The Littlest Birds Keep Taking Their Unique Sound Skyward
For little birds, they sure do get around.
Their summer touring schedule alone has added thousands of miles to the odometer and no doubt hundreds of new fans. Including an event manager in Arizona who told a reporter after their concert there, "Incredible show. The sound of the banjo and cello just rose over the amphitheater into the stars."
Come the first weekend of August, their sound will be rising star-ward above the meadow at the Beartrap Summer Music Festival.
The Littlest Birds consists of banjoist Sharon Martinson and cellist David Huebner, and they concede that banjo/cello duos are far from over-supplied on the roots/Americana music circuit. Which gives an added element of freedom, they say:
"We like the sound of just the banjo and the cello together," says Martinson. "Part of it is that the entire voice of each instrument can be expressed. When I'm playing in a group that has a fiddle player or he's playing in a group that has a bass player, it can limit where on the instrument you play.
"For just two instruments, it's a surprisingly full sound."
The band's repertoire is mainly Appalachian-flavored, and accordingly their unique name comes from a single the folk band The Be Good Tanyas recorded in 2000 (and which later appeared on the Showtime TV series "Weeds"). The song's chorus includes the line, "The littlest birds / Sing the prettiest songs."
"Plus," says Martinson, "we're both the smallest people in our families, so there's that."
The duo's genesis was an entirely unplanned one. Huebner was born and raised playing classical cello--"Orchestras and competitions all the time," he recalls, "until I eventually started writing some songs, picked up the guitar, and was in different bands, trying to get out on the road and get some exposure."
Martinson, at that point, was working on her Ph.D. in Ecology with an eye toward a career as a research scientist. Her instrument of choice was classical French horn, but while away at grad school she followed through on a long intention of learning to play an ancient banjo her grandfather had given her. She and Huebner met by chance around 2010 when she was on a biological field study trip. They started playing together casually, but strangers began complimenting them on their sound and the rest, as they say, is history.
More recently, enthusiastic music critics say their material and style has echoes of Gillian Welch and The Civil Wars. Not surprisingly, the Western landscape continues to strongly influence their music, with titles such as "Boys, 'Em Buzzards Flyin'," "Tonopah Waltz," "Black Elk Speaks," and "Western Trail."
The latter song came about after the duo visited Casper's National Historic Trails Interpretive Center; it contains the lines, "We've got one foot in tomorrow / One foot in yesterday / We've got one step still before us / Give us hope and give us strength..."
Period music from Americana artists often comes from a gothically bleak emotional landscape (think "O Brother, Where Art Thou"), with song titles like "Oh Loss, Oh Sorrow," but the Little Birds don't shortchange the comic aspect either, such as their original "Rain on the Roof," which laments "I hear rain on the roof / Like popcorn in a pan / It's cold as a witch's gap tooth / And I know it's winter all over again..."
For their Beartrap visit, the band will no doubt be featuring numbers from their brand-new album called "Live and Lucky." Even their packaging is authentically old-time. The official video for the title song opens with a printer preparing a plate for an antique letterpress machine; the product that rolls off the platen is a cardboard CD cover--the first of a limited 2,000-copy run.
The opening lines of the title lyric are a plea from an ardent suitor--whether human or avian is not quite clear: "The old oak tree we'll make our home / Never more this world to roam / Say, darling, say?"
The album's title could also be prescient of the Littlest Birds' upcoming Beartrap visit. As appealing as their CDs are, you can hear them perform live and be lucky.