various artists,
Just Love: A Tribute to Audrey Auld Mezera
(Reckless/Ringo, 2016)

Then residing in California, Audrey Auld died at 51 on Aug. 9, 2015, of cancer. Her musical odyssey had taken her from her native Tasmania, Australia's island state, to Nashville, where she lived for some years, performing and writing songs. There were no mainstream country hits, but she did place her compositions on some notable television series, including two of my favorites, Justified and Longmire, and she attracted a small, devoted following.

My familiarity with her music was slight but happy. When I favorably reviewed her Tonk -- the one album of hers to pass my way -- in this space on 9 November 2013, I commended her on the intelligence of her writing, which clearly drew on wide listening, encompassing the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie and Loretta Lynn and suggesting a familiarity with American roots music that has all but vanished from the Nashville song factory. She was kind enough to send me a gracious note in response.

Just Love, a two-disc, 28-track CD of Auld's work, was put together by a friend, the Memphis-based musician Nancy Apple. Only one song is sung by Auld herself, while the rest of the contributors are here in their capacity as friends and admirers. I recognize half a dozen names (Apple, Ronny Elliott, Bill Chambers, Joel Rafael, Dale Jett and Rob McNurlin, specifically), but even the unfamiliar names spark a desire to hear more from each. Besides the pleasure of hearing good songs that are new to me, I am introduced to some fine rooted artists, mostly American, a few Australian.

Among the latter is the Foggy Mountain Jam Band, notwithstanding its name, which alludes to the Appalachian folksong "Foggy Mountain Top," which Flatt & Scruggs not only rewrote as a speeded-up bluegrass instrumental ("Foggy Mountain Breakdown") but named their band (the Foggy Mountain Boys) after. On further investigation I learned that its members include Bill Chambers -- a kind of 21st-century Slim Dusty (you can look him up) -- and his better-known-in-America daughter Kasey Chambers. On his own Chambers delivers "Denied," an unusual and tangled love song -- not a single findable cliche -- in a voice something like John Prine's on one of its better days. I could call it a standout, and I suppose it is, but there are so many strong songs and performances apparent that nothing fails to impress even as the thematic explorations wander off in unpredictable directions.

As I remarked when I reviewed Tonk, Auld's songs struck me as too original, too smart and too informed to meet the lowest-common-denominator standard of what has passed for country music in recent decades. In any event, little of this is really country anyway, though one hears earlier iterations of the genre among her references. I take it that she thought of herself as a folk artist, and indeed folk in a broad sense seems better to characterize her musical comfort zone. It's most directly apparent in "Woody" (done by Doug Jayne), a tuneful celebration of Guthrie's influence on her life and social outlook. One can imagine a Pete Seeger rendition of "The Butterfly Effect" (the Pam & Jeri Show) which evokes the glory of the civil-rights era. There are also, here and there, hints of Prine, the Carter Family and Hank Williams. "Tasmania" (Trev Warner) is set to a traditional melody I'm still trying to place. On the whole, however, these influences are so perfectly integrated into Auld's songs that you need to listen carefully to detect them.

I often am forced to remind myself that for all the boring, self-absorbed, rootless dribble associated with the practice, "singer-songwriter" is not necessarily a dishonorable profession. Just Love testifies to the craft at its most aesthetically realized. A uniquely gifted composer, Auld had much to say, incorporating it into a body of distinctive songs. She should have been as famous as Prine, Richard Thompson or Gillian Welch, but fortune decreed otherwise. She will likely be famous in your own life, though, if you take Just Love into it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 October 2016

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