By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Sparrows in the Bell
Red House Records
The cover of the Pines' Red House Records debut, Sparrows in the Bell, looks up into a gunmetal sky from the foot of a desolate hill. Dead trees frame the husk of a squat silo, and a low-slung house hugs the hilltop. Flip the album over, and a pale gray road stretches out toward the horizon, power lines shadowing its right side. The flip is the rub: It's as if you turned from the foot of the hill and saw what stretched out before you. The songs themselves embody much the same turn, drawing from the rich, loamy soil of the American songwriting tradition, then facing outward toward the larger world.
It's no mean feat to evoke the ghosts of the Delta, the rotting theater floorboards of the Southeast, and the windswept fields of the Middle West without sounding like rote imitators. But Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt have taken their lessons not only from their musical forebearers, but also from e.e. cummings, who wrote, "since feeling is first/whoever pays any attention/to the syntax of things/will never wholly kiss you."
"We did it in three days," says Huckfelt, speaking of the making of Sparrows in the Bell.
"Four days," interjects Ramsey. Huckfelt's shaved head, which is almost always covered with a hat—today, a fedora—rests atop a powerful frame. Ramsey is slight, and the contrast is reflected in their voices. Huckfelt's is a lonesome but round and warm tenor, Ramsey's a more hollowed-out and haunted croon.
"As live as it can be," continues Ramsey, referring to their approach in the studio. "Try to get the songs in one or two takes. Not a lot of over-thinking. For this kind of music, the performance of the song is going to be felt on the record, so we want to have that there; we don't want it to sound bored or pushed."
And it doesn't. The album feels like a giant open space—a field lit by a low and struggling sun, or the entryway of a decaying mansion lit by a single bulb—but it doesn't feel bare, thanks in large part to the considerable talent joining the pair. Bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer JT Bates have been their working rhythm section for a while now, but there are others: Ramsey's brother Alex contributed restrained but rich keyboard work, and their father, Iowa blues legend Bo Ramsey, lent his gritty electric slide work to a handful of tunes. The members of the Spaghetti Western String Co. make appearances, and at the choicest moments, ghostly, resonant female harmonies glide in courtesy of JoAnna James. Strangely enough, though, for a duo with two strong singers, the Pines don't often harmonize with each other.
"That's what Storyhill does," laughs Huckfelt, referring to Red House Records' other recent signing. "I think we tend to drift toward songs that are somewhat narrative and of a very personal nature. There's songs that we sing together on parts, but there's a sense of storytelling, which I think maybe you can lose a little bit if everybody's singing all over it."
The stories limned by the songs on Sparrows in the Bell are tales of loneliness and isolation. They borrow from the imagery of traditional folk and blues songs, but draw the metaphors out just a bit further. "I got a bird that whistles/I got a bird that sings," whispers Ramsey on "Don't Let Me Go," recalling Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway." "I got a little bitty bird/With a big broken wing," Ramsey continues, pulling the image closer into his chest and repurposing it as a line about the hurts we carry with us.
"The images and the poetry," says Huckfelt, "especially of those old folk songs: It's an endless source of relevance because you can approach it from so many angles and see it through the lens of what's going on now."
"Even where it filters through you," adds Ramsey, "and how it makes you feel and what they say. A song like 'You Are my Sunshine'—that hits a spot that can't really be done much better, and some of those old songs just hit that space, so you filter that through you."
And so, in a way, the Pines are like mediums, drawing the past through themselves and stitching a thread spun from a vast American songbook. What we today hear in these echoes of a tradition is very different from what the tradition's makers heard. Boston blues singer Paul Rishell used to talk about a line by Delta bluesman Son House that goes, "I didn't feel so bad/'Til the good old sun went down," and how he loved that House talked about the sun like a friend. It's a relationship to the natural world that we've lost touch with, and so the Pines don't dwell on it. They look up that hill and turn back toward the ribbon of rural highway.
As they sing on "Throw Me in the River," "Will you still love me, baby, even though/I will never fly? But if I could sew/I'd sew you to my side and down the road we'd go."