Lonesome No Longer
A Nashville folk trio with Harvard roots
Sweet-talking the crowd, the musicians of the contemporary folk trio Wisewater bought time, tuning up for their next song. Fiddle ready, Kate Lee turned to Forrest O’Connor ’10, who was intently focused on his mandolin; Jim Shirey ’11 stood by, on guitar. “Forrest, do you have the story about—”
“Do I have the story?” O’Connor repeated good-naturedly, eyes and ears on his task.
“Sorry, that was really awkward…” Lee started again, her delivery jokingly stagey: “Forrest, tell us the story about the creeks we saw in Alabama!”
During their performance in late April at Club Passim (the historic venue that once hosted Joan Baez and Bob Dylan), the group seemed winningly unaccustomed to canned concert banter—earnest about their craft, easy with each other—as their set swung from an aching ballad to a blazing, breakneck cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” In the past few years, Wisewater’s members have made their living by playing gigs around the country—at local breweries, coffee houses, clubs, and music festivals, but also at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and Station Inn. Surprisingly in the age of Spotify, half their income comes from in-person CD sales of their five-song EP, titled, fittingly, The Demonstration.
“All the Pacific Northwest crowds are really great,” O’Connor reports. “The Midwest is…tough. The Northeast can be pretty hit or miss. We’ve really liked playing in the South a lot—it’s been great, really receptive.” But in their home city of Nashville—country music’s company town—where O’Connor and Lee first connected in 2013, it’s hard to be heard, he says: “Everybody and their mother is playing.”
Uniting the couple of O’Connor and Lee with the duo of O’Connor and Shirey, Wisewater can also trace its roots to Cambridge: the two men befriended each other on Shirey’s first day of freshman year. Two longhaired undergrads sharing a deep love of American roots music, they wrote songs and performed together at campus events and open mics, sometimes sneaking into Holden Chapel at night to jam. (“Oh, you boys were so bad, sneaking into the chapel,” Lee ribbed, when they told the story at Club Passim. “It’s a great dynamic,” Shirey says of the group, “because nobody has to be the third wheel for very long.”)
Growing up, O’Connor was exposed early to Americana stars from Dolly Parton to mandolinist Chris Thile, who collaborated with his father, the virtuosic violinist and fiddler Mark O’Connor. He started teaching himself the mandolin at age 13, and at 23 pursued singing through a regimen of vocal exercises gleaned from books—seeking partly, he says, to differentiate his career from his father’s. O’Connor, his bandmates agree, is naturally “intense,” a trait that dovetails with his entrepreneurial streak: after graduation he co-founded Concert Window, an online platform that enables bands to livestream their shows, and considered attending Harvard Business School. Much of the managerial work involved with promoting Wisewater comes naturally to him, and he often drives the group’s recording and video projects.
Shirey, in contrast, loved writing and performing music—he sang in church choirs growing up, and joined the Kuumba Singers at Harvard—but pursued teaching after college. He was about to start a master’s in education when he got the call asking if he would join Wisewater, in August 2014. Though he asked for 48 hours to decide, “I thought about it for about six minutes and called back and said I’d do it.” He bought a one-way ticket to Nashville, and the trio rehearsed for four days (in what a friend later described as “a musical cage match”) before hitting the road in Lee’s Dodge Caravan.
Though all of them play instruments, sing, and compose, each has a strong sense of what they bring to its sound: Lee’s supple voice, Shirey’s songwriting, O’Connor’s intricate mandolin and Greek bouzouki. At some point, each entertained the idea of pursuing a solo career, but that’s a lonely life, and Wisewater’s music feels fuller than the sum of its parts. Some of their songs, like “Old Black Creek,” have what bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe called “the high, lonesome sound”—but even the obviously contemporary works like “Always Do” seem instantly familiar. The richly textured arrangements build into a warm, enveloping sound that invites listeners in.
The musicians balance tour commitments with outreach to radio stations, booking agents, and producers; they plan to release a second, full album later this year. “Especially in Nashville,” Shirey says, “you get sold this myth of getting discovered.” As O’Connor puts it, “We try to take as much as we can into our own hands.” Wisewater is named for an imaginary ocean, on a made-up map, that he drew during a childhood Tolkien phase. Now, two more people share in that dream, and they’ll chart the course together.