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Sarah & The Underground: From Gift To Debut Album

Sarah & the Underground performing at The Limelight Eventplex in Peoria
Ian Lester
Alek Photography
Sarah & the Underground performing at The Limelight Eventplex in Peoria.

The implications of being gifted the raw recording of their live August show on WTVP-TV in Peoria didn’t dawn on Sarah & the Underground members Sarah Marie Dillard and Brandon Mooberry. At least not right away.

The couple from Hanna City—a town of a couple thousand just west of Peoria—was happy to have the recording for posterity, and pleased their show went well in front of family and friends. It’s a setting guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter Dillard said brings out the best in the trio they describe as “SoulFolk with a twist of Jazz.”

“Then we realized ‘there’s a live album here,’” said Dillard, who was sitting next to Mooberry in the GLT studios. “And we cut out what we felt we could afford to cut out and save for next time. What we came up with in the end is really beautiful, and I really appreciate (WTVP sound technician) Bob Lindsay for doing that for us.”

That’ll save money in the recording process.

“It felt God ordained,” said Dillard.

The opener to "The State and Water Session" is the haunting, slow tempo work-song like “The Coal Miner.” Dillard said it was inspired by many past events, with the first verse a nod to stories gleaned from her grandfather.

I gave my love to a Coal Miner to light his way in the dark And now there sits a lump of coal where once I found a heart He dug way down in the deep (In the deep, in the deep) For secrets big enough to keep (Big enough to keep) And I never saw his dirty face again - "The Coal Miner" from Sarah & the Underground

“Back in the day, Hanna City was a coal mining district, and his father and grandfather worked in the mines,” explained Dillard. “This particular gentleman really loved math, which was unusual in this farming area. So he got to stay at the top of the mines keeping the books for everyone. My grandfather lived to the ripe old age of 94, and I got to hear him tell me stories about that coal mine.”

She said the third verse referencing “the music man” came from being raised on musicals and dating many musicians. Matter of fact, she’s now married to the one sitting beside her during a recent GLT interview.

“I met her at a music festival. It really was one of those slow-motion movie moments, where I went “man she’s so pretty,” recalled Mooberry to the delight of the giggling Dillard. “I had heard stories about her where after gigs she would order a plate of bacon. And before the waitress could put the order in, she’d say, 'No, I want a plate full of bacon.’”

“I usually had to say the number of slices to have them take me seriously,” added Dillard.

“So there were all these stories going around about her I just had to meet this person,” said Mooberry, who as the Underground bass player forms a tight rhythm section with drummer Nick Fairly. “I’m really proud of the chemistry Nick and I have together. He and I get hired separately because they see the band and other singer/songwriters want us to play as their rhythm section.”

“Sweet Company” is more upbeat both lyrically and in tempo. Dillard called it a “falling in love song.”

If you’re walking my way Just take your sweet, sweet time And baby don’t shy away If you want attention you can have all mine Ignore the commotion and hide out in my eyes Just like the moon and the ocean, you’re pulling at my tide - "Sweet Company" by Sarah & the Undergound

Despite the “sweetness,” she said it was written about an ex-boyfriend who is not to be named.

“I don’t find him personally to be worth mentioning,” said Dillard.

Not that she’s bitter.

“I’m really glad I got some upbeat songs out of the relationship, and that is a unique aspect of the relationship between Brandon and me. Sometimes he is asked to play songs of mine written about other people. My approach is I’m grateful for the song and the experience pointed me in the direction of Brandon. Now when I sing these songs, I sing them to him and about him,” said Dillard.

“Man in the Moon” is another song about an ex. It was written five years ago, but she said it has now become about her husband.

My brother saw a man with wild eyes Leaving clouds of laughter in his wake My sister saw a man with strong arms Strong enough to bear a few mistakes My father saw a man standing tall and proud With deafening thoughts and quiet words And my mother saw a man with music - "Man in the Moon" by Sarah & the Underground

“Some songs are prophecies, and some songwriters are prophets whether they know it or not,” said Dillard. “This was a song I wrote before I realized I was going to fall in love and marry Brandon. Nearly every line in this song is true to his life.”

It’s a song the builds to an intensity you might not expect from three acoustic instruments.

“Thank you,” said Dillard. “One of my favorite things to hear is people are surprised by the fullness of the sound we create with three members.”

"The State And Water Session" from Sarah & the Underground is available at CD Baby, iTunes and other streaming outlets.

Listen to the entire GLT interview with Sarah & the Underground

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.