Partners in life and in music: (from left) Bill Powers and Shelley Gray of Sweet Sunny South; Mike T. Lewis and MaryBeth Zamer, the Twangtown Paramours (legit, not illicit)

Simple And True
Led by couples in love, Sweet Sunny South and The Twangtown Paramours get to the heart of the matter

By David McGee

Carried Off By A Twister
Sweet Sunny South
2 Dolla Reccas

The Twangtown Paramours
Inside Edge Records

Love and music are always in the air, not only in spring, and the past couple of months have provided more proof that roots music is increasingly becoming a destination of choice for couples bound by the heart and by the music they make together.

The more established of these is the husband and wife team of Bill Powers and Shelley Gray, familiar to readers of this publication and to Americana aficionados in their other guise as the foundation of Honey Don’t, in which incarnation they released one of 2009’s finest albums. The pride of Paonia, Colorado, Powers and Gray are back in 2010 in their popular old-timey configuration as Sweet Sunny South, and making thoroughly engaging and warm-hearted music on the group’s fifth long player, Carried Off By a Twister. (Powers and Gray also perform in a kids jug band with the delightful name of Duck Duck Grey Duck, and Powers’s outlet for his more rambunctious side is as leader of the rock band the Silvertone Devils.)

Sweet Sunny South in Cedaredge, CO, Spring 2006, performing the ‘Laura Ingalls’ theme song. Shelley Gray (bass), Bill Powers (mandolin, lead vocal), Cory Obert (fiddle), Rob Miller (guitar).

SSS doesn’t have much of a dark side—ironically, a frisky song titled “Sunshine” is one of the most fatalistic (“you never know when it’s your last chance/and by then it’s too late,” Powers and Gray sing in sweet harmony), and there is a bit of the bitter in the details of a muddled liaison in the somber country lament “You Never Even Knew My Name.” For its most despairing tune SSS turns not to chief songwriter Powers but to antiquity, for “Blind Fiddler—Black Hearted Gal,” which melds droning, bowed bass and fiddle interludes between the a cappella vocal detailing the blind fiddler’s plight, before stepping up the pace with the full band loping through the “Black Haired Gal” portion that features a nifty mandolin solo from Powers and a rousing ensemble signoff.

So the emphasis is on the Sunny here, and these folks deliver on that count in spades. Powers writes wonderful songs celebrating the little things that make romance worthwhile and never forgets to have fun with the issues at hand (“My baby sure does love me/up every day with a kiss and hug me/I’m so happy about the way he does me/makes me want to sing to you/since we me all the days are sunny/he calls me darlin’, I call him honey/brings me all that hard-earned money/and now I’m never blue,” Gray sings nonchalantly in “My Baby”). The assembled multitude kicks it off with an ebullient toe-tapper in which the singer relates a dream in which he’s a country music star; it’s an opportunity for name checking a host of country icons past and present, for Cory Obert to cut out on a hot fiddle solo and for Powers to pluck out a frisky banjo solo, to pass along some sound advice he’s given by Elvis in said dream—and to bring the Beatles into the scene with a sitar lick and the sound of an alarm clock ringing to signal the waking hour. SSS’s secret weapon, though, is Shelley Gray, who plays a steady, on the money bass, but is even more impressive as a vocalist. It’s useful to know that before she ever took up music, she was a child tap dancer in her native Minnesota. Funny thing about this is how her singing has the rhythmic feel and good-time personality of a tap dancer—you can almost hear her happy feet when she sings her languorous parts on “Ramble Johnny,” which lead to a rousing Dixieland close complete with cornet, clarinet and trombones wailing away, and Powers working the banjo for all it’s worth. She and Powers have another rousing vocal set-to in the high-spirited bluegrass barnburner, “Baby O’ Mine,” another splendid showcase for Powers on mandolin and especially Obert sawing it down to the nub on fiddle. Suffice it to say whenever Gray shows up on Carried Off By A Twister, her beaming voice is bracing and memorable. The same might be said for Sweet Sunny South as a whole—they are hardly alone in playing this old-timey music that operates simultaneously in the past and the present, but they’re playing is impeccable and inspired, Powers is a superior songwriter, and they have that great secret weapon in Shelley Gray. Powers, who is also a public radio host on station KVNF—the last track, in fact, is a good-time jingle for the station, hence the title “KVNF” (“fresh as a brand-new day and it’s mountain grown”)—is an unusually prolific and restless musician. Rest assured there is more where this came from, and whether it’s the deeper reflections of Honey Don’t’s songs or more blessed rays of light from Sweet Sunny South—or from any other iteration of the band—it will be a good year indeed.

The Twangtown Paramours perform “It Might As Well Be You” from their debut album. Filmed at the Acoustic Coffeehouse, Johnson City, TN. ‘…embracing with cool equanimity the certainty of being dumped by the current object of her affection as the best of all possible outcomes...'

The other pairing of note with a new album out states their position plainly in their musical identity as the Twangtown Paramours, which is also the title of their debut album. The couple in question is multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Mike T. Lewis and his real-life paramour, MaryBeth Zamer (the dictionary defines paramour as “illicit lover, esp. of a married person,” but Mr. Lewis and Ms. Zamer emphasize theirs is a completely aboveboard liaison). These Twangtown Paramours, though making their debut as a recording entity, are hardly coming from nowhere: Mr. Lewis has toured as a standup bassist with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and as a songwriter he’s had a massive #1 pop hit in South Korea (“A Heartbeat Away” by Yang Pa) and had his songs cut by a variety of indie artists on these shores, in the U.K. and in Japan. Ms. Zamer has been singing demos and background vocals in Nashville, and previously sang with the band Method Actor, featuring the late, great Eva Cassidy. Based indeed in Twangtown (Nashville), the Paramours’ introductory effort is a total delight of smart songs abundant in heart and wit, discrete but engaged musical support, and striking vocals by Ms. Zamer, whose soothing but plaintive voice surely must have caught Ms. Cassidy’s ear, but beyond that is the fact of its alluring, seductive quality: the country in her comes through clearly, but she has a way of selling a song with sophisticated, complex emotional shadings that suggest she could work wonders with the Great American Songbook (she’s an earthier Rachel Bay Jones, who brought bluegrass to her natural Broadway leanings on her impressive 2009 debut, ShowFolk). Mr. Lewis leaves most of the vocalizing to his twangtown paramour, but has a striking moment of his own on his lovely, guitar-and-dobro billet doux, “Ciara My Dear” (pronounced Keer-a), a heart tugging romantic plea to a damaged soul reluctant to “surrender and let me dry your tears,” which succeeds not only on the basis of melody and austere ambiance, but also by the singer’s plainspoken but nuanced beseeching of his reluctant inamorata.

In an album defined by gentle, folk-country rhythms and atmospheres created with admirable subtlety by a tight ensemble of guitar, bass, drums, dobro, pedal steel and the occasional keyboard; measured readings overflowing with conviction; and literate writing exploring the ways of the heart—there are breakups, unions and reunions all going on here—it’s hardly surprising to find so many songs with a positive, balanced perspective, a healthy attitude towards the twists and turns and what becomes of people who wrap their lives around each other’s. The catchiest song here, “Might As Well Be You,” a sturdy, propulsive shuffle with a soaring chorus demanding to be sung along with, finds the narrator ignoring “the ghosts of bad choices,” accepting the inevitability of heartbreak (“all I’ve known, all I’ve been shown, are the thousand ways love dies”) and embracing with cool equanimity the certainty of being dumped by the current object of her affection as the best of all possible outcomes. In “On My Way,” the album opening ballad, the singer, framed by a decidedly southwest-flavored arrangement rich in fiddle and dobro, is packing up and leaving, saying sayonara to a failed relationship, but matter of factly, without bitterness, accepting the toll exacted as the price paid for her commitment, now beginning a new chapter as she vows to let her ex’s memory fade—but adding, “if I can’t forget/I’ll try to forgive.” When things are good, they’re really good, and the Paramours state this as clearly as they outline the speed bumps in other songs—in terms “Simple and True,” to cite the quiet, fingerpicked ballad that seems the album’s emotional center in its frank admission of how the real thing can defy explanation and definition both, and is best understood as a feeling, “like this simple ache I have for you…and it’s simple and true,”; or, as delineated in the soft shuffle of “Under the Next Blue Sky,” in acknowledging the certainty of love’s persistence, no matter the distance between partners or the turning of the earth. Ultimately, the Paramours’ outlook is summarized in the penultimate track, “Rise,” its shifting textures and more forceful thrust foreshadowing and enhancing each verse’s affirmation of the point the stories here have made, to wit: “Everything must fall away/and everything must rise.” The Paramours’ voices harmonize and elevate on the word “rise,” carrying it and the song forward, infusing it with hope and possibility. There’s the rub—hope and possibility. From the Twangtown Paramours’ mouths to our ears, and may we learn to find the place of grace so vividly described in their exquisitely rendered tales.

Sweet Sunny South’s Carried Off By A Twister is available at

The Twangtown Paramours is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024