Molly Rose Reed has always loved harmony. That should come as no surprise to anyone who's heard her sing with Underhill Rose. But it wasn't until she moved from Atlanta to Black Mountain to attend Warren Wilson College that she ever considered music as her life's focus.
"I've sung all my life, because it brings me a lot of joy," Reed says. One of her biggest early influences was Trio — Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton. "They harmonized with each other, so I learned how to hear those harmonies, with the help of my dad. In the car we would listen to tapes or the radio, classic rock or something. He would say, 'Okay, I'm going to sing a low harmony, you sing the high one.' I learned steadily over time how to hear harmonies."
At 17 she arrived at Warren Wilson with plans of being an environmental scientist. "I quickly realized that that did not stir my soul whatsoever, but that people do, and stories about people. I had performed some out and about, but I was incredibly shy," she says.
"Some people step into other personalities when they get onstage, and that's really not what I am. I almost wish that I had that capability. But I've found that I'm very similar onstage to how I am in my daily life, for better or for worse.
"I definitely learned more about performing once I came up here." Her love of harmony singing quickly transferred into a love of mountain music. She took a finger-picking blues guitar class, and learned tunes from Songcatcher and O Brother Where Art Thou.
"Warren Wilson is a school where everybody works and supports the school," she says. "There's a global way of thinking. 'What are the broader implications of me doing this one little thing that I'm doing right now?' So whether it's composting or going to a protest or whatever it is, there are always broader implications. It makes everybody more intelligent about what human beings are here to do. There's a certain intelligence that comes with having a global perspective, and it's not necessarily bookish, but it is just being a citizen of the world."
Impromptu vocal sessions on campus led to the formation of the country roots group, The Barrel House Mamas, with Eleanor Underhill and Jane Kramer-Edens. "We'd sit in stairwells at school and sing together," Reed recalls. "Once we were done with school we decided to make a go of it and see what happens. We made music together for the love of music, and as friends. And what none of us realized is that there's a business that goes along with it. You have to be able to get the right kind of help to make a band happen. It's not just about making music. That lesson was an interesting one."
The Barrel House Mamas released an album, Gathering, which was named a top regional release of 2006 by WNCW listeners. They became a quartet with the addition of Anna Bauman-Smith. But the group broke up in 2009 before getting a chance to release a follow-up. Molly Rose Reed and Eleanor Underhill decided to move forward together.
"We did a lot of soul searching in the creation of Underhill Rose," Reed says. "We'd been through a lot of devastation with The Barrel House Mamas going in different directions. We basically both decided the same thing — that music was our contribution, and that we were better together.
"Our voices have always gone well together, but it's taken a lot of work for the two of us to match each other. Stylistically we're different. Eleanor's phrasing is very different than mine. But we can just look at each other and know where the other ones' going to go or is about to jump with their voice or with their instrument — what the song should do. We send psychic faxes to each other. We have a lot of synchronicity."
The duo is hoping for a late-spring release of a new CD, recorded at Collapseable and Echo Mountain studios in Asheville. "Eleanor and I thought, 'Okay, reset button. Let's make a little bit of money and make an album.' So that's what has happened. We have all new songs, and I just think that there's a beautiful evolution for the two of us musically. Coming from the Barrel House Mamas, we still have the great vocal harmonies, but I have to say that the songs just really are very, very soulful. I think people will really like it."
Two songs previewed on their website, "2000 Miles" and "West Side," show off that trademark sweet mountain soul, and vocal blend to die for. "We each present songs and then work on them from there. If I write a song, Eleanor helps come up with harmonies and solo lines. She might have a recommendation to switch some words around, and I have definitely done that with her songs as well.
"We're keeping it fun. We're just trying to get our record out, share our songs with people, and see what happens. That's the point. Enjoy yourselves and do what you can to make your contribution. And ours is, right now, through music."