The first article in our revamped Forgotten Artists series, which now becomes “Whatever Happened To…”, comes from Tim Martin as he turns the spotlight on a fine performer whose mix of blues, country, folk and R&B has been enchanting audiences since she first stepped on a stage.
Maria Muldaur? But isn’t she a Blues singer? Amongst other things, yes, but in the way of the true Americana artist she has mixed that with many other styles over a career that started in the New York folk world of the sixties.
Maria Grazia Rosa Domenica D’Amato was actually born in Greenwich Village and became an early part of that scene playing with John Sebastian, and Bluegrass mandolin player David Grisman in The Even Dozen Jug Band. She worked with Folk singer and guitarist Jim Kweskin in his Jug Band for much of the sixties, marrying fellow member Geoff Muldaur along the way. The original Jug Bands were the American version of Skiffle, often using homemade instruments, such as blowing across the top of a jug for the bass notes. Starting in the South amongst both black and white musicians, in New York, the name was very much an affectation.
On separating from Geoff in 1972 Muldaur kept the name and started a solo career with a contract at Reprise Records. While best known for the hit ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ a song Muldaur wryly says “has been very good to [writer] David Nichtern” the album features songs from Dolly Parton; ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’ taken as a straight Old Timey Country song, Dan Hicks, the Jazzy ‘Walkin’ One and Only’ and Kate McGarrigle’s ‘The Work Song’. In fact, the only song that has aged badly on the album is ‘Midnight at the Oasis’. Her second album ‘Waitress in a Donut Shop’ was more overtly Jazz-influenced, and despite an all-star cast including Lowell George, Linda Ronstadt and David Lynley, there was no hit on that or its successor, ‘Sweet Harmony’. Her next few albums were attempts to recapture the sales with anonymous soft pop-rock.
She spent the 80s searching for a sound taking in Jazz, Soul and Gospel along the way. ‘Louisiana Love Call’s’ mix of Blues, Country and New Orleans R&B pointed the way forward. The key Americana artifact of this decade was ‘Southland of the Heart’. Taking Bruce Cockburn’s title song, she turns it into a dusty Folk song straight out of Texas. Elsewhere on the album is ‘Latersville’. Rickie Lee Jones meets Tom Waits over a stinging guitar solo. This is where her style comes together, she assimilates the Jazz, Blues, Gospel and Country influences and makes the best album of her career. As it is her Blues albums that sell, they tend to remain in catalogue and give a skewed impression of her music. ‘Heart of Mine: Maria Muldaur Sings Love Songs of Bob Dylan’ features fairly faithful renditions of ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and ‘Buckets of Rain’ alongside some more individual renderings of Dylan songs. ‘Yes! We Can’ released in 2008 features the Women’s Voices For Peace Choir including Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt and Jane Fonda on an “album that showcases the work of some of the most socially conscious songwriters of the past half-century”. Albums like ‘Richland Woman Blues’ are largely straight Country Blues, and that is where Muldaur’s muse has taken her over the last decade or so. The Greenwich Village folk scene she began her career was influenced by many styles of earlier American music and if ‘Southland of the Heart’ is the culmination of her journey in Americana then she started the trip on an album called ‘Pottery Pie’, credited to Geoff & Maria Muldaur. The influences she would carry through her career are all there. Memphis Minnie and Hoagy Carmichael songs, alongside others like ‘Guide Me, O Great Jehovah’ which she sings unaccompanied, reflecting Appalachian Folk and Gospel. ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ is taken as a straight Country song with Bill Keith’s pedal steel dominating. This is a classic of the sixties folk blues scene and highlights the case for Maria Muldaur as a true Americana artist, taking in the whole span of American musical traditions and making them her own.
Maria Muldaur continues to perform live and is still recording, her most recent album being 2018’s ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker’. In 2019 she received the prestigious “Trailblazer” award at the Americana Music Honours & Awards.
Some of the later albums are only available digitally or second hand as her record label Telarc went out of business a few years ago. Maria Muldaur is overdue the big box set treatment.
Pottery Pie (1969)
Maria Muldaur (1973)
Louisiana Love Call (1992)
Southland of the Heart (1998)
Heart of Mine: Maria Muldaur Sings Love Songs of Bob Dylan (2006)
Yes, We Can! (2008)