Carrie Rodriguez is an interesting mix of songstress, tenor guitar player and violin phenom.
The Austin, Texas-born and bred whiz has a new release that pairs her with Belfast-born and bred Ben Kyle, songwriter and front man for the Twin Cities-based Celtic/Americana ensemble Romantica, in a series of covers that seem to hearken back to a golden age of country duets.
"We Still Love Our Country" is a male-female duet smorgasbord bringing together tunes from the pens of legendary writers like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Chip Taylor, with a couple of originals thrown in. The disc, in its overall conception, can't help but put you in mind of pairings like Emmylou and Gram, Loretta and Conway, or Dolly and Porter in the beauty of the vocal blend.
Prine's "Unwed Fathers" has subtle dry humor wrapped in pathos, in a story of a guy whose girlfriend has gone down the road to a home for unwed mothers because of his carelessness and lack of responsibility. The two voices here, though born thousands of miles apart, have a unity and coherence that is remarkable.
Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" simmers over the rhythm section's steady propulsion, with Luke Jacobs' pedal steel slithering in and out. Rodriguez has one of those voices that is ultra-emotive, seemingly without the slightest trace of effort. Her enormous range creates seismic tremors, as she can go from almost low tenor notes into the stratosphere with the twitch of a vocal chord. She is one of those singers who can make mediocre material seem good, and great material (as is the case here) seem timeless.
Chip Taylor's "Big Kiss" is stripped down from the version on Rodriguez's solo disc and that shifts the focus to the lovely and sensitive reading of the melody that twists and turns like a stream running down a mountainside.
Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts" is very much like the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris version in its pacing and emphasis.
"Fire Alarm" is the duo's original composition and it has a lot in common with Prine and Iris DeMent's "In Spite of Ourselves" as the pair delineate each other's faults ("He snores all night, his teeth are crooked: she ain't that tall, she talks kinda funny") but when they get together they "turn each other on like a fire alarm."
Though the disc's title suggests a political bent, Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle simply deliver a wonderful assortment of countrified tunes that tickle the ear and touch the heart.
Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle / "We Still Love Our Country"
Label: Ninth Street Opus
Recorded at: Opus Studio (Berkeley, Calif.)
Produced by: Carrie Rodriguez, Ben Kyle and Lee Townsend
Personnel: Carrie Rodriguez (vocals, tenor guitar, fiddle), Ben Kyle (vocals, guitar), Luke Jacobs (pedal steel), Hans Holzen (guitar), Kyle Kegerreis (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums)
Upcoming gig: Carrie Rodriguez (without Ben Kyle) plays at 8 p.m. Friday at the Red Mug Coffeehouse, 916 Hammond Ave., Superior. Call (715) 392-2662. Cost $15
John Ziegler has worked in the music industry for 37 years as a radio host, interviewer, record producer and professional musician.