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"The radio show is a whole education unto itself," Herring says. "We started it hoping just to do music, but then we approached the bookstore, and they said, 'If you'll devote half the show to writers, you can have it here.' It was a great training ground for all of us. We got to see all these talented people come in and watch them perform and then be able to sing with them at the end of the show."
And when she graduated, those same people helped her make her way in Austin, Texas, where she moved to pursue a doctoral degree in American studies. Soon Herring's Austin-based Thacker cohorts had her playing in all the right venues, in front of the city's music elite. She also began writing what would become Twilight.
"When I moved to Austin and didn't have any critical voices, I just started writing," Herring says. "I've always been a closet poet, but it just started coming to me."
8 p.m. Saturday, March
Swallow Hill, 71 East Yale Avenue
Peter Rowan led her to Billy and Bryn Bright of the Two High String Band. After one gig together, they called Herring and asked if she needed a band. They've been a threesome ever since. In October 2001, they released Twilight after Denby Auble, a biophysicist turned record-label owner, chose Herring to be the debut act on his debut imprint, Blue Corn Music. "What really struck me was the construction of her songs," he told Texas Musicmagazine. "They're extremely well crafted -- simple poetically, but very compelling. They're not cliche."
Slaves pull the sack across/The weight of my albatross/In my hands/In my hands/Standing in the water/My dress soiled and seen/Goodnight cottonlandia/Get your ghosts off of me.
As I drove out of Mississippi, Twilight was in the CD player, which wasn't odd: There was a fifty-fifty chance that either Herring's or Norah Jones's voice would fill the red rental car. When I left Vicksburg, the Mississippi River came into view, and Herring's song "Learning to Drive" started playing. It was one of those frozen-in-time moments as she began to recall her own exodus: "But now she's all packed up in parceled pillars/She's driving a U-Haul across the Mississippi River/Lanterns on the levee and a fist full of cotton/Old times there will not be forgotten."
My memory is indelibly stamped with that moment. Although a rural-Colorado native, I'd been marked by the South and knew of what Herring sang. I knew, for instance, that the "Mississippi snow" in Twilight's first track was a reference to cotton fields, because I've driven through them.
Herring is immensely popular in Austin clubs, even winning the Best New Artist award at the Austin Music Awards, held at least year's South By Southwest festival. But Texans, too, have a frame of reference for her imagery. The real test will be whether Herring can connect with audiences who only know the South through, say, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Who don't understand Mississippi snow or women who wear their crosses like tattoos. Audiences like those at Boulder's Redfish New Orleans Brewhouse, which makes its fried green tomatoes with flour.
"I think sometimes people think the songs can be a little quaint," Herring says, "but I think they enjoy the songs. I'm really just trying to make my way as an artist. Folk musicians often get pegged into a middle-aged white arena. So it's great when someone with three piercings in their nose comes to see you. I'm not trying to be pinned to just writing about race relations or my life as a little girl. I just want to write good music."
She excised some of her ghosts on Twilight and is stretching out a bit with her new CD, Wellspring, which is slated for an August release. The album "rocks a little bit more than the last one" and focuses less on her Mississippi childhood. "Some of it's more string-band-sounding, some more folksy than ever. I guess it's a little more diverse," Herring says. "My album is part folk and part electric. I'm real tempted to go both directions, depending on my mood."
Her music isn't the only thing evolving. She left Texas and now calls Washington, D.C., home; her husband has a fellowship at George Mason University. "Austin was a great training ground, and I miss it a lot," she says. "Texas was a wonderful free and open place for me to be a new me outside of my home. But at the same time, there are a lot of writers there who get settled. Maybe constant moving will keep me from getting lazy."
At least until her homing device goes off.