Why did it take so long for me to come to my senses and pick up on Americana and bluegrass? Now in my forties, having had a childhood where my father and I would play old folk songs on guitars at home, you’d think there would be a natural progression from those days to an appreciation to the folk- and country-infused traditions of these musical styles. But until the last decade, I thought Americana was country and I didn’t want to listen to that country twang.
I’m older and wiser now, though, which is why I was thrilled when Mandy Fer contacted me to ask if I’d mind listening to her new album, a collaboration with Dave McGraw called Seed of a Pine. So I checked it out online and listened to a few tracks. I think before I’d finished the first song I sent an e-mail back saying I’d love to hear the rest of the album. And it didn’t disappoint.
The stripped-down arrangements—minimal guitars, piano, fiddle and voices—works beautifully to share the feel of a particular track without over-engineering any song. Each tells a story that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as it does in much of the current pop and R&B music played on radio. These songs manage to intertwine a deep passion between the notes of the harmonies composed by McGraw’s baritone and Fer’s soaring, sultry vocals. Accompanying the duo are acclaimed musicians Peter Mulvey, Po’Girl songstress Allison Russel, and Chicago’s JT Nero (of JT and the Clouds).
The tracks run from more traditional folk with simple melodies (“Seed of a Pine”) to more blues-influenced (“Serotiny (May Our Music)”) to the Spanish-infused (“Comin’ Down”) and many that defy categorization. But that’s part of the Americana tradition, weaving styles as suits the story.
“Waking the Dreamer” has to be one of my favorites. It reminds me a bit of some of the songs from The Swell Season (duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) on the Once soundtrack. There’s a rise and fall, and a sense of hope about the lyrics—”Waking the dreamer / for you for you”—amidst a steady drum beat and the pairing of electric and acoustic guitars.
Within the melody and hopeful words of “Western Sky” are some echoes of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” A simple guitar strum pattern with the entwined voices of McGraw and Fer tell a story of love and support, as does the line, “This time I’m really coming home.” You know that feeling when you know you’re going home to stay for a while? Or when you find the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with? “For you took this heart of mine and you placed it in your eyes,” the song says, “You gave me peace of mind and with it I’ll decide / That you will be the one when I lay my body down.” I’d be surprised if this didn’t become the wedding song for more than a few people in 2012.
And “Serotiny (May Our Music)” starts with a blues beat while speaking of the landscape of the heart and memory. Though I’m not sure if the couple in the song are playing music to the gods as an offering or the offering is between the pair of them, but they want to be heard. As they play guitars in the field, they sing, “Play for me your favorite song, pull me up into your sky / Where the thunder speaks in crazy tongues / And the gods do not decide.” The melodies soar, tugged along by steady guitars.
I could talk about all of the songs on this album until the cows come home. Honestly this is one of those Jerry Maguire albums which “had me at hello.” If you’re a fan of modern folk and Americana, you can’t go wrong with Seed of a Pine.Powered by Sidelines