Zoe Speaks is the duo of Mitch Barrett and Carla Gover, who are married and were inspired in naming their musical partnership by their older daughter’s first words. Both grew up in rural eastern Kentucky, left, and came back wanting to reconnect with the family musical lore floating around in their heads. They began touring in a van with their two daughters, whom they homeschooled (or vanschooled). If it’s a good sign for a marriage that the partners come to resemble each other physically a bit, theirs should be long and happy.

They call themselves “contemporary Appalachian singer-songwriters,” but for them a singer-songwriter is not necessarily an interpreter of his or her own songs but simply a performer who places equal emphasis on the two arts. The music of Zoe Speaks draws equally from traditional material the two partners learned from their families and from modern compositions, mostly their own. They play mandolin, clawhammer banjo, and hammered dulcimer along with guitar, and their songs are interspersed with storytelling and clogging. But along with these traditional arts come songs musically distant from the ballads and old gospel pieces they have inherited. They write folk portraits of migrants to the North, songs with rock beats, and even a terrific truck-stop waitress song, “Viola,” with a calypso beat.

The mixture of new and old material is unusual enough in a time when traditional music is mostly the province of specialists, but what’s really uncanny about Zoe Speaks is the way they’ve made traditional songs their own and woven them into a presentation that’s essentially contemporary and personal. They don’t imitate old-time vocal timbres; they sing in natural, conversational voices, with every word crystal clear. And their harmony singing seems to suggest some kind of close communication between two people.

Though the music they perform is quite diverse, it all comes together under the umbrella of their own experiences. Folk songs sound as though they might have been written yesterday. And when they modify one to comment on a contemporary issue (“Shady Grove” has added lyrics that recast it as the story of an interracial relationship), it seems the most natural thing in the world.

There’s quite a buzz around these unassuming musicians: they’ve performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and they recently headed to Louisiana to record with the influential roots music producer Dirk Powell. The Green Wood Coffee House is an ideally intimate venue for Zoe Speaks, much more so than the Kennedy Center. They’re performing at the Green Wood on Friday, April 21.

[Review published April 2006]