The most personal song singer-songwriter Angela Easterling ever wrote will resonate profoundly with allies and members of the Citizens Against the Pellissippi Parkway Extension.
A resident of Greer, S.C., Easterling, who performs at Barley’s Maryville on Saturday night, spent most of her childhood on the farm that’s been in her family since 1791 — for seven generations. The title track to her second album, “BlackTop Road,” details the fight she and her family members went through to keep the farm from being seized for the sake of progress, and no doubt local residents in the path of the proposed Pellissippi Parkway extension wonder if they’ll have to wage a similar battle.
“Where we are is the fastest-growing area of South Carolina, and I understand why they needed the road, but worse than taking the land was the way my family was treated,” Easterling told The Daily Times this week. “People think they can take advantage of you because they think that if you’re a farmer, you must be stupid. It was hard to lose the land, but it’s also hard to be treated like you’re in the way.
“I think ‘BlackTop Road’ is my most personal song, and everywhere I go when I tour America, I have so many people come up and tell me that the same thing happened to them — their land is being taken away, for an airport or a road or whatever.”
Ironically, it took a while for Easterling’s allegiance to the land to manifest itself. She came to music as a fan first — “My parents don’t even really listen to music, so I had to find whatever music I liked,” she said. She started out in children’s and community theater, and she sang in her school choir and played clarinet. Being on stage felt natural, she added, and she left home to study musical theater in Boston. Her freshman year, however, she fell in love with the Indigo Girls and felt drawn to the guitar; within a week of picking it up, she started writing songs.
“That was something that seemed to come naturally to me even though I had never studied musical formally, other than the clarinet for a couple of years,” she said. “Writing my own songs, I found I could create my own opportunities. You can go down to the corner coffeehouse and set out a tip jar and play, and that seemed to be a much more dynamic and active way to make things happen. I’ve never been a real patient person, and even though I loved theater, that seemed to be a really clear path to me.”
It took a while to discover her own style; friends and family members labeled her country, and at first she was taken aback. But the more she got into country music on the edges of Nashville’s mainstream — Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and the like — the more she liked what she heard. Living in Los Angeles, she recorded her first album — “Earning Her Wings” — which was her most traditional sounding album to date.
“When I was living in California, I found that bluegrass and country was sort of a touchstone for back home,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily homesick, but it made me feel connected to something, and that was when I was discovering all of that music that I love — Loretta Lynn and the Carter Family.”
Eventually she returned to Greer, settling on the family farm upon which she grew up, and in so doing, she realized just how much the land — her family’s, and the South in general — had shaped her, both as a person and an artist.
“It was something I guess I took for granted growing up, and I even wanted to escape it — to get away from it and get out in the world and experience things,” she said. “But when I came back here and thought I might lose it, I realized how important to me it was. It’s a cornerstone of who I am. This farm here, it’s like another member of our family. It’s part of who I am, and I think it’s going to come out in whatever I do.”
Ironically enough, what she’s doing now is the least country-sounding material she’s made so far. She’s recorded two follow-ups to “BlackTop Road,” “Beguiler” and the all-French album “Mon Secret,” and she hopes to make another this summer. Already, she has a new song — “Arkansas Murder Ballad,” which takes the smoldering intensity that’s made her a darling of publications like Oxford American and Country Weekly, as well as the songwriting chops that won her honors at Kerrville and Telluride, and adds a contemporary spin on her Americana roots.
“Coming back here, all the experiences and changes have really informed my music,” she said. “When I was right out of college, I had experienced some heartbreaks, which seemed like huge massive events at the time, but now I have a baby, and I’m living on the family farm. I’m on the road and working as a touring musician, and al of that really informs what I write about — getting older, growing up, looking around in the world and being more perceptive of things going on around me.”