by John Ellis
Oddly enough, certain maxims for “high” art and country music are kissing cousins. I’m speaking of the conceit that conflict is essential for art. A good pop culture example is found on “The Fly” where Bono sings, “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet a thief/All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.” Now, consider the joke that if you play a country song backwards, you’ll get your dog back, your wife back, and your truck back. That joke is predicated on the wide spread belief, and maybe for good reason, that country music is generally about loss and pain. And, for the sake of my argument, loss and pain = conflict. In fact, and my argument aside, I don’t believe that many people will push back on my claim that “loss and pain = conflict.” But are those parallel maxims true? Well, of course, at times – possibly quite often. However, Creation is beautiful; human relationships reflect the unimaginably awesome relationship of the Trinity; and hamburgers and beer are delicious! Art, and even country music, can be truthful, excellent AND be beautifully conflict free (at least mostly conflict free). One of my current favorite country/Americana bands, Carolina Story, demonstrate that art, specifically the art of country/Americana music, can freshly spring from a well driven deep into the solid foundation of love, respect, and joy.
Carolina Story is a husband and wife band/team. I had the pleasure of being introduced to them via a concert, and immediately fell in love with their music. After the concert, which was at the beginning of November, I promised Ben Roberts, who had generously given me a copy of all three of their CDs, a review of their latest album, Chapter Two. Nearly three months later, I’m finally keeping my promise.
In those intervening three months, my wife and I have frequently listened to Chapter Two, as well as Chapter One and Home. Considering the amount of music in our home, a new album from a relatively new band elbowing its way into the regular rotation is quite a feat. And, of course, the usual music laudatory claims apply – Ben and Emily Roberts’ voices are beautiful, honest, and harmonize engagingly well together; the song writing is crisp, interesting, and accessible; and the instrumentation is toe-tappingly fun when needed, contemplatively beautiful when needed, and skillfully executed at all times. But, I’m far more interested in writing about Chapter Two in relation to my opening paragraph.
Without any sloping transitions, I’m going to jump directly into what I believe is the heart of not only Chapter Two but also of Carolina Story in general, and the meat of my opening paragraph – beautiful optimism bursting out of and away from the painful constraints of a broken world. “When I Was Just a Boy,” the third track on Chapter Two, is a song grounded in the wisdom that resides in loving parents that understand the importance of communal storytelling as a means of conveying advice and truth. The song begins with an earned nostalgia that recounts the soft words of the singer’s mother as she, using Biblical metaphors, provides a melodic picture of the well-lived life’s path. Halfway through the second verse, the voices of Ben and Emily combine to sing a public promise to their unborn son – a promise to live out and share passed down values and truths. The final chorus is owned by Emily Roberts as she repeats the loving wisdom of the mother from the first verse. That transition from the mother of the past to the mother of the here and now is as poignant a moment as music in 2014 had to offer.
The album’s next track, “The Stranger,” pushes hardest against the credulity of my claim in the opening paragraph. The song tells the story of two broken and hurting people. The narrator, a stranger, weeps, “Sometimes I wish that I could say I’m sorry/For those who hurt your heart so badly.” But, that weeping, that impulse to make things right, to un-break the broken, comes from a place of hope and the ability to see the beauty in things unbroken. “The Stranger” isn’t a lament; it’s a prayer for someone greater than the narrator and, more importantly, greater than the Fall to come and undo all the hurt and evil in the world. The song is the belief that loss and pain were never meant for this world.
The word “highlights” implies “lowlights,” and I don’t believe that Chapter Two contains any filler tracks. That being said, I encourage the readers to check out “Almost Over Now.” The first track, “Almost Over Now,” is possibly my favorite song on the album; I keep going back and forth between it and “When I Was Just a Boy.” Both songs feature the seamlessly meshed harmonies of the love-filled couples’ voices. Both songs demonstrate Ben and Emily Roberts’ ability to write tight and interesting lyrics with zero wasted words. The difference lies in the tone – “Almost Over Now” is the kind of song that makes driving on a wide-open highway with either mountains or plains spread out before you, doesn’t matter which, a quicker drive than expected. “When I Was Just a Boy” speaks to the best of your down-home memories. It engenders introspection that, while quietly joyful, probably won’t help your right foot find the gas pedal. In other words, my mood helps determine what my favorite song off of Chapter Two is at any given moment.
With six songs, Chapter Two is in a no-man’s land between EP and LP, at least in my mind. Regardless, it’s a beautiful, thoughtful, and well-done album that lends itself to singing along with whether you’re driving in your car or sitting at your desk trying to write an album review.
Order Chapter Two here: http://carolinastory.com/
 I’ll leave it the reader to determine for herself or himself what “high art” means.
 All humans, which, and surprising some, applies to all artists, live in a broken world. 100% conflict free is a lie. But, the point stands that art can still be good art even if it lives mainly in the land of the unbroken. P.S. I’m proud of myself for putting a footnote inside a parenthesis – which is essentially a footnote itself.
 I highly recommend both of those albums, too.
 Shout out to my filmmaker friend, Chris White, who oft complains of unearned sentimentality/nostalgia.
 The couple’s first child, a boy, was born not long after Chapter Two was released.
 For the uninitiated into Christianese, see/read Genesis 3.
 Feel free to disagree, obviously, but let me know why you feel strongly about a six song record being either an EP or an LP. And don’t provide me links to “definitions;” I’ve probably already seen them. Tell me why YOU believe what you believe.