Hurray For The Riff Raff is Alynda Lee Segarra, but in many ways it’s much more than that: it’s a young woman leaving her indelible stamp on the American folk tradition. If you’re listening to her new album, Small Town Heroes, odds are you’re part of the riff raff, and these songs are for you. ‘It’s grown into this bigger idea of feeling like we really associate with the underdog,’ says Segarra, who came to international attention in 2012 with Look Out Mama. The album earned her raves from NPR and the New York Times to Mojo and Paste, along with a breakout performance at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival, which left American Songwriter ‘awestruck’ and solidified her place at the forefront of a new generation of young musicians celebrating and reimagining American roots music.
Segarra, a 26-year-old of Puerto Rican descent whose slight frame belies her commanding voice, grew up in the Bronx, where she developed an early appreciation for doo-wop and Motown from the neighbourhood’s longtime residents. It was downtown, though, that she first felt like she found her people, travelling to the Lower East side every Saturday for punk matinees at ABC No Rio. The Lower East Side also introduced her to travellers, and their stories of life on the road inspired her to strike out on her own at 17, first hitching her way to the west coast, then roaming the south before ultimately settling in New Orleans. There, she fell in with a band of fellow travellers, playing washboard and singing before eventually learning to play a banjo she’d been given in North Carolina.
Many of the songs on Small Town Heroes reflect that decision and her special reverence for the city. She bears witness to a wave of violence that struck the St. Roch neighbourhood in the soulful St. Roch Blues; yearns for a night at BJ’s Bar in the Bywater in Crash on the Highway; and sings of her home in the Lower Ninth Ward on End of the Line.
The scope of the album is much grander than just New Orleans, though, as Segarra mines the deep legacies and contemporises the rich variety of musical forms of the American South for the age of Trayvon Martin and Wendy Davis. ‘Delia”s gone but I’m settling the score,’ she sings with resolute menace on The Body Electric, a feminist reimagining of the traditional murder ballad form that calls on everything from Stagger Lee to Walt Whitman. She juxtaposes pure country pop with the dreams and nightmares that come with settling down with just one person in I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright), while album opener Blue Ridge Mountain is an Appalachian nod to Maybelle Carter.