Jane Kramer almost had it too good. She was in a loving, long-term relationship, making music as part of the Barrel House Mamas and engaged in a career in social work.
“Within about six or eight months, all those things collapsed,” Kramer said. “I was really, really broken. I was just in the wreckage and the shrapnel of all the ways my life here had decayed, and feeling like a tremendous failure, coupled with losing a dear friend in a really tragic way. Suddenly, I didn’t know how to find my identity, even here, in these mountains, where for all intents and purposes I came to be myself.”
That was eight years ago, when the collective pain drove Kramer to Portland, Ore. She has since reclaimed a happy life in Asheville, but hasn’t quite left the trail of heartache. The breadcrumbs reach the title song of her new album, “Valley of the Bones.”
Kramer and her band, three of whom are the vaunted members of Free Planet Radio, celebrate the release of “Valley of the Bones” with a show March 2 at Ambrose West in Asheville.
“It came from a place of grief, of loss of experiencing a miscarriage and having this dream where I’m talking about it with my dead friend,” Kramer said of the title track. “It called on the newer parts of me that did, in fact, love themselves and still feel whole even in the presence of that grief.”
Kramer grew up outside Philadelphia in a Jewish family that brought a Christmas tree into the home every holiday season. Kramer says she never felt home anywhere until attending Warren Wilson College. There, she bonded with the women who, with Kramer, recorded and toured as the Barrel House Mamas. She also met the musician Pierce Edens. The two were partners for 12 years.
“Suddenly, when that was stripped away, I thought to myself ‘Who am I with just this guitar, and am I even any good, or do I need these other people on stage with me to fill up this sound?’” Kramer said. “And literally just hearing myself in a room playing a guitar with just my voice was scary and vulnerable.”
Kramer lived on a houseboat in Portland and wrote the music that became her first solo album. But she felt the songs were so rooted in Asheville that she came back just to throw the album-release party. Kramer recorded her second solo album in Asheville and, when she returned for good, the compulsion for catharsis in her music ebbed against Kramer’s desire to look outside herself.
“I think I’m in a place in my life where I have unpacked a lot of things. I have done a lot of personal work and exploration and healing,” she said. “I am trying to arrive at a place of deeper self-love and those voices aren’t as loud. As a writer and a human, not only do I want people to see themselves in my songs and feel connection and less alone, but I want to offer my gifts and insights in telling other people’s stories, in the hopes of reaching more people.”
The song “Macon County” is the story Kramer heard from a stranger.
“The crux of her story is coming home where she grew up, feeling like she had exploded her life and start over after several other things had decayed,” Kramer said. “Even though her story was completely different than mine, I know well that feeling of going back to a place and having to start over.”
Today, Kramer’s career in social work has evolved into volunteerism—she thanks her father for that nudge—and she devotes most of her attention to her music and building the career around it.
“The thread running through all these songs is the incredible resilience of us as humans and what different ways we can embrace ourselves, and be real about grief and loss and knowing those are important and beautiful although difficult parts of the human experience,” Kramer said “I do feel like more of a grownup person who knows herself. I feel like she’s speaking in this record, and I like that.”