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Freak-folk family

Cotton Jones embraces its small-town sensibility

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Cotton Jones hails from Cumberland in western Maryland, a place that would seem to epitomize small-town America. With its laid-back atmosphere and a population of around 20,000 (not counting the flesh-eating zombies who roamed the area in Night of the Living Dead), Cumberland was ranked sixth for cost of living in Forbes' 2007 list of America's "Best Small Places for Business," making it an ideal town to raise a family or, for that matter, start a band.

"Maybe it wouldn't be idyllic for everybody, but for me it is," says frontman Michael Nau. "It's beautiful, it's a very affordable place to live, and it's quiet, so it gives us time and space to do what we do. I don't know what we would sound like if we lived somewhere else."

Cotton Jones started out in 2007 as an indie folk-pop side project for Nau, who'd started his previous band, the critically acclaimed Page France, right after high school. Both groups also feature Whitney McGraw, whose singing and Hammond autochord organ drones bring an ethereal dimension to a sound that might once have been characterized as freak folk.

But if Cotton Jones' forthcoming EP on the Suicide Squeeze label is any indication, Nau and McGraw are drifting further toward the freak side of the equation. Sit Beside Your Vegetables opens with what sounds like backward-masked liturgical singing, before moving on through a series of upbeat, if slightly off-kilter, pop songs. Especially appealing is "Egg on a Sea," with McGraw's endearing lead vocal recalling Sandie Shaw at her mid-'60s best.

Like a small-town version of West Side Story, Nau says he and McGraw attended rival high schools before meeting up to play music and, eventually, get married. "There are two high schools in town, so it's kind of like your classic football high school rivalry. The older folks always come back into town if there's a homecoming football game. People take it pretty seriously around here — not that Whitney and I did."

So is it fun these days to be married and play in a band and spend every moment of your life together?

"Yeah, it's fun to do it, but it's difficult at the same time. Like, you know, when we're home we spend most of our time together, so being out on the road isn't that much different." Except, of course, for the presence of three additional bandmates. "We're all in that van together, so you can't really just step away for a moment."

Raised in the Pentecostal church, where his father was music pastor, Nau says he no longer belongs to any organized religion. But the imagery does find its way into his songs, most notably on Page France's "Jesus" ("Jesus will dance while we drink his wine / With soldiers and thieves and a sword in his side") and Cotton Jones' "I Was Stoned by the Choir."

As you might expect from someone who's been sorting out his own belief system, Nau has his moments of doubt: There's the band's name, which was originally Cotton Jones Basket Ride ("I don't know why I changed it, I shouldn't have") as well as the sound of the finished albums ("I think sometimes things start off a lot more schizophrenic, and maybe that's where they should have stayed").

But on balance, Nau is satisfied with his music and the positive reception it's getting.

"When a group of songs comes together, I hope it makes a little bit of sense and is positive and connects with someone in a good way, if it connects with them at all."

bill@csindy.com

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