"Guitar in Hand" (MudStomp Records, 2014)
Foreshadowing the wild horse ride that closes the record, guitars and mandolin whicker and stir before engineer Rob Nold announces, “I’m rolling.”
That’s when Kasey Rausch’s newest album takes off. Upright bass pushes rock 'n' roll-flavored bluegrass on the opener. Fiddler Molly Healey yearns around the edges, but by the second song she’s engaged in a spirited breakdown.
Prohibition-era jazz fuels the follow up, and the energy stays high twelve songs deep, to that relentless Western guitar that pushes the closer. On one level, "Guitar in Hand" plunges forward like a leaf driven by a day-long wind, on another, with the graceful chaos of starlings on high.
All that motion is not speed for speed’s sake, not simply a showcase for many fine musicians from Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas. On the contrary, what makes this album special is core to Rausch’s voice and vision, a perspective forged out of four generations of musicians playing all along the hilly green corridor that connects her current Parkville home to her roots in the Ozarks and East Texas. Rausch’s voice, and the music that surrounds it, is proficient but not showy. Everything is in service to the mood of the moment or the spirit of the song — for her, two interchangeable concepts.
Sometimes lyrics are right up front, and sometimes they’re all but buried in the mix, giving up their meaning only after many listens. Almost ironically, such choices illustrate Rausch’s concern with nuance. Best clarifying its restless motion is the album's quietest moment, making "Field of Greens" the heart of the record. Apparently about the singer-songwriter’s seven-year absence from the music business, the song is clapboard-plain country, with Ozark fiddler Betse Ellis brushstroking the deliberately simple scenery. The singer stands in a windswept field, her toes digging into the earth to keep her balance. After a while, it becomes apparent that the wind, and its surrogate in Ellis’s fiddle, is not really fighting her. She learns to lean into it for support, to ride it.
She keeps that “guitar in hand” because it's the tool she uses to ride those winds. Meanwhile, she applauds others for finding their own way, lovingly celebrating the orneriness of a grandmother in “103” and carefully documenting the process of a grandfather’s art on “Moonshiner’s Dream.” Both she and singer-co-conspirator Mikal Shapiro delight in an “huh uh” if you think you’re going to figure out the next move by the woman in “Crazy Heart.” And while much of this album is about renegades, Rausch pays tribute to all those people in all those places where she’s found a home, including the community forged by musicians at Winfield, Kansas’s Walnut Valley Festival.
And, as if her earnest alto didn't convey the obvious, “Heavy Fog” makes it clear Rausch knows the stakes are high. Lurking just beneath this music is all of the world's deadly anxiety and depression, and Rausch contemplates how it helps to see one’s self as part of the larger story told not just on this song but throughout the album. At the end, she wishes for her daughter to “take this mean world for a ride.”
“Guitar in Hand” does everything it can to bring such dreams to life.
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