Maya & the Ruins,
Take This Song With You
(MRM, 2012)

Though Maya Lerman lives in Virginia, Take This Song With You was recorded in Lafayette, La., in the heart of Cajun country. There is, however, no Cajun music on this disc, even as it mirrors Lerman's wide knowledge of other forms of American vernacular music. Except for her three co-written originals and a Tom Petty song arranged as if from another era, Lerman and associates (one of them co-producer Eric Frey of the Red Stick Ramblers) are attracted to old-time, honkytonk and traditional African-American music.

True, Maya & the Ruins cover territory often traveled since the 1960s folk revival. The originals, from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Elizabeth Cotten, Grayson & Whitter, Memphis Minnie and Johnnie Lee Wills, are readily available in reissue CDs. It's not hard to borrow this material, not so easy to make it one's own. Happily, Lerman and the band transcend all potential obstacles, not by reshaping the music with flashy new arrangements but by embracing the songs' endearing -- albeit anything but dim-witted -- simplicity. Yet these are not recreations of the originals. Rather, they're distinctive statements, sometimes incorporating electric guitar and drums, which capture the spirit, if not the letter, of rooted music. Music like this, one is certain, won't reach its sell-by date any time soon.

Lerman sings in an unadorned, slightly nasal voice that absorbs a range of downhome styles without evoking any one in particular. In this broad regard, it's no doubt worth noting that, once upon a time, black performers were as likely to listen to Jimmie Rodgers records as he was to listen to theirs, even if they occupied separate record charts, not to mention (legally enforced) separate social spaces. I might add that while Rodgers is judged a pioneer of country music, the genre signifier "country music" didn't even exist in his time.

As it entered the early years of the last century, rural music was becoming ever more a mishmash of styles stolen and adapted from heretofore detached musical communities. Even so, it's unlikely that the same artist would have sung both the lachrymose 19th-century temperance ballad "I Saw a Man at the Close of Day" and the blithely Prohibition-defying "Bootlegger's Blues." Lerman pulls them off very nicely, and few listeners will notice or care about the radically conflicting sensibilities.

She happens also to be a splendid songwriter, but she's a modest one who feels no need to overwhelm us with her own creations. So you can't call her a "singer-songwriter." She's something else -- a brilliant interpreter and a bold tradition-carrier -- of a caliber not often encountered. Take This Song With You is folk music at its most basic and honorable.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 June 2013

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