MAJOR RECORD companies may forsake them, but that's never stopped area musicians from recording their own material, either on their own label or for an independent. Here's a sample of some homegrown music that's just reached the market.
HAZEL DICKENS --
"It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song" (Rounder 0226). Like the best of her albums, this one resembles an anthology of short stories, a series of well-crafted, well-told tales, many of them all but forgotten. True, Dickens has never possessed the steady, objective voice of a narrator; she's too much a partisan for that. But her unvarnished coal country voice cuts right to the heart of these songs and strips bare the underlying emotion, whether it stems from a soured relationship, as on her own "You'll Get No More of Me" or from social indifference, as on Bob Dylan's "Only a Hobo." Throughout the album, the accompaniment is as uncluttered as the singing is heartfelt. Yet there are wonderfully subtle and evocative touches provided by a stellar cast of musicians, including dobroist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Blaine Sprouse and mandolinist Mike Compton.
LIAM MAGUIRE --
"Songs for Ireland" (WRA1-480). This new album by Irish balladeer Liam Maguire, has several things going for it, not the least being Maguire's handsome baritone voice and his gift for storytelling. Both these assets are evident throughout this album, whether Maguire is joining narrator Will Jeffrey for a stirring rendition of "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," or fixing his sights on something more contemporary -- say, Ralph McTell's "Streets of London" or Tom Paxton's "Who Will Feed the People." But what really distinguishes these performances is the strong feeling Maguire exhibits for the people he sings about and for his homeland. Even the whimsical "The Reel in the Flickering Light" is wonderfully evocative. Unfortunately, the arrangements aren't always so compelling. They're tasteful and invariably easy on the ears. But you don't have to be a traditionalist to find the liberal use of a synthesizer less than ideal. Quibbles aside, though, this is a warm-hearted collection of songs by a man whose love for Ireland is both moving and palpable. (Maguire appears Tuesday through October 24 at Ireland's Four Provinces and October 27-31 at the Dubliner.)
THE BOARDING PARTY --
"Fair Winds and a Following Sea" (Folk Legacy Records FSI 109). Robust harmonies and a winning spirit are among this quartet's more obvious assets, but ultimately it's the songs themselves, the shanties, that really win you over. The tunes gathered here are more than just mere work songs; each has a distinctive personality, and, in some cases, originally served a unique purpose. Many are derived from obscure European sources while others, such as "Coming Down the C&O," strike closer to home. In either case, the shanties clearly warrant all the enthusiasm and research The Boarding Party has invested in them, and the album's extensive liner notes make hearing them all the more enjoyable.
JEFF WARNER AND JEFF DAVIS --
"Wilder Joy" (Flying Fish FF 431). Warner and Davis have gathered a collection of ballads, fiddle tunes, gospel numbers and shanties and arranged them in a simple, disarming fashion. Dry harmonies and understated vocals combine with the duo's use of concertina, fiddle and banjo to give the album its old-timey flavor. While all the songs have merit, the best of them, such as "Jamestown Homeward Bound," are equipped with lovely and often poignant melodies.
SETH AUSTEN --
"Circle S" (Kicking Mule 183). Add Austen's name to the growing list of acoustic guitarists who are appealing to the public tastes for New Age noodling. Pristine, precise and pensive, these performances capture the moodiness of the times with ringing harmonics, flickering arpeggios and the subtlest of flourishes. Trouble is, despite his obvious technique, Austen's conception of contemporary guitar music doesn't differ much from that of the Windham Hill crowd. What's missing here, more than anything else, is the spirit Austen previously exhibited on some of his traditional recordings.