Somewhere Along the Road
Artist: Cathie Ryan
The difference between having a great voice and being a great singer is roughly the same as the difference between having a good guitar and being a good guitarist. Great vocalists are often judged less by the quality of their tools than by how they use them, and Irish-American singer-songwriter Cathie Ryan has always known the difference. Perhaps because she is herself blessed with a mezzo soprano of shimmering purity, she has never been content to rest on the natural beauty of her voice. As she proves on Somewhere Along the Road, her third and finest CD for Shanachie Records, she can rightly take her place among the finest vocalists of her generation, not just in the Celtic realm, but anywhere in popular music.
There is always a guiding theme that binds her recordings, since she writes from within her own life journey with such uncompromising, almost journalistic honesty. When it’s time to record, she steps back, charts that journey through her recent songs, then decides which traditional and cover songs to add to connect the emotional dots.
This time, that theme centers on the title cut, songwriter Rick Kemp’s deeply felt meditation on life’s impermanence.
“Somewhere Along the Road is to me a song of faith,” says Ryan. “Now more than ever, with what our nation and the world has suffered with the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies, I find myself holding onto the song that way. It’s a song of hope, of holding on and believing things will get better. It’s also about how we all choose our roads in life, come upon forks in that road and have to make choices. Some people just sit down in the road and let life happen to them. But most of us are always journeying out of ourselves as a way of trying to find what is essential about us.”
“It’s a lesson that I have to relearn quite regularly,” she added with a deep, easy laugh that often sprinkles her speech, and never more loudly than when she feels the joke’s on her.
Since bursting on the Celtic scene in the mid-80s, during a seven-year stint as lead singer of the Irish supergroup Cherish the Ladies, the Detroit-born Ryan has earned raves not only for the beauty of her voice, but for her insightful songwriting and intelligent vocal styling. Jon Pareles, starmaking critic of the New York Times praised her “richly sympathetic voice,” evoking her rare ability to become one with whatever she is sings. The Boston Globe’s Scott Alarik called her singing simply “sublime.” United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins marveled at the “powerful sweetness” of her voice and the poignancy of her original and traditonal songs. The Irish American News named her Irish Traditional Female Vocalist of the Decade, and Irish America Magazine ranked her among the Top 100 Irish Americans of our time.
Spencer Tracy used to say the secret to acting was to never get caught at it. Ryan sings like that; her three-octave range and awesome technical skills tethered to a fluid, spare style always in sweet service to the song.
Like the greatest vocal stylists, from Billie Holiday to Patsy Cline to June Tabor, Ryan is as mindful of the spaces between the notes as of the notes themselves. Listen to the roominess she breathes into the title cut, both with artful pauses and gentle mid-line trills, and to the way her voice seems to lift as she sings the key line, “a spirit that soars over the mountain.” Even her quick-tongued Gaelic singing on the pub song O Boro, Braindi Braindi is elegantly spacious. Fast, yes; hurried, never.
“When I’m vocally arranging a song,” Ryan says, “I think first of the lyric and the mood of the melody; the feeling the character in the story has. And I find myself more and more wanting to leave some space for the thinking, feeling part of the story. I also love the idea of space because then the listener can be more in the song with me. It’s their space, too.”
That tender empathy gives her singing an uncommon emotional resonance. Ryan never needs to shout or strut to let you know how a song feels. Hear the mixed emotions she conveys in So Here’s to You, modern version of the “parting glass” farewell songs. In her hushed vocal, it becomes more a hymn of gratitude for good friends than a lament for their parting.
She adds a Gaelic wistfulness to legendary Appalachian folk singer Olabelle Reed’s lonely High on a Mountain. Where so many would render this purely as a lament, Ryan also feels the life-affirming resilience that Reed placed between the lines of her song.
Ryan learned much of her austere mastery as a lean and hungry young singer spending time with Irish sean nos legend Joe Heaney, then in his 70s.
“I don’t like to show off,” she says. “I like to sing the song whatever way it wants to be sung. Joe believed in courting a song, and I love that whole notion. I believe that a song is a real entity that must be courted and loved; that you have to find a place for it in your own center, and bring it up from there when you sing it.”
Ryan wanted what she calls a “back-to-the-basics” sound for this CD, one that would focus all the attention on the songs. In short, to make a true singer’s album. To that end, she enlisted as producer former Battlefield Band’s brilliant young fiddler-flutist John McCusker, who has produced British folk stars Eliza Carthy and Kate Rusby (also his wife).
“I love how he leaves space in songs,” Ryan says. “There’s nothing extraneous, nothing done for gimmickry; it’s all about the song.”
The convivial warmth that permeates the CD was not achieved by pushing buttons at a mixing board. The small cast of players — which includes singer Karine Polwart and piper Iain MacDonald, also of Battlefield Band fame; brilliant Scottish keyboardist Phil Cunningham; and a lovely guest appearance by Rusby — all huddled together in McCusker’s Yorkshire home throughout the 10-day marathon recording session, walking each day to the nearby studio after McCusker cooked them breakfast, earning him the moniker “Breakfast King.”
The result is a warm ensemble sound perfectly suited to Ryan’s own carefully sculpted songs. She is remarkably able to probe emotionally complex themes in spare, melodic songs that seem familiar on first hearing.
In My Tribe was inspired by a desert journey she took with a Native American guide, exchanging songs and stories from their different cultures until she saw how their devotion to those cultures connected them as fellow travelers upon the same ancient, human road.
Ryan continues her celebrated quest for strong, self-sufficient female heroes in Celtic myth and Irish history with several old and new songs about resolute women; and with her own fiery ode to 16th-century Irish pirate Grace O’Malley.
“My interest in singing about these women – and my delight at finding how many of them there are in our music and history – helps me understand myself as a woman in the world,” she says. Asked what she hopes women will draw from these songs, her warm laugh immediately begins to bubble. “What would I like for women in particular to get?” She says. “Why, that we’re terrific, of course!” And with that, her laugh fills the room; rafter-raising, sweet, strong and utterly honest – just like her singing.
|02. Rathlin Island (1847)||Listen||Lyrics|
|03. Somewhere Along The Road||Listen||Lyrics|
|04. Raking And Roguing (Ó Boro Braindí Braindí / Éirigh A Shinéid)||Listen||Lyrics|
|05. In My Tribe||Listen||Lyrics|
|06. Tá Sé ‘Na Lá||Listen||Lyrics|
|07. Cailín Deas Crúite Na mBó||Listen||Lyrics|
|08. High On A Mountain||Listen||Lyrics|
|09. Grace O’Malley||Listen||Lyrics|
|10. Wave Up To The Shore||Listen||Lyrics|
|11. So Here’s To You||Listen||Lyrics|
Produced by John McCusker
Featuring John Doyle, Kris Drever, John McCusker, Phil Cunningham, James Mackintosh, Karine Polwart, Malcolm Stitt, Iain MacDonald, Lester Simpson, Andy Seward, Michael Aharon, & Kate Rusby.
Arranged by John McCusker, John Doyle and Cathie Ryan (except where noted)
Recorded by Joe Rusby at Pure Records, Yorkshire, England
Mixed by Joe Rusby & Andy Seward at Pure Records
Additional Mixing by John Anthony at Maja Audio Group, Philadelphia
“Wave Up to the Shore” recorded & mixed by John Anthony at Maja Audio Group
Cover Photo: Adam Nash
“Irish American vocalist Cathie Ryan…..has an enchanting voice, and she sings with both clarity and emotion, bringing a great deal of color and shadow to whatever she undertakes….Somewhere Along the Road emcompasses more than Ryan’s vocal artistry, though. Such contributors as John Doyle, Iain MacDonald, Malcolm Stitt, Phil Cunningham, and Kate Rusby work in spare yet eloquent arrangements, bringing a wealth of feeling to a terrific group of songs. Ryan rises to the occasion, singing with grace and a keen ear for the turn of a phrase; her performance is striking.” — Billboard Magazine
“[Cathie Ryan’s] clear voice is equally at home with the lilt of the Gaelic sean nos and the Motown groove of her home city. On Somewhere Along the Road, her own songs have a strength and charm rooted in the combination of these influences, her subjects the histories and lives of real people…….Ryan’s intimate, quietly passionate voice draws the listener into her world…. Thoroughly recommended.” — BBC2
“When it seems like the best voices recording today are making records that all sound the same, and say little, it’s a sheer breath of fresh air to hear Cathie Ryan and listen to the lyrics she’s written or chosen to adapt…..Cathie’s ability glows on Somewhere Along the Road……this CD is one to cherish…” — Irish America Magazine
“This album is important. There is such a message of hope, love and healing here, and it is all the more important because of September 11.” — Irish American News, Chicago
“Ryan moves deeper into the modern folk tradition on this recording……. exploring British folk as well as the more familiar haunts of her ancestral and modern Celtic lineages on tracks like “Rathlin Island (1847)” and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Somewhere Along the Road,”…. the wooly and sensual “Raking and Rouging” Gaelic suite, which pairs a couple of trad tunes in a haunting, steamy tangle, [and] the mysterious “Tá Sé ‘na Lá.” The disc closes with ….. Alan A. Bell’s truly moving “So Here’s to You.” On this song — and many others here — Ryan’s voice carries within its grain all of the poetry melancholy can bear………. This is her finest effort yet.” — Thom Jurek, All Music Guide