Buffy Ford Stewart,
Same Old Heart
(Global Recording Artists, 2013)

When singer-songwriter John Stewart died on Jan. 19, 2008, he left behind numerous recordings on a range of labels, major and minor, and a small but devoted fan base. He was a member of the Kingston Trio for six years, and in his solo career he had one major hit ("Gold," 1979) under his own name and a phenomenally successful cover ("Daydream Believer," 1967) by the Monkees. He married Buffy Ford in the late 1960s, and they were together until his death. Though frequent musical partners, the two shared credit on only two of the albums, including the ponderously produced major-label Signals Through the Glass (1968). Through it all, the Stewarts's style remained folk-inflected, often inspired by John's liberal patriotism (which understandably grew darker over the years), and laced here and there with more conventional pop and rock strains.

Same Old Heart, Buffy Ford Stewart's first solo recording (if there's another, I am unaware of it), features 16 cuts, divided equally between John's compositions and her own and set in unplugged arrangements. Even a listener who knows nothing of the backstory will discern what it's about: the intersection of grief, celebration and recovery. The title song, a Buffy original, is as sincere an expression of sorrow as one is likely to hear in a musical performance, but nearly every song, even John's, testifies in one way or another to enduring love and too-brief life.

If never household names, the couple, who lived in southern California, were friendly with more prominent figures, for example Rosanne Cash (who had a 1988 country hit with John's excellent "Runaway Train"), Kris Kristofferson and the Monkees. Along with Dan Hicks, Eliza Gilkyson, one-time Eagle Timothy B. Schmit and others, they appear on this album in supporting roles. (Two of the four Monkees, Peter Tork and the late Davy Jones, are represented.) Their presence underscores the respect and affection their contemporaries had for the Stewarts.

Some recordings cut while grief remains an open wound make for uneasy, even hopeless listening. If Same Old Heart is not exactly background music, it is lovely, moving and accessible, a rare, unblinkingly honest musical attempt to come to grips with the death of a loved one. There is nothing slick going on here; to the contrary, the sometimes slapdash arrangements, amounting to a kind of amateurism in the best sense, underscore the urgent truths that bigger budgets and polished productions can usually be counted upon to obscure.

It helps, of course, that these are strong and melodic songs. Buffy's voice conveys experience, and it also shows its age, affording her testimony authenticity and power. This is the real story, delivered without artifice. It does justice to the memory of a neglected American musical hero.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 June 2013

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