High Country

Mike Campbell


Mike Campbell
P. O. Box 230873
Anchorage, AK 99523

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Ed Kohn

On first listening, High Country might feel like it's been recorded just for folks who live north of the Arctic Circle -- and you might be inclined to drag out a map to see exactly where Kodiak Island and Dutch Harbor lie relative to the rest of the known world. There's mention of heading south to the islands - Kodiak, Dutch, and others that are often covered with snow and ice -- as though they were tropical paradises complete with swaying palms and hula dancers. And there are jokes about the high cost of visiting Alaska, and of the ever-present danger of being mistaken for a moose. By the time the CD is loaded a second time, though, you will have shed your naivete and may even feel as though you've spent enough time steeped in the tough independence of Alaska to try out your new-found insights to others of the southern persuasion.

That's perhaps a slight exaggeration, but listening to Mike Campbell sing about the good and bad of our largest state in his rich resonant baritone (bass?) does convey the atmosphere of it in a way Frommer's guides never could.

The album opens with Campbell's strong voice -- clear, enticing, friendly -- singing about the Highway of Dreams that leads to his family's new home in the far north. Amidst the excitement and trepidation of such a journey lurks the reality of

This road to adventure ain't all that it seems
I'm glad we brought the credit card as part of our team
To survive this highway of dreams.

And then, when they're finally almost there:
There's a breeze in the window
Only bugs in my way
Gonna get to Alaska today.

Tired of These Rainy Day Blues is a beautiful little song about the steady rains of Kodiak Island. As many of Campbell's melodies, this one is lovely.

Carhartts, perhaps the most unusual of the bunch, tells of the time the narrator/hero was stuck in the wild when his car broke down. Like anyone who knows his way around sixteen words for snow, though, he was equipped with a warm Carhartt brand outfit to keep warm while he went for help. But this is Alaska, where every pickup truck houses a shotgun and anything that moves is potential protein for the family for the winter. And so the chase begins. Campbell is a wonderful storyteller. His pacing is excellent, the rhymes are unforced, and the story-song is thick with payoff lines.

By the time you get to Down To The Islands, a tropic-laced tune about the islands that lie farther north than any of the contiguous forty-eight, you'll stop being surprised at how deeply Campbells' tongue is imbedded in his cheek. In fact, it's a very melodic song, with background singers Penny Lee and Laura Hall doing a wonderful job keeping straight voices through such phrases as "belly ache ache ache ache ache" and "seagull do do do do do."

Other songs include Andersonville, a mournful song about the horrors of the Civil War prisoner-of-war camp (which seems a bit out of place in this mix of songs), Snowshoe Shuffle, with the best faux trombone accompaniment you're likely to hear this decade, and I'll Always Be In Love, a very sweet love song. Campbell apologizes for it in the liner notes, suggesting it's too schmaltzy, but no apology necessary -- it's lovely and sounds sincere. There's also When Your Ship Comes In, with a bit of advice about always being prepared, Trailer Park Song, some very clever lines surrounding a gentle slam on those who inhabit some trailer parks, I Hate to See You Go, a good-bye song to his daughter going off to college, and Free Walter, about a King Crab.

High Country is a wonderful introduction to life in the frozen north. It's sincere, down to earth, and uncomplicated. Campbell's voice and guitar are prominent and, even at their most complex, the arrangements are spare -- a violin here, a faux trombone there, a vocal accompaniment there. If you like the music of a storyteller, then this is a delightful album. Campbell's voice is solid, he enunciates clearly, the melodies are wonderful, and the quality of the recording is excellent. It's one of those albums for us southerners to listen to in front of the fireplace where, even in winter, we know the sun will rise the next morning.

Edited by Kerry Dexter

Copyright 1997, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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