I was going to write about something else tonight. But sifting through some older downloads looking for inspiration, I got stuck in the rich, lush americana sound of singer-songwriter Martha Scanlan's 2007 debut The West Was Burning, and I just couldn't move on. It's been a while since we featured a single release here on Cover Lay Down, but it's also been a while since music struck me as powerfully as this. And so a post is born.
A few years ago I managed to make it to the upper Hudson Valley for Clearwater, a folk and enviro-political action festival which leans towards the old-school stringfolk music of festival founder Pete Seeger and his modern inheritors. I saw plenty of great acts that year, from Natalie Merchant and Jeff Lang to Donna The Buffalo and Toshi Reagon, and loved them all. But my favorite act was a string band, a small group of very young old-timey performers I discovered quite by accident as I rounded a corner past the workshop stage. They were called the Reeltime Travelers, and they were new on the scene; their music was pretty traditional, but done so well and with such high energy, I walked away from the festival with their album.
Since I last saw her in the early days of the Reeltime Travelers, Martha Scanlan has undergone a transformation. Her work with the Travelers and as a songwriter on the Cold Mountain soundtrack was marvelous; subsequently, she won both first and second prizes in the bluegrass and country division of the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at Merlefest in 2003 for two songs on the Reeltime Travelers' second and final album Livin' Reeltime. That success gave her the strength and credibility to leave Reeltime Travelers behind and make a solid name for herself as a solo artist. And though I'm a little late to the table in finding it, her debut release The West Was Burning, released last February on Sugar Hill, is absolutely stunning.
Scanlan's sound is wonderful, delicate folk in the pure americana vein, a stripped-down version of Lucinda Williams or Kathleen Edwards, light where it should be but with great, lush production in turn, full of fiddles and mandolin and slow country bass. The old-timey sound is still there, but it's been slowed down and fleshed out into something much richer, and eminently more powerful. Martha writes Montana so well, its as if someone came down out of the hills with a dozen newly-discovered, fully-fleshed traditional songs, pre-boiled down to their essential elements, with every lick and lyric perfect after years of evolution. Her voice is endearing, and suits the music well: delicate and pure, innocent and wise all at once. Add Levon Helm and his daughter Amy on drums, and the stellar production of americana master Dirk Powell, and you can't help but have a success on your hands.
You'll have to buy The West Is Burning for transformative originals like the delicate Seeds of the Pine, and the driving americana rock beat and full-band jangle and twang of Isabella - though you can hear a few more tracks, including a great live version of tradsong Old Rocking Chair, at Martha's Myspace page, and if you're in Manitoba this weekend, you can catch her at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. But don't miss this sweet No Depression-flavored piano-tinged Dylan slowdance, and a perfect mountain ballad transformation of one of my favorite old hymns. I've even included a parallel set of covertunes from that self-titled Reeltime Travelers debut album, for comparison's sake, so you can hear the evolution of Martha's sound and sensibility.
- Martha Scanlan, Went to See the Gypsy (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Martha Scanlan, Ten Thousand Charms (aka Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing) (trad.)
- Reeltime Travelers, Hardtimes in New York Town (orig. Bob Dylan)
- Reeltime Travelers, June Apple (trad.)
- Reeltime Travelers, Little Johnny Brown (trad.)
Just for fun, today's bonus coversongs provide an exercise in comparative listening: