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(Richter Records 0010 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/7/2003)
With the major-label commercial music industry seemingly increasingly unfriendly to quality singer-songwriters, and bluegrass enjoying an almost unprecedented level of popularity, there seems to be a bit of a trend among artists in the new folk genre to move toward a more bluegrass oriented, acoustic sound, rather than trying to attract rock audiences, as many had previously been doing As far as I am concerned this is all to the best, since giving up on the commercial music scene essentially takes off some of the pressure to compromise on the music. Recently this series has featured new releases by singer-songwriters Karen Mal and Jake Armerding which take a bluegrass-tinged direction. This week we have another fine example. It's the second release by Florida-based Terri Binion. Her CD is called Fool.
Ms. Binion lives in the Orlando area, and with Disney World close at hand, she has created music for the Disney company's films, videos and the like, and also worked in the field of jingle production. But as a singer-songwriter, her work is anything but what you would expect from someone who has written music for the New Mickey Mouse Club. She is articulate lyrically, often addressing difficult issues with a good deal of grace, and is endowed with a nearly perfect folkie's voice -- clear, generally un-ornamented by much vibrato, and ranging from a sultry whisper to some country twang, sometimes nearly simultaneously.
As a songwriter, she manages to cast some new light on the timeless subject of love and personal relationships, but also addresses subjects like spousal abuse, an old news story, and the bane of Florida -- hurricanes. In her liner notes, she also makes reference to some of the real-life people she has met in her travels who were the inspiration for some of the songs. She adds that "they are all very real, semi-precious victims who crossed a fool's path." That may have been in part the genesis of the CD's title, Fool, though there is also a song by that name.
She is joined mainly by musicians from her home area, including Mitch Corbin on various stringed instruments including guitar, mandolin and acoustic bass. Jason Thomas is also heard on mandolin and fiddle. Alan Coward is heard on the understated drums and percussion, and Doug Matthews is also featured on acoustic bass. There is a guest appearance by Lucinda Williams doing backup vocal on one track. Though bluegrass is often an underlying influence, the band can move into country with some added steel guitar. The CD was co-produced by Ms. Binion and David Schweitzer, the owner of the small independent label on which the CD was released. They did an outstanding job of keeping everything tasteful.
One of the interesting things about this CD is how the lyrics and the musical setting can sometimes be at odds -- with a happy-sounding tune accompanying some sad lyrics. The musical mood of the CD is generally bright and appealing, even while the subject matter can turn weighty.
Leading off is the song with Lucinda Williams adding the backing vocal. GayleAnne, one of those people Ms. Binion encountered who she says inspired her. The musical setting is a mix of bluegrass and old-timey sounds, and Ms. Williams harmony vocals add a very appropriate touch. <<>>
One of those songs of more substantial subject matter is All She Ever Dreamed, the story of a victim of domestic abuse. Ms. Binion delivers the song in a matter-of-fact, almost journalistic style, in a simple, unadorned setting that makes the lyrics all the more powerful. <<>>
Probably the most straight-country song on the CD is the title track Fool. The sound recalls old Patsy Cline records, and Ms. Binion rises to the occasion vocally. <<>>
As a resident of Florida, Ms. Binion draws on experience close to home for the song Come Another Hurricane, which she does in bluegrass style instrumentally. It's a nice blend with Ms. Binion imbuing her new original song with a timeless quality evoking old traditional music. <<>>
Somewhat more conventional in subject matter is Sittin' Here Creakin'. The song describes a kind of love filled reverie and haze most people have experienced at one point or another. Ms. Binion and band create an interesting stylistic blend -- a kind of bluegrass ballad with some blues. <<>>
One interesting stylistic departure is Dreams Worn Thin, another of those songs inspired by people Ms. Binion has met, in this case a woman she calls The Cotton Kid. The musical setting is a curious, but appealing blend of bluegrass with Dixieland-style jazz. <<>>
One track needing a bit more of an explanation than the liner notes provide is called Whatever Happened between Richard Payne and Burton Post? It was apparently a crime incident that occurred in 1959, that she came across in an old issue of Life magazine. It's an interesting song despite the rather tantalizing lack of detail in the lyrics. <<>>
Ms. Binion's biography states that she has appeared with Steve Forbert over the years. I can hear some of Forbert's lyrical and even vocal style on the appealing song It's Good to Open Your Heart, which also has a bit of country twang in the musical arrangement.
Terri Binion is another of those talented singer-songwriters whose music is being enhanced by some bluegrass inspiration. Her new CD Fool is a worthy blend of pleasing, tasteful acoustic sounds, with some other more subtle influences, together with Ms. Binion's articulate, and often thought-provoking lyrics. She is also one of those singers with a voice that would make her singing even a telephone directory a joy. Her relaxed, often whispery style has a kind of slyness to it that provides a wonderful juxtaposition with the sweetness of her sound.
Sonically, we'll give the CD about an A-minus. I love the way Ms. Binion's vocal was recorded. It captures all the subtleties of her voice, and the acoustic instruments boast admirable clarity, but that old bugaboo of audio quality, compression in the mastering process, wrecks the sonic integrity of the full-band tunes with the bass and drums causing changes in volume on the other instruments.
There is no shortage of singer-songwriters on the scene today, but Terri Binion is a worthy artist who has all the right qualities, and is very good at both parts of the job.
(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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