One of the ways I distinguish what’s called Americana music from its relatives bluegrass and old-time is its tendency to lean more toward a cultural progressivism as opposed to the related genres? cultural and musical conservatism. That’s certainly true of much of the music coming out of the Pacific Northwest, including this offering from Kristen Grainger & True North. Ghost Tattoo, their sixth release, is a delightful slice of acoustic Americana that highlights the songwriting skills of Grainger and other progressive Americana musicians.
That progressiveness is not some sort of stance, either. A long-time resident of Salem, Oregon, Grainger’s employment background includes a stint as spokeswoman for Oregon Governor Kate Brown. Full disclosure: I’m acquainted with Grainger. We appeared on stage together in a couple of community theater musicals in the 90s, and our employment by the state had some overlap, although with different agencies. We’ve also run into each other at lots of concerts. Americana in Oregon can be a small world.
In addition to Kristen on guitar and vocals, True North is her husband and co-bandleader Dan Wetzel on guitar, vocals, and octave mandolin; Martin Stevens on mandolin and fiddle; and Josh Adkins on bass. Both of the latter are active in bluegrass in the Northwest. Grainger defines the group’s music as “Pacific Northwest Americana” and if you like bluegrass-based music by the likes of Alison Krauss, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and The Secret Sisters, this is right up your alley.
The opening track “Keep The River On Your Right” is a bit of perfect sequencing. It’s a fast bluegrass shuffle paired with lovely Americana lyrics that highlight the natural world – mid-October, geese flying over, that sort of thing. Clean guitar picking, sharp mandolin and steady bass reinforce Grainger’s and Wetzel’s sweet harmonies.
Standout tracks for me are “Tattooed Love Song” and “Ghost Of Abuelito,” which together seem to have given the album its title. The former is a lighthearted love song with a gently loping rhythm and sunny melody with a slight minor cast, about a couple falling in love at the gas station where he works. This one shows off the pithier side of Grainger’s songwriting with lines like “his hope’s writing checks that his heart can’t afford,” and the repeated refrain of “love belongs to the innocent and rewards the bold.” Then “Ghost Of Abuelito”? snares you with its sunny, upbeat bluegrass tune before it slays you with its ripped-from-the-headlines first-person story of refugee children separated from their mother at the U.S. border.
Another good example of Grainger’s sensibility is in “She Flies With Her Own Wings,” inspired by her work with Governor Brown. Those less familiar with Oregon and its history might not recognize the song’s title as the state’s motto, which Grainger subverts a bit by making the song a tribute to the independent, collaborative spirit of her political heroes. “In my experience, women leaders tend to be more collaborative and less interested in taking credit,” Grainger says. “They seek collective solutions instead of bending detractors to their will. What we see with leaders like Kate Brown, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, is an unwillingness to accept as sacred society’s assumptions about women coupled with a determination to get things done.”
So yeah, there’s that. If for nothing else, Grainger gets my support. But in addition to her and Wetzel’s strong songwriting, they’ve picked some choice tunes to cover: Cahalen Morrison’s “Down In The Lonesome Draw” (from his collaboration with Eli West,(I?ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands), Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien’s sweet waltz “When No One’s Around” (with a lovely octave mandolin part from Wetzel); and Peter Rowan’s bluegrass romp “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” with Wetzel on lead vocals. Also notable are a couple of songs that focus on domestic abuse: The Secret Sisters’ “Mississippi” and Grainger’s chilling “Light By Light.”
Ghost Tattoo is another strong recording from someone who’s been honing her craft for decades. It deserves all the attention it can get from Americana establishment and fans.