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 Mitch 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.