By Michael Swanger firstname.lastname@example.org
Seeds for Thankful Dirt’s debut album sewn by couple’s lives, fate
Some married couples finish each other’s sentences. Molly and Darren Matthews finish each other’s songs.
Like Joe and Vicki Price, or Bo Ramsey and Pieta Brown, add the Des Moines couple known as Thankful Dirt to the short list of talented Iowa husband-wife tandems in tune with each other onstage and off.
Don’t believe me? Listen to their splendid, self-titled debut album to be released this week. So intimate are the album’s 12 original songs that soulfully mine the collective organic sounds of folk, country, bluegrass, blues and rock sounds that you feel like you’re listening to the couple discuss the joys and tribulations of their lives over a cup of coffee at their kitchen table. Most importantly, though, you’re able to relate to their stories.
“In songwriting, performing and recording, it goes really smooth for us,” said Molly Matthews, 36, of her onstage relationship with her 41-year-old-husband of nearly five years. “We feel like a team.”
That feeling of “team” began offstage when they met nine years ago. She was a single mother who had given birth to a son shortly after high school and worked for the National Weather Service. He was a guitarist, having played in several bands including High and Lonesome. Together, they combined their experiences to write emotional songs like “Mortgage Day,” “Fix All Your Pain,” “Twenty Years Down” and “Blessings I Receive,” a duet with Brother Trucker’s Andy Fleming.
“This record is deeply personal for Darren and I. We lived through a suicide, and my father passed away six months after that,” she said. “It took nine years for those songs to come out. They’re cathartic for us. That sounds cliche, but it’s really true because we worked through all that stuff in these songs.”
Their songs would not have come to life had fate not intervened in the fall of 2008.
“One day, Darren caught me singing,” Matthews said. “He was upstairs listening to an album by The Band, and I was in the basement doing laundry when he heard an extra harmony part he had never heard before. He turned down the stereo and realized it was me singing.”
After a few home jams, which further revealed a gifted singing voice that is often compared to that of Natalie Merchant’s, Matthews’ husband casually informed his wife that they had landed a gig opening for his friends, Brother Trucker.
“I didn’t think of myself as a singer by any means, so I could have died because that’s a pretty big way to launch a band,” Matthews said. “Although it was terrifying, it was a huge gift. I got addicted immediately, and when I came home from that show I wanted to do it again. It made me realize it was something I needed to be doing for a long time.”
Last week, Matthews was working to book summer gigs to promote “Thankful Dirt” (recorded at Minstrel Studios in Iowa City by Brad Rieks and John Svec). With her son enrolled in college, she and her husband are pursuing music full-time. When they aren’t busy handling the business end of their music, they write and arrange new material, sometimes borrowing ideas from one of Darren’s old notebooks filled with unused, original lyrics.
“We work closely together,” said Matthews, who credits her husband for the new album’s arrangements and most of its best songwriting. “One of us will write a song, and the other will add a few lines or change a few words. There’s something romantic about that.”
The music, Matthews said, has also made their marriage stronger.
“When you go down a path like this, you can see your personal relationship going one of two directions,” she said. “We were taking a bit of a risk deciding to work together full-time.”
Nonetheless, she is grateful for the opportunity.
“There is a little more financial pressure on us, but I see things coming together,” Matthews said. “I’m thankful for every day we do this.” CV
Caption: Thankful Dirt performs a CD release show on Wednesday, May 12 at 8 p.m. at El Bait Shop. The duo will perform with a full band and special guests, including Brother Trucker’s Andy Fleming. Photo by C.J. Mathes