Whether nailing an upbeat honky-tonk tune or a slow, sad story-song, Zoe Muth's music is so honest and familiar, you'll wonder why you haven't heard it yet. Her self-titled, self-released debut won attention not only from her hometown (Seattle Weekly dubbed her "our own Emmylou"; tastemaker blog Sound on the Sound called her "without doubt, one of the finest songwriters in Seattle") it also earned praise from the worldwide press. The record landed on No Depression's annual Reader's Poll as one of the Top 50 Albums of 2009, while Modern Acoustic magazine called her 2010's "New Artist of the Year."
On its follow-up, Starlight Hotel (produced by Muth and Martin Feveyear at Seattle's Jupiter Studios), you can almost feel the wheels turning under the pickup truck. Picture an old country road, flat land on either side and a whole lot of nothing out the window. The mood of the music – and Muth's narrative lyrics – captures a stark honesty that recalls some of the finest country classics. In fact, there's so much spirit of Merle and Hank in these tunes (sung in an earnest tone reminiscent of Iris DeMent), it's easy to forget they were actually realized in the lush green of western Washington State.
Growing up in the hometown of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, Muth was raised on old school rock before discovering the Anthology of American Folk Music in high school. The stories of rural people jumped out at her through the music and, when she started writing songs a few years later, she naturally gravitated toward that style. It wasn't long before she she'd amassed a remarkably tight backing band, plucked a name for them from Townes Van Zandt's "No Lonesome Tune," and decided to make a record.
While that disc certainly made a strong impression, Starlight Hotel further cements her Americana cred. The title track is named for an old hotel on Ballard Avenue – the cobblestone road running straight through the heart of Seattle's burgeoning Americana scene. "I would pass by the hotel and there was this one room where the blinds were always open. The room was a mess, covered in newspapers, old clothes, and leftover food. It just made me wonder about the man living inside. How did he end up this way? Why was he letting the whole world see into his private life?" She imagined a tale and spun it into a heartbreak song so dark and revealing, you'd reckon it was true.
To contrast, "I've Been Gone" opens the album brightly – its "Ring of Fire"-style horn part swapping licks with "Country" Dave Harmonson's pedal steel. As the disc progresses, it becomes ever more clear Muth has a proclivity for the turn of a country phrase, like her snap about the guy who's not worth the song he put on the jukebox: "If I can't trust you with a quarter, how can I trust you with my heart?"
Indeed a spotlight should rest on Muth's strikingly honest vocal delivery and unpretentious, poetic lyrics. But, one can't overlook her band – the Lost High Rollers (Harmonson on pedal steel, electric guitar, and dobro; Greg Nies on drums and keys; Mike McDermott on bass; and Ethan Lawton on mandolin). This time around, they were joined on trumpet by Billy Joe Huels (Dusty 45's) and backing vocals by husband and wife duo the Starlings (Joy Mills and Tom Parker). The soundscapes the band creates match Muth's lyrics flawlessly, each flutter from the mandolin and every sliding note from the pedal steel pulling the listener further along that country road, closer all the time to the light in the window of that old hotel.