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Ways To Humble You Down

When I was growing up, people used to say Hank Williams had the high lonesome. I took that to mean that when he sang certain songs, he had a way of echoing the lone coyote on a full moon night. I've heard only a few besides Williams who had it, most notably Steve Young, who can squeeze a gleeful heart dry with his mournful wail. And Rita Hosking...

I knew it when I heard the first notes of Cool Black Water from Hosking's 2007 album, Silver Stream. With a pen dipped in coal oil and a heart drowned in sad, it is a tribute truly worthy of her past. Well, her heritage. Some of her people were miners and back in the early days, mining wasn't the machine-infested business we see on The Discovery Channel. It was filthy, hard work and responsible for many a life cut short. Some were born to it, many wanted out but had no recourse. On the inside of the CD jacket hidden behind the CD is a picture, a glimpse of the Cornish Goldmining Singers taken 2500 feet below the surface of the Empire Mine, Grass Valley, California, sometime in the '30s. They sang. They worked hard. Most died young. Hosking's great-grandfather, second from the left in the top row, was one of them. You have no idea how hard he had it. Gold, coal, salt, iron, copper... it didn't much matter. Not when you mined by hand, underground... And when you died, unless you took matters into your own hands, you died slow.

The title track, Silver Stream, also carries that '40s and '50s sound, old-timey harmonies and crying fiddle complementing Hosking's retro vocals. She may be from California but she sings like she's from 1950s Virginia, her voice hinting just enough of the backwoods to make it right.

She is not all high lonesome. Her musical world is large and she could not have done a better job of sandwiching others' songs among her own, the traditional ( Dream of a Miner's Child and Sally Ann, plus a rousing version of the Delmore Brothers' classic, Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar) giving way to Bob Dylan's Farewell Angelina as interpreted by Tim O'Brien and Hosking, chorus ghosting ?In the mines, In the mines/Where the light never shines...? and a bit different than what we've come to expect from ol' Bob.

Musically, Silver Stream has something for everyone who likes old-timey, country, bluegrass and folk. In my mind's eye, I can see my father listening while looking at the ceiling, breathy hums (off-key, of course) forced between lips which move but do not form words. He would have loved this album, as do I.

Two years on, a slightly more reflective Hosking graces us with Come Sunrise, musically a step away from the traditional and more personal. One might think it odd that as she looks inward she becomes a bit more mainstream, heading to Austin to work with Rich Brotherton and a host of excellent Austin sidemen and all, but odd it's not. You don't need a back porch to get that feeling of back porch blues, if you get my drift. And Hosking already had a satchel full of first-rate tunes before she got there. Those guys just help her along.

Come Sunrise may be a little more electric and a bit wider in scope than Silver Stream, but it is bona fide Rita Hosking. From the countryfied Holier Than Thou (with some superb dobro from Lloyd Maines) to the just-short-of-cry-in-your-beer jukebox-oriented Montgomery Creek Blues (pedal steel supreme courtesy of Marty Muse) to the dirt-under-your-fingernails ballad I'm Going Home, it is up close and personal Rita Hosking, in fact. Take it at face value or peel back layers with numerous listenings, it is something special.

As much as I can hear Steve Young in Cool Black Water, a song perfect to his style, I can hear Gordon Lightfoot in Hiding Place. Whereas Hosking has her high lonesome, Lightfoot has a similar place on the folk side and Hiding Place is there. Even the lyrics are there, ?The view is clear from my favorite tree/The befores and the afters/When lightning breaks over home I see/The tears and the laughter? right out of Lightfoot's own hiding place, I swear. Did she mean to do it? Doubtful. But if someone mistakes this for one of Lightfoot's songs, I may correct but I won't argue. It's a beauty.

She's Waiting is about loss. About loss so great that it is extremely difficult or downright impossible to live with. A lady has lost her son and what do they say? There is no greater love than a mother's for her children? A loss of that nature is monumental. When Hosking raises her voice in lament, it is real.

One Josephine Monahan is centerpiece to Little Joe. A wrangler, buckaroo and miner, she evidently lived her life as a man and probably a damn good one too. Did any of the guys she worked next to know? It evidently didn't matter. Then again, maybe it did. Not when Hosking sings about it, though. It becomes a matter of respect and not a little wonder at what she did (and had to do) to survive.

People occasionally ask me what makes a good song (as if I could write one). I haven't a clue, but I can tell them the one thing that will prevent a song from getting there: lyrics. You can have a good tune, but the cringe factor in lyrics will stop an otherwise great song in its tracks. There is a true craft to it and too few who master it. Well, Hosking has it down. She tells stories and paints pictures faultlessly. In fact, I'd lay down a good bet that if she'd written this review, it would have said much more in a much better way. I know I could never sing like her, but I wish to God I could write like her. It would make it a hell of a lot easier. For you and for me.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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