Jayber Crow brings midwestern folk to the Pacific Northwest

When the musical duo that is Jayber Crow stepped onstage on the third day of their eleven day Pacific Northwest tour, their modern Midwestern folk music reminded me, for some reason, of the fable about the grasshopper and the ant. I didn’t expect either of the men to rub their legs together to create beautiful music, but the tunes they create do have an organic flavor, as well as hearkening back to a simpler time of jug bands playing on porches. But in a good way.

The joy they express when performing is evidence of an appreciation for hard work as well as living with a kind of  carefree innocence that is sometimes absent in the music of the more tonally serious bands some listeners might liken them to.

Jayber Crow’s music is simple in the best way. As a two man band, what they lack in band mates, they make up for in enthusiasm. During their July 11th show at the Empyrean, the duo performed without amplification out of dedication to, “only playing music as loud as we can make it.” Jayber Crow commands the attention of a crowd with the music itself, rather than its volume.

Zach Hawkins, vocalist and guitar player for the band, is comparable to Collin Meloy of The Decembrists fame, but the lyrics he writes are much less violent, more driven by coming out of youth and the natural world around them. Pete Nelson, sitting alongside Zach, plucked his mandolin with enough accuracy and ferocity to fill the front room of the coffee shop while occasionally chiming in with support vocals and harmonica. The two say they have found a home in the guitar-mandolin pairing and that they don’t try to emulate any other musicians. After their Spokane show, I convinced them to talk with me.

Zach: I feel like people often compare us to the Decemberists, but we honestly had never heard of them when we started making music.People sometimes compare us to Bright Eyes, which is a little more Midwestern.

Pete: My parents listened to Minnesota Public radio when I was growing up, classic friendly songs. They were both choir teachers. So our language perspective comes from that as well as old church hymns… Any song with great storytelling brings people together. With songs like that, everyone feels like the song is partly theirs. We want to write music like that.

Jayber Crow’s music could definitely be classified as classic sounding American folk. Even the themes they explore in their 2008 full length album, Two Short Stories, and the 2006 EP, The Farmer and the Nomad, come from classic Americana. They discuss agriculture, elements of the American landscape, including prairie fires, states along the Oregon Trail, pine trees, crows, Manifest Destiny and westward expansion.

Frances: What made you choose westward movement as a primary theme?

Zach: When I started writing these songs, I had just graduated college and was dealing with all the, “What’s next?” questions. The frontier and westward expansion really hit home … People were saying, “make something of yourself,” and I didn’t know what that meant.

Pete: We had some skepticism for this westward bound mentality… We’ve idealized the West for so long. I think the symbolism of Manifest Destiny and Westward motion may mean something different here, since the people here already are “out west.” … for the rest of the tour we’re trying to set up last minute show dates. We’re at the mercy of whatever comes our way … But we’ll be back, and we’ll know what we’re doing.

Listen to their music here and read their travel blog here.

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