Fourteen years have slipped by since Louisa “Amber” Murray’s senior classmates surprised the dimpled free spirit, bestowing her with the unsolicited and unlikely dual titles of prom queen and best sense of humor.
Since graduating from West Limestone High School, Murray, 30, has earned a visual arts degree and put her wit and spark to frequent use as a lead singer, songwriter and musician for The Bear, a rising band from Muscle Shoals.
The Owens native, who goes by her first name professionally and learned to pluck the banjo from her late uncle, Tony Lovell, named the band after a short story in William Faulkner’s novel, “Go down, Moses.”
Murray, 30, and husband Nathan Pitts, a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter and a full-time research analyst at the University of North Alabama, met as college students living in Florence and started performing shows together in 2006.
The couple eventually added Muscle Shoals keyboardist Ben Tanner to play as a trio and then assembled a rotating rhythm section with Tuscumbia’s Ben Stedman, Kyle Minckler of New Hampshire and Florence native Daniel Stoddard “so we could play songs that needed a more full band sound,” Murray said.
“We still play acoustic shows occasionally with less members,” she said in email and phone interviews with The News Courier. “It’s nice to be able to change up the sound from show to show.”
The Bear is scheduled for an acoustic show at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa and a record store tour stop at Central Square Records in Seaside, Fla. Additional dates will be announced on the band’s website, http://www.thebearmusic.com.
Murray said since Minckler and Stedman are on hiatus to spend time with their young families, drummer Jon Davis of Greenhill and bassist Josh Haselton of Brattleboro, Vt., are also playing with the band.
The Bear is steadily adding fans and generating industry buzz, recently receiving an invitation to participate in a singer-songwriter showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
SXSW is both a festival and tradeshow known as a career launching pad for a variety of genres, including music, filmmaking, comedy and video game designers. The musical showcases are March 11-17, with specific concert information still pending.
The Bear released its self-titled debut album three years ago and “Overseas then Under” in March 2013.
With sound engineering from Tanner, the six-member ensemble recorded its sophomore album in Murray and Pitts’ home. She said the location produced “a lot of interesting quirks and feedback from the amps because of their proximity to a nearby hospital.”
“Overall, I favor the second album more than the first,” said Murray, who can also play flute, ukulele, guitar and keyboards. “We had gotten a lot tighter as a band and were able to experiment more with sounds.”
Pitts and Murray co-wrote a compact, 13-track record, with the sonic smorgasbord running the gamut from electric guitar and ukulele to the tambourine and xylophone.
Murray said it’s not easy to pigeonhole the band’s sound, which even uses the clicking and pinging sounds of a typewriter to open the whimsical “Pockets.”
She penned the song as a child, cheekily singing “But I don’t need you to hold my hand, I’ve got my pockets for that” and then inquiring at the end, “I don’t need you, but I miss you so/Why did you go?”
“I’ve never really felt the need to stick to any single genre because there are so many different types of music that I’m interested in,” she said. “There are a lot of different influences that we pull from, so we wind up with a somewhat eclectic sound. On ‘Overseas then Under,’ there are a lot of elements of folk, indie rock and sort of dreamy pop.”
Pitt’s lead vocals on tracks such as “As I Am” and “Lost at Sea” transition from deep and soothing to gravelly-toned and loving, while Murray peppers the album with clever couplets, homophones and deliberate phrasing.
She particularly soars on “I Want,” “He’s Not Mine” and “Red Giants,” a lush, lamenting ballad backed by acoustic guitar (“I’m singing like it’s for him, oh I’m singing like it’s a hymn/How nobody ever falls in love again, oh nobody ever falls in love again”).
Christine Fink, a former copy editor who performed with the Shoals band Religious Husband and now works in the record industry in Omaha, Neb., sang backup vocals on the album’s second track, “Darlin’ Boy,” during an impromptu afternoon recording session in Murray’s basement.
The bittersweet lyrics — “What did I do before you, what will I do now?/I won’t be happy now, I was never happy anyhow” — is juxtaposed by a frenetic pace and playful instrumentation.
“The whole album is just phenomenal, and I’m really proud and flattered to be part of it,” Fink said by phone. “It sounds like lip service but I really mean it … It’s an album made by a solid group of people, and it makes you feel happy because it makes you feel.”
Tanner also plays keys for the Athens band Alabama Shakes and co-owns Single Lock Records, the Shoals record label that signed The Bear. He said he would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite tune from the album.
“I don’t really have a favorite track,” he said via email. “Every song is like one of our children so it’s hard to pick a favorite. I’m honestly really proud of the whole thing.”
When asked about The Bear’s frontwoman, Tanner noted Murray has become a more nuanced singer by challenging herself and literally becoming more vocal.
“Amber can do a lot of different things as a singer,” he said “On early Bear stuff, she mostly sang really quietly, but she’s grown more comfortable with pushing her voice more so she can pull off a lot of different tones, depending on the song and the moment.”
In December, Amazon chose “Overseas” as one of its top 100 albums of 2013, and the Mobile Bay Arts & Music Awards named it the year’s best in North Alabama.
The Audiovore music blogger Lee Shook ranked the album in his top 10 and named “He’s Not Mine” as the No. 2 song of 2013, behind “Always Alright” from Alabama Shakes. The Bear also is among 14 must-see musical acts in the region as chosen by al.com.
Terry Pace, a longtime entertainment journalist in the Shoals, said the group is “preserving a timeless musical tradition by making music on their own terms, without any preconceived formulas or creative compromises.”
“The music of the Bear is an ideal illustration of the vitality and resilience of the Muscle Shoals sound,” Pace said via Facebook. “Their music is rootsy, gutsy, soulful and above all passionate and authentic. They’re living proof that every generation of Muscle Shoals music makers has a chance to step forward, claim their place in that tradition, and then re-shape it and redefine it in their own fresh and invigorating ways.”
The growing spotlight on her band one day could lead to Murray and her bandmates being able to focus solely on music, but she isn’t one to dwell in the past or try to glimpse the future.
“It all happened pretty naturally, but I’ve been writing (poetry and songs) since I was a little kid,” said Murray, an avid reader and a fan of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Flannery O’Connor, along with Alan Moore comics. “I’m going to enjoy this for what it is.
“We’re really looking forward to South by Southwest because it’s a great place to play and there will be so many great artists, both smaller artists and bigger bands.”