Judy Banker is ready to embark on a folk music pilgrimage of sorts.
The Ann Arbor Americana singer-songwriter will travel nearly 2,000 miles to perform at the Rosalie Sorrels First Annual Music Festival near Boise, Idaho this weekend.
As part of the inaugural festival’s lineup featuring Sista Sarah & Pocket of Bones and nearly a dozen other artists, Banker will celebrate the musical legacy of Sorrels at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park in Meridian, Idaho.
A beloved folk singer-songwriter who passed away in 2017, Sorrels has inspired Banker and a growing generation of folk, country and roots artists with her iconic music, storytelling and social activism. During her nearly half-century career, Sorrels recorded more than 20 albums, including the 2005 Grammy-nominated “My Last Go ‘Round.”
“I saw a post that her son Kevin had put on Facebook about how they were going to have a festival, and he was thinking of having it around his mother’s birthday, which was June 24,” Banker said. “She’s one of my heroes, so I thought, ‘How could it hurt? I’ll message him the link to my music, and I said if you’re opening it up for people to play, I’d love to play.’ At midnight or one in the morning that night, I got a ding on my phone, and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Flabbergasted, Banker immediately joined the lineup to support Kevin Sorrels and his family in honoring his mother’s memory and music. During the festival, Banker will perform a Saturday night closing set and cover several Rosalie Sorrels favorites, including “Baby Rocking Medley,” “If I Could Be the Rain” and “Traveling Lady.”
“I feel just this debt of gratitude and closing the show that night will be a real tribute to her. It just feels like I’m going to Mecca,” said Banker, who originally met Sorrels after one of her performances at The Ark more than 30 years ago. “I also would really love for Kevin to play guitar on one of her songs during my set.”
Banker’s festival set also will include some new tracks for her upcoming third album, “Buffalo Motel,” a follow-up to her 2016 country-tinged “Devils Never Cry” release and her 2014 debut, “Without You.”
“Those songs are all from a female point of view, and there’s a couple that I feel like would fit her in spirit,” she said. “The festival is also a memorial because she died recently, and I know the family is still pretty wrecked by that. Some of these songs about loss are pretty meaningful, so they will bring her back in a way.”
While growing up in Manitowoc, Wis., Banker developed an affinity for ‘60s folk music, learned how to play piano and started playing guitar while listening to Joan Baez. By the early ‘80s, she met her late husband, John Sayler, a guitarist, pianist and dobroist, and started playing music with him at home in Ann Arbor.
Ten years ago, they teamed up with legendary folk singer-songwriter, Jay Stielstra, to form the Jay Stielstra Trio until Sayler passed away. After Stielstra retired the trio, Banker started writing her own music and explored a traditional roots sound akin to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, June Carter Cash and Emmylou Harris.
For “Buffalo Motel,” Banker has evolved into a country rock sound with heavier electric guitars and driving drum beats inspired by Beck and The National. She’s teaming up with her son and producer Ben Sayler; bandmates Tony Pace, Alan Pagliere, Brian Williams and John Sperendi; and David Roof of Rooftop Recording to record the album.
“It has been a good trip, and it feels like all of us in the band are being challenged outside of our comfort zone. Ben has brought in this fresh perspective and shaken things up,” she said.
“Yesterday, we were just recording a simple song, but I wanted to slow it down because it’s called ‘Morning Prayer,’ and it’s about a woman waking up who experiences another blown opportunity. I wanted to slow it down, but I just couldn’t get a feel for it, and Ben said, ‘How about this song ‘Morning’ by Beck?’”
Another upcoming “Buffalo Motel” track, “Wood, Smoke and Wine,” takes its influence from The National’s “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” which features the band’s signature pulsating indie rock bassline.
“I’m still working on my delivery, and it’s such a shift for me, but it sounds so cool,” said Banker, who will celebrate the release of “Buffalo Motel” with an Oct. 16 show at Livonia’s Trinity House.
Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23
Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park, 1900 N. Records Ave. in Meridian, Idaho
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