Some musicians just don’t belong in the now, whether it’s due to a bone-deep appreciation for the songs of the past, or simply a refusal to follow the trends of the present. The fact that the music keeps getting made, then, is a sign of unquenchable passion, of a drive to keep making those sounds regardless of who listens. Husband and wife team Mark and Carley Verbeck have not only found that drive, but have found in each other a creative partner who shares their anachronistically-specific musical bent. Scotch Hollow, their joint creative outlet, is the sound of the past, as unadulterated as it can be in the present.
At Berklee College of Music, Mark and Carley first met through rearranging Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and became hooked on making music together. Eventually, the pair moved to Nashville where Carley worked in publicity for a major country record label and Mark spent his days buffing and sanding Gibson guitars in their blue collar factory. Unhappy with the long days and sore backs, they relocated to Chicago, chosen for its position as a major cultural center; sadly, Mark came down with severe tendinitis, which led to a period of depression.
“He couldn’t play,” Carley laments. “It nearly killed us both. Those dark days led to the writing of the song ‘Blue Blue Sky.’ He was writing it using his iPad and the melody was so haunting it woke me up out my sleep and put me in a trance. To this day, I can’t sing that song without crying, or at least holding back tears.” Once Mark’s arm healed, he was able to kick his depression, and he and Carley went into the studio.
“Our first EP was a learning experience,” Carley says. “We just needed to lay something down so we could get gigs. We had a good run, but Mark kept writing better and better songs, so it was time to record a real full-length album.”
Mark’s upbringing in a rural coal mining town contributes a very real sense of sorrow to the music. “There is literally a dark cloud over his town,” Carley said, explaining that the title track to the group’s new record, Raging Bull in a Chicken Wire Pen, is about watching friends lose battles with addiction. However, Scotch Hollow is would rather celebrate life than mourn loss, and while the subject matter may be somber, the music certainly is not–the song is upbeat, punctuated by Mark’s percussive fingerstyle guitar and carried by the duo’s emotive vocal harmonies. Slower songs like “Burn Cruise” flip this formula, lyrically exploring the titular illicit passtime over an intoxicating stomp owing much to early Delta blues.
On the flip side, songs like “Burn Cruise” explore the release from the sadness and negativity. The intoxicating stomp and the lyrical simplicity calls to mind the titular activity, while the exuberant vocals float over percussive fingerpicked guitar.
The simple instrumentation calls to mind modern masters like William Elliott Whitmore, the nimble fingerstyle guitar pulls from legends like Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowel and Doc Watson, and while the vocal harmonies are evocative of the glory days of the Grand Ole Opry. The duo doesn’t waste much time writing lyrics, instead picking the most poignant phrases and stringing them together hypnotically over a rousing, rollicking, foot-stomping backdrop. This is the type of country music the radio tragically ignores, the type of blues best enjoyed with a drink in your hand and the sun in your eyes, the type of soul-bearing celebration it’s impossible to sit still during. This is roots music that exists to remind us why the roots matter in the first place.
Scotch Hollow will celebrate the release of Raging Bull in a Chicken Wire Pen with a headlining performance at Reggie’s in Chicago on Friday, June 12th. Details are linked here.