Tom May,
Blue Roads, Red Wine
(Waterbug, 2008)

Tom May, who looks vaguely like a long-haired Burl Ives, has been a man of many parts on the American folk scene. He's not only a performer and a songwriter but a broadcaster (host of the nationally distributed radio show River City Folk, ongoing since 1985) and an organizer of festivals. He's managed to make a living at what he loves, without ever achieving what passes for stardom in this marginalized genre. Though it's the first one I've heard, Blue Roads, Red Wine is his 12th album.

May has a soft, almost fluttery voice of the kind one associates with the pop-folk groups of the early 1960s (Brothers Four, Kingston Trio, Highwaymen, Journeymen, et al.), as opposed to the harder-edged revival singers whose model most currently working folk singers emulate in one fashion or another. May's songs -- half are originals -- have flowing, airy melodies and lyrics that, in their strongest moments, echo Gordon Lightfoot and, in their not so robust ones, Bill Staines, as in the Mays-penned "Eyes of Rembrandt" where reach exceeds grasp, occasioning preciousness. If the '60s folk-pop groups were still around, they would be covering May songs.

Though hardly a profound recording and perhaps not for everybody, Blue Roads, Red Wine started to grow on me around the second or third hearing. Its straightforward style has the virtue of communicating an earnest, unforced friendliness as well as a becoming lack of pretense. May has no interest in morbidly self-absorbed material; thus, many of the songs are set in specific geographical landscapes, just as real -- which is to say traditional -- folk songs often are. May is enchanted with the sights, scents and people of the world around him, and that makes him a good traveling companion. He also knows a decent melody whether he composed it or not.

Besides, he has the wit to dig deep and bring back Pat Garvey's classic "The Lovin' of the Game," which I hadn't heard in maybe three decades. That act alone would expiate many sins. All things considered, though, Blue Roads' sins are few and forgivable.

review by
Jerome Clark

13 September 2008

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