Martha Scanlan

The West Was Burning

  • AllMusic Rating
    8
  • User Ratings (0)
  • Your Rating

AllMusic Review by

Martha Scanlan was a member of the contemporary old-time string band the Reeltime Travelers, who probably are best known for their appearance on the T-Bone Burnett-produced Cold Mountain soundtrack. For her first solo outing, Scanlan keeps one foot in the past and the other in the present. There is plenty of fiddle, mandolin, Dobro, and banjo playing on this disc (often courtesy of producer Dirk Powell), but Scanlan doesn't limit her sound to acoustic instruments. The second track, "Get Right Church," is a robust, foot-stomping rendition of the Rev. James Cleveland gospel classic that is more Saturday night than Sunday morning. Later on, her original "Isabella" nicely balances front-porch fiddling with juke joint guitar. This song of sisterhood also slips in some subtle political references, name-checking the mother of civil rights figure Emmitt Till as well as Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, a female Native American political activist who was mysteriously murdered in the '70s. Scanlan doesn't hammer her listeners with her music, but takes an appealing low-key approach to both her songwriting and arrangements. The warm-hearted, winter-set courting tune "Walkin'" makes a simple yet poetic observation: "Ordinary is as ordinary sees/The quiet beauty in the shapes of trees." She uses the evocatively down-to-earth lyric "Somehow packing up your things/Didn't seem to bring/The peace I'd hoped to find" to describe post-breakup angst in "I Don't Even Have to Ask." Her songs are also very much rooted in nature and the outdoors, whether physically (the bittersweet rancher's tale "Up on the Divide") or metaphorically (the picturesque love song "Seeds of the Pine"). Trees are a recurring image, popping up in almost all of her original tunes. Besides her own earthy, folksy tunes, she also tackles the obscure Bob Dylan number "Went to See the Gypsy" and conjures up comparisons to Emmylou Harris on her tender, spare cover of the spiritual "Ten Thousand Charms." The Powell instrumental "Call Me Shorty" makes for a curious inclusion, as this bluegrass interlude seemingly serves -- at least on this disc -- as a showcase for the backing band. Still, Scanlan's unpretentious but thoroughly charming debut should appeal to fans of Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent and lovers of other Americana angels.

blue highlight denotes track pick