Decisions, decisions. Two years ago East Tennessee State University decided to take one of those rare steps among American institutions of higher learning and ditch its ho-hum division I-AA football program. Johnson City is located in upper East Tennessee, but that’s still de facto “Big Orange country”. Only the fiercest pride would retain an expensive enterprise like football in the long shadow of Knoxville’s Neyland stadium. No, ETSU put its priorities into a different cache; it is one of the few schools in the world where one can study old-time and bluegrass music at the college level. As such the university has transformed itself—and Johnson City—into a hub of traditional music for the burgeoning beatnik population of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is, after all, a city located near Bristol, Virginia, the veritable birthplace of American country music. And one the prized pearls to emerge from the seams of the local limestone is the Everybodyfields.
The Everybodyfields are a trio consisting of Sam Quinn (guitar/bass/vocals), Jill Andrews (guitar/bass/vocals) and David Richey on Dobro (although, technically, Richey’s instrument is not that brand-name but was hand-made by a private luthier south of Nashville). Despite the presence of the resonator guitar they are by no means a bluegrass band. In fact, they defy immediate categorization, and as soon as one thinks of an applicable label, their music zags in a different direction. Acoustic, definitely. Alternative country, probably. In addition to their own remarkable originals, onstage the Everybodyfields reel off occasional covers of Commander Cody and Neil Young—including an absolutely scintillating version of CSNY’s “Helpless. They have the earthy look to go along with the neo-hippie movement of the hills. But a closer listen reveals more. Close your eyes, and Quinn and Andrews’ keening, close harmonies will transport you to the late 1940s, to that blissful world of battery radios before the Nashville Sound came and sanded the edges off country music. Richey’s Dobro work owes much to his admiration of old-timers Josh Graves and Brother Oswald, but there’s a strong trace of George ‘Speedy’ Krise there, as well. And this reviewer will go on record—Richey is every bit a match for Jerry Douglas.
In 2004 the Everybodyfields released their first album, Half-way There: Electricity and the South. In addition to enthusiastic reviews, the record spawned “T.V.A.”, a Quinn-penned song about a family whose mountain property is inundated by a new hydroelectric dam. He received no hate mail from the Tennessee Valley Authority; instead he took this piece to the 2005 Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina and won first place in the Chris Austin song-writing competition. The prize—a beautiful, new Martin guitar, now adorned with a red, white and blue strap featuring a Mayfield Dairy button. Quinn grew up in the region and knows how to stay close his roots. His chilling voice is comparable to Roscoe Holcomb’s which, like everything else the band does, has a genuine oldness to it beyond most of the current neo-traditionalists movement.
The latest release, Plague of Dreams, continues the ground gained with Half-way There, only here the fiddle is given a more prominent role. Angela Oudean is a fiddler with Anchorage, Alaska’s Bearfoot Bluegrass. Now a student at ETSU, she was essentially “on loan” to the Everybodyfields, and during recording and the summer tour the band was a quartet. With school back in session the instrumental breaks fall back on Richey.
“I liked having Angela in the group,” said Richey in a recent conversation. “Having another lead instrument took some of the pressure off to come up with different flourishes.”
The song-writing on Plague of Dreams shows clear growth over the band’s first outing. The pervasive melancholia remains intact. This group tells stories of unrelenting heartache and loss. A general theme of getting away, then capitulating and coming back blankets the album. Jill Andrews cites Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin as influences, but her own ideas are inspired by watching people. This is especially evident on “In Your Boots”, the tale of the responsible older child trapped in a dysfunctional family. But with characteristic deftness, Andrews avoids any of the clichés that typically go with this oeuvre. With imagery that would make Flannery O’Connor proud, Andrews describes the irresponsible younger sibling running toward “the road*in her diapers”, and a mother who is “under the weather” while beckoning to daddy to “take off work today”.
In contrast to this are the shiftless images in Quinn’s songs, especially “Arletta” and “Out of Town”. The latter contains a self-reassuring verse that captures the pathos of a little band barn-storming the East Coast:
It looks nothing like the photographs
I’m driving around
Looking for all the good bars
And overhead are the same stars
Everything is a little better here
As good as the lyrics are Quinn and Andrews could get away with aimless echolalia. Their harmonies, augmented by Richey’s baleful Dobro, evoke both bliss and empathy. Never mind that the Everybodyfields’ music eludes easy definition. They represent both the new and old traditions extremely well.
Good enough, in fact, to make you quit watching football…