International Folk Music Awards 2017 Artist of the Year Ordinary Elephant captivates audiences with their emotionally powerful and vulnerable songs, letting the listener know that they are not alone in this world. The collaboration of husband and wife Pete and Crystal Damore, their connection, and their influences (such as Gillian Welch, Guy Clark, Anais Mitchell) all meet on stage. "Two become one, in song...hand-in-glove harmonies surprise the listener with focused intensity and musical mastery," says Mary Gauthier. Their forthcoming album, Honest, was recorded in Nashville with producer Neilson Hubbard (Mary Gauthier, Sam Baker). Nashville studio staples Will Kimbrough (guitar) and Michael Rinne (bass) tastefully contribute only what is needed, letting the songs speak for themselves.
“Keep kind all that rises from your chest to your tongue. Don’t ever let your words undo the work you’ve done,” sings Crystal Damore on “Worth the Weight,” a song that beats at the heart of Ordinary Elephant's potent new album, Honest. In the song, it's a two-line enjoinder from an adult to a kid. In life, though, it's a mission statement for ourselves as much as for others. And the work that Crystal, along with her husband Pete, has done on Honest is both filled with kindness and worthy of praise.
Interestingly, if not ironically, in order to accomplish this new work, Crystal and Pete had to set aside the work they'd done previously, as a veterinary cardiologist and a computer programmer, respectively. The two met at an open mic in College Station, Texas, in 2009 and soon moved to Houston together. With her on acoustic guitar/lead vocals and him on clawhammer banjo/harmony vocals, the work of music continued on the side as both had full-time jobs, until they threw all caution to the wind and hit the road in an RV with Pete continuing to work full-time in tech.
Leaving the stability of a day job and the security of a career didn't come easily for Crystal. “It took a lot of time — and help from Pete — for me to get to the point that I was okay with leaving the career I spent my whole life in school working toward, to the degree that I was leaving it,” she admits, adding, “to be okay with the fact that it may not be what other people want, but it was what I needed, and that was the important part.”
Bitten by the creative bug at an early age, Crystal had set most of that aside to focus on school and work: “Living on the road, before doing music full-time, gave my creative side the breathing room it need to come back out.”
And, boy, has it ever come out now that they've both committed fully to Ordinary Elephant. In song after Honest song, the Damores take on what it means to follow your heart and eschew all the expectations, assumptions, and limitations projected upon you by others. They also use their own life experience to point out that the “safe” route can be anything but safe, as they do in “Rust Right Through.”
“I had a safe job and was on a safe life trajectory, financially,” Crystal says, “but those things were like a safety rail you reach for — a habit, a comfortable familiarity... something you’re expected to reach for. I was letting those things hold me up instead of learning to stand on my own. And one day, down the road, I would retire, and that job and those people who I thought I needed to please, would fall away, and I’d be left with me, not having lived the life I truly wanted or felt called to. That is not safe to my well-being.”
Another track that takes aim at playing it safe is the spirited bounce of “Jenny & James.” It's the story of an interracial couple, though, really, it's the story of any non-traditional couple targeted with shunning and shaming for being in love. As Crystal notes, “The 'safe' route of pairing up with someone of your same race and opposite gender is not safe to the well-being of many.”
The choices we make are not always easy or safe, but they are important. The songs on Honest speak, again and again, to being our truest, best selves, no matter who we are or where we come from. Indeed, every of us has a heritage, a legacy, a story, of which we are a part, for better and for worse. Each moment and memory a lesson leading us to who we will be.
The album's spunky opener, “I Come From,” looks back at the things in our upbringing that are worth holding on to. The more sober “Scars We Keep,” on the other hand, tosses out the things that must be cast aside. In it, Crystal sings, “These times are hard, and it’s harder to heal, when where you were born decides what you fear. It’s time to be a brother, not my father’s son. I was born to be a bigot, but that don’t mean that I am one.”
As Pete explains, “Detangling tradition from any particular negative aspect is complicated, and sometimes impossible. But it's necessary to change the tradition for it to live on and, hopefully, preserve its core as our culture tries to correct its failings.”
Pete grew up in Austin, Texas, in a big Italian family who gathered for big Italian meals, and he's quick to admit that we all live in bubbles of our own making or choosing. “I can only imagine growing up in a toxic environment,” he offers. “Without the perspective gained from travel and experiencing other cultures, it's nearly impossible to realize how toxic your world actually is. I can't fault anybody not overcoming. I'm not in their shoes. I know I can't change them by telling them they're wrong, but I do know that people can change when they see new things.”
People can also change when they hear new things, as a fan did when Ordinary Elephant played “Scars We Keep” on the main stage at Kerrville Folk Festival in 2018. Around 2 am, a man walked up to them in the campground, tears in his eyes, and said, “I want to thank you for that song you did tonight ... You changed my point of view.” Their response: “That is why we do this. Songs speak, and they can heal.”
Songs can also draw our attention to people and problems that we might not otherwise notice, as in “The War,” which takes on both the travesty of what war does to service members and the tragedy of what society does to returning veterans. It also connects the dots between different kinds of trauma and loss. For the song's protagonist, the war never ended.
“It caused him to lose his significant other, his home, his ability to maintain a job, and drove him to become an alcoholic,” Crystal says of the character. “The narrator represents the majority of the population, in that he does not know, first-hand, the experience of war, but the story shows him having compassion for this veteran and understanding that some choices are made for you and this can lead to an inability to make good choices for yourself down the line.”
Much like Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch, taking on the male perspective as a female singer/songwriter is something that Crystal does with ease and equanimity, though the reverse is not something that happens very often. Pete theorizes that, “In a historically male-dominated world, there's not been a lot of practice on the male side of idolizing women, or even being encouraged to empathize with their situations. Also, the expectation for men to be masculine is tightly woven through our culture and the everyday lives of men. A hesitation, conscious or not, would certainly present itself before performing a song on a big stage that's overtly from a female perspective, especially for a man who's not very secure.”
For Crystal, though, it's just about telling the story in the truest, kindest way. “I think part of it could also have to do with empathy,” she says, adding, “and empathy can take the form of telling someone else’s story in song, no matter what gender that person is.”
Which brings us back to “Worth the Weight” and its stunning chorus: “You will wonder if it’s worth the weight, the worry that wears you down. Half your life spent figuring out how to make the other half count.” Honest is worth so much more than its weight, and Ordinary Elephant makes every kind word count as it rises from their chests to their tongues.
Before I Go
Before I Go
Ordinary Elephant captivates listeners with their well-honed combination of insightful writing, effortless harmonies and intertwined clawhammer banjo and guitar. Husband and wife duo Crystal and Pete Damore have been performing together since 2011, but their 2017 sophomore release ‘Before I Go’ established them nationally and internationally. Quickly receiving the support of the folk community, the album reached No. 2 on the Folk DJ Chart for January of this year with their opening track ‘Best of You,’ not only setting the tone of the record, but capturing the No. 3 song of the Month slot. Crystal and Pete have lived the song’s message—being moved to create, perform, and put everything into what they do.
‘Before I Go’ is also exciting European ears. Upon his review of the album, Dani Heyvaert of Rootstime.be said “I remember when Gillian Welch and David Rawlings were here for the first time…I suspect that this couple is going to play in the same league in the foreseeable future.”
These were particularly welcome words given that it was Gillian’s playing which led to Ordinary Elephant’s particular configuration. From an early age Pete has been a guitarist, but once Welch’s “Hard Times” came across his car stereo speakers, the banjo beckoned. The realization of how well the clawhammer style he was unearthing complemented Crystal’s lyrically rooted singer-songwriter approach was a happy accident at the kitchen table one night, which led to many more nights of collaboration.
This collaboration of husband and wife, their connection, and their influences (such as Guy Clark, Darrell Scott, Anais Mitchell, Mary Gauthier, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West) all meet on stage. You see it, hear it, and then you find yourself truly feeling it. Pete’s understated, melodic and mellow banjo weaves through Crystal’s steady and clean rhythm guitar, and poetic lyrics are purposefully delivered in rich harmony, “like their voices were made to go together and we’d all feel deprived if for some reason they chose not to sing together.” (Bill Aspinwall, Texas Music Journal)
After growing up a state apart, Crystal in Louisiana and Pete in Texas, the two found each other at a weekly songwriter night in Bryan, Texas in late 2009. After a couple of years of co-writing and developing their sound, Ordinary Elephant brought their music to Houston with a move in late 2011. They recorded their 2013 debut album ‘Dusty Words & Cardboard Boxes’ there, which garnered a nomination for Vocal Duo of the Year at the 2014 Texas Music Awards. Today, they happily call the road home after shedding most of their possessions in 2014 to take on nomadic life. Living full-time in a van and travel trailer with their dogs, they are exploring the country, creating, and uncovering attentive audiences with which to share the conversation of their music.
2018 International Folk Music Awards - Artist of the Year (2017)
2018 AMERICANAFEST Official Showcase Artist
2018 Folk Alliance International Official Showcase Artist
2017 Kerrville New Folk Finalist
2017 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist
2017 NewSong LEAF Festival Finalist - Top 3
2017 Southwest Regional Folk Alliance (SWRFA) Official Showcase Artist
2017 Southeast Regional Folk Alliance (SERFA) Official Showcase Artist
2017 Folk Alliance Region Midwest (FARM) Official Showcase Artist
2017 January Folk DJ Chart - No. 2 album (Before I Go), No. 3 song (Best of You)
2017 Family Folk Chorale Songwriting Competition - 3rd Place
2016 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest - Folk/Acoustic - Gold
2016 Songwriter Serenade Finalist - 6th Place
2015 Southwest Regional Folk Alliance (SWRFA) Official Alternates Showcase Artist
2015 Songwriter Serenade Semi-finalist
2014 Texas Music Awards Nominee - Vocal Duo of the Year
2013 Music Doing Good with Lyrics songwriting contest winners