Monday, September 23, 2013

East Nashville: Ashleigh Flynn is Smashing

Last week, the Americana Music Festival (web | Twitter) took over many of Nashville's clubs with multiple showcases of tremendously talented performers, songwriters, bands, and - with apologies to Hayes Carll - guitar slingers and hallelujah gospel singers.

Each year I consider buying a wristband, submitting a vacation request and temporarily altering my days from an 8A - 5P desk job to a 7P - 2A club hopping, music agenda. Yet each year (thus far), I eventually conclude ehhh maybe next year.

But this year, I did attend an unofficial AMF event - East X Americana. When I first saw the performer roster on Twitter, I immediately marked my calendar: Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, Kevin Gordon, Tommy Womack, Webb Wilder. Many of my favorites. Each person or group played 3 or 4 songs, and it was a great sampler of some of East Nashville's best music.
One performer with whom I wasn't familiar, however, really caught my ear: Ashleigh Flynn (web | Twitter). She was jokingly introduced by the emcee as "Todd Snider's other friend". One of her songs that really got listeners' attention at East-Centric Pavilion was Dirty Hands and Dirty Feet. When I got home Tuesday night, I went to the web to find a video, her website, Twitter, etc.

Turns out the song is included on Flynn's album released in May 2013 - A Million Stars.The record is Flynn's fourth but her first since 2008. She successfully raised enough money through Kickstarter to pool with her own cash and other funding sources to record and release it.  

A Texan by birth, she moved with family to Kentucky and Virginia. From there, she made the choice to relo to Portland, Oregon where some pretty deep roots were set. But now, she claims East Nashville as her current resting spot. The upside is all of those places surely contributed plenty of solid Americana musical influences.

The album title's and title track are tied to the cover art. The artwork of a cowgirl on a horse on a western desert of sorts before a star-draped sky was a water-color painting by her school-aged niece. In thinking about it a bit more, Flynn realized her niece had never been out west. Yet she explored the scene enough in her mind to do the painting. That artistic reality sent Flynn on a study of historical women of the west and to write songs about them.
In addition to having a tremendous voice and compelling lyrics, Flynn's band adds tremendously to each song. A steady yet not overpowering bass groove, subtle banjo - particularly on the opening track, a jazz / swing like feel with the drummer's use of brushes on many songs, etc.

The Devil Called Your Name - The tone for the album is set early with the lead-off song. The opening of the drummer's brushes on the snare and a bit of kick drum followed by the subtle but meaningful bass and guitar intros immediately gets your toes a'tappin and your chin a'groovin. Flynn lets the vibe develop for about 30 seconds before she begins singing.

Dirty Hands and Dirty Feet - The second track is the one that made me say Whoa! on Tuesday night. Hearing it live for the first time and then a second time on YouTube, I sensed a bit of Loretta Lynn in her voice. It was intentional but wasn't forced as if she was trying to BE Loretta or parody her. Perhaps Flynn reverted so some of her Southern rearing. Little did I know until a few days later her original intent was to write a song about Loretta Lynn. Instead, she went a different direction about another woman from Butcher Holler. So my hunch was on the mark ... kinda I suppose?

Prohibition Rose - Flynn wrote a song based on a true tale (allegedly - you know how songwriters can be) of a woman in Portland, Oregon who might have known a thing or two about dealing in contraband during the 1920s. With Portland known as the City of Roses, I'm also hoping there is some connection between the shrewd woman's name and the city's nickname. (For the record, Portland has a second nickname - though one less visually appealing: Stumptown.)

Stumptown's fairest queen
A denizen of the underground scene
Rosie's got the guile to get you a little high

But not a drop of hooch around
When the cops bust in like a pack of hounds
Just Rosie readin' from her Bible
With all the whiskey stashed underneath her skirt

A Million Stars - The title track is about two women who often dressed as men to ride amongst them throughout the dangerous lands of the unsettled west.
They donned chaps and 45s, on their horses sat up right
Both of them crack shots, both of them wild
Now they supply the whole territory, hauling booze to trade

New Angel In Heaven - With backing by harmony vocals, a mandolin, fiddle and dobro, the contemporary waltz-beat song of loss would fit nicely alongside the traditional songs by groups such as the Carter Family.
In the evening I hear the somber 
Song of a lone whippoorwill
Her woeful tune by the light of the moon
Sends me sorrow as I dream of you

Prove It To Me - This song is the one cover on the album. Its obscure enough, however, that Ashleigh will likely get credit for it - except that she tells the story of its origins by blues singer Ma Rainey. Knowing nothing about Ma Rainey, I learned her friend was Bessie Smith who has often been called the Queen of the Blues.

Bessie was from Chattanooga, TN where I called home for about a decade. One of my favorite annual events when living there was The Bessie Smith Strut where thousands of people of all races and from across every area of the greater Chattanooga area came together and just roamed 2-3 city blocks, ate barbecue, drank beer, laughed, and listened to a variety of music such as blues, zydeco, street performers, etc. But I digress, back to Ma Rainey's story...

A Little Low - Flynn wrote this somber, touching song as a tribute to a close friend who was killed - and whose murder remains unsolved. 
Been feelin' a little low
Ain't seen the sun in over 28 days
I've been holed up like a polecat
As winter marches into May
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The reaper came in through an unlocked door
What I know was a terrible day
And the scene showed signs of a struggle
Stole your last breath away

Walk Awhile - The record's closing track is well worth the wait. With many releases, the final song is rarely amongst the strongest. In the days of cassettes, I often thought of closing tracks as filler material to balance out the B side of the tape. That isn't the case with Walk Awhile. This one is truly a sing-along - whether it be amongst of group of folks or simply in your car with the windows down and volume cranked.

Sure, I realize this review is a bit out of sequence. The album was released last spring - and that's normally when you'd think various reviews would be written. But hey, I'm just now learning about Ashleigh Flynn in general and her (relatively) new album specifically. If you are in the same situation as me, I'd encourage you to also listen to her more.

Besides, you simply gotta love a group of songs that include words such as guile, polecat, hooch, hounds, and dirty feet.

Finally, Ashleigh Flynn gets bonus points for doing her history homework, being mentored in the ways of the road by Todd Snider, having support during the recording of the album by members of The Decemberists, and playing a kazoo on one of her songs.