A few weeks ago, I drove into a west Texas desert just before midnight and pulled onto the road's shoulder. I leaned back on the hood of my rented car and looked up at the beauty of hundreds of thousands of stars. My head spun as I tried to take it all in, and I soon became overwhelmed, suddenly oppressed by my solitude and insignificance amid the entire celestial scheme.
In that moment, it became easy to understand why Mount Moriah's Heather McEntire sings about meeting her maker and begging "for a heavy lesson" in the desert during "Higher Mind," from her band's third album, How to Dance. Humans have always looked heavenward for answers—from God, from gods, from the stars themselves. Those cosmic forces deeply inform How to Dance, McEntire's most capable and incisive attempt yet at reckoning with her place in the universe.
How to Dance sounds distinct from its predecessors. It's not as elemental as Mount Moriah's self-titled debut, nor as heartbroken as 2013's Miracle Temple. There are still twang flourishes aplenty, but there are also scorched, almost-psychedelic guitars and clarion background horns. Good luck to anyone who still thinks of Mount Moriah as merely another folk-rock or country band.
The spirit of How to Dance doesn't just sound defiant; it feels that way, too, as if McEntire needs these ten chances to say, "I have wrestled with my demons, and they will not bring me down." At the outset of "Chiron (God in the Brier)," she steps forward with the lines, "Light came knockin' knockin' on my door/And I got no need for you no more." Keyboards clink and sparkle in the mix, and you're inclined to follow her light. There's an assured strength to McEntire's clenched voice, even on this unsteady ground.
A comet named for a centaur in Greek mythology, Chiron is an important figure on How to Dance, appearing back to back in "Chiron (God in the Brier)" and "Cardinal Cross." Chiron is an astronomical anomaly: its orbit is erratic, and it's classified as a minor planet with rings and a comet. In astrology, this comet's appearance in one's birth chart represents a "wounded healer." These healers draw strength from their own perils to help others grapple with theirs.
McEntire never details her own wounds, but you hear them in her voice. As she hits the extended higher notes of "Calvander," she's pushing out pain as she sings. Two tracks later, she adds a tender undercurrent of yearning to "Baby Blue." Even when McEntire doesn't sing directly about these ideas, How to Dance suggests welcome calm after one hell of a storm.
Many of McEntire's lyrics are built from star stuff, but she roots her songs just as strongly in the earth. You may recognize several North Carolina landmarks: Jacksonville, Calvander, Jones Ferry Road in Carrboro. As McEntire names these spots and nods to the memories attached, she creates a rich tapestry of place through fleeting moments. Passing glimpses of Interstate 95, Okefenokee, peaks, beaches, and Davis Square feel like watching the world from the passenger seat, McEntire narrating from behind the wheel.
Navigating across sky and dirt, How to Dance becomes a map for the lonely, the weary, the sad, and the scared. With Mount Moriah as a vehicle, McEntire is Chiron's wounded healer. She lays out how, even when your heart is heavy, you can find yourself turned toward the light. Conquer your troubles, and keep conquering them, even when you think they're not there anymore. If you ever get stuck, you can always try looking up at the stars for a spell.
Mount Moriah plays Cat's Cradle in Carrboro on Saturday, March 26 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12.