2018 NERFA CD Reviews

Pickup Cowboy  — Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys

There is not much more satisfying than a new Jonathan Byrd CD. Byrd has a way of projecting authenticity in his view of people who live close to the earth. As Mare Wakefield put it in Performing Songwriter: “Jonathan Byrd doesn’t sing songs; he sings truth.”  Amen. The protagonist of the leadoff title track drives an old pickup with two bald tires and eats buffalo jerky and Tupelo honey for breakfast. On track two, “Tractor Pull,” the lead character tells us: I met my baby at the tractor pull / She dropped the hammer on my heart and soul. It’s a love story with a rock and roll soundtrack as its snarly, twanging rockabilly lead guitar will attest. “Temporary Tattoo,” which we heard in the formal showcase is here with the saw solo in all its wonderful weirdness (thank you Johnny Waken). Likewise, “Lakota Sioux, “ the short history song/lesson by Jonathan’s friend Matt Fockler that we also heard as part of Pickup Cowboy’s showcase. The searing truth of the U.S. Army’s history must be shared and remembered: Then they took their souls / when they took the buffalo / then they took them families’ blankets riddled with the pox …This is a precious album and it bears repeated listenings.

Finding You EP — Bruce T. Carroll

Bruce Carroll has a raspy voice, just perfect for rendering his true-to-life lyrics. I heard him sing “Just Like Finding You” in the guerrilla showcase room across from ours and I was hooked. How do you appreciate a lover? Maybe like this: She was like finding calm inside a hurricane / like finding money in the road / like finding God before you go insane / like getting all you were ever owed / It was just like finding you. The minor chords and the cello backup reach into the listener’s heart and squeeze it. “Fox in the Henhouse,” the leadoff track, was another one that left its echo in my brain. The lyrics cover a lot of what has happened to our country, our pride in our achievements and in the demise of our communal structure, financial and otherwise. The culmination is something all too recognizable: Now he’s a stone cold liar / he’s a well-known cheat / He’s a soulless coward / brought up on easy street … It seems to point at a particular someone, but there is, I’m afraid, more than one “fox” in our henhouse. Hearing the hard-won realizations in the other personal musings on this recording are like having a heart-to-heart with an old friend over a bottle of wine. I can always use a friend like this.

Shake the Love Around — Suzie Vinnick

Acoustic Live’s favorite Canadian blues goddess begins her newest album with a jolt of funk. “Happy as Hell” suggests that if the listener didn’t know better, they’d think the singer might be a New Orleans native. Suzie’s vocals drip honey on every groove and her huge guitar chops throughout are no surprise to anyone familiar with her live performances. On track two, “Golden Rule,” she gently buttonholes the listener into a bit of sociological rumination with: Hearts can be tender, hearts can be cruel / (Is it) me for me and you for you / Or will we live by the Golden Rule? “Watch Me” is a low-down rockin’ boogie treat with some snarly lead patterns. Suzie’s cover of John Fogarty’s “A  Hundred and Ten in the Shade” shows how the softness in her voice can increase the drama in a song. “Beautiful Little Fool” is a gentle rocker of a love song that might prod the listener into wishing the song was directed at them. We’ve had a schoolboy crush on this Canadian songbird for some time, so what else is new?

Ready to Go — Reggie Harris

Ready to Go is a call to action by this brilliant and gifted singer. The title track, a inspiring rave-up, leads off this album and it invites the listener to join Reggie on the journey to a better world. Over a Celtic-style fiddle, he sings Glory Hallelujah, I’m ready to go. It’s easy to envision an audience clapping along. “Love Guides the Wounded Heart” is a look back in sorrow. Five years after the Newtown school massacre with no meaningful change in gun-control laws prodded this song into being. Connecting the nation’s present and past, we hear: No more action block for me and violence is a bitter friend. “Hickory Hill” came from a visit to the plantation of that  name whose master’s coupling with a slave brought Reggie’s family into existence. Hickory Hill, we’re on hallowed ground / walking’ side by side, wondering what we’ve found / Hearts break open wide across the great divide. “Been Down into the South,” adapted in 1962 from a African American spiritual, and sung a cappella. Well I never been to Heaven but I think I’m right  / I don’t want to go without my voting rights / And we sing Hallelujah freedom! Hallelujah freedom! Hallelujah freedom! / Been down into the South. Reggie ends the album with a cover of  Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” demonstrating that he hasn’t given up hope. Perhaps this gorgeous album will transmit hope to stressed listeners, this author included.

Sweet Creature EP — Sophie Buskin

Recounting the first time I heard the title track of this EP in last year’s December issue, I wrote: “Her song, ‘Sweet Creature,’ took the listener back to when life’s journey followed the heart to ecstasy or madness … or both.” This song collection offers an opportunity to once again accompany Sophie on that journey. The delicacy of the production creates a haunting effect. Listening avidly to the encounters in this artist’s life, sung with her solid, yet airy alto, we witness her evolution. There is a lacy quality to “Strange Things”  that is perfect for describing this singer/poet’s ever-evolving state: a spinning pinwheel / a crimson scent upon the wind / the winding foothills  / the sky breathes out and she breathes in again. We’re looking forward to many more songs and albums from this still-budding wonderkind.

Lost in the Words, Lost in the Music — Ronny Cox

I’m glad I got to hear the famous actor Ronny Cox live at NERFA. He can certainly carry a tune, but his greatest gift is as a storyteller, both in spoken word and in song. This CD was made at a WMFT live “Folkstage” concert (host, Rich Warren) and includes anecdotal introductions to each song. My favorites include “The Night John Huston Died” ( … Yes … but do we have enough bullets? … Then give them hell!)  and “Story About Mary / Facts” ( I know the great secret to our fabulous marriage — I married up! … “What?! — all men do!”) The stories and songs are wide-ranging and hold the listener’s rapt attention. I’ll be sharing this collection often.

Taarka — Fading Mystery

After learning that Taarka and its personnel have performed onstage with members of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Darol Anger, Keller Williams and Taj Mahal, it seems miraculous that we got to hear the core members, Enion Pelta-Tiller and David Pelta-Tiller perform in a small hotel room. It’s additionally fortuitous that we got to take home a CD with us. The leadoff track, “Carried Away,” is a perfect example of why the group has been described as “a collision between Django Reinhardt and David Grisman.” Enion’s airy alto caresses the lyrics while her fiddle waits for its chance to shine on the instrumental break. David’s fingers race along the mandolin’s fretboard and their voices blend perfectly on the choruses. “What My Darlin’ Says” is an instrumental piece, and what a tour de force. Both fiddle and mandolin work together in a super-caffeinated dance. “I Could Really Use You Now” is very much like a collaboration between Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.  The lyrics float over a bouncy, heart-racing melody: If you want me you could use me / please use me / Because I could really use you now. When the listener’s heart slows down, the next track, “Don’t Go,” unfolds in a stately contemplative, whirling melody exploring life’s mysteries. Enion’s voice implores the listener: Don’t go looking for prophecy / It will all unfold as it should be … further instructing … It is written in the stars to be read / Not in the cards but in your head / Not on your hands but in your heart / Each cell and sun’s a work of art. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a precious gift to any listener. The album bounces back with “Retreat,” another Djangoesque thrill ride. The album ends with a melancholy ballad for a lost love, a memory, captured as if in amber by Enion’s soft voice and gently caressing fiddle and mandolin of both principal players. We’ll be loving this album for a long time.

Second installment to come soon!


A live performance listings guide with feature articles on performers