Joan Shelley - learning from the old folk
Joan Shelley isn’t the first folk musician to absorb influences from the Alan Lomax Archive but the Louisville, Kentucky-based singer, songwriter and guitarist has had a closer relationship than most to some of the vast store of music that the archive accommodates.
On returning to Louisville from Athens, Georgia, where she’d studied anthropology, Shelley was given the task of cleaning up and cataloguing a houseful of 78 rpm records, some of which were very rare and covered in mould, with friend and guitar player, Nathan Salsburg, who works for the Lomax organisation as a curator.
“Nathan was at a dinner party one night when someone came in and said they’d found a dumpster full of old records outside this house,” says Shelley, who makes her second visit to Glasgow’s Glad Café this weekend. “It turned out there were a whole lot more in the house because the guy who owned the house was a real hoarder. I needed some money, Nathan needed a hand and I sat for hours listening to all these records that came from a time that’s gone forever.”
Radio and the pop music industry have homogenised rural American music to a large extent for Shelley. She knew of the Carter Family but here were shelves full of examples of how people from around the same era sang and played music in a style that was particular to their own geographical location.
“It wasn’t all great music, in fact some of the voices were really scratchy and hard to listen to, but the best examples, people like the Blue Sky Boys and the Skillet Lickers, brought home to me how it was possible to make good music without having to conform and sound in a certain way,” she says. “It’s hard to assess the effect an experience like that will have had but it was definitely an education.”
Listening to Shelley’s latest album, Over and Even, it’s difficult to believe that this daughter of one of Kentucky’s musical heartlands had been unaware of the richness of the area’s culture before she left for college and returned as a flowering but uncertain troubadour.
Growing up on a horse farm outside Louisville – her mother reared show horses rather than the kind that compete in the Kentucky Derby – Shelley wrote songs and entered talent competitions. She won her first award at the age of nine but in her teens she became shy. She hardly spoke through high school, she says, and when her parents encouraged her to go on to college because neither of them had finished their courses, she chosen Athens because of its music scene.
“I wanted to perform in my teens but I used to get terrible stagefright,” she says, “So going to a new place where I didn’t know anybody, I was able to work my social awkwardness out. I actually became quite addicted to adrenaline. I was in the skydiving team. I did rowing and these things helped because going on stage was really about controlling my adrenaline. I’d get incredible adrenaline rushes when it came to singing and I wouldn’t say I’m completely over that but by the time I came back to Louisville I’d started to kind of enjoy being with an audience.”
Soon after she got back home she started thinking about recording the songs she’d been writing while she was a student. She fell in with a group of people who had home studios and were able to let her record and get used to hearing herself. Through mutual friends she met Cheyenne Marie Mize who in turn introduced her to Julia Purcell and on a camping trip to the Red River Gorge they bonded across the campfire, finding their voices suited each other. They formed Maiden Radio, releasing their self-titled first album in 2010 and following it up with two more, Lullabies the following year and Wolvering in 2015.
The group remains Shelley’s main outlet outside of the albums she makes under her own name but she enjoys the freedom to try new things that working alone gives her.
Just before the UK tour that brought her to Glasgow last time she spent a month in Greece, ostensibly on an idyllic songwriting retreat with other writers for the first time. When she arrived, however, she found herself alone in an abandoned beauty salon with no natural light and only intermittent internet connection. How this resulted in a set of songs that sound like they came out of the Kentucky hills she’s not sure.
“I normally wait for ideas to come to me but I forced myself to write every day,” she says. “They say you have to show up to work to get things done and I did that. Whether what I started was any good or not, I’d work until it was finished and the experience changed my perception of this whole process. It started off as a pretty freaky experience but it turned out great in the end.”
Joan Shelley plays the Glad Café, Glasgow on Saturday, March 5.
From The Herald, March 2, 2016