JENNY WHITELEY CD release with BROCK ZEMAN at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), tonight (Thursday April 8), $14-$16. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
Jenny Whiteley doesn't think country folks have much of a sense of humour. This may come as a surprise to anyone who's ever attended Crazy Strings' no-holds-barred hootenanny at the Silver Dollar on a Wednesday night, where bassist/belter Whiteley - along with brother Dan and their fellow killer Crazy String-pickers - often whips the crowd into an ecstatic dancing frenzy.
Traditionalists are cool with her straight-up bluegrass, explains Whiteley. It's the contemporary spin of her country originals that can raise hackles.
The tunes on Whiteley's gorgeous new Hopetown (Black Hen) disc show she's an ace hand at a slew of rootsy styles, from Appalachian lullabies to sad folk waltzes.
But listen a little closer and you'll realize her rich stories have an oh-so-postmodern ironic edge. The jailbird in the melancholy Halls Of Folsom wants to stay behind bars, and fire-and-brimstone tale Hallelujah takes the piss out of hypocritical money-grubbing evangelists.
"They're not the most sarcastic lot on the planet, those country people," laughs Whiteley. "People within that tradition don't appreciate the edge so much. I think it comes from my twisted take on the world.
"It's not just me being cynical, though. Even Halls Of Folsom has a grain of truth. It's an actual phenomenon that a lot of people repeat-offend subconsciously to get back into prison, and some people who've been in there a long time are really scared to be released. I figured it was about time someone wrote a song from that perspective."
Something about that boundary-pushing dark edge makes her acoustic songs sound fresh and current. It helps that Whiteley's a highly skilled songwriter. Her self-titled solo debut snagged her a best roots/traditional Juno in 2000, and fans/friends like Sarah Harmer and Stars' Amy Millan (who sings backing vocals on Hopetown and lends a hand at tonight's Hugh's Room gig) have covered Whiteley's heartbreaking ballads in concert.
She started performing when she was a kid, with her father's and uncle's (Chris's and Ken's) Junior Jug Band. And she cut her first record ages ago with beloved kids' tunesmith Raffi. She even has a solo on Raffi's Baby Beluga.
Whiteley giggles when I ask about her cult kiddie-pop status.
"I was first dating my husband, Joey (Wright, another Crazy Stringer, who appears on Hopetown), when I mentioned to my sister-in-law that I used to sing with Raffi, and she went crazy. I told her I sang on Willoughby Wallaby Woo and a light went on in her eyes. It was more exciting to her than any of my other accomplishments. I never knew what kind of a legend I was getting involved with."
She has fond memories of recording Raffi's Singable Songs For The Very Young, including the pinball machine in the lounge at Hamilton's Grand Avenue Studios and the giant cookie inscribed "Thanks, kids," that the members of the children's choir shared after the sessions.
"I was hooked on recording from the beginning. I loved putting on the big headphones and hearing my own voice with all the music and trying to sing along."
Whiteley's a new mom - she gave birth to daughter Lila almost a year ago - but says she hasn't yet introduced her kid to the family business.
"Oh, wait," she corrects herself. "On Hopetown there's a subliminal Lila crying on many of the tracks. We recorded at my dad's place, and I remember this one day that was hysterical. It was a Thursday, so it was garbage day, recycling day, construction on the Queensway and, of course, Lila crying in the background on the baby monitor. I was worried that she'd ruin the recording, but by the time Steve (Dawson, who produced Hopetown) finished, you couldn't hear her at all." email@example.com