Mercer & Johnson + Cindy Woolf & Mark Bilyeu

Mercer & Johnson

Mercer and Johnson are Brock Johnson and s.mercer. The duo put their first recordings online for free in June of 2010. They immediately took off to find places that would let them play, as often as possible. Logging thousands of downloads and well over 100,000 miles, the pair has continued to record and tour.

The band has shared stages with, or opened for established acts and up and comers like... Billy Joe Shaver, Hayes Carll, Sara Watkins, the Turnpike Troubadors, Robbie Fulks, Mike McClure, Mountain Sprout, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices and the Ben Miller Band. They quickly found out nobody in the business cares who you’ve opened for.

The band uses a mix of traditional string-band instrumentation on their recordings, to craft songs that vary in origin from traditional style ballads and up tempo numbers, to songs influenced by singer-songwriters and modern indie rock.

Live, the two feature mostly mandolin and bass in a stomping shouting manner that people find enjoyable, yet puzzling. The puzzle is the mandolin, which they often mistake for a wide variety of other instruments.

The two have released several recordings, an out of print cd e.p. called “Oregano", the digital-only release “Road Noise" and an initial release available only on this website, that was untitled.

In the summer of 2012, they made the short hop to Independence, Mo and in less than 48 hours recorded 10 songs with Johnny Kenepaske of Adam Lee and the Dead Horse Sound Company. The self- titled recording was released in January of 2013.

In early November of 2013 Mercer and Johnson went to Lafayette LA and did 4 songs in a private top secret location, to be
released in early 2014. They continue to tour as often as possible.

Cindy Woolf & Mark Bilyeu

Cindy Woolf’s voice, once you hear it, is not one you are likely to forget. Do not think for a minute that the rural accent that comes through her high, crystal-clear tone is contrived. Cindy Woolf was born in North Little Rock, but spent most of her formative years in Batesville, Arkansas. She grew up singing with her family in church, learning to sing harmony by ear and absorbing her daddy’s bluegrass records. 3 Apples High, a punk band she formed with two girlfriends in high school, didn’t last long, but certainly demonstrated that there was more to this budding musician than hymns. After moving to Springfield, Missouri to attend college she started playing a weekly gig downtown at the Bar Next Door, singing bluegrass standards and singer-songwriter standouts and getting noticed by her musical peers, among them producer/guitarist Mark Bilyeu, who encouraged her to record an album of original material. After relocating to Portland, Oregon, she returned to Springfield for two weeks to do just that, resulting in the 10 originals and two covers on her debut CD Simple and Few. Cindy kept the recording sessions sparse and largely acoustic, drawing help from friends and label mates including Bilyeu (Big Smith), Reed Herron (Speakeasy), David Wilson (Radio Flyer), Dave Harp (Arkamo Rangers), Dallas Jones, Brandon Moore and Molly Healey (Moore-Healey). She ventured beyond the traditional sounds that earned her reputation to put forth her more gentle and atmospheric songs that would sit comfortably next to your Iron and Wine LPs or even your old Sundays CDs. The inspiration for songs like the sisterly “Dearest Pearl” hearkens back not only to her native Arkansas but also a couple of generations, with pieces of lyrics directly transcribed from her grandmother’s diary. Simple and Few does boast some bluegrass-flavored standouts, including Cindy’s own “Nobody’s Wife.” But whether the songs are informed by the traditional, ethereal or surreal makes no difference. A sense of authenticity surrounds this young new artist, and it rings through, clear as a bell, on Simple and Few.

As part of the Ozarks family band Big Smith, Mark Bilyeu has served as de facto front man for the band of five cousins, although songwriting and lead vocal duties have always been divided between his brother and cousins. Big Smith has released 5 CDs: two studio recordings of original material, two live CDs (one in a church, the other in a bar) and a celebrated double CD for kids. Since 1996, Big Smith has toured extensively, exposing many thousands to Bilyeu’s guitar playing, singing and songwriting.
In January of 2005 Bilyeu began working on an album of his own. Recorded at Route 1 Recording in southern Mississippi, First One Free finds Bilyeu moving from the primarily acoustic hillbilly-bluegrass sound of Big Smith to something more akin to country-folk-rock (choose what ever hyphenated term you like). He enlists some well-known Mississippi musicians to back him up in the studio, including guitarist Cary Hudson (ex-Blue Mountain, now touring solo), drummer Ted Gainey (Blue Mountain, Kudzu Kings, Cary Hudson trio), and lap steel guitarist Max Williams (Taylor Grocery Band, Thacker Mountain Radio). Likewise the album reflects the distinctly southern country and blues influences of its players. To keep a taste of home, yet another of Bilyeu’s cousins, Bill Thomas, plays bass guitar and sings backup on the record. The sessions were relaxed and easy. Bilyeu not only was able to stretch out on the electric guitar, trading licks with his mentor and guitar hero Hudson, but also explored new territory on the piano and Hammond organ. To recreate the sounds of First One Free on the road, Bilyeu has enlisted the talents of Thomas and two other musicians from his native Springfield, Missouri: keyboardist Joe Terry (Dave Alvin, Robbie Fulks, The Skeletons) and drummer John Anderson (Barefoot Revolution, The Osmonds). The versatility and virtuosity of these new musicians will certainly push the music into new and exciting directions on stage.

Noah Earle

The jubilee is a season for celebration, an occasion for the freeing of slaves, or a song about deliverance from tribulation. It's a time to memorialize the mixed bag of events that led to the present, looking toward a future that holds no small measure of promise. It's precisely this spirit of hopeful revelry that permeates the tone of Noah Earle's newest release, This is the Jubilee, available April 13th on Mayapple Records.

"My parents always said I was born smiling," says Earle, as he demonstrates that very expression. Despite this reputed natural sunniness, Earle has been known to delve into the dark side of human nature and experience. Both of Earle's previous albums, Six Ways to Sunday (self-released, 2004) and Postcards from Home (Mayapple Records, 2007) found him digging up the roots of his family's musical traditions, along with the detritus of human frailty and hardship. Kelly Knauer of Time Life Books likens the songs on Postcards to "an MRI scan of a troubled brain, or a seismograph of a really bad day in Mr. Richter's world." "As a songwriter," says Knauer, "Earle is a brilliant documentarian, a Ken Burns of the ordinary, a chronicler of American life who turns his unrelenting gaze on small conflicts rather than epic battles." Jubilee, by contrast, finds Noah using his own voice to express a love of life that is contagious to the listener, while avoiding heavy-handed sentimentality and without ignoring the gritty reality that lurks in the shadows.

Indeed, This is the Jubilee stops short of heralding a golden era in which all wrongs are righted and past wounds forgotten. In fact, Earle freely explores such themes as love and loss, religious intolerance, and the end of the world in this collection of songs. Its unmistakable message, however, is that life is worth living despite its vicissitudes. The titular jubilee is not only a proclamation of this fact, but of Earle's having come into his own as a songwriter and musician. "It's strange…I stand by my other records and music I've made in the past as having been sincere and authentically me, but in some ways I feel like I'm just now finding my own direction," he says, "and it's really about time."

Earle was born in Topeka, Kansas, "a good place to dig potatoes." Surrounded by a musical family, he absorbed various strains of influence. His musical involvement began in early childhood when he would listen to the traditional country and country-gospel music that his family would play and sing at their gatherings. When asked about this period, Earle says "I was too shy to sit in the circle with the grown-ups, so I'd hang out in the corner and follow along quietly with my little nylon-stringed mariachi guitar." Between the ages of about 5 and 18 he underwent classical training for piano, voice and violin, and was also exposed to blues and jazz by his dad and another uncle, both of whom performed in a number of bands. By the age of 7 or 8, he had decided that he wanted to write songs, like his uncle and grandfather.

"I really value the Midwestern musical roots that my family gave me as well as the music I discovered on my own" Earle observes, "but I guess the challenge for any songwriter is forging something original that's still solidly rooted and pays due homage to one's forbears. That was my intention with Jubilee…I wanted the earnest joy and clarity that I feel at this time in my life, musically and otherwise, to come through in the music without thumbing my nose or flying any flags."

This ethic is also reflected in the album's production, for which Earle decided to take the reins himself. The instrumentation was recorded in 6 different places, with varying levels of input from the songwriter. "I wanted so many people to be a part of this record who I could never have gotten into one room," he says, "and thanks to the wonders of technology and a few good ears, we were able to get them all on there and still make it sound human."

For the painstaking task of editing and mixing tracks from so many locations into a cohesive whole, Noah called upon veteran recording engineer and central Missouri musical icon Pete Szkolka. "Pete and I spent so many hours together hammering this thing into shape, and my little boy was there for every bit of it, sleeping through endless playbacks or crawling around and trying to pull on all the cables attached to the soundboard. In short, he was indispensable to the whole process," jokes Earle.

Once the editing and mixing were done, Noah sent the tracks off to Brad Sarno in St. Louis, MO, who has a solid regional reputation for the warmth and immediacy of his analog masters. "We could have tweaked the mixes for another year and I wouldn't have been any happier with them, besides getting tired of the songs themselves. Once everything was in Brad's capable hands, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was really pleased with the job he did, and I consider it a good sign that these songs are still fun for me to play."

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Mercer & Johnson + Cindy Woolf & Mark Bilyeu with Noah Earle

Saturday, August 24 · Doors 8:30 PM / Show 9:30 PM at Mojo's