Donna Hughes,
(Running Dog, 2014)

Donna Hughes,
From the Heart
(Running Dog, 2014)

Donna Hughes, who used to record for Rounder (something that can be said of many bluegrass acts), sets out on her own on these two discs. Only one, however, is a bluegrass album. Even before you hear it, you'll have observed that From the Heart boasts, astonishingly, no fewer than 21 cuts. Except for reissues and collections, that's unheard of in a genre in which many releases feature 10 tracks; I've heard some that didn't reach that number, and I'm talking about CDs marketed as full-length. What's more, Hughes wrote all but two of the songs.

That Hughes is a relaxed, amiable singer in a country-pop vein will become immediately evident to those who may not have heard her before the moment the opening cut ("Hard Hearted") spirals out of the speakers. The quality manages to hold up throughout the hour and 14 minutes that comprise Heart. Masters Scott Vestal (banjo), Rob Ickes (dobro) and Tim Stafford (lead guitar) play in her backup band. The production is spare, clean and melody-focused, with plenty of space for Hughes's vocals.

I happened to be listening to Richard Thompson's Acoustic Classics around the time Hughes' release showed up in my mail. Though they have little else in common, Thompson and Hughes both may be fairly characterized as rooted in distantly related musical traditions. I was struck specifically, though, by the different ways songs are imagined and written. Thompson's is the music of the Big Statement, Hughes's of the Quietly Observational. Happily, the universe has room for both approaches. Thoroughly in charge of what she does, Hughes specializes in the quotidian: ordinary life, the passing scene, romance's changing fortunes, death, faith. A wry, vexed humor finds expression in "Facebook" and "Walmart Checkout Line," as close to biting social commentary as Hughes gets.

There's nothing not to like here. It's the sort of album both bluegrass fans and those ordinarily indifferent to the genre can enjoy equally. But it does generate reflection on how bluegrass' center of gravity keeps shifting. From the Heart is not exactly traditional bluegrass, but it's hardly modern or radical in the sense of much of the music I hear these days from younger self-identified 'grass bands. This is "modern bluegrass" as it would have been defined a decade or two ago. Today, its approach is characteristic of what much of the core audience, past controversies forgotten, accepts without a single collective eye blink.

Perhaps to demonstrate her versatility, alongside Heart Hughes releases Fly, which is in no sense a bluegrass record or even particularly a country one, notwithstanding a strong reading of Fred Rose's country-folk masterpiece "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Seven of the songs also appear, albeit with very different instruments, on Heart. The dozen cuts come in chamber settings: piano (Hughes), cello (John Catchings), violin (Jenee Fleenor) and bass violin (Mark Fain). Those violins are definitely not fiddles. Fly is pleasant and nicely executed, but the conclusion seems inescapable that Hughes may be a bluegrass musician less from the heart than in the arrangement of a given song.

music review by
Jerome Clark

24 January 2015

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