Musical Muse: Lera Lynn Gets Country Strong

In Athens, Georgia, you can’t swing a stick without hitting a musician. Home to greats like R.E.M, The B52s, Harvey Milk, Pylon, Vic Chesnutt, Modern Skirts, and Drive-By Truckers, the southern university town is still a hotbed of musical talent. Even below the lid, the water stays at a steady boil of great acts, among them a talented group of female performing songwriters. Among our new favorite to bubble over: Lera Lynn. The 27-year-old’s indie Americana sound and beautiful harmonies call to mind the sparse style of Gillian Welch. But bolstered by a full band, she rocks a little harder than her traditionalist contemporaries. Her much-buzzed-about album, Have You Met Lera Lynn?, the songwriter’s first solo recording, has already been nominated for the 2011 Athens Music Awards “Album of the Year” alongside local heavyweights of Montreal and Elf Power. And this spring, she won the 2011 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at the annual Americana music festival, MerleFest , for her first release, Bobby, Baby. Catching up with Lera at her neighborhood watering hole— Normal Bar— was also a chance for her to catch her breath after another long stretch of touring.

When did you start playing music?
"I began playing the violin when I was 11 and picked up the guitar when I was 14. My family moved a lot; my dad was an addict and couldn’t keep a job. I found refuge in my room, in music and in writing songs. When I moved to Athens I started a band called Birds & Wire and we had a more bluegrass/jazz sound. Getting back to my country roots, I hooked up with Slow Records engineer/producer C.K. Koch, who allowed me the freedom to flesh out my original visions for the songs. The result is my most recent album, Have You Met Lera Lynn? and I think it’s a much more candid representation of my style.

What direction did you take the music?
"In the last year I've realized that country music is my heart and soul, and when I try to cover that up it’s not much good."

What did you grow up listening to?
"I supposed I took lyrical inspiration from Joni Mitchell and, in my mind, Ray Charles taught me how to sing. My dad was rocking the 38 Special, Hank Williams Jr. and Sr. and Patsy Cline. I listened to a lot of '80s country giants like George Jones and Waylon Jennings."

How old were you when you played your first gig?
"I was 15, and my mom convinced this Mexican restaurant that I was a national recording artist and about to explode. They hired me to play cover songs once a week for a couple of hours. I haven’t been paid that well since!"


You've got a unique, laid-back look. Tell us about your stage style staples?
"My vintage Florsheim ankle boots work with just about any look, Western or mod or rock. They are also super comfortable and allow me to move confidently about the stage. And, they're great for stomp-along percussion if the moment arises! I also love any high-waisted pants and jeans. They're so simple, '70s-sexy, stylish and easy to move in. They can make a plain outfit look put-together."

And particular style inspirations you can share?
"Lately I've actually been taking a lot of inspiration from men's clothing, suits, and western wear. Johnny Cash is someone I often try to emulate as well as many other country and Western stars pre-1980, sans the hair."

Any dream duets?
"Phew! There are so many musicians I'd love to work with. My first thought was "Ray Charles, yeah!" but on second thought, I know he would just smash me. There'd be no duet to it. I'd love to sing and/or write with A.A. Bondy or Cary Ann Hearst, two contemporaries that I greatly admire and respect."

Heels or no heels on stage?
"I'm gonna answer with a question: Booze or no booze? Pick your battles. You can never combine the two in quantity on stage. Only two drinks per inch."

Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
"I don't really make the time for rituals. It's just go. I do try to warm my vocals like a good girl, but I rarely have the privacy for such an embarrassing (and annoying) exercise. So, I hum."


And in your beauty arsenal?
"A spray hair powder called Big Sexy Hair, because you don’t always get a chance to shower. MAC Lip Glass for the stage and Alba lip balm. It’s all natural and tastes good."

What key pieces are always in your bag on the road?
"My skinny black jeans by Notify because they don’t stretch out. A pendant necklace or some piece of jewelry by metalsmith, Jessie Huard. A bolo tie that I can throw on over a button-down and feel stage-ready. And a favorite soft vintage tee that says “I feel good all over.” It’s so old, no one can make out what it says."

Describe a perfect day in Athens...
"I’d start with brunch at Five & Ten. I can never decide between the French toast or the omelet of the day so I usually get both. I’d then go to Ben Burton Park with my dog, Ruby, and my boyfriend to walk the trails and play Frisbee or take a nap on the grass. I’d stop into my favorite vintage store, Community boutique. The owner does an amazing job of following current trends and finding them in vintage pieces. Later I’d grab a happy hour drink at Normal bar, which is just around the corner from my house in Normaltown. before a dinner at La Dolce Vita, an Italian restaurant downtown. I’d wrap up my perfect day by going show-hopping."

What local bands are on heavier rotation on your iPod?
"Reptar, for sure. They’re all kids, but that band’s going to be HUGE. The Whigs are some of the most energetic performers I’ve seen come out of Athens, and I really like Madeline. There’s FLT RSK, Dead Confederates, Modern Skirts, Venice Is Sinking, I could go on and on!"

Tell us about your wheels? We're obsessed!
"I drive a 1977 El Camino with a 350 V8. You hear me coming for a good quarter mile."

To read and hear more about Lera Lynn, visit her website.

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