No Depression, May 9, 2013
From the earthy opening fiddle strains on White Swan to the final song's sweet homage to Appalachian singer-songwriter Jean Ritchie, it's clear this is not an album to listen to once and put away. Susie Glaze and The Hilonesome Band have made an album that is a ride through a wide range of Americana meadows and valleys. From skilled instrumentation bluegrass jams, Appalachian vocals, sweet high lonesome harmonies and old-time folk influences, White Swan sings with the richness of a tapestry of American music that weaves together each genre through song-craft, clear production and authentic performance in such a seamless way, it feels like we're hearing just one genre; great American music. Glaze and company, including her husband/arranger, Steve Rankin and songwriter, Rob Carlson, have accomplished a rare thing for a form of music, which too often attempts to cross genres and sometimes looses the essence of any particular form. Rather, they have crafted an album of songs that honors these diverse origins while gently allowing the arrangements, instrumentation and performances to enhance the songs in subtle ways that raises them to a new level, realizing each track's potential in a new and original way.
In a recent conversation, Susie Glaze indicated that her primary influence as a vocalist and a stylist is Jean Ritchie, a living national treasure of Celtic-influenced Appalachian traditional songs. She is now in her 90's. The Hilonesome Band operates from a sturdy bluegrass and old time music base with skill and finesse. However, this record allows them to walk through material that reaches beyond those familiar genre boundaries. The album opens with James Taylor's "Mill Worker," turning the legendary writer's song into something that sounds as though it could have been written a century ago. With the elegance of a country gentleman, the fiddle intro from Mark Indictor, the song sets the tone for this gentle ride through the heartland of Americana.
Two songs by talented and underrated L.A. songwriter, Ernest Troost, "Evangeline" and "Harlan County Boys," bring home the country-folk songs with contemporary twists on the traditional murder ballad and family themes common to American folk music. "Evangeline," the story of a male lover who murders his lady is given a unique reading. According to Glaze an interesting experience happened during the recording of the song. "It was written for a male, but instead of changing the gender, we decided to keep it the same with the female narrator. The story is now changed to a girl killing Evangeline. What happens as a result is the listener is left to wonder,'is this a jealous woman, a lesbian relationship? The song becomes, not about what was said, but what was not said.j" It is an intriguing, engaging interpretation of a traditional theme.
The rarely heard Steve Earle song, "Me and the Eagle," is given an elegant and poetic reading featuring Steve Rankin on lead vocal with a lovely and crafted arrangement that includes Indictor's fiddle and a haunting background vocal from Glaze. The song originally appeared in the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer, but was never recorded on a mainstream album by Earle.
"Fair Ellender" is a near-pure traditional English child ballad with spare instrumentation from Jean Ritchie's sons, Peter Pickow on hammered dulcimer and Jon Pickow on mountain dulcimer along with Kenny Kosek on fiddle . The song serves as a bridge between the old country ballads and how the children of the Appalachias must have heard and held the music in their hearts.
The center piece of this collection is the title song, Carlson's "White Swan." According to Glaze this was derived from an old story-song, "Polly Vonn." It tells the story of how a young man who mistakes his sister for a white swan tragically shooting and killing her. The magic of this track summarizes the entire album, a successful blend of bluegrass, Celetic, folk and old-time music with a contemporary feel. The arrangement by Steve Rankin allows room for instrumentation and vocal character that helps to bring about this careful musical balance. With Glaze on mountain dulcimer, Carlson on lead guitar, Steve Rankin on bouzouki and Fred Sanders on bass, the song erupts into a final, brilliant fiddle solo from Indictor with echoes of the familiar Baba O'Riely from Who's Next.
With an already considerable string of successful albums behind them, White Swan brings Susie Glaze and Hilonesome Band to a new and rare place for a band veteran traditional musicians; a breakthrough album stepping into new musical territory. As the final track, Jean Ritchie's "The Soldier," echoes with the Appalachian fiddle and Glaze's haunting voice, it's clear this album is a rare and timeless gem and one of 2013's. best Americana albums.