On “Shepherd,” a harrowing song off her fourth album, “Young Man in America,” Vermont-born singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell tells the story of a farmer working his harvest while his wife goes into labor. Rather than have him stop working, she tells him to return to the fields: “We both have laboring to do. You do yours and I’ll do mine.” After finishing for the day, he returns home to an unthinkable tragedy.
“It’s an unbearably sad story,” Mitchell says. “It isn’t really anyone’s fault, but it has something to do with the idea of ‘finishing the job,’ whatever that means — these terribly important things we neglect in our single-mindedness.”
“Shepherd” was inspired by the 1979 novel, “The Soul of Lambs,” by Don Mitchell, Anaïs’ father. “My dad taught English for many years as I was growing up,” she says, “so words were important in our house.”
Her father plays such an important role on “Young Man in America” that Mitchell even put an old photograph of him on the album cover. “The image itself looked really iconic to me,” she says. “His two eyes look so different: One eye looks scared and wonder-filled, the other looks dark and predatory.”
Like her previous album, 2010’s “Hadestown,” which reimagined Orpheus and Eurydice in Depression-era America, “Young Man in America” is composed of loosely connected songs that weave a larger story, drawing from Dust Bowl folkies such as Woody Guthrie and Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac.
“They were looking back with an excitable, loving eye toward the wild, old American stuff,” Mitchell says of those influences. “Migrant fruit pickers, the West Coast, the trains and the wine.”
Mitchell received a big boost earlier this year when indie-darlings Bon Iver began covering her song “Coming Down” in concert. “Their version just slew me so hard,” she says. She opened for the band years ago and recruited its singer, Justin Vernon, to sing as Orpheus on “Hadestown.” She’s now touring with the band again, playing to some of her largest audiences yet.
Despite the musical acclaim she’s drawing, Mitchell still puts story at the center of her work. “If a story is good,” she says, “I just curl up and submit like a little kid in a library at story time.”
Inside Track: A commanding showcase for Anaïs Mitchell’s expressive vocals and producer Todd Sickafoose’s inventive arrangements, the title track on “Young Man in America” tells the story of a boy cast out by his “repo man” father. “Daddy, daddy, gonna wish you never had me,” the character vows, as brass and reed instruments swirl into an emotionally turbulent coda that gently undermines the son’s vengeful bravado.Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md.; with Bon Iver; Sat., 8 p.m., $40-$55; 410-715-5550.