Like fellow Kentuckian Tyler Childers, Zoe Speaks presents a fresh and progressive view of Appalachia, so it's no surprise that their latest release, Wings, was produced by musician/engineer Jesse Wells, who currently tours as a multi-instrumentalist with Childers.
Zoe Speaks is not your ordinary folk band. They are rooted deep in family, in the music making, storytelling lineages of their rural Eastern Kentucky origins, where music is a part of daily life, and where singing goes hand in hand with working. In addition to sharing banjo, guitar, dulcimer, fiddle, and traditional flatfoot dancing, they connect audiences with stories from their families and communities that help provide a clearer picture of an oft-stereotyped region. To create their southern singer-songwriter sound, they have worked with some of the powerhouses in the folk, Americana, and old-time worlds, with previous albums produced by Mark Schatz, Bruce Molsky, and Dirk Powell. The band consists of Mitch Barrett on guitar, Carla Gover on banjo/guitar/feet, their multi-instrumentalist daughter, Zoey Barrett, and her guitar-wizard fiancé, Arlo Barnette. (And for select gigs, bassist Owen Reynolds). Their music is rooted in the Appalachian sounds they grew up playing, but freely draws on a variety of rhythms and styles from smooth folk-pop to blues and calypso. (Think The Duhks or Tim O'Brien).
It also doesn't hurt that two members of the group are award-winning songwriters, with wins from Merlefest's Christ Austin Songwriting Contest (two times!), the Kerrville New Folk Award (two times!), The Telluride Troubador Contest, The Rocky Mountain Folks Festival Songwriting Contest, and Kerrville's Music To Life Contest between them. Zoe Speaks has performed at venues like Merlefest, The Kennedy Center, The Kerrville Folk Festival, and Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, to name a few.
Known for both their originals and their unique spins on the mountain tunes that they cut their musical teeth on, their songs are socially conscious and spiritual, with themes ranging from the environment to family to addiction to interracial relationships, and populated by tricksters, angels, addicts, truck-stop waitresses, fools, mules, heroes, and werewolves.
In counterpoint to the relentless tales of conservative Appalachia, Zoe Speaks uses the family heirlooms they grew up hearing and singing, as well as striking originals, to shine a light on the other side of the Appalachian culture, which has produced some of America’s most distinctive, thought-provoking progressive artistic voices.
Mitch grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians in Madison County, KY. He spent much of his childhood divided between his grandfathers' houses, one a fox hunter and tobacco farmer who plowed with mules and the other a musician and farmer, of sorts (he grew corn with which he made moonshine). In the course of learning his grandfathers' trades, there was much time for stories, jokes, and especially music. Mitch demonstrated musical talent from an early age, and performed with his mother in a regionally sought-after mountain duo.
At age 17, he set out for the east coast as part of the folk duo Mandala, with whom he played for over 10 years. After moving back to Kentucky , he began to hone his storytelling skills, drawing on the life stories and experiences rare among his generation and those following. Since then, he has toured all over the US, performed countless assemblies and residencies for the school children of Kentucky, and won Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, the Kerrville New Folk Award, and the Telluride Troubador Award.
Mitch's gift for spinning a tale is present in his music, where he is apt to break into an improvised story in the middle of one of his songs. His award-winning songs, coupled with his unique rhythmic guitar style and smooth voice make him a true mountain troubador.
Growing up in the rural Eastern Kentucky coal town of Whitesburg, Carla's early years were filled with music. She was first immersed in the a capella hymn-singing of her grandmother, Ollie Gilbert Hudson (who also taught her herbalism, cooking, sewing, quilting, gardening, and many other things.) Later she absorbed the old-time banjo and fiddle at the dances on Saturday nights at the schoolhouse, the twang of local bluegrass festivals, and the soul of mountain church music. Her older brother also made a point of exposing her to great songwriters and singers of many genres, including the Beatles, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Tom Waits, and Dolly Parton.
There are lots of musicians out there claiming to be “authentic,” but Carla Gover is more than that: she’s the real thang. The Old-Time Herald says, “Carla’s music contains the best elements of traditional Appalachian Music, including purity, intensity, integrity, and vivid imagery.” She is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, with wins at the Kerrville Newfolk Festival, Merlefest’s Christ Austin Song Contest, and the Flatrock Festival Songwriting Contest. Her songs have been featured in films, soundtracks, documentaries, and covered by a range of other artists.
Her latest endeavor (much to her surprise) has been acting, with appearances in the feature indie film Red River Moon as well as the Folk Opera entitled In These Fields, by Silas House and Sam Gleaves.
Joining Zoe Speaks for select gigs, Owen Reynolds has been playing music professionally for over twenty years. This Kentucky native has been a consummate sideman for a number of local, regional, and nationally touring acts. Studying various styles and traditions of American music and theories, Owen Reynolds brings a wide variety of rhythmic and tonal options to bear, aiming to find the right fit for each song, to "make each song more of what it already is." He has been called "an okay guy" and "hairy" by several notable Kentucky musicians.