Cosy Sheridan was delighted to hear that she would be playing the 1,500th Bound for Glory broadcast. So delighted, in fact, that she immediately began to write a song for the occasion. The occasion is this Sunday, January 25, between 8 and 11 p.m. in the café of Anabel Taylor Hall and also heard live on WVBR-FM.
Sheridan is known for her topical songs like “Bikini on a Billboard” from Ant Hymn (2000), about using sex to sell everything, or “Turboyeast” from Botox Tango (2003), about pesky infections. While these define her as one kind of folk musician, Sheridan is also a singer-songwriter in the classic mold that incorporates personal material into her songs, as did the entirety of her last album Pretty Bird (2008), which chronicled the end of a relationship.
Personal changes in her life have also brought Sheridan back east. Originally from Concord, N.H. and having spent her early years in the New England folk scene, Sheridan has recently moved to Massachusetts after spending 20 years in Moab, Utah.
“I love the Southwest,” she said. “I love the atmosphere of the desert, but there’s not a lot of folk music out there.” While living out west Sheridan would spend half the year on the road, going out for weeks at a time and spending a lot of time going up and down the West Coast. “Now that I am back east I get to be home more,” she said, “and that’s pleasant. I’m not 22 anymore, and touring is tiring.” She has kept her house in Moab and will return there regularly to teach guitar and songwriting workshops.
Sheridan is a finger-style guitarist and studied with Eric Schoenberg and Guy Van Duser. Van Duser pioneered the transcription of stride piano playing for the guitar. Sheridan loves the playing of Randy Newman. “I try to make my guitar sound like his playing,” she said. “A lot of his chord progressions are drawn from the ‘Great American Songbook,’ like his use of dominant 7th chords. It’s a distinctly American sound; Stephen Foster was the pioneer.”
Songwriters like Foster married traditions from American (and African-American) vernacular music to those of the European art song. It is essentially the sound of American pop music, including what is heard in Broadway musicals. As a New Englander Sheridan knows and sometimes plays fiddle tunes (on the guitar), but her tastes keep drawing her toward Southern styles like ragtime and the blues rather than string band music.
Upon her return to the Boston area Sheridan saw that the scene at changed. “It used to be that if you won a songwriting contest, everyone knew,” she said. “Now there are lots of ‘tribes with short [statistical] tails, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it [in The Tipping Point].”
The younger Boston musicians—Sheridan is 50—are also influenced by growing up with indie rock. “Looking at it from a guitar playing point of view, they are doing more strumming with their right hands, while the left hand is very versatile,” she noted. “Ragtime, for example, teaches you a lot of different rhythms [for your right hand], but indie rock has fewer variants.’
Although she has lived out west a long time, Sheridan has always returned to New England to make her albums with the same musicians. Although she was pleased to recently be told that she had something of the Southwest about her personality, she still identifies as a New Englander, retaining an ironic personality, a distinctly “Boston style” of guitar playing, and a denser lyrical approach. The “Nashville approach,” she said, leaves more room in the lines.
Her new husband, Charlie Koch, is her bass player and will appear with her this Sunday, also singing harmony. She estimates that she has played Bound for Glory five or six times since she first came to Ithaca in 1996. “I played the Cornell Folk Song Society. Phil [Shapiro] was there, and he asked me to play his show,” she recalled. “Now every time I visit Tommy and Sara Blecher have a potluck, and I feel like I’m a momentary resident of Ithaca.” •