The Carter Family is almost ubiquitous in every variety of traditional music – and even some more mainstream genres. It’s difficult to find a bluegrass, folk, or old-time musician who hasn’t recorded a song the Carters made famous, and artists like Carter in-law Johnny Cash have brought their songs to an even wider audience. These days, however, it’s not that often that you find a group singing Carter Family songs in their original style. Enter the Poor Valley Girls, a duo based in the same southwest Virginia/northeast Tennessee region as Sara, Maybelle, and A.P.
The Poor Valley Girls, otherwise known as Heather Pace and Madison Brown, recently released their debut album, Times Are Not What They Used To Be. The twelve-song collection consists almost exclusively of traditional songs, with half having been previously recorded by the Carter Family. Their sound isn’t old-time in the sense in which most groups define it these days (string band, heavy on the fiddle tunes), but hearkens back to the jazz and parlor-music influenced 1920s.
Though Pace and Brown both play a number of instruments here, and are very competent at the style they play, the real stars of the album are the two women’s voices. Pace has a clear, strong country voice, while Brown’s, though equally strong, has a breathier quality. Simply put, they are two of the best singers I’ve heard in quite a while, and their vocal styles fit these songs well.
Pace opens the album with an honest, loping version of Life’s Railway to Heaven, accompanied by Brown on clawhammer banjo. They take a similar approach on another Carter Family Gospel song, River of Jordan. Pace chooses to mimic Sara and Maybelle’s phrasing and pronunciations here, which lends a neat authenticity to the song. Brown also takes the lead on a few Carter Family interpretations, including the beautifully-sung, wistful and yearning Distant Land to Roam (with Pace backing her on autoharp), and the gentle Winding Stream.
The duo heads farther back into Appalachian musical tradition with Little Margaret, a ballad with roots in seventeenth century England. The song is haunting (and rightly so, with its story of a ghost appearing at the bedside of her former lover), and sung by Pace in a traditional ballad style. The Riley Puckett number I Told Them All About You has a fun 1920s feel with a bouncy rhythm and the addition of kazoo. Lonesome Road is a traditional song that bluegrass fans might recognize from the Doc Watson recording. Here, it’s stripped down, with a stark fiddle and clawhammer banjo arrangement and a mournful sound.
The most recent song on the album is a cover of Hazel Dickens’ Just a Few Old Memories. Though not necessarily “old-time” (it dates from the 1980s), it fits well with the other songs here. It’s one of the better versions of this often-recorded song that I’ve heard, with soulful country-style vocals from Pace.
The Poor Valley Girls got their start as a band within the ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, and they call on several of their instructors and other friends from the region for help creating a full band sound. Guests include Colleen Trenwith (fiddle, guitar, mandolin, harmony vocals), Oscar Harris (autoharp, mandolin, guitar), Cary Fridley (harmony vocals), Paul Leech (bass), and Daniel Boner (guitar).
Pace and Brown have a sound unlike almost any other group currently recording in the traditional music world – think Sara and Maybelle with the benefit of modern recording technology. Their vocals are crystal clear, and although the arrangements of their songs are purposefully modeled after recordings from almost a century ago, they sound fresh and new. This is a fine debut from these regionally-focused singers.
For more information on the Poor Valley Girls or to purchase their album, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/poorvalleygirls.