How Blue was my Valley

Becky Schlegel's romantic description of her childhood is enough to make you think that Holly Hobbie represents an actual portrait of Middle American life in the Seventies. "I had so many kittens!" the local bluegrass musician remembers of her youth, which was spent on a farm in Kimball, South Dakota. "I would dress them up in Barbie doll clothes and take 'em for a ride in the go-cart. That was living. My little sister and I had little lambs that we'd get up in the morning and bottle-feed. And then we'd wake up and they were gone to"--here she searches her mind for an acceptable euphemism for slaughter--"the Sheep Fairy."

That little girl is all grown up and making music in the "big city." The Twin Cities must feel like a metropolis compared to Kimball, South Dakota. But perhaps both geographical influences have made their way equally into Schlegel's music: Her new album, Red Leaf, could easily be described as bluegrass for the Cities 97 set, resting comfortably between old-time and adult-contemporary music.

The album seems like a modern-day "Frauenliebe und Leben," filled like that Schumann song cycle with pieces that illuminate a woman's loves and life. The first track, "Alabama Sun," is a heartbreaking memoir of a farmer so elderly that no one in his hometown even remembers him. The lonely strains of Larry Beem's dobro--which backs Schlegel as she sings, "The sun will rise and the sun will shine, underneath that rusted Mobil sign"--might leave listeners feeling like they've driven straight into a segment of This American Life. "Little Janie," a delirious monologue about a mother in the throes of the Depression-era influenza epidemic--could run the risk of being the world's biggest buzz kill. But set against the skillful mandolin of Peter Ostroushko, it passes for naturalism.

Bluegrass has a long-standing tradition of gruesome lyrics. The genre's organic musicality somehow enables it to deal gracefully with material that would land a pop songwriter in the psych ward with a 72-hour hold. Perhaps that's why local honky-tonk man about town Dan Gaarder refers to this school of songwriting as "goth-grass." In other words, the bluegrass that's not loving Mama, Jesus, or the mountains is plotting to get drunk, murder its own kids, shoot the dog, and then burn the family Bible.

Although Schlegel's lyrics don't seem particularly brutal, there is a definite mortality apparent in half the songs on Red Leaf. But take heart: On this album, you can see the light through the goth-grass. "Tell Me Now" and "My Love" are lovely little tunes snuggled into the gloom. Both simple tunes are sung with a breathy, homey tone that conjures up the image of Schlegel singing just softly enough not to wake the guy sleeping next to her. The poignancy with which she sings, "Tell me now, when can I taste/The sugar on your face?" is enough to make even a confirmed bachelor homesick for his high school sweetheart's homemade waffles. And the music performed by Schlegel's backing band--including local luminary Ostroushko--is also worth recognition: It's a gathering of the local bluegrass elite, whose material is interesting enough for a whole separate feature.

Schlegel is a little shy about the intimate nature of some of her new songs. She shifts uneasily in her chair when she describes how she unveiled the tunes to the musicians that joined her in the studio. "When I'd show some of these songs to the band, my face would be beet red," she says, and blushes a little, as if for demonstration. "I'd tell them, 'Oh, well, I just made this up.'" But it's obvious from the sheepish--all due respect to the Sheep Fairy--look on her face that some of these songs come from her personal life. And it's obvious from the blush on her cheek that she won't be revealing which ones they are.

 
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