Call it “grad school country.” Adrienne Young’s The Art of Virtue is a brainy amalgam of Americana that draws its inspiration from Benjamin Franklin’s self-help regimen, New World folk songs and old-time string band sounds. Gretchen Wilson it ain’t.
Of the 15 cuts on the album, Young wrote, co-wrote or arranged 11. She also produced the album for her own AddieBelle Records label and plays guitar and banjo on it. Her primary co-writers are Will Kimbrough and Mark D. Sanders (of “I Hope You Dance” fame).
Like its 2004 predecessor, Plow to the End of the Row, which featured Victorian-style illustrations and a packet of wildflower seeds, the new album comes in a fancy folding package with four inserts: liner notes, a sticker of the album cover, a card that offers a free download of the Shakespearean-era weeper “Greensleaves” and a booklet that reproduces Franklin’s own chart for keeping track of his progress in perfecting 13 basic virtues.
It’s a lot to absorb, but it all fits together beautifully.
When Young speaks to CMT.com — from her cell phone at the Nashville airport — she’s clearly exhibiting the virtue of industry, which, Franklin explained, means “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” She’s just flown in from a record-distribution convention in New Orleans and is on her way to the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival in New York.
“We got to play last night with Alison Brown and Beth Nielsen Chapman,” Young enthuses, “and it was just awesome.”
Young’s music is not the kind that gets much airplay on country radio; nor does it rank high on the industry sales chart. How then can she gauge if her music is achieving what she wants it to?
“Oh, I just talk to my grandparents,” she says. “If they say it’s a good song, then I’ve done a good job. In conjunction with that, when I hear it after the dust has settled and I’ve let it go … and I know it was just so honestly delivered — regardless if it might have been technically better — that’s how I judge it.”
She says she was prompted to do the album after listening to all the talk about “morality and patriotism and virtue” surrounding the last presidential election. Those qualities, she observes, “are so personal that [being] able to define them as an individual, I felt, was a prerequisite to being able to define them as a whole culture. I felt like [virtue] had become something like an accessory. I was drawn to where the founders of our country might have been [when] their leaders were doing things that individuals questioned so much that they decided to start their own country.”
These thoughts led Young to reading about America’s Revolutionary War leaders. “Ben Franklin really got me because he came up with this system [of inculcating virtues] that was very practical. … What I wanted to bring light to was the fact that, on a daily basis, our individual choices influence the entire world.”
Young says the only virtue she would add to Franklin’s original list of 13 is “environmental consciousness.” In both her album and shows, she encourages people to support family farmers by buying food that’s grown locally.
Weighty as all this sounds, the album is rife with good humor and high spirits. There’s a rollicking Uncle Dave Macon classic — “Don’t Get Weary Children” — and such fiddle favorites as “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Billy in the Low Ground.” Even the didactic title cut is more sprightly than grave.
As Young ponders questions and tries to make herself heard over the airport clatter, she manages simultaneously to order a cup of hot water, direct a lost child back to her grandfather and inquire about the price of a Rice Krispy treat — which she finally decides to forego. Industrious and frugal.
Young’s backer is Wallace Rasmussen, the 91-year-old former chairman of Beatrice Foods, who now lives in Nashville. “What he’s meant to my career is absolutely everything,” she says. “None of this would be happening without him. He believes in me, and right there is a perfect illustration of the power one individual can have over another human being’s life.
“All the years that I was working on Music Row at record labels and trying so hard just to get a break, it took this one man to set the whole boat afloat. He’s done that for hundreds and hundreds of young people. He’s put close to a thousand people through school.” Indeed, Young attended college on one of his scholarships.
When she was growing up in Florida, Young says she listened mostly to jazz and pop artists, people like Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra and Les Paul. “I loved vocalists,” she recalls. “I loved Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand. … I made a living as a jazz singer for years.”
She also toured and recorded for two years with a folk band called Big White Undies. Ultimately, she enrolled at Nashville’s Belmont University “to become a better songwriter.” She graduated in 2000.
A measure of Young’s appeal is the quality of talent she attracted to record with her on The Art of Virtue. Besides the first-rate pickers in her Little Sadie band, there’s organist David Briggs (on her cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace”), bassist Mike Bub, banjoist Rob McCoury from the Del McCoury Band, guitarist Tim Stafford from Blue Highway, multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplan and country-bluegrass stalwart Tim O’Brien (on “Greensleaves”).
“When you have joy and happiness about you,” Young concludes, “and you’re just trying to do something good and make people feel valued and cherished, then [musicians like these] are drawn to your project.”