Great music from Angela Easterling
By Rick Cornell, July 2009 Country Standard Time
Album: BlackTop Road
Home: Greenville, SC
Musical Influences: Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Indigo Girls, Neil Young, the Carter Family, Judy Garland
Bio: Angela Easterling first left her South Carolina home to attend college in Boston and later for a couple-of-year stint in Los Angeles, but she’s back and living not far from the family farm located in Greer. “We always go out and explore, and we always come back,” Easterling says of her family, adding with a laugh. “Then we leave again but keep coming back.”
On her most recent return, Easterling thought she was coming back only temporarily, but she’s ended up making the Greenville area her base of operations. “If there’s anyplace in this world where I can call home,” she says, “it’s that land in Greer.”
And it’s that piece of land that’s at the heart of Easterling’s second album, “BlackTop Road,” its title track telling the story of the family farm and its struggle again “progress” manifested in pavement. There are other personal moments on the album, whether firsthand (A.P. Carter Blues was inspired by a trip to the titular patriarch’s grave, while Stars Over the Prairie revisits a song written by her great-grandfather in the ’40s) or borrowed (The Picture details a harrowing discovery a daughter makes after the death of her father). And in the voice of Easterling and the hands of her and producer Will Kimbrough – along with top-flight guests like Ken Coomer, Dave Jacques, Fats Kaplin, Anne McCue and Al Perkins – the songs get the loving, and often rocking, treatment they deserve.
CST’s Take: Lovely (and theater-trained) vocals, penetrating songs, and a restless heart that always finds its way back home with stories to tell.
Country Standard Time: I hear a strong sense of place in your songs, whether it’s cities like Copenhagen, Birmingham, Nashville, and L.A., or it’s the mountains or a farm. Can you talk about that aspect of your songwriting?
Angela Easterling: I’ve been spending a lot of time these days on the road, so a lot of these are coming from my own specific journeys and specific experiences. There’s the specific experience I had in Copenhagen (American I.D.). I wrote that song, Just Like Flying, on the plane from Nashville to L.A. So some of those are just literal and specific. Birmingham, I have to confess, was not. That song I wrote about coming back home to where I’m from, which is Greenville, S.C., but it just didn’t sound very good. (laughs) So I chose Birmingham. I don’t know if I’ve ever even been to Birmingham. I hope that doesn’t ruin the experience of listening to the song, but Birmingham sounded a lot more evocative….The song about our farm, that’s very specific too. That song is about our farm; it’s a real place, and it’s about what my family has been going through. The picture on the cover of my CD was taken out in front of our farm, in the road that I wrote BlackTop Road about.
CST: There’s also a strong sense of character, but it’s not coming from story songs in the traditional sense. It really comes from first person, although you’re not always the “I” that’s in the song. How tough is writing from that perspective? I’m thinking about The Picture in particular, an especially powerful song.
AE: Thank you. Well, that song I felt like it had to be first person even though it’s not from my point of view. I felt like it had to be first person to be meaningful, to be powerful. I felt like if I was talking about someone else and her father, it wouldn’t hit with the same amount of emotional gravity of the situation. With that song, the idea of saying “her” or “her father” or making it not in the first person, that was never even an option. From the moment I had the idea to do that song, I knew it had to be first person. The same with Field of Sorrow, which is another first-person song, from the point of view of a dead girl looking back at her family. I thought that was the same kind of thing, giving the song an emotional gravity, an emotional weight, to make it more personal.
CST: Was The Picture based on something you read or heard? I swear I read an account a couple years ago about a woman who found letters in her attic that revealed her father had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but I couldn’t find it when I looked today.
AE: Oh wow. Just in general, my aunt told me a story of a friend of hers whose father had passed, and she’d found some things like that. So, that’s what started my brain to working. The concept was something that I’d been wanting to write about for years, but I hadn’t really found a way inside it. I hadn’t really found an angle. I wanted to write about these after-effects of our history, how it still affects us to this day whether we want to admit it or not. But I didn’t know how to write about it without sounding trite. (starts singing) “Oh now I’m going to sing about racism.” I wanted to find a way to write about it that was going to be compelling. When I heard of this, I thought “Well, I’ll just tell this story.” And it’s a story about a father and a daughter, but it happens to be this American story. And have to say that this is probably something that happens every day in this country. It’s probably not an isolated incident.
CST: In the liner notes for “BlackTop Road,” you write about the family farm and how your grandparents worked the farm while also holding other jobs. That kind of struck a chord with me because, and this is purely speculative, with your writing and your performing you seem rooted in your rural upbringing, but still trying to experience what the rest of the world has to offer.
AE: Oh yeah, and that’s how my grandparents were too. My grandfather was a farmer all his life, but he graduated from Furman University when he was only 19 years old with a degree in chemistry. He spoke fluent French. He read the Bible every day in French so he could maintain his fluency. Like many men of his generation, he went to Europe in World War 2, but he went back many other times in his life. He traveled to Africa. My grandmother traveled to Israel five times, three of the times by herself. And this was in the last 10 years of her life. Every other year, she would go to Israel, and she’d save the money to go to Israel by doing her neighbors’ sewing and making quilts. My grandfather’s sister lived in Africa for most of her life as a nurse. Yet, everyone always came back to this place. The family that I come from is a very worldy and educated family, but were are rooted to this place. It’s like a magnet that draws us back.
CST: In addition to your writing, your singing is obviously a major drawing card. What are your earliest memories of singing, and do you remember the first time you got paid to sing?
AE: Let’s see. I grew up singing in church, but obviously I didn’t get paid to sing in church. From a young age, I really loved to sing, and I loved to perform. Even to this day, one of my favorite singers is Judy Garland, but especially when I was little. I used to watch all her movies when I was a little kid, and I wanted to be just like her. And I also liked Julie Andrews. I grew up doing musical theater and then started writing my own songs when I was in college. Maybe the first time I got paid to sing might have been my freshman year in college, when I played my first show out. I’m sure I didn’t get paid any much more than tips, but I’m sure I appreciated it. (laughs) To this day, I can’t believe I get paid to do what I love for a living. I’m not rolling in dough or anything yet, but the fact that I can buy my groceries and gas and everything and pay for my cat’s cat food by singing is pretty amazing. I definitely grew up not with country or folk music or anything like that. I listened to old musical theater and singers like that, and I went to college and majored in musical theater, so I had a lot of vocal training. But when I started writing songs, it was funny because people said to me, “Oh, you write country songs.” And I was like, “What? I don’t even listen to country music.” I knew Johnny Cash, and that was it. So I started listening to Emmylou Harris and stuff like that and started writing more in that vein. But then when I went to record, it sounded like Julie Andrews trying to sing country music. (laughs)
CST: I’m always interested in why artists choose to cover the songs that they do. Of all the songs out there – and all the Neil Young songs – what made you decide to record Helpless?
AE: That’s one that I’ve been doing in my live shows over the last couple of years. It started as a fluke. I was doing this songwriter night with these guys up in New Hampshire a couple years ago, and they were like, “What are some songs that we can all jam on?” I suggested Helpless, and they said “Okay, you sing it.” I’d never thought about singing it. But it ended up sounding so good that we must have played the same song for 15 minutes. Afterwards, the lady came up to me and bought two of my CDs, and she said she wasn’t going to buy my CDs until she heard me do Helpless. (laughs) Which I don’t know if that’s so much of a compliment, but I thought, “Wow, I’m going to start singing that at all of my shows.”