Joan Shelley Credit: Ebru Yildiz

It took me a couple of listens before I realized that Louisville singer Joan Shelley was tackling Nick Drake’s singular ballad “Time Has Told Me” on her new six-track covers EP, Rivers and Vessels (released as a benefit for the antipollution advocacy organization Kentucky Waterways Alliance). Shelley’s honeyed, weightless voice can express both pain and empathy; it’s so distinctive that her interpretations of songs have a tendency to utterly remake the source material. Over a gorgeous lattice of gentle acoustic guitars played by Shelley and her musical partner, Nathan Salsburg, she gives an airy delivery to the measured optimism of the lyrics, as if her voice is stepping as lightly as her expectations. On J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia,” she’s shadowed by the gorgeous harmony singing of fellow Louisville vocalist Julia Purcell as she conveys bittersweet longing for a distant love—giving the tune a personal twist by substituting Bowling Green, Kentucky, for New Orleans as the place she dreams of returning to. Bonnie “Prince” Billy joins her for a lilting take on the devastating Dolly Parton song “The Bridge,” in which the narrator returns to where she met the lover who has since left her behind, pregnant; she announces that she’s going to end her life in the same spot, and you know she’s done it because the song comes to an abrupt stop. Daniel Martin Moore accompanies Shelley on a beguiling spin through the Connie Converse obscurity “How Sad How Lovely,” and she concludes the record with a stark reading of the traditional Scottish folk song “Silver Whistle.” Tonight Shelley performs with Salsburg, a peerless accompanist.  v