february 2009

Nancy Cassidy
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A major and beloved children's artist whose recordings have sold upwards of two million copies (and whose songs—specifically "Chicken Lips and Lizard Hips"—have been covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen), Nancy Cassidy has gradually made her way into the world of adult song. With Runaway Train, she ought to have the good fortune of being recognized as being as incisive and sensitive a chronicler of grown-up life as she is when singing for a less experienced audience. You hear the life she's lived in her warm, husky voice, itself a mature instrument reminiscent at times of both Anne Murray and Wynonna, not merely in its timbre but in its varied hues as she sings expressively, and primarily, of matters of the heart. You experience the wisdom she's accumulated in her roles as—this from her website, now—"a singer/songwriter/past PTA president/mother-of-two-adolescent-boys/wife-to-one-husband/and all around active woman." Thirty years into this artistic calling of hers, she brings to her captivating new album the richness of living the examined life of a daughter, a wife and a mother.

Even so, do not mistake Runaway Train for a dry, academic mulling of weighty concerns. Nancy Cassidy, her producer/lead guitarist Keith Greeninger, and a superb veteran crew of musicians never forget to be musical in a delightful way, whether the mood is somber or celebratory, whether working it out in modes ranging from country to folk to R&B (even a hint of Latin flavor at a couple of junctures). It's a good way to get your message across. So in "Halo" the moody reflections on a desperately needy gal who's been unceremoniously abandoned by her poor choice in a man are all the more heart rending thanks to the mournful pedal steel cries courtesy Bruce Wandmayer and the wistful piano noodlings of the estimable John R. Burr that give the song an ambiance as desolate as the west Texas plains. Another type of needy gal is treated better in the swaggering, R&B-inflected "Red Rose," this one being willing to accept the ministrations from her chosen's brother (or sister, as we hear in one fleeting chorus) if the first choice can't be persuaded to show some affection; Dayan Kai's honking sax adds suggestive sultriness to Cassidy's sultry drawl, and a mixed-gender R&B chorus turns the heat up in answering Cassidy's yearnings at the song's close. "Surround Me," a measured, spiritually infused call for support in trying times, unfolds against a soothing musical backdrop of spare, introspective piano (Burr again) and the rich, evocative tone of Kai's classical guitar behind Cassidy's warm, enveloping vocal. Funky drums, a humming B3 and chiming electric guitar get a sensuous groove going for Cassidy to express in her warmest, come-hither tone all the ways her beau makes her see skyrockets in flight, without much extravagance ("he whispers to me/he don't make no splashy show/he fills my head with sugar, my body with so much soul"—do tell!) but a whole lot of boudoir savvy on his part. With an explosion of electric guitar, organ, thumping bass and cannon-shot drumming worthy of Shooter Jennings's great anthem, "Fourth of July," Cassidy exults in simply living life its ownself—"I'm lucky, I'm so lucky, so damn lucky to be alive," she proclaims in the soaring chorus—in a triumphant moment of unalloyed, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll ecstasy. A little naughty country blues celebrating her man's great virtues ("My Rooster"); a bred-in-the-bone country shuffle honoring the enduring, sweet memory of an old love affair ("Way Back Then"), with some frisky fiddling courtesy Chojo Jacques; a sumptuous gospel workout extolling the transportive power of love ("Hallelujah") fusing the churchy sound of Burr's exuberant Rhodes organ support with the Basin Street ambiance conjured by Kai's rollicking outbursts on clarinet and saxophone—well, if this be the stuff of runaway trains, where, then, does one book passage? This ride demands to be taken, all the way to its affirmative, uplifting destination. —David McGee

Buy it at www.cdbaby.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024