At the Ballard Smokeshop, one of the last bastions of the old neighborhood, Seattle-born country singer Zoe Muth sits with a vodka tonic and decries the neighborhood’s transformation from crusty fishing community to yuppie shopping haven.
“People kind of flocked to Ballard Avenue originally because there were bars with good music,” she says with a shy smile. And that rich music scene is pretty much the only thing that’s stayed constant through Ballard’s evolution. Except that as one of the talented songwriters who have attracted moneyed folk to Ballard, Muth must claim some responsibility for the metamorphosis of Seattle’s Americana enclave.
For five years, Muth has been performing original country songs not just in Ballard, but all over the city. She sings in a lilting drawl that smacks of a young Emmylou Harris, though as a high-school kid teaching herself guitar, she says she attempted to emulate artists like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.
“My main focus has been on writing songs, and I always just figured if I can write a good song and sing it well, then it really doesn’t matter how good my guitar playing is,” Muth says. “I appreciate artists that write about work and class issues, but not in a really outwardly political way.”
But she doesn’t attempt to tackle such subject matter on her self-titled debut record; like all the best classic country songs, hers too are odes to heartache and loneliness. It’s a timeless sound that’ll appeal as much to teenage Moondoggies fans as it will to Tammy Wynette lovers.
Though Muth started as a solo artist, she’s assembled a stand-up ensemble, the Lost High Rollers (a name taken from a line in a Townes Van Zandt song, “No Lonesome Tune”), to accompany her: Miguel Salas on bass and backup vocals, Ethan Lawton on mandolin, Dave Harmonson on guitar, pedal steel, backup vocals, and dobro, Greg Nies on drums (previous drummer Tim Dunn plays on the record), Jason Stewart on banjo, Tyler Richart on vocals, and Johnny Bregar on accordion. The new record’s quality owes just as much to the skill of these musicians as it does to Muth’s smooth-as-molasses voice and unpretentious lyrics. There isn’t a single song you’ll be tempted to skip. From start to finish, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers is a consistently pleasurable, heartfelt listen that proves Muth and her band deserve a place at the forefront of Seattle’s country-music scene.