- By STEPHEN HU FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Singer–songwriter Angela Easterling’s musical journey took her all the way to Los Angeles, then back home to Greer, S.C. Easterling grew up in Greer and attended The Fine Arts Center, an arts high school in nearby Greenville. There she studied musical theater and appeared in many local theater productions. She then went to Emerson College in Boston where she continued her theater studies. It was there that she began to take an interest in songwriting, which provided a way for her to tell stories and also sing and act them out.
“What I found was that with writing my own material I could create my own opportunities for performing instead of hoping I could get cast in a play,” said Easterling. “I could just go down to open mic night and play some songs that I wrote. … I like to use the first person a lot because I think it comes off a lot stronger. In a way it’s like a monologue that I grew up doing in theater. ”
Easterling then transferred to the Emerson College campus in Los Angeles to explore a different part of the country and possibly pursue an acting career. Although a daughter of the South, she had never really listened to country music until she moved to California.
“People always said, ‘You sound country, you should sing country music,’ ” said Easterling. “To me country music was like Kenny Chesney. I just didn’t know anything about it. I was ignorant about all of the great writers and songs of country music, the wide span of it. I started listening to Emmylou Harris and Graham Parsons; Neil Young; and Crosby, Stills & Nash; and of course Merle Haggard; and all that sort of California country and country–rock. I wanted to explore that genre with my own writing because when I first started writing I was doing more of a straightforward folk–pop type of thing. So getting into the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris-type stuff really opened the door for me and I just fell right in and got so into it.”
Having decided to focus her creative energy into her music, Easterling cut her first album in L.A. But the high cost of living there and better touring opportunities on the East Coast led her back home to Greer.
“I wanted to live somewhere where I could just park my stuff and go on the road and it would be cheap and easy,” said Easterling.
Since that time her songwriting has developed and she has released four more albums. Easterling’s songs range from traditional heartache country ballads to songs that examine difficult social issues. One of those songs tells the story of Issac Woodard, an African–American World War II veteran who was beaten by South Carolina police in 1946 so badly that he was left permanently blind. The sheriff responsible was later arrested but acquitted by all white jury.
“That’s an absolutely true story,” said Easterling. “The key to that song for me was the uniform, the fact that he was in uniform and the police were in uniform and they all should have been on the same side. What those uniforms meant, or were supposed to mean... That seemed like something from a long time ago in the past, but then the week we were in the studio recording the album, all that stuff was going on in St. Louis. When the album came out, Dylann Roof walks into a church in Charleston and kills people for being African–American, right here in my state. All those things just go to show that our past is not as past as we think it is.”
Another socially conscious song by Easterling is “American ID.” Although the song was written almost a decade ago, it sounds like she is singing about the current divided political climate.
“I wrote that song a few years back when I was thinking about how divided our country is and it seems like we’ve only gotten more divided since then,” said Easterling. “When I wrote that song, I was really trying to find some common ground with people. I live in a red state and all around me are people I disagree with politically, even in my own family. So I was just really trying to find, where do I fit into all this? How can we come together? I really do believe that our culture and the things that we have in common are greater than the things that keep us apart. It’s just sometimes it’s so hard to see those things that we have in common. We look for the things that divide us.”
Not all of Easterling’s songs are so heavy with social weight. The title song of her last album, “Common Law Wife,” tells her own true story about her relationship with her musical and life partner, Brandon Turner, whom she met when they began playing music together in 2009.
“That’s one of the true stories on there,” said Easterling. “That’s about as true and straightforward as it gets. There’s no real subtleties in that song but that’s OK. That’s not what I was going for, I was just going for a fine little romp through my world.”
Easterling and Turner often play as a duo, which is how they will appear Monday night as part of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Music on the Steps free concert series. Turner adds sophisticated electric guitar textures and harmony singing to Easterling’s songs.
“I met him playing in town and just thought he was a wonderful guitar player, very nuanced and subtle and he can sing harmonies really good,” said Easterling. “I just thought I need to get that guy to come play with me. He was busy so it took a while for him to have some time to come play some shows with me. We really hit it off musically. I love playing with him, and we hit it off personally as well. We just got to be really good friends and one thing led to another and now we have two kids.”
Susan Pierce, Chattanooga Times Free Press August 3, 2017
One of the great pleasures of this job is coming across unknown or little-known gems and sharing them with readers.
Angela Easterling is one such find.
She is a rising star in the Americana-singer/songwriter world. Her voice rings clear and strong, and her songs tell stories as deeply rooted and real as the South Carolina farm she lives on that’s been in her family since 1791.
It’s the farm her mom grew up on, and Easterling knew it well from her many visits to her grandpa before she made it her home in 2012. She and her partner in life and music, Brandon Turner, were looking for a place to live that would have some elbow room for their baby boy. A little brother joined the family in February.
“It’s a great place for them to run around and get dirty and have some space,” she said.
Easterling grew up playing in the school band, singing with the church choir, doing community theater and taking dance lessons. She attended a high school that focused on the arts. She went to college to study theater but instead dove into the singer/songwriter life.
“I found that I loved writing as well as, maybe even more so than, performing,” she said. She felt “the power of writing my own material to create my own shows. I didn’t have to wait for someone to cast me in a play.”
Ten years ago, she went all-in for music. Critics have praised each of her five albums. The latest one, “Common Law Wife,” hit No. 1 on the Roots Music Report Americana Country airplay chart, surpassing Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s “The Traveling Kind.”
“My little album managed to knock them off for one week,” she joked. It stayed in the top five for almost two months.
The album builds on something big that happened in 2009: She got Turner to start playing music with her.
“He was really busy and in demand as a guitar player,” she said, so it took a while. “But we found we had a really good musical chemistry.”
As they traveled from show to show, they became friends.
“One thing led to another,” she said. Now they have two kids and a music career that’s building steam.
“It’s been a really fun and amazing journey.”
To get an idea of how life becomes music for Easterling, watch the video for “Common Law Wife.” The land, her son, Turner playing guitar – it all becomes a delight as she sings it.
Or, better yet, check out her show in Smithfield.
“I love playing the small intimate rooms where you can look at people, where it’s not just performance, but I get to tell stories about the songs,” singer-songwriter Angela Easterling says. Easterling will perform at Ted’s Fun on the River on May 7. “You kind of feel like you’re getting to know the audience and they’re getting to know you.”
While her band has played for thousands at Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, house concerts and small theaters are perfect for her folk-roots and Americana style of songwriting and storytelling. Easterling’s stories revolve around life experiences. With her husband and lead guitarist Brandon Turner, they play as a duo and full band for larger shows. Like a lot of romances, their friendship blossomed into more after Turner was brought aboard a few years back. Then they found out they had a baby on the way.
“It wasn’t really something we were planning for, but it turned out to be the most wonderful surprise,” Easterling says of their now 3-year-old son, Harrison.
Most of the songs written on Easterling’s latest album, “Common Law Wife” (released in August 2015), were written after Harrison was born in 2014—save for “Little Light,” which Easterling penned while pregnant and pondering what was in store for her future.
“I didn’t know if I was still going to be able to keep playing music,” she says, “if I was going to have to get another job or what was going to happen to the dream I’d been pursuing—especially nowadays when [women] are trying to do it all and we want to have a family and we want to have a career but don’t really know if it’s going to work. You just have to take one step at time.”
While her collection of songs were etched in real feelings, they also seemed to lack balance in the truths of those stories. Easterling wrote the title track of her record shortly before going into the studio to record, and approached it with a different tone than her other tracks.
“I just felt like I needed a song on there that addressed everything in more of a light-hearted way and a joyful way,” she explains. “I didn’t want to paint too dark a picture of where I was in my life because it was a really happy and wonderful thing that happened.”
To be certain she’d stay on the path forward in music, Easterling continued to book shows and actually planned out tour dates, starting five weeks after her baby was born. She admits it was a matter of luck and family support that allowed her to be on the road (sometimes two weeks at a time) with a 6-month-old baby. “One of the songs on the album, ‘I’m Alright,’ I wrote to the rhythm of him bouncing up and down in his swing,” she recalls.
Harrison has joined his parents on the road a few times and has even learned songs like “Aching Heart.” “Some of those songs he probably shouldn’t know the words to, but he does,” Easterling says. “[At] shows, Harrison actually wants to get up there and sing . . . and once he has a microphone, it’s hard to get him back down.”
Most of the time, they call on family when touring. Aside from being doting grandparents, Easterling’s parents have been supportive of her ambitions as a musician. Her passion for song comes from being in a musical extended family. Almost everyone on her father’s side plays instruments, reads music or plays by ear; and her maternal grandparents sang and played a bit as well.
“My great-grandfather was a songwriter and he had songs published in some old Westerns,” she tells. “I found one and recorded it on my second album, ‘Stars Over the Prairie.’ I never knew him; he died when my dad was 2 or 3 years old, but it was cool to get to record one of his songs.”
Easterling more or less discovered what she liked on her own, from music theatre to classic rock to country. She has made a couple of videos for “Common Law Wife” and “Hammer” to reflect the elements of nature, family and home—all of which are so important to her. Both were filmed on Easterling’s family farm in South Carolina where she lives. The farm has been in her family since 1791 and is still a working farm—part of her day-to-day life.
“It’s just as much an influence on my writing as anything else that happens in my life,” she says. “Like having children, [the farm] is a part of the family; it means so much to me and everyone in my family.”
After Easterling found out she was having a baby she moved back to the farm. Her song “Hammer” showcases the experience.
“There was a house here we moved into, and living here in house built by my grandfather, on this land that was worked by my family, definitely is one of the main inspirations for that song. It just seemed write to shoot that video here.”
“Common Law Wife” is a throwback to old country music videos: folks sitting around on bails of hay, playing and listening to music in a barn. It also features Harrison and her soon-to-be second boy Miles. “You can’t see him too good, but he’s in there, too!” Easterling quips of her then baby bump.
Today, Miles is 2 months old. Paired with a 3-year-old, songwriting is on the back burner currently, right behind trying to shower and eat. “After things mellow down in a few months, I’ll definitely be picking up the guitar again,” she tells.
Angela Easterling is one of those great singer/songwriters who can create a full story in just a few lines. And if you need an example, just check out the title track of her new album, Common Law Wife, in which she lays out her current situation succinctly enough: "I was raised in church each Sunday, got a fine college degree/You'd think I'd learned my lesson about those birds and those bees/Well, imagine my surprise then, when the stork came to my door/I thought he was at the wrong house with that old cart-pushing horse." But we'll get to that in a moment.
Easterling was a performer from childhood onward, loving the feeling of being onstage before she was a songwriter.
"I always loved music," she says. "I played clarinet in school and sang in the chorus, but I really came into performing through theater. I went to the Fine Arts Center for it, and studied musical theater in college. But when I went to college, I started getting into singer/songwriters, and I got a guitar and started writing my own songs and I decided to stick with it."
For Easterling, writing and performing her own songs was both a passion and a professional decision.
"I ultimately decided to go down the path of writing my own music because I could create more opportunities for myself that way," she says. "Rather than waiting on someone to cast me in a play or find a part that I was right for, I could just write a song and go down the street and play it at a coffee shop. So it was a way that I could perform a lot more often, and also what I found was that I actually enjoyed writing just as much if not more than performing. It meant more to me than just being a vehicle."
And she's proven adept at her craft. Over four albums, Easterling has shown a bittersweet incisiveness as a lyricist, and she's just as comfortable with a bouncy rock & roll groove as a dark, Appalachian-tinged folk ballad.
So she opted for her art and spent much of the intervening years on the road, bringing on lead guitarist Brandon Turner to help out onstage. And that's where things got complicated. "I hired Brandon to play guitar for me a few years ago because I really admired his playing," she says, "and after spending a bunch of time together on the road we got to be really good friends, then we got to be more than friends, and then we found out we had a baby on the way. It wasn't something we'd been planning for or thinking about, but we decided to go with it and we had our first little boy, Harrison, in 2013 and our second little boy just a couple of months ago."
And that's where her new album comes in. There are a clutch of excellent songs on Common Law Wife that deal with her new life, with the expected joy but a lot of fear and ambivalence, as well.
"When I first had Harrison, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to keep playing music," she says. "I didn't know what was going to happen. There's a song I wrote while I was pregnant called 'Little Lights,' which definitely deals with everything in my life changing and the world that I'd created for myself coming to an end and how that was going to be, and it was me wondering if I was going to keep being able to do this job that I love. What was going to become of me?"
But like most folks who have young children, Easterling says she's learned to take things one step at a time. She and Turner still manage to play fairly often (they'll be at the SC Botanical Garden at Clemson University this Friday,), they've just got to keep things a little closer to home. And Easterling says she's gained some new perspective.
"I think especially for me, a lot of times things revolved around what show I did or didn't get or what someone said about my CD," she says. "And those things still happen, but when you have a kid, it helps brush a lot of the things that used to bother me aside, and I think it's been really freeing as an artist. That was an unexpected lesson I got from becoming a mother."
"Common Law Wife" recently recieved a 4 1/2 star review by Alan Cackett, founder and editor of Maverick.
I’ve been listening to Angela Easterling’s music for a few years now, and I have to say that this, her fifth album, is unquestionably her most mature and considered release to date. COMMON LAW WIFE is an album rich in reasoned clarity and insightful observance of the world in which we currently live. A majestic and atmospheric collection of her most intimate songwriting, the album showcases Angela’s skills as a master storyteller and lyricist, delving into very personal and sometimes melancholy subject matter, swathed in melodic hues and moods ranging from the bright to the very, very dark. An incredible stylist, with a tremendous voice and character in the way she delivers her music. Angela’s stripped sound and vocal vulnerability evoke a stark intimacy on this impressive offering, and despite her songs being highly personal, the emotions are universal.
Spinning folk, country, bluegrass and Americana into one delightful listening experience, she eloquently and emotionally looks deeply into the highly relatable quandary of: ‘If I knew then what I know now.’ Never more so than on the buoyant I’m Alright. With a softly plucked banjo, ethereal fiddle and a jaunty rhythm, it’s daring and dreamy; the place where country and folk meet to dance, smile and raise a frothy brew in celebration. In similar style is Table Rock, a beautiful ode to restless spirits and rambling hearts. The theme of how to make it through the darkest night informs several of the other compositions on the album, including Aching Heart, The Mountain and The Flame, songs about emotional vulnerability, but always shot through with glimpses of hope and salvation.
Just as compelling is Hammer, a song inspired by the South Carolina farm that has been in her family since 1791. The triumphs and tribulations endured are lyrically painted with chiaroscuro imagery throughout the composition as a contrast between light and dark and balanced by the tranquil mid-tempo arrangement that colours the canvas with hope. Again she delves back into real life for the heart-wrenching Isaac Woodward’s Eyes. Based on the true story of a decorated black veteran soldier returned from the Second World War to a Deep South of America still embroiled with racial bigotry, this powerful tale is gripping. Even when she’s singing about murder, she’s charming, as on the guitar and mandolin-driven Southern Gothic Arkansas Murder Ballad.
These individual songs are gems that reveal more and more beauty as you approach them from different angles, but their combined effect is greater. Her haunting singing voice, which twinges and aches throughout, infuses the tales with emotion that is at once unnerving and soothing. You don’t need to take my word for it; you should seek out this album and hear for yourself what a special and uncommonly good singer-songwriter Ms Angela Easterling is.
"Common Law Wife" finished out the year at #12 on the top charting albums of 2015 in the Roots Music Report Americana Country chart! The songs "Throwing Strikes" and "Hammer" were also both in the singles charts for Americana Country and Folk, respectively.
The album also was named on some 2015 year's best lists. Here are a few:
Ear to the Ground Blog:
Angela Easterling - Hailing from South Carolina, Angela Easterling released the amazing, Common Law Wife this year. The album is a showcase of her amazing abilities as a singer/songwriter.
Sun Herald: Top Picks from the Last Year of Reviews:
Here is a roundup of some of the Top 10 Plus items reviewed in 2015.
#1B. 'Common-Law Wife,' Angela Easterling (De L'Est Music) This Aug. 14 release was recorded in Nashville, and it contains wide sonic variety with imaginative lyrics. Highlights are nifty harmonies, cool steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle and the classic country feel on most songs. Americana and classic country fans will enjoy this recording.
Goldmine Magazine: 2015, A Good Year For Americana Releases
And a great review from HamptonRoads.com:
ANGELA EASTERLING - "Common Law Wife"
We also did lots of live radio and podcast appearances on tour. Here are several to check out!
Independent's Day Podcast (several live performances, plus interview) http://indepday.com/episode/
Or download free from iTunes here:www.indepday.com/itunes
Live on WNCW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1pK5FXnvOk
Live on The Folk Show on NHPR http://nhpr.org/post/studio-performance-angela-easterling
"Angela Easterling's autobiographical song is full of charm, humor, and love."
PopMatters also ran a review of the CD, written by Lee Zimmerman
“You’d think I’d learned my lesson ‘bout those birds and those bees / Well, imagine my surprise then, when the stork came to my door.”
That’s the line that sets up the premise for Common Law Wife, Angela Easterling’s striking new album and the one that may in fact bring her the notice that’s eluded her for so long.
“Now I’m a common law wife, living out my life / I ain’t got no license, I’m a common law wife”, she continues, and as she does so, she states the case for many women in this increasingly commitment adverse society. That’s not to say she’s a saint; after all she presumably knew what she was getting into. But as a champion for the rights of an underdog—in this case women with no safety net to protect them—it’s an effective statement about a scenario that’s rarely ever addressed.
Easterling’s earned kudos before, thanks to a series of albums that have shown her strength as both a singer and songwriter operating in Americana realms. Her 2007 debut, the prophetically titled Earning Her Wings was named “Americana Pick of the Year” by Smart Choice Music. Her sophomore set, 2009’s BlackTop Road, spent seven weeks on the Americana Top 40 chart and received a top pick in both Oxford American and Country Weekly. Two other albums followed, including 2012’s Mon Secret, which featured Easterling’s original songs sung entirely in French. Other accolades include kudos from the Kerrville Folk Festival, being named a Telluride Troubadour and twice being cited as a Wildflower Performing Songwriter Finalist.
Then there was that endorsement by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn that tagged her as “a bright shining star on the horizon.” Not bad coming from a master like McGuinn.
Common Law Wife finds Easterling taking a tack that classic country songs have pursued practically since the beginning of time, that of the downtrodden heroine doggedly standing by her man. In this case, the theme seems to derive from real life circumstance; her romantic relationship with her musical partner Brandon Turner not only resulted in the new album—he co-produced it and played the majority of the instrumentation—but also a son, a scenario that Easterling seems to celebrate throughout the album. Elsewhere she expands her domestic view, describing the plight of a Black World War II veteran who was savagely beaten the day after his honorable discharge, the tragedy that befalls small towns abandoned by the mills that once supplied their livelihood, and the passing of Pete Seeger, whom Easterling looked to for inspiration.
While these may seem like heady themes, Easterling coaxes a tenderness from her topics that comes across in bittersweet ballads like “Aching Heart” and “The Flame” and joyfully expressive rambles such as “Throwing Strikes”, “Common Law Wife”, “Table Rock”, and “I’m Alright”, the latter being the final song of the set and the one that seems to assure the world that being a common-law wife can indeed be a source of satisfaction.
Ultimately, the same can be said for what it offers her audience as well.
Rating: 7 Stars