Friday, April 24, 2015

New Music: The Flatland Tourists

When I was a little girl most of my weekends were spent accompanying my father to "pickin'" parties where his bluegrass musician friends would run through the same 35 songs every Saturday night. Aside from the occasional "Rocky Top" (which they only played out of obligation to a request) or "Fox on the Run," I didn't pay that much attention unless an odd lyric caught my ear. I remember sitting on the top bunk in a one room cabin when I began to think about the double meaning of "What Am I Doing Hangin' `Round." I grabbed a nearby rope and feigned literal hanging to my dad's amusement.

While I enjoyed the company of many of my father's friends, I was indifferent to music that had nothing in common with what I saw on MTV, "American Bandstand" (which was still on in the `80s), "Solid Gold," or even "Nashville Now." What would have caught my attention as a 7 or 8 year old girl, was a killer female vocalist and an original catalog that expanded on the 35 standards I'd heard on a weekly basis for years ("Don't they get tired of those songs, daddy?").

I could imagine my ears perking up and running toward the stage if Waxhaw's the Flatland Tourists had turned up at one of dad's bluegrass festivals. Now, Americana music is in a much different place than it was back then. And the Union County quintet isn't a straight bluegrass band, although those elements mingle with blues, folk, and country. What would have caught my ear as a kid is singer Rachel Garcia, whose soulful, bluesy voice reminds me of Rosanne Cash with a touch of Janis Joplin, but she's really got her own unique emotive sound and phrasing. When she sings "Coffee in the morning and cocaine the bottle, ease my pain" during "The Only Thread," the catch in her voice projects ample pain without overplaying it.

Earlier this year two of its songs - "Cold Water River" and "No Work No Pay" - made Roots Music Report's Top 10 singles chart, which tracks radio play placing the band in the company of Ryan Adams and the Carolina Chocolate Drops' Rhiannon Giddens.

The EP kicks off with "Cold Water River," which boasts lyrical harmonica that provides a counterpoint to Garcia's colorful vocals. This isn't what mainstream country is today, but its easy to imagine the Flatland Tourists singing "Cold Water River" or "Our Time (Hallelujah)" on "Hee-Haw" or "Nashville Now" back in the day.

Guitarist Joe Williams and bassist Kevin Winchester (who is also a novelist) add lyrical color by switching to a more humorous tone with "Elvis at the Fast Fare" (which you can hear in the clip above). Imagine recognizing Presley buying jelly donuts at a gas station in Knoxville (which actually is kind of what I imagined happening to Adam Ant when he lived in rural Tennessee - no joke - in the late `90s).

You can check out the Flatland Tourists' self-titled EP here or here. It's available on iTunes as well.

You can also catch them live. The band will play two acoustic sets at Waxhaw's free Art Kaleidoscope festival Saturday May 16 at 2 and 4 p.m.; at Treehouse Vineyard in Monroe Saturday May 23; and open for Shovels & Rope at NC Music Factory's Friday Live concert series June 3 and at Double Door June 13.