Sep 2, 2014
Sep 1, 2014
from the ny times
A Heady Brew of Organic Moonshine Roots
Valerie June at the Highline Ballroom
By JON PARELES
Valerie June was a bundle of endearing eccentricities when she performed at the Highline Ballroom on Friday night. Between songs, with a mixture of candor and caginess, she offered glimpses of her past and present as leisurely shaggy dog stories, told in her rural Tennessee drawl. They were true-life tales of a country gal making her career in the wider world, savoring both the greens and corn bread her “mama” cooks and the baguettes and charcuterie of her current home, Brooklyn. She’s no bumpkin.
Valerie June, whose last name is Hockett, has neatly labeled her style “organic moonshine roots music.” She has recorded with the Old Crow Medicine Show, a Tennessee string band, and supplied down-home backup vocals for both the country songwriter Eric Church and the rapper John Forté.
The album she released in August, “Pushin’ Against a Stone” (Concord), unveiled parts of her persona: a high, sharp, proudly unpolished yowl of a voice with a nasal Appalachian bite and a gospel rasp. It’s her fourth album, but the first she hasn’t released herself. She sings about classic Americana subjects — love, loneliness, work, wandering, faith and death — in songs that look toward old-time country, 1960s Memphis soul, backwoods blues and the Bob Dylan of “Blood on the Tracks.” The album cover shows her looking fashionable, with elegantly coifed dreadlocks, and she was just as stylish onstage, even as she wielded a banjo.
Valerie June comes to her musical style not out of provincial isolation, but as a considered choice. She can sing an old-fashioned country waltz like “Keep the Bar Open” or a dark blues-rocker like “You Can’t Be Told,” for which she picked up an electric guitar. She wielded her banjo in “Workin’ Woman Blues” — more a modal Appalachian tune than a blues — as her band was joined by a trumpeter from Budapest, playing lines that shifted the hoedown toward funk.
When she played her version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” also on banjo, it harked back beyond the blues to the sound of the West African lute, the ngoni, that was a likely ancestor of the banjo.
She carried “Shotgun,” an eerie ballad of jealousy and murder, from unaccompanied singing to rugged electric stomp. But before she played “Shotgun” came the story of how she got the slide for her slide guitar — a plumbing coupling at a hardware store — and why she was playing with a red scarf wrapped around her finger (to make the coupling fit, and to suggest the blood in the song).
By the time the set was over, the audience also knew her birthday; that she had worked “cleaning toilets”; how she got a longtime monthly gig at Terra Blues, on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and played “hillbilly music” there; how she’s trying to give up “cussin’ “ now that she sees children in her audiences; and which drugs she uses (insulin and Tylenol). She was putting her listeners on what one of her songs calls “Tennessee Time” — unhurried — but also introducing a character who could be just as memorable as her songs.