Panera Bread is not the typical place you'd expect a Folk band to suggest for an interview, but it fits. The fire is switched on, and the local affluents fill the other seats drinking their lattes. Nancy Cook and Sherry Cook Stanforth — mother and daughter, and two of four members of the Appalachian folk band Sunset Dawn — are doing pretty much the same.
"I know this seems odd to meet a band like us here," Sherry smiles. "But they have great bread."
As ironic as it could've been, it made perfect sense. If you're going to be a Folk band in today's climate you'd better be able to adapt, and this means keeping up with the times. But it also means refusing to be drowned out, not limiting yourself to certain preconceptions, whether you're playing a Folk festival or a Membrane Research Conference.
"That was definitely one of the most bizarre gigs," Sherry says, speaking of the conference. "Everyone was dressed in suits or lab coats, and we didn't know how they'd react, but they were very receptive.
... But the festivals are where we feel most at home, where it feels the most natural," she continues.
She is speaking of the numerous Appalachian Folk festivals held throughout the region during the spring, summer and fall where the band has made its name. "They make us remember why we play this music in the first place, because it's part of our heritage."
"Because we have to," her mother, Nancy, adds.
The huge scrapbook they'd brought along was stuffed with flyers and pictures from the various shows they'd played over the years, from mentally retarded outreach centers to the Tellico Indian reservation.
Already beginning the summer season with Coney Island's Appalachian Festival, the quartet is coming back to the festival scene with a fresh new studio album they've just finished.
It's lacking a title. Sherry confides, "We don't have a problem finding enough songs to fill the space. But coming up with something that takes it all into account is what's difficult." This is be the seven-year-old band's second studio recording, a mixture of traditionals, covers and originals.
"We'd like to put that Connie Francis song on there," Nancy Cook confides. " 'Black Water' is one of our favorites to play." Having already secured permission from Francis — an experience which Sherry relates with a certain awe that comes only from direct conversations with lifetime idols — the two agree that there will be a healthy mix of material.
"But it will all just be songs we really enjoy to play," Sherry says. And truly that's what sets this band apart. Sherry says Sunset Dawn is seen by many traditional Bluegrass players as untrue to the faith, but just as quickly writes this off with the easy flick of a wrist. When you're an all-woman all-acoustic quartet consisting mainly of dulcimers and guitar, then sometimes you need to be able to do that.
"If you can't play those really meaningful songs — whatever they are — then why would you play at all," she concludes.
Sherry describes their standard playlist as a patchwork quilt. "Many of the traditionals are very different lyrically from the songs of today," she says. "But it's a reflection of the writer, and not to play them — or to change the words — would be a suppression of the feeling, of the tradition."
While deeply rooted in the traditions of their Appalachian heritage, there is nothing antique about their style. This music is surprisingly alive and contemporary in their hands. From the old chart-toppers like "Whiskey for Breakfast," to Francis' "Black Water" — a truly recognizable song outside the Folk community — their songs are filled with the signature vigor of Folk music.
"Black Water" strikes an especially resonant tone, its lyrics depicting a farmer whose land has been destroyed by the coal production. "And it's only black water running down through my land," Sherry sings. "And I own my land, but my land's not my own" she continues. Sound familiar?
Both women agree that one reason they enjoy playing out so much is because the band is not only the four members, but is a larger family affair. Sherry relates that, since she was a baby, the entire family has jammed together and now they attend the concerts and festivals as a group to show their support.
It's that "Old Time Religion," another song that comes alive in each of their performances: "Give me that old time religion, it's good enough for me."
With that, no one can argue.
SUNSET DAWN performs next on June 23-24 at the Caesar Creek Pioneer Village Ole' Tyme Music Festival. For more info check www.webteamone.com/ccpr