As of this writing, there have been 46,837 rootsy singer-songwriter album releases in 2009. So what is veteran folk-rocker Catie Curtis to do to stand out among the overwhelming glut of strumming and emoting? Not by going back to the drawing board for a new set of originals, which she has done nine other times, but by recruiting an all-star group of bluegrass superpickers and reinventing some of her old songs as well as some choice covers. Hello, Stranger finds Curtis stepping back, at least temporarily, as a confessional songwriter and stepping out as interpretive roots singer.
First, Curtis assembled such an ace band of musicians that the album had no chance of sounding less than sterling. On board are banjo genius Alison Brown, fiddle stud Stuart Duncan, wild-haired session pro George Marinelli on guitar and mandolin, and the gold-standard rhythm section of bassist Todd Phillips and drummer Kenny Malone. Plus, songwriting big-leaguer Darrell Scott shows up on backing vocals and guitar. It doesn’t get much better than that. But Hello, Stranger isn’t a picking party; there’s no emphasis on letting the musicians stretch out on improvisational solos or breakneck virtuosity. The goal, instead, is an elegant, string-band backdrop—a sure thing with these players—so the project’s other criteria for success is defined by the song selection.
It’s a mixed bag. Five songs are Curtis originals from previous albums; six are covers, some selections of which are more inspired than others. Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Walking on a Wire” is always welcome, and this is a top-shelf rendition, especially in Curtis’s tender vocal reading. Cat Stevens’s “Tuesday’s Dead” works, too—it’s a strong Stevens classic, but not an overplayed one. The title song is on verge of being unnecessary since Emmylou Harris’s version of the Carter Family chestnut isn’t likely to be improved upon. Moreover, Mary Gauthier’s vocal cameo duet on the song is abrasive, playing Ralph Kramden to Curtis’s Alice.
If anything, Curtis doesn’t give her own material enough credit. Her gospel-ish beauty “Passing Through” and the sentimental but pretty “Dad’s Yard”—Scott’s harmonies sound terrific on both of these—are as good as most of the covers and far better than Don White’s “Be Sixteen With Me”, too corny to fit in here, or John Martyn’s lifeless “Don’t Want to Know (No Evil)”. Indeed, it would have served the project well had Curtis made it more personal by digging more generously into her own songbag. As it is, Curtis’s loyal fan might see Hello, Stranger as only a pacifier until the next album proper, but for acoustic-roots enthusiasts, there’s still plenty here to enjoy and perhaps to attract a new set of Curtis admirers.