Keeping It Close to Home: Appalachian-Influenced Music with a Modern Twist: Zoe Speaks

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In 1997, Steve Earle, depressed by the second Clinton inaugural, wrote a song pleading with Woody Guthrie to "rise again somehow." While, by all reports, the dirt over Guthrie's grave remains undisturbed, it could be that the Great Okie's spirit heeded the call because the last decade has seen a resurgence of American roots music that aims to afflict the comfortable and inspire the afflicted.

Two of the folks Guthrie's ghost may have visited are Carla Gover and Mirth Barrett, the singing and songwriting heart of the Berea, Kentucky, folk-country group Zoe Speaks. You probably haven't heard of them yet. But where I park my truck, they are local heroes. And their new disc, Drop in the Bucket, could bring them the wider audience they deserve.

With upright bass player Owen Reynolds, Gover (on banjo) and Barrett (on guitar) travel up and down both coasts (and the Appalachian range) playing the folk circuit and peddling their two previous CDs Pearl and Birds Fly South.

From the beginning, Zoe Speaks' sound has been a blend of the traditional and the contemporary. Barrett and Gover, who met at a music festival in 1996 and married two years later, are natives of the Eastern Kentucky mountains and have chosen to take their stand there. But they are not preservationists; they are 21st-century songwriter-performers. In their music, clawhammer banjo lies down with Caribbean rhythms, and traditional ballads stand alongside contemporary social comment.

Sometimes the fusion is literal. On an earlier album they rewrote a traditional mountain tune, "Shady Grove," with verses about an interracial romance. But most of the time it is seamless and natural. On Drop in the Bucket (Redbird Records), Gover sings a song ("Apples in June") about losing touch with art, nature, and spirit amid the daily blur of "work, kids, and husbands." You can't get any more current than that. But she hangs it on the rustic metaphor of the title and a melody that sounds as old as the hills. It's "something new from something old," as her grandmother says of a patchwork quilt in "Me and the Redbird River," the new album's opening track.

The mixture of the traditional and the contemporary has evolved, and is still evolving, in Zoe Speaks' sound. In an interview during a lull in this year's Clear Creek Festival, an event the couple stages in the mountains outside Berea every August, Gover told me that when they started playing together, Barrett's music was "a little rockier. We had to find a middle ground together because my music was very tradition al." But, as Barrett put it, "It's natural to blend the traditional and the contemporary if you want to honor your tradition and your roots and live in the contemporary world."

As Gover and Barrett see it, using music to "make a difference" in the world is very much a part of honoring their roots. Barrett grew up near Berea, singing with his mother in Baptist churches. "We sang a lot of funerals," he says. "It's an Appalachian tradition to use music to make a change. Gospel music is doing that. Then there's all the political music, especially from the mine workers."

Gover says her social consciousness began early. "I grew up in a coal town in Letcher County, Kentucky, and the devastation--especially the environmental devastation--was incredible. I used to have fights with my father. He worked for a coal company, and I was an environmentalist early on. In fact, the name of our new album comes from something my father used to say when we had those fights. He'd say, 'One person is just a drop in the bucket." But it's also important not to preach to people in our music. You can ask the questions. You can't give answers, but the world is a little better if we ask the questions. …