Listening to the Toy Hearts’ latest album, Whiskey, you might peg them as a rambling family bluegrass band from Louisville, Ky., the most metropolitan city in the state.
You’d have them pegged wrong. The Toy Hearts make heartfelt, authentic folk music — they just do it from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Some locals might remember the Toy Hearts getting a micro-vignette in the short documentary Fanning the Flames, which screened locally at the 2012 Thin Line Film Fest. The trio plays Denton on Sunday night at Sweetwater.
The sisters-and-dad act — Sophia, Hannah and Stewart Johnson — just released Whiskey. The band’s fourth album comes by its devotion to Americana honestly.
“We grew up listening to all sorts of music — our dad has always worked as a full-time musician — but primarily my sister and I were drawn to American music,” Hannah Johnson said. “It is a good question, and one we do get asked a lot. I guess as children we didn’t have any preconceived notions of any music being distinctly ‘American’ or ‘British.’ It was all just music to us.”
Fair enough, considering how many Denton Americana artists treasure the Beatles. Hannah said the drive and energy of bluegrass, Western swing and country has always appealed to the family “in a way that English folk music definitely does not, because it never swings!”
Any ethnomusicologist might explain the intimate relationship between some traditional British folk music and the music of the Appalachian settlers. The English, Scottish and Welsh settled along the mountain range and brought their music with them, with fiddle and strings giving way to an indigenous American music.
The Johnson sisters connected with bluegrass, Western swing and country music early on.
“The fact that country music explores very real issues also appealed to us and in a very everyday language,” Hannah said. “Hank Williams is an excellent example of this. Our parents separated when we were small, and Hank explores issues such as broken families, unrequited love and how one feels about their family, and we could relate to those songs when we were little.”
They aren’t little anymore. In fact, the Johnsons play Americana with the blend of whimsy, conviction and mournfulness that one hears in Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe or Loretta Lynn.
On Whiskey, the Toy Hearts invoke that palpable atmosphere found in the best of American folk music. The album explores vices, pathos, loss and wraps it up in up-tempo, shuffling tunes. “Pass the Jack” is one of the more overtly pained songs. The narrator grieves over a lover who can’t be pleased, and can only numb the tortured failure with whiskey, tequila and Jack Daniels. Hannah’s lead vocals — which sport a pleasing, yodeling flexibility — are winsome and dour, but the beat is still dance-y.
The band stretched itself on Whiskey, an album that is mostly Western swing and some blues instead of the band’s bluegrass bread-and-butter. Hannah Johnson said at least one of the different styles on the album made her work.
“For me personally, I would have to say the blues,” she said. “It is such a wide genre of music. Making your own mark upon this and sounding original, yet authentic, is difficult. We covered a Bessie Smith song, ‘Me and My Gin,’ on Whiskey, which I originally heard by Dinah Washington singing Bessie. I will never be able to sing like Dinah, but I tried as hard as I could to make my own authentic version of the song. With the instrumentation also, we strove to produce a different-sounding type of blues song.”
She was on point. The trio uses steel guitar on “Me and My Gin,” not something you hear often, or ever, in blues. The keyboard work also retained its twangy, saloon sound.
The album takes a page out of Hank Williams’ songwriting primer. It’s an album that is soaked in alcohol and stained with tears.
“We write from experience and it would be dishonest if we didn’t explore some of the darker issues within our lives,” Hannah said. “There are obvious traditions within country music that correlate with this idea, and on Whiskey there are songs that discuss drink, heartache, betrayal, and these feel like very relevant and important things to discuss.”
The record even deals with career anxiety. “Another Right Note” exposes the punishment that can come with touring, owning up to the homesickness and the stinging slap of reality that comes with the lyric “You’re only as good as your last show.”
The Johnsons are honest about the button-mashing that can come with having a family business, but Hannah said there is plenty of respect to keep the act together and solid. They don’t often listen to their own records, but when Hannah does, she appreciates the skill and focus of her dad and sister.
“On the odd occasion that I do [listen], I am often surprised by how tight my dad and sister are playing together [on steel and lead guitar],” she said. “I have so, so much respect for how hard they work and their talent. I am often anxious about my own performances, but I try not to overthink it — I recognize that it’s fairly normal to be your own worst critic.
“Any insecurities that I do have, I certainly don’t let them govern what I can and can’t do,” she said. “For me, that’s not what life is about. I am a risk-taker and enjoy pushing myself, whatever the outcome.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is
THEY’RE WITH THE BAND
The Toy Hearts are:
• Sophia Johnson — acoustic guitar, electric guitar, harmony vocals
• Hannah Johnson — acoustic mandolin, electric mandolin, lead vocals
• Stewart Johnson — dobro, banjo, steel guitar
The Toy Hearts
7 p.m. Sunday on the patio at Sweetwater
Grill & Tavern, 115 S. Elm St. Admission is free.