PLAINFOLK in the News...
April 20, 2006
New songs from Plainfolk
By Charlene Arsenault
When listening to Plainfolk’s latest, Past Due, it’s hard to tell what time period these songs are from, or what their origin is.
That’s a good thing for a traditional folk song. It doesn’t go back or forth — it just stands and speaks. Plainfolk’s songs are quintessential folk songs, sometimes resounding as “drinking songs,” depending on whether or not you’ve had a drink. With that notion, anything could be a drinking song. Marked by lyrics of group struggles that rest within colorfully painted historic scenes often strung with weeping strings, Plainfolk’s tunes swell into thick, harmonious sing-alongs.
“That is the folk tradition — you keep it simple,” says Charles Ball, the band’s leader. “It’s the story, not the tune.”
And Ball writes most of them. He joins Dennis Costello (vocals, guitar, banjo), John Costello (vocals, bass guitar) and Barry Sullivan (vocals, guitar, synth). For Ball, there’s enough acoustic music around where the artist talks about himself or herself. A Worcesterite, he says he can’t help but write about what surrounds him and what he hears. He was a history major in college, too, but “that was a thousand years ago.”
Ball’s timbre and delivery is reminiscent of Gordon Lightfoot, one might say, though he doesn’t necessarily second the comparison. “I couldn’t say I sound like anybody,” he says, but does add that he looks up to many of the songwriters of the ‘60s such as Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. Ball’s also a big fan of Stan Rogers and James Keelaghan.
Past Due has 10 tunes — all of them serene, gorgeous and largely local. “Blackstone Valley,” for instance, which opens the disc, was written to connect with audiences in a series of concerts in southern Worcester County. It was instantly bonding with the people in the area, and has become somewhat of an anthem for the Blackstone. Ball came across the very little-known story for “Halifax Down” while shopping for books on a family vacation in Nova Scotia. “Old Stone Walls” morphed out of ideas that stemmed from Ball’s neighbor building his stone wall and giving him a book on the history of such structures in New England. “The Last Waltz” details the building of the Quabbin Reservoir.
Admittedly, Ball is a slow songwriter. But every word, once it comes out, is for a reason.
“Since I’m sitting here in Worcester, Massachusetts,” says Ball, “I’m thinking there are great stories that are local stories and might otherwise be forgotten. If I were to move to, say, Buffalo, I’m sure there would be a wealth of stories there. The longer I live here, and the longer I live, period, these stories just present themselves. Long before people were writing things down or even before we discovered musical instruments, we were passing stories down. The way to do that is to build a theme, which I do, and put in the chorus and pound away at that theme and tell a story.”