Mobile Americana

I first heard Kathryn Scheldt in a little oak-shaded chapel in Mobile. The late autumn sun slanted through the windows, as she sang of hope and mercy and despair. There was a power in the lyrics that seemed inseparable from the strength of her voice — a rich contralto that was different from anything I had ever heard. I had grown up in this particular church and knew it as a place where soprano voices in the Sunday morning choir paid homage to music of the past.

But here and now, Scheldt was singing alone — singing in the weeks just after Hurricane Katrina. She was wrapping the heartache we could see all around us in a shroud of sacred compassion, woven from the strong threads of her faith.

We are calling, can you hear it?
We are broken, bones and spirit
Rain down, Mercy, help us bear it
Shower us with love
Mercy, send a dove

This was a song, I discovered, that Scheldt had co-written with Anne Kent Rush, another Gulf Coast songwriter. It would soon become a centerpiece of Scheldt’s 2007 CD, “Gettin’ Ready.” It reminded me of some of the other great Americana writers of this area.

The Power of a Ballad

I first thought of Allison Moorer, who, with her sister Shelby Lynne, has deep roots in Lower Alabama, roots that have nourished her written words with such a poignant sense of place.

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Are you goin’ to Alabama where
the trees grow tall and green?
I’d like to see the Gulf of Mexico,
if you’re goin’ won’t you take me?

Like many, I first became aware of Moorer’s music in 1998, when her ballad of heartache, “A Soft Place to Fall, ” was featured in Robert Redford’s acclaimed film, “The Horse Whisperer.” Moorer crooned the tune with a honky-tonk band as Redford danced with Kristin Scott Thomas, his tender and illicit love interest in the movie. While the song only reached No. 73 on the country charts – perhaps too country for country radio – it was nominated for an Academy Award and launched Moorer’s career as an Americana artist.

“‘A Soft Place to Fall’ is one of the prettiest ballads I’ve ever heard, ” Scheldt says. “It established Allison as a writer to be taken seriously and a singer unafraid of a beautiful song.”

The same has been said of Scheldt. Both singer-songwriters are playing in the area in July. Moorer performed July 12 at the Saenger Theatre with her husband Steve Earle, and Scheldt will perform in Fairhope two nights later. Their talent and presence offer growing proof of this area’s place in the Americana scene. Some of the biggest names in this roots music genre, which blends country, blues, folk and rock ’n’ roll, have played the city in recent years. Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Robert Plant, Neil Young and Ray LaMontagne have all performed at the Saenger. Homegrown artists Will Kimbrough and Jimmy Hall, who now live in Nashville, have played the smaller Space 301 nearby.

“Acts likes these have great appeal to our area, ” says Chris Penton, Saenger booking agent. “We’ve tried all sorts of genres. This type of music tends to put people in the seats.”

The Bridge of a Melody

This will mark Moorer’s second appearance at the Saenger in seven months — she and Shelby Lynne played there in December — and another homecoming to a place that has given her music so much sadness and depth. For those of us who have followed her career, one of the most impressive moments came with the release of her second album, “The Hardest Part, ” which included a track called “Cold, Cold Earth.”

Now they are lying
in the cold, cold earth
Such a sad, sad story
Such a sad, sad world

The song, which would sound like an old-fashioned folk ballad, if not for the haunting cello in the background, tells the story of a murder-suicide: a drunken husband, driven mad with grief, kills his wife, who is determined to leave him. The piece is remarkable in its bravery, for the story is true. It happened to Moorer’s own family when she was 13 and living outside of Mobile. But in her song, she performs the ancient alchemy of music, taking a moment so full of pain, and turning it inexplicably into beauty.

The transformation was part poetry, part the tender progression of the chords. But, the song served notice that Moorer’s motive was art, not Top-40 stardom. Over the course of eight fine studio albums, she has written songs about addiction and loss of faith, broken hearts and the bandwagons of war. And even her songs about happier times, including “Easy in the Summertime, ” from her last album “Crows, ” seem to be layered with wistfulness and loss.

Swinging on the barnyard gate
It don’t get dark till after eight
Run inside a kiss and hug
Wrapped up in my mama’s love

“I think the thing about sad songs, really about art in general, is that people are looking to connect with each other, ” Moorer says. “That’s why we make art. I just think that to do the job successfully, you have to find the common denominator, not the lowest common denominator, but that kind of shared experience where you take the personal and make it general.”

The Winding Roads of Musicians

Scheldt shares that understanding of music, though her route to the Americana scene has been different. Moorer was born and raised in Mobile. She graduated from the University of South Alabama before leaving to pursue her musical career. Scheldt began making records when she came home to Fairhope. Although she had strong ties to Mobile, Scheldt spent her teenage years in Camden, S.C., growing up on ’60s folk and rock ’n’ roll.

“Music was a big part of my life for as long as I can remember, ” she says, “It was the motivating factor for me getting out of bed. It was the only place I felt I could truly be myself. I was 13 when I pawned my flute for a cheap guitar, and I began to pick out stuff from the Joan Baez songbook. I always sat in bed to learn the songs, especially the sad ones. I listened to Elvis, The Beatles, Josh White, and Peter, Paul and Mary. And Dylan, of course, was the poet of poets.

“When I was in high school, I sang in a rock band called The Friends of Mind. My brother was in it, and Mike and Pat Severs, who are now great session players in Nashville.”

Music has been Scheldt’s life ever since. She studied voice at Stratford College in Virginia and guitar at the University of South Carolina, and earned her master’s degree in music from Winthrop University. During what she calls her “have-guitar-will-travel” phase, she played Italian folks songs on the island of Ischia and sang in Rome with clarinetist Tony Scott, who played for the great Billie Holiday. Later, Scheldt wrote two guitar songbooks for Mel Bay Publications and taught at Queens University of Charlotte, in North Carolina, and the University of South Alabama.

Life on Mobile Bay provides inspiration for singer-songwriter Kathryn Scheldt. photo by Toni Riales

Through it all, Scheldt was writing her own songs, and sometime around 2005 decided to walk away from academia and pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. She reconnected with her old friend Mike Severs, who had toured with the likes of Don McLean and Dolly Parton, and began working with him on what she calls “some demo stuff.”

I met Scheldt about that time and began listening to her songs, occasionally contributing a line here and there. I was moved by her sensibilities as a writer, not only in the songs we were writing together, but in those she wrote with Anne Kent Rush, jazz guitarist Jim Mings, and country singer Keith Glass, a transplanted Australian now living in Mobile. Many of her collaborations have been topical — songs of loss in a time of war, of Gulf Coast communities struggling with the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and songs about the tangled history of Lower Alabama.

But Scheldt is at her best, I think, with what she calls “the songs of feeling” — love songs she often writes alone and sings on the Americana circuit from The Bluebird Café, in Nashville, to Eddie’s Attic, in Atlanta, to Thacker Mountain Radio, in Oxford, Miss.

Yeah, baby, it’s been a long time
Since I was yours
and you were mine
Seems like now all we do is pretend
That we’re not lovers,
we’re just good friends

Recently in Mobile, she and Fairhope fiddler Tom Morley, who has played with country star John Anderson, as well as the celebrated Celtic group Mithril, teamed up to play the All Saints Acoustic Concert Series, which has brought in such nationally known songwriters as Lucy Kaplansky, Steve Young and Katy Moffatt. Scheldt and Morley will be together again on July 14 at Fairhope’s Patina Gallery, two nights after the Allison Moorer-Steve Earle concert. They’ll play selections from Scheldt’s most recent CDs, “Southern Girl” and “Southern Wind, ” both of which have received international airplay, and from Morley’s much-acclaimed “The Raven’s Wing.”

There will be, once again, an Americana spotlight on Mobile Bay.

Allison Moorer, “Alabama Song” Music Video

Kathryn Scheldt, “Pretend” Live at Nashville’s The Rutledge

Frye Gaillard

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