The opening track of the Gamblin' Christmas album Alaska earned its way onto my list of favorite discoveries last year. The album's "Blue Lights" is an anthemic piece of Americana in the vein of James McMurtry or Joe Ely.
The magic of Gamblin' Christmas is in the duo's cutting, beautiful harmonies, a combination of Patrick Flaherty's Texas-influenced foghorn with Kurt Franke's upper-register siren. The two have reconnected after a busy year - both were married, two newborns joined Flaherty's family and Franke spent the year in Austin, Texas.
The Ball State grads, both now living in Indianapolis, are about to commence work on a follow-up to their 2007 debut, Alaska. That first album was minimal and powerful, showcasing those harmonies beside Flaherty's strident acoustic guitar playing and Franke's nimble bass guitar.
"We have seven or eight new songs that haven't been played live or recorded, and another 12 or 13 that we do play that also aren't recorded," Flaherty reveals. "We are going to get ready to record another album and have been playing the songs out live. The energy is there."
Franke, who has a degree in music engineering, adds that they are looking for something even more organic this time. "Interlochen [the Michigan city where they recorded Alaska] was amazing, but I want to capture the sound of us in a room where we are very comfortable, rather than a studio," Franke says. "It's really a struggle balancing a folk approach to performance with classical training in theory and recording, but it is exactly that which keeps me interested."
That "folk" approach stems from time spent with the Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-record compilation of folk, blues, country and gospel recordings issued between 1927 and 1932.
"When you first listen to the album, it is sort of disorienting, because it is so raw," Flaherty says. "That kind of music resonated with us."
It led to playing some Muncie gigs and open mic nights. In 2004, after the two graduated, they began sharing a house. It was then that their combined skills and musical strengths began to blossom.
"We were renting a house on Central Avenue and lived together for a year and a half," Flaherty says. "That it was a time that was amazingly productive. We'd practice and record."
Eventually, Flaherty got married and moved out. Franke moved to Austin with his then-fiancée in late 2006, bringing a hiatus to their partnership.
"My wife and I were expecting a child and we didn't really want to leave the safety net of family," Flaherty says. "The plan was for all of us to go down there, and not necessarily relocate. Just to see Austin. It was sort of this mecca - Townes Van Zandt lore. Then when he came back last year, we picked back up again."
And picking back up meant relearning old songs, writing new songs and finding that their vocal harmonies were still intact.
"I think when the Silver Dollar Family Band [a four-piece that was a precursor to the current duo] was whittled down to Gamblin' Christmas, we started to realize that our voices sounded really good together," Franke says. "It has taken a long time to develop the harmonies though, and it was about the time we recorded Alaska that it finally all sort of fell into place."
While the band prioritizes their own work, a recent Sunday night appearance at the Melody Inn mixed in a couple public domain covers and one Simon and Garfunkel song (the brilliantly-chosen "Duncan"). That night, Flaherty kept his feet twice shoulder-width apart, bouncing his back foot as he pounded out chords on his acoustic guitar, sounding equal parts James McMurtry and Robert Earl Keen, mixed with a bit of Gordon Lightfoot. Franke leaned in and nudged the songs to a higher place with his high and lonesome harmony.
"We want to have that vocal chemistry," Flaherty says. "The new songs are more mature. More than just relationships gone wrong. More about life. More complicated, with more layers.
"But it's like the guy who asked Neil Young if he had written the same song at least a thousand times. Well, maybe," Flaherty says. "It's not like there are a whole new system of rules."