Ami Worthen is to other singer/songwriters what Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie memoirs were to the correlating disease-du-jour TV series: at once lighter (i.e., less melodramatic) and deeper.
Though clearly influenced by old-time sounds — in this case, urban strains of early jazz rather than mountain music — Worthen writes her own material. She can’t, therefore, be considered a traditional old-time musician.
But neither can she be smoothly stirred into the coffeehouse crowd. Fronting the duo Mad Tea Party with multi-instrumentalist boyfriend Jason Krekel (Larry Keel Experience, Snake Oil Medicine Show), Worthen, who plays banjo and ukulele, offers original tunes in the confessional mode.
What makes her actually original is an awkwardly porcelain singing style that’s subversive in its very buoyancy: not for Worthen the trained anger of the DiFranco school.
Her angel-with-budding-horns vibe can be absorbed straight or skewed, making Mad Tea Party equal to both family festivals and hipster dives.
“All the teachers liked me,” the singer chimes penitently in her song “I Never Was a Cool One,” the second track on Mad Tea Party’s current album, Be in Life (Whose That Records, 2002). “Cool One” comes off as part Gen-X novelty ode (the singer admits that she “always wore tube socks” and “never learned Rubix Cube”), part outreach effort to fellow nerds-in-recovery.
After confessing to having favored Little House books growing up, Worthen shows off her knack for slant rhymes, singing, “Became a vegetarian/ Back then it wasn’t very in.”
Talking about the music that inspires her songwriting, however, requires Worthen to look back much further than the early 1980s.
“We do more ragtime and early jazz [rather than rural old-time music],” she explains. “Jason and I are very influenced by old 78s from the ’20s and ’30s.” (Settling briefly for “hokum” or “novelty” jazz, the duo recently landed on “postmodern parlor music” as the most precise tag to describe it.)
“I appreciate a rawness in music,” Worthen continues. “If something is too slick, it doesn’t speak to my soul.”
Mad Tea Party’s CD-in-progress, tentatively titled 89% Post-Consumer Novelty, “will better capture what we do live,” Worthen asserts. (Be in Life featured significant input from guest musicians.)
Her other major project, the Hula Cats, is a vintage-Hawaiian-music party band that blossomed from Worthen’s attraction to the ukulele. It’s an obsession she shares with a growing number of four-string radicals collectively known as the Ukulele Freedom Front.
Sharing both “a certain repertoire [and] an understanding,” the uke players she meets tend to be on the “quirky” side, admits Worthen.
“We’re liberating ukuleles from the closets and attics of America,” she proclaims. Among the UFF’s “battle cries” is “Ending the Six-String Domination of the Music Industry.” Another is “Ukes Not Nukes.”
Notes Worthen: “It’s a subculture that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I like.”
What she takes (slightly) more seriously is the issue of where Mad Tea Party fits within local traditional-music circles. The short answer? Nowhere.
“We can’t book ourselves as a singer/songwriter act or a preservationist act, either,” Worthen explains. “I have a lot of respect for people who are preservationists, but I am part of keeping folk music alive in terms of creating new songs and new sounds.”
Both dreams, she feels, are equally important.
“My particular role is in reinventing folk music,” she reveals, “and less in trying to preserve what was done before.”