WITH HER BAND’S NAME (the Lost High Rollers) taken from the Townes Van Zandt song “No Lonesome Tune” and her album (Starlight Hotel) named for “an old flophouse in Seattle,” singer-songwriter Zoe Muth has established herself with a vintage country sound and songwriting inspired by Bob Dylan and Iris DeMent. “The person who most inspired me to write was Bob Dylan,” she says, “but I figured out early I couldn’t replicate that. I tried to sing Emmylou Harris songs too, but realized I had to make it on my songwriting as opposed to my singing.”
Starlight Hotel is an amazing collection of songs that blends Muth’s vocals and delicate fingerpicking with the all-around musical prowess of her band mates (including Seattle country veteran Dave Harmonson on pedal steel, dobro, and electric guitar, and mandolinist Ethan Lawton). “They recently kicked everyone in the Starlight Hotel out to turn it into a fancy hotel,” Muth says of the title track. “I named the album that right before that happened, but there is some commentary on the record about working class life and about poverty in America. In that song I tried to look at the reasons for feelings of isolation in American society.”
Themes of isolation and loneliness run throughout the record. One of the standouts is “New Mexico.” Mandolin flourishes, languid tremolo, and country guitar licks add to Muth’s slow, dreamy vocals and poetic imagery: “Dirty old blackbird landed on my windowsill / I didn’t want him to leave so I sat there watching him perfectly still / And when he finally flew / And when he finally flew / I asked him to cut a hole in the morning sky / That I could pass right on through.”
Growing up in 1980s Seattle, where grunge was taking root, Muth became enamored with folk music in high school, and started teaching herself to play guitar using Beatles songbooks. After getting her start playing solo at open mics in Seattle and meeting Harmonson and Lawton, Muth decided the pair would be a good match for the songs she was writing. “I convinced them to play around town with me for a few beers,” she says. A few years later, they added Greg Nies (drums) and Mike McDermott (bass), who had been touring with other Americana bands in the area.
“I’ve been lucky to find four guys who don’t have a problem listening to a woman. Everyone says, ‘You’re the boss,’ which in some ways is a huge responsibility,” she says. “But they listen to what I need onstage and play to support the lyrics. My priority is writing a good song. I keep it simple and let the band make it more interesting.”
“Playing with Zoe is a great gig,” Harmonson says. “She writes wonderful songs and all I have to do is color them a bit. It’s been amazing to be playing around the world with her and the Lost High Rollers.” Influenced by pedal steel masters such as Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, and John Hughey, Harmonson’s style and years of experience perfectly complement Muth’s country leanings.
At the age of 32, Muth has played with artists such as Kinky Friedman, Fred Eaglesmith, and Dave Alvin, appeared at the No Depression and Bumbershoot festivals in Seattle, and toured Wales, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway.