Some artists start out singing country songs and migrate toward more mainstream music. Mary Battiata, an Arlington-based singer and songwriter, has grown the other way.
Battiata’s 2001 studio debut, “Cul-de-sac Cowgirl,” sounded like indie rock with a rootsy twist. Now, 16 years later, she has made an unabashed country record, and a great one at that.
“The Heart, Regardless” features 13 songs by Battiata and one by her friend Arty Hill, a Baltimore honkytonk hero. The lyrics are by turns personal and playful. The performances, by Battiata, guitarist Tim Pruitt, and other topnotch DC-area musicians, are inspired. And the melodies are sometimes haunting, sometimes jaunty, always beautiful. It’s not necessarily the kind of record that gets played on country radio, but it’s the kind that should.
Battiata and her band, Little Pink, will celebrate the release of the album with a free show at Hill Country on Nov. 30.
Battiata grew up singing, and started writing songs after she came home from covering the war in Bosnia for The Washington Post. As she evolved musically and outgrew the objectivity of a journalist – she left the Post a decade ago – she found herself increasingly drawn to country music.
“I was always listening to it, but I didn’t think a person was just allowed to make country music,” she said. “I liked the directness of it, the life, and also the clean sound and the respect for form.”
Battiata spent a year and a half recording and mixing “The Heart, Regardless,” honing the songs as she and the band laid down tracks. Part of her move toward country was spurred by a desire to write more up-tempo numbers, and the record has several of those, including the scorching “20 Words.”
The opening cut started as “All I Want Is the Sun That I Can Count On,” but as the song took shape it became more personal. Now it begins, “You were once the sun that I could count on, even when it rained.” It’s as powerful as any country tearjerker, in a knowing and wistful way, partly because of the words themselves and partly because Battiata’s singing captures the longing in them.
The process of making the record allowed Battiata to express her growth as a writer and singer and her deeper understanding of country music as an art form. “I wanted to put everything I had learned into it,” she said. “I just wanted it to be as good as I am now.”
Since Sleepy LaBeef hit the road more than 60 years ago, he has played countless shows and songs. He used to work about 300 dates a year, but at age 82 he admits, “I’ve slacked off a little.”
Despite any road wear he has sustained, his performances are still raw and unpredictable, as he’ll no doubt demonstrate when he takes the stage at Hill Country on Nov. 11.
When LaBeef picked up a guitar at age 12, his early influences were Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and old bluesmen. Today he is an influence in his own right and has played with A-list Nashville pickers like The Time Jumpers.
His repertoire ranges from rockabilly numbers like “All Tore Up” – a hit he had in the ‘50s – to blues, R&B, and country. “It’s all been done,” he said. “If it’s good, I like it. I just try to get into it and enjoy it. People can feel it.”
New Roots Music Venue Near the Hill
This is a great time to hear live roots music around Capitol Hill. In addition to occasional shows at the Hill Center and Thursday nights at Mr. Henry’s, The Hamilton and Hill Country are established venues nearby. Now the new Pearl Street Warehouse at the District Wharf has hit the ground running.
Following its opening in October, Pearl Street has some strong shows coming up, including the Dom Flemons Duo on Nov. 18 and Patterson Hood on Dec. 2-3. Flemons was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, while Hood is the main front man of the Drive By Truckers. The Pearl Street shows will be an opportunity to see both artists in a small club.