High, Low, and In-Between
June Star Settles Down With a New Album of Storytelling Songs
One of the most striking songs on the new June Star album Telegraph (Safe House) is "Wedding Girl," which begins with a desultory strum of an acoustic guitar, sounding both Appalachian and exhausted of hope. That sets the stage for Andrew Grimm's nasal, gravelly baritone, which claims, "I don't want to touch the sun anymore/ I'm a wedding girl lost in her dress."
It's disconcerting at first to hear a gruff male voice behind these words, but the vocal's implacable evenness--as if it were a medium at a séance or a reluctant witness at a trial--soon casts its spell. Grimm wrote the song, and his fragmented impressions suggest a young woman attracted to a suitor ("amber in the coal, brighter than all men") who betrayed her ("I'm a wedding girl out of her dress"). And the tension between her attraction and his betrayal is reinforced by the push and pull of the swooning pedal-steel guitar and the brittle mandolin.
"Wedding Dress" is based on the Katherine Anne Porter short story "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall." Such a literary inspiration is not unusual for a band that contains three English teachers and is named after the little girl in Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Mandolinist Tom Scanlan and drummer Alan Zepp still teach in Carroll County public schools, and Grimm taught there for seven years before stepping down last fall to devote himself to his music.
"As a teacher, I read Huck Finn twice a year every year, and a lot of other really good fiction as well. And that can't help but instill some literary ambition in your music,." Grimm says. "Every time you read a good line, you want to write something of your own that's that good."
These days, the most comfortable genre for a songwriter with literary ambition is alternative country, which marries the storytelling impulses of hillbilly music with the rule-bending freedom of '60s and '70s rock. Telegraph prominently features Scanlan's mandolin, Grimm's acoustic guitar and banjo, and the pedal steel of guest Eric Heywood (best known for his work with the like-minded Son Volt and Jayhawks). These Americana arrangements provide the perfect backdrop for Grimm's fractured tales about telegraph wires and fog-bound roads.
"Our first two albums were loud rock 'n' roll albums," Grimm notes. "And after the second one, we wanted to try something different. It took us a long time to figure out we didn't have to be raging loud all the time. I was listening to a lot of Richard Buckner and thinking he was so powerful with just acoustic instruments and minimal arrangements. I was also listening to a lot of bluegrass on WAMU [88.5 FM] and thought that would be a cool sound to work with.
"About the same time, Tom [Scanlan] started sitting in with us, and I got used to hearing our songs with his mandolin," Grimm continues. "So we brought him into the band, and it just clicked. It sounded so fresh; when you go to hear a rock band, you don't expect to hear a mandolin."
When June Star played New Year's Eve at Frazier's, the quartet kicked off the first set with Kitty Wells' "She's No Angel" followed by the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," and ended the set with Gram Parsons' "Sin City" followed by the Velvets' "Waiting for the Man." In between it played originals that mixed country and punk flavors in varying proportions--sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes hopeful, sometimes bleak.
"It's tough doing original music in the local bars," Zepp laments. "[It's] tougher still if you're doing alternative country. It's tough to rouse the crowd when you say, 'Here's another song about death and heartbreak, and, oh, by the way, it's really slow.'"
Zepp, 47, was already an English teacher at Westminster High School when he first met Grimm, now 29, who was a student teacher there in 1994. They ended up sharing a house and eventually formed two-fifths of the rock band Factory Horse from 1997 through 1998. During that same time, Grimm also played in a bluegrass trio called Tuscaloosa with Scanlan and Shane Poteete. When Factory Horse broke up acrimoniously, Grimm formed June Star with Zepp and Poteete.
That trio released a self-titled debut album in 1998. Poteete moved to North Carolina just before the 2000 album Songs From an Engineer's Daughter (Hungry for Music), which featured Grimm, Zepp, second guitarist Tim Johnson, and interim bassist J.B. Chenoweth.
Tim Bracken soon replaced Chenoweth and Scanlan made it a quintet for the third album, Telegraph, though Johnson's departure last month made June Star a quartet once again. The new album was released last November on Vermont's Safe House Records. Bracken has a solo deal with the label and is collaborating with label mate Robert McCreedy (formerly of the Volebeats) on a duo album due this spring.
But the band is still going through some growing pains. At times it sounds so much like Son Volt that it's disconcerting, and too often Grimm settles for the Richard Buckner model of droning, minimalist melodies and disconnected, private-language lyrics. But when Grimm and his band mates get past these poor role models and latch onto a real tune and a real story, they sound like one of the most promising bands in Maryland.
That potential is most obvious on "New Jordan," another track from Telegraph. The song tells the story of a family that has packed up all its belongings and headed out for a new life in a new land. The tune rattles and clatters like an old, overloaded truck in its banjo/mandolin arrangement, and the weariness in Grimm's vocal evokes a journey of "miles and miles scored on our belts, the fog won't wash away." And after all those miles, the singer discovers--like so many emigrants, pilgrims, and fortune-seekers before him--that the "new Jordan is same as the old."
June Star performs at Johansson's in Westminster Feb. 8.