Virginia folk singer writes love songs to country built on jazz and swing.
Appalachian folklore favors heroes who are wily, witty, and playful, and if possession of these qualities is any indication of authenticity, then Devon Sproule could easily be cast as having grown right out of the red clay Southern ground. In a way, she did -- raised on a rural commune outside of Charlottesville, Sproule knows her Virginia earth. On the opening song of Keep Your Silver Shined, Sproule's love song to rural and small-town Southern life, she playfully lilts through references to the region's slate rock, red clay, and huge tobacco fields.
And just as she traverses through the varieties of Virginia geography, so too does she skip around genres while staying faithfully close to home. In the end, Sproule arrives at the soulful country folk of Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch via the jazz rhythms of Fats Waller and swinging guitar fingerpicking of Django Reinhart. But where Williams and Welch inject melancholy and heartbreak into their tunes, Sproule's album is a gleeful celebration of domestic bliss and pastoral beauty.
Following the initial jug-band rhythms of "Old Virginia Block", Sproule eases into the folkier title track, which showcases another of her great strengths: a penchant for evocative, scene-setting detail layered with a clear-eyed insight. The song is structured almost entirely as a stream-of-conscious list of these descriptive details, with example after well-enunciated example tumbling out of her mouth as she moves in and out of conventional rhythmic lyrical structure. She sings:
Got the last of the apples, rosy just from the weather
An orchard map spread out green and red
A ten-cent yellow hat
Rotten fruit kicked off the path
Her hands in her pockets and her pockets in her pants
Her laundry list continues, but then the song opens unexpectedly out into a meditation on maturing into domesticity:
The seasons changed
The best of us changed
The rest of us stuck behind
To keep our silver shined
The refrain at first sounds almost bittersweet, but Sproule then repeats the structure and shifts her tone. She lists for us her more prosaic desires -- "a claw foot tub and a shiny car", "cute shoes and a vintage dress" -- but then raises her voice for her want for "a youthful man, with a youthful plan / I want to wait, oh, and take my time / All my time, to keep my silver shined". Sproule's crystalline voice soars to the rafters in this line, and raises up with it a feeling of joy and contentment.
Sproule's last album, 2003's Upstate Songs, shared a similar fondness for small, warm domestic details and jazzy, playful descriptions of nature, but Keep Your Silver Shined adds fuller, graceful instrumentation over Sproule's silvery alto and finger-picked acoustic guitar. The arrangements are warm, but light and breezy, featuring clarinet, accordion, pedal steel, and brushed drums that float around Sproule's rolling vocal delivery. The backing band lends even more swing to the bossa nova rhythm of "Stop by Anytime" and to songs like "Let's Go Out" and "Does the Day Feel Long?", both of which could be modern jazz standards. She's also recruited stellar vocal accompaniment. Her husband, bluesy folk singer Paul Curreri, joins her on many of the tracks, including the standout duet "Eloise and Alex", and the final track, the high lonesome sing-along "Weeping Willow," which also features vocals from country legend Mary Chapin Carpenter.
The centerpiece and strongest track of the album, though, is the country waltz "Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest". The warm sound of Sproule's vintage Gibson electric guitar shuffles alongside the pedal steel accompaniment, and perfectly underpins Sproule's story of friendships deepening in a wood-paneled bar over rum and gingers "and Sandy Grey's guitar". The whole effect is loose, fluid, and inviting, and the message -- "dress sharp, play well, be modest, keep good what you have" -- is one that the listener can take to heart. Sproule certainly has.