Heather McEntire tried many times to write about her trip to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, but just couldn’t figure out how to translate the experience into song. She made the drive to attend the wedding of her friend’s mother, a romantic occasion marred by the fact that McEntire had just been dumped. Her heart was broken, which made her a conflicted witness to the happy nuptials.
“I was in a really dark place and trying to celebrate,” says McEntire, who sings in the North Carolina indie country band Mount Moriah. “I’m watching this ceremony, and I’m in this strange little town. They have these natural springs there. That’s what the town is built around, and I did not want to leave those springs. I was ready to be healed.” On the trip home, somewhere outside of Memphis, she realized “I could heal myself by forgiving this person who had left me alone.”
It was a startling revelation – her own eureka moment – but it took several passes to get the narrative of the song just right. McEntire drew from her own experiences and found inspiration in Bible verses, but what brought everything together was a piece of music by bandmate Jenks Milller, who plays guitar in Mount Moriah. “He brought the music in, and it just fit really well with this narrative I’d been trying to explain to myself,” she recalls.
The result is “Eureka Springs,” a standout on Mount Moriah’s second album, Miracle Temple. Marked by McEntire’s soulful vocals and Miller’s understated guitar, the song is a powerful recollection of grief and recovery that showcases the dynamic chemistry between these two musicians. Longtime friends, they have toiled in North Carolina’s bustling music scene for years: she spent time in the punk outfit Bellafea, and he continues to play in the Americana metal band Horseback. They run a label called Holiday for Quince, which released Mount Moriah’s self-titled debut in 2010.
On Miracle Temple, their first record for venerable North Carolina indie label Merge Records (Spoon, Arcade Fire, She & Him), McEntire’s voice and Miller’s guitar intertwine intimately and intuitively, each instrument distinctive in its own right yet somehow more powerful in the presence of the other. They developed that chemistry over many months on the road, headlining small gigs and playing larger clubs with Craig Finn, Indigo Girls, and Amy Ray solo.
The various venues, they discovered, offered opportunities to explore different aspects of their sound. “We played a lot of slower songs with Indigo Girls,” says Miller, “but when we went out with Amy, we played more uptempo songs.” Ray became a mentor to the band, leading by example: “She straddles the folk and rock worlds,” he says, “and it was great to see a performer who could exist in different worlds like that.”
Inspired by Ray’s versatility, McEntire and Miller began gravitating toward country music, a genre they had both rejected for years. “Because it was so ubiquitous growing up, I built walls to keep it out,” he says. “I associated it with some of the more backwards aspects of the South, but growing up and coming into my own a little more has allowed me to relax those barriers and accept the good musical traditions. Once we became adults, we could appreciate it more when it was on our own terms.”
For McEntire, that meant changing her approach to performing, expanding her range and letting the country come out in each syllable: “I’ve allowed myself to let my twang come out vocally, and I’ve been proud of it in a way that maybe in the past I’ve tiptoed around or tried to clean up.”
“Heather is country in her bones,” says Ray, who sings on Miracle Temple. “She sings like Dolly Parton crossed with Bjork. But she’s not trying to do this thing because it’s trendy or something like that. Whatever she does, she’s always going to have the heart of country, because she’s from country.”
As in so much country music, travel is a major theme on Miracle Temple, which drives some of the same routes as Lucinda Williams’ legendary Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. Most songs contain specific place names – Swannanoa, White Sands, Union Street, Connecticut, and of course Carolina – as though Mount Moriah are mapping out an emotional terrain over the actual landscape of the South.
“A lot of these songs I started on the road or were inspired by traveling,” says McEntire. “I’ve always been inspired by place, and there are a lot of different landscapes we’re visiting on the album. There’s a lot of movement.” The South is both subject and character on Miracle Temple, evoked by McEntire’s poetic lyrics as well as by Miller’s eloquent guitarwork. “It’s about opening up and letting go and trying to understand how to work in the South and make sense of the last ten years of my life.”