Jan Smith is a breed cut from the cloth of Adrienne Young and Tim O'Brien and the handful of musicians who capture the "real" side of country music--- the one which eschews black trench coats and piles of amps and Ford trucks for what country music should be but what it mostly isn't: Truth. Smith's truth comes in the form of twelve primo songs and 29 Dances, courtesy of Ms. Smith and a range of pickers who pull off a musical hai-ku worthy of numerous thumbs up. Styles range from straight country to newgrass to old-timey bluegrass with pop overtones and they're all good and some even better than good.
The title of the CD, 29 Dances, is taken from one of the musical treasures presented here: Half the Treasure, in fact. The song revisits '50s country music the way Gram Parsons did in the early '70s, simply and effectively. Fiddle and Gram/Emmylou style harmonies dominate and in this case it is a very good thing, because it is a memory of what country music was when many of us were young and, seriously, much of it was way better than most of us ever gave it credit for being.
Before you begin thinking that this a country album, though, let us dispell it now. Smith has written 11 very memorable songs (plus one with her husband, mandolin player Jeff Vogelgesang) in a handful of styles. Call it roots music or americana or whatever you want, she borrows from whatever suits her purpose on each song and does it well for she presents herself exactly as she is: songwriter and singer and guitarist, in that order (though her Person overrides it all in the big scheme of things).
Smith takes much of her inspiration from her life as well as the people around her. "Every song on this record is so dear to me," she is quoted on her biography page, "and every phase is tied to a particular time and space in my life. Many images, like Route 29 in 'Half the Treasure' and the walnut tree in 'True Love' emerged from the past few years that I've spent settling down here on a mountain in central Virginia."
It doesn't hurt that some of the top players in the country show up, either. Johnny Hiland picks his brains out on Woman Your Guitar and adds perfect accompaniment on others while Randy Kohrs shows how effective a resonator guitar can be on tracks such as Depend On My Love, the one track here which defies categorization. Add Pat McInerney's crack percussion, Mark Fain's superb standup bass as well as the bass of Byron House, Robert Bowlin's class fiddle, David Talbot's banjo stylings and Patty Mitchell's understated harmony vocals (not to forget Vogelgesang's mandolin and harmony vocals) and you know that every song is well worth hearing, and chances are good that each will be the favorite at one time or another, depending upon mood.
If this was the '80s, Smith would gain a solid following in folk hotspots like Seattle, Chicago and San Diego, but those were different days and it will be much harder to gain a following. She will tour to support this CD and it would behoove those of us into this genre to scan the lists of country, bluegrass and folk acts this summer for her name. She will surprise more than a few if she is as good live as she is in the studio, and if you can catch her on the same bill as Adrienne Young & Little Sadie or Tim O'Brien, it would be of jackpot dimension.
In the meantime, picking up this CD might be the way to go. One has to have some real music to slip between the superstar offerings of the Industry these days, and it doesn't get any more real than this.
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