Nestled deep in the mountains of West Virginia, there is a creek that runs through a mountain. Over hundreds of millions of years the water has slowly cut through rock and soil to create a network of caves popular among hikers, spelunkers, and adventurers. They’re called the Sinks Of Gandy Creek, and Heather Summers visited them for the first time a few years ago. “I was seeing this guy in West Virginia, and I was driving out there all the time,” says one-half of Louisville’s new old-time duo the Other Years. “The song came out of that, but it was also inspired by my favorite fiddle tune, which is called ‘Maysville,’ recorded by a Kentucky fiddler named J.P. Freely.”
Bowing that source melody is another Kentucky fiddler named Anna Krippenstapel. The melody is spry, almost jaunty, but the mood is anything but. It’s a breakup song, but an unusual one in that it depicts a love triangle involving an entire state. “West Virginia swallowed you whole,” Summers sings. At the end of the song she finds herself alone in Kentucky, “making strawberry jam.” The Sinks make a compelling metaphor for the slow accumulation of doubt and desire. “I feel like I can open my eyes and look around,” she says, “and there’s so much inspiration everywhere in nature. I guess I’m always trying to figure out nature and how I fit in with nature. Looking for metaphors, I guess.”
The Other Years find no small inspiration in such out-of-the-way places in America, places like the Sinks or the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky or the confluence of three rivers near Talkeetna, Alaska (where Krippenstapel spent months making birch syrup). They’re places that are historically or geographically unique but lack the tourist cache of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. From these places the duo fashion songs about emotions that feel larger than any mountain or river, feelings just beyond naming. Yet, the sound is small, contained, intimate: The Other Years work only with what these two musicians can play and sing, which forces them to be inventive, to make every note count. That’s Summers with a higher voice, so powerful in its keening on “Red-Tailed Hawk.” That’s Krippenstapel with the lower, dusky voice and the expressive fiddle dancing around the melodies. They both switch off instruments, with Summers playing banjo and both picking up an acoustic guitar.
They met in the least folk way imaginable, paired by a computer algorithm. Summers and Krippenstapel met as freshman roommates at the University of Louisville. They occasionally played together in their dorm room, but mostly explored separate musical outlets: Summers as a confessional solo singer-songwriter on piano, and Krippenstapel as the violinist in a metal band. They remained friends, but didn’t connect musically until a mutual friend recruited them for his old-time parties, where anyone who wanted to play could just show up and jam all night.
After Krippenstapel toured with Louisville’s alt-country heroines Freakwater, the Other Years started gigging around town, quickly embedding themselves in a very active local folk scene. Earlier this year they tour the Midwest with Joan Shelley, and this fall they will open a set of dates for Bonnie “Prince” Billy & The Wandering All-Stars and Motor Royalty. Which is fitting, as the duo understand old-time as essentially social: music that ought to be made with other people, even just one other person. It’s music to get you through hard days and tough chores, and that may be a lesson they’ve learned on the farms where they live and work. “We both love old-time music,” says Summers, “but a lot of people I’m friends with are still like, What is that? Maybe the Other Years is a good way to trick somebody into liking old-time.”
“She is trying to make us a gateway drug into old-time music,” says Krippenstapel.
And yet, as they continue making music, the Other Years will necessarily take them away from the farm. “Since we’re both so busy doing a lot of physical labor,” says Krippenstapel, “we don’t really play shows unless they come up organically. We have full lives outside of music, but I’m looking forward to doing more music.”
“But whenever I think maybe I should just concentrate on music, I start feeling very selfish,” says Summers. “I don’t think people who are writing songs all the time are actually selfish, but for some reason, I feel the need to have a job and work really hard. But maybe this album will help me turn that around in my head.”
The payoff is the opportunity to visit more sites like the Sinks of Gandy. “Maybe we should turn it into a big trip,” says Summers. “We could pick out 15 places we want to go, and write a song about each place.”
Krippenstapel joins the daydream: “Quit our jobs. Take our dogs. Drive until the mood hits us. It’ll be great.”
Check out our Q&A with the Other Years below. Before that, though, check out their brand-new song, inspired by Summers’ expedition, “The Sinks Of Gandy Creek.”
STEREOGUM: Louisville seems to be enjoying an active folk scene at the moment. Would you agree with that?
SUMMERS: When we go to fiddle festivals, people will come up to me and talk about how Louisville is like hopping for the old-time scene. I’m like, Really? But when I think about it, I guess if you can gather up people to play tunes with, that is pretty good. And I actually saw a local ballet recently where there were snippets of old-time tunes hidden through this larger classical piece. I don’t know if a lot of people picked up on it, but it was cool being in on it.
STEREOGUM: What drew you to old-time music in the first place?
KRIPPENSTAPEL: I’ve played fiddle forever, since I was a little kid. I remember when I was in high school, for Christmas my dad gave me this card with a cartoon of a fiddle swinging from a tree. I didn’t know what it meant, and he said, we’re going to give you swing fiddle lessons. Bluegrass. I did that for a little bit, but it’s very much about solo performance, which I didn’t like. It was fun watching other people, especially these kids who were ten years younger than me and just wailing on the fiddle. But I didn’t want to make that kind of music.
STEREOGUM: Why not?
KRIPPENSTAPEL: It was just so focused on the individual. I didn’t want to get up in front of other people and rip around. That’s just not my thing. I’m much more interested in playing in a herd or having a band or something like that. Right after college a friend of mine named Tim told me, You have a fiddle so you’re going to play fiddle with us. They were doing this music that wasn’t bluegrass. It was old-time. We sat on his porch and played tunes, and he didn’t care if I just started harmonizing with him. Which is good because when I harmonize with someone, I get tingles on the back of my neck. We would just play the same songs over and over again.
STEREOGUM: Sorry to interrupt, but I’m getting some weird noise coming through the line. Is there some hammering going on, or do we have a bad connection?
SUMMERS: Sorry. That’s me. I’m finally cooking down my sorghum. It’s very exciting.
STEREOGUM: That is not what I was expecting to hear.
SUMMERS: I live on a farm outside Louisville called Fox Hollow Farm, and I grew sorghum this year. But I’m actually at a different farm processing it, because my friend has all the equipment. We cut it down and loaded it up on a trailer and brought it here. I’m working at this huge cauldron, and all this nasty foam is coming to the top. It’s green and slimy and sticky, so that’s what I’m skimming off the top right now. I should hopefully get about three gallons. I didn’t have quite as much as I thought I had, but it’s more manageable this way. It’s been an all-day process. I’ll try not to bang around as much.
KRIPPENSTAPEL: It’s wrong that Heather doesn’t have an old-time band playing for her right now. That’s what the music is for. It’s for getting you through a 12-hour task like that. You need a band because when your hands feel like they’re going to fall off and you can’t play another note on the banjo, you switch and skim the sorghum for a while and whoever was doing that picks up the banjo. That’s what I love about old-time music. We’d go to festivals and you’d play for hours and hours and hours. It didn’t matter if you didn’t know the tunes, because you learned them right there and then. And if you’re me, then you forgot them immediately. Somewhere nestled between my short-term memory and my long-term memory, there are hundreds of tunes that I can’t play until someone else starts them up. Then it’s like, oh yeah, I know this tune.
SUMMERS: I came to it through Tim, too. I was going to those parties and listening to them playing old-time music and just having so much fun. I had the urge to join in, but I didn’t know where the beginning of a tune was and where the end was. It was very confusing for me at first. I started dating one of the guys who played banjo, and I thought I wanted to do that. I’d sit at his house and pick on his banjo. That’s how I learned.
STEREOGUM: One of the things that struck me about the album is that there are only one or two covers. The rest are originals that sound old without trying to really sound old. It’s a very comfortable sound.
SUMMERS: We try to keep it simple, to focus on the sounds we can actually make just the two of us, so it’s going to sound like two old-time musicians playing old-time music.
KRIPPENSTAPEL: I think it’s a natural extension of the music we play together, so if we’re going to make original songs together, it’s natural for it to start in that setting. They came to us pretty naturally, but we’ve been working on them for so long. It makes sense that it works out in the vein of this traditional music. But we also cover a Michael Hurley song, “Wildegeeses,” and he’s definitely got that flavor, too. When he makes songs, you don’t know if it’s one he wrote when he was 20 or 60. He played a show in town and we had him over for dinner and a jam. It was a treat to play fiddle with him. I think Heather was playing piano. It was so much fun. You just mess around with the song and we would be thrilled. He will never grow up.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like a very vibrant scene there in Louisville. You’ve already toured with Joan Shelley and Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
SUMMERS: My relationship with Joan stared in the fourth grade, actually. We were part of a four-girl friend group in the fourth and fifth grade. Then she came back into my life through Anna, and we started hanging around the same people. Life is very strange sometimes.
KRIPPENSTAPEL: That’s Louisville for sure. It’s a blast getting together and playing shows. We love doing it, but I think we’re doing it for the same reasons everybody is doing it — it’s just really fun to get 12 people in your living room and sing songs all night and drink a lot of beer.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you’d been playing these songs for a while. How long have you been working on them? Have they changed much during that time?
SUMMERS: Some of the songs are new, within the past year, but most of them are from 2016. So maybe around two years.
KRIPPENSTAPEL: That’s how we started playing by ourselves, just the two of us. I’d never written music before; I was always trying to enrich someone else’s sound. But this project gave me inspiration to try to write songs for us to play together. But Heather’s been writing her own songs for a long, long time. I’m very sympathetic to her songs, because I’ve been appreciating them for so long. They’re just inside me now.
The Other Years is out 10/5 via No Quarter. Pre-order it here. Also, the Other Years will be on tour with Bonnie “Prince” Billy this fall. Here are the dates:
10/07 @ Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, IL
10/08 @ Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, OH
10/09 @ Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, VA
10/10 @ Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn, NY
10/11 @ Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn, NY
10/13 @ Mass MOCA in North Adams, MA
10/14 @ One Longfellow Square in Portland, ME