Kati Penn starting playing the fiddle at the age of ten; by the time she was twelve, she was playing and singing with the Young Acoustic All-Stars, a group mentored by then IBMA President Pete Wernick that included an almost-as-young Josh Williams. â€œI was in a little over my head,â€ she says with a laugh these days, but while that may have been true at the start, it didnâ€™t take long to overcome. I canâ€™t recall exactly when or where I first heard herâ€”it was maybe ten years ago, while she was still in her mid-teensâ€”but I can easily remember my reaction: â€œThis girl is good!â€
Kati went on to work a stint with the New Coon Creek Girls that lasted through a transformation to the Dale Ann Bradley Band and followed that with a stab at a country-oriented career that produced an outstanding but sadly overlooked album called Crazy Or Not. But though it might sound simply trite, thatâ€™s not where her musical heart was, and when I would run into her, as I did from time to time, sheâ€™d always be with a bunch of bluegrass pickers, fiddling and singing and looking pretty happy about it. Itâ€™s not surprising, then, thatâ€™s sheâ€™s come back to bluegrassâ€”and done so with an album that is just too good to be overlooked.
Together with producer Rob Ickesâ€”recommended for the job by her husband, NewFound Roadâ€™s Junior Williams, after the stellar job he did producing that bandâ€™s Life In A Songâ€”Kati painstakingly assembled and recorded, over a number of a months, the songs for [title here in italics]. Itâ€™s a great set that marks her as an interpretive artist of substance and originality, yet also one with an intuitive grasp of how substance and originality can remain unmistakably rooted in bluegrass tradition.
There are a few of the many pleasures to be found here that bear highlighting. One is the quality of the arrangementsâ€”again, the product of a joint effort by Kati and Rob. Whatever its source, each song is treated in a way that does it justice, bringing out essential melodic elements and underlining the lyrics of songs like â€œBare Hands,â€ â€œCrazy Loveâ€ and â€œIâ€™m Going Homeâ€ with an unerring sense of their singular emotional contents.
Second, the musicians here play with an apparent conviction that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Itâ€™s an interesting bunch, anchored by the Ickes-Leftwich-Pomeroy trio that occasionally performs and records genre-bending music under the name Three Ring Circle, but with the savvy addition of Junior and Bryan Sutton on guitars and, especially, banjo man Aaron McDaris, who stretches out here in a way that will surprise those who know him only as one of the hardest-driving pickers around. Together, their support is supple and tasteful, yet expansive in a way that offers plenty of delight.
Yetâ€”and this is ultimately the most important thing to noteâ€”the ultimate spotlight is always on Kati, not just as a singer, but as a player, too. That her singing is what draws the ear most is, of course, by design, but itâ€™s justified; still plenty young, she sings with the depth of feeling, command of tone and phrasing and pure confidence of a mature artist. She more than holds her own on the fiddle, too, especiallyâ€”but certainly not onlyâ€”on the albumâ€™s lone instrumental, a nifty romp in which sheâ€™s accompanied on the tuneâ€™s melody by each of the players in turn. In lesser hands than hers and Robâ€™s, her fiddle might have disappeared from the project altogether, replaced by that of one of Nashvilleâ€™s many fine players; itâ€™s to their credit that instead, sheâ€™s simply playing with her peers.
Itâ€™s sometimes said that the transformation of recording technology from the high dollar province of the few into a tool available to the many is one of the best things thatâ€™s happened in the music world over the past 15 yearsâ€”and one of the worst, too. Certainly thereâ€™s a virtual flood of albums pouring into the market these days, most ranging from the simply awful to the mostly mediocre. Yet from time to time, something truly outstanding comes along that makes one realize the truth of the first part of that observation. Such is the case with [title here in italics]. In another era, it might never have been made, for there are certainly stronger self-promoters and more eagerly ambitious musicians out there than Kati Penn. But this much is clear: there arenâ€™t many who can play and sing with more skill and more feeling. And in the end, if you listen to this album, the odds are way better than even that youâ€™ll say the same thing to yourself that I did years ago, and did again t
he first time I listened to [title here in italics]: â€œThis girl is good!â€ And Iâ€™ll bet Kati will be pretty happy with that.
-Jon Weisberger, Cottontown, TN, August, 2008