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Well I haven’t heard all of Charlie Roth’s previous six albums, but I suspect that Cactus Tartan Heart is his best work yet. Inspired by his recent troubadour travels around the British Isles, Charlie seems to have distilled his own particular melange of Celtic, country and folk music into something that touches the pure source of these things, threading the strands together so that his version of Wild Mountain Thyme can sit comfortably alongside his own bottom-of-the-bottle honky tonk song, Lonely Bar, and sound like natural company for each other.

        Half of these songs are Charlie’s own work; two co-writes, two from the (British) tradition and one each from Jack Hardy and Tim Henderson complete the line-up and, in a subtle way, every strand of folk music seems to make an appearance. Social commentary, sentimentality, love songs, humour and a strong feel for the core truths of life are married to gently beautiful music making. Charlie’s knack for a natural melody and the understated beauty of his guitar playing (and that of his sidekick, Kurt Rodman) is at the heart of the music but, in a quiet sort of a way, this is a really rich production. More than a dozen other musicians play their part in these songs, participating in arrangements that gently enhance each one. There’s an ironically cheerful shuffle on the hard times song, Baltic Avenue, that features some nicely boozy trumpet playing from Tom Pattock; we get the full Irish monty, complete with whistle and bodhran, for Jack Hardy’s fine song about an Irish migrant worker, Uley Mill Song, and on the song that closes the album, Cactus Heart, an elegant arrangement of acoustic guitar, viola and bodhran keeps things warm and intimate. The cherry on the top of it all for me is Charlie’s take on Wild Mountain Thyme. This is possibly the best version of this old standard that I’ve ever heard; Charlie’s vocal is utterly sincere, he really sounds like he’s crooning to the lass of his fancy, whilst the arrangement is utterly gorgeous. There’s some beautiful playing on the hammered dulcimer from Paul Imholte that sounds like a mountain burn in springtime – absolutely excellent stuff.

         Sometimes you become aware that it’s Charlie’s singing that is the real star of this album. For a mid-western American he sounds remarkably Irish to me when the song calls for it. I don’t have Irish ears, obviously, but he seems to be able to inhabit the world of his Irish songs quite as comfortably as he sings his more obviously country/Americana numbers.  He travels from the wry humour of Wadayagonado to the desperate pleading of Holy Mother of God and sounds completely at one with the feel of the song – and with the tradition of each idiom – every time. I was fortunate enough to be witness to Charlie’s pied piper charm when he was over in the Highlands last year and I’m so pleased he’s been able to nail on record what makes him such an engaging performer; he has an absolute devotion to song and a child-like enthusiasm for all the wonders that the world of song can unfold, so these twelve songs are just a sample of what he can do, and just possibly the finest slice of transatlantic folk that you’ll hear this year. Finally, an added bonus is that the cover of the cd features one of Danny Schmidt's many excellent photographs; Danny is a fine songwriter himself and keeps a photoblog that is a joy to follow.

John Davy

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May 2018

1
John Prine
67 pts.
The Tree of Forgiveness
Oh Boy Records
JJC,MB,SP,RM
2
Levi Parham
58 pts.
It's All Good
Continental Records
CRS,JB,TK
3
Jeb Barry and the Pawn Shop Saints
55 pts.
Texas, etc...
DollyRocker
HDB,CVL,DHO
4
Michael McDermott
54 pts.
Out From Under
Continental Song City
JDO,LK,BK
5
Sam Morrow
48 pts.
Concrete and Mud
Forty Below Records
MA,JBO,HB
6
Caleb Caudle
39 pts.
Crushed Coins
Cornelius Chapel Records
 
7
Western Centuries
36 pts.
Songs From The Deluge
Free Dirt Records
MF
8
Carter Sampson
34 pts.
Lucky
Continental Song City
 
9
Charley Crockett
30 pts.
Lonesome as a Shadow
Son of Davy/30 Tigers
 
10
Courtney Marie Andrews
28 pts.
May Your Kindness Remain
Loose Music
JV
11
Ed Romanoff
27 pts.
The Orphan King
Pinerock Records
 
 
Joan Baez
27 pts.
Whistle Down The Wind
Proper Records
HD
 
Pharis and Jason Romero
27 pts.
Sweet Old Religion
Lula Records
SZ,LM
14
Gretchen Peters
24 pts.
Dancing With The Beast
Proper Records
KG
 
Old Crow Medicine Show
24 pts.
Volunteer
Columbia Records
GF
 
Will Stewart
24 pts.
County Seat
Cornelius Chapel Records
 
17
Ben Reel
22 pts.
Land Of Escape
B REEL Records
GC,FC
 
Birds Of Chicago
22 pts.
Love In Wartime
Signature Sounds
 
 
Emily Herring
22 pts.
Gliding
Eight 30 Records
RST,RH
20
Jenny van West
21 pts.
Happiness To Burn
Independent
PJ,FS,JJ
 
Mary Gauthier
21 pts.
Rifles And Rosary Beads
In the Black Records
 
22
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
20 pts.
Years
Bloodshot Records
FCE
23
David Starr
19 pts.
South And East
Independent
HM
24
Cold Tone Harvest
18 pts.
After You
Independent
 
25
Grant Peeples
17 pts.
Settling Scores vol. 2
Continental

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