I live for albums that I can repeatedly listen to, harmonize alongside, or move and groove with; the best ones, of course, involve all three at once.
Whether your favourites are of the Emmylou and Rodney variety, the Prine/DeMent set, Tom Russell with anyone he wants to sing with, George Jones & Melba Montgomery, or younger folk—maybe Jaida Dreyer with Corb Lund—there is nothing quite like a hardcore, male/female country duet. The sweetness produced by the mingling of voices, even when one part may not be terribly smooth in isolation, is something special, maybe unique to the genre.
Now, imagine a honky-tonk, country duets album that arrives without fanfare or expectation from a guy you’ve never encountered singing with a few different female voices, some of whom are familiar (Rachel Harrington, Jaimee Harris,) one you know more by name than sound (BettySoo,) and others you have never heard, AND you are completely blown away by the set, as much as you likely woulda been if had old favourites popped out of your speakers.
A quick scan of the back cover allowed favourable impression as both Rachel Harrington and Jaimee Harris are singers I have come to admire, and their presence lent the previously unknown to me Domenic Cicala some bona fides. Deeper pursual of credits showed the name Fred Elgersma, better known to FredHeads as Eaglesmith, and while I didn’t Michelle Hannan I certainly am very aware of “Drinking Too Much,” a standard from Lipstick Lies & Gasoline.
Hannan also sings with Cicala on the album’s opening track, “Loving Arms,” a recognized number from Rita and Kris (a big hit on Mama’s radio in 1974), as well as Wide Open Spaces. BettySoo serenades us with “Goodbye Again,” a Dave Alvin/Rosie Flores number from King of California. Impressive thus far, but not blown away. Yet.
Next up—what’s that? That rhythm is somewhat familiar, if slower than expected. Harrington sings: “Well, I’m no cold-hearted Jezebel, I’ve been doing my best to love you well…” and I know immediately what is occurring: they’ve taken Kirsty MacColl & Matchbox’s lost rockabilly classic, eased off by about 50 beats-per-minute, and reinvented “I Want Out” as a barroom weeper. Absolutely brilliant, and I hope I am not the only one to appreciate this treatment of a song that has been part of my life since I found the British-import 45 via mail order shortly after high school wrapped.
And from that moment, I’m sold: bring on the rest of the album. When weeping pedal steel (Lynn Kasdorf) opens Eaglesmith’s desperate “Drinking Too Much” and Cicala sings, “Darling, lately something’s been different when we go out at night,” I know there is no going back: I am going to love every moment of this set of classic-sounding country presented within a setting far too unfamiliar in 2021.
I don’t know how Cicala lined-up up his duet partners, but he and they have good taste. Mindy Miller sings a couple with him, “Coldest Fire in Town” and “We Had it All,” the Donnie Fritts/Troy Seals song that was the only one on Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes not written by Billy Joe Shaver. And she and Cicala have a wonderful sound, although all the featured combinations are effective.
Cicala doesn’t have the prettiest of voices, but he is ideally suited to singing old-school country. One song that many will not recognize is Tift Merritt and the Two-Dollar Pistols’ relatively obscure “If Only You Were Mine,” sung here with Jaimee Harris (who some may know from appearances with Mary Gauthier, as well as her own very impressive Red Rescue.) After raising the bar several times throughout the 30+ minute set, all barriers are blown out by the closing “If I Needed You,” a perfect song that likely doesn’t need to be recorded again…except, it does and Janine Wilson, making her only appearance on the album, does a wonderful job with Cicala, her high, lilting approach an ideal foil for Cicala’s more rugged one.
Gary Ferguson (bluegrass Gary Ferguson?) is playing guitars and mandolin, and Mark Noone handles bass, and also contributes some guitar parts. Drummer Ben Holmes does most of the kit work, with Jack O’Dell making a pair of appearances.
A bit of research into Cicala informs us that he has been a mainstay on the Washington, D.C. music scene for more than a decade, and that he has friends. Birds of Chicago have appeared on a couple of his songs, and Harrington has previously sung with him on a really good song called “One More Try.”
I believe I was destined to enjoy Domenic Cicala’s music: one of his earlier songs, found online and reflecting on a weekend morning, contains the line, “Hazel Dickens sings a sad, old country tune;” I’d like to think he and I would get along!
I suspect you will dig this album, listen to it, create trios out of its duets, and shuffle along in three-quarter time. How could you not?