Back in the mid to late seventies, when I had no hope of ever getting into bars, I was fortunate that a few of the old coffee houses in Toronto still hung on. Though long past its heyday when Joni Mitchell and Neil Young played there, The Riverboat on Yorkville Avenue was still the flagship around which the survivors rallied.
I loved the music and enjoyed the atmosphere of these places; but the things I liked about them most, lack of drunks and intimate space, were probably the very things that doomed them. Unfortunately these places also provided proof that people don't need alcohol to act like pompous twits too in love with the sound of their own voices to notice that nobody gives a damn about what they think or have to say.
It was my first meeting with the bizarre creature whom I've since come to call folkmusicseriosus. Male or female – I think they are interchangeable – they believe that its not music unless played on an acoustic guitar, songs have to be about something that "matters", and the proper place for emotions is on stage at the point in the song where you close your eyes to show how affected (sorry, effected) you are by world events or the disintegration of a relationship.
The species was driven to the edge of extinction with the loss of their natural habitat, the folk club, at the end of the seventies, but managed to hang on at the fringes of local folk societies making a royal pain of themselves. Unfortunately, with the recent surge of interest in traditional music, their population seems to have stabilized and even started to grow.
All of which makes the arrival of Folk Uke on the scene all the more timely. You'd be harder to come by better credentials for a folk duo then Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie considering their parentage and heritage, and their debut album, Folk Uke, does nothing to dispel that belief.
For starters they sound like they've been singing together forever, as their vocal harmonies are wonderful. They also have a good ear for what songs will work for them, and the covers they have chosen are ideally suited to their talents and their style. The opening song on the album, "Tonight You Belong To Me" is an old standard written in 1926, which they perform straight, but with just enough tongue in cheek that you know their not taking it too seriously.
But they also take the old Johnny Cash song, "I Still Miss Someone" from 1958, and do a beautiful rendition with achingly pure harmonies and an understanding of how this type of song needs to be sung. But they aren't their father's daughters for nothing and they have inherited both men's sense of mischief and sly humour.
If you didn't know the title of their second song and began by listening to only the sound of their voices you'd be expecting something along the lines of the first song, until you hear the lyrics. "Shit Makes The Flowers Grow" gives answer to the question every woman has asked at one time or the other of a particularly useless boyfriend: what purpose do you serve?
The vocals and the harmonies are as pure and sweet as any nice country girl could make it and the lyrics are hysterical (listen for Papa Willie supplying a very specific vocal harmony on this number – it's one word only so if you're not careful you could miss it). This song is only the beginning as Amy and Cathy demonstrate time and time again that not only are they wonderful singers and clever songwriters they have a wicked sense of irony.
But what really makes songs like "Motherfucker Got Fucked Up" work isn't the crassness of the language but their ability to play everything straight. You can't tell from the tones of their voices or the sound of the music whether the song you're going to be listening to is a sweet song like "Try To Say Goodbye" written by Jackie Guthrie or the satirical "In Case We Die".
While the former depicts the break-up of a relationship in real terms, the latter pokes fun at the idea of being scared of the future with lines like "We could trip over our own feet, or how about the psychos we could meet". In view of all those potential hazards it only makes sense to "kiss me one more time before you go".
Country music has long been the butt of people's jokes but usually it is sung by people who don't have the affection and respect for the music that Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson have. These are intelligent and well-crafted songs that show respect and admiration for the genre and that makes the songs twice as funny. Of course Folk Uke is also the first folk album I've seen that carries a parental advisory warning on the cover – so don't let your parents listen to it until you think they can cope.