, and everyone adds to it.” The band’s zealous self-engineering has yielded sales of over 50,000 for each of their five albums (all independently released).

“No major label could give us a better deal than what he have now,” Clem declares. And whatever fatherly guidance the bigwigs initially offer too often gives way to heartless abandonment, he notes. New artists, says Clem, are usually among the first casualties of constant company takeovers: “This year it’s been new artist carnage, just a massacre of droppings. … Too many of our contemporaries have been burned.”

Even freedom has its limits, however. “We would love to be proved wrong [about major labels],” the bassist not-quite jokes. The band already enjoys a fervent grassroots following — “parents and kids come to our shows together, and that makes us feel good” — but despite their demographic-defying popularity, the band is not ready to take its appeal for granted.

Clem’s wish for unconverted “Edheads?”

“I would want someone to leave [their first EFO] concert feeling fulfilled … and loaded down with merchandise.”

Heartland heroine

Midwestern troubadour Carrie Newcomer’s chosen landscape is at once a personal and a social one. But even when drawing directly from her own memories, the singer/songwriter likes to feel that her words will carry mass appeal.

“My job is to move people and let them know they’re not alone, because even though I write from my own experience, I write about what we share,” she has observed.

Raised “Italian-Amish” in America’s heartland, Newcomer is naturally drawn to artists who transcend musical boundaries. A vocal fan of such genre-busters as Lyle Lovett and Allison Krauss, Newcomer herself is wont to swirl together elements of pop and country, creating a sound Rolling Stone called “rapturously tuneful.” But perhaps the ultimate praise for Newcomer’s visionary style comes from author Barbara Kingsolver. Those who cherish the resounding charm of The Bean Trees or Animal Dreams, take note: “To my mind,” asserts Kingsolver, “Carrie Newcomer is much more than a musician. She’s a poet, storyteller, snake-charmer … [a] minister of the wide-eyed gospel of hope and grace. … Who could ask for more?”

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