Rayna Gellert is one of those musicians who has played with lots of folks and who can play lots of instruments. She may be best known for her stint in Uncle Earl, which is sort of a retrospective supergroup in the roots music world, whose former members including Abigail Washburn, Kristin Andreasson and Gellert have gone on to play to varying measures of acclaim.
Best known as a fiddler, Gellert also plays acoustic and electric guitar, and on Workin’s Too Hard, her third release under her own banner, she does just that and sings, too. And what a fine singing voice she has, a deceptively unadorned alto that is capable of packing a lot of emotion into a lyric with seemingly little effort.
This is a short album of just seven songs, but they’re all songs of some moment and they beg to be listened to closely. There are a couple of “public domain” songs, the gospel number “I’m Bound For The Promised Land” and “Oh Lovin’ Babe” which I know from Bill Monroe (and from a sturdy version recorded in 2015 by Anna & Elizabeth). The rest Gellert wrote, either on her own or with roots music stalwart Kieran Kane, with whom she co-produced the album and who contributes guitar, mandolin and vocals.
You’ll listen to a lot of roots music this year and not hear a couple of better songs than the two openers, the title song “Workin’s Too Hard” and “River Town.” On the former, a woman is giving her man reasons to not go to town and get drunk and in trouble (quoting in true folk-music fashion from more than one old song including lines like “it’s a short life of trouble”), and we hear his reply in the chorus, which echoes the song’s title. The latter, a sad waltz, is sung from the point of view of a woman who married young and in haste and has spent a hard life in the wake of that decision. Here’s the title song:
But really every song here is a little gem. Gellert breathes new life into “Oh Lovin’ Babe” by slowing it down a little; “Grey Bird” is another sad song about uneven love; “Perry” a sweet old-fashioned tune comparing an orchard to a family and the love and labor that go into growing both. The title is the old English word for what we might call pear cider now, and this song about domesticity is a sharp contrast to the others in which liquor comes from a still or a bar. Gellert’s fiddling lends a particular poignance to this one, but the arrangements on all of them are perfect. A secret weapon, perhaps (in addition to Kane), is the young Kai Welch, who has also leant his multi-instrumental skills and vocals to Washburn’s recordings and touring band.
If you like American roots music, you’ll love Rayna Gellert’s Workin’s Too Hard. Listen to this album, and watch for her at a festival near you. More information on her website.
(StorySound Records, 2017)