Let’s face it — the last couple of years have been a struggle. As the US government becomes increasingly repressive — or more open about it, anyway — those who are most marginalized and their allies have searched for ways to respond. For many artists, of course, that means picking up a pen and speaking out. Now that we’re several years into the thick of it, though, I’ve been wondering if anger is sustainable and even wise. (Who are we kidding — my therapist has been gently confronting me about it.) But Tellico’s new album, Woven Waters, is a demonstration of strident protest with a much broader emotional palate.
The bluegrass band was heralded for their first album, Relics and Roses, in 2015. On their sophomore outing, the band has teamed up with legendary Irish musician John Doyle. “With this album we wanted to grow our sound to add more complexity and depth to our arrangements,” says singer, guitarist, and fiddle player Anya Hinkle. “In many cases, instrumental parts were conceived intentionally and composed separately from the choruses and verses, with the help of producer John Doyle, who also helped us experiment with more alternative chords and voicings than we might naturally have chosen, adding a broader kaleidoscope of feeling to the songs.”
The band’s thrill for a challenge paid off big time. Woven Waters is a far-ranging album that intertwines the political and the personal with the best of 'em. The album’s opener, “Courage For the Morning,” was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and those who fought alongside him. The song asks its listeners to consider the paths they walk and how to encourage others to continue striving for justice:
Did you ever walk when your feet were tired
Did you ever walk when the road was gone
Did you ever sing when your heart was achin’
Did you ever sing just cause there’s a song
I will walk
I will sing
I will bring a little courage for the morning
Bring a little courage for the day
The song begins with a gentle mandolin line and amiable strum pattern. To hear Hinkle sing it, these acts sound quotidian and matter-of-fact. (Read an essay she wrote about the song for ND here.) Hinkle knows that there are many ways that we all find the grit to push forward in our own lives, no matter the circumstances. The song’s very DNA observes that these small triumphs can snowball into larger actions: resisting oppression comes from resilience — not from single-handedly overcoming superhuman obstacles. When we bring that courage to others, we can transcend the barriers in our way.
Tellico brings the same sensitivity to lighter subject matter, such as my favorite on the album, “Salsa.” The song is a dedication to man’s best friend and seems to play with the old chestnut about runaway dogs. The band gives the story as much gravity as anything else on the album. After all, love and companionship is what makes the world worth living in — whether that companion is on two legs or not.
However, the keystone that holds the album together is surely the masterpiece “Ballad of Zona Abston.” The song is based on a conversation Hinkle had with Tennessee mining town resident Abston herself. The song details a lifetime of struggle against poverty and sexism. The song concludes powerfully with a powerful illustration of capitalism’s toll:
The mining’s all done but we’re still on this mountain
Guess our roots were stronger than our wings
And flying ain’t as easy if it’s pennies that your counting
While the company men are off living like kings
Why belabor abstract principles when our lived experiences speak for themselves? The song presents Abston’s biography with narrative distance, almost as if Abston were a folk hero from a distant past. There’s no moralizing here — the facts just speak for themselves.
In this current era of division and antagonism (by no means new in American history,) Tellico reminds us to slow down and truly absorb our experiences. We cannot abandon our own humanity, even when others try to grind it out of us.