Adrienne Young & Little Sadie – The artistry of activism
There is little subtlety to the way Adrienne Young redirects the conversation a half-hour into our interview. All discussion of the day she stood on the steps of the Capitol Building and sang “America The Beautiful” for wildlife conservationists, or of the sustainable living tour she is helping to plan with the Food Routes Network, comes to an abrupt halt. “We haven’t even talked about the record once, and that’s just how it goes,” she observes. “I really think it’s a great record too. I put my freaking heart and soul into it. It’s all there.”
We’ve obviously struck a nerve. Young is wary of her activism — wholehearted as it is — overshadowing her music even for a moment. But can she conceive of doing one without the other? “No, and I’m frightened of that answer,” she admits.
Yet the creative tension between her pursuits stimulates far more verve and ingenuity than rivalry. An example: Young runs her own record label, AddieBelle, and has refashioned common notions of album packaging. Plow To The End Of The Row, her 2004 debut, came with a packet of seeds enclosed (and was nominated for the packaging design Grammy). Her 2005 follow-up The Art Of Virtue included a booklet to chart personal progress in Ben Franklin’s thirteen virtues. And part of the sales of her new album, Room To Grow, will go to the American Community Gardening Association. (“That just seemed like an obvious thing to do instead of [giving out] more stuff,” she says.)
Young plays clawhammer-style banjo and crafts a sprightly blend of folk-pop, old-time and country music, not simply because it’s what she likes or because it’s her musical inheritance, though it is both. “It was my grandfather that got me into traditional music because he had a bluegrass band,” she explains. “But he didn’t really get me started on the banjo. I was always frightened to touch the banjo. I just remember it being really tall — I was little, and it was big.”
Young also embraces roots-oriented music for its didactic qualities. “I feel like if you go back to traditional music, it was in a time when our ideals were very agrarian and were connected with the land,” she observes. When earthy imagery and rural themes emerge in her songs — the fields, pastures and tractors of the new disc’s title track, the idyllic scenery of the wistful dobro ballad “River And A Dirt Road” — they’re more than style-appropriate ornaments. They’re subtle, non-preachy reminders that it’s better to buy local produce than stuff doused in chemicals and dragged halfway around the world — and that the loss of roots is something to mourn.
“We grew up in the house that my grandfather built, and then my parents sold that house — that precious, precious home — for this godawful, overblown structure in the suburbs,” Young laments. “We had this precious thing that was multigenerational. God bless them and forgive them; they did the best that they could do with what they had to work with, but they let it go. They let this direct connection to roots go for something that, I guess, appeared to be more sophisticated.”
Young’s third album, the first she’s produced without the help of Will Kimbrough, makes use of more electrified instrumentation than before (pedal steel was the only thing plugged-in the last time around) and shows ripening in her pure, dulcet singing and already strong songwriting. “I feel like the writing has finally come to a place where it’s mirroring what I’m actually experiencing in my soul versus ‘This is a good book I read, I’ll write a song about it,'” she says. “For some reason it helps when you expose your guts.”
Young has no existing model for her holistic blend of artistry and ethics — “I can’t say that I know anybody that lives my ideal,” she says — but she’s not ready to write her own “How-To” career book just yet. “You wouldn’t want it to stop where it would stop right now. We need a different ending, and we’re getting there.”