November 1999

James Keelaghan - Road
HighTone HCD8101
Released: 1999

by Todd Warnke

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

[Reviewed on CD]If you’ve wondered where folk music has gone in the last days of the millennium, look no further than Canada and James Keelaghan. Road is folk without the hybrids. It’s not country-folk, not folk-pop, not folk-rock. No, Keelaghan is folk in way Woody and Pete were folk. Road is built on old-time values, with an unpretentious attitude, simple melodies, and sturdy arrangements, and telling everyday stories directly and without guile. This is not to say that Keelaghan is a Guthrie or Seeger clone; rather, in place of the slick veneer that covers up the failings of most of the current folk scene, we have here the real thing.

The songs on Road come directly from Keelaghan’s life. The opener, "Love What a Road," is dedicated to Keelaghan’s father and is a reflection on the paths and goals of an itinerant musician. "Number 37," inspired by real events at the Elizabeth Stampede (Elizabeth is a small Colorado prairie town about 30 miles from where I’m writing this, and I can personally attest to the quality of the rodeo) is perhaps the best song on the album. About a barrel racer and her bond with her horse, which is built on "gentle loving words" and not the whip, it captures the feel of that June afternoon perfectly. While racer and horse don’t win, the joy they share is greater than any win could offer.

At his best, this is exactly what Keelaghan is: informative, direct and personal. It is when he goes too far outside his own experience that he stumbles. For a Canadian songwriter to take on a shipwreck is to conjure directly a battle with Gordon Lightfoot. "Captain Torres" does just that. The actual story is more compelling than that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but it is also more interesting than the song itself. And "Who Dies?" is a full swing for the big statement that ends up as a pop fly.

Overall, Road is an enjoyable disc with several outstanding moments. Well played and recorded, it deserves to be recognized. I plan on looking up other of Keelaghan’s albums, starting with My Skies, which won a Juno award (Canada’s Grammy) in 1993.