All singer-songwriter JT Nero ever saw of America growing up was the 540-mile stretch of highway between where he lived in Toledo, Ohio and Washington Island, Wis., where his family has a cabin. A far cry from the tens of thousands of miles he's traveled touring solo or in the band Birds of Chicago with his wife Allison Russell.
"I always make fun of my parents because we didn't do any traveling," remarked Nero with a chuckle in an interview with the Source. "My parents both taught English at the University of Toledo. We would literally, on the last day of school, make a beeline to Washington Island and stay there until Labor Day. So when I was a kid there were only two places in the universe."
Now 41, Nero has circled the globe and crisscrossed the United States peddling his honest and warming folk music, nomadic-gypsy-style, covering enough ground to make Willy Loman dizzy. They play just as many big cities like Seattle and Los Angeles as they do random ones like Corrales, N.M. In fact, the amount of touring Nero and Russell did together with previous projects is a big reason why they choose an often migratory animal as part of the band's moniker.
In Birds of Chicago—a band actually based in its namesake city—the music unfolds almost imitating two lovers on a really long road trip.
Stories are told using relaxed acoustic guitar and crisp harmonies. Nero may be the principle songwriter of the duo, but without his wife's intricate vocal stylings, their debut album would have never got off the ground.
"The energy behind this project was I already had a group of songs that tapped into the duo energy," said Nero. "I love that tradition where you have a back and forth conversation between a man and a woman. I was really excited to write for Alli's voice."
The resulting songs are a tapestry of Americana divinely rustic and ripe with wordplay; a fortunate byproduct of Nero growing up with professor parents.
"Words were the family" said Nero. "My upbringing was a relationship with and fascination for words. I remember watching my dad pack my sisters lunch and he would put a line of a poem in it every day."
Among Nero's favorite road experiences was a visit to Sisters, Ore. in 2011.
"We came to Sisters to play the Folk Festival a couple years back and we also did the song school," remembered Nero. "I was so blown away by the kids from their Americana project at the high school and the song camp. These 13, 14 and 15-year-old kids were so talented; I was blown away by the level of musicianship and craft at that age. You know, somehow leapfrogging my 11 tortuous years of fighting clichés and songwriting traps. It was revolting!"
Interactions like those are what Nero and Russell have built their careers on. The authentic way they present themselves in song is very much a bona fide representation of who they are in real life. They ooze friendliness and the spirit of close community, enough so that the group was able to crowd source funds for their debut album last year on the site Kickstarter. (Actually netting seven grand more than they were asking)
According to Nero, the philosophy of the band is centered on people.
"It's kind of the life blood of our type of music and our whole ethic about how a career in music should work," explained Nero. "It's a funny thing because the prevailing story about the death of the music industry is really just the death of an older model, one that we weren't that much interested in to begin with. These days the artists that succeed are the ones who are willing to go out and cultivate their fans through face to face to contact."
The magic of that approach has built deep musical roots for Birds of Chicago all across the country. And though Nero still gets up to that Wisconsin cabin on Lake Michigan, his home is now much bigger than it was when he only knew two places in the whole world.
Birds of Chicago
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19
302 E. Main St., Sisters Oregon
Tickets $10 at bendticket.com