In the dawn of the '60s, when transplanted Texas folk singer Carolyn Hester made her first record in New York, a friend sat in on harmonica; it was the recording debut for an obscure songwriter named Bob Dylan. The crystal-voiced Hester, who was also Richard Farina's first wife, went on to influence such singers as Joan Baez and Judy Collins before disappearing in the wake of the folk revival. Her last album came out in 1973, though she continued performing in her home town, Los Angeles, and throughout the West.
Her new "Music Medicine" is less traditional folk than lighthearted, mellow country rock with an acoustic edge. Some of the songs are distressingly slight ("Send Him C.O.D." and "Don Juan John," which reflects a Buddy Holly influence), but most have an easy charm, even those with somewhat serious themes ("You Never Break Even in Love" and the sprightly "Older Women, Younger Men.") The arrangements are a bit perfunctory, but Hester's voice is as strong and clear as ever: On the title cut, she ambles through a folk mode encased in a modest folk-rock frame; "Kingdom for a Kiss" is an uncluttered throwback to hootenanny simplicity; the album's best song, "Sleep, My Love," is a too-short adult lullaby in a Collins-like cabaret style, followed by a Baez-like commemoration, "The Eagle Looked Down." But Hester came first, so she's entitled.
Nanci Griffith is a fine Texas-based folksinger who's obviously been influenced by Hester, though she has a more contemporary feel for lyrics and melodies. A pure, flexible voice invests her thoughtful songs with a particular grace, even as her settings vary: "Heart of a Miner" and "Workin' in Corners" show a voice akin to Stevie Nicks': lines running almost breathlessly to their conclusion, a slight quaver betraying confidence. The country simplicity of "Waltzing With the Angels" could pass for an early Emmylou Harris tape from solo performances in Washington clubs; "Wheels" is "sing-along with the Tarriers." Much of the album is a throwback to the '60s, but it's so well put together that it sounds just like what it is: brand-new good music.
ON RECORD, ON STAGE
CAROLYN HESTER -- Music Medicine (Outpost 8201).
NANCI GRIFFITH -- Poet in My Window (Featherbed FB902).
Hester and Griffith at the Birchmere, Tuesday at 8:30 and 10:30.