The women of Long Time Courting wanted some girl time. While there are many women in trad music, flutist/singer Shannon Heaton explains, “a lot of bands tend to be mostly dude.” Guitarist Liz Simmons remembers that “the idea of working with women was appealing. It’s empowering to be a girl band.”
They first formed the ensemble three years ago, with fiddler Ellery Klein, who invited cellist Ariel Friedman. Ellery has since moved to Israel. Sarah Blair took her place a year and a half ago.
Now, says Shannon, while “the hang is great, it’s about the music.” Their first album, Alternate Routes, blends trad tunes, Irish ballads, original arrangements, and Americana in its ten tracks. One of the defining sounds is harmony from four female voices.
“It’s a big musical driving element,” Shannon says. “It’s very different than singing with men. The color, the vocal blend is different.” The cello adds an unusual colour also. A set of tunes called Alternate Roots begins with The Morning Dew, followed by Shannon’s original, Alternate Roots, closing with Bean a Tí ar Lár. That textural shift in the middle, highlighting the strings, is deliberate, says Shannon.
“I think of it as Chamber Celtic, or Chamber folk,” Liz explains. She comes from the folk and Appalachian world; Ariel from the Old-Time world, and classical. Sarah plays Irish music, as well as contra dancing, which includes improvisation, and Shannon plays “straight up Irish,” and also writes new music in the style of Irish trad. A good example is the first song Maggie Dean, set to the melody of The Cocks Are Crowing. Shannon wrote a chorus and riffs, and new words that tell the story of a young girl who steals away on a ship. Unusually, for songs about girl stowaways, she remains a sailor at the end of the song. Not only does she prove her skills to a sceptical captain, she marries the handsome tar who protected her, and they all sail away together. Talk about your girl power!
Like the supportive man in the song, Shannon’s husband, guitar player Matt Heaton, sometimes comes on the road as “road nanny,” says Liz. “He holds his own very well with a group of women” who can be “goofy and gross” together. “Ten hour drives go by in a snap. We sing in harmony in the car.”
Bringing kids along was another spark for the group, it began as a joke, when Shannon realised that she and Matt (who also tour as a duo) often met male musicians encouraging them to have baby, but the guys never had their kid (or wife!) with them. “The way the band makes time for creative work and socialising while also supporting the family has been great.”
In some ways, playing with the other women is no different from playing with men, but the vibe in the room seems more supportive and patient to Shannon. Liz says
“we’re all good at multi-tasking; we’re collaborative and efficient. Whatever evolutionary instinct is there really works to our benefit.”
The subtle blend of Americana and Irish also feels very fresh, and part of what seems to be a trend. A duo that opened for Andy Irvine in New York recently, the Murphy Beds, made up of Eamonn O’Leary and Jefferson Hamer, also had this sweet sound. It’s not Old Time nor country, exactly; it is just somehow an acknowledgement of both. It’s also very modern.
Long Time Courting’s arrangement of the classic, sad
ballad Barbara Allen, a stand-out on the disc, epitomises the style. The version comes from Johnny Cash, adapted by Shannon. Liz says the song “really speaks to our interest in Celtic and American sounds. It’s also very chamber-y.” Shannon says “The most aching way I thought to do it would be to have girls singing together, adding in the cello on high and a burst of fiddle.” It’s music that puts the band at home in any Celtic festival, and
also any Folk festival, where they enjoy doing “in the round” with other bands onstage. With a topic like “songs of yearning,” Liz might sing Early in the Spring in an Appalachian way and Shannon might follow up with an Irish version of it.
“None of us are from Ireland,” Shannon says, though she and Sarah have spent lots of time there, and can hold their own in any Irish session. American-Irish fiddler, Liz Carroll encouraged her to find her own voice.
“When I was living in Chicago, one of the first things she asked me was, do you have any tunes of your own. She was so complimentary and so supportive. If that early support hadn’t come along I might have spent a lot of time feeling bad about not being Irish. I know where this music is coming from, but at the end of the day I’m a Midwestern gal and it’s really ok for me to sing my own influences. In fact it’s something we all have to offer.”
Judging by the appeal of Long Time Courting, that’s offering a lot.