Sarah Siskind’s new album, Modern Appalachia, is more than a deeply affecting introspective turn. It documents the actual processing of making that turn — field notes from a journey home in a figurative and literal sense. For the North Carolina native, this homeward trek involved moving back from Nashville, where Siskind had made quite a name for herself as a successful songwriter, to her home state for the sake of family and a “simpler life.”
In the process, Siskind left the machine of Music City, where she’d not only launched her own solo career but had written for so many others— including Alison Krauss, Gabe Dixon, Randy Travis, and even 20+ cuts on the soundtrack for the TV show Nashville. Modern Appalachia chronicles the decision to move in a way that brings the listener uncomfortably close. It’s an effortless exercise to feel present with Siskind’s pain, to identify with the questions asked, to ache while wrestling with similar concerns.
If this sounds like an exceptional achievement in songwriter, it is. “Me and Now” sets the starkly personal stage, leaving listeners as mere silhouettes in an isolated room with Siskind and her need for noise. “Only God completes me and he says be still / Why is it so hard to try and see how that really feels / It’s just me and now.” The questions become even more penetrating within the same song:
I could rush into tomorrow, I could swing open my arms
I could help somebody figure out why their life is so hard
I could give them the answers so I don’t have to ask myself
Why I never really took those same things down from my shelf
It’s just me and now, it’s just me and now
On “Carolina,” which features Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on vocals, Siskind speeds things up a bit on a propulsive mid-tempo number as she plays her electric guitar. Even then, she’s still letting us discover the truths she’s unearthing in this season of making a new record.
Who you are isn’t where you’re from
But where you’re from is always close
And when you go digging in that dirt
Get ready for what you fear the most
But it’s a fine line between down to earth and underground
Some of Siskind’s reasons for moving back become clear as Modern Appalachia wears on. “Carolina” speaks to the quality of the state’s inhabitants, while “In the Mountains” is a love letter to the surrounding terrain, a place the artist feels “closer to God” and can “let her burdens go.” She’s found freedom at home, even if it also resurrects painful ghosts or forces her to mine difficult memories.
In many ways, Modern Appalachia is an enriching musical memoir, filled with applicable revelations and resonant questions that bring lasting meaning to the listener. “Things sure can change when you rearrange your heart,” she sings on “Maybe There’s Love Between Us.” Meanwhile, “Porchlight” finds a motivational rhythm as Siskind sings, “Wishing it was different doesn’t really change a thing / Push it to the limit or don’t do anything.”
Ultimately, Siskind’s search leads her to one ultimate truth: the supremacy of love. After admitting she “fell again” on “I Won’t Stop,” she plants a flag in the ground, saying, “I won’t stop loving like this / I won’t stop losing myself.” Even for the heart that’s broken, in the face of expectations dashed, Siskind offers up a personal declaration filled with hope. After such a stirring listen, it’s a gift of firm footing to stand with her and believe it, too.