Draw Close to Good Tone: Valley Maker

Austin Crane leads Valley Maker. Photo by Sarah Cahill of KY Cahill Photography.

Austin Crane leads Valley Maker. Photo by Sarah Cahill of KY Cahill Photography.

Valley Maker at The Burl’s Second Annual “On the Rail” Roots Festival

May 4, 2019 was the running of the 145th Kentucky Derby. I watched the race with the company of musician-friends at one of my favorite venues in town. For me, and many others, The Burl has become a little bit like home, a bit like church, and a bit like a community-center: I feel comfortable there, I sometimes still go even when I don’t want to, and I always end up chatting with a friend who I didn’t plan to meet.

This was the second year for the Burl’s “On the Rail” Roots festival, which got royally mixed up with Railbird, a music festival coming in August. The name references the roots of The Burl itself as an old train depot, not the rails of a racetrack like Railbird. I heard talk that lots of well-intention folks ended up at Keeneland to see On the Rail. Woops. The line-up for Saturday night was Abby Hamilton, Valley Maker, Grayson Jenkins, Senora May, and Town Mountain. I’m going to focus on Valley Maker in this post; but later on, I’m sure you’ll hear about the other players. I’ve got a review stewing about my love for a new Abby song which they are only playing live right now (“I wanted...to kiss you since I met you woah-oh-oh”).

After watching the Derby, admiring the horses, and learning about the first-place horse flub, I headed back out to relax on the Burl’s front porch, the old train platform. I started talking to my pal Chelsea, and before I knew it I heard Valley Maker over the loudspeaker. My husband had been playing Valley Maker’s newest album, Rhododendron (October 2018), on repeat for months, and each time I was like, “who is this?? Who is this??” So last Saturday, when I caught the strains of Austin Crane’s voice, it took me a second to realize--this was live!

I cut my conversation short and ran inside. Those songs made the world fall away. What with the rainy-cloudy evening, the Derby and summer-start festiveness that hung in the air...the first word I wrote in my notes was “Vibes.” Valley Maker sounded just like their record, but even better and more in-focus. It was like seeing your favorite painting not just in the museum, but in 4D, if possible. I got all of these sensory mix-ups while watching the band: Crane’s Fender tone made my mouth water. The Nord, played by Amber Grace Joyner, filled up the room, and made me feel as if I were standing in a foggy field at twilight. I smelled summer. Additionally, Joyner’s vocals sat peacefully over Crane’s, just soaring over the whole texture of the band. I love when a singer makes herself heard, while keeping such a soft and quiet presence. Crane led the band (Nick Jenkins on drums, Jared Price on bass) through most of the songs from Rhododendron with a few older songs thrown in. There is something very fundamental and ancient about Valley Maker’s songs...throughout the set, as I drifted in and out of my imaginative wanderings, I tried to figure out why Valley Maker made sense on this bill. They totally fit in-between two country rock singer-songwriter acts (Abby and Grayson)...but it was hard for me to put my finger on why. If you see them live, you’ll realize Austin Crane somehow plays America deep in these songs…

Crane was born in North Carolina, and now lives in Seattle, and you can hear both East and West in his music. Have you ever had the chance to listen to a real Appalachian ballad singer? Acapella and moaning about heartbreak and murder and children...That’s where Valley Maker fits in here. In the deep, washing timbres of the instruments, the natural rhythm of the drums, the powerful nasality in Crane’s vocals, the wind-whisper octaves added in by Joyner...I was transported while listening to this set. Despite the ever present chatter at the bar, an unfortunate downfall of many venues, I watched as other concert-goers drew in close to the stage to sort out what was happening up there. Have you ever seen how cows will draw close to hear a yodeler? Perhaps this is a crass metaphor for this scenario...but I’m trying to explain to you how Valley Maker manages to be indie and rootsy at the same time. To be electrified and natural at the same time. The minor harmonies are primitive like lullabies, with lyrics that are simple and poetic, but not plain-jane story songs. People loved watching Valley Maker. I don’t know that I have ever seen such a diverse group of fans at the Burl, maybe any show! Indie rockers, country folks, old and young adults, norms and punks...we all were absolutely transfixed by the band.

I think it takes a lot for me, these days, to fall in love with a band and to completely buy-in to the show. My notes often fill up with judgements or things to try with my own band or my brain wanders into to-do lists and forgotten tasks...but this time...Valley Maker made a way for me to follow them down into the cool greens and blues of an early summer night, to think about my roots, where I come from, where the music of this region comes from, and where it might be going.

Elizabeth Varnado is a musician and writer living in Lexington, KY. She is a member of Lylak, the indie rock four-piece, and occasionally adds violin and vocals with other musical outfits in town. She is currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of Kentucky, with research focusing on live music and music festivals.

Title photo by Sarah Cahill of KY Cahill Photography.

Footnote: I have to add this!! The Valley Maker touring group is entirely different personnel than what’s on the record, save for Crane. I learned of this later on and am even more impressed with how much feeling they put into the songs and how good it sounded. To that point, Nolan Dunn ran sound for the Burl that night and must be mentioned in this review. He constantly moved all night, checking levels from different perspectives and working twice or three times what I’ve seen other sound guys do. He’s a classy champ and we all owe him.