Keeping things on ‘Tennessee time’
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, February 7, 2014
To understand why Valerie June’s breakthrough “Pushin’ Against a Stone” sounds so different from any other album released last year, it helps to know that she grew up in rural Tennessee, halfway between Nashville and Memphis. A 31--year--old sporting thick, twisting dreadlocks, June weaves hints of Depression--era hillbilly fiddle and country--blues guitar into her songs. She allows leisurely passages and moments of quiet to set off the rougher and louder sections.
Her background is most obvious on the song “Tennessee Time,” which she wrote with her co--producer, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. The lyrics contrast the adrenaline--fueled nervousness of New York, Houston and New Orleans with the laid--back tempo of her family home in Humboldt, Tenn. The song’s mandolin, tambourine and acoustic guitar embody that calmer pace by unspooling in relaxed fashion.
“Growing up in a rural environment, it’s a slower way of life,” June recalls over the phone from her home in Brooklyn. “So you have more space in your mind to dream more beautiful dreams. You say, ‘Let me create something,’ because you don’t have as many people to do it for you or to discourage you because they’re so good. You have to pull it up from your own well. Because it’s so still, you’re open to what the universe wants you to create. It’s like being in a meadow where you can go in any direction. When I’m at home, my life slows down; I’m on Tennessee time, as I call it.”
When she was younger, June’s family attended the mostly African American East Jackson Church of Christ; after the family moved, in her teen years, they attended the mostly white North Jackson Church of Christ. Both churches created music for services without instruments or choirs: a song leader called out the hymn number and expected everyone in the pews to sing. June often moved around in the pews to sit near voices she liked.
“I heard so many great voices,” she says. “The idea that you couldn’t sing never even entered my mind. In the black church, people sang more from their belly and diaphragm, while in the white church, people sang more heady. So I have two voices, a deep voice and a heady voice.”
You can hear her deep voice on “Wanna Be on Your Mind,” a romantic plea bolstered by Auerbach’s garage--soul sound. You can hear her other voice on “On My Way,” a song written with Memphis songwriter Booker T. Jones. Backed by Jones on organ and by a fiddler and string bass player from her husband’s hometown of Budapest, June croons with homesick yearning for home, where she won’t “care nothing ’bout a nickel or a dime,” where she can just sit, “watching the river roll by.”
“I was talking to Booker T. about how much I love country music,” June says, “and he said, ‘I love country music, too.’ He said, ‘I have a country music song that doesn’t have any lyrics.’ He started playing it, and I looked through my book full of lyrics, and I said, ‘Wait, I have a lyric here that doesn’t have any music, and it would fit.’”
It was a long, hard road before June got the chance to collaborate with Grammy Award winners such as Auerbach and Jones. She moved to Memphis and became the lead singer and songwriter of a bar band. When it broke up, she so badly missed performing that she picked up her grandfather’s guitar and learned to play.
She launched her solo career at local open--mike nights and then spent years self--releasing low--budget albums and touring the South. At one show, she so impressed the Nashville band Old Crow Medicine Show that they invited her to record the 2010 EP, “Valerie June and the Tennessee Express.” Kevin Augunas, engineer of Colorado folk--rock band the Lumineers, offered to produce her next album and then brought Auerbach into the project.
“When Dan and I first got together and listened to records,” June says, “he was pulling stuff out, and I’d say, ‘You have that? I have that, too.’ We knew the lyrics word for word. It was something to have that connection with another musician. I had listened to his music, and he had listened to mine. From listening to the Black Keys, I just knew he’d be like that, that he was a kindred spirit.”
The new album’s title track is a reimagining of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You,” but instead of trying to hypnotize a potential lover, June sings about her lifetime of “pushing my weight against a stone.” At times, that stone was the music industry’s indifference; now it’s that same industry’s insistence on squeezing her into one category or another that doesn’t fit her.
When asked how she finds the resolve to lower her shoulder into that imposing stone, June replies that she goes back home, where the skies are still clear enough that you can see all the stars.
Then she wishes on one.