Music: Sarah Lee Langford

Whether it’s Dolly Parton’s “Starting Over Again” or Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” there are few more classic tropes in country music than the dissolution of a marriage or the personal heartbreak and soul searching that comes along with it. Which is one of the reasons Sarah Lee Langford’s newest release, and the first under her maiden name, is such a compelling record. Titled Two Hearted Rounder, and set for release this month on local independent label Cornelius Chapel Records, the album is a deep dive into the pain and agony of having been left behind by a lifelong love and a reflection on the path forward as a person searching for answers as to how it all fell apart to begin with.

It’s never an easy subject to tackle, whether as a layman or artist, but sometimes catharsis and healing can come from intentionally probing those things that bring us the greatest sorrow in hopes of some redemption along the way. And that’s exactly what Langford has done with her first LP with the weight of a full working band behind her, taking a giant leap forward from her humble beginnings playing bluegrass and folk music as a teenager. Featuring a crack team of some of Birmingham’s best musicians, including guitarist Will Stewart, ace pedal steel player Ford Boswell, bassist Keelan Parrish, and the Dexateens’ Brian Gosdin on drums, the album stands as both a lament on, and declaration of independence from, the pangs of a broken relationship. Filled with a plaintive twang, and led by Langford’s unique phrasing and vocal style, which sounds like a cross between a young Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline and English folk rock icon Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention, there’s a lot to love about this lovesick collection of songs from one of Birmingham’s newest up-and-coming artists.

Originally from Tuscaloosa, and born into a family of bluegrass pickers— including her father James, who was a an associate of legendary banjo player Doug Dillard— Langford got her start in music at a very early age playing upright bass with her parents and brother in the band Newground, learning four-part harmonies and tunes from the great Americana songbook before she was even tall enough to properly command her instrument. Eventually developing an appreciation of groundbreaking female artists like Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welsh as a teenage–as well as the Grateful Dead–although she played in several bands throughout high school, it wasn’t until she left for college in Montevallo in 1999 that she would take her first serious forays into professional musicianship by pursuing a Music Education degree there while also playing in outfits like the Elbow Benders at local haunts like Barnstormer’s Pizza. Refining her vocal technique through both opera studies and choir, following graduation Langford would subsequently move out west to Colorado in 2004 after getting married, where she would continue to perform in bluegrass bands as well as teach music, prior to returning to Alabama in 2008 to settle in Birmingham and start a new chapter back in her home state and begin a family of her own.

Taking up a position teaching music at the Alabama Waldorf School, after giving birth to her two children, her personal ambitions as an artist gradually fell by the wayside as family life began to take priority over her own work, and although she would release a folk album under the name Sarah Lee Gurganus in 2017, it wasn’t until her divorce a year later that life as a musician began to seem like a meaningful creative outlet again. Eventually hooking up with her current band as an all-covers side project called the Fist City Country Show, she slowly began to find her footing again, writing a slew of songs in the country rock vein dealing wth her personal journey through the breakup of her marriage and laying them down at Ol Elegante studio in Homewood in December of 2018 with the Fist City boys. Recorded live in just two days with just a handful of overdubs, with its loose and rootsy vibe, it’s a strong first outing for her second act, and with record release shows planned for Seasick Records on Nov. 14th, Mom’s Basement on the 16th, and a special concert at legendary bluegrass venue The Station Inn in Nashville— where she used to watch her father play as a child— on the 23rd, she’s hoping to finally let the world hear her in a new way and with a fresh set of ears. And with any luck, it’ll be the beginning of a new career going forward, or at the very least a way to mark the end of a former life as she adjusts to new realities. Either way, we’ll be rooting for her here from the Magic City.

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