- Liner notes from "Mule to Ride."
I repeat the liner notes not so much to harken back to that most excellent record, but to re-affirm what I see as Tara's emotional and intellectual commitment to the music, her life in music.
It has been twelve years since Tara Nevins' initial solo album, "Mule to Ride." It was steeped in the tradition, with only a few originals, featuring a veritable who's who: Ralph Stanley, Mike Seeger, Don Rigsby, James Shelton and Dirk Powell. True to its roots and its credit, it was recorded in southwest Virginia, and it showed.
"Mule to Ride" centered around her musical roots where she acted more of a facilitator, even though she, of course, played on very track. "Wood and Stone" (released on May 3) is likely the solo album that many Donna the Buffalo fans have wanting. Tara has said the songs on the album are about relationships and begins, fittingly enough, with the title track about her own family, her home, mixing the inorganic and the organic that makes family life the foundation of one's own journey.
I have been a fan of Donna the Buffalo since 1998 when I first heard their "Rockin' In the Weary Land" when it was first released, also on Sugar Hill. And have seen them more often than any other band, from regular gigs to the festival circuit, including Tara's traditional sets at those fests. What I admire as much as their musical talents is their unflinching utopian vision grounded, not superficially like some others that's more of a reason to party, in a humanism that is seamlessly weaved into their music.
Produced by multi-talented Larry Campbell and with only a few extra special guests, Levon Helm, Teresa Williams, Jim Lauderdale and Allison Moorer, it's very much a solo album with a band and recorded in Woodstock at Levon's studio. Tara as singer-songwriter is front and center here. As much as I have listened to "Mule to Ride" during the past twelve years, I, like many other Donna fans, have also yearned to hear Tara in her own voice, on her own terms. The new album is just that -- and more.
Upon repeated listenings to "Wood and Stone" I find that the album seems to be two albums. The first half is the result of constant touring with the band, are very Donna-like and you can easily see these songs as part of their sets. It will please any Donna fan, including myself. But whether purposeful or not, the transition for me is separated by the album's only instrumental track, "Nothing Really," that is smack dab in the middle of the album.
The album vears away from an overt Donna influence with "What Money Cannot Buy" and, again purposefully or not, Tara's vocals become stronger, more upfront. The next song, "The Wrong Side," is a highlight, about a bad breakup and moving on. Replete with swing fiddle, pedal steel and electric guitar solo breaks, you can easily see it a hit song back in the 1950's -- commercial country music's artistic highpoint.
But even that great track did not prepare me for what comes next, the only song Tara did not write, the jazz vocal standard, "Stars Fell on Alabama." Opening with a mournful fiddle and Rose Sinclair's poignant banjo and even though I am familiar with at least two dozen other renditions of the song, it's as though I heard it for the first time. It is stunning in its quietness.
I asked Tara during a conversation at MerleFest about the genesis of the performance, especially as it was also the only song not recorded at Levon's studio. She was asked by the people who made the 2008 movie "20 Years After" to do the song in a more Americana mode. While the movie was unsuccessful, Tara's version continues to haunt me.
Following the very uptempo "Down South Blues," the album turns introspective again with "Tennessee River" that's driven by Larry Campbell's fuzz electric guitar and Justin Guip's heart pounding drumming. It takes your breath away. The album's final track is a near spiritual, "The Beauty of Days Gone By." Closing out the circle of relationships with reflections on a life lived, memories and the relationship we have with ourselves.
By concentrating on the latter tracks, I do not mean to slight the others, it's just that the second half of the album seems to come out of a different place, a deeper well that is as invigorating as it is mesmerizing.
While Tara performed several of the songs this past weekend at MerleFest, I look forward to hearing more of them at future gigs.
All photographs by Amos Perrine, MerleFest 2010