The country song as short story
Seattleite Zoe Muth has drawn comparisons to Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells, the great female vocalists of country's honky-tonk era. The music she makes with her band, the Lost High Rollers, is quiet and sparse, like that of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and her voice somewhat resembles that of another wonderful singer-songwriter who employed classic country models, Iris DeMent. These comparisons might get you in the door when Muth appears at the Ark on July 7, but they're not the whole story or even its main part. Muth isn't really trying to re-create anything, and she's using musical models from the past in a whole new way.
The attraction of the classic country song of the 1950s and 1960s lies partly in its compactness, its success in infusing real feeling into simple patterns of verse, bridge, and chorus, rarely more than three minutes long in all. Muth's songs, by contrast, start at three-and-a-half minutes and run up to seven or eight. Often they announce their subject matter with a plain, almost trite image and then fill out, in some detail, the space it creates. Many of Muth's songs are short stories written in the language of country music.
"New Mexico," from Muth's fine new album, Starlight Hotel, is a portrait of a young woman waiting tables, on the run from a failed relationship. Stanzas accompanied by a slow shuffle beat and a pair of acoustic guitars offer a leisurely, rather hypnotic picture of her life, but her emotions intensify at an impressively controlled pace as the song develops. "I don't want to be slavin' my life away if it's just to pay for all the things that I never knew quite how to say," Muth's narrator sings. Many of her lines are like that: not fitting into fixed rhyme schemes but spinning out a long sentence with simple words and internal rhymes. The song concludes with this: "Dirty old blackbird landed on my window sill. I didn't
want him to leave, so I sat there, watching him, perfectly still. And when he finally flew ... I asked him to put a hole in the morning sky that I could pass right on through."
You might conclude that Muth has more in common with so-called dirty minimalist fiction than with Loretta Lynn, but the country music component is critical to its narrative ebb and flow. Her portraits are punctuated with concise images that rely on wordplay or on the unexpected manipulation of figures of speech: "Knock that chip off your shoulder into your heart of stone to start a spark, because I need some way to see in the dark," Muth sings in "Before the Night Is Gone." Love with its negotiations and failures is the primary topic. And country provides the lyric devices for shorter Muth songs, some of them humorous, like "You Only Believe Me When I'm Lying." Alternative country's young revivalists can tend toward mannerism, but there's not a bit of it in Muth's music. She takes the country song into new territory.
[Originally published in July, 2011.]