I adore Carrie Underwood, but the mainstream nevertheless remains guilty of cranking out bad country music. Now it’s updating it’s badness for a new generation. I recently heard a song on the radio whose chorus can be abbreviated as a texting acronym.
Gwyneth and Monko, on the other hand, focus on having the essentials: a singer with a moving voice and an amazing musician in Michael Monko.
The duo features songwriter Gwyneth Moreland on acoustic guitar and Monko on acoustic guitar and mandolin. Their hometown of Mendocino, a logging town a few hours north of San Francisco, provides the perfect setting for their traditional country music.
Despite having only two instrumentalists, you never miss hearing a bigger band thanks to Monko’s melodic lead work filling out Gwyneth’s songs. While not a jam-oriented record, he showcases himself during the ambling solo for “Good Old Horse,” dreaming up a surprising amount of notes to play. He almost cuts his fingers on the fast ballad “Jack-A-Row.”
The ballad-filled album covers themes of loss and love. A pleasantly different songwriter, Moreland stretches her range of topics beyond boy-girl crushes. On the title track, for instance, she muses about her 30-year-old horse. She plays various characters, like a gambler in “The Cuckoo.” The epic “Jack-A-Row” stars her as an upper-class woman in love with a sailor heading off to war. She acts out the lyrics with her great singing voice. Notice the barely concealed anger as a weary prostitute in “Lexington Ballad.”
No one says country music is a happy genre. Good Old Horse exudes a lonesome tone. Combined with the mostly-slow pace of the songs, it paints a picture of deserted country roads. The duo could have included an upbeat song to give the listener a rest, but one characteristic of good music is that it is palpable.