Tales of people and places in America’s north west
The lines, “I’m going west, west, west with you my love/ ‘Cause that’s what’s best for us right now” not only start the album’s opener, ‘Going West’, but perfectly set this second release by Michelle Rivers in the space, freedom and beauty of her Montana home. Nanci Griffiths comes to mind but Michelle Rivers is her own blend of country and bluegrass arrangements with her imaginatively crafted songwriting sung in a voice that sparkles like the waters up in those Montana wilds. Around her, she has gathered some very fine musicians including Barry Bales long-standing bassist with Alison Krauss, fiddler Jenee Fleenor, the first woman to win the CMA Musician of the Year Award, and Emmylou Harris Hot Band slide guitarist Al Perkins.
Having grown up near Nashville from where a steady stream of musicians would come and record in her dad’s nearby home studio Rivers knew that she too would become a musician. A move to Austin followed then Music City’s Belmont University and Waco’s Baylor University where she began songwriting and performing locally. After that it’s those first two lines and off she went to live in north west Montana. Her 2016 debut ‘Breathing on Embers’ was well-received but the layers of sounds on ‘Chasing Somewhere’ definitely take her talents further.
The jaunty fiddle and banjo give ‘Going West’ an old-time country feel as well as the journey’s start with its sunny optimism and hope. That melody just exudes happiness. Remaining on the move Rivers slows down into a more thoughtful mode for ‘Gone‘. In the title track she explains why she embarked on this journey westwards, “I’ve spent all my life chasing somewhere” as she admits, “this lonesome soul was made to roam.” That line reveals a restlessness that pops up throughout the record. ‘Buy Myself A Job’ is about life on the road. A pressing guitar line pushed along by persistent banjo picking adds urgency to get to the next date. The bridge hurries things along further. “This kind of life, you gotta love it or lose it” says it all.
This theme of movement continues on ‘Flying South’, a quiet muse about leaving the cold north for where was once home in the warmer southern climes. Rivers conveys such deep longing. She also paints vivid pictures of places. ‘This Old Town’ shares the sadness of the surroundings with the loss of someone who left for the big city long ago. Understanding and regret are difficult companions but in this quiet reflection Rivers manages to combine both.
If a criticism had to be found then perhaps Rivers gets too bogged down in the small town and lives that might have been trope but that feels harsh and hardly justified. This is her world that as an artist she conveys.
She also brings people to life. “It’s a pearl snap shirt, it’s the red clay dirt” immediately identifies ‘The Last Cowboy’ who struggles to fit in, being, “denim in a black suit kinda crowd”. Such imagery in a rueful voice is as good as a photo. ‘Waltz Out the Door’ is mournful contrition. Perkins’s steel lengthens the heartstrings as Rivers yearns for one last dance with the man she wished she had not spurned. ‘The River’ and ‘I Choose Us’ place love in a wild and harsh climate. Rivers again contrasts sensations, the warmth of emotion against the cold outside. ‘I’d Rather Be Here’ closes the album with a feeling of acceptance, both of loss but also of place. Whatever has happened Rivers can draw comfort from “I’d rather be here”. A lilting rhythm adds to the sense of forbearance.
‘Chasing Somewhere’ has freshness and sincerity. Rivers has immersed herself in her surroundings and whether place, people or emotion she depicts all with great candour. Her sound that trips lightly across much of americana is a pure pleasure.