Custer LaRue,
with the Baltimore Consort,
The Daemon Lover
(Dorian, 1993)

In the music scene today, one frequently hears the term "crossover artist." It's not such a hard concept to grasp: an artist reaching out for a different genre. Custer LaRue, however, is almost an oxymoron: she's a classicly-trained folk singer and it's hard to imagine the two melding together so beautifully.

I first fell in love with LaRue's voice in her 2001 recording Amazing Grace, a compilation of spiritual folk songs of early America. When the chance was presented to review her 1993 CD The Daemon Lover, it didn't take much arm-twisting. Accompanied by the Baltimore Consort, this 16-track CD, produced by Dorian Recordings, features traditional ballads and songs of England, Scotland and America.

LaRue began her vocal training in early childhood and eventually studied at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

The Baltimore Consort has been together for more than 20 years and was founded to perform the repertory for Elizabethan consort, "a specific instrumentation consisting of treble viol, flute, lute, cittern, bandora and bass viol." As one of the leading early music ensembles, they are the perfect consort for LaRue's voice.

Two of the more somber ballads are presented for unaccompanied voice. "Lord Ronald" is a young man poisoned by eel's broth served by his sweetheart and "Queen Jane," the third wife of Henry VIII, dies in childbirth. With or without accompaniment, LaRue's voice is as pure as the air in her native Allegheny Highlands.

One of the more interesting songs is "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night." LaRue herself wrote this tune using text from The Pennyroyal Farm Songbook. Examples of Christmas songs from the Appalachian region -- "Jesus Born in Beth'ny" and "Lulle, Lullay" -- are also included.

The 20-page booklet that accompanies this recording details much of the thought process that went into the selection of the pieces. An example of how LaRue views her craft is this sentence in the brief biography in the booklet: "Custer approaches the ballad repertory with a respect for its antiquity and a care for detail as can be heard in her pronunciation of earlier dialects and languages."

It's impossible to listen to LaRue perform on just one level. On one level are the melodies and her vocal interpretation. On another level are the words -- the history and culture of the people who first sang these songs in another time and place. Either way, it's a comforting and beautiful experience.

Once Custer LaRues sings a song, it's hard to imagine any other singer doing it. She puts a definitive stamp on each song she sings.

- Rambles
written by Bill Knapp
published 23 November 2002

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