Even six years ago, when Conor Oberst was given the ill-suited "indie Bob Dylan" tag, it still seemed a long shot that the "boy genius" would ever rise above the Omaha underground and remain a lasting figure in the national spotlight. As he has done just that in recent years, though, a gradual but definite shift in musical style and persona has followed.
Under his Bright Eyes moniker, Oberst has blossomed from a lo-fi tapesmith crafting sprawling suburban folk-rock to somewhat of a song man in the same vein as so many guitar slingers before him, incorporating more conventional Americana (though that, admittedly, is an elusive genre) and bar-bred blues. On the other hand, Jenny Lewis made a name for herself as the disgruntled doll with the silver vocal cords for L.A. indie pop outfit Rilo Kiley, only to make a quick break for the Deep South with her 2006 solo album Rabbit Fur Coat.
Now, as they take the stage together at the Ryman posing as a classic belle-beaux double bill, they offer more than a hackneyed parroting of Grand Ole Opry novelty. Rather, theirs is an earnest nod to the musicianship found in more than a half-century of Nashville heritage. "The roots of gospel, folk and rock 'n' roll music are all there in the South, and all the records that I love and grew up listening to happen to be a part of that tradition," Lewis tells the Scene.
Her solo follow-up, Acid Tongue, hit shelves earlier this month and is a raucous blend of all of those childhood influences, from the tent-revival choir shouts of "Jack Killed Mom" and biker-girl blues rock of the nearly nine-minute "The Next Messiah," to the introspective balladry of the title track, which serves as perhaps the only crossover from Rabbit Fur Coat's stark intimacy. Recorded with a laundry list of powerhouse backup musicians including Elvis Costello, Jonathan Rice and Chris Robinson, and even including vocal harmonies from family members, the album was laid out almost completely on-the-take without any Pro Tools crutch.
"They weren't written off-the-cuff, but they were definitely recorded, not carelessly, but with a real effort to capture a live feeling, particularly with the vocals," says Lewis. "To me, it's a big step in a different direction...and to be able to sink into the vocal take while the band was playing was a very liberating experience for me."
Similarly, Oberst's latest self-titled record, the first bearing his given name in 13 years, relies on an open-air naturalism. It was recorded in several small adobe homes situated in the valley of Tepoztlan, Mexico. Often laid to tape while Oberst was relaxing on the front porch—some vocals were actually recorded while he lounged in a hammock—Conor Oberst wears its locale on its sleeve. For "Valle Mistico (Ruben's Song)," Oberst even captured one of the local landowner's nightly rituals.
"Every night he would go up on the hill and blow his conch," says Oberst. "We got so used to hearing him doing it, it seemed like it should be on the record somewhere."
Both Oberst and Lewis embrace the South's influence on their music. "It's interesting to me how most American music kind of comes from that same place...and the epicenter of it tends to be in the South somewhere," says Oberst. "It's obviously a magnetic place." For Lewis, the lure comes from a "strong female perspective" in country music that's not always as apparent in rock, where she grew her reputation. "As a young girl, I was always drawn to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, 'cause they really had a sad song to sing and they sang it really well," she says. "I think, for me, there was a mix of sincerity, sadness and glamour that still runs through the veins of Nashville."
As the indie scene continues to stake camp in Tennessee, artists like Lewis and Oberst seem to be spearheading a fresh generation of talent that stands apart from Nashville's star-power country, while enlivening the old guard's ingenuity. Since both are already known for their occasionally glum songwriting that often veers into confessionals, the first two parts of Lewis' equation—sincerity and sadness—seem to have made their way quite naturally.
As for glamour, when asked about playing the Ryman for the first time, Lewis replies, "I really hope they like my outfit."
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