If you're a music lover who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, you probably have a story about how a record saved your life, or at least got you through some dark days. If I had a dollar for every time people have told me that Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band stopped them from jumping off a bridge, I'd have lots more cash to buy CDs. While Jen Cass isn't a Morrison or a Lennon, her two CDs, including last year's Skies Burning Red, have definitely helped lift my spirits out of their postelection funk.
Cass grew up in the 'burbs of Detroit listening to Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson, but you'd be hard pressed to guess that from her music. Her voice is this grainy, sing-spoken vehicle that brings to mind the Carter Family and other sounds of the South, in a sort of pop-music high lonesome way. She's a less bluesy Lucinda Williams, a more gutsy, less melodic Mary Chapin Carpenter, and she has an emotional fire in her tone that's hard to put your finger on. But it finally hit me: it's a Michigan flavor, the midwestern twang in her singing that she's tossed into old-time country folk music and updated as a kind of pop music.
Using guitar, piano, and mandolin, Cass creates a sound that is easy on the ear and would fit onto any adult alternative radio format in the country. But she really shines as a lyricist. She mentions in her press bio that she's a fan of Jim Croce, and that makes perfect sense: like Croce, she writes tunes about small-town life and broken hearts. Whether it's a tale of the desperation of recalling a life-changing ex-lover in "A Kind of Compromise" or a lullaby to a lost friend on his wedding day in the haunting "Vagabond Heart," she sings about real hearts and real souls in a way that makes their experiences of pain and loss palpable. Her characters might be living on the streets of Tacoma or drinking their lives away in Mexico or hanging on the edge of breakdown as they drive across Canada looking for some emotional connection, but at heart all of her songs have deep roots in Michigan small-town life.
What gives Jen Cass's music the power to lift your heart from the blues is an underlying sense of hope. While her sagas of souls in struggle are bittersweet, Cass is a master at smile tunes too. "Madeleine," for instance, is a song about the life of a small child that provides the musical equivalent of a Hallmark card without the sappiness and cliché.
Jen Cass joins fellow singer-songwriters Joe Jencks and Justin Roth for an in-the-round showcase at the Ark on Thursday, December 2. She is also part of the annual Ark concert of the Ann Arbor Musicians for Peace on Sunday, December 19.