Liz Carlisle has traveled from Montana to Massachusetts to countless points between promoting herself as a country music singer, but the 21-year-old Missoula native and current Harvard University senior has never been to Nashville. That is, until this past weekend, when she and her producer, Russell Wolff, swung through the Country Music Capital of the World to promote her new single and network with industry professionals before heading home for a series of concerts over the holidays.
“I guess that’s the big story,” admits Carlisle, talking by phone two days before leaving for Tennessee. “I haven’t been to Nashville yet, but, you know, I do country music so it was kind of a matter of time. We’ve been gradually meeting more and more people involved in that whole scene, and I’ve been working on getting tips on how to be a part of that songwriting community, and we figured now was time to go do it.”
Carlisle will travel through Nashville with more than just her guitar and producer in tow—she’s developed quite a reputation in the four years since she started her music career in earnest. Carlisle is a regular on the folk circuit throughout New England, has released two CDs with Wolff, including 2004’s Half & Half and her latest effort, Five Star Day, and was recently nominated for the Best Emerging Artist award by the International Folk Alliance, competing alongside such bands as The Duhks, Uncle Earl and The Wailin’ Jennys. Meanwhile, she’s managed to fit her increased load of touring and recording around her Ivy League class schedule, where she’s majoring in ethnomusicology and writing her senior thesis on the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.
“It means a lot of crazy late nights,” says Carlisle, “But this is what I want to do. I can’t possibly explain how much I love country music. I’m an addict if it’s a drug.”
For instance, while being interviewed, Carlisle is walking from an early dinner at a campus dining hall to an evening vocal production class. After that class she’ll meet at the studio with Wolff and a drummer to finish the single she’s taking to Nashville. It’s not uncommon for Carlisle to multitask between her music and schoolwork—her frequent acoustic open-mic performances at Harvard Square’s Club Passim (where Joan Baez, among others, got her start) used to involve bringing her laptop along to get some homework done before hitting the stage.
“I’m always ready for anything,” she says. “You will never see me walking without my toothbrush or a change of clothes. You just never know what will come up—recording a demo like tonight, a gig or whatever.”
Although she’s studying at Harvard, an institution known for many heady things but not necessarily for country music, Carlisle embraces the odd fit. She uses her Montana roots and current big-city bookishness as a chance to stand out among the crowded singer/songwriter field.
“It’s kind of a strange match, and I feel like a big challenge for me is to try to seem authentic and real to everybody—to get away from the, ‘Oh, she’s from Harvard, she doesn’t understand, she’s aloof, she’s Blue State,” Carlisle says. “That’s where my upbringing in Montana means so much. My huge goal is to communicate on a human level that gets beyond all of that—to get people who normally wouldn’t trust a kid from Harvard at all to trust me, and vice versa, to get someone who wouldn’t normally trust a girl from Montana.”
Part of what’s made Carlisle successful to this point is that her music takes on the same casual, approachable demeanor that she portrays in real life. On Five Star Day, she combines vivid lyrical images of her home state with thoughtful arrangements that range from twangy three-chord country to Appalachian-influenced, fiddle-driven folk. Her voice is earthy and evocative without ever seeming to strain or preen. On the album’s single, “Montana,” she’s accompanied by a pedal steel guitar while singing a vintage country chorus: “What I miss about Montana, is the silver blue sky/On a crisp, clear, cool mornin’, at the dawn of July/Miss the balsamroot flower, all covered in dew/That’s what I miss about Montana/No honey, it ain’t you.”
Her newest track, “Chances,” is what Carlisle calls “very country.” Wolff, who met Carlisle at Club Passim and plays with her on tour in addition to producing her albums, heard the song and immediately “ate it up,” says Carlisle. Wolff upped the tempo, added a Dixie piano line and the duo has been using the tune as a closer for their more recent shows. In Nashville, Carlisle will distribute the “Chances” demo and continue to push Five Star Day as she takes advantage of local connections—Wolff’s brother, for instance, is tour manager for Big & Rich—to try to further her recording career.
“A lot of the stuff I’ve been writing lately is definitely in the more traditional country vein. With ‘Chances,’ it’s a breakup song, a real girl power song, and,” she adds, noting the significance of her upcoming trip, “the hook is: ‘You’ve had your chances, now I’m taking mine.’”
Liz Carlisle plays three times in Missoula over the holidays with Russell Wolff: Friday, Dec. 23, they’ll play a casual show at Sean Kelly’s at 9 PM, cover TBA; Friday, Dec. 30, the Missoula Folklore Society hosts Carlisle at the Crystal Theatre at 8 PM, $12/$10 with a MFS membership; and Saturday, Dec. 31, Carlisle plays as part of First Night Missoula at the University Center Lounge.