True North performs "Hard Place" with special guest Peter Miller on cello.
From the soulful narrative “Be Here Now ” to the toe-tapping melody of “Shiny Black Shoes,” the latest album from True North has earned international airtime and critical recognition on its way to the top of the Roots Music Report folk chart.
Two of the band’s four members are Bearcats — lead singer Kristen Grainger, who’s served as a university vice president since 2002, and guitarist Dale Adkins ‘85. They’re joined by Suzanne Pearce and Grainger’s husband, Dan Wetzel.
Like the musicians, True North’s sound is complex. Bluegrass and folk tones accentuate Grainger’s smooth voice and elegant lyrics.
Many in our community turn out to see True North when they play locally, so we stopped by to ask the vice president about her music and the success of her group’s recent album.
What do these accolades mean for Grainger and her bandmates? “I don’t know,” she says, adding that she’s not planning on packing up and moving to Nashville anytime soon. “We got booked at WinterGrass, which is a huge festival in Seattle. That’s the big time in my little world.”
The popularity of the group’s latest CD, “Elsebound,” follows solo recognition for Grainger’s songwriting. She was a finalist at the 41st annual Telluride Bluegrass festival, which USA Today describes as a “mega-event” in the world of bluegrass music.
“We had never been on the radar anywhere before. All of a sudden, we’re number six, and while I was at the Telluride songwriting contest, there were three of us with records in the top 10 — me, Ray Lamontagne and Nickel Creek. That was ‘wow’ for me.”
Though her passion for storytelling led to a young writer’s award from The Oregonian, as well as her decision to study creative writing in college, it was her partner Dan who encouraged her to write songs. “Dan’s been a huge inspiration for the writing I do,” she says.
Grainger’s college mentor, poet and professor Nelson Bentley, shared advice that informs her songwriting. “I learned that the simplest things can be said in ways that are both profound and fresh. It made it OK to write about ordinary life.”
“What I’m trying to do is take a situation, a story, a feeling, an idea, a memory, or a moment — often it’s a moment — and capture that in its purest and most potent version of itself,” she says.
For Grainger, the popularity of True North’s latest album is an opportunity to share a story — or a moment — with others. “That is enough,” she says. “It is more than enough.”