With “Buffalo Motel,” Judy Banker creates a welcoming extended stay throughout album’s dozen heartfelt, transformative tracks.
The Americana singer-songwriter shares an expansive, layered and atmospheric sound that transcends her traditional acoustic country and folk roots. Driving drum and bass tracks, hook-driven instrumental intros and breaks, and innovative arrangements push Banker toward a countrified indie rock territory that lies somewhere between Ann Arbor, Mich., and Kalispell, Mont.
Out Thursday, “Buffalo Motel” allows Banker to flex her raw, gritty songwriting muscle and weather a series of intense emotions through different relationships and life events. She poetically chronicles love’s rise and decline at several points in time throughout her third album’s intimate tales.
“There’s something about this being the beginning of a new year and new decade that adds a sense of importance to it all. This album turned out bigger and better than I could have imagined. I think it feels that way for the members of the project – the band and David Roof and Ben Sayler as producers and creative directors,” said Banker, who took creative inspiration from Beck, The National and Sharon Van Etten while recording her latest album.
“We didn’t know where all of our experimentation in the pre-production sessions was going to take the music. There were so many moving parts and different ways we approached recording each of the songs. ”
Banker collaborated with a roster of talented Michigan musicians on “Buffalo Motel” to make it bigger than the sum of its parts. Tony Pace (electric guitar, dobro), John Sperendi (electric and upright bass), Brian Williams (drums), Alan Pagliere (pedal steel) and Roof (multi-instrumentalist, Rooftop Recording engineer) added new elements to realize the potential of each song. They spent most of last year steeped in fireplace bourbon sessions while creating “Buffalo Motel’s” exquisite, multi-genre tracks.
“I hope that the sound of the album, this collection of songs and how they are presented, excites people and engages them. The playing on it blows me away – this band is over-the-top talented,” Banker said. “They pushed themselves and tried new approaches on this album to bring out the heart of each song. I hope people can feel that, and it moves them.”
Staying at ‘Buffalo Motel’
“Buffalo Motel’s” Americana-tinged opener, “Born Again,” magically meshes uplifting banjos, slide and electric guitars, and rhythmic percussion to rejuvenate the soul and escape a stifling relationship in the passing lane – “If I play my cards right/I can make my escape tonight/Fake my death on a foggy trek/Hit the road/Never look back/On the road you’re not near/Don’t have to pretend to hear.”
Despite escaping an old relationship en route to the “Buffalo Motel,” the album’s title track longs for a fleeting, passionate love that’s evaporated from the present day, but lingers in the mind years later. Hypnotic acoustic and slide guitars eloquently capture the melancholy of what’s lost as Banker’s hopeful vocals anticipate a return – “You don’t come around here anymore/Been a month of Sundays since you darkened my door/I was humming that song/And your face came to mind/We sure had ourselves a good time.”
Thousands of miles away from the “Buffalo Motel,” another poignant track called “Haggerty” includes a tale of heart-wrenching loss emphasized by Banker’s emotional vocals intertwined with deep-tone guitars and bass that echo fear and despair – “I need you/I need you still/Don’t do this now/Not when they’re all falling around me/Eyes on the ground/You can’t expect me to be so strong.”
“Each song has its own personality that affects me in different ways. We worked hard on each one, and I love where we took each one, and each one feels like a part of the whole,” Banker said. “I wasn’t expecting that, but each song fits into the big picture of ‘Buffalo Motel.’ This album wouldn’t be as good if any of the songs were missing from it.”
At the opposite end of the sonic spectrum lies “Homecoming Day,” Banker’s beautiful, timeless ode to a love’s long-awaited arrival against an outlaw country sonic backdrop – “Wake up alone/It won’t be long/My baby’s coming home/Oh my baby’s coming home.” With her son Ben Sayler as producer, Banker pushed her musical boundaries to transform “Buffalo Motel’s” initial country folk songs into more colorful, textured indie rock vistas at Grand Blanc’s Rooftop Recording.
“I never imagined in a million years that I’d have the opportunity to work with Ben this way. It’s truly a dream come true for me,” Banker said. “Not just because he’s my son, but because I have always had the greatest respect for Ben’s musical knowledge and taste. I value his input and creative vision immensely.”
Visiting Past Releases, Influences
While Banker explores new musical territory on “Buffalo Motel,” her previous acoustic-oriented releases, “Devils Never Cry” (2016) and “Without You” (2014), reflect a classic Americana sound with touching stories about love, loss and growth.
“Devils Never Cry” followed a country-rich feel with warm love songs, lamentations and narratives that uncovered her own life experiences. However, her raw introspective debut “Without You” dealt with the loss and remembrance of Banker’s longtime musical partner and husband John Sayler in 2012.
“My first release, ‘Without You,’ was 100 percent a way for me to channel and bear witness to the grief of losing John,” Banker said. “Every time I picked up my guitar or tried to sing, John was part of that. That album was me trying to find a way to give thanks to him and also to find my way without him.”
As her musical partner for 30 years, Banker played with John Sayler at family weddings and friends’ shows and teamed up with folk singer-songwriter Jay Stielstra to perform as the Jay Stielstra Trio from 2009 to 2012. That life-changing experience inspired Banker to pursue her own path as a singer-songwriter.
“Playing with Jay taught both John and me to ramp up our game as performers. Jay had been performing for decades, and we found ourselves headlining with at him The Ark or doing a showcase in Chicago with him at the Folk Alliance Region Midwest conference in 2011,” Banker said.
“I discovered how much I truly loved performing and learned how different it was to perform original songs as opposed to covers. Watching Jay perform his own tunes and seeing how his songs affected people gave me the courage to lean into doing more of my own writing.”
Banker developed an affinity for vintage country and traditional folk music while growing up in Manitowoc, Wis. One day, her father came home with a $50 used gigantic acoustic Kay guitar and taught Banker and her brother how to play.
As an audiophile, Banker’s father exposed Banker and her siblings to old jazz, crooner, R&B and ‘60s folk records on a robust turntable with speakers wired throughout the house. She also listened extensively to polka music with her grandparents during long drives in the country.
That exposure to eclectic sounds invigorated Banker as she heard Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Bob Dylan. She eventually added Merle Haggard, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons and John Prine to her roster of growing musical influences.
“I’m interested in what makes a good song and how an artist conveys the heart of the lyrics, including repetition, chanting, melodic hooks and harmonies, and how the arrangement works to bring out the heart,” Banker said. “For instrumentation, I’m totally addicted to the traditional country music instruments – acoustic guitar, pedal steel, dobro and banjo. The sound of those instruments together transports me and elevates the songs I’m working on.”
Preparing for Thursday’s Album Release Show
Today, she translates that countrified musical vision to the live stage at Michigan-based venues like Johnny’s Speakeasy, the Farmington Civic Theater, Trinity House Theatre and The Ark as well as local and national festivals such as Holler Fest and the Rosalie Sorrels Music Festival.
On Thursday, she’ll bring the multi-genre recordings of “Buffalo Motel” to The Ark stage for her album release show. Banker will celebrate the release of her third album with her full band and special guest Ann Arbor-based folk pop group Joanna & The Jaywalkers.
“We’re planning to play the album from start to finish in the order that appears on the album. I get to play with some of the best musicians around, and their playing really shines on this project,” Banker said. “I want that to be the highlight of the show. My feeling is that I’m playing with a whole band of ‘special guests.’”
8 p.m. | Thursday
The Ark, 316 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor