A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


CD Reviews: “Roots & Wings,”
(dba The Digital Folk Life. Org)

Eliza Gilkyson, “Land of Milk and Honey” (Red House Records),

This one swings, from the opening notes of “Hiway 9,” about the big trucks carrying oil to the American heartland – what do you think the Iraq Attack was all about? – thro the tough-minded denial of loneliness in a woman alone, “Not Alone,” and on into the vivid story of Big Al, “Who put down the bottle October ’89,/ So he could buy a little time, / Hangin out on easy does it street/On the dark side of town.”

Then it switches gears, to perhaps the hardest song I’ve heard in years, “Tender Mercies.” It’s about the contrasting lives of one woman, on one side of the world, who “tapes explosives to her chest,” passing children swimming in a toxic factory pool, enjoying a “playful afternoon of unintended suicide,” to another mother, who can hold her children to her chest and then “Lay them down, everybody safe among the truly blessed.” The near-whispering, almost-yodeling choric vocal, from Eliza Gylkison, Cisco Ryder and Cordelia Castillio, is a haunting, perhaps fading, hope: “Tender mercies, tender mercies, come before despair/ Shine down, all you tender mercies, / It’s every mother’s prayers. “ Deep breath.

This is Eliza Gilkyson’s third solo Red House CD, following “Hard Times in Babylon” (RHR 146) and “Lost and Found” (RHR 146), apart from her appearance on the Bob Dylan tribute, “A Nod to Bob” (RHR 154) and the Greg Brown tribute, “Driftless” (RHR 145). Like all of them, it features excellent backup, this time around from a lengthy array of fine studio musicians under the control of producer Mark Hallman, in the service this time of what must be the finest music of her career so far.

What to make of a love song that denies falling in love (“Wonderland”), another that resolves to remain separated while resolving not to play Ophelia, but still wants to get “close to the flame” in the end (“Separated”)? The descent into hell of the half-breed Shirley Johnson, raped at three by her brother Leon, imprisoned for killing a husband trying to steal her children from her, doing life in prison for her crimes, asking forgiveness from those she has wronged? A retreat to rollicking beast-fable (“Runnin’ Away”), and then an allusive lament, again echoing Shakespeare - “Oh what fools these mortals be?”- spinning into metaphysics (“Milk and Honey”)? And a closing, choric “Peace Call,” drawn from Woody Guthrie’s lost catalogue, in its first studio recording and featuring Eliza in chorus with Patty Griffin, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Iris DeMent (“Peace Call”)?

It’s an extraordinary collection of songs, a hard-minded but almost eerie CD, sure to put Eliza Gilkyson in the front rank of the new generation of singer-songwriters, if she isn’t there already. “Land of Milk and Honey” is a powerful achievement, deserving respect and attention.

(Copyright, John McLaughlin, 04/05/2004)