Kate Rusby,
(Pure Records, 1999)

Gentle acoustic guitar strings and a vulnerable yet graceful voice lure you into the song. Before you know it, the bass has joined the guitar, then a flute and fiddle arrive, and you are lost in the sad and desperate world of "The Cobbler's Daughter," the first track on Kate Rusby's latest solo project, Sleepless.

Rusby, at age 25, already is a veteran of the British folk music scene. Recently of the Poozies (having replaced Sally Barker there) and The Equation, and half of a duo with Kathryn Roberts, Rusby has a penchant for researching, choosing and arranging traditional material that suits her emotion-studded voice. Listening to Rusby harkens one back to the earlier days of the English folk revival prior to the addition of electric guitars. Rusby's own label, Pure, is the perfect name to represent this artist. Her voice, along with her minimal instrumentation and arrangements (no overdoing it here), is the pure essence of traditional folk music.

And at the roots of traditional ballads are the stories, and Rusby tells them in an honest, straightforward manner. There's the poor cobbler's daughter in "The Cobbler's Daughter" -- the one who was kissed by a man and whose mother is now in prison for having killed said young man. The heroine of "The Unquiet Ghost" vows to sit and mourn at her love's grave for a year and a day. The tinker in "The Duke and the Tinker" is given the Christopher Sly treatment from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The drunken tinker is taken in by a nobleman, cleaned up, and treated as a noble himself until he falls asleep again.

However, Rusby also includes four original pieces which sound as if they could be traditional songs in their own right. Donald Hay's percussion gives "Sho Heen" a contemporary feel, but the song's sparse arrangement and Rusby's gentle voice make it sound like a lullaby from years past. Nothing in the musical arrangement of "Sweet Bride," however, reveals its late 20th-century composition, and the final verse's lyrics, "Now she's only remembered by this story I tell/ From an old man on horseback who once knew her well," also add to the its traditional atmosphere.

A cover of Iris Dement's "Our Town" was a pleasant surprise for me. I've seen Dement perform this song live several times and even remember it being used on the television series Northern Exposure. It seemed disconcerting at first to hear Rusby's clear Yorkshire syllables on a song I'd always associated with small town America, but it works. I now can picture a small Yorkshire village when I hear Rusby's rendition. Tim O'Brien's mandolin bridges the gap between Dement's original song and Rusby's take on it. Instead of standing out as an odd piece on an album of mostly traditional British folk music, it blends in well with the other songs and is distinctive because of the excellent instrumentations and Rusby's earnest voice.

The closing track, Rusby's composition "The Sleepless Sailor," is almost a lullaby for sailors far from home and for the listeners, who, as with the opening track, become part of the characters' world. The concluding lines, "Worry no more for you're safe now with me / Rest in my arms and my sweet melody," should be the album's theme. Indeed, for its approximately 44 minutes, you are safe and secure in Kate Rusby's sweet melodies.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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