While there is probably a more technical term for it, what brings me back again and again to the work of Kate Rusby is the heartbreak in her voice. She’s not alone in her ability to articulate complex emotions with the artful voicing of a single note; a standard set in the 1960s by Anne Briggs and Norma Waterson and later skillfully adapted and embellished by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Linda Thompson, June Tabor and, more recently, Iris Dement. Placing her in this pantheon may be a tad premature (she is still only in her 20’s) but her approach to this music is full of the ineffable grace and melancholy that defines the best traditional folk singing—it’s in her timbre, the grain of her voice, buoyed by her supreme confidence and an understated grace and emotionalism that adorns each word. When music critic Richard Williams of the Guardian remarked recently that Rusby possessed the most beautiful voice in England, he was not indulging in hyperbole.
A collection of live tracks, reworked older tunes, and remixes, 10 is not a step forward as much as it is a celebratory pause in recognition of a decade’s worth of excellent work. Coming off 2001’s stunning Mercury Prize-nominated Little Lights, it would be easy to dismiss 10 as a holding pattern, a bone thrown to fans awaiting a new record. But that would be a serious error. Since Rusby has always worked outside of the major label system (releasing records on her own Pure label out of her hometown, Barnsley in Yorkshire, which is distributed stateside by the Nashville-based label Compass), there is nothing about 10 that has a whiff of avarice or laziness, it is rather, a carefully crafted and heartfelt thank you.
Traditional folk musicians often fall victim to their own well intentioned but stifling dogmatic purism (think of Ewan MaColl), a trap that Rusby artfully eludes. The music may be “old” in that some of the source material dates back to the 17th century, but her presentation (and arrangements—with assistance from boyfriend and Battlefield Band member John McCusker) is not dry-as-a-dusty-archive, but sounds positively modern. So tracks like “The Recruited Collier”, “I Wonder What Is Keeping My True Love” (both as old as time), sound fresh and alive, thanks to Rusby’s cheekiness and her deft way with a melody. (In the liner notes she opines that the tune “Drowned Lovers”: “Has love, lust, death, horses, food, and even a happy tune; what more do you need from a song”?) Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how old these songs are, where they come from, or who may have sung them before, by infusing them with energy and enveloping them with intimacy, Rusby makes them uniquely hers.
Sadly, we live in an era when a vocalist’s “greatness” is defined by melismatic gymnastics (e.g., every bellowing American Idol contestant) as if mechanical overemoting more effectively “sells” a song than powerfully nuanced, understated singing. There is a depth of feeling on this record that vocal histrionics alone could never articulate. I’d like to think that has something to do with her growing up in Barnsley. This is, or actually was until Margaret Thatcher had her evil way, coalmining country, and the songs sung (and passed on) by generations of Yorkshire folk reveal both a stubborn toughness and shared sense of community—the sound of plain people singing. To bring that tradition to bear, to tell these ancient stories so honestly and movingly, to reinvigorate the oldest themes in popular music is rare indeed, that Kate Rusby does it so effortlessly is nothing short of remarkable.