“Nashville wasn’t ready for songs about mortality in East Montana,” Martha Scanlan quipped before launching into one of the more melancholy tracks off her acclaimed album The West Was Burning. But this may not have been the only reason for her recent move from the mountains of Tennessee to a remote ranch in Montana. The move has seemed to slow her down, making her songs sound a bit less alt-country and a bit more slow country. The switch was best evidenced in the languid quality of her drawl during Saturday night’s Sings Like Hell show at the Lobero Theatre, which was even more pronounced onstage than it is on record. The result of this evolution suits her, though. Images of backwoods gypsies, smoky barns, and rugged cowboys were palpable in her songwriting, and the sound of her voice was both penetrating and haunting. Scanlan was accompanied onstage by upright bassist Byron Isaacs, from Brooklyn, New York, who provided the appropriate backup the singer’s yearning, lilting vocals on songs like “Seeds of the Pine” and “Get Right Church.” The overall effect echoed long after she left the stage.
We were lucky to have Canadian artist Oh Susanna (the moniker of singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider) stop by the Lobero as well, following a stint a few days earlier at Austin’s annual South By Southwest festival. “Kiss my ass, eat my dust; I got dreams,” Ungerleider sang on “Greyhound Bus,” the poetry and seductive melody only slightly masking the tune’s struggle and sorrow. Her most recent album, Short Stories, is chock full of this kind of emotive songwriting, and parts of her set, including “Greyhound,” the plaintive “Pretty Face,” the epic and sweeping “Miss Liberty,” and the tragic “Beauty Queen,” showcased this near perfectly.
Some of the evening’s best moments occurred when Ungerleider invited Scanlan back onstage to harmonize with her. Their duet was an example of what Sings Like Hell is known and loved for: introducing us to great artists and giving them unexpected opportunities to share the stage with fellow music makers. Each month, Sings Like Hell delivers beautifully, and this show was a shimmering example courtesy of two excellent women singer-songwriters.