Looking down the list of titles on their debut full-length album, Laura and the Killed Men see a map of the places that inspired the songs.
On tour last summer, the band took every opportunity to write songs, churning them out in the car when they could and finding the roots of inspiration at stops along the way. There's the Colorado field where "Caroline" first came into being, the Smokey Mountains that informed "Heaven's Daughter," the porch where a bit of band revelry spun itself into the title song.
"A lot of Everchanging Trail is inspired by that trip across the country and thinking about how the landscape changes as different generations move across it and use it differently, and how different generations change as they move across the land," says frontwoman Laura Kepner-Adney. "All of my feelings for the songs are associated with where they were written and the places that inspired them in the first place."
Laura and the Killed Men formed a year earlier as a reconfiguring of both players and musical goals after Kepner-Adney joined guitarist Sam Golden, bassist Robert Hanshaw and drummer Seth Vietti in the band Sun Bones, beginning as a project on the folkier end of the Americana spectrum. That sound is reflected on the One Bell EP released last May. Written mostly by Kepner-Adney herself, the EP drew on the strong storytelling tradition. As Laura and the Killed Men continued, though, the songwriting became more collaborative and the musical ambition shifted as well.
With Everchanging Trail, the project has evolved more toward a classic country sound, inspired by Gram Parsons records and Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline period.
"The change in arrangements from the EP to this album is because I was relying less on guitar effects and I learned the pedal steel. It's such a beautiful instrument and the perfect sound," says Golden, who shares songwriting credit with Kepner-Adney on most of the songs that make up Everchanging Trail. "The instrumentation helped push it into the realm of country."
Golden says the album functions a bit like The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a classic album planned to chronicle the evolution of American roots music up until that point.
"This album kind of does that, but not in order," he says. "You can find elements of the 19th century through to the '60s and '70s as well as a little contemporary sound. It's like country through the ages."
The band members are drawn to older music in general—certainly not just country—because of how it stands the test of time.
"I like listening to older music because it's like the past speaking to the present. I like to see what's still relevant. My favorite music is Schubert, Bach and Beethoven," Golden says. "Their music still has such a strong effect on the present-day ear, and that's what's so cool about it. I like to see what reverberates from the past and use that in the current idiom to express ourselves."
For Kepner-Adney, reaching back to the musical past and combining it with the present links the band's songwriting, those travels and the observations they made along the way.
"The connection between people and their instruments and people and their land is more obvious in earlier music. Hearkening back to that means you have a stronger connection...I've tried a lot of different things [musically], but I just keep coming back to what I like," she says. "There's this cultural nostalgia that goes beyond music."
Lyrically for Kepner-Adney, the songwriting of Jason Isbell became another influence as she moved a bit away from the narratives that formed the backbone of the songs on One Bell.
"His lyrical flexibility was inspiring. This definitely isn't as personal as his album, but it's thinking about how to create pretty patterns of words that mean something to a lot of people," she says.
Though in some ways a "road album," the band never labored to make Everchanging Trail fit any particular mold, keeping the subject matter varied on the songs.
The heart-aching album closer "Pilgrims' Lullaby" was written with Syrian refugees in mind, while "World's Fair Hotel" delves into the scene of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair with its backdrop story of serial killer H.H. Holmes.
"Pocatello Son," a song written in tribute to the late Tucson songwriter Cyril Barrett, uses lyrical fragments from some of his songs to bring Barrett's presence into the record.
The band thinks of songs like "Hymn" and "Everchanging Trail" as "secular hymns": songs that use choral arrangements like a hymn would, but with different aims. Golden calls "Hymn" an "entreaty to a higher power. "Everchanging Trail," on the other hand, is a dialogue between different voices representing the past and the future, speaking to each other in what winds up being a cautionary message.
The album cover image is a coiled rope, serving as another representation of humanity's "everchanging trail." Though it may signify the Old West to some, for the band, the metaphor extends beyond that. An ancient invention still in use today, rope is one of those common tools that ties people together across time.
And, life itself is an "everchanging trail," Kepner-Adney says.