Sally Spring’s ride comes full circle

by Jordan Green

Pigeons roost on the bulging letters of the sign over the entrance of the Borders bookstore at the center of Winston-Salem’s Thruway shopping center on this day of gray, bone-chilling rain. They hover in anxious clusters as the wind whips sheets of precipitation across the parking lot.

Sally Spring, a veteran singer-songwriter whose travels have taken her from the Los Angeles folk-rock scene of the early ’70s to the abiding bluegrass festival circuit of western North Carolina over the years, is supposed to meet me here at 1:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday. Did I get the time right? This Americana chanteuse who’s reportedly assembled an all-star supporting cast of North Carolina roots musicians and a New York new wave player or two for her self-released CD, Mockingbird, which surfaced in May – can she be real?

She is.

About 20 minutes after the appointed time she walks into the bookstore café wearing a black overcoat and a black velveteen hat that flops back like a beret and contains her shoulder-length hair. She orders a decaf, which requires the counter help to brew a new pot, and they forget her order until she gets up from the table several minutes later to remind them.

The 11 songs on the CD – all but three written by Spring alone or in collaboration with husband Ted Lyons -‘ burst forth with an authenticity of rustic vintage, twangy durability, rocking resonance and most of all the singer’s affecting voice. There is pedal steel, mandolin, Hammond B3 organ and harmonium interspersed in the tracks -‘ all the sonic accoutrements of American folkways.

As to how she put this her fourth release together, she prefers to revisit her immersion in bluegrass music.

“In the late eighties and early nineties I started performing on the main stage a little less,” she says. “I became really intrigued with bluegrass. I started playing bluegrass with my husband’…. I love bluegrass because it’s so ingrained in the culture. There’s no division between performing and living. It’s part of the church, it’s part of the cakewalk. During homecoming they’ll have neighbors over and everybody picks up an instrument.”

All the while Spring was writing songs, which fell all across the stylistic map. Her voice, a keening instrument full of ache and hard-won truths, is expressed with a phrasing that would not flourish if lashed exclusively to the orthodox strictures of bluegrass music. There’s a little bit of the Byrds/Gram Parsons country-rock nexus, some shades of Sandy Denny and the English folk movement, and the earthy loam of Lucinda Williams’ music in Spring’s oeuvre.

She and her husband brainstormed a list of musicians they knew and had performed with over the past couple decades. They recorded in Hoboken, NJ and later had native North Carolina producer Chris Stamey record overdubs and mix the album in Chapel Hill. Stamey and Lyons collaborated as producers.

They enlisted Gene Parsons of the Byrds to contribute backup vocals and play pedal steel. They drafted Marshall Crenshaw and Faye Hunter of Let’s Active. They incorporated the talents of North Carolina alt-country stalwarts Tift Merritt, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell; Ian Hunter sideman James Mastro; Television bass player Fred Smith; and Joe Jackson accomplice Graham Maby.

“I like the CD a lot because it’s got soft qualities yet it has some angular rhythmic qualities that offset it,” Spring says. “The quality is so good because the musicians are fantastic.”

Response to the CD has been favorable, she says, with radio airplay in Sweden, England and the Netherlands and some interest from Italy although the US market has been a little slower to break. She says Mockingbird is ranked 45 “on the charts internationally with what’s called ‘roots music.'” She’s excited to have a MySpace page (she’s been signed up since Aug. 12). And she’ll be touring up and down the East Coast from January through May, and then in Europe later in the spring to promote the album.

Spring is reluctant to discuss the chronology of her career because she doesn’t like to give clues about her age. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Her delight is apparent when she reminisces about picking up a guitar in Goldsboro for the first time at the age of 11.

“I was at a party and someone had a guitar in the corner,” she says. “I figured out that if I tuned it to a chord I could play it. I developed about a hundred different tunings. I never used more than three or four in one set. I didn’t know anybody played in open tunings until I met a person called Guitar Shorty in Morehead City. It was really thrilling to find out there was someone I could play with.”

Her singing goes back even further.

“I started singing before I started talking,” Spring says. “I was born singing. I sang everywhere I went. My parents would have to beg me to stop. I sang grace at the dinner table.”

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