Drop M. Ward’s name among the bearded, flannelled folk types and you’ll witness a Homer Simpson-like pining for the singer-songwriter, co-founder of super group Monsters of Folk and the male component of twee-folk outfit She & Him. Mmm… Ward.
But don’t fear the hype. Ward’s certainly earned the esteem in his 15-year career, renovating the Woodie Guthrie, this-land-is-your-land legacy of folk with hi-fi, tape-only recordings and lush instrumentation to match. On his eighth and most recent solo LP, A Wasteland Companion, Ward takes the largeness of his sound to its greatest dimensions yet.
If the album’s name is to be taken literally, then the titular wasteland was spared its central library of instruments. Piano runs, organ backdrops, mood-setting strings, meandering banjos and a healthy serving of guitar paint the record in fine strokes. It’s a testament to Ward’s ear as an arranger that Wasteland never sounds busy, despite its layered countenance.
In a prior interview with Duke University, Ward said he wanted a “cast of thousands” feel on A Wasteland Companion, with a collaborative recording process over a broad timeframe. “Most of my records have been in one studio with a few friends,” Ward told the Current over the phone.
For Wasteland, Ward wanted to get away from the holed-up studio process. “It’s not really that representative of the time that I spend having to travel and promote records and touring. I liked the idea of trying to make a record that was closer to a live record where you pick certain moments from a tour and create a photo album from travelling around. That was part of the idea of this record: to have something a little bit more representative of the years wherein it was created.”
Though he didn’t have a specific apocalyptic or badland vision in mind, Ward’s eighth record definitely forms itself around the idea of music as a companion. “I liked the idea that music can be a companion in times or places where it doesn’t seem like there’s any hope,” said Ward. “A song comes on the radio and it helps you look at things in a different, hopefully more hopeful way.”
Ward was captivated not only by music’s positive energy, but by the way an album can interact with a listener while she hears it, seeping into a lively memory or daily ritual. “Music is the ultimate medium because of the way it can spark your imagination,” Ward said. “There’s just more opportunities for the listener to get involved. But I’m biased.”
“I’m a newcomer to their music but I think it’s beautiful and it needs to be heard,” said M. Ward on his North Carolinian tourmates Mount Moriah.
If M. Ward’s music seems to encompass all of American folk, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, Mount Moriah makes its roots clear with a distinctly Southern twang. On “Plane,” the single from the self-titled debut, Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire swaths herself in melancholy, singing of the Blue Ridge Mountains and “the red, red clay.”
On their second effort, 2013’s Miracle Temple, Mount Moriah struggles with the idea of the New South. Like the emerging, inevitably hip Triangle region of North Carolina they hail from, Mount Moriah celebrates the culture of the Southeast without whitewashing its long, enduring history of social problems. “It’s a very interesting place to create art,” McEntire told the Current over the phone. “There’s this intersection and friction of Bible Belt heritage and deep cultural traditions. How do you make art and music that challenges those existing stereotypes, but also honors them? How do you find that middle ground? That’s what our band sets up to do.”
On Miracle Temple, Mount Moriah pulls from Southern rock and Southern Baptist hymns, nodding to their influences without absorbing their flaws. The album’s name itself condenses Mount Moriah’s process, mining personal and regional histories for creative material. “There was this old church that I would drive by daily, multiple times a day,” said McEntire. “It was called Miracle Temple Holiness Church. It was this constant, powerful reminder every day. We applied that to the whole record, but took it into a more metaphysical place, like, what is the Miracle Temple inside you?”
Similar to M. Ward’s wall-of-sound, cast-of-thousands take on Americana, McEntire and bandmate Jenks Miller cut a new, uncluttered path through the sprawling, overdriven kudzu of Southern rock, poising simple, slide guitar next to McEntire’s Southern Gothic images. Like the cover of Miracle Temple, a barn lapped in violent flames “to make way for a dam,” Mount Moriah shucks the chaff of Southern culture for their own yield.
M. Ward and Mount Moriah
8pm Sat, May 10
1281 Gruene (New Braunfels)