New Pittsburgher Judith Avers brings a Southern folk sound from a small Kansas town
September 13, 2012 4:00 AM
Judith Avers -- "It's surprisingly easy to be a musician in Pittsburgh."
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A few different types of artists show up at a typical open stage: you've got the regulars and the nervous first-timers, and then you've got the ringers.
Like Judith Avers.
When she first showed up at the AcoustiCafe at Club Cafe, just trying to introduce herself to the scene, she was a fully developed artist who had been voted Denver's Best Female Singer/Songwriter in 2005 by Westword Magazine and had also won the National Woody Guthrie Songwriting Contest.
With: Brad Yoder, Ben Shannon, Emily Pinkerton, Ellen Gozion, Jason Rafalak and Daniel Marcus.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, 304 Morewood Ave., Oakland.
Tickets: $10; light refreshments will be served.
"I was raised in Southern Kansas in a small town called Liberal -- which is not liberal," she says, by way of introduction.
Her first musical memory was hearing Patsy Cline sing "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and she was properly steeped in old country from Hank Williams to Tammy Wynette. She went from writing poetry to writing songs, intending to record demos for someone else to sing. An engineer encouraged her to put a band together, so while she was living in Colorado in the mid-'90s, she formed I Know Jack, which established a following and released three albums over a six-year run.
"We were kind of a Colorado jam band, sort of like a female-led Blues Traveler," she says. "I started writing more kind of mellow songs and I wanted to do that, but with our fan base, it was more you'd go and drink beer and party and dance. There wasn't any folk music in that band."
Being the one woman in a rock quintet required her to play roles beyond just lead singer.
"It was pretty hard to be a mom to wild boys," she says laughing. "We'd go for a set break, and a band member would be having sex with some girl in the bathroom and doing, like, opium. THAT doesn't happen in the folk scene. Maybe it does, and I'm like a nerd or something."
It 2003, she pursued her folk ambitions on a pair of solo albums, "Jude Live" and "Greasefire," and followed that in 2005 with "Strong Hands." A year later, she relocated to West Virginia, where she started to tap back into her rootsy, more Southern influences.
"Living in West Virginia really affected my music because all the local musicians around were such good Appalachian singers and bluegrass players."
When it came time to record, though, she found her musical "soulmate" in Anand Nayak, a producer and guitarist in Massachusetts, where she went to record 2009's "Mountain and Shore," drawing comparisons to respected folk artists such as Gillian Welch and Rosie Thomas.
In the spring of 2010, she and her wife, a medical resident, packed their bags for Pittsburgh and settled in the East End.
"We fell in love with the city years before we moved here," she says, "and when it came time [for her] to pick a residency program, we knew we wanted to be in the city. It's my favorite city out of all the places I ever toured.
"It's surprisingly easy to be a musician in Pittsburgh," she adds. "Right away I met Brad Yoder and Emily Pinkerton and they were both very generous, and right away I would to go Club Cafe for the acoustic open mike, and everybody was so nice. The musicians here really respect each other, and they're so loving."
That was a good thing, as Ms. Avers has needed the love and support during her stint in Pittsburgh so far. After raising money through a Kickstarter campaign to record her next album in Massachusetts, she suffered a string of devastating losses.
During the recording and mixing of the album last year, her father died.
Then, she says, "I was figuring out the artwork, and my sister died suddenly while I was teaching songwriting to teenagers in West Virginia. It's a lot to process, so working on album art was not what I needed to be doing. I needed to figure out what my life was going to be like without these people."
Some time passed, she says, "and I had just ordered the CDs, and they were getting shipped to me, and I was like, 'I can't believe this is actually happening,' and my mom very suddenly, unexpectedly died, and we called the plant and said, 'We might have to hold these CDs.' When I finally got the CDs, they represented a terrible time in my life.
"But," she adds, "I also like that about it, because at least for once I'm not [b.s.-ing] anyone about my music. Take it or leave it, people."
The album, "God Bless the Brooders," will finally see the light of day with a release show Sunday. Although the songs were written prior to her losses, the album, with its tender singing and beautiful acoustic playing, touches upon family and a life-and-death theme.
"That's a strange thing. There is a song called 'Bluebird's Song' that ended up what my family played at my mom's funeral. It wasn't written about her, but it was exactly what I would want to say, so any time I hear that song or play it, I'm reminded of my mom now. The song 'Ease Your Mind,' my family in Oklahoma asked me if I would play that at my dad's funeral. It was very hard, but that's what I played. And there are songs like 'Forgive Me, Daughter,' so the whole CD ended up tying with everything with my mom, my dad, my sister. It's very strange. It sums up the whole time in one CD, and that's not what I meant when I recorded it."
The slow gorgeous "Bluebird's Song" opens with her singing, "When I'm dead and gone/worry not/I'll still be around/You can find me in the garden/singing a bluebird's song." "Ease Your Mind," dedicated to her father, has Ms. Avers and Mr. Nayak singing, "If I could I would take all the hurt/and ease your mind."
Now, Ms. Avers has the bittersweet task of taking out these meaningful, emotionally charged songs and playing them for people. With time having passed, she says the sadness associated with them "depends on the day."
"Most of them, it just feels good. There are upbeat songs that remind me of important people and places, and I haven't played them in so long because I kept not being able to release the CD, so it's an exciting time for me because, wow, I have these new songs! They're not new, but I haven't had a chance to play them."
She plans to take them on tour, but she doesn't have much time for that. Among other things, she's in the midst of a recording with her side project, The Early Mays, featuring Ms. Pinkerton and Ellen Gozion. She describes it as an "Appalachian-inspired, weird, sort of intellectual Christmas album."