Sometimes the most gentle approach accentuates the power in a lyric. Kristen Grainger & True North prove that again and again on Ghost Tattoo. Following up 2018’s acclaimed Open Road, Broken Heart, the group of Pacific Northwesterners continue their formula of folk-leaning Americana textured with touches of bluegrass. On Ghost Tattoo, however, the lyrical content goes deeper, reflecting the troubled times in which we all currently find ourselves.
For “She Flies with Her Own Wings,” Grainger was inspired by her time as communications director for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. It’s a song not only of perseverance and resilience in a male-dominated world, but how women collaborate and work to find solutions as opposed to the constant need for validation and ego stroking that seems to sometimes motivate their male counterparts. On the flip side, “Light by Light” captures the fear women face at the hands of their abusers and the feelings of anxiety and helplessness that can occur as a result.
The issue of children in cages at the border is handled with deep empathy through a moving account that emphasizes the personal side to the crisis on “Ghost of Abuelito,” written in response to a challenge by Neil Young and Project Amplify to speak up against government injustices at the US-Mexico border.
Kristen Grainger & True North’s choices of covers reveal just as much as their originals on Ghost Tattoo, with standouts including Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien’s “When No One’s Around” and Peter Rowan’s “Lonesome LA Cowboy,” which offers a welcome bit of frivolity to the proceedings. The best of the covers, however, is a truly haunting version of the already foreboding Secret Sisters track “Mississippi” (co-written with Brandi Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth); the original’s swamp-folk-rock is replaced with a unsettling calm by the twin-lead vocals of Grainger and Dan Wetzel, which somehow intensifies the lyric’s underpinning of dread.
Throughout Ghost Tattoo, the instrumentation never intrudes, instead delivering gentle backing to these weighty topics. The string work by Wetzel, Martin Stevens, and Josh Adkins (along with guests Dale Adkins on banjo and Cameron Elmore on bowed bass) offers a respite from the sometimes difficult lyrical content. Grainger’s voice soothes even as she sings of uncomfortable truths, as if to reassure that eventually, we’ll find our way toward becoming better people. It’s a nice thought, and much of the music on Ghost Tattoo makes such lofty goals sound downright attainable.