Sally Spring – Americana Before Its Time
Blessed with hindsight, you could easily consider the music that Sally Spring was making in the ’70s to be what’s known these days as Americana. Her 1978 album Bird sported contributions from a guitarist and a bassist who were longtime Doc Watson sidemen; string support featured fiddle, classical harp and autoharp. The album’s sound was a mix of folk, country and bluegrass; because it didn’t fit snugly into any one of those categories, Spring found it challenging to get on the radio.
But that didn’t keep her up nights. “I’d get so focused on the music that I didn’t really worry about all that stuff that much,” she recalls. “I’d press enough copies [of a record] and break even on what it cost, and then I’d sort of move on to the next thing.”
The key phrase there is “move on.” In the ’70s and on into the ’80s, Spring had addresses ranging from Los Angeles to Cape Cod, including several stays in New York City. “I’d just pick a place that I wanted to know and just move there,” she explains. “Once I had a different home base, I’d travel to cities in nearby states and perform. As far as I knew, there weren’t any ‘How To’ career books for musicians, so I just made it up as I went.”
Spring eventually settled in the Winston-Salem/Mt. Airy area of North Carolina, finding herself “drifting away from the mainstream folk-rock-pop music scene and becoming more involved in the local culture of gospel and bluegrass music,” she says. Her multi-instrumentalist husband Ted Lyons, a drummer by trade, plays inventive lead guitar in Spring’s band.
Spring found herself especially captivated by the way traditional music is so integrated into the lives of the people of central North Carolina. “There’s no separation between the stage and real life,” she observes. “Often, we sing the same music in church that we do in a festival or a cakewalk or a wedding or whatever.”
But the itch to make records didn’t drift away entirely. Going through her songbook a few years ago, Spring found a large backlog of songs she had never recorded. “I’d been wanting to work with some of my friends from the New York area like Graham Maby, James Mastro, Fred Smith, and Rich Feridum,” she recounts. “I started thinking about arranging some of the tunes to fit what I imagined these songs might be with their input.”
The results can be heard on Mockingbird, co-produced by Lyons and Chris Stamey with contributions from all the wish-listers above, as well as Caitlin Cary, Thad Cockrell, Tift Merritt, and longtime pal Gene Parsons. While spotlighting Spring’s inviting voice, the record also provides maps of where she has been and where she might have a hankering to head next. Country flourishes collide with crisp backbeats, and folk calm gives way to gospel intensity.
At the center of Mockingbird are the first-rate Spring compositions “Old Man As He Walks Out The Door” and “Blue, Blue Heaven” (the latter featuring guest guitar and vocals from Marshall Crenshaw), a pair of songs as lovely as they are instantly hummable. Anchoring the disc are two versions of the genuine Americana hymn “Hickory Wind” — a snappy electric take and an album-capping acoustic reprise, both boasting Gene Parsons on pedal steel and harmonies.
“That rich contralto just pulls you in to every song, so warm and compelling,” says Maby, who’s played bass for Joe Jackson, Joan Baez, They Might Be Giants and a host of others. “Hers is a voice that truly deserves to be heard, and I’m glad it seems that a lot of people are pricking up their ears at last.”