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The latest offering by Swearingen & Kelli (AJ Swearingen and Jayne Kelli), Build Myself Up From the Ground, evokes nostalgia for the folk and country music of a bygone era, while forging a path distinctly its own. The duo’s love for the dobro and string arrangements encased in pedal steel fill the self-produced-and-recorded mini-album. Harmonies honed through years of touring together and a closely shared life take center stage. The six tracks feature hidden gems from their vault of songs, a poignant piano ballad, and a heartfelt rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll ever Do Again).” The album cover choice, portraying a living room adorned with antique furniture set upon the grass and embracing tree roots, unveils its significance by reflecting a year marked by upheaval.


The road to recording Build Myself Up From the Ground was fraught with challenges. Amidst the Covid-19 housing shortage and Kelli’s diagnosis of multiple chemical sensitivities due to mold exposure, the couple endured a nomadic lifestyle for almost a year. Their attempts to settle in various locations, including Tennessee, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, were met with disappointment as homes turned out to have dangerously high levels of mold, or too much fresh paint and carpet. A charming lake house they tried to rent in Michigan, where they envisioned ultimate isolation for writing and recording an album, turned out to be a nightmare. Kelli’s extreme sensitivities proved to be a blessing, as within minutes of entering the house, she found herself in an altered, dream-like state. “Something was radically off,” she says. “It was New Year’s Eve, and we only spent one night there. I packed up our Bengal, Diesel, and told AJ we had to leave right away. Luckily... he listens to me.” While they sought refuge at Jayne’s parents’ house nearby, a maintenance man confirmed the presence of high levels of carbon monoxide. A fatal situation was narrowly avoided. The mold, however, was off the charts, and more failed attempts at finding suitable homes followed. AJ took on the role of a professional mover, orchestrating five different relocations, while Jayne focused on maintaining her physical well-being as a semi-professional biohacker to keep up with a demanding year.


Although recording was postponed, along with album release dates, the pair continued to tour the country while uprooted. Performing shows and connecting with people fueled them and offered stability in a year of instability. The house hunt finally resolved back in Tennessee, where they settled south of Nashville, took a breath, and set up their home studio. The profound loss of AJ’s father to Parkinson’s and dementia was right around the corner with a different kind of ungrounding. This marked the second time they confronted the effects of the disease, having previously lost Jayne’s father to it in 2018. What could have broken a couple served to strengthen AJ and Jayne’s commitment to each other and deepened their artistic drive. 

The impermanence of home, of parents, and of life itself unfolds in “This Old House.” The artists croon, “Maybe someday when we’re gone, they’ll tear it down and make a parking lot / or some river will come and wash away all our years / are you ready or not?” The starkly produced “Goodbye,” played and sung plaintively by Kelli in her smoky-rich voice, intertwines with a melancholic wall of backup vocals from Swearingen, creating a haunting shade on the record. “When we finally started laying down these songs, both of us felt a level of gratitude that we hadn’t felt before,” reflects Swearingen. “Maybe we took things for granted in the past.” Nothing soothes the soul like layering harmony upon harmony – as the rootsy title track “Build Myself Up From the Ground” embodies – and having some talented friends help along the way. David G. Henry contributed cello, viola, and violin, adding a dimension of somber beauty to “The River,” “Goodbye,” and “This Old House.” With meticulous intent, pedal steel, richly rendered by longtime friend and Franklin resident Mark Huhta, added lush textures. Close friend and drummer Gary Scott played just the right groove for the Kris Kristofferson tune. Swearingen’s own artistry was showcased through dobro, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums on other tracks, often with Kelli providing a hummed line to translate into production.


Swearingen & Kelli’s previous album, Cold-Hearted Truth, garnered critical acclaim by Americana Highways, Cowboys & Indians, NY Country Swag, and Red Line Roots, who called their approach “beautiful and rare... one that others would do well to emulate.” They continue to pay homage to the spirit of ’60s and ’70s folk and country music, supporting the stage for legends ranging from Crystal Gayle and Kenny Rogers, to folk icons Tom Rush and David Bromberg. With the new work in hand and accompanying tour set, the pair defies the odds and celebrates an indomitable spirit. Home to AJ and Jayne has become the road, the stage, and the people they meet at every show.

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