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Follow the Signs

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In 1976, a commercial showing a man in a wife-beater zooming down the highway while chucking trash out of his dingy, white convertible flickered across television screens throughout Tennessee. In the background, a tune by country singer Ed Bruce played, filled with admonishing lyrics like “Tennessee trash / Messing up the highways / Tennessee trash / Junkin’ up the byways.” It was the state’s first anti-littering campaign, and the commercial would continue airing throughout the next decade.

Forty years later, it appears Tennessee is experiencing a littering problem yet again. And this time, the state is using local celebrities to get the word out.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Americana-folk singer Valerie June trekked through a verdant highway median on behalf of the new campaign. Dressed in a bright red skirt and carrying an acoustic guitar, the dreadlocked singer posed for photos that will eventually make their way onto billboards bearing the slogan, “Don’t Trash Tennessee.”

“I hope this will get people’s attention,” she says later that day. “And maybe it’ll make people be more mindful and not want to throw trash out their windows.”

Though you won’t hear any overtly environmental messages in June’s new album, The Order of Time, the 35-year-old has always been in touch with Mother Earth, even if her songs deal more with “the ethereal realm” than they do the physical world.

“I think a lot of times, music can make you just want to take your shoes off and dance and feel the earth beneath your feet,” says the singer-songwriter, who grew up in Jackson, a rural city surrounded by farms and fields.

Staying connected to the planet is one way June has managed to survive living in Brooklyn for the last seven years. When she first moved there, she lived in Williamsburg, before deciding it “was too concrete” for her tastes. She now lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she has a backyard with “maybe about 50 to 100 plants” and a bay window that is so filled with greenery it “feels like a jungle.”

In fact, June says she makes an effort to surround herself with nature whenever she can, even when she’s on tour.

“As soon as I roll into a town for a show, I like to find a path and just go on a walk and get my feet on the ground,” she says. “That practice has put me in a place where I feel like I can connect with the earth and nature no matter where I go.”

Over the years, June has also learned a thing or two from her plants, namely patience. She began making music as a solo artist in the early 2000s, and her early years were tough both psychologically and financially. She supported herself with myriad odd jobs, cooking, cleaning, walking dogs, house-sitting, and working as a barista. She appeared in an MTV series about struggling artists ($5 Cover), and turned to Kickstarter to fund her early projects.

But though she says it was “exhausting always having to believe in your dreams when the rest of world didn’t see it,” June — who was recently written up in both Rolling Stone and The New Yorker — doesn’t regret the struggles she faced. In fact, she thinks of them as necessary steps to helping her get where she is today.

“I look at my plants and they’re growing and beautiful, but I see sometimes how it takes a plant a lot of strength to push through the soil,” she says. “So I think with all of these things, the timing has to be right. It has to be the right moment where the world is ready to hear whatever it is you’re doing. And you just have to make sure you don’t give up.”

June’s now at a point in her career where she feels more confident and willing to take on new challenges. While recording her first studio album, 2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone, June says she felt intimidated and “so fucking nervous.” It was her first time working on an album in “a real studio” with a budget and professional musicians, and her natural inclination was to watch and learn from others instead of taking the lead.

The second time around, with The Order of Time, she felt more emboldened to offer ideas and speak her mind instead of subsisting on the advice of others. And though it’s only been three months since the album came out, June’s already looking forward to her next release.

“Now that I’ve got a lot of trial and error and the skills from making two records under my belt, maybe I’ll be more involved in the production side of things,” she says. “When the time is right, you’ve just got to follow the signs, and I feel like that’s the way it will be for me.”

Valerie June
plays at 8 p.m., Monday, June 5, at Great American Music Hall. $22-$46.95; slimspresents.com

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Jessie Schiewe @j_schiewe

Jessie Schiewe was the Music Editor for SF Weekly from Fall 2015 to Summer 2017. She is now the editor and publisher of OK Whatever (www.okwhatever.org), an online publication dedicated to all things weird and strange. You can send her mail at jessie@okwhatever.org.

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