On the 2011 album Go Lightning, Jon Hogan has taken traditional tunes and made them sound like they’ve been lit on fire. No wonder he and his band call themselves “scorch folk.” This is music for those who love Devil Makes Three, Murder by Death, Scott H. Biram and Drag the River. Hogan and his guitarist, Maria Moss, are less punk, more folk than those bands, but the sound and sentiment is there. The group’s rendition of “Shady Grove” is intimate but still wildly danceable, lovely yet creepy. (I’ve always shuddered at the line, “If I had a needle and thread as fine as I could sew / I’d sew that pretty little girl to my side and down the road we’d go.”)
The band also makes awesome old-time originals. They recently recorded six tracks in Nashville with the bass player for Robert Plant’s Band of Joy who also plays with Emmylou Harris. They also had the fiddler from Ricky Skaggs band, Andy Leftwich, on board for the session. Moss has an interesting background: She wrote for the New York Times, edited a few of Houston’s city magazine and freelanced for a decade. She left journalism after fighting breast cancer, and finally landed in the band with Hogan.
“We’re serious songwriters with roots in Appalachia, the Carter Family, and the old-time mountain music that predates bluegrass,” Moss tells me over email. “We’re more Shovels & Rope than Gillian Welch, but we share listeners with a pretty broad post-Oh Brother Where Art Thou listenership.” The band hosts an annual Townes Van Zandt tribute near Big Bend National Park. They’re big fans of the late Blaze Foley, who wrote songs that became hits for Merle Haggard (“If I Could Only Fly”) and Lyle Lovett (“Election Day”) and John Prine (“Clay Pigeons”). The duo creates posthumous co-writes with the singer.
This is a group that feels like they’re on a quest. That they once received the Key to the City of El Paso for preservation of American heritage music is no surprise. Live, the band seemed uncorked. Hogan and Moss both look like strumming maniacs, possessed by old time music. It’s as though if you touched them, they might electrocute you, they’re so saturated with energy.—Erika Fredrickson Jon Hogan and Maria Moss play the Top Hat Tue., Sept. 3, at 8:30 PM. Free.