David Mallett is one of America’s great singer/songwriters. His music career began at the ripe old age of 11, and as a teenager, he and his brother Will performed as The Mallett Brothers around Central Maine, covering country and folk standards. As a college student at the University of Maine, David found his voice as a songwriter. “Discovered” by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, Mallett performed for a decade as a solo artist. He spent a stint in Nashville, and his songs have been recorded by Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Kathy Mattea, Alison Krauss, and Hal Ketchum, among others. David Mallett has made his name and left his trail as a wordsmith.
The Horse I Rode In On is Mallett’s most recent release, and instead of his own songs, it is a stellar collection of takes on others’ songs. His warm country voice portrays, not the mountain hollows of Kentucky, but the rolling farmland and woods of the North Country, and easily handles these precious chestnuts, delivering a reverential tribute to the minstrels who influenced his own style. The result is a CD that I know I’ll listen to over and over until I’ve worn it out.
Mallett starts in with Bob Dylan’s Girl From The North Country , sung clearly and strongly. The song fades out with a tender harmonica and sweet lead guitar line. He moves on to Jack Clement’s They Covered Up The Old Swimming Hole, a nostalgic look back to a youth lost to progress. There’s an old farmhouse buried twenty feet beneath a rest area on I-90, and the swimming hole’s been filled in with mountains of concrete. Next comes a passionate rendition of Long Black Veil. Mallett sings it as if he wrote it. That’s what makes this CD so special. David Mallett has embraced these songs and made them his own, and one gets the feeling that he did that a long time ago.
Stanley Lebowski’s The Wayward Wind has been covered by many artists, from Tex Ritter to Gogi Grant to Neil Young. Mallett presents it in his own form; heartfelt, for sure. Next up is Gordon Lightfoot’s Second Cup Of Coffee. It’s easy to picture the singer at a backwoods table, wrestling between the pot of coffee and a bottle of something stronger. David’s voice is wise and tender on How To Handle A Woman. Some singer/songwriters make up for lack of range by letting the notes slide into spoken word. Not so here. Mallett shows a hearty command of his own voice, with just a trace of vibrato. Jamaica Farewell is a welcomed addition to mix, and Mallet seems to slightly emphasize the word Maine when it comes up in the lyrics.
Paul Hampton and Hal David wrote Sea Of Heartbreak, and Don Gibson made it a hit in 1961. It’s been covered by many artists; Poco, The Kentucky Headhunters, even Roseanne Cash and Bruce Springsteen. It’s a timeless song of lost love and loneliness, and it comes across with new life on this recording.
The North Woods stay in focus with Bill Anderson’s Saginaw Michigan, followed by Kris Kristopherson’s haunting For The Good Times.
Listening to the closing track, Tombstone Ever Mile, got me a little choked up. It’s a song about the Potato hauling trucks that run from Aroostook County in Northern Maine down to market in Boston. I’ve run many an eighteen wheeler across those icy roads of backwoods Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, and Vermont, so it really struck home. But more than that, it conjured up a beloved memory of sitting at table in a kitchen in Palmyra, Maine, staring out at the frozen landscape and the trucks in the yard, listening to a great unknown guitarist named Royce Temple play the song on his Gretch Country Gentleman, personally given to him by “Ol’ Chetty.” Play it again, won’t you please, David Mallett.
Throughout the CD, Mallett is backed by his longtime partner in crime, Mike Burd, on bass. Family members provide harmony vocals. His sons are making a name for themselves across the Americana scene as the Mallett Brothers Band, carrying on a family tradition to another generation of music fans. The Horse I Rode In On embodies the very best of North Country Music. Country without the twang, devoid of clichés, divulging hints of Irish, Celtic, and French Canadian roots. Thank you, David Mallett. You’ve presented us with a masterpiece.
You can hear more of David Mallett’s music, and find links to where to purchase this and other CDs by the artist at David’s website: http://davidmallett.com/music/