Born in the dying coal country of Orwin, Pennsylvania, JB Boxter writes music to honor the working spirits of men and women who remain in the nearly vacant town. Boxter sings of his hometown’s few job opportunities and rising poverty rates to the tune of what he calls “anthracite soul.” It is a blend of Americana and country, with an emphasis on vocals and storytelling he will bring to Wrightsville Beach Brewery on Feb. 22.
Boxter’s start in music was a little different than other songwriters. Neither parent was a musician, and he did not start playing guitar until he was 17. But he enjoyed listening and singing along to music; The Grateful Dead reeled him in during childhood.
“They had so many influences,” Boxter explains. “They had country and blues and rock ‘n’ roll and improvisational jazz. They were a jam band, but then they had these storytelling songs.”
Boxter’s admiration for storytelling and multi-genre artists would lead him to singers like Jeff Buckley and Ben Harper, who laid the foundation for Boxter’s own sound. His family provides inspiration, too. Boxter’s father passed away in December 2009 and left behind a broken-hearted son who made it his goal to write music his dad would have liked.
“Not long before he passed,” Boxter remembers, “I was in a state of big-time artist’s block. [My dad] was like, ‘Well, you don’t write anything!’ and ‘I just hear you always playing the same cover song. When are you going to write a new song?’ Then he passed away and I wrote 30.”
Boxter’s song “Shenandoah” references the plight his father and other working-class employees suffer in small, rural towns—with long hours at work and little pay. “Shenandoah” is named for a nearby town once booming with life from a successful coal-mining industry, but now it lies dormant. It is where his grandparents grew up and his father was laid to rest. Boxter sings, “My daddy died here . . . and his daddy, too.”
Yet the artist would not remain in his dying hometown of Orwin. With only one road in and out, and the closest stoplight 20 minutes away, he needed to experience something larger. At 18 he left for a college three-and-half hours away, only to return for a few months after graduating, before packing and moving to North Carolina.
“I had no interest in the place,” Boxter mentions. “Most people are like, ‘When I’m done with school, I’m out of here!’—and I was. I don’t think I realized until years later, when I was writing songs, how much growing up in a place like that really comes back into my songwriting and my music.”
Boxter now returns to his hometown to visit his mother with his 18-month-old son, Jackson, in tow. He realizes why he incorporates the impoverished town so much into his work, too. “It’s almost a way for me to pass it down to my son,” Boxter suggests. “It’s almost like a self-preservation thing, for my son to see and hear how his dad grew up.”
Boxter, once a full-time history teacher, now works as an educator testing curricula for schools. Carter Charter Community School in Durham actually provided space for Boxter to record his EP, “Carter” (September 2017). Instead of recording songs at a traditional studio, Boxter worked with his friend and collaborator Reed Turchi to create an album in Carter’s assembly hall, during a torrential rainstorm.
“I had about 10 to 15 songs I was demoing,” Boxter recounts, “but nothing was turning out right. So I called my friend Reed, and he said he had a handheld field recorder he’d been using to create simple and stripped-down porch recordings of old North Mississippi blues artists who had never recorded songs before. He asked, ‘Do you have a space where we could do that?’ At about 8 or 9 on a Saturday night, we went to my school and set up a chair and mic and recorded them. When I heard them, I thought to myself, This is awesome.”
The school assembly hall’s open space allowed for Boxter’s songs to have a natural reverb without any added effects. He also chose to keep any mistakes or vocal hiccups intact on recordings, to maintain authenticity and preserve moments of the night. Much of Boxter’s inspiration stems from such moments. He believes music is the soundtrack of everything and a connecting element for different memories.
“I know my son was born at 1:35 p.m.,” Boxter reminisces. “I can also remember Ryan Adams’ ‘Chin Up, Cheer Up’ was playing when he was born. As I get older and forget my dad’s voice a little bit, I can at least remember the songs he would listen to and songs I would listen to with him. [Music] is a living thing and it’s always there.”
Boxter’s current project is a full-length album he hopes to release in summer 2018. Named for his “Shenandoah” track off of “Carter,” the album will contain new tracks and fresh recordings of old songs. He will collaborate with Turchi once again and hopes to begin recording in April at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville. A Kickstarter to help fund Boxter’s project will soon be available. More info can be found at www.facebook.com/JBBoxter.