Singer / Songwriter

Country / Folk / Alternative

Monday, 15 August 2011 00:00

Shades of history color singer-songwriter Angela Easterling's work

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Angela Easterling's 2009 album, "BlackTop Road," was inspired by the struggles she and her family have experienced in their effort to hold on to their property in Greer.
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Amidst a series of modern housing developments near Riverside High School in Greer lies Hammett Farm.

It's a pleasant place where a long dirt track driveway, tall trees, an open green pasture and the sound of chirping birds are gentle reminders of what the surrounding landscape was once like.

Hammett Farm is the sort of place that can cause a first-time visitor to get a bit misty-eyed, romantically yearning for a way of life that disappeared decades ago. While taking a stroll through the farm, it's easy to imagine an idyllic not-so-distant past when the land was covered with cotton, and country folk were there to pick it.

For Greenville-based singer-songwriter Angela Easterling, Hammett Farm represents more than nostalgia; it's a major part of her heritage. Generations of her maternal ancestors have inhabited the land, which has been in the family since 1791.

On a recent visit to the family farm, which is still operational on a small scale, Easterling gazed across a pond – which she called “the lake” when she fished there as a child – and pointed to a group of suburban houses clearly visible just beyond a smattering of trees.

“All of that (land) used to be ours, too, but we had to sell it off to pay the inheritance tax when my grandpa passed way,” Easterling said.

Easterling's 2009 album, “BlackTop Road,” was inspired by the struggles she and her family have experienced in their effort to hold on to the property. The title track, a rousing country-rock screed in the tradition of early Steve Earle, laments the fact that a portion of Hammett Farm was swallowed up to make way for a road-widening project.

The country- and bluegrass-tinged album was a huge success in Americana circles, even earning the praise of legendary Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn who said it “brought me back to the time the Byrds recorded (the classic 1968 album) ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo.'”

Easterling has just released her follow-up, “Beguiler,” and midway through the album, she makes perhaps her boldest commentary yet in regard to Hammett Farm.

On a song called “Manifest Destiny,” Easterling doesn't sugarcoat the fact that the land belonged to Native Americans before her family acquired it. In the lyrics, she defiantly boasts that, if faced with the prospect of selling the property to a developer, she would “rather give it back to the Indian than to turn it all over to ‘the man.'”

As cattle roamed nearby, Easterling stopped in her footsteps and surveyed the property. With a philosophical expression on her face, she spoke of how valuable the real estate is to potential developers – millions of dollars.

“Money comes and goes, but once this land is gone, it's gone forever,” Easterling said.

It's clear that Easterling pursues music not as a path to stardom but as a bona fide artistic expression. Her three full-length albums – starting with 2006's “Earning Her Wings,” which she recorded while living in Los Angeles – have all been released independently without major label support.

Independent, however, doesn't mean lesser-quality as evidenced by the fact that Easterling routinely surrounds herself with top-notch musicians.

“Beguiler” marks the second time Easterling has recorded in Nashville, Tenn., with the assistance of acclaimed producer Will Kimbrough.

One of the most respected figures on the Americana circuit, Kimbrough is a consistent hard worker who is also admired as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

Easterling “writes great songs, and I think she's got a really cool vision that's not just your average everyday thing,” said Kimbrough, who was recently hired as the touring guitarist for Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris. “If I meet somebody who can play the fiddle better than anybody I've ever heard, that's great. But, for me, songs are what make the world go around, and she's got great songs.”

With Kimbrough's help, Easterling enlisted a star-studded lineup to play on “BlackTop Road,” including original Wilco drummer Ken Coomer and A-list session musicians Fats Kaplin and Al Perkins.

For “Beguiler,” however, Easterling insisted on using the band she formed in the Upstate a couple of years ago. The contributions of guitarist Brandon Turner and drummer Jeff Hook were so significant that Easterling included them on the album's cover art.

“I wrote these songs specifically for them to play,” Easterling said. “It was really backwards from the way I've usually written… I had a musical idea before I had a lyric idea, and then I would sit there and play around with the music and try to see what the song wanted to be about.

“With ‘Two Clouds' and ‘Group Self-Deception,' I was thinking about how Brandon was just going to tear up those guitar solos. And with ‘Happy Song,' I was thinking how cool it would be for Jeff to bring in his world music thing and give it a little bit of a reggae feel.”

Sadly, her bass player Todd Verdin died before Easterling went into the studio. Verdin, Turner and Hook – along with Kimbrough – accompanied Easterling on stage a year earlier at a high-profile showcase in Nashville, Tenn., that helped boost her status in the Americana field.

Byron House, a member of Robert Plant's Band of Joy, played bass on “Beguiler,” which also included guest vocal performances by acclaimed folk-pop artist Hannah Miller and Spartanburg's Fayssoux McLean. The latter contributed harmony vocals to classic recordings by Harris in the 1970s.

Among the highlights of “Beguiler” is a song that earned Easterling an invitation to the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado last month. She was selected as one of 10 Telluride Troubadour finalists out of more than 600 entries in a songwriting competition for her song “Maria, My Friend.”

“Sometimes, you just get handed a song-gift from the heavens, and that is how that song was,” Easterling said. “In the band, we like to play ‘I Shall Be Released' by Bob Dylan, and I thought, ‘I really like this chord progression.' So, I started playing that chord progression with a different rhythm.

“And, at the time, I was thinking about that feeling of really wanting to be with someone but, for whatever reason, you feel like you can't or that it's not going to work out.”

Recognizing that thousands of songs about lost love have already been written, Easterling chose to approach the subject in a different manner – making it about a woman who has spent her life aching for another woman.

“Maria, My Friend” packs the emotional impact of “Strawberry Wine,” the somewhat controversial 1990s country hit for Deana Carter. Easterling's song, with its subtly implied lesbian theme, could also be compared to such provocative classic country songs as “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn and “Irma Jackson” by Merle Haggard.

“I tried not to make it political or anything,” Easterling said. “It's just supposed to be this person's story.”

Easterling has come a long way as a songwriter since 1997 when, as a teenager, she recorded “Love the Danger,” a humble six-song EP that was heavily influenced by the folk-pop style of the Indigo Girls – her first favorite band – and an assortment of Lilith Fair artists.

She attended Emerson College in Boston, where her interest in music blossomed and her stylistic tastes broadened. Then, following a stint in Los Angeles where she worked with musicians who played with such artists as Dwight Yoakam and Lucinda Williams, Easterling returned to the Upstate in 2007 and immediately immersed herself in the area music scene.

Working from a home base in Greenville, Easterling rarely sits still these days. When not gigging in the Carolinas, she's usually on the road, playing to enthusiastic crowds throughout the country.

Her calendar is pretty much booked through July and, in August, she and Turner will embark on a whirlwind two-and-a-half week tour that will take them as far away as Connecticut and Massachusetts. The duo will perform concerts virtually every day except for one; Easterling made sure to schedule a day off so that she could attend a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston.

During her college days, she was a frequent visitor to the historic ballpark and became an avid fan of the Red Sox.

“Fenway Park was where I really learned about baseball,” said Easterling, who was thrilled to find a Red Sox minor league affiliate in the Upstate when she moved back to the area. When not performing, she attends as many Greenville Drive games as she can.

Although following baseball is one of the joys of her life, music is always at the forefront of her daily routine.

Easterling invests a lot of time and energy keeping in touch with her legion of fans through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

“I think (direct communication with fans) is an important part of being a musician today,” Easterling said. “I'm not Beyonce, so I'm not going to get to go on the ‘Today' show and do an interview and play on (the ‘Late Show with) David Letterman' and ‘Saturday Night Live.'

“Maybe someday I will, but right now I'm not at that point. But we have these tools that help you reach people, and it really works.”

Through social networking, Easterling has been able to stay connected with fans all over globe. In her travels, she has witnessed the positive results first-hand.

“I see a lot of familiar faces when I'm on tour,” Easterling said. “There are folks in Connecticut, for instance, that will not only come to the shows there but will also show up in Massachusetts. They'll come see me two or three nights in a row because they know it will be several months before I'm back.

“And that's really nice. It's like they're not just fans; they're friends and I know I can count on seeing them.”

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