The ballad of Laura Blackley

The Laura Blackley Band’s new CD, Liquid Courage, is bluesy, gritty, sexy … and by turns joyous and sorrowful. Just like the group’s front woman herself.

The album is both raw and polished at the same time. But best of all, it’s resolutely real.

Liquid Courage (SBS Records) is genuine right down to its cover’s faded, black-and-white snapshot of two women back in 1947. They’re standing side by side, with one looking highly intoxicated and brandishing two bottles of whiskey, and the other smiling and holding a glass aloft.

“I don’t know who the really drunk-looking one holding the two bottles is, but the one holding the glass is my Great Aunt Josephine, who lives up in Urbana, Virginia,” said Blackley, who herself grew up in the tiny farming and fishing community of Warsaw, Va.

“I don’t know that she knows she’s on the album cover yet or not,” Blackley continued during our recent chat on the front deck of West Asheville’s Lucky Otter.

The singer/songwriter discovered the photo several years back when she was going through her late grandmother’s possessions, and held onto it for five years — knowing it would make a wonderful album cover when the right record came along.

No question this is the one: The profusely poetic songs on Liquid Courage, all written by Blackley, strike a seamless balance between the deeply personal and what can only be called the historical. There’s a beautiful emphasis on storytelling, an art that runs deep in Blackley’s blood.

“The women in my family are such great storytellers,” reveals the self-taught acoustic guitarist. “Who would ever have thought that you could make money doing what they just do for fun, sitting on the porch shelling beans? People don’t do that anymore, really. It kind of almost seems out of place now.

“My one grandmother is still kicking, and she still tells a good story, though.”

If Blackley has her way, the unappreciated women of past generations will live on forever.

“I like to write songs about people [that] history maybe didn’t give a fair shake to — well, the way the history books are written in elementary school, anyway.”

Blackley’s raucous, twangy “Bonnie Parker’s Ballad,” for instance, offers a revisionist view of the violent, hell-raising lawbreaker that veers wildly from the hysterical portrait that actress Faye Dunaway painted in director Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.

“Well, Faye, why did you sell me up the river?” Blackley sings. “Had me screaming and crying like some fool/ I shot that gun because I wanted to/ Because Bonnie Parker ain’t nobody’s fool.”

“This was a woman who used a submachine gun to bust her man out of jail,” Blackley muses during our talk. “I really don’t think she’s gonna scream around like a banshee and be a tool, the way the movie portrayed her.”

Point taken.

Then there’s the elusive Helen, the legendary ghost said to linger about the so-called Helen’s Bridge on Asheville’s Town Mountain Road near the Beaucatcher Tunnel. Local lore has it that a woman hanged herself off the bridge, and to this day her specter is said to appear to unsuspecting passersby.

Blackley’s appropriately haunting “Helen’s Bridge” actually began one night in The Bier Garden as an almost-wager between her and sister Asheville musician B.J. Bowen. It seems Bowen came extremely close to betting Blackley a whopping $1,000 that Blackley wouldn’t spend the night at Helen’s Bridge.

“At the last minute, she took her money off the table,” Blackley admits, “because she said she was thinking, ‘Right now, you’re just about stupid enough to do it. So I’m gonna pay my bills instead.'”

Blackley never did spend the night at Helen’s Bridge, though she obviously did write the song, which humanizes the apparition that’s become more of a Halloween fright for kids than anything else.

The more personal cuts on Liquid Courage range from the wrenching breakup epic “Never Been Wrong” to the disc’s most sultry and tantalizingly seductive number, “Sweeten Yo Stew,” which plays up Blackley’s distinctive pipes.

Her voice on the latter is part Bonnie Raitt, part something more delicate: “We’ll use the kitchen table if we run out of room,” she sings. “You be my cayenne pepper, I’ll be your sugar cube.”

From day jobs and darkness …

The core trio of Blackley, Julie Couch (drums and vocals) and Tony Harp (bass) has been constant since the group’s beginnings in 1999. The Laura Blackley Band currently augments their front woman’s acoustic playing with different guitarists; Mars Fariss is the most recent (he also plays a mean Dobro).

The group now plays an average of 150 to 200 shows a year, taking to the road in their dark-green “church van,” as Blackley calls it.

The singer reveals a surprising source to her recent songwriting — at least it would surprise those who haven’t yet encountered Blackley’s refreshingly unpretentious personality.

“On my last record that I put out, I had gone to work for a landscaping company, and we did a lot of repetitive work all day,” she explains. “And I firmly believe that anything you do that’s repetitive — be it shoveling, weeding, whatever — where you’re in your own headspace for an eight-hour day, creative thoughts are just gonna kind of rush in. You don’t really have to conjure them up in any sort of way.”

Still, Liquid Courage gives us a rising star already light years beyond those backbreaking days. Unlike her band’s two previous CDs, the new album features high-profile guests such as Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ n Cryin’ fame on mandolin, and Joey Huffman, who’s played with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, on keyboards.

But Blackley attributes much of the CD’s superb polish to Atlanta singer/songwriter Michelle Malone, who produced the record and contributes harmony vocals.

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