Susan Anders 13 Women Zanna Discs SusanAndersMusic.com
Nashville vocal coach and singer-songwriter has been at this for quite awhile. Formerly of Susan’s Room with husband (and continual collaborator) Tom Manche, Anders is now four albums into her solo career, and possesses “a Hell-on-wheels bluesy wailing alto” according to Dirty Linen; I find myself agreeing.
13 Women is a marvelous collection of folk songs, a set whose linking theme—inspiring American women—becomes apparent as the songs unfold. Still, one can fully enjoy the music without immediately identifying this thread of connection. Each individual song stands on its own, and because the inspiration for the songs are as often as not relatively quite obscure, one can be forgiven (I hope) from not knowing the stories Anders brings to our grateful ears.
Here’s what I mean: To appreciate “Open Prairie,” one doesn’t need to know that it is inspired by Lucy Goldthorpe, a young schoolteacher who homesteaded on the North Dakota in the early 1900s. While the story unfolds with detail, its intensity, hope, and self-determining spirit—as sung by Anders—is independent of fact and history: it is just a heck of a song, one that could have been woven out of the imagination of Tom Russell, Gretchen Peters, or Anders. Ditto, “Wave That Rocks Me” and “Castles,” to name two: they are, simply put, outstanding performances of compelling and memorable songs.
And that may be the what matters most. Sure, we can follow up and Google the subjects of Anders’ songs, but we can also simply absorb the stories she constructs. In “Spell,” one of the album’s most engaging numbers, when Anders sings, “So what if I know I’m innocent, so what if I know I’m not a witch,” we don’t immediately identify that she is singing in the voice of a convicted heretic from the late 1600s. It could as easily be about any woman from any point in time, one judged harshly for lifestyle choices. It is this universality that affords Anders’ songs and 13 Women its appeal.
Inspired by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, “Just Give Me Everything” doesn’t—on first listen—seem to be about a student-teacher relationship. In fact, it appears a rumination of a complex connection of indescribable quality, mysterious and other-worldly.
Less enigmatic are immediately identifiable subjects Josephine Baker (“A Little More From Josephine,”) Rosie the Riveter (“Girl You Never Knew,”) and Amelia Earhart (“What A Woman Can Do,”) each provided a stunning song.
“Castles” is constructed of Anders’ rising and falling vocal gifts, the notes manipulated into what can only be a deliberate construction as tangible as buildings designed by its inspiration, architect Julia Morgan. Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s passionate career as an astronomer is captured within “My Life in the Stars,” another favourite.
Martha Gellhorn (“Witness,”) Peace Pilgrim (“Walk This Freedom,”) and Edmonia Lewis (“Wave That Rocks Me,” co-written with Renee Hayes) inspire other songs of import; as Alberta’s Maria Dunn has been doing for a couple decades, Anders brings to the fore lives of those who forged paths for the next generations.
Blessed with controlled and warm jazz breathiness, Anders is most obviously a master vocalist. Reminding this listener of Eliza Gilkyson and Garrison Starr, Anders’ latest is a deep volume that continually reveals elements that charm and please. She and Manche contribute various guitars, keys, and percussion, while Jim Hoke is featured on clarinet, flute, harmonica, and piano with Dave Francis (bass,) Maggie Chafee (cello,) and Mary Rodgers (accordion) also appearing instrumentally. Fans of vocal harmony would be wise to investigate 13 Women.
13 Women, a product of the COVID shutdown, is an unexpected surprise this late winter. Trust me on this one.
“There’s something out there, past all this darkness…”
-“Just Give Me Everything”