2019 in Folk Music: Joan Shelley and Allison Moorer Balance Nostalgia and Trauma
Two singer/songwriters at the top of their game find solace in a withering world—and truth in the long buried pastPhotos by Amber Estes Thieneman & Heidi Ross Music Features Joan Shelley
There’s a song on Joan Shelley’s new album, Like The River Loves The Sea, called “The Fading” that marries natural imagery to human memory in a way rarely heard in folk music—or any kind of music—in 2019. “I saw the river thick with mud / Break through the banks and run,” Shelley sings. “And I confess I liked it, I cheered the flood / When the waters hit the walls and won.”
Here Shelley takes delight in destruction, but elsewhere on the song, she revels in happy memories, or she at least makes the best of the bad. She says she hates to leave home, but sometimes she just needs to go. “When [the car] breaks down / Oh, babe, let’s try / To see the beauty in all the fading,” she sings. Like Haley Heynderickx did on “The Bug Collector” and Julie Byrne on her first two albums in 2014 and 2017—as well as untold legions of folk singers before them—Shelley puts a microscope to the natural world. But when she pulls away, the sentimentality of her lyrics start to spill out. Like The River Loves The Sea is a quiet study of the past and a vibrant portrait of the natural world, depicting the disasters that continually emerge from both.
Shelley recorded Like The River Loves The Sea in Iceland, a very fitting environment in which to lay down folk songs about love and the land. One of the best tracks on the album, “Coming Down For You,” features Shelley’s frequent collaborator and fellow Louisville scenester Bonnie “Prince” Billy (who also has an excellent new album out now) and twinkles with a wintry glow. The banjo steadies the beat, while electric guitar chords and a sort of songbird sound effect bristle underneath the surface.
Shelley is a native Kentuckian and has described her home as a sanctuary many times throughout her seven albums, yet again on River opener “Haven,” which promises “warm colors” and a “warm place to rest your head.” Here, however, we’re not sure if the scorched earth she so tenderly describes in the hypnotic “Coming Down For You” refers to a barren slice of Kentucky, volcanic wastelands in Iceland or just the burnt, dried-out landscape within a loved-one’s mind. One stanza in particular is worth a read:
On the plains where the burn has gone
Scarred the locust and the oak
All the flowers and the birds sing on
Of the ashes and the smoke
And if with scorched lungs you call to me
Sound the echo straight through
Up the canyons and the valleys
I will call back to you,
I’m coming down for you…
Where the water was rapidly rising on “The Fading” (a song that’s impossible to hear without thinking about climate change), Shelley revels in “the fresh air and wind and waves” on the cerulean stunner “Teal,” and the gentle instrumentals are so calming you’ll want to slip into them like the glassy shallow part of the sea. She merges the natural with the personal again on “High On The Mountain,” an ode to a past love in which Shelley recalls the graceful spray of sunshine and how it “shined over me and you.” It’s miraculous that one artist can see such danger and beauty in the same mountain range.
Another consistently riveting folk artist, the oft-country-leaning Allison Moorer, has also worked with nature and memory this year in a striking way. But unlike Shelley’s golden-flecked entries from the transcendental River, Moorer’s new album Blood is a dark deep-dive into a traumatic and very often unsettling past. Moorer was 14 when her father killed her mother and then himself in a murder-suicide, leaving Moorer and her sister to live with extended family, all of which she discussed in a recent NPR feature. Now, nearly 30 years and nine albums later, the Alabama-raised singer/songwriter is approaching the incident in a bold way, both on the album and throughout its companion memoir of the same name. On the song “Cold Cold Earth,” which originally and secretly appeared on her 2000 album The Hardest Part, Moorer describes the night when it happened. But instead of projecting the gory details or berating her abusive, alcoholic father, she molds a simple folk story. It’s not simple at all, of course, but when she opens the soft tune with the line, “The night was hot and steamy / And crickets played their tune / Everyone was sleeping / Under an August moon,” you’d never know you’re about to hear the story of a family falling apart. It’s one of the most brave and fascinating songs released this year, or in any year, for that matter.
Elsewhere on Blood, Moorer stitches memories together using natural details. A churning, stormy sky is the backdrop in a song about the struggle to communicate (“Bad Weather”). She likens mental and emotional exhaustion to a heavy slab of stone on the rootsy country number “The Rock and the Hill.” She’s dragging a weight around again on “The Ties That Bind,” a beautiful, twangy ballad in which Moorer ponders a universal question, especially for those who’ve experienced trauma: “Why do I carry what isn’t mine? / Can I take the good and leave the rest behind?” She closes the record with a piano prayer, the very appropriately titled “Heal.” “Help me lay my weapons down / Help me give the love I feel,” she sings. “Help me hold myself with kindness / And help me heal.” It’s a simple but effective plea. Blood is ultimately a story of loss, healing and redemption, but Moorer casts the trauma in such a way that the music sounds soft and welcoming. Like Shelley, she has harnessed the powers of nature and folk music.
Moorer and Shelley aren’t the only women creating classic folk scenes in their music this year. The inimitable Bedouine spends the majority of her stunning 2019 album Bird Songs of a Killjoy under the starry sky or basking in the sun, all while tracking the peaks of valleys of past relationships. Two Mountain Man singers, Molly Sarlé and Daughter of Swords (aka Alexandra Sauser-Monnig) served their stories on folk-pop platters with the release of their debut solo records, Karaoke Angel and Dawnbreaker, respectively, both of which feature nature scenes galore. Anna Tivel treads the line between darkness and light on her deftly picked love songs, and I haven’t yet even mentioned the resurgence of the Laurel Canyon folk sound, which has been popping up all over indie rock and Americana circles all year long. Perhaps most notably, Big Thief spend six charged minutes describing minute details of nature in an effort to capture the doom brought on by climate change on “Not,” easily one of the year’s best songs.
But Shelley’s album and Moorer’s album feel kindred to each other in a more specific way. These are two women, around the same age, who have been singing throughout much of their adult lives. For their most recent releases, they not only looked inward, but also out into the world, to grapple with their most vivid memories, even the most painful ones. Both Blood and Like The River Loves The Sea are essential, late-in-the-year listens for any folk fan.
Watch Joan Shelley perform in the Paste Studio in 2017, then watch Allison Moorer’s session from late last month.