Demystified: Elizabeth Morgan – “She’s Folks” (2017)
Demystified is a new series where Mystery Street Recording Company has an in-depth discussion with some of the artists who have recorded at our facility over the years. Elizabeth Morgan (Betsy to her friends) has been a regular presence in the Chicago theatre community for over a decade, but her roots in rural Ohio inspired her to develop a show called She’s Folks that combines folk, country, gospel and bluegrass music with narratives about her past. This year, she and her multi-talented band entered Mystery Street to record some of the original songs from the show. The result is an album that captures a restlessness unique to the small towns in midwestern America, celebrates the heady freedom of travelling in cars and on trains, and tries to reconcile the moral foundations of old-time religion with the prejudice and intolerance that can often accompany it. Demystified talked with Betsy in the Mystery Street control room just before the album’s release; below is an edited transcript.
Q: How did She’s Folks begin?
A: It started as a cabaret, actually. I’m an actor and I do a lot of musical theatre, and I had wanted to do the music I missed doing, which was folk music and country music. I was trying to get myself in front of agents and to show people what else I did, so I put together this one-night-only cabaret called She’s Folks at Davenport’s Piano Bar. I had this whole plan that I was gonna do a series of cabarets – She’s Jazz, maybe She’s Silver Screen – but She’s Folks went really really well and they wanted us back so we went back. So we did keep doing it, and the further I dug into it, I realized I needed to start writing specifically for it, because I was telling a lot of stories about growing up out in the country. I wrote a few songs and we put those in, and I just kept writing and people kept liking it. And we ended up at Steppenwolf’s new LookOut stage last summer, and that was great, we did a lot of original stuff there and it just kind of took off from there. So now it feels more like a band than it initially was – that wasn’t the initial concept around it, but we really like that part of it now.
Q: You alluded to your upbringing out in the country, and there’s a very specific geographical sense to the lyrics on this album. Where did you grow up?
A: We moved around a bit when I was a kid, but it was all out in the country in northwestern Ohio and a little bit of northeast Indiana. I lived in a lot of small towns and eventually we moved out to my grandfather’s farm, and I did not want to. I’ve always been interested in theatre, I always wanted to be an actor, and it just felt like I was getting further and further away from anywhere I could do those things, so I was very angsty about it. But as the years have gone by, I’ve actually become really grateful that I had experienced that, and it made me very resourceful. So the idea behind the show is that I kind of come to terms with my roots. And almost all my guys are from similar areas – Alex (Newkirk, piano) grew up in Iowa in a tiny little town with a thousand people, Tyler (Core, drums) lived in Indiana and South Carolina, Ted (Kitterman, fiddle and mandolin) was born in Ohio and then grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee. So we all sort of have this shared rural thing. It was always something I was kind of embarrassed by as a kid, and I thought you have to own it at some point. And the stories are funny, for a kid that was really into theatre and indoor things to be stuck out with goats and chickens and all of that, I just wanted to talk about that.
I also wanted to hone in on the idea of midwestern country, because so much country is so southern, and I don’t relate to that. Growing up, I never really liked country because I was like, “this is not who I am, and this isn’t where I grew up.” And yet we’re still country. So what does midwestern-specific country sound like? And there’s a lot of people out there starting to do that now, for a while there wasn’t. And also from a girl’s perspective too, because so much of female country is a very specific story and perspective that I have never related to at all. I mean, there’s not a lot of broken hearts or anything in our work. There’s arguably one love song, but it’s literally about trains and truck and cars and traveling. That’s the kind of stuff that I relate to.
Q: Are there any specific artists that you think influenced this album?
A: Oh yes, most definitely. First of all, the really old stuff like the Sacred Harp, which is not an artist but more of a collection. I grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot, who’s Canadian, but there’s parts of Canada that actually feel more like where I grew up then, say, the middle of Nebraska or something like that. It’s that Great Lakes feel, and I always loved his guitar playing. He was what my parents listened to, and he was a major influence on the kind of harmonies I like to hear. And he writes a good driving song! I would also say Dolly Parton, in the sense that she’s such a storyteller. So many of her songs are stories, and mine are stories too, so she’s a big influence on that. I’m sure that my theatre background peeks its head out every once in a while in the imagery. We like a little bit of drama in our harmony, so I think that shows up a lot too. But definitely Gordo, definitely Dolly.
Q: I hear a little bit of Johnny Cash in the real low notes in “I-90 Take Me Home.”
A: Oh yeah, for sure. We really like to go up and down the scale. I will say to my drummer, “just Johnny Cash it,” and he knows exactly what I’m talking about. “Trains” too, actually – my grandpa worked on the B&O Railroad and train songs were a part of my youth, and nobody is more known for train songs than Johnny Cash. So it’s hard not to tie in him to him. Even Alan Lomax, who did those field recordings – I literally listen to that for fun! (Laughs.) Which is weird, but I’m really fascinated by it.
Q: The sound quality is pretty rough on some of those.
A: Yeah, it’s rough, but if you can get into a headspace where you can hear it, just hearing some of those old voices and the imperfection of it, I really really like. I don’t like things too polished. Even in the visuals we put out there, the way that we dress – I like a little bit of rust. My husband’s from the eastern part of Ohio, really deep Rust Belt, steel towns and all of that. We had a friend visit one time, and he was like, “Oh, I guess people can rust too!” And that’s kind of what we’re going for in our sound.
Q: There’s some really nice harmonies on the album – does everyone in the band sing?
A: Our drummer does not, but everybody else does. The main vocals are me, and then Tyler Thompson who is our banjo player and Alex Newkirk who is our pianist. Alex is also a music director in the musical theatre world, and that’s how I met almost everybody. We really like to sing together, and particularly the three of us have built a blend. I would say another influence is Brandi Carlile, because she sings with her two guys, and I love that sound and it seems to really work for us. Our fiddler will come in on vocals sometimes too, but we like that trio sound. Because Alex has a gigantic range, the way we usually structure it is that I’m in the middle, he’s actually above me, sometimes the octave below and sometimes in my octave. Sometimes they’ll both go falsetto above me, and that I really love, because you keep my femaleness, but it makes the chords so tight. When we were recording, I was telling Joe, when we do a three-part chord, there’s no backup singer, there’s no melody – I want everybody on equal ground. And we really focused on that for a lot of the big harmonies.
Q: The acapella track “Saint’s Delight” showcases your voices really well.
A: That is from the Sacred Harp. I wrote my own first verse for it, and then we removed a verse that was about hellfire and brimstone. It wasn’t the story of the album – I was like, “We don’t need to talk about Satan!” (Laughs.) So I took that out and I wrote my own more down-to-earth opening verse. Tyler Thompson and I both have separate backgrounds that involved learning about the Sacred Harp, so we introduced the Sacred Harp to Alex, and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a Sacred Harp sing, but it’s horrifying. It’s really fascinating, but it’s a very specific thing. So we were really having a good time torturing him, because he’s such a music director from the musical theatre world, which is like perfection, perfection, perfection. Very specific placement and a very specific sound, and he was just dying! As we were digging through the Sacred Harp we landed on this “Saint’s Delight” song, and I really fell in love with it. We knew we wanted to do a Sacred Harp on the album. We had originally done a piece called “Wondrous Love,” which I adore, but we really fell in love with Blue Highway’s version of it, and I could never write my own arrangement that I loved as much. So I thought, let’s find one and make it our own, and that was the goal with “Saint’s Delight.”
Q: You do a weekly web series called Old Timey Tuesdays. How did that start?
A: Old Timey Tuesday is very much an experiment, so we have no clue what shape they’re going to take. The way that we do it is I get whoever in the room I can get, we take three hours, and we do not know the song. I mean, I have the song picked, but we have not touched it, and whatever happens in those three hours is what happens, and that’s what ends up on the video. I wanted to see if I could be consistent about something. I feel very strongly about doing what you say you’re gonna do, and I was like, let’s see what happens if I say we’re gonna produce something every single week without fail. Even if it sucks!
The cool thing about it is it’s expanded our repertoire like crazy. The only drawback to it is I think people don’t realize I do write my own stuff. Because I can’t write that quickly, it’s almost always some old public domain song. But I only learned how to play guitar about a year ago, so it’s bumped up my guitar skills. I also think we’ve learned how our sound works better. It’s been a really cool experiment and also, since a lot of us are actors, it’s a theatrical outlet as well. So I can put something stupid on our heads, or we can try to tell a little bit of a story. And we started in June of 2016 and I just put out our 56th. We’re not going to do as many this year, we decided to do a school year schedule, Labor Day through Memorial Day. But we should hit about 80 by the end of this year.
Q: How did you choose Mystery Street as the place to record the album?
A: I was listening to Glass Mountain’s album Restless Mind, and I thought “This is right along the lines of what we do.” I mean, it’s not exactly the same, but I was thinking, who’s gonna understand this folky old timey sound? Coming from the theatre world, I’ve been very intimidated by some studios. And so, after listening to the Glass Mountain album, I thought, “I wonder where they recorded,” and it was here. So I started asking around – my friend Diego Colón has rehearsed here quite a few times and was like “oh, they’re great, I love them.” And then we’ve collaborated with Wild Earp on some stuff, and they were really complimentary. So things just started to come together and I had a good feeling. Then I talked to Joe, and he said he was a banjo player, and I was like, that’s it! And we knew it was the right choice. It fit our budget, and we also wanted to make sure there was the capability of isolation, because some places we’ve worked in the past, there wasn’t and it was a big problem. And then I found out that you guys had that amazing old piano, which is just like the one I grew up with. It was like all these little things coming together that made us think this is the place. We had a great time, and we definitely plan on being back.
Q: You mentioned the isolation being a factor of choosing Mystery Street – did you record live?
A: We actually didn’t use it as much as I thought we were going to. The only thing that was totally live was the acapella number, we were all in the room together. Everything else, we laid down drums and guitar with me doing scratch vocals, and built it from there. I just kind of trusted Joe. I was just like, I am out of my element, so I let Joe kind of lead the parade, and it worked out really well. The only other time we had recorded, everything was live, so it felt luxurious to us, that we could go back in and like fix a line. I mean, I’m used to everything being live on stage, there’s no second take and it is what it is. So anytime we patched in, I was like “this is amazing!” I think we did “Little Town Girl” first, and I was like, “that take’s fine except there’s just one little section,” and Joe was like “get back in there,” and I was so excited about it – it didn’t occur to me that we could do that.
I think we probably added banjo and guitar after we did the drums, and then our fiddler also plays mandolin, but then Joe was like, “you know, this song would sound really cool if it had trumpet on it,” and then we find out my fiddler also plays trumpet. Ted’s just like a mystery man, he’s always revealing something about himself. We find out he’s a yoga instructor; we find out he plays trumpet. Joe also had the idea to add glockenspiel on a song, and I never would have thought of that. He also helped us simplify “The Threshold,” and I think it was the right way to go for sure. He was like, “I can see how this like plays live, but it kind of sounds a little Kenny G in the studio,” and I was like “dear God, let’s not do that!” (Laughs.) So that was something I was really grateful for. He just understood what we were trying to do. And that was another thing I was nervous about in selecting a studio, that they weren’t going to get it, that it was just gonna be like, oh, you’re doing a country album, or are you doing a bluegrass album? And it’s like, no, this is part of a larger narrative, and he just totally got it. And that was great, because I know I’m singing about trains here – I mean, this is not revolutionary music, but it is my story, and I want to be true to that story even if it comes off as a little hokey. If I had made it slicker than is, I think I would have felt disingenuous, and the second we started working with Joe, I was like, “oh, that’s not gonna be a thing at all.” And Taylor too, who was the intern, we loved her and she was a lot of fun, and she said it was cool that she was able to work on a full project rather than a single or something. She was definitely in the chair sometimes.
Q: Did you choose the sequencing of the songs?
A: Yes, there’s very much a narrative to it. If people don’t pick up on it, that’s fine. But the first song is “I-90,” which sort of takes us back home; there’s a fiddle riff in “Little Town Girl,” which is the second song, that’s supposed to take us back in time a little bit to when I was younger. And then I picked “The Treshold” as third to continue a narrative about, like, where is home? What does that mean? One of the big themes of the show is where is home if you walk away, or if you don’t feel like you belong there anymore? And then the fourth song is “Trains,” which, like I said, harkens back to my grandpa and who I come from, and I kind of let that lead back to “Saint’s Delight,” which of course is this really old sound. I grew up going to church, but strangely not a conservative church, which is not typically the narrative. My uncle was our minister, and he was actually very liberal and he sang folk music, and so that’s kind of my nod to him, in that I had this religious background, but it was actually really accepting and it was very worldly. I wouldn’t downright say feminist, because we’re talking rural Ohio, but it wasn’t very patriarchal or anything like that. I’m not religious, but to deny that that was a part of how I learned music would have felt disingenuous to me, because I’m a piano player and I’ve played piano since I was a little kid, and a lot of that was in church.
“Back Home” I wrote after the election. I heard a comedian the other day who grew up in a town of thousand, and he said “everybody wonders who are these Trump voters? I grew up in a small town in Idaho, and I know who they are!” And that’s how I felt, I was just like, I know these people, this isn’t shocking to me. I know who they are, I grew up around them, and that was kind of the idea behind that song. My family is like this little liberal bastion amongst a bunch of conservatives, and I was trying to talk about that. It’s not a monolith. There are rural people that don’t feel this way, and then there are rural people that do feel that way, and it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that’s where I grew up. And so that was my attempt at saying, it’s complicated, and I don’t know how to talk to these people, so I’m going to sing at them! (Laughs.) And after that is “For The Beauty of the Earth,” which is an hymn, and that’s kind of a nod to our Holiday Hootenanny. It’s not a Christmas song but we do it during our Christmas show. We rearranged it and, not to toot my own horn, but it’s my favorite arrangement of that song. And we also sang it at my sister’s wedding, so there’s a little bit of that familial connection there.
And the album closes with “The Truck Stop Where I Hung Out in High School,” which I think is my way of saying that the songs I write after this are not going to have such a historical factor to them. I think these songs are my bio, and after this I want to write about now. I’m not saying that I won’t write about all the shenanigans of my past, I’m sure I will, but “Truck Stop” is kind of like, okay, let’s see what happens now. And I also wanted to start and end on a driving song, but two completely different driving songs. I love driving songs. For a while, I thought about just doing an album of driving songs, and we had talked about doing an album called She’s Folks – Plains Trains and Automobiles, but then I thought, I don’t know if I can get away with that. So I decided against that, but there’s a little hint left in there. There’s something about the Midwest that is about getting to places. It’s not about where you are, but where you had to drive through to get there. I left home and I did not look back and didn’t want to, and that song is my way of being like, for five minutes, I will look back. (Laughs.) I like ending the album on that note, partially because it is such a long song. It’s like, if you’ve stuck around for this, I think at that point they might want to hear a story. So that was kind of the thought process with the flow.
Q: Were there any challenges of adapting the project from a show to an album?
A: Yes, it’s challenging because there are stories that go with most of the songs I perform in the show, and we decided not to record those for the album. We do a version of “Banks Of The Ohio,” and I weave a story in between each verse. We had recorded the song by itself, and it’s fine, we do some nice harmonies on it, but I don’t think we were doing the definitive version of it until we put the story into it. And I toyed for a while with putting the stories in, but it just doesn’t translate if you’re not seeing the facial expressions and things like that. So it definitely colored what we chose to put on the album and what we chose to leave out. I think probably the biggest influence was what we didn’t do. We have a big gospel medley with a lot of old hymns that’s a lot of fun, and it’s one of our signature pieces that we do in the live show. We worked on it and I thought, “should we put this on the album?” And the decision I ultimately made was no, I think this is a piece that is for performance. So I had to look at what has the ability to stand alone and what doesn’t.
And “The Truck Stop Where I Hung Out in High School” was one I wrote specifically for the album. We’ve never actually performed that one live. It’s long, and it’s a story, and I was nervous about it being long, but Alex, my pianist, was like “you told the story that is the story, so that’s how long it is.” So ultimately, I didn’t end up cutting it, but I’m still not sure it belongs on stage. You can sit there with earbuds and listen to it, but I don’t know, it might lose people in person. It’s certainly not an opener – if anything it’s a penultimate or the closer. I’m just gonna have to take the risk one of these times and do it, and be like, okay, we’re never doing that again! (Laughs.) I do that a lot, where I’m like, “that joke didn’t work.” A lot of times my guys are like, “you cut things too quickly,” but I just get that sense of “nope, we’re losing them!” And that’s the actor in me, or the comedian, that says “no, it didn’t work, I don’t want to do that again.”
And it is a weird thing, it’s kind of in between an EP and an album. It’s eight songs. But I think we can get away with a few things by virtue of skirting a couple of genres, theatre and music. I think I don’t have to follow some rules. (Laughs.) So we’ll see how that goes.
Q: How long is it?
A: About a half hour.
Q: I’d say that’s an album.
A: That makes me feel better.
Q: It’s better to leave the listener wanting more.
A: That was my thought process – I could have pulled 12 songs together, but we’d have to rush the recording. And money aside, getting five people in a room together in this day and age for a certain amount of time is my biggest challenge. So I was like, let’s do eight well. Let’s do eight the way that we want to. And I learned a lot just going through the process and thinking, I could have put more energy into my voice here, but that’s what it is. Everything I do, I’m learning in front of people, and we don’t have a lot of groups to look to that are doing exactly what we’re doing right. I’s been very invigorating, but it’s also a little nerve-racking too. A lot of times I think venues are like, “What are you?” and I’m like, “I don’t know!” (Laughs.)
One of the biggest lessons I think I’ve ever learned as an artist is that you don’t have to know what the thing is when you’re getting started. It’ll teach you what it is, and that’s been the case for us, where it’s like, let’s just keep doing this. I think we’re onto something. Let it define itself. It’s gonna change, we’re not gonna look the same from month to month and year to year, but the thing is we actually have stayed consistent. I never know what to do two steps from now, but thus far, I know what to do next. And that’s all I think I need to know, because I think ignorance is bliss a little bit. If I had a total sense of the world in which I was operating, I would want to quit. (Laughs.) But I don’t! So as long as I’m doing the next right thing, let’s not worry about long-term plans. I don’t need a five-year plan, I don’t need a one-year plan. We’re booked through January, and that is great!
She’s Folks’ Holiday Hootenanny will be returning to Steppenwolf’s LookOut Series on December 7th and 8th (tickets available from Steppenwolf) and at the Metropolis Performing Arts Center in Arlington Heights on December 12th (tickets available from Metropolis Arts). To learn more or to catch up on Old Timey Tuesdays, visit their website at shesfolks.com.