A visit to Canaanville, Ohio might leave you baffled. There is no town to speak of; just a few run-down shacks and trailers, a clearing in the woods five miles east of Athens that suggests that maybe, once upon a time, human beings lived and worked here.
This is coal mining country, or at least it used to be. The coal seam gave out decades ago. Timber country, too, and the white oaks and poplars used to supply a bustling sawmill. Now it’s all gone.
Canary, the new album from Athens troubadours Southeast Engine, tells the story of Canaanville. The canary of the title refers to the primitive early warning system used in the mines. If the canary stopped singing, there was a strong likelihood that carbon monoxide or methane was present in the mine. A dead canary meant there was precious little time for the miners to escape. The smallest delay could result in death. And it’s a metaphor for this batch of old-time Americana songs that resonate with prescient and prophetic intensity today.
The songs are set in 1933, the bleakest year of the Great Depression. There are references to listening to FDR on that newfangled invention the radio, to the hardscrabble lives of the miners and lumbermen, and, most miraculously, to the town itself, little Canaanville, never more than the tiniest blip on the map, but home to the characters who populate these songs. Money is hard to come by, as is food, but the townfolk go to church, and fall in love, and spend their hard-earned nickels when the fair comes to town, and ride the Ferris wheel and gaze out, wide-eyed, at the panoply of a whole new world spread before them when they reach the apex of the ride.
These are striking images, lovely and sad, and lead singer and songwriter Adam Remnant puts them across with admirable conviction, his raw, soulful tenor breaking and cracking in all the right places. There are fiddles here, and clawhammer banjo, but Southeast Engine do again what they normally do; defy convention and easy categorization, mixing the down-home elements with spiky circus calliope, and electric guitar, and what sounds like a piano from the last saloon in Texas.
It’s a tale as old as the ancient, worn-down mountains they sing about, and as fresh and contemporary as the latest jobs report. It’s also a terrific album, literate Americana music composed of equal parts sad resignation and indomitable hope. You ought to buy it when it comes out early next year.