Kristen Grainger & True North are based in Salem, Oregon, and on their new album, Ghost Tattoo, they deliver some excellent music that mixes folk and bluegrass elements. The album features mostly original material, written by Kristen Grainger. The band is made up of Kristen Grainger on vocals and ukulele; Dan Wetzel on guitar, vocals and octave mandolin; Martin Stevens on mandolin, octave mandolin, fiddle and vocals; and Josh Adkins on acoustic bass and vocals. Joining them on this release are Cameron Elmore on bowed bass, and Dale Adkins on banjo and guitar.
They open the album with “Keep The River On Your Right,” which establishes a sweet folk vibe immediately and features a pretty vocal performance. It is a song of memory, addressed to someone who has passed on. “And all that talk of heaven, well, it never resonated back in Sunday school/I found my religion on a windy mountain ridge and on a river bank with you.” It is like a conversation, in as much as she is addressing someone who is gone, while the chorus is that person’s advice to her. “Keep the river on your right/You can’t go wrong with the river on your right/And if you’ve lost your way/And you’re running out of daylight/Keep the river on your right.” There are some nice harmonies on the chorus, which add to the sense that this person still is an important presence in her life. The chorus has a bright, uplifting feel, helping to make this song feel like it could lead us all home. That’s followed by “Jeremiah’s Tree.” There is something positive about this one as well, for even as she sings of sorrow and stumbling and falling, she tells us “But I keep trying/To be the seed that water plants/On a stony riverbank/From these mighty roots I sank/I’ll rise to be/Jeremiah’s tree.” There is some gentle guitar work, and a nice hook, but what I particularly love about this track is the mandolin work, that bright sound which helps to create the optimistic vibe of the song.
“Tattooed Love Song” is a pretty and fun track about two strangers who meet because of car trouble. There is a playfulness to some of the lyrics and their delivery, and I love phrases like “long-suffering ’96 Honda Accord.” In addition, there is some beautiful work on fiddle. Then we get the album’s first cover, a strong rendition of The Secret Sisters’ “Mississippi,” a song written by Laura Rogers, Lydia Rogers, Brandi Carlile, Philip Hanseroth and Timothy Hanseroth. It is a powerful song, and has a darker groove than the previous tracks. “There are only two things I know/I get ugly when the whisky flows/Wanted you to know I love you so/And I’d kill before I let you go.” That is followed by a good cover of “Down In The Lonesome Draw,” from the 2014 album by Cahalen Morrison and Eli West, I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands.
We go back to original material with “Ghost Of Abuelito.” This one tackles a serious and depressing subject, the caging of children at the U.S./Mexico border, though this song has an ultimately uplifting effect because of its strong sense of humanity. The song is from the perspective of the children, and many of the song’s lines will pull at your heart, such as “Even when we gave our dog away/Even after throwing stones to make her stay” and “When will my mama come to get me/Did she go off and forget me.” This line also stands out: “He says Abuelito told him, America will always take you in.” Ah, that was the ideal, wasn’t it? Is that America dead? Let’s hope it can be revived after the election in November, when that racist monster is finally removed. This song ends with the hopeful line “And they’ll bring our mothers soon.” And we are left wondering if that was in fact the case. That’s followed by a cover of “When There’s No One Around” (here titled “When No One’s Around”), a song written by Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien, and covered by Garth Brooks. Both Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien have included the song on their solo albums, and together they included it on their live album, We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This. I like what Kristen Grainger & True North do with it, with both male and female lead vocals and some nice work on guitar. This song makes me happy. “This is a song that nobody knows/I couldn’t begin to describe how it goes/But it makes me cry, or laugh right out loud/It’s a song that I sing when there’s no one around.”
There are more wonderful harmonies on “Light By Light,” an interesting and compelling song that describes a certain danger and fear. “And I know you’re out there/I can see your silhouette/The moonlight on your pistol.” Anytime there is a loaded gun, there is danger. But the song has such a sweet sound, we might be fooled, thinking we are safe. That’s followed by “Wishes & Dreams,” one of my personal favorites. With that steady country rhythm and a great lead part on guitar, the whole sound is wonderful. But the lyrics are really what grab me. Here is a taste: “My heart is as empty as a pocket/Fraying at the seams/As I wander with your ghost/Among these wishes and dreams.” This one was written by Dan Wetzel and Kristen Grainger.
Even though I do love living in the city, I can’t help but be drawn to songs urging us to live in the country, to live in a more relaxed state. Such is the case with “Fine Young Companion,” in which they sing “He said, oh, my fine young companion/Run away from these big city dreams/Get you a house in the mountains/Fish all those rivers and streams.” Doesn’t seem like bad advice, does it? But I know after a few months I’d be itching for restaurants and bars and the myriad options that a city can offer. Still, these thoughts keep tugging at my brain. This track features some more sweet work on fiddle. Then we get a cover of ‘Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” a song written by Peter Rowan and originally recorded by New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and a perfect song to follow “Fine Young Companion.” Kristen Grainer & True North pick up the pace on this song. It is a playful tune, and they deliver a delicious rendition. If you’re not familiar with it, here is a taste of the lyrics: “I?m just a lonesome L.A. cowboy/Hanging out and hanging on/To your window ledge/I’m calling your name/From midnight until dawn/I’ve been smoking dope and snorting coke/Trying to write a song/Forgetting everything I know/Until the next line comes along.” There is some great stuff on banjo here. The album concludes with “She Flies With Her Own Wings,” a sweet and hopeful and empowering original number. “Yeah, the lightning is the thing that destroys/Thunder’s just a noise/A bully with a megaphone threatens and annoys/’Cause she flies with her own wings/She’s on the lookout for better things.”
June 22, 2020