MONICA TAYLOR – Trains, Rivers & Trails (Horton Records)

Trains, Rivers & TrailsAn Oklahoman of Scottish and Cherokee heritage, dubbed The Cimarron Songbird by Jimmy LaFave and Bob Childers, Taylor is a sterling exponent of red dirt music, the title of her ninth album, Trains, Rivers & Trails, nodding to her much-travelled life as well as the subject matter of the material. Co-produced with Travis Fite and Jared Tyler who variously contribute guitars, dobro, mandolin, banjo, and Weissenborn alongside John Fullbright on keys, drummer Jake Lynn, bassist Casey van Beek and Luke Bulla and Roger Ray on fiddles and pedal steel guitars, respectively.

It’s the ‘Sound Of A Train’ that gets the wheels rolling, a train time shuffle (of course) that (naturally) speaks of leaving and loss, of painful memories that return to catch unawares “like the pounding of the river/Crashing down the mountain side/When the snow first hits the pines”. That’s followed by the first of four covers that also play to the theme travelling and restlessness, a banjo and fiddle accompanied take on ‘Gentle On My Mind’ that takes the John Hartford original rather than the Glen Campbell hit as the template.

Two others sit midway, first, another traintime rhythm with shuffling snares, Roger McGuinn’s ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ where, featuring John Williams on harmonica and Tyler’s Weissenborn break, she gives it a gender switch with some new lyrics, drawing out the song’s reflective nature, the third being ‘Minor Key’ (‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’), the ‘lost’ Woody Guthrie self-assertive lyric (“Ain’t nobody that can sing like me”) set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Fullbright on accordion and taking lead on the third and sixth verse and Jared Tyler on the fifth and dobro, both adding harmonies.

The fourth and final is a lively Cajun romp through McBride and Keith Stegall’s goodtime ‘Down in Louisiana’, again adding her own verse about having “a real hot lover with a real good hand/Makes the best gumbo in Cajun land” and knows how to make “sweet lovin’ neath the cypress”.

Returning to the self-penned material, the steady strummed slow march ‘Salty Tears’ with a melody akin to Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times’, is inspired by her great-great grandmother who, aged 13, was forced to relocate to Oklahoma with her Cherokee family as part of the

Trail of Tears, the number being up power and pace as she takes on her voice as she sings “Now my mother, my father, and two sisters have left/This cold trail for good/But for me I must walk/For the ones who cannot/If I could flee, you know ….that I surely would”.

Of a more musically upbeat nature, ‘Rescues’ is a call for compassion towards other who are less fortunate (“Give a care/For the woman that you meet, who’s eyes are tired/As she shuffles down the street/With two swollen and blistered feet from the ice cold wind and the summer’s heat… To the couple in the café’s corner booth/Who’ve been fighting back the tears/For out in the truck is all their life boxed up”) and of turning the other cheek (“Give a heart to the one who beats you up with words so cruel” because, she says “We’re all rescues”.

The following two numbers are both co-writes, ‘When You Let Your Love Light Shine’ a collaboration with Bob Childers with Ray on pedal steel and Fullbright on Wurlitzer, about finding the one who can bring you peace of mind (“You came to me on a cold dark night/Brought me warmth and you brought me light”) while, as the title suggests,

‘Just Came In To Say Goodbye’, written with Patrick Williams, returns to end of the relationship line leaving territory (“you don’t have to speak a word/There’s nothing I can do or say… that you ain’t already heard/It’s been a long time coming…. I’ll be a long time gone. Man, we were really something… guess we’re better off alone”), a sentiment that echoes in the second of the album’s train songs, ‘Train Take Me Away’ featuring Thomas Trapp on lead acoustic guitar, Luke Bulla on fiddle and Tyler on dobro, this one about migrant works trekking across the country to try and earn a living be it picking cotton, digging for coal or driving cattle, always dreaming of riding the rails back to Oklahoma and home.

If that could be set in the Depression, it’s the American Civil War that provides the backdrop to  the lovely slow waltzing ‘The Ocoee Love Song’ (named for the Florida river, the Nantahala  and Hiawasse also mentioned) on which, harmonising with Leslie Beia to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars, dobro, fiddle,  mandolin and upright bass, she sings in the voice of Southern women left at home while the men are away fighting, doing their best to survive in harsh times (“cold ain’t the word for winter In the mountains/But we chopped and hunted… and laid your mom in the ground”) and growing from girl to woman as they wait for brothers, fathers and sweethearts to return to “the river, my love, and the springtime”.

An album that clocks up both the physical and emotional miles, it deserves to be part of your musical journey this year.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Train Take Me Away’: