WellSpring, Keith Harry and Stephen Evans release new albums

THE NEXT STEP: Clockwise from left, WellSpring, Keith Harry, and Stephen Evans & the True Grits exhibit significant artistic growth on their latest albums. WellSpring photo by Hayden Lilien; Harry photo by Tom Farr; Evans photo by Neal McClure

As the adage goes, every band starts as a cover band. While many groups gradually shed that past as their catalog of original material grows, others double down on those roots, particularly when the material they cover is central to the band’s identity.

Such is the case for WellSpring, an Asheville-based group featuring singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Laura Boswell and Molly Hartwell. The band’s inception began just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the two artists bonded while singing Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” and other tunes on Hartwell’s front porch.

“Our voices blend really naturally together,” says Boswell.

Released in December, WellSpring’s self-titled debut was produced by Daniel Shearin of River Whyless, who also helmed Boswell’s 2020 EP, Place to Be. The new album consists of seven covers — ranging from The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown]”) and Simon & Garfunkel (“The Boxer”) to Billie Eilish (“When the Party’s Over”) — and two originals. Lush harmonies, epic instrumentation and thematic symmetry help unify the album’s broad range of inspiration.

“I think all the songs on the album have that quality of being in life with an open heart,” Hartwell says.

Fittingly, “Open Heart” is one of the release’s two original tracks and offers raw and honest musings on love and life. The pair say they plan to continue to write new material; but considering the way they’re able to transform others’ works into something simultaneously familiar and fresh, covers will remain an integral part of their catalog.

“It was definitely a process because the stakes are kind of high when you’re doing a Beatles song or a Simon & Garfunkel song that’s really well loved,” Boswell says. “If you’re not going to do something different, you might as well just listen to the original.”

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Roaming rat

Local music fans primarily know Keith Harry as the bassist for Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats, but the man wears many hats.

Along with his and Scotchie’s side project, Kind Clean Gentlemen, Harry is the talent buyer for the Black Mountain music venue Silverado’s, touring bassist for former Asheville resident Kevin Daniel’s ensemble and a co-founder of the Jamiroquai tribute band, the Space Cowboys & The Cosmic Girls. Now, with his debut EP, Between the Lines, he also joins the league of Asheville-based singer-songwriters — though, perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s not really anything new, either.

“‘Hop, Skip & a Jump’ — I wrote that song about 15 years ago,” Harry says of the album’s third track. “Which blew my mind when I thought about that. I was just like, ‘Oh my God. I’ve been doing this a while.’”

Counter to those years of experience, Between the Lines is peppered with youthful vibes defined by bouncy grooves and fun layering of synth and organ sounds. The album is also ripe with Harry’s active bass lines as well as his clear, slightly nasal vocals reminiscent of “Weird Al” Yankovic.

“I do love me some Weird Al, but that’s a new one,” he says to the comparison. “I’ve gotten all sorts of random, ‘Oh, you sound like this. You sound like that,’ but never Weird Al. So, I’m into it.”

Pop/jazz stalwarts Steely Dan and Jeff Beck, says Harry, are more direct influences. And on his EP, Harry has melded their styles into his own through collaborations with multi-instrumentalist Josh Cavinder and The Get Right Band drummer JC Mears.

Absent from the album, however, is Scotchie; and Harry was likewise uninvolved with Scotchie’s forthcoming solo release, currently slated for early June. But there’s no need for concern: Rather than create tension within the band, Harry sees these side projects as positive and even necessary for the River Rats’ long-term health, as well as key to its continually evolving creativity.

“That’s what I think is great about the Rats,” Harry says. “Andrew’s a rocker and a punk rocker through and through, and I have a little bit more of a fusion brain. It’s great that these kinds of things help form that sound, drawing in all the influences. And we teach each other stuff and learn from each other.”

Harry additionally learned plenty about himself while writing Between the Lines. “Caught Up in Your Mood” was inspired by his partner, Brittany Freeman, and “I Should Have Stayed Up” was Harry’s way of processing the loss of his father, who tragically took his own life in 2017.

Helpful as the artistic process has been for Harry in navigating his emotions, he also acknowledges the great extent to which mental health services have played a role in his well-being. And to express his gratitude, he’s donating proceeds from sales and streams of “I Should Have Stayed Up” to Asheville-based All Souls Counseling, a nonprofit whose services he continues to use.

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Third time’s the charm

After releasing the DIY albums Something to Bleed (2015) and Under the Bridge (2017), Stephen Evans & the True Grits felt ready for the professional studio treatment with its latest collection, Buzz of Bees.

“Listening to a lot of the other artists in town and hearing the quality of their recordings and how well they’re done, I just wanted to try to get to that level,” Evans says. “We’re proud of our other albums, but it’s so much better when you’re really proud of how it sounds. So, I’m glad we took that step.”

Facilitating the process was none other than Julian Dreyer, one of the most respected studio engineers in the Southeast, thanks to years of laudable work with local and touring artists at Echo Mountain Recording. But rather than track at the revered studio, the Asheville-based Americana band got to witness Dreyer’s sonic wizardry up close at Side House Records.

“I was amazed how fast he is. What takes me hours and hours, it takes him a few clicks,” Evans says. “And [I appreciated] how patient he was with the musicians when we had to do some certain things over and over.”

Accompanying Evans on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, the True Grits consist of Brian Shoemaker (guitar/bass/vocals), Sam Hess (drums) and the single-named Woodstock (mandolin). Rounding out their sound on Buzz of Bees is a trio of all-star guest Grits: Katie Leigh Bryant (violin/fiddle), Aaron Price (piano/organ/synth accordion) and Derrick Lee Johnson (trombone).

The firm instrumental foundation nicely complements Evans’ songwriting, which covers a range of relatable subjects across the album’s dozen tracks. The most playful of the lot is “Kid in a Dream,” which came about in a wave of nostalgia after seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca in the Star Wars movie Solo.

“That inspired me to write a song about thinking about my childhood and my childhood dreams and fantasies,” he says. “I actually wrote that pretty much almost all in one night after that movie. It just came to me and flowed really easily. Some songs are like that — I wish most songs were like that.”

Elsewhere, the musicality of a friend’s name proved to be the jumping pad for “Estefania,” an energetic tune that showcases Evans’ love of Latin music. And the emotionally rich “Music Man” finds the artist grappling with the complicated legacy of his late father, a fellow musician whose hard-living ways on the road now make more sense to his son.

“That helped me work through it, thinking about it to the point where, ‘Oh, he was just a person like me that was just struggling,’” Evans says. “You always put your parents on a pedestal like they’re superheroes, and really they’re just humans trying to get by just like you.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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