June 2001

Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin - Songs of the Carter Family
Appleseed Recordings APR CD 1043
Released: 2000

by David J. Cantor

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

[Reviewed on CD]Songs of the Carter Family reminds me what I like best about folk music: its ability to comment directly and clearly on important aspects of humanity. Traditional ballads, in this regard, are more reliable than most recent material, having been forged in the furnace of need. Difficult, often anguished, pre-phonograph and -Novocain existences did not lend themselves to "background music." This interpretation of 12 songs from the repertoire of the prolific and influential Carter Family (A. P. and his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle Addington Carter, who recorded about 300 songs from 1927 to 1942) not only highlights the Carters’ influence, but also suggests the Stecher-Brislin duet’s understanding of tradition -- not as something perpetuated because it is old, but as something into which performers must continually breathe new life.

That is what Stecher and Breslin do with "Away Out on the Old Saint Sabbath," "Meet Me in the Moonlight," "Motherless Children," and the nine other songs on this new CD. "Single girl, single girl, go ‘n’ dress fine, / Oh … go ‘n’ dress fine," begins "Single Girl, Married Girl," the third track. "Married girl, married girl, wears just any kind, / Oh … wears just any kind." Kate Brislin sings it, evoking, through the clarity and restraint of her technique, a mother singing to her daughter to pass the time during some task and to fix in the girl’s thoughts communal wisdom concerning proper behavior and a warning about the drudgery of marriage. "Single girl, single girl, goin’ where she please …, / Married girl, married girl, baby on yer knee…."

"Motherless Children" is another gem. Here, Jody Stecher joins in with harmony beginning at the song's second line. And what a sharp couple of guitar breaks! Not grandiose or groundbreaking, but quick and clever, elaborating on Maybelle Carter’s style and adding a playful dimension to what is, after all, a serious subject.

Stecher and Brislin manage to keep it light in so many songs about death, loss and other sad experiences by singing very straightforwardly -- more Judy Woodruff than Ashleigh Banfield. They don't drain the feeling out of the songs, but allow the listener to decide how much to feel. They also keep the pace lively. There's no browbeating or ponderous down time here -- the lyrical lines and the polished, brief guitar solos just keep coming.

The CD ends on a hopeful note, with "March Winds Gonna Blow My Blues All Away," a song attributed to A. P. Carter. "March Winds…" has so entered the blues pantheon that it might as well be in the public domain, its hopeful chorus of "Sun’s gonna shine in m’ back door someday / March winds gonna blow my blues all away" tells us that the bad times are in the past -- spring is comin’.

The album features only a few instruments. It does not achieve its high level of mastery through ambitious arranging or engineering -- it does it the old-fashioned way, by playing and singing real good.