At a small, sold-out Drake Hotel show on Friday, the Southern-music songstress Valerie June told her audience that the song Twined and Twisted had come to her in a dream. “I’m a songwriter,” she said. “I live in a different world, and I pick up songs and bring ’em here. That’s what I do.”
Then she did what she does, which is to sing in an unworldly fashion and strum cheerless chords. On her debut album Pushin’ Against a Stone, the music is a contemporary reimagination of very old music. On stage, with no band to accompany her, the native Tennessean drifted toward something simpler and more timeless, with her high, nasal warble half-spooky and half-peaceful. Her hair was an artful crisscross of dreadlocks, and Twined and Twisted called to mind a somber, moonshined Dolly Parton. The lyrics are about disillusionment and displacement: “Ain’t got no place in this old world.”
Joan Didion wrote that a place belongs to whoever claims it the hardest, remembers it the most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it and loves it so radically they remake it in their own image. June, who on her record worked with blues-rock adventurer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Booker T. Jones and a couple of studio aces, is a fan of mountain music, north-Mississippi boogie, Appalachian gospel, the folk antique Elizabeth Cotton and the bluesy field recordings made by Alan Lomax and George Mitchell. Seemingly absent of guile, she seeks to revive none of it. June makes her own musical connections, retreating to rural Southern places in her mind as she offered a murder ballad (Shotgun) or a swaying sing-along (Tennessee Time).
At this year’s Luminato festival, Dom Flemons of the string-band trio Carolina Chocolate Drops gave a solo performance. He played, dressed and spoke with old-timey affectations, as if he were a living, breathing Smithsonian exhibit. His persona and performance were charismatic, but far too put on for my taste.
I spoke with June before her concert over tea. “I live in 2013,” she said. “I know what year it is.” She has no quarrel with people like Flemons or the blues time traveler Guy Davis, but sees her own musical pursuits and interpretations as more natural. She was a die-hard Tracy Chapman fan early on, and had other listening fascinations as well. June traced musical roots forward and backward, moving on to something else once they played out. Then she heard Mississippi John Hurt and Cotton.
After her band broke up, the singer resolved to learn the guitar. She didn’t want to be dependent on anyone else. “At first I just wanted to learn how to play Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train,” she said. “I would have died happy if I just could play that song.”
Of course, one song leads to another; new chords were investigated on acoustic guitar and banjo. On her album, other players handled those parts though. June didn’t want the record released, because she couldn’t play the way they could. Auerbach told her to play them her own way.
On stage at the Drake, June played in a simple hypnotic style, sometimes in standard tuning and sometimes not. Her blusier stuff was done in the earthy, repetitive manner of Junior Kimbrough or Jessie Mae Hemphill.
The Drifter was a banjo-moan toe-tapper about roaming – a Gypsy without a home. June is on a road, with no itinerary. She makes it up as she goes along, finding her way in the world and pushing against the stone in whatever way feels right. She is her own place.