Ken Coomer seems to have a crush on Charlottesville bands.
The former Wilco and Uncle Tupelo drummer produced Sons of Bill’s 2014 Love and Logic, and his latest local connection is to the new LP from Chamomile and Whiskey, the rock-country band that Nelson County natives Koda Kerl and Marie Borgman founded in 2011.
“I liked Koda on the phone pretty instantly,” Coomer says. “He’s this lovable, goofy guy like me. He sent some demos, and I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, let’s do this.’”
Coomer produced and mixed Red Clay Heart out of his rustic East Nashville studio, and the record, which drops on October 30 alongside a release party at Blue Toad Hard Cider, portends to be the most ambitious effort yet by Chamomile and Whiskey.
The band is currently a five piece, with guitarist Drew Kimball, bassist Marsh Mahon, and drummer Stuart Gunter joining Borgman’s fiddle and vocals and Kerl’s guitars, keys, and vocals. Steeped in the Americana singer-songwriter tradition and the blues, Chamomile and Whiskey features a more plugged-in vibe since adding Kimball and Gunter to the mix. Kerl offers John Prine and Bob Dylan as his primary influences; Borgman swings toward The Band and Tom Petty.
Speaking over the phone about Red Clay Heart in early October, Borgman and Kerl called their new album more Southern rock-inflected than previous efforts—a take-no-prisoners style matching the emotionally wrought substance making its way to the tracklist.
“Most of the songs ended up being heavier, so it kind of worked out well,” Borgman says. “Ken did choose some of the songs, and he was drawn to the ones that were a little heavier.”
The album, which the band recorded last year but held due to the COVID-19 pandemic, takes on our heady times in a direct way. There’s “Another Wake,” Kerl’s faithless rumination in the aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally and Heather Heyer’s death: “Shaken by the violence now I’m longing for a sound / I don’t know the sidewalks of my town.”
There’s “Triumph,” a bleak take on hard drinking and its mortal toll: “I used to dream in color / I used to think I had a soul.”
And there’s “Heartbreak (Luke’s Song),” a chilling eulogy for lost friend and local musician Luke Smith: ”I’ve come to know through the pain and the fun / Life is a slow, beautiful heartbreak.”
In that last track, Kerl recalls Coomer making a suggestion before laying down the vocals. The first take was solid, the producer said, but why not have a shot of whiskey and try it again? The result is a stripped down vocals-and-strumming number recalling Chamomile and Whiskey’s songwriting roots.
The rest of the record, though, draws as much on the present as the past. The band has historically worked many of its arrangements out on the road, playing shows around Charlottesville and regionally. For Red Clay Heart, the novel coronavirus had other plans.
“I had never arranged and recorded in the studio,” Kerl says. “We did this song, ‘Never Live Up,’ that the band had never played. We cut it that day, and it’s one of our favorite things on the record. It was something new—just creating in there with everyone together.”
The released record will have modern alt-country fans thinking of Jason Isbell’s more rocking numbers and maybe even Josh Ritter, whose recent LP Fever Breaks is a near dead ringer for Red Clay Heart. (“I haven’t heard it, so you know we didn’t steal it,” Kerl says.)
So just how did Coomer, who’s worked on albums by Steve Earle, Will Hoge, Jars of Clay, and Emmylou Harris, get hooked up with another somewhat obscure Charlottesville act? He remembers it as a direct Sons of Bill referral, but at any rate, he was taken enough with Chamomile and Whiskey’s sound to take on the project.
“To me, my favorite songwriters are storytellers,” Coomer says. “I heard the song about Charlottesville, and when we tracked it, I was like, ‘This is why I do what I do.’ I am a firm believer [Kerl] could do this in a coffeehouse or be playing for 2,000 people. That’s what I gravitate toward—songs and someone being open-minded enough to say, ‘Hey, let’s push ourselves and make a difference.’”
For those looking for some live music in our socially estranged times, Chamomile and Whiskey has expanded the Blue Toad record release show to two nights—October 30 and 31—and is hoping for respiratory droplet-safe outdoor fun, rain or shine. The venue is selling tickets in groups of two to six, and plans to seat parties at picnic tables.
If there’s an upside to the way music has changed in the COVID era, Borgman says it’s about creativity and community.
“In our free time, we’ve been writing. We probably already have another album,” she says. “For our fellow musicians, bandmates, and other bands, we’re all watching each others’ livestreams and helping spread the word. And outside that, everyone’s been trying to support local.”
Apparently, supporting C’ville’s locals even goes for Nashville-based alt-country legends.