MelissaCarper Photo 2024 Credit Aisha Golliher 1

“I don’t think you can get this sound unless it’s borned in ya,” said bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, when asked about what he called “old-time mountain music.” When Melissa Carper heard those words, something jumped inside her. While staying in the country with a friend, she found an old DVD of Down From the Mountain, the documentary and concert film of the “O, Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack that featured this particular Stanley interview. She immediately jotted down “borned in ya” on a piece of paper. “I knew I had to write that song,” she recalls.

In the Spring of 2023, Carper went back to East Nashville’s Bomb Shelter — the same “analog wonderland” where she’d recorded Ramblin’ Soul and its predecessor, Daddy’s Country Gold, and enlisted the help of her trusted co-producers — Dennis Crouch and Andrija Tokic. “Borned In Ya” would become the title track of the new album, out July 19th via Mae Music/Thirty Tigers.

Like much of her writing, the song applies a homespun sensibility — and a bit of humor — to questions about life’s journeys. “I was turning over in my mind what it means to have something ‘borned in ya,'” she said. “The song evolved as I was writing it to be more about having your soul ‘borned it ya,’ and the more life experience you have, you hopefully grow to embody the highest version of yourself that you can be.” “Borned In Ya” could certainly stand as a reflection on Carper’s life in music. “Authentic” might be an overused word to describe an artist’s appeal, but there’s something so natural and true about Carper’s musicality that she must have been born with it: An easy sway to her singing, a precise, but laid back sense of timing. A feel. And, lyrically, she has an instinctive sense for storytelling, both observant and intuitive.

As with the message of “Borned In Ya,” these traits have been sharpened by life experiences — including early music influences and the many turns of her career as a performer. Carper, born into a music-loving family, was raised on roots music, immersing herself in a family record collection that featured Hank Williams Sr., Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and more. The public school music curriculum in her home state of Nebraska gave Carper an opportunity to learn upright bass. “I remember wanting to play bass, to play the biggest string instrument, ” she recalls. Carper performed in her school orchestra — and also in her family’s country band. Led by her mother, the group played a mix of classics and the new country of the 80’s, but it was the old stuff that stuck with the young bassist. Along the way, Carper’s father gave her a collection of Jimmie Rodgers recordings, which made a defining impact. “He combined country and blues and jazz,” she recalls. “All of those elements, and the rawness of those recordings… I can’t quite put a finger on it, but I was obsessed.” Carper earned a music scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. College didn’t quite take, but while there, she spent hours in the music library, drawn to jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, and she discovered seminal blues artist Lead Belly.

You’ll hear all of these influences in the music Carper has made over the years as a member of numerous touring acts and as a solo performer. Classic country and Western Swing sounds come to the fore on Daddy’s Country Gold, Carper’s 2021 album. Country roots and old-time jazz are at the heart of ‘Ramblin’ Soul‘ too, but the album also ventures confidently into R & B and Soul territory. Those albums helped Carper establish a growing fan base and earn accolades from music reviewers. One writer lauded her “cool jazz-infused hillbilly serenades that linger in the air like fresh-cut hay.” Rolling Stone Country praised both her writing and musical stylings: “Singer-bassist Melissa Carper sounds like a voice from a bygone era . . . evoking the cool, smoky croon of a lounge singer, Carper gives some winking commentary about having a good time.”

Perhaps the most meaningful praise for Carper’s music has come from the world-class musicians she’s worked with onstage and in the studio. One is multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs. He’s a veteran of Nashville’s studio world, has played with influential roots-country-rockers BR-549, and currently tours as a member of Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. Scruggs has been proud to contribute to Carper’s albums, including her recent ‘Borned In Ya’ sessions. “She’s as good as it gets,” he said, “She has a quality that really transcends time and fashion.” It was Scruggs who dubbed Carper “Hilbillie Holiday” — an admiring nod to her marriage of country and jazz vocal styles. ” I stand by that,” he said. “She can sing Hank Williams and then handle these old pop tunes, and the great thing is how natural she is — she doesn’t even really change her delivery.”

Borned In Ya showcases Carper’s long-standing influences as well as her artistic growth and sense of adventure. The old-time jazz sounds we came to know on Daddy’s Country Gold are back in full force along with the R&B and Soul of Ramblin’ Soul. Perhaps, the least ‘country’ of her albums, the country roots are still felt as you can never remove the ‘hillbilly’ from Carper’s sound. In addition to her familiar blend of country with jazz, blues, soul, and R&B, the new album sees Carper exploring a more subtle and expert crossing of these genres and with a matured lyrical depth. The title track kicks things off with a gospel-style vocal chorus before settling into an impeccably funky groove. “Evil Eva” recalls the classic R&B of the 50s and 60s, and “Let’s Stay Single Together” puts Carper’s crooning vocal to a delightful jazz-tinged country soul feel. “There’ll Be Another One” sounds like classic Roy Orbison with Carper floating atop the bed of ever growing emotion, fueled by the stunning string arrangement from fiddler, Rebecca Patek. “Somewhere Between Texas and Tennessee” is straight out of the honky tonk and “Lucky Five” is reminiscent of an old Frank Sinatra swinger. Carper rounds out this album with covers of two classics, “That’s My Desire,” crossover jazz/country tune from the 30s, and a beautiful rendition of Cole Porter’s “Everytime We Say Goodbye.”

In addition to Scruggs, Borned In Ya features a cast of top-flight musicians like bassist Dennis Crouch (Johnny Cash, Gregg Allman, Alison Krauss, Robert Plant), pianist Jeff Taylor (The Time Jumpers, Riders in the Sky), fiddle master Billy Contreras (Ricky Scaggs, Buddy Spicher, George Jones), and multi-instrumentalist Rory Hoffman (Ricky Skaggs, Kathy Mattea, John Cowan). This is Carper’s first album featuring horns; Doug Corcoran, from JD McPherson’s band, plays trumpet and saxophone. And there are soulful backup vocals by Kyshona Armstrong, Nickie Conley and Maureen Murphy, as well as beautiful harmonies by Carper’s longtime music pal and bandmate, Jenn Miori Hodges (Carper Family). Carper penned the majority of the album’s 12 songs herself, though she co-wrote three tunes with friend and bandmate, Brennen Leigh (Wonder Women of Country). “Brennen is just brilliant with lyric ideas and we always have a good time writing together, ” Carper said.

Carper is eager for the release of Borned In Ya, and hopes it will resonate with fans of her earlier work while establishing an artistic step forward. “People call me retro or throwback, and I’ve been OK with that,” she says. “But, I feel like I’m still creating something new. I’m taking styles and blending things in a way that maybe hasn’t been done before. And, in the process, I’m evolving in my own way.”

KassiValazza Photo 2024 Credit Anna Lindqvist

Kassi Valazza

There is a cult-like fascination growing around Kassi Valazza following the self-release of her 2019 debut album Dear Dead Days and her surprise 2022 EP Highway Sounds. She is seated squarely at the vanguard of new American songwriters strengthening and broadening the sound of country music as she tours with celebrated acts such as Melissa Carper and Riddy Arman. The Southwestern native resides in Portland, a hotbed of songwriters producing albums that both bear the torch and bend the arc of American roots music, where she recently signed with Fluff & Gravy Records — a label known for launching Anna Tivel and Margo Cilker.

Valazza’s forthcoming new album Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing is a spellbinding collection of songs that dangle like protective magic talismans, catching dreams and glinting light. She hypnotizes listeners with a sturdy, yet gentle, voice and painterly songwriting imbued with an independent spirit. Though her music plays country cousin to British folk, calling to mind greats like Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention) and Karen Dalton, a Southwestern American streak carves its way through these solemn, sweetly sung melodies like a canyon.

On the upcoming 10-song set, multi-instrumentalists from Portland’s TK & the Holy Know-Nothings appear in varying roles as Valazza’s backing band: Taylor Kingman (guitars, bass, vocals), Jay Cobb Anderson (harmonica, guitars, pedal steel, bass), Lewi Longmire (pedal steel, piano, bass, trumpet), Sydney Nash (organ, Farfisa, cornet, Wurlitzer), and Tyler Thompson (drums). The group’s swirling psychedelia combines with Valazza’s gutsy and graceful vocal poetry for a singular sound that washes over the listener like a flash flood, heavy and without warning.

Album opener “Room In The City” introduces Valazza’s high-lonesome, but never lonely world with sharp harmonica and reeling organ. She sings of a touring musician’s longing for home, and a distant lover, with lyrical imagery of open skies, whistling winds, and sepia-toned rock formations: “Did you think I’d be out here feeling lonely? / If I said I thought so too it’d be a lie / When I talk to you it’s hard to be withholding / And I was born to chase this blue out of my eyes. In the still, I often wonder about your breathing / I rise and fall to its rhythm late at night / Clay canyons turn to plaster in my grieving / And our ceiling overtakes the sky.”

Using the physical world around her to paint metaphors from the soul, Valazza carries us through her mind and heart, ever the effortless narrator. “Watching Planes Go By” spins a cautionary tale about the dangers of standing still in life and accepting one’s own fate. The song sets a curious and cosmic atmosphere of psychedelic folk-rock as Valazza reflects on the struggles of moving on, “Autumn leaves turn to yellow / and green turns to jealousy / Watching days go by.”

On “Corners,” fingerpicked acoustic guitar dances with bounding bass and twinkling piano, as twanging telecaster and a gentle backing choir flow behind Valazza like a stream through a lonesome vista. “The clouds move slower than they ever seemed to / Still, they find a way to pass me by,” she sings on her breezy lament about the longing that comes with an unhealthy love, “My friends, though, they wonder what I’m used to / To love a man who never treats me right.”

“Smile” opens with a familiar telecaster honky-tonk squawk and a half-time trot, but Valazza sings in deference to traditional bar-room tales. Hers is about acceptance when love is not enough, about being satisfied having met someone at all, and keeping only a farewell note as a souvenir. “I guess I could have left the light on / Or stayed awake to see you home / But good intentions go unnoticed / And I fare better on my own.” In her careful hands, the typical loved-and-lost tale becomes an ode to self-realization and the liberating feeling of going it alone.

As her journey winds down to “Welcome Song” — the album’s final Valazza-original preceding a perfect closing cover of Michael Hurley’s “Wildegeeses” — tension from her nearly behind-the-beat band pushes and pulls the listener into a whirlwind of stream-of-consciousness lyricism. The opening verse, “As I was laying on my floor / Hiding dreams from the t.v. / I heard a knocking at my door / While my eyes faked sleeping,” paints an immaculate mental picture of both the physical surroundings of the narrator and what she’s feeling and thinking at the time. It’s clear that every line Valazza writes carries extreme weight, every simple word is carefully chosen and placed with intention.

Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing captures the romanticism of country crooners with the intuition of a realist poet. Exploring themes of love and longing through metaphors from the natural world, Valazza manages to cut straight to the heart of the human experience, her lucid songs full of delightfully languid characters that haunt the hallucinatory soundscapes her band creates.

Sean Tracey

I started playing the harmonica in the early 90’s as a boredom cure for down times working on commercial fishing boats. There were, and probably still are, a lot of commercial fisherman in Alaska that are musicians; a lot of which were adherents to Old-Time and Bluegrass traditions, but not all by any means. Melody driven fiddle tunes were my gateway to locking down melodies on the harmonica and eventually led to the formation of the first working band I got to be a part of. Good ol’ PCRB, the Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band. We made two records and and toured extensively all over Alaska and down the West Coast, playing many dive bars and festivals including Wintergrass, the Portland Old-Time Gathering and the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival.

In 2007, I won an Individual Artists award from the Rasmussen Foundation which allowed me to record my first solo project “TROUBLE”, available for streaming and for sale on the MUSIC page of this site.

Since then, I’ve had the sheer luck to perform and record with more bands than I can list. Some of these bands are still working, some defunct, some literally dead. When I moved to Texas in ’09, I had the great honor to work with some of my heroes including the late James “Slim” Hand, and Wayne “the Train” Hancock.

In ’09, the Austin Steamers were formed and had a lot of success and fun, playing at SXSW, a Mountain Song at Sea Bluegrass Cruise, Stubb’s Barbeque, as well as long (2 year +) weekly residencies at the legendary Hole in the Wall and White Horse in Austin. We played many festivals in central Texas and were featured in Richard Linklater’s Golden Globe winning and Oscar nominated movie “Boyhood” (playing my song the Old Black Crow) as well as more venues in Austin than I can hope to remember. I also recorded the “Steamroller Sessions Vol. I” around this time and which is available to stream and for sale in digital and (Double 7”) vinyl formats.

I’ve been most recently working with Hillfolk Noir out of Boise Idaho and will link recordings I’ve made with them as they are released. I got lucky to get adopted by them and have toured all over the west with them, sometimes opening solo. Check out their label, “Junkerdash Records” for which I’ve written an article in their ‘zine and is on the blog page for your reading.