Earth, Asphalt, and Places in the Soul
The tall tales and small stories captured on Beki Hemingway’s new album Earth and Asphalt suggest that her audience has a lot of catching up to do, with the assurance that it will be time well spent. Much has happened since the release of 2017’s Whins and Weather, a collection that also marked seismic shifts in Hemingway’s personal foundation. The singer and her musical partner Randy Kerkman had boldly pulled up roots in Denver, Colorado. They emigrated to Ireland during the fall of 2016 to undertake musical adventures, travel, and public service. The pair are now settled in Dundalk. “It’s halfway between Dublin and Belfast,” says Hemingway.
With ample time steeped in everyday Irish life, longtime listeners might expect Earth and Asphaltto reveal regional folk music traces. “We thought we might be influenced by the Celtic music, but it turns out that being here has only made us sound more American,” says Hemingway. Co-written with frequent collaborator Jonathan Rundman, opening track “Birmingham” is a rowdy roadhouse rave-up that owes a debt to cowpunk heroes, including Lone Justice and The Blasters. The song’s small-town heroine rides a southbound train to shake up the big city.
Other songs do embrace the local experience. The dusty swing of “Hurricane” hints at a fondness for Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller while drawing a parallel between a natural catastrophe and the scars of a long-remembered personal disaster. Hurricane Ophelia struck Ireland in 2017. “We lived in County Wexford then, and our power was out due to the hurricane,” says Hemingway. “Randy and I were trying to imagine what it was like to know the local history and to have lived through the last big storm.”
Many of the songs on Earth and Asphalt were written before pandemic isolation, but vividly drawn characters’ struggles and loneliness can still ring true to the lockdown experience. The jangling roots-rocker “Lay Your Burdens Down” is a cathartic cry for help during desolate times, answered by a ray of hope if the singer can keep the faith a little longer. “It’s colored by so many changes at once, and the feeling of isolation brought on by that,” says Hemingway. Kerkman provides rich harmony and instrumental twang reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell.
The veteran singer and keen observer have reached a plateau where the arc of time is becoming more clearly defined. This perspective is perhaps influenced by a diagnosis and ensuing battle with breast cancer in 2017. “I’ve really noticed the aging process in some ways,” says Hemingway. A modern and melodic spin on classic country music is heard on “Shape of My Face,” echoing recent efforts by Neko Case while holding onto the classic values of Hank Williams. “I’m three years cancer-free, and there are other things falling apart now which bother me far more,” Hemingway adds with a laugh. “But this is a song about growing older and accepting the changes as they come.”
Happy memories fuel the joyful “Cinderella Twin,” recalling rough-hewn and rambunctious mid-’80s favorites by John Mellencamp. The song recalls earlier slice-of-life favorites like “Ft. Bragg.” “This is about being young and out with friends,” says Hemingway. “It’s a composite of truth and fiction, but the Cinderella Twin was a real drive-in movie theatre in Denver.” The album takes its title from “California,” a song that finds a home at the other end of the emotional range. “There’s hope in it, but it acknowledges a lot of failures,” says the singer. Hemingway’s plaintive vocal is complemented by Denver’s own Ben Waligoske on weeping pedal steel.
Ultimately, the miles traveled across Earth and Asphalt reflect an inward journey. “Despite having more geographical song titles than usual, the album is more about a place in my soul than any points on the map,” says Hemingway. “What is the balance between being somewhere different each night to sing and being grounded in a community where I can invest in people as a consistent and reliable friend? I have really come to value the people who love me no matter what, and I’m trying to figure out where I belong.”
– Jeff Elbel