Amythyst Kiah released an album back in 2013 called Dig. It is an acoustic romp that showcases the Southern gothic songstress’s incredible voice, a voice that could lure fish onto an unbaited hook in the middle of the desert. Dig is meaty for an acoustic album; I cannot imagine how nourishing a live performance of Amythyst’s would be, but I must find out. Luckily, she’ll be performed at the 2017 Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta. She is currently touring in the US and Canada.
The album begins with a rhythm to get your head bobbing and your toes tapping. The first glimmer of Amythyst’s voice smacks you in the face like getting on a scale for the first time in months – at the end of December – in her rendition of Son House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face.” It is a voice thick enough and powerful enough to drive stakes into the cold earth when the guy who was supposed to bring the sledgehammer flaked on you. It is the unexpected sustenance of a Honduran breakfast and the productivity that ensues after the food coma wears off.
Muted guitar opens “Doomed to Roam,” and as Amythyst’s voice breaks through, instantly, you know her heart is open. The song is one a listener can lose themselves in as they allow their mind to plumb the depths of artistry in Amythyst’s cries, the rhythm of the naked strings, and the story that unfolds in the lyrics like lilies in the cool morning light.
“Myth” is a slow swing in sunny skies, as Amythyst sings of leaving the past behind in favor of the mysterious delights and sorrows that lie ahead. The song feels licentious, in a way, with the raw voice doing unspeakable things with the air to create a potently pure dark beauty. With “Myth,” Amythyst Kiah has created the sort of music that lures record producers in before they can plunge their tentacles into the artist’s soul in the name of “giving the people what they want.” With “Myth,” Amythyst Kiah reminds the world that sometimes a person doesn’t know what they want until they hear it. Amythyst shirks any expectations of standards, in the process, generating the very thing that standards strive to bring closer to the masses.
Then, in more power than boiling water flung into freezing air, Amythyst relates the timeless tale that Google credits Clarence Ashley for, but I can’t help but feel might have come from a time much longer ago, from someone whose name has been lost to history but whose song is still sung in the mountains and in dimly lit venues all over the world. “Dark Holler” has a flushed, unrushed rhythm, and Amythyst’s voice soars to the highest heights and the most subterranean of lows. And that’s in digital form!
The dismal themes in “Over Yonder in the Graveyard” are sublimated by the heat of Amythyst’s voice. It soars over tombstones and gnarly old trees to further prove that there is always beauty in the darkness. After the guitar has struck up something a bit more upbeat than the previous dirge-ish ballad, Amythyst introduces “My Old Man” in higher tones before descending to the true darkness behind the perfectly high-pitched pretense. The song reminds the listener that even when a coupling looks good from the start, it is always a good idea to have a car with a roomy trunk.
The strings sing as if they could go on until the end of time in “Brand New Shoes,” the sort of song that is perfect for the repetitive manual labor involved in making woodchips with a hatchet, digging a grave for a horse, or anything else that needs to occur hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before the job is done. I can only imagine how many times those golden strings have been plucked before they came to sound as beautiful as they are in “Brand New Shoes.” Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” makes an appearance on Dig, and somehow, it feels much more relatable when it comes packaged in her voice. This is the sort of cover that catapults nobodies playing at bus stations to fame, the YouTube video that reassures misunderstood kids that their obsessions are worthwhile pursuits. Amythyst Kiah’s secret weapon is her voice. With it, she can save lives.
Amythyst Kiah has a voice that could make the most unflappable of folk bawl bowling ball tears. (Steee-rike!) When paired with the natural rawness of the guitar or banjo, her voice claws at the plastic wrap to get at that nugget residing in the deepest recesses of everyone’s soul. The result feels like eating tomatoes in the garden. If this is what she can do on a record, I can’t wait to see her live.
See the full 2018 Shaky Knees Music Festival lineup here.