I truly love the energy of good hot picking as well as celestial harmonies, but perhaps more than anything I love a well-crafted song that transports me, tells me a story,and Ghost Tattoo is filled with such songs. For the past decade and a half Salem, Oregon-based True North has been producing recordings with well-crafted songs, tasteful instrumentation and beautiful vocals. Their latest highly acclaimed Ghost Tattoo is easily one of their best thus far.
Central to the band’s sound is singer and songwriter Kristen Grainger. She possesses a voice that is crystal clear and also emotive. Her award-winning songwriting paints pictures that draw the listener into her vignettes, or in her own words, “My goal is to craft song stories that illuminate extraordinary aspects of ordinary life.” Like good poetry or storytelling, or a good solo for that matter, it isn’t the number of words or notes, it is what is said with them and she says a lot here.
Their folk music chart-topping Ghost Tattoo and the music of True North is a contemporary blend of bluegrass sensibilities, singer/songwriter craft and a spirit that is willing to go where the song leads them. The harmonies of Kristen and co-band leader and husband Dan Wetzel (guitar, octave mandolin) are beautiful and reveal an intimate depth to them.
Together with Josh Adkins on bass and Martin Stevens on mandolin and fiddle as well as past band member Dale Adkins on banjo and guitar, these 12 intelligent songs are beautifully performed and wrapped in a tasteful, supportive, lush acoustic sound that is expertly captured by Adkins in his Big Owl Studio.
Over their many recordings they have shown a penchant for also interpreting works by other gifted songwriters such as Hayes Carll, Fred Eaglesmith, Ruth Moody, and Kasey Chambers, just to name a few. On Ghost Tattoo they selected four from Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, Peter Rowan, Secret Sisters and Cahalen Morrison, but the real gems here are the originals, seven written by Kristen and one co-written with Dan.
Others have taken notice of Kristen’s songwriting talents. Recently Kristen won second place at the annual USA Songwriting Competition and first in the folk category for “Keep the River on the Right” from Ghost Tattoo. She also was awarded Folk Song of the Year (for “Be Here Now” from Elsebound) in 2015 at the International Music and Entertainment awards, as well as having won awards at national songwriting competitions such as the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas (a mecca for songwriters), MerleFest and Telluride.
After years of writing, recording and performing and with their highly acclaimed Ghost Tattoo in hand they finally made the jump last year to become full-time musicians with over 40 gigs on the books over the next six months, including concerts and many festivals plus a tour of Ireland. And then all of that came to a screeching halt. Like so many other professional musicians, their careers were put on hold by the COVID-19 outbreak.
No one knows how this pandemic will all play out, of course, but we all hope that Kristen Grainger and True North will
be able to rise up and claim the spotlight that they so richly deserve. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Ghost Tattoo and let them lead you into these amazing small worlds showing “extraordinary aspects of ordinary life.” You will be rewarded.
Gareth Jenkins lives near Sisters, where he builds guitars. You can hear Gareth every third Saturday on Music from the True Vine on KBOO-FM radio,90.7, or listen online at kboo.fm.