We’re told that this is the first solo album by Tennessee singer and songwriter Martha Scanlan, but such is the cool assurance and earthy authority of these performances, it could well be her sixth or tenth collection. Projecting a sense of isolation that is as powerful as its sense of place — the pull of the landscape is ever-present — it’s the kind of work that can be haunting and comforting at the same time.
Scanlan’s dry, quivery voice, not unlike transplanted southerner Robin Holcomb’s, has a pre-modern quality that in its suggestion of old-world religiosity has little room for sentimentality or pronounced emotion. Love, she sings on “Set Me Up High”, comes climbing “on a troublesome vine.” “What you can’t put in the truck/What you can’t pack up/Is the space they leave behind,” she sings on “I Don’t Even Have To Ask”, mulling over a man who’s not coming home. Even a strange, fleeting encounter with Elvis, as depicted on Bob Dylan’s “Went To See The Gypsy”, can’t break down her detachment.
Produced by and featuring the gifted multi-string man Dirk Powell, who along with Scanlan’s string band the Reeltime Travelers was featured on T Bone Burnett’s Cold Mountain soundtrack, The West Was Burning boasts a cinematic quality with its outdoor imagery and darkly lit interiors. In addition to a terrific supporting cast of string players, the musicians include drummer Amy Helm and pianist Glen Patscha of Ollabelle, plus Amy’s famous dad Levon on drums.