Anna & Elizabeth,
Anna & Elizabeth
(Free Dirt, 2015)

Charlsey Etheridge,
Memories of Mine
(independent, 2013)

These two CDs showed up in my mail within days of each other, though one is a year and a half older than the other. Their arrival proved fortuitous. The two complement each other, not only in being the exceptionally accomplished work of strong, smart women singers of Southern identity and musical disposition, but in offering two related, though not identical, approaches to tradition.

Anna & Elizabeth showcases the talents, magnificent ones, of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, who are devoted to the preservation and perpetuation of Appalachian music in its fairly pure form. Not that they sound exactly like voices from some ethnomusicologists's field recordings. Anna has said, "We aren't trying to transport people to the past -- rather we are trying to bring the past back into the room, bring history to our understanding of the present."

Yet, paradoxically, their sense of Appalachian music-making can't be pigeon-holed as "old time" because it draws on more antique styles than the "oldtime" music defined by the string bands of the early 20th century (and of the revival bands, from the New Lost City Ramblers to Old Crow Medicine Show, of more recent decades). Anna & Elizabeth offer up a vision, touched gently by modernity, of the front-porch mountain sounds of long ago: intimate, personal, focused on ballad narratives and sacred sentiments. The singing and harmonizing are set to spare -- or sometimes no -- instrumental accompaniment.

Even more remarkably, most of the 16 songs come out of archival research and personal collecting efforts. In other words, these are in good part songs you haven't heard before, at least in these variants. The newest is the late Hazel Dickens' "Won't You Come & Sing for Me" and before that Bill Monroe's "Voice From On High," which Monroe first recorded with Jimmy Martin in 1954. Anna & Elizabeth reinvent this classic bluegrass gospel number as if it were from a remoter age. That's nothing next to "Orfeo" (Child #19, as "King Orfeo"), a tale of conflict with the faery folk which can be traced to the 14th century. Unusually, Anna & Elizabeth add a non-Appalachian instrument, uilleann pipes (played by Joey Abarta), to the proceedings. "Greenwood Sidey" (Child #20, as "The Cruel Mother"), a grim chronicle of infanticide from the 18th century, gets a terse, unsettling treatment.

"Very Day I'm Gone (Ramblin' Woman)" was learned from the late Kentucky ballad singer Addie Graham, also the proximate source for "Greenwood Sidey." It's a ruminative, understated variant of the more familiar "Reuben's Train," aka "900 Miles," "Train 45" and the like. I have known this song in assorted forms since high school, and it as much as any ignited a lifelong fascination with folk music. This adaptation conjures up noirish atmospherics; longing, travel, mystery and distance geographical and emotional well up out of the heart of darkness. Another of my all-time favorite songs gets justice here. "Goin' Across the Mountain," an authentic Civil War song associated with North Carolina's Frank Proffitt, is sung from the point of view of a mountaineer on his way to join "the boys in blue" and "give Jeff's men a little of my rifle ball," though it's anything but a jingoistic rant.

Knowing little of Charlsey Etheridge's background -- I am aware that she grew up in Georgia and now pursues a musical career in Nashville -- I have no idea if she recognizes the phrase "Child ballad." Certainly, none is to be found on her impressive debut Memories of Mine, which contains but a single secular folk song, "In the Pines," surprisingly and charmingly arranged as a Western swing tune. On the other hand, the Louvin Brothers' "Keep Your Eyes on Jesus," first recorded in 1962, is reshaped into an oldtime stringband piece.

The arrangements, nearly all acoustic but not bluegrass, affording something of the feeling of Emmylou Harris's 1980 Roses in the Snow, surround 10 classic Southern country songs and hymns, everything from "Filipino Baby" (a World War II-era hit for Ernest Tubb, the original dating to the Spanish-American War) to "Old Rugged Cross." Each is sung and arranged in affectionate fashion sure to please your ear, fill your heart, and maybe even extract a tear or two. Still, the high point has to be "Land of Beulah," a mighty old hymn which Etheridge takes into the spiritual stratosphere.

As I was trying to get a clearer sense of who Etheridge is, I came upon a review that likened her to the young Harris, a comparison that had occurred to me independently. It will likely strike you, too. Praise, of course, could hardly be higher, but it needs to be added that Etheridge's vocals, while of a related sensibility, are not clones of Harris's. She is indisputably herself. If Memories of Mine is a fair representation of what she's about, I hope we hear from her again soon, and often. Much as I love the late Jesse Winchester's "Brand New Tennessee Waltz," it's thrilling to hear the good old "Tennessee Waltz" again. It's been a while.

One small correction: "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" is not, as asserted here, classifiable as purely "traditional." The Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, who more than anyone created modern black gospel music, wrote the lyrics in 1932 after his beloved wife died in childbirth. The melody, however, is much older.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 May 2015

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