A consistent delight"
Rambles.NET ~ Jerome Clark ~ USA
Nancy K. Dillon,
Roses Guide to Time Travel
(Rose Rock, 2010)
Nora Jane Struthers,
Nora Jane Struthers
(Blue Pig, 2010)
Here are two CDs by singer-songwriters you probably haven't heard of. Of course, I could say that about two of a whole lot of singer-songwriters. The difference: chances are, you'll fall in love with both of them by your second listening, and probably sooner. As I have had occasion to express in this space before, I'm as cynical about singer-songwriters as they come. I also tend to assume the good ones are the ones I already know. Believe me, it is good to be surprised once in a while.
Nancy K. Dillon and Nora Jane Struthers reside on opposite sides of the country (Portland, Ore., and Nashville, Tenn., respectively), and more than a few years separate their ages (Struthers looks barely in her 20s). But aside from a common, richly realized talent, they share a deep affection for America's traditional folk music. From it, they have fashioned something that is in one sense old-fashioned and in another modern, in the best sense. The music speaks movingly to the continuity of past and present, where the place you were takes you to the place you are and will be.
The landscapes, though, aren't identical. Struthers' is Appalachian country, and not just in the sounds of fiddles and banjos and in the occasional bluegrass touches. (One hopes, by the way, that bluegrass bands take notice of her and start covering her material. Even the songs she does in non-bluegrass -- if always acoustic -- arrangements are easily adaptable to the genre.) Dillon's, on the other hand, is the Pacific Northwest, and her generational experience acquaints her with Woody Guthrie, Fred Neil and Townes Van Zandt, among the most audible (though hardly defining) influences. Guthrie is even a character in Dillon's terrific family chronicle "Last Town on the Line," which follows the opening cut, "All the Pretty America," a melancholy lament for a lost nation, a sort of counter-"This Land is Your Land."
If a communicator of life wisdom, Dillon never preaches but always feels like splendid conversation, a shrewd and compassionate storyteller with an ear for melodies that are quick to please the ear and slow to leave the memory. The production melds her acoustic guitar with the sound of a small, semi-electric band periodically incorporating banjo, fiddle, cello and more, none ever taking up unwanted space. A consistent delight, Roses Guide to Time Travel carries a whole lot more substance than your standard rootless singer-songwriter fare.
Likewise Struthers' self-titled disc. Any doubts on that score are quashed instantly. The very first cut relates a grim story titled "Willie" -- yes, the same relentless psychopath who stars in any number of bloody murder ballads, only this time as seen from the point of view of his victim. "Willie" is exquisitely crafted, and it's shocking in its unflinching, unsentimental maturity. Still, as an introduction to somebody's music, it is awfully heavy going. Surely it would have been better placed in the latter half of the program. One has to wonder at the decision that led to such a sequencing decision. Why, in fact, wasn't the second chosen to be first? The cheery "Mocking Bird," one of several pure bluegrass tunes, would have opened the door with a welcoming grin, not with a knife ripping through flesh (an actual image in "Willie").
Oh, well. Struthers offers up many pleasures, both down-hearted and high-spirited. If Dillon sings and writes from the experience of a longer life, Struthers seems to do so at an angle beyond her limited years. A strikingly effective singer with a sometimes spooky alto, she convincingly inhabits the personas of a range of rural Southern characters, even as she is herself is a product of New Jersey. She came to Appalachian music through her father's passionate love for it. (When she was a little girl, we learn, she waited every day for his return from work so that she could yodel to him. Awww....) That performers who grew up far from the Southern mountains -- Gillian Welch is another -- are able to make real music in that voice surely proves that Appalachia's ballads have become as broadly American as Mississippi's blues.
"Cowgirl Yodel #3" is her tribute to Patsy Montana, fondly recalled for "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." It's a pity she didn't live to hear Struthers, whose song is as ridiculously entertaining as Montana's was in its time. The yodeling swoops down upon unsuspecting listeners to transport them -- on horseback, presumably -- to that rangeland in the sky. The disc closes on a graceful note with an inspired reading of the traditional "Say Darlin' Say."