Way Out West
This strange gem of an album defies easy categorization. The quartet is not quite a family band, although three of the four artists are a father, mother, and daughter. It’s not really country music, despite the pedal steel guitar, mandolin, fretless bass and other instrumentation usually associated with that genre. It’s not quite a concept album, even if the songs relate to the San Joaquin Valley of California, the place where the band members have their roots.
Dreams of the San Joaquin contains lovely and plaintive Western music that aurally suggests the vast agricultural landscape without ignoring the people and the problems of rural poverty, dislocation, and other social ills, not to mention those of the heart. The songs share a loose association more than tight connections. The musical styles come from the past but seem timeless as the concerns of previous days still continue in the present.
The four musicians include Grammy-winning songwriter Randy Sharp; his wife Sharon Bays, who has a Masters and Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology based on her San Joaquin Valley research; daughter Maia Sharp, a songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Trisha Yearwood, and Art Garfunkel; and family friend Jack Wesley Routh, who spent several years with Johnny Cash as a writer, guitarist, co-producer and opening act. Routh takes the lead on five songs, Randy four, and Maia and Sharon on one apiece.
Randy Sharp’s songs shine brightest, especially the elegiac “Burn Day” about the end of a relationship and the title cut about not being able to find work in the fields of San Joaquin. Both cuts were co-written with Routh. Maia’s mighty contribution is “A Home”, which she co-wrote with her dad. It served as the title song of the 2005 album by the Dixie Chicks. All of the songs contribute to the sense of reverie, such as the one a person might feel living in the valley. It’s an insider’s perspective that notices the full moon and the litter, and finds beauty in them both.