The Massachusetts based Barbara Cassidy Band is more than just another incredible traditional folk ensemble with a brilliant singer and world-wise storyteller emoting life’s joys, pains and every heartfelt train stop in between. It’s a deep, beautiful love story set in musical motion by a husband and wife duo that’s so in synch you feel you can watch them in your mind act out all of the colorful, sometimes sorrow-filled, sometimes happy and buoyant scenarios played out in the songs on the band’s first full length album Ford Hill Road.
The perfect blend of raw rural sensibilities and edgier urban influences, the album showcases Cassidy (lead vocals), her husband Eric Chasalow (arranger, co-producer, vocals, multiple instruments), a fascinating Boston based ensemble featuring mandolin and violin, and other guest musicians. It’s not always lighthearted and celebratory, but as the generous 14 track collection lopes by, we feel like we’ve been invited to a very intimate, exclusive party.
The musical partnership between Cassidy and Chasalow is fascinating because of the individual backgrounds they bring to the mix. She grew up in the Hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, learning how to drive a tractor, helping with haying and waiting tables in a maple sugar house. As she began singing and realizing her musical talents, she naturally gravitated towards the roots of authentic traditional folk. Her voice was a natural fit. Chasalow grew up on The Beatles and Charlie Parker and made regular trips to NYC to see jazz greats perform. His resume includes composing big band charts, and he is now the Dean of the Graduate School and Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University.
For Chasalow, it’s a long way from expansive big band charts to his tasteful, restrained arrangements here, but every sound seems created to support and enhance Cassidy’s crystal clear tone and expressive literary skills. They want us to hinge on every word, as if they are turning the page with every verse and chorus. The opening title track is a great example of their approach. Over a simple, rolling beat and with occasional bright guitar sparkles, Cassidy shares her sad but fond and sweet reflections of a place and time that lingers in her mind. They ease next into lyrical bluegrass territory, creating a whimsical version of Sandy Denny’s “By the Time It Gets Dark” with perfect vocal harmonies and just the right amount of seasoning by violinist Joe Kessler and mandolin master Jimmy Ryan.
Ambling further down the road, Cassidy fondly recalls the fun of the visiting circus during her youth (“Sideshow”), puts a lighthearted spin on the all-too-quick demise of a relationship (“Going Away”) and goes full-on traditional country with the sadly soulful lament “Please Don’t Go.” She brings a different kind of tradition, taking on a lilting Irish flavor (including some vocal accenting) on the lush, dreamy “Lullaby.” One of the most engaging tunes on the album is the spirited duet by Cassidy and Chasalow, alternating their lead voices with stunning harmonies that reveal just how in sync they are – even when they’re chronicling a failing relationship!
The song makes me wish there were more lead vocal contributions by Chasalow – and hopefully there will be when they get around to the next album. Another can’t miss highlight on Ford Hill Road is a cover of another great folk standard, “Miss the Mississippi and You,” which enhances its poetic Mark Twain styled imagery with a touch of yodeling by Cassidy.