Review: Chris Brashear & Peter McLaughlin – Desert Heart, Mountain Soul

I recently found myself in the parlor of a grand old Hudson Valley Victorian and was handed a copy of Desert Heart, Mountain Soul, a new duo album from longtime collaborators Chris Brashear and Peter McLaughlin. The two share 2003’s Canyoneers, 2008’s So Long Arizona and, as recipients of a songwriting residency grant at the Museum of Northern Arizona, 2017’s Colton House Sessions: Songs for the Southwest.

Desert Heart, Mountain Soul was released in May 2021 and includes 14 tracks. A mix of originals and well-chosen covers continues the pair’s interest in generating and interpreting bluegrass music for the American Southwest. Desert Heart surfaces familiar themes of longing for home and the beauty the natural world but shuffles these with mesa, creosote and the wideness of the desert.

Brashear and McLaughlin are an established match. Such a good match, in fact, it is at times hard to tell which singer is singing. Brashear’s voice is a bit sweeter, more golden, takes up sonic space. McLaughlin’s is grittier with a high, shifting-sand vibration that suits the blues.

They share a delicacy in their playing, a liveliness and accuracy without fuss. I might have wished for more, for a sounding depth of feeling or a nod to the darkness. But the whole album is light, each song has a way of running and tripping rather than thumping or digging down.

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“You Gave Me a Song”

The one exception is Alice Gerrard’s “You Gave Me a Song” which is such a strong piece of songwriting that it does not have to be sung to give chills,

“I’m not saying that I’ll stay, but I know now if I go
I’m gonna take you on with me and what you gave when I was young
Others held me for a while, but you held me all along.

Cause you gave me a song
Of a place that I call home
A song of then, a song of now
A song of yet to come.”

If you listen to a single song off the album, pick this one. Gerrard’s sweet voice joins in, dropping at the end of each chorus and allowing the lead to deliver a tender last punch.

You will also find Woodie Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” with its minor repetitions and ever-timely discords between those who work in American fields, those who fight its wars and freedom. As well as Kate Wolf’s “Great Divide” and its intimations of mortality.

The cover choices and the duo’s originals (there is a fun fiddle tune titled “Run Little Hank”) fit together into a credible if not ground-breaking meditation on American identity, migration, immigration and landscape. It is worth a listen especially for its silvery guitar interplay and the understated but confident delivery evident in each track.

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