By Joel DeVyldere
JT Nero and Allison Russell are making lightning scars in the sleepy twilight sky of country music. The husband and wife duo behind Birds of Chicago has unleashed an electric storm of powerful, heartening lyrics atop a steady downpour of rock ‘n’ roll rhythms. R&B, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll all find their place into the Birds’ achy Americana roots blend.
Nero and Russell met in 2001, when the groups they were involved with started playing occasional shows together. For years they stayed with their separate bands. Russell wrote and sang for Po’ Girl and JT headed up JT and The Clouds. Increasingly, however, the two singers looked for any excuse to meet up and play the same venue.
“It reached a point where we knew there was something really remarkable in our musical chemistry,” said Nero of his wife and bandmate Russell. “It wasn’t until 2012 that we finally carved out the space and time to make our thing its own thing, and its own project. It was headed that way for a while.”
Since that time, two albums have appeared. 2012’s Birds of Chicago is an energetic and open-minded approach to country, rock, and roots all at once. The real gem here is songwriting, and Nero demonstrates that on track after track. “Here comes my cannonball, when the light in me bows to the light in you.”
Birds of Chicago is currently touring in support of Live From Space. This 2014 live record pushes the limits in creative songwriting while simultaneously stepping up the soul vocals. Russell opens the album with a chilling rendition of “Barley.” “The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me,” she echoes. The sound is uncanny.
The primary songwriter for the project, Nero considers the Birds as a continuation in the progression of roots and country music. “We’re very mindful of that which has come before us, and try to pay homage to it in our music,” he said.
For inspiration, Nero looks around at what’s going on in his life. He likes to center songs on firsthand experiential imagery. “The little stuff, big stuff, the hope, the little bitternesses—all that stuff. Lots of shadows and lots of light. From a musical standpoint, it reflects that as well.”
But Nero’s imagery can skew imaginative as well. Lyrical topics range from trampolines to tapeworms to electric seahorses in the space of a single record. It’s a far cry from the pickup trucks and screen door swingin’ that dominates the lyrical world of most radio country.
Though revolutionary in a sense, Nero sees himself more as a storyteller than a crusader for truth. “I don’t have a big message with a capital M,” he said. “For me, songwriting is just about capturing moments, and just being honest to that moment—getting the small stuff right.
Nero and Russell are currently on tour with their bassist Christopher Merrill and guitarist Joe Faulhaber. Also in tow is the couple’s 11-month-old baby, Ida. “Basically, we’re kind of indefinitely touring right now, Nero explained. “We get little pockets of time off.”
One such hiatus will be a studio trip slated for this February. If all goes well, said Nero, a third album will be on the shelves next fall.
For now, however, the Birds have a coast-to-coast tour ahead, including a first-ever stop in Corvallis. Meanwhile, Nero hopes to stay “true to the little moments and seconds that make up the days of our life on the planet.”
“When you get the small stuff right, that tends to be when you have a song that registers universally with people.”
Birds of Chicago will play Thursday, Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at The Majestic in downtown Corvallis. Tickets are $18, or $15 for students, seniors, and members.