Joan Shelley Builds a Playlist for a Party in the Great Outdoors

With songs by Roger Miller, Irma Thomas, and more, the singer-songwriter mixes up a soundtrack for the next time you venture off to the Red River Gorge.

Critics have praised Joan Shelley’s poetic lyrics and minimalist approach to Appalachian folk music. She caught the attention of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced her latest album. Here she is to set the vibe for an al fresco gathering.

Roger Miller – “My Uncle Used to Love But She Died”

Joan Shelley: My best dinner party would be… everyone gets in the car and we’re headed out of town. And from around here, it would be the Red River Gorge. It’s like the Grand Canyon at the top of the south and it’s beautiful and green. That would be ideal.

So if you’re in my car I would be putting on Roger Miller’s “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died.”

Roger Miller’s writing is just so great because it’s so free. I’ve seen people, it comes on, eventually, they start paying attention because he is just asking for attention. He’s like your crazy kid in the back of the car who’s being annoying, but then, suddenly you realize they’re doing something brilliant.

There’s something about that that’s like, “Yes, we’re having a party!” It’s the perfect kind of wild song with a great feel and I think the perfect escape.

Michael Hurley – “Slurf Song”

So, one of my favorite parts about doing this kind of cabins in the woods camping is opening up the cars and dogs and instruments are kind of tumbling out, tennis balls. Maybe this is the time you would make a cocktail, someone’s cutting up vegetables and there’s this beautiful moment where you figure out the stereo and someone would play a song here.

In the spirit of that kind of getting together and creating a meal, I think would be really wonderful for a Michael Hurley moment.

It’s called “Slurf Song” and I don’t know what “slurf” actually is. A really sweet little song, kind of about hosting a dinner party. I’m very literal here I realize now. I think that kind of evening light, maybe making dinner with friends, he captures that like lovey-dovey relaxed feeling very well.

Irma Thomas – “(You Ain’t) Hittin’ on Nothing”

So everyone’s full and they’re talked out and content. You’re starting to maybe make that second round of cocktails and do some dishes together and move around and maybe get into trouble. And that’s when I would put on Irma Thomas.

Irma Thomas is my absolute favorite voice for the evening. Aside from her voice, this song, “Hittin’ on Nothing,” has got one of the most radical guitar solos I absolutely love. It’s so simple and perfect.

I never heard of her. Growing up, I fell for Aretha Franklin and some of the other great gospel singers. I think I heard her first on a mixed tape, “Women of Soul” or something. And then later I came back to it, and just out of curiosity looked the rest of her songs up. I could listen to them. She’s just an outstanding voice.

Joan Shelley – “Wild Indifference”

Late at the end of the night, everyone’s partied out, they’re sitting in a circle maybe, passing the guitar. Maybe around the fire, under the stars. It’s clear, there’s no lights. I have done what I normally do, which is sneak off to bed, because that’s my favorite thing.

There’s still some music, they’re just playing it themselves, fiddle tunes and banjo tunes, and as many long ballad songs as anyone can remember. Maybe they pass the guitar to where I was sitting before they find out that I’ve snuck off to bed. And so, because my friends are sweet and supportive someone decides to go put on a song of mine.

They’ve got Jeff Tweedy’s little bendy guitar things that are just really lovely and disorienting in the way you need to get disoriented sometimes. I do like including, on every album, more of like a lullaby or a kind of moment of breath and rest. This is how I would come down from other heights.