Rose City Ramble
Wilson River Records
Six years ago, in a Sing Out! magazine review of her second album, Two Wings, I wrote that Lauren Sheehan “is one of the best interpreters of the [blues] genre to step forward in the past several years.” I still think that but notice that she refers to herself, on her website, as an “American roots songster.” I like that description as it recalls great musical forebears like Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, and Mance Lipscomb, who, though blues-based, drew inspiration and material from wherever they chose and were thus often referred to as songsters rather than blues musicians.
On Rose City Ramble, her third album, Lauren is very much in that songster tradition. Some of the material is, indeed, straight out of the blues tradition, but she also draws on bluegrass, country, Appalachian folk balladry, and contemporary folk, often combining strains of one influence or another. For example, she finds and brings out the blues inherent and at the essence of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” one of the greatest of all country classics, and also in “The Memory of Your Smile,” a bluegrass classic from the Stanley Brothers repertoire.
You can also feel the blues at the base of “Chilly Winds,” an original song based on the traditional Appalachian ballad, “Cold Rain and Snow,” and in her interpretation of the traditional “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair).” And Lauren’s version of the latter song is very different from that of Nina Simone, who also turned the ancient Celtic song blue.
Among the other highlights on this excellent CD are “Oh, the Candyman,” a swinging variation on “Candy Man” that is very different from either of the standard versions associated with Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt; a rendition of Blind Willie McTell’s “In the Wee Midnight Hours” featuring sweet harmonies from Zoë Carpenter, Lauren’s daughter, and some haunting harmonica playing by Johnnie Ward; and “Louie’s Blues,” an original tune that draws inspiration and some lyrics from Howard (“Louie Bluie”) Armstrong.
Lauren has a lovely voice that she knows how to use to great effect, she’s an accomplished player whether on guitar, banjo or mandolin, and whether playing solo or with small ensembles, she’s crafted terrific arrangements well suited to each song.