8 p.m. Friday, March 8 | Will's Pub, 1042 N. Mills Ave. | willspub.org | $10
It's easy to fix the lens on just the sound of Heather McEntire's voice. After all, the frontwoman of North Carolina alternative country-rock band Mount Moriah sings with a radiant purity that's immediate, undeniable. But impelling her vocals is a modern re-examination of what it means to be Southern.
Formed in the late 2000s by singer-guitarist McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller, the Merge Records act is musically staked in the terra of young Americana. Their songs burn with a country authenticity due largely to the honey of McEntire's soulful, Dolly Parton-esque voice. They're not revivalists, however. Despite the band's sound and Appalachian provenance, the pedigrees of the two creators are far removed from country and folk. "I've played punk music for, like, 10 years," McEntire says. "And Jenks has his psychedelic drone stuff [as Horseback]."
But the two intersected while working at the same Chapel Hill record store, where they geeked out over, of all things, deeply traditional music. "A lot of the Smithsonian Folkways music was coming into the store, and so we would listen to a lot of old-time and folk. … We were making all this heavy music but listening to and kind of making mix tapes for each other of folk and more acoustic or Southern music." And so Mount Moriah was born, a side project at first that grew into their primary passion.
Although relatively new, the band has already gained a growing chorus of praise from both press and peers (noted fans include the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon). Despite the obvious traditional accents, there's a farther-reaching, more contemporary and sometimes dark pulse to their rich, tasteful sound. And belying the ease of their flow, unsettled feelings simmer within – ones that cut to the bone of identity.
For McEntire, doing roots music has been a circle back to her beloved Southern heritage. "We all grew up in the South," she says. "It's kind of hard to escape the South and all things Southern, which is a very broad and complex identity. Not to simplify it, but it's just sort of in my blood. I grew up listening to country music. I grew up in a church, listening to hymns. That really informed a lot of my direction for harmonies and just kind of an overall soulfulness."
But in her case, that heritage would require some reconciliation and time. Besides the typical crucible of growing up, McEntire's youth involved added sexuality and gender identity issues (she mostly dates women). She left home for college, took up punk music and found her voice away from the hidebound Southern Baptist context that raised her. Now the 31-year-old lyricist has returned on her own terms.
"I don't know if it was nostalgia or wanting to see how my old life and this heritage and my own family, just the land I grew up on, how that all intersected with who I was becoming as an adult," she says. "[But] I feel ready to go back to my roots and define it in my own way and write narratives that I can relate to. Growing up and listening to the country music station, [it] formed a lot of what I love – the chord progressions, the harmonies, the twang, all of that – but I didn't really connect with it as a story. So, it's been a really wonderful experience trying to relate to that style of music and kind of make it my own."
Lyrically, McEntire hopes to etch her part of the new South with candor. "I want to find a way to live harmoniously here in the South, which I love," she says. "But it's complicated."
That lack of easy reckoning, however, perhaps perpetuates the mystique. "It's definitely an ongoing experiment and exploration for me," she admits. "What is it like to be Southern? And how do I relate to this music? And how do we intersect? … I don't know, but I like that challenge. I think that's why I'm creating here as opposed to somewhere else. … I certainly haven't figured it all out, but there's a power in it for me."
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