Early this morning, I stumbled out of bed and into the kitchen, feeding the cat and brewing coffee. I planned to take the day off from the blog, do a few chores and catch up on The Rain, a Danish dystopian drama on Netflix that, despite it being a story of a pandemic brought on by rain, is less unsettling (and more escapist) than American Rust.
Then I clicked play on Emily Scott Robinson’s American Siren. The North Carolina native, who first picked up the guitar at age 13, decided to pursue songwriting after seeing Nanci Griffith in 2007; and the Nanci influence is evident throughout the album, which features a seamless blend of folk and country. She crafts characters and stories that resonate throughout and, as importantly, pairs them with melodies that do the same. Add her clear soprano, which sends shivers up the spine, into the mix and you have the perfect combination. It’s not a flawless album, mind you, yet glimmers with greatness.
Despite her decision to become a songwriter, Robinson focused her education elsewhere, graduating college with degrees in history and Spanish. She moved to Telluride, Colo., not long thereafter to take a job as a victim’s advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Telluride is home to the famed bluegrass festival, as most music fans know, as well as a robust (and supportive) community of talented musicians. She fell in with some, attended Planet Bluegrass’ The Song School, and discovered that her artistic dreams could be turned into reality. She released her first album, Magnolia Queen, in 2016 and her second, Traveling Mercies, in 2019. Her 2020 single, “The Time for Flowers,” caught the ear of Oh Boy Records’ Jody Whelan, which resulted in Oh Boy releasing American Siren.
Though some songs on American Siren are drawn from her imagination, such as “If Trouble Comes a Lookin’,” others are drawn from her life. “Cheap Seats,” for instance, came about after she saw John Prine and Bonnie Raitt in concert at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium in 2019. Another example is the touching “Hometown Hero,” which was inspired by her 27-year-old cousin, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who—like too many other soldiers—committed suicide: “You should be with us now/You should be here/We should be sitting by the fire on our second round of beers/We opened the whiskey, we’re out back in the shop/We’re raising our glass to you, still numb from the shock….”
In the press release for American Siren, she says, “I think that the thread running through the album is those things that call to us, and how we can’t resist that call. It’s about the siren songs that come up through our lives.” That sums it up very well, I think. It’s not perfect, as I said up top, primarily due to the ballads that dominate the second half. The songs themselves are all strong, mind you, but one slow song after the next takes a toll as they tend to blend together. That said, the banjo-driven “Old North State,” which ends the set, more than makes up for those molasses moments.
As I like to say of late, give it a go.