Lizzy Ross could have been a soul ambassador, an Aretha purveyor of churchy secular odes. As the figurehead of the Lizzy Ross Band from 2009 to 2016, Ross put out what her Bandcamp profile labeled as indy rock to rootsy pop. But that soul connection was plugged in as well, and with a funkier bass line and a stiffer backbeat, she could have wailed at the temple of the Queen of Soul.
She shucked that shell in 2016 for her latest excursion, Violet Bell, with Omar Ruiz-Lopez, which gets labeled as folk/soul. But Ross is not eager to embrace the latter part of that tag as a job description.
“It’s not soul,” she said emphatically by phone from the road last week. “I’m not really a soul singer. It didn’t feel right for us to go into that direction. It’s not really rock, and that genre didn’t really capture the nuance of what we do, and at the end of the day, we just let the music guide ourselves to choices, rather than kinda stick to a genre.”
Like many musicians, Ross feels that labels were something that record companies used to market the music to a specific demographic. She is not even comfortable with the catchall phrase applied to rootsy folk.
“Calling our music Americana is kind of a diagnosis of exclusion,” Ross said. “We feel like the important thing to do is just make the music the way it needs to be in the moment and allow the album to be a snapshot of that, rather than trying to bend it into a genre that may not actually fit.”
Violet Bell, named after a song on their 2017 debut “Dream the Wheel” in 2017, takes a bigger worldview, embracing Ruiz-Lopez’s global influences.
“I grew up listening to a lot of Latin American folk music, like cumbia, bolero, bachata, and salsa and meringue,” he said. He fooled around with guitar in his preteens but started studying classical music at 17.
“Because when your parents ask you when you’re almost done with high school what are you going to do, saying ‘I’m gonna be a guitar player’ is gotta be a parent’s worst nightmare unless they’re really good, and I wasn’t particularly good at it,” Ruiz-Lopez said.
He studied cello, violin and viola at a couple of Florida universities before deciding to move to North Carolina after hearing bluegrass for the first time while in college.
“It changed my life, made me want to get more into roots, traditional styles of music as opposed to just classical,” he said.
Ross also was moved by her exposure to bluegrass after growing up in Annapolis, Md.
“It’s a beautiful town, and I love it. But it’s a tourist town on the coast, so the music scene, there’s a lot of cover music, some of it can be pretty corny and it’s not super active,” she said.
Attending UNC put her in touch with a rootsy musical community.
“Bluegrass and old-time music in particular have a stronger element of community because there’s this common catalog of songs and all skill levels can participate in a lot of that catalog, so it introduced me to music in a social context, getting to play with other folks,” Bass said.
The venerable Chatham County bluegrass and old-time musical institution Big Fat Gap was instrumental in the duo’s roots education and inspiration, with both attending Fat Gap jams but not at the same time. Ross and Ruiz-Lopez ended up doing a musical production together for a Fulbright project on AIDS awareness that a fiddler friend of theirs put together. Then Ross moved to Nashville, Tenn., returning four years later. The two connected and started playing music together 31/2 years ago.
Their latest, “Honey In My Heart,” is a mashup of classical, soul, bluegrass, jazz, old-time and blues that floats around effortlessly, often embracing most of those genres within a single song. “Summer Skin” is a gentle dig at the Nashville scene’s idea of girlie perfection, Ross’s close-up of a glamorous golden-curled cutie revealing muddy knees, skeeter bites, bee stings and rope burns from tree swings.
“It’s a really real part of my experience for a while,” Ross said, laughing. “I love to get outside, and right now, I’m covered in bug bites, and I just got stung by a wasp today. ... I would rather have it that way than stay inside and have perfect skin.”
The duo wrote “Mountain Song” while hiking up a mountain in the Adirondacks, taking a camping break from being on the road. Ruiz-Lopez points out that the song plays into how they chose this style of musical presentation instead of a soul band.
“You can’t take a keyboard into the woods, much less a drum set,” Ruiz-Lopez said, “so like the more holistic, organic approach of playing acoustic-based instruments plays a big part in the songwriting, and that’s what comes out, stuff that you could play or sing around a campfire and have the ability to be quiet and dynamic.”
He said he hopes to bring people closer to a more organic style of making music without so many frills.
“Through playing this type of music, it just feels more real and more immediate. I just want people to feel good and be inspired to make their own music, because it connects us in community in our hearts and minds,” he said.
Ross added that for her, the deepest kernel of why she plays music is that feeling of being in the flow and letting the music come through you.
“Those moments of presence, being connected to other people who are playing music with you and channeling that same flow,” she said, “and the audience is part of that, too, just like really bright lights of good feeling. That’s what is comes down to, something that ephemeral.”