By Eleni P. Austin
“This old world will chew you up and spit you out without ever asking how you’re doing or who you are, days go by and soon become days gone by/You never get to question time, it comes and goes, come back baby, come back let’s rewind, come back baby, let’s go back in time.”
That bit of sad sack-ery can be found on the song “We Were Young Once Too,” from the band, Carolina Story.
If you crossed George Jones and Tammy Wynette with Ryan Adams’ old alt.country band, Whiskeytown, you might have Carolina Story. The duo, Ben and Emily Roberts, have been making music together for over a decade. Lay Your Head Down is their new album.
Ben hails from White Hall, Arkansas and Emily is from Lennox, South Dakota, The pair met and fell in love at college in Memphis, Tennessee. Once they married, they settled in East Nashville and began making music. Since 2009, they have played close to 1,000 shows. Relentless touring meant they have performed in 43 out of 50 states.
In that short time, they have recorded three full-length albums. Their self-titled debut quickly came together in 2009, a year later saw the release of their sophomore effort, When The River Meets The Sea and Home, arrived in 2011. They have also issued a couple of EPs, Chapter One in 2013 and Chapter Two a year later. They landed a coveted spot at Austin’s annual South by Southwest Showcase and played the Grand Ole’ Opry several times.
For the last few years, music has taken a backseat to family, as the couple became parents to son Wilder and daughter Lily. But by 2017, they hit the ground running, becoming the first artists signed to Black River Entertainment’s Americana label. Somehow, they connected with Benmont Tench, and he agreed to produce their new record.
Benmont, along with Mike Campbell, is perhaps best known as the nucleus of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. The piano prodigy and Gainesville, Florida native began his musical career along with Tom and Mike first in the Sundowners and then Mudcrutch. He spent more than 40 years playing with Petty in one of America’s most beloved bands, but he has also nurtured a second career as a session musician, producer and songwriter.
The album kicks into gear with the title track. Wheezy harmonica rolls over lush organ notes, splayed electric guitar, spiraling acoustic riffs and a tick-tock rhythm. The melody shares some musical DNA with Guns N’ Roses’ signature hit, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Instead of Slash’s whiplash arpeggios and Axl’s cracked rasp, it’s all warm Country comfort accented by Ben and Emily’s honeyed harmonies. The lyrics mark the passage of time via weather changes and whiskey consumption; “Springtime came with a vengeance this year, the river rose high, the water ain’t clear…Summertime came, brought me whiskey and tears, felt enough pain for the next five years.” A scorching guitar solo crests over searing pedal Steel and ascending piano chords, underscoring the narrator’s angst.
The next three tracks set the tone for the album; on “Gold” spitfire harmonica fills thread through a muscular shuffle. Gritty guitars lock in with rumbling bass, liquid pedal steel, and shimmery organ. Pragmatic lyrics search for a silver lining; “Woke up today this side of the ground, that’s half the battle staying up not down/Ain’t got no money, no help in sight, but it’s alright honey, cause we got tonight.” Cantilevered guitars build on the instrumental break, adding some surprising AOR crunch.
The action slows on the aforementioned “We Were Young Once.” Fluttery harmonica reinforces a feeling of nostalgia and reverie; “A first kiss and a first dance, the moment when I grabbed your hand and gave you my heart, oh let’s go back to the start.” Spiky electric riffs connect with plangent acoustic notes, high lonesome pedal steel and stately piano chords.
On “You Who Makes The Storm Break,” Crisp power chords lattice over sugary acoustic guitar, plinky percussion and tinkly piano. The lyrics pay homage to the couple’s unbreakable bond; “It’s been one full calendar year of full blown misery, and even after all that’s come to pass, you’re loosening the grasp the darkness has on me.”
The best songs here harness Ben and Emily’s sharp songcraft and their undeniable vocal chemistry. “When I Was Just A Boy” is lush and pastoral, a minor key charmer, written in ¾ time. Keening pedal steel wraps around roiling piano, a kick-drum beat and their honey and wood smoke blend. Childhood homilies take on added resonance as adulthood sets in, the lyrics share some hard-won advice; “When I was just a boy my mother would tell me, this life is but a blink of God’s eye, when I became a man my father had taught me live fast and you’re sure to die young/And now that I’m grown and the seeds that were sown live deep in the heart of this man, and when, if God allows, a child of my own, I’ll share what my parents said.”
On “Set In Stone” plucked acoustic licks dance around sparkling piano, desolate pedal steel and the satisfying thwok of a snare drum. The lyrics paint a portrait of a couple bruised by betrayal, but willing to work their way back through faith and honesty. As their voices intertwine, they express frustration and doubt, but their devotion feels palpable; “I know you love me, but sometimes I wish you’d express that your love is good for eternity and not a minute less/There comes a time when everyone struggles through, but when we grow apart I’ll build a bridge and come back for you.”
The smoky harmonica that opens “Lonely Without You” recalls the rough-hewn grace of Neil Young. Propelled by sandblasted guitars, Call-and-response vocals and Hammond B3 colors, this stop-start waltz is suffused with Soul. The lyrics tap into that rather specific ache of feeling alone in a crowd; “I’m out on the town, there’s people all around me, I’m lonely without you/The streets are filled, they might as well be empty, I’m lonely without you.” As the instrumentation pools and eddies, gathering speed on the break, guitars intertwine and the wordless coda is razor-sharp and electric, ending on a wobbly organ note.
Finally, “When Will I See You Again” waxes nostalgic for an adolescent friendship. A slipstitch rhythm collides with swoony electric riffs and percolating keys. The lyrics offer this tart juxtaposition; “I was cautious, hard-headed, you were reckless and kind, you never missed a chance to speak your mind, you’d laugh you’d smile and always said the world was ours/It’s funny how the hours turn the weeks into months, and the years pass with every lap around the sun, I’ve still got your number in my memory.” Despite bendy, barb-wire guitar riffs, the song is shot through with yearning and affection.
Other interesting tracks include the sanctified “Rich Man,” the barn-burning “Your Children’s Children” and “My Feet Keep Moving Still,” which originally appeared on one of the EPs. The album closes with “Let Me Rock, Let Me Roll,” a sweet-sour encomium to life on the road.
Carolina Story received adroit assistance on this record, Evan Hutchings manned the drum kit, Rob McNelley added piano and electric guitar and Justin Schipper played pedal steel guitar. In addition to production chores, Benmont Tench is the album’s MVP, playing piano, organ, Wurlitzer and Mellotron.
Ben and Emily Roberts are the real deal. The songs on Lay Your Head Down offer an adept synthesis of spirituality, and romantic frisson. The best part is it feels like they’re just getting started.
(Carolina Story will play the Joshua Tree Saloon on Saturday, August 25th).