From my first listen of The Hems I was reminded of Justin Townes Earle, Mandolin Orange, and a little bit of Emmy Lou Harris. That’s pretty incredible company. I settled in with a fine beverage and embraced the acoustic sounds of Americana… bluegrass… and shades of country. Shades is perhaps the best word, because this album is a breath of fresh air like the shade of a big oak tree on a hot summer day. The sweet tea is nearly palatable.
The album’s namesake, “Those Early Years” opens with a wonderful and welcoming country sound. Jamie Zanelotti and Dusty McClellan do a wonderful job of accenting each other’s vocal qualities. It’s easy to see why they have a “buzz” around them in the Austin music scene. In a world of increasing music complexity, this minimalist duo does music right.
The second track on the album is “Honey Twist,” with an unmistakable rhythmic acoustic guitar that puts me in mind of the best of “classic” country music. It’s evident that these musicians spent some serious time with Hank Sr., Buck Owens, and their generation of music makers. The simple flourishes on the end of the melody lines lets me know these instrumentalists have been at it for a long time. The lead vocalist, with her strong country tone, keeps us interested in the story she’s unfolding. Just when you think this is a down home sweet song, you realize it’s probably about misbehaving with that someone special.
“Got It Bad” is a toe-tapping love song with that upbeat-blues sound that occasionally creeps into the country world. It’s about, well, falling in love. The harmonica really makes the song work. Aside from that it’s the kind of song you’d love to have on a dance night list for a honky tonkin’ dance night. It will have your friends asking “who is this?” It’s not commercial country, that’s for sure. This is real country, with raw vocal harmonies and… if you listen carefully… a real stand up bass. Awesome!
After the toe tapper, The Hems slow things down with an eerie Civil Wars sounding love duo, “Dreams Will Do.” Reminiscent of classic love ballads ala Frank Sinatra from the 1950s, these two slow the croon to a love swoon. It’s wonderful and endearing, sure to be a delight for a slow dance or two. The album wastes no time in getting things sped up again with “Novaleen.” Using darker minor chords and standard country fare about a “butcher’s daughter,” it’s a classic dark country song. “We can’t always be our best, so put on your party dress Novaleen.” It’s kind of creepy, but I’m pretty sure they wanted it to be that way. It’s a nice change of pace, for sure.
The methodical guitar that begins “Delaware Line” reminds me of Woody Guthrie and a bygone era of folk music. Really the only one making music like this today is Justin Townes Earle. It’s nice to see he’s not alone in his affection for roots country. Dusty’s vocals on this song are probably the best on the whole album. Since it’s so stripped down with a relatively simple story, her tonal quality has to be on the entire track and it is. It’s a story of a man doing a retrospective on his working life, again something quite reminiscent of Woody’s discography.
“Dogwood Tree” has some musical reflections of a bluegrass standard. In fact, from the harmonies to the lyrical themes it’s a bluegrass song. It’s, perhaps morbidly, about where the songwriter would like to be buried. Again it’s a distinctly southern and country kind of song. “I will lay in eternal peace underneath a dogwood tree.” Morbid, yes, but strangely sweet indeed. Oh, an ample dose of biblical imagery helps to drive home the gospel and bluegrass root of the song. If it was meant as an homage to the bluegrass art form, then The Hems were quite successful.
The album comes to a close with “Rebecca,” a somewhat less genre-defined song that reflects a much more recent version of country music. While maintaining the minimalist sound, the song does not have the traditional chord progressions of classic country music. “Sweet sister of mine… I want you to shine.” It appears to be a song written for a loved one, which is cute.
Overall, the album shows off a nice versatility among the duo. While some songs are in a far higher class than the others (Honey Twist and Got It Bad being among the better ones), it shows that they are still figuring out their distinct style. I don’t think that all musical acts need to have a signature style, but I do believe that it comes through in the art. These talented musicians will continue to rise as they perform and write together. Their harmonies make them worth the price of admission. This is a band to enjoy for fans of traditional and roots country.