"Timelessness," says award-winning Southern California-based singer-songwriter Joel Rafael, "is a quality that you can't quite place, but it's about something that seems like it's always been there, and always should be there, whether it's an old house, or a mountain or a song." It aptly describes "This Is My Country," the lead track on Rafael's new album Thirteen Stories High, his first set of original material since 2000's Hopper. The disc follows up two acclaimed collections paying tribute to the music of Woody Guthrie.
An affecting and plain-spoken protest song featuring background vocals from David Crosby and Graham Nash, the cut sounds both age-old and clearly relevant to the country's current, war-weary despair. Nash said of it, "I wish I had written this song. So powerful and profound�a call from his heart to ours." For all of the different roads that all of the song's listeners may have walked, they'll be in unison with Rafael's blunt and simply worded refrain about the powers that be: "And I know when I say these words that I am not alone/It's time to stop them in their tracks/it's time to take our country back."
Rafael's lyrical directness and honest delivery reliably elevate his art with a stripped-down blend of wisdom, realism, empathy and hope. It flows effortlessly throughout Thirteen Stories High, recorded in Austin, Texas and released in 2008 on Inside Recordings, an independent label founded by Jackson Browne and his management team. As prominent music writer Dave Marsh once said, "the stories Joel Rafael tells, and the emotional spells his music weaves, have depth and beauty because they come from so deep in his heart, and pierce so deep into ours�he says his music is a 'streak' in his soul, but while you're listening, it seems more like the whole damn thing."
Of the new album's thirteen tracks, eleven are original compositions, many written over the last year or two. Among them are a paean to water ("Rivers And Rain"), a love song about checking your baggage, whatever the nature of the relationship ("Ball & Chain), and "Promised Land," which Rafael says is, "one of those travel to hell and back songs. This one came out of a dream, with images of crossing a river with angels of mercy guiding the way."
Other songs, Rafael says, were "resurrected" from older projects or long ago songwriting sessions. One revived gem is the homespun yet elegant philosophical stand-out "Time Stands Still," originally from Rafael's out-of-print '96 album Old Wood Barn. Another, "Missing Pages," has an underlying theme of resistance to fear-driven tactics that he felt was in sync with the album's underlying social justice message (as does the powerful new work "Song Of Socrates"). A third, the lilting, organic folk track "Wild Honey," was written decades ago with close friend Mark McClemore when Rafael and his wife lived in Washington's Cascade Mountains before their children were born.
Two songs on Thirteen Stories High are authored by other songwriters, including Steve Earle's "Rich Man's War," from Earle's 2004 album The Revolution Starts Now. "I always thought that was a great song about why wars are fought," says Rafael, "but I don't think it got heard that much. Thematically, it was perfect for this record." The riveting political challenge "I Ought To Know" was penned by Jack Hardy, who Rafael met in Aspen in '74 while playing an open stage at a local club. One of the forces behind the historic Fast Folk series (now in the Smithsonian), Hardy delivered a performance of the song at a Woody Guthrie Festival a few years back, and Rafael says, "I was knocked out by it and knew I wanted to record it."
Rafael himself has been a featured performer at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in the legendary artist's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma since its inception in 1998. Considered a natural and pre-eminent interpreter of Guthrie's music, Rafael is also a member of the national touring cast of the celebrated Guthrie revue Ribbon Of Highway, Endless Skyway and, prior to recording Thirteen Stories High, he released two albums honoring Guthrie's songs.
The first, Woodeye, was released on Inside in 2002, followed by Woodyboye in 2oo5. Respectively subtitled The Songs of Woody Guthrie, Volume 1 and Volume 2, the albums together encompass Rafael's graceful and authentic takes on twenty-four Guthrie - and two Guthrie-inspired - compositions. The Northwest's respected non-profit Victory Music foundation wrote, "Rafael is a beautiful, honest-sounding singer, and gives these songs an honest shove - there's no reverent, deferential holding back." Rolling Stone, in its review of Woodyboye, noted, "Don't miss the moving version of Guthrie's 'Stepstone,' which finds Rafael sharing vocal duties with Jackson Browne and another Guthrie admirer by the name of Arlo."
A handful of the songs feature previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics for which Rafael composed the music. The lyrics were entrusted to Rafael by Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie, who directs the Woody Guthrie Archives and oversees the use of her father's legacy of written and illustrated works. Among these collaborative treasures are "Dance A Little Longer" on Woodeye and "Ramblin' Reckless Hobo," "Dance Around My Atom Fire" and "Love Thyself" from Woodyboye. On the latter album, Rafael also covers a similar effort by Billy Bragg, putting music to Guthrie's words on "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key" (another of Joel's takes on this song is included on a 2001 FolkScene compilation album as well).
Born in Chicago in the American heartland, Joel Rafael came west to Southern California as a young boy. Except for a brief period in the Pacific Northwest, he has lived there his entire life, now dwelling for almost three decades in a small ranch house in the rustic coastal foothills of Northern San Diego County. A love for music was always central to his being, and it was the folk movement of the 1960s that, early on, spurred him onto a path to eventually make it himself. He took inspiration from artists including Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joan Baez and scores of others who potently mixed music and message during a time of sweeping social change.
Over the years, Rafael has chronicled his life in song with literacy, horse sense and unvarnished emotional resonance, releasing three albums of original material prior to Thirteen Stories High. He has toured extensively, both solo and with the Joel Rafael Band (featuring his daughter Jamaica on violin), performed as a duo with Rosie Flores, and opened shows for artists including Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Lee Hooker, Sheryl Crow, Laura Nyro, Taj Mahal and Emmylou Harris. In 1995, he was recognized with the esteemed Kerrville Folk Festival's "New Folk Emerging Songwriter Award."
Whether telling his own tales or wrapping his artistry around the songs of Woody Guthrie and others, Joel Rafael mixes traditional folk idioms with contemporary ideas and sensibilities in a way that both transcends the moment and is fully present in it. Just call it timeless.