Many of us these days are, by dint of distance, time or Covid, out of reach of our mama’s hugs. But a healing dose of the Mother energy the country at large needs so much right now can be felt on the lush and lovely album The Dream That Holds This Child by the Sweet Water Warblers. Three acclaimed singer/songwriters, two of them in Nashville, have parlayed Michigan home state connections and radiant voices into a side project that offers reassurance in a disorienting moment.
“There’s a lot (here) on the idea of the sacred feminine and the mother - as it refers to the mother in us and mother Earth and mother nature,” says songwriter Lindsay Lou, whose fellow Warblers are Nashville’s Rachael Davis and Traverse City, MI-based May Erlewine. The album’s title, drawn from a line in the song “Something More,” says Lou, “implies and represents the foundation and the thread that tied all these songs together and that ties us together as friends who are in this world together making music as women, and living in the times that we are, with our climate changing and now with this pandemic. There are all these ways we experience our relationship with the mother.”
Yet a soft-focus or sentimental record it is not. Recorded at the Sound Emporium last year with Dan Knobler as producer and a cast of Music City’s sharpest pickers (including Anthony de Costa on guitar, Jen Gunderman on keys, Jamie Dick on drums and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass), The Dream brings the folk-rock groove and energy of Crosby, Stills & Nash, along with the ethereal stacked vocals. And there’s a “fourth Warbler” in Nashville’s Maya De Vitry, who sings and writes on several tracks.
Davis is a jazz-informed artist who emerged as an acclaimed songwriter in Boston before moving to Nashville. Lindsay Lou grew her reputation by leading the bluegrass/string band The Flatbellies to performances at most of the big roots festivals around the country. Erlewine has built a substantial following over four albums since 2009. The three met one another in Michigan songwriter circles years ago. Lindsay Lou says she was nudged from her medical school path into folk music in part through meeting and singing with the other two. They sang live on each other’s songs regularly as harmonically attuned friends and colleagues. Then at a northern Michigan music festival in 2014, the show promoter invited them to play a main stage set as a vocal trio. Davis says that was easy to say yes to. “We knew all each other’s songs already, so the rehearsal of that set was basically just making a song list about an hour before. And then we got up on stage, and halfway through the first song we were like, ‘what the heck is going on here?’”
The unfettered delight of that initial live sound didn’t flow through when the Warblers made their first recording, an EP called With You that came out in 2017. The women describe a series of technical and logistical setbacks that made the process frustrating for no discernable reason. Davis said it felt like “tug of war” but fortunately you can’t hear the stress on the final product, and the five-song set stirred sufficient interest to proceed to a full length album. This experience was far better. “It doesn’t even compare,” Davis said. “The second one was the most positive musical experience I’ve ever had in any way. It set the bar so high for what I think should happen in the studio from now on.”
Part of that was the historic vibe of the venue, the Sound Emporium in Nashville where O Brother, Where Art Thou? and so much more was recorded. The full band tracked live with the women in one room singing together. And Dan Knobler, who has recently risen in stature as a top roots producer, has worked with other leading Americana women, including Maya De Vitry, Caroline Spence and Della Mae. “He’s a really gentle human and he’s got a really good intuition with music and he’s not afraid to follow that,” said Erlewine. “So there’s a confidence there but it’s not an overly aggressive one. It makes you feel very welcome and like you’re working in a team. But if there ever needs to be leadership, he’s going to make sure that it’s led in a way that everyone feels very good about.”
Clinching the deal on the full-length project are songs that stay in touch, implicitly or explicitly, with a thematic heart. It begins with the soothing tones of “Turn To Stone,” where the trio is joined by De Vitry who initiated the song. It ruminates on empathy and finding strength in the good kind of giving in. Then the zestier material starts as the full band kicks in on “Wishing Well,” with its sentiment of mutual support and nurturing. The Warblers say they worked around three “pillar” songs to keep the album cohesive. They were the light and breezy “Summertime,” a sturdy, anthemic motherhood song called “Righteous Road” and the celebratory “Do You Know The Chorus,” where De Vitry returns to join the vocal thrall. So it’s an album with almost as much arc as it has heart.
You can catch the band offering new videos every “Warbler Wednesday” at their Facebook page. Here's the recent "Something More."