James Low comes by songwriting honestly enough. His grandfather wrote show tunes and his father wrote folk songs in John Day, Oregon, a scenic but struggling timber town in remote Eastern Oregon where Low was raised.
Now living in Portland, Low, 31, has just self-released his second album, Black Heart, a collection of country and pop narratives that immediately command attention with their developed characters, first-rate musicianship and well-formed songs.
The songs on Black Heart were nurtured over a year and a half of gigs at Laurelthirst Pub, a friendly neighborhood bar that serves as Portland’s unofficial Americana headquarters. There, early every Saturday evening, Low holds down a residency gig with his five-piece band featuring some of Portland’s finest roots players, including fiddler Marilee Hord (formerly of Golden Delicious) and guitarist Lew Longmire.
The hard work behind Black Heart resulted in a more confident and fully realized effort than Mexiquita, Low’s solid but less striking debut in 2000. The new album moves confidently from the jangle-pop of the title track to the roadhouse rock of “Steel Rail” to the more nuanced balladry of “Dealer’s Choice” and “You’re So Mean” to the pure country of “When I Went Wrong”. The last of those is a sad, lonesome song that Low says “appeals to the older members of my audience but almost seems to embarrass some people” with its classic country lyrics (“Strayed from the path, but I didn’t go far/Didn’t even do it right when I went wrong”).
Low first started playing music in New York City, during an internship in 1989 while attending Friends World College — “this really strange Quaker affiliated college that went bankrupt my sophomore year,” he explains. While in New York, Low studied music theory under Ann Ruckert. “I was really impressed by who had been students of hers in the past — Suzanne Vega, Victoria Williams,” he continues. “Hearing Victoria Williams just totally turned me onto songwriting.
“But it was a weird environment to study music in. The big thing was to get a showcase gig at some place like the Bitter End with fifteen bands playing. You set up really fast and you get your fans up there and they have someone there to spritz you right before you go on. I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous. So after about a year and a half I quit.”
Low eventually made his way back to Oregon in 1995, intending to move on from music and study journalism. “But somehow the process of moving to Portland made me realize that I had not had enough space to write and practice,” Low says. “So I just kind of holed up for about year after I got here and wrote a bunch of songs and played them at open mike nights.”
Low says the turning point was meeting Nancy Hess, a Portland songwriter who produced Mexiquita and introduced Low to the players now in his band. She also co-produced Black Heart, with Matt Boudreau. Hess recalls meeting Low when they shared the stage at one of those songwriter-in-the-round affairs: “When it was James’ turn, he played the song ‘Mexiquita’, and I was just blown away. The next time around, he played one even better than that. The third was better still. I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’”
When I suggest to Hess that Low strikes me as an “old soul,” she agrees: “Oh absolutely. James is like somebody out of ’40s novel. He’s a real troubadour and a poignant storyteller. He has that special thing, like Townes and Richard Buckner. He is a great American songwriter.”