You can imagine the first conversation between the musicians Keith Smith and the singularly named Sparrow:
“Oh, you were 18 when you started hitchhiking around the country? I was 18 when I started hitchhiking.”
“I hopped freight trains for three years.” “Well, I joined the circus.”
“And you’re a songwriter? Well, So am I.”
“As far as falling in love, I’d say we also had huge musical chemistry,” Smith said. “We were both very excited about playing old swing music, Appalachian folk music, Balkan music, and that was kind of a rare thing to find.”
Smith and Sparrow are the heart of the Resonant Rogues, an Asheville duo and sometimes-quartet creating what one might call alt-Americana. Their new album is “Autumn of the World” and it’s a musical mashup of early jazz, bluegrass and Eastern European phrases beneath downhome Appalachian vocal melodies and lyrics that tell contemporary stories.
The Resonant Rogues celebrate the new album with a May 31 performance at the Mothlight in West Asheville.
“When we were first starting to think about ‘Do we have our solo projects and just back each other up or do we go in it together and start a band with two songwriters?’, (Keith) was thinking years down the road,” Sparrow recalled. “Like, if we have our separate careers, that’s probably not going to be sustainable for us in our relationship. He was like ‘If we’re going to do this, we should really do it.’”
Before meeting in 2012, Sparrow and Smith each came to Asheville with histories of itinerant music.
By age 12, Sparrow was an activist and vegetarian taking viola lessons. In her later teens, she left home in Fort Collins, Colo., for Miami to protest the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and stayed in Florida to go to circus school. She made music and busked while hitchhiking and was on her way back to Colorado when she found the mountains of Asheville. She moved here with her 3-month-old son.
“I wanted to live in a city that had the kind of subcultural support that I was looking for,” she said. “My son has been raised with an extended family of adult friends. He has people we call aunties and uncles who aren’t biologically related to us. The idea of chosen family has been a really big one in my life.”
Smith hitchhiked out of Wisconsin when he was 18 and spent three-and-a-half years climbing into boxcars and making a brand of acoustic punk music popular among other younger musicians riding the rails.
“There was the traveling punks and there’s the local punks, and the traveling punks often were drawn more to acoustic music because you can’t travel with your amps,” Smith said. “So there’s already this folk music out of necessity.”
Meeting Sparrow kept Smith in Asheville, and once the couple decided to perform together, they did what came so naturally to them -- they hit the road. They have self-funded three European tours and others to Australia, Romania, Germany and the Netherlands. They’re performing in nine Alaskan towns and villages in June and all over the UK throughout July.
“My mother’s a geography teacher and she always raised me to have this curiosity about other places and a passion for traveling,” Sparrow said. “Especially for women and mothers, I had this amazing example in my mother that this was a thing you could do.”
Sparrow and Smith write separately and co-mingle the music on their albums. You can tell whose song it is by who sings the lead vocals.
Armed with a banjo and accordion, Sparrow threads her songs with metaphor, stories of experiential growth and social consciousness, in songs such as “The House That Condos Stole.” Smith is the more meticulous songwriter of the two, but also the more guarded. He said he keeps his most personal lyrics off record.
Resonant Rogues have crowdfunded their albums but earned their keep on the road, mixing paid shows with busking to keep touring across this country and beyond an active part of their lives. They said the key to both their relationship and career is balancing independence with inter-dependence.
“Relationship, art and finances are all interconnected to each other, and if any one of those three things are struggling, you just have to figure it out and work through it,” Sparrow said. “Even when things have been tough, we’ve always just know this is what we’re doing and what we want to do.”