Mary McCaslin,
A Life & Time
(1981; Rounder, 2004)

Since she first surfaced in the changing American folk world of 1967, Mary McCaslin's distinctive voice has been raised in the service of a broad range of folk and popular music. Except for a period of relative professional inactivity in the early '80s, McCaslin has been one of a small handful of performers who have consistently moved forward, sometimes attempting reinvention, but always moved to share their musical gifts with others. Her somewhat idiosyncratic voice features interesting interval leaps and a distinctive quaver occasionally applied to grace notes, marking her distinctive vocal signature.

In this offering, we are treated to a set of 10 tunes that share a country-flavored rendering, but which otherwise offer an impressive mixture of original tunes, traditional songs and even a Western-focused suite as a closer. Throughout, the most impressive offerings are those which offer lean, acoustic readings on pieces both new and familiar.

We open with the original piece "Northfield," an up-tempo ballad that leads to a particularly haunting acoustic cover of the Holland/Dozier/Holland classic, "(You Just) Keep Me Hangin' On." We then have "Tender Love & Care," framed nicely by a solid turn or two on a Rhodes piano, and a decidedly nontraditional reading of the traditional ballad "Fair & Tender Ladies," which features some solid mandolin playing.

A piano-propelled read of Jim Ringer's "Band of Jesse James" is next up, followed by Michael Nesmith's "Some of Shelley's Blues" (framed nicely here in the NGDB banjo/mandolin arrangement). McCaslin's own country waltz, "A Life & Time," centers the disc, this time featuring some excellent pedal steel work.

The disc closes with a three-song "Western Suite," the opening song of which, "Pinto Pony," is a sweet evocation of a simpler time. It is followed by the nostalgic "Farewell Lone Ranger," a ride whose theme is made obvious by the title. The album closes with McCaslin's haunting and powerful ballad "Santana Song," my favorite offering on the disc.

A Life & Time, then, gives us a look at the performer that McCaslin remains even today, a woman who celebrates simplicity and grace in her music. If you have not experienced her work, I commend this offering to your attention (and if you are a fan of musical notation, our friends at Rounder have again come to the rescue with wonderously complete liner notes).

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 11 June 2005

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