Heart of the Country
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
If asked, I would answer that Chris Brashear is one of my favourite singers, instrumentalists, and songwriters. If pressed, I would admit I haven’t pulled his albums off the shelf in years.
That is (one of) the problem with the way things are when you write about music. You discover wonderful albums such as Canyoneers by Chris and friend Peter McLaughlin, and fall for every note, each tone heard, while listening over and over again. Then you write about it, put it on the shelf, and then get lost in ‘the next project’ as assigned, rarely if ever returning to the magic of the previous recording. I’m sure I have their So Long Arizona recording, but dang if I can lay hands on it.
Similarly, and around the same time as 2003′s Canyoneers was released on Copper Creek, when Rebel released Perfect Strangers, the self-titled album from the band featuring Brashear, McLaughlin, Bob Black, Jody Stecher, and the late Forrest Rose, I fell for it. Hard. I loved what they did with songs new and old. Again, I would tell you it is one of my favourite bluegrass albums, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it in two or three years.
About the only place I’ve recently heard Brashear is when listening to the most recent Robin and Linda Williams album as he is a member of their Fine Group.
Therefore, when Heart of the Country came my way last month, I was excited to have another opportunity to listen to the smooth-voiced artist who comfortably bridges performances within the folk, country, and bluegrass worlds. Americana was named for artists like Chris Brashear.
I wasn’t sent the album package, so I don’t have access to the complete liner notes. Unfortunate, that, but I’ll stumble around a bit and hopefully still get to the point. The album is comprised of thirteen songs, and I’ve learned nine of them are originals. After a bit of time with All Music and Google, I’ve narrowed them down.
Going in, I knew “Mama’s Opry” as an Iris DeMent classic (Heart of the Country is produced by Jim Rooney, who also produced the album from which “Mama’s Opry” is culled). Ditto, “Silvery Colorado” comes from the Carter Family. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I knew the song “How Could I Explain;” placing it took a bit longer, but All Music helped me out: Junior Sisk recorded this one on his first Rebel Ramblers Choice album, and I also found it on Del McCoury’s High on A Mountain Rounder disc. Dick Staber wrote it. When it came down to it, I really needed help to identify that “Green Summertime” was recorded and written by the Williamses; I don’t have the album on which it appears.
As good as those performances are, and trust me they are, it is on the originals that Brashear best shines. “Time the Perfect Stranger” is a tune that marks the passing of time, and friends, like few others. This one has a bit of bluegrass in it, especially around the harmonies; I’m pretty sure I can hear Tim O’Brien in the vocal mix. O’Brien, Mike Compton, Todd Phillips, and Al Perkins are given musician credits for the album; not sure who is playing where, but the entire album certainly has an O’Brien feel to it—never too far from the ‘grass, never too close to folky self-indulgence.
Within an album of terrific moments, “Today I Saw the Longest Train” stands out. Reminiscent of the finest Guy Clark songs—ones that give proper weight to but a few seconds in a person’s life—this Brashear composition is destined to be recorded by others. The guitar touches, presumably by Chris, are delicate notes that frame a memory that will be “forever on my mind.” “This Oregon Country” brings the bluegrass a little closer, as does “Tell All My Pickin’ Friends Goodbye;” this final tune includes several allusions to jamming favourites.
Within my reading I found a quote from Rooney that stated that Brashear sings in the “honest tradition of Carter Stanley and Maybelle Carter.” I’m not sure what that means, but it seems to fit: I’d add Iris DeMent and Tim O’Brien to that description to make it more pertinent, but I’m not gonna tell Jim Rooney what to think.
I’m glad Brashear had that guts to record “Mama’s Opry,” a song whose definitive performance I suspect will always be its original. But for a song to become ‘folk,’ to become part of the social and musical fabric, it must be recorded by others. Perkins’ pedal steel provides mood to “Green Summertime,” a song that combines images into a sense of place universally identifiable. Chris’ daughter Hollis effectively shares “How Can I Explain;” the song benefits greatly from this duet treatment.
Listening to “Heart of the Country” several times this past month, and a couple more times today, has been completely enjoyable. I appreciate it for what it is—simple, direct music that speaks to and from the soul. Nothing flashy, flamboyant, or obviously contrived.
Now, to give Canyoneers and Perfect Strangers a listen before the next albums for review arrive…