Alynda Lee Segarra, the 27-year-old Bronx-reared singer-songwriter behind blues-folk collective Hurray for the Riff Raff, taught herself music through immersion in Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Her education continued in New Orleans, where she sang and played washboard and banjo on the streets after running away from home in 11th grade to hop freight trains. So what happens to traditional Southern music when a queer Puerto Rican feminist from New York City claims it for her own?
Small Town Heroes, HFTRR’s debut on a label (ATO Records) after six self-releases, is the latest chapter in an answer that could go on for decades. Dwelling comfortably within the framework of a bygone era, Segarra’s sound doesn’t directly reimagine roots music. She sings with a worn-denim beauty that evokes Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams. With her cast of collaborators—some fleeting, others longtime, like transgender fiddler Yosi Perlstein—Segarra tells harmonica-accented stories of five-car pileups and loves in rural Louisiana, Southern bars and soured dreams, good times and old guitars. On standout cut “The Body Electric,” she twists the Appalachian murder ballad into a denouncement of rape culture.
What emerges on Small Town Heroes is a marriage of humble and hallowed that nullifies any apparent contradiction in playing the Knitting Factory one night and Lincoln Center the next. HFTRR represents a portal between America’s past and its ever-shifting present, in which old forms meander in undetermined ways to undetermined new places. The radical girls-up-front ethos of the riot-grrrl shows Segarra used to attend on the Lower East Side is embedded in this music—unassuming and unstoppable, like a long, lazy river.—Kate Crane
Follow Kate Crane on Twitter: @cratekane