Mary's third album takes the form of a special project that's described as "a tribute to the legendary Jean Ritchie", who died just last year. You'll recall the Dear Jean tribute set which Dan Schatz and others put together, and this release from Mary shows just how wide her influence has been and gives a further indication of just how high an esteem in which Jean was held. Mary and Jean share a special connection as fellow Fulbrighters (recipients of the Fulbright Scholarship). Jean received hers in 1952, and used it to tour Britain and Ireland collecting songs that had crossed the Atlantic from her native Appalachia. Mary met Jean for the first time over sixty years later, and they reportedly got on like true kinfolks.
Here Mary pays tribute to Jean by exploring the age-old connections that exist between Appalachia and Ireland. With the aid of visionary producer Seamie O'Dowd, Mary fuses Irish traditional music, Appalachian music and jazz in honour of Jean's life and inspiration. The powerful and earthy quality of Mary's voice proves as relevant to these songs and their interpretation as her ability to sing both sean-nós and the blues. A key element in this project is the piano playing of iconic jazz pianist Bertha Hope, whom Mary met while a Fulbright scholar in New York City, which is a dominant element in the arrangement of the opening track Hangman, which scurries along on a bustling, almost African rhythm and One I Love (a song thought to be traditional but which was in fact composed by Jean), the latter track also featuring sax (Matthew Berrill); while Shady Grove is done out as a lounge-jazz rumba. It's doubtless a matter of personal taste, but (while not in any way casting doubt on Mary's commitment or the quality of the musicianship), I'm not wholly sold on the jazz leanings on these three songs, although the more sedate syncopations probably suit The Month Of January better and Lord Randall swings like crazy with its vocal chorus, Hot-Club-style fiddle and cheeky accordion break.
Seamie's other ideas regarding musical setting strike more of an authentic chord - for example the slide guitar and harmonica embellishments for How Can I Live At The Top Of A Mountain and the back-porch fiddle-and-banjo backdrop of The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore - while the ballad of The Cuckoo benefits from a lilting chamber-folk (clarinet, strings and piano) treatment. More traditional in tone is Pretty Saro, where Mary's voice is accompanied by a lone fiddle, and Loving Hannah (done a cappella), while the down-home treatment of Jean's environmental commentary Black Waters is just perfect (and it's capped off by a truly lovely Traditional Flute Ensemble rendition of Seamie's own composition Packie's Waltz). Other contributors to this record include Mairtin O'Connor and Cathal Hayden.
Overall, I feel great admiration for Mary's enterprise and individuality here, and her affection for Jean and her achievements is well conveyed by Seamie O'Dowd's collaboration. For the disc's final track, Mary reads a brief but prescient excerpt from Jean's memoir (dating from 1955): entirely fitting, and deeply moving.
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