From the mid-'90s through 2005, composer, arranger, and pianist Rachel Grimes brought her neo-classical chamber ensemble the Rachel's to the attention of indie music lovers everywhere through five cherished releases. Beginning her solo career with 2009's Book of Leaves, she has assembled an accessible yet mysterious and evocative group of recordings featuring intimate work with groups of various sizes, as well as an original score and soundtrack for director Jeremy Findel's documentary The Doctor from India.
2019's The Way Forth is a different level of aesthetic achievement. It's a folk opera whose subject is the history of Kentucky delivered as an experiential, non-linear journey in the voices of Kentucky's women from the 18th to 20th centuries who were left out of "official" histories penned by white men. Grimes brings them forth with lush orchestration, sung and spoken narration, and arresting imagery. She created it along with award-winning director Catharine Axley, who shot a film to accompany the music in concert (it will be released as a feature film with this score in 2020). Grimes' collaborators here are actor Stephen Duff Webber, harpist/vocalist Timbre Cierpke, acclaimed Kentucky folk musician and recording artist Joan Shelley, guitarist and archivist Nathan Salsburg, and banjoist Sean Johnson, alongside numerous instrumentalists, singers, and narrators. The work alternates between sung and spoken pieces, with fragments from books, letters, family narratives, and Appalachian music as source material. It's orchestrated with elegant, quietly dramatic chamber string arrangements, sparse woodwinds, piano, and bass, filling the spaces around and behind the voices. In "Patsy," an 85-year-old woman looks back at the story of her life. She details weaving flax, shearing sheep for wool blankets, church membership, living through the Depression, and witnessing three major wars. In "Red House School" a retired teacher -- who may or may not be a ghost -- relates the evolution of education in rural surroundings. The narrator of "Nowhere on Earth" tours her past, wondering if it's "blood, bone, or DNA" that roots her small town so deeply in her spiritual experience. "The Hysterical Society" is a Stephen Foster-esque square dance tune perverse in its listing of its participants, places, and male figures. "Dolly" is a historically accurate slave narrative about one of two women who accompanied Colonel Callaway to establish the fort at Boonseborough and bore a child after he raped her. "A New Land" weaves Appalachian folk (with a piano emulating a hammered dulcimer) through classical articulation with swelling strings, solo fiddle, and a piano minuet. The Way Forth is radically different than Grimes' previous recordings, though her piano-sourced melodies are instantly identifiable. This gently delivered work is powerful given its subject matter, poetic articulation, and unflinching evocative narrative. Grimes reclaims for women the kind of social history and autobiography that has long held sway in the American South's cultural narrative.