Grunge what? This is a twang town.
I’ve been covering the Seattle music scene for all of three years, which isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things. But, in that time, I’ve watched the local roots scene go from a vibrant cult-like world that migrated from living room to living room, rural church hall to hick bar in BFE, and has quickly emerged as the very characteristic of Northwest music. Maybe it was SubPop’s signing of Iron & Wine – building a bridge between our urban outpost and the rural south. Perhaps it was the emergent indie cred of folks like the Fleet Foxes and Laura Veirs (who actually left town toward the beginning of my tenure and moved to Portland, where she and her boyfriend/producer Tucker Martine have played no small part in nourishing a fiddle-and-banjo-driven music scene to outshine that of the Emerald City). Maybe it was the acknowledgment that a kid from Maple Valley named Brandi Carlile, who had been busting it in dive bars for years, inked a deal with Columbia and made a record with T Bone Burnett. (Burnett’s stamp on the Seattle scene, indeed, is no small feat. Particularly in circles that form around this kind of music, whatever it is.)
I’ve written several features for Sound (the regional music magazine) highlighting the emergence of important members of our local music scene – from the Foxes to labelmate Sera Cahoone, the Ballard Avenue bluegrass obsession, the farmer’s market old time string band habit, the gaggle of classic country-influenced ladies at the core of Seattle’s rural sentimentality. Each time, I’ve asked the artists why they think this small town style of music is happening in this large town hell-bent on indie rock influence. Each time, they’ve told me it beats them, it’s irrelevant; they’re just playing music that comes naturally.
Typical of my life, in the past week I’ve taken in a ton of local music. I started with Neko Case at the Paramount Theater. To be fair, that was over a week ago, but it was a terrific kickoff to what’s about to be a summer of compulsive live music consumption. I commented on Case’s long-time-coming rising star already, but I’d like to add that her influence on the local music scene – proof, on some small level, that this alt-country stuff can not only be believed beyond Ballard Avenue, but can give Seattle a reputation for churning out the good kind – has certainly had an impact on the fearlessness with which local roots artists are unloading their work on the world at large. If they haven’t been directly influenced by Case’s craft, the critics and industry folks who seek them out and tell the world they matter certainly have.
On a night of stark contrast, Tuesday I bused out to Fremont Abbey – a non-profit arts community center in the “center of the universe” – to catch a handful of singer-songwriters who are as yet fairly unknown beyond the stretch of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver, B.C. I’ve covered the emergent import of Star Anna quite a bit this year, so I spent some time chatting with her manager Dave and guitarist Justin Davis. We were joined by Brad Zeffren (Hurricane Chaser), who produced Star’s most recent record (which can be streamed at teaser length on her website, but I’d recommend just buying the darn thing; trust me). Soon Gary Westlake, who plays lead guitar in Kristen Ward’s band, popped by, as did Ian Moore. These are all folks who have been making music together in some form for years, but this year is their year. Not only will they all be featured in the No Depression Festival all-star revue next month, but the community they’ve been singing with has grown large enough to hold sway.
Inside, as they swapped songs (along with Mark Pickerel, who will also be part of our Seattle roots all-star revue at ND Fest next month, and Bob Copeland), I realized again, for the Nth time in recent months, that there’s something happening here. We are at that moment in time where the optimum confluence of individuals and artistic consensus has converged on Seattle. It can no longer be denied – Seattle’s sound now wears cowboy boots and the subtlest indication of twang.
This realization was reinforced on Thursday night, as I stood in the dank and divey Sunset Tavern watching first local-born Shane Tutmarc (holy crap – how have I missed him all this time?) and his eight-piece band swing the hell out of that stage. Then came native Texan Jack Wilson, who moved here from Austin to make a living as a musician. Folks back home probably shook their heads when Wilson told them that, but his feeling that Seattle was a place with things happening, musically, was spot on. After seven months on the road, Wilson – thickly bearded and tighter with his guitar than I’ve ever seen him – delivered an exquisite set, giving way to his “favorite band” Widower…
What does it take to authoritatively say a town’s music scene has crossed over from community to force? As a locally focused, community-obsessed musician myself – honestly, I see these folks as much as peers and colleagues as I do “sources,” a fact I’m fairly confident my editor would frown upon but I never claimed to be a traditional journalist in the first place, so whatever – I have hesitated to make the call official thus far. But I’ve found the truth exists whether or not anyone chooses to recognize it. So I’m just going to recognize it. We’ve got something going on out here. Something with such reliable consistency as to be trusted, which isn’t to say that any artist who claims to be from the Seattle scene will necessarily be good, but the bar has indeed been permanently raised as far as this kind of music is concerned in this town. Seattle’s alt-punk-indie-country-Americana-twang is no longer a peripheral animal for bar owners to pull in as an opener when someone from Texas or Tennessee is in town.
On Saturday, I capped off my week of local music at the Triple Door, where Brandi Carlile enthralled her audience for darn near two hours – no opener – playing mostly songs from an album not due til September, as well as Johnny Cash and Beatles covers. (She and the boys peppered their lengthy “fake encore” with “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison Blues” before closing altogether with a terrific turn on “Let It Be.”)
It made sense, somehow, to close my week out with what was, supposedly (although nobody was really fooled by the hilariously fake listing Carlile and crew put on the venue’s website), a secret show by a local artist who’s managed to leave a lasting impression on the national scene; an artist whom, when I first happened upon her, I struggled to find a genre into which I could comfortably lump her. At the time (a year or two before I became Sound‘s Roots Correspondent), it seemed implausible that this rogue group of rootsy artists whose work had been so piquing my interest could manage to grow into a formidable community of path-forgers. But, in a town whose cannon contains a roots music payload as versatile as Case and Carlile, the Fleet Foxes and Star Anna, Tutmarc and Wilson, and everyone else I saw blow minds in the past week, it would be silly to ignore it any longer.