Anya Hinkle didn’t set out to break the rules. She honed her edgy vocal style and expressive fiddling on old time music in Virginia and might never have strayed if she hadn’t moved to Asheville, N.C., in the middle of the last decade. “The idea of making new music wasn’t so interesting to me,” she confessed on the phone the other day. “But the move exposed me to a lot of new influences.”
The delightful results can be heard on Ravens and Crows, the first Rebel Records release for Anya and the other members of Dehlia Low. This is, for sure, not a conventional bluegrass album. But rather than trying to categorize the music that the band calls “Appalachigrassicana,” I recommend setting the rules aside the way Anya did and prepare to be entertained.
Ravens and Crows is filled with strong, intelligent writing, serious picking and memorable vocals, with an end result that suggests big things are in store for this quintet. Instead of the safe, cookie-cutter approach, the Travis Book-produced project features inventive melodies and hauntingly beautiful duets marrying Anya’s old-timey inflections with Stacy Claude’s more conventional approach.
The band is at its best on State of Jefferson, which kicks off the CD, and the title track, both written by Anya. The melodies are complex, a nod to her music-first approach to writing. “I really go for melodies over words,” she told me. “I fall in love with a song before there are words.” Then comes what she calls “the fun part of the puzzle” – finding the right words. Judging from this CD, Anya is very good at puzzles. Her lyrics are stuffed with evocative imagery, including “a winter sky the shade of grenadine” and an engineering term (and title of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) “angle of repose,” to rhyme with “crows.”
But there’s much more to this band than Anya’s writing and her duets with Stacy. Bassist Greg Stiglets contributed four songs to the album, and adds his comfortably gruff-around-the-edges vocals to two of them, Thunder and $40 Chain. Mandolinist Bryan Clendenin wrote Ride, the CD’s lone instrumental, and Aaron Ballance pulled it all together with fine work on the resophonic guitar.
But even the two songs not from the pens of band members demonstrate Dehlia Low’s never-predictable approach. In the case of the Hank Cochran-Willie Nelson honky-tonk classic What Do You Think of Her Now? the band’s stamp comes in the form of a third verse written by Stacy. Presumptuous? Perhaps, but it fits so well that you wouldn’t know it wasn’t part of the original without a close reading of the credits.
The band puts an even bigger and better stamp on Cannonball Blues, popularized decades ago by the Carter Family. Anya’s emotional vocal, the band’s slower-than-usual tempo and Stig’s bowed bass line add up to a powerful endnote for the album.
After numerous listens to Ravens and Crows, I’m eager to catch the band at IBMA this week and hear their approach to some bluegrass standards. Until then, Ravens and Crows will be in regular rotation through the CD player.