When you listen to John Henry and Friends, you listen to a story. The mood is set by the folksy sounds of Henry’s voice and twangy string instruments, while the scene is described by soulful lyrics.
“… These hands build cities, these hands build walls … the same hands that build churches also build bombs, to drop on those cities and tear down those walls. These hands, you claim they came from God … We are not so different you and I …”
John Henry and Friends are putting their talents into a new album, Songs of These Hands, with a collection of new and old songs that would impress the most veteran folk music listener. The sound varies in each of the seven songs, and Henry said that’s because with this new group he’s been allowed to free his inner songwriter, and let the music flow.
“What started for me within this group is this sense of differentiating, trying not to make (songs) all sound the same or have a specific sound,” Henry said. “A song or sound will hit me at the moment and I have to get it out or that song will be totally gone. With the new songs I’ve written they’ve taken on a different type of body and feel. They kind of write themselves more, I guess.”
John Henry and Friends is a collective, he explained, of musicians and friends in Fayetteville who wanted to play music they love, together. While there are regulars, he never knows exactly who he’ll be making music with. They decide simply by who’s available and what kind of show they want to put on.
“Depending on what a venue wants, we can get a whole other feel. If it’s a really low key thing we can just go with a guitar and not even plug in. If we want a big stomping thing we can get Brennan (Johnson) on his drum kit,” Henry said.
The old and new songs do have a different feel, but most fit that up-tempo, blue-grassy feel Henry and Friends are known for. And just as impressive are the heart-felt, yet cryptic lyrics Henry employs. He tries not to provide a direct meaning, but uses metaphors to allow the listener to tap into their own raw emotion.
“‘Same Old Hands’ is a perfect example. I grew up really religious and since then I have chosen my own path,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter where we think our hands come from, our hands are the same … Whether they evolved or were created, we can either do good or harm and I think it’s our choice whether we do good or harm with them.”
The album was recorded in Grandview, Mo., in about one day. Henry dubbed a harmonica solo on the song, Matthew Jacobs and Patty Steel added some vocals and harmonies, but otherwise the songs were mostly recorded with live tracking. The album is under the label Ozark Syndicate Records, with a CD release party on Dec. 28 at The Phoenix in Fayetteville. They will also be in Eureka Springs on Dec. 21 at the New Delhi Cafe. Henry said they’ll perform the album line-up and are working to add some surprises. To learn more about John Henry and Friends, and hear samples of the new album, visit www.facebook.com/JohnHenryFriends.