New country tradition
by James M. Manheim
"Buddy and Julie Miller, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and lots more!" reads the favorites list of vocalist Rachel Lynn of the Hummingbirds, sent to me in an e-mail. Lynn and Stephen Grant Wood, who make up this Ypsilanti duo, draw on both the classic country music and the country-themed rock currently known as Americana, and they're creating a simple, unusually close fusion of the two. Among nationally known Americana musicians, Buddy and Julie Miller come closest to defining what the Hummingbirds are doing, with their sharp lyrics, subtle guitar colors, and widely spaced male-female harmonies. Lynn and Wood cowrite most of their songs and take their time polishing new ones to perfection.
What makes the fusion work is the Hummingbirds' immersion in classic country styles. They picked a good place to immerse themselves: a bluegrass musician once asked me, on hearing that I lived in Ann Arbor, "Isn't that near Ypsilanti?" Lynn and Wood honed their chops at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse bluegrass jams and worked with some of the musicians in the orbit of the late, lamented classic country AM radio station WSDS. They can sing country harmonies with the best of them (each sings harmony when the other is singing lead), and when they dig into a lyric like "I can't get on with my life/'Cause I can't get you off my mind," you can almost convince yourself you're listening to a country duet from decades ago. Rachel Lynn's voice adds to the illusion a throaty alto with an instinct for bearing down on the pitch so as to create really cutting harmonies. It's an extraordinary instrument that you'll swear you've heard before on the radio somewhere.
But the Hummingbirds aren't mannered country revivalists wearing Nudie suits and ornate cowboy boots. Their lyrics are
fresh and full of strong emotions, and they find simple and effective ways of situating their songs in the present. One of the best
is "Cry on the Freeway," a waltz, sparsely accompanied with mandolin, about when it's "time to cry on the freeway, all the way home." "Six ninety-six is full of its tricks/Bending and winding its way through the sprawl," Wood sings. "Well, I'm screaming my head off, like a lone Rolling Stone, cryin' on the freeway, all the way home." With vivid economy, the basic barroom emotion of the classic honky-tonker is transferred to the world of younger clubhoppers.
Each Hummingbirds song is a carefully assembled unit, with sparingly applied rock guitar textures grafted onto old two-step and waltz rhythms in such a way as to highlight the idea of the song. At Top of the Park last summer, and again at Conor O'Neill's a few weeks ago, I heard the Hummingbirds expanding their range, both instrumentally and
lyrically. The TOP show showcased several of their new songs. "Nebraska Snow" is a more detailed and resonant portrait than they've done up to this point, of a woman left alone in a midwestern winter, "mixing Mai Tais in a blender, reading postcards sent from San Diego." "Where can you go in Nebraska snow, when you can't see the road up ahead?" she worries. "I don't think I can remember/A time I felt so cold."
Sooner or later, country music's audiences are going to tire of the southern-fried power ballads that rule the genre at the moment, and a sparer music is going to come to the fore. When that happens, the Hummingbirds just might have a shot at the big time; they've already forged a music that draws more creatively on country roots than that of most of their Americana counterparts. The Hummingbirds share a bill with Jo Serrapere at the Ark on Sunday, October 1; they're also at Conor O'Neill's on Thursday, October 19.
[Review published October 2006]