For her last album, 2014's Tennessee Colony, Libby Koch fashioned songs out of stories her family had been telling each other for generations, some that date all the way back to their settlement near Palestine (Texas) in the 1830s and '40s. This time out, she wanted something a little less emotionally fraught.
“[Tennessee Colony] was really a neat experience,” Koch said by phone from Central Texas last week. “But after I did that I thought, 'You know, I just want to write some good old country songs [laughs]. Songs that make me feel something but it's not like I'm tearing my heart out or anything. I just wanted to write some fun songs.”
Fun songs that cover the classic-country territory of lovin' and leavin', that is. The Houston native's intention, she says, was to answer the question “if Linda Ronstadt were [still] making records, what would it sound like?” “Don't Know How,” among others, offers a pretty compelling answer, but Koch says she also looked to '90s artists like Suzy Bogguss, Tricia Yearwood and Patty Loveless for inspiration. Tackling a theme as broad and well-trodden as love and relationships in a way that resonates with listeners can be daunting, she admits.
“I think I just try to be honest to my own experience and my own heart, I guess,” Koch says. “I think sometimes the most specific songs end up being the most universal. It could be a song about a specific experience you have that was really personal to you, but then that's the one that everybody's like, 'Man, I've been there.'”
For Just Move On, due out June 24 on Berkalin Records, Koch indulged her talents at both fiction and non-fiction. Whereas “Back to Houston” was written in Nashville (“in about 20 minutes”) shortly after she graduated from Vanderbilt University's law school – a different version also appears on her first LP, 2009's Redemption – “Out of My Misery” sprang from a conversation she had with her sister as she was preparing to put the contents of her house in West University in storage. Koch says she's lived “full-on gypsy” since then; her bio states she divides her time between Houston and Austin.
“I was like, 'I'm gonna sell this and donate this, and I just don't know what I'm going to do with all this stuff,'” she says. “And she goes, 'Ooh, I think you got a country song there: I know what I'm gonna do with my printer, but what am I gonna do with my broken heart?'”
Apart from some vocal touch-ups the next month, Just Move On was recorded quickly in December 2014; Koch and her backing musicians cut the album live in two days, two three-hour sessions per day. Guiding her was Bil VornDick, the Grammy-winning engineer/producer who has worked with a host of country and bluegrass greats including Marty Robbins, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and Rhonda Vincent. Toward the end of recording, VornDick asked if she had anything else that might fit on the album, and she turned a few lines she had written a couple of months back into Just Move On uptempo highlight “I've Been Blind.”
”I gave him a co-write on there because he sat there and just kept asking me questions until I had the song written,” Koch laughs. “It was really a cool experience.”
It's never been especially easy, but the past few years have been pretty rough for female country artists. Despite the successes of newcomers like Kelsea Ballerini, Maddie & Tae and Texan Maren Morris, party-minded male artists still dominate mainstream country, which continues struggling to put last year's ugly “Tomatogate” scandal behind it. Even in Americana, where artists like Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris sit at the top of the pyramid, Koch says she has long since grown used to doors being shut in her face.
“There's definitely been multiple times where I've straight-up been told, 'No, we're not going to book you; we want a male artist for this deal,” she says. “Which, you know, of course it bugs me a little bit, but...you know.”
“I'm not going to let it ruin my day or anything like that,” Koch continues. “I also can't tell you how many times I hear 'I usually don't like either "chick singers" or "female country singers," but I really like you, and I'm like, 'Okay.' I mean...it's definitely a male-dominated market, but I think there a lot of women out there doing awesome things and making awesome music, so, you know, I think there's room for everybody.
“But it's definitely...I mean, I'm not going to say it isn't there,” Koch goes on, choosing her words carefully. “And you see these festival lineups come out [with] one female artist or none and you're like, 'Golly, guys.' It's hard to book things, and it's hard to have a draw. This is not an easy business to be in, male or female.”
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Still, local venues that have been receptive to Koch, a 2013 Houston Press Music Award winner for Best Songwriter, include McGonigel's Mucky Duck, site of Saturday night's record-release show; the Redneck Country Club, where she hosts the Wednesday-night “Pickin' Party” open stage about once a month (and has been adding more full-band gigs, she notes); and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Stockman's Club. Add to that steady touring work, periodic trips to Europe (one looms in August), and the necessary management and promotional duties – some of which she's actually handed over to other people lately – and Koch is becoming an expert at balancing the benefits and burdens that come with life as an independent musician these days.
“I’d like to see it go as far as it can,” Koch says of Just Move On. “I think especially with artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson making some waves, there’s room for a record like this in the market. And, you know, I certainly don’t have delusions of grandeur or anything like that [laughs], but it would be super-cool to get more ears on this thing and see where it goes, but there are a lot of other things that could happen, too.
“I’d love if somebody wanted to record a song off the record, anything like that,” she continues. “I’ve always said, I just want to make a living making music. I don’t really care how. I’ve found that it’s about trying to cobble together enough income streams for it to work.”