Session Americana is a rather lofty name for a bunch of musicians who got their start jamming around a cocktail table in Cambridge. And these vets treat the concept right, broadening “Americana” to stretch from plucky folk songs to chilling blues, all the while enjoying a bit of abandon that belies the craftsmanship of their latest release, “Love and Dirt.”
Ry Cavanaugh, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist who helped launch Session Americana a decade ago, says the ensemble this time was spurred to make a record when news came that producer Paul Q. Kolderie was closing his Camp Street recording studio in Cambridge (site of the original Fort Apache studio, which gained fame for its output of classic alt-rock records). Both the band and many of its members individually had worked extensively with Kolderie and didn’t want to miss a shot for one more go-round.
Cavanaugh recalls a conversation with drummer Billy Beard, another Session Americana founder.
“Billy asked, ‘What are we going to record?’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry,’ ” Cavanaugh says, still getting a laugh from the looseness of the plan.
For this outing, Session Americana had a main cast of harmonica player, singer and songwriter (and an original Fort Apache crew member) Jim Fitting, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Dinty Child, and bassist Jon Bistline along with Cavanaugh and Beard. And as per usual, the project involved a bunch of guests from the Boston singer-songwriter and folk communities, including original Session bassist Kimon Kirk, mandolin player Jimmy Ryan, and fiddle player Laura Cortese.
“Love and Dirt” is out now, and the group celebrates the release with a show Thursday at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.
The material cooked up for the Camp Street sessions gets at the overall expanse of “Love and Dirt.” There’s the sinister, lusty blues of Fitting’s “Making Hay,” something his old band Treat Her Right could have cut with Kolderie back in the mid ’80s, and the sweet folk-pop of Child’s “Down to You,” and Cavanaugh’s politico-thriller love song “Barbed Wire” that unfurls like a short story.
The ensemble built the other half of the record at Dimension Sound in Boston, and tracks from there mirror the varied approach taken at Camp Street. “Raking Through the Ashes” is a contemplative soul searcher boasting a contemporary edge cut with rustic twang; “Beauty’s in the Eye” is rousing bar rocker; “Easier” has a gentle country lilt; and the proverbial hearth gets stoked with a cover of Amy Correia’s “Love Changes Everything.”
“Love and Dirt” rolls away from the old-timey folk that Session Americana cut on its earliest records and performed hootenanny style during its formative years at Toad and Lizard Lounge. But Fitting says it’s all just natural progression. The more Session Americana became a “band” than a concept, the more it wanted its own tunes.
“This is just the way it went,” Fitting says. “We needed the live show to have some more kick. And I also felt like writing more.”
Fitting notes the many personnel transitions that Session Americana underwent between its last studio release, 2009’s “Diving for Gold,” and “Love and Dirt,” sizing up change as part of the group’s identity and not as a problem.
“Now I think we’re a collective, but more comfortable with that concept,” he says. “That’s how we could show up at Camp Street with some songs but no plan and then finish with Matt Malikowski (at Dimension Sound). Its just about feeling comfortable.”
So comfortable that in the case of Cavanaugh’s poetic “Easier,” the song was learned in the studio, and arrived minus a bridge.
But there’s a balance between not overthinking and keeping things tight. Cavanaugh says that not only having strong writers within the ensemble but also being part of a larger songwriting community maintains high standards for Session Americana.
“Words are something we usually don’t work on together, but if something is going too long or not sounding right, we’ll send the writer home with some ideas to think about. That’s the real value of living in this community. We’re all inspired by each other, and we all push each other,” says Cavanaugh, though admits it’s still tough to hear suggestions for revisions.
Yet for what Cavanaugh half-jokingly describes as a “terrible process,” Session Americana comes up with some gems, full of folk’s honesty and rock’s urgency.
“We wrote more mature material,” says Cavanaugh, when asked about his ode to being married, “Raking Through the Ashes.” “All that angst doesn’t just belong to young love.”
“Love and Dirt” conjures its liveliness simply by letting the players roam.
“Why not rock?” Cavanaugh asks. “Everyone comes from something different. Jim and Billy are steeped in rock, so just let that work into what we do now.”
“Love and Dirt” is certainly a different sounding record from Session Americana’s earlier hoedowns committed to tape, but not in a musically schizophrenic way. Instead, Session Americana has simply been broadening and building its sound, responding to circumstances as much as plotting a destiny.
“It’s not a typical blueprint for what works,” Fitting says. “But we enjoy it.”