Stage left at Joe's Pub in New York City, 20 feet from the ordered mess of wires, strings and drums that belong to the country band Freakwater, there's a small glass case set into the wall. Inside, shaded with soft, greenish light, a beautiful accordion rests in a graceful fan of pleats. It's a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship, a perfectly preserved piece of Americana hidden in plain sight. You can almost hear it breathe. Almost.
Tonight, Freakwater is debuting in two consecutive performances songs from "End Time," their sixth full-length album in 10 years. Between songs, frontwomen guitarists Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin trade jokes and stories for the small audience and the other three members of their band. There was that time the two old friends were in Canada, driving cross-country with a boy who was rolling joints and listening to Slayer, of all things, in the back seat. Then there's the story about meeting Joan Baez at that festival. And don't even get them started on the Mandrell sisters, as in country stars Barbara and Louise, which starts with an obsession and ends up in a dressing room with Bean trying on one of Louise's old suits. "It had these puffy sleeves," she says. "I couldn't go that way."
Bean takes a slug of Jdgermeister from a hi-ball glass and washes it down with tea poured from a little kettle. Behind her, the drums click and both she and Irwin strum their acoustic guitars. The chords are simple, but they're played with strange timing, subservient to the two voices and the words at the front. "Wound up, tighter than a cheap watch," they sing at once, Irwin taking a low, nuanced lead, Bean opening up and soaring an octave higher. It's more or less a breakup song that takes place first in a bar, then two feet from the Tennessee state line, and features among its details a spoonful of absinthe, a 12-gauge shotgun and a "little black cloud that sucks us up into the sky." There's a slight lapse between the two singers that twines the voices into one song, the same lapse that Maybelle and Sara achieved together on the prettiest of songwriter A.P.'s creaky Carter Family tunes. "I got a string around your sweet tooth baby," sings Irwin. "And I'm getting up to slam the door."
A few songs later the old-timey spell is broken. "I feel like Sigfried and Roy with this two-shows-a-night," Irwin says in between songs.
The amazing thing about Freakwater is that the band's members seem to exist in two spaces simultaneously, one contemporary, the other timeless. It's a trick that allows them to apply age-old themes -- betrayal, faith and tragedy -- to their own lives. The sum effect is at once depressing, with sad people repeating the mistakes of their ancestors, and warming -- how bad can your problems be if swells of ordinary folk have suffered and survived the same?
"I just write about what I know," says Janet Bean over the phone a few weeks after the New York show, taking a break from her job in Chicago (Catherine Irwin lives in Louisville, Ky.). "I'm not setting out to write a gospel song or something. The only thing I can do is be up late at night, miserable, and something comes out of me. It's generally really personal and written at very, very difficult times."
Musically, Freakwater are a country band that flirts with bluegrass and Appalachian mountain music. But the members -- Bean, Irwin, bassist David Wayne Gay and whoever happens to be in the rotating lineup at the time, which in New York and on "End Time" includes pedal-steel player Eric Heywood and drummer Steve Goulding -- exist far away from the country mainstream. Bean, for one, lives in Chicago, plays in the rock band Eleventh Dream Day (Freakwater began as a side-project) and works at a concert-booking agency that sends acts like Pavement and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on tour. Thrill Jockey, the independent record label home of jazz experimentalists and post-rockers like Tortoise, has released Freakwater's last four albums.
If anything, Freakwater belongs to the early core of alternative country bands like Uncle Tupelo and Souled American, which played rural music without winks and nods of irony. Like those groups (or like Wilco and Son Volt after Tupelo), the members of Freakwater play as if they believe in the power of song craft and the durability of roots music, knowing that they can bend traditional forms without breaking them. It's still what sets the alternative country bands apart from Nashville new country (which applies twang to rock) and the bluegrass revival groups that play only strict reproductions of traditionals.
"I don't think we're good enough to replicate the past," says Bean with a sense of modesty and uncertainty that echoes several Freakwater songs. "We're not a bluegrass band technically. We've got our own saga to get off our chest. It would get boring if it was static."
"End Time" represents a significant musical leap for Freakwater. Full strings sweep behind graceful pedal steel. And for the first time in the band's career, a drummer accompanies almost every song. (The beautiful "Sick, Sick, Sick," which sounds like it was recorded with one mike in a cathedral, is a notable exception.) As a whole, the extra instrumentation takes the record closer to pure country and further from the stringy bluegrass that appeared on earlier albums.
Although both singers and the band share songwriting credits, each piece is written by either Irwin (mostly) or Bean on her own and then brought to the band. "We've been in this band for a long time and neither of us would have produced the songs we've produced if not for the other person -- it's a band effort," Bean says.
Lyrically, Bean's songs concentrate on two subjects: a trust-breaking experience with her son ("Raised Skin") and messy love ("Cloak of Frogs"). Irwin also writes deeply personal stuff, but she's also willing to step away from herself. One of her songs is about a dog who gets bloodlust after attacking a sheep (the allegorical "Dog Gone Wrong"), another describes the courtesies afforded the matriarch of a honey hive (a playful "Queen Bee"). An album ago, one of Irwin's finest songs, "Louisville Lip" on "Springtime," told a story about the night that Cassius Clay tossed his Olympic gold medal off the Second Street Bridge in Louisville after he saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a black customer.
"When the Leaves Begin to Fall," another song on "End Time," follows that lead and the political consciousness that has appeared intermittently since "Miner's Song" on the first Freakwater record. A sad and complex war song about Bosnia, it is studded with a dozen poetic images like "a pillow of stone in a blanket of snow."
As accomplished as all the songwriting is, Freakwater probably wouldn't contain half as much beauty and strange tension if not for the way Bean and Irwin so seamlessly, yet awkwardly, harmonize with one another. It gives the songs, and the women who sing them, a sense of familiarity, a feeling that they have together something that goes beyond friendship and digs into the essence of country and even the folk songs that came before. Bean describes the relationship like this: "We have a fundamental understanding of each other on an emotional level, outside of the band," she says. "I think we understand why we make these dreadful mistakes -- choices of heartache, not being the person who you always wanted to be -- that we often do. Through this understanding we sort of cling to each other, afraid that we will not find that someone else who does."