Louisa Branscomb was born writing music for the country-bluegrass world and came to fame for the 1991 SPBGMA song of the year “Steel Rails.” Now it’s 2011, she’s had over 90 songs recorded in bluegrass and acoustic music, and Compass Records has announced the launch of her 9th project, the first distributed by a national label. I’ll Take Love pairs 13 Branscomb originals with world-class vocalists and players, resulting in a musical feat as powerful in its execution as in it’s originality. Co-produced by Branscomb and Missy Raines, the collection features bluegrass and acoustic vocal legends Dale Ann Bradley, John Cowan, Claire Lynch, The Whites, Dave Peterson, emerging artist Josh Williams, and more. Among other surprises is Alison Krauss returning to her early career connection with Branscomb (“Steel Rails”) to sing harmony on the title track. These and other vocal and instrumental collaborations make every song a recorded event in itself.
The title song, “I’ll take Love,” presents Dale Ann Bradley with Alison Krauss and Steve Gulley in a song both poignant and profound: the plaintive words of someone nearing the end of life to a beloved mate – a song that moves from grief to celebration of a life lived with love. In the words of Dale Ann Bradley, co-writer, “I could not wait to step up to the challenge of expressing the emotion of this song—sadness to joy in a life well-lived. To have a chance to sing with Alison Krauss and Steve Gulley made this a recording experience that ranks near the top for me.”
It doesn’t stop there. The front door of the project opens with Claire Lynch and previous band member and vocal partner Jim Hurst on an uplifting co-write by Branscomb and Lynch, and the selections move through unique collaborations – vocal giant John Cowan with power-singer Dave Peterson, and Emerging Artist Josh Williams with Dave Peterson. Unusual in bluegrass, Branscomb presents two duets sung by long time friends Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley, along with guests Claire Lynch and Jim Hurst respectively – one an exchange between a returning combat veteran and his wife (“Surrender”), and the other a haunting song about regret. “Closin’ Nashville Down,” plaintively rendered by Grasstown’s Steve Gulley, shows Branscomb’s competence as a country songwriter and recalls Keith Whitley back when, as they say, country was country.
Add instrumental virtuosos Alison Brown (banjo), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Missy Raines (bass), Rob Ickes (dobro and slide guitar), Jim Hurst (guitar), Alan Bibey (mandolin), Buck White (piano)—the list goes on—and this is a CD that keeps its promise to hit home from beginning to end.
For Branscomb, it all goes back to a childhood filled with imagination fueled by the roots music and story-telling culture of Birmingham, Alabama, interwoven with the magic of childhood memories from Nashville, Tennessee. “When I was 5, I wrote songs by writing stair-steps for the melody, and putting the words under the steps. I always saw music, and it just seemed natural…I just did it. One summer when I was six, I met a girl at camp who had a ukulele…but she wasn’t very generous about sharing it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’d say I had a stomachache during canoeing, and I’d get her ukulele out and write songs every day. I was hooked.”
From this perspective, it seems inevitable that a child who preferred to write songwriting to recess would end up having penned some of the best-known songs in bluegrass music, including “Steel Rails,” the Krauss standard credited with bringing “a whole generation” into bluegrass music.
Branscomb’s serendipitous introduction to Krauss came from a Union Station performance of “Steel Rails” at the Station Inn in Nashville. “I walked in…and was transported by Union Station, totally, who isn’t? I was awestruck. But I made myself speak to Alison Brown because I had a TB 6 like hers. Then she said, “You’re Louisa Branscomb? We’ve been trying to find you for two years!” I was SO confused. Like I went from complete humility to confusion, then Alison Krauss said, “Did you like your song?” I hadn’t heard them do “Steel Rails”, so I was still confused. I was hoping someone would tell me what was going on. Then they came back out and did the song and that was a moment I will never forget,” Branscomb recalls.
“That’s What Texas Was For” is a dance hall-flavored tune Branscomb penned in the middle of the project. ”Mom had passed away right after we scheduled our first session – ironic in a way, because the song we planned on that session was “I’ll Take Love.” And when we went home to take care of her effects, I saw how my father had stacked all her things neatly on tables and in boxes in the garage, and on the way home I wrote a song about someone facing that, having to pack up the memories of someone they love. The song talks about Texas being really made for waltzing together over the years. The Whites were scheduled to sing on the project…I wanted to bring in the elements of Buck’s Texas style piano playing, which I’ve always loved, their unbeatable family harmony, and the Texas roots from the Whites as well as my own Grandmother. I was thrilled when they said they liked the tune, and prepared to sing on it less than a week away. Then Dad rode the bus up from Birmingham and played harmonica on the song. In the studio, I think we all felt recording this song was one of those profoundly life altering and healing experiences only music can create. And in the middle, while listening to the piano track, Buck grabbed me and we danced around the room! That was my favorite moment.”
Thus Louisa’s label as “a pioneer for women in bluegrass.” She was one of the first women to play banjo and front a bluegrass band, and one of the first to provide enough original material for her band to be known primarily as a mostly all-original band. Louisa’s list of “firsts” goes on. She was likely the youngest clinical employee of University of Alabama when she took her first job at age 15, and later the youngest faculty member at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in 1971, which she left to play banjo full time with her band, Boot Hill, for 9 years. She runs a songwriter retreat center at her North Georgia farm, Woodsong Retreat, where she has worked with songwriters for two decades in an experiential approach to songwriting. In addition, Louisa has served as a mentor for songwriters for several decades through private workshops, festivals, and working as a founding member of the IBMA Bluegrass Songwriter Committee, which she chaired for its first 5 years.
So this Compass release, though not the first to showcase a songwriter, is unique in meeting the vision described by co-producer Missy Raines: “We wanted to pick some of Louisa’s best songs, and really consider the very best singer for each song.” Missy goes on to say, ” The problem was, Louisa gave me 38 songs, and I picked 32! Narrowing them down was difficult, and it didn’t make it easier that she kept writing songs during the project. But on this project we are really just wanting it to be about the songs, presented by great musicians in a tasteful, clean arrangements. Seeing it come to life, to see so much enthusiasm that each artist brought to the project - everyone wanting to be a part – was a special experience.”
And so Branscomb reaches another leading edge, in I’ll Take Love. And that is where you are left listening to these songs. At the edge, the frontier of a thought or feeling, perhaps taken farther than you planned, but likely with a closer connection to something beyond the song. And without words, because Branscomb has done that part — and her hallmark evocative melodies have done the rest. As she herself says in the liner notes when talking about the journey of a song, “I hope something in the long journey of these words and melodies finds its way into your heart, and if it does, the song will know it has come home.”
It’s a good bet.