The print on the ticket was listed as “3 Rocking Songwriters Karen Jonas, Lauren Calve and Mink’s Medicine Show at Pearl Street Warehouse in the nation’s capital. But if you called it Sweethearts of the Rodeo like I did and I heard others say, you could be forgiven. Borrowing from the classic Byrds album, Karen Jonas, Lauren Calve and Melissa Wright of Mink’s Miracle Medicine cast themselves in their own Sweethearts of Americana revue.
The spiritual ancestry was on display in the show’s poster, a take-off of the landmark country rock album in which the three women had caricatures woven into the tapestry and take-off of the albums cover. The year after Chris Hillman, Marty Stuart and Roger McGuinn took it on the road for a 50th anniversary, its stature still looms large.
And after all, this was Washington DC, the city where Gram Parsons, the onetime Byrd and one of the architects of Sweet of The Rodeo met Emmylou Harris. The two went on to make the landmark Grievous Angel album. Jonas, the versatile songwriter from Fredericksburg, Virginia, might have been thinking about it. She had “Return of the Grievous Angel” on her set list but ended up not playing it.
On the opening night of a three-night “tour” of the DMV area, the three women cast a wide swath under the tent that we call Americana. Calve was quoting from Lincoln’s inaugural address in “Better Angels,” hoping it would give us comfort in our time of strife. Jonas was talking of inspiration derived from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in “Oklahoma Lottery” and Wright revealed she wrote “Beautiful Loser” after reading a biography of Leonard Cohen.
Jonas was back on the same stage a few nights before when she was nominated for three “Whammys” and came home with one award for songwriting for “Suicide Sal,” a song inspired by the legend of Bonnie and Clyde.
Jonas and band, featuring long time musical partner and guitarist Tim Bray, bassist Seth Warren and drummer Seth Brown, came out with a blistering cover of Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down.” I had seen them open up for Lilly Hiatt ten months ago and it was immediately apparent how seasoned and far they’d come as a band.
Calve belted out “Polly” like she hailed from the Delta, not Kansas where she was born. She sounded downright tortured during “Looking For the Water,” cutting iron hot licks on her lap steel. Calve’s band was at its best during the tantalizing rhythm and stomp of “Light Dark” while Calve sounded like a classic blues singer. She was truly electrifying.
Both Calve and Jonas poked fun at their domesticity. Calve, who shared she was recently engaged, played her “only love song.” Jonas, the mother of four, confided how she got inspiration for writing “Butter” from something one of her children said in the kitchen. She wrote down the idea, finished dinner and wrote the song over a glass of whiskey.
This was the week that CMT announced it would be playing female artists at least as often as male singers with a 50-50 split. It would be hard to call Jonas a country singer and when she played her current single “Country Songs,” it was tongue in cheek twang and a subtle poke at the genre.
Mink’s Miracle Medicine, which featured guitarist Daniel Zeseski and lead singer Melissa Wright, opened the show with electric and acoustic guitars. Wright related how the West Virginia couple hail from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. “West Virginia is the best Virginia,” she said during “Keeping Score,” a song about gambling. Zeseki created a cascading effect of his subtle electric guitar that buttressed the duo’s warm harmonies and built around songs deep with introspection and self-reflection.
Jonas called for Wright and Calve to join her onstage when she called out “Angel of Montgomery,” the great John Prine song made famous by Bonnie Raitt. Jonas took the first verse. Wright was seemingly looking up the song on her phone and and debating playfully with Calve who would take the next verse. Together they took a loose chorus with words that everyone knew.
If there was anything disappointing about the Sweethearts revue, it was that we didn’t hear more of their combined voices.
The three women were excited about the year ahead. Melissa Wright promised a new Mink’s Miracle Medicine video for Valentine’s Day and and Calve announced a new album will be forthcoming. Jonas, who will play a SXSW showcase in March, already has a new record ready for 2020. She gave us a preview with a new song called “Tuesdays.” It was a playful song on lethargy and doing nothing, thinking, as she explained, about all the things you could be doing.
Guitarist Bray struck an early Seventies Stones guitar tone that instantly made me feel like I was in an Exile on Main Street groove. Coincidentally those were the days when Gram Parsons was on the scene hanging out with the band in France and playing country songs with Keith Richards. His everlasting influence still pervades as it did then and as it does now. His spiritual heirs were lined up on this night, driving Americana forward, “sweethearts” all in a row.