Hailing from across the state of Oregon, Kristen Grainger & True North define their music as ‘Pacific Northwest Americana’, which, given the diverse subject matter of songs on the band’s latest release, ‘Ghost Tattoo’, seems a little narrow. This is an album with something to say on some of the big talking points of today, and using a clever weave of excellent original material and – for want of a better word – covers, ‘Ghost Tattoo’ certainly says plenty.
That isn’t to say that this is in any way an intellectually weighty, worthy, or depressing album. Far from it….this is a very listenable record, with fine musicianship, excellent vocals and bright bluegrass, roots and folk songs. Strong opener ‘Keep The River On Your Right’ sets out the stall with high-quality mandolin and guitars and excellent harmonies, conjuring up the sights and smells of autumn, all falling leaves and breezes and rivers. And finding your way home. Grainger’s voice is light and works well with all the songs here, as there is no deep country intonation to distract.
Songs of becoming or staying strong, particularly for women, feature heavily. ‘Jeremiah’s Tree’, a song of growth from humble beginnings, the Secret Sisters’ ‘Mississippi’, a dark allegorical tale of women striving to succeed in a world (the music business?) dominated by men, and ‘She Flies With Her Own Wings’, inspired by Grainger’s time as communications director for Oregon Governor Kate Brown, are fine examples. Songs reflecting specific issues of today are also in the mix. ‘Light By Light’ touches on the very topical subject of psychological abuse of women who have walked away from a relationship, and ‘Ghost of Abuelito’ tells of the children who have travelled from Ecuador, kept in appalling detention conditions separated from their families on the US/Mexico border, from the perspective of the children. These are powerful and emotional songs.
Interesting covers of ‘Down In The Lonesome Draw’ by Cahalen Morrison, the saga of looking for work in a bleak and tough world, where “….vices flow like the Ohio and the Governor’s on parole”; Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s ‘When There’s No One Else Around’, about a different, perhaps new and improved you, one that isn’t bogged down by life failures or being too serious; and ‘Lonesome LA Cowboy’, Pete Rowan’s 1973 tale of cowboys seeking fame out west, properly bluegrassed for this album, each go to enrich the depth of the record.
There is room for a little cheese; ‘Tattooed Love Song’ sings of a chance meeting between a woman with a failing Honda Accord and Jorge, a mechanic who “felt the change in his karma” when they meet, and which ends with “Each November they remember/That light on the dash that says check engine now”, and ‘Fine Young Companion’, advice from an old-timer to a green young ‘un to live life to the full now….” Get you a house in the mountains, fish all those rivers and streams”. Excellent fiddle playing, however.
True North’s other members are Grainger’s husband, Dan Wetzel, mandolin and fiddle are provided by Martin Stevens and Josh Adkins plays acoustic bass. All extremely well.
Almost across the board, songs on ‘Ghost Tattoo’ are strong both lyrically and musically, with great structure and comfortable duration, and the combination of new and old material is just about perfect. This slice of Americana deserves to be spread a little further than America’s North West.