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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 10.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Count This Penny mines Appalachian riches
The mountain sound
Madison-based, Tennessee-bred.
Madison-based, Tennessee-bred.
Credit:Bill Wilburn

Some of the best things in life happen on front porches, from childhood puppet shows to friendship-kindling conversations that stretch into the sunrise hours. The porch is also an excellent place to strum a guitar or build a vocal harmony. As purveyors of a front-porch-inspired sound, local Americana duo Count This Penny have probably done all of these things, right on down to the puppet shows.

The husband-and-wife team, composed of Madison-based Tennesseans Allen and Amanda Rigell, take their name from a Sesame Street episode in which Grover and a little boy named John John learn to count. John John leans toward the furry blue puppet and asks, "Grover, do you love me?" Grover responds affirmatively and John John extends his hand with a demand that leads to a moment of utter bewilderment for Grover. The demand is "Count this penny," and that's exactly what they do, counting that single, lonely penny with gusto. Like much of Jim Henson's work, this snippet is ripe for interpretation. In fact, that's one reason Count This Penny count themselves as diehard Henson fans.

"When Hulu first came out, they posted a bunch of old Sesame Street clips. The kid in that video is the cutest kid in the whole world, and we were drawn to the whole unspoken communication between him and Grover," Allen says. After all, music is shaped by nonverbal communication and the emotion-stirring power of sonic frequencies. Words matter, but they're not everything.

That said, the Rigells' words on their fall 2010 EP, Gone, are definitely worth noting. On "No One Here," Amanda sings about booze bottles and shotguns as if they're her children: gently, with a tinge of disbelief or perhaps despair. The couple mine more melancholy in "Sedona" with well-crafted chord changes and heartrending lyrics like "Nights down in Mexico taste like cyanide...I left you and went out of my mind."

Both Rigells play guitar and bass, and their voices - one a bit gravelly, the other crystal clear - form gorgeous harmonies and textures when paired. Their instrumental history includes a romantic flourish: Allen insists he learned guitar about 10 years ago to impress Amanda, a fellow Emory University student and high school friend who'd already been playing for about five years. It worked.

In addition to their instrumental love affair, the pair have a cultural connection to their sound. Being from eastern Tennessee - Johnson City, to be exact - they know Appalachia well: It was their backyards and their front porches. The mountains' musical traditions are a cornerstone of their sound and have shaped other musicians they admire, such as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Thanks to their EP's strong songs, the Rigells' musical endeavors have flourished since they moved here in June. They performed at the celebrated Rhythm and Roots Festival in September, then opened for Vandaveer's October show at the Project Lodge.

But don't get the wrong idea about Count This Penny: They may sing about moonshine, old-timey drugs and cheatin' hearts, but it's more of an exercise in storytelling than a tell-all memoir.

"A lot of our songs are about drinking and infidelity, which is weird because we're a happily married couple," says Amanda. "It sounds like you're in a living room with us playing songs for you. We want to create a lot of great harmonies and focus on solid songwriting."

And though Madison isn't rife with runaway husbands and gun-toting wives, the front-porch format seems to work well here. "We've been able to go to a lot of really intimate house shows and in-stores at Strictly Discs, which is near our house, and at the Project Lodge," Amanda says.

"East Tennessee has a rich background in terms of bluegrass and traditional Appalachian music, but coming to a town that's much more eclectic is exciting," Allen adds.

The couple's looking forward to ramping up their performance schedule - and bringing their porch-music concept to Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond - during vacations from their day jobs. In the meantime, keep counting your pocket change. You'd be surprised where it might lead.

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