Singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson has spent much of the21st century writing songs bemoaning the troubling environmental, social, and economic ills that plague American life. From albums like Hard Times in Babylon (2000) to 2020 (2020), the folk activist observed the world with an open heart, keen mind, and poetic sensibility. (Which is not to ignore the fine work she did pre-2000, but there did seem to be a change in her music’s concerns from personal to social.)
Gilkyson has moved on. Or, more precisely, she has relocated to the West of her youth. Before recording her latest album, Songs From the River Wind, Gilkyson transferred from Austin, Texas, to Taos, New Mexico. While to those from outside the region, the different topographies may not seem that different, for Gilkyson, the dissimilarities are as grand as the cinematic vistas she sees.
Part of this has to do with returning to the place she once lived in long ago, the ghosts of memories mixed with childhood dreams, mythic hopes, and timeless passions. The area is full of cowboys and Indians, ancient trails and trees, memories, and mountains. When Gilkyson sings about her first dwelling after leaving home in “The Hill Behind This Town”, an old wooden boxcar that sat on cinder blocks, she buttresses the song with two tunes that describe the beauty of the outdoors, “Colorado Trail” and “Bristlecone Pine”. Don Richmond’s spacious production reveals the loneliness inherent in the remote places described in the lyrics.
Gilkyson penned most of the songs, although the previously mentioned “Bristlecone Pine” is a lovely Hugh Prestwood tune. Gilkyson makes it her own with her hushed vocals, minimally assisted by Rod Taylor and Jim Bradley singing backup. Richmond, Taylor, and Bradley are a group known as the Rifters, and they assist her vocally on several other tunes. Richmond accompanies Gilkyson on various instruments (acoustic/electric guitars, accordion, dobro, Weissenborn guitar, mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel, harmonica, bass, banjo, fiddle, penny‑whistle, percussion). Gilkyson also gets assistance on various stringed instruments from Warren Hood, Kym Warner, Michael Hearne, and John Egnes. But there is a sparseness to the album that makes it seem like one just hears Gilkyson alone out West, with God, nature, and her thoughts.
The album begins with “Wanderin'”, a traditional song originally covered by her dad back in 1958 (her father Terry is best known as the writer of the Disney tune “Bare Necessities” from the animated movie The Jungle Book). She makes the song her own personal statement from the beginning as she opens with the line, “My daddy was a song man”, and offers other autobiographical details throughout. She sings in a calm and measured voice with a sweetness over gently played acoustic stringed accompaniment. It’s beautiful and sets the stage for the intimate thoughts and feelings that follow.
The other tracks offer the same dreamlike romance of the road and open spaces, as suggested by titles such as “Wind River and You”, “At the Foot of the Mountain”, “Don’t Stop Loving Me”,” Colorado Trail”, and “Farthest End”. Gilkyson sings about the people who inhabit these places as if they are part of the landscape and captures their spirit in the way a painter includes an eagle soaring among the cliffs or horses roaring through a canyon pass. Even though these objects are in motion, they seem as still elements in the artwork stuck in timeless geography.
Songs From the River Wind offers a balm to the human heart during this current plague season of disease and political strife. Gilkyson looks outward at the environment to find her inner spirituality and peace. Looking at a mountain or a river can remind one of how much time has passed and what remains. This album provides a frame around our travels. As we move through this world, our wandering becomes the journey that is our lives.