Radio Heartland In-Studio Highlights from 2016

Billy Bragg, Mike Pengra and Joe Henry
Billy Bragg, Mike Pengra and Joe Henry in the Radio Heartland studio. (Luke Taylor | MPR)
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Mandolin Orange - Wildfire (Live on Radio Heartland)
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  • Mandolin Orange - Wildfire (Live on Radio Heartland) 05:42
  • Courtney Marie Andrews - Table For One (live on Radio Heartland) 02:27
  • Billy Bragg and Joe Henry - Railroad Bill (live on The Current) 02:32
  • Sarah Jarosz - Green Lights (live on Radio Heartland) 03:37
  • Mary Gauthier - Mercy Now (live in the Radio Heartland studio) 05:42

The life of a traveling musician isn't a walk in the park, which may explain why there are countless songs written about long journeys, late nights and lonely gigs in strange places. That's why I'm always amazed at how musicians can pull up the van to the door of our radio station, load their gear into our studio and perform in front of an audience of one.

That one visible person the band unfortunately sees is me, and in this past year, I had the pleasure of interviewing a bunch of singer-songwriters and their bands in our recording studio. Some musicians drove all day to get to St. Paul, Minn., in time to do the interview and then make it to the gig in time for the sound check. Some even came in the morning after the gig, did the interview and then got back in the van to head to the next city several hours away. But they all showed up and left with smiles on their faces, and that's what amazes me.

I got to do more than 30 interviews this past year, but I'd like to offer just a few highlights from Radio Heartland's most recent trip around the sun:

Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange.
Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
One of my most recent in-studio sessions was with the North Carolina-based band Mandolin Orange. Their new album, Blindfaller has been a favorite of many critics in the Americana biz this year. I've been a longtime fan of the melodic, uncomplicated duo sound of Andrew Marlin and Emily Franz, but this time through town, they brought their entire touring band to fill out the sound. | Full Session

Courtney Marie Andrews
Courtney Marie Andrews in the Radio Heartland studio. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
The first time I heard Courtney Marie Andrews, I thought I heard a Joni Mitchell-influence. Andrews confirmed that for me when she came to the studio this fall. She spent years touring as a sideperson before recording solo. But we also talked about how working as a bartender must have given her fodder for song material on her new album, Honest Life. | Full Session

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry in studio with Mike Pengra
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry in studio with Mike Pengra. (Leah Garaas | MPR)
I get a little nervous (a massive understatement) when I interview more well-known musicians, which explains why I was doing breathing exercises before I met Billy Bragg and Joe Henry. Turns out my calming exercises were a waste of my time because Bragg and Henry are two of the friendliest guys I've ever met. They were promoting their album, Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, and they talked about recording the album on a train, in train stations and alongside train tracks on a journey from Chicago to L.A. | Full Session

Sarah Jarosz in the Radio Heartland studio
Sarah Jarosz in the Radio Heartland studio. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
The Sarah Jarosz album Undercurrent has been on everybody's Top Ten list since the day it arrived. I've been a fan of hers since she was a teenager, and that was only five years ago. These days, Jarosz makes semi-regular appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, singing duos with host Chris Thile. Meanwhile, Sarah's solo work has earned her many Grammy nominations, including two for this year's release. She brought her trio into our studio in July. | Full Session

Mary Gauthier in the Radio Heartland studio
Mary Gauthier in the studio. (Nate Ryan | MPR)
I've been a fan of Mary Gauthier for a long time, and I'm not alone. She's a songwriter's songwriter, which may explain why she does almost as many songwriting workshops as concerts these days. NPR Music calls Gauthier a "Louisiana orphan addict chef turned sober troubadour." During our interview, Mary talked about how she likes to teach upcoming songwriters to "truly care about what they're sayin' … to do the same thing that a really good cook does with a really good meal." Mary's 2016 album is Trouble and Love, but she ended our interview with an old favorite, "Mercy Now," and I was literally in tears. And when I looked up at Mary, so was she. | Full Session

All of the musician interviews I do here are a team effort. Our engineering staff are the best in the business (Michael DeMark, Corey Schreppel, Cameron Wiley, Michael Osborne and Jalen Russell). Nate Ryan and Leah Garaas are responsible for the photos and video. And Luke Taylor ties a bow around all of the audio, video and writing for our online features. Thanks All!

Related Stories

  • Mandolin Orange perform in the Radio Heartland studio It seems impossible to want to improve on the sound of Mandolin Orange, but that's exactly what Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz did when the duo added more musicians to the mix. Playing songs from their new album 'Blindfaller,' Mandolin Orange stopped in to the Radio Heartland studio for a session hosted by Mike Pengra.
  • Courtney Marie Andrews performs in the Radio Heartland studio Courtney Marie Andrews' new album, 'Honest Life', contains songs influenced by regulars for whom she poured drinks at a neighborhood bar in Washington state while trying to make a living as a singer-songwriter. Now touring in support of her album, Courtney Marie Andrews found time to sing some of her songs for us in the Radio Heartland studio.
  • Billy Bragg and Joe Henry put down railroad tracks in the studio Billy Bragg and Joe Henry have just released an album of railroad songs recorded at a number of train stations between Chicago and Los Angeles. 'It's certainly not about nostalgia,' Henry says. 'This is a part of our living heritage.' Bragg and Henry stopped in to the studio to play some songs and to chat with host and producer Mike Pengra.
  • Sarah Jarosz performs in the Radio Heartland studio Following the release of her highly praised fourth album, 'Undercurrent,' Sarah Jarosz stopped in to the Radio Heartland studio to chat and to play a few tunes from her new album.
  • Mary Gauthier performs in the Radio Heartland studio Mike Pengra checked off another 'Radio Heartland Bucket List Interview' when singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier stopped in the studio. Mary's songwriting is legendary amongst her fans and peers for its honesty and grit.

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