WPA members playing the Calvin show:
In 1934, the United States was on the backend of the Great Depression. The country’s morale wasted away in a dustbowl of hardship and dwelled in cardboard dwellings just outside of Hooverville. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the New Deal, in effect turning the country around with community activism. Millions of people were put to work making buildings, bridges, theater, art and music. Drawing on the motif of depression era public works programs, Works Progress Administration (WPA) cooperates with the same variety of grassroots fervor.
As a self-titled “expandable collective,” WPA began as friendly collaboration among artists, who call themselves “board members,” from all over the country, bluegrass and rock n’ roll scenes. Its three principal songwriters include Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket and Luke Bella of the Lyle Lovett band. Bringing a wide assortment of instrument texture to their songs are talented artists such as Sebastian Steinberg from Soul Coughing and Jerry Roe from Michelle Branch’s band.
Yet, Works Progress Administration is not a sum of its parts. Phillips states that when he writes songs he expects them to be full of quality in themselves—what he calls “portable songs.” He intends that their music could be translated to a ukulele and still retain the song’s original meaning. This is accomplished in WPA’s tight songwriting, many of which contemplate what it is to love and lose. Phillips hits the chord of mixed emotions with songs such as “Wedding or a Wake,” which sets the pain of losing love against never having love at all.
The Americana blend of pop and twang known as country music has always been defined by its heartbreak. The combination of fiddle and steel guitar seem to make the perfect canvas on which to spread thick layers of failed relationships and empty dreams. However, with a broad mix of bluegrass and pop elements, Works Progress Administration does not stick strictly to a Nashville sound. With talented fiddlers such as Luke Bella, WPA represents the best of the folk and country tradition and has treasures in store for both new fans and established fans of Nickel Creek and Toad the Wet Sprocket.
- Ryan Alons