October 2008

Rosalie Sorrels - Strangers in Another Country: The Songs of Bruce "Utah" Phillips
Red House RHR CD 214
Format: CD
Released: 2008

by David J. Cantor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

If you haven’t heard of Rosalie Sorrels, one of America’s great folksingers (with 24 albums), it is probably because "Folk" signs long ago vanished from stores and the few great labels that purvey true folk music don’t have promo budgets that make for pop hits. In Strangers in Another Country: The Songs of Bruce "Utah" Phillips, Sorrels’ unique voice, wit, and soul show us what distinguishes folksong from the rest -- and why its inherent irreverence, independence of thought, and idiosyncrasy might not appeal to the star-maker machine.

Her lifelong friendship with Phillips and vast knowledge of his work might add some poignancy at the margins. But her big talent, artistry, knowledge, and beyond-thoughtful song selection are what really account for the album’s power. Careful recording and production capture the gripping nuances of Sorrels’ vocals, Peter "Madcat" Ruth’s harmonica, Jay Ungar’s fiddle, and subtle, masterful work of other wonderful guest artists.

The 22 tracks, including seven very interesting spoken ones, forge a coherent whole, dense with the humanity of personal experience made universal. Noting a few highlights can only hint at topic and feel. "Starlight on the Rails," which opens the disc, hauls the listener, as if by freight car, into the American Southwest Phillips loved and evoked. "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia" poeticizes a poverty-stricken woman’s answer to Phillips’ question, Why do you stay in such a poor community?

"Ashes on the Sea," inspired by another great folksinger’s last physical traces, might close a more nostalgic tribute album. But Sorrels defies cheap sentimentality, singing at the end "… I’ll ride those trains again" to the CD’s most hoppin’ beat. Check out this disc and you’ll want to hear lots more Sorrels -- and Phillips!