Some songwriters hit you right off the bat, as the legendary Rosalie Sorrels did when I heard “The Baby Tree” on Jefferson Starship’s album Blows Against the Empire. Starship’s Paul Kantner was never what you’d call a striking vocalist, but between his down-to-earth delivery of an elemental melody and Sorrels’s sweetly touching vocals, the folk-tune-cum-nursery-rhyme gets you in your heart. Since then, whenever someone so much as mentions her name, my ears straighten like a hound dog’s.
Accordingly, on hearing Rosalie Sorrels had a new album out on nationally-lauded, St. Paul-based Red House Records, yours truly hurried up and got nosy. Turns out Rosalie Sorrels has got a thing and a half for her fellow folk legend, the late Utah Phillips. Along with her new release, Strangers in Another Country: The Songs of Bruce “Utah” Phillips, Sorrels’s discography on Red House Records includes My Last Go Round, No Closing Chord: The Songs of Malvina Reynolds, and 1996’s The Long Memory, recorded with Utah Phillips. Impressed as Rosalie Sorrels is with him, the unitiated might just want to look this guy up and get some of his recordings. There won’t be any more outside of archived material: Phillips succumbed to congestive heart failure in May. You can’t blame Sorrels, a star in her own right, for bowing to Utah Phillips. In a genre where anybody who slung a guitar could gather an audience, Phillips’s singular presence fostered a longstanding, steadfast following.
Strangers in Another Country: The Songs of Bruce “Utah” Phillips, beautifully produced by Roma Baran (Antigone/Rites of Passion, Bloodhounds of Broadway) finds Sorrels in fine voice. “Starlight on the Rails,” a song remarking on what it is to feel like “an exile in my own country,” features a dryly wizened narrative that breaks into rueful melody. “Mountain Valley Home,” delivered a capella, is grit itself and pure grace. Music doesn’t come any stronger from one’s heart and soul.
Joining Rosalie Sorrels for this tribute are folks who’ve carved their own marks in American music. On hand are Kate McGarrigle, Anna McGarrigle, Peggy Seeger, Jay Ungar & Molly Mason, Bryan Bowers, and Dakota Dave Hull. Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize all the names, just know that from beginning to end this is true earth-music culled with historic authenticity. It’ll be great to see the next time Rosalie Sorrels records her own stuff. Meanwhile, settle for marveling at the justice she does Utah Phiilips.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.