Catherine Irwin may benefit from the current mainstream appreciation of bluegrass music fueled by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but she’s certainly not riding on the bandwagon. Although she started out playing folk and punk in the early 1980s, the Louisville, Kentucky native has been performing gothic-tinged country music for a decade as a member of the revered group Freakwater. While Irwin plans to reunite with Freakwater cohort Janet Bean next year, she decided to use a number of her new compositions to create her solo debut, Cut Yourself a Switch.
Like the best country releases of the past few years, Irwin’s album eschews Nashville excess in favor of folk simplicity. The instrumentation on Cut Yourself a Switch consists mostly of Irwin playing guitar and banjo, with Freakwater’s Dave Gay on bass. The pair is joined occasionally by accordion, fiddle, drums, and other guitars, but the music never overpowers Irwin’s voice, an alternately quavering and domineering instrument. Although the instrumentation and slow tempo vary little throughout the course of the album, Irwin manages to convey many moods. She looks death and darkness in the eye in unwavering Southern style on “Cry Our Little Eyes Out”, a tale of a young girl’s death on which she curses the usual symbols of comfort: “That clear blue sky comes like a slap across my face / I want to close my eyes ‘til the dark clouds roll in”. In her cover of the Carter Family’s “Will You Miss Me”, death is treated as a simple inevitability while the endurance of love is the real topic of the song.
Then, on her original “Hex” and the Elvis Presley cover “Power of My Love”, Irwin comes on sexy and strong. In the former title, Irwin’s narrator has cast a spell to bewitch the object of her affection, while in “Power of My Love”, her sensual powers are so irresistible there’s no need to go to such measures. As she sings, “Baby I want you / You’ll never get away / My love will haunt you / Yes, haunt you night and day”. In Irwin’s world, women are the pursuers, not the pursued, and the perpetrators of crimes of passion, not the victims. It’s as if the narrators of Irwin’s songs are the opposites of Dolly Parton’s wronged women on the 2001 Appalachian revival, Little Sparrow.
As a lyricist, Irwin creates gothic images but peppers them with folk wisdom and phrasing, as on “Swan Dive”: “That was now, this is then / That was bourbon, this is gin / That’s how we know / That spring has sprung”. She also has a knack for well-chosen covers, including the above-mentioned Presley and Carter Family cuts as well as Roger Miller’s “Don’t We All Have the Right to Be Wrong Now and Then”; “The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised”, made famous by Johnny Paycheck; and “You Belong to Me”. It’s a testament to her talents that Irwin can handle the sorrowful apology, rebel’s tale, and love song with equal adeptness.
Having been compared to everyone from Hazel Dickens, Sara Carter, Roscoe Holcomb, and Melba Montgomery to Flannery O’Connor, Irwin has to live up to a lot of hype. But with over a decade as a country performer and now this wonderful solo album under her belt, Irwin’s dedication to the music cannot be denied, and neither can her talent.