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Trad Beat Songs of substance, a voice of conscience

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

REDWOOD CATHEDRAL, by Dick Gaughan, #1027 CD on Appleseed Recordings, P.O. Box 2593, West Chester, PA 19380; (610) 701-5755.

Of highland Scot/Irish lineage, Dick Gaughan is a musician of a fiercely independent streak, often to the point where he would undermine himself commercially in pursuit of an artistic or socio-political purpose. He doesn’t specialize in moon-spoon-June rhyming pub ballads, nor does he traffic in sentimental sops to ill-disguised jingoism. Instead, he gravitates toward tough-minded, questioning songs about the past and the present from such fellow free spirits as Scotland’s Brian McNeill, England’s Leon Rosselson, Ireland’s Tommy Sands, and America’s Si Kahn.

On his new album, Gaughan sings two compositions by McNeill, whose 1991 album, "The Back o’ the North Wind," has clearly been an inspiration. One of those songs, "Muir and the Master Builder," focuses on John Muir (1838-1914), a lowlander from Dunbar, Scotland, who managed to burst free of his constrictive Calvinist upbringing to become one of America’s most important conservationists. Backing himself on acoustic and electric guitars, with Rab Handleigh adding synthesizer, Gaughan reinforces the sting of McNeill’s lyrics, which at one point refer to Daniel Muir, John’s father, as "a man so hard and unforgiving/A father who tried to use the Gospel to ensure/That his son’s life would never be worth living."

Throughout his career, Gaughan has unhesitatingly dipped from America’s own songwriting well. Regarding himself more as a song interpreter than songwriter, Gaughan has recorded stirring versions of Pete Seeger’s "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," Phil Och’s "When I’m Gone," Bob Dylan’s "My Back Pages," Woody Guthrie’s "Ludlow Massacre," and Si Kahn’s "What You Do With What You’ve Got." On "Redwood Cathedral," he chooses two more songs from Seeger and Kahn, "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Gone, Gonna Rise Again," each combining pathos and pricklish perseverance, conveying a world-view grounded in hope and self-determination.

But the song that stands above the others here is, in fact, a Gaughan original, "Why Old Men Cry." Comparable in impact to "Both Sides the Tweed," his classic composition from 17 years ago, it is an overwhelmingly moving song about his maternal grandfather, who eventually died from mustard gas inhaled during World War I, and his father, a steam-engine driver who had worked for a while in a colliery. With simple yet vivid detail, Gaughan limns the military sacrifice and economic lesson forming the legacy of these two family members. Stark and inescapable, the memories are humbling and haunting for Gaughan, whose quietly impassioned singing is as unforgettable as the events he recounts.

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"Do you ever sing a song just because you like it?" someone once asked Gaughan, who answered that question with Joe South’s "Games People Play" on 1983’s "A Different Kind of Love Song" album, Jagger-Richards’s "Ruby Tuesday" on 1996’s "Sail On" solo recording, and "Let It Be Me" on this new release. It’s obvious Gaughan doesn’t really care that "Let It Be Me," a 1955 chestnut, has been previously covered by the Everly Brothers, Jerry Butler, Glen Campbell, and Willie Nelson, among many others. "I simply love it and always have," he writes in the liner notes, and that’s reason enough for him to record it. And he brings it off with stunning directness — just voice and acoustic guitar.

Among the other tracks on "Redwood Cathedral" are Ron Kavana’s poignant "Reconciliation," Gaughan’s own "All the King’s Horses," reminiscent of the folk-rock he performed with Five Hand Reel in the late 1970s, and two songs penned by musicians recently lost to us, "Pancho and Lefty" by Townes Van Zandt and "Fine Horseman" by Lal Waterson.

In the canon of Gaughan solo recordings dating back 26 years now, Redwood Cathedral" ranks among his finer efforts, though it falls short of the overall brilliance of 1977’s "Kist o’Gold," sadly — make that criminally — out of print, and 1981’s "Handful of Earth" masterpiece. But this is still a very impressive solo album by Gaughan, whose mercurial muse never fails to provide songs of substance, vocals of peerless power, and guitar playing of astonishing skill.

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