Kim Beggs,
Blue Bones
(Black Hen, 2010)

I reviewed Kim Beggs's self-released Wanderer's Paean in this space on 5 May 2008. Paean -- its title a play on "pain" -- was an often harrowing account, with strong autobiographical elements, of life on the margins in Canada's northern regions. Beggs lives in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, which to the rest of us, at least those of us who don't live there, may seem an unimaginably remote outpost. I say that, by the way, as one who dwells in a tiny Minnesota town that is close to nowhere except the South Dakota border.

On Blue Bones, her first CD for Steve Dawson's Vancouver-based roots label Black Hen Music, Beggs sings in front of a bigger band including electrical instruments (albeit not ones inclined to rock out), a departure from the bracing, starkly skeletal acoustic sound of Paean. Again, however, one hears that astonishing expressive little girl's voice -- though Beggs is hardly a child, either in calendar years or in hard life experience -- and senses that great open heart. While there's humor here (most entertainingly in the original -- in both senses of the adjective -- "Can't Drive Slow Yodel"), there's also an abundance of darkness. The darkness falls in the company of mental illness, alcoholism, imprisonment, relationships gone horribly wrong and death. It comes, however, with redeemingly strong performances and melodies that touch listeners without causing them to collapse in despair. Beggs manages to be at once unusually intense and fully listenable, and not only because of her musical talents. One has the impression of a truly decent human being behind all of this.

If at heart a folk singer, Beggs conjures up light doses of country and pop here and there. The ostensibly chirpy tunes that result may mislead the unwary, however. "Summertime Lonesome Blues," which sounds more summery than lonely, is about a love affair with a hopeless alcoholic. If you aren't listening to the lyrics, you wouldn't know that the bouncy country-pop "Terrible Valentine" concerns a woman who is walking out on a physically abusive relationship.

From a purely musical perspective, my tastes being what they are, I am reflexively more immediately drawn to the more straightforwardly folkish material, from the tuneful opening cut "Honey & Crumbs" to the unsparing true-life ballads "Mama's Dress" (rendered all the more potent by Steve Dawson's slide guitar and National steel) and "Firewater Blues." Shattering and beautiful in equal measure, "Longest Dream," which feels much older than its years, visits the last earthly hours of a kind-hearted man. It is a song only a courageous and mature artist could conceive, much less accomplish.

Few artists I hear these days cover other people's songs as movingly as Beggs does. As she did on Paean, she takes care to choose a Carter Family song (last time it was "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow"), here "Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," which came into the world in the 19th century as a sentimental parlor ballad. Beggs does it with something of a honkytonk arrangement, as if to acknowledge the melody's later incarnation in the early 1950s carrying "Wild Side of Life" (Hank Thompson) and its sequel "It Wasn't God Who Made Honkytonk Angels" (Kitty Wells). She also turns in a subtly, if effectively, erotically charged reading of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." The Jack Clement chestnut "Just Someone I Used to Know" closes the disc. One could complain that this classic country weeper has been done to death, but Beggs breathes into it some much-needed oxygen.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 October 2010

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