It’s a rare band that transcends its time and place to sound totally at home in another era. But when you listen to the debut album from Portland, Oregon’s vintage country songstresses Copper & Coal, you just might swear you’re hearing it through a jukebox in a roadside diner, somewhere off Route 66 in the 1950s.**
I recently had a chat with the Copper and Coal aka Leslie and Carra about how the duo first met, the appeal of the classic country sound, and mixtapes.
Copper and Coal play Little Red Hen, Thursday, Oct. 10th at 9p. Only $3!
the mixtape: How is it that you two came to meet and which of you is Copper and which is Coal?
Copper and Coal: Carra: I was in a traditional country band back in Michigan called The Saltines with my friend Jennie Knaggs (now of Lac La Belle). When I was dying to reconnect to my country roots, she suggested I look up an old classmate of hers, Leslie Beia, who was singing traditional country here in Portland. I met Leslie at one of her weekly shows with Saturday Night Drive and began singing harmony with her. Turns out, we were part of the same music scene back in Lansing, at almost the same time, just missing each other by a year or so.
Leslie: People tend to have an ‘aha’ moment when they finally see us in person; it is quite obvious who is who! (For your sake, Sean, Leslie is Copper and Carra is Coal)
tm: What is it about the classic country sound that you find alluring and had you thinking this could be something you could do?
CaC: Leslie: Classic country music is appealing to me I think mostly because it deals with universal human experiences in an incredibly simple and melodic way. Country music is pretty much devoid of $5 words, which have their place, but I appreciate the straightforward poetry of Hank Williams. Especially in song form, where the melody and instrumentation contribute to the conveyance of emotion, fancy words are unnecessary. The phrasing of great singers like George Jones does most of the work. Also, and perhaps more influential is the fact that I feel I was ‘born late’, and I’m drawn to old-fashioned things…I’ve been listening to and involved in traditional music since I discovered Joan Baez at about 15 years old. And finally, I love that I can get in front of a 12-year-old, an 80-year-old, or anyone in between and play a song like “Lovesick Blues” and they’ll dig it- classic country is so universally appealing like that.
tm: Tell me a bit about the Portland music scene. I was reading that the classic country sound is really happening right now. Is that accurate?
CaC: Leslie: As much as classic country can be ‘happening’, anywhere other than Austin or Nashville, I suppose it is. We have a great little honky tonk called the Landmark Saloon that caters specifically to traditional music, mostly country, but a little bluegrass and western swing as well. You can walk in there and rely upon hearing Earnest Tubb on the house speakers before the nightly band, which is not something you can rely upon anywhere else in town. The place has brought together a group of musicians who are more in contact and creating more projects together now, and I’ve seen and experienced a great widening-of-the-circle there. But we’re still pretty small and unknown; it’s important to differentiate between ‘classic country’ and ‘alt-country’ because they are, to us traditionalists, two different things (and the latter has indeed gained a lot of traction in recent years). But the creation of a number of new country bands in the last few years means that inevitably we will be growing and expanding; Copper & Coal is always trying to get in front of new audiences and Portland certainly offers a great deal of opportunity for that.
tm: Do you ever go walkin’ after midnight? If so, anything interesting ever happen?
CaC: Carra: One night, back when I lived in Lansing, Michigan, there was a city-wide power outage. I had just been turned on to Patsy Cline and was invited to sing one of her songs with a local band (all of this eventually leading to my love of classic country and choice to pursue this genre as an artist). Since the power was out, I was forced to learn the song by driving around and listening in my car. All the street and houselights were out and there was definitely an eerie feeling in the air. Listening to the song I got to thinking how spooky it was. For a young lady to be walking by the highway after midnight, alone, in the 1960s…well, she must have been pretty desperate and lonely. It reminded me of when I’d sneak out of my parent’s house as a teenager to chase the neighbor boy and let him break my heart. Then, sneak out again just to stand outside his house hoping he’d see me and feel bad, or run out and save me from my sorrow. I decided to revise the song into a minor key, to give it a spookier feel. Leslie and I sing this revamped version of Patsy’s song and hope to release it someday on a record, or as a single.
tm: Of the original songs you’ve penned, where does the inspiration come from? Are your songs based on your truth or does the content come from purely an active imagination?
CaC: Leslie: True to the form, our themes are love and loss and heartache, for the most part, centered from a female perspective. There is certainly no lack of inspiration on my side of things…
Carra: I often get song ideas from playing with words, rhythms, and melodies. I’m inspired by the great country songwriters like Willie Nelson, who’s influence I’d credit “I Love a Gambler” with, and Harlan Howard, who’s word play I’ve modeled songs like “Long Story Short” and “Wandering Eyes, Roving Hands” after. “Good Time Gal” is slightly autobiographical, but with plenty of embellishment. My husband doesn’t like to go out as much as I do, but I’m not planning on kicking him to the curb over it. I think I see heroines in my mind who are experiencing the songs I write and acting them out for me. But Leslie has said she suspects all my songs are about her. 😉
tm: What is Couch by Couchwest?
CaC: Carra: Couch by Couchwest is an online video music festival, held each year around the same time as South by Southwest. Many Portland artists from all genres have entered their performances. This past year, “I Love a Gambler” was featured on their website.
tm: Do you remember making mixtapes at any time in your life? And, I mean an actual mix on a cassette. If so, tell me what was on there.
CaC: Carra: I was part of an official mix-tape club in college. You had to make a cassette mix for every established member in order to gain access. I received tapes of mixed genres like hip-hop, garage rock, experimental noise, and folk. We made liner notes to go with each tape. My contribution was country, of course. Titled “White Line Fever.” This was back in 2004, at the dawn of my interest in all forms of roots and country music.
Here’s the complete track listing:
Look at Miss Ohio – Gillian Welch – By David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
Drug Store Truck Driving Man – Gram Parsons and Fallen Angels – by Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons
(Is Anybody Goin’ to) San Antoine – Charlie Pride – by Dave Kirby and Glenn Martin
Windfall – Son Volt – by Jay Farrar
Human Highway – Neil Young
Pancho and Lefty – Emmylou Harris – by Townes Van Zandt
Luxury Liner – The International Submarine Band – by Gram Parsons
Guitar Town – Steve Earle
Train, Train – Dolly Parton – by Shorty Medlocke
Silver Wings – Merle Haggard
Long Ride Home – Patty Griffin
Jackson – Lucinda Williams
(hidden track) – Cowgirl Pride – by kd lang and Ben Mink
While Line Fever – Merle Haggard
Hillbilly Highway – Steve Earle
Cash on the Barrelhead – Joe Nichols and Rhonda Vincent – by Charlie and Ira Louvin
Face of Appalachia – Julie Miller – by Lowell George and John Sebastion
Choctaw Hayride – Allison Krauss and Union Station – by Jerry Douglass
Streets of Baltimore – Gram Parsons – by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard
Six Days on the Road – Steve Earle – by Earl Green and Carl Montgomery
Columbus Stockade Blues – Willie Nelson – by Jimmie Davis and Eva Sargent
Four Strong Winds – Neil Young – by Ian Tyson
Leaving Train – Gillian Welch – by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
Iowa (Travelling III) – Dar Williams
Let Us Travel, Travel On – Marty Stuart and Del McCoury – by Charlie and Ira Louvin
No Depression – Uncle Tupelo – by A.P. Carter
**from press release