SEATTLE – When most people think about music from Washington, they default to Seattle, the city of grunge. But the town that birthed indie rock darlings and generational rap stars hardly has a monopoly on Washington music culture. Some of our greatest musical exports have deep connections with the more rural parts of the state. The proof is in the Grammys.
When the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards convenes Sunday, at least four nominated artists will carry pieces of small-town Washington with them. While living in the Snoqualmie Valley, transient folk singer Courtney Marie Andrews won the hearts of regulars at a tiny Hood Canal pub long before the Grammy nominations committee caught on. Danny Barnes is a cult hero country punk and banjo virtuoso who fell in with some of our region’s top players after starting a new life on the Olympic Peninsula.
Then there’s Brandy Clark, the logging-town songsmith who became a force in some of Nashville’s top circles. And who could forget Brandi Carlile, the folk-rocking pride of Ravensdale who knows a little something about crushing Grammy stages.
Their stories and connections to less populated parts of the state are different but contribute equally to Washington’s musical legacy.
Washington’s women of country
For outsiders, country music isn’t necessarily the first genre that comes to mind when discussing our regional scene. But outside the Seattle bubble, Washington’s country roots run deep, evidenced by two homegrown stars making a splash in the Grammys’ country fields this year.
“I really tie country music to Washington state,” eight-time Grammy nominee Clark says. Since leaving her hometown of Morton, Lewis County, to chase a career in Nashville, the singer-songwriter has made her presence felt on Music Row, as a solo artist and as a behind-the-scenes songwriter who’s penned hits for Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. “When people come home with me to Morton, they’re always shocked because they think Washington, they think Seattle. They don’t think of just how rural so much of Washington actually is. All of it, for me, started there.”
This year, Clark’s up for two awards, including best country album for her strings-and-horns-soaked “Your Life Is a Record,” a double breakup album of sorts reflecting her personal life and complicated relationship with country’s mainstream. Raised in a logging family under Mount Rainier’s shadow, country music was in her blood, a love passed down from her parents and grandparents who lived next door. It didn’t hurt that the local country station was the only radio signal that came in clearly in the town of 1,200.
Before Nashville beckoned, a 19-year-old Clark played in a family band with her mother called Sagebrush and Satin, gigging around local fairs, festivals and grange halls. For Seattle artists, beloved rock clubs like the Crocodile, Neumos or the Showbox are the usual sites of those earliest “pinch me I made it” shows. For Clark, it was the Washington State Fair in Puyallup.
“I remember when we got the gig to play the Puyallup fair and what a huge deal that was,” says Clark, who saw her first concert (Ronnie Millsap) there. “It’s still my favorite fair I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to the Minnesota State Fair and the Iowa State Fair. I love the Puyallup state fair. It was a big deal to me because I had seen so many concerts there.”
Years later, as her career took off, Clark would return to play the fair’s main stage, opening for Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles.
Nearly two hours north of Morton, Washington folk-rock hero Carlile had similar experiences growing up, first in Burien, before her family moved to “a run-down single-wide mobile home up on top of a mountain in a tiny, zero-stoplight town called Ravensdale,” as she puts it in her upcoming memoir “Broken Horses.” Carlile wasn’t available for an interview. But like Clark, Carlile attended her first concert at the Puyallup fair (the Judds), and country music was in her family’s DNA. As she details in the book, which arrives April 6, some of Carlile’s fondest childhood memories are tied to bands her mother fronted.
“There were logos, T-shirts, banners and glamour shots, but most memorable were the musicians who surrounded my mom, a parade of good-natured, paternal men who gave great bear hugs,” Carlile writes. “They always had the time to learn a song on guitar for an eight-year-old girl who wanted to sing Tanya Tucker songs.”
As fate would have it, three decades later Carlile would help rejuvenate the country great’s career, co-producing and co-writing Tucker’s 2019 “While I’m Livin’,” which won two Grammys last year. On Sunday, Carlile’s country supergroup the Highwomen could take home the best country song trophy with familial inclusivity anthem “Crowded Table.” Elsewhere, Carlile’s “Carried Me With You” from the “Onward” soundtrack is nominated for best song written for visual media, and the Secret Sisters album she produced is up for best folk album.
Both Carlile, who lives in rural Maple Valley, and Clark have made runs at country radio at various times. Carlile’s Highwomen project was the most countrified project of her career, a double-dog dare you to male-dominated country radio to add more women to their rotations. In an interview before the album’s release, Carlile discussed listening to country radio while driving the diesel Ford F-350 she uses for “farm stuff” – picking up hay, hauling her boat or taking garbage to the dump – and never hearing women. Despite garnering critical acclaim, the group consisting of Carlile, fellow Americana vets Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby and country star Maren Morris made little inroads at country radio. Still, their message rang loud and clear. This year’s country categories are loaded with women, and members of the Highwomen account for three of the five nominations for best country song.
Welcome to Washington
With every West Coast tour, Andrews stayed a little longer. Washington had been good to the Phoenix-reared singer-songwriter who was lured to the Evergreen State by the “mystique” of large water bodies and a bevy of “cool indie music” coming out of the region. It didn’t hurt that her then-boyfriend and future bandmates were here, too. While Andrews was very much a part of the Seattle music community during her Washington tenure – her early work in step with the indie-folk and singer-songwriter scene that peaked around her 2011 arrival – she made her off-tour home primarily in Duvall, tending bar for a spell at the Duvall Tavern.
“I’d always been on the road, so it was the first time in my life I had a job for longer than three months,” says Andrews, whose arrestingly austere “Old Flowers” is up for best Americana album. “When you tour so much, I feel like you live in an alternate reality – a bubble of people who are in the music business and people who love music. And when you work at a bar, you meet the plumber and the farmer and the goat man and the weird guy who dresses up like a pirate. … When you tell them you’re a singer, they can only be like ‘Oh, well that’s cool,’ but they don’t fully understand. It’s kind of beautiful, the anonymity of it.”
Despite that anonymity behind the bar, Andrews’ profile has steadily risen over the last five years, culminating with her first Grammy nom. Written largely in free-flowing bursts on an acoustic guitar and estate-sale piano, “Old Flowers” didn’t come together until Andrews split for Nashville in 2019 – a move triggered by rising costs of living and a changing scene. But in some ways, her time tending bar and picking up bill-paying gigs at small-town joints everywhere from Yakima to the Robin Hood Village Resort in Union, where she had a die-hard, 20-person fan base, helped set Andrews on the path that led to the Grammys.
Those life experiences heavily informed her 2016 breakout, “Honest Life.” Her follow-up “May Your Kindness Remain” found Andrews stretching herself vocally after belting blues numbers at a Sunday night blues jam at Fall City’s Raging River Cafe.
“Coming back from a crazy tour in Europe where I was a backup singer for a Belgian pop star to go in to bartend, that was literally the juxtaposition of my life at that point,” Andrews says, laughing. “I don’t think I would have had my breakthrough record if it wasn’t for that area because I really understood a different side of American life in an adult way.”
While Andrews’ career took flight in Washington, Barnes’ rep as an influential bluegrass ripper was well established prior to his Northwest arrival. Roughly 25 years ago, the decorated banjo player fled a gentrifying Austin, Texas, for scenic Jefferson County, drawn to the Northwest’s climate and “cool groove” rife with arts-minded folks and several “left of the dial” radio stations spinning his somewhat esoteric music. (Plus, his mother-in-law’s there.)
Barnes, whose sterling “Man on Fire” is nominated for best bluegrass album, first gained acclaim with his ’90s trio Bad Livers, the Austin band’s punk-informed kineticism laying foundational bricks for modern roots blazers like Trampled by Turtles. The singer-songwriter’s prolific catalog blends traditional bluegrass, punk rock aesthetics and lo-fi avant garde-ism, earning Barnes a small but passionate audience.
“I’m still the kind of person that sleeps on people’s floors and people’s couches when I travel. Those kinds of things, you just don’t think like that,” Barnes says of the Grammy nod in his warm Southern drawl. “I’m in the kind of bracket where if you’re surviving you’re doing really good, ya know.”
A true musician’s musician, it didn’t take Barnes long to fall in with some of Washington’s heaviest players after relocating to the Port Townsend-Port Hadlock area. “Man on Fire,” which sets heartfelt working-class tales to immaculate bluegrass picking, features contributions from onetime Pearl Jam drummer Matt Chamberlain, jazz guitar ace Bill Frisell – who’s up for best instrumental album – and Dave Matthews. (Not to mention Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.)
Matthews, who sings on wavy ditty “Zundapp” and is credited as the album’s executive producer, has been a significant Barnes booster over the years, helping tease out Barnes’ songs into full-length albums.
Like the Matthews-assisted “Rocket” and experimental country-rocker “Pizza Box” before it, “Man on Fire” was released on ATO Records, the indie label Matthews co-founded in 2000.
More recently, Barnes has found a heavyweight collaborator closer to home. In a bit of small-town, bluegrass kismet, acclaimed mandolin player David “Dawg” Grisman moved to Port Townsend a few years ago. Pre-pandemic, the rootsy jam buddies played together almost daily, and Barnes – who won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2015 – says those sessions doubled his playing after nearly 50 years on his instrument.
“Holy cow, having Grisman up here? I remember watching him on TV with Stephane Grappelli when I was a kid,” Barnes says. “I don’t think I was even shaving. It was maybe the early ’70s. He was (at) the top of my field then and certainly now, as far as catalog and weight and composition. You can’t really beat that guy in my field.”
Fragments of everyday life in Jefferson County seep into his Dust Bowl-y vignettes exploring working-class struggles, he says. “I’ve been in the same neighborhood for 20, 25 years, and you know your neighbors and you see the things people go through, the babies that get born and the people that die, and the dogs that get run over. You get a lot of real life from all that.”
Hearing the sound of your name
For these four nominated artists, their lives in small-town Washington have stayed with them as they’ve ascended in the music industry.
Two years ago, a pile of well-earned nominations (netting three wins) and a buzzed-about performance on the Grammys stage launched a new chapter in Carlile’s career. But really, the lifelong Washingtonian’s big break came about 30 years earlier.
A grade-school Carlile was around 8 or 9 when she got her first taste of the stage. According to her memoir, one day Carlile accompanied her mother to an audition for a theater production of “The Northwest Grand Ole Opry Show,” where she watched another girl belt out a Dolly Parton song. Soon after, Carlile got her own audition and landed a part singing Roseanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
“I’ll never forget the sound of my name as I was being called out onstage for the first time. … I still think about it sometimes when I’m introduced to the stage or if I accept an award,” Carlile writes. “It’s an honor to hear your name spoken in such a way.”
Fingers crossed for a flashback or two on Sunday.
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