A recasting of Kim Richey’s breakthrough album and a fresh but nostalgic release from Jim Lauderdale show the varied places Americana and bluegrass music can take us in 2020.
Kim Richey, A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer
Twenty-one years after the release of her breakthrough album Glimmer, Kim Richey revisits its songs in a more stripped-down style on A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer. These sorts of projects don’t always come off well; you can get the feeling the artist was too tired to come up with anything new to say. Not so here. Melodies and sentiments burn more intensely than on the original. Glimmer had a sound very much of its time. Richey’s mapley voice, always unmistakeable, has developed a sheen of gravitas it didn’t possess in 1999.
Just as important, the songs hold up. The slighter ones (“So It Goes,” “Good at Secrets,” “Gravity”) carry more weight in their new, more airy settings, thanks partly to Doug Lancio’s artful and sensitive production. The strongest (“Didn’t I,” “Can’t Lose Them All,” the sublime “Come Around”) feel cooler, or more studied, and somehow at the same time hotter, the emotions more precisely sketched.
A Long Way Back started as an acoustic project. It blossomed into something more lushly produced – witness the waves of atmospherics in the incantatory “Keep Me.” But the new arrangements serve the songs beautifully. Like the songs themselves, they feel both timeless and up-to-date in the milieu of Americana music today. If you’re unfamiliar with Richey’s work, this album would be a good introduction. If you’re a longtime fan of Glimmer, it’s well worth having too.
Jim Lauderdale, When Carolina Comes Home Again
Jim Lauderdale’s new album reaches back to old-school country and bluegrass, serving up down-home comfort food for the troubling stay-at-home reality of 2020. Co-written with the likes of Robert Hunter, John Oates, and Logan Ledger, and with backing from North Carolina musicians like the Steep Canyon Rangers, these songs are a conscious return to Lauderdale’s musical and regional roots.
Many of them rest on traditional themes of love and the lovelorn. (Though Robert Hunter’s lyrics to the catchy first single, “As a Sign,” bust things open with surreal images: “This morning the mountain came crashing through my door…This afternoon the hillside came rolling down the lane.”) Most of these skillfully composed songs sound like they could have been written in the 1950s and ’60s.
Banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and shining multi-part vocal harmonies establish a bluegrass feel. The style is purer in some tracks, like “Moonrider,” “Spin a Yarn,” and the haunting title track. Others swing more towards Hank Williams-style traditional country (“Misery’s Embrace,” “The Last to Know”).
The lyrics mostly sidestep cleverness in favor of heartfelt emotion. Lauderdale sings them with hardly a wink, and always with a sense of purpose, even if the meaning is now and again shrouded or ambiguous. What does “Carolina” signify in “When Carolina Comes Home Again”? A lost sense of belonging? Something philosophical, or even political? The simplest interpretation is that it’s the name of the absent lover. But the name is bound to resonate beyond the personal. Not that the album is without humor. Take a crack at “Cacaklacky,” another nod to North Carolina.
There’s a strain of the mythic too. The fanciful “Mountaineer” suggests legends of Irish faery folk, with an almost nursery-rhyme melody.
Not that far away up in the mountains
Are some people you might want to meet
First you gotta find em if you’re lucky
Walking through the flowers that are sweet
The last track, “Better Than You Found It,” asks if we’ve made our peace on this “earthly plane” before we die. But the evocative “Moonrider” looks far beyond the terrestrial: “There’s always kindred spirit up there to recognize / More like friends and neighbors relocated in the skies.” Appropriate for our troubled times, when we mostly can’t even see our friends and neighbors in person.
Both Lauderdale’s and Richey’s new releases bring the old into the new, each taking a different route but both reaching excellent results.