Barbara Jo Kammer,
One Song at a Time
(independent, 2017)

John Reischman & the Jaybirds,
On That Other Green Shore
(Corvus, 2017)

Three things to know about Barbara Jo Kammer: (1) She is not a singer-songwriter; (2) One Song at a Time is her first album; and (3) She was 62 years old when she recorded it. As for that last, nearly everybody, as we know, gets recorded at a reasonably early age. As a rule only folk artists living in remote rural areas and "discovered" in their advanced years are the exception.

The Colorado-based Kammer arrives late to the game, it says here, because of a long struggle with alcoholism, which derailed any musical career she otherwise would have enjoyed. Having triumphed, she sings in a clear, compelling, comfortable voice. One Song amounts to a celebration of an existence unhobbled by addiction, no doubt why it starts with that Holiday Inn chestnut, Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now." Of course it's not really a bad song, and Kammer's arrangement is just different enough to render it less stale than one might have anticipated. Moreover, I don't doubt that the song's message of salvation, not necessarily of the religious kind, has meaning to her.

The songs that follow, only one an original, underscore Kammer's skills as an interpreter of worthy material from others, a lost art in an age when anybody wielding an acoustic guitar is automatically presumed to compose her own songs. It helps, too, that the album has an excellent producer, KC Groves, a founder of the late, lamented all-female stringband Uncle Earl. Groves, Kammer and the accompanying musicians work their way through an intelligent selection of numbers. The effect is a sort of splitting of the difference between Linda Ronstadt in her prime and the 1960s Judy Collins; in other words, the cuts range from country to folk to bluegrass, sometimes fusing them in evocative ways.

"Choices" (Billy Yates/Mike Curtis), a late-career hit for the late George Jones, tackles alcoholism from the perspective, I suspect, of one who knows the experience firsthand. I'm pleased to hear Caleb Klauder's "New Shoes," a decent representation of this overlooked songwriter's considerable gift. An inattentive listening to Robert Backlund's "In the Cabin on the Mountain by the Pine" would lead you, as it led me, to think of it as an effort to recall classic Flatt & Scruggs. In fact, it's a witty parody, in which the mountains are the Rockies, not the Blue Ridge, and the singer is heading in the opposite direction, to Los Angeles. Kammer's "The Winning Side," which concludes the album, borrows the melody of "Rosin the Beau" (attached as well to "Acres of Clams" and others).

The stand-out cut among 10 solid ones, however, is "Hard Promises to Keep," written by veteran Texas singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes. "Beautiful and true" sort of covers the territory in this wrenching account of a marriage sliding into futility and despair. Colorado bluegrass performer Greg Blake (whose guitar is ubiquitous on One Song) carries the male parts in typically exemplary fashion.

It's hard not to appreciate the talents of John Reischman & the Jaybirds, who have always brought an original (if tradition-rooted) approach to bluegrass. Actually, we call them a bluegrass group because that's as close a fit as we're going to get, but it's not always a particularly close one. This British Columbia-based outfit combines 'grass and stringband sensibilities, in the process exposing a deep grounding in the music's folk background.

As always on a Reischman recording, On That Other Green Shore's approach is, first of all, tuneful in the manner of a masterly ensemble that knows whereof it picks. A memorable melody carries each song and instrumental. The vocals and harmonies are sweet without ever hovering anywhere close to sickly so.

On one side are old fiddle tunes, not the standard ones, and venerable spirituals such as "Green Pastures" (not the song of the same name associated with Ralph Stanley) and "Don't You Hear the Lambs A-Crying." At the opposite extreme is a piece of amiable Beatles fluff, "Two of Us," attributed to Lennon-McCartney but manifestly the sort of light pop the latter made his fortune at. Bass player Trish Gagnon, who contributes several lead vocals, has a gracious style, at once straightforward and heart-touching. In short, it's John Reischman & the Jaybirds flying high again.

music review by
Jerome Clark

9 September 2017

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