Joan Shelley has long been a go-to source of musical comfort for me. From her serene voice and silvery melodies to the gentle pulse of her fingerstyle guitar, Shelley’s songs feel like a refuge. So in an era that seems chronically on edge, the arrival of her newest album, The Spur, is especially welcome.
Shelley has been on a creative roll in recent years, with the pared-down acoustic albums Over and Even, the Jeff Tweedy–produced Joan Shelley, and 2019’s Like the River Loves the Sea, and The Spur continues in a similar vein. The tracks are gentle and unhurried, leaving ample space for the vocals and the entwined guitars of Shelley and her musical accomplice Nathan Salsburg.
Like so many recordings that have dropped since 2020, The Spur was shaped by the pandemic experience. After long stretches of van life on tour, Shelley and Salsburg found themselves homesteading on a farm in their native Kentucky, and in 2021 they got married and became parents. So out of what Shelley calls in her album notes a “period of opposite extremes—of creative hyper-connection and physical isolation”—came a batch of songs that reflect on putting down roots.
Much of the music on The Spur began in an online writing group that Shelley joined during the shutdown, prompting a song a week. For some songs she turned to long-distance lyrical collaborators, including Austin’s Bill Callahan, who also sings with a Greg Brown-esque rumble on “Amberlit Morning.” English author Max Porter helped Shelley dial in the words for the evocative piano ballads “Breath for the Boy” and “Between Rock and Sky.”
Shelley and Salsburg actually recorded the core of the album when she was seven months pregnant, before passing the tracks to Chicago multi-instrumentalist James Elkington (producer of several previous Shelley projects and also a guitar duet partner with Salsburg) for additional arranging and production.
The blend of Shelley’s and Salsburg’s guitars is, as on previous albums, seamless and gorgeous. Both favor alternate tunings: On this album, Shelley’s tunings include open D and its variant D A D F# C D, while Salsburg used dropped D, double dropped D, and DADGAD. (Shelley and Salsburg also typically lower all the strings, so the actual tunings are rooted on C# or sometimes C.) Adding to the richness are tonal contrasts in the instruments themselves. On the hypnotic title track, Shelley fingerpicks a National Style 0 while Salsburg riffs on his parlor-sized Pleinview L-00. Elsewhere, Salsburg adds touches of electric on a Gibson ES-335 and Fender Jazzmaster over Shelley’s flattop—a Collings OM2H.
To enhance the duo tracks, Elkington overdubbed subtle drums and percussion, bass, keyboards, and more, and wrote atmospheric string and horn arrangements. A handful of guest players, including drummer Spencer Tweedy (son of Jeff), deepen the sound without obscuring the image and voice of the songwriter herself.
The result is a rare thing: music that’s soothing without being wallpaper—soft and yet soulful.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.