This recording represents the anticipated follow up to Tracy Nelson’s well-regarded 1998 release, Sing It!
with shouters Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball, and returns her to the country and blues feel of the earliest albums with her old band, Mother Earth. Ebony & Irony
is on the eclectic records imprint from Relentless/Nashville and is produced by Mike Dysinger who took care of her previous solo outing Move On
. Ebony & Irony
features a fantastic team of musicians including ace Nashville session guitarist Mike Henderson, peerless keyboardists Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy) and Jim Pugh (Robert Cray, BB King, Johnny Lee Hooker) along with the Memphis Horns. The musicians shift effortlessly from style to style, providing the perfect balance for Nelson’s distinctive vocals.
I must state at the outset that I had some trouble liking it all, and I only warmed up after the fourth listen with some obligatory sips of single malt scotch. Some of it has to do with Tracy’s voice, much of it with the programming. I do not deny Tracy’s power with a song – she has a range that could blow away most R&B or country singers around, and sings a mean blues on par with the power of Janis Joplin. But her big sound and continuous use of vibrato on every cut took away from the vast endeavour of the release, and left me with only threads of overall satisfaction.
Nelson begins Ebony & Irony with four decent songs: a swell Will Jennings/Matraca Berg country ballad, "You Will Find Me There", the slow funky single, “Strongest Weakness” with the Memphis Horns, a strong collaboration with pianist Marcia Ball on the rollicking "Got A New Truck", and the truthful Sunday morning gospel wail of “If You Knew How Much”. After that, however, the eclectic mix starts to undermine the plan (she says in the liner notes) of creating “the record I’ve been trying to make for the last thirty years”. I do know what she means, really I do; but then a Celtic tune sung with vocalist Alice Newman comes from nowhere, pennywhistle included. Pretty though it is, I find it completely unnecessary, much like the closing Roy Rogers cowboy ditty “Silent Trail”.
Eventually, she comes back to her senses with a stellar and dark version of Mose Allison’s tune “How Much Truth”. There’s some luscious piano by Reese Wynans backing a respectful jazz quartet, including modified lyrics referring to Columbine High School. “A huge leap for me,” Tracy says, “I’ve always admired this song, and Mose Allison”. But alas, another dud follows this nugget.
What does save her are the musicians. Every one of Mike Henderson’s solos is an understated moment of brilliance, and the Wynans/Pugh combination is often essential to the cohesion of the songs. The Memphis Horns really make “Strongest Weakness” the hit on this recording, so much that an alternate take – slower and sexier – was kept because they couldn’t decide between the two.
I’d only recommend Ebony & Irony to Tracy Nelson devotees, vocal nuts, country fusion enthusiasts and people over 40. The rest of you will just not get it.
Personnel: Tracy Nelson (vocals); Steve Aaron (background vocals); Marcia Ball (Piano); George Bradfute (Guitar); Bob Britt (Guitar); Vickie Carrico (background vocals); Steve Conn (Accordion); John Cowan (background vocals); John Gardner (Drums); Terry Hanck (Saxophone); Mike Henderson (Guitar); Byron House (Bass); Wayne Jackson (Horn); Darryl Jones (background vocals); Andrew Love (Horn); John Mock (Penny Whistle); Alice Newman (background vocals); Jim Pugh (Fender Rhodes, Organ, Piano); Michael Rhodes (Bass); Terry Tucker (background vocals); Reese Wynans (Fender Rhodes, Organ, Piano)