Fred Bailey,
Ain't Comin' Back This Year
(self-produced, 2002)

Fred Bailey has won a slew of folk music awards, and Ain't Comin' Back This Year makes it easy to hear why. Bailey has the snap and sound of an old-school folksinger. His lyrics have the polite but reckless fire of Woody Guthrie, while his guitar playing echoes Pete Seeger on a playful day. Bailey's autobiographical songs make it clear that he comes by his old-school sound honestly, having been there when it was new. But he still sounds fresh; his songs work in any era, and have moved on to deal with the problems of the present as well as the problems of his youth.

Nostalgia is given a much-needed kick in the rear from the first words on the album. "Ain't Comin' Back This Year" is a cheerful retort to all the songs of faded high school glory, remembering the less than brilliant early lives of the singer and his schoolmates. The exuberance of someone who escaped the pull of home swells the boundaries of the verses, spilling a little over meter and form for the sake of full thoughts without destroying the basic structure. "Windmills" shows a bit more respect for the past, and is shaded with soft regret. "Delaware County Line" has humor for the old ways and the new, celebrating the flaws that settled a land and the flaws that now cover it.

The faults of the past are honored, in sometimes painful clarity. "The Dunes of Lisdoovarna" gives remembrance of sailors lost on her beaches and gives a bit of comfort towards the spirits of all lost seamen. "The Widow McDaid" grieves for the lives lost in the struggles in Ireland, without assigning blame or giving up easy answers. "Welcome Home," while pointed directly at Vietnam veterans, clearly belongs to all the forgotten soldiers that drift through the world.

The sorrows of the past are answered with bright, optimistic songs of the present. "Flutterbys" is a wonderful relationship song, accepting the gaps in perception between two partners while celebrating the joy of sharing time. An unusual flute flits around the words, standing in musically for the flutterbys of the song. "Sing Me the Sky" also finds joy in companionship, and the friendly chorus of voices brings a welcoming feel to this traveling song.

The autobiographical songs are the most engaging on the album. "Clayton Comes to Town" is an awed romp with the mad visitor of a country town. Bailey, who lived through the thrill of Clayton, has his own take on those supposedly peaceful days. It's obvious that Bailey still loves his country roots. Besides "Clayton," there's the wonderful story "The Fargo Stable Fire." This retelling of a "rural legend" packs an entire Western into a few quick verses. Driven by mandolin and drumming guitars, it has drama and dark humor to spare.

The final song, "Protection," offers itself as a bit of advice. Cleverly turning suggestive lyrics to family friendly use, this musical dig at deceivers in all stages of life has an outspoken assurance. Given Bailey's traditional sound, it's almost shocking to hear such a defiant, nearly dirty song, and outright stunning to hear his answer to religion. "Protection" is a great choice for a finale; it shows off the humor, the deceptively simple lyrics and the relaxed music playing into a driven message that goes through the whole album. Fans of folk will find plenty of rewards for picking up Ain't Coming Back This Year.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 12 April 2003

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