PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 16, 2007

Yankee Chicks Bound for Dixie

by Jim Newsom

One listen to Never Been to Vegas, the debut album by Red Molly, and you’ll swear these three musicians come from the heart of Dixie. But the group’s concert Saturday night at the Virginia Beach Central Library will be their first foray below the Mason-Dixon line.

“This is our first venture south of Maryland,” Carolann Solebello told me recently from her home on Staten Island. “We’re hoping that people will be receptive to a trio of Yankee girls singing music that tends to fall on this other side of things. We’re not trying to be poseurs; we’re not trying to impersonate anybody that we’re not. We’re just northerners who happen to like this kind of music. We’re hoping that the voices and the music will transcend all.”

The rich, harmonic blend she makes with Laurie MacAllister and Abbie Gardner renders geographic concerns meaningless. The threesome discovered their mutual musical magic one night in 2004 at a festival in the Berkshires where they were all performing as solo artists.

“We were friends before,” she explained, “and we just happened to be hanging out together at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and sat up late and happened upon this sound. We had all admired each other’s work from afar, but ‘gee why we haven’t ever sung together before?’ It was one of those ‘a-ha!’ moments. We were all based around New York City but it never occurred to us to sing together until that very moment.”

Though each is a songwriter, they chose to emphasize non-original material when they began working as a trio.

“That’s part of the mission of the band,” Solebello said. “When we met, we’d been playing exclusively original music and pretty much getting nowhere. We were all a little burnt out on that, and we thought there is so much beautiful music out there, so many songs that we admire in the American canon, folk and otherwise. We just started exploring songs by other writers and songs by traditional writers that we don’t even know where they came from. Abbie was the only songwriter who was prolific enough to have any material to use for the last record. We have a tendency to admire songwriters who sound old.”

Gardner’s two tunes on Vegas have that same timeless quality, as though they’ve been floating around in the ethos for years. “Seven Years” could’ve come from the folk boom of the ‘60s and “Ohio” has the sing-song quality of something that’s been passed down over several generations.

“It’s kind of a variation on ‘Pig in a Pen,’” Solebello said of the latter. “It’s a simple little ditty that sounds like it was written a hundred years ago.”

Theirs is the kind of stuff you wish had a place on contemporary country radio: organic three-part vocal harmonies over acoustic guitars, banjo, mandolin and dobro. Rather than cater to a specific commercial marketplace, they’ve chosen to follow their own musical compass.

“We don’t like to be pigeonholed,” she said. “If we went to Nashville and looked for a producer or tried to court a country label, we might be pushed into doing only one kind of music. We like being independent right now.

“I make fans laugh by saying, ‘I hate country music.’ What we see as country music is people like Hank Williams and Kitty Wells.”

Though all three Mollies are self-described “Yankees,” Gardner’s mom was a bluegrass fan who began taking her to bluegrass festivals as a young girl. Solebello discovered folk music and its variants in college.

“I went to Fordham University,” she said. “They have this fantastic radio station that played mostly folk music and ‘new folk.’ It was during that time in the ‘90s with a lot of people like Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. When I discovered the Indigo Girls it was like a revelation to me. It hadn’t occurred to me to make music with an acoustic guitar.

“After college I ended up acting and traveling around the country to Tennessee and to Kansas. That’s where I met the people who make the real kind of music. I was working in musical theatre mostly and ended up in the wilds of east Tennessee. There’s a town called Townsend, an itty-bitty little town sitting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park close to the North Carolina border. Boy, I met some people there—I was doing a musical and I had to learn to sing mountain music. I was never exposed to that and it opened a whole new world for me. It took me a little while, you know, Yankee girl with my big Cadillac—I drove down there in my father’s huge brown 1977 Cadillac with New York plates. I got pulled over more times than I can tell you!”

As she prepares to head south again, this time with her two Molly-mates, Carolann Solebello acknowledges what the threesome has already accomplished since coming together:

“At the moment we consider ourselves successful because (a) we love what we’re doing and (b) we’re actually making a living at it. I was a high school English teacher; Abbie just ‘retired’ from her career as an occupational therapist; and Laurie was an industrial psychologist until she left that to become a waitress so she would have free brain space and time for music. But she left her waitressing job last year, I left my teaching job in February and Abbie left her occupational therapy job in June. And we’re all supporting ourselves. We don’t need the bling, we don’t need the big houses. Right now we consider ourselves very successful.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.