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Premiere: “Dogwood Tree” by The Deer’s Cry

Last updated on June 23, 2022

Dogwood Tree” by The Deer’s Cry is a folky yet distinctive blend of sounds from throughout the world. Traditionally Irish vocal rhythms and tones, spiky Americana banjo, and shuffling rhythms from the African calabash (see interview below!) form the core of a speedy tune that moves in interesting and unexpected directions.

Just when it feels like the song is going to go fully in one direction for a while, it clambers down a different path via the addition or subtraction of instruments. First it opens with indie-folk vibes from Patrick Atwater’s prominent upright bass and Bryan Brock’s assured percussion. Brock and Atwater’s seamless performances ground the song, encouraging the complexity that follows. The entrance of Karen Ballew’s vocals pulls it into an Irish folk vein. The aforementioned banjo (from Will MacLean) introduces the Americana feel strongly. But suddenly, the whole tune pulls back into a wordless aria supported by subtle instrumentation. And from there it’s off to the races again, in another direction; there are a ton of musical ideas crammed into this 4:26.

The lyrics speak to hope, through renewal of life in the dogwood tree of the title (in verse one) and through spirituality (prayer and grace) in verse two. These lyrics tie together renewal of the land and soul with traditional spiritual themes like “living water.” The words form an elegant clutch of lyrics to set to a speedy, complex folk track, but The Deer’s Cry–along with Nick Bullock (Producer, Engineer) and Ethan Howard (Assistant Engineer)–makes it all work together seamlessly.

Band members Karen Ballew (vocalist, harpist) and Will MacLean (banjo) spoke in detail about the song:

The four members of The Deer's Cry in a room with sheet metal walls, similar to old sheds. A slim woman is sitting on the left on the ground. Behind her, a tall standing man holds an upright bass. To his right, a slightly less tall man holds a banjo. To his right, a man holding an African calabash sits in a chair.
Photo: Barbara Potter Photography

What prompted you to write this song? What was the inspiration behind it?

Karen Ballew: The seed for this song was planted in 2018 when my husband and I moved from a house we had been renting into our new home. We moved from Dallas to Nashville in 2017 to explore new opportunities, but we weren’t sure if we’d end up staying here. Purchasing a home was a sign that we were going to stay here and continue the next chapter of our lives in this place. My mom flew out to help us move, and as she and I were taking the last load to the car, she suddenly stopped underneath the dogwood tree in the front yard. There was a moment of awe as we remarked at the beauty of the sun shining through the white blossoms, and it felt as though the tree was sending us a farewell blessing, a message of hope as we embarked on our new journey. Three years later, amidst all the uncertainty in the world, I remembered this moment and began to write “Dogwood Tree.”

How did this song come together when you wrote it? What was the songwriting process like?

KB: I had been listening to Dick Gaughan’s recording of “Now Westlin Winds” by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-96) and was so enamored with the cadence and rhyme scheme of the verses. When I decided to write “Dogwood Tree,” my first instinct was to revisit “Now Westlin Winds” for inspiration. The melody for “Dogwood Tree” was very much informed by Irish sean-nós (old style) singing. I’ve taken some classes with Irish singer Éilís Kennedy, and I remember listening to her album “Gan Tionlacan / Unaccompanied” to help me get into a good headspace to brainstorm melodic ideas. Éilís’s singing is so beautiful, and I love the songs on this album!

When you recorded this song, what kind of vibe were you going for? Did it end up sounding like you expected it to or did it come out different from what you thought it would be?

KB: It’s always a joy and adventure arranging songs with my bandmates! Because of our diverse range of interests, you never know what’s going to bubble to the surface when we collaborate. In general, we were going for a roots vibe, a meeting of Irish and American roots. Once we got into the studio, the song went from what the four of us could produce in real time and morphed into a wider soundscape. Our producer, Nick Bullock, encouraged us to record multiple tracks of melodic and rhythmic ideas. We ended up with several bass lines, auxiliary percussion textures, accordion, and backing vocals. To me, these additions helped elevate the mystical experience of the song!

Will MacLean: From my perspective, I was shooting for a bluegrass type but with the minimal amount of bounce or swing in the beat. I tried to bring in a Ron Block influence to the banjo solo with the bends and blues ideas.

Any great stories from the studio when you recorded this one?

KB: This song kicked off the rehearsal sessions for the new album and was also the first song we recorded in the studio. We recorded a scratch vocal with bass, African calabash, and banjo all at the same time to capture that energy and communication we have when we play live! That’s the core of the track. I’ll always remember how special it was to listen back to our different takes in the control room as everything was coming to life. It was so exciting and a bit surreal!

What do you hope listeners get from the song?

KB: There is so much uncertainty in the world, and many people are going through stressful times. I hope this song encourages listeners to take a moment to breathe, dance, and be in awe of the beauty of our earth and the mystery of life itself.

WM: I hope they get some sort of energetic charge from this tune. It’s got a dance type of groove and a lot of intensity, so I hope it’s something people could use during a workout or something like that.

“Dogwood Tree” is a rare tune that combines elegance, enthusiasm, and expertise, resulting in a nuanced, multifaceted gem. The tune releases Friday. It lives on Heal the Heart, which lands September 30. You can find the band at their website, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.