Being the children of famous people can have its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side is the automatic recognition that comes with sharing a well-known name. On the downside there’s having to live up to whatever expectations the name signifies. On top of that there’s also having to deal with those who will whisper about people only making it because of their relations. So, in the end, while having a famous name may get your foot in the door, you’ll have to work almost twice as hard as the next person in order to gain the respect your efforts deserve.
Some artists may feel compelled to run as far away from their famous family name as possible to prove they can make it on their own, but it’s really not necessary. If you have talent it will show through no matter who you are or who you perform with.
When Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie released their first disc as Folk Uke a few years ago they not only proved they could stand on their own two feet as songwriters and performers, they also made no secret of their family ties. Let’s be real, daughters of Willie Nelson and Arlo Guthrie were never going to be able to hide from the world who they’re related to anyway, so they wisely owned up to it. In fact, both dads appeared on the first record in support roles.
While that first CD was fun to listen to the duo relied more on their sense of humour and intelligence to impress listeners than on their musical abilities. There were only a couple of moments which hinted at the true nature of their talent. Songs like “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow” and “Motherfucker” seemed like deliberate attempts to distract listeners from the natural sweetness of their voices and how suited they were to an older style of country/folk songs. Now, with their second CD, Reincarnation, released on November 22 on their own Folk Uke label, the duo, as can be seen through their choice of material, have far more confidence in themselves and their abilities as vocalists.
The opening track, a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” tells the listener right away the direction Guthrie and Nelson have moved in. Nilsson’s material requires just the right touch or it could easily slide into sentimental mush. Like a great many of his songs it’s deceptively simplistic while demanding a great deal from whoever attempts to sing it. The temptation would be to go over the top emotionally in an effort to “make something” of the song. However, it’s the song’s very understatement which makes it so powerful, and Nelson and Guthrie understand that perfectly. Their vocal arrangement is simple enough to allow the song to speak for itself, while the unaffected sweetness of their harmonies captures its emotions without getting in your face.
Of course being who they are they haven’t completely abandoned their rather wicked sense of humour. “I Miss My Boyfriend,” with guest vocals supplied by Skeeter Jennings, is one of the most biting and non-politically correct songs about abusive boyfriends you’re ever going to hear. In a letter from his prison cell an abusive boyfriend confesses to his girlfriend how he’s had a wife all along. Not to worry though, for while dragging your wife around by the bra turns out to be against the law, he’ll be free in a couple of years. With its sweetly sung chorus, “I miss my boyfriend/ Will you hit me/ Give me the beating of my life/ Take off your belt now/ Leave me a welt now/ Treat me just like I was your wife,” some might think the tune doesn’t take the subject seriously enough. However, if that’s the case, look up “irony” in the dictionary and then listen to it again.
Still, the lasting impression you take away after listening to this disc is that of two wonderful voices raised in song. Whether it’s the country-type tearjerker “Long Black Limousine” or the title track — a love song that truly crosses all boundaries — Guthrie’s and Nelson’s vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Even on the aforementioned tearjerker they bring an honesty to lyrics that in other people’s hands would sound cliched or downright stupid. They both seem to have an innate ability to sing unaffectedly. Whether on one of their own creations or in covering somebody else’s material they have the confidence in themselves to simply serve as the song’s interpreters and let it speak for itself.
On top of that their voices seem to have been made to sing with one another. Listen to the way they build their harmonies on “He Needs Me” and the effortless way their voices intertwine. Rare is the opportunity to enjoy the sound of two voices working together this well. In fact you get the feeling that regardless of what they sang, it would sound great. However, the music they’ve chosen here not only suits their voices perfectly, the songs also help to illustrate their remarkable emotional and intellectual range as performers.
Both Nelson and Guthrie could easily slide over the edge into being cloying and sweet, and probably make a killing in the adult easy-listening market, but thankfully they’ve taken a different direction and we’re the ones reaping the benefits. They might have famous musical parents, but this latest release only confirms that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie are deserving of recognition in their own right.
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