Last year, the Minnesota State Arts Board awarded Joey Ford $10,000 to write and record an album about Minnesota with his band Tree Party.
So, in the beginning of summer 2013, Ford took to the road and set out on the beginning of the cultural collision that is “Iced Over: Thawing Minnesota’s Local Lore.”
“There are so many stories I’d never had any concept of that are the hearts of little towns,” he said. “It was really revealing.”
Tree Party’s sound is definitely Minnesotan in its twangy, “Prairie Home Companion”-tinged folk swing. But somehow, “Iced Over” doesn’t feel hokey in the slightest. Instead, it feels like a lefse-wrapped embrace — each warble of Ford’s falsetto rings true to the stories Tree Party spins.
Ford traveled to every corner of Minnesota for the record, going to small towns to meet folks at historical societies and local libraries. He asked them all the same question: “Who were the most remarkable people who lived in these places?”
The stories he collected became the basis of Tree Party’s newest album. Each member of the band traveled with Ford on certain legs of his investigation, encountering characters of all kinds.
“These logging camps and fur trading posts that we visited wouldn’t necessarily give us material for a song, but they were amazing,” said Ford’s wife and bandmate, Jenna Wyse.
Tree Party has always been captivated by storytelling. They scored local theater collective Live Action Set’s “7-Shot Symphony” and keep the narrative atmosphere aflame on “Iced Over.”
Travis Bolton, one of the outfit’s string players, was glad to return to the studio rather than the stage.
“Everybody relates to music,” he said. “It’s more inclusive.”
The song “Dorothy Molter — The Root Beer Lady” is a prime example of their musical earnestness. With a gentle sway suitable for Frankie Valli, lyrics like, “She’s my root beer lady / she limits me to two / with a smile as sweet as honey / just as tasty as a brew,” sound as sweet and genuine as Molter’s root beer tastes.
Molter’s story is that of a recluse. She lived in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for 56 years in seclusion. Known for bottling her homemade root beer and giving it to weary canoeists on their trips, her product is still sold today as “Dorothy’s Isle of the Pines Root Beer.”
“The imagery that seemed to stick out bullet-pointed in my brain, and it was about finding what stuck the most,” Ford said of his writing process.
Though Ford got the grant for “Iced Over” and did all the songwriting, the project was a collective effort.
“Every person’s role was integral,” Bolton said. “It was a fun challenge, and we got to write our own parts and use our process.”
Ford said he has grown as a songwriter because of this record and what came with it. He wants to continue learning more about the deep heritage of this state, but the members of Tree Party won’t be sitting still anytime soon — they’re planning on recording another record in the next few months.
“Their stories got me itching to tell my own again,” Ford said.
What: Tree Party with Ben Weaver and Jack Klatt
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Cedar Cultural Center, 416 S. Cedar Ave., Minneapolis