April 2007

Martha Scanlan - The West Was Burning
Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-1085
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Shannon Holliday

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

You may have previously heard Martha Scanlan during her involvement in the old-time band Reeltime Travelers, but be prepared to hear her again for the first time on her own album, The West Was Burning. Scanlan's talents as a singer, songwriter and musician take the forefront on this heart-and-soul solo release. Although she is joined by former Reeltime bandmates Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus, as well as talented drummers Levon and Amy Helm, there is no question that the stylistic brilliance and conceptual credit lie with Scanlan. She finds her groove instantly and maintains confident but unpretentious momentum throughout the disc.

On hearing the opening, self-penned title track, it becomes apparent that Scanlan has the kind of uniquely haunting, vibrato-tinged voice that is forever recognizable. For the majority of the album it is her voice we hear, sparsely paired with banjo, steel guitar, and slow alt-country back-beats. One noteworthy detour into more electrified realms is the live take on James Cleveland's spiritual "Get Right Church." This gets the foot stomping and praises calling, finally segueing with pure genius into a song in which other spirits, more elusive and dark, are summoned in an intriguing rendition of Bob Dylan's "Went to See the Gypsy."

When writing her own songs, Scanlan's preferred approach seems to lie in poetic imagery, sweet and simple delivery, and reverence for the inartificial. "Seeds of the Pine," "Up on the Divide," and "Set Me Up High" are all written love affairs with wilderness, conjuring the scent of evergreens and cool mountain breezes. Recorded at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, NY and produced by friend and fellow bandmate Dirk Powell, The West Was Burning reveals true talent on fire.