New imprints look to label local bands

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Pseudo-sisters Sarah White (left) and Sian Richards bring their old-time act, the All-New Acorn Sisters to Charlottesville’s newest music spot The Whiskey Jar. (Publicity photo)

Charlottesville has long been a delicious melting pot of bluegrass, rock, and alt-country, and the number of high-quality performers here seems as good as it’s ever been: so it was only a matter of time before a crop of local labels sprung up to give these musicians a home. Since launching in February of this year, Countywide Records has released albums by Chamomile & Whiskey and PantherBurn, and is currently preparing to release the Great Big Fire Show, the sophomore album from Mister Baby.

The launch of the label saw a series of listening parties at the Blue Moon Diner, followed up by formal CD releases at the Southern weeks later—fitting venues for these groups, as they have each hosted dozens of similar homegrown acts from around the country in recent years. And considering that Mister Baby and PantherBurn shared a drummer, and sprouted from the same fertile soil of Charlottesville’s roots music community, the Countywide label feels less like a newcomer and more like a natural outgrowth of what’s been going on here for years.

The listening party at Blue Moon on April 28 reflects this sense of community as well. Rather than just a traditional airing of the recorded album, Mister Baby’s friends and musical family will gather to play covers of the album’s yet-unreleased songs, along with their own original material. The line-up includes Phillip and Bobby St. Ours, Micheax Hood, and Sally Rose—and would be strong enough to attract a crowd on any occasion. Meg Huddleston, front woman and songwriter behind Mister Baby, confesses “the thing that I’m looking forward to most is Thomas and Evie Evans, the kids of Rob Evans (who recorded and mixed Great Big Fire Show). They’re slated to play first, since they are little children and will need to go to bed! I plan to cry throughout their performance.”

Mister Baby isn’t formally scheduled to perform on the 28th—they’re saving that for the album’s formal release on June 2 at the Southern—but Blue Moon’s Laura Galgano wouldn’t rule out a surprise set. “PantherBurn ended up playing at the end of their own listening party, just because they were so excited about it. And then the folks from Chamomile & Whiskey ended up getting up there at the end of their show, too.” With so many musicians sharing each others’ music, fruitful musical crossbreeding seems both inevitable and wonderful.

Acorn lobby
It’s almost impossible to discuss Charlottesville’s Americana scene without mentioning Sarah White. The Charlottesville-based musician has been effortlessly mixing folk, rock, and country for years now, with the most recent incarnation of her backing band, the Pearls, being her most rock-oriented work since her mid-’90s band Miracle Penny. March saw the release of the Pearls’ first proper piece of vinyl, a 7" 45rpm chesnut entitled Married Life, which debuted on freshly minted local label, WarHen Records (so named for the founders, Warren Parker and Michael Hennigar). Sarah White and the Pearls play next at the Pavilion on May 12, supporting Sons of Bill and The Infamous Stringdusters.

These days, it’s not rare for White to play to a crowd of this size, as years of effort are now beginning to pay off. She is also known for playing smaller, more casual shows in her other band, the Acorn Sisters—or as their press has it, The (All-New) Acorn Sisters (apparently the original name was already taken by an obscure early-’60s hillbilly trio from Kentucky). Despite the shared band name, and the coy nicknaming as “Sugar” and “Cookie,” and a facetious claim to be siblings—these Acorn Sisters can be unmistakably identified as Sarah White and Sian Richards.

White’s knowledge of traditional American folk and gospel songs is considerable, and the Acorn Sisters provides an opportunity to play songs from that catalog. She grew up with these songs (one of the saddest in their set is written by her father), and her affection for the material is contagious, as she makes even the obscure deep cuts sound like familiar old favorites. Lobbying efforts to have the Carter Family’s “Longing for Old Virginia” recognized as the state song have thus far been unsuccessful (our Commonwealth has been without a proper anthem since the controversial “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was retired in 1997), but perhaps that’s only because the General Assembly has not yet heard the Acorn Sisters’ rendition.

Sian Richards, known in town for her theatrical performances and her involvement with CLAW, makes a crucial contribution to the group, with backing vocal harmonies that perfectly balance White’s. While Sarah White’s voice is beautiful and melancholy, Richards’ is a clear and wild counterpart. Richards also provides some of the funniest between-song stage banter in an unshakable deadpan.

Making a culinary contribution to local Americana, The Whiskey Jar opened its doors in February. The (All-New) Acorn Sisters will appear there on Thursday, and although this reporter has not yet had the opportunity to catch a live show there—I can, and will, vouch for the sweet potato dumplings—it’s the perfect setting for the Acorn Sisters’ old-timey goodness.

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