Tracy Nelson,
You'll Never Be a Stranger at My Door
(Memphis International, 2007)

Like her contemporary Maria Muldaur, also a superior practitioner of blues, r&b and country who got her start during the 1960s folk revival, Tracy Nelson has been around so long that it's easy to take her unflagging excellence for granted. That oversight is easily fixed whenever you hear her. The pleasure that follows from that experience leads you to wonder why it took you so long to get back to it.

Though most prominent as an r&b belter, Nelson sings with restraint and nuance on You'll Never Be a Stranger at My Door, which consists mostly of straight-ahead country songs. Some three or four might have "-folk" and "-pop" appended to the adjective. It's gratifying to be reminded of what Nelson sounds like, as she does once in a while, when she steps away from her usual blues-mama persona and delivers songs in quieter, more conversational interpretations. (This, let me point out, in no way demeans her blues singing, which would fail to move only a corpse any time.)

I like this CD, and I am sure you will, too. My one complaint, however, is that a few songs have been covered nearly to death, at least to the ears of anyone who's a halfway serious country fan. Her reading of Johnny & Ray Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" is agreeable enough, but no more memorable than many others', including those by lesser talents. On the other hand, if you're not immersed in the genre, maybe you will respond to it -- or to the Don Gibson standard "Oh Lonesome Me" (though the Cajun touch is surely a plus) -- with more enthusiasm than I am able to muster. Anyway, it's to be logged in Nelson's favor that at least "Long Black Veil" has not been dragged out before a mortified listenership yet one more time.

The best parts, which are there in abundance, are to be found in the lesser-known songs, for example the melancholic, melodic "New Way Out," written by Randy Sharp, a minor hit in 1982 for the forgotten Karen Brooks. Nelson and Guy Clark (who also contributes to the vocal work) collaborate on "Salt of the Earth," an outstanding country-folk ballad celebrating a decent man's hard-scrabble lot and his final, peaceful passing. Those with long memories will recall the Browns' "Three Bells," a 1959 country and pop crossover sensation and a translation of a 1945 French song. Yes, it may be borderline schmaltz, or maybe not even borderline, but this tear-dropping mini-epic of small-town life and death was overdue for re-airing. If it lacks the Browns' gorgeous harmonies, it still has that emotional punch courtesy of Nelson's sensitive treatment.

There's no flash or histrionics here, and no envelopes are pushed. Instead, it's solid craftsmanship and professionalism all the way through. Stranger's delights are quiet ones, but Nelson's measured voice delivers them splendidly.

review by
Jerome Clark

13 September 2008

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