‘Avery County, I’m Bound to You’
Native son Barton Carroll is determined to put Avery County on the musical map.
The son of longtime Lees-McRae College theater department head Dr. Janet Barton Speer, Carroll is now based on the West Coast, but has just released his fourth album, titled “Avery County, I’m Bound to You.”
In his distinctive, literary style, Carroll relives his days in the North Carolina mountains, with an emphasis on mixing fact with fiction.
“On my previous albums, I definitely prescribed to the notion that fiction is the only place where you can tell the truth: what (director) Werner Herzog calls ‘the ecstatic truth,’” Carroll said. “The truth of narrative, rather than the lifeless quality of facts and data. So far, it has made me feel a lot more free at the writing table.
“But my method changed with this record. And while I would still insist that the stories and details are too nebulous to be literal, the title of the album is ‘Avery County, I’m Bound to You.’ And I did, indeed, grow up in Avery County, N.C. And I do, indeed, feel bound to that place.”
And, indeed, the High Country is a notable influence on the lyrics of Carroll’s new album, with references to a girl from Boone and a traditional sounding ballad, titled “The Beech Mountain Waltz.”
The unique instrumentation on “Avery County, I’m Bound to You” keeps the songs fresh and contemporary sounding. Carroll handles the vocal and guitar duties and is joined by Matt Weiner on electric and acoustic bass, Dan Peters on drums, Jakob Breitbach on violin, Nova Devonie on accordion, Charlie Beck on banjo, Hans Teuber on clarinet, flute, alto flute, piccolo and Wurlitzer organ and Steve Moore on trombone and Hammond organ.
The horn arrangement gives “What a Picture Is” a beautifully orchestrated sound, reminiscent of the Nashville big band, Lambchop.
“Avery County, I’m Bound to You” displays an ambitious folk-rock sound, rather than being tied to ancient traditions. “Laveda,” with its swirling flute passages, is reminiscent of early Traffic, while “Pretty Polly” revisits the murder ballad with a jazzy organ and a reference to Joey Ramone.
Carroll’s songwriting shows a keen attention to historical detail and storytelling, making him kindred spirits with The Decemberists’ Colin Malloy. And, like Malloy, Carroll has a voice that might be unusual in another musical setting, but is perfect for conveying the intimacy of his own songs.
There is a timeless quality to “Avery County,” as Carroll channels the past and the present and presents his vision in a very unique voice.
“My musical memories always echo with Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley and the other old-time voices,” Carroll said. “But while working on the songs for ‘Avery County, I’m Bound to You,’ I had records by Bad Religion and The Jam on the turntable and in my headphones. Those guys put the vocals up front and sing it like they mean business. It’s something I think they have in common with folk music.”
Carroll also read classic literature by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, while writing the songs for the new album.
“I did my best to channel them on songs like ‘The Straight Mile’ and ‘Laveda,’” Carroll said. “I reread ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and studied Harper Lee’s unique voice for ‘Mama’s Making Something on the Loom.’”
While Carroll purposely tried to create musical fiction on his first three albums, his latest is rife with personal memories and new reflections of his former home.
“As much as I’ve resisted writing autobiographically on my previous work, I just couldn’t get around it on this album,” Carroll said. “So, these songs are reflections of an upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains seen through the lens of several years of city life on the West Coast. Like when Tom Waits sings, ‘I never saw the East Coast until I moved to the West.’”
Barton Carroll’s new album, “Avery County, I’m Bound to You,” will be released Oct. 15.