the mary janes

No Depression
March / April 1999
Town and Country
Rich Albertoni

Mary Janes: Room to move

"Space in a song is what gives it emotive power," says Janas Hoyt with deliberation, spreading her words out even as she speaks, leaving room to consider whether this statement applies only to her songs.

For Hoyt, the leader of the Mary Janes, space has always been a catalyst. She lived in an office space on the south side of Bloomington's Courthouse Square in the early 1980s, soon after dropping out of Indiana University. Surrounded by a local bohemian subculture, it was the place where she began her musical career. Years later, the search for artistic space prompted her to branch out from the Vulgar Boatmen to form the Mary Janes, an acoustic side project named after a Boatmen song.

Hoyt makes space the essential foundation of the Mary Janes' music; it's why she presses the band's ever-evolving lineup to play less. "That's always what I have to tell everyone when they first come in," she says. "You can play about one-third of what you are playing. Then cut that in half."

"When you have eight elements playing three things," she continues, "you need space to see what happens." Orchestration and improvisation are at the heart of the Mary Janes' sound. Bursting with counterpoint string arrangements, textured sonic layers and duets, the Janes find their identity in a space somewhere between a folk-pop band and a classical string quartet.

It's a sound that's endured since Hoyt and fellow Boatman Kathy Kolata started the Mary Janes in 1993. And it may be the only dimension of the band that has stayed constant - blame that other space called the real world. "A number of us have kids," says Hoyt, "which explains why there have been so many Mary Janes along the way."

The band reinvented itself again last year with several new members, including Mark Minnick on drums, Dan Hunt on bass, Kevin Smith on guitar and mandolin, and Dennis Scoville on pedal steel. Only Hoyt and violinist Heather Craig have continued from the previous all-female lineup.

Still, momentum seems to be on the Mary Janes' side. They appear on a recent Tom T. Hall tribute album alongside such acts as Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, and Iris DeMent. They were warmly received last July at the Indianapolis stop of Lilith Fair, joining Sarah McLachlan for the show's final number, a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?"

Now comes the release of their first full-length CD, Record No. 1, due in March on Nashville's Delmore Records. Throughout the recording - especially on the trance-folk "Throwing Pennies" - Hoyt's vocals are felt more than heard, weaving their way seamlessly into the instrumentation. On "Wish I Could Fly", the Janes let loose their painfully restrained rhythm section, proving that, yes, they know how to rock.

Hoyt attributes her interest in minimalist roots-rock to the Silos and Alejandro Escovedo. From there, she says, "I was sunk after the first plaintive tones I ever heard from Vic Chesnutt and Victoria Williams."

At 37, Hoyt is now a veteran of the Bloomington scene. She talks fondly of never being able to listen to the radio because "this whole town is under a blanket of static." She can tell you all about the history of the Second Story nightclub down on South College Avenue. These are the spaces where Janas Hoyt's music is grounded - and ready to talk flight.

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