Review: Laurie & Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern and Ray

I’ll be honest: before I heard this album I had never heard of Vern Williams and Ray Park. To me, it just sounded like Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick were singing the songs I heard while I was growing up. It was like finding an old Pete Seeger songbook on a high dusty shelf in the library of my new town: suddenly I can hear the soundtrack of my childhood. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience when you’ve heard “Little Birdie,” “Old Kentucky Home,” “Black-eyed Susie,” or “Oh, Susanna.” My 1960’s activist/folk music childhood came back in a (simple) rush.

But this album got me interested in Vern and Ray, and I developed quite an affection for the two: the old-time sound, the harmonies, the plain-speaking lyrics. And some of the originally male-duo songs took on an interesting hue when viewed through the lens of a female duo. For example, “How Many Times” sounds fresh, strong, and surprising sung by Laurie and Kathy, even though it would have sounded like the normal “complaining about the wife” that is common in bluegrass and old-time music if I had heard it sung by Vern and Ray.

If any of you are following my reviews, you won’t be surprised that my least favorite song was “To Hell With the Land,” a self-righteous lecture about people who don’t seem to care about the environment. I care about the environment (of course!), I am just not very fond of sanctimony mixed in with my picking and harmonizing. It’s like listening to a band that has a banjo out of tune. I cringe.

But this is the only low point on the album, and the rest is filled with plain, old-time lyrics, tunes and harmonies. They are joined by Tom Rozum, Patrick Sauber, Keith Little, Annie Staninec, and Sally Van Meter, but the focus is always the song, sung straight up. The songs may carry a “strong flavor” (as Laurie Lewis has described it) and “not everyone’s cup of tea” (Laurie Lewis again), but if you like your bluegrass in an old-time, down-home style it doesn’t really get any better than this.

“Thinking of Home”

My favorite songs are “Happy I’ll Be,” “Thinking of Home,” and “Touch of God’s Hand,” all songs that I’d never heard before this album. They all three make it clear that Laurie and Kathy have a long history of singing together. “Thinking of Home,” especially, has the comfortable back and forth, the comfortable pace, and the comfortable harmony of long friendship. It feels like coming home if “home” means old-time music (and it certainly does for me).

I am always looking out for a strong, no-nonsense approach to these old songs, and it’s especially exciting when that strong, no-nonsense approach is female. Keep it coming!

Robin Gustafson

Robin was raised on traditional, Appalachian mountain music, bluegrass music, and protest music. She has taken lessons in banjo and guitar although, sadly, these instruments did not get her to the Grand Ol' Opry. Instead, Robin sings in a choir here in the Hudson Valley, and she sing all kinds of harmony at Pinewoods Camp during the summer. When not singing, she is a cognitive scientist who studies how song and dance affect cognitive functioning.

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