For many artists, stepping into a studio to record an album can be challenging enough. But when East Nashvillian Korby Lenker began working on his seventh album, Thousand Springs, he decided to skip the studio altogether and head to his home state of Idaho to record in places that held particular meaning for him. Venturing forth with his guitar, some recording gear and a tent, he captured his vocal and guitar parts in more than a dozen locales, including the edge of the Snake River Canyon, a cabin north of Sun Valley and his undertaker father’s mortuary.
Then he spent months driving around the country to collect vocal and instrumental contributions from nearly 30 of today’s finest folk talents, among them Nora Jane Struthers, Anthony Da Costa, Carrie Elkin, Amy Speace, Molly Tuttle, Kai Welch, Angel Snow, Becky Warren and the Punch Brothers’ Chris “Critter” Eldridge. In Madison, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin and Nashville, he recorded their work in backyards, hotel rooms and even a bookstore, then went home to edit them into Thousand Springs.
Lenker plotted his plan for Thousand Springs after Nashville-based Turner Publishing Co. released his first collection of short stories, Medium Hero, in December 2015 – an experience that, he says, helped him find his “true voice” (and earned him high praise not only from book-world luminaries including Kirkus Reviews and National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, but Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak).
“For me, the two most important qualities of good art are originality and meaning,” Lenker explains. “You’ve got to tell your own story and not try to borrow someone else’s.”
When he moved to Nashville, he quickly discovered singer-songwriters were about as common as pickup trucks. And most of them were about as original.
“It forced me to really dig in and figure out what I did that was different than what everyone else was doing,” he says. “I spent my first three years in town parking cars at a hotel and taking a bunch of chances, creatively speaking. No one really cared about me, which turned out to be very freeing.”
During that period, he wrote many of the stories in Medium Hero, and focused on writing songs that meant something to him rather than worrying about hit potential.
“Along the way, I discovered there was an audience for this approach to telling my story,” he says. It was a thrilling, and empowering, revelation.
In the years since, he’s played everywhere from small listening rooms to Seattle’s world-renowned Bumbershoot festival, delivering what American Songwriter magazine called “huggable folk-pop” on stages shared with artists from Willie Nelson, Keith Urban and Chris Isaak to Susan Tedeschi, Amy Grant and Nickel Creek. Along the way, he’s earned nearly a dozen songwriting awards, including first-place wins at the 2016 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, 2012’s Kerrville Folk Festival and 2006’s Merlefest. He also placed second in the 2017 Hazel Dickens Songwriting Contest for ‘Friend and A Friend’, a beguiling Thousand Springs track co-written with Molly Tuttle, who sings harmony. Allowing life to imitate art, Lenker also has been conducting a one-man campaign of sorts, engaging strangers for conversation and shared selfies in an Instagram-hosted exercise he calls #MakeAmericaFriendsAgain. (He also touches on that subject in a new song titled ‘Let’s Just Have Supper’. Written and performed with Struthers, it’s not on this album, but the NPR-premiered video, is worth checking out.)
Ironically, while recording Thousand Springs (and making friends), Lenker lost his voice for nearly two months.
Addressing the loss of a dear family member, Lenker wrote the affecting song ‘Wherever You Are’ while his voice was gone. He also visited the Vanderbilt Voice Center, where doctors immediately started him on physical therapy. Soon, he was recording again. He did ‘Wherever You Are’ solo, in one take. It’s one of five songs he penned alone; the other seven are collaborations with a variety of musical friends including Speace, Tuttle, Robby Hecht, Jon Weisberger and Liz Longley.
Coincidentally, the song that precedes it, ‘Mermaids’, has an understated lightheartedness, almost a softer ‘Magical Mystery Tour’/’Yellow Submarine’ vibe, that would easily appeal to kids. Throughout the album, Lenker deftly shifts through a wide range of moods. He captures his love of literature with charming playfulness in ‘Book Nerd’. The opener, “Northern Lights,” is a spare, contemplative tune containing just a couple of verses, but Lenker’s vivid imagery and forlorn voice are all he needs to speak volumes about lost love.
There’s a delicacy to most of these songs, due in part to Lenker’s gentle delivery; in ‘Nothing Really Matters’, he sounds as if he’s whispering in your ear – in a voice that somehow suggests both James Taylor and Michael Franks, delivered in an Afro-bluegrass style. Driven by Jon Reischman’s outstanding mandolin, it’s reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland; Lenker cites both the artist and the album as major influences.
The hardest-rocking track, ‘Last Man Standing’, was written about Chief Sitting Bull after Lenker read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He recorded parts of it at Standing Rock, near Sitting Bull’s grave, a month before the Dakota-Access Pipeline protests began. Musically, the song more or less references his own roots; Lenker started studying piano at age 7 and picked up guitar in his early teens, playing a lot of Neil Young and similar artists before joining the obligatory high-school rock band (his was Clockwork Orange).
“There weren’t a lot of people around me making music,” he says about growing up in Idaho’s isolation. “I had to go out and find it.” His search included attending college in Bellingham, Washington, where he studied music theory – and Phish. Reading about jazz led him to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller – and to an understanding that, as he puts it, “music had a story, a thread that went from musician to musician, through time.” “The idea of finding my place in that timeline has become more and more important to me,” he notes, adding, “Every time I play a show, I think of it as an audition for the next show. Everything for me is a slow build.”
That might explain another of the album’s delights: ‘Late Bloomers’, in which he sings, Here’s to the late bloomers/Holding on till their time arrives/Some people might have gotten there sooner/But for us, it’s gonna be right on time … No matter how hard the path was/We always knew/No dream can outlast us/When it’s coming true.
For Lenker, as for any of us, some dreams come true and some don’t. That’s just life. But on Thousand Springs, he shares those highs and lows as only an artist with a “true voice” can. And that voice, he’ll never lose.
+ Saturday August 18 Purbeck Valley Folk Festival
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