Guitar and Vocal 

Three new records by women artists—two of them avowed folksingers—highlight the power of a striking song and a direct delivery

Three new records by women artists—two of them avowed folksingers—highlight the power of a striking song and a direct delivery

Patty Griffin

A Kiss in Time (ATO)

Kate Rusby

Underneath the Stars (Compass)

Eddi Reader

Sings the Songs of Robert Burns (Compass)

Patty Griffin recoiled the first time someone called her a folksinger. The description brought to mind a field of daisies, and she didn’t consider her music delicate or flowery. For a while, Griffin fought such pigeonholing. But her fate seemed sealed when her fully realized debut, Living With Ghosts, featured just her voice and guitar. She had recorded an album with a full band, but she didn’t like the results, and neither did her record company. In listening back to her demos, she came up with the idea to put out the stripped-down songs without additional instrumentation.

The result was stunning, and Griffin was right: There’s nothing delicate about her forceful, emotion-packed songs or her wide-open, powerful alto. But when she walks onstage with just her acoustic guitar, what do people think? Folksinger.

To combat the term, Griffin opened her second album, Flaming Red, with a punkish blast of buzzsaw guitars, stomping rhythms and the petite, redheaded singer wailing and snarling emphatically. By now, however, Griffin no longer worries about descriptions. On a DVD interview accompanying her new live CD, A Kiss in Time, she remembers how surprised she was when CMT embraced her video for “Chief,” a song from her third album, 1000 Kisses. “It made me a country music star,” she gibes.

It’s easier to shrug off questions about what to call Griffin’s music now that she’s attracted a sizable following. After a series of setbacks—including a fully recorded album that never got released—Griffin has found her audience, largely through enthusiastic, word-of-mouth recommendations from those who came across her music one way or another. CMT may have played her video, and free-spirited radio stations like Nashville’s WRLT-Lightning 100 have supported her music, but for the most part, Griffin has become a phenomenon without help from broadcasters.

Witness her new live album, A Kiss in Time: Without hit records, she now packs midsized theaters like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, where she recorded the project on the last date of a 2002 tour. The recording is a testament to how passionately fans feel about this unusually gifted singer. Guests Emmylou Harris and Buddy and Julie Miller sing harmony, but otherwise, the CD highlights Griffin’s voice, her indelible songs and her fine touring band, comprised of Nashville residents Doug Lancio on guitar, Dave Jacques on bass, drummer Bryan Owings, pianist John Deaderick and Michael Ramos of Austin, Texas (where Griffin now resides), on accordion.

From the bittersweet “Fly,” a Griffin original that became the title track of the Dixie Chicks’ second album for Monument, to deeply cut character portraits like “Mary” (about her grandmother) and “Tony” (about a gay teenager who commits suicide), the performances illustrate her sharply developed talent as a songwriter and vocalist. A Kiss in Time may be a gift to Griffin’s fans, but it also reveals how a contemporary artist can find a large following despite the narrowcasting and celebrity worship of the modern media.

Others deserve such recognition as well, including Kate Rusby and Eddi Reader, two veteran artists from the British Isles with new albums on Nashville-based Compass Records. Neither woman minds being called a folksinger. Indeed, Rusby embraces the idea, recording traditional English folk songs in a contemporary style, as she has once again on her fine new Underneath the Stars. Reader, a Scot, has moved from the sprightly pop-rock of her ’80s band Fairground Attraction toward acoustic music, and she’s at her best on Sings the Songs of Robert Burns.

Both Rusby and Reader have rabid fan bases back home and growing followings in America. Their albums benefit from the production contributions of Rusby’s husband, John McCusker, who balances grit and beauty on both records, and from the sharp group of folk musicians who participate, especially guitarist Ian Carr. Rusby’s album is more conventional, in a sense, though her take on old folk songs—and a few originals written in the style—is as sure and fresh as ever. Reader’s central idea—to remake the 200-year-old songs of Scottish poet Robert Burns with a combination of folk instruments and orchestral backing—is more risky and, in the end, provides a bigger payoff.

Like Griffin, both women are amazing vocalists who use control and release to great effect. Rusby is a more delicate, more straightforward interpreter, while Reader launches into exhilarating flights of improvisation on the melodies. What sets their albums apart is the way they convey the distinct talents of such potent artists, and how they take age-old songs and underscore certain ingrained aspects of human existence—the yearning for love, the pain of loss and betrayal, the desire to be true to oneself.

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