Ana Egge and The Stray Birds: Why I Cry at 2:35

Ana Egge and The Stray Birds

I was not unfamiliar with the name Ana Egge when, on the first of July, I received a communique from a friend of mine that new music from her was on its way. Four years ago I took notice of this woman with an album called Bad Blood, at first, admittedly, because of its connection to Steve Earle. He handled the production, recorded it at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, had Ray Kennedy mix it, sprinkled in both his own and ex-wife Alison Moorer’s harmony vocals on a few tracks, and the backup band included Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitemore, Rob Heath, and Byron Issacs. All that roots music star power aside, what jumped out of my headphones was Egge’s singular voice, clear as a bell, with intelligent songs that offered stories, structure, emotion, and power.

If you missed Bad Blood, you can thank the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t business paradigm that musicians face in this day and age as they try to be heard above all the noise in the aural soup kitchen. Too often great music arrives with so much promise, only to slide past us ever so quietly. We miss so much. It takes strength for an artist to stay the course, but Egge is one who has consistently delivered.

In 1997, when she was only 20 years old and living in Austin, Egge released her debut album, River under the Road. She has not stopped delivering great music since, and now we’re blessed with her eighth album, Bright Shadow.

Just to get you caught up, Egge was raised in a small town of about 50 people in North Dakota, and she also spent time in New Mexico. Her bio quotes her as saying:

“I was taught how to shoot a gun and how to enjoy alfalfa sprouts and tofu, raised by two back-to-the-land hippies. My folks loved the outdoors and eccentric people; I ran around barefoot and learned to ride a motorcycle when I was 5. I grew up with all the time and space in the world.”

While living in Texas, Egge had offers to go out on the road, and she opened for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Iris DeMent, Shawn Colvin, and Ron Sexsmith. Later she got to share the stage with John Prine, Lucinda Williams, and – yes, this is sort of weird but it’s on her Wikipedia page – Sinead O’Connor. After spending time on the road. she moved back to New Mexico and settled in Brooklyn in 2002. She still lives there today with her wife of seven years and their young daughter.

Sifting through some of the marketing and biographical information about Egge, you start to find quotes like this one from Steve Earle: “Ana Egge’s songs are low and lonesome, big square-state noir ballads which she plays on a guitar she built with her own two hands and sings like she’s telling us her deepest, darkest secrets.”

Lucinda Williams said she’s “an exceptional songwriter, listen to the lyrics … the folk Nina Simone!”

“An artist’s ability to connect with an audience is frequently and disingenuously misrepresented in their marketing copy,” Mark Miller – a concert promoter and frontman of Spuyten Duyvil – told me. “Ana is a rare exception. She captivates a room and draws all eyes and ears with a combination of thoughtful and heartfelt lyrics, a heartbroken voice, and serious instrumental chops.”

As I’ve listened to this record over the past several weeks, I’ve come to think of it as a very special project. Egge has said she wanted to do an acoustic album with everyone sitting around a mic, and she self-produced this time around. While Bright Shadow is a collaborative effort with The Stray Birds – Maya De Vitry (fiddle, banjo, vocals), Charles Muench (upright bass, vocals), and Oliver Craven (mandolin, fiddle, slide guitar, vocals) – the cover lists only Egge’s name.

Over email, Egge recently told me: “The Stray Birds approached me as fans a few years ago wanting to back me up live at Folk Alliance [Toronto 2012]. We recorded the album two years ago and their success since then has been marvelous. I actually asked them about billing the album as ‘Ana Egge and the Stray Birds’ after we recorded it, but they didn’t feel that it was right. I had strong arrangement ideas going into it, and I think it would be different if we had co-written or recorded some of their songs.”

After they finished recording, Egge’s mother passed away and she also welcomed the arrival of her daughter. In retrospect, she says, the songs on the album mirror those intense and formative life changes. There is a very soft, warm feeling throughout the album, with layers of delicate textures in the instrumentation, and vocal lines that can go left when you expect them to go right. The tight harmonies that are a hallmark of the Stray Birds’ repertoire envelop and complement Egge’s voice. If you need an additional descriptor, I’ll sum up: stellar songwriting with sophisticated string band instrumentation.

Back in May, there was a video from Bright Shadow posted online for Mother’s Day. Egge wrote the song with Gary Nicholson, and in the description it says that it’s “a tribute to mothers everywhere as well as the divine feminine and possibility of redemption in all of us.” Filmed and directed by Paul Kloss and edited by Amy Foote, “Rock Me (Divine Mother)” features simply Egge and her guitar, interspersed with clips of moms and kids from what I imagine to be home movies.

Rock me in the arms of my divine mother.
Divine mother.
Rock me now.

It’s not very often that a song will come along that can repeatedly turn me into an emotional bowl of jelly at every listen, but this is the one: A tribute to mothers. Indeed it is. By the time the Stray Birds add their voices to the chorus toward the end, you can tip me over with a feather.

And I cry at 2:35.

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column at No Depression; The Journal of Roots Music.