Listening to genuine Southern musicians spin yarns and sing deeply emotional songs – some quite funny, too – is a treat on any evening. Add Lincoln’s birthday to the mix and the songs and stories take on a sharper resonance. Set all of this in an old theater that was once a church, with the occasional freight train rumbling by in the cold darkness outside, and you just might think you hear and see a ghost or two.
The old manual typewriter in the lobby was a clue that the evening would be unique. The machine was a nod to the old Granville Automatic typewriters from the late 19th century, and fans at the show who wanted to join the band’s mailing list were invited to type their contact information on paper. Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkin, the opening duo who make up the human version of Granville Automatic, are top-notch songwriters, performers and historians. Elkin, on guitar, introduced each song with a brief historical background – the woman knows her history inside and out. Most songs featured American Civil War events, battlefields and characters, or TVA dams and flooded towns, wild horses, the Battle of Little Big Horn, or stories from the American South in general. Regardless of the time or place, all were spellbinding.
A highlight from their upcoming album, An Army Without Music: Civil War Stories from Hallowed Ground, was “Grancer Harrison” about a farmer in Coffee County, Alabama, who fought in the Revolutionary War, lost four sons in the Civil War, and threw giant parties on his property every Saturday night. When he died, he was buried in a feather bed, the bed-shaped monument which still stands today. Of course, locals say they can see his ghost on certain nights under specific circumstances.
Not all songs were history lessons, evidenced by the touching “Don’t Come to Tennessee” and “Goodnight House.” But in their own words, the duo are trying to “save history, one song at a time.” They also win points for best historical quote as song title with “You Can All Go to Hell, I’m Going to Texas” as famously said by Davy Crockett before heading off to the Alamo and his death.
You could call headliners the New Agrarians a folk supergroup, as the three members (Pierce Pettis, Kate Campbell, Tom Kimmel) have extensive careers by themselves, and it was fascinating to watch their individual musical personalities weave in and out, intertwining throughout a set featuring their solo work as well as that as the New Agrarians, a majority of the selections from their latest album, Due South Co-op: Songs & Stories from the American South.
Founded on the spirit and tradition of southern music, history, place and poetry, the trio shined with close harmonies and easy banter between songs where their unique characteristics were particularly evident. Pettis lives for the music, is a master guitarist and songwriter with a gentle and soulful voice, and simply itched to get to the next song, just couldn’t wait — you could see it in his body language – but was forced to follow the more laid-back and easy pace of his bandmates. Campbell was both funny and soulful on “Funeral Food” (“We sure eat good when someone dies”) and on piano with the stirring “Look Away” from her 1999 Rosaryville album. Kimmel’s guitar work was spot-on gorgeous, his voice as supple as well-worn leather. He also provided poetic intros to some of the songs, reading selections from his collection, The Sweetest & the Meanest.
On the whole, it was a spiritual evening that began with ghosts and ended with a sort of holy trinity of folksingers: Kimmel as the head, Campbell the heart, and Pettis the hands.