Hearts Of GlassHer twelfth solo album (she also released Liv On, a collection of healing songs with Olivia Newton-John and Amy Sky in 2016), this is her first new material since The Mighty Sky six years ago and also the first where she’s handed over complete control of production to someone else, namely Sam Ashworth.

Having said that, it’s not entirely new with several of the tracks being re-recordings from earlier albums or (as on the Uncovered album) things she’s written but never previously recorded herself, except this time arranged for guitar rather than piano. It is, though, the all new ‘Come To Mine’ that sets things in motion, a co-write with Graham Gouldman and Kevin Montgomery from Chris Difford’s songwriting retreat in Somerset, an upbeat come together sentiment set to a catchy rolling rhythm and chorus that musically puts me in mind of Dar Williams’s ‘Mercy of the Fallen’.

Originally written for and recorded by Waylon Jennings on his Eagle album, ‘Old Church Hymns & Nursery Rhymes’ , a song about the passing of time, duly opens with a pump organ and is taken a slightly more uptempo pace than his. Another previously unrecorded number can be found with the dreamy country ballad waltz ‘If My World Didn’t Have You’, first heard on Willie Nelson’s 1990 album Horse Called Music, here featuring Johnny Duke on electric guitar and Rodney Crowell on backing vocals.

Dating back to her second, self-titled, album that same year, ‘Life Holds On’ is transformed from the original punchy piano driven version to a slower, more reflective number, while from that same album also comes ‘Child Again’, the soulful, bluesy flavour still much the same except with classical guitar dominant rather than piano (though it’s still in evidence) along with Spencer Cullum Jr. on pedal steel.

There’s also two songs revisited from 1993’s You Hold The Key, first up being the breathily-sung ‘Rage On Rage’, stripped of its strings and, again, built around classical acoustic, courtesy of Duke, its dreamy Janis Ian-like slow waltz structure more apparent and coloured now with pedal steel, organ and doleceola and Ruby Manafu on backing. The other, which closes the album, as it did on the original, is an even more lovely reading of ‘Dancer To The Drum’, her hymn to the unknown path of life upon which each new child embarks, carrying with them the DNA of the past awaiting rebirth.

Perhaps the most radical transformation is the affirming ‘All For The Love’ from 2002’s Deeper Still, the original’s persistent, hypnotic clip clopping percussion replaced by a less intrusive drum beat, Chapman playing banjo and bandoneon as well as guitar and piano and minus the one-minute closing drone and keening wordless choral vocals.

The remaining songs are all new, ‘Epitaph For Love’, featuring Matt Slocum on cello, a fairly self-descriptive fragile ballad followed with a distinct mood contrast by the jauntily infectious bounce of a long lasting love that informs ‘Enough For Me’, its warm glow embellished by flugelhorns and multi-instrumentalist Sam Ashworth on whistles.

In similar swooning romantic mode, Chapman on electric piano, Ashworth brushing the drums, Mark Hill providing electric bass and Jeff Taylor on accordion, is the early hours slow dance jazz of ‘You’re Still My Valentine’, a number that sounds as though it was plucked from an album of forgotten standards.

At some point, it would be good to have a whole album of new material, but for now this is another tremendous addition to an already impeccable catalogue.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Rage On Rage’ – official video:

MARY GAUTHIER – Rifles & Rosary Beads (Proper PRCD145)

Rifles & Rosary BeadsFounded by Darden Smith some five years ago, SongwritingWith: Soldiers is a charitable organisation that brings together musicians and often wounded (physically, spiritually and mentally) veterans, those still in active service and their families in a short retreat to write songs of an Americana persuasion together in an attempt to come to terms with and, hopefully, ease and heal their pain. Results have often been life-changing, even life-saving, and Amy Speace, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Radney Foster have all been involved while songs that have emerged from the process have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.

To that list you can now add Mary Gauthier, no stranger to either psychological and emotional troubles or finding salvation through confessional songwriting, these 11 numbers here are the result of a series of soul-baring sessions, all co-written with soldiers and the first she’s recorded not directly connected to her own life and experiences.

It begins with the deliberately ambiguously titled ‘Soldiering On’, written in collaboration with Jennifer Marino, a Marine veteran, and addresses the difficulty in fitting back into life at home after the experiences of combat where the attitudes and behaviours that kept you alive can be destructive in a civilian or domestic setting as, set to a simple acoustic strum that morphs to include electric guitar, strings and resonant drums as it builds to a climax, she sings “what saves you in the battle can kill you at home.”

Marino also co-penned ‘Morphine 1-2’, a simple country jog built on steady one-two drum beat from Neilson Hubbard and accompanied by Danny Mitchell’s piano and horns that, laden with poignancy, unfolds the story of the titular medical helicopter’s female pilot who, along with the six members of her crew, died during a “desert blood drop” mission on her last scheduled flight before returning home

The fraught nature of post-combat life is understandably a recurring theme, potently surfacing again on ‘The War After The War’, which, set to slow march rhythm shaded by Michele Gazich’s violin, was co-written with Chapman (who, along with Odessa Settles, provides the album’s background vocals) and the assorted wives of service members and concerns the pressures and pains of living with a wounded veteran, their husbands honoured while they and the problems they face in being strong are consigned to the shadows, invisible. “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?” she asks as they daily have to deal with “landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor”.

The same concern is seen from the soldier’s perspective on the slow waltzing ‘It’s Her Love’, co-written with another Marine, James Dooley, a haunting finger-picked number, gradually embellished by piano and violin, about how his wife’s love keeps him together even “when I am broken and push her away” and “the dead and the dying are all I can see”.

PTSD and the inability to shake the memories of what was seen and done is a prime cause for the estimated 7,400 suicides of current and former members of the armed services in America every year, and it’s the foundation of the sparse slow waltz acoustic title track which, written with Joe Costello and underscored by mournful harmonica, violin and piano, tells of the memories of “bombed out schools and homes” return to haunt and not recognising the man you see in the mirror, “a stranger with blood on his hands”, turning to Vicodin, morphine and prayer in an attempt to escape the living nightmares.

The album also looks at the bonds forged on the battlefield in two songs written with young army veterans Megan Counighan and Britney Pfad. Built on a tribal drum beat ‘Got Your Six’ is about watching your fellow soldier’s back, at home as much as under fire, while the more uptempo ‘Brothers’ is about both a naïve new recruit, a young mother, trying to “prove that I’m a brother too” and, in the final verse, the way the women who served are forgotten when the flags are raised in salute.

It’s a gender-related theme that also extends to ‘Iraq’, a slow sway written by former army mechanic Brandy Davidson about the sexual harrassment and patronising attitudes she encountered (“a salute and a wink, a little pat on the back”) as, accompanying herself on harmonica, Gauthier sings “it was so hard to see ‘til it attacked but my enemy wasn’t Iraq”.

The three remaining numbers are all about the aftermath, the loss and the ambivalence. Again featuring harmonica, co-written with Josh Geartz, ‘Still On The Ride’ is from the perspective of a wounded veteran (“got holes in my eardrums, bruised and clots, double vision..I wake up feeling like I’m 90 years old”) that touches on survivor guilt (“I shouldn’t be here you shouldn’t be gone”) but also how the spirit of his dead comrade is the guardian angel that keeps him going.

It’s pointedly followed by the stunning ‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’, a haunting piano-backed ballad written with Desert Storm Navy veteran Jamie Trent and set against a Nashville Veterans Day backdrop and the mixed emotions of pride and sorrow it evokes (“They thank me for my service and wave their little flags. They genuflect on Sundays and yes, they’d send us back”), pivoting around the striking chorus imagery of “I believe in God and country and in the angels up on high and in heaven shining down on us through bullet holes in the sky”.

It ends with a return to the women left behind as loved ones go to war or return psychologically scarred with ‘Stronger Together’, on a gentle drum rhythm-led collaboration with a group of army wives married to Explosive Ordnance Disposal soldiers about their solidarity in dealing with the prospect of loss (“EOD wives don’t sit by the phone. No news is good news back at home”) and caring for their broken husbands (“we’re there when they fall apart”) as, with soulful harmonies from Civil Rights music gospel Settle (the daughter of former Fairfield Four member Walter), Gauthier yearningly hymns the chorus refrain of “sisters forever”.

In the condemnation of war, it’s often easy to blur the line between the fighters and the fight, the former often as much a casualty as any. While directed at Americans, and with a timely resonance in the light of the NFL national anthem protests, the album’s humanistic themes and sentiments embrace the experiences of the military and their families on a global scale, up there with Gauthier’s finest work and not just one of the best album’s you’ll hear in 2018, but one of the most important.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’ – official video:

Beth Nielsen Chapman announces new album

Beth Nielsen Chapman

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s brand-new studio album, Hearts Of Glass is a powerful collection of songs that dig deep into the place within us where vulnerability meets strength. Produced by Sam Ashworth, Hearts Of Glass is sparse and beautifully recorded. The songs, mostly written by Beth alone, include several new compositions, from the haunting ‘Epitaph For Love’ to the instant classic ‘You’re Still My Valentine’, to the infectious ‘Enough For Me’, written with Sam. The opening track, ‘Come To Mine’, the only other co-written song, was composed with the legendary Graham Gouldman and Kevin Montgomery at Chris Difford’s Songwriting retreat in Somerset England.

“My intention was to do an album of songs 100% written by me, and bring together those kinds of songs that have a certain focus and vibe, but ‘Come To Mine’ just jumped out and insisted on leading the pack!  It’s timely what with all that’s swirling around in the world right now. The same is true for the closing track ‘Dancer To The Drum’ which provides the perfect bookend” said Beth.

Hearts Of Glass also features several gems plucked from Beth’s previous releases that have been re-recorded, now moved from piano to guitar with minimal touches of production. ‘Life Holds On’, sounding like it could have been written yesterday, is just one stunning example of how the “less is more” approach reveals the power of these songs, stripped down to Beth’s voice and the pulsing of her electric guitar. The songs are front and centre, as is the case for ‘Rage On Rage’, ‘Dancer To The Drum’ and ‘Child Again’, each having been reborn. ‘Old Church Hymns & Nursery Rhymes’, recorded here for the first time by Beth, is a song she wrote for Waylon Jennings, released on his Eagle album and uses amazing imagery to capture the passing of time.

In addition, the first-time release of Beth’s version of the timeless classic ‘If My World Didn’t Have You’ features Rodney Crowell on backing vocals. This song first appeared on Willie Nelson’s Horse Called Music album along with her song ‘Nothing I Can Do About It Now’ which went to #1 for Willie in 1990.

Beth’s working with producer Sam Ashworth came about from a conversation with legendary broadcaster Bob Harris OBE, in which she mentioned she loved the recordings of duo The Civil Wars and was looking to record her new album with that kind of clarity and space. Bob suggested she meet up with the producer/artist Charlie Peacock. When Beth and Charlie’s schedules didn’t sync, Beth met with his son Sam, a young, talented producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and from their first meeting, Beth felt very confident that this was going to work.

“I made a decision early on in the process that this time I was going to fully allow myself to be produced and work on taming my inner ‘control freak’.”

From the selection of the songs to choosing of the musicians and the addition of overdubs, Beth deferred to Sam.

“Creatively this was very new territory for me. It was such an interesting dynamic to hand over so many of the decisions and trust the process. I found by not jumping in too quickly and directing, that I ended up not only with something I loved, but I learned a lot about myself and the places you can go when you let someone else drive.”

The places that Hearts Of Glass goes will take you right into the centre of the truth, and the full beautiful dance of contradictions that inhabit love and life.

Artist’s website:

‘Rage On Rage’ – official video:

Blue Rose Code (Ross Wilson) announces new album

Blue Rose Code

Blue Rose Code, aka acclaimed singer-songwriter Ross Wilson, releases The Water Of Leith, his first album for Navigator Records on October 27 on CD, download and album stream.

A nomad both geographically and musically, Ross writes from the heart eschewing any specific genre and the twelve new songs on The Water Of Leith, addressing themes of love, loss, travel, home, accepting the past and embracing the future, are painted with colours of folk, jazz, soul and pop; an eclecticism that has become a hallmark of Blue Rose Code and has seen him compared to John Martyn, Van Morrison and Tom Waits.

Underlining the sense of movement and place in Ross’s work and The Water Of Leith is rooted in his return to his Scottish homeland. There, he reconnected with the stellar musicians who were to become an integral part of the new album’s sound: multi award-winning singer Julie Fowlis, celebrated Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, BBC Folk Award Winner, Ross Ainslie, 2017’s Scottish Jazz Awards’ instrumentalist of the year Konrad Wiszniewski, leading violinist Seonaid Aitken and three of Scotland’s finest jazz musicians; John Lowrie, Colin Steele and James Lindsay, to name just some of the contributors. Grammy-winning American singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman features on the opening track. Ross co-produced the album with Angus Lyon.

Blue Rose Code will tour extensively around the release of The Water Of Leith, including concerts at Edinburgh Queen’s Hall on November 3, London Bush Hall on November 14, Perth Concert Hall on November 20 and two nights at Harbour Arts in Irvine on November 24 and 25.

In the space of a few short years and the release of well-received albums North Ten, The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, and And Lo The Bird Is On The Wing, Blue Rose Code has built a growing reputation as a powerful writer and performer, gaining extensive radio play and the praise of key broadcasters including Edith Bowman, Mary Ann Kennedy, Bob Harris and also actor Ewan McGregor who made a cameo appearance on And Lo The Bird Is On The Wing after commenting: “My uncle Denis Lawson (star of Local Hero) gave me a copy of The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, it’s beautiful and I can’t stop listening to it.” Author Ian Rankin is also a fan and has written insightful sleeve notes for the new album.  The Water Of Leith marks another step forward for Ross: his first record in recovery following a personal history overcoming alcoholism and addiction.

Artist’s website:

‘Grateful’ – live at RTE:

DARDEN SMITH – Everything (Compass 746812)

EverythingAfter the release of 2013’s Love Calling, his fourteenth album in thirty years, the Austin-based singer-songwriter considered calling it a day, unsure he had anything left worth saying or that anyone was even listening. Instead, he turned to exploring creative avenues outside of the traditional music business, writing an as yet unpublished book on artists’ perspectives on work, doing songwriting workshops and helping put together a non-profit group called Song-Writing-With-Soldiers, a program to bring professional songwriters and veterans together to write songs about combat and returning home.

This, in tandem with growing older and getting sick of the cynicism of those in power and feeling the need for compassion for strangers, sent him back to reconsider material he’d written over the past five years, both by himself and in collaboration with the likes of Bruce Robison and Matreca Berg. Narrowing the total down to twelve, he recruited a bunch of his favourite musicians, among them bassist Roscoe Beck, guitarist Charlie Sexton and the legendary David Mansfield and, with Beth Nielsen Chapman among those providing harmonies, went back into the studio, persuaded that, yes, he did have something to say and that hopefully someone out there might need to hear it, even if it only changed one person’s day for the better.

Everything is the result, and the self-reflection that went into its genesis can he heard on the lazing lope of the Radney Foster co-penned ‘Soul Searching’ as he sings about “trying to find where I belong” and “what I want to leave behind me when I’m gone”, that contemplation of legacy also to be found on the Simon-esque title track about making the most of life and “when I’m gone here’s a song I hope the angels sing.”

It’s upbeat tone is reflected in many of the songs, notable cases in point would be the repeated piano riff opener. ‘Blessings’. (“just remember that you make a difference and the world is better off that you are here”) and the celebration of individuality in the acoustic rippling ‘Against The Grain’.

Co-written with Berg, ‘Firefly’ is a love song with a classic Jackson Browne flavour while thoughts of mortality inform ‘I Love You, Goodbye’, another song of the heart, this time informed by a friend’s passing, about remembering to take the time to let people know how you feel while you still can.

A timely song about the need for human kindness, ‘Love Will Win The War’ is, Mansfield on mandolin, a strummed folksy march beat with a crowd friendly chorus of ‘hate may win a battle, love will win the war.”

Elsewhere ‘Carousel’, a gently waltzing reflection on a past relationship co-written with Robison, features Kelly Willis on harmonies, album closer ‘Can You See The Moon’ has a late night blues vibe while, another Foster co-write, ‘Forever’ reps the album’s only glimpse of hopelessness and despair, telling of a woman walking out of an abusive marriage and, quite possibly, walking into the water to drown , though it’s equally possible to see it as a cleansing and rebirth before she starts a new life.

Smith says he set out to make an album that brings people together, an affirmation in the face of a world that seeks to them apart. Everything is a whole lotta love.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Everything’ live:

Mary Gauthier – Trouble and Love (Proper PRPCD123P)

gauthierGauthier’s seventh studio album, her first in four years, finds her stepping outside of the major label model to take control of the business on her own terms. As such, she declares that taking back and reclaiming her power is an underlying theme to both the album and her life, a significant statement given that it also comes on the back of the collapse of a two year relationship.

To which end, the album opens on an unambiguous note with the swampy blues ‘When A Woman Goes Cold’, a lyric about love’s dying embers with Gauthier drawling out the lines “She’d curse my name like she did before, but she looks through me like I’m not there.” with all the pain that being scorned can inflict. The theme continues on the more countrified weariness of ‘False From True’, a co-write with Beth Nielsen Chapman (who also provides harmonies) where she sings “a stranger showed up in your eyes, hard as steel, cold as ice, I tried and tried but I could not break through.”, a track you could hear Willie Nelson performing.

The album’s six minute title track follows on, a melancholic road song full of “rumble strips, red lights…lonely travellers and cheap motel art”, a blizzard blowing though both the air and her heart, albeit to the sound of a gorgeous guitar break by Guthrie Trapp.

If there’s a feel of being in the moment to the album, it’s likely down to the fact that it was, essentially, recorded on the hoof, the singers and musicians recording at Ricky Skaggs’ Studio, without benefit of leads sheet, advance demos or headphones, everything cut live with the back-up vocals totally impromptu. The immediacy really pulls you inside the hurt.

The call for redemption may be overcast with black clouds, but the musical mood shifts somewhat with the fingerpicking arrival of the gospel tinted ‘Oh Soul’, featuring harmony by Darren Scott and, fittingly for a song about selling your soul, a reference to Robert Johnson’s grave. It may not have the most optimistic of lyrics, but the musical tenor is certainly a little more uplifting. Although it features some tasty slide, the lyrically lacerating, ironic country slow sway ‘Worthy’ (“wondered all my life why I felt so alone”) is probably the weakest track, teetering slightly on the edge of a self-pity not found elsewhere.

It’s followed, however, by one of the strongest cuts, the slow waltzing ‘Walking Each Other Home’, the first of two Gretchen Peters co-writes (with a hint of John Prine’s ‘Hello In There’ in the melody) where acceptance and healing start to be felt as she sings “somewhere between Cain and Able is where we live, it’s only human to take more than we give.” The second Peters co-write, ‘How You Learn To Live Alone’, haltingly continues the process, a resigned, bitterly sad heartbreaker (“it’s been years since your house has felt like home”) that features lovely understated twangy guitar courtesy Duane Eddy that eventually flows into a solo snatch of ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’.

As befits an album about survival, the album closes on a note of hope with the plangent ‘Another Train’ finding her “moving on, through the pain”, bluesy keyboard swelling behind the guitars and Lynn Williams’ steady drum beat.

It’s not the most uplifting of albums, but, as she always does, Gauthier has taken personal experience and rendered it universal, an ability possessed by only the most truly gifted of songwriters and performers.

Mike Davies

Artist website:

‘Trouble And Love’ live: