There is an old legend in rock & roll history. Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas was the matron figure of the Southern California music scene in the late 1960’s. She was kind and generous and she looked out for all the hippie kids quickly becoming famous in her Laurel Canyon neighborhood. One day Stephen Stills was at her house playing his guitar when David Crosby dropped by to say hello. As the two started noodling around with some harmonies, Cass suddenly remembered a young Englishman she’d just met and called him, telling him to come over right away. An hour later Graham Nash was singing with David Crosby and Stephen Stills for the first time, and a legend was born.
That same sort of thing happened in late spring 2015, right here in Minnesota. Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles was sitting around a campfire with a group of friends, including singer/songwriter Molly Dean and singer/songwriter Barbara Jean. The two barely knew each other, but at Simonett’s suggestion, they began to sing Neil Young’s “Love is A Rose” together. A hush descended on those sitting around that fire as the two voices wrapped around each other, producing a sound unlike anything they had ever heard before. When they were done, Simonett collected himself, wiped tears from his eyes, and suggested the two come on an acoustic tour he and fellow Turtle Dave Carroll had booked in Colorado for the following month. This was how Dusty Heart came together.
“No,” said Barbara Jean, “not really.”
“Yeah, not so much,” said Molly.
Well, okay. So much for romantic legend.
Even if their origins aren’t quite so storybook, there is still something a little bit magical about this pair. Both are deeply entrenched in the Twin Cities fertile folk/country/Americana scene.
Molly Dean, in fact, has been there for more than a decade. Her first solo album, Resonate, was released in 2005, and her second, The Natural Minor, was released in 2016. In between, she created a name for herself by playing a string of late night dates at the Dakota Jazz Club and joining with Graham O’Brien to form the electro-pop duo Moon & Pollution.
Barbara Jean, meanwhile, has joined Simonett and Charlie Parr as a musical representative of the North Shore in the Twin Cities (she actually grew up in Superior, Wisconsin, but lived in Grand Marais before making her way south). The banjo/viola/fiddle player has released a pair of highly acclaimed solo albums, The Great Escape (2012) and Darker than Blue (2014).
While both had heard of each other and had seen each other perform, their paths didn’t cross enough for them to really strike up a friendship until about a year-and-a-half ago. Once they started talking, however, there seemed to be a natural fit.
“From one of our earliest conversations, we connected philosophically,” said Barbara Jean. “There’s this Celtic philosopher named John O’Donohue that we’ve both read quite a bit and really admire and he has a certain outlook on life and the world. I think Molly’s way of living in the world and being in the world and having this wonderful sense of awe that she uses to approach life and relationships and nature - it all kind of blends; we connect there and that really informs the type of songs that we each write. We each have this common outlook on things. It’s a common perspective. It’s almost like a spirituality.
“I had heard Molly on A Prairie Home Companion, and she had come to some of my shows. We talked about how fun it would be to sing together. So we just got together informally and played. We sat in Molly’s living room and played some Townes Van Zandt tunes and some Emmylou Harris. Just things we have in common. The very first time we did that we were like ‘Wow! This is cool and it’s easy and it’s fun.’”
They knew right away that, if for no other reason than their vocal blend, they had something special in front of them.
“It was so natural,” said Barbara Jean. “It was ‘Okay that’s your voice and that’s my voice and when we sing together there’s this new third voice.’ That was really exciting for us, so from there we were just like ‘Okay, let’s see how it goes.’”
And while the campfire story is apocryphal, Simonett did nudge things along by inviting the newly formed and unnamed duo to come to Colorado with him and Carroll.
“Talking with Dave (Simonett) about going out to Colorado was a big motivator for us to actually get moving,” said Molly, “because when Dave & Dave invite you to tour with them, you’re going to get together. He did say, you know, ‘Your voices really sound great, your voices really blend together; your musicality fits each other.’”
While the two had collaborated with other artists before, Dusty Heart had a bit of a baptism by fire. The first time they performed together was in front of a sold-out audience at the Larimir Lounge in Denver. Making things even more nerve wracking was the fact that the crowd, of course, was gathered to hear the Trampled by Turtles pair of Simonett & Carroll.
“Molly didn’t know how I was going to handle it” said Barbara Jean. “I didn’t know how she was going to handle it. We had some basic ideas because we’d both seen each other perform before; it wasn’t exactly a new thing for either of us, but it was like ‘Wow, we’ll see how this works.’”
It worked. The two fell into an easy groove together onstage, and found that they had plenty in common off stage as well.
“We were really new friends,” said Barbara Jean. “So, it takes some time to figure out what you want to do with things when you’re just getting to know someone and you’re just beginning to work together, you don’t really know what you’re going to land on. But it didn’t take us very long to figure out that we were just going to go full steam ahead with it.
“We have a really good time on the road. Like when we’re sleep deprived and exhausted and we haven’t had any good food and we’re at our wits end, we laugh. We still have a good time. We’ve probably had some of our best times when we’re like that. You can’t do that with everyone.”
“It wouldn’t have worked for either of us if there was unnecessary drama,” said Molly.
Eighteen months later, Molly and Barbara Jean have cemented their partnership. They’ve gone out on the road with Twin Cities master songwriter Mason Jennings, and nationally recognized folk singer Jeffrey Foucault. They’ve played headlining shows from Lutsen, to the Turf Club in St. Paul, to Steven Schwen’s venerable hippie music palace, the Oak Center General Store. On February 24th, they will christen a new concert series put together by the Owatonna Concert Club in Jefts Hall at Pillsbury College Prep and Camp in Owatonna.
On stage Dusty Heart is as natural a pair as you’re going to find. The visuals, Molly’s big acoustic guitar and cowboy boots paired with Barbara Jean’s natural lean into her fiddle, are there for sure. Their voices really are a seamless mix. And for those who only know Molly from Moon & Pollution, rest assured, her country and folk sensibilities are every bit as authentic as her new partner’s. They complement each other during a performance, both vocally and instrumentally. But a good musical partnership takes more than enjoying each other’s company and playing well together. Eventually, you have to find material that fits the sound you create.
“That’s something we talk about a lot,” said Molly.
“We will try to isolate ourselves as much as we can when we work on songs,” said Barbara Jean, "whether it’s a workshop day at one of our houses or we’ve taken advantage of a lot of our friends who have access to cabins. We both love the woods, so we’ll go up north, or if we have a show up in Lutsen we’ll stay up there a couple extra nights just kind of holed away. We’ll have a campfire and drink some wine and play our instruments and work through some ideas.”
The two sound very pleased with the work they’re doing.
“We have this platform where we are able to find a collaborative sound,” said Molly. “We write differently, but we both have a very similar thread in the sounds that we look for and what comes naturally to us. And that is a really exciting thing, because there are sounds that Barbara creates with her instruments, her vocals, her viola, her violin and her banjo and her sense of rhythm – all this stuff that she brings to the table – that I feel and hear as a musician but I don’t play.
“I have always loved classical music and string sections and all that. So I have this natural sound in my head and she is naturally tuned to it. And it’s something I’m naturally tuned to, so we kind of fall in the middle of this. That’s really what we’re excited about all this new stuff that’s coming out.”
Barbara Jean said the two have been working on their debut album with Twin Cities producer and guitarist Erik Koskinen.
“There are like, tennish Dusty Heart originals. Definitely in 2017 we’ll have an album out. For sure.”
After a long time working on their own, the pair also sounds a bit relieved to have someone else on their side.
“Working as a solo artist can be a lot like pushing a rock up a mountain, and we’d both been doing that a long time,” said Molly. “And we’ve both had our own avenues of opportunity and success. But in teaming up and having this sound that we’re really developing and finding that’s unique, and sort of garnering its own attention for that purpose. That’s allowed us to express ourselves in different ways, we get to market ourselves together as something unique and different.”
“And because we had our own careers initially we both had our own connections,” added Barbara Jean, “it’s like we had two rivers coming together and now there are all these offshoot streams. There are just more doors that have opened. It shouldn’t be surprising when you really think about it because there’s been a lot of work for many years.”
As they continue to explore what looks to be a very promising career together, they actually sound more and more optimistic the more they talk.
“There are so many elements to a musical project like this one we’re doing,” said Barbara Jean. “It’s not just about writing and playing and singing together. It’s also about performance, it’s also about travel, it’s also about business, it’s also about all these other things that have to come together. One of the really cool things for Molly and I was, we didn’t know how all that was going to go before we started performing and touring together, but we have found that we make a really good team.”
“I agree,” said Molly. “It really is a collective process. We’re working on this together. That’s the exciting thing.”
IF YOU GO:
Dusty Heart with Special Guest John Magnuson
7 p.m., Friday February 23
Jefts Hall, Pillsbury College Prep and Camp
330 E Academy Street, Owatonna
Rich Larson is the publisher and editor of SouthernMinn Scene. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org