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Jimmy LaFave and MilkDrive featured at this year’s folk fest

It’s hard to believe that campers will begin arriving in just four short weeks to begin setting up for the 16th annual Four Corners Folk Festival, taking place Sept. 2-4 in Pagosa Springs.

This year promises to be the biggest and best festival in FolkWest’s history, with a lineup full of heavy hitters including headliners the Keb’ Mo’ Band, Los Lobos and Natalie MacMaster plus Jackie Greene, Punch Brothers, The Infamous Stringdusters, Caravan of Thieves, Chatham County Line, Cousin Harley, The Black Lillies, Anne and Pete Sibley, Joy Kills Sorrow, SHEL and this week’s featured artists: MilkDrive and Jimmy LaFave.

 Jimmy LaFave was born in Wills Point, Texas, a small town 30 miles east of Dallas. He began school down the road in Mesquite and by junior high was making music perched behind his Sears and Roebuck drum kit. It wasn’t long before his mother traded a drawer full of green stamps for his first guitar and the switch to singer-songwriter was in progress. His family later moved to Stillwater, Okla., where he finished high school. Although LaFave has lived in Austin for over 20 years, many people think of him as being from Oklahoma, because of his strong musical ties to the state and what he often refers to as its “red dirt music.” It was in this landscape that he began to define his sound and soak up a combination of his experiences among authentic songwriters from the tradition of Woody Guthrie. Before leaving Oklahoma for Austin, Jimmy did some independent recording and toured the southwest with the first version of his band, Night Tribe.

 He moved to Austin in 1986, where he continued to write songs and to develop his musical ideas. Shortly after arriving he was asked to help launch the songwriter nights at the new performance venue Chicago House. In 1988 he recorded his self–produced tape, “Highway Angels...Full Moon Rain,” which won the Austin Chronicle Reader’s Poll Tape of the Year Award. This led to a recording contract with a small independent label and allowed LaFave the opportunity to work with Bob Johnston, producer of several of LaFave’s favorite albums including Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. By 1990 LaFave had put together an Austin version of Night Tribe and had become, according to the Austin American–Statesman, “a perennial presence upon the Austin music scene.” In 1992 Jimmy released a self–produced CD, Austin Skyline, which drew international attention to his songwriting and vocal talents, and led to a publishing agreement with Polygram Music. Due to his growing popularity and radio play on more than 200 stations, Austin Skyline and its label, Bohemia Beat, received national distribution through the Rounder Record Group. His second album, “Highway Trance,” was released in 1994 followed by his third CD, “Buffalo Return to the Plains,” in 1995.

 The grass roots demand and critical acclaim for Jimmy’s music, which led to extensive touring in the United States and Europe, was recognized in 1996 when he was asked to tape a performance for the PBS musical series Austin City Limits, and was invited by Nora Guthrie to appear in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Woody Guthrie. That same year LaFave won his second consecutive Austin Music Award for Best Singer-Songwriter. His fourth CD, “Road Novel,” which was released in early 1997, received many glowing reviews. That year he was asked by Nora Guthrie to speak and perform at the induction of Woody Guthrie into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

 LaFave kicked off 1999 with the release of the CD entitled Trail, a 15 year retrospective of bootleg tapes, live performances, radio shows and studio outtakes. The double CD contains 31 tracks recorded in Texas and around the world, including 12 Dylan songs. It answered the demand of fans for a “LaFave does Dylan” CD. In the liner notes Dave Marsh noted, “Jimmy LaFave has one of America’s greatest voices, and this album is the story of what he has learned to do with it. It’s a unique instrument, with startling range and its own peculiar sense of gravity, liable to swoop in and wreck your expectations at any instant.”

 In 2001 Jimmy released “Texoma.” The CD received some of the best press of his career. The ballad “Never Is A Moment” from the album, a radio favorite, became his most requested song ever. That year, when not playing his own musical dates, Jimmy toured with a Woody Guthrie tribute project he conceived entitled Ribbon Of Highway–Endless Skyway. The show featured a rotating cast of notable musicians performing Woody’s songs interspersed with narrations from his many writings. He also appeared that year at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Jimmy serves on the Advisory Board for the festival, and has played it twelve straight years.

 In 2005 Jimmy signed with the indie label Red House Records, and released “Blue Nightfall.” This stunningly soulful album was LaFave’s first in four years, and once again received many favorable reviews. In April, Jimmy was then honored when one of his musical heroes — Bruce Springsteen — invited him on stage for a duet at his show at the Nokia Arena in Dallas. Also that month Nora Guthrie allowed him to look through the unseen lyrics from the Woody Guthrie Archives. She helped Jimmy choose 19 songs for a future “Woody” CD project, where he will co–write music for the lyrics using his own style and interpretations.

 In early 2007 “Cimarron Manifesto” was Jimmy’s second release on Red House Records. It spent several weeks at number one on the Americana music chart. Later that year Jimmy, along with recording engineer Fred Remmert and Dallas businessman Kelcy Warren, established Music Road Records. The label’s first CD release was “Ribbon Of Highway–Endless Skyway,” a two disc set from the Woody Guthrie tribute tour. Music Road also owns and operates two Texas based recording facilities — Cedar Creek Recording in Austin and Cherokee Creek Recording in the Texas hill country.

 Music Road has recently released “Favorites 1992-2001,” a compilation CD from Jimmy’s Bohemia Beat Records back catalog, complete with bonus tracks, and Jimmy is currently recording a new as yet untitled CD. LaFave will perform on the Four Corners Folk Festival’s main stage on Sunday, Sept. 4 at 3:30 p.m.

 MilkDrive, an alt-folk-progressive acoustic string band also based in Austin, Texas, released its debut studio album in April. “From Home” was produced in Nashville with Bil VornDick (Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Bob Dylan, Ralph Stanley). Fingers flying at breathtaking speed, original tunes that feel familiar at first but go beyond extraordinary, songs with themes universal but unique, heart and brains behind dynamic performances: It’s an uncompromising musical journey the members of MilkDrive are on.

 The band actually got its start in the northern climes of Idaho, where principal songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Noah Jeffries grew up playing bluegrass and gospel in his family’s band and started writing amazing tunes at age 14. The first band he put together, 36 String Swing, toured the state as Jeffries studied jazz performance at Boise State University. He also played with Jason Boland and the Stragglers for seven years. Jeffries moved to Austin and moved in with fiddling champion-mandolin player Dennis Ludiker, whom Jeffries had met long ago when both were kids competing in the National Old-time Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho – as well as the young Brian Beken, who also would ultimately join the band.

Jeffries began recording his own tunes under the name The Noah Jeffries Project and then with Ludiker, the duo trading duties on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and bass on an underground demo called BoLth on the Rampage. Soon after, Beken, a multi-instrumentalist, too, who has toured with Bruce Robison, joined the band so it could perform live.

With the addition of bass player Matt Mefford, who was in South Austin Jug Band with Ludiker and Beken, the band was complete and became MilkDrive. A year later, in June 2009, it released a live CD, “MilkDrive ‘09,” with arrangements described as impeccable and picking so fast it’s unbelievable.

 Ludiker, who has toured with Asleep at the Wheel, won the 2009 RockyGrass Mandolin Contest and holds titles as the 2010 World Fiddle Champion, 2009 and 2008 Texas State-Fiddlers Frolics and 2002 Walnut Valley Music Festival Winner. Beken was 2004 Texas Flatpick Guitar Champion. Jeffries won a Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival Jazz Guitar Competition. While awards are a great measure of technical prowess, they reveal nothing about the musical soul so palpable in MilkDrive’s music. The quartet’s sound is a textural, multi-layer mix of rhythms, tempos, flavors, harmonies and improvisation, and the confidence each member possesses comes from in-depth experience with their instrument (or instruments).

 The band has toured in Idaho, Colorado, California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah and Louisiana and, in 2010, performed at River City Roots Festival in Missoula, Mont. and Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kans. MilkDrive also has previous appearances at the 2010 Four Corners Folk Festival (where they were booked as the Sonicbids Emerging Artist) and the most recent Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass festival under their belt. MilkDrive will kick off this year’s main stage performances with a 2 p.m. set on Friday, Sept. 2.

 FolkWest is a Colorado cultural non-profit that receives financial support from the El Pomar Foundation, La Plata Electric Roundup Foundation, and the Ballantine Family Fund.

 This is the second year that the festival has gone “ticketless,” which cuts down on paper waste and protects buyers against lost or forgotten tickets. Advanced admission can only be purchased by phone or online in a simple and easy process. To purchase tickets or for additional information about the festival schedule, bands and lineup, visit the festival website at www.folkwest.com, or call (877) 472-4672, (locally 731-5582).

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