Keep it Close to Home

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.

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 traditional.” 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.” To which Barrett added, “But sometimes we can take a shot at the answers.”

The classic example of a protest song in the form of a question is, of course, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Zoe Speaks gives a bright up-tempo cover on Drop in the Bucket. Also on the new album, “Pretty Peggy-O,” written by Barrett, is a traditional Appalachian death ballad about an Iraq war widow. But in the song “Drop in the Bucket,” they do, in fact, take a shot at an answer. While accordion and fiddle float over a gentle reggae beat, that song suggests the answer to Dylan’s questions is found in the lives of people such as Rosa Parks and Mohandas Gandhi, who were also “just a drop in the bucket” and in the example of Mother Teresa, “who showed us how to shine our light.”

“Drop in the Bucket” is actually an organizing tool in the form of a song. But it is also, first and foremost, an enjoyable and well-crafted song. Good enough to have helped Barrett win first place in the prestigious Folks Festival songwriting contest this past summer in Lyons, Colorado.

WHEN YOU GET e-mail from Zoe Speaks, it comes with a quote from Mark Twain at the bottom: “I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t on his way home.” The couple’s commitment to the culture and traditions of a particular place is not just a matter of musical choices. Barrett and Gover have chosen to stay in Eastern Kentucky despite the fact that their career might move more quickly elsewhere. “Nashville’s close,” Gover notes. “We can drive there if we need to. But we’d never leave Kentucky. It would be giving up too much. It’s such a blessing to be from a place that has such a strong musical tradition. It just permeates your being. You have roots. You don’t have to go off searching for roots; they’re right here. I want to stay in this state and do something for it.”

When not on the road, the couple lives on Barrett family land east of Berea and homeschools their daughters, 5-year-old Maisie and 8-year-old Zoey, the band’s namesake. “We have two sets of routines,” Gover says, “one for the road and one for home. On the road the educational part for the girls is mostly going to museums in the different cities. Then we come home and decompress for a few days then get back to our home routine with homeschool every day.” Barrett adds, “Having the family there all the time is a way of checking your priorities. When you’ve got an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old who need you, that’s the priority. You forget about being a folk hero and put on the mom and dad hat.”

In the last song on Drop in the Bucket, Zoe Speaks opens a window on the spirituality that grounds their artistic and life choices. Barrett and Gover admit to having been alienated by childhood experiences of fundamentalist churches. “I heard so much bad stuff in church,” Gover says, “so much stuff about wicked women that I can’t get interested in the whole process of church anymore.” But on “Sacred Yard” Barrett sings about the place of worship he has constructed outside their home with “Jesus crosses hanging in the trees, Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the breeze, [and a] concrete Buddha laughing in the grass.” The song concludes, “Everything is sacred, every breath of air, be careful what you’re thinking, ’cause every thought’s a prayer.” And he even seals the meditation with a sacrament of “holy water in the birdbath to wash your sins now you’re forgiven … I’m forgiven … we’re all forgiven, come on in.”

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer and author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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