BY TOM SPEED
Valerie June grew up in Humbolt, Tenn. That’s just north of Jackson, home of Carl Perkins and damn near smack dab between Nashville and Memphis. She sounds like it too, with her Dolly Parton twang and Memphis soul groove.
She’s put out records on her own for years, and last year was a part of Luther Dickinson’s folk-rock supergroup The Wandering, along with Shannon McNally, Amy Lavere and Sharde Thomas. On her on records, it’s usually just been her and her songs. An adept instrumentalist on guitar, banjo, ukulele and probably anything made of wood and wire, and she has a uniquely haunting voice that’s full of well-worn wisdom and wry observation.
She’s a natural talent as a songwriter too. At a recent show in Oxford, Miss. I watched her keep an intimate audience intensely rapt for two full hour-long sets of music consisting of nothing but her voice and her stringed instruments. Tucked away into a makeshift concert hall with temporary seating in the bowels of the much larger Gertrude Ford Center for the Performing Arts, she confessed to the audience of about a hundred that she sometimes felt guilty for the way songs just came to her, seemingly out of the ether. She called them a gift.
But for Pushin’ Against A Stone, her major label “debut”, she augments her simple approach with a wide range of sounds, utilizing a variety of producers including Dan Auerbach, Kevin Augunas and Peter Sabak.
For instance, on the opening track “Workin’ Woman Blues,” her trance rhythm and plaintive near-yodel is soon supplanted by a forceful Afro-pop propulsion of horns and driving beats. On the Auerbach-produced title track the Black Keys frontman infuses the song with a trademark reverb and crunch, buoyed by background vocals. And, having spent many years living in Memphis, it’s only fitting that she corrals several players from Memphis soul and North Mississippi’s hill country blues on several tracks, bringing in legendary Booker T. Jones, plus guitarists Lightnin’ Malcolm and Jimbo Mathus.
She can handle the genre-meld all on her own—flavors of country blues, gospel, bluegrass and soul swirl together and mingle harmoniously to form a singular, all-encompassing American music when she’s by herself. But with the added production and guest musicians, a fully-fleshed out vision of her songs emerges—and it speaks to her capabilities that they work as well in full studio splendor as they do in more stripped down arrangements.
In all, Pushin’ Against A Stone is an impressive calling card to the rest of the world that this, until now, under heralded artist is both an adept student of American folk music traditions and a modern day practitioner with perhaps preternatural talents.
DOWNLOAD: “Wanna Be On Your Mind,” “Workin’ Woman Blues”