The song “Sweet William” was my entry into the latest EP by The Sweet Maries, a Chicago-based folk duo. Tall Trees and Riverbeds forges a fascinating trail through dark and dreamy folk to feather-light pop music that has your heart turning and face smiling. Walking the line between beautiful and the edge of a fog, it exists on the edge of perception, but with both feet on the ground to keep it real. The result is fantastic.
Epic and poignant in all the right ways, “Sweet William” swings with a Renaissance-era waltz. Orchestration carefully surrounds this sad, dramatic ballad with what the band describes as “a Civil War era” hunger accented by military-style snare drum para-diddles. An acapella section, accented with guitar and then mandolin, is the tapestry behind lyrics that sound timeless yet relevant: about war, birth and the black morning. Not one to normally be moved by overly sentimental nor derivative folk music, I found this to be neither. Instead, it is what every great folk ballad should be: moving, deep and longing with a story that enters the edges of your mind like the dawn, with bites of description that still leave much to the imagination.
Co-leaders Susie Lofton and Amy Shoemaker have theatrical backgrounds that lend to the drama of the songs. WIth this development of this EP, Lofton says, “Like theater, we felt we were building the set that would support the songs. Its not only the writing of the songs that we started with. We pictured it as an introduction into the world starting with a thin line of water, the river. The river is its own sort of road that calls you, and leads you somewhere. It was an invitation of a Spirit’s call that echos through the album.” It has themes of life, birth, love, death, re-birth, providence and friendship masterfully interwoven into ear-freindly music.
The cover art for the 5-track EP Tall Trees & Riverbeds by The Sweet Maries, is full of trees, literally. In this case, you can’t see the forest through the trees because they stand trunk to trunk. This visually creates an air of mystery, of the thick thick woods—and the music reflects this. Each song is like a hidden cove in a forest that you chance upon, or find after a long journey. This music is for journeys and has a driven, deeply motivated vibe that provides sustenance as you listen. It’s great music for a road trip, not just a vacation but a trip to find yourself.
“Tall Trees & Riverbeds meant to us a mode of journey,” shares Susie Marie. “Dirt Road”, the first song on the EP, represented moving forward by using road signs of the past. The crafting of the album was very intentional, and we were trying to shape the journey we’ve been on as an opportunity to hit the open road to the future, while being propelled by our past.”
“Oh, Mary” is a traditional song and has biblical references to Pharaoh’s army. The refrain of “Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you moan” recalls a spiritual from the American South in the 1800s with strong clapping, backup vocals and killer mandolin. The song has a similar feel and vibe to John Hiatt’s “Lift Up Every Stone.”
The first words of “Oh Mary”: “If I could I surely would, stand on the rock where Moses stood” are connected to a web of modern and vintage musicians. It was the first line in the Aerosmith song “Hangman Jury” on Permanent Vacation (1987), and it’s also (fittlingly) the first line of “On The Rock Where Moses Stood” by The Carter Family (a folk group active in the 1930s and 1940s); and has been covered by Flatts & Scruggs among others. The same song is sometimes referred to as “Cryin’ Holy” or “Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord” (such as when covered by Bill Monroe). The lyrics to “Oh Mary” place the song in the lineage of this phrase, but have a spin. The addition of “Mary wore three links of chain, and every link was Jesus’s name” creates visual imagery and suspense, as the full story is never disclosed. The vocals are delivered with control, coming out of their shell to give emphasis and then laying back.
The group’s sound won them previous acclaim. One of the highlights of their work so far was being nominated for the video for “Fat Man’s Holler” at CIMMfest in Chicago. “We were nominated and shown along side “The Winding Stream”, a short documentary film about the Carter and Cash Families that won it’s category. What a thrill to share the screen with such rich and wonderful legendary musicians that have inspired us, along with countless others,” says Susie Marie.
The group’s music is full of drama and they plan to follow this trend and weave theatre into its presentation. “We have a vision to create more imagery atmosphere onstage using set pieces, lighting and maybe some projection. Both of us come from theatrical backgrounds, and that is something we hope to do more regularly. We ‘s also like to become more involved with film licensing. Calling all directors – we’re ready for you!”
Visual imagery and suspense is a theme of the album, where the songs are full of expert storytelling that create pictures, but not before painting a mood that sets the stage and the setting; each song is its own personal world full of mysteries and rewards. The voices which tell the stories are also fine-tuned. Clearly experienced vocalists, the harmonies and accents of Shoemaker and Lofton play against one another with edgy beauty, purpose and conviction.
“Brighter Day” is a refreshing step into the modern world, with a first line that includes the word “shut up” and there’s plenty of la-la-las to sing along. In the hands of a lesser band, this would be trite, but it is pulled off with just enough grit to make it fun—and real. “When I’m messed up, I know who to call, you defend me after all” is something almost everyone can relate to, and I find myself rooting for the pair of people in this song. The singing here is more conversational, showing the band’s versatility in doing more than dark and dreamy folk music. This is pop music gracefully missing the schlock and glam. Instead, it glides through the mind like a toy boat after a rainstorm in a fun and uplifting way.
By the time I get to the fourth song as I check out this EP, I start to wonder, are these all going to be this good? “Dirt Road” which includes the holler reminiscent of a Native American yell, and the catchy lines “I’m headed down the road with a heavy heavy load” and “the windshield needs cleaning, the fan belt starts squealing,” says ‘yes.’ The driving rhythm and relate-able tale of driving down the road feeling low and the lyrics sharing about the “hard knot on the inside” is refreshed by the oddly perfect harmonies of the chorus and the interesting timing of how the verses come in. Once again, a variety of depth and instrumentation shows how arrangements can really make a tune. With this variety of layers, from bass and mandolin, to drums and bells, each coming in like guests as they are invited in, are key in building the song from within, adding layers that bloom and burst while staying entirely cohesive.
On this EP, Lofton and Shoemaker are joined by Steve Martin (banjo, madolin and 12-string) (no, not the comedian Steve Martin, who also plays banjo), Mitch Straeffer (bass) and Meg Thomas (percussion). Producer is Jeffrey Wood. “Thankfully, we can humbly say Jeffrey is a friend, and and fan.That is saying a lot when it comes to an individual who has worked with a countless number of super stars within the music industry. We had limited time in the studio, and he was keen to capture our intent. His direction is [intuitive] and [constructive]. However, put an ugly, French Provincially painted upright piano in his view from the booth, and be ready to see a big black tarp placed over it tout de suite! You had to be there!” shares Susie. The fun of the studio comes through in this EP which will keep your ears enchanted.
I would go on, but perhaps you’ll just have to get the EP for yourself. If these four songs are any indication of the entire album, a fascinating listening experience to expertly developed folk with modern clarity awaits us.
I’ll leave you with this enchanting, sultry track “Box Canyon” Blues which cements The Sweet Maries as one of the most capable, creative, cunning folk groups making music today. This EP follows a holiday release Hark! (2018), and their self-titled debut album The Sweet Maries (2013), recorded at SPACE in Evanston.