Rough Edge & Ragged Hearts
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
A few years back, a wag working to deadline dubbed Linda McRae “The Queen of Canadian Country Music,” a crown I’m not sure anyone should aspire toward. McRae relocated to Nashville five or six years ago with the release of her third tremendously impressive album Carve It To the Heart. In the intervening years, McRae has not had any of her rough edges buffed and maintains more in common with Jean Ritchie and Betty Cody than she does to anyone chasing commercial charts; this is a woman at home in true country music.
Linda McRae is nothing if not consistent. Every five years, she can be counted on to release an album that is even more impressive than that which came before it.
McRae has been recording as a singer-songwriter since 1997’s Flying Jenny appeared on the Stony Plain label. That album was an awe-inspiring debut in no small part because of the inclusion of the title track, a devastating and honest look at the relationship of Charlie and Ira Louvin. The Gurf Morlix-produced Cryin’ Out Loud followed several years later and again displayed a collection of strong originals supported by a top-notch studio crew. 2007 saw the release of Carve It To the Heart, an album that garnered significant notice and served as demonstration of the breadth of McRae’s talent.
McRae has adjusted her approach only a little on her new album Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts, but has misplaced none of her intensity. Playing acoustic guitar and banjo and giving us just taste of accordion, McRae delivers nine self-penned songs as well as a wickedly original interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man.” The album’s only other non-original is a take of Charlie Stephenson’s “In the Valley Below;” this is a very impressive song, full of images that convey senses of people and places, and McRae’s homey voice ties together the tale together impressively.
The focal points of this new album are the five songs written in collaboration with spouse James Whitmire. “Deck of ’52” is as loving as a tribute as Townes Van Zandt has received since his passing; has it really been fifteen years? “Hope It Lasts Through Supper” is a nicely constructed song of romantic challenge: “For six months it’s been high and low; our friends are wearing frowns. We’re just trying to get our neuroses down; I just hope it lasts through supper.” “Three Midnights,” a song of addiction and recovery, is about as dark as it gets with the light of hope blurring its edges; Ray Bonneville lays out some sweet harmonica lines on this one.
McRae doesn’t have a pretty voice, but it suits her matter-of-fact rural poetry. Of her contemporaries, Gillian Welch and Kathy Mattea are, I suppose, appropriate places to start comparisons but she is truly her own self. Rough Edges & Ragged Hearts is an album of collaboration, with the contributions of Doug Cox, Marc L’Esperance, Stephen Nikleva, The Sojourners, and others—whether large or fleeting—important to the overall production.
Linda McRae is an artist. She doesn’t fit into a neat little genre box and she is definitely not for everyone. She is the genuine deal if you are looking for entertainment from an artist who is committed not only to her craft but to sharing something of herself with her audience.