Album Review: Zoe Muth’s “Old Gold”

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All genres of American music–jazz, rock and roll, folk and bluegrass–change with the times. Sometimes for better, and, if one listens to commercial radio, mostly for the worse. 

No genre has strayed further from its roots than American country. It would seem that the big-hair bands of the 1980s are a bigger influence on the contemporary country scene than say, The Carter Family. 

However, throughout country music's sad decline into the sounds of Nash-vegas, there have always been artists who were attracted to the music's golden age and tried to recapture not only the sound of the era, but also the spirit. 

Much of the time, those artists had little to do with a rural lifestyle but were captivated solely by the sound of a recording or a performance.

Thank God Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn., heard the songs of Woody Guthrie, Ingram Cecil Connors III (aka Gram Parsons) heard Merle Haggard and a goth band bass player named Gillian Welch heard a Stanley Brothers record.

It doesn't seem to matter so much where a singer is from but where they are going with the music.

Seattle's Zoe Muth was raised on classic rock and MTV, but later became interested in the history of America's labor movement and subsequently the songs associated with it. After listening to the field recordings of Alan Lomax and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the young Muth began writing and performing. 

Her two previous recordings feature self-penned tunes fleshed out by her solid and tasteful band, The Lost High Rollers (a name taken from a Townes Van Zandt song). The sound is vintage Nashville country circa mid-1950s. 

Muth's new release, Old Gold, is a six-song EP that features songs by other artists, including Kate and Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like a Wheel," which she writes about the liner notes: "I received a lot of my musical education while riding in my sister's car. This is how I first heard the McGarrigles and they have been one of my biggest lyrical and musical influences ever since." 

While perusing songs in a public library, Muth discovered the song "I've Been Deceived" on a Charlie Feathers recording. She also included a John Prine song and an interesting reworking of a Dock Boggs song, "Country Blues," that she first performed at a Harry Smith tribute concert.

The EP's sole original song is "Walking the Line," which sounds as if it were written some 60 years ago. The arrangement, featuring an acoustic finger-picked guitar, accompanied by backing singers and brushes on a snare drum, is spare and perfect.

The song fits in nicely with the classic material, performed by a singer and ensemble who understand the power and beauty of real country music. You will find Old Gold on my "Picks of 2012" when December rolls around.

Visit www.zoemuth.com for more information.