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Hearth and home

Subtle gems from musicians of western Montana


Zoa, Kirby Erickson with Ellie Nuno (Barking Spider Studio)

Kirby Erickson farms herbs, and some vegetables, on 40 acres of gently sloping land at the mouth of Blodgett Canyon near Hamilton. Farming is his vocation, the bread and butter that helps sustain the modest lifestyle that he and his family have known for the last 30-plus years. By avocation, Erickson is becoming a self-styled producer and recording engineer. When he is not shifting irrigation pipes or clearing the ditch that runs across his property, he can be found in the Barking Spider Studio, in a small out-building beside the house with a plate glass window that looks out on the farm. Pointing out the window and across the hillside in an early summer rain, Erickson says of the music he produces, “That’s what it’s all about.” Zoa, a collection of Erickson’s compositions, highlighted by the synergetic violin accompaniment of local violin player Ellie Nuno, reflects with unassuming grace the mutable qualities of light and air that play upon these bucolic acres on any given day. The farmer/philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka often said that human feelings do not just arise in the mind, but in the land. By extension, it might be said that musical expressions arise from similar origins. Erickson interprets these earthy impulses with an eclectic guitar style that incorporates folk, Latin, blues, jazz, classical and rock. Erickson writes songs that seem constructed with the sweeping practicality of line and support of a handcrafted barn, reflecting the nurturing farmer. “Christine,” a trio instrumental with Erickson on guitar, Dexter Payne on clarinet and Ellie Nuno on violin, was written for Erickson’s sister as she lay dying in the hospital. The performance expresses with melancholy eloquence the cadences of loss and acceptance. “Paradox,” an unvarnished ballad, sings plaintively of loves reconciliation, carefully balancing tender feelings without becoming mawkish.

The singular detail that is likely to disappoint the listener is in the vocal tracks. Erickson’s painstaking dedication to the maxim, “If it doesn’t add something it takes away” unfortunately shows itself at times. Erickson’s voice is sometimes thin, unable to fully support the turns of sentiment expressed in the lyrics. It is evident that Erickson has not yet developed his voice through practice in the way he has with his guitar technique. This detail will, hopefully, not deter those looking for local music that expresses a sense of place in western Montana. Overall, Zoa is remarkable for the rare fluency and versatility of the instrumentation that accompanies the songs. Also featured are Robb Kunkel on guitars, piano and bass, and Steve Hoffman on bass and electric guitar. If you want a taste of the Bitterroot Valley without having to brave the traffic on Highway 93, Zoa might be just what you need. Through the Wall, Sue Wall-MacLane (Self-released)

With refreshing lyrical simplicity and a childlike essence, Sue Wall-MacLane’s premier recording, Through the Wall, exudes the innocent charm of a 5-year-old girl dancing around the house in her first tutu. Which isn’t to say that these are kids’ songs. They are not. Wall-MacLane writes about love, work, family and the passage of time with a clarity and candor that bespeaks her roots in the baby boomer generation. (Maybe it’s all the hours I assume Wall-MacLane spent watching “Sesame Street” as a child, or “The Muppet Show” as an adult, that lend a particularly childlike humor to a few of the tracks. I swear I heard the comic gaffs of the two old curmudgeon puppets from “The Muppet Show” making sly interjections between the verses of “Joy Riding.”) This recording has a gentle ambience and warm-heartedness that takes hold quietly. The melodies express elation and poignancy by turns, with lyrics full of the kind of unaffected, candid irony, disappointment and hope that returns to memory of its own accord, on a bike ride or out walking.

The youthfulness here may also have something to do with the fact that Wall-MacLane has only been playing the guitar seriously for five years. Kirby Erickson, her guitar teacher, and the producer of the recording, calls her “a natural,” exclaiming proudly, “She’s a testament to [the claim that] it’s never too late to start.” Wall-MacLane first approached Erickson about five years ago, asking him to teach her to play guitar. Erickson says he didn’t want to take on a student at the time and turned her down. “She came back the next weekend with a $50 bill.”

According to Erickson, Wall-MacLane approached the lessons with awe-inspiring perseverance. “After a couple of years she started bringing her own compositions and asking me, ‘What do you think of this?’ They were great,” says Erickson. He worked out many of the song arrangements, writing a few of the bridges and some lyrics. Wall-MacLane says she learned a lot from Erickson’s eclectic musical appreciation. Accordingly, the music ranges from classical to folk, blues and jazzy rock.

“Fire Line” mixes humorous reflections on fatal attraction with the defensive tactics common to the Montana fire season. “Candle in the Window” illuminates the essence of love in a dialogue between a candle and the moon. “Can’t See It All” is a tragic meditation on troubled love. “Grains of Sand” is Wall-MacLane’s gift to her parents on her own 40th birthday, a sweet, waltzing lullaby returning the gift of song to her parents. “This Old House” celebrates the return of the feeling of home. With sparkling accompaniments by a variety of local musicians, many surprising gems abound in this collection.

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