Ginny Hawker
& Tracy Schwarz,
Good Songs for Hard Times
(Copper Creek, 2000)

Bob Bovee
& Gail Heil,
When the Cactus is in Bloom
(Copper Creek, 2000)

Here are two male/female vocal duet CDs, both issued in 2000 by Copper Creek, a company that specializes in bluegrass and old-time music. It's instructive to look at them together for a good idea of what works and what doesn't in this area of roots music.

Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz each have solid solo voices as well as a fine blend when they sing together. Though neither will give Bryn Terfel or Felicity Lott any competition, Schwarz has a reedy mountain voice similar in timbre to Ralph Stanley's, and Hawker a deep, slightly pinched sound with a nicely controlled vibrato that can also be deeply beautiful and often as clear as a stream. The instrumental support is not flashy, but solid as a rock, undergirding the songs perfectly.

You'll find a wide variety of music on Good Songs for Hard Times, including several by Schwarz, whose "Go Home Before It's Too Late" and "Gently Rock Me" are gems. There are gospel songs a-plenty: the first track, "Cool Down on the Banks of Jordan," is a treat, with its changes in tempo and mood, and "I Just Steal Away and Pray" is highly moving, with gorgeous harmonies. There are songs of love and heartbreak, the apex of which is "Lone Journey," a prayer and plaint and plea all at once. "Touch My Heart" has a more contemporary country flavor, and "Fog on the Water" is a superb ballad. There are also some fine old chestnuts, such as a warm reading of "Precious Jewel" and an evocative reading by Hawker of the old ballad, "The Butcher's Boy."

All fifteen tracks on the Hawker/Schwarz CD are done with professionalism and intensity, but the same cannot be said for Bovee and Heil's When the Cactus Is in Bloom. Bovee's liner notes suggest a wish to deliver "the honesty, the passion, the clarity, and the immediacy of old-time music." This CD, however, falls far short. The shortcomings of this duo are heard on the very first track, "Dry and Dusty," an instrumental which proves true to its title. This and the other instrumentals are basically fiddle tunes, played straight several times, with little or no discernible variation. They might have just as well played the tunes through once and invited us to hit the repeat button of our CD players. These instrumentals are what you might hear at a local fiddle contest, uninvolving but inoffensive, except for the times when Heil's fiddle rests for too long below the proper pitch.

Bovee's voice is nasal and seemingly incapable of sustain, as may be heard on any of the vocals. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" is the most painful, with his attempts in a key far beyond his range. The quality of Heil's voice is better, but not of a level to maintain the a capella "The Cowboy's Wife."

The two of them together fare no better on "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," the first duet of the CD. As on the fiddle, intonation is spotty, and the frequent wandering away from the proper pitches does not make for a good vocal blend. It's ragged, not right.

I could talk about each song, but my comments would prove as repetitious as the music. What Bovee and Heil seem to have tried to do is to recreate the sounds of the original recordings, and there's the rub. If I want to hear the originals, I'll dig them out on reissues. I tend to be much more forgiving of sub-par voices, picking and intonation when I'm listening to the musical pioneers themselves from the 1920s and 1930s.

There's a big difference between primitive and amateurish. Hawker and Schwarz show what it is, but Bovee and Heil don't. The difference between these two albums is the difference between the performers who are on the stage of the festival, and those who happily pick and sing in the parking lot. I know which I prefer to listen to for 50 minutes.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

Buy Good Songs for Hard Times and
When the Cactus is in Bloom from