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Kate Rusby, if you’ve never had the good fortune to hear of her, is a fantastic singer and songwriter from Barnsley, England, in Yorkshire. I first encountered her music when Alison Krauss & Union Station played some shows in the U.K. and Kate’s brother/recording engineer/soundman Joe Rusby came to a show and left some copies of her CDs with our soundman.
I took one, put it in my laptop bag, finished the trip, got home, got on with life, and two months later found that CD in my bag. I put it in on a long drive. After hearing her sing about two lines Kate became one of my favorite artists, right up there in my pantheon with folks like Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. When I came home off that trip I ordered every CD I could find.
The thing is, she just keeps getting better. Life In A Paper Boat is my current favorite record. Here are five reasons to get it.
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.Gustav Mahler
1. If you love to hear music deeply rooted in tradition and simultaneously brand new, this is a record for you. I love rootedness, and the lack of it always seems a big deficiency in any art. But I love it best when tradition becomes a wide river and flowing source for creativity and innovation, not dammed into a stagnant pool. Or to switch images, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire,” said Gustav Mahler. Kate’s music takes the burning fire of English, Irish, and Scottish traditions and makes it all brand new.
2. If you love Story, this record is full of stories. From her bio: “What appeals to me about the old songs are the stories and the simple way they were written. Some are painfully sad and it is those that draw me in the most.”
There’s “The Ardent Shepherdess,” who sets out to bargain thirty sheep for a kiss and ends up in love, and “The Witch of the Westmorland”:
Pale was the wounded knight, that bore the rowan shield,
And loud and clear were the raven’s cries as he feasted on the field.
Saying, “Green moss and heather bands will never staunch the flood,
There’s none but the Witch o’ the Westmorland can save thy dear life’s blood.
Or “Hundred Hearts,” a song of lasting love, and “The Mermaid”:
And three times that ship went round and three times round went she,
It’s murky deep, love and far away from thee, on the sea, love, on the sea.
3. If you love high production values, tasteful, beautiful arrangements, and a top-level band, here you go. Yes, I recognize I just stuffed three reasons into one. Anyway, Damien O’Kane, Kate’s husband/guitarist/banjoist, aside from being an incredible musician and singer, is also one of the best arrangers and producers I’ve heard. He’s got a deep love of and sensitivity to tradition, of song, and combines it with his relentlessly innovative creativity. From Coleraine, Northern Ireland, Damien brings a sense of urgency and fire to Kate’s records, both in his playing and his production. His latest solo record, Areas of High Traffic, is extraordinary, highly acclaimed, and uses many of the same musicians – another record well-worth buying.
On Life In A Paper Boat you’ll hear pipes and guitars and whistles and banjos and acoustic bass combined with moody and tasteful electric guitar, driving acoustic guitars, drums, percussion, and even Moog layered in there.
Many of my favorite records create a unique sonic world: Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Hejira, Bonnie Raitt’s Fundamental, Pat Metheny’s American Garage, Fernando Ortega’s Shadow Of Your Wings. Though its instrumentation and arrangements vary beautifully, Life In A Paper Boat has this same character, a tangible, one-of-a-kind aural world that invites you in to soak in a sense of wonder and enchantment.
The players are all top-notch and at the top of the game – Duncan Lyall, Steven Byrnes, Nick Cooke, Steven Iveson, Nick Cooke, Michael McGoldrick, Josh Clark, and of course Damien. Dan Tyminski sings a couple of guest harmony vocals, and I played banjo on four songs. The tracking and mixing by Joe Rusby and Josh Clark are stellar as well.
4. If you love music that makes you feel what C.S Lewis called “the inconsolable longing,” you’ll feel it with Life In A Paper Boat. The record is deep and full of feeling. It’s sad; it’s joyful. It aches; it’s playful. It resounds with human experiences and emotions. This is the real deal. Enough said.
5. If you love artists with integrity, Kate Rusby is one of the best examples. Kate’s words: “Around the time of Sleepless various people waved contracts at me, all saying ‘Come with us, we’ll make you a star’. They wanted me to cut a ‘pop’ record, but I’d just reply, ‘you must be joking – why would I do another kind of music just as I am starting to succeed with I want to do?’ I’m from a strong, close family in a small village just outside Barnsley: that whole celebrity, music chart, be as famous as you can hullabaloo is so far from the things I care about in life. For me it was the worst idea in the world!”
In 2012 I played on tour with Kate and the boys, and have been on several recordings. I’ve witnessed that integrity – in all these musicians – first hand. Love of the music comes first. In a fancy old theatre in Los Angeles built by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, a plaque is above the silver screen: “The Picture Is The Thing.” The same line could be over every Kate Rusby recording: “The Song Is The Thing.”
So there you go. If you happen to dislike music along these lines, then this record might not be for you. But you should try it anyway; you’d probably like it. Life In A Paper Boat is available on Amazon and iTunes, or KateRusby.com if you’re in the UK or Europe.
Here’s one of the songs on Soundcloud.
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Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.