Mother Banjo’s debut Swing Low showed stark chops: authentic bluegrass, well done. Her follow-up, The Sad and Found, is even better. What’s surprising is how much stronger the singer-songwriter-banjoist has grown in a couple of years. Doubtless, there are some interesting-sounding demos laying around her house, recorded during the transition.
The Sad and Found is MoJo, a.k.a. Ellen Stanley, in about the finest form imaginable. Want to hear where pop rock sirens like Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks and Natalie Maines go when they woodshed, digging up their roots? Right here, where Mother Banjo lives. Where she cooks like the kitchen caught fire. They go to the well. Stanley holds tight to origins that precede even the sainted Grand Ole Opry when the likes of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard were the last word in country music. She didn’t have to go the well. She’s always been there. Listen to cuts like “One Hello” and “Texas,” both originals.
“One Hello”, for which Mother Banjo’s accompanied by Dan Gaarder (guitar, vocals), is a perfect lead-in for the album. Subdued, basically just voice and banjo, it couldn’t be more heart-stirring with a full symphony orchestra as backup band. Stark melancholy, dry as dust. Stanley sweetly sings about bitter romantic circumstance, timbre rich as a full cornfield. “I was one hello / From saying goodbye / I could have gone before / But I stayed on the line / I held on too long / Now you’re gone.” Right behind it, “Texas” is even less cheerful, affording such sentiment as guess-I’ll-get-out-of-bed-and-go-cut-my-throat. Singing her own, haunting, backup vocal, Stanley mourns, “Texas, oh you went to Texas / You say you got to go and think / You put Scotch whisky in your drink / Texas, I lost you to Texas.” She paints a picture of bare-bones humanity, speaking straight from its heart.
It’s that way throughout. The music and lyrics are all original, with the exceptions of Josh Ritter’s “Leaving” and Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna.” A tip of the hat is due the producers, Darren Jackson and John Hermanson, who faithfully capture Stanley’s austere grace, enduring strength and winning originality. She’s had good fortune in that regard: Jackson and Hermanson here, Dave Bade producing Swing Low. Should be interesting to see who she trusts at the boards next time around.
The Sad and Found is heralded by a spate of release shows for which the list keeps getting updated. That’s how well-received the disc has been.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.
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