At first listen, Anchors & Anvils, Amy LaVere's second release for Memphis' Archer Records, doesn't sound like a radical departure from This World Is Not My Home, a strong solo debut that was never quite as interesting as it could have been. But it's a big step up for the throaty-voiced singer and bassist. Backed by a dream team of A-list musicians such as Bob Furgo (Leonard Cohen's violin player), Chris Scruggs (BR5-49), Jimbo Mathus, Jason Freeman, Paul Taylor, and Eric Lewis, LaVere has never sounded better.
"I'd like to say there's been a lot of growth since I recorded the last CD," says LaVere, who appeared as Wanda Jackson in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and as Christina Ricci's hard-partying friend in Craig Brewer's controversial Black Snake Moan. Perched atop a barstool at coffee-shop Quetzal, down the street from Sun Studio, where LaVere works as a tour guide, the tiny country chanteuse known for slapping the hell out of an upright bass that appears to be twice her size looks right at home. From that vantage she discusses her recent life, the joys of working with producer Jim Dickinson, and the true love she's found in the deep grooves of classic soul music.
"A lot has happened," she says. "I moved. I went through another long-term relationship, and I lost it. And regained it again. I've played a ton of shows since the last record, and my material's gone in a completely different direction."
"Killing Him," an original murder ballad about love gone wrong, opens Anchors & Anvils, establishing the record's sweet but undeniably spooky tone. It plays out like the long-awaited female answer to classic songs about obsessive love like the brutal standard "The Knoxville Girl" or the eerie Stanley Brothers cut "Little Glass of Wine." "Killing Him" marries these ancient themes of murder in the mountains with a steady soul groove and the detached, almost jazzy vocals of "Coyote"-era Joni Mitchell.
"I got the idea for 'Killing Him' from Misty White," LaVere says, tipping her hat to the drummer for the local all-girl band the Zippin Pippins. "She called me one morning to tell me about something she'd seen on the news. There was this woman who had killed her husband, and when somebody asked her how she felt about everything, she said, 'Killing him didn't make the love go away.' She thought it would be a great line for a song. And so did I.
"Jim [Dickinson] told me that my themes and my style on this one are very Victorian," LaVere says. "He said that I was really showing my dark side."
If Anchors & Anvils is a step up for LaVere, it's also a classic example of Dickinson doing what he does best. Anchors & Anvils marries the smooth Nashville pop of Patsy Cline with the hip-shaking funk of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, circa 1971 in the same way Dickinson's 2006 solo release, Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger, found the happy place where the honky-tonk sounds of Bakersfield, California, get down and dirty with Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives.
"Jim gave me a great quote for my CD," LaVere says. "You take the artist to the edge of the cliff, push them off, and hope they have the wings to fly." She says he gave her free rein to experiment and the confidence to make bold choices.
LaVere grew up in a tiny town outside of Detroit that was, as she describes it, all about "Metallica and monster trucks." Her mother played guitar, her dad was a drummer, and LaVere started playing in Motor City rock bands at about the time most kids are learning to add fractions. In Memphis, she made her reputation as a rockabilly sweetheart playing alongside her ex-husband Gabe Kudela in the Gabe & Amy Show.
But before moving to the Bluff City LaVere spent some time in Nashville. That's where she married Kudela, in a chapel at the corner of Chet Atkins Place and Music Row. No matter how hard she may try to expand her sound or reconnect with her inner rocker, the country ache is always present. It is especially present in songs such as "Time Is a Train," "Pointless Drinking," and the sweet slow dance of "Tennessee Valentine."
"There was nothing intentional about getting rid of the rockabilly," LaVere says of her current sound, all the while expressing some worry that people see a small woman beating a big bass and think it's nothing more than a sight gag. Besides, she never gave up rockabilly. She just changed things around a little.
LaVere says she's too busy preparing for her seven-week tour in support of Anchors & Anvils to think about making any more movies, though that is something she intends to pursue.
"I have delusions of grandeur," she says.