Though Sunny War embraces the folk-punk genre that her music is often tagged with, the Nashville-via-Los Angeles musician’s acclaimed 2023 album Anarchist Gospel is a mix of acoustic string music, blues, soul, country and — as the title suggests — gospel. What’s so punk about that?
“At this point I’d consider anything I make to be folk-punk simply ’coz I am punk,” War says.
Accompanied by guitarist Anthony DaCosta, she performs stripped-down renditions of songs from her new album and throughout her catalog Monday, May 22, at the Hult Center, part of the 10×10 concert series.
On Anarchist, War’s honeyed, humid low alto is close and intimate, though no less capable of carrying the infectious, double-time songs like “No Reason,” concluding in pure rock and roll abandon. The song is propelled by the familiar multi-tone percussion instrument, reminiscent of the Brazilian-Portuguese drum cuíca.
Up next, there’s the swampy blues number “Shelter and Storm,” one of several songs on the album featuring guitarist Dave Rawlings, who is known for his own solo work and collaborations with neo-bluegrass singer-songwriter Gillian Welch.
The record is even more studded with guest appearances, including Chris Pierce, Allison Russell and Jim James, lead singer with My Morning Jacket.
Elsewhere, album highlight “Baby Bitch,” a Ween cover, is an artfully profane song about grieving the loss of self that can sometimes accompany love relationships.
Against a taunting children’s choir, War sings gently, and with a sense of humor, “Baby, baby, baby bitch, Fuck you, you stinkin’ ass ho, Most beauty I’ve seen, You come from a dream, But I can’t close my eyes anymore.” Regaining personal agency post-breakup rarely sounds so sad or so defiant.
Born in Nashville, War started playing guitar when she was 7, and her early guitar lessons were from longtime Nashville best-kept-secret blues guitarist Jim Nelson. Because of that, “The bluesy Nashville twang stayed with me throughout my life,” War writes Eugene Weekly in an email.
Blues music aside, “Someone could sound like Joni Mitchell but be considered folk-punk because they have anarchistic lyrics.” While young, War went to punk shows, hitchhiked, hopped trains and demonstrated for social causes. She also dumpster-dived and slept in abandoned buildings. And speaking of punk, her first fast band was called Anus Kings.
“I think the unifying denominator amongst folk-punk artists is: counterculture, leftism, anarchism,” War says. Remembering her first band, she adds, “We were very angsty and angry kids.”
Though Anarchist Gospel is War’s fourth studio record, it’s gained War a legion of new fans — and notices saying she’s a vital new voice in contemporary folk and roots music.
On that recent success, War says, “More people have been coming out to shows lately, and that’s been great. Some folks at shows have told me how much they love certain songs from the album, and that’s just made me want to work on a new record. People have been really sweet.” ν
Sunny War performs 7:30 pm Monday, May 22, in the Soreng Theater at the Hult Center, part of the 10×10 Concert Series; $10, all-ages. More at HultCenter.org.