Tara Nevins is a Nashville-based country/bluegrass troubador with an abundance of talent and songwriting chops. A founding member of Donna the Buffalo, Nevins brings her considerable skills to her latest full-length, Wood and Stone, a wide-ranging affair encompassing all manner of rootsy Americana, spiced with Nevins’s voice and multi-instrumentalist skills, served up in a package that is polished but never slick. Nevins, in other words, is the real deal.
Opener “Wood and Stone” offers a chugging country rhythm propelled by squawking fiddle, dextrous banjo, and a thumping rhythm section. This is bluegrass by way of rock ‘n’ roll, and it works gloriously. Follow-up tunes “All I Ever Needed” and “You’ve Got It All” keep the tempos upbeat even as the vibe turns more purely country. They aren’t quite up to the standard set by the opening track, but in Nevins’s defense, she set that standard mighty high.
Nevins’s voice isn’t the strongest in the world, and her range is fairly limited compared to mainstream country howlers like Carrie Underwood, but she uses her limitations to her advantage, emphasizing phrasing and expression over sheer lung power. It’s a stretch to compare her to Lucinda Williams, but she shares Williams’s ability to craft great songs and to coax a solid performance out of a fairly ordinary voice.
A pair of tunes, “Who Would You Tell” and “Snowbird”, form an oasis of trad-tinged calm in the center of the album, before the second half gears up. The album gets stronger as it goes on, with raucous bluegrass instrumental “Nothing Really” sporting some vivacious fiddle before “What Money Cannot Buy” chug-a-lugs onstage with its brooding rhythm, mournful fiddle and rueful lyrics about “rose-colored memories” and so forth. Maybe it’s me — okay, it’s definitely me — but I can easily hear this as a reggae tune. It’s also a great song for, say, blowing out of town in the middle of the night, at high speed, after a few beers.
“Stars Fell on Alabama” is another midtempo scorcher — Nevins really does well with such tunes as this, channeling a world of wounded bewilderment into a song originally written by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish. The highlight of the record, though, might be “Tennessee River”, a song that again sees Nevins turning introspective as crunchy, distorted guitars creak in the background a la 1970s Neil Young. In fact, this song could easily be an outtake from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with a different vocalist. Again, the disparate elements come together powerfully to provide a neat bookend for the hard-charging opening track. At five minutes, it’s the longest song on the album and one of its most satisfying.
Perhaps not wanting to conclude on such a somber note, Nevins winds up the proceedings with “Beauty of Days Gone By”, a pretty enough song that gains little from its position in the song order.
Wood and Stone is a hard-to-pigeonhole album because the artist is so adept in utilizing varied elements to create consistently powerful songs. Some of the more purely country tracks are less memorable than the others, but overall this is a strong record, and one which should raise Nevins’s profile.