Authenticity is a difficult thing to measure in American roots music. It’s not in the hat you wear, or the twang in your voice. It’s in how well you understand that the music comes from the land, and that its roots run deep. Americana songwriter Amber Cross understands this, and on her new album, Savage on the Downhill, she makes music as beholden to the landscapes of Northern and Pacific California, where she lives and travels, as to the visually-rich songwriting she crafts around it. Her songs hang heavy with the yellow dust of dirt roads, plunge deep into the soft loam of the forest. As a hunter, a fisherman, and a woman of the backcountry, she knows the countryside well, and has a deep respect for the honest work that makes you a steward of the land.
The songs on Savage on the Downhill are deeply visual and inextricably tied to nature, whether the California forests that Cross roams through, or the high deserts outside Austin, Texas, where she recorded the album. Even the title of the album paints a picture of Cross in the backcountry. “Savage” refers to a brand of hunting rifle, and the phrase “Savage on the Downhill” refers to how a tracker should hold a rifle so as not to bury the barrel into the dirt when side-hilling or climbing down an incline.
Throughout, Cross moves easily through different styles of country and folk songwriting, from Bakersfield outlaw attitude to Woody Guthrie plain-spoken folk. She’s a songwriter able to juxtapose a simple image with a powerful poetic emotion. On “Echoes,” she paints the picture of a humble domestic scene, then wonders what happens to a house when the people who made it a home have left it behind. On “Pack of Lies,” she moves between hard-hitting lines like “Pretending to love is a wicked game” and vision-laden verses like “Barking dogs rule the moonless night.” Her songs carry weight because they speak to our experiences, speak to the moments we can’t put to words.
It may come as no surprise that Amber Cross first came to music through singing in a small church in rural Maine, where she was born and raised. Her father was a small-town pastor and she was raised on the rough-hewn homilies of the hymnal. Now, Cross is creating her world by hand, working her songs until they shine with a worn polish, finding truth in tradition.