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Courtney Marie Andrews Keeps It Loose, On The String

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Alexa Viscius
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The voice is the most important instrument in folk and country music, but most singers in the roots genres don’t push or prod or manipulate that instrument all that hard. Simplicity and clarity is generally more admired and desired than creativity or contrivance. So I’m interested in folk singers who do craft and sculpt their voice, because it’s risky. Too much affect or too much vibrato can break faith with the listener. Courtney Marie Andrews stands out in Americana for the artfulness of her voice, with its deliberate phrasing and graceful warble. It dovetails with her lyrics in a way that’s clearly behind her considerable success. So when we sat down for Episode 230 of The String, I asked her about it first.

“I'm self taught. I grew up hearing like, Broadway singers on the TV, like Annie. I was really drawn to singing in that way. And my grandpa always had country radio on. And then I discovered Aretha Franklin when I was a kid. And so I think the combination of these kinds of singers kind of bled into my subconscious and taught me to sing. I learned to sing properly, I feel, by listening to an Aretha Franklin Greatest Hits record. I just listened to it over and over and tried to sing exactly what she's singing. And I noticed that her dynamic range was so magical. Like, if she was telling you a secret, she would sing quiet. If she was wanting the whole world to know, she would belt it out. And I realized early on that correlation between lyric and voice. You can sing the thing you're talking about, you know? And so that kind of singing is really intriguing to me.”

That thoughtful, reflective look at her own art set the tone for our conversation. Andrews has become one of the most respected songwriters of her generation. When she released Honest Life, her breakout LP of 2016, Paste magazine explicitly placed her in the vocal company of Emmylou Harris and Neko Case. 2020’s Old Flowers, a painfully honest breakup album, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Americana album category. But aside from those traditional accolades, I was struck by her veteran status at only the age of 32. Because she got herself started in this itinerant creative life by booking her first tour along the West coast when she was but 16 years old.

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“I'm so glad I did that. Because I know a lot of people who have this fear. They think they need all the accoutrements first. They're like, oh, I need the manager, I need the label first. And I'm so glad that I didn't know that any of those things existed. I just was up for the adventure. And the stories that I have from that time, and the feeling I have from that time, are something I would never trade.” 

We talked about how she stayed safe on the road in her early solo days, about how a couple of years of singing background vocals for rock and pop stars got her poised for the successful solo career that followed and about the shift in tone she managed lyrically and musically on her new album Loose Future. It’s in part the story of a new love, told in glimpses. As a result Andrews has found a new and inspiring balance between the melancholy and the radiant. Also in this hour, I remember my colleague and friend Peter Cooper, the widely beloved journalist and musician, who died last week at age 52. I found some tape of a conversation we had about his work at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org