Music Review: Under The Big Oak Tree's 'Local Honey'

Jun 14, 2016

Under the Big Oak Tree
Local Honey (MudStomp Records)

Some albums take a while to tell their secrets.

Local Honey was released by a St. Joseph-based band called Under the Big Oak Tree back in February. Kristin Hamilton and multi-instrumentalist Simon Fink alternate songs, blending brittle, delicate harmonies, all of which are confidently anchored by Doug Ward’s bass.

The album’s blend of folk, bluegrass and country is as traditional as “Little Maggie” or “Soldier’s Joy.” Maybe it was just the winter, but at first, its songs of yearning and solace seemed fine but a bit shadowy, filled with intriguing forms that wouldn’t quite come clear and little musical touches that didn’t quite register. Then, with another impulsive listen, the blur in the branches revealed itself as a hummingbird’s nest. With a click and creak, the music unfolded, a lover coming through the back door.

The record was suddenly new, its secrets told by a certain Illinois waitress.

Johnson’ voice is a treasure, with hints of Iris DeMent’s occasional tremble and Lucinda Williams’ ache. Fink’s mandolin, banjo and fiddle are crisp and pure, and so is his voice, a gentle tenor with a built-in, intriguing whisper.

It gets even better with “Stars Songs Faces (After Sandburg).” Hamilton and Fink’s voices knot together in the verse “There’s a song that can’t be sung/It’ll burn your lungs/It’s a song of innocence/It can only be sung by an Illinois waitress,” and a confident trumpet line immediately pushes the idea of that dangerous song even further. We never find out who the Illinois waitress is, but she’s real, at least for the song.

From that moment, every verse of each song, both before and after, runs a little deeper.

The title tune, “Local Honey,” for example, at first feels like a nostalgic “salt of the earth” look at self-sufficient honey farmers, as wistful as Simon and Garfunkel’s “My Little Town.” But it winds up being about “hippies” (or at least some folks call them that) who left the “corporate bog” for a home up on the hill.

Admittedly, hints toward deeper waters were always there. The band’s song titles cite poets as muses: “The Road” is “After (Philip) Larkin”; “Don’t I Know” is “After (Ezra) Pound”; and “Tracks of the Train” is “After (Derek) Walcott.” Still, those citations disappear into the music … until the lyrics pull themselves forcefully into the foreground. In “The Road,” images of rusty gates and “kudzu-strangled trees” gradually reveal the story of a lover facing the noose.

Johnson’s beautiful but lived-in vocals on “Don’t I Know” wrap around the tough realities of farm life in a way that makes a line like “It’s gonna need a whole lot of debt to owe” as painful as a Woody Guthrie song and as incisive as Pound.

After the Illinois waitress, every single song on Local Honey has sudden moments of clarity. Thank goodness for listening just a little bit more.

Fink sings “Lord, The Days Go,” a spare and impressionistic lament for the passing of time, and there's room for one last revelation. Sometimes that passage makes it all work.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.