Martha Scanlan,
The West Was Burning
(Sugar Hill, 2007)

Two of the finest new old-time albums of the past decade were issued by the Reeltime Travelers, the latter of them in 2002. The Travelers are no more, having disbanded a couple of years ago. But those lucky enough to have heard them are sure to remember their unique, melodic approach to traditional material. They are also likely to recall guitarist Martha Scanlan's idiosyncratic vocals and emotionally depth-charged compositions.

Like those songs, the originals -- all but two of the 11 cuts -- on The West Was Burning, Scanlan's first solo disc, wed traditional-sounding melodies and arrangements to vocal performances that seem to cut through time and space, as if coming in on a wind blowing over open ground before a sun sinking on a distant prairie horizon. Her songs feel breathed as much as sung, but never hint at a distracting, self-conscious artiness. At her most evocative, Scanlan creates a universe out of fleeting shadows and ballad fragments.

If you read the lyrics, however, you will learn that they're often given over to conventionally romantic sentiments, if expressed more elegantly than most (though "Walkin'," while certainly no embarrassment, is fairly ordinary by any definition). I confess I found that discovery a bit of a letdown. It is, of course, arguable that I am being unreasonable, because these lovely dark arrangements -- and Scanlan's lovely dark voice -- do indeed carry the listener away, even if the place to which one is taken turns out to be one's own imagined destination. I am aware this may be a form of high compliment.

The arrangements are marked as much by their silences as by their sounds, and they are well-nigh perfection itself, as one would expect when the master Dirk Powell is running production. Much of the album was recorded at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y., with Helm himself showing up on the occasional cut to prove himself, one more time, America's greatest living folk drummer.

The breathtaking "Up on the Divide" -- from the title onward -- could have been a song that the late Kate Wolf did not live to write. Scanlan's reading of the relative Dylan obscurity "Went to See the Gypsy," surely about the composer's encounter with Elvis Presley in a Twin Cities hotel, is punctuated with unerringly dramatic precision by Helm's percussion, and emerges as a more interesting song than you may hold in memory from your last hearing -- awhile ago, I'll bet -- of Dylan's mostly humdrum 1970 album New Morning. "Ten Thousand Charms," the closing cut, is the grand old hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" by another title. It will lead one to pray that some day Scanlan will devote an entire album to its like.

by Jerome Clark
7 April 2007

Buy it from