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Joan Shelley’s New Songs Soothe Old Wounds

SKYLIGHT, Ky. — The second week of November 2016: Donald Trump was president-elect, and Leonard Cohen was dead. The songwriter Joan Shelley and the guitarist Nathan Salsburg — her collaborator for the better part of a decade and boyfriend for the better part of a year — were the opening act on a tour that suddenly seemed meaningless. They listened to Cohen’s haunted farewell, “You Want It Darker,” on repeat and bickered about the news.

“It was so masochistic: ‘Start it over, and let’s feel horrible,’” Shelley, now 36, remembered recently by phone from Kentucky during one of several interviews, laughing through a sigh. “Talk about bad reverb, the worst echo box.”

But, Shelley recalled, as the sun sank to the couple’s west along the Indiana plains during that 2016 drive, she marveled at the outlines of homes scattered on the horizon, how they seemed to resist the tug of inevitable darkness. “It made a really beautiful point — the hopefulness of someone building a house out here, despite all the …” she said, pausing for words that never came. “It was lonely, but it was resilient. Everything became part of the sunset.”

Standing in the kitchen of their bungalow three years later, Shelley played her newest tune for Salsburg — “When the Light Is Dying,” a snapshot of that glorious scene and a portrait of hope through shared perseverance. “Oh God, I felt emptied out,” Salsburg, 43, remembered in a phone interview. “That was a desperate, desolate moment, but she turned it into something profoundly beautiful, this whole cocktail of being human.”

The graceful song’s quiet redemption is the centerpiece of “The Spur,” Shelley’s sixth solo album, due Friday. Written largely during the pandemic while Shelley was pregnant with their daughter, Talya, its dozen songs deal not with her expectations for motherhood but instead with her difficulties as a daughter and sister, as an attentive observer of the cycles around her lifelong home and her worries about the place’s future, both politically and environmentally. There is death and renewal, romance and retreat, self-doubt and societal hope, all rendered with elegant restraint in her fireside high.

“I had to clean out this junk I’d been dragging around,” Shelley said on another interview day. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a mom, but doing this made that possible. I was scared of hurting a new human, of perpetuating the pain inflicted on me.”

Shelley and Salsburg live on a 40-acre former tree farm 30 minutes northeast of Louisville, tucked at the end of a long driveway in the community of Skylight. She grew up on her mother’s nearby farm for Saddlebred horses, a world apart from Louisville and “punk kids that looked so hard.”

Her parents split when she was 3. After her mother remarried, Shelley, quiet and pensive, struggled for space among four other children. She began mimicking songs of heartache from the radio, using the borrowed language of romance to explore adolescent anxiety. She won a songwriting contest at 9, then joined any chorus she could find, rehearsals providing trips to the big city. As high school began, she learned chords on a guitar salvaged from the attic.

“I didn’t have a voice in that family, but I found one through music,” she said. “That’s 100 percent why I sing now. I was the only one in my family that had this expression, so I made a quiet corner in a noisy world in this very isolated family.”

Shelley headed south to the University of Georgia, hoping Athens’s fabled music scene would motivate her when coursework didn’t. She majored in anthropology, dreaming of archaeological digs in exotic places. But after graduating, she fell into a small traditional music crew back in Louisville, starting the old-time trio Maiden Radio alongside two music therapists, Cheyenne Marie Mize and Julia Purcell.

“We didn’t want to go play around the world as ‘Kentucky’s Appalachian band,’ because that’s not who we were,” said Mize, who stayed up until dawn singing with Shelley when they met while camping in the state’s Red River Gorge. “Joan was writing in an old-time vein as an exercise; she started finding her style from her.”

Shelley has steadily refined that style—a braid of folk immediacy and poetic insight, much like the writing of fellow Kentuckian Wendell Berry—for a dozen years. The tree sanctuary has become another quiet corner, allowing her to “recoil into solitude” to raise chickens and goats, grow collards and kale, bake sourdough bread and write songs alone at the kitchen table. (When Salsburg walks in for a snack but finds her with a guitar, he disappears; she plays him songs only when they’re finished.)

Birds, rivers, leaves and ridgelines animate her writing; Images wrested from her surroundings offer unexpected lenses for self-reflection. “There is no facade that is useful out here,” Shelley said of life on a farm. “This privacy is a way to let go of the things you’ve said and try to say something else.”

To write “The Spur,” however, Shelley opened her usually hermetic process. She joined a new group of local songwriters who met weekly to share their responses to a prompt. The time constraint inspired her to be satisfied with pieces she would have once considered unfinished, like “Fawn,” a playful but frank ode to safeguarding privacy. “I’ve been worried since the beginning,” she sings, tone gentle but clinched. “Am I safe in my skin?”

And when she stalled on a tune that reflected all the birth, life and death she’d seen as a country kid, she emailed the sketch to Bill Callahan, a singer-songwriter she’s long admired. They’ve become pen pals in recent years, having met only eleven. “She writes songs that don’t feel like they’re trying to do something,” Callahan said from Austin by phone. “You’re never really sure if the tide is going in or going out.”

Knowing of her rural circumstances, he supplied images of cows killed for hides or crops planted for harvest on “Amberlit Morning,” his trademark baritone the doomy inverse of her tender awakening. “When I was a child, I didn’t see the tragedy of, like, a colt dying. ‘A snake ate the ducks’ — that’s just what happened,’” Shelley said. “Only later did I learn to cry about the loss or ugliness or violence.”

As new parents, married for a year now, Shelley and Salsburg talk about leaving the farm or even Kentucky, of finding some place where their elected officials reflect their values. “We have this community rich with really wonderful people, but is that enough to insulate Talya from the insidious stuff?” Salsburg asked, squinting in the sunlight outside the barn where he works remotely as the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. “For this child, we could use a different place, a different path.”

Shelley, though, waffles with the seasons. The new song “Why Not Live Here” squares up to the troubles of making home in challenging places. Strolling toward Harrods Creek on the afternoon of an in-person interview, her billowing pants swishing against thick grass, she pointed out the culvert where she sits to read and stood over a possum’s carcass, unfazed as she contemplated its end.

“As soon as all the trees left out, I was like, ‘I’m staying forever,’” she said of spring’s recent start, singing those last few words in a soprano vibrato. “But it’s still hard to imagine planting a child in this.”

For now, the songwriting coterie that prompted much of “The Spur” has morphed into the Marigold Collective, an upstart group organizing letter-writing campaigns to conservative Kentucky politicians and a parade along an old bison trail to, as Shelley put it, “celebrate life on the edge of extinction.” These actions are small, she said, like writing new songs to process old wounds. But maybe they prove more meaningful than submitting to darkness.

“Music made me a whole person — it allowed for the survival of the softer parts of me,” she said on a FaceTime call, walking through the yard as birds chirped. “It’s a way to be unstuck about it all.”

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