Judy Collins returns with a new album, sounding as good as ever.
The main point: Judy Collins returns with a new album, sounding as good as ever. Actually, no. The real point: Chatham County Line collaborate and support as well as they do their own material. Or, maybe better: songwriter Jonas Fjeld might finally get some proper attention. That last one, to those outside of Norway anyhow, might be a harder sell. Collins, after all, has her remarkable voice on 60 years’ worth of recordings and a memorable biography to go with it. Chatham County Line plays bluegrass that consistently gets attention wherever bluegrass gets attention. Fjeld, though, has largely dodged the US spotlight (Norwegian-language albums don’t tend to chart here), unless a couple albums with Rick Danko count. The lineup might not look like it, but it’s a supergroup of its kind, though with Collins clearly in the lead on its album Winter Stories.
Few settings wouldn’t allow Collins’ voice a position as the centerpiece. Her artistry includes not only her tone and pitch, but also her interpretive skills. Some of her choices here make complete sense, like revisiting “The Blizzard.” Choosing Joni Mitchell’s “River” fits perfectly not only for Collins’ aesthetic but also within the general sense of the album. The disc focuses on wintry songs (though not holiday ones). Mitchell’s cut gets an extra snowy treatment here, Collins’ hurt as cold as it is deep.
As great as Collins sounds, the album excels when she and Fjeld work together. The disc opens with Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage,” which Collins calls “practically a second Canadian national anthem.” Her clear tone and Fjeld’s rugged folk singer sound blend well for the meditation on risk and loss in deadly exploration. The voices match in an unlikely way, Fjeld’s roughness adding edges to Collins, keeping the pair rooted in the sort of artful folk music they sing over. These songs, epitomized by the title track, are deliberately winter stories, fit neither for a back porch or a theatrical stage. They should be sung somewhere cold and mildly rustic, and both vocalists know how to get to that place in different ways.
That the music comes from North Carolina’s Chatham County Line shouldn’t be that surprising. They’re a new fit for Collins, but they’ve cut three albums with Fjeld before. The group’s longs been willing to stray from traditional bluegrass, and here they push into folk and more textured, subdued Americana. “Bury Me with My Guitar On” goes into a more traditional sound, but also moves away a little from the chilly sweetness of much of the disc (if you go Appalachian, songs about being dead can actually sound like warming tunes). That sort of change makes for nice pacing to the album. “Mountain Girl” does something similar, though it sticks more to January tones and makes effective use of Russell Walden’s piano.
Winter Stories blends strong songwriting (including originals and covers), impressive vocals and smart musicianship to tell its tales. The indefatigable Collins continues her Renaissance period, and her collaborators keep up with her. Snowed-in tales of death might not make for charming Yuletide singalongs but they fit the season. The album does end with some hope, “a light in the window and a place called home,” and the musicians here provide the source of that warmth even while framing the cold.