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Q&A: Songwriting, Bass-Playing Melissa Carper Mines For Old Country Gold

Aisha Golliher

The twangers may twang and the drummers may bang, but the grace of vintage country blues is timeless and always timely. And it’s been a good time of late for the neo-traditional wing of Americana, with the rise of Charley Crockett and Sierra Ferrell for example. But Melissa Carper, on the Americana chart all Spring with her album Daddy’s Country Gold, has been crooning a foundational sound since those songwriters were in grade school.

Melissa was playing on stage in grade school herself, as part of a family hillbilly band in Nebraska. She took up busking and living light in her 20s and has been a true American troubadour ever since, landing for stretches in New Orleans, Austin, Nashville and places in between. “I can't seem to settle down anywhere,” she told WMOT. “I just spend like three or four years, sometimes more, in some places, and then have to move on to the next place. And I've always thought eventually that would stop. But I'm almost 50 now, and it hasn't stopped yet.”

She’s released recordings before as a soloist and with several bands but nothing with as high a profile as Daddy’s Country Gold. She’s “Daddy” by the way, a nickname that stuck back when she was growing up, and this represents a collection of songs she’s been writing and accumulating over many years, including her years with The Carper Family, a recent band that played A Prairie Home Companion and other prestige venues. So this new LP, released in March, makes a concise introduction to a career that’s suddenly in the spotlight after decades of touring.

The album, produced in Nashville by classic country bass player Dennis Crouch, recordist Andrija Tokic and the artist herself, taps into a deep Music City aquifer where flows the undiluted waters that nourished the Carter Sisters, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and Kitty Wells. The arrangements swing and dance, to the point where you could fairly call it pre-war jazz, with brushed drums, upright bass and sparkling piano from Jeff Taylor, keyboard man from the old-school Time Jumpers. Other personnel includes Chris Scruggs on guitar, Billy Contreras on fiddle and icon Lloyd Green on pedal steel. Guest vocalists step in too, such as Ferrell and Brennen Leigh, fellow travelers in the vintage country scene.

Carper’s voice, with its croon from an older era, is oft likened to a country Billie Holiday for its muted horn-like quality. The subject matter throughout is sentimental and guileless, as on the nostalgic “Back When” and “Old Fashioned Gal.” While songs like “I’m Musing You” contain wordplay that would make Cole Porter smile. Yet for its elements of suave urbanity, Carper keeps it rustic with “Arkansas Hills” and “Would You Like To Get Some Goats.”

I reached Melissa Carper at the organic farm outside of Austin where she spent most of the pandemic year with her partner in life and in the duo Buffalo Gals, fiddler Rebecca Patek. 

Tell me about your family band growing up, which is not to be confused with your recent iteration as the Carper Family. 

I grew up in North Platte, Nebraska. My family loved old country music, and it was my Mom's dream to be in a country band. And so she had her kids be her country band. We started pretty young, singing gospel and Christmas music and that kind of thing for church and rest homes when we're super young. And then when I was 12, we started playing the clubs, like American Legion and Elk and Moose and VFW clubs on Friday and Saturday nights. It was my mom on guitar and singing and then an older brother on lead guitar and singing. And then my younger brother - he was only eight or nine when we started doing this - he played drums. And I played bass.

How did you get connected with the upright bass by the way, since that’s what you play when you sing today?

My elementary school had a string program. And you could start when you're in fourth grade. So I picked upright bass, and they had half size basses for kids. And yeah, I don't even remember why I picked the bass, whether it was related to the family (needing) a bass in the band or not. But I remember thinking I wanted to play the big one!

What do you think you took away from that experience being that young playing country music regularly?

I think it was just a great influence, and also all the old country records we grew up listening to. And I still listen to a lot of that music. It was just a wonderful way to grow up and great experience, and I’m still doing the same thing really, playing some of the same clubs even. I've just always loved the old country. And then I started discovering old jazz and blues, and I loved that too. And that's come out in the music that I write - all those influences. I’ve got to say I haven't really written anything that modern sounding ever. I like to say “Back When” on the album is the most modern sounding country song that I've written.

You got serious about having your own career as I understand it while busking in Eureka Springs, AR and then in New Orleans. Did that influence how you sing today?

Yeah, absolutely, I think that my singing voice was influenced a lot by trying to project without amplification. And I think just over the years, you know, my voice has changed a lot. I used to be a bit shy about singing lead. And if I was in a band, I would be happy to be in the background. So with the Carper Family, when I joined that band in Austin in 2009, I was doing more singing, and I just think from from singing more, you learn how to sing better. I've never had voice lessons. I'm just doing things by instinct.

You bring a lot of phrasing from the old school too. 

I used to try to imitate Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. I'd have my tape player and I’d hit stop and rewind and work the same little section and try to sing it just like they did. And I haven't done that sort of thing for years, but I did do that a lot when I was first singing. I realized this phrasing is a lot different than somebody would phrase a pop song. It’s somehow straighter. I don't know. I used to copy that, but I've made it my own a little bit.

How did you meet your co-producer Dennis Crouch, who has so much experience playing old-time country music at very high levels?

Actually, he was having a rehearsal in my house with Rebecca who was a playing fiddle. I got home while they were wrapping up, and I got to meet him. This was probably within the first six months of living there. And so that was pretty cool. And eventually, I got the guts to call him up, and he said he didn't give bass lessons, but that we could “talk bass.” So I got to go over to his place and get some tips. And then I'd see him around town and he came to a Buffalo Gals show one time. And anyway, we just we had a friendship and I got the guts up to ask him if he would help me with this album. And he said that he would be happy to help pick out some musicians and help with the instrumentation part of it. And then I think he just enjoyed the music so much he ended up sticking around in for the entire time helping produce it. So that was pretty cool. And he recommended Andrija Tokic at the Bomb Shelter to me as well. And that's the the studio that that we recorded in.

Well it has such a clean and honest sound, so it doesn’t surprise me you found an analog tape studio. Before we go, one last question about the song “I’m Musing You.” It’s just so clever and tender. How did that strike you?

Well, thank you. “I’m Musing You” was the newest song on that album. I actually had never even performed it out. But I knew we could have some fun with it. Because the minor section changes rhythms, and then on the outro it kind of falls apart and I had Sierra (Ferrell) do a vocal improv on the end. And that sounds so cool. But yeah, I wrote it in my car. I was driving from Nashville back to Arkansas for something. And I think the line “I'm using you to muse upon” came to me, and I thought oh, that's fun, because I'm kind of playing with words there. And I do feel like I've I've used maybe a similar muse to write a lot of my songs, and I'm just kind of amused that I can't get away away from that.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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