From 2002 to 2008, Katie Powderly spent her Tuesday nights barefoot and dressed in overalls, playing upright bass in the Lonesome Rogues bluegrass band at Wonder's Pub. Then she got the itch to start writing original music.
"I ended up quitting the band," she says. "I was tired of playing bass and cover songs."
That decision commenced Powderly's three-year musical transformation. This Saturday night at the High Noon Saloon, she'll be releasing her impressive solo debut, Slips of the Tongue, one of the last albums recorded at Smart Studios.
The album includes nine emotional Americana tracks that are drenched in pedal steel and brooding acoustic guitar. Its dark moments reflect Powderly's struggles when she began writing the songs.
"I'd been in an accident in 2009 that seriously impacted me," she says. "Between Thanksgiving of 2009 and February of 2010, I couldn't walk, and I was sleeping about 18 hours per day." She can't describe how she was injured because it remains the subject of an open legal case.
"The loss and the pain I went through is beyond the reach of verbal description," she says. "I lost my job and my home. So I wanted the album to sound like something was terribly wrong."
The seven-minute country ballad "Carry Me, Hold Me" fulfills that aspiration in a hauntingly beautiful way. The song is framed by cathartic fiddle and Powderly's soulful voice.
Times weren't always so tough for Powderly, who was born in upstate New York and spent her high school years living in Naperville, Ill., outside Chicago. She came to Madison to attend college at UW. Her dad, also a bluegrass musician, sent her here with his old Yamaha guitar. She used it to play open mikes at the Copper Grid, where she met the guys who would become her bandmates in the Lonesome Rogues.
When Powderly got restless for a new musical direction in 2008, she initially paired up with Lonesome Rogue Evan Murdock to form the short-lived duo Kentucky Waterfalls. "I was very tentative about songwriting at first," she says. "I wouldn't even tell the audience which songs were original. If I got positive feedback I would say, 'That's not even a real song - I wrote that song!'"
Around the same time, Powderly had a boyfriend from Tennessee. The relationship helped her discover the city that became her second creative home, Knoxville. There Powderly became friends with many of the musicians who are featured on Slips of the Tongue, including Jill Andrews, Josh Oliver and Tom Pryor of the everybodyfields. Bryn Davies, the bassist and cellist who plays with bluegrass luminaries such as Tony Rice and Peter Rowan, also supported the record.
Parts of the album were recorded in Knoxville by Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor. The other parts were recorded at Smart by Mike Zirkel in the final days before the legendary Madison studio closed.
The first time Powderly went to Smart to talk to Zirkel about recording, he spontaneously asked her to play. She hadn't brought a guitar with her. "Mike pointed to one I could borrow," recalls Powderly. "It was in a case that said 'Butch Vig' on it. My hands were shaking when I went to open it."
Slips of the Tongue establishes Powderly as one of Madison's most promising musical talents. This Saturday's show will be her last local appearance for some time. She's preparing for a set of East Coast shows and is raising money for a 50-state tour in an RV next year.
Count on that happening, because the last three years prove that when Katie Powderly has a musical vision, she finds a way to make it come true.