From a city most often associated with rock legends Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, Seattle's Zoe Muth instead became a folk music aficionado, inspired by the songs that chronicled the lives of rural people, hard times, and heartbreak. Muth's stories of lonely highways, bar room romances, and honky-tonk dreams place her very squarely in the tradition of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Iris Dement, and fans of those artists will probably feel right at home when Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers take the stage at Uncle Slayton's this Friday, September 30.
The band's first self-titled release made No Depression magazine's Reader's Poll of top albums in 2009. The follow-up, Starlight Hotel, was released earlier this year, and sounds like a country classic the first time you listen to it. It's hard to resist a song like, "If I Can't Trust You with a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart?)" – a story of a girl who just can't take a man seriously if their jukebox tastes are so far apart.
Zoe was kind enough to take some time out of her touring schedule to answer a few questions about her music and what inspires her.
Aside from your interest in early folk music and traditional country, are there any particular elements of your growing up in the Seattle area and the great Northwest that have found their way into your music?
Seattle has gone through a lot of changes since I was a kid. I grew up in a house with one parent working, my dad was a mailman, and we still did pretty well. That's not the reality of working people anymore since the influx of high paying computer jobs and other industries in the area. I think a lot of what influences my music is the struggle of low-income working people. A lot of my writing is a response to the gentrification happening in Seattle and seeing people have to work too much.
When you became interested in making your own music, what part of performing were you most nervous about -- or did you always feel comfortable singing and playing for people?
I still don't feel comfortable in front of people :) But I did like to hear that people could relate to what I was singing about.
Did any of your family or friends also play music -- give you lessons or inspiration?
My family isn't all that musical; I taught myself the guitar. But we always had a lot of music around the house. My dad has a huge record collection, and we had a jukebox in the basement and my sister and I played 45's on a little Fisher-Price record player growing up. I had a teacher in high school who loved the old blues and country. He really supported my writing and also told me about Mississippi John Hurt.
What do you like most (and least) about touring? Have you discovered any favorite places or venues?
What I like most about touring is seeing the country, learning the history of places. What I like least is not having much time alone, which I need to write and work on new songs. It's always cool when you get to a venue and it's an amazing historic building or you get a great audience when you expected five people. One of our coolest shows was at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine. It's out in the country and we drove and drove and wondered what we were going to find. It was an old barn turned into an amazing music venue and restaurant. They had the best green room ever and they baked us a cake that said "Maine Loves Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers." I don't think anyone could beat that.
Tell me a little about your band -- how did you all come together?
Since the first record, our drummer and bass player have changed. Right now it's Greg Nies on the drums, Ethan Lawton on mandolin, Mike McDermott on bass, and Dave Harmonson on pedal steel and electric guitar. I first met Dave and Ethan around 2008 from playing in bluegrass circles around town. Dave also had a weekly gig at a country dance bar called the Little Red Hen. An acquaintance introduced us and tried to get me up on the stage to sing -- the rest is history, I guess. Mike and Greg had been playing in another band that had become defunct and were both crazy enough to quit their jobs and come out on the road with us.
Aside from the classic names in folk/country, of your contemporaries, who do you really like to listen to?
I'm so bad about seeking out new music. I really like another Seattle singer-songwriter named Sera Cahoone. Kathleen Edwards is one of my favorites. I think one of the best shows I've seen was her and John Doe as an acoustic duo. We also just played a show with Rod Picott and I've been listening to his new album Welding Burns a lot.
Which songwriters do you admire and draw inspiration from?
Of course, Bob Dylan and John Prine were my first song-writing influences. Warren Zevon, Steve Forbert, and Bruce Springsteen. I love Kate and Anna McGarrigle -- they are musical and song writing geniuses to me.
Favorite books? What are you reading now?
Two that I could read over and over are Larry Brown's short stories Big Bad Love and Charles Bukowski's poems, Love Is a Dog From Hell. I try not to bring too many books with me on tour, but I always have my Audubon bird guide and wildflower guide. I just found Loretta Lynn's Coal Miner's Daughter for 25 cents at a thrift store so that's what I'm reading now.
What kind of guitar do you have?
It's a Takamine from the 70's. It's only the second guitar I've ever had. I bought it from Dave for a good price. I've never had enough money to spend on a really nice guitar; I keep saying I'm gonna get a credit card.
Who would you like to sing a classic country duet with? (Other than Justin Bieber, of course.)
John Prine or Jerry Lee Lewis. I'd also like to sing with Hayes Carll.
Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers will appear with Coralee and The Townies this Friday, 9:00 PM (Doors open at 8:00) at Uncle Slayton's. Tickets are $8 at the door and in advance from TicketFly. Uncle Slayton's is a cash-only venue. Must be 18+ with ID.