Ryan McGiver,
Troubled in Mind
(independent, 2012)

Singer/guitarist Ryan McGiver, who lives in a small town in upstate New York, delivers a quiet masterpiece in Troubled in Mind. In a time when "folk singer" has become all but synonymous with singer-songwriter, McGiver is one in the old -- real -- sense: a carrier of mostly traditional songs, plus two others (Neil Driscoll's "Tazewell Girl" and Randy Newman's "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father") that sound as if carrying the weight of ages on their shoulders.

Though a stonemason by trade, McGiver is not to be mistaken for a rustic figure. He's lived and played music in the west of Ireland and the east side of Manhattan. His producer Shahzad Ismaily has worked with cult acoustic artists like Bonnie Prince Billy, and this disc was cut in studios in New York City. But his immersion in various forms of grassroots American music, from the foundational blues of Skip James and Big Bill Broonzy to the old-time ballads of Buell Kazee and Doc Watson, has been nearly a lifelong passion to McGiver, now in his 30s.

Troubled in Mind focuses on his vision of Appalachia from his perspective in the Catskills. He sings in a measured voice as he recites lurid tales of homicide ("The Murder of Rose Connolly," usually known as "Down in the Willow Garden"), hanging ("Georgie," well known in America but of British origin) and war ("The Dying Soldier"), along with songs of pioneer life ("The Plains of Illinois"), parting ("Farewell Dearest Nancy") and death ("I Wouldn't Mind Dying"). The evocative cover art is by his uncle Neil Driscoll, who also happens to be a clawhammer banjo player.

The sound is stark, sometimes almost uncannily so. It's led by McGiver's lovely, precise guitar playing backed by various instruments, including stringed ones, pipes, clarinets, pump organ and occasional percussion. Not, in short, what one would ordinarily think of as traditional. There's something broadly akin to a chamber sound here, albeit so skeletal as to conjure up ragged ghosts more readily than tuxedo-clad classical musicians. While the level of musicianship is high, the feeling conveyed is deceptively understated; one has to strain initially to appreciate what the other instruments are doing. The performances first take one by surprise, and then proceed to beguile the listener into hearing the old and familiar in a fresh and rewarding way.

Exposed to McGiver's creative treatment of it, one reflects again on the astonishing durability of traditional music and its receptivity to reinvention. That receptivity is what keeps it alive. McGiver's connection with these venerable ballads and meditations is deep, and his musical skills are able to bridge decades and centuries. If you take the trouble to seek it out, Troubled in Mind will be as memorable as any recording you'll hear this year.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 June 2012

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