Joan Shelley, from Louisville, is one of a group of Southern songwriters who’ve adapted Americana styles to solo or small-band performances. If you like Iron & Wine or Bonnie “Prince” Billy, you’ll likely enjoy Shelley’s show at the Ark on November 20. But even in that company, Shelley stands out: she has purified the style, making it compellingly, hauntingly minimal, and she’s done it in a unique way.
For these songwriters, and especially for Shelley, country music is an inescapable part of the cultural background. Shelley’s bio states that she “draws inspiration from traditional and traditionally minded performers from her native Kentucky, as well as those from Ireland, Scotland, and England, but she’s not a folksinger. Her disposition aligns more closely with that of say, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, or her fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall, who once explained–simply, succinctly, in a song–‘I Witness Life.'”
Shelley has that folk sound, with her voice sliding up into head tones and her songs saying what they have to say and then stopping. She has also sung and recorded with a traditional band called Maiden Radio. Yet she’s a completely contemporary figure; there isn’t a hint of musical nostalgia in what she does.
She reanimates an idea at the heart of traditional folk: she sets human emotions, most often love, against images of nature. But her lyrics are new and highly poetic (and the music on her latest album, recorded in Iceland, slides off easily into electronic atmospherics). They may also divert into a concern with the environment without becoming self-consciously political.
Try out “High on the Mountain,” from her latest album, “Like the River Loves the Sea,” where she sits looking out over fields, at vines and flowers “so entwined as you and I used to be.” As she delves deeper into the emotion, the song becomes haunting.
Shelley attracts attention as a songwriter, and Jackie Greene recorded her love song “Stay on My Shore” to great success a few years back. Her next-to-last album attracted Jeff Tweedy as a producer, and you get the feeling many people in the Americana scene are listening closely to find out what she’s up to next.
The Ark should be an especially nice place to sample her wares: she has a unique fingerpicking guitar style that hangs out on the lower strings, like Maybelle Carter’s, and the quietness of the club will let her weave her spell.