Nashville-based Forlorn Strangers play Winston-Salem’s Muddy Creek Music Hall
A lot of roots/Americana bands tend to romanticize the pull of the land, the rhythms of labor, the poetry of crops and seasons. The founding members of Forlorn Strangers had a first-hand taste of the grit of agriculture and the power of the sun. The band, which is now an acoustic quintet that operates out of Nashville, took shape in Florida where the three founding members were all in college together, and then later in Texas, when the three worked at a farm run by World Hunger Relief, a not-for-profit organization committed to promoting sustainable agriculture and feeding the poor. Forlorn Strangers play The Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Friday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m.
If you’ve never driven a tractor through a dusty field, dug a fence hole in packed soil, or gotten up early to fill wheelbarrows of silage to feed hungry cows, the quiet strength and dignity of farm workers might be something to idealize. If you’ve ever had a job on an actual farm, you know that the work can sometimes just be back-breaking and mind-numbing labor, something you might gladly trade for an hourly wage at a desk. The work, with livestock and crops, and the feel of the place started to seep into Forlorn Strangers’ material, says guitarist Chris Banke, who like all five members of the group, also sings and writes some of the band’s material.
“You get up at the crack of dawn,” says Banke, who spoke with me earlier this week by phone from Florida. “It was a great place to really get down to what we wanted to do musically. Several songs were written on the farm, and even in the barn that we had there.”
The folk revival is still going strong. There’s a timelessness to the tradition, and the appeal of acoustic instruments and voices singing together in close harmony is something that might resonate even more to a generation of listeners who often experience music mainly through earbuds or laptop speakers, which can feel isolating and confined. Handmade music can celebrate a group aesthetic, with a utilitarian we’re-all-in-this-together attitude that feels like an antidote to the digital terrain of the 21st century. Forlorn Strangers are part of that movement, heirs to Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers, for sure. But they’re also an eclectic ensemble, with touches of jazz, soul, gypsy music, gospel, soft rock harmonies and bluegrass.
Banke says that while they were recording Forlorn Strangers’ self-titled 2016 full-length debut, band members listened obsessively to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Everyone loves Rumours, of course — it’s one of the best-selling records of all time, famous for its impeccable harmonies, studio perfection, and the way it showcased the work of three very different songwriters. That blending of songs about quiet heartache, mystical yearning and optimistic defiance is something that informs the way Forlorn Strangers think about assembling their records.
The Fleetwood Mac comparisons might seem even more apt with the other two founding members, Benjamin Lusk on banjo and guitars, and multi-instrumentalist Hannah Leigh Lusk, now a married couple. Hannah’s sister, Abigail Dempsey, joined the band on fiddle in 2013, when the group settled in Nashville. And upright bass player Jesse Thompson eventually rounded out the quintet, after having done some live dates with the group.
Some bands have a single songwriter and frontperson, and a certain weight and responsibility falls to them. Forlorn Strangers face a different creative challenge, finding ways to feature the songs and voices of all five players while retaining a cohesive sound. One thing unifying the band is the role of faith and religion in their upbringings.
“We all kind of grew up in church families,” says Banke. “Ben’s dad is a pastor. Hannah and Abigail moved to Africa when they were kids when their parents did missionary work.”
Songs of devotion, of faith, of salvation, grace, repentance, forgiveness and scripture-based storytelling are all part of the folk tradition that Forlorn Strangers pull from, whether it’s soul, old time or gospel. But the group members, who range from their mid-20s to early 30s, all write original material from five different perspectives.
“There is definitely a spiritual component to the band, but that is not our core focus,” says Banke. “It’s kind of a write-what-you-know philosophy.”
With five members contributing songs, that means that the group can winnow their material down to a batch that holds together. And songs have to stand on their own to make the cut, because there’s a fair amount of competition.
“We could put out three more records right now if we wanted to,” says Banke. “That’s kind of the fun part of distilling it down.”
If there’s a pervading atmosphere to their songs, it’s one of gentle sadness and good-humored endurance. Forlorn Strangers songs aren’t about deep misery, but they’re not about heedless rowdiness either. The vibe is one of open-hearted sober maturity untouched by world-weariness.
Listen to “What I Don’t Remember,” a pretty and gentle-sad song off the new record, with banjo and fiddle braided together. The voices of the two sisters climb with the strings and male vocal harmonies eventually join in. It’s a song about scars and fortitude and destiny, with brief dynamic breaths in the music that increase the drama and tension without ever requiring a forceful push. The vocal harmonies are the band’s big weapon, with the five voices building in layers of subdued intensity.
“Harmonies were the focus,” says Banke of the work on the record. The band does an admirable job of letting the voices build slowly, instead of turning them on thick and relentlessly like an a cappella group.
Forlorn Strangers spent most of last year on the road, playing everywhere from community centers, festivals, libraries, clubs and cafes. They’ve mastered what Banke calls the bluegrass approach, of playing and singing without any amplification or of all five players huddling around a single microscope to carefully blend their sound.
Banke says a Forlorn Strangers show routinely brings the crowd to the front of the stage for sing-alongs and a generous up-close exchange of spirit. The appeal is almost elemental, he says, and it’s something that many listeners don’t necessarily know they’ve been craving until they feel it first-hand.
“I think everybody wants an authentic experience,” says Banke.
Wanna go? Forlorn Strangers play The Muddy Creek Music Hall, 5455 Bethania Road, Winston-Salem, Friday, Dec. 2, 8 p.m. $12, 336-923-8623, muddycreekcafeandmusichall.com