The Asheville area’s traditional music community may be small, but not to the extent that players can’t occasionally escape each other’s notice. Such was the case with guitarist Sarah Louise Henson and fiddler Sally Anne Morgan, whose duo House and Land play Friday, June 9, to celebrate its self-titled debut record.
Though the musicians’ paths had, in Henson’s words, “somehow never crossed,” they started to intertwine when Morgan saw Henson play at The Mothlight — the site of their forthcoming album release show — and could tell they probably had a good deal in common musically, as well as a lot to talk about. In hindsight, Morgan sees her decision to not approach Henson after that performance as a missed opportunity but compensated a few months later when her band, the Black Twig Pickers, tasked her with finding an opener for one of its rare Asheville sets.
Also sensing a connection, Henson asked Morgan if she wanted to play fiddle with her for a different gig Henson had coming up at The Grey Eagle. While rehearsing for that show, it quickly became apparent that their overlapping interests extended to specific types of Appalachian music as well as more experimental styles.
“The first time we got together to play music, it was in my living room, and I tried out some droney fiddle to some of Sarah’s guitar arrangements. It just felt so right,” Morgan says. “At some point, we also asked each other if we could sing, and I was like, ‘Yes, I just learned this ballad from a recording of Jean Ritchie called “The Unquiet Grave,”’ and Sarah already also knew it, and knew that exact version, so it was really easy to start singing and playing together.”
Henson’s musical journey began with developing a strong interest in prewar blues in high school, devouring the extensive liner notes of reissues and twisting class assignments to incorporate the genre. She later learned her first ballads from an Asheville organic farm co-worker and fell in love with eastern Kentucky tunes, thanks to a local fiddle player.
Meanwhile, Morgan became obsessed with old-time fiddle music while attending college in southwest Virginia. The vibrant community of fellow enthusiasts helped feed that interest and, like Henson, she started hunting down field and early commercial recordings from libraries, other local players and at music festivals. Road tripping with her Black Twig Pickers bandmates to visit such old-timers as Lester McCumbers in Nicut, W.Va., and Richard Bowman in Mount Airy, furthered her education.
For their first joint album, Henson and Morgan picked 10 songs both had sung for years, having returned to them time and again for their personal staying power. Also among the selections are tunes with feminist themes or those whose lyrics could be altered to provide a similar perspective, bringing a modernist, experimental edge to familiar works.
“It did feel important to address women’s issues in the music because ballads do often tell a pretty dark tale of the patriarchy,” Henson says. “We’re not trying to rewrite history but to bear witness to hardships women have endured and in some cases to honor women from the past by imagining what their lives could have been like.”
Striking in its minimalism, House and Land was recorded with producer/mixer Joseph Dejarnette at his Studio 808A, an old farmhouse in Floyd, Va. Dejarnette’s work on the past two Black Twig Pickers albums made him an easy choice for the job, and Morgan was more than happy to tap into his specific set of skills for her new project. “He has an incredible ear and can really pinpoint the very best part of a room to be in, the very best place to mic an instrument, which, I think, is especially important with stripped-down acoustic stuff,” she says.
With new songs already primed for sharing in live settings, House and Land plan to do more recording and touring in the second half of 2017. While exciting times no doubt await, it will nevertheless be tough to beat the duo’s transformative experiences from late March, when the musicians warmed up the stage for Lambchop at a trio of Midwest dates.
“All of those dudes are so great,” Henson says. “We had a fun time nerding out about gear with Kurt [Wagner], cracking up from Tony [Crow]’s jokes and getting old British folk recommendations from Matt [Swanson]. They were all super down-to-earth, sounded amazing every night and were supersupportive of us as openers every night of the tour.”
Morgan concurs: “Lambchop has especially good audiences — loyal fans who are there to listen. It was cool to have a large audience be so quiet while we were playing.”
WHO: House and Land with Nathan Bowles and Emmalee Hunnicutt
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Friday, June 9, 9 p.m. $8