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For just a moment, suppose Dorothy and the scarecrow were star crossed lovers.

CD Review: Russ Rentler – Scarecrow’s Lament

What is obvious about Russ Rentler from the initial listen is that he is first and foremost a songwriter, and a quite talented one at that. Scarecrow’s Lament is a collection of self-penned folk ballads (except for two tracks) which draw on easily identifiable emotions. If that weren’t enough, he alone provides most of the traditional instrumentation behind the lyrics.

Russ Rentler began playing stringed instruments when he was in the fifth grade, starting with a ukulele he purchased with S and H Green Stamps. Aside from becoming quite talented on the hammer dulcimers, he later went on to begin building them and often uses his own on stage. Traditionally, Folk music is known as being “music of the people,” and this rings true in the songs that Rentler delivers. Even though he dabbled in other forms of music, including heavy metal bands in high school, he developed what became a life-long love of acoustic music and continued to pursue his passion while he attended Medical School.

That love becomes more then evident on the stunning “Crossing the Tiber.” It’s a beautiful musical piece, rich in tradition and featuring interesting melodic lines. A second instrumental piece is the traditional “Farewell to Whiskey” which features Russ playing the diatonic autoharp. It is one of the two songs that were not penned by Rentler, and has a tradition Irish Folk feel to it. Short, coming in at just under 2:05, it is long enough for you to appreciate just how good he is with the instrument while keeping the melody fresh.

The title song, “Scarecrow’s Lament,” is one that really showcases Rentler’s unique ability to craft a traditional “folk ballad” with a not so traditional storyline. The track supposes that “Dorothy and the Scarecrow were star-crossed lovers,” and spins the tale of the downhill spiral that happens when they act on that love, of course emphasizing how it would have all been different if “he only had a brain.” What I find so distinctive and enjoyable about “Scarecrow’s Lament” is that it takes characters familiar to most everyone, and puts them in completely foreign circumstances (to their original tale) but identifiable to the normal human existence. The song won honorable mention in the 2005 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest, and is the stand-out track on the CD.

Like all of Rentler’s songs, and folk in general, his songs are based in that human experience. A good example of this is “New Car Smell” which was recently featured on NPR’s Car Talk and is a catchy ode about just how quickly that aroma we are all so fond of disintegrates into something extremely different after an extended road trip. It’s the shared knowledge, or the “been there, done that,” emotion that makes it an appealing song. It is quirky and fun while being factual and entertaining.

I was curious about “Waltzing Amelia” from the moment I read the title on the CD cover, wondering whether or not it would be a tribute or spin-off to the Australian folk song, “Waltzing Matilda.” In actuality, the main similarity is that both songs share a waltz beat. Another resemblance is that “Waltzing Amelia” is a very quaint and traditional in its melody and instrumentation. On this track Rentler’s lyrics are wistful and have a longing to them.

Tom Wetzel guests on “Fool for a Doctor,” playing violins. This is another songwriting gem, backed by traditional instrumentation. It is yet another example of how Rentler spins tales that are a brilliant blend of modern voice and tradition. Sounding almost like a soap-opera, it is about a doctor who can only continue in the wake of regret with the help of his “mistress” Demerol. It’s a tragic tale, but it’s beautifully executed.

By far the most humorous track is “One-Eyed Grandma.” What Rentler describes is a far cry from the lovable elderly woman one thinks about when they think of Grandma. Instead the woman described is an abrasive smoker and drinker. In typical folk or even old school country, it’s a loving tribute set to banjos and harmonicas.

Russ still practices medicine as well as perform his music in bookstores, coffee houses, schools, churches and music houses in the eastern PA, NJ and NY area. The artist’s website features a biography, current news, as well as audio links. Scarecrow’s Lament is a CD I can whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who enjoys folk music, or even songs based on real emotions and experience that are backed with expertly executed instrumentation.

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