The Milk Carton Kids’ contemporary take on American folk music

REFERENCE POINT: Despite a surface sonic connection to New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s, LA-based musicians Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, aka The Milk Carton Kids, are more influenced by Appalachian and jazz sounds than Lower West Side folk songs. Photo by Sara Kiesling

The Milk Carton Kids are really just two Los Angeles-based singer-songwriters — Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale — who figured out that they sounded good playing together. But to the rest of the Americana world, the two are magic in a bottle, blending the fraught folk weariness and preternatural guitar picking of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with the fragile pop harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel while tempering that sound with youthful earnestness and Smothers Brothers-style between-song repartee.

The duo, who perform at the Diana Wortham Theatre Monday, Nov. 9, began playing together under their shared moniker in 2011. Since then, Ryan and Pattengale have toured and recorded at a breathtaking pace to adoring critical acclaim, culminating in a Grammy nomination for their 2013 effort The Ash & Clay and a Duo/Group of the Year win at the Americana Music Association Awards in 2014.

What’s perhaps most interesting about The Milk Carton Kids’ music, though, lies beyond those surface-level impressions and goes deep into their enigmatic, often elliptical approach to songwriting. Ryan and Pattengale’s sound seems to be derived from music of very particular times and places — pre-World War II rural South, 1960s Greenwich Village coffeehouses and the 1970s Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene. But their shifting and blending of those influences, along with persistent references to cities and regions all across the country, lends a kind of restless lack of place that seems to pervade their music, even as they are capable of tapping into the throbbing heartbeat of a particular time and place.

Ryan is quick to note his roots in LA, but also readily admits to that perspective in the duo’s songs. “I feel that both of us in our professional lives, and this is reflected in the music, that neither of us have much of a sense of place,” he says. “Most of the time we’ve spent together over the last five years has been around this country and others. It’s like we’re making music that’s evocative of the entire nation more than a specific place.”

In part, that comes from writing songs that evoke specific places very explicitly. Take “Asheville Skies,” the opening track on the duo’s new record, Monterey. Ryan says the song was written on a day off in Asheville while on tour and that it captures a particular image. “I wanted to invoke a sight that you only see in the American South, a specific sort of fiery twilight sky that only exists in that one season and in [a place like] Asheville,” he says. “At that point, it also seemed to set the stage for the world of despair and feeling of ending that we wanted to get across in the song.”

Ryan refers to this kind of geographic placing as a “really effective literary shortcut,” something that also harkens back to the frequent invocation of locale in much of traditional folk music. “I think it actually serves to broaden the sense of place that the music is supposed to exist within,” he says. “Whether I’m reading something or listening to a song or just having a conversation, [I like] to have a sort of three-dimensional experience of what’s being said and where, so you know where you are.”

And although it might feel like this conversation suggests something akin to the windswept romance of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” Ryan says that oft-used comparison is something that he and Pattengale never saw coming and don’t particularly endorse. “I can hear it in the softness of our voices and the delicacy of the harmonies, and probably some of the vocabulary in the writing,” he says. “I don’t think anybody is wrong to say that, I just think it’s incomplete in a lot of ways. Kenneth’s guitar playing doesn’t really have anything to do with the Greenwich Village folk in the early ’60s. His comes from Appalachian flatpicking and avant-garde conversational jazz improvisation more than anything else.” Django Reinhart, Willie Nelson and Duke Ellington are likely Pattengale’s biggest influences rather than New York City’s Lower West Side.

Still, Ryan understands how the connection could be made. He also notes the popularity of the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis as sparking renewed interest in the sounds and styles associated with the Village. The Milk Carton Kids also participated in the concert film Another Day, Another Time that T Bone Burnett produced to celebrate that very same music. There’s a touching moment in that documentary when Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford tears up while listening to Ryan and Pattengale harmonize.

“We realize that in a lot of the ways we sing, it’s not that far off from what Simon & Garfunkel were doing. We just weren’t referencing it at all consciously [when we started],” Ryan says. “We only realized after the fact that it was going to be a touchstone for people.”

WHO: The Milk Carton Kids
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m. $29.50 advance/$32 at the door

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About Kyle Petersen
Kyle is a Columbia, South Carolina-based freelance music writer and graduate student at the University of South Carolina. He's also in a sincere, long-term love affair with the city of Asheville. You can follow him on Twitter at @kpetersen.

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