By the Time I Get to Phoenix: Courtney Marie Andrews Is the Biggest Star in the Valley's Blooming Pop-Folk Scene

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Now, musicians and bands from Washington are planning to move here for the scene. Says Andrews, "The kids I talked to in Seattle say that it's one band for itself there, [and that] nobody wants to have a community. They think it's so crazy that [musicians here] hang out together."

Aside from the alternative-rock scene pioneered by Meat Puppets, Gin Blossoms, and The Refreshments in the '80s and '90s, Phoenix has never been the center for any musical genre. In terms of folk music, John Stewart was the one heavy-hitting singer-songwriter in town during the '70s, says Erich Sielaff, who hosts the AZ Music Café show on KKNT 960 AM. But, technically, Stewart was an off-and-on relocated California boy whom Phoenix adopted as its folk hero, Sielaff says.

Though Arizona is crippled with statewide budget crises, the Pacific Northwest's larger cities have been worse off since the dot-com crash in the early 2000s. (For example, the current unemployment rate in Portland is 11.3 percent, compared with Phoenix's 9.2 percent). The creative communities in those cities find themselves especially leveled as overpopulated artist enclaves compete for a slice of the dwindling pie.

Meanwhile, metro Phoenix remains an affordable area to live and create. Outside the Courtney Marie Andrews circle, the Valley is also home to other talented singer-songwriters, such as Matthew Reveles and Stephen Steinbrink, the latter signed to Tempe-based Gilgongo Records.

There's also the 25-year-old Tobie Milford, whose Alyosha recently came out on Surface to Air Recording. The local indie label documents music in a $150,000 facility, complete with 20-foot vaulted ceilings and oak floors, near McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe.

To the label's Cary Miller — who learned his audio skills from Shelly Yakus, the renowned audio mixer who engineered John Lennon's "Imagine" — Milford sounds as though he were plucked straight out of folk music's heyday.

"Musically, he could be a new Jeff Buckley," says the 29-year-old Miller. "Artistically, he can be the next Bob Dylan. I'm really impressed by [Tobie], and I'm not impressed by much."

It makes sense that the nation's fifth-largest city — which has a unique acoustic showcase known as The Train Tracks, featuring non-amplified musicians playing songs on the Valley Metro light rail — is starting to make sonic waves nationally, says Jimmy Eat World's Adkins.

"Phoenix is cool because there's room to do something here," he says. "You know how many people move to L.A. or New York and can't do anything because everyone else is trying to do the same thing? With the Internet, there's no reason to move to a place like that."

As for Andrews' progress, Adkins says she is doing everything that she needs to do: "She's writing songs and touring. Those are things you can count on to make a difference in your longevity.

"The worst thing that can happen for any musician is to blow up out of nowhere without building that foundation, because you run the risk of fizzling out quickly. It bodes better for your longevity if you build it up naturally, and that's what she's doing."

River Jones stands barefoot outside his second-floor downtown Phoenix apartment. In his left hand is a lit cigarette. In his right, an iPhone connected to somebody in the music industry.

On most days, this tiny concrete patio is the farthest Jones gets from his live/work recording studio, which he shares with his fiancée. Decked out in a faded shirt and a pair of skinny jeans, the blond, bed-headed Jones hangs up the phone, takes another puff from his smoke, and explains that he's way over his cell-phone minutes for the month. However, he says it's all worth it.

"If somebody had told me that I would be running a folk label at age 32, I would have told them that they were crazy," Jones says. He's not even a folk-music fan — he much prefers Stereolab over Sufjan Stevens — so he can thank Andrews for his surprising vocation.

As Andrews' reputation ballooned, she ran into a problem: Aside from two personally produced CD-R albums housed in homemade disc sleeves, she didn't have a proper recording to sell at shows.

One night at Holgas Gallery, an artist cooperative on Third and Garfield streets, Jones and his fiancée, Shalon, were introduced to Andrews. Jones, who had recently moved back to Phoenix after living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle in Los Angeles, knew of Andrews, but in the midst of launching a record label, he had never heard her music.

Moments after the meeting, Jones, his fiancée, and Andrews found a quiet place at Holgas, where the then-16-year-old played a song for the couple. Jones was blown away. "I dropped everything to record Courtney," he says.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen