Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hillbilly Philly: The Ladies of Philly’s Indie-Country-Western Music Scene

“My motto is to not let old men in­tim­id­ate you. Just throw an el­bow. I wouldn’t be half the lady I am now if I didn’t make them make room.”

Birdie Busch (B Philly Photography)
Bro-coun­try may still be a slick, pree­m­in­ent sub-genre with­in coun­try mu­sic’s rur­al firm­a­ment and tanned, brawny dudes such as Kenny Ches­ney pack sta­di­ums with their gen­tle­manly jive. Yet, in the middle of June—on the same week Dolly Par­ton sold out the Mann and Dixie Chicks, the BB&T Pa­vil­ion—South Philly’s once-and-former bas­tion of bar­room C&W, Boot & Saddle, hos­ted a re­cord re­lease party for bit­ter­sweet Emily “Bird­ie” Busch. The long­time Philly-folk-coun­try queen, who re­leased her first re­cord in 2006 (The Ways We Try), stood on the crammed tight stage de­b­ut­ing her sixth al­bum—the psy­che­del­ic-tinged Thun­der Bridge—with her el­eg­ant nu­anced voice and her strangely subtle av­ant-hill­billy band be­side her. “I love how ec­cent­ric coun­try mu­sic got in the 1960s with Lee Hazle­wood, Ro­ger Miller, Hazel Atkins,” says Busch. She quickly adds Ger­man­town jazz man Sun Ra to that list, if only for the “emo­tion­al in­flu­ence,” po­et­ic in­spir­a­tion (the title Thun­der Bridge is a ref­er­ence to a line in his poem “We Must Not say No to Ourselves”) and over­all will­ing­ness to free one’s mind so that her boots will fol­low.

Busch is not alone as a loc­al cow­girl with-or-without the blues.

Ladybird: Sarah Larsen, Cecilia Ferneborg and Laura Szklarski
At Bob & Bar­bara’s twice-monthly Wed­nes­days, sing­ers Han­nah Taylor and Sarah Larsen rule the roost, Larsen in par­tic­u­lar be­ing a sub-genre of her own; a fid­dler and a vo­cal­ist with the hootenanny-ing Hur­ricane Hoss and her folksy trio Lady­bird both ready­ing new al­bums for au­tumn re­lease. April Mae Iorio is a sassy, South Jer­sey lass with sev­er­al wild acts un­der her wide belt, the bold­est of which—April Mae & The June Bugs—is a hot mess of hill­billy bal­ladry, coun­try swing, jump blues and hard-nosed rocka­billy (plus, her Sun Kissed al­bum came out in June). Car­oline Leap too is a loc­al lass with a west­ern swing sting. Black Horse Motel is a long-run­ning dark coun­try quin­tet with three wo­men and an al­bum due out soon. Then there’s the ob­vi­ous folk-coun­try in­flu­ence on Philly al­tern­at­ive names such as the girl-fron­ted Hop Along and Cayetana whose twang is as strong and windy as their tang. Even Philly’s most prom­in­ent C&W ra­dio sta­tion, WXTU FM, has a Philly coun­try lily, An­die Sum­mers, as its morn­ing show co-host.

Not all of these Philly coun­try lasses got to C&W or bluegrass as pur­ists (Busch cer­tainly star­ted out folksy, with Larsen start­ing out through clas­sic­al and Mae a one-time met­al head), but they got there and hold high places of prom­in­ence with­in Philly’s mu­sic scene—coun­try or oth­er­wise. “Han­nah, like Sarah, is cent­ral to that,” says book­er/pro­moter Jesse Lundy who has slot­ted these ladies in­to the Phil­adelphia Folk Fest as well as the Ar­d­more Mu­sic Hall; both ven­ues that Busch, Mae and most of the afore­men­tioned loc­al coun­try wo­men have played. “They’re big col­lab­or­at­ors with all the acts, great sing­ers, have unique looks and vibes. They’re king­pins of the thing.”

Maybe queen pins is a bet­ter term.

April Mae & The June Bugs

When Busch star­ted play­ing and singing in Philly circa 2002, there was no coun­try scene in Philly, let alone one guided by wo­men. Hell, Boot & Saddle was but a glint in its de­veloper’s eye, a long-shuttered tap room that hadn’t seen nat­ur­al light since 1996 when it closed as a C&W sa­loon for vis­it­ing sail­ors and leath­ery punks. “I have found my­self al­ways resid­ing in a place—mu­sic­ally, song-wise—where people are nev­er really sure what to define it as,” says Busch, think­ing of her new­er works such as Thun­der Bridge. “I’ve grown to like that,” she con­tin­ues, ac­know­ledging her ini­tial in­spir­a­tions of Wil­lie Nel­son and Patsy Cline cas­settes played in her fam­ily’s sta­tion wag­ons (“and we went through 3 Wood­ie Wag­ons”) be­fore ad­oles­cence took hold. While such deep-rooted in­flu­ence didn’t come out in Busch’s writ­ing un­til age 15, Busch nev­er set out to sing any­thing tra­di­tion­ally, let alone coun­try. “I’ve just meant to keep to the tra­di­tion of hon­or­ing my voice, and some­times it can lead to be­ing a mis­fit book­ing-wise. I mean, I can do whatever I want and I usu­ally do. Ha. It’s worked out. I’ve al­ways had the pris­mat­ic ap­proach, and I think some people want to be wal­loped on the head with a single in­flu­ence or a crazy story, es­pe­cially people book­ing fest­ivals or clubs else­where, and yeah, that can be a chal­lenge to get people to take a chance and step out of that slant.” Between 2008 and 2010 however, Busch took the bull by the horns and be­came the femme fo­cus of coun­try club nights (“Barstool Moun­tain”) and cre­ated her own live mu­sic-and-hill­billy DJ parties, Philly Opry. ​ Co-cre­ated by Busch and Johnny Brenda’s (then) book­ing mis­tress, Brandy Hartley, Philly Opry was meant to emu­late Chica­go’s long-run­ning urb­an cow­boy soir­ee Dev­il in a Wood­pile, us­ing old coun­try vari­ety shows (such as Hee Haw) as its visu­al in­spir­a­tion. “You know, where the stage sets were so out­rageous and goofy and every­one seemed to have such pres­ence,” says Busch. Gear­ing up for this au­tumn’s fifth Philly Opry at JBs, Busch says she likes show­cas­ing both loc­al and trav­el­ing acts for a di­verse coun­try-fied spec­trum, the sounds of which spice up her new, broad Thun­der Bridge, with its un­easy spa­cious­ness and psy­che­del­ic nu­ances nestled against her melod­ic coun­try-fied coo. “The best coun­try mu­sic to me has al­ways resided in a son­ic swamp, so I’ve tried to give people an ex­per­i­ence of swim­ming in that said la­goon of Bri­ga­doon. I guess much in the same way people say rock and rock is a state of mind not a sound, I kind of feel that way about coun­try. We con­tain mul­ti­tudes. Mu­sic is an end­less well.”

Around the same time Busch was ramp­ing-up Philly Opry and ex­pand­ing her sound (Thun­der Bridge has been in the works for a minute), April Mae—a mu­sic scene vet as the blues-belter of South Sat­urn Delta—began tour­ing throughout the South, be­fore bring­ing coun­try, rocka­billy, bluegrass and Pete See­ger-ish roots up North. “April Mae & The June Bugs was born in 2010,” she says, cred­it­ing Wanda Jack­son, Janice Mar­tin and Elvis Pres­ley as early loves. “R&B, gos­pel, and what they called hill­billy mu­sic back then are the in­gredi­ents, and when it ex­ploded it was like wild fire.”

Mae is a real pis­tol. A brassy sing­er, ka­zoo-ist and wash­board play­er, she tells mildly bawdy stor­ies like the one that goes, “My Por­tuguese grand­par­ents ac­tu­ally met on South Street dur­ing a Hal­loween parade. Grandpa used to say that he was walk­ing be­hind my grandma and liked the view.” When she dis­cusses her brand of hill­billy mu­sic, she men­tions its roots in Mem­ph­is’ Sun Stu­di­os in Mem­ph­is, where it was re­cor­ded—“all live on gor­geous 1940’s vin­tage mi­cro­phones to get that Sun feel and keep it real, no auto tunes, no loop­ing”—while bran­dish­ing her South Jer­sey roots just as much as the mu­sic’s down-South her­it­age. “Some­times they think I’m from New Or­leans, which thrills me to the bone.”

While Busch moved around Philly (South and West Philly, now Ger­man­town) and Mae from N.J. to New Or­leans and back again, Sarah Larsen was a Wis­con­sin-born, small town clas­sic­al vi­ol­in­ist who made her way to Philly six years ago by way of Con­necti­c­ut and with-but-a-hint of dis­con­tent. “Noth­ing was harder—or more coun­try—than get­ting out here, find­ing there are no jobs AND hurt­ing my­self in an ac­ci­dent where I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to ro­tate my arms again,” says the high, honey-voiced Larsen. She walked dogs and waited tables un­til an­swer­ing an ad on Craigslist look­ing for a fiddle play­er for old time band gigs, an event that led to oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies in loc­al bluegrass ses­sions (e.g., re­cord­ing ses­sions for al­bums by Ben Arnold and Ma­son Port­er). It was bluegrass that pushed Larsen to con­sider her coun­try past, of the one ra­dio sta­tion in Wis­con­sin that was noth­ing but old time hill­billy mu­sic, of an uncle that gave her a Patsy Cline 8-track when she age 9. “That was the coolest thing I ever heard,” she says, quietly.

Larsen set about cre­at­ing the sweet-as-pie Philly county lady trio Lady­bird with Cecil­ia Ferne­borg and Laura Szk­larski, be­fore hit­ting upon the catty, cool, au­then­t­ic-sound­ing ped­al steel-in­fused Hur­ricane Hoss, her smash­ing solo pro­ject which sounds Straight Outta Nashville.

What it’s like as a young per­son play­ing old mu­sic is akin to what it is like for a Philly wo­man play­ing coun­try mu­sic. “When I first star­ted play­ing coun­try, I came in through bluegrass and met res­ist­ance from older folk who are based in tra­di­tion. As soon as I showed that I was humble and wanted to learn, people took a shine to me.”

Men­tion be­ing a Philly coun­try queen to Busch and ​she claims to not med­it­ate much on the sub­ject. “I’m more one who, when I’m not mak­ing mu­sic or mak­ing money to pay bills we all gots to pay, I’m try­ing to just dig on life in a big way. I med­it­ate more on just be­ing com­fort­able with my vis­ion, no mat­ter the age or trends of the time, and wish that for all the oth­er lassies, for all the oth­er “fil­lies.”
Larsen tells a cute story about one of her teach­ing gigs, where a bunch of little girls came up to her after the les­son, a tale that lends some in­sight in­to be­ing a young wo­man in an old man’s world.
“They were play­ing with my fiddle and ped­als and one girl said how beau­ti­ful I was be­cause I had my makeup on and hair all done up,” she laughs. “I was glad they thought I was at­tract­ive but I wanted to make sure they loved the mu­sic—which they did—that what was more im­port­ant; pro­mot­ing a pos­it­ive feel­ing amongst wo­men, be they old or young. Yes, this scene is pre­dom­in­antly men, but I run with some great wo­men here and am pleased as punch to have them in my life and in this scene. My motto is to not let old men in­tim­id­ate you. Just throw an el­bow. I wouldn’t be half the lady I am now if I didn’t make them make room.”

Amorosi, A.D. "Hillbilly Philly: The Ladies of Philly's Indie-Country-Western Music Scene." Philadelphia Weekly. June 29, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.