Kim Beggs,
Wanderer's Paean
(independent, 2006)

From a mixed family, her feet in both Anglo and aboriginal worlds, Kim Beggs lives in Whitehorse in Yukon Territory. She grew up in Quebec and Ontario, but she's called remote northwest Canada her home for more than a decade and a half. When we were exchanging e-mails after I'd requested a review copy of her CD (this is her second; I haven't heard the first), she remarked casually that it was -22 degrees Fahrenheit in Whitehorse that evening, then added -- without apparent irony or humor -- that "it's a dry cold." Somehow, the bitter Minnesota night encircling me suddenly felt warmer.

Her music richly endowed with sense of place, Beggs is a folk singer in the best old-fashioned sense. She mixes her own strong original songs with charmingly atypical arrangements of otherwise-familiar traditionals such as "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow" and "All the Good Times are Past & Gone," plus a plain-spoken, seriously moving reading of Bill Monroe's meditation on love and death, "Close By." The arrangements are largely acoustic, an updated approach to the old-time string-band sound, which means fiddle, banjo, guitar and upright bass, of course, but also dobro, slide, pedal steel and lap steel. Her interesting voice -- difficult to describe (let me try anyway: a little girl's with an old soul) but not like anybody's I can easily relate it to -- embeds itself in the lyrics, confiding with blunt honesty some very dark tales without the cliches too often associated with such narratives.

Most of her characters are victims of harsh circumstance -- poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, desperate rambling, wounds psychic and physical -- but they bear their burdens with stoicism and without self-pity. She traces their lives elliptically, which is to say she drops in at the apposite moment to provide color and detail while leaving the listener to fill in the stories between the verses. It seems evident at least one or two of these are true and pointed accounts of lost souls whom she knows and loves; no other reading of, for instance, "Heartache Shoes" is possible. The beautifully wrenching title song plays on "paean," a word used interchangeably with "pain." Perhaps less cosmically, her "Feel a Little Glum" -- were this a just world and, say, I my own grandpa -- would be a bluegrass standard.

Wanderer's Paean is the full-bodied, fully realized statement of a major artist. One might compare Beggs broadly -- only broadly -- to Iris DeMent or Gillian Welch, but a more accurate comparison might be to a young Sara Carter, if Sara Carter had lived and sung in a much colder climate. I am certain, at the very least, that Carter would be more than pleased with what Beggs has made of her 1928 recording of "Ain't Gonna Work."

review by
Jerome Clark

3 May 2008

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