Two things lured me to the music of the Ypsilanti country music duo the Hummingbirds before I heard a note. One was the stark black-and-white picture on the cover of their debut CD, Depot Town. The photo of singer and rhythm guitarist Rachel Lynn and lead guitarist and vocalist Steve Wood taken on a train track reminds me of something from my mother's childhood photo album circa 1930 from the hills of eastern Tennessee. It sets a tone that, along with the band name, lets you know up front that this duo has a flair for image setting.
Fortunately, the music lives up to the image. For better or worse, everyone with a Fender guitar and a cowboy hat has jumped on the Americana train the last few years, and a lot of the resulting music is shallow and trendy and boring. The interesting thing about the Hummingbirds is that while they channel and call up the greats of the past, they have figured out it's Ann Arbor 2005 and not Nashville in the glory era of the 1950s and 1960s.
Rachel Lynn's voice recalls Rosanne Cash in its straight-ahead pop country control, but with the soft accent of someone addicted to Kitty Wells records. Cash talks about growing up on Sun Records and the Beatles, and Lynn's singing has that same mix of the past and the present. Likewise, Steve Wood's voice is one part George Jones and one part Nick Lowe. And both vocalists are smooth as Tennessee sipping whiskey.
The band has lots more to offer than just pleasant voices. Wood is probably one of the best undiscovered electric guitarists in town, and he's mastered the knack of getting a sweet, ringing twang from his Telecaster. Both Wood and Lynn are impressive songwriters, too. On a bluesy tearjerker like "The Last Time We Talked," the sense of watching someone from your past rocketing toward self-destruction is chillingly real, and even on the up-tempo "Vancouver," the snapshot of homesickness viewed from a hotel room on a cold and rainy day goes straight to the heart. The easy voices contrast with these stark emotional thunderstorms in a way that makes their darkness even more sharply felt.
I caught the band at Portofino, a cozy cafe with the same vibes I used to get listening to music at the late, lamented Gypsy Cafe. For an audience of perhaps ten people, Lynn and Wood (with Embassy Hotel Records mate John Latini — another undiscovered jewel of the local music scene — sitting in on pedal steel) played a long set of songs about cheating and sadness, empty hearts and trouble. It's the familiar stuff of classic country music, of course. But when the lyrics hit home, the two voices intertwine, and the guitar is crying away, the Hummingbirds have all it takes to become classics themselves. You better catch them in small cafes — they're at Crazy Wisdom on Friday, April 8, at Old Town on Sunday, April 24, and at Conor O'Neill's on Thursday, April 28 — while there is still time.