By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
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By Christian Schaeffer
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Even if you find it weird to contemplate hearing folk music at the dorms of Washington University, you should find your way to Ike's Place on Thursday. Stacey Earle, Dave Moore and Tanya Savory don't play St. Louis often (likely never before); all three are worth elbowing away the coeds for a front-row seat.
With a roll of Wanda Vick's Dobro, Savory's 1999 Rounder debut, Town to Town, announces a clarion ambition to make music that is either or neither folk or country, either or neither bluegrassy or singer/songwritery, either or neither Midwestern or Southern. You'd have to turn to Kate Wolf or Greg Brown, or to Eudora Welty or James Wright, to find as rich a vision of American towns and lives, all soaked through, like the flooded Ohio River Valley of her song "When the River Rose," with the wisdom of the toughest, truest lessons you'll ever learn.
"It must have been '97," Savory says of that opening track. "I was living in Louisville, and that whole area got annihilated. I had cable TV, and I was watching the Weather Channel. I had a morbid fascination with weather. It's embarrassing to say, but I guess that song partly came out of watching TV." In conversation, Savory, who now lives in Nashville, is as unassuming and unpretentious as her songs and her burnished voice. She was born in New York state, then moved to Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, Mich., and next down to South Carolina; her 20s found her in California wine country, and then she returned to the Midwestern south, the long-lived, painfully paced geography she charts in lyrics both autobiographical and imagined.
"I like to make up stories about people and places," she says, "which isn't all that responsible, I guess." Savory is responsible, though, to the tradition of story telling in song, which she executes with an economical, evocative hand. Her song "Passed Him By" is a parson's tale about weather, fate, choices and Savory's father. "My father was a minister for seven years. He finally gave up. He was American Baptist in Kalamazoo in the '60s and into civil rights. His congregation wasn't, so he was hassled, and the congregation dwindled. We were eating pancakes for dinner. There was a huge series of tornadoes in '65. He had been making a pastoral call, and the tornado passed two blocks away from our house. He pulled into the driveway and he could hear it touching down, but it passed him by."
The first anyone heard of Stacey Earle was a duet with brother Steve on his 1990 album The Hard Way. Ten years later, Stacey opens her second album, Dancin' With Them That Brung Me (Gearle Records), with her own version of "Promise You Anything," a more subtle and satisfying rendering. Like her brother, Earle is a hard-line, independent songwriter and singer, crisscrossing Brit-pop, American rock, Lower Broad Nashville country and unadorned Americana. Her tart, youthful vibrato suggests a less eccentric Victoria Williams, and her songs, direct and vernacular, could make a mainstream-country playlist, were the regents of radio less chickenshit.
The third songwriter on the bill, Dave Moore, is barely known outside Iowa, where he has made music with Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey for years. If Moore had only written one song as memorable "Over My Shoulder" or made a record with as much accomplished American music -- Tex-Mex polkas, honky- tonk blues -- as 1992's Jukejoints & Cantinas (Red House), he'd be worth serious attention. But last year the former Prairie Home Companion band leader and Delta-blues scavenger (he once sought out and played with Robert Pete Williams and Furry Lewis) released Breaking Down to 3, a down-and- dirty, sweet-and-stinging folk-blues gem. Live, Moore can more than hold his own with his peers; add Earle and Savory to the bill, and you've got an offer you can't refuse.