Mount Moriah’s new album “How to Dance” (Merge Records) is practically a roadmap set to song. The very first song is named after the Orange County town of “Calvander,” and it also name checks Cartaret County, Bogue Sound, the Newport River and Jacksonville in the lyrics.
Other songs wander even farther afield, along 15-501, I-95 and the Crooked River, with all the motion taking on aspects of a ceaseless quest. And of course, you also get a sense of place from the band’s name, Mount Moriah – from similarly named churches and roads around these parts, to the mountain where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac in Biblical lore.
Long journeys figure into the band’s history, too, starting with front woman Heather McEntire growing up gay in the (literally) God-fearing rural environs of Western North Carolina. After studying creative writing at UNC-Wilmington, McEntire wound up in the Triangle, singing in groups like the punk band Bellafea. Eventually she struck up a partnership with Jenks Miller, a guitarist who records experimental metal as Horseback and Rose Cross, to form Mount Moriah – a stately country-rock band that could not sound more different from either of their previous bands.
“I certainly did not see it coming, but the timing was good for me,” McEntire says. “I love narrative stories, which had sort of gotten lost in my music. A band like this, where the lyrics are so much out in front, puts different expectations and pressures on my voice and storytelling.”
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But if that’s different from Bellafea and Horseback, it’s not so different from the music McEntire grew up with.
“I’d mostly listen to country music on the radio, flipping around between different country stations,” she says. “My grandfather also played in an old-time bluegrass band. I never knew him, but I’d hear a lot of beautiful stories about him traveling around playing on people’s porches. Church hymns were formative, too. Then at a certain point, I also started realizing there was a little more out there. The first tape I ever got was Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ which I just loved. That’s what being passionate really is, just believing this so hard. I’d also tape the Beach Boys off the radio, listen to that over and over. That helped shape my sense of melody and harmony.”
New record shows growth
“How to Dance” is Mount Moriah’s third and most accomplished album, with cameo contributions from a cast including Indigo Girl Amy Ray, string specialist Daniel Hart and well-traveled local horn man Matt Douglas. The growth is lyrical as well as musical, with the focus broadening from earlier albums’ emphasis on the personal to broader themes. That evolution was very much by design.
“Our first two records had lyrics very tied to Heather staking out her identity in an adversarial environment, growing up as a queer person in a very conservative environment,” says Miller. “So the sound world was very fragile, as an expression of vulnerability that is also empowering. Communicating that meant a lot of restraint and space in the arrangements, to make Heather’s voice and spirit the focal point. Strip away the armor and what’s left is the essential core.
“This third record expands beyond the individual perspective to more universal themes,” Miller continues. “So the sound world had to get a little more complex with more different, interwoven textures. Heather’s voice is still prominent, but it’s not the only thing driving the songs. Sometimes the hook is a rhythmic cue or a guitar part. These were conscious decisions.”
For all that, however, the album still has room for the deeply personal. McEntire points to “Baby Blue” as one of the new “How to Dance” songs that was most difficult for her to write, even though it seems fairly simple.
“That one really had me opening myself up by accepting and acknowledging that I struggle with depression,” she says. “At the time I wrote it, I was thinking that I was not in a very strong place. So how would I give myself a pep talk? What would I say to myself as an older, wiser woman, to this struggling kid wandering around in the dark? It helps me realize that it gets better and bad feelings don’t last. I can look to God, or to love, or the simple pleasures of a pasture full of flowers. That’s hope to hang your hat on and it helps me whenever I get blue.”
Who: Mount Moriah, Elephant Micah, Dex Romweber
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com