In a world that demands the ability to pigeonhole bands, Kristen Grainger & True North make life difficult. Their album, Fear of Falling Stars doesn’t fit easily into a particular box. Especially since a couple of the songs are sung by Dan Wetzel, who also plays guitar, banjo and mandola. But then Martin Stevens plays mandolin and fiddle while Josh Adkins’ bass fills the bottom end. Their four-part harmonies are exquisite, and the songs feature some of the quirkiest lyrics you’re likely to hear. Grainger suggests, “We gravitate towards songs that let us stretch out instrumentally and stack harmonies like cordwood.” The songs may be filled with woody tones, but ‘Don’t Take Me Back’ is an impassioned plea for a lover to lock the door and throw away the key. Gentle and folky in tone, lyrically Grainger is flat out begging her lover to end things. “Don’t take me back/Don’t let me in/ Don’t believe a word I say/ When I’ll say anything.” When she implores, “Stare me down, tell me to go and stay gone,” you feel the pain that haunts this relationship. One song in and you’re wondering how they top that.
The upbeat sound of ‘Go-Nowhere Town’ due to the mandolin and banjo is contradicted by lyrics that underscore just how sad life can be when you have to admit to the things you’d rather not have to acknowledge. “Home is where you go/ and they have to take you in/ It’s where you hang your hat or your head.” It’s an admission of defeat, one you don’t want to actually admit, but going back to live with your parents can hardly be considered a bright spot in one’s life.
Listening to the lyrics of these songs the realisation that hits hardest is that beyond the music that straddles the bluegrass, country and Americana, are lyrics that sneak up and deliver one sucker punch after another. That really shouldn’t be a surprise since Grainger has scored top honours at songwriting competitions from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to MerleFest and the USA Songwriting Contest. She was even acclaimed alongside Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile as one of the “Women Who Wrote Our 2020 Soundtrack” by The Bluegrass Situation.
Again and again phrases are turned that don’t stand out from the notes being played, yet when you head to the lyric sheet one is simply blown away. How many people start a song with phrases like “Take this anvil off my chest, cut the anchor from my ankle/Quit letting out the rope.” That ‘Extraordinary Grace’ goes on to outline the failings, rancor and divisiveness that have left the American Dream tarnished only illustrates how much work is remains to be done. Over the course of the 10 songs on Fear of Falling Stars Kristen Grainger & True North establish why they deserve to be heard well beyond the confines of the West Coast of the United States. They are quite simply a band that throws out the rules and plays with the kind of heart and soul that crosses boundaries, striking chords of truth for anyone who cares to listen.