Sarah Siskind has a deep resume as a successful songwriter in Nashville, with tunes she’s penned cut by the likes of Randy Travis, Wynonna, and Alison Krauss. But as a recording artist, her own output, stylistically and lyrically, has always reflected a quest for something deeper than what’s formulaically stamped to sell on Music Row. Her 2003 debut, “Covered,” was spacious and vulnerable, a Joni Mitchell-esque atmospheric folk record produced by indie stalwart Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket) and colored by the vibrant notes of jazz-guitar master Bill Frisell. The mood of that early work is recalled and enhanced in Siskind’s new album, “Modern Appalachia,” which arrived via Yep Roc Records in April.
While Siskind lived in Music City for a time, she’s a North Carolina native who now resides in the mountain town of Brevard. She made her new album nearby in Asheville at the increasingly popular Echo Mountain Recording Studio with help from some of the South’s best players, including guitarist Mike Seal and adventurous drummer Jeff Sipe, formerly of the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The musicians’ arrangements meander freely but efficiently, creating a fluid canvas of jangly fusion that leaves plenty of open space for Siskind’s ruminations on self-discovery to resonate. Throughout this 12-song set she ponders purpose as much as place, unearthing how both shape one’s physical and spiritual being.
The heavy introspection unfolds in succinct revelations in “In the Mountains,” a gospel-hued empowerment anthem with the bones of an enduring, classic folk song. But she also admits the road to acceptance can be a rough journey. In “Carolina,” a transcendent roots-rocker featuring harmony vocals from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Siskind sings: “Who you are isn’t where you’re from/but where you’re from is always close/and when you go digging in that dirt/get ready to find what you fear the most.”
Siskind isn’t trying to define the sound of Appalachia; she’s channeling the region’s influence, past and present, to embrace her own perspective.
Across the country, experimental tunesmith Jeffrey Silverstein recently released an album even more directly inspired by landscapes. Released on the small independent label Arrowhawk Records, which is based in Athens, Ga., “You Become the Mountain” is a meditative and imaginative effort with idyllic instrumental passages guided by pastoral pedal steel lines and minimalist electronic beats. Silverstein, who lives in Portland, Oregon, but first emerged in East Coast indie bands including Baltimore’s Secret Mountains, attempted to sonically invoke his pursuits as a long-distance runner in the Pacific Northwest, and accordingly the six-minute psych-country journey “Cosmic Scene” has a patient cadence, creating a relaxing atmosphere for mindful introspection.
When Silverstein sings, he gently laces his space-twang compositions with an idiosyncratic baritone reminiscent of Lambchop or the late, great David Berman, at times to just deliver short, uplifting phrases (“Turn your life into a passing cloud/Something of which you’re proud”). At a little over a half-hour, the album is a peaceful, thought-provoking pleasure.
Cover photo: Sarah Siskind by Ryan Nolan