4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
As I’ve written before, I’m a fortunate person. Since I started writing about music a dozen years ago, I’ve been sent hundreds of albums for review. While the surge has slowed to a trickle over the past few years—more labels are offering downloads for review rather than physical copies; even more have simply stopped servicing ‘little folks’ like me—there is still enough music coming my way to keep me excited about writing reviews.
Caroline Herring’s new album Camilla arrived unsolicited earlier this summer. Prior to this release, I had never knowingly heard Herring. Years ago, Kate Campbell, Carrie Newcomer, and Mark Erelli were introduced to me under similar circumstance: a plain brown envelope arrives and is opened; a beautifully assembled CD package slips out and a CD is placed in the stereo; life-altering music is experienced within seconds. It is a beautiful thing to discover a ‘new favourite’ who has built a career upon stellar albums, recording that can be freshly explored all at once now that they have (finally) entered your world.
As it turns out, Camilla is the Georgia resident’s sixth album, and I had indeed heard her before, although I had forgotten. Her “Song for Fay” was likely my favourite song on the Bloodshot tribute to author Larry Brown assembled by Tim Lee, Just One More. While I had forgotten that performance, listening to Camilla (and doing a little research for this piece) brought back my appreciation for that standout song. (Guess what album is going to be listened once I’ve finished writing this piece?)
Camilla is gorgeous. Hard-hitting throughout, Herring’s gentle and understated approach serves to frame difficult subject matter—civil rights, environmental ignorance leading to human disregard, innocence, war—with poetic imagery that should initiate an internal dialogue within every listener.
Much like Diana Jones and Campbell, Herring frequently writes of the experiences of the past and their influence on the present. “Camilla,” about the perseverance of Marion King who was beaten so badly by a sheriff’s deputy in 1962 that she miscarried, and “White Dress,” inspired by Frances Moultrie’s participation in the 1961 Freedom Ride, speak to the struggle for civil rights five decades ago. Based on a traditional ballad, “Black Mountain Lullaby” stands as tribute to a little boy crushed in his sleep by a boulder dislodged by a work crew above his Wise County, Va. home. “Summer Song” provides a bit of faith for times of struggle, while “Flee As A Bird” offers words of salvation.
The instrumentation is overwhelmingly acoustic, and it is through these pure, almost sacred sounds that Herring communicates her emotional statements. Her words often leave room for interpretation, but the music is more direct. One appreciates the contributions of Fats Kaplin (pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo) and Bryn Davies’ upright bass playing serves as the album’s tender pulse. Canadian (and lead Duhk) Leonard Podolak’s banjo colours “Black Mountain Lullaby” with mournful shades that highlight the tragedy of a senseless death.
Adding appeal is the participation of three favoured vocalists. Mary Chapin Carpenter sings backup on two numbers, including the lovely “Traveling Shoes” on which is joined by Aoife O’Donovan, while Claire Holley sings on a pair of songs.
I’ll continue to listen to Camilla in the months to come, and I won’t be forgetting Caroline Herring this time. With five more albums to explore, I am going to enjoy delving into the back catalogue of this intriguing and riveting vocalist, musician, and songwriter.