CD review by David Royko
Keep the Light On
Tony Trischka’s 1983 album, A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas (Rounder)--one of the pinnacles of newgrass music--is an instrumental tour de force. However, a brief vocal, “John’s Waltz to the Miller,” pops up before the disc's closing cut, its direct, simple melody providing a lilting respite before the album’s final finger-twister. What elevates the tune, a Trischka/Wyland original, from simply pretty to profoundly beautiful is the voice that delivers it, belonging to rhythm guitarist Dede Wyland.
Wyland’s best known for her tenure in Trischka’s 1980s newgrass band, Skyline, and before that, the Milwaukee-based Grass, Food and Lodging. After Skyline, she concentrated on teaching, though whenever she’s turned up as a guest or for the occasional showcase, it’s served to remind listeners that Wyland remains among the most affecting, and downright beautiful voices to ever glide atop banjos and mandolins.
But since leaving Skyline in the 1980s--poof! At least in the public arena, Wyland seemed to disappear. A somewhat under-the-radar 1998 EP, Everything That Glitters, did little to raise her profile, but Keep The Light On should (not to say “will”), because this is a great album, the disc fans of Wyland’s have been hoping for, these many years. Simply put, Wyland must be heard by all lovers of the female voice in bluegrass.
Carrying over from her EP is banjoist Mike Mumford, joined by Wyatt Rice (guitar), Rickie Simpkins (mandolin, vocal harmonies) and bassist Ronnie Simpkins to form the core band, along with bassist Ira Gitlin (another carry-over from the EP), guitarist Tom McLaughlin and Fiddler Darol Anger, each making single appearances, and guest harmonizers Randy Barrett, Dudley Connell, Fred Travers, and David McLaughlin. Besides being stellar pickers and singers, that line-up also suggests that this is acoustic, drum-free bluegrass, or at least newgrass.
Little hints at what Wyland’s been doing through the years crop up. Having appeared in 1999 on a Martha Trachtenberg CD, that disc’s captivating “Something ‘Bout Traveling” reappears here, and as with track after track on Keep the Light On, Wyland makes it her own.
The David Via title track, the re-recorded “Everything that Glitters,” F. and B. Bryant’s “Devoted to You,” Miller/Britt’s waltzing-then-driving yodeler “Chime Bells;” eleven cuts and 11 winners, each played with crisp, driving virtuosity--or for ballads, a musical featherbed--whatever is needed for Wyland’s pipes, and recorded with clarity and the feel of an actual group, not session jobbers. The Stanley’s “The Memory of Your Smile” should satisfy lovers of the feminine high lonesome sound, with its haunting, minor-tinged chorus both smooth and gritty.
And closing the disc is a gorgeous new recording of “John’s Waltz to the Miller.” In a sensible world, this recording would install the tune in the realm of modern bluegrass standards. Let’s hope. (Patuxent Music, PO Box 572, Rockville, MD 20848. <www.pxrec.com>) DR