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Happiness is a state of mind for local music duo

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Happiness is a state of mind for local music duo

Couldn’t Be Happiers, a duo from Winston-Salem, couldn’t be happier to release their debut full-length album “Songs for Butchie,’’ over three installments, with Vol. 2 out December 3. 

Touching on Americana traditions and celebrating the family circle, married couple Jordan Crosby Lee and Jodi Hildebran Lee, comprise Couldn’t Be Happiers — who took their name from their state of mind and have kept it going since getting together in 2017.

The pair met years before, as part of the Unbroken Circle, an old-time ensemble based out of Wake Forest University. But akin to Johnny and June Cash, they were married to different people. “Jordan sang ‘Gone Squatchin’ that first night while wearing a Sasquatch t-shirt,” Jodi recalled of their meeting. ”I remembered him — partly because I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is really into Bigfoot.’” 

A few years later, the fresh divorcees reconnected over memories of the songwriting circle; and met for a date in New Orleans. For Jodi, “next thing I know, I’m flying down to Texas so I could help him pack up his truck and his dog and drive here to Winston,” a journey they revisit in their song “1300 Miles.

Personally and musically, their journeys entwine on the road to making “alt-country for everyone,” with an emphasis on everyone. “We’re not holding any punches about our cultural or political values,” Jordan said. Referencing what he sees as a somewhat recent “invasion of hyper-nationalism” and exclusivity (“a kissing cousin of hate”) into the genre. “I just want to be clear about the kind of alt-country we are,” he explained, pointing to acts like BJ Barham and Todd Snider, “who are carrying the alt-country torch with its progressive roots and values of inclusivity. We write songs in support of Black Lives Matter and the humane treatment of those seeking refuge here, all while wearing cowboy boots.”

A native Texan, Jordan follows the traditions of Robert Earl Keen, who he discovered as a teenager. “My mind basically exploded after hearing ‘Sonora’s Death Row,’” he said, crediting Keen with igniting his passion for storytelling. 

Jodi, meanwhile, lends more to metaphor and vocal influence. Growing up in Burke County, country music was the only genre allowed at home. “I used to ‘sneak’ listen to the top-10 pop countdown on my clock radio,” she said. “I got really into Mariah Carey and wanted to sing just like her.”

The album bridges their styles, blending a sort of Ernest Tubb meets the Violent Femmes. The politics in “No Further Requests,” the pendulum of musician life in “One Time” and “Chasing Tigers,” and their love of North Carolina in “For a Moment” resonate from a narrative foundation, coupled with topical commentary. “Every volume on this record does have a song that references trees,” Jodi noted of the “random factoid” touching on notions of environmentalism found in “Treehouse” and “Earthquake.”

An emotional balance also hangs in each volume, with “November,” (written for the album’s namesake) adding a poignant personal gravity and grief for Jordan’s father, “Butchie,” who passed from brain cancer on Nov. 3, 2020. “Butchie was a huge reason we decided to actually get an album done,” Jodi insisted. 

Stemming from an inside joke based on lines from HBO’s John From Cincinnati, “Butchie” was his chosen name bestowed by Jordan years before. “One character, Butchie, asked John a question, to which John answered, ‘some things I know, and some things I don’t,’” Jordan explained of the reference, “and an annoyed Butchie would respond, ‘just say I don’t know Butchie, instead.’ So the next time Butchie asked John a question, he’d say, ‘I don’t know Butchie instead.’” The moniker stuck after “I don’t know Butchie instead” became a younger Jordan’s answer to just about any of his father’s questions. “I did my best to torture him, playfully, anyway I could,” he admitted.

”My dad and I never understood each other,” Jordan continued. “We were completely different people. But he admired that difference. When I decided to play music, he never told me to pursue something more productive. He came to every gig I had in Texas — he’d break down the equipment while I talked to the audience after the show. And he always thought I was great. No matter how bad I was at the start.”

Jodi echoed admiration. “Butchie was really special. I just felt like he was on my side. And he was such a huge fan of our music. It nearly broke me when Jordan’s sister, Casey, told us that, even though he was struggling to communicate, he asked to play our songs in the hospital.”

In bringing the album to life, they’ve pulled from pools of friends across the Piedmont. Using Doug Davis’ FlyTrap studio as a “home base,” the record features Davis himself on guitar, bass, and organ — with Dan Emmett, Jack Gorham, Travis Williams, and Corky MacClellan adding fiddle, accordion, upright bass, and percussion to the Flytrap tracks. 

One Time” (featuring players from the Shoaldiggers) was recorded by Nick Peterson (from Track & Field) at “a little white church” in Hillsborough. “No Further Requests,” was tracked by Chad Barnard at Fallen Trees Recording Studio in Mt. Airy, with the help of Tommy Jackson on Wurlitzer, Mitch Hull on drums, and Shane Mauck on a Hammond organ. 

“I don’t think either of us imagined we would have so many people on our first album,” Jodi said. “They all brought their own unique styles to them. It was just really cool.”

The pair plans to spend the holidays working on the third volume. “We have all kinds of random little half-finished songs about all kinds of things — okay, mostly about our dogs, but we can’t make every song about them,” Jodi said, noting tunes about Winston-Salem and Sasquatch are among the intended tracks. 

”We owe it to ourselves and everyone else who worked on this album to get it out there,” she added. “The album is named in Butchie’s honor, and I want it to be heard for that reason, most of all. He certainly would’ve listened to it on repeat.”

Couldn’t Be Happiers’ “Songs For Butchie, Vol. 2” is out Friday, December 3. They’ll be at the Reeves Theater in Elkin on December 16.

Katei Cranford is a Triad music nerd who enjoys spotlighting artists and events.

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