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Lilies of the Valley: Boxcar Lilies bring rich harmonies and new CD to Iron Horse



Wednesday, December 30, 2015
The way Jenny Goodspeed sees it, it would have been ideal if she and her two bandmates had met a little sooner than they actually did — like maybe 10 years earlier.

After all, when you’re in your mid-40s, holding down a day job during the week and then touring to play music on the weekends can be pretty exhausting, she said.

“We’d have more energy if we were a little younger.”

But the Boxcar Lilies — Goodspeed, Katie Clarke and Stephanie Marshall — are holding up pretty well. The three women, who all hail from the Asfield-Greenfield neck of Franklin County, have steadily built a fan base since 2010 with their close harmonies and folk-country sound. From stages like the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York, to the New Bedford Folk Festival, they’ve showcased both their own songwriting and imaginative covers of other artists’ work.

Now the group has expanded its musical horizons on its just-released third album, “Knockout Rose,” which the bandmates will celebrate Saturday at Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall.

In a recent phone call, Goodspeed and Marshall talked about the new album and the journey the trio has made so far — and the challenge of balancing music with other jobs and home life. Clarke runs her own marriage and family counseling practice, Goodspeed is a part-time research analyst at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Marshall co-owns a Greenfield contracting business, Turn Key Builders, with her husband. Marshall also has an 8-year-old daughter and a 20-something stepson.

On the musical side, all three play acoustic guitar, while Clarke adds banjo, Goodspeed bass, and Marshall percussion such as washboard.

“We’d all been playing music in one way or another on our own or with other musicians,” said Marshall, who at one time recorded in Nashville. “But when we met, we felt we really had something special, something that would be just a lot of fun to do together.”

Clarke and Marshall got together first, in 2009, and began practicing and working on harmonies. They also came to know Goodspeed — all three had performed separately in Greenfield as part of a concert series at the city’s Energy Park — and when Clarke and Marshall did a show at the former Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton, Goodspeed joined them for a few songs to harmonize.

Marshall and Clarke liked what they heard. “[Goodspeed] had this higher range that was just great, and Katie and I were thinking immediately, ‘We gotta check this out,’” Marshall said.

The three bonded not just musically but personally, and they released their debut album, “Heartwood,” in early 2011. The record, engineered by guitarist and music teacher Dave Chalfant of Conway, was a mostly streamlined affair that concentrated on the Lilies’ harmonies and original songs, though it also included a fine cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man.”

“Sugar Shack,” released in 2013, proved a favorite with folk music deejays and expanded their sound with additional production touches. But their voices were still central, including an a cappella rendition of James Taylor’s “That Lonesome Road” and a bluesy number by Goodspeed, “Sugar Shack,” on which they were accompanied just by bass.

Along with the albums came a growing number of weekend gigs, both in the Northeast and along the East Coast. As exciting as that was, it made for an increasingly hectic life for the three women.

But, Marshall said, “When you feel you’ve been waiting so long to meet the musicians you really click with, and then it happens, you want to take that as far as it goes.”

Local support

Like the group’s first two albums, “Knockout Rose” features support from local and regional music veterans. Jim Henry, of Shutesbury, contributes lap slide and acoustic guitar and mandolin, former Valley singer-songwriter and bluegrass artist Mark Erelli — still a regular visitor to the area — plays tenor and acoustic guitar and Rani Arbo adds fiddle.

The album, produced by Connecticut-based Lorne Entress — he’s produced records for several other acoustic players, such as Erelli — also features Jesse Williams on acoustic bass, Kevin Barry on various guitars, Marco Giovino on drums and Roger Williams on dobro. Entress also plays organ.

Going back to Entress, who produced “Sugar Shack,” was an easy decision, Marshall said. “We were the first trio he’d ever worked with, but his vision for that record worked so well that we were all just immediately onboard with him. He really knows what instruments and people will serve a song. ... It made perfect sense to work with him again.”

“Knockout Rose,” like the Lilies’ first two albums, is built around their rich harmonies, with all three band members taking their turn at lead singing and songwriting. It also offers, like the first two discs, a mix of folk, country and bluegrass — the kind of acoustic mix that most often falls under the umbrella term of Americana.

But on “Knockout Rose,” the group has added blues, Celtic and a bit of country-pop to its repertoire. The radio-friendly “Not in my Name” and “Knockout Rose” (the title song), both written by Goodspeed, wed drums, organ and electric guitar to melodic hooks that, particularly on the choruses, prove irresistible. Meanwhile, the slow ballad “Ease Into This Love,” also by Goodspeed, has just a hint of jazz and is borne along in large part by electric piano.

“Probably my biggest influences have been the singer-songwriters of the 1970s, people like Joni Mitchell,” Goodspeed said. “In the Lilies, I’ve been very drawn by the harmonies, and I like to make my contribution in that way to the more traditional stuff we do.”

But when it comes to her own songs, she added with a laugh, “I like mushy chords.”

Clarke brings the most countrified songs to the table, like she did with the bluegrass-inspired “Lightin’ ” and the old-timey “Don’t Send Me Up to Heaven” on “Sugar Shack.” On the new album, she does the same with “Goin’ Away,” driven by dobro and taut strumming on acoustic guitar, and “Far North,” which closes the album with a lone acoustic guitar and the three singers’ harmonies.

Marshall, in turn, contributes the country-tinged “Put the Top Down” with its chiming banjo, tasty dobro licks and lyrics about finding your way in life even if it means taking an unconventional path: “Be patient with the future, time can be a friend / Always take the back roads / Put the top down when you can.” It could be a metaphor for the Lilies’ own journey.

Putting it all together

Though they mainly write separately, the Lilies say their finished tunes are the product of a pretty collaborative process.

“I’d say in terms of the final arrangements it’s about 50/50,” Goodspeed said. “One of us will come in with a new song, and a lot of times we’ll share ideas about how we want to put it all together.”

They’ll also alter their typical harmonies — Goodspeed on the high end, Marshall in the middle, Clarke on the lower register — on occasion to get a different sound. “Sometimes I take the high range, because Jenny’s vocals in the mid-range take on this totally different tone,” Marshall said.

On “Knockout Rose,” the group has also explored new lyrical terrain. Clarke’s ballad “Captain’s Seat” is about a woman who disguises herself to fight in the Civil War, while Goodspeed’s “Not in My Name” was inspired by an account of West Virginia residents who fought against the environmental devastation of mountaintop removal mining.

As satisfied as the band members say they are with the new album and the progress they’ve made, the toll of balancing music with a day job has proven too tough in the end for Clarke. She’ll be leaving the group at the end of the year because of her work commitments; Goodspeed and Marshall say they’re saddened by her decision but have begun auditioning other musicians for her spot.

“This will be Katie’s last Iron Horse show, so we want it to be a really good one,” Marshall said.

The Lilies will be backed at the gig by several musicians from “Knockout Rose,” including Jim Henry on electric guitar, dobro and mandolin.

“Jim’s played on all three of our albums,” Marshall said. “We consider him an honorary Lily.”

The Boxcar Lilies will perform Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton. The acoustic duo Beggar’s Ride will open the show. Tickets cost $12.50 in advance, $15 at the door. To reserve, visit iheg.com.