“We all have the capacity to grow and evolve,” says guitarist, banjoist, singer and songsmith Amy Laber. She would know. Her sophomore release, Mountainside Wildflower, represents eight years spent searching, adventuring, and forging experience into songs quite different from her 2008 debut Cold, Cold Year. Since that release – an acoustic singer-songwriter album – Amy and her tunes have attracted Americana luminaries Cindy Cashdollar (guitarist for Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Ryan Adams), Neil Flanz (Steel Guitar Hall of Famer, sideman with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris), and Byron Isaacs (bassist for the Lumineers and Amy Helm); all pitched in on Mountainside Wildflower, offering soul and skill. With these contributors, a crop of new tunes, and countless gigs reverberating in her sultry alto, Mountainside Wildflower is Amy’s testament to love, loss, and wonder, songs resonating from the back porch, to the club, to the theater.
The path to Mountainside Wildflower began with one of the more humble instruments in the Americana arsenal. “As I was wrapping up Cold, Cold Year,” Amy says, “I picked up a banjo. My tastes have always tended toward traditional folk and country. With the banjo, I turned to bluegrass and old time music.”
With this new instrument, Amy discovered the power of simplicity. The distinctively rural-sounding banjo, and, ironically, its limitations, provided a gateway to a more rudimentary style of composing and performing. “Most really great country and folk songs are so simple,” she says. “That opens them up more to interpretation.” These attributes are immediately apparent in the mournful, minor key beauty of Mountainside Wildflower’s haunting-yet-celebratory “Sunflowers.” It is an ode to flowers, yes, but also something more.
“That was the first song I wrote on banjo,” Amy says. “I’m a big Gillian Welch fan, so there’s some of her in there. I was driving home from a gig, and there’s a big field of sunflowers at Wallkill View Farm, near where I live in New Paltz, hundreds of flowers. It’s so stunning. I was going through a life transition, letting go of what was, getting energy together for the new and unknown. The banjo helped me capture that.” She sings: “Sunflowers hang their head / In mourning of summertime / New sky burning red, tell me where to go.”
This new path soon led to an ongoing collaboration with Hudson Valley Americana fixture and road warrior David Kraai, with whom she would gig and record extensively – an Emmylou Harris to his Gram Parsons, but with a much sweeter outcome.
“When Cold, Cold Year came out, I decided to focus on playing with other people,” Amy says. “I met David before a concert at the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale. Several bands were playing, and there was a lot of cross-pollinating. I invited him to join me on [Parsons’ signature song] ‘Hickory Wind’. The rest is history.”
Through Parsons disciple Kraai, Amy connected with aforementioned pedal steel ace Neil Flanz, who contributes achingly sweet tone and texture to optimistic CD opener “Downstream,” and closing travelogue, “From New Orleans to the Moon.” His lines, weaving in and out of the melody, lift both songs into an instantly classic, radio-ready realm.
Of the latter tune, Amy says, “I wrote it after David and I toured in 2010. We drove to Georgia and Louisiana, stopping along the way at the Carter Family Fold in Virginia, and the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Mississippi. It was an epic trip. Life changing.”
The energy harnessed in this new phase emboldened Amy enough to approach Cindy Cashdollar at Hudson’s Club Helsinki, and ask if the internationally renowned Dobro player would guest on Mountainside Wildflower’s “Rose of Sharon.” Cashdollar readily said yes. And rather than her usual Dobro, she brought her tricone resonator guitar, providing a soft metallic edge to Amy’s fingerpicked acoustic and expansive, sweeping vocal.
“’Rose of Sharon’ is inspired by the Grapes of Wrath,” Amy says. “I was reading that, and listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie. A lot of dustbowl imagery was in my mind. That book is so relevant now. We still have that ‘us and them’ mentality in our society. On a deeper level, we are all the same, and we know it's right to help our neighbors in need."
As Cashdollar lays down mournful guitar wizardry, Amy sings, echoing Tom Joad, sad but hopeful: “Maybe we are one big soul / Riding on the road, looking for a home… There’s a flower growing through the sand / Through the ash of a barren land / Rose of Sharon.”
Tapping ever deeper into the folk tradition, “My Old Man,” is the only Mountainside Wildflower tune to feature only Amy and banjo. Except for the crisp fidelity (courtesy of drummer/co-producer Stephen George), “My Old Man” would not sound out of place on a compilation of John Lomax field recordings, circa 1930s. On this lament, Amy expands her banjo playing to the more delicate “two-finger” style, as opposed to the percussive “clawhammer” style, and keeps alive the folk tradition of strength-through-loss.
All told, Mountainside Wildflower is a window into a devoted Americana performer’s life; in these exquisitely wrought songs, Amy Laber shares road adventures, ancient instruments, the touch of the masters, open-hearted hope in the face of loss, grace in the blues, and celebration of downstream living at its best. Rarely does one get an opportunity to witness such a mountainside wildflower in glorious, full bloom, facing the sun.