Be careful what you declare in a song, because you might have to eat your words.
Singer-songwriter Angela Easterling found that out the hard way. On her 2009 album “BlackTop Road,” she declared in the song “Big Wide World” that she wasn’t the marrying kind: “I’ve never dreamed of being tamed and I wasn’t born to change my name,” she sang. And she meant it ... until she fell in love.
“I considered myself a solo gal, out doing my thing and touring around, and love was always on the back burner — until I wound up falling in love with a guy who plays guitar with me!” she told The Daily Times this week. “The next thing I know, we’ve got a baby on the way (her son, Harrison, who was born in 2013).”
And so she wrote another song — “Common Law Wife,” the title track of the new album she’ll release next week — in which she expresses both the shock and the joy of realizing a dream she didn’t think was for her.
“I didn’t make anything up in that song,” she said. “I had the idea that it would make a great title for a country song, that I should write one and have it be about me. Musically, it’s inspired by Loretta Lynn, but I wanted to do a real and true country song from the perspective of a woman.”
It’s a rollicking, old-school country number that’s got plenty of sass and bounce, but like most everything Easterling does, there’s a tenderness to it that can’t help but make a listener smile. It fits perfectly alongside the album’s 11 other tracks, which range from the sorrowful dirge of “Aching Heart” to the brooding “Arkansas Murder Ballad.” There are plenty of personal moments, as well as stories that may not be autobiographical but certainly resonate, she said.
“That’s something you’re always looking to write about — something that’s relevant to you, and maybe relevant to the listener as well,” she said. “It’s about how to say something in a way that’s different than what they’ve already heard.”
Easterling 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. 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.
Eventually she returned to her hometown of Greer, S.C., 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. One of the best songs on the new album, “Throwing Strikes,” was inspired by that area; it tells the story of a baseball standout who returns home after his chance in the big show only to find that the mills of his hometown are shuttered and dark.
“I wanted to write a song about the mills shutting down, because there are so many empty buildings that used to support whole communities, but I didn’t want it to be a woe-is-me, what my friend calls a ‘droopy drawers’ song,” she said. “I wanted it to have some rebelliousness to it, and I got the idea for the baseball part from a line on Jason Isbell’s (“Southeastern”) album, where he talks about ‘a vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand.’ That line just painted the picture, and I saw someone throwing baseballs and breaking windows. That gave me the idea of the guy, and that’s all he can do now.”
The other track is the haunting story of Isaac Woodard, a World War 2 veteran who was beaten and blinded by South Carolina law enforcement in 1946. It was already written by the time last summer’s unrest in Ferguson, Mo., unfolded, and while Easterling doesn’t want anyone to think she included it to capitalize on that unrest, she hopes they do see the parallels.
“I was completely blown away by the injustice that had happened to a young man who had served his country, was honorably discharged and was headed home to his family,” she said. “I think it explains a lot of things texturally in our modern life, and I just wanted more people to know about what happened to him. It really saddened me how relevant the song is in modern times, because when wrote it I thought, ‘This is ancient history.’”