Led by Keith Smith and the mononymous Sparrow, Asheville-based band Resonant Rogues combine flavors of Appalachian old-time, early jazz and Eastern European folk to create a distinctive and original sound. The group’s latest album, Hands in the Dirt, uses that sound as a backdrop for lyrics that focus on universal — and sometimes very topical — themes. The band celebrates the album release with a show at Isis Music Hall on Saturday, May 6.
Resonant Rogues are a showcase for the musicians’ collective and individual instrumental skills, but the song lyrics are a key component of the group’s appeal. One of the most moving tunes on Hands in the Dirt is its final track, “Can’t Come In.” The song presents an imagined dialogue between a refugee and a gatekeeper who explains that “we have only just enough for all our kin.”
Like several of the tunes on the album, “Can’t Come In” was written during the band’s recent jaunt through Europe. “We took a tour from Istanbul to Ireland,” Sparrow recalls. “A long trip.” During their travels, Sparrow and Smith met and became fast friends with Basher Balleh, a Syrian refugee currently living in the aforementioned Turkish city. Adding an extra layer of poignancy, one verse of “Can’t Come In” was written and sung by Balleh. Lyrically and musically, the song represents Resonant Rogues’ successful synthesis of folk styles from across the globe into something unique and personal.
The band isn’t afraid to include a direct message within the lyrics of “Can’t Come In.” Explicitly referencing Emma Lazarus’ 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus,” with its mention of tired, hungry and poor, as well as the core message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (“Do unto others …”), “Can’t Come In” celebrates the welcome home that folk music — whatever its origin — provides for social conscience. The song’s final verse changes the refrain to the more hopeful “welcome in / we have … more than enough for all our kin.” As with all of the songs on Hands in the Dirt, listeners can appreciate the lyrical content, but they can — and probably should — dance along as well.
As part of the current jazz and Americana renaissance, Sparrow and Smith both teach swing lessons and go to the local dances wherever they find themselves on tour. The pair often perform at those events, too. “It’s a good scene that keeps that music alive,” Smith says.
“I think we’re seeing more of a resurgence of the earlier styles,” Sparrow says. Those musical forms represent “the places where jazz really intersects with other styles of Americana like country and Western swing.”
Among other influences, the songs that Sparrow and Smith write are informed by jazz manouche, a prewar style most often associated with guitarist Django Reinhardt. But Smith recognizes a commonality between that genre and Appalachian styles, as well as traditions from the Baltic region of Europe. “It’s all folk music,” he explains. “People play together like families. It gets passed on; it’s not academic.”
Resonant Rogues do their part to keep the music fresh through an exuberant combination of planning and spontaneity. “We work out arrangements with our band members,” Smith says. But Sparrow adds that a song like “Trevor Bought a House” from Hands in the Dirt “has the ‘official’ parts, but then it’s got solo sections built in.” Sparrow and Keith each compose songs individually — a listener can usually tell who wrote a song simply by who’s singing it — but group collaboration on arrangements adds a distinctive character to the music.
Like many musicians, both Sparrow and Smith are involved in multiple projects. Sparrow also leads a group called Sparrow and Her Wingmen, which draws from some of the same influences that color Resonant Rogues’ music. But she sees a sharp distinction between the two. “Sparrow and Her Wingmen is specifically focused on vintage jazz,” she explains. “Resonant Rogues play some vintage jazz tunes — that’s part of our influence — but it’s not the focus of the band.”
Keeping in mind the various folk styles that stirred her psyche as she wrote new songs — compositions that still feel steeped in history and world travel — Sparrow adds, “Our focus is on original music.”
WHO: Resonant Rogues
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Saturday, May 6, 9 p.m. $10