Singer-songwriter Charity Crowe was born for the spotlight. As a performer her imitable personality is raw, rebellious, and full of impassioned revelry. At Rumba Café, she covets the small stage as if it was a headlining gig at Bonnaroo. In the middle of the lively stomp of a new song, “Knife Fight,” Crowe plays conductor and stops her band, Betsy Ross, with an authoritative motion. The room gets quiet.
“Let’s get this f*cking right,” she yells.
The 22-year-old Cincinnati native’s natural presence is infectious. Having taught herself guitar at the age of 13, it wasn’t long before she was writing her own songs. There was a voice, there was a drive, and a career in music seemed the likeliest path. Although Crowe is bartending and waiting on tables in the dining room during our interview, she manages to drop definitive and blunt answers to my questions like a rock star in waiting.
“I always get called Betsy Ross,” Crowe laughs. “I don’t think I look like a Betsy. No one young is named Betsy anymore.”
Along with her brother, bassist Sky, and drummer Dave Wegner, Betsy Ross existed for two full years, and formed a foundation naturally before taking a name and playing out live.
“When we started none of us, beside Charity, could play our instruments,” says Sky of a time when the band lived in the same apartment and all worked at Haugland Learning Center. “It was nice—very organic—that we could evolve together. We’d come straight home from work and practice.”
Betsy Ross became the name as the group was looking for something that signified vintage Americana and something that represented Ohio. The trio have found some regret in the name after learning that Ross was not from Ohio, but the nostalgic associations are apropos to the bare-bones, melodic blues that infiltrate their sound. What the Crowe siblings refer to as the “get down” is a wicked hybrid of the polished traditions of Alabama Shakes and the powder-keg energy of classic White Stripes. In asking them about influences, they’re quick to mention the stoic melancholy of The National and the “godlike” idiosyncrasies of Modest Mouse.
The band’s debut, Dead Wild, was released digitally last month and shows Betsy Ross headed in a sonic direction that is rougher, more abrasive, more “out there.” For a group that claims naïveté (save Charity) from the start, there’s definitely a confidence to the new songs that is contingent on flirting with dynamics and structuring things around Charity’s favorite inspirations.
“Girls and alcohol,” she explains. “A lot of Dead Wild is made up of things I’ve written over the years, and now they have a home. The new ones are completely fresh; those are the ones that are more party driven. At the same time I didn’t want everything to be slamming in your face, so I wanted to write some songs that dialed it back and replaced the energy with good, honest lyrics.”
Another source of inspiration for the Crowes was growing up in a house that was encouraging of self-expression. Be it Elton John, 2Pac, or Earth, Wind, and Fire playing in the car, a multi-instrumentalist grandfather, or being a part of theater and choir at school, Charity and Sky were surrounded by music and art. Their band feels like the culmination of that life—or perhaps just the beginning—but it certainly feeds off of a tangible sibling telepathy.
“Charity and I have been friends our whole life. When we were 6 and 7 we wanted to start a band,” remembers Sky. “Charity would get pissed because I would always quit the band. To this day we still fight all of the time about similar things.”
“It’s awful. But it’s kind of perfect by design,” says Charity. “I needed someone to always be there and it’s family law that he can’t avoid me. He’s obligated to be there.” •
See Betsy Ross at Independents’ Day, Saturday, September 19. Visit wearebetsyross.bandcamp.com to buy Dead Wild.