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Not her father's folk music

Singing the praises of rare bird Eliza Gilkyson

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Eliza Gilkyson is a rara avis within the sometimes mediocre and sleepy musical margin that is contemporary folk music—a mesmerizing singer and telling songwriter whose work has the red-blooded reality of real life. What the Dallas Morning News calls the “plaintive power” of her voice and the “soulful strength” of her writing recalls a time when the simple values of folk music still suggested a rugged authority, rather than the mire of mellow expressionism the genre has displayed in recent years.

No doubt that distinction is a result of nature and nurture both, as she’s the daughter of folk veteran Terry Gilkyson, writer of the classic song “Greenfields,” and sister of guitarist Tony Gilkyson, one-time six-string triggerman for L.A. punk icons X, among others (who also frequently records with his sister). Her early days as a popular Southwestern songstress and tours with Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider unfairly tagged Eliza in the past as a New Ager. But over the past decade she has released a string of albums that have proven her to be a potent middle-aged chronicler of the human condition whose music transforms such airy musical notions as literacy, mysticism and spirituality into something tangible and affecting.

A tall and handsome woman with a stage authority to match her physical stature, Gilkyson writes and sings with a subtle fearlessness that tackles the big issues with intelligence and aplomb. Since relocating from the desert paradise of Santa Fe to the musical mecca of Austin in the mid-1990s, she has stared life straight in the eye in her recent work.

Her Hard Times In Babylon album of 2000 played like a novel as she explored love, loss and redemption, elevating the notion of personal growth from cliché to a genuine stage of life. It also marked a personal and musical maturity that lifted her from the pack of modern folkies and granola balladeers to a well-earned stature as a rooted pop artist for listeners who genuinely think and feel.

Last year’s Lost and Found offered another song cycle of sorts, exploring the ins and outs of interpersonal and communal connectivity. What she offers in concert is more than just the occasionally hoary conventions of folk music at its most common.

Yes, Gilkyson offers uplift and comfort to the tune of melodies that dance in your head well after she leaves the stage. But she achieves that sublime state in tales that evoke and even provoke emotions from the deeper wells of the human heart in a fashion that recalls such other late-blooming song poets as John Hiatt and Lucinda Williams. She’s neither your father’s nor her father’s folk musician, though she stands firmly planted on that rough-hewn stage.

Rather, Gilkyson is a compelling chronicler of adult existence who wields the sharp tools of truth and beauty with all the dexterity and precision of a veteran artist at the peak of her craft.

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