IT WAS THE HEIGHT of the presidential election season when quietly potent country folk singer Courtney Marie Andrews was last talking to me and pondering the direction of what she called “my moral compass”, in her country that had had for four years a moral vacuum at the top.
Well before the soulful album Old Flowers or its more wistful country predecessors, May Your Kindness Remain and Honest Life, the Arizonan with a voice like polished pearl was someone who had been writing about the state of class division and crumbling support for the working poor for many years, using her songs to ask us to consider a preference for humanity over feral economics. And in 2020 she expressed hope at least in the idea that people might want change.
In the two years since, she has pointedly covered songs such as Simon and Garfunkel’s America (“I'm empty and aching and I don't know why/Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They've all come to look for America”) and Bob Dylan’s To Ramona (“But it grieves my heart, love/To see you tryin' to be a part of/A world that just don't exist/It's all just a dream, babe/A vacuum, a scheme, babe/That sucks you into feelin' like this”).
Days away from her Australian tour with fellow Nashville-based artist Erin Rae, I wondered whether that sense of hope has grown.
“Not at all. I still think we have a long way to go, and I also think that it’s something that so deep and systematic that it’s going to be a really hard thing to unravel,” she says. “I’ve been disappointed, if I’m being honest, by the current state of things and the apprehension and reluctance to change. I think there’s so much further that we could go and there is a very serious class division in this country, and it’s becoming more and more apparent every day.”
Aside from Andrews’ long-term practical involvement in workers’ rights, country and folk music, the basis of her work, have long drawn from this well of the underclass and the ignored. Did she fall into folk and country because they are aligned with her philosophy, or was it a fortunate coincidence?
“I think it’s probably more a coincidence but I’m definitely drawn to music for the people, whether that’s music to heal people, to relate to people, to rise up with people,” Andrews says. “I got into music for humanitarian reasons: it is my therapy and it feels healing to sing to other people who might need to hear that they are not alone. That aloneness comes in all forms: they can be alone in the community, could also be alone in a systematic debunked place, it spreads across all mediums. But the common thread, and why I do it over and over, is to relate to the human experience.
“It just so happens that these systematic problems fall into that category of human experience. But, yeah, I’m a huge fan of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and loved what they did to try and use music in the community as a way to make the world a better place. I will always try and incorporate that into my life and into my work as much as I can.”
The idea of community and solidarity came up in conversation with Erin Rae, who is part of a group of artists coming up over the past few years, like Andrews and Margo Price, who draw strength from each other and reflect a way of existing that is about something as simple as being decent humans to and with each other.
“I think that whole movement of women coming together to support each other really rose out of the past that been a huge problem and how in the music industry there hasn’t always been space for more than one woman at a time,” Andrews says. “I think a lot of the community in Nashville is actually born out of turning away from that idea and really making sure that there is space for all artists, that all women have a space and it’s not just room for one.
“Whether intentionally or not it really was born out of that so there is a sense in Nashville a very communal and supportive group of specifically women’s songwriters. Which is really beautiful, because there was a time in my late teens and early 20s when that just wasn’t around, that was just not a thing.”
There are those who hear this “one woman at a time” now and think it’s historical, but no. Radio networks everywhere, but especially the American country radio system, and all varieties of music festivals, still disproportionately favour male artists, arguing not only that there aren’t enough female artists to choose, but that the audience has a limited capacity for female voices and stories. The line “we’ve already added a woman to the list this week” is 2022 just as much as it was 1982.
“Yeah, it’s wild,” Andrews says shaking her head in bemusement.
And of course for women in these sentences, you could insert LGBQTI or artists of colour for exactly the same story. The recent screening of the film, Invisible, showcasing the lives of lesbian songwriters who had had to hide their sexuality or quit the business, or comments last year from Yola, make that clear.
And yet here we are, a second tour here for Andrews approaching, having upgraded from support (for Jason Isbell) to headliner. What’s her explanation for how she has managed to establish a career in a business that actively works against it?
“I am very lucky that I was passed down a very strong sense of resilience. My grandma is a very resilient person and for whatever reason I got that DNA and really held onto it. I just never gave up you know,” she says. “I had to believe in the work I was doing. I was a poor bartender and the only thing that I really felt I truly owned or had was my work, so I just had to do it.
“So I just sent my music around and I said yes to everything that I possibly could, until I got an open door. I got a lot of closed doors – there was a lot of closed doors – but there was one open door in like 100 closed doors, and I walked right in and sat down at the table.”
Courtney Marie Andrews with Erin Rae play
Canberra Theatre, tonight, March 3
Eltham Hotel, March 5
The Zoo, Brisbane, March 6
Fremantle Arts Centre, March 8
City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 10
Port Fairy Folk Festival, March 12-13
Wesley Anne, Melbourne, March 15
The Espy, Melbourne, March 16
Bridge Hotel, Castlemaine, March 18
Archie’s Creek Hotel, March 19
Westwood, Melbourne, March 20