An old-time CD with an emphasis on singing! What a great idea, and well-executed with Eliza Meyer’s debut CD. This is not purely an old-time CD; but there is enough old-time music on it that a review in the Old-Time Herald is appropriate. Her instrumental skills are there, shown by clean, rhythmic clawhammer banjo playing on “Darlin’ Corey” and “The Cuckoo,” but every cut here demonstrates that this is a singing CD.
To my ears, the character of Meyer’s voice, which has a lot of vibrato and breathiness, comes more from the Dolly Parton and Allison Krauss tradition than the Carter Family. It is distinctive and enjoyable both in her solo work and with others. Where does her vocal style come from? Listening to a lot of people, including not just country and old-time singers, but also opera. Yes, she has taken classical voice lessons, but so did Vernon Dalhart!
Listen to the title track, “Hello Stranger.” A lot of Meyer’s influences are apparent in this arrangement. The first recording was by the Carter Family in 1937 (who learned it from Lesley Riddle), but Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard worked out their version in the early 1970s, You can hear echoes of both recordings here, and maybe Emmylou Harris as well!
Hazel and Alice are big influences; Meyer covers Hazel’s “Working Girl Blues” and “Hills of Home.” The first is sung as a solo, and the second has Sam Gleaves and Kay Justice doing harmony vocals. Not exact copies of the Rounder recordings, but what would be the sense of doing that?
Her producers, Cathy Fink and Liam Purcell (who also appear on the CD) knew, either consciously or instinctively, that two voices with vibrato do not sound good together but pairing Meyer with someone who sings straight would be synergistic. (Think of the way Charlie Louvin allowed Ira’s tenor to shine). As an example, she and Alice Gerrard do justice to the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” an excellent example of a sad, self-pitying love song. Meyer has chosen a number of duets from the honky-tonk tradition, that one, “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On,” and “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” (which I first heard on a Jim and Jesse vinyl). Marshall Wilborn adds excellent bass to a number of tracks and the versatile Marcy Marxer adds mandolin, electric mandolin, or nylon-string guitar in places.
Other often-recorded standards are Si Kahn’s “Aragon Mill,” Iris DeMent’s “Our Town,” and the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” done in three-part harmony. “Aragon Mill” is sung in the “modern” pattern of verses, two verses together, followed by the “weave and spin” refrain, and not the way it was originally written. (For a discussion of the evolution of “Aragon Mill, see the Old-Time Herald vol. 12, no. 7, Oct-Nov 2010.) “Our Town” sounds much like the original recording (and less, for instance, like Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher’s duet version), but is distinctively Meyer.
The liner notes list the songs’ authors and who plays what. These are wonderful to have, but I wish Meyer had told more about her sources. Yes, “Darling Corey” is traditional, but did she go all the way back to B. F. Shelton’s recording, as Pete Seeger did, or is it from some intermediate source? Questions like this did not keep me from enjoying Eliza Meyer’s CD wholeheartedly!