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Wandering Boots Stays Close to Home

photo credit: Rich Tarbell
photo credit: Rich Tarbell

Chamomile and Whiskey describe themselves as “an eclectic blend of raucous-folk, hard-Irish, drunk-americana, and mountain-funk…best served with whiskey… and plenty of it.” Which is as good an explanation as I could create. You definitely smell the whiskey on their latest album, Wandering Boots. Their music has a wild-speed-down-a-dirt-road-without-brakes feeling. But the chamomile is there, too. The bluegrass influence in their music is as homey as rain on a tin roof, and fiddlers and pickers from centuries past would feel a kinship with these mountain folk. Wandering Boots is a mix of wild, drunk, grabbing-at-life while turning to traditional storytelling and age-old sounds to soothe the mind when life turns down one of its frequent rough roads.

The album keeps a joie de vivre while singing of regrets, depression, and lost loves, remembered in the still dark of night with plenty of alcohol to ease the pain. My family is from southwest Virginia, probably near founding band members Marie Borgman and Koda Kerl’s stomping grounds in the Blue Ridge mountains. The “let’s have fun while life has its way with us” vibe throughout the album resonates deeply in my hillbilly DNA. The long history of hard-scrabble living in that part of the country means we take our pleasures where we can, whether it’s in dance, love, or the beauty of the world around us. And when it all falls apart, we shrug, but don’t crumple for long–because we expected nothing less. That sentiment is rounded out by the Irish influence of bandmember Ryan Lavin, whose contribution is obvious throughout the album. The lyrics are word paintings, evoking emotion and imagery that is beautiful, touching, and often completely unexpected.

“Blue Ridge Girl” reminds me of “Rocky Top,” with its story of a girl that’s “half-bear, other half cat.” Songs about a special girl are a staple of music, and this one is as good as any that have gone before. It catches the feel of a Saturday night around a fire in the woods, making music with the special person in your life.

“Dirty Sea” feels like an ancient Irish folk melody you’d hear in a pub while drinking a Guinness. It’s almost impossible to sit still while it’s playing. I may or may not have spent a few moments bouncing up and down in my seat, waving my head around like I’m at a rave. And discovering I’m a little old and lacking in inner ear equilibrium to do that. Plenty of down-home Southern yells in the mix lend credence to their description of “hard-Irish, raucous-folk.” I’m hoping the Chieftains will hear this song and want to do a collaboration.

My favorite song on the album is “Impressions.” The upbeat tempo re-iterates the idea that sadness and the need for comfort give us our ability to connect and appreciate the beauty of life. There are worse life philosophies than “Baby, don’t hold back the tears you cry. ‘Cause the world is a Monet with tears in your eyes.” It is probably the best expression of the album’s theme that life has to be lived without missing any of the pain or exhilarating joy it holds.

A song about inevitable loss and never-ending love, “Long Day” reminds you to grab every success, feel every regret, and live life to its marrow. But that when hurts come, they last a long, long time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a lyric catch the pain of wanting something that’s gone as perfectly as “your stare will always leave me weak, and every time I try to speak, my words just fall like autumn leaves leaving me exposed like a winter tree. . . And I can’t hide behind a mysterious song. Cause life is too short, this day is too long.” This song is more chamomile that whiskey, soft and soothing in spite of the bitter truth it shares.

“Buckfast Tuesday” is laid back, and one of the songs that suggest the band may have channeled a little Creedence Clearwater Revival while borrowing Tom Waits’ ability to perfectly paint a scene. How else do you explain a line like “. . .went in the attic and liberated a slot machine”?

“Wandering Boots”: Now that’s some screaming rockabilly! It has a manifesto feeling. “A place to lay my head, and a drink to do me right. I am just a vagabond staying here tonight.” The wailing and whispering background vocals lend perfect run-screeching-through-the-woods-because-that’s-what-life-requires feeling.

Full of gorgeous and quirky images, “Sara Beth” is a different take on an old-style ballad. Southerners have an instinctive pull towards the Gothic and death. Chamomile and Whiskey indulge this attraction. The undying love evidently goes very wrong, but you have a feeling that his last thought was “My love for you is an Alaskan summer night. . .it ain’t never gonna grow dark, no matter where I am.”

“Inverness” is the second song with a CCR feel, and it has a strong feeling of rock from the ’60’s. It is also full of Chamomile and Whiskey’s signature gorgeous lyrics: “Like an actress in a silent play, she can live her life beneath a muted gaze.” The cacophony of the instrumentation adds to the feeling of chaos and desperation in life that sometimes requires dramatic responses.

“Second Lullaby” doesn’t seem like it will put anyone to sleep, but with “bourbon by the bed” I guess there’s always hope. “Her dress soaking wet, dripping with regret” is yet another line from the album I will repeat to myself because it is perfect.

Wandering Boots has a tenderness toward pain while encouraging listeners to grab life by the unmentionables and live like tomorrow is not promised–and don’t sit still, because the music is in you and it must be expressed.

You can get the album at Country Wide Music. Their latest work is the single “Thousand Sleepless Nights” on the Countrywide compilation album Make It Be. You can see their tour dates on their website.

–Green